Saturday, March 28, 2009

Helped what I could

My Grandma Effie died just over 20 years ago, having spent the last 11 years of her life in a nursing home due to a stroke that left her left side paralyzed. She had been out weeding on the morning of her stroke, and my younger brother, who was 5 at the time, came running inside to tell us Grandma was "taking a nap in the garden."

Dad had tried to get her to stop doing so much heavy labor--well, heavy for a 77-year-old woman--but Grandma would have none of it. She had worked hard her entire life, caring more for others than she had for herself, and she wasn't about to let her age or the heat get in the way of getting things done. Physical therapy eventually allowed her some mobility with a walker, extended stays with our family, and some hope that she would walk again, even if with a cane. But then successive strokes landed her permanently in the nursing home. Dad visited her a couple of times a week, my young women's group at church visited her almost every Wednesday night, and we visited her as a family every Sunday after church, and sometimes on Saturdays as well.

A number of years ago, after she died, my father gave me all of her old journals. She had kept them daily since the 1950s and he had encouraged her to keep them again when she was in the nursing home, trying to persuade her that she had a life history to write, trying to give her a purpose again.

Because Grandma needed a purpose. My grandfather died of lung cancer when he was in his mid-50s, and Grandma never married again, although she had two proposals, and instead opened up what she called then "an old folks home." She cared for people who couldn't care for themselves but also didn't need nursing help yet. She made all their meals, ran their errands, got them to their doctors' appointments. It was her purpose.

After she retired, she moved to be close to my family. One of my aunts by marriage complained about the attention Grandma gave our family, and Grandma responded with a lengthy but kind letter in which she said, "You had the same privilege as Sylvia [my mother], but you never asked me, or offered me a home. . . . George and Sylvia gave me something to do where I could work to suit myself and gave me a feeling of home. They shared their children with me."

I was going through Grandma's old journals today, trying to finally shelve some books that have been sitting on our floor since our move in August. I scanned through the ones she kept during our years in Tucson, where I was born and where my family lived before moving to Virginia. Page after page tells what she did that day, how she helped my mom or an older woman in the trailer park with her or another of her sons. And sometimes the entry simply read, "Helped what I could." And one read, "I don't know what I would do if George and Sylvia didn't let me help them."

Grandma needed to help. And in order to be able to help, she needed someone who would ask for help.

When she was 85, she wrote: "The three essentials for happiness are someone to love, some work to do, and something to hope for." Being loved wasn't on her list. But she was loved very much.

Obviously, I'm feeling a little sentimental today. And I'm also feeling proud to be the granddaughter of a woman like that: not perfect and not even trying to be perfect, just trying to have "work to do," trying to, as she put it, help what she could.

I think, as a society, we often lean either too far toward needing and asking for help, primarily from the government, or of claiming so much independence that we lose touch with our neighbors. We think asking for help is a sign of weakness and that refusing help is a sign of strength. There's a balance to be struck, but we have to find it first. I think Grandma found it and was happier for it. I hope I can someday say the same. I hope all of us can.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The new sanity?

I posted two sentences' worth of venting about this on my Facebook page, but I didn't vent enough to get it out of my system.

I don't generally watch the local news. I don't generally watch the national news either, for that matter. I tend to rely on the internet these days, which means I'm one of the millions who have contributed to the decline of newspapers. My somewhat sincere apologies to all of you whose jobs are in jeopardy because of the likes of me, although I do get the local paper on weekends (Simon "needs" the sports section) and I get the Wall Street Journal daily (Ron needs the marketing and finance news). Besides, I worked at a newspaper for a year after college, and although it wasn't exactly the best experience of my life, I do have a lingering fondness for the smell of newsprint and the ink on my fingers.

But to TV news, I offer no such apologies, sincere or otherwise. And here is why:

You have completely lost touch with what qualifies as news.

Last night's lead story, which I only caught because I had already seen that episode of "King of Queens" twice, was "Chimp at Brookfield Zoo dies from mysterious ailment." The mysterious ailment? Pneumonia. Now, I'm no medical historian, but I'm pretty darn sure that pneumonia has been around for a while and that there isn't much mysterious about it anymore. The concern now, according to NBC, is "what about the other chimps?" Well, the other chimps have colds. That's what happens when you live with other creatures. Contagious diseases, from a cold to the flu to measles to tuberculosis, are going to be . . . contagious. It's a crazy world out there, isn't it? Who knew that bodily secretions could actually be passed onto someone else? Oh. That's right. Everyone knew that since, oh, about ages ago.

Now, I love animals. Not so much that I have a pet, but in theory--even if not in my house--I love them. And therefore, the idea of a chimpanzee dying is, um, unfortunate? I didn't know him personally, so I can't quite use the word "sad." If PETA wants to come pounding on my door because of that admission then here I am. And if they want to just spray paint my door instead of pounding on it for this next admission, then I'll leave a can outside just for them. But here it is: Chimps are not lead news stories unless they have broken loose from their homes, gone on a rampage, and hurt a human. Humans trump chimps. I'm not talking about approving scientific experiments on them. I'm talking about moving a lead story about them to follow a human story.

For instance, this human story, which was the second one on the news last night: A nine-year-old boy was shot while riding his bike, the likely victim of gang violence. NINE! Coincidentally, the chimp was nine as well. And he, the chimp, died rather than being "simply" shot, but this is a child we're talking about. A human child. He's in stable condition and was able to run to his mother and SIX-YEAR-OLD brother afterward. So he'll be okay. But isn't this story more important? You're worried about the chimp's troop having colds, yet what about this 9-year-old's little brother being just a few feet behind him when he was shot? Handguns aren't exactly accurate weapons. It could have just as easily been the 6-year-old. Would that have qualified as a news lead? Do you think we've grown so calloused to only care about a child if he's been killed? And if he had been killed, would you really have moved him to open the news? Or did the interviews you got of concerned zoo-goers concerned about Kipper just seem too important to pass up?

While watching the news, I was reading a book that had this line in it: "If everyone around you is mad, then that becomes the new sanity and who were we to complain?"

A friend of mine mentioned on my FB page that in her hometown, which is where I grew up as well, the city gives $110,000 to the Humane Society, $110,00 to the City Cemetery, and $15,000 to the Agency on Aging. "So obviously if you are an animal, or dead, you are more valuable to the city than if you are old," she said.

Everyone around us is mad. And so am I. We all should be.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Just watch"

Emma is officially able to ride a bike. It happened without any help from me, as the responsibility for teaching our children to do anything outside falls on Ron. I take care of the inside realm.

But Emma wanted me to see her progress, so we headed to our sidewalk, where she climbed aboard and asked me to just hold the bicycle still while she got started. But then I couldn't let go because I was so sure she would fall if I did. She started laughing, stuck there in place because I was holding her back. "Let go!" she kept yelling. "I can't," I said, laughing along with her, but a little panicked at the same time. "Mom. Let go. And just watch." So I did. And she did just fine.

I had no idea I was so protective. But those words: "Mom. Let go. And just watch" . . . Ugh. I'm going to hear them again and again for the rest of my life, aren't I?

Growing up, I don't recall my parents hovering. Ever. They both worked and were so tired by the end of the day that they didn't ask if my homework was done or if my bed was made or if I had any papers from school for them to see. They came home, where I was already waiting since school let out. Mom made dinner. We ate. Dad went to his room to watch the news and read. I helped Mom clean the kitchen. Then we went our separate ways until morning. I loved my parents and never felt they paid too little attention to me. But I was often on auto-pilot, which worked just fine for me.

I, on the other hand, feel the need to be nearly hyper-involved in my kids' lives. I want to know who their friends are, who their friends are not. I want to know what makes them happy during the day, what makes they sad, afraid, angry, excited. I want them to talk to me . . . and to listen to me. I don't want to let go, and I'm constantly torn about how to not let go while still raising them to be capable, responsible adults.

When the time came for me to go to college, I was ready to be independent, because I felt like I already had been for many years. I cried when my parents drove away, because I was going to miss them--not because I was going to "need" them. I didn't appreciate the difference then but I do now. My parents quickly became my friends at that point, especially once I started paying for college myself 3 years later.

Early on, they knew how--whether by necessity or design--to let go and just watch. I don't know if I'll ever know how. But as long as my kids can laugh when they say it, just like Emma laughed while begging me to take my hands off the bike, I might just be okay, even if my own laughter is panicked or even hysterical or (and I have no doubt this will be the case at times) wracked with sobs.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The boy who cried lamb

We all know the story about the boy who cried wolf, right? Is there a comparable story for the person who says she'll do something, commits to do something, nay, even promises to do something . . . and then doesn't? Because I think that's an important parable to tell as well. As a matter of fact, I think it's a more important parable to tell.

And that's my pet peeve of the day, although merely dubbing it a "pet peeve" is too gentle. When I think of pets, I think of spunky puppies or self-righteous cats or even iguanas and goldfish. Occasionally, you even get the person who thinks a boa constrictor is cute. But "pet" isn't the word for my peevishness over this issue, unless you're talking about pets that go ballistic on you, like chimpanzees or tigers.

Even "peeve" is wrong. It goes nicely with "pet," of course, but my irritation with people who say they will do something and then don't do it goes way past the definition of a vexation or a grievance.

I can keep this brief, believe it or not.

All of you out there who make a commitment . . . KEEP IT! I don't care if you were tired or if you decided to have dinner out with your family instead or if, when the moment rolled around for you to act, you decided you just didn't feel like it. I don't even care if you overextended yourself and it's going to be harder than you thought it would be to do what you said you would do. KEEP IT! It's called being responsible. It's called realizing you're not four years old anymore and your parents aren't following around after you to clean up your messes. You know what the word I'm looking for is? Adult. So grow up. You want to be a child again? Then go back to sucking your thumb and cuddling up with a blanket and your mom, because the rest of us grown-ups out here? If you don't do what you said you would do--or even find someone else to do it for you (a completely acceptable alternative as far as I'm concerned)--who does do it? Us! Got that? The responsibility you blew off doesn't just magically disintegrate and float away with the next wind gust. It gets passed on to the next unsuspecting person in line who has likely already made a commitment or 500.

And like the boy who cried lamb, next time you say you'll do something, we won't believe you. And if that was your intent all along, then at least be honest enough with the rest of us, show us some respect, and try this: "I can't help." We might not like hearing that, but at least we'll be able to find someone else we can rely on.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Just Keep Talkin'

When I was in college, my roommate, Rachel, asked me a question one afternoon while we were sitting and talking with another roommate. Partway through my response, Rachel turned to our other roommate and began a new line of conversation. I said, "Wait. You asked me a question and didn't finish listening to my answer." Rachel said, "Yes, but your answers are so loooong."

My family has always given me a hard time about how much I talk. The truth is, we're all big talkers, every last one of us. Only we have so much to say that we think everyone else in the family talks more than we do as we sit and wait, often not too patiently, for our turn to speak. I hear stories from people who grew up in large families and learned to eat quickly if they wanted to eat at all; otherwise, the food was gone before they had a chance to fill up. That's how air time is in our family: use it up quickly or it will be gone before you have the chance to fill it up.

So I became a fast talker as well as a many-words talker. When I would read aloud in school or church, my teachers always had to ask me to slow down so the class could understand what I was saying. When I give talks in church now, my margins are filled with "Slow Down!" warnings. Of course, no one is going to interrupt me while I give a talk (unless I stray too far from doctrine, but even then, if I speak quickly enough, who will notice, right?), but I still have this learned need to say what I have to say as fast as I can so people won't (a) interrupt or (b) break eye contact before I finish my point (a huge huge HUGE pet peeve of mine, by the way).

My oldest son has picked up on my habit. He's my shyest child, very much like I was at his age, but when he finds a listening ear, he can prattle on for hours if allowed to. Even I have to ask him to slow down on occasion so I can understand what the heck he's saying. He just has so much to talk about, and I completely understand. I think that when you're introverted, you have more time than your peers to just sit and think and listen, and whereas they may spread their 7000-word quota out over the course of 12 hours, you squeeze yours into the few hours during which you're around people with whom you feel comfortable. (I've read that men say about 7000 words a day and women 20,000. If you count how many phone calls I have to make in the course of a day to keep our family running smoothly, how many places I have to go and interact with people--from the grocery store to the school to doctors' offices, I can believe that number, so to say women simply talk more than men may be an overly simplistic assessment.)

I've noticed as I've grown older that when I'm around people who don't come anywhere close to using their quota--at least not around me--I tend to blather on more than usual, trying to fill up the silence. Sometimes I mock myself for what I end up dumping into that silence, but most of the time I figure that if they're not talking, someone has to. (Yes, has to.)

I've learned since college to let other people talk, however, so I don't assume a break for breathing means it's my turn. I would like to think I'm not as self absorbed as I once was and that I ask as many questions as I answer. I hope people feel I'm genuinely interested in what they have to say . . . because I genuinely am interested. Of course, I always like to tell stories, but I also love to hear them.

So this is me filling up the silence of my blog. Yes, it's easily the equivalent of talking to myself. But that's another topic entirely.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy songs

I don't need extra reasons to be happy today. The current temperature here in Chicago is 72 degrees. I have my front door open and am enjoying the sounds of someone else doing yard work (I'll get to my own later) and of dry leaves, free from snow and ice finally, scuffling along the sidewalk. Our trampoline is up in the backyard (protective enclosure as well, of course) and I have nowhere I have to be for the rest of the day other than wherever I want to be. Oh . . . and I caught a really great sale at a store down the road and bought a pair of $85 shoes for $15 and a pair of $120 boots for $15. wheeee.

But I want to talk about happy songs because this is the kind of day every single happy song ever written must have been written. It's the kind of day on which you don't even need happy songs and listening them is almost like gilding the lily, but you appreciate them nonetheless.

My favorite happy song is "Thank You World" by the Statler Brothers. I don't listen to country music, never have (much), and only know the Statler Brothers because my parents listened to them. It's a song that fills me up and makes me want to sing along, trying every line of harmony at least once, which means listening to the song at least 4 times in a row. I have it on my i-Pod, docked in the kitchen, and have to turn it waaay up when it comes on, driving the kids a little crazy, except for Ivan who dances along with me. I think part of the reason I love this song so much is because it reminds me of my dad. Most people who knew him--but not well--would remember him as a serious-minded man, always with a book in his hand, energized most when he was teaching. And I picture him like that as well a lot. But what I see in that memory that others might not is his foot tapping along to whatever music was in the background. Dad couldn't sing but he still tried. It's not that he sang off pitch; he just had a range limited to about 5 notes. Music was always always always in our house growing up, and I'm so grateful for that fact. Ron says he's amazed that after 15 years, there are still songs he hears me sing for the first time.

Another favorite is Wayne Newton's "Too Late to Meet." I tried finding it on YouTube and it's not there. It's not one of his more popular ones, but it should be. I bought a Wayne Newton Christmas cd a few years back and couldn't even get through it once. I love you, Wayne, but once your voice changed, the magic was gone. People mock me when I express my love for him because they see the Wayne on "Dancing with the Stars," hardly recognizable even to himself these days, I'd bet. But go back and find the soft-voiced and better version of him, the pudgy-faced boy, and tell me he doesn't make you smile in the best of ways. When I was a senior in college, I lived with a friend, Michelle, who "introduced" me to Wayne and to Tony Bennett and Harry Connick, Jr. Michelle and I moved in together a few weeks before school started, and the end of that summer was the most liberating time of my life. Michelle was infused with so much joy at simply being alive that I couldn't help but find that joy contagious. It was also the first time in my life that I didn't define myself by who I was dating, who I loved, who loved me. It didn't matter, and that I could be that happy and that "alone" was miraculous to me. So I hear Wayne Newton today and I remember those feelings and want to write him a letter to thank him for helping me be happy in just being.

Finally there's "By His Word" by the Andrews Sisters. I don't even recall when or why I started listening to them. It sure wasn't my parents. My mother says she never cared for their music because they were popular during what, to her, was an unhappy time in the world. So when she hears them now, she thinks of those times. This particular song is, I suppose, technically gospel music. But it sure doesn't feel like it. Then again, I don't listen to any gospel music, so I don't have anything to compare it to except stereotypes. Again, I can't find it online or I'd share it here.

My sister calls my taste in music eclectic. And I suppose it is until you find the common theme: joy. Yes, I have my sad songs on my i-Pod as well (the theme to "Schindler's List," for instance), but even those songs give me a little bit of joy because how can you not find beauty in the kind of ache they're capable of emoting. "Thank You World," indeed.

How about you? What are your happy songs?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Note to independents . . .

Ron and I are in the midst of remodeling the 3rd floor of our house. The bathroom should be done by tomorrow, and then we're going to paint the main room and install new carpet. It's all very exciting for me because it's even better than rearranging furniture, which is something I enjoy doing so much that I'm finally realizing maybe I'm a little OCD after all.

On Saturday morning, Ron and I headed out to look at carpet. We thought we should try independent carpet stores first. It was 8:30 in the morning, which we knew might be a little early, but we had to take Owen somewhere anyway and figured if the stores didn't open until 9:00 then we could grab a hot chocolate at Starbucks and wait.

10:00. That's what time the two stores in our little town opened. On a Saturday. 10:00.

So here's my little bit of advice to independents. And I feel like I can give you this advice because my parents owned an independent bookstore for 30 years before selling it to my brother, who has now owned and run it, combining it with his toy and teacher supply store, for the last 9 years. I know how hard my parents worked. I know how hard my brother works. I know how many mornings they woke/wake up at dawn and how many nights they stayed/stay at work past closing time.

You want to compete with the big boxes? You want to even complain about the big boxes? Then work hard. Period. You wonder why Home Depot and Lowe's have full parking lots while yours is empty? It's because they don't wait until 10 a.m. to open. And don't tell me you don't want to hire employees to come in for the few customers you may have that hour. You go in. And saying that those few customers aren't worth your time is the same thing as saying, "Take your business elsewhere." And we will. Yes, you'll likely end up working 75 hours or more a week just to make ends meet, but that's the risk you took when you started your store. Did you think it would be easier?

It's not just carpet stores or small hardware stores I'm talking to. It's clothing stores and bookstores and toy stores and any store that doesn't have anyone but you to rely on for its success and doesn't have anyone but you to answer to.

My day gets started no later than 7 a.m. every day, Saturdays and Sundays included. By 8 a.m., my older 3 kids are at school. By 9 a.m. three days a week, my youngest is at school. Those three days, I'm left with 2 hours to get my errands run before I have to pick him up. You don't open your store until 10 a.m., I'm going somewhere else. I don't have time to wait for you. I don't have time to consider how much of my money isn't staying with "the community." I have a family and a household to run. I'd apologize, but I'm not feeling really sorry about this. I'm feeling frustrated.

Here's what I do feel sorry about: independents who have worked their tails off and then gone out of business. I'm sorry about the independents who have always gotten up at dawn and gone to bed well past putting in a 12-hour day at work and then gone out of business. I'm sorry about the independents who have sought to truly serve their customers, because they know their customers actually matter, and then gone out of business. These are the independents who can say, as they're locking up for the last time, "I tried my best. Times have changed and I just couldn't hang in there any longer." These are the independents I do miss and I'm afraid someday will miss.

My frustration is with the change in our attitude toward work. My father was born during The Great Depression and grew up on a farm without indoor plumbing. He lived like his grandfather had lived as a boy. Life was really hard for his family. Really, really hard. But he learned to work there on that farm, and it was that same work ethic that he and my mother, raised by a struggling minister, drilled into us as kids. You can never take full credit for your successes, but you had better take full credit for your failures. When did that work ethic change to: You can take full credit for your successes, but find someone else to blame for your failures?

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Luck Be a Lady"

I pointed out to Ron yesterday that I'd managed to write 3 blog posts in 3 days. He responded with, "And the stock market has been up 3 days in a row. You'd better keep up the posting."

Which isn't why I'm here right now writing this. Or rather, my suspicion that my blog posts have anything to do with the upturn in the market is not the reason why I'm writing this. That suspicion is non-existent, as a matter of fact. So everyone can relax. The economic future of our country does not rest on me, who doesn't know the difference between a hedge fund and a hedgehog, except that the latter can fit in the palm of your hand and looks like this:

While the former has at least one (former) manager that screwed Palm Beach and looks like this.

But I digress.

My point is that nothing regarding luck or superstition has ever or should ever rest on me. I am not a lucky person, though not an unlucky person either--just non-lucky. Therefore, I'm not superstitious either. (Except that I have, on occasion, been known to be a bit obsessed with vampires NOT of the Bernie Madoff ilk.) Wait, let me correct myself (though let the parenthetical statement remain as true): I am superstitious about one thing. I don't like to say something is going well, because I'm sure it will begin to go bad quickly if I do, be it my health, my work, my writing, or my relationships. I have to stop myself from literally knocking on wood when forced to admit out loud anything is going well. I blame this fact on my mother who has always refrained from sharing potentially good news, afraid whatever it is won't come to pass if she jinxes it. As a result, we never know what's going on with her until after it's already gone on, be it good or bad.

Ironically, a couple of my siblings dubbed me "The Golden Child" a long time ago (no earlier than 1986 since that's when the movie came out). I've never pressed them for an explanation since when they call me that, it's not with an abundance of fondness. I would say, "They never read my blog so I don't risk their objections (wrath) in saying as much." But then I'd be afraid of (thank you, Mom) jinxing myself. (*knock on wood, all is well*)

I never enter raffles. I could buy 150 tickets out of 200, and my name would not be drawn. I don't buy lottery tickets. Not one of my numbers would ever match. I don't wish on falling stars or birthday candles. I don't carry a rabbit's foot. I don't have a lucky number. And I don't eat fortune cookies . . . though I do eat Lucky Charms.

So don't rely on me for your luck. Go out and make it yourself.

Though you might be interested to know the stock market has gone up since I started writing this.

(crap. knock on wood, all is well.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kids today . . .

Up until a few months ago, I was posting chapters of my book on an online writers' group website. (I didn't "quit" the site; I just finished posting for that book.) The feedback was always helpful, and I'm sure my book is better now for the constructive criticism I received there. Most of the time, I felt the reviewers' suggestions were valid. Occasionally, I thought, "Hm. Well, thanks. But that's not what I wanted to do there."

One comment, however, got me thinking a lot about what it means to be a young adult today, because that's what I write: young adult (urban fantasy). In this particular chapter, one of my characters swears twice, and I'm not even talking vulgar language. This character has been abused and is struggling to remain strong, to not let what happened to her destroy the essence of who she is. The reviewer, after addressing the specifics of the chapter, said she next wanted to talk to me as a mother to an author. She said (quite politely) she objected to my language and, as a parent, would never purchase my book because she wouldn't want her children reading it. I emailed her a thank you for her comments and said that although I understood her objection, and as a mother myself, I, too, worry about what my kids read, I felt I had to remain true to the character.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally read a book I've been excited about since before it was published: "Cracked Up to Be" by Courtney Summers. There are enough reviews on Amazon and elsewhere for me to not need to give a full review here. But I will say that I loved this book. I loved its realism, its refusal to give us a cliched happy ending, its acknowledgment of how painful the teen years really can be. Yet it's not just about being a teen. It's also about choices and judgments and how awful not being who we should be can be and about how awful being exactly who we think we should be can be. And it's full of "inappropriate" language, language--and themes--I'm sure would prevent many parents from buying it for their children. Yet it's getting rave reviews everywhere and, last I heard, was already in its third printing. So it's being read, regardless of who is doing the buying.

I'll admit right here that I graduated from high school more than 20 years ago. And the biggest trials I faced back then were the feelings that I didn't belong anywhere and that no matter how true I tried to be to who I thought I was and should be, I would end up with more than a handful of people who didn't like me at all and never would. I was opinionated and often self-righteous, but I was also insecure and self-conscious. But on a day-to-day basis, I have to say life was pretty simple. Drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy . . . none of these were issues I had to personally deal with. I went to school, I spoke my mind, I did my homework, I spent time with "good" friends and a "good" boyfriend my parents never needed to worry about, and I graduated and moved onto college. In other words, I got out of there virtually scar-free.

There's a brand-new website out there called The tagline reads, "advice, support and fresh voices from teens who understand what it's like to be you." Its purpose is to provide a safe (read: anonymous and highly "policed") place where teens can voice their concerns, their problems, or even just their confessions and have other teens offer advice, consolation, or just a listening ear. One of my nieces says it's what kids need today, because so often, they have nowhere else to turn: not to parents or to counselors or even to friends.

I have four children, the oldest of which is 12. The biggest problem he's come to me with is help on an essay assignment he can't figure out how to end right. I know I'm SO close to him having bigger problems, bigger challenges, bigger seemingly unresolvable issues that make him feel like he's alone. And I know I'll say more than once, "I'm so sorry. I wish you didn't have to deal with this."

And one of the reasons I'll wish that is because I didn't have to deal with it. Kids today face more serious questions than, "What if he doesn't like me?" "Will they laugh at my outfit?" "What happens if I don't get into that college?" Sure, kids 20 years ago also dealt with problems regarding abuse and abandonment and alcoholism, but even the strictest parent today must admit those problems are more widespread now. And how do we answer the really hard questions?

I don't know if my book, swear words and all, will help with those answers. I don't know if Courtney Summers' book--or Sara Zarr's or C. K. Kelly Martin's or Sarah Dessen's--will or have. But I do know that stripping today's stories of the reality of what today is won't help anyone.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Happiness on a scale of 1 to 10

Gallup, in conjunction with Healthways and America's Health Insurance Plans, just came out with a poll on which states have the happiest people. I haven't seen the poll results except in the context of brief news articles all over the Web. It's just a poll. It's not a years' long research study; there's nothing scientific about it; there's no questioning regarding how happy these people might be living elsewhere. Just a poll.

So with that fact in mind, I only found one thing about the poll really interesting, and that was that the happiness-level average of those in the Happiest state (Utah--and, by the way, I lived there and would never [ever] say those years were the happiest of my life) was 69.2 out of 100 and the happiness-level average of those in the Unhappiest state (West Virginia) was 61.2 out of 100. That's one measly point, for those of you who don't feel like subtracting. One point separates the "Yay! I love getting up in the morning!" people from the "Crap, it's another day, isn't it?" people.

Doing a little rounding and reducing, we have Utah=7/10 and West Virginia=6/10. Yeah, I know you could have figured that out yourself, but I'm all about helping people.

I asked my husband several months ago how happy he considers himself on a scale of 1 to 10. I didn't say, "How happy are you with me?" or "How happy are you being a father?" or "How happy are you that you still have all your hair?" Just "How happy are you in general?" His answer? Six. SIX! I tried not to take it personally, because me? I'm more like an 8 or 9, willing to save the 10 for the really big "Yippee!s" in life: a new baby, a potty-trained toddler, an agent's request for pages, really great Indian food . . . that sort of thing. Ron tried to explain that 6 is just his steady state, and he certainly has many days where he goes above that, but barring any "Yippee!s" or "What the . . .!?s" he's a 6.

Now, I know that asking 350,000 people a bunch of questions about how much they smiled the day before or how safe they feel walking in their neighborhood at night or how healthfully they eat doesn't really measure true "happiness." Some individuals who smiled plenty yesterday or feel perfectly safe walking in their neighborhood at night or eat only fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can still be desperately unhappy. And some who seem to have every reason to be miserable can still manage to call themselves joyful. Sometimes it's about biology; sometimes it's about attitude.

So I'd like to rename this poll, if Gallup doesn't mind, the "satisfied with my surroundings" poll. Because to think that we, as Americans, really only average between a 6 and 7 out of 10 on our happiness scales frankly makes me, well, a little unhappy. I can cheer my husband up with my wit and charm and some really great Indian food, but I can't do much for the rest of the country.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A gift of myrrh

That's what I titled a book I wrote a couple of years ago (and quickly gave up on getting published; I'm working on some serious revisions: different point of view, different audience, and different storyline . . . okay, so all I kept were the characters). Several people who reviewed it mocked the title openly and with great relish. The title had everything to do with the book but, yeah, it was and is kinda cheesy. I give in. I cry uncle. I confess I tried too hard for meaning.

The reason I bring it up now is that I'm burning a myrrh incense stick as I type this. I loooove incense and did long before I spent last winter in the Middle East. But incense sticks are a joke there. No one burns sticks or cones. They burn the actual resin, which is much more expensive than the roughly 9 cents a stick I spent on what I'm smelling right now. When first moved in, our villa in Qatar reeked of something that was a combination of vinegar and vomit. I begged some incense sticks off a neighbor, hoping to somehow mask the stench. It didn't work. Didn't even take the edge off. What I really needed was that expensive resin. Or time. I went with time and the smell eventually went away. But not really. Turns out, we all just got used to the smell and didn't realize it until we brought it back with us. After a week or so back home in Pitttsburgh, our boxes from Qatar arrived, and when I opened them, it was like welcoming in the vinegar and vomit. I did a lot of laundry that day.

Before we left the Middle East, Ron and I went souvenir shopping. We stopped at the Old Souk and slipped into a perfume and incense shop. When I asked for incense sticks, the man gave me a look of disgust--as though I now smelled like my villa--and handed me a box, obviously unimpressed by my taste in scents and in my budget. But for the equivalent of about $2, I got 49 (seven of seven different "flavors") of the best-quality incense sticks I've ever had the pleasure of burning in my house.

Although one of Emma's friends in Pittsburgh disagreed. He walked into our house one afternoon after school while I was burning one, and in his 6-year-old innocence, made a face and said, "Your house stinks." A couple of weeks ago, our piano tuner was here while I was burning one. His allergies kicked in and I had to put the stick out. They're not for everyone. I get it. I understand. I cry uncle.

Last week, I saw I was running low here in Chicago and got online to order more. These aren't as good as the ones we brought back with us, but they'll do, especially since, to my knowledge, my house doesn't have any serious stenches that need covering up. If it did, I'm sure one of Emma's friends would quickly tell me.

And I still have lilac and frankincense and vanilla to try. And some cones. And still a precious few remainders from Qatar. I'm not a big perfume fan, never buy it for myself, and rarely wear it. But if I could wrap myself up in incense smoke throughout the day, in or out of the house, I absolutely would. Even if I were mocked openly and with great relish.

Anyone else share this love?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ivan

I was helping out some other mothers at my kids' school last night and realized during the course of conversation that I had the youngest child. I felt really young myself (in my motherhood) . . . until this morning when Ivan ran into our bedroom first thing to announce today is his birthday.

Which it is. But it's not the birthday that makes me feel I've been doing this for a while; it was part II of his announcement: "I'm 4. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10! I'm almost 10!"

When Simon turned 9, a friend of mine whose youngest is a junior in high school told me, "He's halfway to leaving home." (*severe quick stabs to the heart*) Now that Simon is 12, I suppose he's two thirds of the way toward leaving home. This is a kid who still seeks me out at night to give me a hug before he goes to bed, who still tells me all about his day when he gets home, who laughs at my jokes and even let me put an arm around him last night in public after his basketball team lost its game. I'm not ready to start counting how much time I have left with him here at home; I'm still aching over how much time has passed since he showed up in the first place.

And Ivan? He's already almost 10 in so many ways: attitude, spunk, independence, sass, smarts. I need him to stay 4 for a full 364 days. Then we'll talk about 5 and up. When I groan about my kids getting older, my mother always says, "It's better than the alternative."

Last night, as Ron and I were talking about our youngest turning 4, Ron said, "I love babies." I said, "Yes. And I love sleep and having my body free of clingy nursers." He said, "Yeah. If it weren't for the sleep and nursing issues, I'd want to always have babies here at home." For the record, Ron rarely got up with our kids at night since they nursed, so what he was really saying is that if it weren't for him having to listen to me complain about lack of sleep and lack of body ownership, he'd want to always have babies here at home. In fact, it's completely because of me that we aren't having more children. As much as I love my role as Simon's and Owen's and Emma's and Ivan's mom, I need to have a role as just Bobbie now.

And it's not babies I love; it's my babies. Having 15 more wouldn't mean I would miss Simon at 11, 10, 9, 8, and on down any less. It wouldn't mean I would want to hold on to Ivan at 4 any less. Or to Owen at 9 and Emma at 6.

Years ago, my landlady in Connecticut told me how fortunate my mother was to have 8 children, because, she insisted, if my mom lost one of us, she still had 7 more to fill up the space. My landlady, on the other hand, only had 2 children. So if one died, she only had 1 left. I didn't have any children at the time, but I knew how ridiculous (God bless my landlady, by the way, she was a wonderful woman to us while we were living in her house and still sends birthday cards to my kids and anniversary cards to Ron and me) her statement was. Love doesn't work like that. If it did, perhaps I would have a dozen more children.

So, yeah, I may still have a preschooler at home, but I definitely feel like I've been at this whole motherhood thing for a long time. But it will never be for long enough.