Monday, November 30, 2009

Free associations on being a freak

You have a freak flag, you just don’t fly it.  The Family Stone

What is a freak afterall?  I've certainly got quirks of personality that are embarrassing to discuss and are even frightening to me at times.  But I think these quirks endear me to those who love me and are at the very least accommodated if not downright celebrated and without judgement I might add.  It's all what makes Julie Julie or Mommy Mommy.  I love my family for that.

I couldn't sleep last night.  I surfed the net.  Lady Gaga, the zeitgeist's reigning freak, was a guest last week on Ellen Degeneres' show.  She explained her outrageous wardrobe and theatrical shows are a nod to her past of feeling like a freak in high school and to, paraphrasing her words, “create a space to celebrate and be free and hang out, one freak to another, so kids don’t feel alone.”  Right on, Lady Gaga.  Thanks for that and create some space for me still.

I’ve had a severe case of fear of flying that debuted at about the time I was feeling the least bit of control over my own motherhood.   It preceded 9/11 by several years and terrorism has never been my issue-that’s just so tres 2001.  The fear escalated and finally crescendoed at 34,000 feet in 2000 with me bursting into tears of frustration that all the people getting up to use the airplane lavatories "are making the airplane tippy!"  Um. Hi, my name is Cuckoo.   I had come to the razor’s edge between reality and cr-aaaa-zy.  It seemed at that moment I was destined for the white jacket with the special buckles or traveling only where an RV could take me a la John Madden.  The freak part of my fear was and always has been the absolute megalomanic certainty that it’s only ever my plane that's gonna crash.  I love airports and picking people up and the whole scene at the end of Love Actually makes me hopeful and tearful and I do really love travel.  It’s only that my presence puts planes in danger......"Okaaaaaaaaay...." (finger twirling at temple)

I started taking medication in 2001 and it helped a lot but what helped even more was adding a Bloody Mary during flight.  Six one dollar bills carefully tucked into my pocket before take off to expedite said drink reaching my hand.  Nutritious and with the right amount of je ne sais quoi.  I certainly would never recommend this strategy for less robust women than myself (that being all of young Hollywood and everyone in the music and modeling industries and most of my skinny friends) as it does render even a substantial girl like myself a little loopy.  I can see how a person could become argumentative or uncooperative with some tight-assed flight attendant’s tedious requests to stop dancing in the aisle of the airplane or refrain from resting one's head in the lap of the person seated beside you or even to stop rummaging through the beverage cart for more vodka.

However, the last few flights I seem to be strangely losing interest in being freaky about flying and almost as gradually as I fell into it.  This holiday weekend, I flew to New Orleans for Thanksgiving without drugs or vodka. Clear-headed and able to operate heavy machinery upon arrival to my destination—hey, the evolution of me continues!  While my fear of flying is perhaps not completely gone, I don't see a miraculous resurrection in its future.  It's just grown boring to be afraid.  My freak flag stays at half staff.

Maybe it's because over the years I’ve accumulated a lot of bizarre strategies and rituals to help me fly and maybe they are finally working.   I'm still a freak, just an unmedicated one.

Some things will always be as they are.  I'll always carry my bottle of mother's little helper.  I’ll likely still never sleep during a flight.  And I'll always need to keep watch out the window during turbulence for as my own freak-of-a-mother points out, by keeping a careful watch we keep the plane aloft with our eyes.  And sure, I will continue to survey each of my plane’s passenger demographic during boarding for signs of doom vs. salvation. When I flew with a plane full of oncologists and cancer researchers on their way to a huge convention in New Orleans, I was sure that karma would not allow that plane to crash…. the same goes for a plane full of infants for lo, they may grow up to become cancer researchers or oncologists.  Bring on all the crying babies…as many as will fit.  They can sit in my row.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Recreating my afternoon walk...

First the music.....ambling folk tunes by Nanci Griffith

And the images.....

This time of year my shoulders are generally up around my ears as the wind cuts through my coat and sneaks up my sleeves and down my collar, making me cranky that I own a dog larger than a teacup. But it's in the fifties again today. It's unusually warm weather this late into fall and in carpe diem mode, I galvanize and bank one more gentle sunny memory before winter arrives with its usual subtlety of a freight train. In addition to the glorious weather, the dog's started thyroid hormone and so rather than dragging a deadish dog behind me as I have the past few months, I have my old perky walking buddy way out in front again. I even find my iPod in the kitchen....again and again it's lost somewhere in the house...because it's tinier and flatter than my silver dollar pancake brain.

Throughout the neighborhood, everyone's dressed for the summer costume party, baseball caps and sweatshirts, shorts and sunglasses, donned as they unpack the Christmas lights and outdoor decorations for the next six weeks.  A big contrast to the standard dress of Wisconsin Christmas decorating, parkas, snowmittens and facemasks while trying to hook stiff strings of lights to rain gutters balancing on step ladders in a foot of snow. The boy scouts delivered their Christmas greens yesterday so garlands and wreathes now overlap the fall decorations by necessity. Anticipatory of four months of below-freezing temperatures, this weekend is THE weekend to "get 'er done," whatever 'er is at one's house for the holidays.

The willows are finally reluctantly losing their leaves, while one apple tree on no man's land miraculously still clings to its apples long after its leaves have fallen away.

Touch football, walks in the woods, unhurried as yet waterfowl relaxing by unfrozen ponds, driveway games of H-O-R-S-E by boys in shorts and t-shirts, joggers, gardeners trimming the last of summer's faded glory and turning the soil one last time...

The sermon in church this morning was about gratitude.   I am grateful today, maybe for global warming, and for my ability to walk in this sunshine and see sights like an apple tree with no leaves and all its apples, because next week this path could well be frozen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Crafting the day away

Silly old day.

My waking hours...about fifteen today so far and six of those spent making mittens.  The big plan for today had been to order a Twilight birthday cake with a photo of Jacob scanned onto it, make homemade soup and keep a sick kid company.

"I don't care what picture you use Mom, just make sure that fine man's face is on my cake."


Some friends had set out an ambitious plan today to make mittens from vintage wool sweaters and fleece.  As an old dog, I'm generally afraid (and tired and not that interested and a little ADD) to try new tricks but there was no room for self doubters at the table.  They were on a mission and it was either throw down with the krazy krafters and make a pair of mittens today or take my fear-of-failure ball and go home, make the soup and watch my sick kid watch bad TV.  


Serendipitous creative opportunities can be delightful and inspiring in the right spirit.  Taking chances without being afraid to fail because perfection is not interesting to the group.  No apologies necessary, not even when two of the three of us realized we had sewn both our linings as left handed.  The finished products were far from perfect with one of my mittens appearing to be the big brother of the other one...but it didn't matter.  It turned out that the sick kid was fine on her own and McDonalds is a great resource specifically for the hungry family whose cook has stumbled away from the hearth for the day.

A fiber artist is born.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


They’re everywhere.  Halloween, autumn decorations, every yard is adorned with at least one.  Pushed into my consciousness, a few weeks ago I felt compelled to make pumpkin bread….the 50 cases of canned pumpkin piled at the entry of Cub foods perhaps having some effect on my growing fixation.  Liv loves pumpkin bread and although I enjoy my seven dollar Starbucks mochachocolattefatty, I feel it slightly outrageous to pay 2 bucks for a piece of quick bread. 

So, for a recipe I went to the cooking Bible....the Davison Family Cookbook.  Chip’s mom is one of 11 children born to a Kansas farm family with scads of grandchildren and great grandchildren now and the inevitable cookbook was born.  The recipes include generous amounts of cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, velveeta, oleo, rotelle tomatoes and sugar. Good hearty fare that can be made quickly in large amounts for hard working farm families and suburban soccer families alike.   I haven’t been steered wrong yet on a casserole or a baked good. 

I make the fabulous pumpkin bread, even tweaking the recipe to use half the oil since the only labor we do in this house is reach for the remote.  I don’t like to monkey with the recipes too much because part of what makes Kansas homecooking so good is using the above ingredients in their full abundance.  I’ve tried to cut the fat and sugar in some recipes and well, the taste is equivocal to a life without love.

I tell my friend Marsha about my triumphs in the kitchen…. the virtues of my pumpkin bread with half the oil, the use of smaller pans for my banana bread with chocolate chips and how it’s all been a bit nerve wracking  to mess with the recipes and how it’s much better if you freeze then thaw the loaves as it gives the bread a really nice texture similar to the Starbucks pumpkin bread……She lovingly and thoughfully replies, “...mmmm, interesting…. you really do need a job my friend.”

No kidding.  I’m mulling my situation daily.   Industry vs. inferiority. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’”.  Protestant work ethic.   A lifetime of messages circling in my head like sharks ready to chew the legs off my feminist ego.  I throw all my energy into being chief cook and bottle washer and now quick bread maker.  But there’s a sense I’m never doing enough when I’m not earning some coin.  So I frantically bake and really not that well .  What I’m good at is doing a whole bunch of things simultaneously and satisfactorily, not one or two things painstakingly and expertly.   I don’t have painstaking in me.  My lack of attention span does not permit it.

Which brings me to today, a half day at school and Ally says this morning,
“My French horn is really harshing my mellow right now.”
“What are you saying?” I reply.  It’s the subtext I always botch.
“People might be going out to lunch and I don’t want to bring it with me.”
“Alright. I’ll come get your horn if it turns out people are going for lunch.”
“Really? I’ll practice this weekend!”  This reference is related to some non-dulcet notes heard during French horn four person solo at band concert two days ago.   She claims it wasn’t her, as they do.

She texts me later that indeed her friends are going out for lunch and school ends at 12.30.   Never mind she’s texting during school, I reply back, “I will be at band room at 12.35.” 

Her final text relieves me of my need for any further industry….for today anyway.

“I hope uk how loverly u are.”

Monday, November 9, 2009

Family transitions

A whirlwind 3 day weekend in Texas for a family wedding and to tour another college on Liv’s list of potential places to party for four years.  Brilliant clear sunshine and eighty-ish temperatures make it seem like Austin must always be like this.  But I’ve lived in the south and I know for about four months, it’s more like living in a pizza oven.

An impressive young admissions officer gives clear and encouraging guidelines to parents and kids, either in the last throes of application deadlines or like me and Liv,  far removed from making any decisions about college.   We’re all a bit shell-shocked by the process and for me and the guy from Alabama next to me, the sticker price for out-of-staters.

I watch Liv’s face during the promotional video in the lobby.  She beams as the video shows scenes of the football games and the campus and then the dramatic narrator gravely rumbles,  “When the world needs Texas, we are there.”  We laugh because we can’t quite believe anyone could ever say that about Wisconsin with a straight face.  Texans have a unique sense of pride on a grand scale.

If you were to sell a campus, today would be the day.  Adorable tour guides, happy Friday campus abuzz with students and weekend preparations including a home game.  A sense of possibility and adventure around every corner.  My petite high school junior is hooked, so to speak.  We eat lunch in Jester with the students…she can see herself in them and I can, too just a little bit.  It makes me anxious to think of her away from home.  But it's getting to be that time.

LBJ worries about the escalating tuitions of American universities.

One of my oldest friends, Susan, patiently observes....not unlike a spider.  She says, “I’m letting UT sell itself.”  She's in advertising and I suspect witchcraft.  I've seen Sleeping Beauty.  For all I know she whispered sweet nothings into her bassinet.  Has she long known that the ultimate retribution for all my teasing of her these 25 years would be to orchestrate the slow unfolding of my oldest child choosing her alma mater for college?   I have long kidded Susan for the dramatic devotion that Texans have to UT and the school pride which causes them to make absurd gestures with their hands and yell hook ‘em horns at funerals and football games alike.  Obviously it's been jealousy all along because my own lame alma mater mascot is a Quaker and never more than 1,000 students attended football games on any given Saturday....roughly 100,000 less than attend UT’s games.

It is comforting to know Susan’s out there rooting for my kid and her dreams of being a Bevo devotee, ready to wrap her in the silky cocoon of the Texas love web while I must stay dispassionate for fear of unduly influencing.  Auntie Susan, thank you.  I am now mentally preparing for my daughter to turn Texan should she still feel this way in a year and be lucky enough to get in, and I will be surely visiting her in November.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Are you listening?

Laundry day.  My non-digital basement televangelist tells me, "Don't you know that you already know everything you know?"  Ok, I'm intrigued...he goes on as I press the touch up button on the dryer.  "So, if you're set to flappin' your gums all the time, you ain't learnin' a thing."

I love it.  It's so true.  Shut up and listen as much as possible, Julie.  I can't have too many reminders.

I've been doing a lot of listening the past few weeks.  It's been essential for my friend that I listen acutely.... and give thoughtful and crucial guidance... and above all, stick by her faithfully and unquestioningly even when some days it has seemed as if I was risking pieces of myself.  Emotional risk, messy history and heartbreakingly high stakes.  But my energy and devotion are received regularly with such gratefulness that I feel guilty at once as she thanks me yet again.  During personal crises without clear answers, friends will often run for their garages and punch in the lockdown code after dropping off the odd banana bread at the doors of the accursed.  But in the end a friend or two stay behind and get down in the mud and this time it's me.  I am relieved to know I have the juice to be this kind of friend.  I am empowered by it and the world scares me a little less as a result.

It's an especially beautiful autumn in southern Wisconsin.  I can't remember the colors being so vivid right outside the front door.  Mostly the days have been rainy so when a blue sky day comes along, it makes me appreciate the colors that much more.  The bright yellow and sky blue together.  Quite an extraordinary color pairing that wouldn't be anyone's choice of room colors but work together outside the confines of walls.

A long weekend brings about our first college visit.  Touring Northwestern, eerily I kept catching glimpses of a baffled-looking middle aged woman's reflection in windows across campus....trailing my daughter's reflection.  So weird.

Friday, October 23, 2009


A substitute school nurse this fall,  I still found myself coordinating a flu clinic of all things today....a thing substitutes usually would run screaming from in the opposite direction for its sheer definition of a commitment to mankind--something subs shun in principle.  It seemed a logistical nightmare to safely get 200 plus children immunized against H1N1 without parents bearing torches clamoring at the doors for one reason or another.

"You gave my child immunization!"
"You didn't give my child immunization!"

No winning in the public health arena.  There's no trying.

We excluded a few children unnecessarily due to bad paperwork and I dreaded a bit about how those parents might feel when they would receive the letter after school saying their kid had not been immunized due to our error....and then... to see the public health nurse coordinator return for the uncollected forms armed with several extra vaccines.  The last few children were immunized and everybody went home bolstered, or boostered in this case without incident.  Sweet victory.

Notwithstanding how needlephobic I am personally (I can give 'em, I just don't like to get 'em), I acknowledge vaccines save lives.  I made a pact with my maker a long time ago to shut my eyes and hug my kids as they each got jabbed for the vaccine du jour each time we headed to the pediatrician.  No bad outcomes for us luckily.  I refuse to overthink it.

I heard once from a well established immunologist that a lick from a dog had more inoculation of virus than any immunization and I chose to believe the words.  I had seen a nauseating amount of babies licked head to toe by a family dog as an unblinking family looked on.  As a nurse, I've also seen the effects of congenital rubella, PID, meningococcal meningitis and encephalitis secondary to chicken pox.  Nuff said.

Risk in much of what we do can have untold benefit.  Stock market, real estate, slot machines, love, immunization.

I got my H1N1 today too.  It made me feel funny.  I sat at the table with the last batch of second and third graders who received the vaccine and announced I also had received the vaccine.  We agreed it felt funny in our throats and gave us headaches and made us feel weird.  We acknowledged it might be just in our heads. The kids seemed delighted that at least one adult in the building had also received the vaccination they had.  Kids often trust and accept that stuff we do to them we never would do to ourselves.  So I was a novelty act at the observation table.

I sat down and they promptly made me read to them about kangaroos, as kids do.  We were in it together and I hadn't felt that kind of cameraderie in a long while.

Here's to these new dads, my niece the tinier of the two, and their many years of decisions around parenting from immunization to dating.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Arts and Travel Groupie

Living  life today in the world of travelers.  Two airports in one day.  I think what I am is a traveler groupie.  I love all the coordination and planning and the excitement of air travel, as long as I’m not the one going up in the air.

Like Ray Liotta on coke in Goodfellas,  I work in a manic fashion this morning to make this day work.  I am dropping Mom in Milwaukee and picking up Chip at O’Hare.

Wake up, feed the cats, feed the dog, check on Mom, make the coffee, get the girls going, take a shower, get dressed, walk the dog, load the car, drop Ally, drop Livvie, reminders about after-school chores, do you have money, do you have your cell phone, hug Nana goodbye, are we close?, you don’t have to come in, ok, come in, have a cigarette, up the escalator, walk to security, Mom, I can’t go past here…bye Mom, I love you.

Breathe.  A quick jaunt north and I'm on the doorstep of the Milwaukee Art Museum.  Peace.  I pull in under the giant bird on the lake and the doors are just opening to a quiet and empty museum. 

 Generally, I try to have a very important experience when I’m in a museum, but down deep, I'm a magpie.  I gravitate toward shiny and pretty objects.  So today, since I’m alone, I allow myself to just enjoy the pretty colors and the works of those not long dead if at all.  I’m not going to overthink the collection and I’m going to get to that elusive third floor.

First and foremost, I avoid the audio tour of the Warhol exhibit.  A little pang of guilt…but I let it pass.  My own intellectual purgatory, feeling I must be enriched following an exhibit.  But not today.   Goin' in dumb,  comin' out same.  Hey, his words are in the highbrow can he really be?

Second, I proceed directly to the third floor Bradley Collection, the furthest point from the entrance.   I’ve never been this far into the museum because even if I get close, I’m  tired, bored, in need of the loo or hungry so the visit is usually brief and distracted.   I pretty much ignore the Egyptian and Renaissance art coming in....sarcophagi, urns, little gold and brass thingies.  Usually I give them a passing glance to make myself feel cultured.  Aah, yes, that little talisman is very reminiscent of the Etruscan Period....yeah I don't think so.  And today, ignored!- gasp!

Familiar artists, American and French.   Artists original to me , Russian and German.  I purposely forget their names.   Some painters I just don't have to think about.  A whole room of works by Georgia O'Keeffe.  And an extensive folk art exhibit that is only too cool because it is the original idea and thought behind so much of American lawn art.

American Folk Art

Today, the art museum is my Pottery Barn.  I gravitate toward the pretty or the colorful or the striking.  I learn nothing in particular except I like sweeping away my own pretention.   I laugh at the Rothko, reminded of the Tate exhibit last year in London where even the curators hung one of his paintings upside down without knowing.

The middle school students swarm the exhibits by lunchtime with their notebooks and their need to touch everything. It's flu season.

I’m out of there.  Lunch alone at CafĂ© Calatrava overlooking the gray skies and gray water of a soon to be wintery Lake Michigan.

The coffee was especially good as the surrounding tables filled with all those people of midweek leisure.  Retired couples, women friends catching up over lunch, business guys, a grown son in from out of town visiting his mom, a preschooler with her mom and grandmom.  Easy to eavesdrop as a woman of a certain age.  I'm almost invisible.