Coffee Pods, Banana Peels, and Impending Doom

Jenny Lawson, You Are HereI ordered a book the other day, and then I forgot I ordered it because it took longer than the customary speed-of-light Amazon delivery. Then I remembered yesterday and thought, Where is that book? It was in the mailbox this morning, and it showed up exactly when I needed it.

They’re building a new shopping center down the road from us. I don’t know what will be in it, but it nicely complements the half-empty one less than a mile from it. I read a blog the other day about consumerism and how advertising is always trying to convince us we need stuff, pointing out our supposed flaws so they can sell us eye creme, Spanx, and protein shakes. I would’ve been pumping my fist in solidarity if it hadn’t been for the pop-up ads on the post making me wonder if the hypocrisy was totally lost on the author.

There is so much shit wrong with this world politically, socially, environmentally. It seems capitalism is failing us, as businesses act with self-interest — build more stuff, sell more stuff, convince people they need more stuff — instead of what is in the interest of the greater good. Sometimes it is clothed in a disguise of altruism, which is either intentional misdirection on their part or self-delusion and rationalization, but it always results in the making and buying of stuff.

I look at all of this, and I have a feeling of despair, of helplessness. I can clean out coffee pods to recycle them all day long, I can compost every last banana peel we make, I can avoid driving to reduce our carbon emissions. But what real difference is that going to make when industries, the biggest purveyors of environmental pollution of all kinds, aren’t following suit? Because it’s more expensive or a pain in the ass or people just don’t like change, they aren’t going to do it. Because industry is self-serving, and I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say they don’t give a shit about the future of our planet or humankind. They *might* care on an individual person level, or they might give lip service to it, but those who could implement real change through business policy aren’t going to.

And then I get You Are Here in the mail, and I read these lines:

You send out needed ripples of greatness and kindness in unexpected and accidental ways. You won’t always see the wonderful ways in which you shift the world. They may be invisible to you. But I promise you they are real.

IMG_1350This isn’t empty platitude from a self-help guru or motivational speaker. It’s an honest accounting by the author, Jenny Lawson, who suffers from anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease. Most of the things she writes are darkly humorous accounts of her childhood and her struggles with illness. Coming from her, it reads less like someone trying to cheer me up and more like a sister in suffering giving me a hug, shoring me up, and telling me to keep the faith.

My mother’s guiding principle in life is to “leave things better than she found them.” Mine, I guess, is similar. I want to recognize what is real and raw, emotionally, for so many of us. I don’t need to offer mind-blowing advice or shout it from the mountain for all of humanity to hear. But if a few people read what I write and it makes them feel less alone, makes their lives just a tiny bit better, that’ll be enough, coffee pods and banana peels be damned. Thanks, Jenny, for reminding me.

Hammer Therapy

Hammer, nails on wooden boards outside on construction site
Copyright : Jozef Polc

When I was thirteen, my dad threw a hammer at me.

Now before you go getting all shocked and jumping to conclusions, I should point out, he prefaced the throw with, “Here, catch,” as he gently lobbed it about six feet to my outstretched hand. Also, we were on a roof, and I suck at catching things.

Okay, full story: My dad, mom, sister, and I were up on our roof hammering shingles into the addition to the house my dad had just completed. We have always been a full-on, do-it-yourself family, occasionally to the point of what some would call stupidity. When Dad said, “Here, catch,” and I realized he was going to throw a hammer I was expected to successfully receive, I was terrified I’d miss it and Dad would be mad. I did miss it, and it clattered to the roof, knocking some of the surfacing from the brand-new composition shingles. He was mad. It was the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the way, do you know what composition shingles are? ‘Cause I do. That’s how I was raised — knowing a lot of random construction details most non-construction people neither know nor care about. And yes, it’s a point of pride. Go ahead, ask me how dual vanity sinks are plumbed. I’ll draw you a diagram. If you want to know how a post-tension slab foundation works, I can give you details on that, too. Mind you, I couldn’t actually build one, but I could definitely write a manual.

But I digress. So I missed the hammer, and Dad got irritated at me. He said something to the effect of, “Goddamnit, April! Why didn’t you catch that?”

Mom then came to my rescue with, “Because she knew you’d yell at her if she didn’t!”

I didn’t say anything, but in my head, I was like, Yeah. Yeah, that’s why! It was a revelation; nerves had gotten the better of me, and I didn’t even realize that was a thing that happened until she said it.

I tell this story, because how can you not tell a story that starts with, “One time, my dad threw a hammer at me…” and make people wonder? And because it’s a snapshot memory that stands out in technicolor clarity in my mind. It was when I realized that pressuring people to perform can have the exact opposite of the desired effect, and it gave me an inkling of insight into my own psychological hangups.

The moral of this story is, you’ve got to verbalize your children’s emotions for them from time to time to help them label those emotions. Or maybe it’s that you shouldn’t expect your kids to be perfect all the time. No, no, I’ve got it. It’s…

If you really want a kid to learn something, put them on a roof and throw hammers at them. Right?

 

 

This is Not What I Expected

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Photo Credit: Catherine George

Yesterday, I was wading through old photos on my computer looking for one I could use for an article when I happened upon some pictures of myself, roughly eight years ago. I’m feeding baby Gage with a bottle and looking over at toddler Jack, smiling. I totally look like I have my shit together in those photos. I totally did not.

I often wonder, when I see parents at the grocery store toting two young children along, parents who look like they also have their shit together, are they really that chill? Or is it like that photo of me — only calm on the outside? Is everyone kind of a wreck when they have little kids? I wonder this because I have…let’s say a history behind my quest to have children. That history gave me an unusual level of anxiety once I had them.

I always wanted kids. I have introspected on that desire a lot, and I’m pretty sure it was a biological/emotional urge that originated with me and not societal norms. So in college, I mapped it out in my head. This may seem weird, but I know of at least one other person who did this, so it’s a thing. I wanted to be done having kids by the time I was 30. To space them out by at least two years, I needed to be pregnant with the first one by the time I was 26. I wanted to be married for at least two years before having them, so that meant a wedding by the time I was 24. I wanted to date at least two years before getting married, so that meant meeting Mr. Right by the time I was 22. And, since I figured this out when I was 21, I panicked.

This absurd logic is what prompted me to get married, just slightly off my timeline, at 25. This doesn’t mean I was a heartless asshole who didn’t marry for love. I was deeply in love with my first husband. We were great friends, we were okay dating partners, we were shitty at marriage together. (Not that anyone knew it, not even us. We were delusional.)

I was the catalyst for all of this. I don’t think he was quite ready to get married, and I think he was even less ready when I suggested going off birth control when I was 27, but he went along with it because he loved me and he did want kids at some point.

I got pregnant. We celebrated. We told everyone. I gave my grandmother a birthday card from her great-grandchild, and it brought tears to her eyes. Then, I miscarried. It was awful, and we had to tell everyone what happened, which was a lot shittier than telling them I was pregnant. I was devastated. Then, I had three more miscarriages, and I was a wreck. I was profoundly depressed and panicked that I might not ever carry a baby to term. My timeline was all fucked up now. He said, “I’m afraid you’ll never get over this.” I said, point blank, “I won’t.”

He went back to school to change careers, and we decided to take a break from trying to conceive. That’s when I realized how unhappy I was. I’d been distracted by the baby thing, and taking a step back, I noticed how dysfunctional our marriage was. I knew it, but I didn’t do anything about it. I let it fester, the childish part of me pushing it down and ignoring it, despite the more adult part of my brain knowing that wasn’t going to work long term. We got divorced.

At that point, I was 30, and I finally stopped clinging to my stupid timeline, stopped adjusting it and projecting forward with the ridiculous notion I had control over the matter. I decided, in my dogged way, I would have children. If I had to beg, borrow, steal, or adopt them, if I had to raise them by myself in the woods amongst the wolves, it was going to happen sooner or later. So when Jason and I got married, I had no ulterior baby motive.

I got pregnant on our honeymoon. Nine months later, we had Jack. Two years later, I had another miscarriage. I got pregnant with Gage when I was 34, and gave birth to him when I was 35. During my last pregnancy, I had to talk myself out of a panic attack repeatedly; my uterus hadn’t magically expired on my 35th birthday. Then, there was a measure of relief. Procreation, which had dominated my thoughts for over a decade, seven pregnancies later, was complete. I could stop worrying about baby-making sex and relax. But I didn’t. Because after all that time, I couldn’t believe it was real. I couldn’t fathom that “they” (I have no idea who “they” are) were going to let me keep my children.

When they were infants, I worried about SIDS, I worried about whooping cough and the flu, I worried about BPA in baby bottles and pesticides on lawns. If it existed as even a remote threat to my babies, I worried about it. Something in my brain could not wrap itself around the idea that they weren’t going to be yanked away from me. The saga I’d gone through to have children made their existence feel fragile to me.

Thankfully, I grew out of that. I’m pretty free-rangy as a parent these days, and it would be hard to know I was ever so anxious about their safety. Those close to me back then knew — my parents, Jason’s parents, and certainly Jason. But not the people in the park or the people in the grocery store. They saw what I see in that old photo — a calm, smiling, competent parent. More and more these days, I am that mom, but I still have my moments.

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Photo Credit: Catherine George

Absence Makes the Heart…

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Jason and the boys at Chuy’s

Jason’s out of town this week. He doesn’t travel often, so it’s weird having him gone. There are logistical things. I had to take both kids to a dentist appointment for one of them because no one was home to watch the younger one. We have two soccer games, two birthday parties, and a school thing this weekend — events that overlap, so I’m trying to finagle rides, decide which I’m going to and which ones my kids can do without me. The real difference, though, is less obvious.

While most of us introverts love a chance to have the house to ourselves and watch whatever we want to on TV, I find myself feeling lonely this week. I am enjoying the alone time some, but it’s taking a backseat to how much I miss Jason. I get a lot of my adult social interaction from him. We both work from home, and though we don’t spend a lot of time talking to each other, we run the occasional errand or grab lunch together sometimes. We share the little things with each other — a funny meme, a ridiculous email, allergies or a back muscle that’s acting up.

True, I’ve been going to bed on time more often this week, because I’m not tempted to stay up and watch Game of Thrones and drink wine with Jason, but that doesn’t feel like an improvement in my life; it feels like something’s missing. The TV isn’t on as much, because he’s not here in the evening to watch whatever the sport du jour is. It’s kind of nice; I like quiet. But it’s also kind of lonely.

The kids miss their dad, too. Jack needs him to commiserate over sports with him, and Gage needs those silly interactions they always have. It’s clear to me, our family is not whole without him. I give my kids a lot, but I don’t have everything they need, and I would not want to do this parenting job by myself.

Right now, Jason’s in Scotland, playing the Old Course at St. Andrews. He is having the time of his life, as I can tell by the texts with multiple exclamation marks and the gorgeous photos. It makes me smile to think of him having so much fun. He really is my best friend — the kind of best friend you sometimes fight with, sometimes roll your eyes at, sometimes storm off from — but you know you’ll always be friends because no one knows you better. He knows what that look on my face means, and I know what his heavy sighs indicate about his mood.

We get on each other’s nerves sometimes, just like any two people who share a household, a relationship, and children, but right now, I just miss him. I know it’s silly, but I’m having a hard time working, I miss him so much. His absence is palpable. He’s oceans away, and it’s like I can feel it. I can feel that he’s all the way across the Atlantic and not just on the other side of town or in Houston.

This feels like a good thing — anything that makes you appreciate how much your partner contributes to your life. Day in and day out, it’s easy to focus on the little annoyances — toilet paper not on the roll, the television on too loud* — but when all of that is gone for a while, you start to see all you’ve taken for granted. I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Or if it doesn’t, you’ve got bigger problems than rogue toilet tissue.

Part of me wants to delete this because it’s so sappy and I find it a little embarrassing, but that would be counter to my personal mission to keep it real in the emotional realm. So there you have it. I love him. With all of my heart and soul. He’s not perfect, but it’s a good thing because neither am I.

 

*That’s not to say that these aren’t valid complaints that deserve to be addressed and made into memes, just that there’s a lot of good stuff too.

Is it a Boy or a Girl?

That’s the first question people ask about a newborn baby. It’s what determines nursery themes and the attendant comments of well-wishers.

She’s got her mama’s good looks; you better be careful! (Insert jocular ribbing.)

Get a football in that kid’s hands. He’s a big one!

These are obvious gender-stereotypical comments, especially when made in reference to a newborn. But what about the more insidious stuff? What about all those memes about women shopping to relieve stress and men acting like just another child for a woman to take care of? It’s like an extension of the “boy or girl” question. We act like every behavior hinges on gender.

The memes are funny. I know I’ve laughed at them, but as they’ve gotten more pervasive, I’ve started to get an ominous feeling. It’s like we’re extracting ourselves from our old stereotypical gender roles and building ourselves new ones.

Instead of the “yes dear” housewife, we have the eternally exhausted shrew who does all the household work, complains about it and continues to enable her family by doing everything for them. Instead of “Father Knows Best,” we have the idiot husband who is oblivious to everything that goes on around him and, despite living an adult life, is helpless to fix his kids’ hair. It’s not a flattering picture for anyone.

These dichotomies do exist. It’s why all the memes are so funny to us in the first place. But as time goes on and the memes become more pervasive, we as a society start to assume everyone is just like that and has no nuance or depth to them. And then, we start to fit ourselves into those roles, or we feel weird that we’re not like everyone else.

We humans seem to be good at extremes. A person can be a boy or a girl. Men can have all the power and women can have none, or women can be smart and men can be stupid. Middle ground, people. It exists in many of my day-to-day interactions with friends and neighbors but not so much in advertising or on the internet. It’s like we can be nice to each other, but we can’t acknowledge it.

Ultimately, I’d like for the world to get to a place where “boy or girl” isn’t foremost in our minds, whether we’re talking kids or adults. Yes, gender differences exist, but they are not as concrete as we treat them. Gender is more of a continuum than a set of diametrical opposites, and we are all so much more than the set of behaviors and traits society assigns us according to gender.

What if kids’ clothing stores didn’t have “boys” and “girls”? What if they had a pants section, a dress section, a shirt section, so kids could choose what they like without feeling constrained by their biological gender? Adults clothes are trickier because our shapes vary more, but I could work with something like a “shirts for people with boobs” section. This isn’t just semantics; There are people with boobs who don’t identify as female.

I know it may take us several generations to get there, but I hope we evolve into a society that asks what a person is like, what a person can do, and gender becomes more of a sidenote. I’m pulling for it — true person-first thinking. Then, we could all stop bickering about who is better and who should wear pink and get to work on the world’s bigger problems.

How to Procrastinate in One Easy Step

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Photo by Viktor Theo on Unsplash

I’ve got a light form of writer’s block today. I cannot think of one single thing to post here. I have several things in my “drafts” section that haven’t been published. I just went through them looking for hidden gems — no jewels, just old junk. And a few things that are too personal to share. Maybe someday. I caught up on other people’s blogs I follow, hoping for inspiration. They made me laugh, made me think, but didn’t make me want to write about anything in particular.

There seem to be people in the world with a lot more energy than I have, like just naturally. This isn’t a new thing; I’ve noticed it since I was a child. There are people who run marathons, people who start new businesses and charities on a regular basis, people who get up at 5am, people who work full time, volunteer and have a family all at the same time.  Some are tearing their hair out, but a few seem to thrive whilst doing all the things.

I can accept that I’m just not like that. I need rest; I need to recharge. But sometimes it’s frustrating because I’d like to do all the things. Even casting aside all the things I think I “should” do, I can’t even get to all the things I want to do. That’s part of why a day like today bothers me. I’m already not doing all the things I want to do; now I can’t even come up with 500 words for a blog post?

Full disclosure, I am also avoiding editing my book. Yes, I’ve finished it. Woohoo! Now I am knee deep in the laborious process of editing, rewriting and rearranging. It’s kind of like slogging through a swamp with the task of clearing it out to reveal the rich garden dirt underneath. It is soooo not the fun part. So much so, I’d rather write a blog post when I have nothing to say and torture us both with it.

Well, the kids will be home from school soon, so I guess I’ve procrastinated long enough to avoid editing. Thanks for your help.

 

When I Grow Up…

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photo credit: Stock Photo, copyright, yarruta 

When I was a kid, adults always asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew the answer was supposed to be a paying gig, so I shrugged my shoulders noncommittally and hoped they’d just move on. The truth was, I didn’t want to be anything when I grew up, at least nothing that qualified as a valid profession. After all, no one was going to pay me to make up dances in my living room at my own pace and only when I felt like it.

As far as I could see, being an adult sucked. They got up and went to work eight or nine hours a day, got only two weeks vacation and didn’t even get summers off. They were obligated to stay at their place of business until quitting time. They paid bills and did responsible things like washing dishes, mowing the lawn and paying for car insurance.  Screw that, I thought as I spent long summer days roller skating up and down our steep neighborhood driveways with friends or sprawled across my bed with a book by myself.

I liked to make up stories. I wrote down the rambling thoughts in my head in the form of poetry or barely-legible prose. Not a practical career choice, that of a writer — may as well decide I’m going to be heavyweight champion of the world. NOTHING I liked to do was marketable.

I went to high school with a lot of high-achieving teenagers, and in college, my friends found their places. They were pre-med, pre-law, civil engineering. Being a writer didn’t fit in with my family culture nor my school cohort unless of course, I could make myself a noteworthy best-selling author. No pressure. So I spent most of my college years making out with boys and figuring out where I could get my hands on some beer. I graduated from college because that’s what was expected and because I was tired of people telling me what to do.

I didn’t know there were other roads to adulthood, and indeed, there weren’t as many options as our kids thankfully have today. There are young entrepreneurship programs now that have kids developing their own marketable products while still in high school, for example. That’s awesome, but here’s another thing to think about:

What if we widened the definition of “successful?” We heap praise on the ambitious, but is being content where you are such a bad thing? Is wanting “just enough” really worse than aiming for the stars? Why did I have it in my head anything less than “best-selling” was a failure? Why wasn’t “pretty good writer who ekes out a living” a viable option if it made me happy?

I’d like to see us continue to support the kids and young adults who have ideas and goals and want to run with them to the top, make all the money and/or change the world. But let’s also remember it takes more than wild idealism to make the world go around. Some of us don’t want to be millionaires or develop the next life-altering piece of technology. Some of us don’t want to be all-star athletes or biomedical engineers. Some of us just want to be allowed to do our art, share it with people, and be left alone.