Friday, September 29, 2006

There But For The Grace of God

Of the several men painting our house, most are missing teeth and one is missing an arm. The leader of this rag tag home improvement team gives them $10 an hour, paid in cash at the end of each work day, or thereabouts. They lucked out on Thursday. The day's wages were tucked firmly in their pockets before the boss man drove off to a local dive, where an acquaintance of his jacked him at knifepoint for what little cash was left, a cooler of beer, and a pack of USA Gold Menthols.

There's a seedy side of life in this town that I don't see through the flimsy metal and tinted windows of a 1989 Dodge Caravan, or a trailer home, or a leaning duplex with shingles and steps that are rotting. During a visit downtown with my daughter in tow, voices from the open-doored bars are garbled by country music and the sizzle of fat in the fryer as I walk by. I inhale the aromatic wind of cheeseburgers and Tabasco, but otherwise I notice nothing. We cross the street to a clothing shop that, miraculously, hasn't been run out by the WalMart a town over. I don't buy anything because it's too expensive. I wonder who does.

I also wonder about the invisible line between my town's presentable facade and its underground. The median household income here is ranked 237 out of 245 Connecticut towns and cities. Many are living paycheck to paycheck, my household included. I think about how delusional I am as I go through each day focused on what's in front of me, oblivious to my surroundings and to the path that's precarious beneath my feet.

Any sense of stability is imaginary. I look at the gaping smiles of the painters on ladders and I see what it means to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or to make a bad, irreversible decision. I see why the weight of providing for a family and its future makes my husband's shoulders hunch a little more each day. Whether it's through bad luck or bad planning, what we have today could be gone tomorrow. He knows this. I should know this. We are partners.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

What Were Your Cabbage Patch Kids Named?

The blue corduroy suit on my Cabbage Patch Kid doll has lost its elasticity, its Velcro tabs, and two buttons. It is not even fair to call it blue anymore. Newton Vince is his name, and he is approaching twenty-five years old.

You need to know this about Cabbage Patch Kids, if you don't already: they come with weird names and each one has a signature on its soft, batting-filled butt. The signer was Xavier Roberts, the creator of these pop culture precursors to Tickle Me Elmo, the kind of product that could cause Christmas-time brawls in the toy aisle when only one was left.

Newton Vince has a rubbery, talcum scented plastic head of perfectly round proportions. The globular effect is carried through in the tiny “o” of his mouth, which closes around a plastic pacifier that can be removed and inserted at his owner’s discretion. Newton’s eyes are round, too. Big and blue, overlooking a tiny nose, as rubbery and powdery smelling as the rest of that sweet head.

I was five years old when I received Newton as a Christmas gift from my uncle Bob. I remember this Christmas particularly well because it coincided with the time I decided I didn’t like having bangs. So, I cut them off. I went to a party at my aunt’s house sporting forehead fringe no longer than a centimeter at any given point. In pictures, I am clutching Newton tightly.

He's a mess right now. I do not blame myself for this, as he just recently came back into my possession. Previously, he spent time with my brother, six years my junior, and my sister, thirteen years younger than myself. I have my suspicions that a brief hiatus in my parent's attic is responsible for some of the additional grime on his aging body. His head has gone from white to brown and his fabric torso has darkened similarly. The strings that separated the soft paddle of his hands into individual fingers have frayed, leaving two dirty stumps.

He's home now, on the top of the washing machine, waiting for a toss in the gentle cycle. I keep putting it off because I don't know if he can stand it. How old is 25 in Cabbage Patch years? How long can a childhood last?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

This Odd House

I have this habit of ignoring the voices in my head. I suppose it wouldn't be such a bad thing, except that sometimes those voices are the articulation of my gut instincts. The other day, my voices were telling me this:

Are you sure you want to paint your house that particular shade of blue? It looks lovely in the Sherwin Williams color book, but isn't it possible that it might take on more of a purple hue when slathered all over your house?


Maybe you should spot test it first, just to see?

But listening to the voices requires work, and it's so much easier just to rely on blind faith like the martyr that I am.

Today I came back from the grocery store to a house that glistened majestically in the autumn sun. My sigh was carried by the shrug of my shoulders. Oh, well, I said. I thought this might happen.

My mom says I never listen. My husband says I don't hear. Lest they think that I am selectively ignoring them, I am submitting for public record the fact that I don't even pay attention to my own thoughts half the time.

On a positive note, the paint is still wet, which means there is potential for it to dry a darker shade than its current purple manifestation. I am nothing if not hopeful. The quality of the work is good, so we've got that going for us, too. Even if our house becomes known as the town oddity, with much pointing and laughing accompanying each drive-by, at least it's a clean paint job.

We can't afford another coat. The way it dries is the way it is. Thus, I smile, and I nod, and I grow to like it. The haphazard way I live each day pretty much forces me to embrace all life's imperfections.

Monday, September 25, 2006

80s Flashback

Red vacuumed every day to Motown on the record player. Sometimes she'd get up on the coffee table, belting out "I Will Survive" to the subtle static of steel on vinyl. Her three children ran through the living room, unaffected, in a circuit that took them from bedroom to kitchen to sun porch to muddy yard, and back again. Their tracked-in dirt disappeared in a quick sweep of the Electrolux. Nothing was dirty or disorganized if it was within her control.

I was the stray, the "summer sister." Red's middle daughter was my best friend. My mother dropped me off at the beginning of summer vacation and I stayed there for weeks, until a doctor's appointment or a trip to Lake George reuinited me with my given family. I never missed home.

Each day at Red's was structured by mealtimes. We ate cereal for breakfast, each child dumping leftover Os or flakes down the toilet. There were never any remnants in my bowl, though. I was a plate cleaner. Red loved that about me. She was effusive in her praise of my appetite. The funny thing was that I never saw her eat.

Between then and lunch we played Barbies, dress-up or pageant. Sometimes we'd play band. Once I ended the day with a black and blue five inches in diameter from hours of hitting the tambourine against my leg like Michelle Philips in a clueless California dream.

Lunch was tuna fish and celery that I crunched in contentment. Sometimes it was hot dogs with mac and cheese. I ate it all. Red patted my back.

Then there was more of the same play, or a dip in the pool. One summer when we were around ten, we orchestrated mini-triathalons that ended in their round, above-ground pool. I noticed after one such race that my everpresent ankh ring was missing from my right ring finger.

"SHIT!" I screamed, with all the force of discovery. My best friend's eyes were huge as she looked at me. Then she giggled. The shrug of my shoulders swallowed my neck as I bit down on my lip and waited.

"Girls!" Red yelled back from inside the house, where she talked in hushed tones to a neighbor. It was just a reminder that she was listening.

A huge pot of meatballs joined pounds of spaghetti at the dinner table. Us kids sat at the table while Red talked on the phone in the corner. Our voices carried conversations about Scott Grimes, Madonna, the hairy guy next door, and plans to ride our bikes to Friendly's for ice cream. I washed my seconds down with a tall glass of milk. Red nodded at me encouragingly, the phone bobbing against her ear. Her focus was everywhere. It's getting worse, I heard her say to the person on the other line. I don't think I can take it anymore.

My own mother never danced on the coffee table to anthemic oldies, which is why I was giggling and awkward in my admiration whenever Red did it. At Red's house, there was no sweeping things under the rug. Instead, the constant sucking of the vacuum cleaner was its own soundtrack as she made straight lines in the carpet that erased all the detritus of organized chaos. You think I'd crumble? You think I'd lay down and die? She sang it out to the four of us, like she was asking.

I shook my head no. I watched Red and it was clear to me, even as a child, that a mother has no choice but to be strong.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


I propose a new game for playgroup moms who decide to get together after hours. In the MOMS Club to which I belong (please reserve judgement at least till the end of this post), we call these monthly get-togethers "MOMS Night Out."

An ideal MNO, in my mind, is one where each mother must take a shot every time she talks about her child(ren). Two shots if it's a story we've all heard before. Three shots if it involves poop (granted, I myself would probably rack up a bit of a buzz on this one since I can't resist a well recollected crap caper). Half a bottle of Jagermeister in one swig if we have to hear how many gold stars your daughter earned today in pre-school.

I know many mothers. I know their children. I am familiar with the eating and excreting habits of 40 kids under the age of 5. I am perfectly happy being a vessel of such information. The stories are often enlightening, entertaining and useful. But in casual discourse, we're always moms. Is it too much to ask that we have on night, once a month, to learn about each other as people?

Motherhood has helped me forge a stronger identity as a woman. I am a deeper thinker, a better writer, and a more confident professional since I gave birth to my daughter. I love to tell people her stories. I value learning from others how to be a better mom. But, sometimes, I want to talk about other aspects of life. We're wives, too. We're daughters. We're employees or students. We're advocates. We're travelers. We're products of completely diverse upbringings.

So, let's talk about it! Of course we are mothers, and no conversation need deny that fact. But let's use that status to heighten discussions about those other aspects of our being, to lend perspective to conditions we may not have fully understood until now. I see that kind of introspection all the time in this little 'burg of the blogosphere, but in my real life there's a void.

Unfortunately, I don't think too many moms in my club would go for such a drinking game. It's a damn shame, too. A few poop stories and some triple-shots later, I probably won't even care that we're all still talking about our children.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hyper Extensions

When The Boss is mad, she invariably thrusts out her lower lip in a square pout and presses her face to the floor--from a sitting position.

Other times, I find her asleep in her crib, one foot pressed against her ear.

Flexibility is just one example of how far removed babies are from their grown up counterparts. Another is vocabulary. Though I suppose it's convenient to lump every animal, vegetable and mineral into one category called "dog," it's not very descriptive. Yet another example is a child's utter lack of discernment when it comes to what she will put in her mouth--though I suppose it can be argued that gumming rocks, sticks, solidified dog poop, loose change and live wires is not significantly more enlightened than smoking cigarettes. Not that I would personally make such an argument on the grounds of being hypocritical. Anyhoo.

Occasionally I watch The Boss taking in and pointing out the world around her and I wonder, "who are you?" Then, the extended version: "Who are you going to be?" It's hard to make any determinations based on that tiny human being splayed at my feet, her legs sticking out at ninety degree angles as she buries her mouth in a patch of dirt on the playground.

And that's usually when I realize I forgot the camera. Though I wonder about the future, I am all too aware that the to-be questions will soon be replaced by wistfulness and by backwards glances that lack the joy of all this newness. Today in the toddler section of the department store I was nostalgic for newborn layettes. Not for newborns--oh, no, the wounds are too fresh for that--but for the layettes a first time mother-to-be holds against her face, then her belly, as she dreams for nine months about a lifetime of unknowable days. I remembered visiting that very section while pregnant and looking only at what was before me. A year and change later, it's hard not to look back.

She is wild and fantastic, this boss of mine. She is completely strange. Her emergence forever changed my place in the world. Before, everything was in front of me. I could move forward in any direction. Looking back was an option, but why would I? Now, it's different. I am retrospective. Circumspective. I try to live in the moment, but I will indulge the past. I don't think I will ever again feel the total preoccupation with the future that I experienced as the pregnant mother of my baby girl.

Because now I understand what the future holds.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I Love The Cliches

Someone wants to know exactly what is written on the 5th through 8th sentences on page 123 of the book nearest me. This random foray into the desk and the psyche of the blogger is called a meme. For lack of any other definition that I can even begin to comprehend, a meme is "an idea, project, statement or even a question that is posted on one blog and responded to by other blogs."

To reiterate, for the purposes of this particular meme: What is written on the 5th through 8th sentences on page 123 of the book nearest you?

Well, funny you should ask, Amy! I just happened to be looking for some hilarious blog fodder. I should've known I would find it on page 123 of The Romance Writer's Phrase Book, which happens to be sitting before me in a brown wicker basket filled with other accoutrements of the writing life. Please do not ask why I own The Romance Writer's Phrase Book, which purports to be "the essential source book" for all things romantic and novel, and which is "guaranteed to stimulate the imagination." It is filled with more than 3,000 embarrassing cliches arranged for "quick, easy reference" by any writer in love with all things formulaic.

I am happy to report that page 123 falls in the "Sex" chapter. Other chapters include "Physical Characteristics - Male," "Physical Characteristics - Female," "Emotions," "Eyes," and "Miscellaneous." Each one consists of distinct, relevant phrases that are sure to get your romance juices flowing.

Now, for your reading pleasure, I present sentences 5 through 8 of page 123:

5: "Her lips found their way instinctively to his."
6: "His kiss was as challenging as it was rewarding."
7: "Kissing her devouringly..."
8: "His lips parted hers in a soul reaching massage."

Are you inspired yet? I can keep going.

"Their lips met and she felt buffeted by the winds of a savage harmony."
"As he roused her passion, his own grew stronger."

And my favorite: "The kiss was like the soldering heat that joins metals."

Anyway, it's now my turn to pass along the memetic torch of literacy. I tag my Connecticut cronies, Lauren and Linda. As for the rest of you, please leave your favorite romantic cliche, or make up your own, in my comment section. It'll be funny. And as I laugh, I'll have to ask The Partner if he looks at me and thinks to himself that "the even whiteness of her smile is dazzling."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Why We Need Counseling

This morning, upon waking, I assumed my rightful place on the porcelain throne. Imagine my surprise when the usual view of sink and tub was interrupted by this:

How sweet to see The Boss's foam letters sticking to the back of the tub in this message of morning cheer. Since I wasn't the one who left it there, and since The Boss can't spell, there was only one person left whom I could logically assume was the source of this tub talk. Logically, I said. Don't think for a minute that it didn't cross my mind that the sentiment came in the wake of a friendly poltergeist's midnight dip. It seemed about as likely as The Partner pulling off something so darned romantic.

"Awww," I shouted to The Partner, who was on the computer in the den. There was no reaction. "Awwwwwww," I shouted again, louder.

He peered in the bathroom.

"Did you do that?" I pointed, all giddy and smiling.

"Oh, that." His look was such that I knew some good smart-assery was coming. "Yeah, it was me. But only because I had to edit what The Boss wrote. Our daughter is really jaded, you know. Do you want to see her original message?"

I played along. There'd be icy bathwater in hell the day my thirteen month old could say, let alone spell, anything other than dog, look, thank you, or hi. "Suuuuuure," I said.

He walked over to the tub, overstepping my feet on the shaggy green mat in front of the toilet. Reaching in, he pulled up two more letters that had collected near the drain with a host of other water toys. He put them in their proper place. "I don't know where she gets these ideas," he said, shaking his head in mock consternation. Then he stepped to the side so I could read the updated text.

I looked. Then I sighed.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Small Town Closing Down

Today a local donut and coffee shop will put up a "closed" sign that won't turn to "open" tomorrow. The owners of that independent purveyor of jelly donuts and joe are looking at the end of a 30 year era, one characterized by friendships forged at the counter and a quality, no-nonsense menu. The good stuff.

We all know how franchises are sucking up the little guys into a vacuum powered by the cheap electricity of convenience. Here, it's Dunkin Donuts. In other realms, it's WalMart or Barnes and Noble or Home Depot. They uniformly lack history, a deficit from which it is hard to salvage good service or community ties.

The Boss and I put over 15,000 miles on my car in the short year she's been alive as we traversed this small corner of our state, taking in the realities of rural New England. There's a quiet beauty in farms, orchards, wineries and fruit stands. There's melancholy in abandoned mills. The hills roll with the lilt of a practiced storyteller.

Then there are the strip malls, the coffee chains and the sprawling stations of convenient fuel that dot the Interstate. If those places have tales, they don't have the patience to tell them. And, anyway, their customers don't have listening ears.

Nostalgia has an important place in my world view, which dictates that nothing ever changes, not in the grand scheme of things. We evolve, we grow, we ascend and we transcend. I know we can't go back. Yet there are certain truths that fall in and out of favor, but can never be lost. Here in New England, there are elements of the impersonal chain store phemonemon that appeal to our thrifty stoicism. There is a convenience to the drive-thru that speaks to our fast walking, fast talking ways. But when wintertime comes, there's a need for warm familiarity that can't be replaced by something new.

And it's getting chilly out, right about now.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

On Blogging

After writing an entire post about the virtues of speaking one's mind, I realize I have nothing to say. I must have jinxed myself. I'm always doing that. I wrote about the joys of breastfeeding approximately three days before The Boss up and weaned herself. It often happens that I am driving down the street when it occurs to me that I haven't gotten a speeding ticket in quite some time. Two blocks later, blue and whites are inevitably flashing in my rear-view. Why do I even bother thinking, let along writing? Life would be a lot easier if I just flitted from activity to activity, oblivious to anything that isn't laid out in concrete certitude before me.

But, especially when it comes to writing, I'm more analytical than that. Not mathematically, but emotionally. I think things like why is anyone going to care how cute it is when The Boss throws her hands up in the air and does a rhythmic shoulder shrug every time Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" plays on my Sirius Satellite Radio? Or, on certain days, like The Boss's birthday or September 11, I wonder how I can possibly do justice to such loaded themes. So I don't even try. Then there are the times when I am fighting with The Partner and find myself unable to harnass the energy and creativity to write anything.

The reasons NOT to write are plenty, and they run through my head to this constant refrain: what makes you think you have anything of value to say, anyway? Who are you to show up every day on the Internet with a message that packages the same old inanity into a new box?

The only justification I can come up with is that it's not all about me. When I write, I try to make sure that my tales are not the "I, I, I" recaps of daily living that critics of blogging (especially "mommy" blogging) make them out to be. I want to address universal themes with a national--and sometimes regional--voice. A good voice. One that people can hum along to as they recognize the beat of their own lives. That's one of the things that makes me write, but it doesn't always help me figure out what to say.

So, to my four readers, I'm sorry for my week long absence from the Web, and for this stream-of-consciousness analysis of the act of writing with an inferiority complex. I will try to steer clear of such discussions about methodology for awhile, but they are cobwebs that needed to be cleaned out.

Here's to being witty and insightful, 24/7/365. It's not too late to start, is it?

P.S. Speaking of absences from the Web, I am happy to report that Redneck Mommy is back! Check her out. If you can go over there to get some hearty food-for-thought and a good chuckle, I will know that this post today hasn't been in vain. Welcome back, T!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Just Say It

My husband writes letters to the editor; he corresponds with our elected officials; and he speaks at town meetings. My in-laws donate large sums of money to their causes. My mother is a voting official and a veteran of the Women's Army Corps. My father watches Fox News from his well-worn armchair and screams at Alan Colmes.

Me? I suppose I've got some causes. But my passion is not so much political as it is practical. It's a palpable presence in my life all day, every day. It's how I make friends; it's why I have enemies. It's the reason I write. It feeds the fire of my fierce American pride. It's the thing I could not live without and it's the reason I'm grateful to those who have died to secure it.

It's freedom of speech. I will not censor myself and I will not allow others to do it for me. I find the exchange of ideas to be the ultimate form of honesty and the only way to find truth. It's ingrained in the basic functioning of my brain: I cannot really comprehend something until I get it out in the open, preferably on paper. It's the act of expressing something that makes it real to me. It's no exaggeration to say that if I couldn't write, I couldn't think--not deeply, not in a way that creates change.

The antithesis is fear. If I am afraid, or if my goverment is afraid, I cannot express myself. Then what am I? I am quiet and confused. I'm bored and bitter. I am everything that is wrong with the world.

Her Bad Mother gave us bloggers a call to action. She asked us to write about a cause we're passionate about, and to provide links, information and guidance. Well, I have no resources for you. No links. Not much in the realm of guidance. But I have my own call to action.

This weekend, shock someone with your honesty. Leave wide eyes and gaping mouths in your wake. Make someone think. Make someone laugh. Do a dance. Take your child to the library for your own banned book story time. Send an overdue thank-you note. Change someone's mind.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Proof is in the Pudding

After roughly twenty months of coming to terms with the fact that he is a father, The Partner has wholly embraced the squirming, screaming wonder that is The Boss. And she, in turn, has latched onto the concept that she is Daddy's Little Girl. She will allow only him to put her to bed. She hits the crib inconsolable if anyone else tries. Perhaps it's the fraternity songs he sings to her, interspersed with the only slightly more politically correct "Rock A Bye Baby." Maybe it's his strong, calm hold as he rocks her. Whatever it is, I find this bedtime preference as annoying as I do sweet. She's my banshee; she's his bleating, doe-eyed girl.

Though he still refuses to change a diaper, I am mostly happy with The Partner's transformation. I've been waiting a long time. A lifetime. When I first got pregnant, he was unthrilled. I figured the sweet reality of it might hit him more when I began to show; but when I popped, his demeanor was unchanged. Then I thought her birth would clinch it, and that he would weep fatherly tears of joy that would be a film over his eyes for the rest of his life. He was more stoic than that, though. With my hopes wearing thin, I pinned the last shreds on the idea that maybe, once The Boss was out of the disagreeable fourth trimester, her sunny infant disposition would bring out an excited paternity in her father. But, no. So I gave up on all the hoping.

Which is obviously when it happened. I guess it's been a slightly more gradual process than I might make it out to be, but the fact is that The Partner's devotion to The Boss is now apparent. It cannot be misconstrued. It's in the swoop he makes from the door to wherever she's playing when he gets home from work. It's in his coos about her cuteness. It's in his face, which looks exactly like hers. My sigh of relief is gale-force.

Now, if I could only get him to change a diaper.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

This Is What I Tell Myself, And You

I have a disenchanted, single friend who recently told me I should feel lucky that I'm no longer in the dating pool. Just to make her feel less sorry for herself, I shared with her a couple stories about married life. She was silent for a moment. Then she said, "oh."

If the grass is greener on my side of the fence, it's only because of dog poop and too much rain.

I know it's human nature to want what you can't have. To yearn for more. To feel like you're competing with people who don't even realize you're in the race with them and who, furthermore, don't care. It's natural to want to better your situation. To better yourself. And I think it's pretty damn common not really to be happy, ever.

I'm saying this from a rational state, not a depressed one. It's a fact that there's a lot of dissatisfaction out there. Most people have major grievances that wipe the Pollyanna smile off their faces with some frequency. Single and married; employed and un(happily)employed; rich and poor; Red Sox fans and Yankees fans. I mean, what's the big diff? Every life is a circle of highs and lows that come at intervals specific to that person. The hero you envy one moment could be the person whose existence you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy the next.

The Rolling Stones say you can't always get what you want. Then there's what St. Teresa of Avila said first, before Truman Capote and Garth Brooks backed her up: more tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.

It's okay to want things. Sometimes it's more than okay. In other instances, you may have to work to keep those desires in check. But, always, it's a matter of leaving yourself open for those surprises you didn't even know you were in the market for.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Fireworks--A Short Story

Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man's friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.

It’s one of those “dog days” of summer. The plants are panting for rain but basking in the sunshine. The meteorologists are backpedaling on their promises for moisture, yet getting off on reporting on the record-breaking heat. It’s the kind of sweat-until-there’s-a-stream-running-between-your-breasts kind of hot.

Even in the heat, there are beings lounging in the humidity. Humans, dogs, squirrels, birds, rabbits even chipmunks. Some coexist peacefully, even genially. Others, not so much.

Watching the natural fireworks that tend to occur when the heat rises over 90 degrees becomes a regular, though not pleasant, pastime. It’s not pretty. It’s not pretty when the pretty leaves you with no place to go.

Words zing through the air like fireflies on steroids, a virtual tennis match of tears, betrayal and love. Past and present collide as fingertips lunge like lightening between bodies. The air, electric in its stagnancy, leaves exclamations and contradictions hanging.

There is an odd compulsion to get closer, to peer at the train wreck that has developed and search for survivors, or rather, casualties.

Words continue to volley until one scores a hit. Tears fall, and there is a stony silence, followed by retreat. The air remains charged, but broken.

by Heather, Blog Exchange Guest Blogger

(You looking for Binky? Yoo hoo! She's over here...)


Heather is a SAHM to 2 young children. She has plenty of random thoughts and feels compelled to share them with strangers. Her daughter is amazed at the size of her Cool Zebras. Don’t forget to visit your friend Elizabeth there, keeping my place warm today.

This post is part of the September Blog Exchange. This month's exchange is a little different - we're all writing short (fictional) stories based on the 13 Writing Prompts found at McSweeney's. You can find me at Heather's site today, and the full list of participants can be found by clicking here.