Friday, August 22, 2014

Eddie Spaghetti, Pin-Dodgeball, and Holding On to Home


I didn’t love grade school. But you never would have known that last night if you’d seen me sitting around a table at our local Chili’s with seven other people, reminiscing about the time Ed Lavoie crawled out the window and got detention.

We go back a long way, we members of the Sacred Heart class of 1977. Most of us met as first-graders in 1969; Nixon was in the White House and Neil Armstrong had just walked on the moon, but we were more worried about penmanship. When we graduated eighth grade, “Star Wars” was released, but we were champing at the bit to see “Saturday Night Fever.”

The times changed, and we changed. But last night, we all rushed headlong back to those days, and I never could have imagined what a soft, warm place the past would be.

Grade school, which morphed into junior high for us Catholic-school kids, was not a place for square pegs, and I was decidedly a square peg. First, I was the only child in my class who didn’t have a mom; second, I was tall. Very tall.  I’m not tall now, but when you reach your full height of 5’4” as a fifth-grader and everyone else comes up to your chest, your world is an odd place, and you spend all your time looking down.

I loved spelling and writing; I also loved microscopes and rock-polishers and read encyclopedias for fun. I had glasses; later on, I had braces. My hair was dark, short, and frizzy while the other girls sported silky, blond, feathered-back bangs. I wanted badly to be popular, instead, I was smart. But all the intelligence in the world didn’t matter to a girl who was different.

Last night, though, no one was different, or maybe we’re finally old enough to see those differences as good things. Or perhaps we learned a few things around the table that helped us understand that we all thought we were different in those days, and we all faced hardships that set us apart, even if we kept them to ourselves.

We learned, for example, that one of the guys, as a boy, had been picked on pretty mercilessly; we learned another had been tested for learning disabilities because our teachers were concerned about his behavior. (Nothing was amiss; he saw the world differently and was, and is, simply very entertaining.)

We learned we all were at least somewhat insecure in those days, but we also learned how our classmates had viewed us. And we were pleasantly surprised, I think, that we were remembered fondly despite all the pressure we had placed on ourselves to look and act a certain way. The junior-high years are cruel years, but we had not been cruel kids.

We had a bond, we Sacred Heart kids, even if we were unaware of that at the time. When you spend eight years with basically the same 40-odd kids, you form a pseudo-family; you may not like all your family members, but you’re connected, and you’re loyal.

Neither of the men I married shares my history; I met one at 22 and the other in my late 30s. While that's perfectly fine, that fact remains that neither of them remembers the time our seventh-grade science teacher had head lice, or the way the ceiling tiles looked in Mr. Pilgrim’s office, or the Mouse House or Minnie Pearl's or the Little Red Barn.

They don’t remember the tunnels in the church basement, and they know nothing about pin-dodgeball or Kill the Man (just a game; no real death) or the time Amy fell on something that went through her knee, or the time Polly got so sick. They didn’t know Tom Vial and his silky hair and his love of KISS, or that everyone either liked or "went with" Bobby.

They don’t remember Jeff Hoffman, our classmate who died at 14. We toasted him last night through tears, and cheered one another with a litany of “remember whens.”

A shared history isn’t critical, of course. But as we get older, it’s soothing. It validates the things that shaped us, and it reinforces that we weren’t alone, although we may have been quite sure, at the time, that we were.

All of us around that table last night are 51 now. Most of us have lost at least one parent; some have lost both. We don’t look the way we looked at 14, naturally, but as several of us pointed out, we all have the same faces, and the same eyes. And some of those eyes were a little watery last night, but they were smiling as they looked upon all the laughter.

As Faulkner said, “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.” Those of us around the table last night are all lucky enough to feel at home with families who love us, but part of “home” will also be a once-little town called West Des Moines, which ended, in those days, at Valley High School.

When we’re all gone, that town and that place, as they existed then, will go with us, so I think it’s natural to want to hold on to them a little while longer. The next time Ed -- we don't call him "Eddie Spaghetti" anymore -- comes to town, then, we’re doing this again, and with any luck, even more of our classmates will join us around the table.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Moving a child to college: Tears, gift cards, and why the towels will always, always mildew


A friend of mine is moving his daughter to college this week, and his understandable anxieties about the task at hand are causing me to reflect.

One of my kids spent five years as an undergrad, and the other spent four, so, all told, I moved kids into dorm rooms, apartments and/or sorority houses nine times. After a while, the job got to be somewhat old-hat, especially after each began spending summers living independently as well. But I vividly remember the first time the kids’ dad and stepparents and I moved them into their homes-away-from-home, and despite having read obsessively about best ways to handle such a thing, I was ill-prepared, emotionally or otherwise.

So I spent some time this week thinking back to those days, and remembering the all the feelings that made up each event. And I came up with a checklist of things I wish more-experienced parents had taught me – everything from the practical to the wholly emotionally driven. And while no one has all the answers, I’m hoping at least one thing on this list may serve as a practical takeaway for any first-time college mom or dad. 

  • Make your child’s bed. Unless she threatens to physically throw you out of the dorm room, trust me on this:  There’s something about a bed made by Mom or Dad that will make an unfamiliar room feel like home. Yes, she’s 18 and can make her own bed – but she won’t. And if you don’t, come bedtime, she’ll end up sleeping on a bare mattress, covered with her bathrobe.
  • If there’s a coin-operated washer and dryer in her dorm, get her a few rolls of quarters. For some reason, college-age students are incapable of remembering to keep change on hand, and there’s a real risk she’ll skip laundry for way too long and attend weeks of 8 o’clock classes in the same pair of Hello Kitty pajama pants.
  • Frame a couple of small family photos – one of all of you, maybe, and one of the family pet--and leave them in her room. Be unobtrusive about this. Chances are she’ll love that you left something unexpected, and if she doesn’t want to display them, she can always hide them.
  • Make plans to call her at a set time each week, or twice a week -- say, Sundays at 7, or Wednesdays at 7 and Sundays at 3. Chances are you’ll talk and text far more frequently than that, and let her know that you’re always available if she needs you. But let her know she can count on your bugging her only at certain times, and that if she wants to communicate more frequently, it’s up to her. She’ll revel in her freedom while also looking forward to talking to you.
  • Buy, in advance, gift cards to some sort of nearby food establishment, such as a Subway. Give one to her and one to her roommate. When dorm food gets to be too much, they can have a little off-campus bonding time. And her roommate will think you’re awesome, which always helps.
  • Consider a couple other gift cards as well – one to the nearest grocery store, and one to the nearest Target or similar department-type store. Small-amount ones are fine. She’ll be much more motivated to go out and replace Kleenex or a desk-lamp light bulb if she has quick, easy funds on hand to get it done.
  • Leave her with a first-aid kit. Chances are the resident assistant on her floor will have a communal one, but get her her own, and stock it. She’ll need Band-Aids at some point, and she won’t know where to find them; ditto some sort of OTC pain reliever.  Benadryl is also good to have on hand; she’ll be exposed to all kinds of weird potential allergens at college, such as her roommate’s bacon-scented candle or cat-hair-laden favorite blanket. Other good first-aid staples: hydrocortisone cream and antiseptic wipes.
  • Don't believe her when she tells you she needs only one towel. As has been noted, she won’t do laundry nearly as often as you’d like her to, and chances are she also won’t hang her towel up to dry properly. Leave her with at least two or three big towels, and the same number of washcloths.
  • Leave a couple little notes for her, or write her a letter and place it where she’ll see it while she’s unpacking. Social media is the best thing ever, but nothing beats handwritten communication, especially when it’s from someone special about something special. Tell her whatever you want to tell her, but add that you love her and are proud of her. Thirty-some years later, she’ll still take out that letter and read it anytime she needs a little boost. (Along the same lines: Send cards or care packages once in a while. A funny card with a $10 bill tucked inside can be a huge day-brightener.)
  • Prepare for tears, even if she’s not a crier. She WILL cry. Chances are she won’t tell you she’s cried, but if she happens to cry when you’re on the phone with her, it will tear your heart out. Some people will tell you to ignore the crying, to focus on cheering her up; others will tell you to acknowledge it and talk with her about how she’s feeling. Still others will tell you that if she’s not too far away and is really upset, make a plan to visit her, or to have her come home for the weekend. Here’s the right answer: Follow your instincts. Other people don’t know your child nearly as well as you know her. Obey the little voice in your head, the one that tells you what you need to do to be able to sleep well at night.
  • Be prepared, also,for the fact that she will do stupid things. She’ll stay up way too late, then decide to sleep in and skip her early class. She’ll forget the sensible eating habits you taught her and fill her D-card (or M-card or U-card or whatever her school calls it) with charges for Doritos and Mountain Dew. By all means, get a handle on things when you feel you need to – but, if you can, cut her some slack. She’s trying to figure out a lot of complicated things, and chances are pretty good she’ll eventually begin to make better choices.
  • Plan to open your home to her friends, especially if you live relatively close to her school. She’ll enjoy bringing them home to meet you, and you’ll likely learn more about her life at school through those individuals. Keep in mind the friends she makes at college are much more likely than high-school friends to stay in her life long-term, so you’ll enjoy getting to know them, too. 

Finally: Pat yourself on the back. You, and she, survived 18 years together, and you’re sending her to college; that means you definitely did something right.

And even better news: The best is yet to come. I promise. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Missing my former "partners in crime" on State Fair Eve

Some of my Principal friends at daughter Caroline's graduation party, 2009
When a person gets to be my age, chances are pretty good that she has worked at a number of different companies in a number of different capacities. Chances are also pretty good that each of those places has come equipped with equal parts good and bad, and that through the benefit of time's long lens, we can discard the negative and be pleased with what's left.

I spent some of the most important years of my life, about nine of them, working for the Principal Financial Group. I didn't always love my job -- as my dad used to say, it's called a job because it's work -- but I loved many of my co-workers. When I left PFG for another company, I spent my first month at the new place in tears because I missed my friends.

The memories of those days are many, and they're poignant; it's because of my former manager, Alane, and her manager, Dale, that I was able to leave the office on a particular Thursday in just enough time to be with my dad at the moment he passed away. They shooed a persistent client out of my office just in time; Dale, in fact, handed me my purse and coat and all but pushed me out the door. I'll never forget that day, and I'll never forget their kindness.

I was working there when I married Kevin, when my kids graduated from high school, and when I had two knees replaced. My friends at PFG were the ones who had to hear, ad nauseam, about hockey trips and baseball games and show-choir competitions.

My best friend there, Kim, and I organized a bake sale for another friend to help with expenses when the friend's baby was sick; Kim was also the one who gathered up my belongings after I had run from a meeting in searing pain the day my gallbladder had begun to rupture. (We also wanted to start our own radio show ... why did we never do that? We were funny. Just ask us.)

Of course I remember the dramatic times, but I also remember the just-plain-fun ones. And today, because of the date the calendar is showing me, I'm thinking about one in particular: our annual trips to the Iowa State Fair the day before opening day.

One year, Kim and I were charged with going to the fairgrounds on that day to pick up tickets for our annual state-fair team-building event. We went at lunchtime and were surprised to see that the fairgrounds were busy; although there was no admission cost, food stands and some attractions were open. We took a long lunch that day, munching on our corn dogs as we vowed to come back the same day the following year.

Come back we did -- the next year, and for the next few after that. We invited others, most memorably our onetime intern, Tyler, who had amazingly never been to the fair (as I recall, we peer-pressured him into eating a foot-long corndog). We tried new foods-on-a-stick, sampled red-velvet funnel cakes and mashed-potato sundaes, viewed the butter cow and the giant pig, and generally behaved like seventh-graders on a field trip. After all, we felt we were getting away with something: spending the day at the fair for free. (Never mind that when we looked around, it was clear hundreds of other people were in on the secret!)

We were joined by our shared experiences, naturally -- co-workers spend an awful lot of time in a relatively small space, doing the same things -- but many of us also were joined by our phases in life.

Most of us were about the same age, with similarly aged kids; we were able to speak the same language about aging parents and teenage angst and college tuition. We commiserated when someone's child got into legal trouble and laughed when someone else's teenager bypassed parental rules by letting girls into the house through the basement window. I don't think I experienced any kind of life event during that time that wasn't followed mentally with, "I can't wait to tell Kim," or "Kim won't believe this."

The job for which I left PFG was fine; I ended up with a couple of close friendships, but my teammates and I often worked from home, which creates a different dynamic. My new job has great potential for relationship-building, though.

But nothing will come close to resembling my time at Principal. Think, perhaps, of The Office -- a group of quirky people joined together in a certain place at a certain time, sitting back and allowing the strangeness and hilarity to meld together in a way that leaves you shaking your head and rolling your eyes, yet laughing hard.

As we grow older, we sadly come to realize that what's gone is gone; we can't recreate space and time. So I'll console myself with gratitude for all the memories of my friends, and during the next couple of weeks, I'll raise a glass of Iowa State Fair lemonade to each one of them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Nike to stop making workout clothes for larger women? This formerly large woman is disgusted, and done.



A friend who works for a sporting-goods chain told me last night Nike apparently is no longer going to make plus-size workout apparel for women; her store received the company's 2015 catalog, and it doesn't contain any women's sizes larger than an XL. She’s upset about the decision, because the stuff sells; to her, it’s a boneheaded move on Nike’s part, and she’s hoping other companies don’t follow suit.

I’m hoping they don’t, either. To me, this is all very personal, and Nike’s “business decision” -- if, in fact, this is what the company has decided -- makes me sad and angry. 

Fifteen months ago, I weighed 206.2 pounds. When I made the decision to lose the weight, along with that decision came a second one: to get my size-18 body in shape. And to do that, I was going to need to exercise.

So I bought a pair of size XXL black Nike shorts and threw on a big t-shirt and got out there and made it happen. And happen, it did – in no small part because I had comfortable clothes in which to work out. And quite a few of those items had the Nike "swoosh" on them; the brand fits me well and has the wide waistband that I like, and the clothing is durable.

But if Nike has in fact chosen to stop producing the sizes I used to wear, I can't begin to understand the company's logic. What are you thinking, Nike? That only svelte people exercise? Can a company that monolithic and influential really be that stupid? Some people I see at the gym are in great shape, yes. But even more are the size I was 15 months ago, or heavier. And – kudos to them – they’re working to become healthier.

I don't need to ask what deal is, because we both know: You think overweight people don’t look hot in Nike clothes. Well, they may look hot – as in sweaty, as we all do when we work out – but they don’t look the way you want people to look in your brightly colored spandex. You want people to look alluring. You want people who are working out to look at the hottie in the Nike tank and say, “If I buy that Nike tank, I, too, will be hot. All it will take is that magic, magic tank.”

But look at the woman in the photo above. She's not a size 2 -- not should she have to be. And she looks attractive and terrific, and she represents you well. 

Let me clue you in, Nike. I'm 51 and the “hot” train sailed a long time ago, but my body is in the best shape it’s been since … well, ever. And although I'm certainly no model, I look and feel OK in your "misses"-sized clothes.

But guess what? If I find out you're really no longer going to make clothes for the former me, the smaller me is no longer going to wear them, and I’m going to try really hard to make sure no one I care about wears them. Why?

Because you’re supposed to be about health and fitness, Nike. Your target customer should be the 206-pound 50-year-old who’s decided it’s time to get in shape, because she knows comfortable exercise clothing is key to sustaining a workout, and you make quality clothing, and she has the desire and the means to purchase quality clothing. She also has the desire to sweat that clothing and watch it gradually grow too big. And then she has the desire and the means to buy more Nike clothing in smaller and smaller sizes.

But she won’t, because if you've in fact decided not to create clothing for women who can’t fit into a size 8, that decision is reprehensible. There are plenty of other companies that get that size and worth and attractiveness don’t go hand-in-hand, and chances are, many of those companies are hosting summer sales right now. If your strategy is this boneheaded, I hope you feel its effects at the cash register, and soon.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Happy Father's Day, Daddy Sean


When I was 23, I was wrapped up in many things, and all those things revolved around me. I dyed my hair blond. I painted my fingernails every two days and had spiked heels to match every dress I wore to work. I tanned and I did 300 sit-ups a day; I was focused on my job and my looks and my social life.

I sure as heck wasn’t adopting a toddler. And it boggles my mind that I know a 23-year-old who is doing just that tomorrow, and that that 23-year-old happens to be part of my extended family.

Two and a half years ago, the elder of my two stepdaughters gave birth to a little girl. Shelby was young and not married to the baby’s dad, but everything seemed to work out for a while; Shelby and the baby’s dad seemed happy together, and baby Isabelle thrived. But then things turned; the dad turned out to have some serious problems, and Shelby took Isabelle and moved back in with her mom.

We all rallied around the two of them, offering support as Isabelle’s dad continued to behave badly. One day, he let Shelby know he was moving away; he had lost his job and wanted to start over. Oh, and “starting over” would involve no longer being a dad. He wanted to sign away his parental rights.

My husband and I were conflicted; everyone in the family had grave concerns about the dad, to be sure. But signing away his rights? How would Isabelle feel one day when she realized her dad hadn't wanted her?

As things turned out, we’re hoping that knowledge will impact her less when she realizes that along with her biological dad’s disappearance came someone else who wanted her very much – Sean, the man who will be adopting her tomorrow morning.

When Sean and Shelby started dating, Kevin and I were slow to warm to him – not because we didn’t like him, but because there was a little girl involved, and we didn’t want to see Isabelle grow close to someone who would, like her biological dad, simply take off one day.

But we needn’t have worried; Sean and Shelby had been friends for years, and their relationship grew from that friendship and bore a foundation that her previous relationship hadn’t. And most importantly, Sean was an adult; he was going to school and working full-time in a good job with a bright future, and he spent his spare time volunteering with children with special needs.

As we let Sean into our hearts, Isabelle let him into hers. Although she was too young to remember her biological dad, she heard other kids call men “Daddy” and had begun calling others in the family by that name; it made us sad to see her confusion and to note that she had no one in her life with whom to associate a word she felt drawn to, but didn't understand.

But one day, after Sean and Shelby had become engaged, Isabelle came up with a new moniker all on her own, directed toward the man who had spent the better part of a year reading her stories and calming her tantrums and rocking her to sleep: “Daddy Sean.” And it stuck.

Sean and Shelby got married a few weeks ago; their ceremony was a simple one at the courthouse, designed to expedite the adoption process. The young woman who had once, like the 23-year-old me, cared primarily about looks and fashion and her social life shrugged off the notion of an opulent wedding.“It’s all about Isabelle now,” Shelby said as she signed the papers.

And tomorrow will be even more about Isabelle, and about her new dad; not “Daddy Sean” now, just “Daddy.” Somehow, on her own, she dropped the “Sean” over the last several weeks.

Tomorrow will take me back, I’m sure. When I was just a year or so older than Isabelle, I too had a “Daddy Sean” come into my life; the circumstances weren’t the same, but the outcome was much as I expect this one to be: positive all around.

My mom passed away and my sister, 20 years my senior, stepped in to help raise me. Although my dad lived with us as well, my sister’s husband, Jon, became a second father to me at roughly the same age Sean is now. Jon took me to Indian Princesses and to ride horses; later, he taught me to ski and gave me access to any book on his shelf, telling me, “They’re probably a little advanced for you, but I think you’ll do just fine.”

He fostered my interests in art and music as well as literature, and I credit him with instilling in me the confidence that enabled me to do what I wanted to do in my professional life; to this day, when something good happens at work, his response is, “I’m not the least bit surprised.”

Of all the wonderful adults in my life, he was my hands-down favorite, despite the fact that there was no biological tie between us. I envision the same for Sean and Isabelle, and the memories combine with dreams of the future that make me smile.

Sean posted this on his Facebook yesterday: “In 35 hours, Izzy and I get to have our special day.” He paired the post with a picture of tiny Isabelle holding a gift from her daddy-to-be. “Tonight I decided to surprise her with flowers to get her even more excited,” he noted in the caption.

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone will be more excited than Daddy Sean tomorrow, but it will also be a happy morning indeed for those of us who care about a certain blond toddler with an independent streak and a love of puppies, princesses, and anything that contains sugar.

I found this poem online, and it seems to suit the occasion:

“I didn’t give you the gift of life, but in my heart, I know
The love I feel is deep and real, as if it had been so.
For us to have found each other is like a dream come true;
No, I didn’t give you the gift of life, but life gave me the gift of you.”

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy Sean. And thank you.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

"You're in the nicest store in the whole city, Lisa..."


In the Kinks' song "Come Dancing," singer Ray Davies laments the demise during his childhood of a dance hall his then-teenage sister had frequented. "The day they knocked down the palais, part of my childhood died," Davies sings of watching the building fall.

As the downtown Younker's building blazed and tumbled into the street this morning, parts of the childhoods of Des Moines natives died as well. Maybe that's a little dramatic, but it's not at all dramatic to say that many of us were saddened by the knowledge that no more memories will be made in that grand building ... and that there's no longer a tangible location on which to hang those memories that helped shape many of us.

I was a little girl in the late '60s, a time before shopping malls dotted the landscape; if you really needed to shop, you went downtown. And the center of downtown was Younker's, the grande dame of all department stores; a place where a child could score not only a new dress and a toy, but also a peanut-butter sandwich and fries, a chocolate malt, a copy of Curious George, and, in a white box with a gold ribbon, a hunk of Roquefort cheese. (Smelly cheese in a box, as a treat? Oh, my God, yes -- how I loved that stuff.)

I had a beautiful grandmother whom I idolized, and it seemed one of her fervent missions in life was to teach me to be a lady. To that end, she took me monthly to Younker's Tea Room, and a shopping trip followed; those trips yielded not only the items I mentioned above, but also afforded me time to study this woman who fascinated me so. She was not biologically my grandma, which made her story all that much more amazing; my mother had died, and Grandma was the mother-in-law of my sister, who was 20 years my senior. The task of raising 4-year-old me had fallen to my sister, so Grandma inherited me by default. She often told me how fortunate she was that I was part of her family, but I was the lucky one.

Grandma was chiffon and decolletage, even in daytime; she dusted her cleavage with clouds of white powder, and her signature scent, Tabu, followed her wherever she walked. She was lipstick and stockings and heels; she was Scrabble and Reader's Digest Condensed Books and pastries and poetry.

I was a chubby girl with a pixie haircut that made my head resemble a nest on my shoulders; I had perpetually chapped lips, impetigo on my elbows, a stutter, and shoes that wouldn't stay tied. To be in Grandma's orbit, though, allowed me to dream that one day Cinderella's mice would come, drape me in velvet, touch me with stardust and turn me into a miniature version of this woman I so admired.

As we walked through Younker's -- or, as Grandma called it, Younker Brothers -- we would talk. Not about typical childhood things; she didn't care about the names of my friends or what I played on the playground. We would talk about my schoolwork ("Of course you're doing well; you're probably smarter than your teacher," she'd tell me), about what I was reading (chapter books at age 5, thanks to her influence), and what I wanted to be when I grew up. She had been a teacher until her marriage, and even when I was small, she would urge me to follow my dreams, not someone else's; "Someday you'll grow up and meet a boy," she'd tell me. "But by that time you'll have written a book and will be famous, so he'll just have to follow you around and do what you tell him."

The elevator operator knew her name. This fact never ceased to amaze me, and it diverted me from the fact that we usually were taking his elevator to the chubby-girl clothing section (I'm not being facetious; it was really called that, sadly). Grandma would pick out beautiful clothes for me, and it didn't matter one bit that I was allergic to the wool jumpers she preferred, or that the lace collars she loved would made my neck and chin break out. She thought I was beautiful in them, so maybe, just maybe, I would think, I really will be pretty one day.

Something else magical often happened on those shopping trips; Grandma would talk about my mom, of whom I had no memory. "Your mommy would bring Teresa here for dresses," she would say as we walked through the section filled with, as she called them, "formals." Or: "When you were a tiny baby, Nana and I came here for presents for your layette, and after you were born, we came to see you and you had such beautiful legs and feet, and you could even point your toes."

I can hear her voice as I write those words, and I can see and smell the parts of the store in which we were walking as she said them; the perfume counter to the right, and the purses (or "pocketbooks," in her vernacular) straight ahead, the book section in a little nook off the stairs, the toys right next to that, and the mysterious French Room, Grandma's favorite, just off the elevator on the fourth floor. I can hear the click of her heels and the beige of her stockings; I see her tweed suit and her hat, and the way she would purse her lips as she surveyed the quality of an item.

Younker's meant different things to me later; as a new reporter, I shopped there on my lunch break for the "power suits" and stockings we still wore in 1985; a few years later, giddily pregnant with my first child, I bought tent-type maternity dresses with giant collars, and pants with giant stretch panels in the front. I bought baby and toddler clothes there; I purchased my kids' First Communion apparel in the store's basement. And one of the last items I purchased there, just before the store closed, was a nightgown for Grandma, just before she went to the hospital for the last time.

I have friends who worked at Younkers; I know people who hosted bridal showers and wedding receptions in the Tea Room. In this city, if you're around my age or older, the store is part of your history. And if you've watched it burn today, you have your own empty place inside, and it will be yours alone, and up to you to define it.

For me, for just a little while, as the building was falling, my grandma came back. In my mind's eye today, she is walking in front of me, and the elevator is chiming, and we're making our way to Fine Furs. "You need to keep your voice down today and stay right here with me; you're in the nicest store in the whole city, Lisa, and you need to be on your best behavior," she says. I know I'll obey; I'm pretty sure a visit to the Tea Room is in my future, and I can already taste the rarebit sauce.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

#LoveYourSelfie: Why I Tweeted My Naked Face to the Today Show



This week, the Today Show kicked off a segment called “Love Your Selfie.” The point: Even though “selfies” are ubiquitous – even the president and the Pope have been caught snapping them in the last year – most of us dislike the way we look in photographs … to the point, even, of being extremely, even cruelly, critical of ourselves.

So the Today Show hosts kicked off the promotion yesterday by taking off their makeup –- a pretty brave thing, especially under stage lights –- and talking about what they like and dislike about their appearances. I know they’re famous and all, but their words were sort of poignant; Al Roker spoke of his well-known weight battles. Savannah Guthrie said she had spent most of her life hating being taller than everyone else. And Natalie Morales acknowledged the way giving birth had altered her body.

At the end of the segment, the hosts invited viewers to take makeup-less selfies of themselves, then tweet the photos using the hashtag #LoveYourSelfie. Thousands of people did, and I was one of them.

But not before I almost had a heart attack, figuratively speaking. You see, my selfie horrified me so much that I almost didn’t tweet it. But then I realized that my feelings were, in fact, the point of the segment, and I took a deep breath and sent the photo.

And all of a sudden, I was back in sixth grade with glasses, braces and bad skin. I felt embarrassed about foisting my naked, 51-year-old face on the unsuspecting masses, and I almost felt as if I were going to cry.

And then I felt very un-evolved, and almost ashamed. And I forced myself to think back to where and how those feelings took root.

In my family of origin, looks were downplayed. Of course we always looked appropriate and presentable, and at times -– usually during growth spurts and after visits to the dermatologist -– I actually looked sort of cute. But the message was always loud and clear: Don’t worry about being attractive. Just be smart.

That I could handle, little spelling champ that I was; I loved books and was at home in the solitude they provided. So I focused on being smart … but I also yearned so badly to be pretty and popular, to feather my hair like Olivia Newton John’s and to be noticed by a boy. Any boy, but preferably one taller than I was.

So while my head was in my books, my eyes were glancing sideways at my middle-school classmates … at Monica with her golden hair and Mary with her effortless athletic grace, at Julie with her blemish-free toffee-colored skin and knee socks that stayed up perfectly. None of them had muffin-tops or breasts that had appeared too early; none of them sported hips or angry patches of eczema on their elbows.

I continued to look around, then turned my critical gaze inward. As a result, despite the healthy messages I was receiving from the adults in my life, I told myself I was a freak, and I began to hate my looks, my body, and, to some degree, myself.

And as the years wore on, that self-hate manifested itself in a lot of ugly ways: After a breakup with a truly nice boy in high school, I set my sights on a series of inappropriate guys who initially made me feel good about myself, then eventually reaffirmed my self-loathing. With notable exceptions (my husbands somehow being two of them, thankfully), that pattern repeated until the years between my two marriages, when a truly damaging relationship finally awakened me to what I was doing to myself.

Things didn’t turn around immediately; I worked hard to focus on the good in my life, most notably my children, my extended family, and my work. And gradually, as I matured, I began to wonder why on Earth I had been so hard on myself, and why I had so often been willing to settle for so little. Without getting too philosophical, I have a perfectionistic, overachieving personality, and I had never felt my looks measured up to my expectations of them. I come from a long line of tiny, pretty women. I was the square peg, and that hurt.

It's all about self-esteem, for all of us. Always has been; always will be.

A year ago next month, I somehow found the time to be right for shaking off all those destructive feelings. I wish I could tie the moment to something big, but I can’t. It was a Friday morning in March, and I knew I was ready to make a change. It was that simple.

And here I am 11 months later and 65 pounds lighter, with legs strong from miles and miles of running and the beginnings of muscles in my upper arms. As I shed the layers, I shed the feelings that had kept me wrapped in those layers. And now, most days, I feel confident and capable. But at other times, that sixth-grade girl will reappear, as she did after I took the selfie you see at the top of this page.

“You look old and drawn and ugly,” that girl told me before I sent the photo. “People will see that and say, ‘Yeah, she’s lost weight, but she’s ruined her looks.’ You’re going to be ridiculed and embarrassed. Retract the photo.”

But I didn’t, and I won’t. I’ve lived for 51 years, nine more than my mother was allowed. And with a few notable exceptions, I’ve made the most of that time. My experiences have grayed my hair, loosened and sagged my skin, and left blemish marks on my forehead; I have a surgical scar on my neck and a gap in the back of my mouth that’s waiting for a bridge or implant. My natural complexion is rather sallow; I don’t have long eyelashes anymore, and I plucked my eyebrows too thin long ago and now they don’t match.

But that’s all OK. Here I am; take a good look. This is what a naked-faced 51 looks like. With any luck, I’ll be given nine more years, or even 19 or 29 or 39. And I like to think if I’m given that time, I’ll navigate it with aplomb, because being smart has, in fact, given me the tools to like myself, inside and outside.

Are you used to wearing makeup? Take it off and really look at yourself. Then tweet your beautiful, naked face to #LoveYourSelfie. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I did.