Saturday, December 31, 2011

The best New Year's Eve party ever

It's no secret that I've been a little bummed lately. General anesthesia plus morphine plus a couple of weeks on a narcotic pain reliever always seems to mess with me somewhat; add to those things a few weeks off work and a lot of mandatory time in the house with my leg encased in ice and elevated, and you can bet I've been a little stir-crazy.

So when I found I'd be spending New Year's Eve alone, I thought, Of course.

Don't get me wrong: Kevin fully deserved to go to Illinois for his family's Christmas celebration, and we both knew I wouldn't be able to make the 10-hour round trip when I can barely stand to remain in one position for five minutes. It wasn't his fault my kids also happened to be out of state visiting their dad. The timing sucked, purely and simply, and I was left alone with the dog.

Some well-meaning friends, upon learning of my loser-on-New-Year's-Eve status, invited me to various gatherings, but I really didn't feel up to it; I still can't walk well, and I tire pretty easily. So, as no one was willing to bring the party to my house, I mentally settled in for an evening of watching the ball drop with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin.

Then came a last-minute invitation -- one I couldn't refuse. And I'm so glad I didn't.

My dear friend Shelly is the parent of two sons; one of them, Jake, is a young adult with Down syndrome. Jake lives in an apartment with two other young men with special needs, and Shelly was planning to hang out at their place New Year's Eve so their caregiver could have some time off.

"You have to go with me," Shelly said. "When you're feeling a little down, there's nothing like these guys to make you feel better. They're a hoot."

I love Jake and welcome any opportunity to see him. And it would be just for a couple of hours; I reasoned that I could do that without watching my knee swell to a size larger than my head. And so, chocolate cake and buffalo chicken dip in hand, I went.

When I arrived, the party was in full swing. Jake and his roommates, Nik and Zach, were playing ping-pong, and the trash-talking was in full force as the guys and Shelly counted to see how many times they could volley over the tiny net without missing. A New Year's Eve special was on in the background; I found out the guys were waiting anxiously to watch their favorites, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

The guys greeted me with hugs and enthusiasm. "Thank you for coming to our party," Zach said again and again, and Nik, the least verbal of the roommates, just smiled and said, "Yeah." Jake gave me a hug and showed me all the Iowa State memorabilia he had received for Christmas.

We shared dip and cake and conversation, and then Shelly and I visited as the guys watched their New Year's special. They blew noisemakers and laughed and talked as their favorites sang on-screen, and once in a while one of them would shout out, "2012!" We played more ping-pong then, with all of them cheering on my good -- and not-so-good -- shots.

As the ball-drop neared, Shelly filled the roommates' glasses with sparkling grape juice, and the guys took cautious sips. "This tastes like the real thing!" Jake, who has never tasted alcohol, said with a laugh.

At 11 p.m., when the ball dropped in New York -- the guys aren't night owls -- there were well-wishes and hugs all around. The guys drank their beverages, laughed at their own antics, and began to prepare to wind down for the night.

It was then that I -- always the worrier, always thinking of the next step -- realized that these guys were totally in the moment. And that was something I envied. Here I was, smiling at them as I worried about whether the just-starting rain would make the roads slick, and about carrying things out to my car with my bum knee. But they were thrilled about the new year, and about being together.

Jake, Nik and Zach are by no means "simple," as my grandmother would have worded it back in the day; each one holds a job, and they help manage their own household. They shop and they cook and they clean, keeping order in their world and keeping tabs on their money so they can enjoy the things they love, such as watching their favorite shows, attending Iowa State games, and taking part in any number of activities around town.

But they're filled with their own joy -- the joy that comes from simply being together and looking forward to doing the things they love. When they thought ahead to the new year, they didn't think ahead to "What's going to happen with this?" and "How am I going to afford that?" They simply luxuriated in the moment.

I learned from that last night, and I hope I have the good sense to keep learning from it. Happy new year, guys. Thanks for inviting me to your party.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Yes, I walk with a cane. Don't stare at me.

I can't tell you how many times I've driven around a parking lot, shaken my head and said to myself, "HOW many handicapped parking spaces could one place need? There aren't this many handicapped people in the whole city."

Well, shame on me. Because I'm handicapped now -- temporarily, anyway -- and I can't find a parking space to save my life. More importantly, I'm so much more aware of how a physical ailment, even a temporary one, impacts not only a person's mobility, but the way others view him or her.

And let me tell you, it's not fun.

A month ago, I had my right knee replaced. My recovery has gone well, but I'll be walking with a cane for another couple of weeks. The looks I've been getting bother me the most; I'm not young, but I'm not elderly, and when I'm in public, people look at me as if they're wondering, "What sort of dreaded disease could she possibly have?" Either that, or they look away.

It's all I can do not to roll up my pant leg, show them my incision and say, "It's not that big a deal -- don't look at me as if I'm sick." But then I stop and think of how often I've been guilty of those same looks.

I think it's human nature, when we see someone whose physicality is outside the norm, to think, "Uh-oh. I wonder if whatever is happening to him or her could happen to me." And it could, of course, so we'd just as soon avoid the person altogether.

But that's pretty hurtful, actually, and here's why: I'm in pain. My knee is stiff and swollen. I can't move very well. My activities have been curtailed. I miss my work and my friends. I spend a lot of time in the house, and I'm not an in-the-house person. And for someone to look at me as if there's something wrong with me makes me feel even worse about myself.

The night before Christmas Eve, my husband, Kevin, and I were at Target. I was headed for the restroom and had stopped at the door to figure out how to smoothly navigate my cane and the door handle. Out of the blue, a little boy of about 6 came up to me and demanded, "What's wrong with your leg?"

His mother promptly apologized, but I assured her it was OK. I sat down on a nearby bench and explained that I had had surgery. "Do you want to see my knee?" I asked him. He did, so I rolled up my pants and he looked at my incision and my bandages for a long time. Then he looked at me with big eyes and said, "That looks like it hurts." I said that it did, sometimes, and he said, "That's too bad." And he gave me a sad look, and his mom dragged him away.

And I thought, how awesome. I wish everyone reacted that way. What's better than a little bit of honesty to stop the stares?

In the overall scheme of things, I am dealing with very, very small potatoes. War heroes return home having lost limbs. People lose eyes and ears and breasts and colons. They'll have to deal with the looks a whole lot longer than I will.

So maybe this can be a reminder to me, and to you -- stop staring, but don't look away, either. Look the person in the eye. Smile. And if you're really all that curious, ask.

And the next time you wonder if Des Moines really needs all those handicapped parking spaces, rest assured that it does. In fact, if you see an open one, call me, please, and tell me where it is.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dear Duggars: Love the ones you're with.

I've blogged about the Duggars -- the Arkansas family with 19 kids -- a few times, so when the announcement came that mom Michelle had miscarried baby No. 20, some people asked how I felt about the news. I decided not to write about my opinions on this latest turn of events, figuring that commenting would be in pretty bad form.

I still think it's pretty bad form, but I'm going to comment anyway, as I don't seem to be disciplined enough to hold my tongue when it comes to the Duggars.

First, let me say this: I send the Duggars my most heartfelt condolences on their loss. Michelle miscarried in the second trimester; she had heard a heartbeat, she had felt movement, and she had no doubt bonded with the child. I would feel for anyone who had delivered a stillborn baby, and, as a mother, I sympathize with what must have been a horrible, wrenching experience.

That said, though -- what were they thinking?

On their television show on the cable channel TLC, the Duggars often have explained that they made a commitment long ago to leave the size of their family up to God. The result: They have 19 kids who range in age from 2 to 23, plus two grandchildren.

Here are some positives about the Duggars: They're debt-free, they support themselves, and they seem like nice, pleasant people. Here, also, are some negatives, in my opinion: They proselytize, they really seem to enjoy the fame that goes along with TV, and the parents don't do their own work.

Anyone who's read my feelings on this topic knows my basic gripe, and that's that Jim-Bob and Michelle Duggar push the raising of the children onto the family's older girls -- "buddies," they're called -- as soon as each baby is 6 months old. The girls don't have many options; they're not allowed to leave home to attend college or to work. The older boys don't attend college, either, but they're set up with businesses that will allow them to make a living, and they sure don't have to take care of any babies. Stereotypical gender roles are alive and well in the Duggar house.

Another gripe is that Michelle seems entirely checked out when it comes to interacting with her kids. While the "sister-moms" do the heavy lifting, Michelle seems to attend a lot of conferences and take a lot of naps. The girls, then, are charged with cooking and cleaning for and chauffeuring enough children to make up more than two baseball teams. And when Michelle does interact with her small children, those interactions seem less than maternal. When something is wrong with one of the toddlers, for example, he or she runs not to Mom or Dad, but to one of the sisters.

My point is this: I don't care if you have 19 kids or 20 kids or 40 kids. But please, please -- if you're going to enjoy all the notoriety gleaned from having a super-size family, don't count on your older kids to raise your younger ones. It's simply not fair.

Also, don't turn the whole thing into a numbers game. Again, I don't know the Duggars and don't intend to judge them, but when you invite TV cameras into your room every week, you open yourselves up to criticism. And what I've seen in the last few episodes tells me that hitting magic No. 20 was a big deal indeed to the Duggars.

Why? Because I daresay that to most people, 20 kids sounds like a bigger deal than 19. Another potential reason: The Gil and Kelly Bates family -- another super-size bunch and frequent guests on the Duggars' show -- are expecting baby No. 19, and I wonder if the Duggars aren't maybe just a tad bit nervous about sharing the limelight.

This is all idle speculation on my part, obviously. But this is not: The Duggars clearly want poor little Jubilee, the deceased baby, to "count" as No. 20. They held a memorial service for her this week during which they passed out photos of the miscarried baby's appendages, and I'm not kidding; I won't link to them, but if you have a sense of the macabre and want to take a look, google them. There's a photo of the 4-ounce baby's discolored feet with a verse about the impact even the smallest baby can have on the world, and there's another shot of the poor little baby's hand, less than fully formed, being held by the hand of her mother. Sad, sad stuff.

I'm sorry, but ... wow. Just wow. I don't see a thing wrong with taking and keeping such photos to view privately, but in my opinion, publicizing them landed way, way outside the bounds of good taste. And to me, it speaks to the fact that something is perhaps a little bit more wrong than I thought it was in Duggarland.

I'm not qualified to offer advice, but that's never stopped me in the past: Please, Michelle and Jim-Bob, pay attention to the children you have. You're over 45, and the odds are pretty darned slim that any baby you have from this point on is going to be born healthy. How about this: Be real parents to the kids you already have. Take your little ones to the park. Shop with your teenagers. Let your kids participate in team sports, and attend their games. Talk -- really talk -- to your children, one on one. In short, do what many, many other parents do; be parents.

You have 19 kids, 18 of whom are healthy as can be and one of whom still needs a great deal of attention from you. Give thanks, Duggars. Accept that the baby-making phase of your life is over, and love the ones you're with.

Friday, December 9, 2011

You want to go where everybody knows your name

I'm not much for the bar scene, but I've always been a fan of the '80s show "Cheers" -- you know the one. It starred Ted Danson, and was about a disparate group of people who found a defacto family in a Boston tavern.

I had surgery several days ago and am in the process of undergoing some pretty challenging physical therapy to get everything back in working order. Three years ago, after undergoing a similar surgery, I chose to rehabilitate my knee at a place called Johnston Physical Therapy. I'm going there again now, and whenever I walk in the door, the "Cheers" theme song runs through my head. The main refrain is: "You want to go where everybody knows your name." And as cheesy as it sounds, that's the kind of place it is.

Never having been an athlete, I had known nothing about physical therapy until my son, Scott, hurt his knee playing hockey several years ago. Someone recommended JPT to us, and off we went; Scott rehabbed there a few times a week, and I learned a lot. But as Scott was 17 at the time and didn't always want his mommy tagging along to rehab, I didn't immerse myself as much as I wanted to in the process and was left to wonder why he was doing certain exercises, why they were taping his knee, and just how critical all this was to his recovery.

When I had my first knee replacement, in 2008, I learned all that and more. Above all, I learned that in a time of impersonal medical mega-practices and hospitals that want to get you out of their beds as quickly as possible, a practice that truly wants to get to know you and determine how to best help you is rare indeed.

Here's what they do that's truly different: They tap into who you are and how you're likely to best accomplish your goals. Andrew, pictured above, is the guy who owns the place, and I've been fortunate enough to have him as my therapist both times now. Early on, he determined that I'm competitive and tend to do better when he dangles some sort of number or distance in front of me. Yesterday, he mentioned the fact that at my last appointment, I hadn't activated my quad muscle as much as he would have liked. Duly challenged, I did what he was asking me to do, and more. Later, I found out that he had made the whole thing up; he simply wanted to see how much better I could do if he made me believe I hadn't done well enough last time.

Well done, Andrew. The result is that I'm achieving the goals he's set for me, and I'm on my way to full mobility in my surgical knee. The really notable thing, though, is that I love going to physical therapy. Again, keep in mind that I'm historically not a person who likes to move any more than I have to, so that's a big deal.

I hold no illusions about being any more special than any other client, so the way I'm treated there is amazing to me; after an absence of three years, I came back to the same group of therapists; a few had been added, but none had left. No turnover in three years; that's remarkable in my book. And the therapists there recalled not only that I had had a knee replaced, but the degree to which I ended up being able to bend that knee after all was said and done.

And here's something I'll always remember: A combination of bad meds and overwhelming pain last time reduced me to tears on a couple of occasions, and I spent two entire therapy sessions crying my way through the stationary bike, exercises and kinesiology. Instead of reacting as any number of people would -- i.e., saying "Get the crazy lady off my table" -- Andrew reassured Kevin and me that me feelings were normal, and that they would pass. And they did.

I have the utmost respect for my orthopedic surgeon, for the anesthesiologists who put me to sleep and woke me up again, and for a few of the nurses who took care of me in the hospital -- the ones who actually knew what my medications were for, didn't forget to give them to me, and managed to lock the bed so I didn't fall (that's a story for later).

But more than anything, I owe my recovery to an unassuming guy named Andrew who has cultivated a staff of truly caring therapists. A sign in the facility's entry way says something about, "People won't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Luckily for me and for other Johnston Physical Therapy patients, that's not just a cliche.

Friday, November 25, 2011

On Black Friday, what is wrong with us?

I just came across a video of Walmart shoppers trampling one another to grab $2 waffle makers. And I'm horrified -- not because I'm too good to enter into the Black Friday fracas, but because I have. And given the right set of circumstances, I could have been one of those waffle-iron-clamoring folks.

You can see the video by pasting the link below into your browser. The shot of the woman at the :16 mark -- the woman with the short blond hair and too-tight blue t-shirt -- is especially cringe-worthy. Enjoy.

What happens to us when we see a sign that advertises something for less than it's actually worth? Even the most refined of us can turn into barbarians at the gate. And most of the time, we're wasting money, as we're throwing it away on things we don't need and never, ever would have purchased if the sales didn't beckon us.

We're so, so stupid. I'm of course including myself here, as I jumped on the couponing train a few weeks ago. I had covered and written a story about a local woman who does a great job of saving money with coupons; she's not the kind of scary, hoarder-ish extreme couponer you see on the TLC show, but she's halved her family's budget since she began using coupons consistently and responsibly.

Read about her here:

So of course I decide that I'd like to halve my family's budget, too. I clip coupons for a couple of weeks, stick them in a school-supply box, and hit the grocery store. Sure, I use my coupons, but as a result, I spend more than I've ever spent at Hy-Vee in my entire life. Why? Because quite a few of the items for which I had coupons are things I would not normally buy. (Note: In all fairness to the coupon lady, she had warned us not to do this.)

The moral of the story? I can't be trusted with coupons that advertise deep discounts because, no matter what, I will use them. Seventy-five-percent off a springform pan? It's mine, even though I know I'll never in my life make a cheesecake from scratch. A dollar off a roll of paper towels that normally costs $1.39? I'm there, and I'm buying a bunch of them, even though they're so flimsy that I have to wad together three of them to wipe up a spill. A men's razor that neither my son nor husband needs? I have to grab it, you see, because it's free when you purchase the razor blades.

Here I am, then, on Black Friday afternoon. I had promised myself I'd stay put, but lo and behold, the mall -- and my daughter -- are beckoning. I have some coupons clipped and ready to go, and on my honor, they're for things I really, really can use and would have purchased anyway.

Wait, so you're questioning whether I really need that archery set, the coffee-table book on cats, the ice skates or the 70" x 70" white board? Hmpf. You obviously don't know me very well. :)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I'm old enough to remember "wish books."

I'm old enough to remember "Wish Books." Are you?

My friend Molly tweeted a photo this morning of her little guys poring over a Christmas catalog, determining the items they might want to place on their Santa lists. And it took me back.

During the Christmases of the late '60s and early '70s, when I was little, we'd wait for the mail to bring the two periodicals that officially ushered in the holiday season: The JC Penney "Wish Book" and the Sears Christmas catalog. We'd fight to be the first to start paging through the pristine pages; it was always best to circle our items before anyone else had a chance, as ballpoint pens tended to slice through the thin, glossy paper and make whatever was on the other side unreadable.

I remember seeing a Mrs. Beasley doll -- Buffy's doll from the '60s sitcom "Family Affair" -- on the pages of one of the catalogs. I circled it and ended up finding her under the tree on Christmas morning. Later, I circled roller skates and turquoise necklaces; even after I was old enough to know the horrid truth about Santa, I circled stereos, telephones, Earth shoes and "elephant" pants.

I first attended college at the University of Northern Iowa before transferring to Drake. I remember coming home for Thanksgiving of my freshman year and not wanting to go back, for some reason or another; I distinctly remember that as I waited in the living room for my ride to pick me up on that Sunday in 1981, I circled a set of electric rollers in the Wish Book.

My kids, 23 and 20 now, were always good about letting me know what they wanted for Christmas. With Scott, it was easy; he didn't like gifts for which he'd be forced to find a place in his room, so as soon as he was old enough to know what they were, he requested gift cards. Caroline would print pages from clothing-store websites and bring them to me.

There was something missing.

We all talk about how commercial Christmas has become; in fact, we were talking about it back then, too, as Charlie Brown began lamenting it on his Christmas special in the '60s. And to some degree, of course, it is too commercial; stores begin showcasing holiday decorations in October, and Thanksgiving is sometimes almost a footnote to the "real" holiday.

And we all have so much less time, it seems, to simply sit back and enjoy the holiday. In the Christmas seasons of my youth, of course parents worked, but we didn't have youth sports and music lessons and take-home piles from the office to steal our attention every night. We could hunker together on the couch, watch Christmas specials, and feel the season begin to warmly advance upon us.

I guess we take that holiday warmth wherever we can find it now. There are new traditions; commercialism be damned, my daughter and I look forward to shopping at midnight on Black Friday. We meander around for a while, enjoying the sights and sounds, and then we hit Perkins for a middle-of-the-night breakfast before heading home to bed. My son says he may join us this year.

And when the kids are home from college, we still gather around the TV for Charlie Brown, the Grinch, the Wonder Years' Christmas episode and Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (look it up! It's a good one). We talk and we eat and we laugh, and it's clear that the special feelings inherent to the season don't just fall away as we grow older.

But still, I can't help but hope for Wish Book will show up in my mailbox. As the song says, I need a little Christmas -- right this very minute. And there'd be no better way to find it than paging through slippery pages crumpled by a ball-point pen that doesn't have quite enough ink.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dear Dr. Anesthesiologist, please don't forget to wake me up

I have a 3-inch scar across the base of my neck, an 8-inch one at the bottom of my abdomen and a 6-inch one bisecting my left knee. And the truth is that unless someone happens to ask about them or I happen to catch the reflection of one in the mirror, I usually don't think about them.

Lately, though, they're all I can think about -- the surgeries that led to them, anyway. Unless, of course, I'm thinking about the anesthesiologist not giving me enough medication. Or forgetting to wake me up.

Neuroses are nothing new to me. When I was little, I couldn't go to sleep until I touched all my dresser drawers to make sure they were shut tight and tapped my bedroom doorknob three times with my index finger. Seriously.

As an adult, I learned that I have the "checking" form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that makes me pretty lucky as far as OCD sufferers go; I'm not germ-phobic or relentlessly neat. At night, I check door locks and stove knobs. My husband and kids laugh about it, but it doesn't faze them; it's part of who I am, and it doesn't take a whole lot of time out of my day.

Sometimes, though, the neurosis shifts a bit and the obsessive part takes over. And that's happening now, manifesting itself in a near-paralyzing fear of my upcoming surgery. I'm not sure if it's all the footage of Dr. Conrad Murray on the Today Show, or what -- but I'm convincing myself something bad is going to happen.

Cheery, I know.

When I had my left knee replaced three years ago, I was a model patient, calm, cool and collected from the time my surgeon told me the joint needed to go until I woke up in recovery with a wad of titanium tucked under my kneecap. I don't think I spent much time considering that something could go horribly wrong.

This time, though, here's how I picture myself: strapped to the operating table, eyes taped shut, tube down my throat, awake but unable to let anyone know I'm awake. Gruesome? Yup. Realistic? Probably not terribly. But it could happen. And like any good obsessive-compulsive, I'm determined to make that my focus for the next two weeks.

Here's the other scenario: The surgery is over, but the anesthesiologist leaves the room having forgotten to wake me up. Everyone else goes on about his or her life, but I lie there long into the night and wake up still strapped down.

That makes sense, right? Of course it does.

I vacillate between thinking my anxiety is normal -- have you ever seen a knee-replacement surgery? -- and that it's simply part of where I am in my life. In other words, it's not normal, but I understand why I'm feeling this way.

Not to be too melodramatic, but I watched my dad die eight months ago. And I saw how quickly "alive" can become "dead" -- how something that seems so insignificant at the time, such as an intestinal virus, can initiate a chain of events that can result in a person's not breathing anymore. The night before, he was eating ice cream. At 3 p.m. the next day, the nurse was telling us to hurry, hurry, that this was it.

Granted, my dad was elderly, and he was sick. Despite my kids' opinions to the contrary, I'm really not old. And except for allergies and the pesky low hematocrit that keeps me from donating blood as often as I'd like, I tend to be pretty healthy. So the odds are that I'll sail through the surgery, and I'll have a healthy knee to show for it. I'm looking forward to the eventual lack of pain when I walk, and I'm hoping that I'll even be able to alternate feet when I take the stairs.

But I have to get through the next two weeks. When I'm inside my own head, time is my worst enemy. I can touch the stove knobs and check the door locks all I want, but when it comes down to it, the only thing that will assuage will be this: The lights will be bright, and I'll be disoriented, and my knee will feel like it's bigger than my head. And the far-away voice of the recovery-room nurse will be saying, "Honey, it's all over, and you did fine."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

She was mentally handicapped, but I learned from her

Decades ago, my grandma published a book of poetry. I'll always remember it because she infamously referred to my 13-year-old self as "aloof" in one of the poems; it hurt my feelings at the time, but I'm sure she was right. I also remember it, though, because of the way she described Little Louise.

Little Louise was, as Grandma described in the book, "one of God's special children." When she was born in the 1920s, the term "special needs" didn't exist; doctors called her "retarded" and said she should be placed in a facility. Her parents kept her at home, but they both died when Little Louise was young, and she had an older sister who didn't want to be responsible for her.

So to keep her out of a "home," my grandma's parents, Nana and Papa -- probably the two best people I've ever known -- brought her to live with them. Little Louise was Nana's niece, and she became part of the family.

Little Louise had been deemed "unteachable," but she was indeed able to learn; she couldn't read, but she was good at the household tasks that became increasingly proud of completing every day. She worked outside the home from time to time -- in fact, she was a "lunch lady" at my preschool -- and she knew everything about everyone and considered all her co-workers her very best friends. And she was happier than any person I've ever seen. That was, as my Grandma said, because she had no worries.

Little Louise loved family gatherings; we kids were her very favorite people to be around, and she revered holidays with a childlike enthusiasm that she never outgrew. When it was her turn to open presents, she shook with excitement. I still remember the year my dad, whose name was Charlie, gave her a then-popular perfume called, of course, "Charlie."

"Whenever I wear this, Charlie, I'll think of you," Louise said solemnly, and dabbed the fragrance on her wrists. And every time she wore it, you can bet she reminded my embarrassed dad that she was wearing "his" special scent.

As the years passed, Louise remained much the same; we often talked about how little she tended to age over the years. Her face stayed unlined; her red hair stayed red. As the older members of the family passed away -- Papa, Grandpa, Nana and then Grandma -- Louise would express now and then that she missed them, but she lived largely in the moment.

Even when she was the last surviving one of her family members and lived alone in a seniors' apartment, she took great pride in making new friends, participating in every activity the facility had to offer, and showing off her collection of holiday decorations. Wherever Louise was, she was the life of the party; she had few, if any, inhibitions, and was always willing to be the first to try something new.

Things changed a few years ago, though, when Louise suffered a stroke. One side of her body was paralyzed, she became wheelchair-confined and couldn't speak. The last time the kids and Kevin and I saw her was, I'm ashamed to admit, two years ago.

I don't really know why we stopped visiting; I could use the excuse that my dad became ill about two years ago and I was busy helping to care for him, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Louise lived but a few minutes from my house; I could have easily been in and out in the span of an hour.

I didn't go because it was unpleasant to see her that way. I didn't know where to look; I didn't know what to say. I didn't know if she was hearing or understanding me. I didn't know if she knew me. I let others in the family do the heavy lifting, and that's not my nature. I guess I simply chose to drop the ball.

We buried Louise today. It was a small funeral; she had become an old lady, and not many people knew her anymore. My faith assures me that she's getting ready to spend the holidays with the people who took her in and loved her, and for that, I'm grateful. But as is so often the case, I'm looking back, now that it's too late, and wondering why I chose to be selfish.

One of my frequent soapbox topics is the way we in the United States tend to treat our elderly. How ironic that every time I've spouted off in recent years, I haven't stopped to realize that I was part of the problem. An hour a week of my time -- and hour I easily could have given -- would have meant something to her.

"We should go visit Lou," Kevin would say, and I'd ignore him. It would have been so easy to jump in the car and spend a little time simply holding her hand, but still, I resisted. And today, I'm left wondering why I screwed up, and feeling humbled about learning a pretty important lesson from someone who once was believed to be too mentally "feeble" to learn anything herself.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Isis Goes to School, Day One

We've had our dog, Isis, for about six weeks now. She's calmed down quite a bit -- about as much as a rat terrier can calm down, I guess -- but still, we figured obedience training couldn't hurt. So, armed with crossed fingers and a pocket full of treats, she and I set out for our first class.

My conclusion: With apologies to David Letterman, here are the top 10 things to keep in mind when taking a dog to obedience class for the first time.

10. If your dog is a little dog and all the other canines in the room make at least two of her, chances are she won't feel terribly relaxed. She may even shake through the entire 60-minute session, and she could also be far too nervous to take the treats that are supposed to be motivating her. And it's difficult for a dog to learn to sit, stay, come, look and all kinds of other interesting things when she leaps into your lap every time another dog barks.(It's also not good to bring Cheerios as treats, even if your dog loves them at home. She'll take one sniff of someone else's Snausage (OK, that might sound dirty, but I promise it's not) and be even less motivated to do cool things for you.)

9. If you're feeling terribly organized and superior for having all your dog's records in one folder and bringing the folder to the meeting, your humility will be restored by the looks of other people in the class when they notice your papers are in a Justin Bieber folder. Yes, I'm serious, and don't ask.

8. If you're paying $109 for a class and there are four dogs in it, your trainer should remember the gender and perhaps even the name of your dog. I'm just saying.

7. If some dogs are known to behave excitably toward strangers or other dogs, it's probably not the best idea to hold the class in a room with one wall that's entirely a window and offers a near-constant flow of others, human and otherwise, walking past.

6. It's almost impossible for the average human to give a dog a treat, pet her, say "Good dog," and click a clicker at the same time. (Or maybe it's possible for the average human and impossible just for me. At any rate...)

5. Don't judge the people in your class. The guy in the cowboy hat -- the one with a mouthful of chew and a homemade tattoo on his forearm -- might be a redneck, but he also might freely offer to share his name-brand treats with your dog. This might actually distract her enough so that she stops shaking.

4. It's OK to feel superior to the classmate whose dog is wearing a sweater.

3. It's also OK to feel superior to the classmates -- two of them -- who obviously named their dogs after "Twilight" characters.

2. It's best to avoid taking it personally when the trainer responds to your comment about a clever trick you've been using with your dog by shaking his head and saying, "Nope, that's not effective. In fact, it's just noise."

And the No. 1 thing to keep in mind when taking your dog to obedience class for the first time:

1. If she chooses to relieve herself by leaving a No. 2 on the way out the door -- even though she never has accidents at home -- you might just end up feeling as though you really, seriously can't blame her.

P.S. The good news -- after I got her home, away from the trainer calling her "he" and the three giant attack dogs, she learned to sit. All it took was a handful of Snausages and, curiously, the absence of a clicker.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Psychic, huh? Find some missing babies.

So as anyone who knows me is aware, I’m a sucker for TLC shows. From “19 Kids and Counting” and “Little People, Big World” to my current fave, “Sister Wives,” I can’t get enough of the “reality” TV offered up by the cable channel.

But try as I might, I can’t get into “Long Island Medium.” And here’s why – I’m pretty darned sure she’s a fake.

Theresa Caputo is a bleached-blond, gum-chomping Long Island mom who just happens to communicate regularly with the dead. As another blogger put it, she’s sort of a UPS delivery person for the deceased, dropping in at homes and businesses to tell people such things as, “Your grandfather visited me and wants me to tell you you’re a great dad.”

Nice sentiment, but I’m calling “foul” all over the place. As a chronic information-gatherer, I can tell you with great certainty that virtually anything Theresa tells anyone can be found online … maybe not specifically, but if you dig a little, it’s there.

Case in point: Theresa and her teenage daughter walk into a bakery to buy some cupcakes. They order, and Theresa says, "I need to do a reading." The cupcake people look at her strangely and she says, "I'm getting a vibe -- is this a family business?"

Prior to the trip, she or a producer or an assistant easily could have Googled the store. "(Store name here) has been in the (name here) family for three generations," the website could have read. There's your "psychic" reading.

The rest of the cupcake visit goes much the same way. The owner, her husband and an employee appear to be in their 50s; "Did an older person in your family recently pass?" Theresa asks. It's a pretty safe bet that in the last few years, someone might have lost a parent or aunt or uncle.

Gasps all around: Amazingly (!), the owner's father had died in the past year. And wouldn't you know it: He's there! At that moment! To talk to the owner, via Theresa the Psychic!

"All I wanted was a cupcake," the teenage daughter tells the camera. Indeed.

Don't get me wrong; I think Theresa probably feels things strongly and may even have some sort of intuition. And she's not doing a bad thing; telling a grieving woman that her dead husband is OK and loves her very much can't be anything but comforting.

But it's also sort of a no-brainer. If she's truly a psychic, why isn't she finding missing college students or kidnapped babies?

I don't fault Theresa for taking advantage of a good situation. She's an Italian girl, so of course she's smart! She has two kids to put through college. She's not hurting anybody. So what's the harm?

The harm, I guess, is that people are on TV with their grief laid bare, and other people -- including me -- are tuning in to watch it. Maybe I'll feel differently if Theresa calls me and tells me my late dad is trying to get ahold of me. In the meantime, I don't think I'll watch anymore.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Could it be that age makes us more tolerant?

Does growing older make a person more or less tolerant? I can't decide.

I have a friend I love dearly. This friend actually made me homemade chicken soup last week when I was sick -- left work early, bought the ingredients, brought it to my house and sat with me while I ate the first warm, wonderful bowl. Who does things like that? Not my husband. Not my family. This friend.

So that probably explains why I didn't want to hit her with a club when she began extolling the virtues of a certain presidential candidate. It also probably explains why I went upstairs and grabbed her a recent issue of TIME Magazine that profiled that candidate. And it may even explain why I didn't begin hyperventilating when the conversation swung around to her feelings about Chaz Bono's presence on "Dancing With the Stars." (Hint: She doesn't like it.)

After she left, I began wondering about the nature of relationships as we age, and whether we tend to become more or less tolerant of people, even close friends and family members, whose views differ from ours. On one hand, I'm more resolute in my opinions than I've ever been. But on the other hand, I'm probably a little more inclined to acknowledge that everyone doesn't have to believe the way I do (although, of course, I'd like them to).

Some of my memories of my dad's last few years may bear me out on this hypothesis. I'm thinking specifically of the day Iowa legalized gay marriage. I visited Dad and felt inclined, against my better judgment, to ask him, "So, what do you think about what happened today?"

I half expected a response somewhere to the far right of the most closed-minded Archie Bunker statement, but to my delight, my then-89-year-old father responded: "Here's how I feel about gay people. If they don't bother Charlie Lavia, Charlie Lavia won't bother them."

I laughed, of course, at the notion of random gay people somehow "bothering" Charlie Lavia. But then I thought: Age has mellowed him. There's no other explanation.

As for me, I'm not so sure what's going on. There was a time in my life I tended not to want to rock the boat when it came to politics: My first husband's views were and are in direct opposition to mine, and during the '92 presidential campaign, I allowed the wife of my then-husband's candidate to hold our then-baby for a photo op. I may have even taken pictures. I was more or less willing to try to see the good in everyone who was willing to run for public office, and I didn't pay much attention to the internal voice telling me, "You really, really don't agree with that person."

Twenty years later, I don't think twice about arguing with anyone and everyone about my rather strong convictions. What changed? On the inside, nothing. I think the only reasonable explanation is that I simply care far less about whether people like me. And I think that lack of concern comes (happily) with age.

It makes sense: Now that I'm more secure about my opinions, it's easier to share them. I can sit across the table from Diane, my soup-making friend, and feel fairly sure that our relationship runs deeper than the outcome of the next election. Do I think she's wrong? Heck, yes. Will I keep trying to change her opinions? Of course. But I'll also respect the fact that she has a generous, loving heart.

After all, if I judge, I'm behaving like the groups of people with whom I so vehemently disagree. Being open-minded means more than affirming the opinions of those who think the way I do.

I believe people are intrinsically good, even the ones whose politics don't mirror mine. I believe most of us operate from a deep moral sense of what we believe to be right and just, and that even when I think people are a little "off" -- or even dead wrong -- it's my duty as a human to try to understand where they're coming from.

Diane doesn't disagree with me because she's argumentative or obstinate. She disagrees because she was raised a certain way, is married to someone who believes a certain way, and is influenced by the way she interprets her church's teachings. Similarly, I disagree with her because of the experiences and events that have shaped me. We get that about one another, and the conversations -- even when reaffirming that we're on opposite sides of the fence -- always are good-natured and respectful.

I'm really pretty positive that as I get older, my politics won't change. But I'm also pretty sure that I don't want to be the kind of bitter old lady who is so intolerant of others' beliefs that she turns away the chance at real relationships.

So even if I think you're 101 percent misguided and shouldn't be allowed near a voting booth, you have my word that if you're not harming anyone, I'll respect your right to a conflicting opinion.

And I'll respect you even more, it goes without saying, if there's homemade soup involved.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

So there comes a time...

So there comes a time when you realize they're really grown-ups, and they're really going to be leaving.

Scott is 23 and will graduate from Iowa State in the spring. His four-year plan was derailed with the addition of a second major -- and truly, that was fine with his dad and me. He's a good student, has loved the classes in his major areas, and has gotten as much out of college as I would have hoped. There are worse things than spending five years learning.

The other day, he was invited to apply for a job that likely will take him far from home if he decides to pursue it. Of the location choices he was given, he's leaning toward relocating to the San Francisco Bay area. And who can blame him? He spent an exchange semester in northern California, and when we went to visit him, I fell in love with it, too. It's in step with his ideologies and personality, and I have no doubt he can do good things there.

But ... I really wish he would express a burning desire to stay in Iowa. If not Iowa, I'd love for him to hang out in the Midwest. As I've mentioned on these pages, my family is not exactly nomadic. When my grandparents arrived from Italy, it was as if the tacit agreement was that we'd all just hang out here.

And that's worked well for us; as I noted while helping to take care of my dying father earlier this year, I was so grateful that we all lived in the same town during that difficult time and didn't have to manage the additional stress of complicated logistics.

But the world is different now. By and large, people aren't blooming where they're planted. Given all our technological options, that's not surprising. We can "travel" with the click of a mouse, and Skype -- talk via picture-phone-type software -- with people across the globe. Gone are the encyclopedias of my youth; in their place is Google. And as an Internet addict, I love it.

You have to admit, though, that chatting via Skype can't compare to being able to drive north on Highway 69 simply because you need to see your child and take him out for a stick-to-the ribs dinner because the last time you saw him, he was looking a little too thin.

The difference Scott wants to make in the world may not be one he can make in Iowa, and I understand that and am proud of him. When it comes Caroline's time to make a job decision, she may not decide to stay here, either. I'll need to get past the tiny but nagging worry that perhaps they're running from me (I can hear them now: "Mom, it's not always about you!") and accept that they're running toward something else.

"That's why we got you a dog," they'll say as they throw parts of their lives into their suitcases. And she's a great little dog, but as any parent in this situation knows, nothing can compare with the knowledge that your child -- your life -- is asleep in a bed not far from home.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Do you want to sell colored water, or do you want to change the world?

I didn't know Steve Jobs, obviously. And if I had known him, chances are we wouldn't have liked each other. I'm not good at math and science, which I imagine he was. And I've read that he wasn't someone who suffered fools gladly, so his bluntness probably would have hurt my feelings.

But to an introvert like me -- at heart, I truly am one -- and to someone who loves words and music and the near-constant intake of information, he was a hero.

I often think of how amazing it would have been had Steve Jobs' inventions been around when I was in high school. Any confidence I had was in the words I put on paper. I can't imagine how many more relationships I would have been encouraged to form had I been given a fluid, easy way to transmit the words from my brain to others' eyes.

Expressing myself in writing made me courageous. Anything I couldn't say in conversation, I communicated easily via a pen or a typewriter. When I started college and worked for the first time on an awkward machine we called a "word processor," a new world opened to me.

Later in college, I was given the opportunity to try out a several-thousand-dollar MacIntosh computer. It was easy to use. My fingers flew over the keys, creating words with a swifter, lighter touch than my IBM Selectric required. I was hooked.

I didn't always use Apple computers; different jobs have required different machines. But I'll never forget holding my first iPod in my hand, when I could finally afford one after buying them for my kids, and hooking it up and downloading "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John. I was amazed that I could slip the device, small as a deck of cards, into my pocket and sing along as I unloaded the dishwasher.

I remember going with my son to buy his first MacBook so he could create the music he loved with an app called Garage Band. I remember my daughter's face when I won a brand-new iPad at her sorority event and handed it over to her.

And I remember receiving my first laptop -- a Mac, of course -- and appreciating the ease it brought to my life as I moved from place to place, desk to desk, meeting to meeting, creating words and sentences and thoughts without being slowed down by my ever-worsening penmanship.

Steve Jobs is also a hero to me for this reason: my nephew. Eighteen and in college now, Aidan is one of the lucky human beings who is destined to earn a paycheck -- likely a sizable one -- doing what he loves. I've never seen anyone who's had to work harder to earn good grades than Aidan does, but when it comes to his beloved computers, the world is his oyster.

He's been teaching others about technology since he was in elementary school, and just as my self-esteem was derived from words so long ago, Aidan's comes from the language he's able to speak when he's diagnosing someone's computer problem or fine-tuning a machine to make it faster. Jobs was Aidan's idol, and whatever amazing things my nephew decides to do will be a direct result of the sense of self that he developed from navigating motherboards and and servers and code.

I'm watching CNN as I type this, and Anderson Cooper just told a story of a man Jobs hired away from another company by asking him, "Do you want to spent the rest of your life selling colored water, or do you want to change the world?"

Alas, I think most of us are selling colored water. But because of people like Steve Jobs, we know that if we're courageous enough, the potential is there to, as he also once said, "make your vocation your vacation."

I'm not a risk-taker by nature, but perhaps tonight, I'll think a little harder about what I need to do -- not to change the whole world, exactly, but to evolve my little corner of it into somewhere I'll truly love to be.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Something to make you stop coasting

There is something about adopting a dog that makes you stop coasting.

My similarly aged friends might understand what “coasting” means. When my kids were younger and still at home, I was very involved with them and their activities. They’re both closer to finishing college than starting it now, and although I still see them a great deal, it’s not the same.

When kids are 23 and 20, they don’t need you anymore. Not in a day-to-day sense, anyway.

So you rediscover your own life. You figure out who you are with your spouse or partner, as well as without that person. You learn to function in a quieter house. Some mornings, you realize you not only can sleep late, but you could pretty much sleep all day if you wanted to, and no one would care. That’s a little sobering.

That’s kind of fun for a while – the sleep part, anyway. The rest of your life kind of falls into place, too. You get use to a new rhythm – a calmer one, but one that starts to feel like a “new normal.”

And then you adopt a dog.

We’ve had dogs before – almost always had dogs, in fact. But within the past year, we had to make the sad decision to euthanize the ones we had. Both were old; one had been ill and dying for months, and the other suffered a sudden injury. We were sad for a long time; our house was so oddly silent.

Then the stars aligned, and both our criteria were met. We had wanted a rat terrier, the same breed as my son’s dog, Forty, whom we really, really enjoy. And we also wanted a shelter dog. This week, by sheer coincidence, we found that the Ames Animal Shelter had in its care a 6-month-old female rat terrier. Within hours, she was on our couch, getting used to her forever home.

Her name is Isis, named after the goddess of nature and magic, among other things. (Isis is also the goddess of motherhood and fertility, but the dog is spayed, so … tough luck on that one.)

Anyway, here are a few things that happen when a pseudo-empty-nester becomes a pet owner.

• It’s no longer acceptable to sit at the computer for hours on end. Work to do? No matter! If you’re not moving and the dog can jump, she’s on your lap. If she can reach your hands, she’s nudging them to pet her. If you’re gently placing her back on the ground so you can do your work, she’s whining until you devote your full attention to her.

• It’s a good thing you’ve enjoyed sleeping in for a while, because those days are over. The minute the room grows lighter and the dogs in the neighborhood start to make noise, she’s clamoring to join them. So what if it happens a half hour before your alarm is due to go off? Think of it as an opportunity; you’ve always been curious about what comes on before the Today Show.

• The time you choose to come home from work matters again. Since my kids have been away at school, I’ve rarely been in a hurry to leave work on time unless I’m covering a story; pre-dog, on the nights Kevin didn’t have any responsibilities, he tended to leave work a little later, too. Now that we have a dog who’s clamoring to get out of the kennel we leave her in during the day, we’ve become clock-watchers again.

• You’re needed again, and not just to pour food in the dog dish. There’s nothing like waking up to something that greets you as if she is absolutely enthralled by the fact that you are still in the world.

Yes, dogs are a ton of work. Yes, they’re expensive. No, I don’t want to turn into one of those old ladies who stops having a life because she’s afraid to leave little Peaches or Muffin alone for too long. But I’m not someone who thrives on going out anyway; I work hard, and when I’m not working, I enjoy being home. Besides, Isis makes me laugh.

You can’t compare a puppy to a child, but until one of my kids chooses to move back in – which, by the way, Scott and Caroline, would be perfectly OK with me – she’s the next best thing.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Just another manic Monday

I wanted to stay in bed this morning. It was Monday. The weather was bad, I hadn't slept well, and there just wasn't a whole lot compelling me to get up and get moving. I did, but I felt sorry for myself throughout my shower and as I was getting dressed and ready. And then, I felt really ashamed.

As much as I wished today had been a weekend day or a holiday, I thought back to a time long ago when I had nowhere to go each morning. I was a single mom, and I had lost my job, and I would have given anything to be in the place I'm in today. So why do I have such a short memory?

I don't know many people who, during the course of their employed lives, haven't lost a job. But still, when it happens to you, it has a way of blindsiding you like nothing else can. To some degree, we all have identities that are tied to the way we earn a paycheck, so when the relationship ends abruptly, who are we? Who do we become?

Thankfully, I became stronger and happier, and I remain that way. And once I'm up and moving each day, I really like my job. So why is it that I'm so unappreciative while the alarm clock is going off?

In my job directly before this one, I met a woman who worked in the corporate cafeteria where I bought my lunch each day. Helena was from Bosnia, and she and I struck up a friendship of sorts; my stepdaughter and her son went to school together. In Bosnia, Helena had been a scientist -- a plant geneticist. She had tried to get a similar job in this country, but her credentials didn't translate.

So Helena took the only job she could find. She had to leave her sleeping husband and children to take two buses each morning to a lunchroom, where she would don a hairnet and dole out food for people who were not nearly as clever as she was. Very few of them looked her in the eye, let alone thanked her. And yet Helena had the grace to be grateful for a paycheck, and to know that things would get better.

And I whine because I'm still tired when I wake up at the reasonable hour of 7 a.m. I wasn't raised to be this selfish.

Like a lot of people, I'm pretty sure, I bargain with a higher power. In my case, it's God. I did it just last week, bothering him with something to the effect of, "God, if you let me have a clean mammogram, I'll stop whining/exercise regularly/pull out the fridge and clean behind it." And guess what? My mammogram was clean, thankfully. And I've completed a grand total of none of the items on my bargain list.

"Human nature," says the great and powerful Wikipedia, "refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to exhibit naturally." So maybe it's human nature that causes me to forget my gratitude as soon as I've gotten what I feel I want or need?

I have a good job. It allows me to send two kids to college and have money to eat lunch on the skywalk every day and buy a pumpkin-scented candle for no reason at all. Will it make me wealthy? Never. But it's a job that allows me to use my skills in an atmosphere where, for the most part, people like one another.

Have you looked at the unemployment figures? You'll agree, then, that I'm pretty darned lucky.

And human nature or not, it's probably time for me to make a concerted effort to be thankful. Getting to bed a little earlier at night probably wouldn't be a bad thing, either.

Do you know who actually wrote "Manic Monday"? Not these ladies.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

If Chaz Bono bothers you, ask yourself why.

I admit it: I'm an occasional watcher of "Dancing With the Stars." I took dance all through my formative years, and although I can assure you I never would have looked like Karina Smirnoff in a costume, I know my way around a pas de beurre and a jete or two. I can even tap. (Stop laughing.)

I also like a good story, so I've been following the journey of Cher's child, Chaz Bono, with whom I've been familiar most of my life. As a little girl, I was an avid viewer of the "Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," and the shows would always end with Cher and Sonny trotting out poor Chastity, a cute little blonde toddler who looked like she'd rather be anywhere else.

Now, Chastity is somewhere else, all right. And she -- now he -- is even someone else. After suffering for years from gender identity disorder, Chastity underwent surgery and hormone therapy and now lives as Chaz, a man. And he's on "Dancing with the Stars," and that's making some people really angry.

A reader who commented on a story about Chaz's dancing debut said this: "This show used to be good family entertainment, but I won't let my children watch this season. I don't want them to be swayed into believing they can choose to switch gender when they get older."

After reading that, I didn't know whether to laugh hysterically or possibly cry a little. I must have missed something during all these many years of life: I guess I didn't realize I could, on a whim, become a man. Silly me -- after all, I'm acquainted with two people who changed, or are in the process of changing, genders. I wonder why they haven't "swayed" me to take the leap.

Come on, folks. First, "good family entertainment"? I like the show, but "wholesome" it's not. Doubt me? Google footage of Pamela Anderson from a couple of years ago. Second, gender identity disorder is an actual disorder, identified and recognized by the medical community. Most people who suffer from it spend years, even decades, feeling as if they're living in bodies that don't belong to them.

Changing genders is not a decision a person makes lightly, or that the medical community takes lightly: People who desire gender-reassignment surgery first must be evaluated, then undergo extensive therapy. After all that, they have to come up with a boatload of money, as medical insurance doesn't cover the procedure.

(I need to add a note here: I'm not gay or transgender. Every time I blog about issues that even remotely have to do with sexuality, I receive emails telling me I'm trying to "advance the gay agenda." (According to Google Analytics, some people have found my blog via searching for "Is Lisa Lavia Ryan gay?") If I were gay, there's no part of me that would be ashamed. I'm just "outing" myself as a heterosexual so people can know me as one of the many straight individuals who support and defend all groups of people (those who don't hurt others, anyway) simply because it's the right thing to do.)

So, back to Chaz. I used to watch a show called "Celebrity Fit Club," and one season, Chaz was a "celebrity" who was trying to lose weight. Chaz was still Chastity then, and living as a lesbian; she was also, hands-down, the nicest person on the show. She didn't lose much weight, but she was encouraging to everyone else; she was the first to volunteer for every stupid task, and she was unfailingly polite to the doctors and trainers and nutritionists who were trying to help her.

Combine that with the fact that Chaz is the child of Cher -- Cher! -- who looks like this and, by her own account if you've ever read anything about her, wasn't jazzed about having an overweight, masculine daughter who refused to wear a skirt, let alone a bustier. So you have to have some sympathy for Chaz, really, just because.

When Chaz decided to be a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, he said: “I’m just a regular person. All these ideas that children shouldn’t watch me, that I’m going to be confusing (and) all this stuff, it’s crazy.” It would be one thing if Chaz were going on the show and holding up a sign saying, “Kids! Change your gender! Ask me how!” But I have a feeling that what Chaz, or people in his position, want more than anything is to simply blend in.

The thing I least understand about all this vitriol toward Chaz is that there are so many more people, or groups of people, out there to feel threatened by. Look at our current election-season political climate: Why not worry about people who lie and insult and threaten and alarm? Why not turn the channel from commercials featuring people who create entire campaigns out of hate and misinformation? Compared to folks who enter your living rooms every day via the news and political ads and Piers Morgan, Chaz is a cute, furry little baby puppy.

You may tell me, "I'm offended by Chaz and don't want my children exposed to him because I'm a Christian, and the premise of gender reassignment is contrary to my faith." Fair enough. But if you're a Christian, think hard about John 8:7 or Matthew 7:1. Then we'll talk.

Speaking practically, parents, your small children are not likely to notice anything "weird" about Chaz. If older kids inquire based on stories they're heard or read, my advice would be to explain his situation simply and honestly.

But to little ones who may wander in and out of the room and be enticed by the mirror ball, my guess is that they would assume Chaz is just a guy -- a chubby guy who's pretty light on his feet but otherwise unremarkable, and certainly nonthreatening. And what a coincidence, as I would imagine that's all Chaz -- or anyone else who has spent his or her life being "different" -- really wants to be.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

Can we really talk -- about something not a whole lot of people want to talk about, unless you happen to be my age and horrified about some of the ways your life is changing?

Let's put it this way: If men went through menopause, Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline would produce a synthetic remedy for it faster than you could say, "Make sure all major insurers cover that -- with no co-pay."

Because, to be honest, menopause is not for the faint of heart. It makes sense that it comes along when women are in their mid-40s to mid-50s, given that when it was first made a part of our biological code, women didn't live that long.

Now, 50 is the new 30, or something to that effect. And if it turns out that I do have a few decades of life left, I'm really happy about that. But I'm also afraid I'm going to spend it sweating and crying.

You see, that's largely what I do now -- I sweat, and I cry. Sometimes, those things occur simultaneously. Often, they happen in the middle of the night. Here's how that works: I wake up because I'm hot, or I wake up because I've been hot, and the searing hot flash has resulted in shaking chills.

I go downstairs and turn on the TV, and along comes a commercial or a "very special episode" of an old sitcom. So I'm not sleeping, and I'm sweating, and I'm crying. And -- yay! -- I have to be up in a few hours to go to work, where people are counting on me to be astute and creative. Oh, and non-sweaty. And awake.

Really, what is this? I know it's normal, but really, how necessary are these symptoms? Wouldn't it be enough for nature to send a more subtle signal to tell us, "Oh, by the way -- you can't have babies anymore"?

That's the one good thing about this. Not that I don't like babies; I love babies. But my own babies are 23 and 20, and that's just how I like it. I have a ton of respect for women who choose to have babies later in life; that's just not something that interests me. So: 87,000 negative side effects; one positive one. I see how this works.

The last time I saw my physician -- a woman in her 50s who has surely seen all of this from the front lines -- she confirmed that my estrogen levels were tanking. After listening to me whine about my symptoms, she gave me a list of ideas, ranging from "do nothing" (she clearly doesn't know me) to "take an antidepressant." (Whoa -- overkill. I'm not depressed. I'm pretty darned happy, except when I'm crying or sweating.)

We settled on a compromise -- an eensy little bit of hormone replacement, which I'd take for as short a time as possible to get me over the hump.

(Note: I've read all the warnings about estrogen, and I respect anyone who's chosen to tough out this mess without it. But this is how I reasoned my decision: I have two kids in college. I need to make money. I work a lot, and thus, I need to sleep. My family history is somewhat of a crap shoot: cancer on one side, heart disease on the other. So I hope that when it comes to risk factors, my dad's side of the family steps up and declares itself the genetic winner, as estrogen can help bolster heart health in older women.)

So here I am, 11 months into my tiny little blue pills. They replace only a fraction of the estrogen that's evaporating out of me, and at first, they seemed to help. But I think they've outlived their benefit, and I don't want to increase my dosage, so here I am again, wondering what to do.

I've heard mixed reports on herbal and other natural remedies, as well as bio-identical hormones. I've heard that regular, vigorous exercise can help. (Sorry -- wiping away tears of mirth!) I've also heard -- and I fully believe -- that a positive attitude can make a difference. So for now, I'm choosing to laugh my way through the caricature that I've become.

That's the best way to describe myself right now -- a caricature of a middle-aged woman. The kind you'd see in a comic strip or an old Carol Burnett skit. Think I'm being too harsh? Here are some menopause-behaviors I've exhibited in just the last week.

  • You've already heard about the sweating. Sorry I can't let this one go, but you have no idea how strange it is for me to sweat. I've never been a sweater, even on those rare occasions when I've chosen to exert myself physically. You know it's been unseasonably cold here all week, right? Don't ask my internal thermostat. It was 50-some degrees on Friday, and I wore Capri pants to work.
  • You've already heard about the crying, but today, it climbed to a whole new level. I attended Drake University's Sweetheart Sing to watch my daughter perform. The event was benefiting the Kids' Cancer Connection, and a mom whose little girl is a cancer survivor stood up to speak. Just a few minutes into her talk, the man next to me -- a stranger -- was asking me if I was OK and offering me tissues. This wasn't the dab-at-your-wet-eyes kind of crying; it was full-on, sob-caught-in-throat, running-nose crying. And in a public place, and wearing a silk blouse, and I absolutely could not make it stop.
  • I can't stand noise, especially repetitive noise. I've read that this, for some women, is a side effect. My husband was watching a televised football game one night this week, when he finally turned off the TV, I thought I would weep from the sheer relief of the absence of sound. Noise especially makes me want to climb out of my skin in the early mornings, when others feel the need to communicate with me by means other than sign language.
  • Completing normal chores is sometimes just out of the question. For instance, I need to go downstairs and switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer, but even thinking of that task is just too daunting. Instead, perhaps I'll have a cookie.
I think of the guys I know, and if these things were happening to them, forget it. My husband is personally offended when symptoms of a cold choose to afflict him. What would happen if his stomach fat seemed to increase by 74 pounds overnight and he felt the need to weep openly when waited on by a kind lady at the dry cleaner?

I don't know what the answer is. There's actually a lot I like about being my age -- the feeling of being comfortable in my own skin, so to speak, and the willingness to speak my mind and share the wisdom that life experience has given me. I laugh more, and I hug more, and I read and write more. And I've heard older women say that once you're through menopause, you experience a resurgence of well-being and energy.

I'll wait for that. In the meantime, through, if Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline does come up with that magic pill, I'll be lining up at my local pharmacy faster than you can say, "I don't care if insurance makes me pay for it myself."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11: Single parents, and looking up

What I remember most about September 11, 2001, is the overwhelming need to keep looking up.

I don't know what I thought was going to happen up there; after all, this is Des Moines, and by the end of that Tuesday, it had become clear that the terrorist attacks that had occurred earlier in the day were not likely to spawn further immediate incidents, especially in my neighborhood. And yet, I kept looking at the sky.

Like many people in the Midwest that day, I had been driving to work when the first plane hit and at my desk when news came of the second. My co-workers and I had gathered in a conference room then, and we did little for several hours but silently watch the horror unfold.

My kids were in the fifth and seventh grades on 9/11, and my first impulse after I had heard the news that morning had been to go and pick them up. But emails had come from their schools asking parents to refrain from disrupting the day, and I was confident that the Johnston school district would handled the whole situation reassuringly and sensitively. So as eager as I was to see my kids' faces and hug them tightly to me, I allowed them to stay put.

I was a single mom then, and I found myself thinking as I watched the TV screen about the single parents who had lost their lives that day as the world watched. Who would console their children? Who would pick them up from school and gather their clothes and make sure they were fed? Who would sign their permission slips and take care of their pets?

I left work early that day, looking up as I walked to my car, and arrived home around the same time the school bus pulled up. The kids seemed OK; Scott prepared to be picked up for baseball practice, and Caroline wanted to play with a friend. They had watched the news at school, and they knew what was happening -- but in their worlds, New York was so far away.

They had their mom, and just a couple of miles away, they had their dad. We talked at length, and kept talking, about what had happened. But the only one looking up was me.

I had CNN on in my bedroom around the clock for days. My heart bled for all the victims and their families, but I continued to be especially preoccupied with thoughts of the single parents who had died. And it wasn't just because of the children; it was because they had no one, no spouse, who loved them best.

It's hard to explain if this you've never been an ex-spouse, but if you've been one, you know that you're somewhat of an odd-person-out. Married friends aren't sure how you fit in; single ones who don't have kids don't understand why you can't go bar-crawling on the weekends. Your family of origin worries about you; your ex-spouse wants you, at best, to go away.

Your kids love you and rely on you, and that's nothing to be discounted. But during the times they're with their other parent and you're walking through an echoing house, you know how absolutely alone you are.

I remember wondering for quite some time about the 9/11 single parents. Had they been alone the night before, missing their children? Or had they taken their children to school, then gone to work thinking about what they'd serve for dinner or how they'd fit in homework and activities, or maybe how they'd afford to pay for school lunches for the next month?

Did they feel, as I often did in those days, that they were a tiny speck in a vast, vast expanse of people who knew who they were and where they belonged?

In the past 10 years, much has changed; I wonder what happened to the children of those single parents. I hope that to them, the parents who died are more than just the "other" parent -- the one whose house they traveled back and forth to, the one who was maybe just too tired to read that extra story. I hope that people in the lives of those single parents loved them enough to keep their memories alive for their children.

As I watch all the 9/11 remembrance specials, I'm no longer a single parent. I've been remarried now for six years, and it hasn't always been easy. But it's somehow comforting to know that if something were to happen, there would be another person in my life who would want to help me live on in the lives of my kids.

And as much as I believed in myself as a single parent and valued my single-parent life, I have to admit that it's also comforting to have someone sitting next to me on the couch as I'm watching those specials tonight -- someone who could, in the event of something unexpected, step in and help finish the job I don't think I'm done with yet. And someone next to me as I'm walking outside this weekend, looking up.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Grudges: Who do they hurt, really?

My college friend Gage worked as a journalist for many years, and he's now a minister. The skills sets required to excel in those two professions have combined in a pretty amazing way, resulting in some blog posts that have made me think lately about the fact that I'm capable of being a pretty rotten person.

(And Gage's last name is Church. For real. Is that not the best minister name ever?)

I know it's not Gage's intent to make me beat myself up, and I'm also not trying to be tongue-in-cheek. But when something weighs on my mind for days on end, it usually makes me realize there's some truth, however uncomfortable, to whatever is working its way into my head. And because of Gage, I've been mulling over the fact that I'm a lot more like Charlie Lavia than I ever imagined.

Charlie was my dad; he died in March, and being like him is not a bad thing. In fact, in 99 percent of ways, it's a really good thing. It was that 1 percent that tended to cause problems, and wouldn't you know it: I didn't inherit his skill with numbers, but I sure did latch onto his most notable fault: his penchant for grudge-holding.

When it came to grudges, my dad was a master at his craft. He had been known not to speak to certain family members for years after witnessing the most minor slights; if a person made a mistake that directly impacted him -- especially if it had to do with finances -- my dad was "done," as he'd say curtly, with a flick of his hand. He didn't suffer fools gladly; if he was pleased with you, you knew it. But if you had disappointed him, you knew that, too, and often, you knew it for a very, very long time.

Those of us who knew Dad well, though, also knew that his wrath usually was a cover for the fact that someone had hurt his feelings. While he may have come off to some as hard and tough, he was actually quite sensitive and easily wounded. He was unable to say, "You upset me," or "you hurt me." So he'd instead refer to you by a string of expletives and freeze you out for a good long time, and if you wanted to get back into his good graces, you either had to work very hard, or a whole lot of time had to pass.

The specifics of the grudges I hold aren't important; the fact that I hold them at all is the relevant thing. After all, I have no right to hold grudges; the last time I looked, I sure wasn't perfect. As a spiritual person, I'm capable of talking a pretty good game on the "love one another" front, but when it comes right down to it, I'm really only pretty good at loving the people who are easy for me to love.

Like my dad, I tend to mask hurt with anger, or with biting, cutting sarcasm. But unlike my dad, I'm usually pretty good at talking about my feelings. (My husband would say, in fact, that I'm a bit too good, and too thorough, at talking about them.) Why, then, is it difficult for me to deal respectfully but directly with the people I feel have wronged me in some way? Can I blame it on my ethnicity? Italians are passionate people. It's easier to demonstrate anger than rationalism.

As Gage says, "holding a grudge and seeking revenge rot our soul. No resentment is worth shortening our life through the sickening stress that results." He goes on to say that focusing on faith can bring us clarity and comfort. I agree with this, but I’m not very disciplined at falling back on it when I’m on the warpath because someone has really, really ticked me off.

The irony, as Gage points out, is that the grudge-holder is the one being hurt by the grudge. I can think of a former co-worker I’ve grudged on for over a decade; he’s not impacted in the least by my feelings, but thinking of him and his actions toward me and others can bring tears to my eyes. Yes, after all these years.

Let it go, Lisa. Let it go.

In a perfect world, the people we try to be good to aren’t necessarily going to return the favor. After some sort of transgression, we can extend an olive branch, but there’s no guarantee the gesture will be received in kind. I guess that’s when we need to stop and realize that it’s our job to extend the offer, but then it can also be our responsibility to graciously walk away.

We all just want to be treated fairly, I think. But as my dad often said, life isn’t fair. I wish he could have let go, especially toward the end, of some decades-old perceived slights that continued to bother him.

But who knows? Maybe from his current vantage point, he's somehow working through my pal Gage to make a dent in my thick skull.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

No apologies; I'm an indoor girl.

I hate camping.

There. I said it.

In my world, I am way in the minority on this. My husband, Kevin, loves to camp. Good friends of ours like to camp. Inexplicably, my children love to camp. And I can't begin to understand.

Anytime we've camped, we've set up our tent within about 15 minutes of home. That makes no sense to me: We have a house. The house has toilets and beds. Why in the world would I choose to sleep on the ground and trudge several hundred feet to use the bathroom, then spend the whole next day feeling unwashed and cranky?

I get the whole "Kumbaya"-'round-the-campfire thing, and yes, a hot dog and a beer taste pretty good when they're consumed in the great outdoors. But, really, we have a fire pit in our backyard. We have a grill, and we have a deck. Problem solved.

When I was little, I was a bit more agreeable to spending time outside. We were a boating family, and one obviously can't boat in the house. But here's the thing: When you're boating, you're doing something. You're going somewhere. You can drop anchor and swim. You can ski. When you're camping, you're -- what? Sitting in a chair? I can do that inside. In fact: See?! I'm doing it now!

My grandma had the right idea when it came to being a nature girl. She and my grandpa had a place at Clear Lake near ours, and for a couple of years, the whole extended family would go boating together. We'd be at Farmer's Beach, setting up lunch with our cooler of bologna sandwiches, and Grandma and Grandpa would pull up alongside in their cabin cruiser.

There'd be Grandma, waving from the boat, her hair tied down with a scarf that had little anchors all over it and an apron over her slacks. "Kids," she'd call. "Wouldn't you rather have something hot to eat?" And we'd scramble over the side of our boat and climb in theirs, dripping lake water down the tiny staircase and sitting down at a tiny table to beans and wienies, Pepsi, and dessert. The fan would be blowing in the direction of the tiny stove, and Grandma wouldn't have broken a sweat.

When I became a teenager, I loved to, as we called it back in the day, "lay out." And that, of course, took place outdoors as well. But like boating, it involved a goal: A few hours on an inflatable raft in the pool meant I'd "get a little color" and look cuter in whatever I was wearing on my date that night.

But if I'm peer-pressured into camping, here's what happens: There's no looking cute, period. I don't sleep well. Sometimes things bite me, and I wake up with some gross kind of lesion or welt or rash. Often, it rains, and historically, our tents have not been quite waterproof enough. Once, I woke up to my cell phone floating next to my head.

I don't like to cook anyway, so cooking over an open fire holds no extra allure. I don't like my feet to feel dirty. I have a fake knee, and the tissue around it swells more in humidity. The other knee is soon to become fake and it hurts all the time, so rough terrain is a bad idea for the next several weeks.

I went camping quite a few times when Kevin and I were dating and newly married. And although I enjoyed the company a lot, I would have enjoyed it more had we stayed somewhere with a floor and a roof. But you know how it is when you're first with somebody; you're always willing to try new things because you simply want to be with that person. Skydiving? Sure, I'm game. Cleaning out the garage? Nothing could be more fun.

But time passes, and we all know what happens. To look at it in a positive way: As you grow older and the realization hits you that life is too short, you become less willing to spend much of that precious time doing things you really don't like.

Also, at this stage in my life, I'm working pretty hard most days. And when a long weekend comes, the last thing I want to do is spend my time in a way that will make me feel like I haven't had a weekend at all.

And on and on. My family makes fun of me, but they know the truth: I'm an indoor girl, and when it comes to camping, everyone has more fun without me. And you know what? That's so, so OK.

There's an old saying: "If Mama ain't happy, nobody's happy." When dirt, bugs and porta-potties are involved, multiply the potential for Mama's unhappiness by about 4,000.

Kevin is going to try to camp with some friends this weekend if the weather clears. He won't care about packing shampoo and towels and bug repellent and disinfectant wipes; he'll get up, throw on some shorts, grab the cooler and go.

Me? I'll be the one waving from the clean kitchen, with a bathroom a few feet away and a soft bed upstairs.

Kumbaya, indeed.