Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Memorial Day, "it's the least we can do"

I had just finished watering the flowers when I saw them.

There they were, two older people and a mentally challenged younger man, trudging up the hill with a basket full of flags and markers. The older man and woman were consulting a map, then stopping periodically to place a marker in the ground and insert an American flag into it. After placing each flag, they'd stop for a moment and look at each grave. Maybe they were saying a prayer, or maybe they were just resting a moment.

I picked up my keys and watering can and walked down to meet them. I introduced myself and said, "I want to thank you for what you're doing."

The woman said, "Honey, we do this every year. You must have someone here."

I responded that I was visiting quite a few people, but I had just been planting flowers at my parents' grave. My dad, I told her, had died in March.

"Oh, honey," she said again. "Was he a veteran?"

I said that he was indeed, and the man said, "I'll go take care of him right now." And the trio started up the hill.

The woman and I chatted a bit as I led them to my parents' grave. Her name was Mary Costanzo, she said, and she and her family were affiliated with the American Legion on the city's southeast side. I knew the building well; it was right down the street from the spot where my mother had grown up. The house was torn down years ago, but I still see the neighborhood in my head.

Mary had a bum knee, she told me, and her husband was getting older. Their son had some challenges that sometimes made life difficult. But by and large, she said, they had so much to be thankful for that placing flags at the cemetery every Memorial Day was "the least we can do."

Mary's husband placed a marker in the ground on my dad's side of the stone. My new friend Mary put her arm around me, and we both cried as we watched the flag move in the breeze. "I lost my dad five years ago, honey," Mary said. "It never really gets easier."

More than the flowers that adorned the stone, my dad would have been proudest to be identified as a veteran of World War II, the war that nearly killed his brother but provided their immigrant family with official recognition as Americans. And my mom, a young woman left alone with a brand-new baby when my dad put on his uniform and shipped out, deserves to be proud as well.

I don't believe war is really the answer to anything, and I grieve for those who are still feeling the acute losses of sons and daughters, spouses and parents. But all ideologies aside, I want so badly in 20 years to be a person who goes to the cemetery and places flags on the graves of strangers because it's "the least I can do." People like the Costanzos remind me to be more conscious of the things I need to change in my life to get there.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Oh, graduates. You have no idea.

It's May, and May means graduation parties. It's fun to stop in at each gathering, drop off a gift, and see the photo boards, videos, clay handprints, and all the other indications the young person being honored has been well-loved for the past 18 years. And it's an honor to help send that young person off in fine fashion for whatever his or her next step happens to be.

I remember my graduation party only vaguely; in fact, the only things I recall vividly are the white sundress I wore under my gown, and the amazingly large check my grandparents gave me. I'm sure there were cards and cake, but I didn't spend a whole lot of time with either; I had places to go and people to see, and I couldn't wait to get on to the rest of my life.

Ah, the rest of my life. I had it planned perfectly. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and when I wanted to do it. Like the graduates I've seen the past few weekends, I was sure I knew the best for myself. I knew whom I'd marry; I knew I'd write for Rolling Stone, penning pithy-but-thought-provoking biographical sketches of Elton John and Boston and Foreigner and the Cars. Maybe someday, after I was settled, I'd have a baby.

Boy, I thought to myself on that May evening in 1981. Boy, was I going to have a life.

Thirty years later, I can confirm that boy, I've had a life. But how many things I was certain about in 1981 have come to fruition? Approximately zero, give or take a few.

Here's a list of the things I thought would happen--followed by the events that actually took place.

Dream: I was sure I'd write for Rolling Stone. Reality: I work in communications for a large financial-services company. I write for the Des Moines Register. I tweet and blog. What happened? After I graduated from college, I realized moving far from home was not for me. I had a fair number of job offers, and they were all in Iowa. I fell in love with one of the opportunities, and I stayed put.

Dream: I was sure I'd marry one of two boys, both of whom I'd known for a long time. Each of them would be staying in Des Moines while I went off to college, but I was sure absence would make the heart grow fonder. I thought I knew which one I wanted, and I thought all I'd have to do, when I was ready, would be say "jump" and he'd say, "how high." Reality: I went away to school for two years, then transferred home to finish at Drake. During those two years, the boy I truly thought I'd end up with had found someone else, and I discovered I just didn't like the other one anymore. What happened? Different experiences make you want--or think you want--different things. People change. Graduates: With very few exceptions, the person you're kissing tonight won't be the one you marry.

Dream: I'd have a baby or two, starting at about age 30, after I'd established my career. Reality: I had one baby at 25, just as I was getting my career off the ground, and the next at 28. My career was placed on hold for a few years. What happened? I fell in love, married, and wanted to start the proverbial "next phase of my life." Having the kids represents the best detour my life ever took.

So, what do I wish I could go back and tell my 17-year-old self? First, I'd tell her to grow her hair out. Then I'd say: Grab hold of your life and hang on. There will be times you'll be driving, other times you'll be looking out the window, and other times you'll be watching in the rear-view mirror ... and all those are OK. Have a rough plan, but don't adhere too closely to it.

I'd say: That boy you're kissing right now? Chances are you won't be waking up next to him in 30 years, but he'll always have a place in your heart. As you grow older, memories assume a more honored place in your life because there are simply more of them.

Finally, I'd tell her: Enjoy your cake, open your envelopes, count your money and write your thank-you notes. Then look out the window. See your future? No? Oh, well--no matter. It's out there, ready to grab you when you least expect it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why are we still asking if women and men can be "just friends"?

So, my most recent blog post raised a few questions among people who continue to wonder if men and women can truly be “just friends.”

Needless to say, I respond with a resounding “yes,” but that question makes me crazy. Why in the world would that not be the case? Are we all so amazingly alluring that people of the opposite gender—or those of the same gender who happen to be gay—can’t keep their hands off us?

I’ve always, always had male friends, and a fair number of them. Some of them have been gay, and some have been heterosexual, but one thing remains constant—in all my platonic relationships with men, we’ve managed, somehow, to keep our hands above the table.

I’m being facetious, but come on. How demeaning is it to assume that because I have one set of body parts and they have another, we can’t keep things on a non-sexual level?

I broached this subject with a college friend of mine who has been a mental-health professional for two decades. Her take on the subject: It makes sense that I have a number of male friends, because I possess a number of "stereotypically male" character traits. (That's something Kevin, my husband, loves hearing, I'm sure.)

Simply put, in most areas of my life, I have a tendency to shoot first and apologize later, and I also tend to be attracted to strong, quick-thinking, opinionated individuals. Society rewards those traits more often in men than in women, so that's why I gravitate toward males, she says.

OK, I have a hard time agreeing with the "stereotypically male" categorization, as many of the women I know are stronger than any of the men I have ever encountered. But I do tend be a little boisterous, and I have no trouble standing up for myself. Kevin, interestingly, is on the quiet side; for the most part, though, I do usually lean toward people with stronger personalities.

Maybe that explains things, but I don't feel as if my propensity is strange in any way, and I have difficulty with people who question it. In fact, I find it amazing that some people my age have never had friends of the opposite gender.

A conservative man I know asserts that such relationships are “not advisable” because when you fraternize with people to whom you could feasibly be sexually attracted, “it’s always going to go that way.” Um, wrong. I can guarantee that would make a lot of my male friends laugh really hard.

I also find that whole premise insulting. What if it so happened that a 40-something man and woman were friends in the workplace, and one of them were to think, “Hey, back in my 20s, when I was single, it would have been fun to date that person.” Does that mean the man and woman are going to make off for the Country Inn & Suites on their lunch hour? Of course not. Each one of them can appreciate the other while continuing to be respectful of their marriages or other relationships, and not allowing things venture into uncomfortable territory.

Kevin has a female friend at work to whom I frequently refer as his “work wife.” When he and I were first dating, I admit to having been a tad unsure of their relationship; Crystal is cute and smart and really, really funny. Now, 10 years into my relationship with Kevin, I’ve come to not only be entirely relaxed about the relationship, but appreciative of it.

Crystal is a good influence on my husband, who isn’t always the world’s most outwardly sensitive individual. I have a feeling she often helps him see a softer side of things. And the two of them share a wicked sense of humor that sometimes makes me wish I worked in the office next to them.

My son has many female friends; my daughter seems to be following in her mother’s footsteps as far as her propensity toward strong personalities and has several close guy friends as well. Thankfully, that fact doesn’t seem to adversely impact their romantic relationships. Perhaps this generation is a little better at understanding that everything is really, truly not all about sexual attraction; I’m sure that’s why they’re so much better than we were at embracing gay individuals.

So this week, I’ll probably take a walk with my friend Tyler and text with my friend Chuck and have lunch with a friend who happens to be a lesbian. And chances are pretty certain that I won’t end up sleeping with any of them. Because, really, the focus in all of those relationships tends to be what’s between their ears rather than what could conceivably happen between the sheets.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Summer 1977, and gifts in little boxes

I spent time yesterday with one of my oldest friends. My sister has always said there’s a certain comfort in spending time with people who know your story—ones who were with you when you were forming the life that’s now your background, ones who know your family, what kind of car you drove, maybe even the name of your dog. There’s nothing magical in having that kind of knowledge, per se, but it allows you to relax and know you can skip ahead to what’s happening now. It’s relationship shorthand.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I see on a regular basis now who knew me well then. The funny thing, I think, is that we humans continue to be attracted during our lives to the same type of person we were drawn to in our childhoods, but as we grow older, the traits we look for tend to be buried under “professional” personas and loads of other baggage. So we ended up missing people whose paths perhaps should intersect with our own.

My oldest friends, then, possess the qualities I loved before I knew that you’re “supposed” to be attracted to a certain kind of person. It really doesn’t matter what any of these friends happen to be doing now, because I remember them in their purest form. That’s why it’s so easy now, when I’m with any of them, to zero in on the things about them that have always made me smile.

I was a pretty serious little girl. I’m not sure if my early life experiences formed me or whether I’m simply made the way I’m made, but I’ve also grown into—most of the time—a relatively serious adult. The friend I was with yesterday, although he inarguably possesses a serious side, has always made me laugh. Not just laugh politely, but laugh until my eyes are so wet that I’m in danger of losing a contact lens or two. Yesterday was no exception, and after we parted, I realized I was walking with a certain lightness that I don’t always allow in my life.

I’m driven and goal-oriented and fairly productive, and on most days, I do what I’m supposed to do to be the person I’ve made myself into. I don’t, however, always remember to have fun. I often justify that by telling people that my idea of fun may not be the same as theirs; for me, it's fun to feel the adrenaline rush that comes with covering a meeting, then beginning to write at 8:40 the story that's due at 9.

Yesterday, though, I stopped thinking about work and just had fun -- the kind most people would recognize as actual fun, not the check-out-10-books-from-the-library kind. And as I laughed, I was transported back to 1977; it was summer, and I was sitting on my front porch on Sylvania Drive, or maybe on the big rock in my front yard. I was a kid, 14, and life was wide open. I don’t remember what my friend and I talked about back then, but I do remember the way the air felt, and I remember throwing back my head and laughing hard.

Summer nights smelled a certain way back then. I don’t know what the smell was, or why it’s different now. I’d be interested to know if today’s kids perceive the “smell” of summer the same way – if it’s not actually the smell that takes you back, but a sweet mishmash of where you were, what you were doing and the way you were feeling. The summer of 1977 was a long time ago, but yesterday, I could smell the air and hear my own teenage laughter. I could remember the girl I was, and when I re-entered my own world, it was with a conviction to add a little more lightness to it.

My grandmother used to use Hallmark cards to write me “life lessons.” In one of them, she talked about cultivating friends (little nerd girl that I was, I’m sure she was a tad worried). She wrote something about, “Family is everything, but friends are a gift in a beautiful box that you can wrap up and open again and again.” I’m lucky enough to have some of those friendships, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to unwrap them when I need them – especially on a day like yesterday, when I had no idea how much I needed some extra levity in my life.

I don’t want to go back to 1977; I like now just fine. But a hint of remembrance, wrapped and unwrapped like those boxes my grandma talked about, is a gift indeed.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What do you know: I can do this.

I've always enjoyed going to the cemetery. Not just because I like history and find looking at tombstones really interesting, but because a few key members of my family died when I was a little girl, and the cemetery has been the only place I've ever connected with them.

That's not as maudlin as it sounds. My mom is buried in a shaded part of Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines, surrounded by rows of hedges on two sides, and often, I've visited her grave to sit and think, or to read. I rarely cry when I visit my mom's grave; I don't really remember her, so the tears are more likely to come when I miss the idea of her, or wonder what it would have been like to have her in my life.

But today was a little different. For the first time, I was visiting the familiar gravesite not only to see my mom, but my dad, who was buried not even two months ago. I hadn't visited the cemetery since the day he was buried, which some people have found strange -- but I haven't needed to go there to remember him. Besides, my grief is still fresh. I hadn't been ready to see his name on the headstone.

Today, though, I knew I had to make it happen; it's Mother's Day weekend, and I needed to see my mom. What to do with the fact that Dad was there as well? I had no idea, and I envisioned things wouldn't turn out well. Suffice it to say I've spent the last few weeks crying a lot.

But armed with flowers, a little shovel and a watering can, I headed out. Glendale typically mows down fresh flowers, but -- eternal optimist that I am -- I told myself the groundskeepers there certainly won't mow down mine, because they'd be so pretty. I drove to the familiar spot and approached the stone, looking out of the corner of my eye as if to avoid contact with someone I don't want to have to talk to at a party. But soon I was upon it, faced with his name and with the mound of gently sloping bare earth.

And something odd happened: I didn't feel like crying. I waited for the throat tightness to come, the welling-up to start, the floodgates to open. But ... nothing. I looked from her name to his, and back again. "Hey, Dad," I said stupidly, to no one. My voice sounded small and far away. I looked around some more.

And then I got busy.

I watered the earth to soften it, and I planted two tall, bright-orange lilies and two rows of dark-purple petunias. The earth felt good under my nails as I smoothed it down. I dug and patted and filled in and smoothed some more, and before I knew it, it was time to stand back and survey my work.

Dad and I had gone to the cemetery together on quite a few occasions, and today, I remembered how proud he always was of the way he cared for his parents' and other relatives' graves. Twice a year, he'd cut the weeds and wipe off the stones; he's plant flowers just so, washing his hands up to his elbows with water from a bucket when he was done. He'd kneel then and pray silently, making the sign of the cross when he was finished and reminding me to knock the dirt off my shoes before getting back in the car.

On the way home, he'd tsk-tsk about the unkempt gravesites; he'd criticize the families who appeared not to care about tending tombstones. He'd say that young people had no time for such things, and he'd voice his worry that once he was gone, no one would care for his family's graves -- maybe not even his. Of course, I'd reassure him that my sister and I would take care of things. But deep down, I wondered: Would I?

Today, I realized that without a doubt, I can, and I will. I found myself taking some pride in the way my parents' stone looked, with the urns filled with the artificial flowers my sister had placed there, paired with my contributions alongside and in front. I also found myself looking around and -- proving there's some of my dad in me -- making darned sure no one else's stone looked as nice.

I took a picture to show my husband and my sister, and I said a silent prayer. Then I walked to the car with a sense of lightness I hadn't come close to anticipating.

I miss my dad when I drive by his former home, or near the neighborhood in West Des Moines that houses the last skilled-care facility he stayed in. Every morning on the way to work, I tear up as I drive by the hospice facility where he died. I think of his walk or his voice or the unintentionally funny things he said, and my heart hurts.

I'm relieved, though, that the cemetery still seems to be a safe place for me; that even though that small plot of earth now houses the parent I knew for decades as well as the one I never really knew, the memories don't open up, swallow me whole, and prevent me from wanting to visit. Perhaps I'll feel as close to my dad there as I do to my mom; perhaps he'll speak to me there as she always does.

And perhaps the groundskeepers really will leave my flowers alone ... because, you know, they really are prettier than anyone else's.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Work is about a whole lot more than work.

The people with whom I spend eight-plus hours every weekday tend, for the most part, to be a really hard-working bunch. We create communications to help producers sell insurance products, and -- thankfully for us -- there's a lot to write about.

We don't have much time to chat during the day, except sometimes at lunch -- and all too often, lunch conversations turn into work-related conversations. And that's OK; we all need to vent.

But I love the kinds of spontaneous conversations that occur sometimes when workloads are huge and deadlines are tight and minds are tired -- the kinds that involve pointless talk about cosmetic surgery and Marie Osmond's dolls and Posh Spice's hat. Those are the things Jeff, Christy and I spent 15 minutes chatting, and laughing hard, about earlier this week.

No one likes his or her job all the time -- as my dad used to say, "That's why they call it 'work.'" But I can honestly say that I'd like to hang out with most of these people even if I didn't work with them. Not only were they beyond kind when my dad passed away, but they're just good, decent people. At the risk of sounding too obnoxious, most days, I look forward to seeing them.

No one's perfect, and there are times we're all sick of each other. But for the most part, I lucked out when I made the leap to this place six years ago. Before I took the job, I was worried about being a nameless, faceless cog in a monolithic company, and it's true that outside of my smallish department, few people know who I am. But I like that just fine. I know the people I work with, and they know me.

During my adult life, I've worked for about a half-dozen companies, and in my experience, success has more to do with the fit of the relationships more than with the actual work a person is charged with doing. Drop me anywhere and I can write copy. But give me a desk surrounded by people who make me laugh -- and whose lives I genuinely care about -- and I can write really good copy.

I laughed so hard today that I actually snorted. That's not attractive, but it's indicative of the fact that I'm more fortunate that the majority of the cube-dwellers in this country.

And if Monday is a bad day, well -- I'll go ahead and hit "publish" so I can read this again if I need it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Nothing like a good wake-up call to make you realize you have no problems.

My daughter and I have been spending some pretty significant time in a hospital the past several weeks. She's part of a research study, and I've been accompanying her to appointments and tests. In the process, we've grown familiar with the place, and it's no Grey's Anatomy. Still, I've managed to unearth some items of possible interest.

Here's a list of my more striking hospital-related observations.

1. I'm invisible. Not all the time, mind you, but at one particular nurses' station, and to a few different medical professionals. Twice now, on each of two visits at which she's had to undergo a certain test, Caroline has been cold and has requested a blanket. I've gone after the blanket, and today, as was the case last month, I've stood directly in front of a nurse for several minutes as she's kept her head down, reading something. When I finally say "Excuse me," she sighs loudly before mustering the energy to look up nine inches into my face. When she finally takes the time to respond, she says, "I don't know where those would be." Both times, thankfully, an aide has rushed off to grab a blanket. (I took note of the closet they're in, and next time, if we need a blanket, I'll get it myself.)

2. I need to do a better job of regulating my cell-phone use, as I almost smacked a woman with hers in the cafeteria. Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm on my phone a lot. I took a test last year that pegged me as an information-gatherer, and that label fits me to a T -- I'm happiest when I have instant access to everything I want or need to know. But I also tend to grab my phone and call someone -- usually my sister or a friend -- when I'm bored. In the cafeteria this morning, I was sitting behind a woman who apparently functions much the same way. The problem(s)? Her voice was like sandpaper, and she spent 15 minutes regaling the person on the other end with every detail of her bowel study. This incident made me realize there are a few people, I'm sure, who want to hit me, hard, with my own cell phone. You have my apologies.

3. Anyone who calls a loved one "Panda Bear" -- and that means you, nurse at the station outside our exam room -- needs to stop. Now. And this applies to everyone: If you wonder if you're talking too loudly, you probably are.

4. In all seriousness, some really cool things happen here. This is a teaching hospital (like Grey's Anatomy's Seattle Grace! Yay!), so medical professionals are always on the lookout for better ways of doing things, and ways to involve regular people in making a difference. This morning, as I typed and Caroline slept, I saw a sign telling me about a little girl named Taylor who had received a life-saving bone-marrow donation from a stranger. All it takes is a cheek swab and you're added to the bone-marrow donor registry, the sign says. So today, before we leave, I'll check into making that happen.

5. This place boasts real diversity. This morning, I've seen: two nurses in burqas. Two men holding hands. Several "zero tolerance for bullying" signs. A poster advising me about a meeting at which I can learn to raise chickens and bees. A woman standing outside, as we walked in, with a goat on a leash, And this was all before 9 a.m. My office isn't anywhere near that interesting; come to think of it, Grey's isn't anymore, either.

6. Most importantly, I have no real problems in life. Here's now I know: As I was walking back from the cafeteria this morning -- after having written much of this blog post -- I saw a sign outside an office door. The sign read: "Pediatric Palliative Care"-- comfort care, essentially, for children who are terminally ill. I peeked in the window and saw several cards on a table, presumably from families that have lost young sons or daughters. And it hit me that I'm really only playing here today: Caroline will get better. How different this place must look to families whose children won't.

That's the odd thing about hospitals: Their purpose runs the gamut from welcoming people into the world to easing them out of it. Although when you watch from the outside, a hospital appears to be this bustling microcosm of society, it's really so much more concentrated.

The people here are doing the big stuff, so I guess they should be able to talk as loudly as they want to, or even call someone they love "Panda Bear." Me? I'm just killing time in a comfy chair before I can take my not-seriously-ill daughter home. If anyone needs to shut up, I guess it's me.