Thursday, June 30, 2011

Way to go, "The Voice". Thanks to you, I can no longer feel superior.

I had never even watched an episode of American Idol all the way through. But there I was, hitting “repeat” on my phone over and over, eagerly placing my votes to help a Janis Joplin-sounding, bald, combat-boot-wearing, fist-pumping 42-year-old to realize her dream of $100,000 and a record contract.

Way to go, The Voice. Thanks to you, I can no longer feel superior.

Kevin and I started watching the show a couple of weeks into the season after my daughter, a music-education major who has been known to sing a note or two herself, told me it was head and shoulders above other such contests. The premise: Singers compete to be the last one standing – “The Voice” -- each assisted along the way by one of four celebrity “coaches.”

Right away, we were hooked, despite my best intentions – very uncharacteristic behavior for both Kevin and me, as neither of us tends to show much loyalty to any popular network show (except, of course, for my long-beloved-but-on-life-support Grey's). It drew the kids in, too; when Caroline was home, she’d actually sit down to watch it with us. And Logan, 14, turned out to be quite the fan as well, discussing the merits of Nakia’s song choice or the odd mimes sharing the stage with Lily, or the “hotness” of the 16-year-old who sang the Ke$ha song.

Strangely, The Voice also began to impact my life at work. I found myself seeking out lunchtime conversations that revolved around the show, or trading instant messages with my friend Kim, another fan, the mornings after the episodes aired. It was rather odd behavior for two 40-something women, indeed, but we found we didn’t really care.

What was it about The Voice, which ended its first season last night? Why am I really sad it’s over, and why will I be waiting in front of the DVR as soon as the show is back on NBC’s schedule next winter?

  • Unlike Idol, it wasn’t ridiculously long. The Voice lasted about eight weeks – not a huge time commitment.
  • I liked the premise. Although the audience always was able to see the contestants, the coaches were able only to listen to them during the audition rounds. So each coach ended up choosing the members of his or her team based on vocal quality alone, not on appearance. (If you think that was a gimmick – as I did until I later watched the audition rounds on Hulu – you’re mistaken; Christina Aguilera’s face, when she turned her chair around to see the bald, tattooed Beverly, whom she had chosen solely based on her powerful pipes, was a thing to behold.)
  • I don’t care for country music, and I although I sort of knew who Blake Shelton was, I had never heard him sing, and I had only a working knowledge of Cee-Lo Green and Adam Levine. But these celebrities appealed to me; unlike Simon Cowell and his ilk, they seemed to genuinely like what they were doing. And I was always amused when they were able to take Christina down a notch, as was the case when Blake made fun of the stupid mimes Christina had selected to maul the obviously doomed Lily.
  • During the course of the show, Cee-Lo wore the following costumes, among others: Samurai; Sly Stone; Muppet; Transformer. Cee-Lo, with his big smile and oddly tiny arms and hands and verbal love letters to his team members, was worth the price of admission all on his own.
  • Once the contestants were whittled to eight, any one of them could have won. With the exception of an “off” song or two, they were all that good.
But when it comes right down to it, the primary reason I ended up hooked on the show was that, as syrupy as it sounds, everyone seemed to want everyone else to succeed. The whole set-up more closely resembled a musical summer camp than a cut-throat competition, and after a day filled with the typical aches and pains and stresses we all face, it felt good to watch people who weren’t sniping at one another.

My favorite singer didn't win the contest; I preferred the Melissa Etheridge-like Beverly, with her tartan plaids, leather jackets and stomping Doc Martens, to all the rest. But no one can fault the voting public for the selection of the talented Javier.

In fact, I hold no ill will toward any of them except for this: Thanks to the show, I can no longer call myself a network-TV snob. Even if for some reason I’m not able to forward through the commercials, I’ll be glued to the futon when The Voice starts up again next winter. Sigh.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Have all the babies you want, but raise 'em yourselves.

To me, being a liberal means being accepting of others' views, whether or not they happen to coincide with my own. That said, though, I am having a hard time with the Duggars.

The Duggars, if you haven't yet come across them, are an Arkansas family with 19 kids. They're conservative fundamentalists who subscribe to Bill Gothard's Institute in Basic Life Principles, and this means, among other things, that their kids are home-schooled, the girls wear only skirts or dresses, and no one goes to college. Their show, 19 Kids and Counting (formerly 18 Kids and Counting, formerly 17 Kids and Counting, etc.), is in its fourth season on the cable channel TLC.

I'm a TLC addict, drawn to such programs as Little People, Big World; My Big, Fat Gypsy Wedding; and The Little Couple as well as the Duggars' show. I don't like all TLC's shows; despite the screaming Italian-ness of it, I've never gotten into Cake Boss, for example. But I like reality shows that skew toward the documentary end of the genre, and the TLC brand of reality doesn't tend to be too flashy.

I'm obviously not a conservative or a fundamentalist, and the whole Gothardism thing seems mighty scary to me. But I've enjoyed watching the Duggars in part because they're so different from myself -- sort of like English gypsies, for that matter, or dwarves -- and because they have so darned many kids. At the beginning, it was really interesting to see how they function with so many bodies in one house. (The frequent pop-ups are amusing: The Duggars go through 133 pairs of underwear in a week! A typical shopping trip includes 52 cans of corn!)

But now, four years down the road, I can't help but experience a slight "ick" factor when I watch them. Keeping in mind, again, that they're not hurting me, and to each his/her own, I'm troubled by the strictly adhered-to gender roles, especially the lack of opportunity for the young women.

Four older girls who range in age from about 17 to 21 make up the pseudo-Mommy Brigade in the Duggar family. The actual mom, Michelle, doesn't seem to do a whole lot but have babies and take care of them for a few months before handing them over to the older girls, one of whom is termed each baby's "buddy." Not only do the girls handle the care of the babies and children, but they shop for all the groceries and cook all the meals, do all the cleaning and laundry, chauffeur the younger kids around, plan and execute birthday parties and other special events, soothe cuts and scrapes, dole out kisses and kind words ... the list goes on.

Michelle and her husband, Jim-Bob (yep, that's his name, for real) often praise their daughters for taking such good care of the house and the children, while never seeming to realize that the girls are doing all the jobs they, the parents, signed on to do when they decided to have 19 children. With the exception of maybe one of them, the girls look sad and drawn and tired. Think of it -- more than a dozen little ones to raise, including the 19th child, a baby girl born three months prematurely a year and a half ago.

The girls are lovely and seem very kind. The faith of the entire family seems quite genuine: "We have so many kids because children are a gift from God, and when God decides it's time for us to stop having them, He'll let us know." But, really, come on.

If that logic worked across the board, aren’t babies born to 14-year-olds “gifts from God,” too? Should teenagers then keep having babies until God “closes their wombs” as well?


One of my co-workers, an evangelical fundamentalist with whom I frequently engage in thoughtful, respectful debates, says families like the Duggars bother some of us because “they’re so close to home. We expect families in the Middle East to behave differently and have different values with regard to religion and family life. But when things that are ‘different’ go on in our own backyards, we don’t know what to think.”

He has a point. But I do know what to think, and that’s this: If the Duggars want to have 10 more babies, all the more power to them. But they’re the ones who need to be doing all the work involved with raising those babies, and they need to allow their children to make the same choices other young people make when they finish high school. If the kids choose vocation or at-home parenthood over other paths, so be it. But if college and career are on their radar, let them explore those, too.

On their website, the Duggars tell us this: Our prayer is that each individual that watches our show, sees our interviews or reads this website will be challenged to draw closer to God, closer to their own family and discover the bigger picture about God’s plan for their own lives.

Good enough, but allow me to bust out my Catholic-girl catechism and throw this at you, Duggars: Our children are not our children, but God's. Doesn't it make sense, then, that your plan for those children, Duggars, might not be God's plan? God could very well want those girls to become doctors or plumbers or lifeguards or athletes.

My advice: Take the babies from your daughters' arms and let those young women go off into the world. After all, if you've raised them the way you've intended, don't you trust them to "do the right thing" on their own? Otherwise, if things keep going the way they seem to be, and viewers begin (or continue) to be skeeved out by your style of parenting, this could prove the end of the TLC gravy train -- and a detriment to the message you seem to want to send.

Monday, June 20, 2011

I want to be an athlete. (No, not a mathlete. An athlete.)

Let's get this out of the way right now: Yes, I was the last girl chosen for kickball. I'll take that back: I was almost always the last girl chosen. Sometimes people had broken legs or sprained ankles, and I was chosen before them.

I was reminded again Friday night that I'm not an athlete, and that sadly, chances are pretty good that I will never be.

In 2008, Karen Coaldrake, a friend to many of us in the Johnston area, died suddenly. To honor her, a group of people organized the 5K for Karen, a walk-run in her honor. Friday night was the fourth annual, and as we have in past years, my husband, Kevin, and I signed up to participate.

Now, here's the backstory: Due to a combination of rheumatoid and early-onset osteoarthritis, my knees are a little unreliable. I underwent replacement of my left knee in 2008; my right one's not doing so great now, and hasn't been for several months. My former boss used to say she could hear me coming because I clicked; my orthopedic surgeon says I'm bone-on-bone and have even lost a little bit of height on that side.

So, given those facts, what did I decide to do? Walk in a 5K with my husband, who, despite the fact that he's not a tall guy, has a ridiculously long stride. When I walk -- which I do daily, two or three miles, believe it or not -- I cover a lot of ground, but tend to like to do it in my own time. And my own time is not fast.

Have I mentioned that I'm not an athlete? I come from sturdy southern-Italian stock, which means I'm genetically predisposed to fits of temper, a fair amount of gardening talent, the ability to talk with my hands, and relatively easy labors. It also means I'm rather endomorphic -- except that I can't even use large bones as an excuse. My wristbones are tiny; my waistline is not. I'm built for standing in front of a steaming cauldron of minestrone ... so it's really too bad that I never do that.

What do I want to look like? Rhonda, the mom of my stepson's friend Jack. Rhonda is about my age, and is nothing but sinew and muscle and brute strength. She's so amazing that I'd like to dislike her, but I can't, as she's really nice -- and she is also amazing to behold because she's the closest thing I've seen to the Bionic Woman. She runs something like 2,000 miles a day. For her, a 5K would take about the amount of time it takes me to irrigate my sinuses, and she could probably run it backward, while reading or singing.

But to me, the 5K is a huge deal each year -- not just because it honors the wonderful and magical Karen, but because it lets me pretend, for about 50 minutes, that I am on the way to becoming Rhonda.

So I left work a little early Friday night, changed into my "running clothes" (ha!), and set out for the venue. When we arrived, I put on my race T-shirt, greeted folks I knew, took some pictures for the paper, and tried to act as if I belonged. Inside, though, I carried on a one-sided conversation with my pal Karen. "Please don't let me come in last," I begged her. "Give me an otherwordly nudge from behind. Levitate me. Anything. Just. Please. Not. Last."

The starting gun sounded and the race started. All was good at first; Kevin and I talked with friends, greeted our kids' former teachers, laughed, joked, and kept up a pretty good pace.

But then we turned the corner, and the sun was staring us full in the face. Sunshine is all well and good, but not when you're walking uphill and trying to keep up a conversation while not letting on that you're sweating into your socks and gasping for breath. Which, by the first mile-marker, was what I was doing.

I watched my husband's stride and marveled at it. He was sailing along while I, only about an inch shorter than he is, was mincing like a geisha. But was I going to allow him to beat me? No way in hell. So I settled on a sort of walk-skip-almost-jog routine while trying to ignore the stabbing pain emanating from my right knee.

We passed a Casey's. I was burning up, longing for a bottle of water and a brief, shady respite. I considered stopping. But then I looked across Kevin to the other side of the sidewalk and saw that people had turned the corner at the 1 1/2-mile mark and were starting to come back the other way. My 14-year-old stepson was one of them, Justin Bieber hair firmly in place; he hadn't even broken a sweat.

At mile 2, the sun was still full-on and I was panting. Kevin, a few steps ahead, was carrying on a conversation with a friend of mine who was meeting him for the first time. I didn't have enough breath to introduce them. My walk-skip-jog-ouch!-stabbing-pain routine was beginning to fail me, and again I wondered how the knee and I were going to finish the route.

Then, blessedly, we were out of the sunshine and in the home stretch. Karen must have shoved me from behind at that point, because suddently, Kevin and I were neck and neck. We finished the route at around 50 minutes -- not good, but not last.

My face was purple. My knee was screaming. My hair was matted, my t-shirt had ridden up around my waist, and I had no idea where my sunglasses had gone. But still -- I had finished. I was not only Rhonda; I was Flo-Jo. The "Rocky" theme played in my head.

I looked around for my medal, as we had received them in years past. Imagine my chagrin when I was told that the organizers had run out. I ended up going back to the sign-in tent and whining to my friend Sue, who knew people -- and suddenly, my medal appeared. As Kevin shook his head in embarrassment, I looped the purple ribbon around my neck.

Chances are my right knee soon will go the way of my left, so I guess that in a way, the race was its swan song. As I admired my medal and drank some water, I thought of Karen, who started running at age 45, jogging from driveway to driveway in her cul-de-sac until she had the stamina to venture out into the rest of the world. And I thought: I’ll never be Rhonda. But at least, following Karen’s lead from long ago, I got off my a**.

And, wait a minute. Speaking of Rhonda, soon I’ll have two titanium knees, so if we’re going to be literal about all this, by next year I’ll be more bionic than she is.

5K for Karen 2012: Watch out.

A dog, screeching tires, and some broken hearts

Growing up, I was never an especially devoted "animal person." We had dogs and I liked them when I remembered to pay attention to them; luckily for the poor pets, plenty of others in the family showered them with love.

All that changed when I had my own kids and they wanted pets. By the time Scott and Caroline were ready to start school, we had added two beagles, Buc and Maddie, to our family. The kids adored them and helped with their care, but as such things frequently transpire, the nuts-and-bolts elements of their health and well-being fell to me.

So I grew to love those two dogs, and my heart broke when we had to have them euthanized – first Maddie, at 8, for liver cancer, and Buc, at 13, for congestive heart failure.

As painful as those two days were, though, what happened Saturday night was even more difficult to take.

Two years ago, Scott purchased a dog from the animal shelter in Ames. Forty is terrier-beagle mix with maybe a little dalmation thrown in; his face is like Maddie’s, which drew me to him immediately. I quickly came to realize he’s a human in a dog suit; whip-smart, funny, a good pest-hunter, and prone to such antics as jumping 4 feet into the air from a standing position. Scott adores the dog, and it’s safe to say the whole family is attached to him, too.

So this weekend’s events were devastating for all of us. Scott had traveled to Austin, Texas, where his and Caroline’s dad lives, for Father’s Day. He had suggested leaving Forty behind, but I urged him to take him on the trip. “In two weeks, you’re going to London for a month and a half,” I reminded him. “He’s going to miss you so much when he’s with me. You need to take him.” And so he did.

Long story short: It was Saturday night, Scott and his friend Dave were headed to the store, and Scott called to Forty – who loves car rides – to hop in the car. Forty, excited, darted out into the parking lot, and in a squeal of tires and a scraping of metal, he was hit.

A short time later, at the animal emergency clinic, Forty was found to have lost the sight in one eye and suffered some severe laceration injuries as well. The vet removed the injured eye and sutured the cut leg. It was amazing, the vet said, that Forty had lived.

My son witnessed the accident. My daughter witnessed the aftermath. They are grateful Forty is alive but sad beyond words that the active companion they know and love is traumatized and in pain. My son – a loving, caring dog owner -- feels guilty about failing to have Forty on a leash. I feel guilty for failing to have kept Forty with me for the week. The list goes on, and we just hurt.

But the reality is: Accidents -- sometimes really bad accidents -- just simply happen. To all of us. No matter how caring we happen to be. No matter how vigilant.

My friend Linda listened to my story yesterday, then said, “You can’t fix this one. Be there for Forty and for Scott. You will all adjust.”

Good advice, but when my heart hurts, I can’t make anything else work. When Scott was 9 months old, because of a stupid oversight on my part, he went down some stairs in his walker; I still see that scene, remember what he was wearing, even, and recall the hysteria rising as I was sure he was seriously injured. Thankfully, he ended up none the worse for wear, but I was shaken for months.

This is an animal, not a child – I get the difference, and I’m thankful for every day my children are healthy and safe. I also know, in my heart of hearts, that we’ll all be fine; our vet says dogs are resilient, and the rest of us will bounce back as well.

Still, though, I can’t get over feeling that I failed this little being, and that I, in my all-powerful Mom-ness, should have been able to prevent it somehow ... or, at the very least, wave my magic wand and bring the world back to the way it should be.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Thirteen stories high, cool, and free. What are you waiting for?

It was the kind of evening every married couple knows, I think -- the kind where you're arguing just to argue and neither of you is going to give an inch.  So I suggested a change of venue. We'd been wanting to visit the new High Trestle Bridge northwest of Des Moines and the weather looked as if it was going to cooperate, even if only briefly. He grumbled a bit, but we headed out. 

Suffice it to say my directions were a tad incomplete, but thanks to a lucky turn down a gravel road, we found the parking lot closest to the bridge. We chatted briefly about the wisdom of walking a couple of miles in flip-flops (I know -- what were we thinking?), but we started down the trail anyhow.

And here, in words and pictures, is how we found more than we had bargained for. In a good way.

Only 4,000 steps? In flip-flops? No problem.

So we walk a while, and ... only 5,000 steps? Are we going the wrong way?

Ah. There it is. 

We learn that the artist who conceived the art for the bridge, David Dahlquist, designed it to resemble a trip down a mine shaft. Much of central Iowa was built on mining, and the materials with which the art was built also pay homage to this history.
While Kev walks bravely near the edge, I hug the middle. I seem to have forgotten on the way here that I am afraid of bridges, especially ones over water. Troubled or otherwise. 

Have I mentioned that this bridge is 13 stories high?

At a lookout station, we catch this cool view.  My architect friend Diane would be loving this.

The bridge spans a half mile over the Des Moines River. It feels a bit longer than that when your heart is pounding. 

How he's brave enough to look down, I have no idea. The height is pretty breathtaking, though.
Another really nice view. The geometry changes as you walk along.  

Can't get enough of the unique views.

Viewing the Highway 210 bridge from a lookout station

The view from the Woodward end of the bridge. We started in Madrid, and unbelievably, we made it to the other side , despite my whining and shaking and, occasionally, yelping.

At dusk, the lights turned on. They're blue, not purple. The photo doesn't do this justice. Beautiful.

The pillars that mark the Woodward end of the bridge. We met some new friends from Sheldahl. There they are, walking along. Hi, friends who live on a farm whose names I can't remember!
No horses on bridge; good idea. Apparently there's no "no bats" sign, though. But more on that later... 

A little bridge history. Worth reading. 

The lookout station on the Woodward side. It bears the year 1912 and belongs to the bridge that used to be there.

Look closely. See the "1912"?

I take a breath and we start back across. This time, the walk is not so windy.  
The lights span the river's main channel, the little guide things tell us.

Love these angles.

Being a good sport. Then he tells me he sees some bats flying overhead. I respond that if he encloses me in a box or a nonfunctioning elevator, he'll have hit all of my phobias in one handy trip!

The little guide things tell us that the circles on the pillars represent coal -- again, honoring the many immigrants who made a living in the coal mines of Madrid and Boone. Many of them were Italians, so I find this especially interesting.

We'll be back, and we'll drag a kid or two with us next time. 


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pssst ... "The Brady Bunch" was only a TV show

I have a friend from high school who is blogging about her experiences as a 40-something woman who divorced and rekindled with her high-school boyfriend, and they've embarked on a new life together. It's a yours-mine-and-ours life; together, they're raising her children and his children. If her posts are any indication, it all seems to be working out pretty well.

That makes me envious, because I can tell you, I've been there and done that -- in fact, I'm still doing it -- and it's not easy.

A disclaimer: This is where blogging gets tricky. This is my blog, not my husband's or my children's or my stepchildren's. So I'm going to try to make this work in a way that doesn't violate the privacy of anyone I care for, while continuing to be true to myself as a human being who wishes to share her experiences in the hope that they might help someone else. Wish me luck.

I have two children; Kevin has four. When he and I first became friends 10 years ago, I had been divorced for about three years, and he was newly alone. Both of us had been through the wringer emotionally, and neither of us was looking for a partner -- especially, as we often laughed, because between us, we had a "Brady Bunch" family -- three boys, three girls, three dogs. (Unfortunately for my domestically challenged self, though, no Alice.)

We were horrified at the logistics that would be involved with merging such a household, so we took things slowly. After a while, though, it became evident that we needed to make a decision. Each of us was 42 by that time, and referring to him as my "boyfriend" was grating; besides, the kids were in favor of the whole thing and were urging us to make it legal. On a Friday night, with family and close friends around us and gourmet pizza later on, we did.

If this were a movie, now would be the time when the camera would freeze and the sound system would blare the sound of a phonographic needle scratching across a record. Because as soon as we married, everything changed.

Divorce wreaks havoc on children, no doubt about it. Each family handles it differently, and some fare better than others, but some things are common -- namely, kids don't like sharing a biological parent with an interloper. A study a few years ago found that given the choice, kids would rather have parents who stayed married and fought all the time than parents who were divorced. That's pretty controversial and is open to debate, but I wholeheartedly believe it.

So kids fantasize about willing their parents to reunite, a la The Parent Trap, and what's standing in the way of that? If you're the stepparent -- you. You, with your lack of kitchen skills, your tendency to expect things to go your way, your computer and your books and your stupid furniture. Your unfamiliarity and your irritating way of correcting people's grammar; your preference for staying up too late, and your commanding a share of their dad's attention. You, the mom who is not their mom.

You. You are the interloper. You are the obstacle. You are the problem.

And I totally get that. When I was 18 and my mom had been dead for more than a decade, my dad remarried. Although I was away in college, I still didn't like it, for all the reasons listed above and more. And I'm sad to say the discord persisted for years ... you know why? Because even though my mom was dead, "blending" was still really tough -- and I was a grown-up. Imagine what it's like for a child.

I realize that sometimes, divorce is inevitable. And some people make the valid choice to become parents without being married. But -- although I'm a liberal and a Democrat and decidedly not a fan of Dr. Laura -- I believe that if you're going to commit to have a child with someone, making every effort to stay together is the way to go. If that can't happen, though, you have no choice but to pick up the shards, love your children extra-fiercely to try to mitigate the pain, and keep going.

And then, if you happen to fall in love again (with someone who has kids), things become oh-so-complicated ... because you're suddenly associating in close quarters with children you didn't raise. You weren't there to read to them every night, soothe their tears, make sure they watched educational TV and eat their carrots. You weren't there for ear tubes and tonsils and first days of school and first sleepovers.

But suddenly, you're expected to behave as if you were. And they're expected to behave as if you were, too ... when all they really want is for their family, their real family, to be the way it was before.

I don't pretend to have any answers. But if you're embarking on such a chapter, perhaps some things I've learned the last several years -- and big mistakes I and others have made -- can prove helpful to you.
  • Don't expect too much, and don't take things personally. Easier said than done, but chances are, the child who says she hates you is hating her situation, and it wouldn't matter if you happened to be Fraulein Maria or Claire Huxtable or Lorelei from Gilmore Girls. She'd still call you bad names and pray that one day, you'll simply forget to come home from work.
  • Don't offer your input as to how the child should be raised. Remember: You weren't there for all the events that shaped the child. Granted, you shouldn't allow abuse of any kind, or theft or destruction of property. But if no one's bleeding and your stuff's not missing and you and your kids are not being directly impacted, stay out of it. The child has parents, and decisions regarding the child's behavior and its consequences are not yours to make. Concentrate on your own kids.
  • Don't expect to feel overwhelming parental love for a child who's not yours. In rare and happy households, it happens. That's not to say you don't care about the child, but don't feel guilty if you don't feel as much as you think you should. Also, if it becomes clear that you and an older child just don't get along and probably never will, refuse to play games. Respect the child's feelings, minimize contact, and don't allow the issue torpedo your marriage. (And if you're the parent of a younger child who is hostile to his or her stepparent, set some ground rules, and seek the help of a counselor if you can't seem to gain any ground.)
  • If he or she is open to it, try being your stepchild's friend. It's a dopey cliche, but in some cases, it works. Being friends with your stepchild and genuinely enjoying that child's company is a joy.
  • Use common sense. Don't bad-mouth your stepchild to your spouse. If your spouse is a decent parent and is brow-beaten into choosing you or his children, it's a guarantee that he won't choose you. Talk to a sympathetic friend or family member, but leave your spouse out of those conversations.
  • Remember why you married your spouse in the first place, and even on the very worst days, reassure him or her that the two of you are still the two of you, and you're going to tough things out together.
There's a difference between being a Realistic Robin and a Negative Nancy, and I don't mean to cross the line. I daresay that in the most tumultuous blended household, there are still good times to be had. I just wish that someone had told me years ago that my expectations needed to be in line with my reality.

If you're part of a blended family and your experiences have been different from mine -- or if they've been the same, and you want to vent -- please leave a comment. Given that the divorce rate still is hovering around 50 percent, my household can't be the only one dealing with this, and I'd love to learn from you.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Me and my "hobby"

Talk about a check-your-ego-at-the-door moment. A friend last week made reference to my blog as a "hobby."

The remark bothered me, and because it was made with no ill intent whatsoever, I thought long and hard about why it affected me the way it did. After all, many people have hobbies; hobbies are mostly good and wholesome. It's just that they're simply not what this happens to be.

I’ve always heard that it’s a bad idea for a person to allow her occupation to define her. I think that’s true, but I was lucky enough to end up being paid to do exactly what I always wanted to do. My “real” day job pays the bills and is not my passion, but it’s a great gig, I take pride in it, I work hard at it, and I like it.  And I am in love, for the most part, with my freelancing job -- the one that pays some smaller bills and allows me the occasional splurge.

So I define myself by both jobs, and doing so allows me to describe myself to the IRS as a professional writer and editor. But here’s where things get tricky. When you’re a writer, you don’t check your job at the door the minute you walk home, as you might if you’re an actuary or a TV installer or an insurance salesman or a bartender. When you’re a writer, you view everything as a potential tale to tell. So you’re always working.

I started this blog to keep my sanity and inform relatives of the ever-changing landscape when my dad was sick. I continued it after he died because I found I had a lot to say. My kids are in college; my stepson is too young – mercifully for him – to be counted on for much feedback. And my husband isn’t much of a talker, so while he’s a good listener, it’s either converse with walls or do this.

And I know some people don’t agree with the things I write, and that’s perfectly OK. Anytime I write about gay rights, for example, I can count on being “unfriended” by a person or two on Facebook.  And because my blog has the potential to generate controversy, some well-meaning folks have asked me: “Why do you do it?”

The question “Why do you write?” has never been one of my favorites; for me, it’s akin to “Why do you eat?” or “Why do you shower?” It’s a necessity that allows me to keep my sanity so as to be able live in a civilized society. In short, I don’t know why, but I have to churn out words – and often a lot of them – on a daily basis.

Unlike my more disciplined peers, I don’t plan my non-assignment writing; the urge strikes and I give in to it, often turning to the computer in the middle of something else. Twenty minutes later, if the letters have aligned in just the right way, I feel better. If they haven’t yet done that, I stay at it until they do.

I’m not a jack-of-all-trades. I can’t sew or cook or do math. I’m too scared to gamble and too impatient to shop. I bake a little, my gardens usually turn out all right, and I read like a fiend. But really, when the Talent Fairy was coming around, this is what she had in the bottom of her bag.

I’m not trying to sound pathetic; far from it.  I love my life, but I’m just realistic. If writing were simply a hobby for me, there would be nothing else for me to do. So in a nutshell: I have no idea why I write, and my friend’s words scared me a little.

From time to time, I think of Iris Murdoch, the acclaimed writer and philosopher who fell victim to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As Dame Judy Dench portrays her in the movie Iris, Murdoch is a master of words who loses the ability, heart-wrenchingly, to manipulate them. My worst fear is of something happening to one of my children or to another close family member; my second-worst fear is losing my words.

So I hold tightly to them and use them as much as I can. They’re not a hobby; they’re my breath. And if someone is offended by something I write, please consider talking with me about it. This blogging thing is all about dialogue, and I love it when that goes both ways.

In the meantime, I’m afraid I have no choice but to keep churning out all these words. To those of you who read them, your attention to my “hobby” touches my heart.

Iris Murdoch, 1919-1999

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The most awesome apartment ever; he just doesn't know it yet

Over the last few decades, there have been several different versions of the song "Big Yellow Taxi." You may be familiar with the refrain: Don't it always seem to go ... that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?

No truer words were ever spoken, and I was reminded of that tonight as I stood on Welch Avenue in Ames and looked up at the apartment my son will move into in August. It's on top of a bar, across from a Subway, and sandwiched between two tattoo parlors.

And while he's living there, he is going to have the time of his life. He may not realize it now, but I guarantee it's true.

I adored college. I didn't realize how much, as the song says, until I had graduated. Looking back, I really don't know how I had time to love it; I don't know how I had time to do anything but study or work. But I somehow found time to drink too much wine and lie on the floor, head to head, with six of my closest friends in a tiny apartment above a pizza parlor and debate at length the meaning of the words to Purple Rain.

College was where I finally realized that I wasn't 98 pounds and blond, and that I was really OK with that. It's where I learned I could be admired for knowing there's no period after the "Dr" in "Dr Pepper," and where I could debate at length my unpopular belief that the serial comma is occasionally acceptable. It's where I learned that I should never drink Long Island ice teas, dress like Madonna or allow my car to run out of oil.

And I didn't learn those things in the dorms. I learned them after I'd gotten used to college and opened myself up to the fact that it was the start of my real life.

My friends from that era have scattered. But when I see a post from Jane on my Facebook wall or read Gage's blog or see Jeff or Francie's pictures or hear of another of Brett's adventures, I remember our intense conversations and late nights and wonder if we had any idea back then what a gift it was to find others so much like our strange, wonderful selves.

When my kids are looking back at their university experiences through a 26-year-old lens, they won't remember the classes they took -- at least not the details. They won't remember walking to the farthest building on campus in subzero temperatures, and they won't even remember the fatigue that slams you at 4 a.m. when you're trying desperately to pull an all-nighter to cram for a test.

What they'll remember is this: Singing along, loudly and badly, to the music from a jukebox in a dive bar. Eating giant burritos at a storefront stand after last call. Flopping down on someone's 1970s plaid couch to have long, earnest, passionate conversations about nothing, and not caring that the springs are poking through the cushions.

I haven't seen the inside of Scott's new apartment yet, but from the looks of the outside -- coupled with the location -- it's the perfect backdrop for a busy, earnest senior year. I hope he stops from time to time to realize how much fun he's having.