Monday, December 24, 2012

Charlie Lavia's yuletide greeting from the Great Beyond

No wonder I can't cook. I was digging around for a cookie recipe and found this one for our family's meatballs. My dad dictated this to me, after much prodding, in 2009.

Dad died almost two years ago, and tears came to my eyes this morning when I took the piece of paper out of the recipe binder and saw that I had made note of his editorial comments as well as his instructions.

As some of you might recall, my dad was an original. Here, for your Christmas reading pleasure, is a yuletide greeting of sorts, from the Great Beyond, from Charlie Lavia.


- 1 pound hamburger, 1 pound Graziano's pork sausage. ("Get it at Graziano's, not at  Dahl's. They have it at Dahl's, but they'll screw you on the price. But it takes gas to drive to Graziano's, so, eh, just get it at Dahl's.  It works out about the same. Heh heh.")

- Eggs. ("How many eggs? Jesus, Lisa, I don't know. Two eggs. Three eggs. Just whatever you've got.")

- A handful of breadcrumbs. ("Just pour it in your hand. What do you mean, different people have different-size hands?  Not that different; don't ask so many questions. Can't you just be satisfied with an answer?")

- Grated cheese. ("What do you mean, what kind? What kind do you think?")

- Salt and pepper. ("More salt if you like salt. More pepper if you don't. Don't make a production out of it.")

- Some diced onions if you want. ("I know you don't like onions. I put onions in and I hear about it all damned day. Because you don't like onions, no one can have onions. Jesus. Just pick them out, like at McDonald's.")

- Garlic powder. ("I don't KNOW how much! Until it tastes right!")

- A little milk. ("Sometimes they end up too dry. Just put the milk on your hands and scoot everything around.")

"Mold them into balls and cook them. How big? How am I supposed to know?  If you want to make them like your grandmother, make them like tennis balls. If you want to make them normal, then don't."


We'll eat meatballs tonight, and we'll all miss him.

Merry Christmas, Dad.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ghosts of Christmases past ... wearing wool, eating fudge and speaking Italian

With my Grandpa Kenny, playing "Heart and Soul," 1969
So I did a head count the other day and realized that of all the people who used to surround my family’s table on Christmas, the vast majority aren’t there anymore. 

This doesn’t exactly come as a shock to me; I’m not a young person. And it also isn’t a valid reason to feel sorry for myself; there are 20 families in Connecticut who will be missing their little children every Christmas from now on. But it’s still sobering, especially when I think about the fact that as families lose members, the character of the holiday tends to change as well.

The Christmases of my youth look to my mind like a still from “Mad Men.” Everyone was glamorous and handsome and laughing and smoking.  The women wore aprons over their cocktail dresses from Feldman’s Phase II on the west side; the men wore ties and followed their Hamm’s beers with chasers of bourbon-infused eggnog.  The house smelled of pasta and cherry tobacco from someone’s pipe … and decals.  Our house always smelled of paint and adhesive from decals, our family’s livelihood; the “stickers,” as I called them, bore the names of implement dealers and manufacturers of giant machines. They didn’t hold much interest for a little girl, but I respected them; I knew they bought my books and my markers and my Hostess cupcakes. 

Christmas Eve was spent at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, opening and modeling expensive clothes made of 100-percent wool; although I was allergic to the fabric and it caused me to break out in hives on contact, I was instructed to “ooh” and “aah” over the garments and enthuse repeatedly that I couldn’t wait to wear them.   Grandma also gave me books each year; from her, I received the Narnia series, the Little House books, and the volumes of bad poetry I loved so much, and I couldn’t wait to open the tissue-wrapped packages. We’d eat pasta and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus around the blue-flocked tree, and then we were off to midnight Mass – at 10:30 on the dot, so there would be enough seats for all of us.

The next day, the same crowd came to our house; we’d all wear our new outfits from Grandma, with my stage-whispers of “Can I change now? OK, how much longer?” punctuating the otherwise-festive environment.  (In all fairness to my allergic little self, I itched so much after a few hours in those woolen dresses that I’d have to be given take a Benadryl before bed to calm the welts.) I wonder now, as all adults do, why I didn’t pay more attention; why I didn’t try to learn some of the Italian my elders spoke for those many, many years in my family room.  Why I didn’t spend more time playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano with my grandpa.  He loved that so much, while I rolled my eyes after the second or third repetition. Why I didn’t ask my nana to please tell me stories of all her brothers and sisters back in Crucoli.  Why I had my eyes in a book instead of on my loud, fascinating, beautiful family. 

This Christmas will mark the second since my dad died; as I told a friend today, last year, his death was still pretty new, but this year it’s all too clear he’s not coming back.  I like to think he’s having Christmas with my mom now, and with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and all the people who used to pass through our front door with great, booming “Merry Christmas”es and platters of fudge and wandas and strawberry-shaped nut cookies stuffed with dates. I see him in his white shirt and tie, smoking a Kool and smelling like Old Spice and laughing more and more as the evening wore on.  I see my nana in her dark-blue housedress and black shawl, smiling as she spoke Italian with the few who still understood her.  I see my grandma, shiny and beautiful, giving air-kisses and sneaking envelopes into our hands. “To our Lisa at Christmastime,” mine would always say.  I think I still have one somewhere.

As I bake and wrap presents in preparation for my family’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations, it’s difficult not to feel a bit unmoored; I’m no one’s idea of a kid anymore, or a niece or a granddaughter.  I look in the mirror and my aunt’s face peers back; not my aunt as a pretty young girl, but my aunt at 50, with gray roots and the beginnings of jowls and crepe-paper skin on her hands.  And I realize that for my kids, I’ll someday be one of those memories … the subject of “Can you believe Mom did that?” or “Remember when she tried to cook?” or, hopefully, “This ornament (or this book, or this song) reminds me of Mom.”  And I don’t know how I’ll make it happen, but I’m hoping I can encourage everyone to put down the distractions and remain a bit more “in the moment” this year. 

Because all too soon, those moments are gone.  And you’d give all the fruitcake and tinsel in the world for one more rendition of “Heart and Soul.”  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

From unspeakable sorrow to happily ever after, just in time for the holidays

(Note: This essay was published in shorter form in The Des Moines Register on Dec. 4, 2012.)

Five years ago, Jason Medick couldn’t imagine a time when laughter would be such a routine part of his day, he wouldn’t even be conscious that he was laughing.

Now, the big house on Grand Avenue on Des Moines’ west side hums with activity: shouts of two happy girls. Music. Company coming in and out. A barking dog. And the routine peals of laughter of family members who have begun to heal.

In April 2007, Medick’s first wife, Shari, died suddenly, leaving behind a husband and two daughters, ages 6 and 2.  Among the family members who swept in to help the broken-hearted young dad and his little girls were Shari’s cousins from St. Charles: the McDonald sisters, Jenna, Kati and Trisha.

Kati McDonald had nannied for the girls on and off when Shari Medick was alive. She had left for college but kept in close touch with Shari’s sister, Shana, who filled her in from time to time about how Medick and the two girls were doing.

When she graduated, McDonald contacted Medick to see if she could visit the girls. The rest, as they say, is history.

“We should just jump ahead to the point where – yes – I married the nanny,” Medick said. “But there’s a lot more to the story than that.”

Kati McDonald, now Kati Medick, said when she began to visit the girls, Alice and Pearl, on a regular basis again, she realized she really didn’t know their dad.  She initially had called to offer to babysit the girls, but Jason told her he had nowhere to go.  However, if she wanted to come visit the girls, he said, she was welcome.

“When Shari was alive and I had babysat for them, Jason was always at work,” Kati, 26, said. “He doesn’t even really remember that I nannied for them. So when I started coming over again to see the girls, it was like we started a friendship from scratch.”

And that’s all it was for several months. Kati met the girls and their dad on Monday nights to walk around Gray’s Lake and have dinner at Spaghetti Works – kids ate free on Mondays –- and maybe one other time during the week to walk around the mall.

She dated occasionally during that time, but felt much more drawn to the quiet family activities Jason, 42, organized for his girls.  Before long, Kati was spending several nights a week with the still-grieving family and realized she was becoming attached – but only to the girls, she thought.

“I liked Jason; we had fun together, but he was 15 and a half years older than I was, and he had been married to my cousin,” Kati Medick said. “The last thing either one of us was thinking – consciously, anyway – would be that we could have feelings for each other.”

But each was beginning to, and those feelings came to a head one night when Kati brought a date to a birthday party Jason also was attending.

“When I saw her walk in with someone else, I felt hurt, and I left,” Jason said. “It was then that I realized, ‘Whoa – I was really looking forward to seeing her. What does that mean?’”

When Kati asked her future husband days later why he had left the party, each ended up admitting there was more afoot than just friendship. After talking quite a while about the potential roadblocks, they decided to “try dating and see how it went,” Kati said.

It turned out “roadblocks” was an underestimation. Some people told the couple, in no uncertain terms, that their relationship was wrong. Some said they had begun dating too quickly after Shari’s death, and others said the fact that Kati was Shari’s cousin made the relationship unacceptable.

“They all meant well and gave us advice out of concern for me and for the girls, and for the memory of the wife I still loved, and I understood that,” Jason Medick said. “I had many forces pulling me many different ways in my personal life. It started to get to me, and I told Kati we couldn’t be together anymore.”

Kati accepted the decision – after all, the disapproval had been hard on her as well, and she wanted what was best for Jason and the girls. But Jason quickly concluded he was missing her terribly, and he sought the advice of a counselor to help him make a decision, as well as to help him begin to heal from the loss of Shari.

“He told me that I had to move forward, and those who wanted to come with me would, and those who didn’t want to wouldn’t,” he said. “I had to grow a thicker skin and think about what was best for me and the girls. I wasn’t leaving Shari behind, but I did have to move forward.”

He called Kati and asked her if she'd begin seeing him again, and this past September, the Medicks married in an informal, family-and-friend-filled, standing-room-only ceremony in downtown Des Moines.

In addition to seeing his two daughters, now 11 and 8, serve as bridesmaids, Jason was most gratified that the guests all seemed to truly wish the couple well.

“I think what also helped people come around was when they realized that Kati, who knew and loved Shari, would help keep her memory alive for the girls,” Jason said. “It wasn’t a case where someone would come in and say, ‘OK, I’m the wife now. We need to move on.’”

Indeed, Kati makes sure the girls' mom is a big part of their lives, from saying "Your mom would be proud" of certain activities or behaviors to helping to organize a birthday-commemoration celebration for Shari every year on December 12. The family also participates in a remembrance ceremony every year on April 1, the anniversary of Shari's death.

"Their mom was wonderful, and although I hope to be able to influence their lives in a positive way, I also get a lot of joy out of things that they do and say that remind me of their mom," Kati said. "I'm sure she is very proud of her little ladies."

Those little ladies said they're glad that Kati is a part of their lives; at the wedding, Alice, 11, gave a public shout-out to her new stepmother for "agreeing to marry us."

"She makes us do a lot of stuff together, like going on family bike rides and putting up the Christmas tree together. And she'll tell us things about our mom and say, 'Your mom would have liked this or that,'" Alice said.

Pearl, 8, said Kati "has brought our family closer together," but she registered one complaint.

"She always makes us clean," she said with a giggle. "She makes us clean WAY too much."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Turning 50: Fat wrists and all, I'm glad to be here

Fifty. The age of doddering great-aunts.  The age when people once seemed to me too old to be relevant, too old to have their ideas considered.

In less than two weeks, I – I! – will be that age.  And like most people who reach an age such as this, I have no idea how I got here.

I’m not upset about the number.  I am mesmerized by it.


However a person "should" feel at 50, I don’t.  As the song “Fifteen” by Five for Fighting puts it, I’m 15 for a moment.  I’m 22 for a moment, then 33.  I was just 45.  And all too soon, I’ll be 99.  In all likelihood, I am on the downhill side of the whole deal, and that fact gives me pause.  But I can’t say it makes me panic.  As I do with most things, I’ve decided instead to over-analyze it.  And the closest I’ve come to a conclusion is this:

I am planning to rock 50. I feel I’ve pretty much rocked 49, and I don’t foresee any changes.

Let me explain. I sure won’t  rock 50 physically; I’m not running any marathons.  But I’m doing all right.  I walk each and every day, rain or shine, and thanks to a couple of really expensive prosthetics, my joints work better than they have in two decades.   My diet still needs work – for the first time in my life, my wrists are fat! -- but I’m making an effort.  I take a low-dose aspirin every day and hope it wards away evil spirits.

And although I may have more skin to contend with, I’m more comfortable than ever inside it.  After all these years, I know how to dress my no-waisted, round-shouldered body. I can’t afford cosmetic surgery, and I'm pretty sure I don't want it anyway, so I buy good bras. I’m not ready for my gray hair yet, so I do the best I can to keep it covered. I delight in every benign pathology report and every clear body scan.

I also delight in the fact that my arthritis hasn’t spread to my hands.  I can still type. 

I’m  happiest that I no longer care at all about trying to be beautiful, but the comfort I’m feeling isn’t all physical.  Not by a long shot.  Like many families, mine incurred some early and pretty major loss, and I coped by diving inward. I can see now, though, how that actually worked to my benefit.  As a child, I spent a lot of time alone with words, exposing myself to their variety and fluidity and cadences. Words became my blanket and my comfort and my home. Later on, they became my confidence.

I can’t do math.  I can’t cook very well.  But I can speak my words, and I can write them, and now that I’m almost 50, I don’t shy away from using them to communicate exactly what I want to. That is the greatest gift I see in being the age I am.

I’m also grateful that I’ve learned from my mistakes, and that I’ve learned there’s no disgrace in saying, “I was wrong; I’m sorry.”  And I’m trying hard to learn that guilt is useless, and that my faith assures me forgiveness for the many times I’ve acted too impulsively and spoken too strongly. I’ve also learned that people can change, but only if they want to … and if they don’t think they’re wrong in the first place, they’re not going to alter anything.  And I’ve learned other people’s untruths are not mine to expose, and that sometimes it’s OK to sit back, take a deep breath, and embrace the silence.

I’ve learned that parenting never stops, and that there’s no room for selfishness in it. I know that the adage “happy parents, happy children” isn’t always true, and that sometimes, adults have to live with the fact that our needs may not always be met, but that our children’s must be.  And I derive immense joy from having raised kids who think.

At almost 50, I’ve learned that the airplane and the Internet are the two greatest inventions in the history of the world.  And after taking my first trip to Europe this year, I absolutely see the value in going back as soon as I can, and taking more of the people I love with me.

I’ve also come to realize that it’s my job, as I grow older, to document history before it disappears.  My parents were part of the first generations of their families that were born in this country; I’m only once removed from my the poverty my grandparents traveled across the world to escape.  I can't allow the stories of those brave and proud people to lose their relevance.

So far, I’ve lasted eight more years that my mother was given; I like to think she’s proud of the way I’ve used them, and the way I’ll use any remaining ones.  I also like to think that in the next decade, I’ll become a grandmother.  My husband and others who have experienced that milestone say the simple joy of it will bring me to my knees.

All the nonsense about “50 is the new 30” doesn’t sway me; I look at my face and remember my experiences and know that, yes, the years have passed, and to some degree, they’ve taken their toll.  But they’ve also allowed me to understand that time is truly a gift, and it’s one I’ll accept with gratitude and reverence.    

Fifty. It is, as they say, better than the alternative.  But in reality, it’s so much more.  Fat wrists and all, I’m happy to be here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Perhaps my grandchildren will eat prawns...

So in the middle of a pleasant lunch the other day, my son said, “Cory and Kat and I have been talking about moving to Liverpool.”

He said it the same way he might have mentioned, “We’re thinking of moving to Marshalltown,” or “Cory and I took the dogs disc-golfing.”   In his mind, it seemed to be a statement that might merit an “Oh, really?” but certainly nothing more worthy of emotion.

It’s long been a fact in our family that I’d prefer the children move no farther than the end of the block; my dream would be that my grandchildren would be able to run a few houses down the street to challenge me to an after-school game of Scrabble or split a pack of Swiss cake rolls.

But given that we all know my fantasy is just that, my wise son decided to take a different tack: He’d throw out a place he knows I Iove with the hope that I’d be too overcome with possibility to begin whining. This time, it may have worked.

We visited England in May and Liverpool was my favorite city, hands-down – a wonderful mix of centuries-old cathedrals, contemporary street art, interactive museums and such curiosities as Ringo Starr’s old house. I’ve said many times that I’d love to go back and stay a while. So what better way to sway me, my son reasoned, than to ply me with the promise of a vacation home?

“Once we find good jobs and start making money, we’ll get a nice place,” he said. “And you can come and stay, like, a month. You can even come and retire there.”

Retiring there probably won’t work – first, I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be able to afford to retire. And second, there’s the matter of my other child, who might (fingers crossed) actually decide to stay close to home (alas, most likely not down the street). And then there's my husband. And my extended family. 
But a month’s vacation in Liverpool each year – that, I could handle. Wandering the streets eating scones and those savory little pies. Visiting the Beatles museum as often as I’d like. Watching the ferries chug out across the Mersey afer being filled with goods by guys who sound like the cartoon characters in the Dire Straits "Money for Nothing" video. Touring cathedrals. Reading to grandchildren who will have delightful little accents and wear knee-high stockings and eat prawns. 

Traveling to Liverpool wouldn’t be cheap, but there are great deals to be had online. And if you book way in advance, it’s even cheaper. And how great would it be to spend Christmas in England? We could take the whole family, and … on and on and on ...

In all reality, though, even with college degrees, succeeding in another country won’t be easy for the kids; first of all, England is expensive. Second, Scott has no idea what he wants to do with his freshly minted sheepskins. Third, did I mention that England is expensive?

And fourth, I don't want my kids to move away. I'll never, ever want that.

But I totally understand why the idea of a new beginning in a fascinating place is attractive to Scott ... he has always had a bit of wanderlust as well as an innate curiosity about the rest of the world. As Kat is from South Africa, so England would be a nice geographical compromise for the two of them.

And it’s a cliché, but it’s also true: The world is much smaller than it used to be. When I moved two and a half hours east after college graduation, my homesickness – in a time of expensive long-distance phone calls – knew no bounds. When Scott studied near London two years ago, we Skyped several times a week.

So … could it be that my Italian-mother stranglehold is weakening?  Or am I simply softening in my old age?

Probably the latter. It’s taken me about 7,500 years, but I’m warming to the fact that things won’t always go my way. My kids are 24 and 21; they’re talented and kind and generous and wonderful, and they deserve to chase their own dreams. And in the overall scheme of things, everything does tend to work out the way it’s supposed to.

Plus, nothing can quite seal a deal like the promise of grandkids who look and sound like Harry, Ron and Hermione. See you across the pond, mates.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

With apologies to Letterman, here's my Thankfulness Top 10.

As I read all the "Days of Thankfulness" posts on Facebook, I'm sorry I didn't jump on the train soon enough. What's better than seeing family members and friends profess the things for which they're grateful? But it's Day Five now, and I'm behind the eight ball. So I'm going to combine all my thankfulness into this post. Hope I can do it justice.

1. I'm thankful, first, for health -- my own health and the health of my husband, children, stepchildren, extended family members and pets. Truly, if you have your health, anything is possible. So many people I know are dealing with serious health issues right now, and they are my heroes.

2. I'm thankful for my upbringing -- not only that I was raised to believe in the adage "to whom much is given, much is expected," but also because I was raised not to see color, religion or class. In a political age in which a photograph is circulating that advises "put(ting) the white back in the White House," I'm grateful that I was taught to embrace and learn from people of all colors and faiths. I also was taught that in our family business, the individuals running the machines were the ones I should bow down to, as they made it possible for me to live a comfortable life. I also learned, and saw in action, that those people deserved to be compensated well for the skills they possessed.

3. I am thankful for my husbands.  I am thankful to the first one because he's a good man with whom I became a parent. I am thankful to the current -- and last -- one because he, too, is a good man, and he makes me laugh harder than anyone ever has. He accepts me wholeheartedly, flaws and all, and he's also proud of my accomplishments and my passions, even when he secretly wishes I would watch something other than CNN or MSNBC. He's a loyal and diligent employee and a fair, caring manager. He gives his whole heart to his children and his grandchild. He loves and is grateful to and worries about his mother.  If he stops smoking, he'll be just about perfect.

4.  I am not only thankful for my children; I am in awe of them. Scott taught me to be a parent and continues to teach me; he graduated with two liberal-arts degrees and wants to make the world a better place, but he's not sure quite how he'll make that happen. He works on his music and his writing and supports himself by working in a restaurant -- I love that his Facebook profile lists his occupation as "poet at Hickory Park."  He's poor, but he's noble and satisfied. Caroline has been driven since she entered the world; she is a force to be reckoned with, and a marvel to behold. How many college seniors have jobs in their fields before they graduate? She does, and performs the work of at least a half-dozen other people in her off hours. She succeeds at everything she does -- yet she's a great champion for those who aren't quite as successful.  My children are compassionate, loving and forgiving. I am fortunate indeed.

5. I am thankful for my extended family. I was shaped by Teresa, who is my sister but essentially became my mother after we lost ours, and to her husband, Jon, who became another father to me.  He was the one who told me I could do anything, and I always knew he really believed that. Together, they gave me siblings to argue with, share experiences with, and love. I am thankful for Jon's parents, who were the only grandparents I really knew. I am thankful for my nephew Aidan, whose perseverance reminds me every day to try a little harder. And I am thankful for my late parents -- my mom, whose legacy taught me to love books and be a leader, and my dad, who taught me to work hard and speak my mind. Helping to care for him as he was dying was one of the defining experiences of my life. Finally, I am thankful for my former in-laws, whose generosity extends above and beyond a level anyone would expect.

6. I am thankful for the ability to learn from my mistakes. And believe me, there have been a couple of doozies. How grateful I am that they will never be repeated.

7. I am thankful that I am satisfied with enough. I will never be wealthy, but I have a warm house, plenty to eat, a car that (mostly) runs, and a good job that affords me plenty of opportunity. I am thankful that when it comes to material things, as long as I can fulfill my obligations and help my kids, that's really all I need.

8. I am thankful for my faith. I'm pretty quiet about it, but it's there, and it sustains me. I know that as I go about my business, I'm not alone. The writer Anne Lamott says it best: You can pray all the time, because it's easy. You just need to say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." And I do.

9. I am thankful for the ability to express myself in writing. I am grateful for the editors and publishers who have taken chances on me over the years, and for the people who take the time to read the things I write. I'm also thankful for the writers who make it look so easy (that would be you, Jane Burns, Dan Finney, Michael Wellman, Sara Judson Brown, and so many others). I learn from you every day.

10. I am thankful for my birthday: In a couple of weeks, I'll be 50. Fifty! My mom never made it this far; neither did so many individuals who deserved these years more than I do. When I say the number out loud, it's not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. With any luck, the next decade will be the one in which I become a grandparent. No matter what happens, I'll have adventures, and I'll learn from them.

I'm thankful for so many other things -- fresh-squeezed orange juice from Hy-Vee. Crock pots.  Oreos.  Diet Mountain Dew, which really does taste almost as good as the real stuff. My dog. The ability to walk without pain.  And on and on.

As Thanksgiving grows closer, I wish you many, many things for which to be thankful, and for wide-open eyes to recognize those gifts and wide-open hearts to appreciate them. Think about it: What would be on your list?

Friday, November 2, 2012

I wish I could cook like Paula Deen, but I don't want her hair.

Yep, this is me, ready to tackle my roots.

I’m old, but I’m not old enough to be contemplating what I’m contemplating.  And I’m not seriously contemplating it, but I’m absolutely in need of some options.
I’m not yet 50, and I’m gray. Not just “Oh, look, a gray hair – want me to pluck it?” gray.  Under these L’Oreal Dark Golden Brown roots, I’m Paula Deen.
How did this happen? Heredity. The women in my family all have lost their pigment early; I noticed my first patch of gray at 27, when I was pregnant with Caroline. I was coloring a skunk stripe at 29. Now, two decades later, I’m touching up snow-white roots every two weeks.
I’ve tried various means of disguising the issue. I went blonde several years ago – a good theory (the light hair would make the outgrowth not quite so heinous), but a bad, bad idea. My eyebrows are dark, my complexion is olive-ish, and I ended up looking cheap and sort of unfinished, like an Instagram photo on the Walden setting -- interesting in an unsettling way, but just not right.
So I returned my strands to their birth color and started paying a very nice woman too much money every six weeks to touch up my roots. Now I’m coloring them myself for the most part and seeing her every couple of months to tune everything up – I’m sorry, but I refuse to hand over the equivalent of a small car payment to a professional when the gray at my temples pops out every two weeks no matter what brand of color tries to keep it in check.
I’m at a loss. I’m tired of trying to keep up the color; it’s messy and gross and I never get everything covered. But paying $160 twice a month to maintain my hair just isn’t going to happen.
I know two people who have given up. Each was about my age when she threw in the towel, and each is a lovely woman. One looks like Sheena Easton – lovely with high cheekbones, delicate features and a pixie haircut – and she would look good bald, so the shock of white hair on her perky little head works just fine.  The other woman looks a bit more like the rest of us, and even though she remains attractive, she looks a good 10 years older.  I’m not ready for that.
How shallow, you say as you shake your head. I know, and I agree with you – after all, I’m a feminist who has concentrated on “pretty on the inside” for a very long time now. But I still like to look good, and it’s becoming more and more difficult as the waist thickens and jowls form and I need a bra with about 16 hooks in the back. My hair has always been thick and wavy and able to do all kinds of things; it used to be  a “go-to” feature when I really cared about looking nice.
It still is thick and wavy, but good God, it’s white. To see how that changes things, Google a recent picture of the singer Grace Slick. The woman is, and always has been, gorgeous. But now she looks less like a seductress and more a lunch lady. (Not that being  a lunch lady is bad. But you know what I mean.) 
“Let it go gray,” Kevin says. Then I ask him if he realizes that will make me look like his mom, and he stops talking.
Is anyone else in this predicament? Have you resigned yourself to a lifetime of ridiculous salon charges? Have you gone the do-it-yourself route?  Or are you embracing your glorious, white-haired self?  I’m at a crossroads, and I really do want to know.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Hey, everyone! Ride the bus! Oh ... wait.

I'm about to begin working for one of Iowa's largest employers, and my office is located across the street from the state's busiest mall, as well as a few blocks from two hospitals and all sorts of office parks. The area is home to restaurants and movie theaters and banks and all sorts of other commerce.

And guess what?  I won't be able to get there on the bus.  Not without spending about an hour or more on a 20-minute trip, and transferring at least three times. Or traveling a bunch of miles in the opposite direction before waiting to see if the bus trips link up to take me out west.


First, the backstory of the bus and me: I began riding a couple of years ago after realizing that DART, the company that provides Des Moines' public transportation, does a great job of getting people downtown and back. My employer paid for 100 percent of my transportation costs. I was picked up at my house and dropped up in front of my building, and I was treated to 20 minutes of reading or Words with Friends time at each end of the day.  What was not to like?

Aside from a couple of piddly things, not a whole lot.  I shared my enthusiasm about public transportation with anyone who would listen: I tweeted and Facebooked and blogged. Public transportation needs our help to grow, I wrote. Riding the bus is the right thing to do, I wrote: it decreases our carbon footprint.  It's clean and convenient and easy. 

That's all true -- if you're going downtown.  But I'm not anymore, so DART is shortchanging me and anyone else who wants to head east or west without transferring in the central part of town. I'm ashamed that I basically ignored this epic fail on DART's part until I learned it was going to impact me.

In fairness to DART, the company's "DART Forward 2035" plan seeks to remedy some of this weirdness; its public information officer has told me to hang tight because in a couple of years or so, going from northeast Urbandale, where I live, to the far reaches of West Des Moines will be a piece of cake. And I appreciate that, but that's a long time to wait, especially for folks who don't have other options.

I have no right to act like a princess about this. I have a car and I can afford to drive to work, even though, in my opinion, driving 30 miles round trip per day -- one person, one vehicle -- is wasteful in its expense and its use of resources.

But ... really, DART?  Really?  Here, let me lay out my public-transporation options for you. I'm certain others' are even more challenging -- and again, especially for people who are elderly or can't walk to a bus stop or drive to a Park and Ride, the possibilities are even more daunting.

Option 1:

A. Drive to the Park and Ride at the church a couple of miles from my house. Leave my car; hop on Express Route 93 heading south.
B. Get off the bus at an intersection a few miles south. Wait on the side of the road.
C. Board another bus that will take me approximately six blocks to a shopping mall. Get off the bus; wait in the parking lot.
D. Board another bus that will take me the remaining eight miles or so to my office. (This takes into consideration all these transfers will synch up just right, and I won't miss any buses.)

Option 2:

A. Board a small on-call bus at my house (yay!). That bus will take me to a larger bus a few miles south.
B. Climb on that bus and ride eight miles in the wrong direction.
C. Link up downtown with a bus that will take me out west to my new office. (Again, we're assuming everything will synch.)

Total travel time for each option: Between 60 and 90 minutes. Time spent driving my car to work: 20 minutes.

Again, I don't mean to sound entitled.  I am fortunate to have other options.  But as I noted, what about a person in my general residential area who doesn't have a car or access to another ride?  What about that person, who has no choice but to shell out $50 or $60 a month to ride the bus only to extend her or his travel time by about 200 percent?

If I were planning to travel to a lesser populated part of town, I wouldn't have a leg to stand on, but come on, DART.  Here's an idea: Start a route at Merle Hay Mall.  Express it out west, stopping at Valley West on the way.  Drop commuters at Aviva and Wells Fargo. Drive over to Jordan Creek. Stop at the western hospitals . Let day workers off; pick up the night workers -- custodians, hospital shift employees, restaurant staff -- who need to go home in the mornings. Take them back to Merle Hay -- after, of course, you've succeeded in making Merle Hay a park-and-ride hub, as it should be.

If you do this, I'll not only ride every day, but I'll find riders for you.  I believe in public transportation, and I'm not shy. I can help you.

Not even for me, but for people who don't have other options: Do a better job, DART.  You're serving a whole city of people whose higher expectations for public transportation are justified for a metropolitan area this size.  You have a responsiblity -- and not only to downtown commuters. Listen to your potential ridership, and make things happen. You can do it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The rudeness is getting worse. Stop it, please.

Two nights ago, I attended an event at which President Bill Clinton appeared. I returned home and posted some pictures of the president on Facebook.  One friend, a Republican, left a post on my wall that read: "So happy for you that you were able to see him. I'm sure you had a great time."

I'm beginning to think that person needs to be elected queen of the world. Because she's one of the few people I've encountered the past several weeks who is able to keep her wits about her when communicating with a friend who has opposing political ideologies.

Yes, I know this is my third blog on this topic. Yes, I know everyone is sick and tired of the campaign. Perhaps Joe Biden -- whom I support; shoot me -- has gotten me all fired up. But I agree that so much of what's being said is a bunch of malarkey, and I'm beyond irritated at all the rudeness.

This is what set me off tonight: A post that involved a photo of a piece of toast and the words "Barack Obama, November 6, 2012" superimposed on top of it.  Now, I like toast.  And I guess you could say the graphic involves a clever turn of phrase.

But it's rude. It would be every bit as rude if it were about Gov. Romney, and there's no way I'd post it. No one knows how the election will turn out; it's a horse race. But elections are hard work. Both men deserve respect. Neither will be "toast," no matter how things turn out.

I'm tired of "clever" graphics. I'm tired of "clever" innuendo and "clever" rhetoric. I'm tired of the apparent license to lose control of one's mental faculties and repost such trash as a photo supposedly taken at a Romney rally of a supporter wearing a t-shirt reading, "Put the 'white' back in the White House."

I'm tired of both sides re-posting dreck from bottom-feeders who say they wish Ryan's kids had been aborted or that one of Romney's sons is gay.  (That one made the rounds today, from a fellow Obama supporter, and I almost went apoplectic -- if the guy is gay, first of all, WHO CARES?  And second, where's your compassion, email forwarder? If anything, I feel for the guy. What a fishbowl he must live in, and one filled with some pretty unfriendly, choppy waters.)

I am tired of being challenged to defend my political views. Guess what, friends: I don't owe you any explanations. It's all pretty easy to figure out: I'm a Democrat because I believe in that party's platform. If you're a Republican, I can safely assume you believe in the tenets of that party. Neither one of us is wrong. Neither one of us is bad.

I'll tell you what else I'm tired of: comments such as, "How can you, as a woman, support Bill Clinton? Don't you remember what he did to Hillary?"  Well, of course I remember.  And I didn't like it.  But, my God, he is  a brilliant, compassionate man who, in my opinion, was a terrific leader. He screwed up once. Twice. Maybe a few times. But how about this, fellow Christians?  In the New International version of the Bible, Jesus defends a "wayward" woman with these words:

"When they kept on questioning Him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.'"

I don't know about you, but I won't be throwing rocks at Bill Clinton, or anyone else, anytime soon.

Anyway ... I deeply, profoundly hope that President Obama will be re-elected. But guess what. If he's not, I won't move to Canada. And guess what else I'll do?  Because I was raised to be gracious in defeat, I'll congratulate those of you who worked to elect Gov. Romney. And I'll keep supporting the candidates and policies and platforms I believe in -- without trashing yours in the process.

Another friend posted a quote today that I absolutely love. Perhaps you've seen it:

"Speaking mindfully is as simple as cultivating the habit of first asking, 'Is it true?' 'Is it kind?' and 'Is it necessary?'"

In this election season, how many of you can consistently respond with a trio of yeses?  I've tried to. I'll continue to try to. In the meantime, I am asking some of you, with all due respect, to do this:

Support your candidate. Support him wholly and often.  Support him with well-thought-out words and examples and, if you prefer, graphics. Support him, most importantly, with statements that are true. 

Please don't do this:

Call the other candidate names. Offer the opinion that his wife is ugly and looks like a monkey.  Present the "facts" that he is a socialist and a Muslim and a secret Al Qaeda operative, and that his birth certificate isn't authentic. That he wants to "take this country down."  That he has a gay son and wears magic Mormon undergarments. And on. And on. And on and on and on and on and on.

No matter whom you support; consider this: Please stop behaving badly. It doesn't become your candidate, and it doesn't become you. And on Nov. 7, we won't be moving to Canada or impeaching anyone. We'll still be here, together, dusting off the scrapes and moving on to the next thing.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

I'm not a stupid person, but you'll never believe that after reading this.

I have a friend who is a cancer survivor, and as she prepares every year to visit the hospital for the scan that will determine whether she's cancer-free, she journeys inward to a place she calls "Cancer Head."

"Cancer Head" is not a great place to be -- while she's there, she thinks about little but the "what ifs." What if, 10 years after she was first diagnosed, the cancer is back, and fiercer this time? What if she has to go through more chemo, more radiation, more time in the hospital, more time away from her kids? What if this time, she doesn't win?

I can relate. In fact, it's "Cancer Head" that caused me to delay a test that could very well have made the difference between a good outcome and a not-so-good one. My thought process was a ridiculous one, and I'm sharing the experience so anyone who might come across this won't be inclined to be nearly as stupid.

First, the back story: I had cancer once. But it was hardly cancer: It was in my thyroid, and the type of malignancy was the easiest kind to cure. A surgeon took out one side of my thyroid, and then he took the other side. I swallowed some radiation a few times and have annual follow-up care, but as far as cancer goes, I was a lottery winner.

That said, though, there's been a lot of cancer in my family; it took my mom when I was little, so as long as I can remember, I've been afraid of it. So "Cancer Head" has been a part of my reality, and I've always liked to think that I deal with it by being vigilant with tests and screenings and trying to avoid known carcinogens.

But apparently I wasn't doing a great job around the time I noticed the symptom that could have signaled something really bad. I had seen it before and had it checked out, and it turned out to be nothing serious. But it came back, and it was a whole lot worse, and I ignored it. Why? Because I was scared.

I'll spare you the gross details, but you can guess: The symptom involved something one does in the privacy of the restroom, and it's alarmingly difficult to miss. And it was happening daily. And I proceeded to ignore it until a few weeks ago, when, after my annual physical, my doctor called me. Not her nurse, but the doctor herself. And she said, "I ran a test, and it showed a lot of blood, and why didn't you tell me?"

And I proceeded to lie like a rug. "It must be a new thing. I've never seen it," I said.

Why did I lie to her? Because I was even more scared at that point -- scared my own stupidity, my own delay, had caused some real problems.

So she ordered another test, and it, too, was positive. Strongly positive, she said. So positive that we need to get you in for a colonoscopy right away.

OK, I said. And I made the appointment. And then I canceled it.

I know; this just keeps getting stupider. Because when you think about it, the outcome was going to be the outcome, and I already was absolutely certain I had cancer ... so what was there to lose? And I had had the same test a year before, for a different reason, and it turned out fine.

But this time, "Cancer Head" was prevailing, and I was sure I was dying. And the bottom line, no pun intended: I simply didn't want to know.

Eventually, though, my shred of remaining common sense eventually won out and I rescheduled the appointment, and this time I kept it.

I was terrified -- so terrified that I hyperventilated on the table before the doctor even entered the room. But the test was a piece of cake; I was out cold, and when I came to, he was showing me bright, shiny pictures and saying, "You're clean as a whistle." The cause, it seems, had been rather common and entirely benign.

So what did I learn? "Cancer Head" could have killed me. Colorectal cancer is no joke: It's estimated that in 2010, 1.23 million new cases were diagnosed, and the disease killed 608,000 people.

But this is also true: If you're screened regularly and any potential problem is found early, you likely won't die. Screening for colorectal cancer is so much more effective that screening for many other types, including cancer of the breast; so many other cancers have no available screening processes at all.

I wish I could be like my co-worker Gene, who undergoes a medical test, assumes the best and doesn't think a thing about it until his doctor calls with the result. The reality, though, is that I have "Cancer Head" -- but dealing with it, while no fun, is still so much better than avoiding the procedures that could keep me healthy.

If a symptom is worrying you, statistics are on your side: More people are healthy than ill. But don't take a chance. Put on your big-girl or big-boy panties -- or, in a case like this one, take them off! Ha! -- and simply have the test you need. If you seriously think you're already sick, please don't do what I did: Take initiative and fix it before it can kill you. It's really, truly just that simple.

Monday, September 24, 2012

That blasted 1977 cheerleading rejection, times a thousand

When I was in ninth grade, I wanted to be a cheerleader. Now, anyone who knows me is probably well aware that I never should have expected cheerleading to be my thing, for a variety of reasons -- chief among them the fact that I am not, and never have been, built for flipping and flying and things. But back in 1977, my 14-year-old self reasoned that because I could dance and because I also could enunciate precisely, I would make a great cheerleader.

The judges, understandably, did not agree, despite the fact that I had worked darned hard on my cartwheels. So I went home with some kind of “thanks for participating in tryouts” certificate, and I cried. Boy, did I cry. For days. That event marked my first real rejection, and it stung.

So here I am, 35 years later, feeling that same sting. It’s over something equally silly, when I really think about it. But despite the silliness of the way it all transpired, it hurts.

As my co-worker Dave puts it, I am very “relational.” I care about connecting with people, and when I make a friend, even if our time together is short-lived, I carry around, in my head and heart, that person’s smile and laugh and birthday and favorite color. I love finding common bonds and building on them, and I love the long histories I have with so many people in my life.

So, here’s the silly part: One of those people –- a person I’ve known since before my ill-fated cheerleading tryout -– decided he didn’t want to be my friend anymore on Facebook. I found out when I checked to see if he had uploaded any recent photos of his daughters, and Facebook invited me to connect with him, telling me we had 24 mutual friends.

There must be some mistake, I reasoned. But then, something told me to check the account of a friend who used to be close to both this friend and me, and sure enough, he was gone, too.

I was baffled. Although my feelings were immediately hurt, I also felt incredibly foolish; I’m not 13 years old, and the fact that I’m “friends” on Facebook with some people and not others should not impact me in the least. But those two people … wow. I had no idea what I could have done to cause such old and faithful friends to want to cut ties with me.

I stewed for a couple of days. Then, on the advice of another friend, I shot an email to the original unfriender. I’ve remained closer to him over the years than I have to his cohort, and it was his absence I had initially noticed.

In my email, I apologized for asking the question I was about to ask, and then I plowed forward: I had noticed that he had chosen to disconnect from me, and I was sorry if I had done anything to offend him.

A week later, I received a response. My friend told me that my expressing my political opinions on Facebook had turned him off. Although I had written very few statuses about my political views, I hadn’t exactly tried to hide those views, and I had commented on and “liked” friends’ responses, and some of them had shown up on his news feed. (And, oh, yes -– there was also that giant photo essay I posted the evening of the president’s visit. So I guess I had been a bit transparent.)

And although he still considered me a friend, he didn’t want to be connected to me electronically anymore. We could “agree to disagree” silently, across the miles.

I finished reading his response and sat back to process it. And while the 49-year-old me appreciated the honesty of his words, the 14-year-old me wiped away a few tears. Yes, Facebook can be juvenile and silly. But it’s also the primary way I stay in touch with friends who no longer are part of my daily life. And I knew I would miss his thoughtful posts about his work and his hobbies, and the photos of his lovely girls.

And I wondered: Would I ever make a similar choice? And I came to the conclusion that I absolutely would not.

I have friends and extended family members whose political views, religious views and even global worldviews differ wildly from mine. I don’t even have long histories with some of my conservative friends, and there are a few I have never actually met in real life; we’ve connected via other hobbies or intellectual pursuits. And yet, these friends enrich my life; they make me think. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sometimes tempted to “hide” the posts that rankle me, but cut off all contact? I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t.

And yet, my friend -– the one who walked me though breakups and bad math scores, the one who made me mixtapes and made me laugh and had been there when I truly needed him -– was unable to see enough value in the non-political parts of me to keep me around. And I decided: While the whole “unfriending” thing is pretty silly, it constituted, to me, a big-deal rejection of our shared history.

I remember leaving school at the end of the day I had found out I hadn’t made cheerleading. I remember walking out of the building and seeing pretty little Julie Drilling, who had been my grade-school classmate, holding a pink rose to signify that she had been asked to become a cheerleader. Julie was thin and cute and nice, and seeing her standing there, quietly, with her rose reminded me of all I wanted to be, and of all the ways I had, in my mind, fallen short. And I was sobbing before I hit the parking lot.

A few days later, though, I was back to concentrating on my own talents and realizing that I would absolutely be OK. I realize that now, too, of course … but as I grow older and know I’ve used up more life than I have left, the relationships I’ve held onto have proven themselves to be increasingly dear to me.

And because I continue to care about my friend, I’ve decided that my tears aren’t silly, and maybe I’ll shed a few more of them from time to time. I’ll also be thankful for the kind of friend I’ve chosen to be, and I guess I’ll also be grateful to him for, in effect, reminding me how to be an even better one to the people who have chosen to keep me around.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A stepparenting rulebook: uncertainty, regret, and ironing

I don't believe any child ever spends his or her formative years thinking, "When I grow up, I want to be a stepparent." Kids might dream of becoming a mom or dad one day, but the once-removed nature of stepparenting isn't easily to understand, let alone aspire to.

I became a stepparent nearly nearly seven years ago, and like most stepparents, I didn't break down and separate the relationships -- e.g., today I'm getting married, and today I'm also forming important-but-undefined relationships with four other humans. I assumed, as I'm sure most people do, that everything would simply fall into place.

There's so much to be written on the topic. But suffice it to say that in my opinion, step-relationships are difficult because they are so undefined -- to coin a cliche, there's no rulebook. And if you happen to have multiple stepkids, each relationship is going to be unique.

So many variables play into the relationship: Is the child's other parent still living? How much time does the child spend with that person? How does the other parent feel about you, the stepparent, and about your relationship with the child?

How contentious was the parents' divorce, and to what degree was the child involved and impacted? How old is the child, and what's his or her basic personality and temperament? And to put it simply: Does the child like you?

All those translate to roughly 8 million variables that, on most days, can seem to conspire against success.

Stepparenting is not for the faint of heart, the thin of skin, and the easily defeated. It's not the natural order of things, the way things are supposed to transpire. And unless you're very fortunate, it can bring you to your knees on a regular basis.

But then, there are days you have enough presence of mind to think of it like this:

When the child whose life you entered when he was not quite 5 is getting ready to go to his first school dance, and you're ironing his clothes. You know he doesn't really care who is ironing them; he's far more concerned, probably, with trying to figure out how the heck a school dance works, and how, to a larger degree, the whole dating thing works.

But the ironing, to you, exemplifies what being a stepparent is all about: Not Cinderella-type drudgery, but the behind-the-scenes nature of the job. You're not the one who ever gets kudos for anything, nor should you be, and you're good with that. But you've become pretty good at the little unseen things that let the child, and his parents, know that you want to help that child thrive and succeed.

As you iron, you think about teaching that child to read. You think about the eggshells you've walked on so as not to smother him; you think about the time his eyebrows fell out and how you tried not to draw attention to the fact that he looked like an alien. You think about the fact that you can't really hug him, because A. he's 15 and B. he doesn't want you to.

And you think about the time that you broke the news to him that his good friend had died. And because you're not the parent but the stepparent, and you have your own kids to attend to, you had to leave the house immediately after delivering that horrible news. And you think about how you've always somehow regretted the way things had worked out that day, as you drove away and left his dad, who's not always comfortable with feelings, to deal with the most awful thing that had ever happened in the child's life.

You think about the fact that even though this is not your child, you have a history with him. But you've consciously tried not to overstep your bounds, because your own children have stepparents, too, and you know how it feels to be on the other side. So sometimes you've chosen to hang back.

But in the end, although such relationships are complicated, you hope, somehow, that your meager contribution to your stepson's big night -- the ironing of the shirt and the pants -- can convey the fact that even though you never really know what your place is, you really, truly do care.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Weekly Readers and respect, 1972 style

When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, I was 11. My family was in Clear Lake, as we often were during summers of my childhood; that particular evening, we were back-to-school shopping at Bergo's, a department store in the next big town, Mason City.

Bergo's had TVs in its windows back then, and from inside the store, we noticed several people huddled around them. We ran outside just in time to hear Nixon give the end of his speech "...therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow."

I remember, following those words, silence. By that time, no one liked Nixon a whole bunch; my family hadn't really been a Nixon family anyway, and his Watergate antics had sealed the deal.

But despite the fact that no one was feeling the love on that August night, all the adults around me seemed sad. Why? Because Nixon was the president, and back then, it seemed easier for everyone to root for the guy at the top.

I know that's more my perception, probably, than reality: I was a kid. I know a lot of people were anti-Kennedy, and Johnson wasn't the favorite of many during the Vietnam war. And as the media became more a part of our daily lives and our ways to obtain information multiplied, we learned more about the realities of the men behind the podium, and people grew increasingly wary.

But as a young person -- in school, at home, wherever -- we children who came of age in the '70s were taught to demonstrate respect for the highest office in the land. That respect doesn't seem to be a part of our lives anymore. And it makes me sad.

I know what you're thinking: "She's a Democrat. She supports Obama. She saw him yesterday. And she's mad at people who don't believe the way she does."

I do support the president wholeheartedly, but you'd be wrong about the way I'm feeling. I grew up in a family of independent voters, and although the adults in my life leaned to the left more often than not, there were a few years that we had Republican campaign signs in our yard. (And I continued the tradition: Although I strongly align myself with the Democratic party, the first candidate I ever campaigned for, although I was too young to vote at the time, was John Anderson.)

I just think, as simple as it sounds, that we could all stand to be a bit more respectful. It starts at the top: Some political ads are heinous. But at the same time, we're all responsible, as humans, for our behavior toward one another. When did it became OK to feel you have license to behave disrespectfully and downright horribly to people who don't believe as you do?

When it comes to expressing our opinions about politics, Facebook brings out the worst in all of us. I'll admit it: Before I started policing myself on the issue, when posts got the better of me, I often responded negatively to viewpoints that opposed mine.

But then it occurred to me -- quick study that I am -- that a person has the right to write whatever he or she wants to on his or her wall, and unless I have something nice to say, it's my job to say nothing at all. It would be so nice if others subscribed to the same theory.

Here's an example: A Facebook friend of mine reposts a meme that proclaims, "No other choice -- I stand with Romney." I may raise an eyebrow, and I may wish silently for the opportunity to converse with that person about other options. But I don't respond. Why? Because that person's choice is none of my damned business. And it's his or her damned wall.

Contrast that to yesterday, when I posted photos and a couple of statuses about seeing the president at Living History Farms. Never did I say, "Be like me! Vote for President Obama!" and yet the first two comments on my post -- comments that I deleted -- were negative and sarcastic.

Yes, it's campaign season. The president is running again. I went to see him to show my support. But guess what? Even if it were the 11th hour of his second term, I would have gone to see the guy. Why? Yes, because I really like him, but also because he's president. His visit presented an opportunity to come face-to-face with someone who's an important part of our history.

I don't pretend to believe I can change opinions with anything I write, and that's not my objective. I also realize that my posts and photos about yesterday's visit may have irritated some of my friends, and to that, I say, in all sincerity: Hide my posts if they bother you. Please.

But don't be mean. Don't be sarcastic. And don't act as though your opinions are the only ones that count. I'm going to repeat the directions Mrs. McConathy gave my fourth-grade class as she handed out our Weekly Readers with Nixon and Senator George McGovern on the front in 1972. She said something like this:

"Chances are you support the candidate your parents support. But it's important to treat each other with kindness and respect, and not make fun of anyone else's choice. It's also important to pray for the president, as he has the most difficult job in our whole country."

That will be my Facebook status one of these days. For now, I'll remind myself that just as my friends are made of more than their political opinions, so am I. Eight more weeks are left in this campaign season: Think we can spend that time being a little nicer to each other?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Joined at the hip? Not a chance, and it works just fine.

A couple of months ago, I was getting ready to go to the grocery store, and my husband was getting ready to do something else. My 15-year-old stepson ascended the stairs from his cavernous lair (otherwise known as the Man Cave, where his bed, his X-Box and cases of Mountain Dew live), shielded his eyes from the 1 p.m. "morning" sunshine, and asked, "Why don't you guys ever go to the store together?"

Well, for starters, until the new Hy-Vee came along, going to the grocery store wasn't fun. Neither my husband nor I enjoyed it, so I tended to slog through the big weekly trips while he handled the quick stops for dog food or paper towels. Dividing and conquering works well for us in many areas of life, and that's one of them ... and I had never really thought much about our way of doing things until Logan asked.

But then I started thinking about his question. Did he see his dad and me as not together enough? Did his mom and stepdad or friends' parents hang out together more? It's true: Kevin and I have never been joined at the hip. We married later in life, after we already had children and careers and interests. We're each pretty independent anyway, and our time alone had made us even more so. So by the time we decided to tie the knot, our lives and interests and activities were already in place.

That's not to say we didn't -- or we don't -- enjoy our time with one another. Kevin is probably one of the funniest people I know, and we enjoy some of the same things and have really great talks. But do we need to spend every waking moment together? Heavens, no. I don't want to spend every waking moment with anybody.

One of my best friends is most comfortable being with her husband nearly all the time. They shop for groceries together. They run errands together. They have the same hobbies. Similarly, a guy at work can't seem to function without near-constant time with his wife. More power to them, as their relationships really seem to work.

But then, we go to restaurants and we see this: couples our age or maybe a little older, sitting across from one another with nothing to say, looking bored and irritated. Couples who have run out of things to talk about.

Kevin and I don't run out of conversation. We both have jobs that are at least somewhat interesting to the other person, and our favorite separate pastimes are creative ones: I write. He builds things. We're both devoted to our children, and similarly obsessed with our dog. We agree about politics, morals, ethics -- all the big things. And as I mentioned, he makes me laugh. Hard.

Along with my children, he got me through my dad's illness and death. I like to think I was able to offer him some comfort when he lost his dad. He's been there for quite a few surgeries, and he even, as I've noted, once caught my vomit in a basin in midair and didn't even flinch.

I went to Europe without him; I went to the State Fair without him. I sure as heck go to the grocery store without him. He often goes to see family in Illinois without me. But when I'm the one who's been gone and I walk in the door after time apart, I'm really, really happy to see him. He represents "home" to me.

And I think it's pretty unlikely that anyone will ever catch us at Perkins glaring at each other across the table with nothing to say.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Here's why I think Jesus really hates the political process.

It started as a conversation with my extended family during a dinner get-together. For the most part, we all tend to be a little left of center, so we were all in agreement about the political events of the day. The big news: Mitt Romney had chosen his running mate.

We’re not a gnashing-of-teeth kind of group, and we also tend to be pretty polite, especially given that there was a person in the room who was new to our gatherings, and folks wanted to be careful not to offend. But some of us were questioning the influence of the Tea Party in the running-mate selection, and the conversation turned to the role of Christianity in the formation and growth of the Tea Party movement.

And then my son, 23, asked the question that shaped the rest of the conversation: “Why do politicians claim to do all these things in the name of Jesus when what they actually do is so far from what Jesus would want them to do?”

A few disclosures here: I was raised Catholic, and although I don’t fully identify with the church anymore in light of recent events (involving unconscionable abuse, the roles of women, and regard for individuals who happen to be gay), I’m in possession of a strong Christian faith. I was asked once how a liberal Democrat can also call herself a Christian, and I’m here to tell you it’s absolutely possible.

I won’t go into great detail about my personal beliefs, but suffice it to say that I ask God a lot of questions, and God usually answers them with a reminder to love others as I’d want to be loved … and if that’s not enough, to love them a little bit more. And I have to admit that usually works.

Let me also add a caveat: When it comes to the “love one another” thing, Democrats don’t automatically get a free pass. Some high-profile Democrats have proven themselves to be pretty crappy people. But by and large, parties subscribe to overarching ideologies that make up their platforms. How individual politicians interpret and run with those ideologies is their own deal, and those individual interpretations are what impacts us all as the election nears.

Growing up in Catholic school, I learned a lot about Jesus – albeit a very pale, honey-blond Jesus who resembled a better-looking Nicolas Cage and mysteriously spoke with a British accent in the videos we watched about him. What we learned, and what formed the way I feel about my faith today, is that Jesus was all about helping those who can’t help themselves. As simplistic as that may sound, I think it defines what we should aspire to be: kind and generous and helpful.

Jesus hung out with the folks at the very lowest echelons of society -- the lepers and the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the heathens. His friends were the ones who today would be homeless and jobless and perhaps in and out of prison, the ones who would visit methadone clinics and soup kitchens; they’d sell their plasma for a bottle of Boone’s Farm and a pack of unfiltered Camels. They probably didn’t smell good, and some of them probably suffered from alcoholism or drug addiction or mental illness.

According to the New Testament, these folks often weren’t nice to Jesus, either; some refused his help and kept chugging along in their wickedness. But what did Jesus do? He kept trying. He fed them and held them and loved them. When others questioned him about why he didn’t give up on the lowest of these people, Jesus admonished them not to question, but to jump in and help. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren,” he said, "you do undo me.”

I can’t help thinking that Jesus -- the same Jesus quoted by the politicians who tell us we should vote for them because they are Christians -- wouldn’t be about tax cuts for people who already have a lot of money. He’d be about taking whatever money we can spare and using it to help stock the shelves at the local food pantry. He’d be about donating that money to fund vaccinations or clean water for babies in developing countries. He’d be about opening our homes to people who have no shelter and children who have no parents.

Would he be about taking personal responsibility and teaching others to fish as opposed to just giving them fish, and all that? Of course. Read virtually any parable and you have the love-one-another component, but you also have the “OK, person who was helped, go off and do the right thing” component.

Before my Republican friends start crying “foul” -- no, Democrats are not perfect, not by a long shot. You can, and do, make valid arguments around the pro-life/pro-choice issue, for example (although I think we need to do a much better job, as a society, of caring for babies once they've left the womb). But I find it ironic that the people who talk the most about religion and “family values” are the same ones who espouse policies that, I’m sure of it, leave Jesus shaking his head and saying, “What do I -- or my teachings -- have to do with anything you're saying?"

There's a fine line between encouraging someone to take personal responsibility and realizing, with a compassionate heart, that some people simply can't. And it's our duty to help the ones who can't, and to keep helping them. (And let me just say: If you made, say, $21.6 million in a year, that's a whole lot of opportunity for a whole lot of helping.)

Do I always do what Jesus wants me to do? Of course not; I fall short far more often than I would like, and I’ve made some pretty big mistakes involving how I’ve chosen to treat others. But as I get older, one thing is certain: To again quote my very wise son, our duty as humans is to leave the world in better shape than we found it. If I can, with my one little vote, help the country achieve what I think it really is that Jesus wants us to do, I’ll feel I've done my job.