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.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Nothing Gold Can Stay

When I was a college freshman, I met a girl I'll call Julie. She was smart and lovely and, to the chagrin of so many of us in the dorm, rail-thin despite having the appetite of a man six times her size. But you couldn't be jealous of her, not really, because underneath her long blond hair and perfect smile and size-2 body, she was just so genuinely nice.

So one day early in the year, Julie met a guy I'll call Nick, and eventually, they fell in love. Nick was a nice-looking guy, but most importantly, he was kind at a point in time when many guys care little about the way they treat others. Nick was inclusive and funny and sweet, and he walked through those next several months leading up to their wedding as if he had won the lottery. In his mind, he had -- I don't think he ever assumed Julie would love him back.

They married the summer after Julie's and my sophomore year. I transferred schools, made a new life with my new friends, and lost track of Julie and Nick. I would hear tidbits about them here and there; they had settled in the town in which we had gone to school, Julie was teaching kindergarten, and, finally, after many years, they had started a family.

Then one day, unbelievably, I heard this: Julie had died. She had been fighting cancer, with which she had been diagnosed when her children were tiny. But she hadn't won, and at age 40, with two still-small children, Julie died. And Nick, who had loved her so, was alone.

But not really alone -- he had the kids. His kids. Julie's kids. And by all accounts, he made up his mind early on that he would raise them on his own. But in one of the cruelest twists of fate I had ever heard, Nick also became ill. For a long while, his illness was managed, and he made things work.

But two nights ago, Nick died. His kids, Julie's kids, are 15 and 14. Fifteen and 14, and now they have no parents.

Crappy things happen to good people every day. We all know people who have died young. Died painfully. Died alone. But this is almost too much -- it's as if Fate said, "Get your happiness early, kids, because there's not going to be time for a lot of it." I imagine they did. I hope they did.

I don't know Julie and Nick's kids, and I doubt they'll ever read this. But if they happened to, I'd want them to know about the day I walked to class about a hundred feet behind the people who would become their parents.

It was a cold day, and Julie was putting on her parka on the way to class. She was walking and trying to get her arms in the sleeves and her hair got stuck in the back of the coat. And with a gesture so gentle that I'll never forget it, Nick reached in, untangled the hair, and laid it ever-so-gently on the outside of the coat. And then he leaned down and kissed the top of Julie's head, and they kept walking.

I envied Julie and Nick that day. I assumed they would have a golden life. It's my hope that they did. And as I read the words of Robert Frost, I almost think he must have time-traveled and known Nick and Julie.

Rest in peace, both of you. And to your children: Just know that your mom and dad, during that moment in time some some 29 years ago, were the people we all wanted to be.

Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps ... and me

I’ve never been an athlete. Suffice it to say I’ve never even really tried to become an athlete. Some truths, as they say, are self-evident, and for me, that was one of them. Good speller? Yes. Good kick-ball teammate or tetherball partner? Nope. Not if you don’t want to lose.

But I’ve always loved the Olympics – to the point that if I had two weeks’ PTO to blow, I’d take time off and watch the coverage all day long. Bob Costas’ bad plastic surgery, be damned; I’m not looking at you anyway, Bob. I’m looking at the tears and the falls, the parents in the stands. The high-fives, the hugs. The drama.

When I was growing up, we were an Olympics family. The first Games I remember watching were in ’72, the year the terror unfolded in Munich. I still remember seeing the grainy pictures of the gunmen in the woolen ski masks. But equally vivid are the memories of Olga Korbut doing that backflip thing from the higher of the uneven bars and Mark Spitz with his seven gold medals fanned out across his chest.

Then came 1976 and Nadia with her perfect 10. From there, the years, and the athletes, run together, but when I think of family vacations, I flash back to the five of us spending our evenings huddled around some little hotel TV if the Olympics happened to be on while we were away from home.

Globally shared experiences are a little difficult to come by these days, but the Olympics do tend to facilitate a few every two years. No matter if we happened to be watching “Dance Moms” or “Breaking Bad” for a little while, we all turned back to NBC to watch Gabby clinch the all-around and Phelps accept his final gold medal. And we all talked about those experiences the next day.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to possess the grace of a world-class athlete. I’ll never know, but for a scant two weeks every other year, I can imagine, and I can choke up at the sight of a runner with blades where his feet should be or a 16-year-old girl who spent two years with people who weren’t her family so she could see if she had what it took.

She did, and I’m in awe of her for refusing to be scared away by the voices that tell us all, “Don’t bother. Most people will never be that good.”

Even when they’re not that good -- 1,000 times more talented than I’ll ever be, but still, in Olympic frame of reference, not good enough -- I’ll watch them, and like many people, I’ll wonder “What if?” What if I had tried to become a pathologist in spite of my dad’s warnings that “people who aren’t good at math can’t be doctors”? What if I had, as a young person, stopped making mix tapes and laced up a pair of Nikes?

I wouldn’t have made it to the Olympics, but maybe I would have gotten a taste of what it’s like to push yourself harder than you ever thought possible. It’s on my bucket list to do that -- someday, in some way.

No, I’ll never know the feeling of gold around my neck. The upside, though? I'm equally certain I'll never be asked to stare into the face of Bob Costas.