Thursday, December 19, 2013

The mom and the evil stepmother living happily ever after? It really must be Christmas.

My 16-year-old stepson is on Twitter, but I don’t follow him; he had gotten off Facebook because he was tired of his parents and stepparents reading and commenting on his status updates, so I decided not to stalk his tweets. A few people I know follow him, though, and one of them alerted me last night to something he had posted. With a little trepidation, I took a look, and he had written:

I'm so glad my parents still get along even though they are divorced.

I found that amazing in a couple of ways: First, I love that he, a 16-year-old male, is willing to put his feelings out there for all to see. And second, I love that he recognizes and is obviously comforted by something that’s been a long time coming.

Like most marriages that end, his parents’ didn’t end happily; there was a great deal of friction at first, and when significant others were added to the mix, the friction quadrupled. Kevin’s ex, Leslie, was someone I had known when the two of them were married; our daughters were friends, and we’d do the pick-up-and-drop-off thing; I wasn’t close to her, but I had liked her just fine.

So when I started dating Kevin, I had no reason not to like Leslie, so I still liked her fine. But then it became clear that because feelings were still pretty raw, I needed to choose one camp or the other, so I “sided” with my now-husband and decided I’d better not like Leslie anymore (proof, mind you, that adulthood is a lot like seventh grade, except with taller people).

So we became … something strange. Not enemies, but certainly not friends. And then she remarried, and then Kevin and I married, and suddenly we were dealing with hordes of hormonal pre-teens and teenagers, and no one liked anyone a whole lot. Kevin’s kids were loyal to their mom, of course, and they knew she and I didn’t get along well, so our animosity fueled their dislike of me. And rather than rise above the whole mess, I allowed their dislike of me to hurt me, and I guess that in turn, I blamed their mom.

And for years, we collectively churned, and we festered, and we cried, and I wondered why I had embarked down this path; no one was happy. Looking back, I don’t know how Kevin and I managed to keep our marriage intact.

But then, one day, we looked around and realized most of the kids were grown. And as Kevin’s kids became interested in real-life pursuits, they seemed to hate me less, or at least they showed it less. There were no tear-filled mea culpas, but there seemed to be a détente of sorts. And then one day, I got a text message from Leslie. It was about one of my stepkids -– one who was upset over what she perceived as my dislike of her. Leslie wanted me to be aware of the way her daughter felt. The message, and its contents, chilled me.

I had been so upset over the dislike I felt from the kids that I hadn’t given a thought to the fact that the kids thought I disliked them. And Cinderella’s evil stepmother flashed before my eyes, and the fact that I was being called out –- quite rightly –- for some pretty poor behavior brought me to my knees. I had never, ever set out to be that person.

But I was that person -– at least in the eyes of a few kids I truly did care about. And as I set about making things right, I realized what an extraordinary thing Leslie had done in reaching out. And over days and weeks as our communication increased, I realized that this was a person I really, truly still liked.

From that point, things turned around. Although my stepdaughters were on their own, they saw the four of us -– their mom and stepdad, and their dad and me -– interacting at events. At home, I’d make sure to bring up, with my younger stepson, something funny his mom had said, or I’d offhandedly remark that she had texted me about something. When Logan’s baseball team went to the state tournament, we sat together, and when the team won, we rejoiced together. Logan was able to look up from the field and see his entire family cheering him on from the same row of seats. I thought at the time: I hope this means something.

And it became clear last night that it did, and it does. As Leslie’s and my relationship thawed, that freed Kevin and Leslie to become friends as well. Time is a funny thing; few events are more wounding than divorce, but if we’re lucky, those of us who divorced relatively young are able to look back with more mature eyes at what went wrong, and to forgive our former spouses and ourselves. As I look at my own ex-husband now, so many years down the road, I see the qualities that attracted me to him in the first place: his kindness and humor and the knowledge that he’d be a good parent. I think Kevin and Leslie are at that stage as well.

The four of us don’t hold hands and sing Kumbayah; we’re different people with different interests. But we’re a part of one another’s lives, and the kids witness our interactions on almost a daily basis. And Logan’s tweet last night drove home the point that these mended relationships have meant something. I wish it could have happened when the girls were still home, but here’s something I hold on to: There’s another generation in the picture now, as one of the girls has a baby of her own. And thankfully, that little girl will never know our relationships any way other than the way they are now.

Leslie texted me the other night. “Got your Christmas card; it’s great!” She said. I responded: “Thanks! I think you took the picture of Carly that I used on it; guess I should have told you I stole it from your Facebook.”

And I laughed, Kevin asked me what I was laughing at.

“Oh, just Leslie,” I said. And he shook his head.

“You guys are weird,” he said.

But he was smiling.

Friday, December 13, 2013

She's been gone for a while now, but for me, Christmas is Grandma.

Grandma and me, 1967

(Note: This was published as a Des Moines Register guest essay in December 2005.)

Three years ago Christmas, my grandmother died. The date is significant; my grandmother was a diva before the word entered the popular vernacular, and family members joke that she wanted to make darned sure no one forgot the anniversary of her death. 

Even more significant to me, though, is the fact that she wasn’t my grandmother at all. Not really, if you’re a purist who would classify a grandmother as a flesh-and-blood relative.  But she was more a grandparent to me than any of my “real” grandparents, one of whom died long before I was born, two others who died when I was 4, and a fourth who died when I was 20 after never really seeming to know my name or like me much.

Grandma came into my life shortly after I arrived. Her son was preparing to marry my sister, who is 20 years older than I. Grandma, an only child, was the mother of an only child, and she reportedly became excited at the possibility of having a baby around.  The first mention of her is in my baby diary, written by my sister because our mother was ill after my birth. “Louise brought a beautiful velvet romper suit from Younkers,” the notation reads.  “I’m afraid Lisa has already outgrown it.”

As also is chronicled in my baby diary, my mother never shook the infection that took hold of her when I was a newborn, and cancer claimed her when I was 4; during her last two years, she was too ill to care for me, and my sister and brother-in-law, Jon and Teresa, took me in, as well as my father, who came to live with us after Mom died.  Jon and Teresa started their own family at the same time, giving me, for all practical purposes, siblings.

Into this confusion swept Grandma and Grandpa, as well as Grandma’s parents, Nana and Papa. Nana and Papa lived next door to Grandma and Grandpa, and in the two houses that made up their little compound on Des Moines’ southwest side, I became the princess.  Whenever anyone says, “Oh, it’s so sad that your mom died when you were little,” intimating that my life must have been awful, I wish I that person could have known the kindness with which my new relatives treated me.

Part of their regard for me was, I believe, borne of being Italian. In the Italian culture, children are revered; there is no such thing as “seen but not heard.”  Every Sunday at noon, when we walked into Nana and Papa’s house for dinner, I promptly was handed peanut M&Ms and a Pepsi, even though I made a mess every time by dropping the candies in the soda to watch their colored shells dissolve. And although I was too little for the Chinese checker game on the top shelf of the closet in the foyer, I could play with the marbles, even if I had lost some the previous time. 

It’s impossible to approach Christmas without thinking of them – in particular, Grandma.  Walking into her house on Christmas Eve was a child’s wonderland come to life: elegant tree and presents, trays upon trays of sweets, table that had been set with china days before, then covered with plastic to keep out the dust. And there was Grandma herself, lacy apron over festive pantsuit, planting kisses our cheeks, sometimes leaving traces of lipstick or flour. Telling me, awkward and frizzy-haired as I was, that I looked beautiful. 

And when it was time to open presents, hers were always, always my favorites. Books, usually -- Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott when I was little. Later, the Bronte sisters and poetry – the Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath volumes I yearned for, as well as her own preference, Robert Frost. Gradually, my family came to realize I could not open a present from Grandma first, or I’d go off to a corner and bury my head in a jumble of pages the rest of the night.

Grandma was not a conventional type of Italian nana; she preferred décolletage to housedresses, heels to sensible oxfords. She smelled not of pasta and sauce – she cooked, but preferred baking -- but of Tabu, her signature fragrance. She and my grandpa loved for us to visit, but didn’t relish our spending the night; they kept their beautiful home tidy and liked to go to bed early, and we tended to interfere with both those things. She was artistic, painting china and doing elaborate needlepoint.  She believed in her talents and loved the praise she received when she showed them off.

She also believed in me. Perhaps because of the early loss of my mother, I was slow to trust, slow to reach out. In a book of poetry Grandma self-published when I was a young teenager, she called me “aloof,” a word that stung at the time, but was no doubt accurate. And yet she, along with Grandpa and her parents, persevered. They loved me wholeheartedly and accepted that I loved back cautiously. 

As I grew into my teens, I began to lower the wall that had kept me from being as demonstrative as I so wanted to be. I finally was able to become the affectionate granddaughter, the one who was able to reach outside myself and visit on my own after school, to sit in Grandma’s kitchen as she baked. We would talk about boys, about my schoolwork, my plans for college, for life. Grandma had quit teaching when she married, and she told me again and again to work, and to keep working. She kept trying to make me believe I was beautiful, but she praised my brains more.

When you’re a child who has lost a parent – even if you have the most wonderful parent-substitute and functional nuclear family – you are different. The effortless way Grandma and her family accepted and loved me made me feel less so. Names and labels are important to children, and labeling relationships was a big deal to me; I may not have had a mother, but I had a Grandma. She called me her granddaughter. Later, she called my son and daughter her great-grandchildren. She went a long way toward making me feel whole.

It was hard to let her go. It still is. She died in the early hours of Christmas morning after having spent Christmas Eve surrounded by all of us. My sister and I had stroked her smooth skin and told her how lovely she was. She wasn’t able to speak, but her dry lips shook a little, and she smiled.

I think of that moment tonight as I rush around my kitchen. I’m not much of a cook, but do I like to bake, and I’m going to make trays this year, the way she did – different kinds of cookies, even candies if I can manage it. As these things tend to go, I wish I had told her, when I had the chance, how much I appreciated her for loving me. For being my Grandma. 

She would have told me it took no effort at all – that God had given her three grandchildren, and I was simply the eldest of them.   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

I've never spoken or understood Italian. But I think I know why it makes me cry.

I was walking Isis around Lion's Park tonight when I heard music coming from the park's shelter.  I stopped and listened, and what I heard was church. A church service of some kind, and it was in Spanish.

Isis was distracted by something in the grass, so we were able to stop for a bit.  And as listened, something began taking me back.

Except for two years of fumbling though it in high school, I don't speak Spanish; I probably picked up more watching Sesame Street with my kids than I ever retained through class. So it makes little sense that it took me back, but it did; warmth washed over me, and I felt myself tearing up a little.

And then I realized that the feeling came from somewhere far, far back, and that the sounds I was hearing, while not an exact match, were so very close to sounds I used to hear when I was little. And even though I'd be hard-pressed to identify any of the words, they reminded me of words my grandmother and aunt and other family members used to exchange.

I can't speak it, and I can't understand it. But I was remembering Italian.

My sister, who can get by in both languages, has always told me Italian and Spanish resemble one another; like many languages, both have Latin roots, and the word and sentence structures are much the same as well. And she'd know; when she was a little girl and our dad was serving in World War II, she and our mother lived with our mother's parents in the heart of Little Italy on Des Moines' southeast side, and when my sister was old enough to begin speaking, she was bilingual.

Although my grandparents could speak English, when they were home, they preferred the language they had spoken until they had come to this country as young adults. I don't remember my Grandpa Jim, who died when I was 3, but my Nana lived until I was 20 and was a big part of my life. And I don't think she ever spoke an entire sentence to me in English.

I don't remember my mom, either, but my sister tells me when Mom and Nana spoke to one another, especially on the phone, they spoke Italian.  I do remember my mom's sister, my Aunt Mary (or Aunt Mim, as we called her) speaking to her mother in Italian; my grandmother was Mama, not Mom, and the conversations I remember were ones that implored "Mama" to do something, or to stop doing something. A lot of eye-rolling and head-shaking on the part of my aunt would follow those conversations.

My little-girl self followed all that dialogue as if following a tennis match; my head would turn to each as she spoke, and I can recall the drama, always the drama, behind those words I didn't understand.  My dad and my grandmother spoke Italian to one another as well, and from the little I was told, the words that were exchanged were never exactly flattering.  I'd ask Dad what he'd said, and the response was always the same:

"You don't need to know.  That woman ... [insert more Italian here]. But you know -- one thing I've gotta say, she sure as hell can cook."

The more sedate part of my family also spoke Italian, but with perhaps a little less passion.  When my sister married and she and her husband, Jon, set about raising me, I inherited Jon's family, including his grandparents, Johnny and Lizzie Renda, also known as Papa and Nana (yep, another Nana).  They were dear, sweet, gentle people who also had grown up in Italy, and their native tongue was their chosen one inside their home.  I think of them and I think of M&Ms and Pepsi and Chinese checkers, and of conversational Italian going back and forth when the adults were speaking of things the kids didn't need to hear.

It's pretty easy to understand why I never learned Italian; my mom and two grandfathers died within a year of one another, and a few years later brought the deaths of my aunt and uncle on my dad's side, and Papa Renda; everyone had more to be concerned with than why little Lisa, who didn't really need to speak Italian, didn't know how.

And there was more: In many immigrant families, there's a desire to assimilate, and my family was no exception. As the oldest generation died, no one saw the need for our family to appear anything but American. So as people passed away, the language, for all intents and purposes, died with them.

This feeling I had tonight, though, made me wonder just how much a part of me this language is. Although I can neither speak nor understand it, I wonder if my subconscious reacts to it; did I hear it in utero, when my mother spoke with her mother?  Did anyone -- my Nana, my aunt -- speak or sing to me in Italian when I was a baby? My reactions when I hear Italian remind me of the way Isis perks her ears when she hears a name or word whose sound and cadence she recognizes; she can't define it, but it holds meaning for her.

I wanted to stay and listen tonight, but I felt that I was intruding somehow, and before too long, other sounds pulled Isis away, and I had to follow. I wonder, though, if this happens every Sunday night -- this church, and the singing, and the strange-but-not-so-strange language. Isis and I usually walk earlier in the day, but something tells me on Sundays, we may have to hit the park a little later.

Monday, October 21, 2013

I already feel bad about my neck ... sorry about my whole face, too, I guess.

I don't know who this is, but I wonder if she initially saw a plastic surgeon because she was concerned about her neck.

So I have this problem with my neck. To be specific, I have a problem with the way my neck looks.

What I didn't realize, though, is that I should be having a problem with my face, which is apparently kind of a mess; my neck is just a part of that mess. Oh, and my body could use some work, too.

I'm being flippant, but the opinions above were expressed during my first-ever visit with a plastic surgeon. To be fair, he was a nice guy who of course didn't say I'm a mess, and his job is to upsell, so he was steering me in a direction that was best for his business.

But, wow, what a sad and puzzling appointment. I guess I shouldn't be puzzled, but I have a certain naivete that frequently lends itself to such confusion.

Let me backtrack. When I visited my family doctor a couple of weeks ago, I remarked that while I'm pleased with my weight loss, the folds of extra skin on my neck have been bothering me. I have extra skin in other places as well, but strength training is helping somewhat; plus, most of those areas are covered by my clothing.

Plus, I'm not 20 and I don't wear a bikini, and if my husband isn't grossed out by me and I'm not grossed out by me, I figure we're good.

But the neck ... my neck is out there for all to see, and the skin is really loose and folded, and it makes me uncomfortable. My doctor commented that because I had had so many surgeries on my neck years ago during my thyroid-cancer odyssey and subsequent infection, the elasticity of the skin on my neck could have been impacted, leading to exaggerated problems with the area after weight loss.

"Let's have you see a plastic surgeon," she said. "Insurance just might pick up the cost of tightening that up, since you had trauma to the area."

Well, that sounded like an OK plan to me, and off I headed a few days later to meet the surgeon. I stressed, both to his nurse and to him, that I was concerned only about my neck; we went through my history, and then he poked and prodded the area, asking questions and listening to my thyroid story.

He admired my thyroid scar, asked who had done the work, and then noted that I'm missing the platysmal bands (those ropy-looking things you see when you stretch your neck) on one side.

"Your surgeon must have cut them," he said off-handedly, and I surprised myself then by tearing up, instantly flashing back to that period of my life some 15 years ago. My cancer was almost a side note to the staph infection that almost killed me, and my personal life around that time did a pretty thorough job of killing me inside. I wanted to hug the young woman I feel so disconnected from now, the one who lived with a drain in her neck for a year and a half and felt like a walking Halloween costume, the young woman who not only was physically ill, but felt unloved and vulnerable and made some heinous relationship mistakes because of those feelings.

And going back in time to that dark place probably was responsible for the way I began to feel as the plastic surgeon continued his critique. "You're pretty jowly," he said, pulling up the skin on either side of my mouth. "And your chin isn't well-defined; for some people, we do offer a chin implant. So when we're lifting the neck, we'll just want to go in there and make it a face lift. That will smooth out the lines you see here" -- again, prodding and pointing -- "and will give you more definition overall, and a more youthful appearance."

(A youthful appearance? Did I say I wanted that? I recall saying I just don't want my neck to look like the neck of a Shar Pei. A reasonable request, one would think.)

"I'm OK with looking my age," I told him. But he kept talking and pulling, and as he pulled, I began to see the faces of Meg Ryan and Joan Jett and every Real Housewife in my own visage; the flattening of the features. The stretching of the cheek plains. The shininess and perpetual look of surprise. The removal of any connection to my own face, my own past, my own imperfections.

I was looking at a Lisa Lavia Ryan mask in a funhouse mirror. And it almost made me want to throw up.

The doctor began talking price then, saying I'd be sent an estimate, chatting about potential complications ("Infection is rare," he said, and I almost smirked; really, buddy? Did we not just talk about my being a walking staph magnet?) and reassuring me that he doesn't "make people not look like themselves." I was gracious and polite, but I left there knowing that my sad, scrawny, wrinkly, deformed neck and I wouldn't be visiting there again.

And all the way home, I felt ... grateful. But I also felt really sad.

First, the gratitude: I felt thankful for the period in my life 15 years ago that brought me to where I am now, thankful for the resilience and the support and the faith that enabled me to see my own beauty and worth, as cheesy as that sounds. I felt thankful for the way I was raised, which allows me to feel valued for my intellect and curiosity, with any perceived physical shortcomings dramatically downplayed.

And I felt so very grateful to be secure enough in myself that when I flipped down the visor and looked in the mirror, I still liked my face, my 50-year-old face, jowls and undefined chin and all.

But then, the sadness: What about the other women, the ones who were where I was 15 years ago? The ones whose self-esteem has been trounced, the ones who see their worth only in unlined skin and perfect breasts and thighs that don't touch? I'm not saying that plastic surgeons prey on vulnerable women; especially when it comes to reconstruction, plastic surgeons perform a valuable service, and I respect the fact that they have businesses to build and maintain.

And to be fair: I went to his office because I was unhappy with an aspect of my appearance. I can't blame him for assuming I'd want him to fix all my physical flaws in one fell swoop.

I realized what was happening and didn't go for it. But what happens to women when they're essentially told they're not good enough, and they believe the people who are telling them that? For many people, white coats carry more than their share of weight. How many wide, flat, unlined faces are sculpted, and how many women, unhappy with those results, wish they could take back the imperfections that brought them to those doctors in the first place?

And me, with my neck issue ... am I really as evolved as I think I am? Or am I one snip away from allowing the kind of "work" that will render me indistinguishable from Marie Osmond or, for that matter, William Shatner?

I like to think not, and I like to think I'll just live with my neck. But if I can find another approach that's not so all-or-nothing, maybe I'll go with it. After all, I should be able to fix this small thing, this thing that could have been caused, at least in part, by the prior surgical trauma. I mean, come on: My neck itches all the time. The skin is crepe-y and weird, not like the rest of my skin. I don't like it.

But the real takeaway from this experience, for me anyway, is the full-on realization that a multi-zillion-dollar industry has been created from the ashes of our collective vulnerabilities, and that's indicative of so many issues.

And it's not even about my silly neck, this larger issue. In my ongoing naivete, I'm saddened that we can enter a doctor's office feeling fairly attractive, and leave feeling downright ugly. Because no matter how you slice it -- pun intended -- that's just not OK.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Poppin' some tags

I'm gonna pop some tags/
Only got $20 in my pocket/
I-I-I'm huntin'/
Looking for a come-up/
This is (bleeping) awesome.

So says rapper Macklemore in his homage to the thrift store.

And so say I -- with maybe a little variation -- as I become increasingly immersed in what Macklemore is rapping about. (I still don't know what a "come-up" is, though.)

I may not be his demographic, but I'm all about his message, which essentially is this: If you don't shop at thrift stores, you're missing out on all kinds of awesomeness.

Let me show you what I'm talking about. Today, I'm wearing the outfit in the photo above: a black boatneck shirt under a black cardigan, a turquoise skirt, embellished black ballerina flats, and a funky green necklace. And tights. And the whole outfit cost me $38 and change.

That's the cost of the whole thing. Not the shoes alone. Or the sweater alone. The best thing is, too, that I've gotten nothing but compliments on my ensemble today. And minus the tights and cardigan, it's all from thrift or consignment stores.

What's the difference between thrift and consignment stores, you might ask?

  • People donate items to thrift stores. The thrift stores then sell the items for very little -- usually under $6 for apparel, and very often for much less (my camisole was $1). Winter coats can cost up to $10.
  • Consignment stores buy items people don't want anymore, and they turn around and sell those items for prices that are slightly higher than those of thrift stores. When the item sells, the store shares the money with the person who consigned the item.
I've ventured into thrift stores at different times in my life, most notably my son's freshman year in high school, when his social conscience stopped allowing him to wear any clothing with labels. As I recall, I outfitted him that year for $57.

But I wasn't consistent in my thrift-store shopping, and consistency is key. Thus, I wasn't terribly successful. But necessity is the mother of invention, and a couple of months ago, when I found myself needing an entirely new wardrobe and not having hundreds of dollars to allocate to such a need, I made it my mission to outfit myself -- in cute clothes, mind you -- on a shoestring.

First, I had to throw off the mentality that thrift stores are filled with crappy clothes. And here's how I did that: I remembered that when my dad passed away, he left a closet full of clothes, never worn, with tags still on. My dad was a sartorially elegant guy, with custom-tailored suits and Ralph Lauren shirts clipped and sewn just so to fit his small frame and short legs. And with the exception of a few items passed on to my husband, those clothes were donated to Goodwill.

So I went in search of the female equivalent of those high-quality items. I decided to start at consignment stores, which I viewed as the halfway point between retail and thrift. I started with Plato's Closet, a West Des Moines store frequented by my always smartly dressed daughter; it was a store I had avoided simply because I hadn't been able, when I was plus-sized, to fit into its clothes. But now, I figured I could give it a shot.

One lunch hour later, this was the tally:
  • Embellished Merona black ballet flats, pictured above: $9.99
  • J. Crew poly-blend skirt, pictured above, $7
  • American Eagle gray cardigan (now easily my favorite sweater), $11
The prices were less than half of what I would have paid new. The items looked new, and were age- and office-appropriate. I was hooked.

Armed with newfound confidence, I headed for the Urbandale Goodwill superstore after work. That trip resulted in, among other items:
  • Two J. Crew crewneck fisherman's sweaters, $2.89 each
  • Tan corduroy fitted jacket, $4.89
  • Gap jeans, $3.89
  • Gap khakis, $3.89
  • Relativity (Younkers brand) silk blouse, $2.89
Those items all looked nearly new. The brands were current. The clothes were so, so cute. I was sort of in shock. I went home and washed everything but the sweaters and blouse, which I took to the dry cleaner (still a bargain, any way you slice it) the next morning. And the day after that, I started sporting my new wardrobe.

Know what followed? Compliments. And gasps of disbelief when I responded with, "Guess where I got it? Goodwill."

If you're new to thrift or consignment shopping and would like to give it a shot, here are a few things to keep in mind:
  • Most have no-return policies, and a few have very limited ones. Try things on; make sure you like what you're buying, as it's likely you'll be keeping it.
  • If you're starting a wardrobe from scratch and feel overwhelmed, look for base pieces in a certain color palette. I started looking for black, gray and white items, accenting with turquoise and fuchsia. As you buy more, you can branch out more, and accessories are also a good and inexpensive way to add other colors.
  • Plan to spend a lot of time shopping. Thrift stores are usually pretty organized, but Goodwill is not Von Maur. People who stock the shelves and racks are often volunteers; you're going to find things in the wrong places, and chances are if you're looking for something in particular, you're going to go through most every clothing item in the entire store.
  • Don't be an elitist jerk. You may be able to afford to not shop at a thrift store, but that's irrelevant. Thrift stores are for anyone who likes finding unique items and saving money. Don't act superior; don't make fun of the clothing. Remember what your mama taught you, and treat employees and volunteers with respect. 
  • Thrift stores sometimes have a unique smell; deal with it. In my experience, it's not a foul, body-odor-type smell; it's an old-house smell. Hint: To get that smell out of thrift-store clothing, add a little ammonia to the washing machine. It won't bleach the clothes, and anything that takes the smell out of hockey jerseys can take care of anything. Trust me on this.
  • Shop on sale days. Yes, thrift stores have sales. I was at St. Vincent de Paul, my favorite Des Moines thrift store, last week, and all women's apparel was 50 percent off. I bought a pair of Gap boyfriend jeans, tags on, for $1.50. Swoon.
  • Shop often. Thrift-store inventory changes daily, so frequent shopping can be the key to finding what you're looking for. And here's another trick: If you're looking for a jean jacket, say, ask the staff to be on the lookout and call you if one comes in. I did this at Barbara's Consignment Boutique in Des Moines and had my hands on the perfect jacket three days later.
  • Be prepared to spend a little money on dry cleaning. You'll want to wash those used items right away, and some things, like coats and some sweaters, can't go in the washer. 
  • If you're reluctant to go all-thrift-all-the-time, start supplementing your from-the-mall items with occasional thrift-store finds. Hey, saving money is saving money.
I'm going to be writing about my thrift-shopping finds from time to time, so if you have bargains to share, let me know. And if this is a new idea for you, go out this weekend and take the plunge. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

I'll never hang on him in public, but I'll write things like this.

I've never been terribly trusting of the nature of relationships whose virtues have to be extolled from rooftops. Like all of us, I'm at least somewhat a product of the environment in which I was raised, and in my family, couples historically just aren't syrupy-sweet and hanging on one another. The message I received growing up was that "real" relationships shouldn't have to be broadcast, and, right or wrong, I guess I've carried that over into my marriage.

But today, protocol be damned, I'm feeling the need to do a little broadcasting.

Kevin and I have been married a little over seven years. Both of us were married before and brought kids to the relationship, and each of us would be the first to tell you the ride hasn't been easy. No matter how much a person cares for his or her stepkids, the relationship is different from the one between a parent and his or her own children; your stepkids have been raised by people who aren't you, and the transition to functional, caring steppparent/stepchild relationship can be daunting. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

I'm happy to report that we seem to be past all that now, and we have a pretty great family. But there have always been, and still are, other bumps: financial issues. Illness. Parents' deaths. Menopause and more than a touch of OCD (me) and efforts to quit smoking (him). But we've hung in there, and I'm pretty sure we still like each other.

And the last couple of days, cheesy as it sounds, I've been realizing just how lucky I am that my initial attraction to this person happened to turn into a relationship that makes me certain that if we're lucky enough to grow old, we'll be growing old together.

Oh, wow, you're thinking. What a boring blog post. But please bear with me, because Kevin deserves for you to read about him.

In March of this year, I announced to him one Friday that we needed to go out that weekend and eat our way through the greater metropolitan area, because I was planning to start Weight Watchers the following Monday. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I was over 200 pounds at 5'5", and I was unhealthy and unhappy. I'd had enough.

As we ate our Chinese and Mexican and pastries that weekend, I proceeded to also tell him that as of Monday, he'd be on his own, food-wise. Now, anyone who knows me is aware that a warning that I'd no longer be cooking likely wouldn't be met with shrieks of dismay, but this was his response: "Whatever you need."

So, for six months, not only have I not participated in any sort of culinary activity for anyone but myself, but I've shopped for no one but myself. To a large degree, with the exception of my kids, I've thought of no one but myself. And he's complained exactly zero times.

This is the point of the post at which my friend Beth would ask, "Why did you feel you HAD to cook for him? Simply because you're a woman doesn't mean you should have been expected to cook." Exactly, and the way it actually worked was that we shared the shopping and cooking, and we also ate out several nights a week. So what I was doing, essentially, was saying, "My end of the bargain is done. Oh, and the whole eating-out thing, which I know you really enjoy? That's over, too, unless you take someone else."

I was presenting to him a real 180, then. And his only balk was worrying that my chicken breasts and green beans and Smart Ones dinners would take up the entire freezer. (And they haven't ... not the whole freezer, anyway.)

Let me step back and point out that this man never said a word about my gigantic weight gain in the first place ... never pointed out that being fat was clearly making me unhappy, and that my raiding the pantry in the middle of the night and eating two packages of Swiss Cake Rolls was somewhat troubling behavior.

Now, am I advocating that spouses berate one another for physical changes? Of course not, and I wouldn't be married to someone who behaved that way. But I didn't even sense concern or disapproval from him as my weight climbed and climbed. It was as if he was saying, "You're a grown, smart woman, and I trust your judgment, so you eat your Swiss Cake Rolls if you want to, and I'll do my thing over here."

Back to March, and every Monday since. Although he's probably sick to death of hearing about pounds lost and miles run or walked, when I get home from each meeting, he not only cheers me on, but finds someone to tell about my progress: his mom. One of the kids. A co-worker. And his comments aren't just of the "you look great" variety. He talks about being proud of my determination and my strength, and he tells me how glad he is that I'm healthy.

He also tells me -- not a small thing -- that the gross loose skin I'm left with is nothing compared to the years I've (hopefully) gained through taking control of my eating. Believe me, many parts of me are not attractive with 50-plus pounds gone. And again, not that I'd be married to someone superficial, but he goes the extra mile by telling me just why the Sharpei-like wrinkles on my neck don't gross him out.

I need to add some context to this love-fest. When I hit the 50-pound mark, some friends surprised me with balloons and a card. Kevin didn't do anything special, and as I was feeling especially hormonal and downright bitchy the next day, I made a nasty remark to him about having not acknowledged what I considered a giant milestone. I even had the audacity to complain to a friend about what I perceived as a lack of support on Kevin's part.

And then I thought about the fact that the guy is trying to quit smoking, so he's going through some struggles of his own. And I thought about all the restaurants he goes to with his kids -- not that he minds that; he loves it -- but that he goes just with his kids and without his wife, who's at home eating a Smart Ones dinner as she tries to work through her neuroses about eating food she can't track exactly.

And I thought about the ongoing support he provides me, in his non-flashy but consistent way. He doesn't bring me flowers, but he hugs me a few times a day, then exclaims about how much smaller I feel to him. "It's working," he'll say. And it's great to have that affirmation.

"For better or for worse," he said back in 2006. And since then, he's tried consistently to find the better in the worse, and the worse is often me. And I'll probably never be cuddly with him him public, so I'm being cuddly with him here. No funny, cute closing; I'm not even going to try. Just this:

Thanks, Kevin. I am grateful. And I hope you know how it means to have you around.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Psst, Samantha: Being that drunk isn't cute or enticing. Oh, and good luck getting a job.

I just finished reading about the University of Iowa student who is now being billed as the “drunkest girl ever.” And although I don’t advocate physical violence in any way, I’d really like to grab this girl by the shoulders and shake her.

If you haven’t read the story, here are the Cliff’s Notes: Her name is Samantha (Twitter handle – wait for it -- @Vodka_Samm), and she was arrested Saturday for behaving in a drunken and disorderly fashion at a University of Iowa football game.

When Samantha, a U of I senior, was taken to jail, her blood-alcohol content was found to be a staggering .341. The legal threshold for intoxication is .08 percent BAC, and the lethal limit falls between 0.40 percent and 0.50 percent.

This young woman is really, truly lucky to be alive this morning. And yet, here’s what she tweeted after her release from jail:

Just went to jail #yolo — Samantha (@Vodka_samm) August 31, 2013

Blew a .341 in jail — Samantha (@Vodka_samm) August 31, 2013

Im going to get .341 tattooed on me because its so epic -- Samantha (@Vodka_samm) August 31, 2013

I just finished raising a couple of kids. God knows, I didn’t handle everything perfectly over the course of all those years, but thankfully, my kids turned out well.

And my kids drank. I presume they both still drink occasionally, but they’re adults with bachelors’ degrees and good jobs and are self-supporting, so my presumption is that they manage to spend the great majority of their time sober.

I can tell you with certainty, though, that when my kids were in college, if either had been in Samantha’s situation, their dad and I would be dealing with certain things this morning. And maybe Samantha’s parents are dealing with those things; I don’t know, and I don’t mean to judge them.

But I mean to judge her. And I mean to judge the alcohol-obsessed culture in which we’re raising our kids.

I know, I know. I’m old. And much of the time, I’m not a lot of fun. I like serious things, and letting my hair down isn’t a particular strength of mine. But believe it or not, I was young once. And I drank too much on several occasions.

Thankfully, though, a taste for alcohol didn’t stay with me, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I drank. My decision not to drink is more a matter of not enjoying alcohol than being morally opposed to it; it has its place, and a glass or two of wine per day even carries some health benefits.

To be clear, I have absolutely no issue with adults who drink recreationally and can handle their alcohol, and who use it in moderation; most of my friends drink, and family members drink, and I love them dearly. I’m not holier-than-thou; I just don’t like to drink.

Beyond the scope of my personal experience, though, my greatest issue with alcohol is the messages that our society sends to our kids regarding its excessive use. Among them: Alcohol will make you more fun. Alcohol will make you less shy. It will make you sexier and more desirable. It will provide you with a life of nonstop frivolity.

Actually, here’s what excessive alcohol use will likely do: It will make you lose your inhibitions. It likely will cause you to make stupid, stupid decisions. It could cause you to lose your driver’s license, the respect of your family and friends, and even your job. It could cause you to kill someone, if you’re behind the wheel drunk. And it could cause you to die.

I think the reason excessive alcohol use among young people irritates me so much is that it’s often bundled with self-esteem issues. Anytime I drank too much in my younger days, it was because I wanted it to ease my feelings of awkwardness. I wanted to feel less serious and less fat. I wanted to be able to sing “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” with my sorority sisters without feeling self-conscious. And I wanted boyfriends to see me as fun, uninhibited, the life of the party.

I was a senior in college when I decided to knock it off. I was at a party in which Everclear was mixed with punch in someone’s bathtub. I drank a ton of it, and I somehow got home (thankfully, I didn’t drive; there’s no way I could have).

I was living at home, and made it up the stairs and stumbled into my bed. Next thing I knew –- or, as I was told, anyway -– my sister, who raised me after our mom died, was shaking me awake, then making me get up and walk. She’s a nurse, and she was considering taking me to the hospital. Luckily, home remedies -– plenty of water, and rest -– did the trick.

There was no social media then. But if there had been, even I, chronic oversharer that I've always been, wouldn’t have tweeted about what was certainly a pretty high BAC. Why? Because I was mortified. In my family, and in the larger environment in which I was raised, being that drunk would have been regarded as pretty gross.

Did I ever drink after that? Sure, and even as an adult. But never that much, and never with the intent of being someone I wasn’t.

And that leads me back to Samantha. She doesn’t seem to be a stupid girl; kudos to her for being almost ready to graduate. But shame on her for this, which she tweeted the day after her arrest:

“Ive gotten so many hate tweets because I was drunk...uh I get good grades sorry for being like every other college student.”

Samantha, yay for the good grades, but boo for trying to excuse your behavior. You’re not like every other college student. You’re one who probably believes the commercials about Cristal and Patron, and one who hopes that throwing back just one more vodka and Red Bull will turn you into a Kardashian.

You could very well be an otherwise smart girl, so why not get yourself under control? If you truly like yourself, show it.

And please don’t be afraid to get help if you need it. If you have a problem, please understand that I’m not making fun of you. I’m making fun of the way you chose to handle an incident that should have embarrassed the hell out of you.

Here’s the most basic thing, Samantha: At the very least, if you don’t see a reason to change your lifestyle, don’t tweet about it.

Why? Because a fun-hater like me may interview you for a job one day, and even with your very own meme and "Sam .341" t-shirt, you won’t get the job.

And someday, that will matter to you. A lot.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Miley, you're no Madonna.

When I was 21, I realized the existence of Madonna, and my life was forever changed.

It was 1984, and I was spending my days at Drake University, learning how to be a journalist, and spending my nights also at Drake University, learning to drink cheap wine and have deep, deep discussions about Prince’s “Purple Rain” lyrics while lying on my friend Brett’s unvacuumed carpet. All told, it was a good time. And it became even better thanks to MTV and a video for a little song called “Borderline.”

I remember watching it in the bar in Drake’s student union and actually developing goose bumps; there she was, looking the way I wanted to look, and sort of did look, I thought at the time: obviously Italian. Check. Wearing a lace headband in wavy hair with dark roots. Check. Rocking a jean jacket and neon pumps. Check, and check.  I developed my first girl-crush, and I went all-out. In fact, the following year, when I received a big award at my school’s journalism banquet, I dressed exactly like her, and I wasn’t even trying to be ironic. (Watch the “Lucky Star” video, and you’ll see my outfit.)

Therein lies the problem: When classmates think back to the 1985 version of me (I don’t know why they would, but if they did), they’d think not of my work or of my editing award, but of the fact that I took the Madonna thing over the top and really sort of disrespected what was a dressy, serious event. Of course that embarrasses me.

Thankfully, though, the journalism banquet wasn’t nationally televised, so my faux pas was confined to one room and maybe a hundred people. Miley Cyrus wasn’t so lucky last night; her antics on MTV’s Video Music Awards were broadcast round the globe, and if she can manage to retain some semblance of a career after that debacle, I’ll be surprised.

As I watched, I wanted to tell Miley these things: Put some clothes on. Quit twerking; twerking is not sexy. It's gross. Get the foam finger away from your crotch. And realize that one day, you’ll be 50.

A meme went around Facebook recently that informed people of a certain age how lucky they were that social media didn’t exist when we were Miley’s age. Point taken. But it exists now, and Miley – or for certain, someone in her entourage – should have had the presence of mind to say, “What you’re planning is a really bad idea.”

Most 20-year-olds know only two things: They’re not going to grow old, and they’re not going to die.  So to some degree – a small degree – you can excuse Miley for perhaps not thinking about how her old-lady self will one day view her youthful grossness.

But then, other performers her age get it. You don’t see Selena Gomez licking back-up dancers. Katy Perry manages to keep her lady parts covered. And even the much-maligned Taylor Swift’s only transgression to date, which also occurred last night, involved her mouthing the words “Shut the f--- up” while her most recent ex was onstage. (Necessary? Probably not, but I did laugh – first, because one doesn’t expect Swift to have a potty mouth, and also because the guy does seem like somewhat of a tool.)

And even if Miley didn’t think things through, what about the show’s producers? Chances are she was no more refined in rehearsals. Sure, we’re all supposed to understand that she’s all about ditching her Hannah Montana image, but she could have chosen a classier way to emphasize that point; Justin Timberlake, after all, survived the Mickey Mouse Club with his dignity, and his pants, intact.

One could argue that Miley didn’t corner the market on risqué get-ups last night; after all, Lady Gaga was in the house. But Lady Gaga can raise eyebrows all she wants because in the end, the woman can sing.

And that brings us back to Madonna.  She can’t sing, and she’s not even a great dancer, but she has whatever “it” is – the thing that makes her an entertainer, the thing that bores her fashions and her hairstyles and her comments into people’s brains.  The thing that’s made her one of the world’s wealthiest women and allows her to occasionally make stupid statements and go without pants. She’s endured for 30 years, and she’s likely not done yet.

But, Miley, you didn’t channel Madonna last night. You may have been trying to, but what you did was try to play the oldest game in the book: offer your flesh in place of the talent you don’t have. And you didn’t even do that effectively, because the flesh you displayed looked pale and tired and rubbed raw by too many bong hits, bottles of Jack, convenience-store burritos and all-nighters.  

I can’t fathom where Miley’s parents or managers are in all this. But if she were my child, I’d do my best to wrap her in a blanket, take her home and feed her soup. I don’t know what I’d do after that, but I do know that as I watched Miley last night, Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” ran in a loop through my brain.  At worst, we can regard her performance as lewd and horrific; at best, we can hope someone responds to it as the cry for help it almost certainly was.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Acting like I'm 80? I take that as a compliment.

It hit me last night: I'm at a point in my life at which I really, really enjoy routine. And I especially enjoy it when it occurs at home.

For me, that's pretty weird. Although I've always liked my home and the people who live in it, I've never been a homebody. Historically, I've equated staying home with "having nothing better to do."  But now, embracing this new phase of my life also means finally being able to embrace relaxation.

OK, maybe "embrace" is a strong word. But I'm able to accept it. And sometimes, I actually long for it.

It hit me last night. I was haranguing (OK, nagging) Kevin about the fact that he doesn't like to exercise, and I suggested he start going with me when I walk the dog. His response:

"Going to the park that's two blocks from our house and walking the dog in the same circle every night sounds miserable to me. We might as well be 80 years old."

I wouldn't go quite that far ... but I get what he's saying. Still, though, I'm not ashamed.  If I'm acting like I'm 80, it's been a long time coming.

For most of my adult life, I've worked two jobs. That situation has been of my own choosing; as a writer, it's been important for me to keep my hand in my craft to help maintain a sense of balance. But the reality has been that most weeks, I've spent at least a couple of nights covering meetings and writing news and feature articles. I've loved it. But this year, I started a new "real" job, and I was tired. So I cut back.

And in doing so, I discovered such things as sitting on the couch occasionally, having time to -- yes -- walk the dog, and going to bed before midnight.  And now, during the course of the day, I find myself yearning for the tranquility that the nighttime will bring.

I really don't think this is a function of age; yes, I'm 50, but I'm also in pretty good physical shape. If anything is tired, it's my psyche. Years of feeling the need to be "on" have taken their toll.  Don't get me wrong; I like to think I'm still "on" during the day, and for the freelance work I still occasionally do at night. But I'm finally starting to develop a level of comfort with being "off."

I have a good friend who turned 50 and got her motorcycle license; I know others my age who have taken up rock-climbing or who have developed a love for the nightlife after staying home to raise kids. And I think that's great, but I also know I'm simply too darned tired.

So if that makes me 80, so be it.  I think it's more likely, though, to mean I'm embarking on a phase in which I charge my emotional and intellectual "tanks" by turning inward. When I run in the mornings or walk the dog in the evening, I say my prayers. I think through that day's events, or prepare for the next day's tasks.

While I'm spending more time in the house, I'm also, strangely, more engaged with my whole, full life. I delight in my interactions with my children, and I enjoy the mundane, everyday things that delight me about being a dog owner. I enjoy devouring content on my tablet and in catching reruns of "Big Bang Theory" or strange shows on TLC ("Sister Wives," anyone?).

Sure, I get bored sometimes. And I'm not big on domestic pursuits, so my newfound love for staying home unfortunately does not mean a cleaner house or homemade baked goods in the pantry.

But it means some really good things: My heart rate is slower. My blood pressure is lower. I'm remembering to breathe. And I'm discovering how it feels to live life minus that frantic feeling I'd been used to for so long.

If that makes me 80, so be it. I prefer to think that if anything, leading a simpler lifestyle may help ensure I can stick around until I'm 80. In the meantime, though, I need to excuse myself. "Big Bang Theory" is on, and the couch is calling.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Better a hypochondriac than a dead hypochondriac: how not to let heart disease kill you

Ever since I was little, I’ve been certain I’d one day die of cancer.  Cheery, I know.

When you lose a parent at a young age, death is a part of your world; you don’t understand what it means, but you know it takes people away, and you know there are no do-overs. You also know that illness can happen to anyone, to everyone … and you simply should resign yourself to the fact that one day, it will be your turn.

And in my family, the disease of choice – well, clearly not of choice, but our reality nonetheless – was, and is, cancer. So when I was about 10, I convinced myself I would be diagnosed with it, and that it would kill me, so I’d better get things done fast.

And by “things,” I meant reading every book in the West Des Moines Public Library. I got as far as the letter “J” in the young-adult section, and then I stopped – not because I got sick, but because I discovered Skate West and boys, and focused on crossing another item off  my burgeoning bucket list: learning to skate backward.

And then came high school and college, and I continued to expect I’d die before I grew old.

Cancer finally struck when I was 35 – see, I told you so -- and I was pretty incredulous when it didn’t kill me. What it did do was enhance my certainty, though, that the disease would in fact be my undoing, because the next time, it would come back with a vengeance.

Imagine my surprise, then, 15 years later, when I was running up a hill and noticed not a tumor, but a pain in my chest. I took a deep breath, and the pain worsened. I walked, and it remained. I arrived home, and it was still there.  I called my doctor and she told me to come in for an EKG.

An EKG?  Excisions and biopsies, I knew. But cardiac stuff … that was foreign territory. I was thrown way off base, and was even more discombobulated when the EKG showed an abnormality. And then my doctor ordered a stress test, and I had no idea how to feel, except scared you-know-what-less.

But in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Although cancer is more high-profile because it often steals people in the prime of life – or even, all too often, childhood – heart disease is thought of as a condition that afflicts old people. And while it is prevalent in older populations, the statistics may surprise you.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. People of all ages and backgrounds can develop the condition. And generally, while it’s developing, a person feels fine.
  • High blood pressure (which I have), high LDL cholesterol (which I used to have), and smoking (which I dabbled in long ago) are key risk factors for heart disease. A staggering 50 percent of Americans have at least one of these three risk factors. (Lowering you blood pressure and cholesterol will reduce your risk of dying of heart disease.)
  • These additional factors put people at risk as well, though: diabetes, excess weight, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use. And who among us hasn’t been guilty of practicing a sedentary lifestyle and eating poorly?
  • In a recent survey, most respondents recognized chest pain as a symptom of a heart attack. But only 27 percent were aware of all major symptoms and knew to call 9-1-1 when someone was having a heart attack. Also, about 47 percent of sudden cardiac deaths occur outside a hospital, and this suggests many people with heart disease don't act on early warning signs.

A caveat here: It’s Friday, and I won’t know till Monday what’s going on, if anything, with my heart. But I want to make this point for the benefit of anyone who might be experiencing nagging symptoms:

By and large, the people closest to me are non-alarmists who tend not to react strongly to any medical situation that’s not a clear emergency. So I’ve been somewhat socialized into mentally downplaying any symptom out of fear I’ll be called a hypochondriac if I voice it.

That’s stupid and wrong. The last time I tried to talk myself into downplaying symptoms, I ended up in the ER with a gangrenous gallbladder.

Even if my chest pain turns out to have been unrelated to anything cardiac, I’m glad I've chosen to explore it.  As my doctor told me, “You don’t mess with chest pain – ever. Cemeteries are full of people who said, ‘It’s probably nothing.’”

The EKG wasn’t painful. The stress test wasn’t painful. And together, they’ll tell my doctor and me everything we need to know about what’s happening with my heart.

So: If you have concerns, please – make a call. Go to the ER. Do whatever you need to do. You know you're just going to worry; why not find out, once and for all, what's going on?

And if you’re not having symptoms, make sure you know how to recognize them when and if they appear. Again, according to the CDC, they are:

•Chest pain or discomfort
•Upper body pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or upper stomach
•Shortness of breath
•Nausea, lightheadedness or cold sweats

…and in women, the symptoms may present much more subtly.  

Go ahead; let them call you a hypochondriac. At least you won’t be a dead one.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Spelling champion AND athlete? It wasn't possible then, but maybe now.

Can you BELIEVE this girl wasn't an athlete?
I have never been an athlete. As a child, I took tennis lessons and was a disaster; in middle school, I tried my hand at softball and was worse. After my dad stopped by practice early one afternoon and saw me crying while trying to run a mile, he let me quit.

So the fact that I’m running now makes absolutely no sense. There’s nothing I understand about it; nothing except that this attempt may mark my last opportunity to try to not absolutely suck at something physical.

Growing up, I was the spelling champion who wanted instead to be good at kickball.  When we played at recess, I wasn’t chosen last, but I was darned close. I wasn’t bad at kicking the ball, but I couldn’t run fast enough to get on base. If I did happen, by some fluke, to get on, I was more concerned with not getting hit by the ball than I was with making it home.

I was also a larger girl, which didn’t help.  That’s funny to recall now, as I ended up topping out at 5’4” 1/2, but the weird thing was that I reached my full height – and a weight of 140 pounds -- in fifth grade. While the other girls were weighing a flat 90 soaking wet, I could have bench-pressed any boy in my class. So the combination of my awkwardness and my size didn’t exactly lend itself to agility.

The weird thing, though, was that I danced – ballet, tap, and “jazz,” as they called it in those days – and I wasn’t half bad. I was tall, but proportional and, strangely enough, muscular, and when it came to executing dance steps, I possessed none of the awkwardness that I displayed in any athletic endeavor.

(“You’re light on your feet for a big girl,” another dancer’s mom said to me once.  Uh, thanks?)

I also loved music and was able to somehow lose some of my inhibitions in the studio, although I really hated the full-length mirrors and did anything to avoid being in the front row so I didn’t have to see myself in them. I was an endomorph in a room of tiny, lean girls, and sometimes that wore on me. But if I avoided the mirrors and just danced, I didn’t hate my body quite so much.

That sentence really makes me sound more pathetic than I was; I grew up in a very affirming home and was praised for my talents. I really wasn’t full of self-loathing; I was a teenage girl who wanted to be something she wasn’t. That didn’t make me unique, or even particularly miserable.  It just was what it was.

But here I am at 50 – 50! – and I look down at my activity tracker and look in the mirror and wonder, could I be morphing into the woman that that girl so wanted to be?  Sure, I’m a whole lot older.  And a whole lot grayer.  But although I can’t call myself an athlete, I’m running.  And I don’t suck at it.

A few caveats – my goal is three miles, and I’m not there yet.  And I’m slower than slow.  But I get out there every morning, and I push and I struggle and I sweat.  And at the end of my run – in the interest of accuracy, my walk/run combo – I can’t wait to do it again. Not right away, but the next day.

How did this happen?  My daughter wanted an activity tracker, and I bought one for her. And when I saw how cool hers was, I bought one for myself. That was the beginning of the end of normalcy.

You see, I’m a bit competitive. After my surgeries, my physical therapist would get me to work harder by telling me another knee patient could bend his leg farther than I could. The result: I’d bend deeper and deeper until I “won.”  I didn’t find out till later that I’d been “winning” all along, but he had tapped into what made me tick and knew I couldn’t stand the thought of being bested.

When I run, I play head games with myself, using my friend Karen’s trick of pushing just one driveway farther, then the next driveway, then the next. Some days, it’s not easy, but doable; other days, my leg muscles are screaming. But each day, I inch closer to that as-yet-mythical three-mile mark, and I wonder if maybe I should have tried a little harder at kickball.

How many more times in my life will I have the opportunity to set this sort of goal?  At work, we talk about “stretch goals,” but in my arena, they’re not as readily tangible as this one. As I become able to run for longer distances, it’s as if I can feel muscles popping out where there had seemingly been none. I see the changes, and I feel strong.

I also feel … realistic. As my friend Gretchen wrote in response to a Facebook post about my running, “At your age, the goal is to not hurt yourself, and I’m not even kidding.”  I know I won’t be able to do this for long; half of each of my knees is a prosthetic, and one of my hip joints is on its way out.  And I’m by no means a natural runner; where others have lean muscle mass, I have still-jiggling masses of flesh.

But to be overly simplistic, it feels great to do something hard. And it’s affirming to be doing this as an old person; unlike in my angst-ridden middle-school days, the 50-year-old me could give a rat’s you-know-what how I look as I trudge alongside a busy street. 

As my Weight Watchers pals say, even as slow as I am, I’m still lapping everyone on the couch. I wish I could go back in time and tell the 13-year-old softball-wannabe me to stick with that mile run just a little longer, because eventually, I would have gotten there.  Sure, 37 years is a long time, but a finish line is a finish line.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Of homecoming queens, boogers, and goodbyes said too soon

Laura Hardy, 1980 (thanks, Chris Chebuhar)
 When I was in high school, a pressing problem most days was deciding whether or not to match my knee socks to my blouse. (The rest of the ensemble was a uniform, so it was important to try to hang on to some shred of individualism, you see.) Try as I might, I never seemed to arrive at the look I wanted, and I marveled at the girls whose appearances seemed to have been achieved effortlessly.   

In our class of 507, a few girls did seem to have it all together all the time, pulling into the parking lot looking as if Cinderella's animated birds had carried their clothing to them that morning, trilling and leaving berries in their wake. Laura was one of those girls, completing whatever perfect ensemble she had chosen with blonde waves that Farrah Fawcett would have envied.

You know the type. She was a girl whom those of us less physically fortunate would have had countless reasons to envy. But she wasn’t a “mean girl” – although I didn’t know her nearly as well as others did, I knew it was impossible to feel anything negative about her because she was just so genuinely nice. I admired her, but if I had allowed myself to feel jealous, it just wouldn’t have seemed right.

Here's just one of the reasons I felt that way. This was the Laura I remember:

“Congratulations on making cheerleading, Laura!” I said one morning after results had been posted.

“Oh, thanks – I was really surprised!” she responded, wide-eyed and smiling. “I’m so happy that so many girls were able to make it, but it really makes me sad for the ones that didn’t. I’m going to talk to (so-and-so, the cheerleading moderator) to see if we can have a larger squad.” And she would, and lo and behold, a few other girls would have their days made … which of course made Laura even happier.

Or there was this. I won some minor writing contest once, and the school newspaper carried a little blurb. I had a class with Laura and she gave me a hug and congratulated me. I remember trying to downplay whatever award it was, as it really wasn’t a big deal; I think it may have involved a $25 prize.

Laura, whom everyone liked so much that she was voted homecoming queen, responded: “It IS a big deal. I’d give anything to have a talent like yours.”  And I remember thinking, “What?!” But her words stayed with me.  I guess they’re still with me.

Or this: I need to stress, again, how beautiful this girl was. But I walked into the girls’ restroom one day to see her peering into the mirror with her face smushed so close to it that she was leaving breath marks.  She turned and smiled apologetically.

“There’s a booger all the way up my nose, and when I breathe, I feel like it’s coming out,” she said.

The fact that Laura admitted to having boogers, in and of itself, made me like her even more.

I lost touch with Laura after high school, but as we grew older and settled in the same community, I’d run into her every now and again, usually at Target or the grocery store.  She still had that wide-eyed smile, and responded to everything I told her about my life or my kids as if those tidbits were the greatest pieces of information ever. And once, when I wrote a newspaper column that resonated with her, she took the time to send a personal, heartfelt note. 

Laura died this morning, and it feels almost disingenuous that I'm so broken-hearted at the news; so many of our classmates knew her far better than I did, sharing years upon years of experiences.  But I read not long ago that the people who impact our high-school selves are the ones whose imprints remain on us because they’re helping, during some emotionally driven years, to shape the people we ultimately become.

What a legacy it would be to have been poised enough as a teenager that to know that people never forget the way you make them feel. How fortunate I am that Laura left an imprint on me. I can only imagine that I am one of hundreds, thousands, whose days were made better because of her.   

Friday, June 14, 2013

He's never the squeaky wheel, but he deserves some grease. Happy Father's Day, Kevin.

Kevin and his kids, 2011
I didn't know my husband when he became a dad. But I'm grateful to watch him help raise his four kids and to benefit from the expertise he would never admit he possesses.

Kevin is a low-key individual; not only does he not toot his own horn, but he doesn't really share personal information in general. That's why I have to on his behalf; it's Father's Day weekend, and I'm obligated to give credit where credit is due.

And credit is certainly due.

When a couple divorces, it's hard to determine what a parent's "new" parental identity is going to be. The identity becomes a new one because a single parent functions differently from a married or partnered one; when you suddenly become both the mom and the dad in your home, you're forced to regroup.

As I came along after the transformation, I can't really speak to how it all worked out initially. But a few months into his new role, it was as if he was born to handle a houseful of kids on his own.

Even in those early days, Kevin had an almost uncanny ability to set aside his own hurt feelings and focus on his children. His degree of grace was one I certainly hadn't possessed in my own divorce, and I watched with a sense of wonder. Although he was sad, he drew strength from lasering in on his children and trying to ensure they were whole and happy.

Was the laundry always done? Not all of it, but the necessary clothing was clean and pressed, and the kids looked nice when they went out into the world.  Was the house clean, and was the refrigerator always stocked? No, but the necessities were taken care of.

To Kevin, household responsibilities were the incidental things. These things were not incidental: having time to play foursquare with his daughters, throw a ball with his younger son, or cuddle on the couch to watch movies with all of them.  And he didn't have to work at making time; he loved making time, and the laundry could pile up for days because he knew the other activities were the critical ones to the success of his family.

He was a fun dad, but not a Disneyland one; he policed the homework and never missed a conference; he modeled behaviors he knew the kids should emulate. He got up and went to work every morning, and he worked hard. He helped others whenever and wherever he was needed. He didn't gossip, and he didn't judge.

He stressed the old-fashioned but never-out-of-fashion things: respect. Family ties. Playing outdoors and eating balanced meals. He wasn't big on frills, but he turned mundane activities into memories.

As his kids grew, he remained consistent. Although it's never easy to incent teenagers to spend time with parents, he insisted on weekly trips to the miniature-golf course or bowling alley. Weekend activities he may have wanted to participate in took a back seat to watching TV while he waited for a daughter or son to call for a ride home, or as he chaperoned an impromptu party in the basement.

He never complained because he never minded. That holds true today; only one child is left at home, and that child's needs and activities come first.  Kevin's life is his kids, which is one of the many reasons I admire, love and respect him.

He often refers to himself as "boring," and when you're the boring parent, you don't get a lot of press. Accolades don't often come his way, but that's not what he's after.

His fulfillment comes in watching his older son travel the country as a filmmaker, earning money in a job he loves; it comes in watching his younger son excel on the ball field and in the classroom. It comes in the joy he feels when his younger daughter, who shares his knack for telling long and silly stories, shows up "just because," or when he gets to spend time with his older daughter and his granddaughter.

His fulfillment comes in the knowledge that consistently, he did the best he could. And to him, a private "I love you, Dad," is all the validation he needs of a job well done.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"S" is for significant. Her contributions certainly were. And she'd tell you yours could be, too.

I remember the instant I realized my friend Karen was a better person than I would ever be.

We were chatting on the phone about something -- I remember exactly what, and I'll get to that in a second -- and I asked her, offhandedly, what she was up to that day.  She responded, just as offhandedly, that she was shopping at Hy-Vee for a family she had met that morning.

She had visited them via an organization with which she was involved, one that welcomed refugee families to the community.  The family had young children, and Karen was concerned the kids didn't have enough to eat.  So, rather than leave the apartment with a breezy, "Let me know if you need anything," Karen knew they needed something, a lot of somethings, so she rolled up her sleeves and got started.

I started to tell her how incredible her act of generosity was, and she responded, "What kind of person would I be if I didn't get the kids some Cocoa Puffs?  Every kid in America should have Cocoa Puffs." I have a feeling she bought enough Cocoa Puffs that day that those kids still might be finding boxes of it in their pantry.

Karen and I met when she started attending Johnston School Board meetings. I was covering them for the Register, and she and I hit it off.  I loved her passion for the issues she believed in, and I loved her irreverent sense of humor. When she ran for school board and won, she was the director I knew could be counted on to give me a quote at midnight; she was up anyway.

Karen and I were usually on the same page, ideologically and politically, but in the time we were friends, we did disagree twice, and both times pained me. Once was about someone who was running for school board; I wasn't covering Johnston at the time, so I was involved with the election as a regular person, and I didn't like or trust one of the candidates. Karen, who saw the good in nearly everyone, told me I was being unfair, that I should give the person a chance. Karen gave everyone a chance.

The second issue was the one about which we were on the phone the day Karen had been shopping for the family at Hy-Vee. I was president of an organization at the high school that Karen felt was being exclusionary; although participation was open to all, she felt a fee for travel and costumes prohibited some students from becoming involved. I didn't quite see things her way at first, but of course she was right, and her pushing me to do the right thing resulted in the establishment of scholarships that remain in existence, as far as I know, today.

She was unfailingly tenacious; when she cared about someone or something, she simply didn't give up. When Karen was in her mid-40s, she turned that tenacity on herself. She'd gained a few pounds and was concerned about her health; she wanted to be around forever, she said, not only to raise her children, but to drive her grandchildren nuts. So she started running.

She was not a natural runner, so she started slowly, running from driveway to driveway in her cul-de-sac.  Months later -- I kid you not -- she was running marathons. I'd honk from my car as I'd see her lean, muscular form running all around Johnston. And she'd waive off the compliments I gave her about her newfound athleticism, too. "It's about time I got my fat ass off the couch," she'd say, although she was never fat. And I can't imagine she ever, ever sat on the couch.

I knew I'd never be like Karen, but I often thought, maybe she'll pass along some of that thing, that thing that made her who she was, via simple proximity. It didn't happen, but that didn't stop me from trying.

Five years ago, Karen died. She was 48. She hadn't been ill; she hadn't been hurt. On Easter Sunday, during a routine errand, she simply died.  And I know people say things like this all the time, in her case, it's true: When she died, part of a community died with her.

As is so often the case with exemplary people, part of her lives on, though -- in her sons, of course, one of whom looks exactly like his mother and possesses her uncanny perception and talent for empathy. But she also lives on in the community -- a community that, since her death, seems to have become more open to the fact that everyone who lives here isn't white and wealthy, that within the boundaries of Johnston exists a great deal of need.

That's why we're walking and running for Karen Coaldrake on Friday. Organizers of the annual 5K for Karen take each event's proceeds and divide them among the organizations Karen cared about so that even in death, she's still that tenacious spirit.

Join us, won't you? Believe me, if Karen were still here and the event were for someone else, she'd be bugging you to sign up. And she wouldn't stop until you did.