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.