Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pass the cake, please, but only after you put all 53 candles on top.

With my grandma when she was the age I am now.

I remember when my grandma turned the age I'll turn this month.

That gives me pause.

I'm not ashamed of my age; how is it even possible to be ashamed of an age? It's simply something you are. And what I am, soon, is 53.

Still, though ...

Fifty-three. When you consider the fact that I certainly have more life behind me than ahead of me, the number is startling.

I remember, as a child, thinking 50-year-olds were elderly. I also recall my first husband's dismay on his 25th birthday as it occurred to him he was halfway to that milestone.

But my own 50th, strangely enough, was a happy day. I was in the process of taking off the weight that had dogged me for 20 years; my kids were in good places in their lives, one having graduated college and the other one about to do so. We were all healthy. Life was good.

We're all still healthy, thankfully, and life is still good. But for some reason, I'm feeling a sense of urgency I didn't feel three years ago; Fifty-five is right around the corner; 60 (60!) won't be far behind. I used to assume I had expanses of time to while away; now, of course, I know that's not true.

So I need to get a few things done while I'm still young and healthy enough to do them. But I also feel the need, more strongly than ever, to communicate a thought or two, especially to those who can't conceive of themselves facing down 53 candles on a birthday cake.

What does it feel like to be turning 53? a young co-worker asked me this week. 

I didn't have an answer for her when she asked, but I thought about it, and here's what I want her to know about turning 53, and about gratitude and common sense and other things I've learned as the birthdays have run together.

  • Turning 53 feels like turning 23 or 33. Inside, I'm still young; so much so that when I look in the mirror and see the face of an aunt I think of as being perpetually 50, I'm startled.
  • In some ways, I'm nicer than I've ever been, and in other ways, I'm far less nice. Life now consists of more gray areas than I'd ever believed possible, so I truly try to walk in others' shoes before I judge. At the same time, I'm more likely to cut someone off at the knees if that person is behaving in a discriminatory, unkind or otherwise unfair manner. 
  • Older bodies can do amazing things. I took up running at 50 and ran 22 races in two years; I'd still be out there if my hip and foot had cooperated. Still, though, I walk at least a 5K every day. I lift weights. For the first time in my life, I can do real push-ups. Most days, I feel capable and strong.
  • Older bodies can also be attractive. Desirable, even (sorry to gross you out, kids). Sure, gravity does its thing, but confidence can offset any perceived physical flaw. 
  • People my age can be adept at technology -- more so, sometimes, than millennials. Two workplaces ago, my boss was told to hire a millennial to help us with social media. We did, and she came to me for help in understanding Twitter.
  • We know we can't mistreat our bodies and expect them to last as long as we need them to. We're more likely than younger people to practice vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. We eat donuts sometimes, but not every day. We take our vitamins and our low-dose aspirin and drink our water, and we cross our fingers.
  • As we get older, we want to make a difference. This can manifest itself in the need to realign our personal or professional lives to make sure what we're doing feels right to us. 
  • We talk more because we have more, borne of life experience, to share. But we also listen more because we understand the value in a disparate point of view. My politics lean left; one of the co-workers I'm closest to is a conservative retired Marine. Ideologically, we're pretty far apart, but he has a huge heart and a desire to always do the right thing. We look past our differences and enjoy our friendship. 
  • I'm less apologetic about the things I don't do well. Work in Excel, for example. I try, but navigating that program is not my strength. I also hate football with a searing passion and don't feel the least bit compelled to pretend otherwise.
  • I'm also less apologetic about who I am. I'm impatient and easily bored; I'm sensitive and prone to worry. I overshare and wear my heart on my sleeve, and when I love someone, I love big. I spent much of my life trying to censor myself, and I don't feel the need to do that anymore. 
  • We understand that plastic surgery won't make us look younger; it will just make us look as though we've had work done. Some friends have chosen to do it anyway, and we all support each other. Same with hair color; people know I'm gray. Whether I choose to show them is up to me. 
  • For me, my friendships with women are more important than ever. I adore, value, and yearn for time with my friends, and I come away from that time rejuvenated. 
  • Those of us who are parents never stop being our kids' moms and dads. At the same time, though, we enjoy reclaiming ourselves once our kids are raised. I'm still as committed to my kids as ever, but I also delight in seeing them make their own paths and excel in their own careers. I also feel responsible for demonstrating to them that people can continue to grow and thrive as they age.
I'm in a line of work now that reminds me daily of all the good things about aging. What's not good is the prejudice our society extends to older adults. As long as people feel the need to lie about their ages, there's work to be done.

Let's own our ages, shall we, and the good things that come with them? As the cliche goes, growing older is a whole lot better than the alternative. And it rings true: My mom was only 42 when she died. For me, every year beyond that has been gravy.

So happy next birthday, whenever that may be, to any of my over-50 brothers and sisters who are battling what they may feel is a collective attack on their relevance. We're as relevant as we think we are, and I don't know about you, but I'm planning to stick around for a while and to be as impactful as I can while doing it.

Pass the cake, please. But first, put all 53 candles on top of it. Maybe even one to grow on. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"I'll Remember You"

When it came to just about anything, Jarrett and I didn't agree.

That proved to be a bit problematic, given that he was my boss.

Jarrett hired me to work for him in 2003. He was marketing communications manager in a department that functioned as an internal agency for a large financial-services provider. My job: to write about health insurance.

Exciting? On even the best day, no. But I had two children. Obligations. The company was highly regarded. The pay was good. My skill set, as they say, was a match.

So, onward and upward. I reported for work and planned to have a pretty easy time of things. But soon it became clear: I hadn't planned on Jarrett.

Ah, Jarrett. First impressions: The guy was nice. Nice as could be. Also enthusiastic. Eager as a Boy Scout, he wanted to help me succeed. He wanted to help everyone succeed.

He also really liked details. And spreadsheets. And internal deadlines. I quickly realized that simply because I had a deadline that was a month away didn't mean Jarrett wouldn't be checking daily to see how I was doing.

It didn't take us long to realize the road ahead was likely to be bumpy. The more he encouraged me to do things a certain way, the more I balked. The more I urged him to allow me to do things my way, the more nervous he became.

"I like the final product," he would say. "But I need to know how you got there. I need to know your process."

"For the love of God, why?" I'd respond. And then, often, just: "No."

Looking back, I have no idea why I thought being so insubordinate was OK. I have no idea why he didn't fire me. Maybe he tried, but probably not. He was that nice.

I had bonded with Jarrett's boss, and I sought his counsel. Although Dale and I were friends, his allegiance was, as it should have been, to the department.

"Stop being so hard on him," Dale said. "My God. He's a good guy. Just do a little of what he wants. Just a little."

Maybe Dale wore me down. Maybe I was tired of fighting. Or maybe I realized that if I wanted to keep my job, I'd have to compromise. So for a project I was working on, one that had many parts, I went in on a weekend and created a spreadsheet.

I left it on Jarrett's chair. Monday morning, he stopped by to see me. I thought he was going to weep.

"This is beautiful -- amazing!" he said, "All your collateral is here. All your deadlines." And then: "Let's just brighten up the colors a bit. Here, let me help you." And he sat down at my desk and turned my spreadsheet into a work of art.

And the worm turned.

As easily as we had become adversaries, we became -- well, not adversaries. And then it became clear: We were becoming friends. And as we began to like each other more, I worked harder to please him. And as I worked harder to please him, he eased up on the busywork.

We discovered a mutual love for bad '80s music and John Hughes movies. We'd quote lyrics and dialogue back and forth. I met his little daughters, whom he often brought into work late in the day or on weekends. And I heard often about his wife, Melanie, whom he summed up this way: "I can't believe she married me."

He studied the tchotchkes with which I decorated my office, and added to my collections with trinkets here and there. We collaborated on projects, and we laughed loudly and often.

One day, working with him in my office on a project that involved a challenging client, I also realized I was learning from him. We were commiserating, and I parroted one of his frequent pieces of advice back to him: "Once in a while, it's OK to let the other guy win."

"I couldn't have said it better," he replied.

Although we had become friends, our relationship also possessed some elements that resembled sibling rivalry; he won an award for a project, but had neglected to add my name to the entry, even though I'd worked on it. I sulked.

And once, after he had given up Diet Mountain Dew for a whole year but was continuing to crave it, I decided to test him. It was his birthday, and I bought an extra-large, extra-cold bottle, tied some ribbon around the neck, walked into his office and set it down in front of him.

I heard the hiss of the opening bottle cap before I'd walked six paces. He told me I was evil, but he drank the whole thing.  

One day in 2008, Dale called me and Jennifer, another team member, into a meeting. Jarrett was already in the room.

"Jarrett has accepted an opportunity outside the company," Dale said. "He's leaving."

I started to cry.

For the next couple of weeks, I wouldn't let him talk to me. Then, one day, he sent me an email. I still have it.

"I want to tell you about this. Please," he wrote. "You'll be so happy for me. This job is perfect."

And he did, and I was, and it was.

His last day, we went to lunch. Over barbecue -- side dishes for me, ribs for him -- we laughed about our journey. I made light of things, as I often do when I'm sad or nervous. I didn't want him to go.

As we went to leave, he said, "Let's not go back to work."

He's still my boss for the rest of the day, I figured. So, OK.

We ran an errand first; Melanie had seen a door she liked at the second-hand home-improvement store, so he went to buy it for her. He was excited to surprise her and talked, again, about having "married up."

And then we just drove.

We headed up to the area north of town where he had grown up; he pointed out landmarks and told his patented "Jarrett stories" -- long, with embellishments. We stopped for ice cream. And, of course, we tuned the radio to an '80s station.

"I Remember You" by Skid Row came on. He opened the windows. The wind blew us around. We sang at the top of our lungs on the way back to the office.

As he was dropping me off at my car, I felt I needed to somehow put a cap on things.

"I was hard on you," I said. "I shouldn't have been. But we got past it. I've always wondered if maybe you looked at me like one of your projects. I was a challenge that you knew you had to try to solve."

He smiled. "Something like that, at the beginning," he said. "Now you're just my friend."

Jarrett and I stayed in touch. The last time we talked was a year ago; I wanted to tell him about my new job. He was doing well, happy at work, happy with Melanie and their girls. He was planning, always planning. Working on a deck. Creating a spreadsheet, naturally, to help Melanie pack for a camping trip.

He was Jarrett. And a week ago, unexpectedly, he died.

At the funeral, I sat next to Dale, who had so long ago urged me to cut Jarrett some slack, and I thought about all the lessons I'd learned through that experience: My way is not always the best way. Winning is not always the most important thing; above all, proceed with kindness.

And strive to possess the grace of this man who sought to win me over when I was behaving too badly to deserve to be won.

I left the church and started my car. The radio came on, and I sat in disbelief: "I'll Remember You" was just starting.

I rolled down the windows, I let the wind blow me around, and I sang at the top of my lungs.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Talking about your body parts could save your life. Really.

When I became a mother, I was determined not to use euphemisms in teaching my kids the names of their anatomical parts. I reasoned things out like this: If your elbow is your elbow but your penis is your pee-pee, eventually you're going to grow up and realize that your penis is, in fact, your penis, and you're going to wonder why your parents shrouded that particular part in the mystery of a fake name.

That strategy worked pretty well for the most part, except for the time Scott, at 2, began pointing and announcing to everyone in the grocery store, "He's a boy! He has a penis! She's a girl! She has a vagina!" And then there was the time he drew a penis on his gingerbread man at preschool much the way he had drawn elbows and a nose.

But for the most part, I was glad we had called things what they were, and neither child seemed to feel any shame or weirdness about any portion of his or her anatomy.

I grew up in much the same straight-shooting way, as did a lot of people I know; I was a kid in the "Free to Be You and Me" early '70s, after all. But it struck me this week that for some reason, as we reach adulthood, many of us seem to regress, shying away from calling things what they are. And that reticence can cause problems for some of us; believe it or not, it can even indirectly cost us our lives.

(A note here: If you're squeamish or hate it when writers volunteer too much information, you're going to hate this post, so you'll want to stop reading now.)  

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed an abnormality that I knew would need a doctor's attention. I made an appointment, but the doctor was busy, so it would take two weeks for me to be seen.

So, hypochondriac that I am, I filled those two weeks by reading everything I could about my particular issue. Of course, I ended up certain I had cancer, the way I always believe I do.

But I also was struck to learn this:

Because women are reluctant to check the areas gynecologists typically pay attention to -- and because once they find something strange, they're embarrassed to see a health-care provider about it -- many cancers of the reproductive tract are diagnosed so late that the prognosis is frequently horrible.

Let's think about what that means. Because as women, we shy away from checking parts of our own bodies -- and because we're reluctant to call the doctor's office and use the words "vagina" or "vulva" -- we risk our health. How can that be OK?

And it's certainly not just women -- according to many articles I came across, men are worse. And when it comes to digestive issues, both sexes are equally skittish; colonoscopies are such an effective tool, but because we can't bring ourselves to talk about our bathroom habits, we shy away from scheduling them.

Why is this? Chances are, it's at least partially because the puritanical ethics on which our country was founded have been passed down, intact, from generation to generation. Most of us don't consider it polite to talk about certain body parts in mixed company.

And we know the reason for that: sex. The body parts we feel uneasy talking about are the ones involved with sexual acts. And that's really ironic and really unfortunate because, unless you're truly an exception, those parts spend most of their time involved in things decidedly non-sexual. 

Who decided we can freely talk about elbows and noses but not about vaginas or testicles? If we're using those words in non-sexual contexts, what could possibly be offensive about them?

For years now, Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues has been doing beautiful job of expressing what I'm trying to say here. By teaching ourselves to feel comfortable monitoring, and talking about, our own anatomies, we can only enhance our reproductive health. But hard as Ensler may have tried to change the landscape, we have a long way to go.

We're doing better when it comes to our breasts: Organizations that raise money for research have sought to de-sexualize breasts in recent years and urge a focus on breast health. Activists like my friend Bridget Pargulski tirelessly lobby legislators to legally require radiologists to indicate if a woman has dense breast tissue that could hide a suspicious mass on a mammogram. We're talking about breasts in ways that are not at all titillating, and that's certainly as it should be.

We need similar activism around the health of our reproductive organs. Here are some sobering statistics: When it's diagnosed early, the five-year survival rate for one type of cancer of the reproductive area, vulvar melanoma, is 82 percent. But because it's almost always diagnosed late, only 16 percent of women who have it actually survive five years. Similarly, according to the National Cancer Institute, by the time most cancers of the vagina are found, the mean survival rate is only 57 percent.

Both these cancers are rare. But if you have one of them, or one of your loved ones has been diagnosed with one of them, the fact that they're rare is of no consequence.

We can do better, starting with our parenting of young children; the website A Mighty Girl helps parents talk to young girls about their bodies. We "girls" who are a little older can find help from such resources as What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist if She Was Your Best Friend by ob/gyn Lissa Rankin. (And if you don't like those, just Google and find a million other resources.)

I'm not perfect when it comes to this stuff. Often, when I find something odd on my own body, it takes me a few days to muster the courage to make a doctor's appointment; in my case, it's because I always assume the news will be bad,

But as my doctor and I were finishing our conversation today, she said, "You did what you should have done; you checked your body, and you saw something wasn't quite right, and you got here right away. We can't ask for more than that."  

Sometimes that's not enough; many diseases are way too cruel to care how vigilant a person is. You can monitor yourself and still miss things; you can catch things that are so aggressive that your carefulness is of no consequence. 

But any time we can stack the deck in our favor, we need to do it. Check your body, use the words, and, if you need to, call the doctor. It's not always that easy, but sometimes, it really, really is. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

This election cycle, I'm promising a politics-free zone on social media. Won't you join me?

I am a Democrat. I'm a liberal Democrat. And chances are very, very good -- ridiculously, amazingly good -- that in the 2016 presidential election, I will vote accordingly.

And from now until November 9, 2016, that's likely the last you'll hear from me about politics.

That's not to say you won't see photos of me at campaign events here and there, and that's not to say I won't post the occasional diatribe about an issue that's important to me.

But I won't be haranguing you about my candidate and why I feel you should vote for that person; I won't be getting down and dirty in long Facebook exchanges with people whose views are different from mine. I won't post sarcastic missives about the other party's candidate, and I won't post jokes that poke fun at that person.

Why all the promises?

Leading up to the 2012 election, I was all about sharing on social media the many reasons I felt my candidate should be elected. I posted facts and figures and memes and anything and everything from Nate Silver; I cajoled and harangued and battled with friends who championed the opposition. I hurt some feelings, and my own feelings were hurt. I was "unfriended" a few times, and I put a lot of time and emotional energy into trying to convince others that my opinion was the correct one.

Don't get me wrong; I still feel my opinion is the correct one. But as I spent time on Facebook last night and saw friends' reactions to Hillary Clinton's announcing her candidacy, I initially wanted to enter the fray. But then I thought: Not this time.

Here's why: because being politically obnoxious on social media yields no return on investment. When I think of my most-diehard-Republican Facebook friends, I wonder: If I lean on them really, really hard about my candidate's wonderful qualities, will I change their minds and affect the way they vote?

And of course the answer is a resounding "no."

So, then, what would my reasoning be for being politically active on Facebook? To show others how astute and aware I am? That's not relevant; my friends would expect that of me, as I'd expect that of them. To try to incite controversy? Nope, I seem to do enough of that in real life.

When others post nasty things about the candidate I support, their posts don't make me think, "Gosh, maybe they're right, and perhaps I should change my party affiliation and vote the way that person wants me to vote."

They make me think, "Wow, that person is kind of obnoxious, and I sure wish he or she would respect the fact that we all have different opinions." 

I like to be politically active. I'll volunteer to help with my candidate's campaign. I'll be the anonymous voice behind the phone call that reminds you to vote, and I'll "like" friends' posts that remind us all to exercise our Constitutional right to do so.I'll talk enthusiastically with others who share my views, but at the office and online, I'll fly under the radar -- not because I'm ashamed or afraid, but because I'm determined to respect others' opinions the way I'd like them to respect mine.

No candidate is perfect. Jesus doesn't love you more -- at least I don't think He does -- for voting for one over the other. No elected official can win over 100 percent of the population and effect total domestic harmony. Life will not be perfect under Rand Paul or Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio or Elizabeth Warren. We have a variety of candidates every election cycle because we have a variety of opinions, and that's as it should be.

If you want to know whom I'm supporting, you can probably guess; if not, ask me. Either way, you won't see it on my Facebook page. You may very well end up blocking me because of my opinions on books or music or dogs or running or cell-phone providers, but it won't be because I'm trashing your candidate.

Friday, April 3, 2015

I've become the dreaded "lapsed Catholic." Is Easter a good time to make amends?

This is going to be pretty personal, even for me. 

I was raised Catholic. Italian-Catholic, actually, which is like Catholicism on steroids. A lot of Mass, a lot of sacraments. A lot of religion at school. A lot of memorization. A lot of music, not much of it good; a lot of obligation. I would sit in Mass and cross my fingers that the priest would recite the second Eucharistic prayer because it was the shortest.

I didn't always pay attention. Sometimes I slipped out the side door right after Communion.

I was not a good Catholic.

I wasn't a bad kid; by today's standards, I was actually a really good one. I did what I was told. I made good grades. I respected my elders. I had to make up sins to confess to the priest when I took advantage of the sacrament of penance because, as that decent kid, I really didn't have an exciting, sinful life. 

"I was disrespectful to my parents," I'd say, not really remembering if I had been or not. The priest would tell me to do better, then sentence me to one Our Father and two Hail Marys. And that was it until the following Friday, when I'd say the same thing.

So I guess I really wasn't a bad Catholic, either. I was probably like every other Catholic child of that time. I did what I was supposed to do, what I was told to do, and believed the way the church, and my family, said I should believe.

And then I got older. And then things changed for me, as they do for many people who grow up and try to determine his or her place in the world. I began questioning, and the answers I received didn't make sense to me. "Because that's just the way things are" never, ever works, and I always want whoever is answering the question to do better.

My questions largely revolved around God's rules, whatever we understood them to be, versus human-made rules. As I look back now, they weren't hard questions, and they were stereotypical of that time: Why are women's roles in the church lesser than the roles of men? Why does Catholicism tell us being gay is a sin when it's pretty clear that people are born with genetically programmed sexual identity? Whoever came up with the idea that we can't eat meat on Fridays during Lent, and how is that a sacrifice if a person doesn't even like meat?

I continued to ask my questions of different people and in different years. During that time, I married and had my own children and proceeded to raise them Catholic. I took them to Mass. I taught religious education (!). I didn't always buy into the lessons I taught, but it was important, I reasoned, to raise my children with a religious foundation, and Catholicism was what I knew.

When my children reached adulthood, they made their own decisions about organized religion. As for my journey, when the time came for me to no longer worry about their foundations, I bowed out.

I stopped going to church except on the rarest of occasions because I couldn't reconcile the hypocrisy of attending a church that was espousing things I didn't believe. I also couldn't wrap my head around the church's handling of the sex-abuse scandal, and felt that if I continued to attend Mass, I was condoning the fact that young lives had been shattered to maintain reputations that didn't deserve to be maintained.

Here's the thing, though: I may have stopped attending Mass, but I never stopped believing, and I never stopped praying. I believe Jesus is the son of God, and I believe He died for our sins. I believe in the resurrection. I believe in God not as a giant Santa Claus, but as a being that can bring clarity and comfort. I believe in prayer, and I believe in miracles.

But I don't believe in persecution and exclusion and entitlement and hypocrisy. I believe in freedom of expression, and I believe in equality of all humans. I believe in the words of Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself." "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me." I try to help people. I try to do good things. I try to make the world better. Sometimes I fail.

But I keep believing and I keep trying. And today, I heard on the radio that Pope Francis went to a prison and washed the feet of some inmates, including those of a woman. And a baby. And as I listened to the story, something in it spoke to me, and I started to cry.

I'm not sure I clearly understand the need for the hierarchy of the Papacy, but I am a fan of this Pope. I may not agree with him on everything, or even on most things, but the guy is the real deal. He clearly doesn't believe in entitlement; he's inclusive and humble and hard-working. He seems to try to help all people with whom he comes into contact, and he doesn't shun any of them, even felons or lepers ... or those who happen to be gay.

The fact that he is trying so hard to change things, even if he can't change things enough for me to feel the Catholic church is "my" church, moves me to tears. And, cue the thunderbolts: His actions also make me feel that maybe there's room for me back there, in his church, again.

I miss Mass. I miss the ritual and the tradition. I miss Communion (which I would take even though I'm divorced, because that rule is insane) and I miss ashes on my head. I miss the prayers I grew up with; I even miss the bad music. I miss the stations of the cross and I miss a context for all my prayers. 

But I don't know how it would work, exactly, if I went back, because although the fundamental beliefs are there, many differences remain. Can I compartmentalize enough to not feel like a fraud? Is it enough that I believe in the "big" things, but take issue with the details? 

I want to take baby steps, but my mother-in-law is coming for Easter, and I want to take her to Mass. Ideally, I don't want to wait till Christmas or Easter to go back weekly, but I want to feel comfortable with taking stock and working my way back gradually. 

I'm at a loss. I don't know where to start, but I do know that my stock explanation, "I'm spiritual, not religious," isn't entirely true. I miss having a church building in which I feel at home. But I also don't want to be judged as a "lapsed" Catholic. And I don't want to be lectured about my opinions and beliefs.

If anyone reading this lives in the Des Moines area and is in love with his or her Catholic church, please drop me a note and tell me why. Is it inclusive? Does the congregation reach out to the community, the city, the world? Would the people there be willing to make room for someone who's not 100 percent on board?

And one more thing: If you're inclined to judge me or others like me, do ask yourself, What would Jesus do? 

My guess is: Because he hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, he'd probably be OK with making room in his house for a liberal Democrat who asks too many questions but really misses the off-key singing of "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

After all ... it's Easter. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Laughing with the enemy: From "Real Housewives" to "Sister Wives" with my children's stepmother

Divorce is awful, no matter how you slice it.  No matter what leads to it, and no matter if the parties involved are better off apart, it's still a horrible thing to go through, especially if kids are involved. 

My divorce was no different. It happened 17 years ago, and it was awful; not just awful, but in the annals of awfulness, it was epic. However, the wounds are no longer fresh for either of us, and we've worked things out to the point that mistakes made so long ago aren't relevant to our lives today; we've both moved on to other marriages and other lives, and our kids, perhaps in spite of us (but I like to think, to some degree, because of us), are whole, functional, happy adults.

And here's something I wasn't expecting. In the least expected of all places -- in the trenches of my worst behavior and my most horrible mistakes and my most grievous failures as a human being -- I made a friend. She was right there with me the whole time, but not in the way one might expect.

She was, and is, my ex-husband's wife.

Her name is Deena, and she and my ex have been married for a good many years. When my kids were at her house, she helped to raise them; she's known them since they were little, and sometimes to this day, it surprises me to realize that she really does know them. When the kids were young, her place in their lives made me miserable and jealous. It didn't matter that my feelings were irrational; they were ever-present and they were raw, and they drove me to say the most hateful things. Deena became the target not only of my frustrations with my ex, but of my regrets and frustrations about myself.

Don't get me wrong: Deena was no Mother Teresa. She'd be the first to admit I wasn't her favorite person, either, and she pulled a dirty trick or two. But I think she would have been willing to extend the olive branch pretty early, if I had been willing to accept it. 

I don't watch Real Housewives, but from what my son and daughter-in-law tell me, the arguments the women have are petty and ridiculous and are exacerbated for dramatic effect. I guess I could have started that franchise, because I perfected the art of drama to the nth degree. There was no hair-pulling or knocking over of furniture, but there were wars of words. Sometimes I won. Sometimes I didn't. But my kids always lost, and that's the hardest thing to bear now.

Bottom line: I hated Deena, or believed I did, because I didn't like myself a whole lot. And because I didn't like myself, I was insecure about my most sacred role, that of mother to my kids, and I didn't want to feel as though that position was being challenged in any way. Looking back, what did I want? For Deena to be mean to my kids? To ignore them? Of course not. I just didn't want them to like her best.

I'd like to say a thunderbolt struck me one day and caused me to see the light, but what really occurred was the simple passage of time. As cheesy as it sounds, as I grew to become happier and more confident in my own skin, I was able to take a step back and see her as a person. And that person really wasn't out to challenge me, make me miserable, or steal my children. 

Things didn't become rosy overnight, and they're still not perfect; Deena and I are very different people. I'm a feeler; she's more a thinker. I work hard to be tactful, sometimes to a fault; she is very direct. I've always been an indulgent parent; Deena was independent early in life and expected the same of her kids and stepkids. As people and as parents, we're sometimes on opposite sides of the fence. But as is true in many relationships, we actually sort of complement one another.

I enjoy talking to her; in fact, as we plan my daughter Caroline's wedding, we tend to talk daily. My ex and I get along fine, but he enjoys talking on the phone about as much as my current husband does, so when any communication needs to happen, it's between Deena and me. And even the planning works out well; I have grand visions for the big picture, and she has knack for details. In addition, we have some personal things in common now; we've both been on a nutrition kick for a while, and we both run.

And most importantly, we have my kids in common. Oh, how it would have pained me years ago to say this, but my kids love Deena. They love her in a way that is not at all competitive with the way they love me; they know who their mother is. But they are grateful for and respect the time and resources she has committed to them, and the place she holds in their lives. Most of all, they love her because she loves their dad.

Step-relationships are endlessly tricky. From Cinderella onward, they've been fraught with competition and misunderstanding; it's easy to make a step-person a target or a scapegoat. But what I finally came to realize is this: Our shared feelings are what bond us. I once was married to the person she is married to; from that relationship came two children. When Deena married that man, it linked her not only to my children, but to me. 

I've often thought there should be a word for Deena's and my relationship: As we've joked, "sister wife" is a contender, but doesn't quite cut it. But whatever the nomenclature, evolving from "real housewives" to "sister wives," or whatever we are, was no small task. The relationship we have now benefits my kids, to be sure, but the truth is: It also benefits us.

What they say is true: Letting go of negative feelings is healthy and freeing. I'm laughing with the person who used to be my sworn enemy. It's possible for a cold, hardened heart to thaw, even when it's your own.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sometimes, it helps to look back.

March 16, 2013

When I was a little girl, a woman named Ann Bradford was our next-door neighbor. Ann was in her 40s and was a matronly woman with a tight perm and polyester clothes. I was around middle-school age when Ann showed me a picture of herself as a teenager, and I was stunned to see she had been very pretty.

I wondered for a moment why she had allowed her looks to change so drastically, but then I reasoned, "She's grown up and already has a husband and family. She doesn't have to worry about the way she looks anymore."

As much as it pains me to admit it, I've become Ann Bradford.

That's a little harsh -- I still do my hair every day and put on makeup and wear clean clothes that match. I shower daily and have tidy nails. But when it comes to my weight, I've given up. It hasn't been intentional, but it's happened.

I'm not the 600-pound woman you see on the TLC specials; I can get out of bed, and my fat doesn't hang out of my pants. But my abdomen is huge. My ankles are puffy. My wrists are fat. And I wear plus-size clothes. As much as it pains and embarrasses me to admit this, I can no longer shop in the "regular" women's department in any store.

I can't attribute the weight to anything in particular. I'm happy. I love my family. I have a good job and great friends. Sure, the past few years have brought their share of stresses; my dad was sick, and then he died. I had surgery. I changed employers.

And maybe I used all that as license to eat pancakes and drink pop and sneak Swiss Cake Rolls before bed. Or maybe I just got lazy.

Whatever the case, it's stopping now. Well, it's stopping tomorrow. Nothing magic about the timing; I simply woke up one day last week and knew I was ready.

Twenty years ago, I lost 40 pounds. And as much as I loved the result, I think I loved the discipline more. I ate clean, whole foods. I cut out pop and most carbs and sugars. I put a mental barrier between my food and everyone else's. I threw my kids in a double stroller and walked and walked and walked. And as I started treating myself with the respect I deserved, I felt good and happy and at peace.

Out-of-control eating is fun while it's happening. Going to Viva la Bamba with my husband and inhaling two baskets of chips and not thinking about the consequences is fun until you look down and see the crumbs and realize what you've done. Or until you go to Kohl's to buy a trench coat and can't find one that zips and allows you to move your arms.

My husband has never seen me thin; he met me about 20 pounds ago. I want to do this for me, but another part of me wants to be a wife who's not crabby and angry about her weight. The superficial part of me is also excited for him to see what I really look like under all of this.

Sure, I want to make a lifestyle change. I want to get off blood-pressure and cholesterol medicines and be around to enjoy grandkids. I want to be the kind of person who routinely reaches for carrots instead of Swiss Cake Rolls, and I want to kick my Mountain Dew habit for good. But for now, I just want to do this. I want the discipline and the control and the results.

I want my kids to be proud of me. I want to be proud of me.

It's been a long time coming. I'm a little scared. But mostly, I feel something has lifted. I'm no longer just stuck.

Here's to seeing what happens next.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Thanks to Waukee teachers, there's no "right" way to celebrate music

Photo courtesy of www.jessiesfund.org.uk

Every child needs a place to be, a place where he/she not only feels comfortable, but owns his/her surroundings. Last night at a middle school show choir end-of-season performance in Waukee, Iowa, two teachers showed us how to make that happen.

In addition to the show choirs they direct as part of their jobs teaching middle school music, educators Shelly and Michelle started a smaller choir this year for students who wanted to do some extra performing. The group choreographed its own music and spent a lot of extra time practicing, and they performed for the crowd last night.

Front and center was a boy named Zach. Zach has obvious cognitive delays, and maybe some physical ones, too. And Zach clearly loves, and deeply feels, music.

The group performed songs from "The Lion King," and Zach knew every word, every dance move. He formed the words differently from the way the other kids formed them, and they didn't sound the same. He danced differently, too. But he matched the other kids beat for beat, and he performed joyfully, head back and eyes open wide.

He also sang loudly, so loudly that at times, we couldn't really hear the other kids. But here's the thing: The other kids didn't mind. In fact, their smiles encouraged Zach. He smiled and they smiled. They sang together, each in his or her own way.

And when it was over, Zach wasn't quite finished with his joy. He hugged every other student in the group, and every other student hugged him back. He nearly tackled one of his teacher, and she returned his enthusiasm. He clearly belonged.

I think back 39 years ago, to my own seventh-grade year. We had no classmates with cognitive or physical delays; they went to "special" schools. If I had encountered such a classmate, I'm sad to say I would have felt awkward and maybe even a little afraid.

But because districts like Waukee and teachers like Shelly and Michelle know there's no such thing as a "different" child, Zach is truly just one of the kids. He doesn't sing like everyone else, but no one makes him feel as though the way he sings is wrong. They rejoice in the sounds he makes because he so clearly loves making them.

In these sad days when middle-schoolers in other parts of the city are mourning classmates who have taken their own lives, it's all the more critical that every student find his or her place -- a place to receive acceptance and affection and affirmation. Thanks to teachers like Michelle and Shelly and districts that know the fine arts can save lives, Zach has such a place, and his classmates are that much stronger for embracing him for who he is.

I'm overjoyed that my daughter is part of such a district, learning from peers like Shelly and Michelle. Thanks, Waukee middle school vocal music teachers, for all you do, daily, for hundreds of kids. And thanks, Zach, for reminding us what music should really sound like.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

It's just a grocery store, but it's weird to imagine life without Dahl's.

I often explain to my kids that television "events" such as the Charlie Brown Christmas special were a big deal when I was little because we had only four channels and not much children's programming existed. The same can be said, in a rather convoluted way, about grocery stores.

Even though I stopped being a regular Dahl's shopper long ago, the news that the chain will no longer exist has made me sad. Although the stores have become shadows of their former selves, Dahl's, in its heyday, was the Des Moines area's preferred place to buy groceries. And a few of the stores have figured prominently into parts of my life.

When you're preschool-age and lose a parent, you end up not knowing if the memories you think you have of that parent are actually yours, or you've collected them through others' recollections. One of only a couple of memories I'm sure was my own involved a trip to Dahl's on Fleur Drive with my mother. I was no more than 3, and she was very sick.

In my mind's eye, we were alone that day, which was rare, as she needed others to help care for her. Or maybe others were there, and their faces faded as I focused on my mother's. At any rate, we sat in the store's snack-bar area. I don't know what she ate, or if she did, but I ordered a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and French fries. The jelly must have been jam, actually -- raspberry, with tiny seeds. Raspberry is still my favorite.

I can see the servers in their white uniforms and nurses' shoes. I can see my mother's face, but I can't hear her voice. I remember feeling excited to be there with her, and I remember wanting -- as if I were on a date -- to make a good impression, to make her smile or laugh. Understandably, I didn't often have my mother to myself, and I remember feeling very proud to have eaten everything on my plate (as if that were ever a concern with me, but it was, for whatever reason, a big deal that day). I remember holding her hand when we left the store, and that her palm was cool. And then I don't remember her anymore.

After she died, my dad and I moved to West Des Moines to live with my sister, who was already married. My sister, who had essentially been raising me since I was 2, took on the task of mothering me, and I began accompanying her on shopping trips to what was then a relatively new Dahl's on the edge of Valley Junction, the area my family called "Old West Des Moines."

The best thing about this store? Something called a "kiddie corral," which consisted of vinyl-backed chairs arranged around a pit of books. The premise was that children could stay happily occupied in the "corral" while their mothers shopped -- a set-up that would never fly today, but we all felt safer then. Teresa would find me where she had left me, immersed in some dog-eared volume and reluctant to leave.

Later, in my first great act of independence, a friend and I ran across the street to Dahl's one Saturday from the West Des Moines library and bought glass bottles of 7-Up, then took them back to the library and stood against the wall, feeling very grown-up as we drank them down. I'm not sure we'd been given permission, but we each had a quarter, and with pounding hearts, we traded those quarters for cold, sugary sweetness. Some 40-plus years later, when I taste a 7-Up, I'm back in that store.

I earned my driver's license a few years later, and I was given a pretty small area in which I could travel. But I was allowed to drive to Dahl's, and, wow -- talk about feeling grown-up. I recall driving there solo for the first time; it was 1979 and I was wearing cut-off jeans and a t-shirt with a rainbow across the front, and I really wanted all the other shoppers to notice that I was putting my own car keys in my own pocket. My classmates Mario and Tommy worked there, and I remember hoping to see them so I could mention, oh-so-casually, that I had driven myself.

And on and on, in and out of various Dahl's stores ... the Ingersoll Dahl's, where my grandma shopped, with its underground conveyor belt that took groceries out to a little house where shoppers could pick them up, bagged just-so. Another in West Des Moines when I was first married. And the big flagship store on Merle Hay when my own kids were small. I'd load my baby and toddler in the double stroller and push them for the three-mile round trip, also stopping at the fabric store down the street to buy buttons for our button collection. Money was tight in those days and I really should have shopped at Aldi, but denying my kids Dahl's felt like too big a sacrifice.

Several years ago now, Dahl's started feeling dark and a little empty, and the prices began inching up and the produce department started smelling like mold. I'd never been a Hy-Vee shopper, but I gave the one in Johnston a try and found it to be bright and shiny and homey, and before long, I knew where everything was. When we moved to Urbandale, I became enamored with the giant Hy-Vee on 86th, and that's now "my" store.

But we do live a bit closer to a Dahl's, and every so often, I'll stop by there on my way home from work to pick up an item or two. It's dark in there, and the shelves are emptier each time I visit; the inventory is discounted, and soon it will all be gone. And I'm reminded that this is the way life works; just as children's programming is everywhere on TV, groceries are available at big-box stores and convenience stores and online.

Hy-Vee has made the business model work; Dahl's didn't. Some say the powers-that-be made bad decisions, but chances are they were simply doing what they thought was right at the time.

Dahl's mascot is a blue-and-orange owl, and the stores are selling replicas -- presumably to raise money to pay their creditors, sadly enough. So I bought one, and then I went back to buy a couple for my kids. I put them  in their Christmas stockings, and Scott, 26 now, took his out first.

"This reminds me of all the walks we took, and then going to buy buttons for the button box," he said.A lump formed in my throat.

It's the end of an era. I jumped ship long ago, but Godspeed, Dahl's. You still bring faces to life for me, and I'll remember you.