Osama Bin Laden is dead

“Ding Dong, Bin Laden is dead, the wicked bastard’s dead!”

That stupid refrain was ringing through my head when I awoke this morning.  But what I actually feel about it, I couldn’t tell you.

I’m completely numb.

I know what I want to feel: relief, elation, a sense of righteousness, justice — but none of that has come.

I watch the commentators, the crowds, the current and former presidential advisors, the president, and I know I should feel like them. But I don’t. Not yet.

Just a pervading numbness and a sense of guilt that I can’t get there. It’s a little different than the numbness I felt on 9/11, which was more like being in some sort of protective fog, as if my brain was enveloping itself in a cushion before the hard fall of real comprehension. But it could only protect me for a little while. After that, of course, grief set in, manifesting in a lump in my throat and ready tears that wouldn’t go away for several months.

Part of me wonders if Bin Laden’s death isn’t more symbolic than actually meaningful in “the fight against terror” — can we really kill hatred with the death of one man, odious and powerful as he was? A blogger I follow (Amy Parmenter) pointed out that his death occurred on Holocaust Memorial Day – a great and appropriate metaphor.

But the fact remains that even since WWII, hatred of Jews didn’t disappear with the death of Hitler. It just went a little further underground.

The other thing that keeps niggling at me is how he died. We took the law into our own hands and just gunned him down – no tribunal, no court of law. Very Old Testament, sort of “hand of God,” or “eye for an eye.”  I can’t help it – it feels barbaric to me. We know for certain that he orchestrated the horrors of 9/11, but I don’t understand how we get away with this. Is it because what he did was an act of war and therefore we have the right to kill him on sight?

You may think I’m anti-American, but I’m not.  I’m just laying it out on the line here, a gut reaction I can’t put away — I feel the tiniest bit that we’ve sunk to some primitive level as I watch the joy-drunken faces of the revelers in front of the White House or at Ground Zero.

Ugh. Did I just write that?

Please don’t get me wrong.  I know this is a great thing, a REALLY great thing – intellectually. I know he is evil incarnate…I guess I travelled down Nihilism Road carrying a little too much mind-numbing baggage today.

Perhaps I’ll feel elated tomorrow.

my first guest post

I’m very honored to have been asked to guest-post by my dear friend and blogging mentor, Annabel Candy. Her latest blog, aptly named Successful Blogging,  is an offshoot of her original blog, which has garnered her thousands of loyal readers worldwide, thanks to her dogged pursuit of social media prowess.

It’s a business piece, but I think you might find it interesting anyway, so please check it out.

Here’s a little taste:

Why a Personal Blog Can Boost Your Business

My little personal blog, called seriously, scares me to death.

Okay, not literally, but every time I post my gut clenches a little, my heart pounds and I bite my nails down to stubs in anticipation of the comments I will get. That’s because everything I write about is mine — my experiences, my thoughts, my observations – anything I feel like really, and it is bare-all honest and real no matter what. If I’m not a little afraid to post it, then I know it isn’t quite right.

While my blog is personal and honest sometimes to the point of pain (which I try to defray with a dash of humor), my one rule is to never, ever blame others or write negatively about the ones I love. In that way it has become cathartic and better than cognitive therapy – it forces me to reframe my thinking and air out my dirty laundry publicly at the same time. It’s absolutely frightening and the most freeing, transformational thing I have ever done in my life.

And believe it or not, this uber-personal blog has been great for business…Read more

mother load

The topic of having children in relation to  sustained or occasional unhappiness, I have found, is as controversial and rife with potential trip-wires as any involving sex, politics or religion.  People don’t discuss the correlation freely, really, and those who do are lambasted as anti-child.  There is so much poppycock around having children that when you reveal the actual truth to the uninitiated, it feels as if you’ve broken some unspoken pact, a complicit glossing-over of how hard and often how awful childrearing really can be.  It’s like we live in a group-dream (perhaps as part of the preservation of the species?) that keeps us believing – much like issues in religion and politics — how fulfilling and wonderful it is to have and raise babies. To say otherwise is tantamount to treason. What I am about to write next will probably mean I’ll get a little flak, in other words, but please read to the end before you get too disgusted with me.

When a friend without kids told another friend with kids and me that she was sort of, kind of, maybe contemplating children and did we have any thoughts to share, my experienced friend and I took a deep breath and looked around, whispering sotto voce, ”Do you want us to tell you the whole truth?”  Well, of course — who wouldn’t want to know that?!

So we did. We told her the dirty little secrets about babies and small children.  We launched into unsanctioned territory, threw stones at that temple with a vengeance…and probably went too far.  We told her how alone you feel when you’re a new mom. How you may not even love the little mewling, demanding creature you birthed, though you feel passionately mama-bearish about its welfare. That breast-feeding is really difficult to master and might not actually work for you. We told her about unrecognized post-partum depression and unreasonable fears for baby’s safety making you a crazy woman. About sleepless nights, very strained marriages and even divorce, as in my friend’s case.  How you give, and you give, and you give so much more than you thought you had in you to the point of potential loss of yourself.

Early childrearing, we told her, is a mind-melding blur, the lines of your personhood so merged with that of your child or children that you literally cannot see straight.  And you may even believe you are the only woman in the world who feels unhappy with this little “bundle of joy” that feels as if it will be hanging around your neck 24-7…for the rest of your natural life.

Beware, we told her, of all the focus on pregnancy and birth, because the end-product of both is an actual baby, one you have absolutely NO idea how to care for (other than a random lesson or two on taco-wrappng and belly-button cleaning from a nurse as you lay dazed in the hospital post-partum) nor how it will really truly affect you and your primary relationship.

Our basic, uplifting message? Have a baby and go directly to jail, do not pass go and definitely do not collect $200. Call it verbal birth control. I mean it’s not like she was pregnant and we were unfairly freaking her out after the deed was done…forewarned is forearmed, I felt!

“So, do you regret having children, then?” she asked, saucer-eyed after what we’d just dumped on her.

We both were silent for a second. But only for a second. What may surprise you (although it is what society would expect) is that we both answered a quite emphatic “No!”

Because what we hadn’t told her yet was the good stuff (I guess we felt she could get that somewhere else…everywhere else, in fact). We didn’t tell her that there is a light at the end of that dark, babyhood tunnel. That what you reap you do sow (at least until they turn 12 or 13 — but that’s another story), sometimes a lot sooner than you think you will.  You begin to see something rise out of the fog and the mist of early parenthood: a little person, more and more separate from you, who you can’t imagine living without; someone who gives you far more joy than gritted teeth; someone you actually like hanging out with (okay, not all the time, but you do catch glimpses).  And as you look back on those early years, they may have been rough, but they really weren’t all bad, and you do miss those sweet baby kisses and hugs, the funny questions and cute drawings, little feet and hands, sweet-smelling heads and delicious, chewable arms and legs.

Then, too, there’s that  hot, fierce love that has grown so strong inside of you — on what used to feel like such thin soil — that it sometimes hurts.  It’s a breathtaking thing, when you look at them sleeping or playing peacefully, and know deep down that without them, life simply wouldn’t have had as much meaning, such richness. In fact, they have pretty much become the most meaningful thing in your life.

A couple weeks after that discussion, which I’m sure was a very confusing one for my child- contemplating friend, I read about new international studies showing that parents are significantly less happy than their peers who don’t have them.  Hello.

But, the kicker of these worldwide studies is this: it only holds true until retirement, when those with kids surpass their childless peers in the happiness quotient, by quite a bit.

I wasn’t surprised. Despite what we said to our friend in an effort at full-disclosure, and despite a recent spring break trip to New York so filled with juvenile whining, complaining and dragging feet I wanted to put myself out of my misery on the subway tracks, I can see it and even feel it because it grows in that direction every day.

Raising children is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It is and will be the longest commitment (other than my marriage) I’ve ever taken on. It has pretty much defined my adulthood – made me an adult, frankly – and has taught me more about myself, my parents and other people than I could have possibly have learned without doing it.  My working life/career pales in comparison as far as self-formation goes.

I hope my childless friend will read this for a little bit more perspective – both sides of a single story, if you will. For it is truly only one story, and may not be anything close to what she might experience or will experience. Could be early parenting for her is a piece of cake, full of butterflies, rainbows and light, airy days of utter delight.

But if it isn’t quite like that, if it’s a bit more difficult, I just wanted her to know she’s not alone.

My plea: If you like my posts, please become a subscriber — it’s easy! Just look right, where it says “subscribe” and plug in the info requested.  Thanks for reading! (that is my photo at the top, fyi)

things I’ve learned from my mother-in-law

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

My mother-in-law and I are about as far apart in age, experience and culture as two women from this diverse nation can be.

Only 10 years younger than my youngest grandmother, she grew up in the thirties on a dirt farm in rural Minnesota, the oldest of eight children of Polish immigrants. The surrounding community was also mostly Polish Catholics, first generation Americans trying to hardscrabble a living off such unforgiving land in such a harsh time that I imagine some might have wished they’d never left the old country.

Education past eight grade was rare in that community, as it was in much of the rural United States in those days. Who needed more if you were just going to take over the farm or be a farmer’s wife? She was a shy girl, retiring even, but she was determined to get her high school diploma. She worked for a year to save enough to pay for the bus to get to school so she could do it.

She joined the army during WWII, a decision so far out of her normal comfort zone she still shakes her head, amazed by the audacity of her younger self. In basic training she met “girls” from all over the country, maintaining friendship with one until that friend passed away about 10 years ago.

She met and married a man from her home town she’d known from childhood. In 1954, they moved to a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and bought the small, two-bedroom house she still lives in today. She raised nine children and is now surrounded by them, 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. My husband is the youngest of her progeny.

Up until a few years ago, my mother-in-law went to Mass every morning – she’s now down to once a week – and she still makes quilt after quilt for the poor with her fellow “Mission Belles,” embroiders baptismal bibs for the church, and bakes goodies for fundraisers and funerals.

This was her life when I met her and, until recently, I’m ashamed to admit that I subconsciously felt a little superior to her. I saw her world as “small,” lacking in education and sophistication, an old-fashioned woman with pre-feminist views and Depression-era ethics.

And while it’s been a few years, we had our issues. Actually, I had my issues. If you’ve read my entry about moving to Minnesota 12 years ago, my pregnant-, new-mother-touchiness had a lot to do with my lack of patience with her indirect, yet somehow abrupt way of asking for something. Often something that to me seemed insanely trivial.

“Oh, hi Molly. Is P. there?” she’d ask over the phone.

“Hi there,” I’d respond. “Uh, no, he’s not. He’s at work until 6-ish.” (Seriously? It’s noon on a weekday, I’d be thinking, already be gritting my teeth) “Anything I can help with?”

“Oh no,” she’d say. “I was just thinking that a light bulb in the dining room is about to go out and I don’t know how I’m going to reach it to change it.”

And I’d be simmering by now, cursing what I perceived of as extraordinary passive aggression (ach, the horrible impatience of me!). “Well, do you want me to see if Paul can come over to change it soon?”

“Oh, no rush!” she’d exclaim, because I had breached the first rule of the Minnesota indirect exchange: you do not rush into the actual goal of the call too soon. You draw it out, just for the pleasure of it. And besides, the light bulb was not her real aim at all. Duh.

“I have an idea,” I’d say, because the light bulb had finally gone off in my dim, East Coast brain. “Why don’t we bring dinner over on Friday night, visit for a while, and then Paul can change it?”

“Oh, great!” she’d say. “But you don’t have to do that – I’ll make dinner and you just come over with the girls.”

Now, why didn’t she just say that in the first place?

Thinking she was in serious decline recently (she has since recovered) made me reassess, well, everything about her, to really focus on why I love her so much (because I do). She is in actuality one of the most naturally wise, kind people I know, and reveals this through her actions – the way she lives her life — not just her words.

I could probably write a best-selling self-help book based on her innate, mid-western wisdom, but I thought I’d share, gratis, a few things she’s taught me. She’d want me to do it for free anyway:

  1. Forgive and forget. My mother-in-law never seems to hold onto anger or remember a grudge. Though she feels sad when her friends are less attentive to her than they could be, she gladly and happily accepts invites when they happen – without bitterness or irony.
  2. Patience really is a virtue. If the conversation above doesn’t illustrate well enough my severe deficiencies in the patience department, perhaps the fact that I created the phrase “Patience hurts you” when I was three, does. But my mother-in-law comes from a time when time was better spent on idle chit-chat with a real human being than hurried interactions via email, when drawn out niceties were not considered superficial, but necessities and a pleasurable way of being. Besides, you can’t be impatient when you’re making a quilt or bread from scratch.
  3. Do sweat the small stuff. Contrary to popular self-help literature, she knows that the small stuff, like making sure each grandchild got their Christmas chocolate Kiss from her, is the stuff that matters.
  4. Love unconditionally. This one is tough, but doable. My mother-in-law is one of those rare devout Christians who actually and naturally lives by the teachings of Christ. She actually cares about people she doesn’t know, about their welfare, and does something about it. And if she loves you, she always will, no matter what. Her friend from basic training days was a racist, bitter and uncharitable woman, but my mother-in-law appreciated her for her audacity, sense of humor and the history they’d shared. She loved her anyway.
  5. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Another tough one for most of us, but I’ve never heard her say a harsh word to, or about, anyone. If she can’t say something nice, in other words, she doesn’t say it.
  6. Do good things for others. Again, something self-help books decry…”Be selfish” seems to be the mantra of the modern age. But my mother-in-law gives and gives. Not until it hurts, though– until it feels right and good.  She actually derives a great deal of pleasure from selfless acts — regular donations of money, sewing a bedspread for a college-bound grand-child, the aforementioned church-related works, etc. — something one happiness expert calls “selfish altruism.
  7. Remember birthdays. A card, a phone call, a home-baked cake. Mark those moments. She made me a cake to celebrate the fact that I’d quit smoking for a month when my husband and I were merely dating – I was extremely touched.
  8. Cry when you need to cry. Tears well up freely in my empathetic mother-in-law’s eyes at the plight or unhappiness of those she loves, a sad bit of news or a minor catastrophe like spilled milk. But her willingness to live it and move through it is one of the healthiest things I’ve ever witnessed.
  9. All are welcome anytime, so pull up a chair and visit for a while. My mother-in-law isn’t hung up on the house being absolutely perfect before people are invited over. She comes from an era when dropping by unannounced for a “visit” was common practice, and if the house wasn’t perfect, so be it. People who care enough to drop by don’t care about dishes in the sink and a visit from a friend is a golden moment.
  10. Happiness is family and friends, not greater material wealth. The wife of an airline mechanic and mother of nine, my mother-in-law never aspired to wealth, a bigger house, more than one car. If she had, she would have been miserable. Instead, she focused all her energies on that big family, her friends, her church, and has achieved an inner calmness many of us would envy.
  11. Recycle and save everything you can (waste not, want not). When I first visited her tiny house in the early ’90s, I couldn’t believe how crammed full of junk it seemed to be — cans, leftover fabric, plastic Cool Whip containers, bits of string, old clothing, broken sewing machines. This was before recycling was common practice, and I have since learned that she had a purpose or use — or at least an intended purpose or use — for every bit and scrap. I’m not advocating we all become hoarders, but she and her Depression-era counterparts may well have something to teach us about not only saving money, but the planet as well.

girth of a nation

I can’t decide whether to call it our big, fat problem, or our big fat problem.

Having just spent the week before Christmas in Daytona, Florida, where I saw tourists vacationing from all over the country, I’m concerned that obesity is to the United States what lead water pipes and decadence were to the Romans.

If you look at the decline of the Roman Empire, it’s striking how similar many of the criteria for its eventual demise are to happenings in our own country right now. I’m not a kook — this is not a new theory. Historians differ as to the number and kind of contributing elements, but they agree on some of them. This, from About.com, sounds just a little too close for comfort:

There are adherents to single factors, but more people think a combination of such factors as Christianity, decadence, lead, monetary trouble, and military problems caused the Fall of Rome. …Even the rise of Islam is proposed as the reason for Rome’s fall…

Sound scarily familiar? Okay, we don’t use lead pipes, which the advanced Romans used for indoor plumbing, way before Christ was even around, to pump water from aquaducts into their homes for bathing, drinking and cooking. You can imagine the eventual effects continuous heavy metal consumption had on the mental and physical health of the empire’s leaders and general populace.

Probably pretty similar the effects produced by continual overconsumption of bad food.

I live in a little bit of a bubble here in Minneapolis, which is annually rated one of the top three fittest cities in the country by several media outlets (Men’s Fitness,  and Forbes, for example).  In my neighborhood I probably rate as a schlub: all I do is play tennis, run and lift weights to keep fit, whereas many of my neighbors are in constant training for marathons or triathlons — their next 10k at the very least.  I am constantly berating myself for the extra 10 pounds I believe I should lose.

But in Florida, I felt like a freaking movie star. My husband kept asking how it felt to be the thinnest person in the hotel, at the pool, on the street. Other than at Cape Canaveral where there were more foreigners than Americans, he was not exaggerating too much.

While we were there, we ate out at least once a day, initially a luxury slowly morphing into dark dread as we contemplated the indigestion and salt-induced bloating it would inevitably incur. Portion-size and ingredients at family style restaurants are truly — how do I put this delicately — hideous. If we ate the whole meal, we felt like crap afterwards and even sharing meals, which we often did, we still felt overfull.

I know many people eat like this a lot more than we do. Fast food is practically a never for us, restaurants every few weeks, frozen or pre-fab meals (more often now than ever, I hate to admit) once a week. Even so, my husband and I struggle to keep the scale needle from creeping ever-upwards.

I don’t want to seem negative, uppity or elitist. I just know how I feel when I eat food that makes me gain five pounds in four days — logy, tired, crabby and depressed.  Is this how 50 percent of our populace operates every day as they fill their stomachs and their brains with empty calories, saturated fats and salt, salt, salt?  Ugh. Feels like getting hit over the head with a lead pipe.  It’s a wonder we get anything done in this country.

And as we are learning, the associated health risks and costs of obesity are as gargantuan as our waistlines.

Part of the problem is our culture, I think. We’re not only a nation of overconsumption, with a bigger- and more-is-better mentality, but we’ve also become a nation of two camps: the ultra-fit vs. the ultra-fat.  No matter which camp you’re in, whether you aspire to be in it or are there by default, you’re bound to be unhappy, feel bad about yourself.

If you’re an “ultra-fit,” there will always be someone thinner, stronger or more buff than you.  And if exercise is fun, you’re obviously not working hard enough. It should hurt.  If you’re an “ultra-fat,” and the only alternative camp is the ultra-fit, good god, might as well give it up — it’s simply too far to go and most of us don’t have the luxury of a Jillian Michaels from “The Biggest Loser” to whip us into shape from the depths of our fat-folds. Besides, exercise hurts, right?

Perhaps we need a new movement. I offer for consideration the “ultra-moderates,” those of us in that middle-ground who should feel pretty happy about only carrying ten or so extra pounds, who mostly eat pretty well and who exercise for health and fun — not ’till it hurts.

Maybe my movement will take off and give the other two groups something attainable to aspire to.  Rise up! Eat half that restaurant meal even if you love it! Run four miles instead of 15 if you hate running that much!  All it takes is moderation.  In everything. Which I think Aristotle and his ilk called “The Golden Mean” and Buddha, the “middle way” – a middle-ground between excess and deficiency or the “extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification.”

In both philosophies moderation is seen as the only way to achieve harmony, happiness and true freedom.

When you look at us through that ancient lens, hasn’t excess in everything brought us most of our current economic and societal problems?  I think we need to look to the past in order to move forward. If not, we only condemn ourselves to repeat the failures of history. Unlike the poor, lead-addled Romans, we are fully aware of the obesity-issue numbing our minds and destroying our bodies.

Yes, unlike them, we as a nation can change it before it’s too late. Get some Aristotle and Buddha on and spread my nouveau-ancient moderation philosophy!

Just don’t go overboard.

the joy of being

It’s a dreary, bitterly cold Saturday afternoon. Four o’clock and it’s already getting dark. Winter is here again…in spades. But I’m happy. Not blissful, but happy in that calm, low buzzing sort of way that I can’t force, but I do attain once in awhile, unpredictably and at the oddest times.

As I write this, the three other members of my family are crashed out, taking well-deserved, or at least necessary, naps. All I can hear is the whirring of my stupid dying refrigerator, which will stop cooling any minute, meaning I’ll have to put all the food in coolers for the third time in as many weeks…but I feel supremely and stupendously above it all.

No, I did not do shots this afternoon or up my meds. It’s just one of those days where I feel grateful to be here, in this space, with these people, my people; grateful that we are all in perfect health, that we have a more-than-adequate, warm house, and that we have the resources to replace that dang refrigerator should it go ~ and not really feel the impact financially.

And believe it or not, I am really looking forward to preparing for the holidays (which I sadly often dread) and hosting a big, boisterous family Thanksgiving.

Obviously we can’t live in a state of rapture 24-7. It would be weird, and I think human innovation would have stalled thousands of years ago if it were part of our nature. A little dissatisfaction, plus a sprinkle of curiosity and a dash of genius goes a long way to prompt the invention of a faster computer, a more fuel-efficient car, or better gray-coverage hair color. Besides, I think constant, low-grade joy is something only Buddhists can achieve during intense meditation. Could be lobotomy patients feel it all the time, but have traded the ability to count to 10 for it.

No, what I’m feeling today is sustainable for only moments or days at a time for us (relatively) normal folk, and, at least in my case, it can’t be forced. It’s too hot up there close to the sun, and if you stay too long, your wing-wax starts to melt, and you tumble to earth anyway. Which hurts. Substance abusers know this all too well, I’d bet. Heck if we felt happy all the time, how would we know that we were happy if there were nothing else to compare it to?

So, I gather in this moment like a precious bead, string it next to the others I keep ~ the pretty, the heartwrenching, the interesting, the enlightening ~ and store it in a temperature-controlled part of my soul. Because I know tomorrow, or even by five o’clock when everyone is up and crabby after their late naps, I’ll need it in crystallized, preserved form, a talisman-moment of clarity about all that’s right and important in my world minus the meaningless difficult and confusing details of daily life.

And when I’m breaking bread with the bigger clan on Thanksgiving, I’ll quietly pull out my beads and, one by one, give thanks for each little flash of what life on this gorgeous planet is really like without those smudged glasses we’re given too soon after birth.

And I will give thanks for something deeper: a newly realized belief that each of those beads, as real as the turkey on the table, gave me a view into what heaven must be like. Through them, I think I know that when we’ve shuffled off this mortal (not to mention refrigerator-) coil, we can fully and truly know the joy of being and what is, without needs, wants, pain or fear.

Happy Thanksgiving, my dears.

chaos theory, or why bad things happen to good people

For Ed Muter, who is sorely missed.

A friend of mine died recently after an awful two year battle with cancer. He was young, only 48, and a truly good man.  A great physician with a great love of life and his family, he was extremely intelligent, inquisitive and kind, lacking pretension and pretty unconcerned with the trappings of material wealth. He was funny in an impish sort of way without ever being mean and could make you feel like the smartest person in the room, even though you probably weren’t.

Ed was a Russian Jew who really lived up to that great Yiddish word mensch, which means being human in all the best ways one can be.

Of anyone I know, almost, Ed deserved a long happy life. As a man who lost his mother — and his mother country — when he was a young boy, he could have been a victim, a lost and idle soul, but instead he rose up from a rough start to become a stellar, highly accomplished human being.

So why him? Why not serial killers or rapists? Why not certain world leaders who perpetrate heinous crimes on a grand scale? Shouldn’t Ed, whose intentions, actions and energy were all positive, by rights live a long, happy, and fruitful life?

According to much of the self-help theories around abundance, visualization, quantum physics, creating your own reality, etc, he should have.

But I have another theory. It’s not new. It’s not innovative. But I think if we are baldly honest instead of holding onto wishful or magical thinking, I think we all know it to be true.

Here it is: Life is ruled by chaos. What we can control in our lives is minuscule compared with what we can’t.  It really isn’t someone’s fault that they were hit by a runaway bus or that they were a victim of random crime.

Crap just happens, and Ed’s death was total and utter crap.

I’m not a complete existentialist or nihilist, however. I do believe our actions and decisions– over which we have a modicum of control — can affect the outcome of our lives to some degree. And I believe we can create a great deal of intentional meaning through them, that they add up to a certain direction or path in life. We have choices about how we are going to react to the random hands we are dealt, choices that separate the good person from lost one, the self-created victim from the survivor, and so on.

It adds up, too. Call it karma, the law of attraction or being a righteous person, our choices ripple through the universe and back, affecting the course of history, the energy around us, the people we love. But no matter how “good” we are, how many chits we’ve piled up, there is no protection from inexhaustible chaos – we are powerless to avoid that runaway bus.

So, what is my point? And what is the point of being a good person if ultimately it can’t keep bad things from happening to us?

I guess it’s this: if you possibly can, live your life like there are no tomorrows, because they may be in shorter supply than you think.

But that doesn’t mean partying like it’s1999, uh…at least not all the time.

It means living well, striving to do no harm, leaving your corner of the world in better shape than you found it – being the best person you can be every day, despite curveballs, screwballs or other baseball metaphors that chaos throws at you.

In that tiny sphere of influence we have over what happens to us, Ed chose to create more positive than negative experiences for himself, his friends, his family and his patients. Bit by bit he shaped his life in a meaningful way, and the world is absolutely a better place for his having been in it.

And though he had regrets – he admitted to me the week before he died he wished he’d had more fun – and, as a human, couldn’t possibly have always made the right choices, he stayed true to a core that an unruly universe couldn’t shake.

He towed his line, and in so doing, and despite dying so young, I believe he ultimately won out over almighty chaos. That is his legacy, at least for me. I only hope I can live up to it.

the autumn of my discontent

I’m not sure what’s wrong with me. I’ve been looking forward to this for at least a month. But now that it’s here, I feel rudderless, directionless, bored and alone.

I’m talking about the beginning of the school year, a Nirvana that mothers around the globe anticipate with a longing that grows exponentially with each passing week as their patience, tempers and sense of humor verge on being permanently lost.

After more and more frequent — and sometimes (but not always!) regrettable — episodes of losing it (“Will you PLEASE, for the thousandth time, PUHLEEEZE, hang your dang wet towel on the rack, do your chores — I don’t care whose turn it is – stop FIGHTING — and GET OFF THE COMPUTER!!!!!!!!!!!!), I was decidedly ready for “those people” (as my friend Lynn likes to call them) to GO BACK TO SCHOOL.

And two weeks ago, they went. Hallelujah, praise the Lord!! In what can only be termed “a frenzy” that first week I rearranged my house, picked out new paint color for the living and dining rooms, built a rocket ship, had lunch with my friends, put together new furniture, played tennis, finally went to the chiropractor and thought about looking for more freelance work for the first time in weeks.  Okay, so I didn’t rearrange the whole house — or build a rocket ship — but I felt like I coulda’.

But last week and this week were…different.  Rather than bursting with energy and purpose, I’ve felt strangely empty. I even thought about looking for a “real” job, which happens to me periodically when I lack the creative juices to figure out how to use my creative juices.

What is this malaise, then? Is it the let-down after an amazing summer — Paris for three weeks, the beach in Virginia to cap it off? Is it a lack of motivation to scrounge for piecemeal, peanut work in this lousy economy (can you blame me?)? Is it the change of seasons, the snap in the air that seemed to hit on the first day of September?

Or…could it be…do I actually miss my children?

It is…possible.  Despite my cynical ravings above, my daughters and I had lots of fun this summer – not just on the amazing trips, but in the wonderful  day-to-day of an easy summer rhythm that hummed along — sometimes  lazily like the cicadas, sometimes more fervently — and seemed like it would last forever, but simply didn’t: waking up late; staying up late; going to the pool; going to camp; running through the sprinkler; eating grilled food, fresh vegetables and ice cream; riding bikes and wearing shorts,  telling ghost stories  and playing ”RIP” into the night or until the mosquitoes chased everyone in.

Maybe it’s that with each passing, mixed-bag summer, the transition to school becomes more and more bittersweet, more sharply focused and frankly, while I look forward to it heartily, a little heart-breaking.

Could be because each summer I have with my children, every summer that they are still young enough to enjoy all those things we enjoyed, is a poignant and beautiful gift. Soon enough – and it already started a little this year with my 13-year-old — they will no longer want me around. And then, as quickly and abruptly as they entered my life, my sweet little girls will no longer be here.  I imagine it will feel much, much emptier around here when they’re gone.  And their wonderful innocence, their unburdened childhoods and, frankly (and selfishly), my chance to be a kid again with them will be gone, too.

And if I listen carefully, a tiny, whiny, pathetic voice whispering in the back of my mind wonders, “Without them, who am I? Without them, what will I do?”


I guess it’s about time I figured that out.

ahhh, Paris

See, I really was there!

Yes, it’s August and I apologize for the entry hiatus, but there’s a great reason.

I just returned from three weeks in Paris and was ensconced in preparations for a couple weeks before that. Before you start taking out the hankies and violins and throwing them at me, however, I just want you to know how and why it transpired. 

For the past eight or nine years, three college friends and I have gotten together for a much-needed three to four days of unadulterated girl-time. Thus far, we’ve managed a different location each time, dictated by houses we or our families own.

Last year it was Memphis, TN, where L. lives. Before that it was Cape Charles, VA where my parents are now retired.  Also on the list: Nashville (where A. lives), Fredericksburg and DC (where C. and her in-laws live), Manhattan, NY (where C.’s father-in-law rented a sweet little apartment), Minneapolis (me), and Destin, FL (L. owns a condo there). 

Several times over the course of those years, C. has brought up the Paris apartment her in-laws own as a destination, but none of us really saw it as feasible, either from a financial- or time-commitment perspective, or both.

But last year something in us snapped. None of us won the lottery. Our schedules, commitments and child-taxiing weren’t suddenly less frenzied.  But during one of our many marathon conversations about everything from which jeans fit best to whether or not the universe is just, we all realized we knew at least one peer – if not more – within one degree of separation, who had died of cancer or some other disease we associate with growing old. 

In that moment, we decided that Paris was our next trip.  And when C. generously offered to let any of us use the apartment after our week together was up – for as long as we wanted, mind you — I leapt at the chance to bring my family over for another two weeks.

For me, it was like two different trips, both wonderful in their own ways and revelatory about a number of things. Or maybe just a hyper-intense reminder of things I already knew.

But let me back up.

C. and I both spent our junior year in Paris on the Sweet Briar Junior Year in France program: a month in Tours (in the Loire Valley) and then the entire school year at any Parisian university or universities of our choice.  I went to the Sorbonne for literature, the Sciences Po (top-shelf political science university) and studied painting at a well-known artist’s studio (atelier), for example.   In both Tours and Paris I lived with families, but surprisingly it was the family in Tours with whom I have maintained contact all these years. 

Their older son, my French bro JP, was working in Paris while we were studying there so I got to know him even better. He and his friends affectionately called me Moll-Alcolique, but I wouldn’t for one minute want you to think that it was because I drank lots of cheap red wine. No, no. I only drank lots of moderately inexpensive red wine.  And for some reason when I did, my French improved ten-fold.  So really, it was an investment in serious language study.

 Anyway, after college, I didn’t have a clue what to do with my life (surprise, surprise), so I signed on for a year of teaching English in France. I ended up in Marseilles and became friends with a host of British university students who were doing the same thing as a requirement for their language major.

So, when I was arranging this latest trip to Paris, I wanted to maximize the European friends I could see in one go. 

This is how I imagined it and, for the most part, how it all played out:

Week one: College girlfriends, mostly shopping and eating, some sightseeing.
Week two:  Family sightseeing in Paris; a side-trip to Normandy to see Mont-St.-Michel and husband’s uncle’s grave near the beaches.
Week three: Visits with JP and famille, several days touring with British friends and 3 kids culminating in a trans-cultural, multi-lingual party complete with 8 children and 7 adults.

C’etait magnifique.

And here are my take-aways from this trip about me, my life, the French and France, themes which I may or may not expand upon on in upcoming entries. Please keep in mind that some of these are GROSS generalizations and are not meant to define France or the French in any meaningful way– they are merely flippant observations:

  1. French women are not fat because they smoke, eat smaller portions and less processed food, and walk more than we do.  Food is far more expensive and more of a hassle to come by, but well worth it if you go to the right boulangeries, patisseries, epiceries, boucheries, etc.
  2. French women are beautiful because they have a confident, placid, calm face while they are out in the world (at least on the Metro) as if nothing and no one else exists and nothing can touch them. We used to call this “Metro face” when I was a student.  It is impossible to achieve when touring with children.
  3. French men are still, for the most part, not my cup of tea. Never understood that whole “world’s greatest lovers” thing, since on the whole — with a few exceptions –they are short, beaky and lacking in muscle tone. But I am generalizing and I apologize.
  4. I will never ever eat another Costco croissant again. They are a crime against nature.
  5. My comprehension of French is still pretty awesome. Speaking it on the other hand….
  6. Staying in an apartment in Paris is the ONLY way to do it.
  7. Having grown-up money in Paris is the ONLY way to do it. I LOVED not being intimidated by the chi-chi little boutiques I used to pass sheepishly without a second glance as a pauvre student, being able to casually ask for a card after being told the innocuous little ring I was trying on was about $2,000 in Euros.
  8. I am not over the hill — or “formerly hot” as a new book I read about in the NYT suggests about women over 35 (My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches From Just the Other Side of Young by Stephanie Dolgoff). At least not in France.  Maybe it’s true that the French appreciate “older women” or maybe I can achieve “Metro Face” without my kids, but I swear, while with my three college friends that first week, I actually caught some appreciative glances.  Now I get why my mom loved it when construction guys used to whistle at her when I only found it gross and demeaning…sigh…
  9. Old friends are friends forever if you give them the correct care and feeding. They are your institutional memory and the ones who see you the way you feel before you look in the mirror in the morning: young.  Old friends are forgiving of your flaws and don’t care if you’ve become a communist  or a Wiccan in your old age. They know the real you underneath it all.
  10. Children may moan about being dragged to churches and museums, but later you’ll hear them talking to a friend or another adult about the “coolness” of the Willy Ronis exhibit at the Palais de Monnaie or how “amazing and fun” Mont-St-Michel was.  I may never hear anything about the Catacombes or going to the Musee D’Orsay, but memories were surely made and those are irreplaceable.
  11. Kids don’t need a common language to have a good time. Ranging in ages from seven to 15, the eight French, British and American kids in our little Paris apartment had an uproarious time playing the card game Spoons, running around the little gated hamlet in which the apartment was located and simply trying to communicate with one-another.
  12. Paris has been photographed a million times in a million different ways. Relax on the “beauty shots” and take pictures of the people with you and those you encounter on the street.  Easier for me to say than do, but towards the end, I got better at it.
  13. Living in a big city is exhausting. Duh.
  14. American cities are clean.
  15. The French are amazing, considerate, consistent drivers.  They are extremely aware of other drivers and understand the rules, both official and unofficial, of the road. Brought to crystal-clarity coming back to drivers in the Twin Cities, some of the least considerate, most inefficient, clueless and passive aggressive drivers IN THE WORLD. Wonder why I’m riding your bumper while you putz along at 50-mph in the fast lane????????ARRGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  16. Never, never, and I mean NEVER pass up on an available toilet in Paris. The Parisiens are not as attuned to human needs as they could be and clean public restrooms are few and far between. Do this before getting in line to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, especially with children.
  17. I will never dress like a schlump again. I got a necessary shot in the fashion arm while there and I now vow to wear all my clothes, and wear them well, even when heading to Target.  And I will not apologize for it. I really liked looking my best every day, damn it.
  18. My house is huge.
  19. My life is easy.
  20. The French really know how to do dairy, fashion, chocolate, pastries and wine. We all know this, but to experience it firsthand every day is…wow.

Minnesota dreamin’

A childhood spent moving all over the world comes with a side benefit: a feeling that the world is wide open, that there are no limits, no boundaries – the world is your oyster with a cherry on top.  Gross sounding, but a good feeling nonetheless.

The flipside could be considered a curse: drifting along without a tether or the grounding that comes with a community of beings who know you, without somewhere to come home to after all those global walkabouts. But like many sublime intangibles in life, if you’ve never had those things, you cannot possibly know their value.

So as an ignorant, nomadic, unencumbered citizen of the world, I, along with my husband-to-be, made the relatively risky decision during the teeny little “recession” of the early ‘90’s to quit stable reporter jobs in Washington, DC (where we met) and head West, if for no other reason than we could. That and we were miserable in a town of walking resumes who have no idea they are miserable until they leave.

San Francisco won out over Seattle for two reasons, one a bit misguided:  first, I was born there and had been back many times to visit my grandparents; and second, because it was “sunnier” than gray Seattle. Hah.

We found a one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up apartment between Nob Hill and Russian Hill that was slightly more than our planned rental budget. Hardwood floors, a fireplace and huge bay windows that actually looked out onto a Bay (the freakin’ San Francisco Bay, no less!) we were willing to pay extra for, though. The real estate agent, a woman from Hong Kong with a Chinese accent from Central Casting, took us up to the rooftop on a classic San Francisco summer day, the Golden Gate Bridge barely visible through the fog to the left, Coit Tower to the right.

She turned to us and said, in a perfect Charlie Chang imitation, “On a cle-ah day, you can see fo-evahhh.”

My fiancée and I looked at each other, eyes bulging with the strain of laughter containment.  I forced a serious look, “I think we’ll take it.”

We loved our little place – it was the perfect love nest for our first year of marriage, the tinkle of cable car bells barely reaching us, a pair of doves nesting in our window box.  When we found I, too, was “on the nest” (okay, I’ll stop the metaphor already), we decided we needed more space and found a quiet two-bedroom in Lafayette, the East Bay town where I worked.

Baby number one came. New jobs for me and my husband meant money enough to buy a house. Or so we thought.

We began our search as the dot-com era gathered dizzying speed.  Housing prices in the Bay Area began their fast ascent into the ether as people outbid each other by the thousands, throwing in airline tickets, cars, their first-born, only to find they didn’t even make it into the top ten bids. We ducked out for a little while, thinking prices would surely come down. We ducked out for good when we narrowly missed spending over $400K for a Berkeley house the size of a bread box and another about two blocks from the Oakland neighborhood where I’m pretty sure the hallowed term “ gang-bangers” was invented.

Baby number two’s imminent arrival brought on a serious reassessment.  With no family nearby, no friends within 40 minutes via a hellishly traffic-laden drive, and no houses we could afford without both of us going into indentured servitude and daily three hour commutes for the next 40 years, we decided a move away from the Bay Area and nearer family was the ticket.

My parents, ever citizens of the world, lived in Boston at the time, but could give no guarantees that the wind wouldn’t blow them to Oregon… or South East Asia. My husband’s mother, on the other hand, lived in the same Richfield, Minnesota house she purchased with her husband in the early 1950s. I’m pretty sure she still had some of the same furniture and canned goods they set up house with, too.

Stability and sheer numbers won out – seven of my husband’s eight siblings, their spouses and children lived in or near Minneapolis – and we made the move to Minnesota.

Eight-months pregnant, crabby and stressed with a potty-training two-and-a-half-year-old and a cat in a carry-on, I boarded a plane while my husband drove our car and our big dracanea plant named Stanley across the country.

My mother-in-law kindly put us up in her house while we looked for our own. We had the whole “second floor” to ourselves. A loose term because it’s really a converted attic with no bathroom and stairs too steep for a woman in my unbalanced condition to navigate in the dark every half hour for a potty break.  So we set up “the bucket. “ A large, plastic paint bucket, to be exact.  The chamber pot of queens.  And it was so hot up there in those late August weeks that I had to sleep totally naked. It’s a lovely thought, really, looking back – a naked, hugely pregnant woman peeing on a bucket every half hour.  During that month, I slept very little, read almost all of Barbara Kingsolvers books, painted cheap furniture for my daughter’s future room, was unreasonably nasty to my sweet mother-in-law and grew evermore impatient with our house-hunting.

Finally, we bought one. From our California perspective, we got an amazing deal for a really nice, old house in a nice neighborhood with good schools in the heart of residential South Minneapolis, ten minutes from downtown… ten minutes from everything, really.

So we settled in.  Baby #2 was born at the end of September, and winter hit soon thereafter.  I was woefully unprepared for everything:  two babies (#1 still potty-training , but reluctantly), driving in the snow, the isolation of having no one to talk to, I mean, cry to,  except over the phone to my mother and my poor husband who was trying to get work done at his new job.

I began to understood what my college-educated great-great-grandmother from Vermont must have felt when her husband dragged her to the vast, empty, howling plains of Colorado to make his fortune in cattle ranching. Lonely, lonely, lonely.  And while I was surrounded by people and she lived miles from the nearest town, the people who surrounded me were Minnesotans — nice, but extremely insular.  They just don’t let you into their inner-circles within five minutes, or even five years of meeting you.

Here’s why:

Minnesotans don’t leave. If they do, they come back to raise their families. They hang out with their kindergarten friends.  If they’re from outside the Twin Cities, they typically came here to go to the University of Minnesota and never left.  So they hang with their college friends.  As for the city kids, they often  return to the neighborhood they grew up in to raise their own children – in a three block radius in my neighborhood, I can count four young families who live on the same street as their parents.

This is not a criticism, by the way. It’s the very reason we’re still here. The values that drive that solid insularity  – family, friends, community – are palpable here. It makes the Twin Cities — and I shouldn’t be telling you this secret — an incredible place to raise a family. Schools are great, social services are incredible, housing is affordable and those all-important quality of life pieces – commute time, length of workday, etc. – are still quite civilized compared to the rest of the country.  My husband, for example, now on job number four here, has never had a commute longer than 20 minutes, and getting home after 6 pm is a rarity.

My husband and I secretly call our neighborhood Mayberry.  On the Fourth of July, there’s a bike parade followed by ice cream for everyone.  On Halloween, hundreds of kids roam the streets safely while the street adjacent to mine is blocked off for hot chocolate imbibing and hot dog consumption. I can count on my neighbors to shovel my walk in the winter while I am gone. If my garage door is open at night, we get a call. If my daughters behave badly, I hear about it – after they’vebeen parented by them the same way I would parent them.  If someone makes a too large batch of cookies or grows too many tomatoes, we’re sure to share in the bounty.  It’s no surprise to me that a recent study shows Minneapolis to have the most volunteerism of any metro area in the nation. Both my husband and I have donated hundreds of hours to our schools, church and community. But we’re not special –everyone here does that.

It’s almost a cliché in a way, but one you’re glad is real.

Ten years since that first rough winter, we’ve really made it. I know this because not only do we now have a wonderful array of friends from all over the country, including Minnesota, but we’ve been invited to cabins belonging to natives. This is a big deal.  It means we are thoroughly and completely rooted and entrenched here.  We are no longer from “out east.”

Sometimes this place feels a little too small, too narrow. That old wanderlust calls us. Our feet get itchy. So we travel quite a bit, which the lower cost of living here allows us to do.  We visit friends in other states, cities, countries. But every time we do, home calls us back. We feel lucky to live in this place with its strong Midwestern values and its stoic, but truly good people

You could say our wings have been clipped or that we’ve sold out for a comfortable life. Or you could say we finally understand the value of those intangibles I mentioned at the top of this very long story – because we now have them.  Either way, we are teaching our girls to be citizens of the world, but also giving them a place they can come back to, where they can re-ground if their heads get too big, re-juice if they’re beaten down by the world and re-connect to who they are if they ever lose sight of that.

The way I look at it, the world was our oyster and by happenstance, we found a pearl — we took the long way, but we were lucky enough to find home.

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