Thursday, November 26, 2015

Hey, A**hole. Happy Thanksgiving!

I was in the lousiest mood last night. My yoga class was canceled and I realized around 6 p.m. that I had to go to the grocery store. Dammit.

Not only would I not get my enlightenment, (And that enlightenment was bought and paid for in monthly installments, by the way!) but I had to wade through a bunch of frenzied last minute shoppers who were as stupid as I was for waiting until the night before Thanksgiving to get their final essentials.

I waited for ten minutes to turn left out of my subdivision. The subdivision up the road has a light. Why don't we have a light? I felt the burn of suburban injustice. When I finally inched out into the road I was cut off by a giant black SUV. I yelled to no one, "You better be Prince in that car! You better be Prince on your way to buy last minute cranberry sauce because anyone less than Prince does NOT GET A PASS!" (Every time I see a giant, black SUV within a thirty mile radius of Minneapolis I assume it's Prince.) Then I shook my fist, or more specifically one angry digit, at the driver because I was pretty sure it wasn't Prince. Prince was too smart to be out in this mess.

No, friends, the irony that all this transpired while I was wearing my "Shine Your Light" yoga shirt was not lost on me. I simply didn't care. At that moment I was only willing to shine my light in a dimly lit room of other people shining their lights while we moved in rhythm to the chants of guy who once upon a time shined his light in a recording studio. All of us shining lights could congratulate ourselves on the fact that we were at yoga shining our lights while other dumb schmucks were grocery shopping under the florescent glow of panic.

Guiltily I made my way past the Salvation Army bell ringer. I had no cash. Who carries cash? And why do they have to be so nice even when you don't put anything in the bucket? The least he could have done is call me a miser or a skinflint so that we could have the satisfaction of  feeling equal disdain for each other. Instead the volunteer who was standing outside in the cold the night before Thanksgiving kindly said, "Happy Holidays, ma'am."

"Thanks," I said quietly and then even quieter, "I have no cash."

Cub Foods has a spot in their bakery they keep stocked with free cookies for kids. Isn't that nice? They're for kids. Did I mention these cookies are for kids? They are. They're for kids. So I marched right up to the sign that read, "Have a cookie on us, Kids!" and took two.

The most charitable description for me at that point would be, a**hole. My a**hole-ery knew no limits. I fully expected the man behind the bakery counter to say, "Hey a**hole. Happy Thanksgiving," but he didn't. He smiled at me. Damn him.

I weaved in and out of carts full of food that tomorrow would be arranged on tables while people talked gratitude around  it.  Right now these future appreciators looked as miserable as I was. No one wanted to be there on the night before Thanksgiving surrounded by Christmas decorations reminding us that tomorrow's celebration was merely a stepping stone on the way to high anxiety.

Finally I arrived at the checkout. I'd picked up a food pantry bag filled with baking ingredients to donate to the local food drive. I don't know if I did it because I really wanted to help somebody or to mitigate my a**holishness that I was pretty certain was at an all time high. I hate to admit it, but I think it was the latter.

And then nothing happened. What I mean is that there is no reason I should have had an epiphany at that moment. I didn't lay eyes on someone less fortunate. No one passed me the milk of human kindness. I didn't hear a baby laugh. Cindy Lou Who didn't start singing despite the fact that I'd stolen her roast beast. I simply had a well-timed, fleeting second of awareness.

One small, better angel told me to stop and  look around, and because I wasn't yet a complete lost cause, I did. It's a miracle I was alive, I thought. How many things had to go right for me to be standing there? How many things had to go right for my husband and girls to be waiting at home for me? The answer was incalculable.

The cold air hit my face as I pushed my cart through the automatic doors and I welcomed its cleansing. I dug through my purse managing to scrounge up a dollar in linty change and dropped it in the Salvation Army bucket I'd neglected earlier. I heard, "Thank you!" behind me. I showed him the back of my hand, specifically two digits, and waved peace to the man giving out unconditional cheer in the darkness.

I felt like a miracle. I felt like everyone around me was a miracle. Our lights were shining despite our aggravation, despite our complaints. Tiny, seemingly insignificant things had gone right for all of us to arrive here in this rotten, wonderful place.

Miracles aren't magic and they're often not grand. They are one small event after another that keep us alive. They are the gift of one more moment. Most of the time we don't even notice them. But last night, for some reason that I can't explain the infinite tore open enough for me to have a peek. Like a child spying Santa Claus as he shoots back up the chimney, I spied a million miracles as they drifted through and around me and it was glorious. I drove home with an ease and a love for the world that I haven't known in a while.

It's Thanksgiving morning and I'm sitting in bed writing this to you, sending it into the vast potential of our future moments, which you and you and you and you will fill with the miraculous.

I'm consumed with gratitude for all the tiny things that had to go right so that I may be here today and for all the tiny things that had to go right for you to be where you are. I hope this finds you in a place of peace, grace, and love for yourselves and for each other. Shine your lights and Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Year Without Happiness

I remember I was watching The Young and The Restless on the DVR. When twin toddlers are napping, you don’t even think of doing anything but taking your brain off the hook and your feet off the floor. That’s what I was doing the last time I was happy.

The front door opened, and while it was unexpected, there was no reason for alarm. Occasionally, my husband, Graham, came home during the day for lunch or a visit with the girls. I rose from the sofa as he walked in the room. Before I could speak he grabbed the remote and said with a voice I barely recognized, “Let’s turn this down for a minute.” For a minute. I marvel now at that understatement. This year has been the longest minute of my life.

“It’s not your parents,” he said. “It’s not your parents,” he repeated. “It’s not your parents,” he couldn’t seem to say anything else. He knew I lived in a constant state of waiting for a call from Michigan telling me that something happened to one of my parents. What he didn’t realize is that he was terrifying me. My parents are old, very old. I know that no matter how sad their passing will be, it won’t be tragic. It will make sense and we will be grateful for their lives, and we will grow to understand the cycle of life. If Graham wasn’t there to tell me something about my parents, then what he had to tell me must be bad. He was there to tell me something awful.

“It’s Kip. He died.”

I got up from the sofa and started to walk toward the bathroom. I paused at the fireplace and stared at the three-foot, wooden Nutcracker Prince that was an ambassador for holiday cheer only seconds before. I hated him now, and I wanted to kick that maniacal grin off his face. So I did. “This isn’t happening!” I screamed. I ran the rest of the way to the bathroom and started puking. I felt myself falling.

I was falling, falling with the sun over my head and the grass staining my knees. I landed on rocks with only a few seconds respite before the metal frame of my bike dropped on top of me. “Ali! Ali!” I heard Kip call as he picked me up and carried me back to the house. He was teaching me to ride a bike and I’d veered off the side of the driveway and right down the hill to the rocks by our neighbor’s house. He never let me forget that happened while I was on training wheels. It’s the first time I remember Kip picking me up.

I was falling, falling with the sun over my head and the surf so high it splashed my knees from atop Kip's shoulders. I flipped backward and landed with my back slapping the water knocking the wind out of me. “Ali! Ali!” I heard him yell, sound muddled by the pressure of water in my ears. I came up coughing and choking, but laughing. It’s the first time I remember Kip telling me to breathe.

I was falling, falling with the sun over my head and tears dropping on my knees. My family was fighting and I had nowhere to land. “Ali. Ali…” he comforted me as we sat on the porch steps. I leaned against his shoulder. It’s the first time I realized I could count on Kip to always make me feel safe.

And then I was falling but Kip was gone.

“Oh Kip! Oh Kip! Oh Kip!” I cried for myself. “Oh Barb-oh Barb-oh-Barb,” I moaned for my sister.
The thought that was sharing a place in hell right next to my own pain was that my sister would never be able to live without the father of her two children, her husband of 34 years, the guy in the black leather jacket who rode off on his motorcycle with her heart when she was seventeen, and then I selfishly pushed that thought aside. In the coming days I would try to take care of other people but not in that moment. My own pain overwhelmed me.  Kip was gone and his leaving left me falling.

It’s easier to describe those first few minutes after I learned Kip died than it is to describe the last year. Those minutes are a heavy heat in my mind, but the last year is wind. It has knocked me over, taken my breath away, sent chills through me. Other times it’s been the gentle breeze that soothes and the gust that moves me forward when I’m stuck. It has dried my tears, and then dried them again and again.

It was only a few weeks ago, standing in the kitchen with Graham, that I discovered I wasn’t happy. That may sound weird considering I’ve spent most of the year feeling sad. But no matter what I’ve gone through, I’ve always considered myself a generally happy person. It wasn’t until Graham and I were laughing over a stupid joke and he asked me if I felt like I was getting happier that I realized I hadn’t felt happy since the morning of December 22nd.

I saw worry pass over him so I tried to explain. I told him it was okay. Being unhappy didn’t mean I was depressed. It didn’t mean I was irrational or hopeless. There are so many other things we can feel besides happy, and after this year I can say with absolute certainty that those feelings are valuable and necessary.

Love fills every day of my life since Kip died. A conscious love, an active love, I feel a love for Kip and the rest of my family deeper than I ever knew I had it in me to feel. I’ve held the precious gems of memory close to my heart and consumed their shine. I have laughed, felt moments of joy, rejoiced in my own strength and given myself long overdue tenderness when I was weak. Gratitude pierces through me as real as grief. My senses are raw and open to discovery. I am a wound walking, and sometimes I even have confidence in my own ability to heal.

But happiness? That’s something different. I define happiness as a sense of ease and contentment with one’s life. And that’s not my bag, man. Not anymore.

Life is filled with absence. That is what living with the dis-ease of grief is like. It is always being with the dead, yet never having the comfort of their presence.

And yet, I persist. My sister persists and my beautiful niece and nephew persist. Everyone who is mourning Kip, and we are legion, persists. I am convinced this is so because of Kip. He kept us in the sun. He picked us up and made us try to do things we didn’t think we could do --- ride a bike, ride the waves, live without him.

My niece, Annie, is expecting her first child, Kip’s first grandchild. That little girl isn’t being born into a family full of happy people…yet, but by God, she is being born into a family of strong people, capable of humble selflessness and enormous love, so I think she’s got it pretty good. She’s bringing a little of Kip with her and we are going to give her great heaping doses of Kip every day. His spirit, like us, persists.

Happiness will come back as sure as the rain I am watching outside my window will stop. Ease will reenter our lives. Children will grow. Children will be born. There will be death, more sadness, but always, the happiness will come back, and in the meantime I am okay living without it. Happiness doesn’t have to be the only state of being to which we aspire. There is grace and at times even humor to be found in pain. There is integrity in the way we choose to live our pain. Life is a messy fusion of good and bad, and if we’re really living we have to feel every bit of it.

The last year is not one I would want to live again but I don’t want to forget it either. I’m afraid if we forget how much we’ve grieved we might forget how much we’ve loved. I don’t ever want to forget how much I loved Kip. I still watch my family struggle, but they are doing better. We are all doing better a little bit at a time. Kip left us so much to be grateful for. That sounds trite, the way people throw around the idea of gratitude today like it’s a panacea for all the world’s pain. It’s not, but it is a salve. It helps soothe the irritant that is self-pity.

Two things shaped my attitude about how I would walk through the hardest year of my life. One was days before Kip died and one was days after. I don’t know what they meant or why they happened, but I am grateful for both of them. Perhaps they were a little gift from a God aware.

In one of the last conversations I had with him, Kip and I got a little choked up about the past. “You were my little buddy he said. You were always my little buddy…” his voice trailed off. “I still am, Kip. I always will be. Nothing’s changed,” I said, even though everything had changed and little did we know how much.  

And then there was the Christmas card. Kip must have sent it the day before he died.

Graham stopped the car by the curb, the girls were in the backseat. I looked inside the mailbox and immediately recognized his handwriting. Oh my God, I was falling. I looked down and prepared to surrender. I remembered the rocks and the water and my tears. Then I heard, “Ali…Ali,” in his deep, strong voice. I won’t fall, Kip. The rocks hurt. The water hurts. I hurt so bad, Kip, but I won’t fall. I looked up. The sun was above me. It would be a very long time before I was happy, but I wouldn’t fall. I would be all right.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Incredible Edible Guilt

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord, tell me what to eat. If I should die before I wake, I blame that Big Mac, fries, and shake.

In case you haven’t noticed by now Reader, I loved the ‘70s. The movies, music, TV shows, the sharp edged toys that left you giddy with pain, the clothes, the objectification of my sex and the insensitivity to anyone different from me, but what I loved the most was the way we ate.

Bread was a Wonder and sandwich spread a Miracle, while Whip was a Cool or a Dream. Pops Rocked, Pepsi-Cola hit the spot, but if you wanted a smile, have a Coke. A sandwich was a sandwich but a Manwich was a meal. Hamburger had a Helper and Cheese was a Whiz, though nothing melted better than Velveeta. TV dinners were from Libbyland unless you were a Hungry Man, and margarine fooled Mother Nature. Choosy Moms chose Jif unless they were friends with Skippy or Peter Pan. Cereal was Life and Lucky if you were Charmed. Trix were for kids and Loops were Fruity. Steak-Umms was where the beef was, or was it? And Chicken was Kentucky Fried, "finger lickin’ good," so said the Colonel that crispy cool angel in white. Kool-Aid Chased Your Thirst Away but astronauts got the Tang in the end. The Jolly Green Giant had a farm in a can and a Happy Meal made your day. We couldn’t pronounce anything on the ingredients list, but did that really matter? Of course not, like French, we thought they were just made up words anyway. If candy cigarettes, bubble gum cigars, and Veal on a Stick were wrong, nobody told us.

Until they did.

“Watch Food Inc.!” the chorus in my head sang week after week. I wanted to, but I was told it would turn my stomach, and unless that was going to firm my abs, I wanted no part of it. I was already scared of food. I packed heavy, armed with my lists of the dirtiest produce and the deadliest chemicals every time I went grocery shopping. I suspected every box to be a bandit, every can to be a con, and in every package a pirate. I tried to stay in the green zone where the real food was stationed, but sometimes I had to breach the perimeter for a can of beans or a bag of rice. I ran through those middle aisles where the most offensive products lay in wait yelling, “Cover me!” to my fellow shoppers.

And when I finally rolled my cart out of the suck and into the sun, my stealth mission accomplished, do you think I could remember where I parked my car? No. Not once.

I decided if I were going to watch Food Inc. I’d make it part of a double feature and pair it with something even scarier. I considered Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, but ultimately decided on 1973’s Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson . It's a cautionary tale of industrialized food production at its worst. The year is 2022 and the food supply has been reduced to nutritionally complete squares called Soylent Green. They look like toxic Triscuits and according to Edward G. Robinson’s character Sol, they are “tasteless, odorless, crud.”

In fact, “Soylent Green is….!” No, I’m not going to tell you Reader just in case you’re still trying to catch up on your 1970s sci fi movies like I am, but if you happen to try it and you find an earring or a tooth in your Soylent Green, don’t fret. At least you’re getting your protein!

In this version of twelve years from now, Soylent Green is necessary because there are no more crops, forests, or animals. Even the Hamburglar has retired. The world is a soulless nowhere that can’t nurture even the humblest seed. A little far fetched maybe, but when Moses and Rico from Little Caesar are telling you you’re doomed, it’s hard not to whimper, “Please save me” a little bit.

As soon as I threw away every box of crackers in my house, I turned my attention to Food Inc. This will be nothing compared to the horror I just watched. It was a bigger horror and no Charlton Heston to hand down the answer, no Edward G. Robinson to shoot us out of this mess.

Cows standing ankle deep in manure (side of E. coli anyone?), live hogs crushed in what look like runaway elevator shafts, chickens never seeing the light of day, and working conditions morbidly derisory. Beautiful. If Upton Sinclair could see how meat production has devolved, he’d write a sequel to The Jungle. One sentence: “I thought we went over this already, Dumbasses.”

I hear the future of the Fisher Price “See ‘n Say Farmer Says.” When you pull the string chickens don’t cluck, pigs don’t oink, cows don’t moo, and turkeys don’t gobble: all you hear is, “Help.”

Early in the film, the following statement appears on the screen: “After the decline of tobacco, many farmers in the south turned to chicken farming.” Honestly, after stealing a peek of how chickens are now “farmed” I think I’d rather go back to saying, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” Poultry pumped full of chemicals may look pretty on a plate and even taste ok, but how much are we willing to sacrifice for aesthetics? Is a nation that dresses its dogs like people really willing to do this to another animal?

The old philosophical brain tumbler, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” doesn’t seem to matter anymore when we have to ask, “What is a chicken and what is an egg?”

I’m of two minds about this whole antibiotics in beef thing. See, I think we can make this work for us. If the smarties can make a phone that does my taxes, then why can’t we cure a simple respiratory infection with an amoxicillin burger? Can’t we perfect this love affair between grease and antibiotic? I want to live in a world where I go to the doctor hacking and coughing and walk out with a prescription for a double bacon cheese burger (hold the ammonia) twice a day for two weeks. Now that’s agribusiness I can get behind. Excuse me, what? The antibiotics in food are only going to make us sicker in the long run? Never mind.

Reader, you might wonder why my righteous indignation about animals doesn’t translate to vegetarianism. Well, I’ll tell you. I like meat. All of us, every day, rationalize and justify our decisions until we come up with a way to sleep at night. For me it comes to this: I don’t know if an animal has any conscious understanding of the length of its life, but surely, even the dumbest beast on the block must be somewhat aware of the quality of its life. Does it intellectualize it and compare itself to the pampered dog or cat? No, but I believe it feels pain and it suffers. My husband Graham and I decided that the least we could do was continue to buy organic and extend our attempt to eat well by buying meat raised in humane conditions. Ha. Easier said than done.

My first crack at being the Saint Francis of grocery getting took me to four different stores where I had to choose between Farm Fresh, Family Farmed, Farm Raised, Free Range, Cage Free, Omega 3+, Pasture Raised, Sustainably Farmed, Amish Farmed, Vegetarian Fed, Grass Fed, Naturally Fed, Organic, and Mostly Organic food. I needed help. "Oprah! Yoda! Where the hell are you?” I exclaimed in the meat department of Kowalski’s. Not only was my mind reeling but also the adding machine in my head. I would have to stick half this stuff down my dress just to be able to afford the week’s food. We did it though. For the last month we’ve eaten little that we didn’t have to feel guilty about. (I’m not apologizing for my Mongolian Beef from Pei Wei last night. I’m just not.) The problem is when it’s so much cheaper to eat poorly, you can’t sustain the perfect diet unless you have unlimited funds and the fortitude to go searching for the "right" food through store after store.

At the end of the month I sat Graham down and said, “I’ve got good news and bad news and good news. The good news is we’ve eaten better in the last month than we ever have. The bad news is it’s so expensive to eat perfectly that I’ve spent two months of the grocery budget and next month we have to eat the dogs. More good news though! They are semi cage free, omega 3+ because of all that fish oil I’ve been feeding Gizmo, they eat an organic diet, and are humanely raised if you don’t count the times I’ve tried to put Halloween costumes on them."

Don’t worry Reader, Sidney and Gizmo are safe, but I did realize that it’s not as easy to put your money where your food is, or your mouth where your expensive food should go or…oh you know what I mean. We have to make the best decisions we can for our health and conscience sake. At the end of the day when we’re scraping what remains of our processed, genetically modified dinner from our plates we have to ask ourselves, are we OK with what we're eating?

We need to think about the fact that if we're walking through the frozen section of the market and we look back at a bag of Wanchai Ferry we'll probably turn into a pillar of salt. We need to think about the fact that no matter what the mom holding the plastic jug of toxic blue sugar water says in the commercial, there is something different about high fructose corn syrup and we need to learn more about it. Its suspicious ubiquity makes products like Throwback Pepsi, made with actual sugar, seem like health food.

Is it really just coincidence that when high fructose corn syrup shows up in everything from bread to tomato sauce to pop, that one in three people born in the US after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes, one in two among minorities? It seems diabetes is the new black. That’s not funny.

I’m not pressuring anybody to buy organic or cry over the animals. That’s my bag and you don’t have to buy it. I am suggesting that health care reform start at our own tables with an honest assessment of what we eat. Otherwise we might as well stop screaming about who’s paying for health insurance and invest in life insurance. Our kids will need it for their own medical bills.

Since I watched Soylent Green, these throwaway lines keep running through my head.

“Most people like to live.”
“If you say so.”

Could it be that silly '70s movie saw our future a little too clearly?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Lost Weekend

Three o’clock on Saturday morning I awakened from an episode of Freudian wish fulfillment. I dreamed I was throwing all the vials of the IVF hormones I would begin injecting in a few hours down the sink. I flipped the switch on the garbage disposal but instead of a crunchy growl it started crying hysterically and spouting paranoid nonsense: “Thank God, Buffy and Jody had Uncle Bill. I mean, what would have happened to them? You have to outlive me Graham because I don’t have an Uncle Bill or even a Mr. French. All I have is an old Mrs. Beasley!”

I’m afraid this dream was a harbinger of the next two days. Soon I would be filling myself full of fertility drugs and busting the springs off the bonkers scale. On the bright side, I hear I'll also be able to throw a baseball really really far.

It was six thirty when Graham left the house on a covert mission. What was open that early in the morning? I couldn't think of anything I’d want from the gas station, the gym, or the emergency room. I don’t know how he swung it, but he returned with Eggs Benedict: my favorite breakfast and my last meal before I faced quasi-lethal injection. “Crazy girl walking,” I announced marching into the kitchen. I lingered over that pool of hollandaise as long as I could until the clock struck the sticking hour and Graham handed me my syringe full of Frankincense and Myrrh. Their real names are Menopur and Bravelle, but those remind me of menopause and figure skating respectively, so I changed them to something that makes me think of Christmas. I hummed a little “Deck the Halls,” stuck the needle in my stomach and pushed the plunger. I chased the shot with my pills. It may take urban sprawl to raise a child, but in our house it takes a pharmacopoeia just to have one. “Fa la la la laaa, la la, la laaa.”

Noon time. So far, so sane. My Doxycycline nausea was wearing off and my appetite was turning on. A sandwich seemed like a reasonable idea. As I grabbed the knob on the sliding lid of our vintage aluminum breadbox I felt all reason leaving me. It wouldn't go up. It wouldn't move. It was holding my bread hostage. How DARE it? I felt something burn through my body. This was it. The coven arrived: Lizzie Borden, Madame Defarge, and Samantha Stevens in a really bad mood (which is what she was when she played Lizzie Borden in a Movie of the Week, so that's weird, right?). It was time to direct Graham to the strength of a higher power. He was going to need it.

“Graham, heed the words of the prophet Rob Thomas and his apostles the Matchbox 20. You’re about to see something you don’t want to see. Open your hymnal to the album More Than You Think You Are, track 4, verse 1: 'I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell/I know, right now you can’t tell/But stay awhile and maybe then you’ll see/A different side of me.' And boy did he ever.

It was at precisely that moment that I decided nothing was going to keep me from making that sandwich, so I turned and slammed my fist through the breadbox. Satisfied, I said to Graham, “This is broken. Would you take it out to the trash please? We no longer have a breadbox problem.” As I was getting an ice pack for my hand I heard him mumble, “We no longer have a breadbox either.” How DARE he?

This is how it works. To you, the female Reader, I ask you to imagine a time when your lady hormones have caused you to want to pick up a rock and throw it at a chipmunk or pick up a rock and throw it at yourself just to see how it feels. Take that sensation, multiply by 7,000 and you’re half way to your state of mind during the first few days on IVF stimulation drugs. The slightest stimulus will cause you to huff and puff and blow down the mortar and bricks of domestic tranquility. The worst part is you’re not really a huge bitch, so after these episodes the remorse is debilitating. I plead my case with the following scene.

It was seven o’clock Saturday night when my mother called to ask what channel Lawrence Welk was on in Elk Rapids, MI. I yelled, “Why are you bothering me with this? You’ve seen every episode a hundred times. Why don’t you watch something else? What’s wrong with you? Can’t you find Murder She Wrote? How DARE you!” and I hung up.

At five past seven I called back. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s on your PBS station channel six. I’m so sorry. I’m crazy.”

“I know,” she replied.

Oh, no....

“What do you mean you know? You don’t know? No one knows!” and I hung up again.

At nine past seven I called back. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m only crazy this weekend. It’ll get better soon.”

“If you say so,” my mother answered her voice thick with doubt.

I handed the phone to Graham before I had a chance to bellow something else at her for which I'd have to call back and apologize. That could go on all night. By then I was curled into a ball on the cold tile of the kitchen floor sobbing. Sidney, my Yorkie, walked over and looked me in the eye and then turned away clearly disappointed in his person. Sidney doesn’t suffer fools. Gizmo, my Pomeranian, crept up and laid down beside me because Gizmo actually is a fool.

At eight o’clock I ended the night early in preparation for the next day. It was the sanest decision I’d made in thirteen hours. Looking at my box of Unisom, I figured 7 or 8 should do the trick. I took a half of one and fell blissfully asleep. There was quiet rejoicing throughout my home.

Sunday morning showed no promise of improvement. I went downstairs for my shot, but the only Christmas song I could think of to accompany it was “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” Graham asked me if I felt like eating something. “No thanks, I’m having water weight for breakfast.”

I fell onto the sofa and decided to watch home movies. Oh what horrible ideas we have when we’re under the influence. I watched myself running along the beach, smiling, pretending I didn’t want the camera on me. "Come here and look at my long hair,” I called to Graham. "Look at my unlined skin; look at my body and my carefree manner! Why didn’t I have kids then?”

“What year is that you’re watching?” Graham asked.


“You were eleven.”

“Yeah, you make a good point.”

The home movies whetted my appetite for more nostalgia. I needed something relaxing, comforting, and soothing. Naturally, that was Little House on the Prairie.

“Will you get me some Half-Pint?” I asked Graham.

“You're not drinking on those meds!” he reprimanded me.

“No, not a half-pint. Some Half-Pint. You know, Little House? I’m up to season eight. That’s the one I need.”

We live three hours from the actual Walnut Grove, yet there was not a set of Little House season eight to be had in Minnesota. What did I have to do? Drive 160 miles to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum and act the whole thing out myself? (My secret dream.) Normally, I’d order it and wait, but these were not normal days. These were more like the "end of days." When Graham told me there would be no Tragic Mary or Insipid Carrie, no Stoic Ma and Strangely Sexy Pa, no Almanzo with his pageboy haircut, I flipped. I walked into the living room and swiped my “silver” Boston Terrier statue, Bruno, right off the coffee table. I picked it up and noticed the “silver” had chipped away. The woman I bought it from said it was real silver-plated!  How DARE she? “I’ve been had! Call the fuzz!” I screamed and threw Bruno across the room. Not only was it paint, it was hollow, and it smashed into a million pieces. Now I had to go stomp on a cat statue just to restore balance in the universe.

That was the nadir of the weekend. Graham and I were both exhausted: me from the drugs and him from the minefield he’d been bouncing around in for two days. We knew why we were doing this. We knew the discomfort was temporary. We knew that someday we’d get to the good part, but at that moment we both felt as broken as Bruno.

Graham tried one last time to console me. “Do you really want the Little House season eight anyway? Season eight ‘jumped the shark.’ Nobody bought that Nancy character. She was no Nellie Olsen.” I began to remind him that I don’t like any expression that reflects negatively on The Fonz when I was struck by epiphany. We were sitting on the floor picking up pieces of hollow dog. “Graham," I explained, "today I killed this dog statue and yesterday I beat the crap out of a breadbox. You’re canvassing the state looking for Little House On the Prairie DVDs, bribing the Suncoast Video guy with a hundred bucks if he can lay his hands on a set in Wisconsin. I don’t even know if Sidney still lives here, he's so pissed. And I’m sticking needles in my gut and calling it Christmas. Don't you get it? You and I, the two of us, we have jumped the shark!” There it was, and man did I need to find it: the funny. After two punishing days I finally found some funny. And we sat on the floor and laughed.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ten Things To Do When Your Husband Runs Off To Central America

As one half of a married whole, I understand that sometimes the best thing you can do for your relationship is, once in a while, apply the separate but equal model to vacation time. Vail skiing, Pebble Beach golfing, or even those missionary trips to Las Vegas I’ve heard about like Operation Dollar Bill (All proceeds go to help those nice girls get through school.) are appealing choices. Why then, does my husband Graham approach me every couple of years holding the globe and pointing to Central America? Nicaragua! Honduras! Guatemala! I snatch the world from him and point to the same cozy coastline I always point to, “How about Belize?” I give it my best shot, “You can lie on the beach. You can play cricket! Wouldn’t you love to say, ‘That’s a bit of a sticky wicket’ and finally understand what it means? Belize used to belong to the Queen you know. Nice, safe, touristy Belize, that’s where you should go, yes?” No. This year it’s Guatemala.

Since the temptation of decadence didn't work I try scare tactics. “Aren’t you afraid of the band…the band…bando…help me out here.”

“Band On the Run? Band of Brothers? A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home?”

“ NO, the Bandoleros!! Like in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. You remember, the ones who didn’t need no stinkin’ badges. Why? Because they had big stinkin’ guns!”

Graham explains again how movies are not real life. What? He says Central America is the best place for Spanish language immersion trips and that these days it’s perfectly safe if you “travel smart.” I travel smart, but I’m not sure what that has to do with fighting off a gang of highwaymen. What am I supposed to do, distract them with the sequins on my extra dinner dress and hit them over the head with my trusty mini-iron? If he thinks he can ply me with this backward logic he’s clearly forgotten to whom he is married. I soldier on and make my case.

“You don’t need to leave the country to be immersed. This is America! We’ll drive twenty minutes into St. Paul. I’ll drop you off in front of El Burrito Mercado on Cesar Chavez Street and Sha-Zam! You are immersed in not only the Spanish language but an excellent dining experience. Best of all, you don’t need no stinkin’ passport!”

He pinches out that argument countering that no matter how bona fide our Hispanic neighborhood is, it’s just not total immersion when you know you’re within spitting distance of Garrison Keillor. He has a point. 

This insistence on fully integrating himself with the culture is highly suspicious. It’s time he knows exactly who he’s dealing with, so I crank it up a notch. “¿Cuál es tu plan secreto?” I demand suddenly. My dexterity with Google Translate threatens his calm exterior. I strike while he still looks confused or maybe amused, can’t tell. “Are you trying to jump on the margin of a coup? Are you planning to put on a Che Beret and run around the jungle yelling "¡Viva la Revolución!'? Because if you are, allow me to remind you that you’re a pacifist, borderline liberal from Bloomfield Hills. I don’t think you’re their guy, Honey.”
Reader, by now you may have the idea that I’m no fan of adventure travel, but you’re wrong. Who ran around snapping pictures during a lightning storm in the Badlands while everyone else cowered in the car? Who dove off the cliff in Jamaica even though I knew there was no way I would stay one with my bikini? Who smuggled all that wine and vodka through customs on the way home from Russia with nothing more than a little midwestern small talk as a diversion? Who led the trek through the Mexican jungle from Verana to Yelapa until we were nearly stampeded by wild pigs in an abandoned graveyard? To be honest, the pigs looked pretty docile lounging among the headstones, but we were this close! All we had to do was breath heavy and we’d have gotten trichinosis. Now that’s adventure. The “who” in all these questions is me, that’s who. The difference was we were together on those trips, and I was employing the Golden Rule of marriage: If I go down, I’m taking you with me. For that I expect a little in the way of reciprocity. Graham should only risk his life when he can put mine in peril as well. That is the secret to a happy marriage: equal mortal danger at all times.

With my arguments exhausted and Graham’s questionable travel clothing packed, I asked for one concession, that he at least texts me every night so I know he’s safe. Within that text he must include a code word that we will agree on ahead of time so I know it’s him messaging me and not his captors. I ask if he thinks I should have a code word too in case someone makes off with the dogs and me while he’s away. “Anyone who abducts you and the dogs is going to drop all three of you off at our front door within ten minutes,” he assures me gently. I swoon a little, “That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

And so Reader, he left with little more than a backpack and wanderlust. I waved from the porch while the theme to Out of Africa played in my head (a good all around soundtrack for most dramatic hellos and goodbyes). The following is a list I jotted down throughout the week for handy reference. Feel free to use it according to your own circumstances as advice, guidance, or cautionary tale.

1. Turn on CNN in the morning to make sure Graham is NOT on CNN.

2. Immediately switch to The Weather Channel to make sure Guatemala is still there.

3. Put the State Department Emergency Assistance to American Citizens Abroad number into my phone. Call it with a mild yet plausible threat to Graham just to see how quickly they snap to action

4. Reminder: The State Department takes prank phone calls VERY SERIOUSLY. (Try to figure out how to get off the no fly list.)

5. Prepare a briefcase full of cash in case a ransom drop situation presents itself. BE SMART: Put the white Monopoly money on top.

6. Consider the arsenal of weapons in the house and wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have put one of the handguns in Graham’s backpack. If only it wasn’t lime green and it shot more than water.

7. Remember to turn off the security system every morning so the next door neighbors will stop turning their sprinklers on me and yelling, "You want something to really be afraid of???!!!" when I take the dogs out and set the alarm off. (Text Graham in Guatemala to get the code. Remember to use the special secret texting code word we agreed on. Call Graham first to find out what the code word was.)

8. Do NOT attempt to fix kitchen appliances myself. Do NOT attempt to pay the plumber with cans and bottles so Graham won’t find out how much worse I made it. Do NOT get cranky with the plumber, who showed up on a Sunday, when he tells me Minnesota has no deposit law and he wouldn’t take them even if it did. Jeez, guy can’t take a joke.

9. Try to remain calm when Graham sends me excited text about being close enough to the hell mouth of an active volcano to roast marshmallows. I text back, “You don’t like marshmallows so GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THE VOLCANO.” Wonder if I would have seemed less hysterical if I’d added a smiley face icon.

10. Remember, that even though it’s possible I let my imagination run around the bend at times, even though I might have a tendency to make up stories in my head and believe them, and even though I have the plots of a few too many movies on instant recall, I am proud of Graham for taking these trips. I admire the way he goes into the world with zeal and enthusiasm for everything that is different and unfamiliar. But next year, we are totally going Belize together, and we won’t need no stinkin’ code words.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Monday Morning Quarterback Goes To The Oscars

When in Rome, do as the Americans do. My parents sent me to Rome when I was eighteen years old. It was important to them that I saw a bit of the world and broadened my cultural horizons, so I complied by giving my chaperones the slip whenever possible and chasing cute Italian boys. Upon my return, my dad excitedly asked me what I’d learned and what I’d chosen to bring home from The Eternal City. At this point I proudly pulled from my suitcase a five-foot tall inflatable Oscar statuette. Yes, in all of Rome, what I decided to haul back to Michigan was a symbol of Americana that ranked right up there with a World Series pennant or a Big Mac. I would have brought back one of those boys too but getting through customs would have been a nightmare.

I share this story with you Reader to illustrate the fascination I’ve always had with The Academy Awards. Growing up, there were three big nights for me: the annual airings of The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music and The Academy Awards. Now we can watch those movies whenever we want to, but The Oscars are one of the only programs that we still have to wait all year for, and even when they’re more insipid than exciting I love them.

Every year I watch the red carpet and wait for a glimpse of one of my favorite stars: either of the ladies Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Charles Boyer, James Mason, or Grace Kelly. Every year I remember they’re all dead. So, I watch for the living legends, most of whom look like they hate taking that ruby stroll and for good reason. Is there anything more awkward and creepy than red carpet interviews? The usually so smooth he glistens George Clooney looks terribly uncomfortable standing next to his silent date who he claims doesn't speak English (I know he grows these women in a lab on his property at Lake Como and someday I'll prove it. I'll prove it!). On the other hand, Sherri Shepherd interviews an extremely affable Jeff Bridges. He either knows he’s got the Oscar in the bag, or The Dude is high. My favorite red carpet moment this year came from that seasoned broadcast journalist Kathy Ireland who, after assigning Miley Cyrus the status of “major movie star,” asked her, “How do you like drama?” Well, Miley is seventeen, so I’m assuming she really really likes it.

We should all go to (enter your chosen place of worship) on (enter your day of worship) and thank (enter your chosen deity) that ABC allowed for only a half hour of red carpet coverage.

Finally the show begins.

7:32 It's Doogie! When F. Scott Fitzgerald made that crack about there being no second acts in American life he never bargained on Neil Patrick Harris. The guy has flowed through the second stage of his career on a river of moxie and pluck. What’s not to love?

7:40 First Katherine Bigelow sighting. There are a lot of things to say about Katherine Bigelow, but I find myself straying toward the superficial. The woman is 58 years old. Fifty-eight! And her face seems plastic surgery resistant. Surely she has found the fountain of youth. Thank God, she’s no longer married to James Cameron or he’d probably buy it, hang a green screen around it and make a 3D movie about Ponce de Leon and the isle of Bimini starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo would float around in there hanging on to a piece of Ponce’s sinking ship getting younger and younger until he turned into a blossom from the Tree of Souls.

7:48 “That’s a Bingo!” Cristoph Waltz wins Best Supporting Actor for Inglorious Basterds. The guy is pure, articulate class. Humble, soft spoken, charming, not likely to star in a Twilight movie, it’s only a matter of time before an angry mob carries him to the top of the Hollywood sign and hurls him back to Austria with a giant sling shot.

7:50 The Blind Side is introduced. It’s the gooey great story of how Leanne Tuohy and family adopt future NFLer Michael Oher and all is made right with the world. I liked the movie. It’s got football, a wiseacre little kid, and lots of great movie lines like “I'm in a prayer group with the D.A., I'm a member of the NRA and I'm always packing” and “Who would've thought we'd have a black son before we met a Democrat?” Though after reading the book upon which it is based, the neat little package the movie wraps up and ties with a bow might be Tuohy good to be true. Hmm....

8:05 District 9 is introduced. This movie disturbed me more than Mama Mia, and I didn’t think that was possible. There have been a lot of films starring man’s inhumanity to everything, but this one was a kick in the head. If an alien ship ever parks over the Earth, I hope it’s over Minnesota because we’d be a lot nicer to them. We’d give them all a hot dish and a warm coat. We’d ask, “So where are you from?” and when they told us they were from a galaxy far far away, we’d be polite enough to respond, “I’ve heard it's really nice there. Do you know Han Solo?”

8:17 What is this? It’s Ferris Bueller and Sam from Sixteen Candles! This treat quickly turns somber when I realize the only reason Matthew Broderick and Molly Ringwald would be sharing the stage at The Oscars is to pay tribute to John Hughes. For my generation, watching the montage of Hughes’ films is like watching home movies. My whole adolescence passes before me. Then 7/10 of the Brat Pack fills the stage and it’s back to stark reality. Yikes. Life really does move pretty fast.

8:30 Why is the woman who won for Best Documentary Short wearing the parachute from elementary school gym class? Oh well. To each her own, but I bet it would be really fun to get under there and watch it billow. Maybe not.

8:43 Jeff Bridges introduces The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. If The Dude met the guy from A Serious Man, he’d probably say, “Hey, nice marmot!” (I know that makes no sense, but who doesn’t quote from The Big Lebowski when a chance falls right in your lap?)

8:54  Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall are introduced. They, along with John Calley and Gordon Willis received their Academy of Governors Awards at a ceremony held at an earlier date. This is the first year the honorary Oscars have not been handed out at the big show. So, if I’m understanding this correctly we're treated to ten minutes of interpretive dance, a salute to horror movies, and an hour and a half of commercials, but Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman only get to stand up for two seconds to some half-hearted applause. Shame on you Academy.

8:59 Mo’Nique wins best supporting actress for Precious. If you think Precious is a devastating tale then you didn’t see the very last Barbara Walters Oscar Special. It’s impossible for me to engage in Mo’Nique’s well deserved moment after her life secrets were revealed during her candid chat with Barbara. Reader, this may not be appropriate for children. Please send the kids to the kitchen for some high fructose corn syrup while we discuss this controversial revelation. Mo’Nique suffers from extreme hairiness, a condition that precludes her from putting razor to shin. It’s a cruel world that does this to an Oscar winner. Barbara’s cameras captured a shot of the poor woman’s downy gams. I turn away. It’s just not fair. Inside I’m screaming, “I can help you Mo’Nique! Mo’Nair! Mo’Nair!”

9:28 “Ladies and Gentlemen Elizabeth....Banks”? Jeez, from the swelling music and the enthusiastic announcing I expected Elizabeth Taylor or at least Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

9:38 In Memoriam. Is it just me Reader, or do you think it’s kind of ratty when some of the people in the memorial segment get a bigger hand than others? Everyone’s clapping like crazy for Michael Jackson who had very little to do with the film industry, but writer Larry Gelbert gets only a modest ovation and producer Simon Channing Williams gets nothing? Maybe the Academy should instruct the audience to stay silent until the end, or if some gesture of appreciation is really necessary, they could do the wave. It’s inclusive and quiet.

9:54 Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper are presenting together. The only thing I can think of that these two have in common is they’ve each shared about fifteen tabloid covers with Jennifer Aniston. Oh come on Reader, you stare at them in the checkout line too. Everyone does. What else are you going to look at? The batteries and chapstick?

9:58 The following statement was simply genius. I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist: Find out if history will be made tonight in the competition for Best Director. Will it be the first woman, or the first African-American? Or will one of you three white guys win and totally screw up our chance for a “moment”? Because we all know the best way to ease racial and gender tensions is to pit these groups against each other at a self aggrandizing Hollywood awards show. 

10:01 Oh Matt Damon, how I would love to stare at you longingly with lust in my heart if only you didn’t resemble my nephew Jesse so much. Gross. Moving on.

10:25 Best Actor! Come on Dude!!!!

What is going on here? We’ve got five people delivering what sound like eulogies. No wait. I think they’re introducing Nobel Prize winners. Nope, false alarm, just acting awards.

10:32 After five nominations starting with 1971’s The Last Picture Show, The Dude Finally Abides. Yes.

10:47 After five more eulogies of the female persuasion, Sandra Bullock wins for playing Erin Brokovich! I mean Leanne Tuohy in The Blind Side. Good speech Sandy, nice dress, very funny. Well done. It's getting late.

10:52 Now, you can sometimes tell that the Academy has a feeling about who’s going to win by who they pick to present a particular award. If they didn’t think Katherine Bigelow was going to win Best Director, they wouldn’t have trotted Barbra Streisand, who was totally snubbed for The Prince of Tides, out there to give it to her. Finally, a woman has won for Best Direction. I really want to say something profound right now, but looking at her, all 58 years of casually mussed hair and toned arms, all I can say is get Katherine Bigelow off the podium and into isolation. That woman’s genes must be coded for study. Stat!

10:58 Did Tom Hanks go rogue and neglect to announce the nominees for Best Picture or were they held for time? Who cares? The Hurt Locker wins!!!!

Pull curtain. Nights like these, I'm glad I watch in the central time zone.
Reader, it may sound like I’m a harsh critic of The Academy Awards, but next March nothing will keep me from watching them again and every year until I join my favorite stars in movie theater heaven. Why? Because I love the movies and if celebrating them means sitting through a sometimes silly ceremony every year, I'll gladly do it. I would spit shine the Oscar statuettes if they asked me to because since the first audience sat wide eyed in the Nickelodeon, movies have been a panacea for the broken heart, the empty pocket, or the unquiet mind, and I am grateful for them.

For a couple of hours we can let our troubles sleep while we sit in the dark with our dreams. We know the ruby slippers won’t take us home; we know leaving the gun and taking the cannoli is not the best idea; we board the Titanic even though we know it’s going to sink, and sometimes our breakfast at Tiffanys sticks in our throat, but we keep showing up outside that window. Maybe we won’t always have Paris, but when Bogie says we will we believe him, and even though we know Tara is but a facade, like Scarlet we eat the radishes at dawn hoping they’ll fill us with what we need.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Life in Uniform: Second Tour of Duty

All names have been changed except for Gertie and God.

I felt two uncooked T-bone hands on my shoulders: meaty, bony, and clammy at once. They pushed me into a chair in the anteroom of the principal’s office and held my head back. My eyes, still trying to adjust from being dragged indoors out of the sun and snow, could barely make out the white halo Sister Pauline’s habit formed around her face. She was the only nun in school who wore the habit, and oddly that tradition made her seem eccentric. I tasted blood in my mouth and thought I would vomit but had enough wits about me to realize that I liked The Flying Nun’s habit better. Nothing in my imagination could make me believe that this nun looming over me with -- what was it, concern or boredom? -- had any qualities in common with Sister Bertrille breezing through Puerto Rican skies rendezvousing with beautiful Carlos for high jinks and flirtation hardly befitting a woman of her station. This was nothing like that. No laugh track, no handsome Puerto Rican.

I’d been playing on The Hill. The Hill was a mountain of snow that appeared each year thanks to the plows that cleared the parking lot of Bishop Baraga Central Grade School. The Hill was the best spot to play despite its turn from snowy benignity to icy menace during the schizophrenic thaws and freezes of an Upper Peninsula winter. The student body regularly sported bumps and bruises thanks to The Hill, but on this day I had taken a grave dive and broken the fall with my face.

There was blood from my nose to my moon boots, but Sister Pauline, astute as a spatter analyst, sussed out the problem in seconds and clamped two fingers on the bridge of my nose like a vise cranked too tight. “Better?” she asked. I sat there silent for a few minutes thinking, No, not really. “Better,” she announced and declared my convalescence complete. The whole time she only spoke two words to me, actually, the same word twice. She turned me loose and I attempted to balance my head on my neck. It was better, no bleeding, no pain. If you look carefully, you can see a slight difference in my nose in pictures pre and post fall. I’m convinced I broke my nose that day and Sister’s quick thinking, two-fingered rhinoplasty kept me from looking like the losing end of a bare-knuckled brawl.

Because she saved my face and because, as the years passed, I learned that her quiet ways and austere style were representative of a deep devotion to a spiritual life and an enviable discipline, I asked Sister Pauline to be my confirmation sponsor. I was eighteen and sorely lacking in discipline or devotion. I needed Sister Pauline to help me get “better” again. The day I asked if she would honor me with her sponsorship, she simply smiled and said, “Yes.” I loved her. She’s gone now, but I think she’s watching over me because during punishing times I can hear her ask, “Better?” and when I’ve worked to put myself back together again, there’s no mistaking the sound of her humble certainty: “Better.”

Sacraments are, to use the parlance of a Catholic education, a heck of a big huge deal. There’s baptism, first reconciliation, first communion, confirmation, marriage, and holy orders (Those two are mutually exclusive unless you want to participate in the informal sacrament of “raging scandal that will follow you forever, possibly straight to Hell.”) and the anointing of the sick, formerly known as last rites. Try to stay away from that final one Reader until it’s absolutely necessary.

Reconciliation and first communion were paired in the same school year. Before we could even think about receiving communion, lots of practice went into our virgin visits to the confessional. We learned our acts of contrition; we knew the protocol of who said what to whom; our transgressions were locked and loaded and ready to fire. The night our class filed into the cathedral we all took a seat in a single pew; we were a chain gang linked together by nervous complexions and sin. We had a choice; we could talk to the priest behind the confessional screen or face to face. I was wary of the whole scene, but when my number came up I decided the only way to do it was face to face. If this man was going to judge, absolve, and sentence me, he wasn’t going to do it from behind a screen. He was going to see my 2nd grade hands shaking and my pathetic trembling lower lip. The problem was I had nothing to say. Later years would tell another story, but at that time I was a pretty good kid. I didn’t really do anything worth confessing other than act like a brat once in a while. I didn’t think with all the planning and getting dressed up and everything, saying I was a brat was really worthy of the occasion. This was a big show and it deserved a grand finale.

I walked in and sat in the chair opposite Father Louis. He looked at me. I looked at him. He squinted a little my way. I raised an eyebrow. He lowered his head and stared up at me. I turned in my chair and gave him a little of the hairy eye. He folded his hands in front of him and blinked deliberately. I thrust out my chin and flared my nostrils. This wasn’t my first reconciliation; it was a Sergio Leone movie. Suddenly I started to speak in tongues. Whose tongue? I don't know. It wasn't my tongue. I told stories of rotten things that I never did. “I stole Gertie’s girdles and hid them under the insulation in the attic for a week. She’s still itching. Instead of putting my quarter in the collection basket I took two out so I could buy Charlie’s Angels trading cards. I spit in the water fountain. I cheat at Candy Land all the time. I cheat on spelling tests too even when I know the words. I just like to cheat. I’m a big cheater Father Louis. I hide my vegetables in my napkin and throw them in the garbage even though Mrs. Bessinger told us to give thanks for our food and pray for those poor kids in China with no rice. I pinched my nephew to see if he’d cry" (well that one’s true), on and on it went. Father Louis, who knew me well, in fact he was at our house for dinner three times a week, was wise to me. He let me go on for a while, probably for the sheer entertainment of it all. “Ali” he finally interrupted, as I was about to confess to murder, “take a breath and go say five Hail Marys.” I asked him if I should still say my Act of Contrition. “Might as well.” So I did and went back to the pew to beg forgiveness for all my imaginary misdeeds. Later I found out that I had stayed in the confessional longer than anyone and subsequently developed a reputation for being a very sinful child.

On deck was first communion. It is a profoundly important sacrament, but kids rarely realize that until much later. For a little girl, the day is all about the dress. I had seen pictures of girls in their miniature wedding dresses at their first communion. A little creepy? Sure. But it was a chance to wear layers of lace and crinoline and maybe even a veil! I’d still like to know who had the swell idea of dressing us all as identical alter boys when it was my turn for first communion. All the pretty scenes in my head faded. I was foiled by uniforms again. In this case the cliché is solid: a picture says a thousand words. Witness, if you will, Reader the great joy I was feeling on that day.

By virtue of being a parochial school we had our religious education during the school day, but because the public schools were not full service stations, their Catholic kids came to our classrooms every Wednesday night for catechism. The third grade thug who sat in my chair repeatedly tested my willingness to share and my patience. After several Thursday mornings of finding the contents of my desk a maelstrom of loose papers, I decided, “let go and let God” wasn’t working. It was time to “fight dirty and finish it.” The following Wednesday as I packed my bag at the end of the day I sneaked a note in my desk that read: “If you touch my Trapperkeeper one more time I’ll put a curse on this desk and the next time you sit in it you’ll probably die. That’s the truth because they teach us that stuff here.”

Sister Celine was my teacher that year. She looked and acted like her holy orders came courtesy of Quantico. For no good reason, she terrified me, and to this day I suffer post traumatic stress when I try to do math. My note had found its way from my desk to hers, and I felt like I was going to find my way from where I stood to a spot in Baraga’s tomb down by the lunchroom.

Sister Celine asked, “Alex, what is this?” No one called me Alex. She waved the paper back and forth. I imagined death by a thousand paper cuts.
“Well, what Alex?” That name…
“That’s a note.”
“A note to whom?”
“To that jerk that uses my desk for catechism.”
“What kind of a note is it Alex?” Wow, she could really put an edge on that “x”.
Sister Kelly of the Divine Spelling Words had done wonders for my confidence two years earlier, and I replied only a little tremulously, “It’s the first warning” and jumped a couple of quick steps back.
I believe I saw Celine the marine stifle a laugh. “What kind of shape was your desk in this morning?”
“Pretty good.”
She crumpled the paper and dropped it in the wastebasket. “Well Alex, I guess it worked.”

Those nuns were loose cannons, wild cards, question marks. I never knew what to make of them. Just when I thought I had pushed one to the limit, she would come to my rescue. On the one hand they frightened me, but I also admired them so much it made me consider putting on a habit myself for a minute. Then one day I took a good long look at Patrick Jarvis. Nope, the habit wasn’t going to be my bag.

Sixth grade was my final year at Bishop Baraga and it was all about change. It’s not that I can’t handle change, I just feel the best way to approach it is to imagine it’s a porcupine perched on a cactus clutching a bouquet of poison ivy and maybe a loaded gun. I was all nerves and suspicion. Our class moved from the lower wing of the school to the upper wing where all middle school kids lived. We had to cross the hall TWICE to change classes, trade in our jumpers for skirts and vests, and play Sisyphean games of kickball on a slanted field where low man on the totem pole spent every recess chasing the ball downhill through half of South Marquette just to see it kicked back there when the next player was up. My junior ulcer was just starting to hint around my stomach when the flier for basketball was handed out with the lunch menu one day. I brushed it aside like a math assignment and thought no more about it until the coach called our house a few days later to inquire why I hadn’t signed up. Apparently they needed eleven girls to make a team and there were eleven girls in our class. That math problem I could do and the answer was, “Oh s***, I have to play basketball.”

I had just cut loose of my Brownie uniform after enduring the churning of butter at one meeting (a pointless activity when there's an A&P a block away) and being forced to bob for apples at another meeting (unsanitary, humiliating, and gross). Now, I was donning yet another uniform to play a sport for which I had only a rudimentary understanding. We were the Baraga Colts. I felt like an ass. I knew you had to get the ball in that basket, but beyond that I was lost and no one thought it prudent to whip out an English to Basketball dictionary and help me brush up my vocabulary. Practices were fun but games left me cold. I did get to ride on the bus to exotic locales in Michigan like Ishpeming, Escanaba, Gwinn, and Negaunee. My uniform never suffered a crease or a sweat ring as I became well acquainted with the benches in every school, but when I was called in for a minute or two at the end of a game I was so confused I didn’t know what to do. Every time a ref called a five second penalty I figured it had to be me even though I was nowhere near the ball. What was a five second penalty? I figured it meant I couldn’t play for five seconds, so I would stand perfectly still in whatever position I found myself in and count to five before I started aimlessly wandering the court again. I cannot imagine why a coach, ref, some parent, MY parents didn’t ask why I was out there playing freeze tag while the rest of the girls were playing basketball. The only time I ever got my mitts on that ball was in the team picture. I think the coach felt sorry for me and threw me a bone, which I of course dropped and had to chase across the gym.

As surprisingly as it began with uniforms laid out on a six year old girl’s bed, my Catholic School career ended when my parents decided to enroll me in public school for two years before high school. I had fought going to Bishop Baraga; six years later leaving was unthinkable, but again, the decision wasn’t mine. School became a building after that and never again felt like a home.

My years in Catholic School taught me to speak up and fight back. They taught me that if you yell “Animal killer!” when your third grade teacher steps on a bug she will walk out and a very unhappy nun principal will take over the class for the day, and that’s not fun for anybody. I found that walking by Bishop Baraga’s tomb on the way to lunch every day is only scary for a couple of years and then you get over it. I discovered what it was to be part of a team even if I felt like I was playing a different game. I realized I could take a fall, get bloodied, and get up again. And Reader, in case you’re wondering, I did learn something about my religion. I learned about compassion, social justice, forgiveness, mercy, and that good works matter as much as ritual, all the things so often overlooked in the critical observation of the dos, the do nots, and dogma.

By example, the nuns and priests that influenced my early education, both religious and academic, showed me that you don’t have to worry and wring your hands all the time, that contrary to popular belief, Catholicism doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of making its members feel like crap about themselves. I know everyone’s experience is different and I can only speak to mine, but I never understood the phenomenon called Catholic Guilt. I’ve never felt it in my life. Kloster Guilt? For sure. But none of my teachers ever talked about guilt. I was taught that if you feel bad about something: pray, think, figure it out, and make it right. I certainly was never ordered to wallow in it. Perhaps most importantly, I was encouraged to discover that conformity does not equal holiness; we may have all been in uniform but our teachers wanted us to realize how unique each soul and mind were and that striving to reveal our purpose for being in this world brings us nearer to God than anything. I think maybe the old snowshoe priest Bishop Baraga would be pretty happy we were taught to be our best and most authentic selves. Could be that’s what he had in mind for us all along.