Friday, April 29, 2016

Family Reunion


We took a trip to Dallas in March, because my brother Nate was coming from England. I had yet to meet his twin baby boys, so I told my husband how strongly I felt about our family spending time with Nate's family, my sister Annie's family and my parents. I wanted Matthew to get to know Natie better, and I wanted my children to finally meet some of their cousins and to get to know cousins whom they had not seen in years.

Any time we travel to see family, I come home and mean to write about it, but then I don't. I feel incapable of writing down these memories well, and so the weeks go by.

Well, that was more than a month ago, and I want to capture a portion of what our reunion meant to me, so I'm letting go of the pressure to be perfect and elegant while reminiscing.

Though we spent practically the whole time in my parents' small apartment - our whole big family packed in, drinking and eating together - very special moments happened.

* I heard Mom telling my sister-in-law Natalie about her childhood, sharing stories of time on her grandmother's farm peeling potatoes and feeding chickens, and Natalie was sitting by my mother's chair, wine glass in hand, listening intently.

* I got to change poopy diapers, rock babies to sleep, and feed them cereal for the first time in years. My brother Nate's twin boys Daniel and Antony were magnetic, sources of pretty much constant joy, entertainment, and challenges. Daniel seemed like the calmer one, but my kids swear that he stole toys and flayed his limbs just to rile his brother. Antony was a passionate and energetic little fellar who made us feel important when he begged for exercise, entertainment or consolation. My children volunteered eagerly to hold their cousins, passing them around with pride, kissing and smelling their heads (fountains of youth, Berto said). My mom soothed her grandbabies to sleep several times with a magic touch.

* My sister Annie spoiled everyone with bagels each morning like a bagel Santa Claus in scrubs, dropping boxes of exotic flavors off before beginning her busy days as an in-home-care nurse. Then most evenings ended with Annie, her husband Keith, Matthew and me sitting on her patio, laughing and sharing stories and exchanging advice.

* My brother Nate played soccer with my husband and kids on the apartment complex's tennis court. Needless to say, there were bloody injuries, and I wasn't allowed to play in my heels though I wanted to, but it was a joy to watch my husband and kids playing a competitive game with my big brother, laughing and talking smack. (Did I mention Nate lives in England? I don't get to see these games just any old year. It was like the World Cup)

* My nephew Andy and my daughter Gabriella hung out for the first time since they were babies, playing video games and eating regular meals on the patio.

* My nephew James, who has autism, sat down with and hugged my son Berto.

* My little golden-haired niece Nina played for the very first time with my own children: giggling, running and crawling on their backs, especially Berto's, and speaking with her absolutely charming British accent that my children tried in vain to imitate. Even simple phrases were special when Nina pronounced them with posh delivery!

* The grownups took turns making big family meals: delectable roast chicken, spicy, satisfying gumbo, spaghetti with meat sauce. My brother Natie was the chef more than anyone, including providing the last breakfast together before my family had to catch our flight. The prawns he sauteed one afternoon are something I won't soon forget.

* My son Berto went golfing with his dad and Uncle Nate. The pride on his face while listening to Matthew and Nate tell of how well he did as a first-time golfer, and his excitement while telling his own stories of the green, warmed my mother's heart. I saw him stow away the scorecard for a souvenir.

* Dad, aka Paca, cheered on his grandchildren as they played polar bear bowling on his computer. I'm not a fan of video games, but I was a fan of the time, guidance and regular encouragement my dad gave to his grandkids as he watched them play, showering accolades on them for guiding a chubby polar bear on an inner tube into pins. It was awesome.

* Dad gave me a few chapters of his new fantasy book to read ( send me more, please!) and discussed ideas for my own book. He also invited me with him to the store, and on the way there we had a conversation about some challenges I've been facing recently. It was a good conversation, and I have a sneaking suspicion Dad invited me to come with him just so we could have it.

* On our last day Dad played tennis with Daniel and Gabriella even though he wasn't feeling well, and the cousins blew bubbles on the court - even Berto - while Annie, Natalie and I talked one last time.

At the Dallas airport waiting for our flight later that afternoon, my oldest daughter Ana and I were bereft. I missed my brother and sisters, Mom, Dad, niece and all my nephews, but I really, really wanted more time with the babies. When we get to see my brother's twin boys again, they will probably be far from babyhood.

So Ana and I wandered around arm in arm, talking about "da Babies" as we called them. Ana said she missed her "fussy Antony". I had no favorites; I just wanted to hold each of them again!

Men can easily get over the absence of babies' company, apparently. Even though Matthew and especially Berto had held them a lot, they seemed to be alright after being torn from their presence. But our hearts were broken.

A couple of women heard Ana and I talking about the twins and caught Ana saying, "Mama, it's time to ask Papa to adopt a baby."

"Get a puppy," one of the women, dressed nicely in business attire, said to us.

"We have one!" I replied, laughing.

Much later my littlest, Daniel, told me he was praying for me to have another baby. He also had been delighted by the company of his baby cousins.

But another little one in our family? "It would be a miracle," I told him.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mid-thirties crisis

I’m going through a mid-thirties crisis.

My youngest child left me for kindergarten, my oldest started middle school, and my husband got two promotions in as many years.

I’ve been left behind, in a special limbo that belongs to stay-at-home mothers. Here I am with only the dog, the insuperable laundry and my confused thoughts for company, my ambitions littered about the floor with the dirty socks and the junk mail.

When my son bravely left home for the tot lot, he took my excuses and, it would seem, my purpose in life with him. Since that sad day I’ve been contemplating all the basic skills I haven’t yet mastered at thirty-six years of age.

Take cooking, for instance. My family has eaten the same rotating meals for the last decade, supplemented with five-dollar pizzas and frozen chicken nuggets. If they’re lucky, I introduce a new meal (usually featuring ground beef and starch) once a year.  

As if I didn’t have enough guilt over this, my husband has taken to watching Master Chef Junior, causing me to be depressed because I can’t smoke mussels, flambĂ© a dessert or infuse poultry like nine-year-olds. I probably couldn’t win Master Chef Baby against a bunch of cranky infants throwing pureed vegetables and cheerios together on a high chair before naptime.

And my home? It still looks like Vikings attacked and pillaged; wild animals reclaimed the land; and I hired preschoolers with ADD to decorate. 

There are more modern skills I lack, too. I don’t know how to “pin”. When I take a selfie, I look like I have a horse face: prominent nose, wide jaw, tiny ears. I can’t express myself well in 140 characters, and while on Facebook I’m overwhelmed with regrets that I didn’t take cuter pictures of my kids to garner the  likes they deserve.

Perhaps most tragic of all, I don’t even know how to zumba like all my friends. I’m not even totally clear on what “Zumba” is. Spell check seems to think it’s a cross between the rumba and a zombie, or perhaps a zombie doing the samba…

And I’d really like to say that this crisis is not one bit about aging, but more and more these past few years I’m coming face to face in the mirror with my nemesis:  unsightly girl. She shows up whenever I am sleep-deprived or having a messy cry or experiencing bad lighting. I’ve had to invest in expensive makeup, face creams, vitamins and quality shampoos just to bribe her to stay away. What’s next? Monthly manicures?  Botox? Laser vein treatment? I’m like the two-faced girl in that Seinfield episode “The Strike” who appears pretty or hideous depending on the shadows.

I mean if I could at least look like I have it together! Alas, my slender brows refuse to be groomed into lush perfection, and I can’t put my hair up without the aid of a scrunchy. I also blithely wasted years of my life not realizing that there were proper techniques for applying makeup, including such a thing as blending. Instead of a chic smoky eye with vintage red lip, I’m the wrinkly raccoon with two lazy eyes that got into the Kool-Aid.

Thankfully, my husband and four kids have been very supportive in my crisis. They assure me that I’m youngish, pretty and successful with coupons. That I might be a famous writer before I die. That I could join Pinterest and actually learn how to make Fettuccine Alfredo or smoke mussels.
I think I’ll listen to them while there’s still time.


My mid-life crisis could be just around the corner. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop



Hello, strangers.

I say strangers, because I took an unplanned sabbatical last week while working through a little depression. 

Actually, it was more like a sharp descent into a steep, lonely canyon where I tended sheep and sang plaintive cowboy songs to myself in order to retain sanity, because the sheep weren't talking.

That whole steep-walled canyon wandering began when I returned from the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop all high on inspiration and then looked at this blog the next day and saw how few people actually read my stuff. 

Geronimo!

Stats are the devil.

I was so exhausted the Sunday I flew home that I didn't discover I was truly home until the next day when I realized I had no clue whether the kids had food for lunch, clothes to wear to school, or where my own comfy sandals could be found. I had to wear high heels to drop them off.

My intention was to write about the conference right away, believe me. And I would like to say that I learned a lot while there, and I did - if one is talking about learning to laugh continuously for three straight days. There were so many stand-up comedians and humor writers leading the sessions - Alan Zweibel (an original Saturday Night Live writer), Wendy Liebman, Kathy Kinney (Mimi from The Drew Carey Show), Gina Barreca, Elaine Ambrose - that I only got a break from working out my abs through laughter when it was time to eat. I laughed and then ate to build up strength for more hilarity, laughed and ate. By Saturday night, the last of the conference, I was clutching my belly during Leighann Lord's brilliant keynote and exclaiming to my new friends Jeanine and Lou, "I can't laugh anymore! It hurts!"

You know I must have had a great time watching and listening to all those comedy pros, because when my husband came to bed Sunday night, startling me awake, I sat up and demanded, "Who's on stage?"

Like every message in life, what I heard at this workshop about the creative process, particularly the comic creative process, was not new, but it was said in an engaging and often hilarious way. It was, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert points out in her book Big Magic, authentic. So what did I hear? Important stuff. How do I know? Because I have heard it from many successful and diligent people before.

Just write - every day. A writer writes! "If you're a writer, you can't help writing - especially when you're depressed!" - Amy Ephron 


Writing is a lonely process. Collaborate when you can. Get together with other writers.


Success is in creating what wasn't there before, in the completion of the work. "As a writer what you remember is not the product but the process." - Alan Zweibel. Once your work leaves you, "it's in the hands of other gods", as Zweibel said. You can't predict the response once you put it out there. As Wendy Liebman said, all you can control is the jokes, how you present yourself, how you feel and how prepared you are.


Persevere, follow your passion, be prepared for your big break. Have whatever your 1100 jokes are. (When Lorne Michaels asked Zweibel for an example of his work, Zweibel handed him a book of 1100 jokes.)


Books are written a sentence at a time. According to Zweibel who wrote a book with Dave Barry, by the 20th page your characters will start telling you what they want to do and say.


"Comedy comes from the same place as pain, touch your soul," says Zweibel. Pain breeds humor. "There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt." - Erma Bombeck.  Humor is redemptive, makes stories ours, something we can control, Gina Barreca pointed out.


Be specific.


"Every story you tell has the same message." - Judy Carter, author of The Comedy Bible. You're saying it the way only you can say it.


Connect with others to get feedback and support. Have "agenda-free" friends. Friendships are work, too. Work at them; it's worth it.



How would I sum up what I took from the conference? Joy, the kind you find in a community, your tribe. Sure, there were some moments when I took risks that didn't work out, like reading one of my pieces in front of a workshop and hearing crickets instead of laughter, then sitting there with a dumb smile on my face while others found kind things to say about my story. Or telling Judy Carter, who has had a very successful career in comedy and has written several successful books on the subject, on the shuttle back to the hotel that she has "a gift". Well, I never have been intimidated by fame or felt that my lack of it should keep me from complimenting a talented speaker!

At any rate, I learned from this grand experience at Erma Bombeck's alma mater, The University of Dayton, that I need to find a tribe of creative types here at home in Arizona, because the energy I feel and absorb while around other writers is powerful and fortifying. With all my heart I thank every speaker, presenter, faculty member, comedian and fellow attendee who made the 2016 workshop so magical. A special thank you to Teri Rizvi who founded it and who supports many writers' efforts through its website, humorwriters.org.

And thank you to my husband Matthew who at this juncture in my journey is the one who pays me to write and who paid my way to this amazing conference without complaining even once about the cost or inconvenience.

I can't wait for Erma 2018!




Wednesday, March 30, 2016

My nemesis, a Smartphone

On Valentine’s Day I found my husband snuggled up in bed with his cell phone. I always knew they were having a sordid affair.

I thought he was still sleeping when I snuck back into our bedroom only to be greeted by the sight of his Smartphone cupped lovingly in his palm. On the universal day of love, that darn phone got the first expression of devotion.

He was blatantly romancing that phone, I tell you.

And I hate it. If I am ever left alone with that thing, I can’t vouch for the consequences of my jealous behavior, especially if there’s a toilet or taser gun around.  

Often of an evening, as I watch him caress its screen and stare at it in obvious appreciation, I ask myself, What does that thing have that I don't have? But too well do I know that it provides my husband with the kind of company that I cannot:

It never argues over directions. It provides them placidly, and he doesn’t even object when it redirects or gives orders
.
It doesn’t speak unless commanded, but when it does, it never nags or raises its ladylike voice in irritation.

It provides an endless array of apps and games for his amusement during those ever so long commercial breaks, plus access to all the knowledge the world has ever known whenever he’s feeling slightly bored or quizzical.

It entertains him for long stretches in the bathroom.

I simply can’t compete.

If I detest the phone, I’m certain it feels the same about me. Whenever I try to scroll across its screen with my thumb, it jumps, protests and encourages me to plagiarize websites by asking innocently if I want to copy their material, forcing me to hand it back to my husband. When I tap it with my nail, it mocks me as it bounces the icon around.

And it ignores me. My husband mysteriously doesn’t get my texts for sometimes a half hour or more after they’ve been sent. Maybe it considers messages from my flip phone beneath it.

Recently, I tried to call him at the store. He had his phone on him but though he had glanced at it only moments before, he didn’t hear the call. He only saw the notification that he had a voicemail. From me. Again.

That phone is laughing at me with a gleeful ringtone that I think I hear late at night while everyone else is asleep.

He says I should try to get along with it. Treat it nicer. Learn to use it properly. Speak to it with respect instead of calling it stupid. Maybe then it’ll give priority to my calls.

But I’m afraid the animosity is too great, and I feel the great woman-versus-technology battle brewing.

If ever my husband asks me to move over in bed, so the cell phone can rest from its hard day’s work someplace other than the floor or dresser, I’ll know it has arrived.

If ever he invites it to dinner, setting a place at the table with its charger, I’ll know the time has come to pull the plug on my rival.

If he ever tells me that he and the phone are going for a walk, just the two of them, on a moonlit night, well…

Perhaps I’m just a crazy, jealous girl who needs her own Smartphone, so I can understand the infatuation. Maybe I should hold my own fascinating conversations with Siri, share my most intimate moments with a a piece of technology, do all my best writing with the help of a tiny keyboard.

Nah.

I could never respect anyone who expects me to tell them what to do all the time, who doesn't even know how to show emotion.

I could never fall in love with a dummy.


Big Foot, Brad Paisley and an Honest Man

Love means never having to say you're sorry

My hormones ate the housework, the cheese and, possibly, the children



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A favorite Uncle

I was a cute little squirt but a brat sometimes, too
When my family lived in Tennessee, we didn't often see relatives, no regular Sunday visits with grandparents, no holiday gatherings, no large birthday celebrations. Most of our extended family lived in Idaho where my parents grew up, first met, married and welcomed all four of their children.

I loved growing up in Tennessee, but I acknowledge that more time with the many aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents would have been welcome and enriching. However, I also have very vivid memories of the rare, happy occasions when we did have visitors to that 98 acre farm in Tennessee.

Lately, I have been thinking of the good times we had when my Uncle Art, with whom my mother was very close growing up, came to see us and of the special, simple memory I have of my uncle's kindness to me.

Uncle Art's family lived in Florida, and they came up one summer over Independence Day to celebrate with us.

For the most part I remember running around with my cousins - often down the lane to the creek, sometimes in the field, hula-hooping and playing in the huge yard and sloped driveway.

I also remember that I was somewhat of a brat at that stage in my life, a not uncommon ailment of children in general but of the youngest child in particular. Honestly, I was probably past somewhat and fully in the territory of awful.

The memories may not be wholly accurate, but I seem to recall the night of the 4th of July very well. Dad and Uncle Art shot off fireworks from the yard into the field, and Dad did his best to corral our large Labrador Reuben to keep him from chasing after them and burning his mouth when they plummeted and he tried to retrieve them.

We kids watched the fireworks, but we were frenetic, running back and forth between the house - where there was probably food - and the side yard where our parents sat in lawn chairs beneath a starry but now smoking sky.

Now every spring and summer in Tennessee we had to encounter a bunch of creatures, some not very pleasant to look upon. One of those creatures that I hated the most was the slug. They would slime their way across our front porch in hordes it seemed. Though some salt poured on generously would solve the problem, it was a cruel and revolting solution - possibly more disgusting than the large, squishy, slippery slugs themselves.

On that night I was coming out of the house barefoot in a rush, and, though I would typically navigate around them in horror, I stepped on a large slug full force before I knew it.

I began caterwauling, bemoaning my terrible fate on such a beautiful, celebratory night. I shrieked my way around the side of the house where I attempted to tell the adults of my horrendous circumstances and the thick smear of slime which I could even still feel on the bottom of my foot. My parents had very little patience with me, I think; a slug is a slug, and that's the shakes when you go barefoot on a warm, humid night in the South. But I was beside myself with the horror of it all, inconsolable.

My Uncle Art was the one adult who had pity on me. He took me on his lap gently, hugged me and spoke soothingly to remind me that a slug really is just a slug, another thing of the world. He probably assured me that my foot would surely not fall off, that I would survive this night, and that I should watch the splendid fireworks over the field to distract myself. I don't know exactly what he said or what he did to calm me, but I do remember feeling loved and comforted and cared for. My hope for a fun night was renewed.

It's such a little thing, I know, but I still remember what my Uncle Art did for me when I had the misfortune to step on a slug. And I remember very well that though I had not perhaps really seen Uncle Art before that summer and didn't see him again for many, many years after, I took a shine to him very quickly, and he has remained one of my favorite uncles to this day.




Monday, March 14, 2016

Messy Revenge

Someday my children will be adults or close enough, and I have no doubt that they will maintain a lovely, spotless home. This will either be because they do not yet have children, keep a maid, or run a tight shift of sanitary misery in their family.

OR it will be due to the thousands upon thousands of times in a row that I told them to clear dishes, put away shoes, and pick up toys and dirty clothes as they were growing up.

Apparently, parents must tell their children these things thousands – perhaps millions - of times for the kids to finally form good, cleanly habits. Someone should research exactly how long it takes, so we parents can better prepare for the frustration. Then we can compassionately intone, “Oh I understand, honey. I have to tell you at least 2,483,210 more times before you can finally learn to do it on your own, but I still want you to clear that cereal bowl.

Or perhaps, quite simply, our admonishments will only stick after they have left our homes, entered their own spaces, and finally decided that they care to live in decent, socially-acceptable conditions.

But, I assure you, all that cleanliness will go to pot when I come to visit my mature children for three weeks every year.

I will pointedly leave my dinner dishes on the table every night, deposit my stinky knee-highs wherever I please and – while visiting our sons -strongly encourage their dad to miss the toilet when he pees. Every single time.

That is called sweet revenge, and I’m looking forward to it.

Each week as I gaze upon the yellow puddles at the back and bottom of the guest commode, my gripes fester as I recall my boys’ cries of, “It wasn’t me! It’s him. Really!”, as they point toward their brother.

Each evening post-bedtime and every morning after school drop-off, I survey all the littered clothing and errant dishes and sticky surfaces, and I contemplate a future reversal of roles.

I think of my children asking me sweetly, as I have surely asked of them all these years, to please clear my dishes and put my smelly footwear in a hamper and ask their father not to make such a mess of the restroom. Then I dream of the selective hearing I will have, the dumb stares of incomprehension I will turn their way, and the many tired answers – after their fifth or sixth time of asking – I will give of, “Oh, I forgot.”

Am I a bitter mother? Oh, no! I love my little Punky Pants, each and every one of them. But if it weren’t for their handmade cards and notes of appreciation, insane ability to make me laugh and smile, and the fact that they do sometimes pick up dog poop, I would have given them notice years ago for not pulling their weight around here.


As it is, I must look to my revenge.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Our pint-sized Romeo

My youngest boy who will soon be six, Danny Sam, has a major crush on an older girl. It has been going on since before he started kindergarten, when he first clapped eyes on her at his big brother's soccer practice. Perhaps it might never have developed into a crush if the older girl had not, in an attempt to win my oldest son's approval, said about his little brother, "Ah, he's so cute!"

Thereafter, any time she saw my sweet little Danny, she gave him a hug, stealing his heart by degrees.

Hmmpf.

It was then that Danny began to say that this older girl in his brother's grade - we'll call her "Adeline" - was his girlfriend. He was very confident in proclaiming it.

Not long ago he was coloring a picture for school, and I asked why the girl in the picture was scribbled over. He replied, "Because I only like one girl."

Who could that be? His dear mother? One of his classmates? No.

"Adeline," he stated as he continued to scribble.

Our little Romeo even declared one day that he had a true love. Someone, quite surprised to hear a kindergartner say this, asked him who that might be.

"Adeline."

Adeline-Schmadeline.

My husband joked that it's a pretty good match, because they're about the same height. (Adeline is a very petite girl.) We all laughed it up, of course, but I was beginning to feel like the domineering mother who believes no one is good enough for her son - certainly not a girl in middle school.

I've gone so far as to tell Berto that he had best tell his friend to stop toying with the affections of my little boy by hugging him and telling him how cute he is every time she sees him, but when he asks me if I really want him to, I always recant. What's the use anyway?

After all, Berto recently broke it to Danny that Adeline was seeing his good friend Michael. Daniel was downcast, heartbroken, but he soon cheered up.

"I'll win her back!" he declared. He then asked his papa if he could invite Adeline and Michael to his birthday party. Just what public humiliation he was preparing for his rival, we'll never know. His papa said no.

And so it goes on and on. For Valentine's Day he drew a picture of Adeline and him walking together with Cupid hovering above them, one of his arrows lodged in my little guy's heart. Where does he pick up all this love language? Is he reading Shakespeare behind my back, barely tolerating the simple bedtime stories full of dinosaurs and cute animals? For crying out loud, he's only six-years-old! What kind of romantic dramas await us in the future, I wonder.

A teacher's aide in Danny's class came up to me before school last week and said, "I have to tell you something Daniel said. It's so cute." I think she was surprised to see that I had previous knowledge and to hear my disgruntled clucks and grunts when she revealed that Danny said he had a girlfriend in middle school. I tried to act like I thought it was as cute as she did, but I probably failed. My daughter Ana explained that this has been going on for a while.

It's getting serious. Daniel recently told me that if I could give him a little cash, he could take Adeline to McDonald's. He is planning dates, and he seems to have forgotten all about poor Michael.

But no matter how often he declares his admiration for Adeline, I remain obstinate in my firm belief that no gal could replace his mama in our little fast-food-loving, older-woman-chasing Romeo's heart.

At least not yet, but who knows who might catch his eye when he becomes a first grader!