Wednesday, November 30, 2011

With A Whimper*... not exactly the way I was hoping to end this year's NaBloPoMo, but I am still at work and unsure when I will be able to leave so better with a whimper than without a sound.

*If I were feeling more inspired and less exhausted, I would rewrite The Hollow Men with a NaBlo theme instead of just stealing a bit of its final line. Maybe next year...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Masochistic Nostalgia Highway, Mr. High School Exit

"Every time I open the drawer, it's a trip down Memory Lane, which, if you don't turn off at the right exit, merges straight into the Masochistic Nostalgia Highway."

~~Sloane Crosley in "The Pony Problem"

I'm pretty sure I still think about him too much. I'm not sure a formula exists to calculate the exact right amount that a 43-year-old married mother of four should spend thinking about her high school crush. I mean, what variables would it take into account? But whatever the formula is or would be, I'm pretty sure I'm on the wrong side of it.*

Maybe it helps my case that he wasn't only a high school crush, but also a grown-up friend though only fleetingly. I only know that in spite of the fact that he has been gone for six years, I am still saving up little bits of things I want to tell him the next time we talk. There is still a slew of songs I can't hear without wincing a little. His voice, our voices together, still reverberate in my head sometimes--all the things we said and all the ones we didn't.
Our lives are assembled from the smallest moments--moments that fit together like interlocking pieces so tightly that the seams are indiscernible. Sometimes the pattern of our lives seems as inevitable, as predictable as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together to make the picture on the box.
But the seams are there whether we can make them out or not. And the pieces we have to choose from while not infinite are more numerous and more varied than we sometimes remember. I think that's part of why my mind goes back again and again to the places where those seams are--to the times when those other choices, those other moments, those other possible selves still existed.
There is something about realizing how different everything could've been that makes me appreciate the way things are all the more.

*T > S where "T"=The Current Quantity of Masked Mom's Thoughts About Mr. High School and "S"=How Much MM Should Be Thinking About MHS. Speaking of mathematical equations to solve life problems, you would probably be better off checking out this Dear Sugar column than trying read this post.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Masked Mom's Media Monday: The Breakfast Club

I can't remember when, exactly, I first saw The Breakfast Clubthe 1985 movie from writer/director John Hughes about five teenagers who walk into Saturday detention as stereotypes and walk out with a deeper understanding of themselves and each other.

I know that it was one of the first movies I ever saw on VHS and that I watched it at my friend, Pasta's* house and I think we may have rented Purple Rain that same day. Depending on when the Breakfast Club video came out, it may have been as early as late 1985 or as late as early 1987. In any case, in the twenty-something years since then, I have seen Purple Rain exactly one other time. The Breakfast Club? I've lost count.

So, let's dispense with all illusions of objectivity here and get right down to it:

Ten Reasons The Breakfast Club Is One of The Top Ten Movies of All Time

1. It opens with this quote from David Bowie: "...And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through."

2. "You see us as you want to see us--in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions."--Brian, the Brain in the opening and closing narratives, which are excerpts from the "Who Do You Think You Are?" essay they've all been assigned to write.

3. "It's sort of social--demented and sad, but social."--Bender, the Criminal in the conversation about social clubs vs. academic ones.

4. "I wanna be just like you. I figure all I need is a lobotomy and some tights." --Bender to Andrew, the Athlete (a wrestler, hence the tights).

5.  "How come Andrew gets to get up? If he gets up, we'll all get up. It'll be anarchy!" --Bender, when Mr. Vernon tries to enlist Andrew's help in propping open the door.

6. "If I do what my mother tells me not to do it's because my father says it's okay. It's like this whole big monster deal. It's monstrous. It's a total drag."--Claire, the Princess.

7. Bender: "You get along with your parents?"
    Andrew: "Well, if I say yes, I'm an idiot, right?"
    Bender: "You're an idiot anyway, but if you say you get along with your parents, then you're a liar, too."

8. "...Coach thinks I'm a winner. So does my old man. I'm not a winner because I want to be one. I'm a winner because I got strength and speed--kinda like a racehorse. That's about how involved I am in what's happening to me."--Andrew to Allison, the Basket Case

9. "Well, everyone's home life is unsatisfying--if it wasn't, people would live with their parents forever."--Andrew to Brian and Allison

10. "I mean, we're all pretty bizarre--some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all."--Andrew 

There's no doubt that I find The Breakfast Club one of the most quotable movies I've ever seen, but it's also so much more than that.

It's an enduring lesson that there is more to all of us than meets the eye--we are more than the roles we play, bigger than the boxes we find ourselves in. No one's path is as straight or as simple as it appears from the outside.

It's also a message in how hard it is to break out of those roles. After laughter, tears, pot smoking, vandalism** and deep conversation, there is a scene in which the five teens discuss what will happen on Monday, when they go back to their regular lives. Will they still be friends? The answer is a brutally honest probably not.

And, of course, the movie ends when detention ends so the question is never resolved. Even if they are utterly absorbed back into their normal lives, though, they take with them a moment of authenticity, a memory of true connection. As an adult, I understand in a way I probably couldn't have as a teen just how truly rare and valuable those moments can be.

Don't You Forget About Me, performed by Simple Minds is the song most people associate with The Breakfast Club, which makes sense both because it was the soundtrack's most successful single and because it captures the feeling that something found might be lost. To me, though, We Are Not Alone, performed by Karla DeVito, played in the dance scene actually captures more of the movie's theme:

"We are not alone
Find out when your cover's blown
There'll be somebody there to break your fall
We are not alone
'Cause when you cut down to the bone
We're really not so different after all
After all
We're not alone."
That's something I think we can all stand to be reminded of from time to time.

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Insightful.

*A.k.a. Brunette Best Friend From High School. Pasta is still not her real name, but it was used so often it gave her real name a run for its money.

**The scene where John Bender dismantles a book and maliciously rearranges the card catalog drawer is physically painful for this Library Lunatic to watch.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Everything In Moderation?

On Thanksgiving day, I glanced at my partially eaten dinner and groaned to Hubby, "I think I may have put too much food on my plate."

Hubby rolled his eyes. "That's never happened before."

I protested, "You know I'm the very picture of moderation in all areas of my life."

I may have overstated my case slightly, but I really believe there are only two areas of my life where moderation continues to elude me.1 One is food. The other, of course, is books.

When I was a kid, my grandmother would watch what I piled on my plate and say, "I think your eyes are bigger than your stomach." For some reason, I loved hearing that--visualizing eyes literally larger than a stomach and speculating about exactly how they might've gotten that way.

Of course, Nan meant that I had taken more than I could possibly2 consume. She was almost always wrong and, alas, to this day, my eyes rarely issue a challenge my stomach fails to meet. Why my eyes have such an insatiable appetite and so little control over themselves remains a mystery.

My other uncontrollable appetite is for books--and not just books but the written word in general. I will feast upon print anywhere it will stand still long enough for me to take it in. I've got it so bad that for a long time, I was trying to figure out a way to build a shower reader--a waterproof device in which to place a book. It would have some sort of lever system to turn pages and would also be adjustable to fit different sized books.

I don't spend much time thinking about that anymore. I figure at this point, it's only a matter of time before the eReader people and the shower radio people combine technologies. You can be forgiven for thinking that only a fanatic would even think about reading in the shower. You would be right--only a fanatic would be thinking about reading in the shower and that fanatic would be me.

Books and other printed matter can be found on virtually every flat surface in my house. The only reason they are not currently on literally every flat surface in my house is that we tidied up for Thanksgiving company. This has not resulted in less printed matter strewn about, but only in higher stacks on fewer surfaces. 

With the exception of the bounty from birthday gifts of Barnes & Noble cards, this wretched excess is almost all from the library so it is not a financially costly addiction. But it takes its toll in other ways. It eats up a ridiculous amount of my "free" time, for one thing. And for another, I feel a certain amount of (self-imposed) pressure to get through it all before it has to be returned. If I run out of renewals before I have finished--or even started--a book it creates the completely unfounded anxiety that I will now never be able to read the book--as though getting the book out again after it's returned is not an option.

For these reasons and a few others, I have repeatedly vowed to go to the library with a list and not to get anything "extra." I did this again on Friday afternoon. I had three books to get for Hubby and that was all I was going to get.

My resolve lasted until I was three steps inside the door where I was led astray by a title on the new non-fiction table.

"That's it. No more," I told myself--in much the same way I have to tell myself not to stick my hand back into the package of cupcakes.

I grabbed the books for Hubby and set my stack of four books on the front desk. The librarian leaned across the pile and said, "You know, if you get a fifth book, you can be entered into a raffle for a free Kindle."

It's true what they say: the road to excess is paved with the Library Lady's good intentions. Better yet, when I returned with my fifth book, she told me that two interloan books I had requested were in.

I left the library with seven books. Seven--instead of three.

So, about that expression "Everything in moderation." Is it just me or is that "everything" in there a bit excessive, a tad immoderate? If moderation is good, then what could be better than being moderate about our moderation?

1. Two, if you don't count self-delusion, which I suspect I practice with great abandon, but I cannot be entirely sure. Delusions tend to keep to themselves and not stand around waiting to be counted.
2. Let us here acknowledge the difference between "possibly" and "comfortably." It is vast.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The View From The Aunthill

Seventh Niece is two-and-a-half years old and is working on learning colors. When she comes over to visit, we have a 16-pack of Crayola Pip-Squeaks* washable markers that she loves to use.

With sixteen colors to choose from, there are a few off-the-beaten-path colors in there. The beaten path, in my opinion, being the Crayola crayon 8-box: red, blue, yellow, green, purple, black, white, orange and brown. (Even after ten years of working in a flower shop where people willy-nilly threw around words like fuschia and puce, burgundy and wine, sage and celadon and debated the subtle differences between lavender and periwinkle, my motto where colors are concerned remains: If it ain't in the Crayola 8-box, I don't know what color it is.)

Anyway, Friday evening, while the grown-ups were playing poker, Second Niece was set up with her bowl of markers, doodling away. She leaned over toward me, holding a greenish blue marker in her hand and said, "I using this..."

I took her hesitation to mean she wanted me to tell her what color it was. So I said, "Green?"

She shook her head. "No."

"Uh, blue?" I guessed again.

Again with the "no," this time a little more frustrated.

Shot in the dark: "Teal?"

The look she gave me was one of annoyance mixed with the slightest hint of pity. She said, "'s a marker!"

She may have a way to go on her colors, but she's making amazing progress in the sarcasm department.

*An absolutely uncompensated thumbs-up to this product, by the way. They are the most washable washables I've ever come across.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fine Lines

During a visit this spring, a group of us watched as Youngest Sister's then-21-month-old son climbed over, around and on a footstool in my living room. Second Nephew wobbled now and then before righting himself and all the adults in the room hovered at the edge, poised to catch him if necessary, but wanting to give him the opportunity to explore as much as possible.

Brother-in-Law commented that he and Youngest Sister had entered the risk-assessment phase in earnest with SN, who's their first child--trying to strike a balance between letting him have room to grow and explore his world and wanting to protect him from serious harm.

Here at Masked Mom Headquarters, we are at the opposite end of the parenting continuum--our youngest having turned 17 in June--and I told Brother-in-Law that I felt the search for the balance between protecting and stifling was never-ending and, really, the central parenting dilemma. It starts at birth really, but increases exponentially when our children become mobile, wriggling, crawling and toddling their way out into a world seemingly teeming with physical dangers and it doesn't move on so much as expand from there to include (the potentially even scarier) emotional and psychological dangers that are an inevitable part of making our way in the world.

On the one hand, it's perfectly natural to want to shield your child from every possible hurt, but not only is it impossible to do so, it's possible to do more damage than good by trying to keep your child too safe. Pain--physical and otherwise--is an essential part of how we learn our place in the world, the way we determine our strengths and limitations, how we find out all that we are truly capable of and how we come to know ourselves at the deepest levels.

Hubby and I always tended toward the more laid-back end of the protection spectrum.* In fact, during the conversation that day when Second Nephew explored the jungle gym of my living room, his mother, Youngest Sister, told a story about when Son-One and Son-Two were small. Son-Two, who was probably three or four at the time, came out of the bedroom crying and said he had fallen off of the dresser. Youngest Sister said, "You asked if Son-One had pushed him off the dresser and he said no. You didn't say anything at all about the fact that he was on the dresser."

Listen, it sounds a little insane when you put it that way--even to me. But at the time, they really enjoyed that dresser--it was wide and relatively low-slung. They had all sorts of imaginary adventures in it, on it, around it. I didn't think anything worse than a goose egg or a scrape could come of it. Classic risk-benefit analysis. And, of course, years (decades!) later I have the benefit of pointing out that nothing major ever did come out of it.

The counterargument that something major could have come of it is really the crux of the issue because something major could come of just about anything. As Brother-In-Law pointed out, every parent has to find his or her own comfort zone. 

There is a degree of involvement that becomes unhealthy--when overprotection actually prevents our children from understanding natural consequences and learning to be responsible for themselves in the world. Hardly anyone uses the expression "helicopter parent" as a compliment--and with good reason. But hardly anyone acknowledges how truly difficult it is not to be a helicopter parent--even for someone who falls solidly on the more laid-back side of the equation.

When it becomes less about a scraped knee and more about a bruised psyche, things only get more complicated. Sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, body image issues, bullying, broken hearts--the list just goes on and on and gets more entertaining by the day. Watching your toddler climb around a footstool becomes, with a breathtaking swiftness, standing on the sidelines as your adolescent children navigate friendships, school commitments, and, eventually romantic entanglements while you try to decide when and how far to step in.

I have a feeling that all the experience I've had with the fine line between keeping them safe and stunting their growth is responsible for some of the fine lines I see reflected back at me in the mirror every morning.

*Some of that can be attributed to a conscious choice on our part, but some of it can probably be chalked up to the fact that due to our insanity-induced procreative schedule, we were outnumbered and it was mathematically impossible for us to hover in so many places at once. Regardless, I stand by our stance while fully understanding that not everyone has the same stance.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Eye Exam

Thanksgiving cupcake. Turkey with gravy, peas, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes with butter*:

Thanksgiving cupcakes as far as the eye can see:

Warning: creating Thanksgiving cupcakes as far as the eye can see when you're 43 years old and you don't get started until 9 p.m. may make "as far as the eye can see" a significantly shorter distance.

Hope everyone has a great day!

*The part of turkey is played by Brach's Maple Nut Goodies; gravy by melted chocolate chips; peas by green ball sprinkles; cranberry sauce by red sugar; mashed potatoes by dollop of frosting; butter by yellow decorating gel. The part of the plate is played by half a generic vanilla sandwich cookie covered in homemade butercream frosting. The part of the cupcake base is played by, uh, a cupcake.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Sparkly Bow On Top

Each year, the sponsors of NaBloPoMo have offered various prizes to participants who manage to blog daily throughout the month of November.  I have never been awarded one of these prizes--I made a little joke about it in a post two years ago. This year the event's headquartered at Blogher and they are giving away prizes on a daily basis. And even with daily prizes still nothin'...

Of course, NaBlo is not really about the prizes--it's about "that geeky sense of accomplishment that comes from posting every single day for a month," as I said in that post where I (parenthetically) whined about not getting a prize--and that sense of accomplishment has been mine every year except one (thanks a lot, Time Warner and Verizon).

This year, as I gushed a little about here, I've gotten not only a growing sense of accomplishment as I've inched my way through the month, but I seem to have recovered a bit of my long-buried writing mojo.

An added--and invaluable--bonus has been discovering (and rediscovering) some great bloggers. One of those great bloggers is S. Stauss, who blogs over at Periphery. My bloggy crush on her started the moment I clicked over to her page and saw the tagline: "Out of the corner of your eye is where the magic happens." I loved the simple (magical) brilliance of it. Her posts are full of that same brilliance--she's smart and funny and has a way of looking at things that is quietly revolutionary, if that makes any sense.*

So I've been popping over to Periphery for her daily posts and yesterday, I found out she'd named me in her Top 5 for the Liebster Blog award: 


"Liebster" is a German word meaning dearest and the award is given to up-and-coming bloggers with less than 200 followers (in my case significantly less--I was ecstatic to break double digits this week).

Not only was this a compliment from someone whose blog I love, it comes with a built in opportunity to share the bloggy love.

Here's how it works:

1. Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.

2. Reveal your Top 5 blogs (with under 200 followers) and let them know by leaving comments on their blogs.

3. Post the Award on your blog.

4. Enjoy the love of some of the most supportive people on the Internet.

Below you can find my Top 5--all of them are bloggers I've "met" this week, and they all really deserve an individual accounting of why I'm giving them the award, but I am unfortunately strapped for both time and mental energy so I will just list them all and say that, for different reasons, each and every link is worth clicking on.

5. Julie's View formerly The Silver Lining

Check them out if you get a chance and while you're at it stop over at Periphery and tell S. Stauss Masked Mom says, "Step away from the mallet."

(A PS to those I've awarded--play along if you'd like, but I will completely understand if you can't fit into crazy holiday schedules.)

*And it may not as I am on several deadlines (holiday and blog related) and I am currently running solely on the frosting I've been licking off my fingers while making Thanksgiving cupcakes and the Diet Dr. Pepper I've been washing it down with.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When Every Single Word Makes Sense*

"People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands--literally thousands--of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the one who like pop music the most; and I don't know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they've been listening to sad songs longer than they've been living unhappy lives."

~~Nick Hornby

One rainy Saturday afternoon when I was fifteen or sixteen, my father walked into the living room to find me sitting next to the stereo near tears, staring soulfully into the distance singing along with some whiny, sappy pop song.

He took one look at my pathetic self and said, "You know, sometimes when you're feeling down, music like that makes it worse."

I hate to admit that I briefly wondered in that moment if my father even had a heart. How could he not understand that, as Elton John put it, "it feels so good to hurt so bad*" and knowing there were other people out there who had felt the same way at least long enough to write or sing a pop song was the most delicious sort of company for my misery?

It wasn't until I was watching my own daughter at fifteen or sixteen mooning over the desperate lyrics of her favorite songs, unable to answer a question without her voice cracking when she was in that mood, that I started to really have chicken-egg questions regarding the music of misery.

From the mom perspective, it certainly did not appear as though the music was in any way improving Daughter-Only's mood. In fact, it appeared exactly as though she was wallowing in her misery to the accompaniment of this music that was so depressing that even half a chorus half overheard had the power to make me cranky. I'll admit that on more than one occasion, I blurted, "How can this music possibly help?"

Then Daughter-Only would say out loud the things I had only said to my dad in my head: "Don't be stupid. These songs don't put me in a bad mood. They make me feel better because they match my mood."

Eventually, I remembered that "wallowing" was a word my mother used with some frequency to describe what it was she thought I was doing. And after I recovered from that wave of oh-crap-I've-turned-all-the-way-into-my-mother, I remembered just for a minute what it was like to be a teenaged girl, to have feelings so big that you can barely process them and instead of running away from them, you surround yourself with them, by cranking up the volume and singing along.

*From "Sad Songs Say So Much" by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

Monday, November 21, 2011

Masked Mom's Media Monday: "Dear Sugar" on The Rumpus

I am wary of professional advice givers, especially the celebrity sort. So many of them seem to make their living spouting cleverly worded, overly simplified answers that people struggling with complicated, real-life problems crave, answers which nevertheless seem unlikely to provide any lasting resolution or comfort. These advisors have never met a problem that cannot be "solved" by throwing a few stale slogans at it: Be yourself. You teach people how to treat you. The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior.

Of course, there is a simple sort of truth to statements like these. The problem being that life is so rarely simple. I am more than willing to acknowledge that some of us (ME! ME! ME!) make things more complicated than is absolutely necessary with our constant worrying and picking apart and analyzing--why merely think about things, when you can overthink everything? But the Advice Givers generally seem to go too far in the opposite direction--parroting things their mothers probably told them when they were eight, which were, perhaps, invaluable on the playground but don't hold up long in the rough-and-tumble world of grown-ups.

All this is to say that when I came across a collection of "Dear Sugar" columns in The Sun magazine (recommended, by the way), I didn't initially have high hopes. The only way I thought the reading experience could be salvaged was if the column turned out to be satirical (similar to Jeffrey Goldberg's "What's Your Problem?" column in The Atlantic). That actually seemed like a possibility considering the name of the column--to my jaundiced Northern ear, "Sugar" is one of those Southern pet names that is just as likely to be used sarcastically as sincerely.

Instead of satire, I discovered that "Dear Sugar" was the Lay's Potato Chips of advice columns--I couldn't read just one. But rather than the crispy, greasy, empty calories perfect for mindless consumption of some other advice venues, "Dear Sugar" turned out to be a complex blend of more sophisticated tastes and textures, nutritionally substantial and satisfying to the palate.

The first tip-off that "Dear Sugar" wasn't your average advice column was the questions she chooses to answer. She does not shy away from any topic--no matter how gritty or petty, large or small. In the time that I've been reading, there have been questions about professional jealousy, sexual abuse, infidelity, the existence of God, body image, "sick" sexual proclivities, and so much more. All of these she handles with grace and generosity.

It helps (of course it does) that her writing is a tiny miracle in itself: lyrical and down-to-earth at the very same time. For example, these bits from her answer to "Seeking Wisdom," a 22-year old loyal reader, who asked Sugar what advice her 40-something self would have for her 20-something self:

Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.


The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.


You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.

She handles the hardest truths with exquisite care. She can be blunt, when necessary, but it is a bluntness tempered with compassion and an almost supernatural understanding of human nature. She pulls no punches, but when they land, they land like the reassuring shoulder squeeze of a good friend.

I know this is a post replete with over-the-top metaphors, but I feel she's earned them all. Let me leave you with one last one:

Sugar takes the most tangled knots of problems--spiritual, professional, interpersonal--and picks them apart, gently loosening the individual threads from one another and then she takes those threads and embroiders them into little pieces of art her readers can carry with them.

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Mesmerizing.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adventures in Amateur Dream Analysis

"I search for the time on a watch with no hands..."
~~These Dreams
~~performed by Heart, written by Bernie Taupin & Martin Page

I blame Marci George. 

She was my Intro to Psychology teacher in my senior year of high school and her ability to break down even the most convoluted dream in a matter of seconds was awe-inspiring. On the first day of the dream analysis unit, she asked for volunteers to share their dreams. One brave soul* raised his hand and assured her she'd never be able to figure out what his dream meant.

The dream involved him and his fellow wrestlers from the school team finding themselves in a war zone being barked at by a colonel no one liked or respected, eventually they were rescued by a helicopter and, when they landed in a field, there was a case of beer on a table under a spotlight, the table surrounded by a high chainlink fence with barbed wire on the top.

"That's an easy one," said Marci George and she went on to tell him (and the whole rest of the class) that the dream was about his frustrations with the wrestling season, maybe especially his issues with his coach and his feeling that the team was under attack. The beer at the end? It represented celebration of a victory that had so far been denied them.

In high school, I was almost catatonically reserved, so while I didn't react on the outside, somewhere inside was a cartoon version of myself with her mouth hanging wide open. How did she do that? What secrets did Marci George have to know to tap into someone's psyche using only a three-minute dream summary?

I've read a lot about dreams since then. I even invested in one of those "dream dictionaries" at one point or other, with common dream symbols and their "universal" meanings laid out in alphabetical order--I found it disappointingly simplistic and not at all useful. I began chronicling my own particularly vivid dreams in my spiral notebook journal in hopes of some day salvaging some deeper meaning from them.

I'm still not sure what Marci George's secret was, but I know that at some point, I realized I could do it, too. First, I could do it with my own dreams and then, eventually, other people's as well. For a long time, I made it a point to keep my interpretations to myself, partly because I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable and partly because I didn't want to be humiliated if my guesses were completely off-base.

When she was in seventh grade, Daughter-Only discovered her mother's hidden talent, when I was unable to keep it to myself after she shared what I thought was an especially obvious dream.

I can't remember all the details of the dream she shared, but I think it involved a friend of hers being stranded in the middle of a lake or something and there were phone wires down all around, including in the water and Daughter-Only was standing on the shore trying to figure out some way to reach him. I told her I thought the dream meant that she was having trouble communicating with this friend for some reason--and she immediately got that look the cartoon inner me must've had when Marci George dissected the wrestling warrior's dream in front of the whole class senior year.

"Mom! How did you know?" Apparently, the boy in the dream, who in real life was a good friend of Daughter-Only's had recently begun "dating" (seventh grade version) a girl who did not want him talking to D-O anymore.

Daughter-Only was hooked--on the whole concept of dream analysis and on what she at first perceived as her mother's superhuman power. (Like a lot of "superhuman" powers, it turns out to be a lot simpler from the inside than it looks from the outside.) She told lots of her friends and even some of her teachers and for a while there, would bring home lists of dream summaries for me to analyze.

I protested--a lot--about my lack of real (or any) training and about how much harder it is to figure out what a dream means when you don't actually know the person who had it, but in the end I found the dreams irresistible and took a stab at every one. In every case, Daughter-Only reported back that the dreamer was in complete agreement with my guess.

After a while, Daughter-Only's interest died down a little--there was even a point where she seemed to be creeped out by the whole thing, saying, "Mom, I don't even want to tell you what I dreamed about because you'll analyze it."

I said, "I don't have to do that if you don't want me to."

"Even if you don't say anything out loud, I'll know you're doing it in your head." She wouldn't have believed my denial and she would've been right not to.

Then came the ninth grade trip to the state Odyssey of the Mind competition--a nearly three-hour bus ride during which she and her teammates somehow stumbled on the topic of dreams. Daughter-Only began texting me details.

One girl had a dream in which a particularly obnoxious teammate (who, mercifully for everyone, was being transported by his parents) had grown a snout and a curly tail and was standing atop the Empire State Building giving a speech when he fell off. At the bottom, there was a table of judges who gave him very low scores.

I texted back: She's afraid of Obnoxious Kid "hogging" all the attention, showing off at the competition, figuratively falling on his face and making the team look bad in front of the judges. Bullseye!

A boy dreamed he was running through the woods from Indians one of whom fired an arrow that struck him in the wrist.

I texted back: Does he do something competitive where his hands are important? Video games? Musical instrument? Some kind of sport?

The answer: Marching band. Regional finals in three weeks. Bullseye!

It went on like this for another few dreams, then came this: A girl dreamed that she was at a hotel out of town with her mother and her sister's ex-fiance. The three of them were sharing a room, but none of the rest of the family was present. The girl went to go for a swim and found her 55-year-old mother making out in the hotel pool with one of her fifteen-year-old classmates.

I texted: I think I know what it means, but I don't think we should tell her.

Text came back: She really wants to know.

I texted: I will tell you, but I really don't think you should tell her. I think it means she is uncomfortable with the way her mother interacts with younger men, maybe especially her sister's ex-fiance.

Predictably, Daughter-Only failed to heed my advice. (When we talked about it in person later, she said that she had at least whispered the interpretation to the girl rather than blurt it in front of everyone.) Even more predictably, the girl turned herself inside out denying that my guess was even a possibility.

Completely unpredictably, given what she claimed was my failure with the first dream, the girl then told Daughter-Only a second dream. A dream I (in my wholly amateur fashion) found revelatory of another whole set of deep-seated insecurities.

I texted: I think it's time for you guys to play the Alphabet Game instead.

*The brave soul was not a friend of mine--I remember him solely for the dream and for one other thing: in the yearbook, under favorite color, he wrote "plaid." PLAID!!!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nothing Scares Me

Until this month's burst of productivity (brought to you by NaBloPoMo--now you know whom to blame), I had been going through an extended dry spell in the writing department. Here on the blog, of course, the archives for the past few years are almost laughably sparse, with November consistently accounting for more posts than the rest of the year combined.

Off the blog--in my spiral notebook journal--things have been spotty as well--I have been working on the same single subject notebook (70 pages, college-ruled, but still) since January 2010, which is unheard of and especially troublesome since that journal has functioned not only as writing practice, but as a therapeutic outlet (the only one I can count on to be covered by my currently non-existent health care coverage) since a few days before my fifteenth birthday. 

In that third writing area, the one I don't talk much about here--potentially publishable stuff--the dry spell has persisted even longer. I have not finished, or even earnestly attempted, anything I intended to submit for publication since a piece that appeared in a literary anthology in 2005.

In the beginning of this dry spell, there were still ideas floating around in my brain, but I found I lacked the motivation* to do anything with them. I would sometimes pretend it was time and energy I lacked, but that excuse did not hold up when I considered all the time and energy I was "wasting" on things like Ghost Hunters marathons, futzing around on the internet, or even reading--which is a fine, and even necessary, pastime for a writer, but which defeats its purpose when it replaces writing entirely.

As the dry spell and its accompanying lack of motivation continued, it seemed the ideas began to dry up as well. I would think of a subject I might want to write about, but I couldn't think past the first line or two and the nothing that I assumed came after those lines terrified me so much I rarely got around to writing down even those first lines.

If I had, I might've remembered a core truth about writing. E.L. Doctorow said, "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

It is not necessary to be able to clearly see your destination when you begin, your path will almost always be revealed to you as you inch along. If it's not, consider turning around, choosing a new route or asking for directions at that gas station you just passed, but whatever you do don't just pull off to the side of the road and wait for things to get better. Scary things happen on the side of the road in the dark.

There was a point during this dry spell that I began to suspect I had not only lost the ability to write, but the ability to think as well. Without the structure, revision and discipline of writing, I was finding it more and more difficult to focus my thoughts--they seemed superficial and fleeting, insubstantial and definitely not worthy of memorializing by putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, so I wrote less, which seemed to make me think less clearly, so I wrote less, and so on.

Joan Didion said, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means." Turns out, that's me, too. All this time I've believed I was writing what I thought, but I was really thinking what I wrote.

*This lack of motivation stemmed in part from the capital-F Funk, which was a combination of my natural depressive tendencies and life events.

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Drinking the Kool-Aid"

I'm subscribed to "breaking news" email alerts for both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. I can't remember how or when that happened, but sometimes up to ten or twelve alerts come daily and, for the record, the LA paper is good for three to four times as many alerts as the NY paper. I don't know if that's because significantly more important things are going on on the West Coast than the East Coast or if it means that West Coasters are significantly more agitated about world events than their "laid-back" reputation would suggest. Shoot, maybe it's not something sociologically significant--maybe it's just the settings I selected when I signed up for the subscriptions.

In any case, I rarely click through to any of the stories and I can't remember exactly what caught my eye yesterday*, but once I was on the LA Times site, I was down the rabbit hole of current events and op-ed pieces and eventually read a piece by columnist Meghan Daum about the prevalence of the expression "drinking the Kool-Aid" to refer "to someone who unquestioningly embraces a particular leader or ideology."

Daum seems to think that very few people who use the expression realize its connection to the Jonestown massacre, which happened thirty-three years ago today. Jonestown was a settlement built in Guyana by followers of Jim Jones, a political and philosophical radical who orchestrated the outright murders (by gunshot) of five people, including a U.S. Congressman, and the mass "suicide" of 909 others.

All but a few of the deaths were caused by cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, which Daum calls a "cheap Kool-Aid knock-off." The fact that Flavor-Aid translated as Kool-Aid in the public consciousness surrounding this horrific event is a testament to brand recognition that I'm sure Kool-Aid has never been particularly grateful for.

If I'm reading her complaint correctly, Daum is upset that the expression "drink the Kool-Aid" and all its variations is often used in situations much less dire than the Jonestown massacre. One of her examples refers to an Us Weekly report that said Kim Kardashian and her temporary husband, Kris Humphries were not getting along because Kris refused to "drink the Kardashian Kool-Aid." Whether the author of the Us Weekly piece was aware of the origins of the expression or not is up for debate (perhaps he or she just liked the alliteration of Kardashian Kool-Aid), but Daum is apparently bothered by the comparison of something relatively innocuous with something literally lethal. She says, "There's something grotesque, even offensive, about comparing public figures or members of opposing political parties or nonviolent activists to followers of a deranged, murderous cult leader."

I see her point, but still disagree with her. For one thing, hyperbole is a time-honored literary and oratory device--we all use it, most of us on a daily basis, when we say things like "I have a million things to do" or "If I take one more step, I'm going to drop." No one thinks we're really going to, for instance, poke out our eardrums with a rusty fork rather than listen to the co-worker in the next cubicle griping about our boss for one more second. For the same reason, I truly doubt that most people using the expression "they really drank the Kool-Aid" to refer to Obama supporters are trying to draw a direct parallel between the President and Jim Jones, the maniacal dictator of his own deadly Utopia.

My other objection to Daum's rationale is that I personally think that unquestioning loyalty and blind faith are always dangerous, if not literally deadly. Of course, there are degrees of danger and one hopes that there is never another occasion of mob mentality and leader worship so lethal and of such magnitude that it can be compared literally to Jonestown, but that's what makes the expression so useful--it's a cautionary tale in a concise package. I don't use the phrase often, but when I do it is with full knowledge of its provenance. In fact, in my opinion, its provenance and its impact are inextricably linked.

For me, Daum's most persuasive argument against the expression is that it's overused. While I don't relish the thought of offending anyone, as a writer (and even simply as a human being) I would absolutely use a potentially offensive phrase if I felt I couldn't make a point as forcefully without it. But I'd rather staple Roget's Thesaurus to myself page by page than to use a watered-down cliche.

*This is false. Exactly what caught my eye yesterday was not a well-thought out article on the European financial crisis or yet another piece about the Occupy movement, but a piece about Jimmy Kimmel's "National Unfriend Day," which apparently is a movement encouraging people to whittle their Facebook Friends lists down to something more approaching their Real-Life Friends lists. I was reluctant to share this as it is a rather embarrassing glimpse into my shameful taste for inane celebrity news. As with most shameful urges, I don't engage in it often and I talk about it even less.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Man Behind The Curtain

"Bob was right, Rosie thought, remembering something from the other day: Trying to reason with an addict is like trying to blow out a light bulb." --from Imperfect Birds, by Anne Lamott

After spending yet another day trying to blow out light bulbs, I came home exhausted and unable to imagine putting enough words together to form even a cursory post. Luckily (for my unbroken NaBloPoMo streak, at least), I found inspiration in my inbox in the form of a library notice letting me know that Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Years by Gregory Maguire is available for pick up.

So, tomorrow, I am off work and  off to see the Wizard. Here's hoping he can tie up all those loose ends from Son of a Witch that weren't really addressed in A Lion Among Men.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Staff Appreciation Day

One of the things I love about my job--as "housekeeping supervisor" (or as I like to call it, "chief nag") at a half-way house for recovering alcoholics and addicts--is how appreciative everyone there is of the work that I do. I am thanked often and have been told repeatedly, by clients and co-workers alike, that the House would fall apart without me.

I don't really believe the House would fall apart without me, but after shifts like the one I just had, I am sometimes tempted to test the theory.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Altar To The Muse

"You have to lay yourself on the altar to the muse. Because once she stops coming around you're really up a creek without a paddle."
--Emmylou Harris

Son-Three has been dabbling in writing rap for a couple of years now--randomly spouting a line or two or even an extended group of rhymes that he's come up with. Recently, though, he and a few friends got together and have become more serious about it--including renting time in the basement recording booth of the local music store. And ever since he brought home the six-track rough-cut CD of their work, something sort of magical has happened.

He has been working the overnight shift for some time now and I work second shift, so I rarely see him before I leave for work each day, but one day last week, he was up and about and energetic at the ridiculously early hour of 10 or 11 a.m. He told me that he had woken up with several full-blown, multiple-line rhymes in his head and that with just a little tweaking he thought they were some of the best he had ever written.

Perhaps not surprisingly (hopelessly un-hip middle-aged mom that I am), I am no expert in rap, though I've listened to some here and there, but I am an amateur expert in word-play--both as practitioner and spectator--and I can objectively* state that I was very impressed by the wit, the twists and the vocabulary of the raps Son-Three shared with me that morning.

More important than what I thought, though, was the delight Son-Three took in the way they had come to him, fully formed, seemingly from some mysterious pocket in his brain he'd never even known was there.

We talked then about creativity and how sometimes things seem to come from a place that is both within us and Somewhere Else. Whether you think of that Somewhere Else as a stream of divine whisperings or as your own subconscious or as the inspiration of your Muse, the more seriously you take the things that appear from there, the more readily they will appear.

Eight years ago, when I first came across the Emmylou Harris quote about laying yourself on the altar to the muse, I imagined some esoteric, mystical, woo-woo ritual going on at Emmylou's house. Something involving sage and, I don't know, chanting, maybe. I think now that laying yourself on that altar is something much more down-to-earth and practical. Maybe it's something as simple--and as sacred--as writing things down, working to polish them, maybe even recording them in a basement soundbooth, and sharing them with the world.

*-ish. Objectivelyish. This is my kid, after all.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Masked Mom's Media Monday: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris

Once I get fixated on a particular author (and I am fixated on far too many to list), I will willy-nilly check out anything with his or her name on it without reading much in advance about the book. That's how I checked the latest David Sedaris book out of the library last fall without any warning that Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a collection of short tales featuring anthropomorphic animals with all-too-human issues. I have since browsed a few online reviews and the book is being compared (not always favorably) to Aesop or LaFontaine's fables or to James Thurber's work involving animals.
It is a small book--about 5"x7"--and only has 159 pages--quite a few of them taken up by the illustrations (provided by Olivia author/illustrator Ian Falconer), but it is definitely not light reading. Many of the stories had a kick of recognition or resonance for me, but none more so than "The Parenting Storks" about stork sisters who are arguing about how and what to tell their respective children about the "facts of life."

Having parented four children most of the way into (chronological) adulthood, Hubby and I have been dealing for twenty years or so with the question of when, how much and what to tell curious kids and even kids who express no curiosity whatsoever (who are sometimes the kids who need the most information) about not just the facts of reproduction, but the feelings and intricacies of human sexuality.

Almost from the beginning, we agreed that we would provide age-appropriate information as truthfully and matter-of-factly as possible and that we would try to foster an environment in which questions would always be welcome. We may have fallen short in a thousand ways as parents*, but I count our openness with our kids about sexuality as one of our great successes. I do not harbor the illusion that my children tell me everything, but I have little doubt that they know they can tell me anything.

In the spirit of openness, when the boys were first inching into adolescence, I told them there was a specific drawer where there would always be condoms. I would pay no attention to what was gone and would just periodically add more and, of course, if I ever neglected to add more and the drawer was dangerously low, they were welcome to give me a reminder.

A few years ago, Hubby was taking an online class that involved ethics and somehow, in the forum for the class, where classmates could hold discussions, the fact that we had a dedicated condom drawer in our house that all our children were aware of came up. One of the commenters, who had previously made clear her fundamentalist Christian beliefs, stated that providing birth control for kids was "lazy" parenting.

If the commenter had referred to our technique as "immoral" or even "amoral," I would've conceded that within the confines of her own belief system she had a point--though I do not personally see sexuality as a moral issue, I understand there are a good many people who do.

Even with the lazy remark, the commenter may have had a point if we had simply taken a box of condoms, dumped them in some random drawer and said, "Have at it, kids." But, in our house at least (and I'm sure in many homes where birth control is provided for teens), that drawer happened in the context of an ongoing conversation. It happened in the context of our own mixed feelings about our children's burgeoning sexuality--and our struggle to accept them as individuals with their own desires, motivations, and feelings. Not lazy work, especially when you take it seriously.

In fact, if we want to talk about what takes more "work"--psychologically, emotionally, etc--it seems to me that force-feeding your teens a pre-scripted "moral" reality about sexuality and expecting them to swallow it whole and abide by it is actually a path of significantly less resistance than getting to know your children and fostering an environment of openness where any question can be safely asked and answered.**

Of course, there is such a thing as too much openness--and the "smart" stork sister crosses that line and then some in Sedaris's "The Parenting Storks." In the end, the misinformation spread by one sister and the oversharing of the other together lead to dire consequences that aren't spelled out, but rather implied in the text and accompanying illustrations.

If the stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk are fables, they are not fables in the traditional sense--not the versions of Aesop we read in grade school with simplistic and clearly spelled out morals. Instead they are complex tales touching on prejudices and presumptions, the costs of abiding too closely to social norms or abandoning them completely, and the dangers of gullibility and misplaced faith. The illustrations--cartoon animals the victims and prepetrators of disturbing acts--are often disconcerting, but somehow absolutely perfect at the same time.

By showing us all this darkness in the hearts of animals, Sedaris shines a light on the ways we humans constantly judge and misjudge one another and ourselves and the price we pay for those judgments. If the stories stray at times into the overly graphic or the sensationalistic, so, too, do our lives.

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Revealing.

*If we're lucky it's only a thousand ways.
**Even if that answer leads only to more questions. Even if that answer is "I have no idea, but let's see what we can figure out together."

(Full disclosure: This is not an entirely "fresh" post. About a third of it was written during last year's NaBloPoMo and it has languished in my drafts folder unfinished ever since.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

How Not To Talk To A Woman: Mother-Daughter Edition

The other day, Daughter-Only's boyfriend AM lifted her into a bear hug and, groaning a little, said, "Are you getting heavier or am I just getting weaker?"

Rookie mistake, that. And, to his credit, he realized right away that he had blundered and spent half the afternoon attempting (albeit with mixed success) trying to atone for it.

Hubby, 24-year veteran of marriage, does not have inexperience to fall back on as an excuse.

While spooning the last of a bowl of chili into his mouth, he said, "What'd you do different this time? This is perfect."

Granted, there's a compliment in there somewhere, but it's overshadowed by the implication about the "imperfection" of countless pots of chili past. In fairness to him, his comment does highlight a drawback of that "intuitive cooking" I was pretty sure was going to make me famous a few posts ago: it's never, ever the same chili (chowder, soup, meatloaf, whatever) twice.

On the other hand, I have been the same wife* for twenty-four years, so you'd think he'd have a little more of a clue at this point.

*Actually, there are probably countless ways in which I am not at all the same wife I was 24 years ago. However, the backhanded aspect of today's compliment wouldn't have gotten past any of the many wives I've been.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fell Asleep In The Walmart Parking Lot...Woke Up In 1985

Today, I accidentally discovered a fold in the space-time continuum and it wasn't anything like the movies would lead you to believe. There was no need to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge into some swirly water portal, no being strapped into something that vaguely resembled a carnival ride, and, alas, no DeLorean piloted by Michael J. Fox (or, for that matter, Christopher Lloyd).*

Instead, I woke up this morning with a headache, the product of sleep deprivation and sinus trouble. Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself (which is as effective a prescription for pain relief as practically anything available over the counter), I had mother stuff to do. Within half an hour of getting out of bed, I was in the car driving for two hours so that Daughter-Only, her boyfriend (AM) and another friend (RC) could attend an Open House at a prospective college all three of them are interested in.

This college happens to be the college Son-Two attended for two and a half years (and is currently on a break from) so, especially with the headache, I bowed out of the program and took my wounded self to the corner of the parking lot of a nearby Walmart where I promptly locked all my doors and fell into a ridiculously sound sleep.

I had intended to doze, but assumed I wouldn't be able to get comfortable enough--either physically or psychologically--to actually sleep soundly in the van, in a parking lot, in the glare of the sun. Once the seat was reclined, though, I folded myself into some sort of origami shape and I was out cold for two and a half hours.**

When I woke up with that groggy, hard-sleep hangover feeling, I turned on the radio and was greeted by the unmistakable voice of Casey Kasem doing the Top 40 Countdown for the week of November 16, 1985.

Dire Straits' "The Walk of Life" (#40) began playing and I was 17 again, living with friends of my family and driving 45 minutes one-way to be an out-of-district student at Mr. High School's school. The drive meant a minimum of an hour and a half of radio listening per day--and that's not even taking into consideration the two and a half hour drive (one-way) to go home for the weekend. Some of those songs (like #28: "Fortress Around Your Heart" by Sting) are embedded in me at the cellular level, I'm pretty sure.

Some of those songs (like #23: "I Miss You" by Klymaxx) were included on the three-disc set "Sappy Crap Soundtrack," which I made for Mr. High School in early 2006, complete with a goofy set of liner notes explaining the deep significance of each song as it applied to my Crazy Crush on him senior year. The fact that we got to laugh together over the angst and insanity of 1985 in 2006 was a minor space-time continuum miracle in itself.

A few songs into the countdown today, Daughter-Only texted to let me know they were ready to be picked up. She normally has full control of the music in the van, especially when she has friends along, but RC is an '80s music fan so we had two votes and this was an unprecedented fold in the space-time continuum that might never happen again. To comfort Daughter-Only, I told her we would probably lose reception fairly quickly.

We didn't though--the station was still coming in clearly for #20: "Lovin' Every Minute Of It" by Loverboy. By this point, Daughter-Only was most assuredly not lovin' every minute of it.

She did, however, thoroughly enjoy the college's Open House program, especially the part where she and RC found themselves alone with two college girls who were acting as student guides. One of the guides said, "So, do either of you have any off-the-record questions?"

Daughter-Only and RC said they couldn't think of anything then the girl volunteered, "There are lots of bars in the area and it's really easy to get in. I use a man's ID."

The other one spoke up, "I use a Pokemon card."

You know, something like that would never have happened in 1985.

In 1985, it would have been a Garbage Pail Kids card.

*Respectively, Kate & Leopold, Timeline, and Back to the Future.

**The Walmart in Dunkirk, NY is a happening place on Saturday afternoon and my parking spot ended up being significantly less secluded than it was to start with. I woke up surounded by cars on all sides, no doubt driven by people who are now convinced they've seen a homeless woman sleeping in her van.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Honoring Sacrifice: A Tale of Two Mothers

Working at the flower shop in April of 2004, I was in a position to see a portion of the outpouring of sympathy, gratitude, and respect accorded the family of Marine Corporal Jason Dunham, a local boy who gave his life by throwing himself on a grenade in Iraq, thereby likely saving the lives of two of his squadmates. Perhaps it doesn't do to call a 22-year-old man who gave his life for others a "boy," and Dunham's last actions on this earth were certainly the actions of a courageous and mature man, but as the mother of three sons aged 23, 21, and 20, it's hard for me to see him as anything other than a boy in the same way I will probably still be referring to my own sons as "my boys" long after they have boys and girls of their own.

Corporal Dunham's mother, Deb, is a truly remarkable woman in many ways. I do not know her personally, but for the five years after Jason's death that the flower shop was still operating, orders would come in from all over the country for Jason's birthday and the anniversary of his death every year--people wanting his family to know he was not forgotten. On one of these deliveries, bearing several baskets and vases of flowers, I was met at the door by Deb who was holding a napkin full of still-warm chocolate chip cookies  for me to take back to the shop. It may seem an inconsequential thing, but something about that simple act of thoughtfulness on a day when many moms would've been curled up in a corner mourning their loss really touched and amazed me.

In the years after his death, Corporal Dunham was publicly memorialized in numerous ways. The post office in his hometown is now the Corporal Jason L. Dunham Post Office. A naval destroyer bears his name as do various facilities on military bases around the country. In January 2007, Corporal Dunham was awarded the Medal of Honor--only the second soldier to receive the Medal for actions in the Iraqi War and the first Marine to receive it since Vietnam.

Corporal Dunham's mother has been present at various ceremonies honoring Jason over the years and she has done many print and on-camera interviews in various venues, including for a short documentary on the Marine Corps site. Without exception, Jason's mother has behaved with amazing dignity, grace and generosity while bearing one of the worst burdens a mother can bear.

I admire her strength and really see her actions as a way of honoring the sacrifice her son and so many soldiers like him have made for our country, but there have been times when I wondered how I would've handled myself in a similar situation. 

The footage of the ceremony where Deb Dunham received the Medal of Honor from then-President George W. Bush especially made me think. This was at a time when doubts were steadily spreading about the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Iraq. Those alleged WMD's had been the rationale for our presence in Iraq to begin with and not only had they not been discovered nearly four years into our involvement there, new information was emerging with some regularity that indicated many in the administration had known all along that the intelligence behind the WMD theory was faulty.

I had had my doubts about Bush and his motives in Iraq and elsewhere long before that point. If I had been in the position of standing next to him to receive an honor for my dead son, would I have been able to take comfort in the President's apparent appreciation of my son's sacrifice? Would I have nobly accepted the award being offered on behalf of a grateful nation?

Under the influence of such a loss, would I have been able to restrain myself from asking impertinent questions about the "cause" my son had died for? Would anything other than the presence of the Secret Service have been able to prevent me from calling the President of the United States a murderer and a liar directly to his face?

There was another mother who lost her son in April of 2004. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan was killed in Iraq when the Humvee he was driving was ambushed. His mother, Cindy Sheehan, chose a different--and some would say much less dignified--path than Deb Dunham did. Within a few months of her son's death, Cindy embarked on a path of anti-war activism that included the hyper-publicized "Camp Casey" in August 2005 during which Cindy set up camp a few miles from President Bush's ranch in Texas, demanding a face-to-face meeting with Bush so that he could explain what "noble cause" her son had died for. Cindy waited there for nearly four weeks and was never granted that meeting, but she did not go away quietly and continues "speaking truth to liars" (the tagline of her current website "Cindy's Soapbox" ).

Along the way, Cindy has weathered many criticisms--she has been accused often of being unpatriotic and of dishonoring her son's memory with her protests of our government's actions. This strikes me not only as an incorrect assertion, but an absolutely ridiculous one. Cindy has been vehement in taking advantage of the very rights and freedoms her son--and thousands and thousands of others--died to protect. She has done so at great personal cost not only to herself, but no doubt to the rest of her family as well. She has been arrested many times--including as recently as last month.

Do I agree with every idea Cindy Sheehan has put out into the world in the eight years since her son died (especially some of her most recent thoughts)? Not by a long shot. Do I think all of her methods are the most effective available? Also, no. Do I believe her actions are her sincere efforts to honor rather than dishonor her son's sacrifice? Absolutely.

If our soldiers are going to continue to fight and die, isn't one way of honoring them to continue to ask those in power how, exactly, these sacrifices our soldiers are asked to make will protect our nation and its citizens? If the places our soldiers are asked to fight and the actions they are asked to take seem only indirectly and incomprehensibly related to the safety of our nation, are we not entitled to a full accounting of how these efforts will make us safer?

It is not only possible to support the troops and still question the government, it is in some ways the most meaningful and long-lasting support we can give.The notion that our soldiers fight and die to protect our freedoms but that by exercising those freedoms we are somehow dishonoring our soldiers is absurdly un-American.

Deb Dunham and Cindy Sheehan are two mothers who chose to honor their sons in wholly different, but equally valid, ways. Today, my thoughts are with not only those lost sons, but with their mothers as well.

To all those men and women who fought and are fighting still, here's the thing: That America you're fighting for is a complicated place; the gratitude of your fellow citizens sometimes comes in some messy packages. May your sacrifices never be forgotten or taken for granted.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Mother's Wisdom Is A Precious Thing*

After work tonight, I pull into the driveway to pick up Daughter-Only, who wants to go to the store for an emergency beverage stock-up. We are bereft of beverages here, unless you count water from the tap or fruit juice from the fridge, which Daughter-Only most certainly does not.

In any case, my job is only 5 minutes from my home, not enough time for my van's antique heating system to begin blowing anything approaching hot air and the temperature has dropped significantly since I went into work so I am dressed inadequately and shivering uncontrollably when Daughter-Only joins me in the van, also dressed inadequately and already beginning to shiver uncontrollably as well.

She immediately turns the blower up as high it will go. I say, "It's only going to blow cold air harder if you do that."

She says, "If I turn it up, it will get hotter faster."

"Uh, I don't think it really works that way."

She loudly mock-whines, "YES! IT DOES!"

I say, "Daughter-Only, saying something louder does not make it any more true."

I think there are lots of people in this world who could really stand to learn that lesson, but we'll talk about teenage girls and conservative talk radio hosts another time.

*Based on Daughter-Only's logic, that should read: A MOTHER'S WISDOM IS A PRECIOUS THING

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Speaking of Parentheses (We Were...Yesterday)

A longish quote from one of my favorite authors, Sarah Vowell from her book Take The Cannoli: Stories From The New World:

"Phone rang. It was Dave, a writer friend. We talked for over an hour, mainly about punctuation. He has big plans for the ellipsis. He's mad for ellipses. I tell him, yeah, I have similar affection for the parenthesis (but I always take most of my parentheses out, so as not to call undue attention to the glaring fact that I cannot think in complete sentences, that I think only in short fragments or long, run-on thought relays that the literati call stream of consciousness but I like to think of as disdain for the finality of the period). Dave is trying to decide whether he wants there to be a space before or after the ellipsis. He's unsure. Is the ellipsis powerful because of what is not said after the dot dot dot or is it a cheap excuse for not being able to verbalize? Conversely, do we parentheticals want to communicate by cramming more in, thus slapping what we're not saying in between what we are, officially, saying? Or is it because we can't decide?"

First of all, an hour-long conversation about punctuation? How the hell do I get invited to that? Because, honestly, I feel like what's missing in my life is extremely in-depth discussions of punctuation and other literary-related things.

Secondly, I, too, am a "parenthetical." (Though I never knew we had a name until I read this passage.) This is especially true in my spiral notebook journal and in long, babbling letters I used to plague friends and family with back in the days before e-mail, Facebook, and affordable long distance phone calls.

In one particular letter, which, without exaggeration, I am pretty sure was 15 or more pages long, I had parentheses within parentheses in all sorts of complicated configurations and completely lost control of the situation and accidentally closed a set too soon. I noted to Youngest Sister, the oh-so-fortunate recipient of my massive missive who was away at college at the time (probably learning to use parentheses with discretion and restraint), that I had had a "premature parenthejaculation." Even completely alone at approximately 1:45 a.m., I laughed so hard at my wit that I was wheezing a little before I finally got it together.

Here on the blog, I try mightily to restrain myself--though I all too often replace my parentheses with footnotes. Some evidence of what happens when the efforts at restraint fail can be found here. (That post also happens to illustrate pretty clearly what it's like inside my brain most of the time. Try not to be jealous.)