Saturday, July 21, 2018

The House Tale: a Story to Tell the Grandchildren

Once upon a time, Bobo, when you were very new and our six-year-old Josh carried you around everywhere... 

--Josh's stepdad Pete and I decided to buy a home.

We were probably daffy to do it, but we wanted it very badly, and somehow or other we managed to get a down payment together and move in to a rickety old house built in 1914, halfway between St. Paul and Minneapolis on the St. Paul side.

Our son grew up in that house, but we grew up too. We insulated the attic bypasses, painted the walls, pulled up carpeting and refinished some of the floors and fixed the porch, which was sagging and wet.

We helped you with homework and science projects, laughed, shared stories, danced, played games, hosted a salamander, hamster and cat, buried the salamander and hamster in the back yard, cooked dinners mostly for us but sometimes for others, curled up and read, watched TV, exercised, laughed some more, worried, talked through family anxieties, fought, made up, and sometimes fought again. Mostly, though, (if you ask me), we had a very jolly home.

There were beautiful wood built ins, tons of closet space, a huge master bedroom and a secret skeleton closet. We put a lifesize (plastic) skeleton in there, and I think he/she felt at home. Your owner got a skin rash while playing in there when he was nine, but that kept him from going back inside. I think the skeleton liked being alone.

We also had to fix up the front and back walks, which were sinking and settling; water proof the basement; and eventually, lift the sagging old house almost three inches because the wood beams in the basement had sunk into the concrete. THAT was expensive and it was the last thing we did.

And, almost forgot, but we added a half bath upstairs and fixed the garage, which looked like a sugar shack when we moved in. By the time we left, Bobo, I was tired and wanted to stop spending time and money on the old house, no matter how much I loved it.

We put it up for sale a year ago, and got no takers, because it tilted some and people were afraid there was a foundation issue. (There wasn't.) We got the lifting done and then put it up for sale again, and this time it sold within 24 hours, for $15,000 more than the asking price.

I was happy and then scared and then sad, all at once. I was ready to go somewhere new, but I wished I could take my old house with me; because after 20 years of living in it, the house felt like a second skin.

I was scared of trying to find a new house because there's a lot less of them for sale than there used to be, and the prices are inflated (even more this year than last) and you have to put an offer in almost immediately.

So for a while, STRESS was pretty much where I lived, Bobo, and I have also worried about you, packed away with other stuffed animals in Josh's hamper. I hope you are OK and want you to know we'll be coming for you, soon, because you are among the handful of kid stuff we decided to keep.

My son found you in the Red Balloon bookstore, while someone was reading Where the Wild Things Are, and because YOU were a wild thing he wanted to take you home. I was a single mom and fought against it, but my son had a knack for persistence, (which is a good trait for sons of single moms). So after a few weeks, we brought you home, and I still don't know why he named you Bobo. But when Pete came to live with us, we got a companion Wild Thing for you -- and as you know, she is with you still.

I think what I'm trying to say, Bobo, is that buying a house is like opening a door to a million stories, and each one layers itself into YOUR story, and that's what makes it such an adventure.

But it takes a while to find the house you really need. Our first house pretty much told us as soon as we walked into it that it needed to be ours. Stenciled cows bordered the kitchen ceiling (though we've since taken them off before selling). Wallpaper roses ringed the dining room ceiling, and all the wood everywhere made me feel like I was in a farmhouse on the edge of the prairie, even though I wasn't at all.

This year, we found another house, not quite as old, that stood out among all the other houses we were seeing. Mind you, I was trying to find a house I didn't have to spend a lot on to fix up, and wanted something on the Minneapolis side of things.

Instead, I walked into a house built in 1957, a mile east of our old St. Paul home, with warrens of rooms in the basement and quirky little features everywhere, that looks out on a beautiful lake. And even though it was clear we'd have to do a lot of fixing, your owner's stepdad and me just couldn't resist.

So when we pick you up again, you'll be in a whole new world, waiting for brand new adventures. And I guess, Bobo, that's how it was always meant to be.

Wild Things creature: Nadya Peek

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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Who IS that Mad Woman in the Attic

I read Jane Eyre in my teens (I think) and remember liking it very much, though not as much as Wuthering Heights. I think Emily Bronte was just such a strong writer and her work was so intense and haunting - and very hard to match by anyone else, in her family or outside of it.

Jane Eyre has stayed with me too, mostly because of Rochester's first wife Bertha -- the madwoman in the attic. I always thought there was more story there than Charlotte Bronte was telling - even if I couldn't figure out why. I think my first experience with "mad women" came through this book - and then others seemed part of the archetype we've been fed over the years.

What sent Bertha into madness? In the book her illness is said to be hereditary and there is very little explanation, which would be in keeping with the attitude toward mental illness in Bronte's time. She is mostly portrayed as a creature to be feared, and an obstacle to Jane's happy marriage with Rochester.

I understand that we are in a different time and when Charlotte was writing, people with mental illness were treated terribly and there was very little understanding of what was going on. In 1847, when this book was written, I know women had very few options, and I've come to think of the "madwoman" in literature as women trying to be free. That may be a cliche by now, but it still rings true.

I also wonder why Rochester makes a lot of excuses for himself as to why he married Bertha. He says he married her quickly and was never in love, though later he contradicts himself and says he did love her. I can't help but feel that Rochester's treatment of his wife tells us a lot more about him than Jane wants to admit.

And part of me wants to say "Run!!!!"   :)

I read The Wide Sargasso Sea some time ago, but never realized it was in fact about Rochester's first wife, so am planning to read it again. I can't help but feel there may be a play in there (if it hasn't already been written).

Also can't help feeling that all the Brontes had some familiarity with mental illness -- and that Emily does the most spectacular job of writing about compulsions, violence in families, obsession and love. Will have to write about that in a future blog.

When I get done with thinking about Rochester's first wife.

Woman in Turban: Rennett Stowe

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sick Days

It's been a long time since I was too sick to go to school, but I remember my "recovery" days when I got to lay on the couch and watch TV. My mom didn't work so it was fairly easy to stay home... and I am sure she never had the guilt I felt on work days when my son was ill.

I was lucky enough to be able to work part time when my son was growing up, but some of those days meant being in the office from 9 to 2:30 or 3. Some days when Josh was sick, his dad was able to watch him and some I was able to stay home.

It's not an easy thing to navigate though, especially for parents who work full time. It's easier with work-from-home options on computers - but that doesn't work for everyone. When my son was small, there was a day care option for sick children, but I never used it. I guess I worried that by going there, my kid would be around other sick kids and get even more germs.

The best solution I found was finding people to take care of my son if I had to go work - people I knew well and trusted. I didn't have family nearby, but the people I knew became family, and that helped me feel a lot less guilty when I had to get to the office and knew it would be a while before I could return to my sick child.

Without the wonderful, cheerful, generous people who came to stay with my son -- sometimes on very short notice -- I honestly don't know where I'd be right now. You deserve much, much more than I paid you - and many more thanks as well.

Most of all I want to thank the incredible Katherine, for  being with Josh on many occasions when I had to be out and about, whether my son was well or ill; for teaching him to love football; and for the magical way you have with children everywhere. You are the reason I have far less guilt than I could have had. 

You made my son comfortable, safe and secure - and you made him laugh. You helped me get his fevers under control and called if something looked suspicious. 

You were his guardian angel when I couldn't be. I will always be grateful. Thank you.

For more on strategies for working parents with sick children, I found these articles, just for you:

The Working Parent's Guide to Dealing With Sick Kids

Two Working Parents, One Sick Kid

3 Mistakes Working Moms Make When Their Kids are Sick

Parent & child photo: cheriejoyful

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Saturday, June 30, 2018


Where would you live if you could live anywhere?

My husband would say California. I see the appeal, and could definitely spend a few months there every year. But my heart would bring me back east, and though I love New York, I would probably choose... Boston.

What? Am I really saying that?

I am.

Boston imprinted itself on me when I was very young, and my sister spent her first year of college there. I remember driving up from New York with my family in early September and being impressed at how brisk the air was, while at home it was still summer. I remember my sister's dorm room with students dashing around, and saying to myself that when I was old enough to go to college, this is where I'd go.

After spending a summer in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon, I fell in love with the school and tried to go; but my mother, who was hell-bent on not spending college money for me to graduate acting school, refused to let me apply. After a bruising battle, I was able to convince her to let me major in "theater education." That sent me back to Boston.

I applied to Emerson College and was accepted there. And once I left, I never looked back. Boston had pretty much everything I wanted. I loved the school, and all the city's students gave it an energy you just couldn't find anywhere else.

There was music, concerts, theater, bookstores and pretty little shops on Beacon Hill; farmer's markets, the Commons, the beautiful Charles. The beautiful old buildings reminded me of pictures of London. I found great friends and my favorite bar in the world when I moved across the river to Cambridge. 

The Plough and the Stars was always full of people and had the best Irish whiskey in the world. I went there almost every day and on St. Patrick's Day, when there was a long line to get in, they pulled me inside when I knocked and told the astonished people behind me, "She's a regular."

I even met a wonderful boyfriend and friend there one night, and both became important relationships for the next year or two. When my relationship with the boyfriend ended, I was still able to commiserate with friends at the Plough--and recover by acting in a leading role in a play by a well-known witch from Salem.

What I remember most was how beautiful each season was, the depth of my friendships, parties almost every weekend and the playwrights and actors who journeyed with me through our budding careers. And when we were tired of the city, we found our way to Cape Cod, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, and all of those places were spectacular in ways even San Francisco cannot match.

My friend Kathleen was from Vermont. If you asked her about where she went to school in Ohio and what it was like there, she would say, "It's pretty if you haven't seen New England." I would still have to agree.

So if I could live anywhere, it would be  this city. I know it likely won't be as I remember it; but there would still be enough, I think, to make me happy. It's doubtful I will get back there, but the city I chose in the Midwest has enough of Boston in it to satisfy me. 

And one day, soon, maybe, I'll figure out a way to visit, especially as a close friend recently moved to Lee in western Massachusetts. Some cities just call to you.

This one always will.

Boston photo: Icelight

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Saved by the Book

I was 19 and living in Boston; it was the middle of summer. I was starting to realize my boyfriend had been making me miserable for quite some time and I needed to do something about it.

I was also starting to read J. R. R. Tolkein's trilogy Lord of the Rings. And for some reason, the book gave me courage to do what I hadn't been able to do for almost three years.

The story of Frodo the hobbit's journey to the darkest place on earth, accompanied by friends and adventurers and elves and dwarves was not only riveting; it woke me up to my own ability to face down the demons that were plaguing me.

There were many. Anorexia, depression, and an endless anxiety (that I still battle today).

When one of the fellowship said they had lost hope, the character called Strider replied, "We must do without hope; we must gird ourselves and go on."

I loved that line, because it was hopeful in itself. Going on means you don't give up; you believe there is a light at the end of whatever tunnel you're digging through and you keep trying to get there.
I loved how Frodo's Uncle Bilbo wanted to stay in his comfortable shire and got pulled into a terrifying adventure that involved a huge dragon he had to slay; and that throughout all the books, hobbits talk longingly of home, tea and sitting by the fire being cozy.

When I turned 20 and started my third year of college, my roommate and I were both reading the trilogy and quoting lines to each other. Years later, I tried to get my son interested in The Hobbit, but at seven or eight he was bored. He did like the Lord of the Rings movies made by Peter Jackson, but even those did not send him to the book.

So I never told him how the books saved me during a painful time and how they still do when I reread or think of them. I think it's easy to be cynical when people say thinks like "a book changed my life."

But if you've had the experience, you know how true that can be. I know when hope seems gone, it is still with us, invisibly. And I have Tolkein to thank for that.

Ring photo: idreamlikecrazy

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Long Game Summer

I was born in August, two days more than halfway through the month on the 17th. If I was in charge, I'd have picked June, but it doesn't matter. I will always be summer's child.

People who know me laugh sometimes that I choose to live in the Upper Midwest, where summers are short and quickly over. They don't know how I start counting summer in mid May and go straight through the start of October, no matter what the weather may be doing.  But they are right about summers being short.

Still, Midwestern summers are truly glorious because the rain makes the ground bloom with every sort of northern flower and the greens are as lush as anything Hawaii can offer. Houses too, look better in the dusk and porch light in June, when the lengthening day is almost over--but not quite.

Summer is a writer's season, because it knows the long game. Summer will wait as patiently as a cat for its shining moment and then shine as if it's going to forever.  It sings of lakes and swims and overpowering heat that promises to sweep you off your feet into a hammock.

Summer also brings pool parties and sandals, long grass, running rivers, secret talks and rekindled friendships you might think were gone but are not. It brings you time to walk at night and think of what you want to say, twice, again, a dozen times. It lets you play, and writers need to play more than anything.

The long game extends to baseball and golf, barbecues and sleeveless dresses. Cupcakes at birthday parties and ice cream cones after long, meandering walks.

Summer in the city. Summer in the country. I'll take it anywhere, and I will always remember it. As the longest day of the year approaches, I hold out my arms to catch it, smell and taste it, drink it in. Summer will never disappoint, no matter how long you have to wait for it.

Summer knows it's coming. And it knows, somehow, I'm here. When it does come, it will have my childhood memories wrapped inside it, unraveling them around  my shoulders and ears. Nights when I didn't want to go to bed and told myself stories. Mornings when the sun seemed like a new friend and brought me outside to dance.

Summer knows I'm waiting for it. Freckles, lawn mowers, iced coffee and waterfalls. It knows how the first summer of my engagement, neighbors complained that my fiance and I were kissing on the beach. It knows we still go out there periodically to kiss, neighbors or no.

The longest game will never stop playing. All we have to do is say yes to it, like Molly Bloom.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Elaine Lessons

My husband started watching the first episode of Seinfeld the other day, which made me remember how much I liked watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus' portrayal of Elaine. I'm partial to funny ladies anyway, but she's one of my most favorite characters and always will be.

Besides the funny, I loved Louis-Dreyfus's intelligence and fearlessness about the character's flaws. I also loved the look - one of the first women with thick, curly, non-dominant-culture straight hair - and her clothes too.

In fact, I based at least three quarters of my wardrobe on Elaine's fashion choices (for good or ill) and probably still do. Maybe it's the idea that Jewish women have curves? But longer skirts, peplum jackets and boots work for me in ways a lot of other stuff does not.

I also liked how Elaine and Jerry had a "thing" for a while and then break up, because the show would never have worked so well if they continued as a couple. Being friends allowed the characters to show us who they were and bounce off each other without romance gunking up our perceptions of them.

And, whether you liked her or not, Elaine was more like "us" than most TV heroines. She wasn't a Marvel hero or a doctor/lawyer or a CEO/ she didn't look like a model; and was so much more interesting than all of those fake characters we're spoon fed every day. Instead she was complicated, confused, anxious, intense, striving, failing and picking herself up again--like we do.

The fact that she was (or at least seemed to be) Jewish helped me identify with her a little more than other TV women too. But what I mostly learned from Elaine was what I try to tell myself when I'm depressed:
  • I don't need to look like women I don't look like
  • I look fine in the clothes I choose 
  • I don't have to be a doctor, lawyer or CEO 
  • Being a writer and playwright makes me happier than anything else would or could

And last but not least... role models don't need to be heroes. In fact, they're a lot more interesting when they're the opposite. 

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