Thursday, July 29, 2010

First Name, Second Chance

When Alex and I learned we were expecting Sophie, we had decided to surprise ourselves with the baby's gender. This of course was an invitation to anyone with a  penchant for predicting to guess what we were having.  "You have a fifty-fifty chance of being right," I told one stranger at a party. She looked at me very carefully from all angles and distances, and then said with bits of food flying from her mouth, "I definitely think boy."  This began a period of my life that seemed infinite, in which strangers felt comfortable sizing me up and then blurting out their answers based on scientific principles such as how "high" or "low" my belly was riding, or what kinds of foods I was craving.  "Really, you only have two choices, people," I told a group of German tourists outside of a Moe's Bagels in Denver.  By the end of my pregnancy, I had decided to bundle up in bulky clothing and claim that I was big-boned.

And then there was the "what are you naming it?" question.  At first, it was a question I enjoyed answering. Who wouldn't want to share such a thing, I wondered, until I figured out that there are people in the world intent on making sure that you don't screw everything up by naming your kid something stupid, like Rose.  "Rose?" Guffawed one woman, screwing up her face. "You can't name your baby Rose."

"It was my grandmother's name, and she was born during the late 1800s. If my great-grandmother was free to name a baby Rose before women could vote, I think I can probably do it now." 

Rose was the name I had picked if we were having a girl. At least that's what I thought Alex and I had agreed to. As I found out two weeks before my due date, Alex thought I had been joking.  "You can't name a baby Rose," he said.

"Actually," I said, searching the kitchen for something poisonous to put in his dinner, "I'm just big boned."

By the time I left work on maternity leave, I had stopped sharing names with people. It was too much; it was like asking for their permission, or advice, and I try never to do either of those.  But mostly I had stopped sharing names after one of my co-workers asked me, "What are you going to name the baby if it's a hermaphrodite?" 

Two weeks overdue, and overdone, we had a girl.  Alex and I both agreed--amicably--on Sophie.  We never spoke about the Rose debacle again.

Two weeks ago, Sophie and I were having one of our legendary talks about life.  She was wondering if she and I could ever take a trip together, just the two of us. "Of course," I said. "We could be in Vegas in three hours from now."  But she said she would rather go to New York City. Stay in a penthouse and take in a play. "It's too bad Winter Garden cut Cats," she said.

"Who are you?" I said, "And what have  you done with my five-year-old?"

"And also, Mom?" she paused.  "I want to change my name."

"OK," I said, "to what?"

"To Rose," she said. (I'll bet you saw that coming.)

"I love it," I said, feeling a little dizzy. We raised our cups of juice and made a toast to Roses everywhere.  We didn't ask permission, we didn't ask forgiveness. We just took our Sharpies to the labels of her clothing and made it so.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Taking Hopelessness to the Airport

Recently I heard the author/artist SARK talk about how it's a good idea to acknowledge the weaker parts of ourselves, and maybe even (gasp!) let them show more often than we do. She said she had gone so far as to  take the part of her that felt hopeless out for a walk. "We didn't make it very far," she said, "because she was very tired. So we sat down in a field of flowers."

I wanted to take SARK's advice, but instead of taking the part of myself that feels hopeless for a walk, I think I'd like to take her to the airport, and put her ass on a plane that's taking off for someplace where they need that kind of thing. Like Disneyland, or maybe the Church of Scientology headquarters. They definitely have too much hope over there.

Not that I have anything against hopelessness, but I think we've already spent plenty of time together.  I'd like to drive her down Pena Boulevard, laugh together about the gigantic, blue, satanic horse, and take the "departures" exit. "Well, take it easy," I'd like to say, popping the trunk. "Thanks for coming, but you're needed over at Apple, then I'm sending you to Canada for a while." They could use a little despair just to even things out a little, balance stuff up out there in the great white north. (Take off! It's a beauty way to go...)

I like to imagine that, while we hug, my hopelessness asks me, "Whatever will you do while I'm gone?"
"I guess the same thing I did while we were together all the time. Whatever I want."

I will want to worry about her when she starts a tour of the California state university system, but then she'll send me a postcard of herself standing in front of the Sigma Chi house at Berkeley, and I'll know I've done the right thing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Series of Cryptic, Anonymous Messages to People You Don't Know

Dear You,
Technically speaking, the question, "Can you work later than usual this week?" is a yes or no question. The fact that you chose to answer "yes" is your problem.

Dear You,
Sure, I feel bad hiding some of my possessions from you, but I would feel worse discovering that you had ruined them.

Dear You,
Don't give up on me. Someday I'll figure out how to be myself all the time without apologizing for it.

Dear You,
Would it kill you to clean up after yourself?

Dear You,
Sometimes I feel like cleaning up after myself will kill me.

Dear You,
Turning down my business by explaining that what you do is "very high end" isn't as polite--or as descriptive--as you seem to think it is. Telling me that your service is too good for me without even asking what my budget is makes me feel like Julia Roberts' character trying to shop on Rodeo Drive in the movie Pretty Woman. (And we all know how that turned out.)

Dear You,
You're a lot louder than you think you are. I only say that because when you speak, I want to claw my own ears off.

Dear You,
Thank you for giving me a chance.

Dear You,
Thanks for reading my blog.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Art Proudly*

If I had to decide what I missed about working a real day job during my years as a home office freelancer, I would say with all certainty that it's the amenities. Sure, being able to steal office supplies is nice, but that's not what I mean.  I missed the little classes, the seminars, the workshops all provided for free, under the philosophy that, employees who are also fulfilled people will contribute more to the company, longer.

Whether you believe that's true is irrelevant. But I missed the little seminars and talks that were provided to me by some entity at no charge, and now that I work in an academic setting, the pickings are even better than your garden variety corporate time management class.  After all these years of working in a vacuum, I feel like a whole new world of knowledge has been stuffed into tiny, poorly air conditioned conference rooms, and served up for me and whomever else has a free hour and the desire to consume as many as three different kinds of refreshments. It's a beautiful thing.  I say that, of course, after only seven months or so on the job, but let's let pessimism court itself for a while.

I've already been to talks on the future of digital publishing, parenting, conflict management, and today's gem: Art therapy.  It's my favorite so far, hands down (scroll down for the pun). Today, a little slip of a young art therapist taught us the restorative properties of creating mandalas, an ancient and sacred art form known for its healing properties.  Under her gentle tutelage, we took a crash course in the mandala--Sanskrit for "circle"--and its origins before getting the chance to make our own.  "Try not to think about it too much." she said, as a latecomer came in and took the last seat next to me. "Remember, you can't get it wrong,"

As we all got down to work with pieces of black paper and white pencils, the woman next to me mumbled and fidgeted with her supplies. She adjusted and readjusted her chair. "I don't think I can do this in front of everyone," she said.

At last, she put some scribbles down on paper, and asked the therapist if it was OK to look at other people's work. "Of course," she said. "And if you see something you like, try it yourself." It's the way inspiration works, she said. "Sometimes the most personal image is the one that's copied."

At the end of the class, everyone held up their art, except for the nervous woman next to me; she left early. Everyone looked proud, and restored, and totally psyched about the leftover lemonade.  Here's mine. I can't wait to take it home and finish it--in secret, of course, as any art supplies in eyeshot immediately become the property of a certain five-year-old who is already proud to make art in the presence of anyone who will sit in the same room. 

*See also: Fart Proudly, by Benjamin Franklin.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Like Pulling Teeth

Last weekend, Sophie lost her second tooth.  I pulled it for her, after she had worked on it for maybe a few hours, tops. She jiggled and wiggled it through half of Where the Wild Things Are. 

"This movie is boring," she said. "Will you pull my tooth out for me?"

"Of course," I said, "I'd be happy to." 

I grabbed a paper towel and  a cup of salt water, and a few seconds later, I held what looked like a tiny kernel of corn between my thumb and forefinger. "What are you going to do with it?" I asked.

Sophie put her hands on her hips, cocked her head and said, "What do you think?"

The outsider wouldn't know it, but this is big progress for everyone. Sophie's first loose tooth was the source of some complicated feelings. Afraid of how much it would hurt to pull it all the way out, she left it dangling for so long that it started to turn black. "What if I don't want to grow up?" she asked me.

Afraid to pain anyone further that night, I delegated the dirty work to Alex, who took a paper towel, and after much cajoling, put it over her tiny incisor. He gave it a tug upward and outward. One giant leap for maturity. "Go look in the mirror!" we said. Knowing that children in these situations take their cues about how to feel from the adults around them, we tried our best to look deliriously happy. I felt like fainting.

Sophie ran, crying all the way, to the bathroom, holding her tooth in the paper towel.  She bared her bleeding gums, and exhibited every human emotion there is all at the same time. She was, to use the modern parlance that refers to the physical manifestation of psychic multitasking, "a hot mess." She smiled and laughed and looked like she had just won the Olympics. "Oh my God," she said, glowing with pride.

"Congratulations," I said. We hugged in the bathroom, she bled on my shirt. "You did it," I said, wiping her lip. My girl.

Hours of deep conversation followed after that. What did it all mean? Why does everything always have to change? Why does it have to hurt? Why is it so scary? And should she surrender her tooth to the Tooth Fairy, or hold on to it? "I'd like to think about it for a while," she decided just before bed, and said she planned to seek the counsel of her peers at camp the next day.  I imagined her holding something between a Quaker consensus meeting and focus group at the arts and crafts table the next day.  "The nexth order of buthineth is my mithing tooth.  All in favor of trading it in for a dollar thay aye."

And so on the eve of losing her second tooth, which I didn't even know was loose in the first place, I did the honors in Alex's absence.  Afterward, we two old pros went to the park to give Sohpie's gums some air.

Already today a glimpse of enamel is peeking through the space.  Progress. And so the clock returns to ticking down to the next thing that makes us all cry for a bit, while we wonder--in futility--when the world will hold still long enough for us to stop growing up.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Taoist Mother

Just when I think there's nothing new for my mom to teach me, she reinforces the fact that, although I'm in my 40s and a mother myself, there are still deceptively simple lessons to be learned and re-learned again.

I come from an all-news-all-the-time upbringing, which might explain the bomb shelter I designed and depicted in a diorama for my sixth grade art fair. (I still believe that the only reason I won is because the other entries were either stolen or pornographic.)  And not only was the news always on, it was on at ear-splitting levels, so that there was never any escaping the crime waves, the plane crashes, the floods, fighting, and financial crises that were sweeping the nation at any given moment.

From the day I moved out of my parents'  house, I decided never to watch the news again. And, as it turned out, I didn't need to. Because the second something big, bad, or baffling happened, my mom would be on the phone, making sure I was informed.  Of course, the Interwebz eventually complicated everything, with its urban myths and chain letters urging recipients to beware the new computer virus that would delete your recipes for potato salad, the killer that was hiding in your back seat, the cockroach that hatched inside a woman's tongue. Mom was calling me daily for several years with one form of bad news or another, until one day, I finally snapped.

"I just thought  you should know," she said on a spring day in 2008, "that there's a man at the hospital who says he has a bomb strapped to his body."
"Why would I need to know that?" I scolded.
"Well, in case you're driving that way, the road might be closed," she said in her defense.
When I asked her when she was going to ever call me with good news, she said she would try to come up with something more cheerful. A few hours later, called again.  "Good news!" she chirped. I could hear the pride in her voice, and so I asked her what she had for me.

"They shot the guy with the bomb."  Determined to turn things around, I said, "Then I guess it's a good thing he was already at the hospital."

It's no story of the Taoist Farmer, but it's true and it's mine, and it's a testament to my mother's wisdom, whether it's intentional, channeled, or accidental. I've been thinking a lot about my family lately, and how it's going to change and move and shift, as families do after the loss of one of its members, and I cling to this memory as proof that we're all going to be fine. Story at 11.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I haven’t written anything, anything at all, in at least six months. In fact, I’m thinking about quitting writing altogether, but I have no idea who accepts these types of resignations. Perhaps this is the thing that keeps some writers going: There’s no one to quit to. When I retrace my steps to what brought me here, it doesn’t look so terrible on paper, and yet, I consider this last year an exercise in finding out what I’m made of. So far, whatever it is doesn’t smell anything like teen spirit.

Last September my daughter Sophie went to Kindergarten. The only thing I remember about her first day of school is trying not to hurl while watching her get on the bus. In December, I accepted an offer for a full-time job I didn’t know I was being considered for. I was happy to take the work, as I was eager to start meeting people who don’t have pink eye or strep. I did, however, make sure to get pneumonia just before starting. In March, I quit working out. I decided it would be easier to buy bigger clothes than make it to the gym. In April, I turned 41. In February, my dad became seriously ill, and in May he died after a 60-year battle with a disease he didn’t even know he had. June was a blur, and here we are in July. Pretty soon I’m going to need more new clothes.

This is how it happens, isn’t it? I had big dreams, big aspirations that have shrunk and decayed over time, and now even the smallest of those little goodies seems unattainable. Grad school, authorship, a real career, some kind of entrepreneurial pursuit: I’m losing sight of how any of these things are possible. So I’ll keep doing what I’m doing: the laundry, the dishes. I will keep coming to work in the morning, and leaving sometime later. I will take care of Sophie. I will wear a rubber mouthpiece to bed that keeps me from clenching my jaw hard enough to break my own teeth. Learning to knit has been fun. I’m due for a mammogram! And maybe I’ll just start writing something—something smaller than an essay but bigger than a tweet—every single day. Maybe it’ll be fun, and if it isn’t, I can always quit. I think.

Jody A. Reale