My brother’s Kansas Picture Bride and I arranged for a late birthday celebration for the two of us. Kansas and I use any excuse to get our families together when our schedules calm down, which is rare, seeing as Kansas is in nursing school, having a rip roaring time with studies that include studying cat cadavers. She’s a farm girl, so she’s not squeamish and she tells it like it is no matter what we’re eating.
Since we tend to discuss things like cat cadavers with Kansas, no point going for a highbrow establishment for our birthday dinner. We’re usually laughing so hard that our stomachs hurt, so why waste money on haute cuisine? If I even mentioned haute cuisine, Kansas would give me the Heimlich, thinking I had something caught in my throat. Kansas has taught me many things since she moved to our moldy shores, such as the wonder and necessity of Velveeta. Kansas also cured my brother the Agitator* of Vegetarianism. They hang you for less in her home state.
So we chose the Olive Garden. In Lynnwood. I wouldn’t recommend taking a person with any hint of dementia to the Olive Garden in Lynnwood. They would be disoriented, because they could be anywhere. They might think they were in New Jersey, or Ohio, or Indiana.
If the economy’s tanked, there was no sign of it at the Olive Garden on a Saturday night. They don’t take reservations, but the host on the phone had said they didn’t get busy until 6:00, so we figured 5:15 was early enough to beat the rush. 5:15 for me of course meant 5:00, at which time the Little Monster and I arrived to find people spilling out the door to stand in line for fifteen dollar spaghetti. (I continue to expect bland places, replicated like guppies by the hundreds in bland neighborhoods across our country, to have bland prices.) Our wait time was projected to be 20 minutes. Although the Little Monster had groused a bit that his Momster was getting us there so gosh darned early—again—he was thrilled to hold the flying saucer that would vibrate and light up when it was our turn. The flying saucer made no sense, since the host also yelled out our name when it was our turn, but it kept LM happy, so what the heck.
Kansas and the Agitator arrived early and helped us pass the time, so we were warmed up for good conversation by the time we were guided to our table. We were so merry, laughing and talking, that we could have been filmed for an Olive Garden commercial. Except we’re not blonde and thin. But, gosh, free bread sticks are such a gas! Everyone else at the Olive Garden was ecstatic about their free bread sticks, too, so it was pretty loud in there.
Of course 5:15 for the Man I Married, who was meeting us there, meant 5:30. When I phoned him to ask where he was, he said I told him 5:30.
I asked if I should order for him. Sure, he said. Order anything. He didn’t care.
Really? Hm. I got that feeling. You know the one. The Bad Marital Scene About to Happen Because I Know I Am Going to F&ck This Up Even Though He Said ‘Anything’ Feeling (otherwise known as the BMSAHBIKIAGFTUETHSAF). I called him back. “Can you give me a general category? Chicken? Pasta?”
“No pasta,” he said.
“We’re at a PASTA RESTAURANT and you just said order anything. Anything at a pasta restaurant generally involves pasta.”
“No noodles. Anything else, though. And you did say 5:30gottagobye.”
I ordered him ribs, which he approved of when he arrived. Marital harmony saved by listening to the BMSAHBIKIAGFTUETHSAF.
I was a vegetarian for many more years than the Agitator, even, but something about sitting with Kansas brought out the snarling carnivores in us. We both ordered steak. Atop a bed of pasta.
Kansas and I were the only ones at the table drinking wine, so of course, being sisters now, our conversation got intimate. In fact, we started discussing intimates, or lack of wearing intimates. The Little Monster was across the big table, focused on a computer game that the Agitator had wisely brought along for his amusement, but he perked up. “WHAT DID YOU SAY? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” he yelled, knowing as all kids do the instant the conversation turns to something interesting amidst all of the boring adult droning.
“Nothing,” I said. I said to the Agitator, thinking the Little Monster wouldn’t know the term, “We’re just discussing Going Commando.”
“NOT WEARING UNDERWEAR?” the Little Monster shouted.
“How did you know about Going Commando? Who taught you that?” I snapped.
“I don’t know. We just say Going Commando.”
“Saying Going Commando is NOT appropriate,” I said. “Only adults can say Going Commando. Only at the Olive Garden in Lynnwood. Never for kids to say at school.”
The Agitator sat between us during this exchange, looking back and forth at us like a spectator at a tennis match. At its close, he said to me, “I have no idea what you all were just saying. I just kept hearing something about garbanzo beans?”
Say it out loud:
Going Commando. Garbanzo Beans.
I get it. At least the garbanzo part.
We all laughed so hard we about pumped our own stomachs (which would have helped with my caloric intake count), and then we moved on to discussing farts. When the Little Monster was out of earshot, of course.
*The Agitator can stir things up, or, like a washing machine, he can get the scum out.
I said to a friend last week that I still don’t know who the Little Monster is.
This is because the Little Monster himself doesn’t know who he is. He was too many things to too many people for the first two-thirds of his life, and now for the last third of his life he’s something different for us. He wears too many labels. He has a 2000-page case history documenting what he is and how he got to be that way. But it says nothing about who he is.
As his Momster, my job is—as much as is possible amidst the constant “use a spoon instead of your finger” guidance—to stay out of his way as he discovers himself. The essential Little Monster at his core. Not whether he wants to grow up to be a fireman or a pole dancer, but his true nature.
The first year with us, just one word summed him up: ANGRY. But that’s no longer true.
I could say that he is loving, cheerful, and eager to please. But is that who he is? I believe it is, but perhaps it’s another survival cape that he wears. Perhaps he’ll shuck it someday (likely when he’s a teenager) just as he did the anger.
I also think stubborn is a trait that’s likely to stick.
My father describes my mother and her forebears as stubborn (not framed as a compliment or an insult, but as a simple fact), so LM could easily be my genetic offspring with that characteristic, which I’ve learned to see in myself as positive. I was stubborn enough to stick with the Little Monster during that ANGER year, for instance.
But I see glimpses and glimmers of the blue-blooded prince beneath his confused camouflage.
This year I got lazy and labeled all of the macadamia nut goodies myself, whereas I usually have the Little Monster address them—an arduous, painstaking task that can seem more painful and longlasting than a bladder infection. I think sitting down to address the gifts, like making homemade cards, at least causes him to consider the notion of gratefulness—as much as any child is capable of feeling gratitude when all they really care about is what’s under the tree with their name on it. Doesn’t matter who it’s from and how it got there.
I’ve also helped him distribute the gifts into school mailboxes in the past. But this year I asked him if he was okay to pass out the chocolates himself, and he said yes. I thought, well, there’s going to be a boy throwing up in school today after eating fourteen boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.
But when he came home that night and I searched his backpack, as I always do, I found a list, handwritten in pencil on a piece of folder paper, entitled:
Under which he had copied out a list of the names from the candy labels. He had used his recess to hand deliver each box, checking off his list as he went.
So there I was doing my usual spot check on what he might have stolen. Perhaps expecting crinkled mac nut wrappers.
What he stole was my heart.
With what earnestness he had completed his task. Until that moment, EARNEST would not have occurred to me as a word to describe him. But the word loomed up in front of me as clear as DISTRIBUTION.
He’s an onion.
With each layer that peels back as he becomes comfortable and secure enough to become himself, he makes me cry.
I’m halfway through five different motorcycle memoirs right now: two by men, two by women, and one by a philosopher. I can’t seem to finish any of them. They’re scattered about my room, rather like the tools and parts you see strewn around a Harley. My writing-teacher friend Wendy says I’m going about market research for my own motorcycle memoir the wrong way. “You don’t actually read the whole thing!” she tsks to me. But I’m compelled to get to the end, like any book I read, though these motorcycle books don’t at all grab me and suck me in like a jeans hem caught in a bike chain.
I expressed my dissatisfaction with Charley Boorman’s Race to Dakar by blowing a strawberry in bed one night and turning off the reading light, then explaining to the Man I Married, “I just read two pages about the modifications to a BMW X5, which isn’t even a motorcycle. Who would want to read that boring tripe?”
MIM’s voice floated up out of the darkness, “Someone like Alan might cream his jeans reading those two pages. It’s all about audience.”
Too true about knowing your reader. But cream his jeans? So the male brain contains a switch in which he thinks he’s in a garage with his buddies and a can of Bud just by the mere mention of re-outfitting something with an engine. I wonder what I could hypnotize him into blurting out with juicy enchantments like the slow enunciation of double clutch or carburetor flush? Once this “classic” car is parked for the night, it usually stays put in the garage, but I might trick his reptilian brain into hot-wiring the ignition and getting some sparks flying by murmuring, “Cowl and chassis conversion.”
The fact of the matter is that there are very few motorcycle memoirs by women. Search “motorcycle women” on the internet and find mostly women sporting a silicone rack and not much else. Search “motorcycle women” on Amazon and find books like Wicked Women: Black Widows, Child Killers, And Other Women In Crime. Well, at least that would be way more interesting than reading about the monocoque construction of an X5. I know quite enough about monococks, thanks much.
I read 44 books last year. This isn’t so impressive considering that the books I read these days skew short. Often really really short. Slender with wide margins and spacious leading (but only one included pictures). Frankly, I’m more likely to begin a book that I know I stand a reasonable chance of finishing. My 44 books were probably the page-equivalent of two Franzen novels, three Barbara Kingsolvers, and an uplifting, inspiring, and motivational memoir optioned by Julia Roberts (so you can go see the movie if you can’t stomach reading through to the end). In fact, the novels I read nowadays used to be called novellas, because calling it a novel is the only way to convince someone to pay $17.95 plus tax for what is really a short story; the high price is worth it to be able to declare at a New Year’s Eve party, “I read 44 books this year. You?”
The biggest book I read by far was Outlander (656 pages), which also had the most sex of any book I’ve read in years, which was probably the only reason I finished it. Come to think of it, it’s the only reason I started it. My witty friend Ann fondled the cover in a bookstore, and she murmured that it was chock full of great sex, so of course I borrowed it from the library right away. It’s even more unlikely that I would finish a big library book. Usually they’re overdue before I start. Ann (now having an MBA and thus able to Solve for X-rated quite handily, though usually with the help of an X-cel spreadsheet) was spot-on about the carnal aspects of this weighty tome. Not just a glossing over of sex, but bursting at the tartan seams with sex, all involving a very big man in (or out of, as the case may be) an often hastily-doffed kilt. You can read this book in front of your children and tell them that it’s historical fiction in which you’re learning a great deal about 18th century Scotland. Open it up to show them a word like sgian dubh and rest assured you can leave it anywhere in the house without fear of them cracking it to discover what’s really under a kilt.
Bone to pick: The only Munro in a book rife with Scottish clans was a stinky, lame, wandering beggar dressed in blechy rags. Certainly no one the heroine wanted to see sans kilt. Come on, now, we Munros have a castle and a tartan, too!
I’ve repeatedly urged the Man I Married to purchase a Utilikilt, to which he replies, “Hell, no, I’d get my ass beat.” Has it occurred to him that I might be the one doing the spanking?
Besides not having the time to read big books, I also lack the biceps. The thought of propping up anything other than a brimming martini glass is about as enticing as the scary part of doing laundry, when I must blindly stick my hands into the Little Monster’s pants pockets to find what mysterious horror lurks there (and which he will later deny he had anything to do with).
I rarely, if ever, sat in a chair during daylight hours to read a book. Reading a book in front of the Little Monster is the silent, motionless equivalent of that guy with light-wands on the tarmac beckoning a Boeing jet of annoying behaviors to come hither now and pester me loudly and persistently. LM cannot stand it when I read. He would probably notice it less if I suddenly smoked a cigar while executing a Double Lutz. If I ever want him to stop doing anything, all I have to do is crack a book. Although he cannot hear me yell to him that it’s time to take out the recycling, he has bionic hearing for the sound of a page turning.
So I read 44 books in bed at night. That I’ve read so much in bed does not mean that I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, gripped by Shirley Jackson until midnight. It means that I go to bed at 7:45 and read until 8:59 if I really force myself. What usually stops me is not my eyelids drooping but my hands getting cold. See, nerds risk frostbite, too! Who needs to tackle Mt. Everest when one faces hypothermia resulting from lack of circulation atop one’s own mattress (while reading about people dying on Mt. Everest)?
Of those 44 books, 24 were library books, 16 books were purchased, and 4 were Kindle books (2 free, 2 purchased). I tried to reduce my book spending in 2010, which means that I ended up spending twice as much as I did in 2009, when I set no limits on myself. This is called the Diet Principle. Tell yourself that you will lose five pounds and you gain ten because the mere thought of deprivation drives you to Trader Joe’s to stock up on dark chocolate peanut butter cups. Tell yourself to buy fewer books and suddenly you must, absolutely must, acquire the collected works of Daphne du Maurier.
Of the 45 books I bought, I read 15. Here’s the exciting thing: 5 of the books I bought are by authors who are friends. How inspiring is that? Their book covers grace this blog, and congratulations to them.
The librarian cannot tell me how many books I borrowed in 2010, because of protection of privacy, but she could tell me that I had borrowed 2,922 items since they introduced their new computer system in 2003. This equals to my borrowing exactly 365 books per year for the last eight years, which confirms my long-espoused theory that my primary form of exercise is carrying library books (that I never read) up and down the hill. Although some of the 2,922 items might have been CDs or DVDs, trust me, most of them were books, of which I read a mere 6.5%. Clearly, I have higher aspirations than follow-through. I end up donating the books I buy but don’t read to the library, so it’s a handy closed system.
Only one of the 44 was a writing book (Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story, highly recommended). Only one was a parenting book (The Three Martini Playdate, but you probably guessed that, also highly recommended, particularly for its insistence that parents should have hobbies, a theme that is close to my heart and that I will explore in a future blog post, if I can ever take enough time away from my hobbies to write it). In my defense, I did watch a parenting two-DVD set and skim the accompanying book (Magic 1-2-3, recommended by our Harborview specialist, well worth it to learn the two biggest mistakes that parents make–can you guess what they are?).
Conclusions and Goals:
Finish my own damn book with the belief that it will be published, because my hard-working, persistent writing friends have proven that it can be done.
Read the sequel to Outlander.
Put no limits on my book spending, which means I’ll spend half as much.
Borrow twice as much from the library to lose ten pounds.
Write shorter blog posts so I have more time to pester MIM about that kilt.
(Yes, the savvy amongst you will note this makes more than five book covers by friends, but I must include Mary Guterson despite her book being a 2009 purchase. Books by Wendy Call, Donna Miscolta, and Sharon Cumberland coming in 2011. I should also mention recent books out by Lorraine Healy, Lana Hechtman Ayers, and Midge Raymond. Gee whiz, I’m lucky to be surrounded by such a motivating force of talent and willpower.)
Rather than looking ahead to goals and changes, I’m looking back to say thank you to the many people who have helped my family to remain a family as we near the 2.5-year mark with the Little Monster (a term of endearment that he loves, lest you worry that I’m traumatizing my eight-year-old, a job that was already efficiently dispatched by others, unfortunately). It truly does take a village. So much has gone right for us when initially it looked like so much was going wrong, that I’d like to express my gratitude to those who have been there for us—one kind, encouraging word can make a difference. I am a truly blessed and lucky person. Please excuse my effusive and repetitive use of adjectives in the list below, but they are all true, and sometimes a writer is simply forced to fling superlatives about.
To Kathy E, who gave us respite when we most needed a break and who was also wise enough to nudge us away when she knew we’d be okay without her. Kathy has inspired me to someday offer occasional weekend respite to parents (foster or otherwise). It is a necessary service that can make or break a family, but there is no one out there filling this gap. You may not know that foster parents are entitled to two 24-hour breaks from their children every month, but even living in the major metropolitan area that we do, there is no one who actually provides that service.
To all of our neighbors who help us to support LM and keep him safe, especially Melanie, who gives him books and biscotti and love.
To Julie Wicklund, who phoned me on her birthday to express her shock that anyone couldn’t “get” the difficult parenting job we face and to tell us that we are the best parents ever.
To Meredith, for saying, “I am so proud of you for what you’re doing with LM.” I don’t know why it’s so important to hear those words, but it is.
To Ellie and Doug, new friends who spoiled us rotten for a weekend at their “B & B.” As Ellie said when I expressed my surprise and gratitude at such lavish treatment, “Hey, I’m not raising a foster child and you are.” We were exhausted and needed a break, so thank you.
To Jackson for listening, and listening, and listening, especially during LM’s early days, when I wasn’t sure we’d make it (and I knew he wouldn’t judge and would keep on listening even if we didn’t make it). And he still listens and is always supportive of this journey, although surely it must bore him at times.
To Mindy and John, for our new family Christmas Eve tradition (which brought us our little dog) and for being part of Team LM.
To Aunt Margaret for hugging me and confessing two years after-the-fact, “When I first met LM, I didn’t want to say anything, but I was really worried for you. He’s looking so much better now.” And for the horseback riding.
To Tod, who drove me to the ER and took care of LM without LM ever knowing I was sick, and for his constant little gifts and attentions to LM, who adores him.
To Wendy, who gets it, and gets it, and gets it. And for inspiring me with her own unique and generous “adoption” of a child whose family needed support. And for Hot Wheels!
To Roger, for giving Max a peaceful end, a sporty last ride, and a pleasant resting place, and for taking my boys away for a weekend so that LM could feed calves. Holy House to Myself, Batman!
To my big bro Bob, who always understands with a laugh and a joke and who offers realistic but tough advice, and to Connie for being the best auntie a boy could hope to have, not to mention a sister-in-law who is more sister than in-law. Quite a bargain for a Kansas Picture Bride!
To my boss Bill, who gave me extra time off to support my family when he didn’t need to, and always offered a supportive ear and shoulder. To my co-worker who picked up extra work while I was gone and gives gifts to LM. To everyone at work who still regularly ask me how my son is doing and who give me advice, support, and encouragement.
To the tremendous “professional” team who support us and validate our every move: teachers, school counselors, social workers, therapist, psychologist, rock climbing instructors (funded by Treehouse), and daycamp counselors. If anyone can overcome a difficult beginning and go on to lead a successful life, it’s got to be LM, who despite early disadvantages has been blessed with this amazing foundation of support and constant guidance and reassurance and faith in him and us.
To Mac, for giving LM a place to roam and for lending an ear (and wisdom and encouragement and validation and even a tractor) to MIM.
To Seattle Center for all of the free/cheap entertainment that is much needed for families that don’t have a lot to spend. We’ve spent countless weekends there seeing all manner of ethnic singing and dancing, which helps to educate, inspire, and entertain LM at no cost. For kids growing up with constant electronic entertainment, it’s invaluable to be able to watch real humans perform and make art even if we can’t afford expensive kid’s theatre.
To the community center, another resource that I had no idea provided such incredible support to families. From Elaine at the front desk who gives dog books to LM and who helps us with billing difficulties, to the artists who paint their canvases every Tuesday all summer long for the kids to watch, to the free bread from Essential Baking and the free newspaper from Seattle Times (Sunday comics for LM!) and the free popcorn machine, and of course to the camp counselors who stuck with us even when they didn’t have to. Please support your local community center.
To the businesses who accept LM’s medical card. It was a real wakeup call to find out how few dentists or eyeglass shops accept foster kids (shame!).
To Treehouse, an amazing funding program that allows LM to learn rock climbing every week.
Again to Tutu (see 12/15/10 Mele Kalikimaka post) and Granddad, who have always supported my dreams and goals. I hope to do the same for LM.
To the Little Monster himself. No child should have to work as hard as he does, and he inspires me daily with his cheerfulness, optimism, resolve, generosity, resilience, exuberance, love, and kindness. He has every reason in the world not to be any of these things, but he will be a survivor, thanks to all of you.
To the Man I Married, whom I believe was put on this earth to be the Little Monster’s father. I’ve been with him for 23 years and have never admired or respected him more than in the last two (despite the beard).
To everyone who offers expressions of kindness, support, love, and encouragement, or even constructive criticism and mature dialogue about concerns, whether it’s over coffee or wine or email or Facebook, your thoughtful words and understanding matter. Thank you to My Village. It’s easy to feel helpless with all of bleak news in the world, but your small voices and gestures make a big impact. Kind words resonate, while hurtful words—so easily tossed off as a reaction to secondhand misinformation in this era of virtual communication—go unheard beneath the overwhelming resonance of generosity.
Strangely enough, negative words can have a positive impact as well; the ones I heard this year set me free, and now I can focus on the burden on my okole instead of the one on my shoulders.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for being part of my wonderful life. Happy New Year.
If a man with a goatee gave up the banjo to start playing one, then it’s a fiddle.
I interrupted the Man I Married while he fondled and stroked his recently-acquired fiddle, producing any number of fantastic sounds that have a supernatural way of carrying no matter how far away I am in the house (or down the block) and no matter how many closed doors separate us. I’m reading The Haunting of Hill House to a perfect screeching soundtrack. And here I thought I would have until the Little Monster’s teenaged years to look forward to this.
Since MIM caresses and cajoles his fiddle into vaguely-recognizable hints of melodies more or less constantly, I must interrupt him no matter what I have to say or when I need to say it. He set his new lover down patiently, as he always does, when he finally heard me unsuccessfully trying to yell over the moans and false protestations of the curved (but rather dry) beauty in his arms.
“Can you believe I can already play a few Christmas songs although I just started learning the fiddle a few weeks ago?” he asked me, beaming with pride.
“Gee, has it really been only a few weeks?” I said. “Seems like it’s been a lot longer than that.”
Next day as MIM practiced, I sighed, “So now you’re learning that Eight Tiny Reindeer hip-hop song that LM is constantly humming?” Venison for dinner began to sound appealing.
“Actually,” he said, “that was an Irish jig.”
Last week I drove MIM to the violin store to buy him a new violin bow for Christmas. He needed a slight repair on his junk-store fiddle before he could begin the delicate procedure of deciding how much I should plunk down on my charge card for a bunch of horse hair (he’d make a fortune stringing the hair he leaves on his own hairbrush). After the kind repairman finished the minor fix and re-strung the instrument, he laid out a dazzling array of stunningly-priced bows for MIM to choose from. MIM selected one and brought it confidently up to the strings, producing…interesting sounds that perplexed even MIM. “But something’s wrong with my fiddle now,” he declared. “I can no longer play it. What have you done to it?” he asked the repairman.
“I tuned it.”
“Well, shoot! And I was actually getting pretty good at it just the way it was!” Then MIM added, “Well, huh, I guess I need to start over on the lessons I’ve been giving LM, ’cause his is tuned the same way.”
Tonight at dinner MIM confessed to me, “Now that my fiddle is tuned like a fiddle and not like a guitar, the self-teaching websites make a lot more sense. Now I’m really getting somewhere.”
All teasing aside, I admire MIM for his willingness to try new things, to experiment boldly in his confident, self-taught manner, and for his lack of pride during the learning process, even when it turns out he made a gaff. I might have slunk out of the violin shop, too embarrassed to admit my error, but he laughs easily at himself while rarely judging others (except when he’s in the passenger seat while I attempt to park the car). That’s a lesson that all of us could use. Also, he’s not half bad at the durned thing, much better than I could ever hope to be. And while I can’t tell whether he’s playing Eminem or Enya, it’s easy to recognize the sound of contentment.
Plus, I always know where he is and what he’s up to. If he’s not on a ladder releasing bees, I can relax (with a pair of earplugs).