Thursday, February 28, 2013

Going To The Mattresses

*Author's note: if you are unfamiliar with The Godfather, this post will make little or no sense to you. While I would recommend familiarizing yourself with The Godfather for the pure cinematic beauty of it all, if that's of no interest to you, just skip this one and I'm sure I'll post something else sometime soon.

I am a wartime concigliere. Do you speak The Godfather? I never read the books, but I do enjoy the movies. How can you not, really? DeNiro, Pacino, Duvall, Brando, cannolis? What's not to love? I sublimate my pacifist tendencies in a horrid fascination with organized crime. We will explore this at a later date.

Sometimes in life it's time to "go to the mattresses." In the seasons of life as they come and go, there are times of peace and prosperity and times of chaos, tumult and uncertainty. This should go without saying, but it seems we are almost always surprised when the season shifts. There are people who lead well in maintaining peace and prosperity, growing it, cultivating it. There are people who are good in a crisis. I am the latter. I am a wartime concigliere.

I'm not bragging. Give me peace and calm and I will be a neurotic mess. I get panicky and walk around with a constant feeling that there is something huge I'm missing. It is, oddly, in times of nothing much going on that I excel at the art of self-castigation and anxiety. But give me a crisis, give me a large undertaking or an uncertain situation and I can take a deep breath and calmly wade into the fray. I can sort things out and take charge and soothe frazzled nerves; make tough decisions and lead others. It is only after the situation has passed that I fall completely apart.

In several areas of my life, in the last several months, I have had to "go to the mattresses." So, I don my crisis shirt and plan my strategies. I have a real crisis shirt, by the way. It has the Chinese characters for "crisis" on it. The characters that combine to make the word "crisis" in Chinese are the characters for "danger" and "opportunity". It's all in the perspective. (I can comfortably and smugly say this because of my particular personality makeup, as if it was something I did when really, it's just who I am and I don't think I really made myself that way. Just playing to my strengths.) My crisis shirt has gotten a workout of late and instead of feeling overwhelmed or lost, I am calm, energized and alert.

This is part of my space this year: to acknowledge and understand these things about myself, to see how they can be used, and to stop wishing I was otherwise. This thing I must acknowledge is double-sided. It means that I can be dependable and efficient in a crisis and that people will look to me for help. This is help that I should willingly and cheerfully give. It also means that I will need to remember to reach out for my own help when the need for a wartime concigliere is past. That I will need to re-instate Robert Duvall, so to speak, because I will fall apart and tend to grow restless in peacetime.

Which one are you? Are you Tom Hagen or Vito Corleone? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Matters of the Heart

My mom went in for a check-up earlier this week because she's had that same old nasty cold that won't go away. It's totally normal to feel dizzy and short of breath when you have a cold, right? Enough is enough, she decided, and went into the doctor to beg for the big drugs.

My mom is a strong woman. She's lived and raised her family all over the world. She survived her childhood, married young, sent her husband off to war, got him back again and spent the next forty-some-odd years working hard by his side. She's a humble, make-do sort of person. She learned way too early in life to accept whatever life throws her way and to deal with it the best she could. She buried her husband and the love of her life four and some years ago and then pulled up stakes and moved out west. At a time in life when a lot of her peers were settling into retirement - their golden years - and enjoying grandbabies and gardening, she was starting over. Suddenly single and in a new place - new friends, new work, new fears, new life. My sister and I, we live near enough to her to visit without a plane trip, but not near enough to see her every day.

She's a fiercely intelligent, independent woman and in spite of her sorrows, has made inroads into a new life here in the Pacific Northwest. It has been tough, though, for her adult children - also fiercely independent - to find a way to fit comfortably into her life. I suppose this is the way that it goes when you are suddenly all on your own roads and the Mommy-Daughter dynamic doesn't quite fit. We have all been challenged in our own unique ways over the last several years, and it would seem that the process of growing up never really ends. The bedrock of all of this, however, is mutual faith, love, and respect. These get garbled occasionally in the telling of it, in the showing, but they are there in such a way as can only exist when you know that this woman has poured her heart out over you for the whole of your life in the best ways she knew how.

The shortness of breath? The dizziness? Maybe the cold. But probably also owing to the heart abnormalities the doctor turned up in her check-up on Monday. The EKG showed some troubling issues and an echo-cardiogram is scheduled for this next Monday. My mother, the woman who has lived and made a home on three continents and countless cities, who has survived war and death and poverty and all the things that life has handed her, is scared.

I'm a mother now, too. I understand the sitting up all night with tiny bodies that are not well. I understand the urge to throw myself down in front of these small people to protect them from harm. I understand the madness that overtakes you when you feel like you must get it right, that there are lives at stake. I understand the stone that lives in my gut when I go to bed and count up all the things I have done wrong, the ways I have hurt my little people, the ways I could have done better. I understand that a mother's heart is a complicated and often treacherous place to traverse. I understand that my own mother has done these things for me all my life and that no matter how I have chafed over the years at her methods, they have come from the same wild, instinctual place as my own love for my children.

It is my turn. I am leaving tomorrow to go to my mother. She is the one who needs me now by her side, to be strong for her, to hold her hand, to help her through this scary place. She needs someone there to help her get comfortable, get rested, get organized, to be in charge. I think of the times when I've been really sick over the years, just wanting my Mama to make it better. I fill that role with my own two now and realize that the Mama is there "making it better" while she cowers inside with fear and uncertainty, putting on a brave face for the people who need her most. I have asked my mom to put aside her brave face and let me walk through this with her. Whatever struggles we have in relating to each other as adults, of this one thing I am certain: she has given me her heart over and over again my whole life and I am adult enough to give some of it back when she needs it.

I will be gone for the next week, taking care of matters of the heart. If you are of a mind to, please pray for both of our hearts. They work hard and are sometimes so fragile.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


If you tint something red or pink or purple,
if you cover it with glitter,
if there are paper doilies involved in any way,
if there is shiny paper,
if there are earnestly drawn letters, stickers and hearts...

I am a sucker.

I'm a sucker most of the time anyway, but I'm really a sucker for paper confections of love and lots of glue.

My Hooligan crawled in bed with me this morning and the first words out of his mouth were: "Happy Valentine's Day, Mom! I love you." My jBird followed shortly afterward with the same greeting. I observed, a little nostalgically, that they have outgrown calling it "Valentime's Day." I still say that sometimes, just for fun. I'm mostly glad that they still crawl in bed with me and snuggle and that I am their Primo Valentino. Or would that be Prima Valentina?

Love (like gratitude, forgiveness, grace, joy, etc.) is one of those things that we should show abundantly every day and in whatever ways work and are possible for us. I'm all right with it having its own special day covered in glitter and ribbons and bows and chocolate, though. The same as I'm all right with gratitude having its own day wrapped in turkey. But, you know, like most holidays we have the whole money-making guilt machine that grinds up to full throttle and tempts you to believe that the love in your life is not enough, that you haven't done the right types of things to show it, or that you might need more diamonds. This is where I stick my fingers in my ears and sing: la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you!

Join me in a rousing chorus of that, please. Look around your real life with your own eyes. Not the eyes that you think you should have or that you think other people are using to view you, just yours. Do you see it? Do you see the love that is there? It doesn't look like mine, I'm sure. It doesn't express itself in the ways the TV commercials or the Pinterest boards say it should, probably. Maybe it doesn't wrap itself in cellophane and whipped cream, maybe it's a little tired, maybe it has had a rough month, but it's there. It's everywhere, you just have to have the right goggles on to see it. Sit with it, celebrate it in whatever way you see fit and stick your fingers in your ears and avert your eyes away from all the shoulds and coulds and woulds and appreciate the is.

But what do I know?

I'm a sucker.

I'm a sucker for the pinks and purples and reds and the glitter and doilies and hugs and red velvet and heart-shaped pizza and winks and grins and little tears of joy.

I'm off to the store now to surprise my barely-over-bronchitis monkeys with shiny red balloons and chalky conversation hearts.

Because I'm a sucker.

*If you're not much of a sucker, that's OK. Here are some other Valentine's posts from the past to entertain you: Cupid's Misfires and Chocolate: A True Story.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Alphabet of My Recent Days

A is for Airborne Immunity Booster (for me)
B is for baths with eucalyptus oil.
C is for coughing, coughing, coughing. Also chamomille.
D is for Delsym because Mama finally busted out the big guns.
E is for eucalyptus steam.
F is for fever, fever, fever.
G is for grapefruit.
H is for honey.
I is for icy, frozen orange juice pops.
J is for juice of the orange.
K is for killing germs with Lysol and Clorox.
L is for lozenges that taste of elderberries.
M is for monkeys with lots of mucus.
N is for nights that are very, very long with the coughing and the fever.
O is for opening up airways. Also oranges. Lots and lots of oranges.
P is for prayers whispered into sweaty hair for comfort and healing for these miserable little people.
Q is for quiet that comes in the wee hours when the coughing finally stops for a while.
R is for rest - lots for them, little for me.
S is for steam inhalation.
T is for tea - peppermint, honey and ginger, lemon.
U is for under the weather.
V is for Vicks Vapo-Rub on tiny heaving chests.
X is for the X-rays of the chest.
Y is for yogurt to replenish the necessary bacteria.
Z is for zinc.

My jBird has bronchitis and we are waiting for the results of her pertussis test. She is missing her 7th consecutive day of school today. My Hooligan just went back to school yesterday after a week of being sick. There has been someone sick in my house since the last week in January. I am at the very end of my wits.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tangled Quest

I am going on week two stuck in a house full of germs. My germs are gone, but the monkeys spent my week of convalescence busily contracting some other nasty virus and so it goes. My one trip out in the last eleven days has been to the grocery store with a stop by 7-11 for some gas and it was fraught with peril. I stood in line to pay for my gas and watched no less than three people rummage around in the 7-11 doughnut case with their bare hands. I almost fainted. They didn't just grab the doughnut they would eat and walk away; they rummaged. That is a crime against pastry and humanity if ever I saw one. If I had felt better, I might have had an apoplectic screaming fit. Instead, I stood and closed my eyes and got the head-to-toe willies and vowed never to eat a doughnut from 7-11 again. This is all tertiary to my point.

When I am bed-ridden for long stretches of time, I turn to my trusty friends between the covers of books and who live in the TV screen for tales of adventure and daring. So it has been that I've been holed up, vicariously slaying vampires, casting spells, and saving the galaxy. And because there is a certain kind of madness in a writerly mind that is only exacerbated by isolation and delirium, I can't just watch or read, I have to deconstruct.

My dementia is your gain for lo, I have constructed a spread sheet of deconstruction to share with you, my loyal readers. Is it adventure or a quest story you seek? Now it is at your fingertips. Go ye into the wild and write a best-selling series with this information, carefully curated by a madwoman on the brink of collapse.

Some definitions for interpretation of figure 1.

Orphan - (or near-orphan.) This seems essential for the whole Quest protagonist thing. Probably so they can go gallivanting around fighting the forces of evil without having to check in for dinner. Also because it adds to the aura of isolation and loneliness inherent in having the fate of the world rest upon your shoulders.

Impossible Quest - Also essential, obviously, for a Quest story. It must be gigantic and seemingly impossible. It should be utterly ridiculous that the aforementioned Orphan be expected to complete it. It should involve terrible odds and certain death.

Enigmatic Old Man - This is the guy who stands in as a kind of surrogate father figure with whom the Orphan forms an almost immediate and somewhat unhealthy attachment (probably because they are an Orphan.) The Enigmatic Old Man also fades in and out of the story, at times seeming to abandon the Orphan when he/she needs him most and almost certainly never gives the Orphan enough information to complete the Impossible Quest, even if they know it. Usually dies or goes back to England at some point.

Rake - This is the guy who is undeniably sexy and usually has some kind of dark secret or past. They generally serve as a love interest for someone in the story and for the readers/viewers. They are usually a little rough, but painfully lovable.

Smart Girl - She's the one who figures out most of the Quest for the Orphan. She's the one who gets little credit in the long run, but without her brains, everyone would be dead many times over. She also usually gets kidnapped (sometimes repeatedly) to get to the Orphan.

Muscle - This is the one you want on your side in a fight. Usually huge and hairy, almost invincible and readily available for the ripping off of arms or wielding a giant ax. They're the one that you panic a little bit if something happens to them because then the chance of the Orphan winning any kind of fisticuffs becomes all the more bleak.

Loyal, Goofy Friend - These are personally my favorite characters. They are the stalwart ones who possess no particular super powers except those of unfailing loyalty and strength of character. They take abuse, rejection and dismissal from the Orphan in turns and rarely give up. They are the real heroes of the stories.

Slippery Fellow - These are the characters whose intentions are suspect, who have flirted with evil, who appear on the surface to be enemies, but ultimately end up assisting the Orphan with their Quest in pretty integral ways. They can never fully be trusted, but are often some of the most interesting, ambiguous characters.

Unspeakably Evil Entity - These are given name and bodily form, but usually they tend to be somewhat too evil, and thus rather flat. They are only a construct in the story anyway, because everyone knows that the Orphans' real battles are with their own darker selves and once they have conquered or accepted their darker natures, the final battle with the Evil Entity is kind of no sweat and much more surmountable than initially conceived.

Fig. 1 - Quest Matrix

I have picked a few of my favorite Quest stories for my chart. What are your favorites? Can you think of any others? Can you write a Quest story about your life using these character descriptions? Are you now all set to write your own bestselling series and become as rich as Rowling and as influential to pop culture as Lucas and Whedon?

Go forth and conquer.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Virus

Several years and one laptop ago, I was on a mission. Our bath mat was getting frayed and I decided that I would do what any sane and sensible person would do. I would knit a new one.

Just imagine it! Luxurious organic cotton in whatever colors and stitches I chose! It would be the perfect touch to our bathroom, transforming the nasty rental linoleum into an oasis for feet just out of the shower.

As I had this remarkable revelation during a rare bout of insomnia (there is no connection between the two, really. Right?) I had many late-night hours to peruse the internet at my leisure for ideas and patterns. And, as is usually the case with most of my internet missions, I got completely sidetracked by the most appalling acrylic monstrosities - toilet tank covers in peach and teal with white ruffles, seat covers knit with faces or flowers, and my perennial favorite, the toilet paper cozy, in every imaginable color, style and theme. I am a sucker for the horrid, the tacky, the painstakingly precise and labor-intensive debacle; so deeper and deeper down this spiraling rabbit hole I delved, slack-jawed in equal parts admiration and fear.

For those of you not well-versed in the fiber arts, these sorts of bright and cheerful acrylic crimes are almost exclusively the purview of old ladies. And, bless their hearts, you know all of their friends and relatives have at least one of these toxic goodies stashed in the back of a closet somewhere awaiting the apocalypse, where the TP cozy and the roaches will be the only things that survive.

And then, in the middle of the night, completely unsuspecting, it hit. I clicked on a link for "Fair Isle Tank Warmer" or some such and after stalling a bit, my computer gave me a pair of impossibly large breasts. What? No thank you. I'm not much interested in Hawt Teen Chixxx, thank you very much. So I closed the window, feeling just a little bit startled. And then it happened. With my little click of the red X, I set off an avalanche of porn such as I have never seen. My computer, seemingly uncontrollably, regurgitated page after page after page of porn, one on top of another. This wasn't good porn, either. It was the low-budget, grainy, amateur variety with no thought for web design or photographic techniques.

I sat in shock as wave after wave assaulted my screen and my poor, weary eyeballs. Why would that be embedded in a knitting pattern? A knitting pattern predominately for old ladies and freaks like me? I tried to stem the tide, to no avail and panicked about whether or not I'd had my email open at the time. Had I infected my mother-in-law? My church group? I had the sinking fear that all of my nearest and dearest would open messages from me in the morning full of knee socks and ponytails and lollipops, if you know what I mean. After frantically fighting with the computer and attempting some home remedies, I finally just shut it off and passed out in exhaustion.

The next morning, when my husband came down to find me on the couch, tangled in the computer cords, I barely lifted my head and croaked: "Don't let the kids touch the laptop. It's very, very sick." And I passed out again, completely drained of all my resources.

Later in the day, when I was a little more awake and less in shock, I decided there was nothing to do for it except to wipe the whole hard drive - empty it out and start fresh. So I took it to the professionals and went about the rest of my life kind of shaky and reeling. There were the inevitable questions from my husband: What were you doing? What kind of link did you click? Did you enter a credit card number? And from the kids: Why did you break the computer? Why can't we just play with it a little bit? How long until we get it back? 

My poor laptop returned to me, empty and lean and all better. The porn-valanche from a few nights before seemed to have subsided and disappeared. For several days we were gentle with it, vigilant for signs of further infection, afraid to search anything too rigorously for fear of relapse. It was only with the passing of time that we were able to finally resume our normal activities without fear. And before long, I was back to searching knitting patterns again. (Except not for bath mats because I found a gloriously soft, white, organic cotton one on clearance for a fraction of the cost of the yarn. Also because I spent my yarn budget on de-toxing the laptop. Let this be a lesson to you.)

Well, this tale of porn and woe about sums up my last week. Except without the porn and the knitting patterns and the laptop. These middle-of-the-night unexpected visitors almost always bring doom. I wish I had intestines made of acrylic yarn so they could survive the apocalypse.