Culture, Swoop Down Like a Vulture

December 31, 2011

I have no idea which old rap song gave birth to the title of this post, all I know is that I have always liked the image it suggests. We tend to think of culture as something high and mighty that holds our (or others’, or even Others’) values and ideals. Yet culture is not only capable of simultaneously embracing both the low and the high, but of devouring the middle ground.

So my husband and I determined that our lovely Winter Solstice vacation should be used for more than holiday stress and the resultant, post-holiday cozy lethargy. The weather was lovely (thanks, Global Warming!), we for once had time on our hands, so we should make a family trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art  for a little good ol’ fashioned dose of culture-slash-Mandatory Fun, right?

“I don’t wanna go the museum, I want to have another sleepover with Elena!”

“I hate museums, you always drag us to them and they’re so BORING!”


Of course, any parent knows that this only adds fuel to the fire of our determination. We even used some psychological strategizing to outwit the lemming-like impulse of all families residing in/visiting the Tri-State area to do this exact same thing, resulting in a Museum Madhouse that’s no fun for anybody. A couple of friends had tipped us off that they took their progeny bright and early–probably at nine, opening hour, when my kids are still sound asleep on days off–in order to “get the most out of the day,” only to encounter a museum with a line snaking out the door and the shoving, clusterfuckathon that pushes kids over the edge and tests parents’ ability to maintain Chipper, Enthusiastic Mom/Dad Voice (the evil twin of Chipper Mom/Dad Voice being, “You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about!”). We decided instead to go for a late lunch at our town’s new burger place and head into the city afterwards, arriving at about four when the majority of the tourists were departing.

The goal was not to overwhelm the kids, just head into the cool Medieval Armor exhibit and maybe enjoy a few other things on the way. But we knew we’d scored a hit when we not only smugly witnessed a giant flood of people streaming out of the museum on our way in, but The Free Spirit also started happily skipping up the steps, crying, “Cool, this is where they stayed in Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!” (referring to The Mixed Up Files thereof). The hits just kept coming as we passed through the collection of ancient jewelry. Since I was a little girl wandering through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, exhibits featuring ancient jewelry have always been my favorite because of the intimacy of the objects. Sure, I got my professor on yesterday being able to explain to the girls about the Celts who had made those gorgeous bracelets and rings; the Visigoths who had ranged far and wide leaving those intricately wrought necklaces and daggers; to tell them the basics of the Byzantium empire behind those heartbreakingly beautiful, gold earrings with the cascading precious stones.

But I could hear in their caught breath and see it in their wondering eyes that they got it on a much deeper level: those gorgeous earrings that mommy and all three sisters want right now were owned, actually worn, by a woman in a drastically different place and time, a woman who must have loved them as much as we would. The Byzantine earrings initiated an experience that was part time-travel and part metempsychosis; looking through the glass at such intimate objects from the past while seeing ourselves reflected in their beauty was a powerful lesson in how very little people have changed in the past 2,000 years.

Meanwhile, behind us, my husband tapped his foot impatiently. Reluctantly, the girls and I left the jewelry and we all headed into Medieval Armor, which was awesome and fascinating in its own right…although that was the place where our lofty cultural meditations began their downward swoop.

It started innocently enough, noticing that while most suits of armor seemed to be for men who would be relatively small today–when 6th graders loom over their parents and slam-dunk basketballs–there was one huge one that must have been worn by a six-foot-plus, barrel-chested monster. The girls joked about the Terminator, while Husband and I were certain we were looking at “The Mountain,” Gregor Clegane from A Game of Thrones. But that wasn’t  what did it. It was this dude, much smaller and shinier than The Mountain, and much more, shall we say, arresting:

To show you what I mean, allow me to insert (wink wink, nudge nudge) a closeup of his somewhat unusual, um, codpiece:

Yep, you're seeing what you think you're seeing.

I really wish I had thought to bust out my phone and take a picture at this point (this is from the official website, my zoom/crop job), because the side-view was even more unbelievable. Needless to say, the girls’ jaws dropped while my husband and I tried to rally with theories about symbolic potency, as this was the armor of an Emperor…but I can’t be sure we were coming through over the titters and giggles. Suddenly, the museum wasn’t nearly as boring as they thought!

Moving on into the Italian Renaissance room, we were halted dead in our tracks by this statue called The Siren, so amazing that she merits both a front and a back view:

Note the pose and expression on the face of the woman viewing the statue in the right-hand picture.


Of course I had to explain the mythology of the siren, how she lured sailors to their deaths with her sweet…um…song.

“Why?!” demanded The Diva, eyes fixed on the mermaid. “Why would she do that?”

At a loss for an explanation, I had to just admit there really was only one reason. “Because she can.”

Emperor Ferdinand’s “potent-potentate” armor, coupled with The Siren’s obvious charms, led to some interesting discussion on bodies and gender ideals as we wandered through the ancient Greek and Roman rooms full of statues of naked people.

“She’s kinda fat,” The Lawyer noted as we paused in front of a love-goddess statue. “Actually, they’re all a little….chunky. That guy,” gesturing to a male statue identified as a famous warrior, “Doesn’t even have any abs!” So we walked on, talking about the reasons why different cultures idealized different body forms, comparing and contrasting these ancient Greek and Roman marble bodies to today’s celebrities and models. By the time we realized that the bigger-deal mythological heroes definitely seemed to have proportionally bigger booties than their less heroic counterparts the girls were having the time of their lives, skipping through the exhibition singing “Baby Got Back” (to which they, unfortunately, know all the words). Case in point is this statue depicting Hercules,

who has so much junk in his trunk he needs an extra marble plinth to hold it all up.

As it was getting late and energy was finally beginning to wane, at least in the younger two girls, we decided to swing through the African/Oceanic roomand then call it a night. Of course, by that point, eldest daughter was really into the cultural comparison thing and was delivering some pretty in-depth analyses of the warrior gear from the deep Pacific island cultures and the insanely heavy, elaborately wrought armor from Europe. For instance, she and I were captivated by this mask-helmet from Papa New Guinea:

Again, the frontal view doesn’t quite convey that the top figure is not only riding astride the bottom one, (which comprises the helmet part), but his weirdly long penis is resting atop the bottom figure’s head (which reminds me of a Ricky Gervais routine about dolphins, possibly one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen). We both agreed that it would be far more horrifying to face someone wearing this into battle than face someone wearing a full suit fifty pounds of armor.

Finally, as if to illustrate Buckaroo Bonzai’s insight that “Wherever you go, there you are,” we found ourselves facing this amazing sculpture, also from the area around Papa New Guinea:

Look familiar? No? Scroll back up to the frontal view of the Italian Renaissance Siren above. Yep. Separated by a globe and several centuries, two artists managed to come up with almost exactly the same concept (I’m pretty certain that the Italian Siren is not famous enough to have inspired the [then] largely illiterate Papa New Guineans). I guess you could consider that another feather in the Cultural Vulture’s wing: no matter how drastic the temporal or spatial differences between cultures, we’re not so different (or is it original?) as we like to think.


Cassandra, Part 2: The Bitch

December 13, 2011

I. Bitch.

I always crack up when I see young men with big, macho-looking male dogs. Clearly, the massive size of the dog’s head, its sometimes cropped, sometimes not ears; the dookie-chain around its neck, and especially the uncut testes are supposed to be a reflection on the masculinity of its owner. A dog like that is supposed to say, I could kill you if I wanted to and You don’t want to fuck with me, man. The men who possess them, who wish the dog to be perceived as an avatar of their egos, make the mistake of equating size with toughness.

But dog-lovers know that if you want really want a tough dog, you get a female.

You get a bitch.

I’d never really thought about the etymology behind calling an aggressive woman a “bitch” until I got one, the late Maria Inez (Nezzie). I assumed it was merely a misogynist way of denigrating a woman by implying she was an animal. Then, when Nezzie was about two, i.e., in the dog-world, came into her own as an adult, I learned differently. One day, we were at the dog park when I sat down to nurse my fairly-recently arrived first daughter. Nezzie sat at my feet under the bench. A male dog who was somewhat infamous for his belligerence approached and tried to sniff the baby, so I nudged him away with my foot. He growled at me….then yelped in pain as he was bowled backwards down the sloping path. A torpedo of righteous, fanged vengeance had exploded out from under the bench when the dog growled at “our” baby, and she wasn’t playing: she went right for his throat. It was an ugly fight–a real fight, not the usual dog-park sound and fury–that took multiple people to break up. Probably only the fact that the other dog was a Chow (with a nasty disposition and impenetrable layers of fur around his neck) prevented him from sustaining serious damage.

Nezzie (who stopped attending dog parks shortly after that) went to her eternal rest a few years ago. We now have two new dogs, a male and a female:

Pepper, Angus, and Moxie

Angus is the giant-headed Pit bull/Mastiff mix on the right, clocking in at about 85 lbs. Basically, dog heads don’t come much bigger than his. In contrast, Pepper, on the left, is a feral dog: we call her the ur-dog, as the fact that she resembles every other feral dog in the world seems to confirm that this is what dogs look like when people stop breeding them. She weighs about 40 lbs. soaking wet; a nice, medium-sized dog with deceptively doe-like eyes and a slender build that appears utterly elegant at first glance. Upon closer inspection, you can see the rippling muscles of a Spartan warrior beneath the all-terrain camouflage fur. Front and center is their friend Moxie, who was staying with us while her folks were away when I snapped this picture. A ludicrously cute terrier mix weighing all of 15 lbs., Moxie doesn’t take any shit from alpha-dog Pepper…unlike the macho-looking Angus. When our regular 2-dog team is playing together in an open space Pepper runs roughshod all over the poor guy, flying across the field at mach-force speed to take him down over and over again as if their sizes were reversed.

Now that the kids are older and I can leave them in the house by themselves, I never spend a minute worrying about security. And it’s not because of the giant Pit. If Angus could speak he would sound just like Doug, the canine protagonist of Up: “Hi there, I’m Angus! I just met you but I LOVE you!” Pepper, on the other hand, would roar “FEEEEAAAAR me!!!!” like some monstrous cartoon villain. Pepper doesn’t fuck around when it comes to protecting her family and her territory: neighbors across the street and four houses down getting out of their cars in their own driveways are barked at, just in case. Hell, if she can see you, hear you, or smell you, you’re on HER turf and if she doesn’t know you, you are going to have a problem. More specifically, if you do not belong in the house (burglar, child-molester, evangelical christian time-waster) you are not coming in. Period.

Angus may have brawn and a vast expanse of head with benign, fluffy thoughts wafting around inside of it; Pepper will out-run you, out-gun you, and out-man you every time. While the appearance of the large, male dog is meant to convey I could kill you if I wanted to, chances are he doesn’t want to and never will. The bitch, on the other hand, probably does: don’t even think about crossing her.

Always look out for the bitch.

II. Faith

Even from amongst the outstanding original TV series HBO has produced, Boardwalk Empire stands out. The masterfully paced and developed story-lines weaving in and out of mythological, archetypal, and culturally specific themes; the awesome reproduction of a fascinating period in American history, the superb casting and acting, and above all, the viscerally appealing characterization are what make this show so compelling. But if you start parsing the main characters, you begin to realize that the most complex ones–the Oedipally brooding Jimmy Darmudy, the electric eel Nucky Thompson, the brutally dignified Chalky White–are male. The lesser female characters, such as the ones played by one-note-wonders Paz de la Huerta and Gretchen Mol, are 1.5-dimensional stereotypes whose flashy flatness begs to be compared to the nuanced layers of their male counterparts. The notable exceptions are (were!) Jimmy’s closeted-lesbian wife, Angela, and Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder, pictured below:

Now, I was excited to see Margaret literally wielding a gun in this scene where she breaks up a fight between Nucky and his equally untrustworthy but more hapless brother, Eli. We already suspected she had this kind of steel inside her: as a pregnant teen, she stole money from her family to emigrate to America; she was unsentimental and practical enough turn Nucky’s soft spot for her into a ticket out of poverty for herself and her children; when the Feds came for her boyfriend she surprised him by rescuing both his hidden money and his incriminating documents. For a while, though, it seemed like the writers weren’t sure what to do with a potentially empowered Margaret: wait, how does she really feel about Nucky? The sexy IRA hitman Owen Slater? Her self-righteous older brother’s repudiation? It was hard to tell, and definitely took a backseat to such eye-popping plot developments as–oh, say, Jimmy fucking his mom. The only thing we know for sure about Margaret is that she’s a mother and loves her children. Hmmmm…..

In both last night’s Season 2 finale and the previous episodes, Margaret’s confrontation with the boyfriend who supports her and her family seem a complex negotiation between the powerful range of this actress and the limitations of the role scripted by a predominantly male cast of writers, in a show produced exclusively by powerful and successful men. The way that Steve Buscemi pumps his Nucky Thompson full of weasely intensity and hams it up in their scenes together, while Kelley MacDonald plays Margaret’s cards so heartbreakingly close to her chest, reminds me of how Pepper sleeps defensively curled into an impenetrable furball while Angus stretches out on his back with his legs in the air and his wares on display. So subtle is MacDonald’s performance, in fact, that when Margaret’s daughter Emily is struck by polio and she seems to be suffer an incongruous Catholic relapse, I bought it. It took me until the very last episode of the season to fully appreciate what she had done with the uncomfortably small box in which the show’s writers seemed to want to stick Margaret:

Nucky proposes to marry her. She calls bullshit on this transparent ploy to prevent her from testifying against him in the federal corruption/racketeering trial, then marries him anyway. Just as we think she’s bounced back from the not-satisfactorily-explained “buy god’s forgiveness if your daughter has polio” subplot, we watch Margaret awake to the sounds of Nucky playing outside, apparently lovingly, with her newly-handicapped daughter and her tow-headed sociopath son (okay, THIS is the only area in which HBO falls short: have Nickelodeon and Disney locked down all the good child actors?) She looks out the window and we watch her heart melt right through her tightly surpressed, emotions-on-lockdown mask. Uh-oh: she’s no match for Nucky because her children are her Achilles heel! Her maternity makes her weak! And then…the morning after her new husband murders his former foster-son Jimmy Darmudy (*sob!*):

“Where were you last night?” Margaret inquires (disclaimer: since this is a blog post, I didn’t trouble myself to check the script for the exact wording, but trust me, this is the jist of it). Her face shows the same implacable Margaret, but MacDonald does something barely perceptible with her eyes (an ever so slight widening, since narrowing almond-shaped eyes would be less effective) that imbues her innocuous question with a dangerous edge.

“Well, I ran into Jimmy Darmudy and we talked for a while.” An almost daemonic fire illuminates his eyes so that she cannot help but grasp the true story behind his casual lies. “Turns out he’s re-enlisting in the army, heading back to France.” The camera pans over to Margaret, who becomes the darkest point in the frame illuminated by the morning light shining through the big picture window behind her. Within the space of twenty seconds, her expression barely changes, but manages to a) register that he’s lying to her, b) realize what he’s really saying, and c) take stock of what she’s really dealing with. We don’t know what she’s going to do; we’re not sure we know her the way we know the more consistently develped male characters.

After Nucky leaves, Margaret goes slowly over to his desk, picking up a pen to sign the deed to the NJ land that Nucky “temporarily” transferred into her name when he was under indictment; land he asked her to sign back over to him and which, we are now seeing in the parallel plot-line, is going to be worth a fortune due to the new highway bill clearing. She screws up her own signature, almost writing “Schroeder” instead of “Thompson” for her last name. But then again, those are merely husbands’ names anyway: they are not sufficient to describe who she is. Carefully and deliberately, in the blank space designating the recipient of this now invaluable land-deed, she writes the name of the church that we have come to understand in this episode she no longer needs.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Nucky. I know Angus would. He would lay his giant, bony head on Nucky’s perfidious, skinny shoulder and sigh sympathetically, “Oh I know, buddy. Slender, elegant, gentle brown eyes, loves kids…you bought that too, huh? Yeah buddy, you and me, we know better now, huh?” Pause. Roll over on back.

“Always look out for the bitch.”

The Cassandra Syndrome, Part I

November 6, 2011

I. Powerless
On the night of Sunday October 30th, we got The Dreaded Robocall from Superintendent of Schools Brian Osborne, whom we Maplewood parents primarily know as an unpredictably sadistic automaton that randomly but regularly derails our careers and destroys our plans for the day by calling off school for weather-related reasons that somehow always seem less pressing than the need for the children to actually be in school. As if to add insult to injury, our household got the call FOUR times (once each on my and my husband’s cell, once on the home phone from the Board of Education, once on the home phone from Maplewood Township), plus the following email:

“Due to down power lines throughout South Orange and Maplewood, and hazardous conditions persisting from yesterday’s storm, all South Orange-Maplewood schools are closed tomorrow, October 31, 2011.  Offices will remain open and twelve month employees will have a regular working day.”

Okay, first of all, Brian, if you’re going to fuck up my program, please come correct with proper English: that would be “downed power lines” and “twelve-month employees,” the latter of whom most certainly will NOT be having a regular working day if they have school-age children, now, will they? Let’s add accurate content to that target-list of improvements. If you’re the School-District Dominatrix whose job seems to have evolved into dishing out pain, then you’re going to get a little push-back from the Editorial Dominatrix. *sound of whip cracking*

The natural disaster/school cancellation/disembodied voice of doom falls into Cassandra’s territory for a few reasons. Just to refresh your memory, Cassandra was part of the ancient Greek Iliad crew, (though she gets more action in Agamemmnon, the first play in Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy, which is one of  my favorite classics because really, nothing makes you feel better about your own life than reality-show-forerunner, hot messes like Agamemmnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra). The sister (maybe twin?) of the infamous Helen of Troy, Cassandra was another beautiful daughter of doomed King Priam. Apollo fell in love with her and first gave her the gift of prophesy, then the curse that no one would believe her prophesies until it was too late.

Talk about an abusive relationship. *whip cracks again*

You can imagine not being believed about something as big as the Trojan Horse would kind of eat away at you. No wonder she went crazy after Troy fell and her parents were killed, she was taken as a slave, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, here in Maple-Troy we had our own Greek tragedy last weekend due to the unexpected October Snowpocalpyse. Although the weekly forecast had called for snow on Saturday, I’m pretty sure I speak for the general populace when I say we were all envisioning that half-assed sleet that sometimes becomes snow for a while when the weather first turns cold; the kind that makes for a few gloomy hours before turning back into rain and melting away. So I set out in my car to run on the treadmill at the gym in a sort of preemptive strike against impending Halloween candy carnage. “It’s not that bad!” I delusionally told my friend on the cellphone about 2 p.m. as I skidded through slushy snowdrifts. After I had gotten to the gym, ran for an hour, showered, and changed, I noticed that my phone was blowing up. It was my husband, informing me that we had no power, a huge tree limb had crashed down in the backyard, the governor had taken time out from his busy eating schedule to declare a State of Emergency, and I should get my crazy ass home NOW.

The normally 15-minute drive took  45: we Maplewoodians were clearly in the middle of a blizzard and, like Cassandra, powerless. At first, being powerless is fun, in a Little-House-on-the-Prairie role-playing kind of way (our power wouldn’t be restored until Sunday night, much of the town and neighboring towns remained without power for a full week). We lit candles and I played a 2-hr. long game of Scrabble with the girls while my husband made huge pots of chili on the stove (the gas burners still worked when we lit them ). Although I’m usually the Scrabble Slayer, The Lawyer (who just turned 13, the subject of another post), demolished all of us with this:

Built off the "Thug" she put down earlier, this improbable extension managed to clear @48 points.

Since I had managed to knock out a batch of chocolate-chip cookies that morning before we lost power, we enjoyed an an atypical, chili-chocolate-chip-cookie, face-stuffing afternoon/early evening of quality family time before the trapped heat dissipated and the darkness descended, dissolving the cozy layer of our alternative-reality program and leaving us with the chilly, all-too-predictable consequences of living in Cassandra Culture. How can we silence these nut-jobs pressing for environmental regulations and crying about how the toxic way we live is destroying the entire atmosphere and changing our weather patterns? Or, more locally, Hmm, Maplewood has gotten SLAMMED over the past several years by a strange continuum of unexpected, powerful storms that take out our trees and cause massive damage and lasting power-outages: should we maybe invest in some infrastructural measures to address this? Or on an individual level; Our friends have lost massive trees and sustained serious property damage due to storms over the past year, then that was that crazy hurricane a month ago where everyone lost power. Should we maybe look into evaluating the trees surrounding our house, perhaps invest in a generator? Nah.

Cassandra came to mind because of a dire prediction my friend Alix made during our town’s annual Halloween costume parade/party, which transpired as usual “right after school” on Halloween, Monday the 31st, even though school had been canceled due to epic fury the storm had visited upon Maplewood. I was the one dressed as a witch, but Alix was the one who said, “I bet we don’t have school tomorrow, either.”

All around us, little devils, Ibsen-The Scream imps, vampires, and zombies screeched and stampeded in pursuit of the trick-or-treating candy handed out by the village merchants. “No way,” I said, the hair raising rising on my arms a corporeal recognition of a Prophesy of Doom.

“Sure,” she replied, shifting her delightfully plump fairy princess to the other hip. “Half the town still doesn’t have power, and so many trees are still blocking the roads no one’s going to be able to get to school.”

But it couldn’t be. Already I was rushing the kids home from the parade to put the finishing touches on the grant application, due by midnight, that I’d been feverishly working on for weeks. My job is a hectic one, made even more so by the academic editing work I do on the side. I cannot do two jobs working from home with a house full of kids. And yet, school was indeed cancelled one more day, creating a nightmarish beast of a week with two days off at the head and two half-days for teacher conferences at the tail. Oh, and one more half-day the following Monday, capped off by that week’s Thursday and Friday off for the one-two punch of the New Jersey State Teacher’s conference and Veterans Day.

I was powerless; to a certain extent, we all are.

Cassandra’s tragedy–I know what’s going to happen but I can’t change it–hasn’t gotten any less haunting over the millennia because it’s remained one of the core problems of human nature: identifying and realizing consequences of our own actions and those of others, but for a frustrating combination of reasons, being powerless to change them.

Next up, Part II: does the dog wag the tail or vice versa?


October 4, 2011

With the exception of posting my friend Per’s amazing wolfdog-rescue story, I haven’t written anything on this blog in a month. Since my long vacation in August, I have repeatedly ripped up the numerous false-start tracks that I keep laying down; tracks which seem to point in promising directions but that ultimately point toward the same corner into which all my well-trod paths of futility have led me over the course of the past 42 years.

I wanted to post about misdirection; perhaps I’m doing that now, I wouldn’t know. I suppose if I truly wanted to write about misdirection I’d start a post about how cool my dogs are and end up typing these same words…the post I started to write, and which I may follow up with at some point, began with Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken:”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth

In this stanza, the speaker looks inquiringly down this road until it disappears into the woods before decideing to take the other, “grassier” path, idealistically vowing to come back and try that first road some other time. However, acknowledging how “way leads on to way,” he doubts that he will ever do so. This summer, on my way to the glorious yellow wood in Vermont where our family spends several weeks every August, an unexpected detour changed how my “way leads on to way,” and I found myself travelling the road not taken.

My three girls and I (my husband, tied up at work, was scheduled to join us in a week) had been marveling at how the 7-hour trip had fairly flown by. We were enjoying the new minivan bought in last-minute desperation after the old one had finally given up the ghost; the attendant financial stress and strain were momentarily erased by a minivan-dance-party to, among other classics in the fancy new 6-CD disc player, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (I tried not to be too hurt by the surprising criticism of “Ben” from my youngest: “Sorry, I am NOT moved by this song.”) The girls had even collaboratively invented a new, elaborately illustrated scatological cartoon, “The Adventures of Super-Anus,” based both on our dog Angus’ unfortunate tendency to involuntarily fire off his anal glands (so pleasant in close spaces) and the serendipitous similarity of his name and his affliction (I really wish I could find that cartoon now). Excited to arrive when other friends in that summer lakefront community would be heading home from dinner at the communal inn, we were almost giddy with anticipation as we approached the landmarks that meant we were less than one hour away.

For me, that in itself was a divergence from the history of our trips to this tiny, rural corner of the Northeast Kingdom where Vermont meets Francophone Canada. In the past, I had often felt that these summer excursions to the pristine, glacial lake had been less than the idyllic vacation they appeared to everyone else.  This was where my husband had grown up spending his summers, not I: I was the “marry-in.” Visits during the early years of our marriage tended to be fraught with anxiety about being judged/fitting in; memorably hurtful was my husband’s worry (which seemed only to manifest here) that me feeding our babies–i.e., nursing them at my breast within 1,000 yards of other human beings–might offend others or reflect badly on me/him/us.

There was the occasionally awkward social reality that the friendly people my husband had grown up with were, while welcoming, not my friends, but strangers I’d end up virtually living with for one week a year. And of course, the exhaustion of supervising young children on “vacation” led to tag-team situations where either he or I held the baby/babies while the other tried to quickly enjoy him or herself without feeling guilty or taking too long [SO relaxing! Such great quality time!]. Then, there were the conflicts with other family members about who was going up when: families being what they are and busy people with young children being hermetically sealed in the demanding minutiae of their own lives, this issue frequently resulted in one branch of the family resentful at unexpectedly having to share their vacation with some invited guests of the others.

Finally, and most painfully, sometime around the tenth year of our marriage this pristine glacial lake had become, through no fault of its own, the physical repository of those inarticulably painful moments that two people who pledge to share one another’s lives for “eternity” seem to inevitably  accrue. While several of our friends’ marriages didn’t survive this painful period, ours did. However, a certain bench on the lake’s grassy shore, or the act of looking out across the lake at a particular time of day, will probably forever impregnate me with the nausea of pain and loss.

Then suddenly, the familiar road leading to our lakefront cabin came to an end. The road was as I had frequently felt in the past: devastated, but literally: the paved extension that stretched over a hidden stream had been blown up by dynamite, the gaping, rubble-strewn detritus guarded like Fort Apache, the Bronx, by a frozen tableau of bulldozers and backhoes. Michael Jackson and the dance party screeched to an unpleasant, obscenity-laced (“Hey! Only Mommy uses those words!”) halt. Me being me, I initially sought to circumvent the roadblock: no dice. Miraculously reaching my husband on the cellphone (we were perhaps within the last mile of cellphone reception), I confirmed what the physical evidence suggested: there was no way around, this road was officially (if temporarily) destroyed and we’d have to find a new way to reach our destination.

After he talked me down off my ledge, we were back on our way, in the dark now, following a wildly unfamiliar detour that (GPS-less), we were less than certain would actually take us where we needed to go. As it turns out, I didn’t realize that I was making the first step onto the Road Not Taken. We eventually arrived late but safely, triumphantly, welcomed into the star-strewn blackness pregnant with silence, with promise, with inscrutable life so different from our suburban routines.

In retrospect, it was as if that brutal detour did the trick. This was the first summer I came up working, able to do my own thing on my laptop while the kids cavorted with their friends under minimal or zero supervision. Maybe I owe something to a certain magical confluence in the patterns of women’s lives, but suddenly women whom I’d always liked, but with whom mostly I’d chatted briefly as we chased our kids about or traded downtime with our husbands, were really MY friends, friends whose kids disappeared to play together on the sandy shores of the lake so that their mommies could actually sit on a porch, share some cocktails, and talk to each other. One friend in particular helped guide me further on pathways away from my self-same roads, though she probably didn’t realize it. Though both runners, we had always run separately, dragging jog-strollers and/or dogs, sticking to familiar paths. This summer we were free to try out new and different trails through the woods and around the lake (as well as up some really long, hot hills, hungover; but I’ll try not to ruin the conclusion here) together. I felt as if I was re-inscribing this place in my mind, rewriting my relationship to it and what it used to tell me about myself.

Which brings me back to Frost’s poem: the speaker claims that he looked down one road, but then took the other,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there 
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In  leaves no step had trodden black. 

While everyone (myself included) tends to remember that triumphant closing couplet:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s just an illusion. The two roads are the same. The speaker’s memory that his chosen path was “grassy and wanted wear” is immediately contradicted by the mysteriously impersonal assertion that they were the same because of “the passing there” (his own? that of many others before the grass re-grew?) and the way both roads lay “equally” untouched. The paths are not parallel, or even forked; they intertwine like the plot of an Italo Calvino novel, or geometrical drawing from M.C. Escher. The difference is not in whether or not these two roads were travelled by others before him: the difference lies in the journey he takes as constituted through the decisions he makes, and then reconstitutes through memory.

Time is fleeting: I can never go back and find that road I didn’t take. But this summer, I realized that comfortable habits of letting “way lead on to way” can become self-destructive entrapment. Making a detour, consciously running down a different path, will always lead you to the road less traveled by, even if it’s the one you thought you were already on.

And that makes all the difference.

Uncle P. and the Wolf

September 4, 2011

This post is for all the extreme animal lovers out there, particularly the dog people. I have to say that there really are not many people on the face of the planet who love dogs more than I do. However, the one to whom I would easily concede my crown is a great old friend of mine from Oakland, CA. When we were younger we used to ride mountain bikes together with our dogs, bringing them afterwards into anyone of our favorite local bars to lie at our feet and discreetly lap their nice micro-brewed rewards from a bowl. Then we grew up. I got a Ph.D., got married and had kids. He became their Uncle P. and eventually established a career with humanitarian agencies like Doctors Without Borders, working as a field-coordinator and program-director in godforsaken places like Sudan and Afghanistan. Obviously, this is not a lifestyle that leaves much time for animal companionship.

Uncle P. returns to the States once or twice a year to visit family, this past weekend being one of those occasions. Last night he sent me an email so amazing I’m reprinting it here verbatim, including the pictures attached. Behold: the heartwarming story of Uncle P. and the Crazy Runaway Wolf.

I was coming back from San Francisco the other day and Lora was driving as we exited the freeway off ramp. Coming straight at us at a full run with leash in tow and yellow eyes wide open was a black wolf. I thought I was seeing things.

We realized that the beast was about 10 seconds from meeting its maker and would surely perish under the wheels of a car doing 80 on the busiest freeway in the Bay Area.
Lora stopped the car, got out and started waving for traffic to stop. I hit the ground running and crossed a couple of lanes of traffic and managed to cut the terrified creature off before it headed up the on ramp. The wolf then did a 180 and headed away from me up a side street at a full run. Several concerned folks were getting involved in the chase and the outpouring of support for a terrified animal was heartwarming.
Well, that outpouring and a buck twenty five would not have even bought a cup of piss coffee at Starbucks. The animal was in terror and was running for its life. I had it cornered in a schoolyard only to find out that the beast was the fastest thing on four legs I had ever seen. It maneuvered right past me and I was no match as a goalkeeper trying to keep the thing from getting through an 8 foot opening – I needed more like 8 inches and a full bite-suit to do the job.
I jogged up to the corner of another busy intersection just in time to see the wolf spring across 4 lanes of traffic, directly in front of a police car. I could not watch. The copper slammed on his brakes and the wolf basically threw itself into a lateral slide in an effort to avoid getting hit. The wolf came up running and the cop was stunned. I cannot remember if the cop told me to get in the car or I just jumped in. The next thing I knew he and I were commencing a wolf chase that would end up crossing (2) different city borders and lasted over 40 minutes while covering approximately 8 miles.
The wolf was fast. Real fast. Imagine some Youtube video of a village in India with a wild elephant charging down the main street disrupting traffic. Or an out-of-control Grizzly snarling traffic in Anchorage as it jumped across sidewalks and roads without looking or having any regard for its own safety.
It was a Sunday so traffic was light and we could keep up with the thing. It alternated between sprinting down the middle of the road to high-tailing it up the sidewalk – never slowing down at the busiest of intersections. The cop was cool – a veteran with 23 years experience. I’d ask him which busy street was coming up so that we could cut the wolf off and he would confide that he had no idea – that he was no longer in Oakland and therefore did not have the slightest idea where he was.
We tried to work out a strategy to catch the critter; no way we were gonna get it in the open. The cop would accelerate ahead of the wolf (often exceeding the speed limit and with lights and siren) and I would get out. He’d try and scare the wolf back towards me and I would try to get the beast to head into someone’s yard with the hope that it was enclosed.  Well, I was probably in and out of that damn cruiser 15 or 20 times and had been running like a dog myself. The fucker just would not stop and would, no doubt, end up under the wheels of a car shortly. Several times concerned citizens must have looked out their windows to see an Oakland police car parked haphazardly across the  sidewalk with the engine running, both doors open and no one in sight – must have looked like a felony pursuit.
We managed to get it cornered a few times, but it got past the cop each time, regardless of his baton. Pepper spray had no effect. The beast was going to run itself to death or become roadkill. At one point it was heading down the wrong way on a busy boulevard. The cop lit up the christmas tree lights and mashed the cruiser over the traffic island doing about 50 – good times! I told him I knew that he was way off the reservation and that he may have to call off the chase if he got a more urgent call. I told him that I was gonna keep it up as long as the wolf was still alive. He was committed – a fucking dog lover and a great human being. I have no doubt that he was endangering public safety in an attempt to save the mutt. Now he is driving towards oncoming traffic and the wolf is out in front of him running flat out and heading towards an intersection.
I got left behind and was still in the appropriate traffic lane. A Vietnamese couple pulled over and asked me in broken English if I needed a ride. I jumped in the back and told them to get me to the intersection – I looked to my right and saw that they had a little baby in the baby seat next to me who was smiling and looking at me like this was as normal as taking a shit in a stinky Cosco diaper. I got to the intersection at the same time as the critter and managed to turn it off to the side while simultaneously  rolling my ankle.
Now everyone is getting tired and the thing is heading back towards the freeway. We decided it was time to make our move – even if the wolf ended up getting kissed by the business end of a police cruiser. Thing is, this wolf had already worked out what we were trying to do and was outsmarting us.
We went for it one last time before the onramp – the cop accelerated ahead dropped me and continued on. At the last minute he cut across the sidewalk almost striking the mutt. The mutt took the bait and turned into a yard. We got it cornered but all three of us were completely exhausted, bleeding and dehydrated. The cop had his stick back out and was leaning on the fence for support. I just sat down on the ground near the gate and kept talking to the wolf in the same voice I had been using for the entire chase (often we had pulled up next to it and I had told it that I was going to catch it and that it was not going to die today).
Now the cop sees me crawling towards the 90 pound wild-eyed canine talking in this same voice and says he is going to shoot the thing if it attacks me. I told him not to bother and that I was confident I could get a hold of it and if it bit me he could do me the service of getting me to a hospital.
I got it – and a little love bite to go with it – near Picante on 6th. The creature was later identified by its i.d. tags and reunited with its owners. Meet “Scout” – a 57%  wolf  8 month-old hybrid:
It was a fantastic experience with an animal more wild than not. The cop was great as were all the people who supported us. Kinda gives me hope for humanity – animal people tend to be good people.
So, a successful wolf hunt in the city!
 Below is the forwarded email below from Scout’s owner:
Thanks again for your efforts to protect Scout.
You were a miracle for us!!!!!
Good luck in Sri Lanka,Richard

Mompromises (rhymes w/”compromises”) and the Funky Towel

August 28, 2011

When you become a mother, a certain amount of pride goes out the window. For most women, this divestiture begins with pregnancy. Unless you are a member of a few particular professions or are an ardent nudist, you have probably taken great pains throughout your adolescence and adulthood to prevent people from seeing you naked. You can kiss that  modesty goodbye as you shuffle your awkwardly burgeoning body, barely concealed by a thin medical gown that opens at the back, down the hall between the doctor’s office and the ultrasound room. Make this a long, meaningful kiss, because you’ll never see that modesty again, at least not in its familiar form. You will get so used to donning that flimsy gown that reveals more than it covers and spreading your legs regularly for the better part of the year that when the time for actual delivery comes, you will cease to care at all if various loved ones and entire teams of people you’ve never seen before in your life poke and prod your completely nude or insufficiently clad body in places formerly known only to your lovers, and even then oftentimes with the lights out.

It was a funky, musty towel that got me started thinking about the continuum of Mompromises–the personal compromises we make over the course of our mothering. For example:

  • Modesty, general (see above).
  • Boob Modesty: For those of us who breastfed our kids, I’d hazard a guess that whipping one out anytime, anyplace and plugging it into a tiny mouth ceased to merit a second thought. If you were one of those proper ladies who always covered said boob and baby with a blanket, hats off to you. My trial-by-fire in this department happened in Starbucks when baby #1, The Lawyer, was a few weeks old. Struggling to free a giant, swollen-solid breast from the unfamiliar and corset-like, E-cup nursing bra while cradling the tiny screaming infant, I fumbled, dropping my football-sized breast out into the open for all to see. After that, it was pretty much all downhill in the modesty department, especially once my Jedi-nursing skills increased, my boobs shrank down to human proportions, and baby grew ever onward and upward towards the same.
  • The loss of Boob Modesty, by the way, has repercussions that last well beyond the nursing years. It’s been about 5 years since I weaned last child, The Diva, (at age 2); most of my friends have kids in elementary/middle school. We are light years beyond that warm, fuzzy, milky cocoon. Yet at a recent cocktail party, a group of us ladies were chatting in the kitchen as we mixed drinks when the subject turned to mid-life boob-droop. Several of us immediately opened our shirts and lifted our small, modest bras to illustrate our hyperbolic points and compare the results of our Mompromises, with nary a thought to either the husbands roaming without or the whereabouts of the omnipresent kids who were ultimately responsible for this sad state of affairs.
  • Personal Space: The ubiquitousness of comfortable baby carriers such as the Ergo, the improved Baby Bjorn, and a variety of different slings (my favorite was the Over the Shoulder Baby Holder) mean that more people are spending more physical bonding time with their young progeny. This is great, especially if you’re a Dr. Sears acolyte. But it also means that an entire generation of kids is getting used to being on you as much as possible, day or night, cementing their claim to that body and what you formerly considered a small but real no-fly-zone of personal space surrounding it. Nothing is sacred, from the late-night rendez-vous with your husband in your own bed to a trip to the bathroom. One battle-weary, early-parenting memory permanently seared into my brain is having to lug a big, loudly fussing baby with me to the bathroom a putting her on my lap as I peed so she didn’t wake up my husband, who had to go to work in the morning.
  • Ditto for all the things you used to enjoy doing by yourself, such as shopping for wine or trying on clothes. I once saw a woman usher a toddler and a preschooler into the handicapped dressing room at The Gap, then wheel in a giant double stroller full of baby before shutting the door behind her. I’m sure she got in a lot of quality shopping that day. Luckily for me, our fabulous local discount wine-and-liquor warehouse, the Wine Library, has a GIANT fish tank filled with a variety of tropical fish on the second floor. When the girls were smaller and with me 24/7, I’d tell them we were going to the Millburn Aquarium when I needed to make a liquor run.
  • Bathroom Privacy: When’s the last time you went to the bathroom in your own house with the door closed? Yeah, I thought so.
  • Personal Grooming: Brushed hair now counts as presentability; a shower means you’re out to make a good impression (PTA meeting/job interview), and makeup means it’s your BFF’s birthday/Girls’ Night Out/high school or college reunion.
  • Personal Hygiene Threshold: How low can you go? In a former life, if I ever had to share a beverage with a close friend, I’d simply say with faux generosity when she handed it back, “No, that’s okay, you can finish it. I’m fine.” In the past 10 years, however, I have routinely consumed half-eaten leavings from the plates of my offspring, and–in dire, drought situations–handed them the lone water bottle first, meaning I got to belt down a mouthful of floaties. And then there’s the impetus for today’s non-hurricane-related post: The Funky Towel. I remember when we were young my younger sister was slightly pickier about food than I was, so if there was a too-dark piece of toast on the table my mom would eat it and pop another in the toaster for my sister. Today I did not consume burnt toast, but I did get out of the shower and dry off with The Funky Towel. Why? Because it’s summer and perfectly nice and clean towels get smelly after one usage since they never fully dry in this humidity, then guess who gets to launder an entire linen closet full of not-even-dirty towels? I’ll just wrap my anomalously clean body in the musty funk, thanks.
  • Expedient Mompromises: These are arguably the worst, as they mitigate not only the person you thought you were but the newly reconstituted MomPerson you thought you had become. For example, The Lawyer didn’t watch TV before she was walking, and then only PBS shows like Sesame Street, Teletubbies, and Dragon Tales. I made her first birthday cake from scratch and sweetened it with honey and agave nectar; she was almost 2 before she tasted chocolate for the first time.

The all-organic-ingredients, home-made, 1st birthday carrot cake, which I believe she never even tasted.

  • Meanwhile, The Free Spirit’s (child #2) very first food at the tender age of 5 months were Goldfish crackers snatched from her sister’s hand. Her TV repertoire expanded to include Barney, as well as assorted Rugrats videos that were administered when I needed to grade papers (I was working as an adjunct professor at the time). When pregnant w/The Diva, I used to pop in the newly purchased Brother Bear movie for the tiny Lawyer and Free Spirit and gratefully snatch a gestational nap. When awakened by, “Mommy, mommy, the video’s over!” I would remotely direct The Lawyer, age 5, to press rewind and play it again. The Diva was pretty much the final nail in the coffin of my ÜberMother standards. She was the first one raised on Nickelodeon shows; at age 2 she surprised me by counting to 10 in Spanish at the playground. When I incredulously asked where she’d learned that (Daddy? Innate genius?) she responded: “Dora.” Oreos? Processed lunchmeats? White bread and Costco birthday cakes? Check, check, and check.

Baby #3, not quite 1 year old, getting down on some chicken at a party

Evolution, growth, give-and-take, checks and balances; nothing lasts forever in this dynamic process: it all comes out in the wash.
Mompromises: you’ll know them when you make them.

Pennies and Nails

August 23, 2011

The side of the road is either lucky or malign, depending on your perspective. A runner could turn a profit from picking up the spare change scattered along her regular routes, but there are priorities when it comes to gathering luck and money. Some coins merit a full stop, others are noted and passed over on the fly. Not forgotten, though; the runner is not a wasteful person. On an bad day she might reach back to tally that week’s uncollected treasure so as to divine the amount of  deferred luck she could reap at some point in the future.

The ubiquitous, battered pennies tumble unloved and unmissed out of shallow pockets, not even meriting a look back when a driver exits the car and walks away. Scored copper surfaces reveal the cheap aluminum souls of the newer ones that skulk in the dirt, ashamed of their damaged deception. Older pennies are immediately identifiable by their more somber hue and deportment, bearing the nicks and scratches of their neglect like veterans. They deflect the sun’s rays with a dignity earned from  years of circulation and memories of value; of riding in sweaty palms that arrived at the corner store one cent short of that Tootsie Roll.

Sometimes the memories we choose to keep hurt more than the ones we pretend to let go. The kept ones shine from the dirty gutters of our minds with a dishonest brightness earned at the expense of their darker siblings; the family vacation filled with sunshine rippling on the peaceful water of the lake; the couple giddy with laughter as they leave the lawyer’s office where they closed on their first house; the face of the brand-new daughter asleep at your swollen breast. The other ones, the discarded ones, deepen until they are too saturated to fade but too heavy to pick up: the summer where the tears could have filled the lake, the ghostly image on the ultrasound screen forever pulsing in that moment between everything being possible and nothing at all being real.

Nickels glint resentfully amongst the pebbles and sand of the roadside. You can still round down to us, they huff as you slow down to scoop them up. I bet she wished she’d turned back for me when she found out that latte was $3.95, they grumble as they settle in between your sweaty palm and your iPod. Dimes and quarters, on the other hand, are not only few and far between but also harder to spot. Neither resentful nor desperate, their silence provides camouflage against the grey asphalt but sharp eyes can see them rejoice at hiding in plain sight. Confidence in their own value makes them smug: somebody wants them for his dime jar, somebody else had to dart into the Chinese take-out place to break a dollar, cursing under her breath because she could have sworn she had a quarter for the meter.

How much sweetness will it take to prevent the bitterness from taking root? How much will it take to fill that putrifying wound and what will it cost? Sometimes you think you can afford to live this double life; laughing carefree on the sunlit water where last summer you malingered with first-trimester nausea. That’s the price I have to pay, you thought then, your roiling stomach pulling you permanently off-balance, coating your tongue with a bad taste you couldn’t spit out and the heaviness in your head lulling you bedward. That night you felt her while lying in bed, though: oh, it was all worth it all over again. The open windows let in air chilled with moonlight, alive with crickets and those faint flutters of the quickening were haunted by the incomprehensible ululations of the loons. Now the moon’s glare is the worthless, tinny echo of that peaceful happiness, contaminated.

A quarter, a dime: these merit a full-stop retrieval when I run across one. It makes them feel better that although they’re yielding their valuable freedom I’m the one who has to bow, trying to scoop up the coin like Atalanta after the golden apple with only a minor genuflection breaking my stride. My shining fairies, the ones I have, these are what keep me moving one foot in front of the other. I reach for the glimmering reflections of them in my mind and they make it worth my while to keep going because I can’t afford to stumble like a normal person wrapped in elastic skin that can absorb one more break, that still has room for scars. If I can’t pick it up without stumbling anymore well then I just let it lie. Leave it lying.

Lying on the table before the neonatal specialist came in was the last time I can honestly say I was of sound mind and body. Everything after that has been permanently scarred by dyscalculia. How many weeks are you? how many digits on that last finger wait a minute let me see that again hang on a minute I’ll be right back with the doctor how many brutal syllables in hypoplastic left-heart syndrome what’s that mean? the heart should have four chambers but she only has two oh. oh no no oh no we need to do amnio now yes now how many chromosomes oh no no no

Unlike the change, the nails have no value unless they’re being used. They scoff at their stamped and polished distant cousins with a warrior’s disdain even as they rust, warped and useless by the curb. The slender, newer ones are less bitter, having known no other life in between the box at Home Depot and the gutter. Cars scare them and like all cowards, they aim small, saving their malignancy for bike tires or a thin-soled flip-flop. Cast-off warriors are dangerous, though. Remember when you ran by that ancient rusty one as big as a dagger? Maybe if you if you hadn’t seen it in time you could have really been messed up. Maybe if you hadn’t swerved you could have gone down hard and come back up with tetanus. But maybe you went around it, twisted away at the last minute and yet you didn’t manage to pass it over. Maybe it got you after all but you haven’t put your foot down so the pain has yet to hit.

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