Sunday, December 30, 2012

It takes a village

It's a week before Christmas and I'm having a lie-down in my room, pooped from all the pre-holiday prep.  My husband and his teen daughter come in, and I can hear snippets of their conversation.
"I can't get the panorama feature to work," stepdaughter M. says.
"Is that an iPhone feature?" her father asks.
"No it's Instagram," she says. "I want to get this all in one picture."
He suggests she step on a chair to take the picture.
I'm smiling to myself in the other room. I know what she is trying to photograph, and my heart lifts.

She has been my stepdaughter since she was just shy of her third birthday. Since our family is blended, holidays are always extra stressful. The logistics of sharing children with their other parents and everyone's extended family over the course of two days has always been a nightmare. But her father, my husband, has done his very best. He has tried to create traditions for her that don't necessarily involved her getting every single thing on her Christmas wish list. One thing he did was buy her those little lighted holiday houses. Ever the frugal man, he didn't buy those overpriced Dept. 57 numbers. He mostly got these houses at the local hardware store, sometimes after the holiday. He and M. selected them together and over the years they've accumulated. And when she had her own room in our larger home, they sat out all year on a desk, and served as nightlights when she came for her appointed weekends.
When we downsized, and she lost her room, the houses were taken out only at Christmas.

Every year I'd threaten not to put the lighted ceramic village. The village takes up a lot of decorating real estate, and time. Last year, I came up with the idea to put them on top of the wall that divides our kitchen from our dining area. M. didn't seem to notice them last year. So this year, when I heard she was trying to take pictures of them, it made the work to erect the village worth it.

I haven't been the world's best step parent. I always had the philosophy of staying out of the way. "She's here to spend time with her dad, not me," and "She already has a mother, and I don't want to compete with that," were my refrains.

Consequently, M. and I are not close. We get along just fine, but the distance between us has always been clear. But she's 17 now. And, like most girls her age, she has issues with her mom. She's anxious to strike out on her own and head off to college far away from the small town where she lives. I feel for her.

In that small act of her wanting to take a picture of something from her childhood with her father, and by extension me, and share it with her friends, made me decide to change my refrain. And for the rest of that pre-Christmas weekend, things were different between her and me.

She showed me a photo app while we were waiting for ice cream. I shared an off-color comment about a South Park character and made her laugh. We took goofy photos of her dad. Together we selected sushi rolls for dinner. She helped me pick out cologne for my son, her step brother. She shared a brownie recipe with me. We went shopping at stores she likes and she showed me some gift ideas for her father to buy her instead of his usual gift cards. And as we shopped I realized we had more in common than our like for trendy clothes, South Park and sushi. How could I have missed this: We both love the same man; why aren't we best friends?

I'm not going to push the best friends part. But as she heads off to adulthood, I'm going to make certain that if she's interested in being my friend, I'll be ready to order up plenty of California rolls and gab about boys and clothes all night.

And I'll always find a place in our home for the lighted village.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Betty's Piece of Ass

As I was unpacking the holiday decorations, I came across the this (at right): A plush Santa’s butt ornament. Now who the hell would give us that and why would I save it?

(I suspected my mom, but a Facebook posting query revealed it was not. I still don’t know where it came from.)

I set the ornament on the coffee table, took a photo of it, and left the room. Within a few minutes the ornament was gone. Betty our dog had snagged it and put it in her bed.

“Aw, how cute! She’s decorating her bunk!” I said.

So there the offending stuffed Santa butt sat for a week. Occasionally I’d find it in another place in our bedroom, the room where Betty also sleeps, indicating she played with it.

Last night around midnight I was awakened by Betty rustling in the room. She’s been doing that lately: getting up to get a drink from her bowl and playing with toys briefly before trying to get back into our bed. Groggy, I just let her play. I dozed off but was awakened again by three strange, low mechanical tones. The sounds were flat and almost sounded like a bark. I thought to myself, “Was that Betty? Is she bark/talking?” I was half asleep, so a talking dog seemed possible.

Now I can barely see in broad daylight, my vision is so poor. In the dark, I’m blind without my glasses; I can’t even read the alarm clock that is six inches from my face. I peered down at her and could make out her whole body wiggling around and going to town on some toy.
“Betty, drop it and come back to bed,” I whispered. She would not even turn around. I put my head back down and shut my eyes. That’s when I heard the sound of organized notes from a musical toy, but not exactly a song. “What the fuck is that?!” I said. None of Betty’s toys make that noise. I wouldn’t purchase anything like that for this very reason: I don’t want to be awakened by nocturnal dog play.

I peered again into Betty’s bunk and I saw her with the Santa’s butt toy deep into her mouth so that only the boots and legs were sticking out of her muzzle. Then I heard the unmistakable notes of “Deck the Halls” rendered by fart noises. Truly the most horrible sound. And, very uncharacteristically, Betty refused to drop the offending toy. I pulled and pulled it from her, and the farting tune just kept going. She tried to run away with it and I knew I was going to have to chase her and perhaps bribe her with a treat to drop it. But I sat up too fast, and my vertigo sent me reeling and stumbling to the floor, scaring Betty into dropping the godforsaken toy from her mouth.

I scooped it up and shoved it in the nightstand. Betty sat by the nightstand whining for a while.
“Go back to sleep Betty. Christmas isn’t for another few weeks.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Fair Plan

I maintain that men don’t make plans. Unless it involves a sporting event or golf, they just don’t have the wherewithal to organize a planned event with more than one other person. I’m not even sure my husband ever made plans for a date with me prior to our marriage. Pretty sure I made all the decisions in that social arena too.
So when I overheard my husband and the husband of one of my girlfriends making plans to go to The Sandwich Fair, I thought it was impossibly adorable. I had to butt in and invite myself and his wife along. It took a lot of self control to stop myself from following up on these plans. I sat back and waited for the most part, though I did float a casual “so, are we really going to the fair Saturday with the J.’s?” Far as I know, my husband answered.
Imagine my surprised thrill when my husband and I received this email from J. who had cc’d his wife, S.

“8:00am - Pick up B’s (fair opens at 8am, we can go earlier if you prefer to be first in line; or later if necessary since I believe L. & S. have similar weekend sleep-in habits)

8:30am - Arrive fairground

8:40am - Walk through livestock barns to inspect the beauty of various farm animals

9:00am - stop for elephant ear

9:30am – stop for lemon shake-up

10:00am – stop for corn dog

10:30am – consider snack of cotton candy, homemade fudge, or fresh caramel covered popcorn

11:00am – start thinking about lunch

11:30am – eat at Fay’s barbeque for lunch

12:30pm – check out who won all the blue –ribbons for home-baked deserts

1:00pm – play the mouse game

1:30pm – complain about stomachache

2:00pm – consider heading back to Batavia

Of course, these points of interest are all open for modification if it doesn’t meet everyone’s expectations for enjoyable fair outing.”

Immediately I responded to J., indicating that this was perhaps my most favorite itinerary of all times.
Alas, it was slightly too good to be true.
“Did you see J.’s email today?” I ask my husband.
“Yes, but it’s not going to work,” he responds.
“Why? Too much eating?”
“No, I have to pick up my daughter Saturday afternoon,” he says. “We can still go, we’ll just need to take two cars so I can head directly to Hampshire from the fair.”

Unreasonably, I was upset. J.’s plan was so sweet, I didn’t want to deviate from it at all. I pouted and an argument ensued. Why can’t we communicate our plans more effectively I whined. But we can still go to the fair, he retorted.

We planned to meet them at the fair and text when we got there. We got a late start. After we made a stop at the bank, K. tells me which roads he plans to take. I stop listening almost instantly, knowing that my way of getting there will be faster. No. Matter. What. K. is famous for his shortcuts that always end up taking an extra 5 to 30 minutes to get to the destination. I am silent and he makes a relationship mistake by asking: “Is that OK with you?”

“Well.... I was just assuming we’d take 88 and get off at 47,” I say.
“OK, I hadn’t thought of that,” he says.
A few miles into the trip we pass under 47. There is no exit and I realize I’ve goofed. My arrogance is palpable; I apologize profusely.
“I knew there wasn’t an exit at 47,” K. says.
“What? Why didn’t you say something.”
“Don’t worry about it. Nothing we can do about it now,” he says.
I continue to press him on why he didn’t speak up. He urges me to drop it.
“It’s a gorgeous day for a drive,” he cheerfully says.

Rarely do I enjoy living in Illinois. But on a sunny September morning, the drying corn and soybean fields of gold and green rising to meet a perfect blue sky make me feel like the Midwest is the heartland of dreams.

We arrive at the fairgrounds an hour late. I get a decent cup of coffee inside the gates and we get in touch with the J.’s.
“Meet us at Horse Barn #1,” S. says.
I tell K. and he gets out the fairground map. I points to the barn on the map and traces out a route to it with his finger. He looks to me for approval.
“Uh, I suck at maps. I trust you to get us there,” I sheepishly say.
I get another call from S.
“The building is labeled Poultry, even though it’s horse barn #1 on the map,” S. says.
We wander around the grounds, a bit lost, but heading in the right direction. An antique farm implement display distracts us and we get even more lost. K. consults the map and sniffs the air. This is the right direction he says. I follow and within minutes we spot the barn and S.
They have already scouted out the breakfast options: Fresh mini-donuts, elephant ears, and red velvet funnel cakes. We get one order of each.

We loosely follow J.'s itinerary. K. and J.'s boyish enthusiasm for everything at the fair is contagious. Soon I've forgotten I was an arrogant idiot just a hour before. I've forgotten than I have a stressful job, that K. is unemployed, that my son has no money, that I've just blown my diet.

After looking at the award-winning home economics projects, and the photography contest winners, and the antique jukeboxes for sale, and the goats, cows, rabbits and chickens, nothing really matters except getting across the fairgrounds to the Fay's Barbecue tent.

The sun shines on us all day.
Men can make plans. Really good plans.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Thought Bubble

We finally hit the road into Chicago after a very late start because of hangovers and a hastily arranged lunch with an old friend.

My mother is in tow and we are heading to the Art Institute to see the Lichtenstein retrospective exhibit. This is my call. I want to see the exhibit, having developed an affinity for his work on a trip to New York nearly 20 years ago. I worry vaguely that my mother, who has invited herself along, and my sister will not appreciate this collection. Art appreciation is always a tricky thing; who can say what will resonate? My worries increase when whining begins because there is extra traffic on 290.

"We could just turn around and go shopping at Oakbrook," my sister says."No! We are going to the fucking Art Institute!" I unreasonably shout. "We can shop anytime. Besides, I don¹t have any money to shop." My mother giggles nervously in the backseat. She changes the subject to the recent health decline of one of her friends. This time her not-so-subtle attempts to avoid confrontation do not annoy me. She and my sister chatter on.

A personal Lichtenstein-esque thought bubble pops into my head: "...OH SISTER, YOU DO VEX ME SO." I think about all the bullshit things she made me do last time I visited her in Texas. She can suck it up and indulge me this trip to a world-class museum to see things that interest me.

We arrive at the museum and I march us directly to the Lichtenstein exhibit. While reading the exhibit overview, I decide that I will not attempt to discuss art with either of them while we move through the galleries. An alienation from my mother and sister swells to a grossly magnified giant comic-book cell of three women, caption reading: "...I WISH YOU UNDERSTOOD ME."

Apart from each other we move through the galleries. My mother appears bored. My sister looks critical. I tune them out and stare at the half-tone dots, lines and words, absorbing the work. How would I ever explain to anyone what this work means to me? I don¹t have to, I decide, thought bubble reading: "...OH BRAD, I JUST CAN¹T EXPLAIN MY FEELINGS."

Midway through the exhibit we enter the Mirror series. For me, this is Lichtenstein¹s most perplexing work and his most genius. My sister and I read the overview together and walk around. "I like these," she says. "He and I have the same opinion of mirrors," she continues. "How the mirror itself is art but what the mirror reflects is a work of art as well." For a fleeting moment my heart soars. She gets it! I am not alone. Conversation bubble: "...ME TOO!"

I say nothing. I nod in agreement. My mother chimes in. "These are my favorite too. This one is so big."

Could it be that they really do get what Lichtenstein is trying to represent about materiality and immateriality and the point at which both merge in your mind to become one? Could they really understand the paradox of perception that the mirror paintings evoke? Is their praise an oversimplification that creates its own paradox?

My own emotions are magnified one hundred times into an unrecognizable pattern. I draw a line through them and add a swath of turquoise. The resulting image doesn¹t need a thought bubble or a caption. I title it Satisfied Apathy.

We move on.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Fetes in Dog Parenting

I’ve never had a dog before, so getting our Maltipoo Betty is huge for me. Just like a new parent, I have been doting on that dog, obsessing over her every move. I carefully measure out her organic dog food, brush her daily, provide her with lots of toys and treats, check her BMs, and I even brush her teeth each night. I am rewarded with a dog who follows me everywhere, who whines when I’m away, and greets me joyfully when I return. She’s the perfect companion. For me.

Betty is terrified of my husband. She shakes when he’s in the room. And, when they are alone in the house together, Betty instantly leaves the room when he comes in. If we are both home and he enters a room that I am in, she tries to hide behind me – even when I’m reclining on the couch. Betty trying to burrow under my neck is really a funny sight. One time when Betty and I came home, she hopped on the couch and cautiously peered over its edge to see if he was sitting at the computer. When she saw he wasn’t there, I swear she had a look of relief on her muzzle, then went prancing about the room.

Nevertheless, my husband is a patient and caring dog daddy. He and I both await the day when Betty finally comes around to see that he really is the better parent.

Friday night at the beginning of a protracted heat wave, our air conditioning went out. I immediately thought of the dog. I feared she would overheat. Indeed she wouldn’t stop panting. Then again, my husband was in the room and she is always nervous and panting around him. But, after an hour or so of this excessive panting, I did what every nervous parent does: I googled “dog panting”. And, as everyone who has ever googled a suspected medical issue has, I became alarmed.

“I just counted her breaths per minute and it’s almost 200!” I said in a panicky voice.
“Dogs pant when they are hot. It’s hot in here. I’m sure she’s fine, but if you are worried, call the vet,” my husband calmly said.

After obsessively watching the dog for another 20 minutes, I dialed the vet. The pet ER tech said: “We always recommend you come in for anything respiratory related. We’ll have a tech check her out and if she needs to see a vet, we can have her do that.”

Within minutes we were hustling Betty to the pet ER in Aurora. My husband driving and me silently holding Betty.

My husband is always good in a crisis and this time was no exception. He carried Betty and held her while filled out the paperwork on a clipboard. We were the only people in the waiting room.

In the silence my husband shouts: “Look at my toes!”
In an instant I think “shit, are we going to have to take him to the ER too?” just as I look down at his feet.

My hatred for feet, especially men’s feet, is legendary. I like to brag to people that I have rarely seen my husband’s naked feet: he almost always wears white socks – usually two pairs at a time. It’s like he doesn’t even have feet, but cotton-covered paws. Huge paws.

But in this instant, in the harsh light of the animal ER waiting room, I get a full-on look at his feet in his open sandals. And they are nasty. The toes huge and crooked. The nails yellowish-gray and starting to sprout fungus, and clipped so crookedly you’d think a child cut them. Other than their hideous appearance, there isn’t a damn thing wrong with his toes.

Immediately I start to laugh. I cannot stop laughing and I’m laughing until I’m crying.
“Why did you make me look at them!?” I say wiping away the tears.
He is silent under his smirk and at that moment I realize looking at his toes was exactly what I needed to do.