The tree, the ficus and the journey towards an ampersand

xmastreeThey were exchanging gifts before they had exchanged the words, which made choosing difficult. To give too much, or too little might ruin everything. If they got it just right, it might cement an ampersand between his name and hers.

Him&her, her&him. Us.

She’d wrapped the Ficus in blinking lights, thinking it festive, but it shed leaves in protest. Fending off the cat was indignity enough. To prove its point, the tree chucked a bauble at her feet.

He bent down and picked up the ornament, his face reflected in the surface, smile broad and open. “I don’t think the plant is feeling it.”

“I knew I should have decorated the palm instead.” She played with the bow on the box. She wasn’t the careful sort, more inclined to rip through the wrapping like a toddler than worry the tape as not to tear the paper. The moment, however, hovered in the space between before and after, and she didn’t want to rush to conclusions.

I hope he likes it.

I hope she likes it.

“You need a real tree,” he said, and she agreed.

They walked into the velvet evening. The city hushed as if it had stopped to watch the snow fall. The lot wasn’t far, only a block or two, and they followed the floodlight like the homing star. She breathed in cold and pine and hope as they wove between the trees, looking for their future hidden among the branches.

“This one.” They’d pointed at the same tree.

It’s a sign.

Definitely a sign.

They carried the tree back to her apartment, each holding one end of the trunk. Snowflakes settled on her hair, melting into tiny gems, her face bright and rosy as she turned back and smiled at him.

He matched his pace to hers, not wanting to push too hard, or hold her back, asking her from time to time if the burden was too heavy.

“I’m stronger than you can imagine,” she said.

“I don’t doubt it.” His imagination was infinite.

He let her choose which end to carry, so she opted for the end with the branches. He would try to carry most of the weight, it seemed his way, but she could bear the scratching needles. Ever prepared, she’d worn gloves. The bag holding the stand dangled from the trunk, the contents jostling with every step. She could almost hear sleigh bells.

They crowded into the elevator, the three of them, then pushed their way out, down the hall and through the apartment door. He stood the tree while she set the Ficus free. It shivered with pleasure, shedding a few last leaves to remind her to never, ever impose in that manner again. It sneered at the prickly new neighbor. Sucker.

The pine wouldn’t dignify the Ficus with a response as it received the lights and ornaments with open arms.

When they had finished, they lay under the tree and gazed up through the branches. Unwrapping boxes could wait. They had ampersands to exchange first.

Photograph : Christmas 2013 by Ed Suominen © 2013 Creative Commons/Flickr

“What I am Thankful For…”

IMG_0749When the Dude was the little dude, every Thanksgiving I’d get a heartfelt letter scrawled on ivory handwriting paper. The missive was accompanied by a colorful turkey made from his handprint, a pilgrim or two, a tank, Dustin Pedroia, and sharks chasing Peyton Manning in open water.

Reading over prior year’s “thankfuls” I was struck with how little he’s changed. Although he might have a few new items to add to his list, the core is largely the same.

First  is the expected–my family, a house, my cats, decent food. “Decent” food? Really? It must be because I made him eat vegetables.

Next comes the really important stuff. I know it’s important because every word is spelled correctly; The Red Sox, The Patriots, Dustin Pedroia and Tom Brady, Star Wars, and Macaroni and Cheese, but only the orange kind, not the stuff Mom makes with four artisan cheeses. That version is merely “decent.”

Third, we get to the kiss-up phase, where he says whatever he thinks the teacher wants to hear. My country, the galaxy, freedom and liberty, and English. At least I think it says English.

The end is always the same. I’m thankful for Christmas. In his minimalist period, Christmas was the only thing he was thankful for.

My list is pretty short; family, friends, music, words, NPR and my Roomba. Oh–and my cappuccino machine. I’m a simple gal with simple needs.

I don’t get the Dude’s thankful letters any more, so I would have to guess at what he’d include. Frappuccinos and a full tank of gas (provided by someone other than him), Call of Duty, college acceptance letters, his “bros”, streaming television, doughnuts and Saturday.  The Red Sox and the Patriots. His handprint would take up the entire page. He wouldn’t include the tank, but Peyton Manning being devoured by sharks might still make the cut.

I have to wonder what he’ll be thankful for next year, when he’s been away at college for three months. I’m thinking he may be more appreciative of my “decent” cooking. I’ve never served up hot chili Fritos, not even once. Personally, I’ll be thankful to have him home, leaving his dirty socks in incomprehensible locations and interrupting my writing to discuss the baseball trades and the Pats Superbowl prospects. And my cappuccino machine. Some things never change.

 

Taylor Swift is my imaginary BFF

handsheartI just turned 50, at least that’s what my driver’s license says. I don’t feel particularly mature, and whatever wisdom grace bestows by virtue of age alone seems to have passed me by (I was probably playing Bejeweled at the time).  Denial, however, doesn’t appear to be a legitimate excuse for ignoring doctor’s orders, so I had a colonoscopy.

I won’t go into details, but the morning before my procedure, I had to find a way to occupy my time in five to seven minute snippets. This clearly is what BuzzFeed was invented for. That’s where I ran into Taylor Swift.

One would have to work hard to avoid Ms. Swift these days. I would guess that even survivalists hunkered in a bomb shelter in Nevada whistle “Shake it Off” while cataloging their supply of freeze-dried rations–and not in an ironic way. I had no idea, however, that in just one morning, she’d wormed her way into my psyche.

I arrived at the outpatient center and nurse walked me through what they’d do to me. The risks were minimal, she assured me, and my husband was there to take me home afterwards, since the anesthesia might make me a little woozy. That was her term for it. Woozy.

Apparently I talked under sedation, and it went something like this.

Nurse : You’re fine, but we want you to take it easy today.

Worried Me : But what about tonight?

Confused Husband : What about tonight?

“Do I have to remind you of everything” Me : We have plans, remember? We have that  party to go to–at Taylor Swift’s.

My husband lives in a cultural shoebox, and even he knows who Taylor Swift is. Ever hopeful, he attempted to reason with a woman under the influence of some pretty powerful drugs.

Rational Husband : Honey, you don’t know Taylor Swift.

Undeterred Me : That doesn’t matter. Taylor Swift is friends with everyone. Haven’t you seen that thing she does with her hands?

I put my hands together in the shape of a heart.

Wondering if this is normal Husband : No, I can’t say that I have.

Not to trusted with a credit card Me : I have to wear something purple. I don’t own anything purple. After we leave, take me to the mall, okay?

He took me home. I slept for four hours.

I had no recollection of this conversation, yet when my husband told me about it, I felt a sense of loss. Somewhere in the universe, Taylor Swift was having a party, baking cookies with Lorde and Lena Dunham, and I wasn’t invited. In the days that followed, Taylor stalked me, staring back from the cover of Time Magazine, dancing through a Long Island mansion in an interactive video/ad for American Express, and in countless HuffPo videos of children singing in the backseat of the minivan.

My 50 year old reality was still very real. My son got his first college acceptance, then his second, and his third, and I realized that he truly was leaving the nest in the fall. I was rejected for yet another job. My gray roots were showing, and I pulled my hamstring tripping over my son’s size 12 sneakers. I could make a heart with my fingers all I wanted, but was still 50.

While putting the laundry in the closet, however, I realized that I owned not one, but two purple garments. So I invited my friends over for lunch. We didn’t bake cookies, but I told them about my post-op ramblings, and they reminded me that I’ve said much more ridiculous things without any sedation required. They also reminded me how lucky I am to have my very real friends, and if this is 50, 50 rocks.

Except in six months I have to have another colonoscopy. This time I’m going to tape my mouth shut, just in case. Mark the date Taylor, I’ll  be waiting for that invitation.

Photograph : Hands, Heart by mafleen © 2013 Creative Commons/Flickr

Speaking of relationships…

megaphone (2)I’ve tuned my strings and rosined my bow, which should mean it’s time to practice. I know however, that it is time for the Dude to pose some deep existential question we must discuss right now. I barely make it through the first scale when I hear him clawing up the stairs on his elbows. When he’s finished, he collapses in the hallway outside my practice room door.

What will it be tonight, I wonder? The abandonment of scientific evidence by mainstream media outlets? Perhaps the feasibility of isolationism in a global economy? Or the perennial favorite, why do ESPN commentators rank Peyton Manning above Tom Brady?

None of the above.

“How do I talk to women?”

“Your lungs create air pressure which causes the vocal chords to vibrate, and then…” He gives me his best “Why do I ask you anything” eye roll. I’m still holding the violin, although I know it’s a lost cause. I don’t mind. I’m aware the sand is running out on my chick-in-the-nest hourglass.

“I mean beyond, hi, how are you, great party.” He gives a manly sigh. “Guys are easy to talk to. I make a sarcastic remark about Nick, Nick comes back with an even more sarcastic remark about me. Then I make another sarcastic remark, and…”

I stop him before this becomes the conversation that gets on everybody’s nerves, namely mine. “Ask questions.” I used to do this for a living. It’s amazing what people will spill when they believe you’re hanging on their every word. “Everyone’s favorite subject is themselves. Ask about her hobbies, her favorite classes, and her family. Ask follow up questions to get more detail. If she’s an equestrian, ask about her horse. If she plays an instrument, ask about composers.”

“But what if I’m not all that interested in her answer?”

“Do you think I’m all that interested in the history of debt?” My husband reads a lot of non-fiction. For the record, the history of debt is actually kind of interesting,  Maybe not four days worth of interesting, but interesting. “If you’re truly interested in her, you’re interested in what she has to say.”

He’s not convinced.

“Trust me. A–I’m a woman. B–I’ve had enough successful relationships that I’ve had sex.”

“With Dad.” Like that disqualifies him somehow. I’m glad my husband isn’t in the house.

“Still, I’m a woman, and you talk to me all of the time.” Usually when I’m writing, practicing, or about to go to sleep, not that I’m being picky.

“It’s different. You’re like a guy. You can even talk about Tom Brady.”

“I’m like a human being.” I get all woman-power on his ass. We’ve had many discussions lately about feminism vs. humanism, Gamergate, and why I go batshit when someone says they don’t like feminists because they’re “shrill.”

“Women are people. We have thoughts and ideas to share. We don’t just talk about shoes and our emotions. Women care about politics, and current events, and yeah, even sports. We’re just like men, except with boobs.”

He cringes. “You had me until the men with boobs thing.”

“And it wouldn’t hurt to share your emotions from time to time.”

“I don’t have emotions.”

“If you didn’t have emotions, you wouldn’t have crawled up the stairs and flopped the doorway of my practice room to ask me this question. Look Dude, these things aren’t automatic. They take effort.”

Effort. It’s such a nasty word.

“I’ve always heard that relationships should be easy, that if they require a huge effort, something is fundamentally wrong.”

“I’ve always heard one shouldn’t quote relationship advice until they’ve actually been in a relationship, which, by the way, I have.”

“With DAD.”

I know that this particular conversation has reached diminishing marginal returns, and I have a gig the next day I need to prepare for, so I pull out the best conversation killer I know.

“There are a few things I could tell you about your Dad, Dude. Like this one time…”

He plugs his ears and runs down the stairs. “Lalalala. I can’t hear you!”

“…he read this amazing book on the history of debt.”

Photograph : Suessian Megaphone, by Michael © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr

 

You aren’t your story. Uhm, what?

millertypewriterThe Dude threw himself on my office floor, face down. “Aaaaarrrrggggghhh.”

“Good day, then?” He raised his head enough to give me the look. If he wanted tea and sympathy, he chose the wrong cabbage patch. Still, I’m better at the emotional stuff than his father.

“For a school that talks about preparing us for college, you think they’d give us enough time to actually submit our applications.” He’s been hammered with work. Junior year was supposed to be the big hurt. Apparently it was just the warm up. “I’ve forgotten everything we talked about yesterday.”

I’ve been helping him with the essays. When he speaks, he’s engaging, funny, even poignant (he gets it from me), but somewhere between his head and the pencil his words take a snooze. So we talk. I ask him questions and he takes notes. He writes something heartfelt and his English teacher edits the crap out of it until he sounds like every other kid from his high school. My guess is that he sounds like every other kid from every other high school.

“Dad says my Red Sox hat as beacon analogy doesn’t work.” I knew his father’s critique had bothered him. The Dude had closed up like a hermit crab, arms across his chest, slumped in the teenage hunch of lalalala I can’t hear you. “It’s my favorite sentence in the whole essay. It really says something about me.”

He’s right. It does. His father is also right. As analogies go, it’s a little clumsy. Like something a seventeen year-old might write.

Coincidentally, I just attended a workshop on voice–the unique character of a writer’s work. We struggle with finding our voice, refining it while keeping it authentic and real. It’s the soul of a writer’s work, and what keeps the reader coming back again and again.

Getting critiqued is hard. It helps us grow, but let’s face it. It’s much more fun to hear about how wonderful we are.

Authors often quote the platitude “Our stories are not ourselves.” I don’t find this statement comforting. At best, I hear “We like you, it’s just your writing that sucks.” The real truth is that we are our stories. That’s what voice is all about.

I try it out with the Dude anyway, and he responded, “If we are not our stories, what’s the point of writing college essays? What happened to all that talk about wanting to know who we are, blah, blah, blah.” He’s extra emotive with the blah, blah, blah part.

That, Dude, is an excellent question (he gets that from me as well).

I think our stories are ourselves–as flawed and quirky and beautiful as we are. Perhaps hiding our voice might make us less vulnerable to the sting of rejection, but as the Dude would say “What’s the point?” How else do people know who we really are?

Writing is only one form of telling our stories. We each tell our stories every day in what we put out in the world. Be brave. Share your voice.

And Dude–don’t let the world edit you out of your own story. So far, it’s been a real page-turner and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Photograph : Typewriter of Capricorn by Emdot © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr

 

 

 

My son applied to college and all I got was this essay

draftMy son is applying for college and our entire household is on Valium. The source of our stress, however, is not the shift in our family structure or the cost of out of state tuition. It’s the college application process.

I applied to two colleges. The Dude is applying to eight. I’m told this is on the low end of average.  Each application has anywhere from one to three essay questions. And we’re not talking about lame, tell me about yourself, what you’re studying, why you’re buckets of awesome essay questions. These are theses worthy of a philosophy doctoral student or an entire White House Cabinet. Nothing separates the wheat from the chaff than having to outline a position on the Affordable Care Act in 300 words or less, in a way that shows the reader the real you. After all, it works for the Miss America pageant, right?

One of the essay questions is actually “Why do you do what you do?” I’ve been asking the Dude this question for years (although it’s generally worded “What were you thinking?”, and he’s yet to come up with any answer, let alone an articulate one. The best I can get out of him is an indiscriminate mumble and the head hang of chagrin.

Another question gives a quote about momentary connections with strangers that can have profound emotional impact. It asks the student to share a similar experience. We’re talking about a 17 year-old boy. Connecting with human beings would require him to look up from his phone, and compared to his friends, my son is freaking Oprah.

Show, don’t tell. Share something unique about yourself. Show that you’ve done your research. Articulate your career aspirations. Have career aspirations. No wonder the Dude is having a nervous breakdown. They’d might as well ask for the history of ball point pen spelled out in interpretive dance.

I understand that colleges need some means to distinguish between applicants, so let me suggest a few questions that will actually help illuminate the character of prospective students.

You have two critical assignments that will take all day, and both are due tomorrow. You could provide partial work on both, or complete one in its entirety. How long have you been procrastinating and what did you do instead?

Your mother has just asked you to answer her question and you have just realized she’s been speaking for the last five minutes. What is your response?

Which is the greater offense, driving the car home without enough fuel to make it to the gas station, or spilling your Caramel Crunch Frappuccino on the driver’s seat? Defend your choice.

Which is more transparent to you, the mass of  tortilla chip shards surrounding your desk, or the pile of dirty Kleenex next to your bed? Which one will your mother notice first, and why?

Your mother is a writer who churns out 500 word essays on a daily basis. What makes her uniquely unqualified to critique your rough draft?

I tell The Dude that writing is fun, and he looks at me like I’ve told him his Dad and I have sex. He’s actually a good writer, funny and creative. Adults, however, have done everything they can to suck the joy out of stringing words together, transforming meaning and cadence into points on an AP exam. Is it any wonder we tell them to show us who they are and they’re afraid of giving the wrong answer?

I don’t know where he’ll end up going to school. I only know both the Dude and the school are lucky to have each other. I only wish I could be there to see him find what he loves. As for knowing why he does what he does, I’m not holding my breath.

Photograph “Drafting” by Sebastian Wiertz © 2012 Creative Commons/Flickr

 

Advice to my 50 year-old self

winecoolerSo it happened. I turned 50. And I’m totally okay with it.

I remember when 50 seemed so old. When my brother turned 50, I sent him a batch of his favorite cookies–Christmas wreaths made from Corn Flakes and melted marshmallows–but I dyed them black. He didn’t get it. Humor is subjective.

What does the future hold? As the Magic 8 ball says, “Reply is hazy, try again.” Despite my accomplishments, the marketplace views me as unseasoned and untested, yet assumes I hold unreasonable expectations of advancement and compensation. There you have it. 50 really is the new 20.

I have HuffPo in my Facebook feed, so I’ve read countless women’s letters to their 20 year-old selves,. I hate to be repetitive. I wonder if my 20 year-old self might have some words of wisdom for my older self. Hear that, 20 year-old Jeannine? What do you say?

Thanks for asking. So much wisdom is lost to the ages. Listen up, b*^#$.

1. Wine coolers are totally sophisticated and cool. Have another one. If you keep one foot on the floor the room will eventually stop spinning.

2. Clothes look better with a little shoulder pad action. Very authoritative.

3. Aqua Net, Extra Hold.

4. You can save money by highlighting your own hair. Get a friend to help! No one will know you skipped the salon. Use the money you save to buy more wine coolers.

How on earth did I make it to 30, let alone 50?

I should have known you’d turn out all judgy and condescending.

Hard to believe, given the depth of your wisdom.

*Sigh* Fine, I’ll bust out the deep stuff.

5. You don’t know everything, and neither does everyone else. But they don’t know you don’t. You aren’t required to warn them.

6. There is no harm, however, in admitting that you’re wrong. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

7. Professor Apple is right, you should be a writer.

This is a little more useful, young self.

But wait, there’s more!

8.  If you have something to say, just say it. Even if class participation isn’t part of your grade. Being wrong is better than being invisible, and it takes infinitely greater courage. Besides, when’s the last time you were wrong?

You don’t want the answer to the last part.

Can I finish, please? You need to learn not to interrupt.

I’m afraid I’m still working on that one.

9. Don’t stop learning just because you have to graduate.

10. Don’t be so afraid. Woman up. If you’re going to fail, go big. It will make for a better story. After all, you’re 50. You’re old. Get a move on.

Easy for you to say.

That’s because I’m not afraid of screwing up. I do it all of the time. Perhaps you’ve forgotten.

No. It’s just that when you’re younger, the universe expects it.

Nah. It’s that when you’re older, you forget that the only person tallying your mistakes is you.

Younger self–you aren’t as clueless as I thought.

I take back the judgy comment. Sort of. Go be a badass.

Thanks.

And Happy Birthday. The wine cooler is on me.

Photograph “Pretty Coolers” by Natalie Litz © 2008 Creative Commons/Flikr