John Cusack and The Situation

 

It’s been months since the election and I keep hearing the same weird phrase on TV and at public events, and at work functions I attend with my husband. It goes something like this: “in light of the current situation we’re in as a country…” or “Our current situation means that…” Then there are polite, commiserating chuckles. The phrase always involves the situation, meaning Donald Trump is our president, so a whole slew of stuff is bad. Just name it: the arts, education, the state of the US in general; it’s bad right now, apparently. But the situation is not really about inflation or the environment or terrorism or the ridiculous cost of college, because if Hillary won the election, there would be no all-encompassing situation, just a discreet little litany of things we could improve on as a nation. So, the situation is that Trump is our president. Period.

I didn’t vote for Trump either, and I don’t like him. He’s a sleazy loose cannon and I don’t trust him, but I get it. Liberals and others who talk about the situation don’t. No matter how much political commentary they read or listen to, they’re still raking their brains about how he got elected and how people still like him (because most of them don’t actually know any people who do). They don’t get why lots of people seem willing to overlook that awful hair, that smug grin that is more of a grimace, that possibly shady past of his, the occasionally vulgar comments, his mannish wife, and that whole wall-thing. But if you ever watched movies made for teenagers in the 80s, is so obvious.

If John Hughes taught us anything, it’s that popular people are annoying, and the underdog really can win. No matter what name you call them by, high school always has and always will have the jocks and the preps, the geeks and the goths and greasers and maybe a few groups in-between. In my high school we had “grits,” (they wore jean jackets and graphic T’s, had big hair) and “grunges” (dark makeup, hair in the eyes, baggy clothes and Doc Martins) and “perks” (which stood for “perky.” Perks were often in student council, played a sport and did theater, as opposed to just plain “theater geeks”). The perks were usually popular, but there were levels of popularity, and the really popular ones were a little subset of the perks and were simply called “the popular kids.” They knew who they were and we all knew who they were and just like in any John Hughes movie, they had the trappings and accessories of popularity (the clothes, the cars) and wore their identity comfortably enough that it didn’t occur to them that it would ever be questioned or disrupted or overthrown.

And then it was.

I won’t go into details about my own high school, but let’s just say every now and then, along comes someone who doesn’t fit into any group. It’s usually a guy. He’s not popular, in fact he’s done time on the outer fringes of whatever group is the misfits, but he’s so okay with himself that by junior or senior year, he’s got friends in every group. He’s usually funny, in a jaded, dead-pan sort of way, and he’s observant. He knows all those groups, and knows he’s not really a part of any of them, so he’s a part of all of them. He’s a dark horse; he’s John Cusack, in a stupid trench coat and ratty Converse, and he doesn’t even have a car, but somehow it works because all of a sudden, he steps out somehow. He overthrows the administration, wins the pretty girl or even the student council election, becomes Prom King but shows up in jeans. The tables aren’t just turned, they’re upside-down and all over the place and nothing makes any sense anymore.

Only it does. John Cusack (you can substitute Andrew McCarthy here, or possibly Christian Slater, but John Cusack works best) rose to popularity because it turns out there were lots of people who didn’t fit into any group, or had been pegged a this or a that but didn’t identify with that group at all. They weren’t popular, and they didn’t stand out in any way, but they were the very foundation of the school, working hard, keeping to themselves, and feeling unrepresented until John Cusack came along. By then they’re just so sick of the popular crowd, so sick of the assumption that Stacy or Travis the popular kid has the answers, has the right opinions on everything and represents what people want, they’d do anything to upset the status quo. They’re sick of being told what they think and what they need and what’s the right opinion, and they want a hero of their own. A flawed, loose-cannon of a hero, with his trench coat blowing behind him like a cape, looking right into the camera with a screw you look in his eyes.

I don’t know why liberals can’t see that they are not everyone; that Hillary was Stacy the popular girl, and Trump was John Cusack. The current situation we find ourselves in is that the nobodies have spoken and Trump is president of the United States because more than half of the people who voted did so for him, on purpose, and the more Stacy and the popular crowd keep wringing their hands and hanging out at their lockers saying, “Oh my god, I can’t, like, even believe he won, he’s, like, a total nobody, and his hair? It’s like, the worst, everybody totally hates him…” the more popular he gets. It turns out John Cusack has some ideas about government, the reach of its power, and the extent to which it ought to get in people’s business, but if the people who think their ideas are the only possible correct ones keep ignoring him, the regular people will keep championing him, and it turns out they make up a good bit of the high school—or in this case, country.

In fact, the only way to make John Cusack go away is to take him seriously, as a person, as a president, because the second he becomes one of them is the second he’s begins to lose power. Legitimate disagreements with John Cusack, or a politician-turned-hero, make him lose some of his appeal. But so long as the rhetoric of the left is inflamed and incensed that Donald Trump is president—like the popular kids whining oh my god, this is so unfair, he will remain the unexpected and weirdly-appealing protagonist that he is. He’ll have fans in all the groups that aren’t the popular crowd; he will keep wearing that stupid trench coat even in summer (or, in Trump’s case, that stupid hair and pout), and he will represent the actual people, not just the popular crowd who told us what we ought to think. And Actual people, it turns out, think that if you don’t have tough immigration policies, you don’t have a country. Actual people think killing a baby that isn’t born yet is evil, even if you call it freedom or a choice, and even if letting it live is really inconvenient. Actual people think maybe it’s not such a huge deal that the earth has been warming and cooling for centuries, and it isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary now. Actual people think there was a reason for the second amendment, and that people ought to be able to purchase their own health care on an open market, and that open markets work pretty well, and Charlie Gard’s parents should have the right to try to save him, even if it doesn’t work. Etcetera.

I don’t know who the real John Cusack voted for, but it probably wasn’t Trump, because in real life he’s undoubtedly one of the popular kids and has all the opinions they told him to have. But I know what I learned from teen movies in the 80s: the regular kids eventually win, because there are a lot of them. Stacy and Travis just never noticed before. The regular kids are comfortable with their lives, their friends and families, and don’t care what people think. And not caring what anyone thinks might just be part of caring deeply about what is right.

 

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Stand Mixer and Prayer

Michael Giaetto, I’m putting this up for you because you liked it so much! 

Five years ago, I had more counter space. The counter wasn’t that big to begin with, and now roughly an eighth of it is taken up by a state of the art stand mixer in stainless steel, which is supposed to make me a better mother.

My friends call this thing a Kitchen aid, the way that a copier is called a X-rox machine even when it isn’t; the way a soda is a Coke, in some places, even when it is a Sprite. But my mixer is not a kitchen aid, because my husband got gift subscriptions to both Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated years ago and now he’s hooked on both. And so, in an effort to please me and validate my role as a mother and nurturer, and because of his deep, deep belief that one cannot truly embrace an art without the right tools, he got me the mixer that is ranked the best overall by both publications; best for making breads and cakes of all kinds as well as mixed meat dishes.

I am not bothered by the nature of the gift. I like practical things. And this was something I had been wanting for roughly five years, while he wanted a food processor. Nearly every recipe in modern cook books—and by that I mean anything published after about 1990—begins with in the bowl of your stand mixer… or in the bowl of a food processor… because it is a given that anyone who really cares about cooking has these things. The budget and countertop precluded getting both. So when he surprised me with this Cuisinart mixer for our tenth anniversary, it was a good thing; romantic, even. A gesture of surrender. It said “Your cooking and baking needs are more important than my hobby.” I felt touched and victorious.

Roughly the size of a Buick in the 50s, this mixer can do it all. The bowl has a 5.5 quart capacity, it comes with four attachments, and the top flips open so you can add a meat grinding attachment. There are twelve speeds on the dial and a separate button for “fold,” and a digital clock and timer that supposedly can be pre-set to mix while I’m away.

I have now used the mixer to make two different kinds of sweet bread, a cake, meatloaf, wheat bread, and blueberry muffins. Here is the thing: it’s bugging me. The paddle doesn’t reach down to the bottom of the bowl, so you have to detach the bowl and use a spatula periodically anyway. If the batter is thick, it all gets stuck in the paddle. It’s loud, so I can’t use it when anyone is asleep, which is often when I want to use it. And I got to thinking: it may be ranked best in function, but it looks like an aircraft carrier. Plus, I’m not going to grind my own meat. And why on earth would I mix batter while I’m away?

I started thinking of metaphors. Writers like metaphors, and I still want to be a real writer someday. My prayer life is like this mixer. I keep looking for something that will make my prayer life better; some tool, albeit a spiritual one. I grew up Protestant, so I’m still more comfortable with free-form prayer. My Evangelical friends’ prayers are of the casual, me-and-God-are-pals variety, which start off something like “Hey, God? I just wanna thank you for this awesome day, Man, and for giving us Jesus for our friend and brother…” I like the familiarity, but I think the language of prayer ought to reflect the depth and richness of the faith; I’m not comfortable using the same banter with God as I do with Dave at the filling station, although I suppose God vastly prefers it to no communication at all.

On the other hand, many Catholics seem to think that prayer, or at least public prayer, is a quick Hail Mary, rattled off so quickly that fruit of thy womb sounds like fruit of the loom, and without much sincerity. Or that a “real” prayer has to include “thy” and “unto” and sound like St. Augustine himself thought of it. Which is intimidating. So I tried getting into contemplative prayer, because the name appealed to me. Maybe this was a solution, a sort of modern style, but sanctioned by the Church. It is similar to meditation, in that you empty out your mind of everything and repeat a word or phrase over and over in order to come closer to God. Turns out it is frowned on in some circles, and only recommended if you do it right, otherwise it can lead to a sort of new-age-ish emptiness. It’s fine if you don’t go nuts. Like yoga.

Finally, I gave up. I recently sat down to pray a little in the morning, because my day was not going so well, and I ended my little prayer with “oh, and God? Teach me to pray better.” The answer came loud and clear and instantly. God does not usually send me memos so quickly; usually he gives me a little time to search for the truth, wait for His will, come closer to Him, and figure things out in good time. But this time the answer was instant: I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was a soccer cleat, muddy and left in the living room. A Nike soccer cleat. That little swish instantly triggered God’s truth in my head: Just Do It. (As a side note, I recently learned that the swish is supposed to be wings, as in Nike, the goddess of speed and victory, who is usually depicted with wings. Who knew?) I really believe it was God talking to me through a muddy cleat that was seriously bugging me. He was saying Stop thinking about it so much and just DO it. Pray more. Pray now. Pray again in a little while. Just do it. Do it the way you’ve always done it; you don’t need anything fancy or new to help. Just do it. And soon you will do it better.

I thought I would return the mixer. The store had a happiness guaranteed or your money back policy. I thought I’d use it a few times just to be able to say I gave it the old college try, and then take it back. So I made pumpkin bread; three loaves of pumpkin bread at the same time, and my arm didn’t get sore from all the mixing. In fact, I left the room at one point to edit somebody’s paper on Holden Caulfield’s angst and put a load of whites in, and it kept mixing, and turned itself off so as not to over-mix. I kept it, and in that time, everyone living in this house outgrew napping anyway. (Except me. I grew into it.) They’re teenagers now, and if my mixer is making noise while they sleep in on Saturday morning, so be it. Pick any apocalypse scene from a movie, and if it were really happening, my kids could sleep through it. Plus, I care about letting them sleep until eleven about as much as they care about putting away their cleats. And the mixer is really not that loud. It has been years now, and I can’t imagine not having a stand mixer. So no, you don’t need fancy machines to do what you can do yourself, and you certainly don’t need anything fancy to pray, but if it helps you get the job done, use it. Just do it now.

I never returned the mixer. The store had one of those happiness guaranteed or your money back policies, so at one point I asked if I could return a mixer I’d been using for two years. The the guy asked the reason for the return and I said, “I thought it would make my life better. I thought $300 would make me a better mother. Turns out only me and God can do that.” It was the perfect thing to say, because his eyes got slightly larger, indicating that he was secretly thinking uh-oh, this is one of those crazy religious people, you gotta let them have whatever they want… and of course he said yes. But I didn’t return the mixer, I’d grown used to it. Counter space is overrated, and there was a sale on food processors.

 

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Dear Safeway

Dear Safeway

We’ve been together for years, and I want you to know I treasure our time together. I treasure it because it represents my adult life; my marriage, and most of my years of being a mom. But Safeway, it’s time for us to part ways. I can’t take it anymore. And let me be clear: it’s you, it’s not me. Or maybe it’s a tiny bit me, but it’s mostly you, but since I am the one spending twenty-thousand dollars a year on groceries (I am not making this up), you need to listen.

Safeway, your produce is beautiful. Your meats are cut perfectly and packaged expertly, your dairy cases are full and every baguette and brioche is fresh. But why do you have the prices of a Whole Foods and the service of a K-Mart? Honey-crisp apples are a dollar-fifteen each, a gallon of milk is four dollars, and a package of chicken breasts is fifteen bucks, so why do you have two registers open and lines to the back of the store? Why are there enormous displays of plastic toy trucks or lawn chairs or leggings taking up already limited isle space so that I can’t navigate to where I want to go? And why, when I finally get up to the register, must I be asked to donate to charities I have never heard of, and then be handed a fistful of Monopoly tickets that that are difficult to open for an online game I don’t have time to play so that I may receive coupons for things I do not buy, or work toward a set of cookware I do not want? Why can’t you just charge me less than fifteen bucks for chicken?

And while I’m talking about stores where you must bag your own groceries, I have something to say to you, too, Giant: what the hell happened? Your produce is nice, too, and while there is more of a chance I’ll get meat goo on my fingers at your store than at Safeway, and despite that one time I found live bugs in an unopened bag of rice and filled out a complaint online and instead of offering me a coupon for some free groceries, you had an lawyer call me,  I was willing to cheat on Safeway and come to you for lower prices overall. And I actually like getting points off toward gas. But Giant, did you think I wouldn’t notice that there is only one bag boy (can we call them that anymore?) for six registers now, so the cashiers have to scan and bag my groceries themselves (which they do at a speed that can only be described as passive-aggressive), while the lines pile up behind their customers?

And Wegmans! Dear, dear Wegmans, you are like a glamorous new friend who is sensitive and funny and remembers my birthday, but who turns out to be manipulative and high maintenance. Your prices on eggs and milk are great, but you are trying to seduce me with your platters of pre-assembled prosciutto and melon, your pre-made dinners for two (of which I would need three or four) and your cases of cheeses and breads that cost more than my shoes. You prey on my vulnerability with your bistro, where I stand in line next to cookies the size of my head to pay for shawarma and masala that costs more per pound than coffee or caviar. I don’t need a restaurant in my grocery store; I don’t need a DIY body-scrub bar next to the canned goods, and I don’t want to feel guilty for not supporting women in the Himalayas by not buying bracelets and placemats when I don’t need bracelets or placemats. There may be a day, Wegmans, when I have the leisure time to look at bracelets and placemats while I shop for paper towels and lunch meat, but that day is not today.

Trader Joe’s, you’ve been good to me. I like your prices on bananas and bread, and I love that pizza with the caramelized onions that only costs five bucks, but you lose me every time we need toilet paper, tooth paste and 409, which, I admit, is every freaking week. Your produce is absolutely adequate, and sometimes more, but I would need four bags of broccoli crowns to feed my crowd at one meal, and your prices aren’t that good. And truth be told, Trader Joe’s—and this isn’t your fault, but still– I am weary of the patchouli-smelling thirty-somethings with their reusable bags of quinoa and tofu, sometimes with a screaming four-year-old in a baby-sling who is late to get home and take a nap in the family bed. And yeah, I realize how judgy that sounds, but if I’m being honest, it grates on me. Your stores are small, Trader Joe’s, and you are crowded. Good for you, but not for me.

So I am breaking up with you. All of you. We will have to start living off what I can procure from stores I can emotionally handle, like pork rinds and Pepsi from 7-11, where the lines are short and you get what you pay for. Samar knows my name and carries my ice to the car, and throws in a penny when I don’t have one. I may never again know the pleasure of a Honeycrisp apple or fresh chicken, but at least I won’t leave frustrated. We will be malnourished, but we’ll save a lot of that twenty grand. And actually, ramen noodles aren’t so bad if you only use half the powder.  Let’s try to remember the good times, and maybe someday I’ll come back to you. But for now, you gotta let me go.

Love,

Paige

 

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Crying Next to Pretty Mom at Soccer

I started crying at my son’s soccer game yesterday. Not rocking back and forth blubbering, and not silent-hiccup sobbing, just a sort of leaky-eyed thing in the second half. Only one other mom saw, and of course it had to be the really pretty one who probably looks great when she cries. The one that looks like Lauren Graham when she was skinny on The Gilmore Girls. Our sons’ team was losing, and I’d been perfectly fine a few minutes before, so of course she put her (perfectly manicured) hand on me gently and said, “Oh, don’t take it so hard! That penalty kick wasn’t even his fault, this ref is crazy!”

I didn’t even know there had been a penalty kick against my son, because I’m the mom who knows nothing about soccer except that you’re supposed to kick it into the net. I thought the ref blew his whistle to keep up morale, or to signal that they were all doing great and it was time for a five-second break. He seems to blow it all the time for no discernible reason, so this was a valid conclusion.

Seeing my confusion, and more tears go down my cheeks, pretty mom changed tactics and went with, “Or… is it allergies? Are you okay?” I could see it dawn on her that this was something deeper; maybe I had recently lost a friend. A friend who played soccer, perhaps, making it all just too painful. I saw the wheels turning in her mind and the thinly veiled look that said she’d just caught a whiff of my crazy, and, wanting to reassure her, I nodded at the field and said, “They’re just so great, aren’t they? These kids?”

I assumed she’d know what I meant. Sort of. She was a mom of a thirteen year-old, too, who is every bit as smart and handsome and awkward and darling and goofy as mine, and I thought she would get it. But I was, admittedly, sort of PMS-ey and she was probably at whatever time in a woman’s cycle makes you your most confident, capable and logical self, so she did what anyone would do: she said, “Um, yeah, they’re awesome!” And then she pretended to be doing something very important on her phone.

She doesn’t have older kids, though, so besides being very not PMS-ey, she also doesn’t know what I know about thirteen-year-olds: in a few short months, you can’t protect them from anything, and they are leaving soon. Right now they are all limbs and they leave stinky socks everywhere and have rather bad skin, but mostly their lives are okay. They may not be the popular kid, but they have friends and they do fine in school and you can buy them Clearasil. But by this time next year they will be in high school.

And here is the thing about high school: it’s real life, with just as many disappointments and figurative land-mines to navigate. There are teachers who will dislike your kid for no reason, and think they are lying when they say they are late because they stopped to help someone pick up their books–you want to call up the teacher, but you can’t. There are teachers who will yell at your kid for asking too many questions, and then tell them later, you should have asked–you want to intervene, but you can’t. There are friends who will suddenly be mean for no reason, for weeks, and break your kid’s heart–you want to call them up and say what the heck, but you can’t. There are assistant principals who will give your kid a uniform slip on Halloween for her Robin Hood costume when the tunic went all the way to her knees, but not write up the seniors being playboy bunnies in shorty skirts and fishnet tights–you want to slap them upside the head but you can’t.

There are pop-quizzes on material that hasn’t been covered, creepy boys who walk right up to the line of harassment but only cross it with their big toe, and bottom-lockers that force your kid to crouch beneath a much larger one under someone who has no intention of hurrying even a little–you want to fix these problems but you can’t, it’s high school. There are people who disagree with your kid’s views because they are not what theirs are, and then call your child intolerant–you want to enlighten them, but you can’t–it’s not your fight.

Despite all the John Hughes movies that taught my generation that high school is strange and surreal but it all works out in the end and the pretty girl falls for the nerdy guy or vice versa, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all the hard work doesn’t pay off. Sometimes the teacher is just mean. Sometimes it doesn’t all make sense in the end; Molly Ringwald doesn’t get asked to prom and has to just go with that weird guy who was probably gay and not hot at all, but a good friend.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. You are Sampson without his hair; your hands are tied, you are rendered powerless, because it’s high school and you have to let go. Which is good and right: our job is to help them grow up from home, not jump into their lives at school. We pick them up and brush them off and send them back out there like Rocky Balboa’s coach, whose name I would know if I cared about sports at all.

Which brings me back to soccer, and the game that had nothing to do with the tears. It was about seeing my eighth grader out there laughing with his teammates as he played–and doing this weird floppy thing he does lately when he runs–and knowing it’s all ending soon. This darling awkward phase when he’s still a kid and I’m fairly involved in his life, even if I don’t know what a penalty kick is. (They seem to call penalties when any player falls down now? But isn’t that part of the game? Occasional falling?)

High school is around the corner and that goes in the blink of an eye. One minute you are wondering where to drop off your freshman and the very next second he is looking at colleges, talking about majoring in international relations. Boom. Childhood over. So of course I cried a little. It was like the time my daughter sent off for caterpillars, and we got to see them (Wanda, Trixie, Tracy and Glen) right on the cusp of turning into butterflies. The kids on that filed were short and tall and heavy and skinny and all kinds of awkward; one the size of a fourth-grader and one with a beard, but all of them wonderful. Mine in particular, as I’m sure all parents think. They’re all the kindest, funniest, smartest kid in the world, and pretty mom is just going to have to cut me some slack. “Hold on to this,” I want to tell her. “This is it. This moment, despite the dirty socks left on the floor and the forgotten social studies work sheet. It was boring anyway. But this, this is awesome. Don’t blink.”

 

 

 

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There’s This Purse

There was this purse I saw, and I thought it could change my life, and maybe it will. I’m not usually a purse person, possibly because of my grandmother on my mother’s side. My mom was petite and stylish and maybe even a little bit vain. She was fun and kind and considerate of the feelings of everyone, even the woman pouring her coffee at the restaurant and the guy pumping her gas. This was back when guys pumped your gas. For you. Routinely. Because you were female and they were male and they worked there.

We are not sure where my mother came from, because her mother was a bit prickly. Not horrible, like the chain-smoking, verbally abusive bad mothers in fiction; just prickly. She’d visit and bring you a present, but tell you how you should be grateful for it. She’d send twenty-five bucks for your birthday, but the card said to be sure to let her know what you spent it on, and don’t squander it away. When I was a senior in high school, she praised me for my nearly straight-As report card, and then told me to be careful because I was getting chunky. (I weighed 119 pounds at the time.) She once voiced relief that my sister was attending the US Naval Academy because maybe among so many men, she’d find a husband who would overlook “all those awful freckles.”

I don’t know what dysfunction in her own upbringing caused her to lace her compliments with criticism, and mildly sabotage her relationship with her granddaughters, and I say “mildly” because if we weren’t so dutiful, and so sure that there was goodness and good intention in there, too, we’d probably have written her off. Maybe it was her own strict, German parents, whom she never, ever talked about. Maybe it was living through the Depression and getting herself through college when most women didn’t even consider it. Or maybe it was the early death of her husband, who, from what I can tell, was the happy one, and probably the one my mom took after. Maybe my grandmother knew she wouldn’t find another man like him, or maybe her marriage had been a difficult one; I have no idea.

But I know this: her purses were awful. The big cream-colored one I remember from my childhood, not so much ivory colored as pale mustard, with black buckles; the black monstrosity that was her every-day purse, covered in something dark and shiny that was peeling off in places, revealing something like cardboard underneath. And her “nice purse,”  the giant white one she carried in her old age, made of vinyl that she said looked like real leather, which she said was “the best kind,” a very unsettling comment. They were horrible, and not for lack of money, since one thing my grandmother did very well was invest. She read the Wall Street Journal Every Day and had done well for herself, but carried purses that would not sell at any thrift store, anywhere.

The handles of my grandmother’s purses were too short to wear over her shoulder, so she wore them over her left arm, resting in the crook of her elbow, rendering that arm T-rex-like and useless, with the hand sticking up idly, Monty-Burns style. (Though the one time she found me watching The Simpsons she grimaced and gave me a look that said it might as well have been pornography.) Her purses were spacious, and she took pride in showing you how they held her wallet, her checkbook, a small pack of tissues and her glasses with room to spare. Enough for a mid-size Buick.

So I was traumatized, unconsciously and early-on, by my grandmother’s purses. I loved her, in the dutiful way you love someone because you are supposed to, but I hated her purses. I was and am still not fashion-forward; I did not grow up and carry a Louis Vuitton purse in my twenties, and once in my thirties I even asked someone, “what is Prada, exactly?” (She gasped in horror.) I simply grew an aversion to purses. All purses. Even my mom’s, because although she favored good quality bags–every two years or so she let herself get a new Coach or Doony-Bourke purse, and they made her truly happy–they were still big, like everything else in the 80s, and they were still carried in the crook of the arm, and they still had a matronly quality that I have an aversion to, despite being in my forties, having four kids and  a minivan.

So I tried, my entire life, to carry as little as possible in the smallest bag possible. In high school I carried a tiny wallet and a lip gloss in a bag the size of a sandwich bag, with the enviable GUESS triangle on it. In college I went all student-scholar, with only a backpack, except at night when I would cram some cash in my pockets (if I went out at all).  The diaper-bag years of my late twenties and thirties offered a respite, because a diaper bag screams THIS IS TEMPORARY I HAVE A BABY, but still, even my diaper bag was a non-descript black sling-over-the-back job with no polka-dots or baby giraffes anywhere, and by the time every child was old enough to carry their own damn sippy-cup, I had discovered the mini cross-body phone wallet, which says to the self and to the world: See? I don’t even need a purse anymore!

But last week I saw this purse. I was not shopping for purses, but that day I believe my car keys and phone were sticking precariously out of the shallow pockets on the back of my pants, making my butt look the size of Mrs. Doubtfire’s, and my wallet was tucked under my arm so I wouldn’t have to carry it, giving me a lop-sided gait as I shopped. The purse was in a shoe store, where I was waiting for daughter-one to try on ten pairs of Sperrys that all looked the same, so I had time to wander and browse. And there it was, beckoning me to come forward and touch it’s buttery softness.

It was small, as “bags” go (bags, I have learned, being different from purses), but large enough to hold a wallet and an ipad, or a tattered copy of the short stories of Edna Ferber. The leather was real and soft, but not floppy and flimsy, and it smelled like libraries and tobacco and nostalgia; like Indiana Jones. There was a pocket on the front perfect for a phone, but not so perfect that it seemed to scream phone pocket, so you wouldn’t have to dig in the main compartment and fish out your phone in the grocery check-out line when you heard a text come in from a child at home  wondering if he could use the creme-brulee torch to melt a plastic bottle into a Frisbee. (This really happened.)

The closure at the top of the bag was one of those discreet, magnetic button thingies that manages to close the whole bag while also providing instant-open technology, should you want to fish out a lip gloss as you pull into the parking lot at soccer practice and see that your son’s assistant coach is a guy you haven’t seen in twenty-five years, who sat in front of you in high school civics class and doodled pictures of famous athletes in his spiral. (This really happened. His favorite was John Elway.)  There was even a little lip stick pocket at the top, near the magnetic button thingy, so the lip stick would nearly leap into your hand in such I-forgot-makeup-today emergencies. And the magnetic button thingy then closes with a quiet little thud that says, “I got this.”

I don’t know enough about fashion to say if the purse was tailored or preppy (is that the same thing now?) or vintage-like or contemporary, but it spoke to me. Possibly, it had an urban-cowboy vibe, appealing to the dichotomy of my Colorado roots and current city of dwelling. It was simple and streamlined and sleek, with no tassels or buckles or nonsense, and the strap was long enough to carry over the shoulder with the bag resting in the little niche where your waist goes in, instead of banging against the hip. No T-rex arms or Monty Burns hands. And the best part: the bottom of the bag was a slender, banana-shaped wedge, making the bag stand up alone when you set it down. Holy crap.

I did not buy the bag. I had an impressionable teenage girl with me, who has a propensity to let money burn a hole in her pocket, and the bag was not cheap. It was not really even reasonable, though purse-people would probably disagree. I cradled it lovingly, and put it back, and I have thought about it for weeks. But today is my 45th birthday, and because I do not have to pick up a child anywhere after school or make dinner, I am going to go see if it is still there, and I am going to buy it. When I get it home, I’m going to lovingly load it up with my wallet and a lip-stick and a collection of short stories by some bad-ass female writer like Edna Ferber. I will be gentle with the purse, but not too gentle, because this purse can take it. If Amelia Earhart was a suburban mom, she’d have this purse. Or Meg Ryan, when she was a super-cute bookstore owner in You’ve Got Mail. Or if Indiana Jones had a daughter who had four kids, she’d have this purse.

It is time for me to let go of some stuff, like my grudge against purses, and my grandmother. It is time for me to embrace who I am, which is someone who needs a purse smaller than a suitcase for an international flight, but larger than a snack-sized sandwich bag.  I love that this purse looks good, but more than that I love that it feels right and smells good and holds exactly what I want and can stand alone when I need it to, which, it occurs to me, are some things I love about my husband. But about this purse: I think it could change my life. I think it could be one thing that is exactly what I want, when life is unpredictable and sometimes harder than you thought, and I think it could remind me that I am exactly me, not more and not less, but very capable. I just hope it is still there. Wish me luck.

 

 

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If (for girls)

If you can do what others don’t do, and not do what they do,

and be confident that you did what’s best for you;

If you can be kind when it is difficult, and humble even when you’re proud,

and know when to stand up for yourself, too;

If you can love when you don’t like, and give when you are weary, but know when to  walk

away and not give anymore,

If you can be at peace with your whole self, and grateful for what God gave you,

and make His work a service and not a chore;

If you can be stylish and yet modest, light-hearted but not empty-headed,

not caring too much if others think you’re odd,

If you can see that beautiful people are the ones who smile and laugh,

and be fun-loving but in a way that pleases God;

If you can grieve when sadness is called for, but pick yourself up when it’s done,

not wallow in the sadness or despair,

If you can reach out a hand to others when they’re flailing or in pain, not being pulled in,

but showing that you care;

If you can win and be humble in winning, lose and be gracious in loss,

seek beauty and goodness when others seek darker things,

If you can hope when it seems hopeless, have faith when the path is unclear, and

go to sleep and see what tomorrow brings;

If you can recognize when hard work is the only route to take,

and do the work with tired and blistered hands,

and keep on working hard when you really want to quit,

and build your life on rocks instead of sand,

If you can turn away from the superficial, put aside temptation,

and see the difference between a pebble and a pearl,

Then yours is the world and all that is in it,

and what’s more, you’ll be a woman, my girl!

 

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On Motherhood: Being Tommy Lee Jones

It seems to me that motherhood is cool again. Mommyhood’s day has arrived, and it is cool as long as you have the right accessories. There are blogs and vlogs and articles and whole books about mom-ing (not to be confused with motherhood, which is not the same thing). Cool moms are in the movies, cool moms are writing blogs, cool moms are starting their own companies that sell cool mom stuff. Celebrities, being humans, keep reproducing, and we see and hear about their offspring when they are small. Somehow, without wanting to or meaning to, I have absorbed knowledge of celebrities’ kids’ names, from Lourdes and Apple and Coco down to North and Saint West. I don’t even want to know these names, but I do. Having babies and being cool and stylish and thin is in.

With the exception of Suri Cruise, we don’t hear much about celebrities’ kids once they have turned seven or eight. Having older kids is not as cool; they are not an adorable accessory anymore. Moms of babies can write about the challenges of those early years; lack of sleep, schedules and napping and tantrums, and the cute stuff (first day of kindergarten, first tooth fairy visit, first disastrous birthday party) with a “we’re all in this together” voice, and it sells. Man, it sells. If you slim back down after the baby and your nursery is cool and your diaper bag is cool and–this is key– you put up with the not-so-fun stuff like tantrums and melt downs with patience and humor and wine (because hey, it takes a village, right? And a screaming, thrashing toddler in the grocery store should be just ignored, right?) then you are a cool mom. A middle aged woman in size 12 jeans writing about parenting teens? Not so much.

It is not cool to be a forty-seven year old mother of three teens, or a fifty-two year old mother of two high schoolers and a late-in-life baby who is now eleven. Forty may be the new thirty, but forty-seven is just forty-seven, nothing cool about it. And fifty-two? Forget it. Not only does your body betray you in countless tiny ways, your children become complicated people with un-cute problems. Plus they do not let you dress them. The clothes they do wear are not what you would have chosen for them, and their rooms are not cute, particularly if they are boys. Their smiles–at least the ones directed at you–can be as rare as a lunar eclipse, and when they are sad, you cannot make it better. It is not in your power; do not even try.

The moms who find beauty and joy in parenting teens are such superheroes, such workers of magic, there ought to be thousands of blogs and vlogs and books and articles devoted to them, too. I sort of want to write one; I sort of want the world to see the imperfect coolness of my life. These beautiful kids that are smart and funny, with razor-sharp wit (and in one case, razor-stubble), and the admirable way I listened when one of them unloaded about the stress in their life and did not tell them that sometimes their own choices cause them stress. That’s right: I just listened; it was damn-near heroic.

Or I could blog about the cool accessories of my life: my repainted kitchen, done on a budget, the flea-market find that is now a nightstand, the grilled cauliflower we had last night that blew my mind. But something happens in your forties: you grow up even more. You no longer want to be the one raising her hand in the front row, waving it in the teacher’s face to say I know! I know! Or, in this case, I’m cool! I’m cool! Maybe it’s fatigue. Maybe all of our energy is devoted to the parenting itself. Just this week my teens have mentioned things going on in their friends’ lives: stress, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment, cheating, death of a family member, alcoholism, an eating disorder, gender-confusion, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that doesn’t even include the more subtle things we must diagnose and help with as parents: spiritual development, character development, work habits, nutrition, etc. So yeah, those years when I had four kids under the age of six were a little hard sometimes, but they were so cute, and there were answers. There was curious George and cherry popsicles, reading stories in a home-made fort, taking nature walks and naps in a quilt. When they were sad, sleep was almost always the answer (and still is–this is the one thing that doesn’t change). And whatever the problem was–yours or theirs–the stakes were not very high.

But now are the years when we must put on armor, not to protect ourselves from our teens but to stand in front of them and jump into oncoming arrows. When you have success at teaching them something, or when you see the fruits of your efforts in a teenager who refuses to cheat, is kind to the friendless, a good listener, a hard worker or a healthy eater, it is a glorious thing. The clouds part and the sun comes through and you rip the armor off for a moment, hair blowing in the wind, and you give your mighty, barbaric yawp–or you smile a private smile and make their favorite dinner. But then you put the armor back on because here come the mortar shells and arrows again, and they will not relent and you must fight them, fight them, silently and without seeming to intrude. It is a delicate dance and you must dance, dance and never tire, never give up and never rest, except to sleep. When they are grown and you look back and see those cute blogs and articles about Lego-organization and outgrowing naps, you’ll be like a grizzled, used-to-be-handsome General having a look at new recruits; you’ll be Tommy Lee Jones, chuckling. You remember that, and it was awesome. And you know the road ahead is wonderful and terrible and difficult and glorious and you wouldn’t change a thing.

 

 

 

 

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