If You Want to Make God Laugh…

Last week, I won two symphony tickets by calling our public radio station and answering a trivia question. The question was:  “What song was inspired by the Battle of Fort McHenry?” Fortunately, I’m a fast Googler. I looked up the answer, called the station and timidly asked: “The Star Spangled Banner?” The tickets were mine. For a moment, I felt as though I’d won the lottery. Amadeus and I were going on a date, a bona-fide, honest-to-goodness date.

We always struggle financially. Amadeus carries the weight of the world on his roof rack as he drives to work each day. He’s been an angel, letting me stay at home and try to figure out how to contribute to our income in a gentle way, one that utilizes my writing skills and keeps fibromyalgia from pinning me to the ground. It’s been hit or miss at best. As I’ve mentioned, I’m disciplined when it comes to typing words onto a blank screen, but rather awful at the business end of things. My writing career is the longest work in progress since the building of the pyramids. I stay panicky and stressed. I want so badly to succeed, to help us stay afloat, because there are sharks beneath the water’s surface, and they’re all holding bills between their teeth.

We worry that we’re going to lose our little condo. Amadeus is retiring at the end of the year, and we fret about that too. We recently sold my car, because I seldom drove it, and the repairs were costing more than we could afford. Side question to the makers of the 2001 Kia Sportage: How much Super Glue did you use when you built that little cracker box from hell?

So nowadays, I stay at home. A lot. I write and do domestic things haphazardly, the way, say, Queen Victoria would do chores if she weren’t dead and hadn’t had 750 servants to do them for her. Though I’m not venturing out much, our house is often bursting at the bricks with friends and family, and our modus operandi is always to accommodate. We make coffee and feed people when we have trouble caffeinating and feeding ourselves. Spare beds and a sofa are offered to those who need them. Our ears are always available to listen and our shoulders are ready, should anyone need one to cry on. At the same time, we’re constantly worrying– about keeping the lights on, about buying groceries, about paying the mortgage. Magically, though, we always seem to have just enough. Magically, we always have something to offer. Our lights glow brightly. We stay quiet in our poverty, and as cornball as it sounds, love seems to carry us a long way. It’s quite a balancing act, but somehow we’re pulling it off.

But those tickets were a godsend. For a little while, I’d get out of the house. For a few hours, I’d be a middle-aged Cinderella, and Amadeus, my silver-haired prince. I dreamed of the two of us sitting in the comfort of our local arts center, escaping our reality, rubbing elbows with little old ladies who wore opera glasses and tiaras, like they do in Marx Brothers movies.  The tickets could have been to a pudding wrestling competition, and I’d have been just as thrilled. I was also secretly considering it to be my birthday present, because this year, we’re just not going to be able to do much. So you see, I was pretty excited.

On the day of the concert, I took a long bubble bath, applied makeup, did what I could with my hair, and picked out a swell outfit. I even dragged some high heels out of the closet and dusted the cobwebs off of them. I put on jewelry as I imagined sitting next to my sweetie in the cheap seats. Once I was appropriately accessorized, I wobbled my way downstairs in those shiny shoes, and Amadeus went out to start the car.

Well, Amadeus went out to try to start the car. The car, however had other plans. The car laughed at us demonically and said, “You stupid fools! How dare you think I’m going to coöperate with you?” Chug, chug, chug. Wrr-rrr-rrrrrrrrr. The battery was deader than the above mentioned Queen Victoria. A Honda Fit, indeed. Fit for what?

I called my daughter’s boyfriend and he said he’d zip over to give us a jump. Amadeus, handsome in his symphony-going clothes, went to find the jumper cables. The clock was ticking, and at some point I realized that we’d never make it to the arts center before they dimmed the lights. I called a few friends to see if anyone wanted our tickets. I posted them on Facebook, hoping to give them away to someone, but there just wasn’t time.

My daughter, her boyfriend and the Grandpea all arrived. I sat on the step in front of our house and kicked off my stupid shoes. There was no point in risking a high-altitude nosebleed at that point. As we waited for the car to juice, we all sat around outside talking for a bit. The Grandpea put on my shoes. They matched her pink tutu and pet monkey perfectly. She shuffled around in an adorable manner. “I’m Mimi! I’m Mimi!” she shouted, though no one was fooled for a minute.

You know, I’m pretty stoic. In fact, I’m often so happy that I wonder what’s wrong with me. The world is falling down around us, and still, there’s always a part of me that feels thankful and chock-full-o-joy. But yesterday, I have to admit that my emotional climate was less than balmy. I was disappointed, and a  deep, low-level depression was creeping in and making my body ache. I had my game face on, but the mouth part of the face was turned down a little at the corners.

After about an hour, my daughter and her entourage left. Amadeus took our remaining money for the month and went to buy a new battery for the car. He drives over sixty miles to and from work each day, with many stops in-between. Jump-starting his battery throughout the day just wouldn’t do.

While he was out making the purchase, I tried to shake off the sadness. Mind you, this wasn’t just about our plans being canceled. I’m a big girl, and I can handle those kinds of curve balls. This was just cumulative exhaustion, another letdown in a series of setbacks. Every day, we put on our combat gear and work our way through our situation. We keep our sleeves rolled up and we plug away. But yesterday, I decided to let myself feel sad. I knew that if I just went upstairs and snuggled beneath a quilt for a little while, I’d be okay.

The house was quiet. I lay there like a slab of sad, little boohoos hopping up and down in my chest. At the same time, I was ashamed of my melancholia. How can I ever complain? I’ve got a loving family, great kids, a fantastic husband. Our house is filled with music, writing, art and happy, shimmering, low-level  chaos. We have clothes on our bodies and shingles over our heads (for now). Even if we’re eating PB and J, I’m always aware of how friggin’ lucky I am. So we didn’t get to go out. Big deal. Boo hoo. Wah wah. Thank goodness we found out about Amadeus’ car when we did, instead of at 7:00 a.m. this morning, when he was about to take off for work.

Downstairs, I heard my son and his new girlfriend walk into the house, chittering non-stop happy talk, the way those who have just discovered each other tend to do. I tried to ignore them. Damned happy people.

Four minutes later, my cell phone rang. “Where are you?” my daughter asked.

“Oh, I’m just lying down for a minute,” I told her in a zombie-like voice.

“Well, I’m downstairs,” she said. That sweetheart. She’d come back, just to cheer me up. She reads me like a book, that one.

As I arose from my tomb of gloom, Amadeus came home and went upstairs to find me. He opened one bedroom door as I was making my way out of another. We met in the hallway and smiled. As we headed downstairs, the Grandpea saw us and she smiled too. She put her soft little arms around my neck, which reminded me that I was still on her top-ten list of favorite people in the world. Soon the house was buzzing again, filled with laughter and craziness and joy.

Later, Amadeus said, “I’m sorry about the symphony.” Instead of blowing it off as I’d normally do, I put my head on his shoulder and told him about my disappointment. Being a guy and all, he didn’t quite get it. “You should have found someone to go with,” he said.

“It wasn’t about the symphony,” I explained. “It was about the company. It was about getting to go out with you. I’d imagined sitting next to you in the theater, listening to the music. I even imagined walking around with you during intermission. It was just an opportunity to go do something with you at a time when we aren’t able to do much of anything. Plus, it was my birthday present to myself.”

Once I voiced it– once I gave myself permission to feel gloomy and bratty, the cloud began to lift. I always, always say, “It’s okay,” about life’s little downturns, and I always mean it. But this time, for just a little while, it just wasn’t okay. And once I acknowledged it, once I cried and pouted privately for a few minutes, everything was okay. There was a baby in a bright pink tutu rolling around on our floor with her mama. There was my son and his girlfriend sitting upstairs, doing God-knows-what. There was the guy I love, sitting in the living room as sweet and solid as a candy-coated cinder block, watching football and winning pretend millions at an on-line casino. My daughter’s boyfriend, who’s been around for about seven years now, came back over to our house and quietly took a place on the sofa, smiling at the goofiness of it all. I smiled too.

Smooth as a Porcupine’s Behind

There comes a wondrous time in a woman’s life, a time where age, experience and a plethora—yes, a plethora!– of high-octane hormones merge together to wreak havoc upon the general population. Our loved ones, who once found us so endearing, begin to white-knuckle their chair arms in our presence, dreading what we might say or do next. They wince. They cringe. They roll their eyes. At least my loved ones do.

I can’t help it, I really can’t.  It’s as though I’ve contracted some sort of menopause-induced Tourette’s syndrome.

I’ve always been genuinely fascinated by my fellow and fellowette human beings— my heart wants to learn about their lives and world views, who they are deep inside. Almost every job I’ve had has required me to conduct interviews. My conversational style is often a series of probing questions, geared toward scratching beneath the surface and really getting to know someone. I’m a failure at chit-chat, at air-kissy social stuff, and this deficiency has worsened with age.

My daughter recently explained my personality defect to one of her friends. I’d asked him some blunt question that I’ve since forgotten, but I remember that he stammered for a moment, a little taken aback by my query. “Sorry,” I said. “I no longer have an on/off switch in my brain.”

“She’s got one,” my daughter corrected. “It’s just stuck on ‘on.’”

It’s liberating in a way. For most of my life, I’ve been anxious and shy, worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, reluctant to express my opinions for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.  Over time, these concerns have been replaced by some sort of raging bull-in-a-china-shop mentality. Words fly out of my mouth like corn from a popper—my inner-censor seems to have found a more lucrative position in someone else’s head. At the same time, I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been, and happier than ever to be me.

I know some of you are nodding while reading this. I know some of you are nodding off while reading this. But a lot of women have told me that the same thing has happened to them. “Isn’t it fantastic?” they say. “Isn’t it freeing?” Well, yes and no. It’s freeing in much the same way that a lot of us feel at eighteen, after moving out of our parents’ house for the first time. It’s a period of self-discovery, of figuring out who you really are. You’re learning a lot about the world and experiencing fantastic new things, but you’re also making mistakes– horrible mistakes. You delight in your newfound independence, but it’s mixed with the horror of knowing that last night, you did thirteen Jell—O shots and took off your bra in the middle of TGI Friday’s. It’s a mixed bag of kittens.

Fast forward a few decades, and it’s happening all over again. Without the Jell-O shots maybe, but it’s happening.  You’re changing, discovering yourself and screwing up all over again. Worst of all, this metamorphosis is beyond your control. The hormones are driving the bus, baby, and they’re reckless.

*****

About a week and-a-half ago, I gave a presentation on blogging, entitled, “The Personal Blog: That Most Glorious, Miraculous, Transformative, Healing, Connective, Emotionally Powerful Medium in All the History of Humankind” – or something like that. It was part of a three-day event, and I was as thrilled about attending as I was about speaking. There were pre-parties and post-parties and a day packed with information sessions. I was looking forward to it for a lot of reasons: It was a chance to discuss a subject that I’m passionate about. I’d get to meet a lot of new people, promote my work and learn more about the technical aspects of WordPress. It was also an opportunity to improve my social media skills, which currently are on par with my two-year-old granddaughter’s. Seriously, yesterday, I caught her tweeting, “At Mimi’s house—wish she’d quit bitching about my lack of potty training. BOR-ing!”

In the weeks preceding all of this, Amadeus, my knight in breathable cotton armor, endured my angst as I prepared my presentation. Watch me refrain from tangenting about how I’m married to the most patient, supportive man on the planet– perhaps on any planet. I always have this feeling that, with Amadeus, all things are possible. I’m a braver person because of him. He makes me want to step up my game.

It was in this spirit of bravery and step-uppedness that I got ready for the opening night kickoff parties. I was excited.  Prior to all of this, I’d developed some weird, stress-induced rash on my hands, about which I eventually consulted a doctor. I picked my way through my closet with steroid cream-covered hands, trying to decide what to wear. Eventually, I settled on a little thrift store sun dress, one that buttoned up the front and tied down the back and was sprinkled with tiny little flowers. A happy, friendly dress that nicely matched the creepy red welts that covered my fingers.

*****

Deep down, I’m a shy person (Myers-Briggs: INFP), but my busted on/off switch, paired with a compulsive desire to please and put others at ease makes me behave completely counter to my nature. When I yearn to climb into my shell like frightened taco meat, I become perversely outgoing. I disobey my mother and talk to strangers. If they offer candy, I take it. Often, this tactic works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if gold stars were awarded for effort, I’d have my own personal galaxy.

So there we were, partying, getting our geek on. I was awestruck, being in the midst of so many social media wizards, techno-brainiacs and web deities. It was really swell. Amadeus sat completely at ease at a table and played Jewels Legend on his phone. I nervously stuffed a couple of southwest eggrolls into my mouth, then proceeded to mix and mingle. Fearlessly, I walked up to tables of strangers and chit-chatted, handed out my business cards and tried to keep the eggrolls down.

Everyone was so kind—some were outgoing and receptive, some seemed a little taken aback by my forwardness, but I’ve learned to honor my inner misfit and not let the reactions of others negatively impact me. In the end, I gotta be me. It’s always lovely when people “get me,” but I’m okay when they don’t.

I was loosening up, feeling happy and bubbly and social butterfly-ish, when suddenly, Amadeus grabbed my arm and said, “Let’s go.”

“But wait,” I said, pulling back. “I’m not ready…”

“Let’s GO,” he repeated, and dragged me out of there. I was hurt—he hadn’t been that gruff with me since I broke the lid of the toilet tank a couple of years ago.

We walked out into the lobby, and he turned and said, “The front of your dress is completely unbuttoned.” Sure enough, my belly, as white as a fish fillet, was exposed for all the world to see.* No wonder people were staring—I’d been flashing them for over an hour. Smooth, huh?

I have so much more to tell you, but this has already gotten way too long, so I’ll continue later. Fortunately for you, my laptop’s on/off switch is working just fine. Besides, my hands are itching.

*I am fifty-one. I have had two children. This was not sexy.

Eat the Frog

I have a low-level math disability. I’m not making this up– I’ve been tested and my malady has been confirmed and recorded in the International Registry of Unimportant Learning Disabilities.  My impairment has followed me from elementary school to high school to university, and it’s the primary reason that I will forever be a college senior, as opposed to a college grad. Stupid algebra.

Growing up, I spilled gallons of salty tears on the pages of my denim covered three-ring binder. My stepfather at the time would try to help me through some of my lessons, but it was obvious that I was math-tarded and he had no patience for my ineptitude. He’d yell at me and my brain would freeze as the little numbers and symbols sat before me like hieroglyphics on a rock. The stepdude went on to become a mathematics professor at a big university in the Far East (Pennsylvania); to date, I have failed or withdrawn from college algebra five times. In my desperate desire to graduate, I once went to the chairman of the Math Department and begged for mercy. “Isn’t there any way around this?” I asked. “I’m an English major—I can assure you that I will never, ever use algebra. Never.”

The chairman looked at me in that smug, mathy way that smarty pants university people sometimes do. He assured me that I was indeed obligated to take the dreaded course—it was a core requirement. He and his ilk are determined to perpetuate the myth that algebra is used in everyday life, and at the time, I really resented them, though I like using the word “ilk.”

Actually, he was pretty nice, though I hate to admit it. And on that day, so long ago, he dropped some words of wisdom on me that I’ve never forgotten.

“Let’s say that you have to eat a frog,” Chairman Dr. Math Guy said. “There are a couple of ways you can go about it.” He had my attention. “You can think about eating the frog. You can worry about it and dread it and prolong it. Or, you can just roll up your sleeves, grab the frog and put it in your mouth.”

Suddenly, things felt a little mystical, as though I were sitting at the feet of a Buddha with a southern accent.

“No matter how you choose to do it,” he continued, “sometimes you’ve got to eat the frog.”

Wow. It was a life changing moment. I let his office with renewed determination. I was going to eat that damned frog, by God. I re-registered for Algebra I, this time in a special class for idiots like me those with learning disabilities. I flunked again, and this time I gave up for good. Well, not for good. I’ll go back when I’m 65 and try again. Classes are free when you enter your Golden Years, when learning becomes a hobby, like scrap-booking.

Despite this humbling failure, this horrific defect of character, I believe that I came away from the experience a better (though several thousand dollars poorer) person. I never forgot the words of Chairman Dr. Math Guy. For years, I’ve repeated his analogy to my children, and to my friends.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to eat the frog.”

It’s become a theme in my life. In my younger days, I was an avoider of unpleasantries, a ducker of difficulties. I can still be that way, but in my heart, I know what works best. If there’s something going on in my life that I’m trying with all my might not to deal with or think about, I know that the proper course of action is to dive head-first into it—to make the dreaded phone call, tackle the awful chore–get the horrible piece of business over and done with.  The right path is almost always The Way of the Frog.  When I advise my kids to eat one, they know exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s easier said than done, and this brings us to the subject of Amphibian Avoidance.

I curl up next to Amadeus and instantly, all is right with the world. I’m happy and in love and my brain is smiling.  La La Land is a wondrous , magical place. It’s always sunny there, and little bunnies hop around and butterflies wiffle their wings while Indigo Buntings sing “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” all the livelong day. Beneath a rainbow. Next to a dancing unicorn.  There’s glitter involved. It’s my preferred place of residence, but in reality, there are a hundred frogs on our doorstep at any given time– tough, gritty frogs with attitude who insistently challenge me to grab a fork. For the past several months, it’s felt as though we’ve been wrestling with herds of them—health frogs, financial frogs, death frogs, career frogs, family matter frogs—it’s been a diet rich in ribbits. As I write this, there are appointments to make, taxes to file, a POS vehicle that needs selling. I haven’t produced any paid writing work for months now, and for me, that’s the biggest frog of all.

Which leads me to why I started thinking about all of this in the first place.  Writing Frogs. They can be big and fat and as ugly as Cinderella’s stepsisters. Writing about whatever pops into my head is freeing and joyful; writing what I know needs to be written— the stuff I keep throwing on the back burner– can be a frog-eating proposition. Submitting my work to editors is the biggest frog of all.

I’ve had a book-in-progress for a long while now, and another story in the works. I need to write long-overdue follow-ups to essays that I’ve written on this blog—it’s some sort of weird, self-imposed code of accountability I feel compelled to adhere to. I think about these things all the time. Pictures start popping into in my head; words start joining like strings of beads. I’ll start to dig in, but some strange inner force pulls me to avoid these projects the way I avoid all things algebra. A few of these are sad tales, difficult pieces, ones that press heavily on my mind and heart. I want and need to write them and eventually I will. In the meantime, I get up from the table. I do a load of laundry, play a word game, mop the floors. I go fishing with my husband. I write about something else. I call my mom. But always, always, those stories are waiting, the difficult ones that mill around and loiter in my head like smokers in an alley. They’ll never leave until I write them down.

Spring is here, and once again the world is shiny and new and buzzing with life.  The harshness of the past few months is evaporating; I feel strong and happy and ready to get down to business. The laundry can wait– it’s time to eat the frog.