One Foot (and a Whole Heart) Still in Childhood

 

My youngest son, Evan, is now a freshmen in a local high school.  He was anxious about going because he’d heard the rumors that every rising ninth grader hears: the upper classmen target you; in fact, they will target YOU specifically especially if you are short.

All summer he has been measuring himself against me, having grown about five inches in the last year.  I now look at his chin.  But this doesn’t mean he is tall yet.

The men in our family are average height. . .not short, not tall.  They tend to range between 5’10” and 6”, if you leave out a set of cousins whose Dad was 6’5”.  The man was not a blood uncle, so my sons can forget that gene pool.

My youngest was born an average length and a solid weight of 8 lbs. 4 oz.  But he has been below the curve of average size most of his life.  Some of this is heredity; some the fault of the ADD meds he has had to take which curb his appetite. But no matter what I do to circumvent these effects, my boy is simply built like his Dad in bone-skinny, and me in height-short.

I am certain he will catch up to his peers soon since he is still hovering on the child side of puberty, while many have gone far beyond.  And having taught high school for years, I know a growth spurt when I see one coming on.  I’ve watched countless boys 5 foot and some odd inches leave ninth grade and come back men in the fall of their tenth grade year, or even the eleventh. . .or twelfth.

No big deal.

To me.

But to him, he knows that there are ADULT males at the school: seventeen and eighteen year olds who weigh 250 pounds and roam the halls looking for kids like him to carry around by the hair.    Good thing Evan is witty.  And he tries very hard to hide these superstitions, too, posturing as older and wiser than that.

But here’s the thing that makes my tears well.  My youngest is still the youngest of not just my family, but of his peers in terms of maturity, and I’m watching him struggle with leaving childhood behind.  He shifts between being stoic and manly, and whiny and emotional, between knowing things he shouldn’t yet, or oddly innocent of common knowledge.

A few weeks ago, he did express this fear of these giant upper classmen and their possible hazing of the freshmen.  I comforted him by saying, “That’s mostly rumor and lies.  Seniors and Juniors are far too busy just living their lives, dating, working, applying to colleges.  The tenth graders are the ones to worry about. . .”

“Whaaat?”

“I’m just kidding.  Sort of.”

We smiled, but we both knew it was simply one of those rites of passage he’d have to face, just like the inevitable teasing he and his buddies have gone through as their voices began to squeak and squawk into something deeper. (His is still wavering up and down.)

Then toward the end of the week, I had to get a document notarized.  As we waited for the UPS store to open, he said, “How am I going to handle being an adult?  I hardly know anything.  Like Notary. What the heck is a Notary? There’s so much I don’t know.” He listed a few things from the previous week that were news to him.

I said, “Relax.  No ninth grader knows what a notary is.  I’m sure I didn’t at your age.” And then  I explained their duties.

But he’s right.  There is so much Evan doesn’t know that I or his brother did know at his age.  My youngest, because of his dysgraphia, is not a reader, and readers are filled with information, even if much of it is useless.

“Well, you know how you fix that. .Read more, watch more news, get out of the house and do more stuff. . .” I said, mentioning how he had been attached to the same pajama bottoms day in and out all summer.  “The more you experience. . .the more you know.”

Luckily, this is our son who loves to travel with us, and he does love new experiences, so his fear of being an adult ignoramus is somewhat baseless.  But I knew I was listening to a child face his future as a man who had to “know stuff.”

Then this past weekend. . .after snapchatting or tweeting or whatever young teens are doing now, with a girl who might or might not be his girlfriend. . .he came downstairs and asked if we could watch Harry Potter together.  After thirty minutes of digging, we located our DVD collection.  We hadn’t touched them in probably four years or more.

Tony and I sat with Evan, inside on a sunny Sunday afternoon, while we watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, for the Brits.)  At the moment Harry enters Olivander’s store to get fitted for his wand, my youngest raced upstairs looking for his two wands that we had bought the year Universal opened its version of Diagon Alley.  Again, I had to help poke around to find where the toys were.

And my boy, who just a few days before was yucking it up with me as we viewed a particularly adult version of Key and Peele, spent the rest of The Sorcerer’s Stone watching with a wand in both hand.

Yesterday was Evan’s first day of high school.

And many of you might know, there is a vast mental age gap between middle school and high school.  Students go from being led in a formal and silent line down the hall to the cafeteria, to near autonomy at lunch time.  Their lockers in middle school are usually inside their homerooms and assigned to them.  In high school, they buy them if there are any left over, and rarely see the little closets all year.  He’s moved from a school with 1300 pupils, to one with 3400.  He has more teachers, more subjects, and more strangers in his life than ever before.

He came home exhausted.  We went over his homework, and organized his new notebooks to his teachers’ liking.  I fed him pancakes and bacon, a special breakfast-for-dinner occasion.  He asked to watch Chamber of Secrets, another Harry Potter, this time without the wands.  And my child, beat from getting up at 5 a.m. and navigating pending adulthood, went upstairs to go to bed early.

When I came up to kiss him good night, I found him already sleeping.  But not in his room. . .instead, he was curled up in my bed, on my pillow, soundly out.  How many years has it been since he stopped climbing into our bed at night?

And I can’t tell which made me more weepy: the joy or the pain that both come from watching him cling to his childhood, or from knowing this would be probably one the last few moments I could baby him.

In a few weeks, he won’t even remember how uncomfortable starting high school was.  He will be fine.

 

Where’s the Hair?

Image result for hairy chest caveman

Men’s body hair?   I for one don’t understand where it is disappearing to.  Well, the chin, obviously, since hipsters everywhere are trying to impersonate Rip Van Winkle.

I’m beginning to miss body hair in general.  The other day, my youngest son was glancing over my shoulder while I was poking through a magazine.  On one page was an ad for a hair removal product.  The pretty model held an old photo of herself as a pre-teenager.  Her arm used to be covered in black down.  Not too crazy, just the sort that Italian girls might have sported when I was a kid.

Son said, “EWWW. Yuuuuck.”

“Huh?” I replied, as he pointed to what was grossing him out.  “That hair?  So what?”

And here’s the thing: he says, NOT something about her or other girls, but about himself: “I hope my arms don’t ever get like that.”

Well, my beloved kiddo, they MIGHT!

I was expecting him to say something negative about girls, but apparently very few girls even at his young age have any arm hair any more.  Are their parents shaving it off?  Waxing it?  They are not old enough for laser. . .I think.

I find his reaction so very ironic because when he was an infant, one of his self-soothing gestures was to suck his thumb while he gently yanked and smoothed the hair on my arm. . .or his father’s or his grandparents’.  I mean, my arm hair is  a smattering of blonde, or at the very darkest, light ginger growth, but it is graspable.  Oh, the sweet memories of his nursing, while he played with the little hairs on my wrist.

I’m sure there is some deep Freudian something at the root of his pubescent yuck of a hairy arm on himself.  I’m not sure I want to go there.

But more than likely, it is simply modern culture that is destroying his future self-esteem, should he grow up to be as fuzzy as his grandfathers.  Or Mom.

I know the trend of shearing the body to the skin is nothing new on the female side of the genders.  Years ago when I was divorced and had jumped back into the dating pool, I tried the waxing.  My arms suffering first, which bled,  stopped me from trying the wax in a more hairy, more tender region for sure.  In fact, my arm hair became ingrown, once the somewhat curly bits started filling in, causing a rash the likes of smallpox.

I had to go on a first date on one of the hottest days of the year wearing long sleeves. And of course, the date asked me, why the hell are you dressed like that?

Because YOU IDIOTS have decided hair is gross.

Even farther back in time, before the naked pubic bone trend, while I was teaching in a southern, “traditional” school, meaning a place where the men still saw themselves as the lions of the home, we came to a reading passage in a book which mentioned something about hair on a girl’s legs.

A young man shouted out how disgusting that was.  A young lady next to him said, “Lots of women around the world never shave their legs or their armpits.”

“Not their armpits?!!” he griped.  “That’s just plain dirty!”

“So,” I said,  “Really?  Why don’t you shave your armpits then?  Somehow YOURS are nice and clean? And hers,“ pointing at the girl  ”Are dirty?”

“Well. . .yeah!” said the boy.

I said, “HOW?  Don’t men sweat more?  Don’t they have more hair?  If so, how is it cleaner exactly?”

He started turning red.

I continued, “I think you should stand up now and say to all the ladies in class that you are simply a cleaner human being than they are, but that you could be even cleaner.  And then offer to shave your pits.”  He put his head down on the desk to shut me out and said not another word.

The hypocritical thing is that I did shave my pits then.  And I had no intention of stopping and no intention of men ever doing it.

I’ve accepted that this is just how things are.  So much so that a few weeks ago when everyone was up in arms over Sansa Stark being graphically raped by Bolton in Game of Thrones, and more so when R. R.  George Martin stated this was simply realistic to the time period setting, I couldn’t be bothered to ask, “If you are trying to be realistic to a time period then why is Cersei not covered in leg hair, or worse, why does Cersei have a ‘narrow landing strip’ of hair on her pubis.  Pretty modern. . .”

But the bald woman has become so “normal” I stayed out of that argument on misogyny.  I figured it was the actress herself who wouldn’t be caught dead with hairy legs on T.V..

BUT NOW. . .men are joining the changing trend .  And I don’t like it.

I happen to love a hairy chest, arms and legs on my men.  Whether a tiny smattering in that concave area between the pecs, or a thatch from shoulders to naval and below;  Think 1980s Alec Baldwin or Sean Connery? YUM!

I feel badly for men in general, and my sons specifically, that now they are beginning to suffer the grooming demands of a hair-fearing culture.  Sure, I can see the appeal of a slip-and-slide chest that some women crave.  But the vanity and the procedures behind maintaining such is so unappealing.  If it is natural, okay.  If not, don’t go there, Guys

I also feel badly for the young ladies whose mental picture has been so shaped by their culture that they cannot love a downy chest the way I can.  The Black silk that lines my husband’s stomach.  Tingly nirvana, Women!

And I hate that my children may have ANY itch of self-loathing due to the demands of hair-hating women.  My oldest son whose chest is fuzzy blond does pick and pull at it, and has wondered aloud about shaving it.

I cannot tell him that when I was back in the dating pool years ago after his father and I split, I dated a MUCH younger man. To my shock, the guy groomed his privates and shaved his chest. And even as recently as he had done so, I was completely turned off by the mere stubble on his stomach, and the weird crew cut feel of his pubis.  Of course, I guess men are used to that feel from their wives or girlfriends . . .but I’m not going to discuss that with my son.

Not quite.  I simply said, “Not all women want a naked little boy chest.  Some women prefer MEN.  Keep your hair.”

Come on!  If we can shape people into this current baldy viewpoint, let’s reshape them back to the other.

On Being Licked to Death

A few years ago, I admitted to my husband that had I known we’d have to spend this much time with his Mom, I would never have married him. I think he loved me a little less after that, but I don’t care; I still mean what I said.

My Mom says my irritation is just an in-law dynamic. Should your Mother-in-law or daughter-in-law be perfect you still would find her irritating. I mean Mom can reorganize my spice cupboard without permission, send me sixteen articles about how to parent, nag me about haircuts, and all just washes right off me. I love her that much. But should my MIL bake me a batch of macaroons. . .try to give me a magazine subscription? I’m rubbed raw.

My mother-in-law is sweet, generous, outgoing. . .a woman who gathers friends like lint. She’s NICE, GODDAMNIT. However, also needy, passive-aggressive, and dishonest, she is a stress-inducing conundrum I can’t solve. To make matters worse, she wants to be around me All. The. Time. If it were just that she wanted to spend more time with her son, fine. I’d be happy to send him over every so often. But no, she has to win me over, and no matter how nice I am to her, she knows she hasn’t.

My husband? He doesn’t fully understand my annoyance because their relationship is so profoundly different from mine with her. When he visits her or she visits us, he quickly disengages in some manly way, getting involved in a handyman project, or disappearing into a sports broadcast. She is sensible enough not to bother him then. So she turns to me. . .

Let me begin with an analogy. We recently got a puppy, a sweet submissive female. We already have a grand Alpha Male, a Picardy Shepherd who struts around the house showing off his regal mane. Well, the puppy , being submissive, wants to lick his face. He can’t stand it for more than a second or two. He growls at her, sometimes nips her. This only makes her want to “submit” even more. Now she’s jumping, and licking, pawing and licking, grabbing his face with her paws and licking. He’d probably have to kill her to stop her.

My Mother-in-law is licking me to her death.

My birthday was earlier last month. A few weeks before, my MIL called me late one afternoon. I was napping and didn’t catch the call. Tony came home from work. HIS cellphone rang.  His sister was calling to confront him about how their Mom had been trying to call me, and why haven’t I called her back. See. . . MIL called only once, waited less than an hour and then drew my sister-in-law and husband into a triangle to discuss not only why I am avoiding her callS, but what they are planning to do to me on MY birthday.

MIL wanted to drive over and get me, take me to SIL, and then to Tony’s job site to lunch, a thirty mile tour. SIL thought it would be better to come to me, leave my husband at work, and do lunch from my house. At no time did any of them ask and include me in the plan. I was just the bad guy in the back ground avoiding (supposedly multiple) phone calls.

I handled it by letting them know that I had other plans.   His family thinks birthdays are national holidays. Should we need to do anything else on “their day”, we are committing a family crime, even if it is OUR birthday. His mother pressed on, so Tony decided I was going to her house later in the week for dinner. (We’ll address his decision making issues at another post.) So to make them all happy, I complied.

She wasn’t going to relent.

Driving home after my birthdaty meal, Tony said, “Well. . .don’t you think that was a nice visit? I think it’s more relaxing when it’s just us and her.”

I wish I could blow steam out of my ears for real. I finally said, “I really think you don’t get it. She simply doesn’t treat you the way she treats me.” (His sisters once told me that my MIL had issues with the fact that my husband looks so much like his Dad, my MIL’s long gone ex-husband. Maybe this is why she handles him with more distance.)

“She pretty much leaves you alone or you disappear.” (This time he found that her new satellite radio system needed tweaking.)

“Me, she just can’t fucking leave me be. Everything is complicated. Everything is a push to hear praise or to insert herself. . .” He seems to only know I’m serious when I trot out the F word.

I go on to describe this: Upon arriving she always, ALWAYS tries to kiss me on the lips. I’m fine with the hug. But even the kiss on the cheek seems pushy to me. When did Americans get all lippy? Some men can get away with it. But my MOUTH? That’s reserved for my husband and, for a time, my sons when they were young. Once the boys were uncomfortable, they stopped. But no matter what sort of deflecting I do, head ducking, arm blocking, my MIL is going to land that kiss on my mouth or at least near it if she can. I am not exaggerating. And not a quick peck. A full, lingering smooch.

Why don’t I tell her to stop? Because I once told her something along those lines years ago, and at the next gathering all I heard whenever someone else arrived was a loud repeat of my “directions.” The passive aggressive wench. I don’t need her to yell out to everyone who meets me: Don’t kiss her on the mouth, she hates that. So instead I deflect and hope she will catch on. Eventually.

After arriving, I find a spot on the sofa that is comfortable for me. With my disability, I cannot sit just anywhere. I’m happy where I am. MIL pushed me to try this pillow, that pillow, this chair, that chair. No matter how many times I said that I am fine, she found something else to suggest. Finally, she asked Tony to go upstairs and bring down the chair that. . .Tony told her no. She shut up.

She served Tony some iced tea as I poured myself some water, which is what I always drink. Tap water and ice cubes, perfect. She jokingly asked if I had something against her special water that she filtered and refrigerated just for me so it would be cold. (That’s fine.) I dump out the tap water and reach for the filtered. She then stopped me. . . “Or did you want bottled water?” (No, whatever). “You do. You want the bottled.”  I told her to just give me whatever she wanted to give me. (Jesus! I think in my head.) I finally received a glass of water and returned to my spot on the sofa. Again I get a push to at least use this special pillow that she retrieved from her bedroom. Then when I said,  “No, no, that hurts,” as she was shoving it behind my back against my will, she asked if, maybe, I wouldn’t be able to use that pillow at home. I told her no, but maybe Tony could, throwing her a bone. She set it aside for later.

She began her typical peppering of questions for which she rarely waits any answer before the next query. And her questions always go toward the negative. WHY? Not because she is negative, but because if you answer the personal negative things, then well, she must be close to you; she is in “the know.”

Did my son finally get a job, did my Dad let my Mom come over alone like Mom wants, or did he have to accompany her, is our friend still dating THAT woman?   Tony puttered away in the back ground while I was on the hot seat, not wanting to share any of the answers with her. The information was not her business, and it makes her feel unnecessarily close. If you ever mention a struggle with your boss, it will be a question she asks you forever. . .and she will repeat and twist what you have said. Silence is the best option, but an impossible option.

She served us an appetizer of exactly seven wings to share. . . From this new place she discovered. She went there earlier today to pick them out just for us. Just a little something. . .How are they? (Good.) Really? It wasn’t a lot of trouble, she admitted. She just thought it would be a nice change. What did we think? (Yummy.) Are you sure? Mom did a good thing? (She talks about herself in the third person.) There are some spicy teriyaki, a few lemon pepper, some garlic basil. . .what do you think, a good selection? (Oh, yes. You done good. Really.) A friend of hers suggested the place, and MIL just thought perhaps a quick run over there that afternoon was a good idea. We were worth it. Yummy? Yes, yummy? (Sigh).

I kid you not. Every kindness she performs is met with a neediness that no amount of compliments can fill. I once thanked her eight separates times because she bought me a taco at Taco Bell. Tony has tried to teach me to say thank-you once, and let her just hang there when she asks for more. That’s tough when someone asks you a direct question. I’m still learning.

The worst part was that we all knew that these were probably wings that some neighbor had brought over the night before. She and her local retirees like to gather for drinks, lots of drinks, and a little food. These were some leftovers she served rather than thinking about an hors d’oeuvres, which is fine by me; I don’t care if you serve me peanuts or nothing. My complaint is the lie she tells so she can seek the praise without the work.  I mean: who goes across town to select seven wings for three people?  But we all have to act as if this is exactly what she did just for us.

She realized suddenly that she has some sparkling water. She pushed this on me, though I verbally doubt that what she is showing me is water, and I remind her how satisfied I am with simple water.. The bottle she found looked like artificially sweetened, flavored soda water. And after she happily served me some, that is exactly what it was. Some sort of diet soda, which I hate and she knows this. I try to drink it. (Sigh.)

When she wanted to make “whatever you want” on my birthday, I relented and suggested Linguini with clam sauce. She had made it for me before. I love it, I knew hers was good, and I thought it was cheap and easy. I was wrong.

When I make it, I use two cans of chopped clams, Olive oil, a few cloves of chopped garlic, the juice from the cans, and if I need, milk. I might add lime, or parsley or basil, or parmesan, should I have some on hand. She however met me at the door already telling me that she had been prepping this since yesterday. She bought a special kind of clam (still canned, just much more expensive), bottles of clam juice, the expensive kind of linguini (?), fresh this, fresh that, cream, and, as she explained, “hand shredded artisanal parmesan”. What should have cost her 7 bucks for an entire meal, probably was forty bucks, and I better know it and acknowledge it, by God. She pressed me to follow her, and notice all the stuff she is “trying” this time. Her meal was tasty, but I would have been just as happy with something less complicated and costly.

But My MIL has a reputation for making things so much more complicated than they need to be. Of course, she then offended me by serving me about a half cup, and my husband a mounded 3 or 4 cups. Did I mention how passive aggressive she is? Then later, when my sister-in-law called, MIL again detailed the meal she cooked and asked SIL if she can bring some of “Mama’s special homemade linguini with clam sauce” over to my SIL’s husband. No. “ReallY?” she said, “Well, I guess I can send it home with Tony for his lunch tomorrow. How disappointing.” See, she had already scored with us. She was hoping to score with the other in-law, too, off the same meal. And of course, she did not send any leftovers home with us.

I noticed several books, each with book marks on her coffee table. (She has a tendency to purchase the recommended things, place book marks in them as if she is currently reading all of them, and then never break the spine open, ever.) There was one I was interested in. Here’s how the conversation would go with my Mom or any of my friends.

Me: Are you reading this? Do you like it?

Someone else: Yes. When I finish do you want it?

Or

Someone else: Yes. I’m finished.

Me: Do you mind if I borrow it?

Someone else: no problem.

Then It would go into my purse  to be returned later with a warm thank-you. Instead this is how it goes with my MIL:

Me: Are you reading this? Do you like it?”

MIL: What? That? Oh, are you interested in it? I thought it would be really good too.

Me: Can I borrow it when you finish?

MIL: Um, do you want to read it?

Me: Yes. Are you finished (I mean there is a bookmark half way in it.)

MIL: Do you want the other one, too, look at this one? (Holds up another)

Me: No, no, just this one, I’ll take it when you are finished if you don’t mind.

MIL: I just had heard such good things about it.

Me: Yes, have you started it? Do you want to finish? (I really don’t want her to give it to me if she is actually still reading it.)

MIL: Oh, take it now. Take them all. Here. . .(and then led me to review the books lined on her table and then in the guestroom. I’m encouraged to take any of them.)

MIL: I’m so glad that we can now exchange reading material, that I can give back to you, too. It’s nice that I have some books that you want to read instead of the other way around.

Me: (Thinking) huh? (Awkward).

I guess I have given her books. From the looks of it, my Mom has also given her books. But really, what is going on in my MIL’s mind isn’t about reading. It’s about sharing. It’s about having one more thing inserted in my life where I am obliged to thank her and lean on her. And I still don’t know if she started reading that book or not.

She remembered to ask about my painting, as she always does. Oil painting is something I do to relax, to feel productive and creative. It is personal. But she tries to save jars for me, and then constantly asks me how “her jars” are doing, like they are former pets. Has she been Helping? She demands to know. Uh, sure, I guess.

She found a used canvas for me. I think she did. For all I know she bought it to put up in her house and then suddenly thought, hey, she could give it to me. She buys framed artwork (prints or old office décor) with a compulsion, so it is hard to know. But that’s fine. Free canvases are good. But they aren’t really free. They come with the price that she can now tell everyone how she helps me with my art. She has inserted herself here.

Meanwhile, Tony was still puttering with the radio.

I glanced in a House Beautiful magazine while MIL was in the restroom. I found a roasted carrot recipe I’d like to try. Anyone else, I’d say, “Can I copy this? Or can I tear it out?” End of story.   I told Tony later that I actually considered ripping it out when she wasn’t looking and stashing it quickly in my purse, so I wouldn’t have to go through the inevitable push and pull.

When I asked, she joked about how the recipe was too important, she just had to keep it because of the Tide detergent ad on the back. Haha. Then she ripped it out, placing it in front of Tony’s eyes. “See? This Ad. I have to keep it. Haha.” Then she agreed that I could have it if I invited her over when I cook it, “Promise? Promise?” She wouldn’t hand it to me until I promised.. Then she begged to give me a subscription to that magazine, which I don’t want. I’m not an interior decorator. At all. She dragged out old copies for me to take home, and tried to push ANOTHER subscription on me. . .for a completely different magazine.

Aren’t you tired for me, yet, Readers?

I’m exhausted by now and just want to leave. And on top of all of that, she is always very handsy, especially if she has had cocktails, which she was enjoying that night, hiding in her “tea.” She will rub my shoulders, caress my arm hair. Kiss my cheek again (only because I won’t give her my mouth) or the top of my head when she walks by. Hug me spontaneously with a full bodied approach that is too familiar and sexual for me. Again, she barely touches Tony.

Tony finally stopped puttering. She pushed coffee on us. Dessert. We go through the same complicated dance. Rejecting the cup of coffee is as difficult as getting one.  Tony finally said, “Mom, forget it. We don’t need any coffee.” She then made a big production of giving me my birthday present, a gift card to a store where I like to shop. She spent waaay too much money on me, more than she can afford, denting her limited savings for retirement. I worry. Then she flourishes dramatically when adding a bag of macaroons on top of my present. (They aren’t my favorite, but somewhere she got it in her head that I like them and thus, she bakes them all the time in huge batches. ) I was happy, but again, I had to acknowledge all the hardwork she put into them first, before she actually let go of them.

She gripped them firmly, asking, “Isn’t it nice that I can do this for you now and then?” And though she made it sound like they just came from the oven, there was a freezer burn to them that lingered. I don’t mind that at all. I do mind pretending that they were just made. For me.

Finally, we prepare to leave, and Tony and she did a dance over the weird pillow she wanted me to take. Tony finally realized it was one she currently uses and said, “No. No, you use it, you keep it.” She shut up.

She made a big production of enumerating all the things we are taking with us. Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you.

So when driving home, Tony said, “That was relaxing”, I nearly punched him.

Mom tells me it drove her crazy when her own mother-in-law-my Nana- would stand waiting for a pot of water to boil when Mom made spaghetti. “Like I might miss it or something. . .” says, Mom. Or when Nana, while eating a piece of mom’s cooking, would tell Mom how she would teach her to make a pie crust “right” one day, a crust you could chip a tooth on. Maybe Mom is right. In-laws are naturally grating.

I wish, like my shepherd, I was allowed to bite my mother-in-law on the nose.

Thinking of Love: Nonverbally

I recently had an epiphany about romantic, expressive men.  And for a bonus, I also got the elusive relationship closure that so many of us seek.  It was a surprise gift from the universe. . .and my unsuspecting husband, Tony.

On New Year’s Day, I ran into a lover from my deep, dark past.  He, his grown daughter, my husband and I sat for about thirty minutes socializing, very quickly catching up. Meanwhile, Former Lover kept, as they say, making eyes at me.

This was not an affair that had ended well.  But it had ended so long ago, I no longer hurt to see him or speak with him.  We are both plumper, a tad greyer, and definitely more lined, but it felt like we had just seen each other the last week.  We chatted and joked briefly, and then my husband and I climbed into our minivan and sped away.

That was not the closure.  Former Lover had been a man who, met years after I lost my virginity, had actually woken my sex drive.  Our connection, though doomed, was immediate and ridiculously hard to define.

He was a musician and an artist.  No matter what time of day or night, he had some instrument of creation in his hands, a drum stick, a worn nub of charcoal, a guitar, maybe even a teapot.  It was not the Art or the Music that seduced me as is cliche; instead, his sheer joy while lost in his work and play was impossibly attractive. Oh, and he was.  . .is British, for all you Anglophiles out there.  I know, a sexual awakening, creative Brit?  Aren’t they supposed to be uptight and cold?  He wasn’t. Former Lover was prone to saying things about his heart beating faster or not being able to think straight when I was near.  And when words failed him, his body never did.

Much later, a short year into my relationship with my husband,  I was uncomfortable and feeling insecure.  I knew he loved me; he tells me so every day, in those exact words..  But. . .something was missing.  We had more than a few conflicts over the fact that he doesn’t give physical compliments very often.  And if he does, they come across as forced or awkward.  “Uh, well, don’t you look cute. . .”  At first, I just thought he was not verbal.  But, no, he was voted most talkative in his high school.  He can articulate. In fact, he fully compliments my cooking or my intelligence all the time. And one of his greatest assets his how much we talk, late into the night.

I then suspected that maybe, though attached to me, he didn’t really find me sexy or even pretty.  I figured, he was a practical man who had made a practical choice and had married the smart, talkative, nurturer, instead of the empty, distant model.  He would get perturbed, annoyed and then angry with me for voicing these thoughts.  But I periodically have had trouble shaking this sinking feeling.

I said to him, “There have been men in love with me before, a number of them who wanted to marry me. I KNOW what it feels like to have a man want me.”  And this wasn’t it.

I reflected back on the men who had loved me, some of whom I had loved in return.  All of them had been expressive about their love and their desire.  They would tell me how gorgeous my eyes were when they gazed longingly into them.  One man used to sigh into my then long, curly hair and go on and on about how he wanted to one day die in it.  (Not as creepy as it sounds when you are in the middle of being loved.)   One used to tell me I had the most delightful ass on the planet. Another, as I mentioned, described how pit-pattery he felt.  I believed every single word from these men. It was the passion they exuded, the eyes that seemed only for me, that made their musings true.  They openly and verbally reacted to my attempts to look nice when I dressed up, to my natural appearance, and my very smell.

NO, I am not a raving beauty.  But these were men who knew how to make me feel like I was.

And my husband isn’t one of those men.  Yet, that expressive passion I enjoyed from former beaus, even my ex-husband and Former Lover, is how I have always felt about my man. Tony.  He drives me insane with desire: His smarts, his goodness, his love making, his very being.  (To gain a picture, he somewhat resembles Clint Eastwood from the early Dirty Harry days. In fact, I had never found Clint a sex symbol until I fell in love with my husband.)  Whatever this former lover awakened in me, my husband puts to bed in the very best way.  He is the sort of lover every woman wants-gentle at times, considerate, but with just the right amount of manhandling to get his way.  I compliment him all the time.  I’d finally come to believe that inside, My husband feels the same way, when once, frustrated at my insecurities, he shouted, “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Enough Said.

So. . .a few weeks after this reunion, you might suspect how I’d react to receiving an effusive email from Former Lover.  (He knows people who know me.)   In it, he expressed how much he was still feeling toward me, and easily tossed out these words:  “My relationship with you was the most honest, intelligent, intuitive, erotic, and fulfilling of my life.  You got into my psyche more deeply than anyone ever did.”  He went on to express how he wished we had married all those years ago, issues be damned, and gone and lived the last two decades together.  In less than so many words, he was secretly seeing if I was “available.”

Nice to hear 20 years later, eh?  Do you wonder if I was tempted?  He was off to Central America in a few weeks.  I could easily jump on a plane and restart my life all over again.

I was stunned.  Angry a little at the tardy sentiment.  Envious of once again hearing such fine words. Irritated that he thought it appropriate to interfere in my love cocoon.  But also tickled pink. Tickled, tickled, tickled.

Though Former Lover hoped I’d keep all this hush-hush, I immediately told my husband, full transparency.  I was uncertain how he’d take it.

In stride. His first comment: “See, you still got it, Baby.”  Well, hmmm. Okay, yes. After how many gained lines and pounds?  “This guy sees you after 20 years and thinks to himself, ‘I want some more of her. I made a grave mistake all those years ago.’”

I also told my husband how sometime earlier last year I had written an amends to this Former Lover-we both owed one to the other for blowing up quite a lot of our world when we imploded as lovers.  I had tried writing before years before, but now, in Al-Anon and working a 12 step program, I felt the need to do so, with full responsibility. I’d written a heartfelt note, but suddenly my computer frizzed as it can do.  My words of contrition all disappeared.  I saw this as a sign to keep my mouth shut and mind my business.

Tony tells me this:  “Making an amends is for you.  God knows you did so with good intent, and cleared your mind. It doesn’t matter that the guy didn’t receive it. That this guy surfaces only months later, we run into him accidently, and now he is ‘resmitten’ with you, gives you a sense that what had happened years ago was real, true emotions on both sides.  Doesn’t that feel good to know now?”

There’s the closure, especially since I can respond with an amends now.

Here’s the epiphany:  All the men who have loved me in the past have been EXPRESSERS in various ways, artists, writers, musicians, even a stand-up comic.  They dealt daily in the world of sharing what was inside their hearts and souls.  I had veered away from men like Tony-business and math-minded, practical, relatively conservative.  In college, those practical guys had been the ones who seemed too preppy, they peed in the ice machines, and date-raped women in their fraternity houses. (How’s that for a childish generalization.) I stayed away from them.  But somewhere in my middle age, I got sick of the liberally slanted men.  Getting a divorce from my son’s Dad, an artist who had taken over a decade to figure out a career where he could actually contribute money to the household had left me cold.  And all my other boyfriends-even this Former Lover in question- had spent their lives stumbling  along, too, leaving all the heavy lifting to their wives or girlfriends.

Opening my mind, once I was single again, I found this trustworthy, practical, dependable Man, Tony,( . . .and yes, a former frat boy,) who has trouble verbalizing his attraction and his love for me in more words than “I love you, Baby.”

I had sacrificed the oh, so easy sway of big, fat words, for the strength of a solid man’s man.  And I’ve only benefited.

Those loving words in the former lover’s email were very pretty.  But also extremely simple to say, and not do for that guy.  My husband finds it much easier to do than say.  He understands commitment in a way no one else in my world ever has- takes care of his part of our world and then spoons me to sleep.  He also stands in the greeting card aisle for hours, reading all the cards to find one that says what he cannot.

The other night, my oldest son met his Dad for a movie.  After the film, en-route to somewhere else, he had a crappy flat tire on a major highway, and couldn’t get the spare loose.  Whom did he call?  Not his artsy-emotional Dad whom he had just left, but his step-Dad, Tony who quickly gave him directions to wait in the car safely till he got there.

This stoic man is the love of my life; I’m his, and we both know it.

To Twist a Maxim: Musings of a Happiness Dependent

I just finished reading yet another reposted secret-to-life-list on Facebook from helpful friends, explaining the 10 to 30 essentials one must learn in order to be happy. One of the most-oft repeated is the stickler that goes something along the lines of “Don’t look to others to be happy; be happy within yourself.”

Ahh, the foundation of co-dependents anonymous everywhere.

Upfront, let me say, being a happy human being all unto yourself, free of others, sounds divine. Oh. . .wait. . . the word “divine” comes from “of God” which implies that something I deem divine is heaven sent, thus, not independently created.

Let me try again. Upfront. . being happy with simply your own amazingness to light up your life sounds. . .well, crazy. Sort of sociopathic.

I know what the helpful advisors mean: don’t let others bring you down; don’t let others steal your light; don’t let others control your destiny beyond your bliss. . .etc. etc.. Those are good pieces of advice, even if I do say them somewhat sarcastically. BUT those admonitions aren’t the same as the advice: “Don’t look to others to be happy.”

Interestingly, the folks who most commonly share that on FB are the people who are entrenched in the accomplishments of their kids, their peers, their church, their mates. Ironic that they espouse independence. It’s become almost trendy to say it, a sort of holier-than-thou-ism that sounds so good on paper, but has absolutely no actual meaning to them.

Before you try to enlighten me, by shooting holes in my cynicism, let me say I have chewed on this co-dependency issue for a long time. What is the difference between healthy independence with joyous relationships, and codependency? What is the difference between co-dependency and healthy dependence? I am not always certain. I doubt those “listers” are, either.

If my husband ever has a fatal heart attack, it will break my heart. If my sons fret over a broken relationship, I want to cry with them. If my Mom suffers when she struggles with her memory, I want to soothe her brow like my baby’s. Genuine disturbances in the world of the people I love are going to effect me, and make me unhappy. I’d be emotionally stunted otherwise.

And the opposite is true. A special wink from my hubby makes my toes tingle. An award for my son’s artwork sparks my pride. Listening to my older son laugh with his friends in the next room, brings me pleasure.

My happiness depends on the happiness of others, as does, often my disappointment. If I make mistakes at work, and others know it, it is not unhealthy to be embarrassed by this. If noone wants to buy your video game idea that you spent years devising, you can tell yourself a million times that it’s all good, but that isn’t really true, is it? You can see yourself as the world’s greatest singer, but if folks plug their ears in your presence, and mock you, you’re going to be hurt. . .a little.

We do not live in vacuums. The nature of the human being is to find happiness with others, to entwine our lives with each other means that we cannot always see where joy is ours or theirs. And I am weary of the world dismissively pretending that there is something wrong with this as stated in a pithy fridge magnet-maxim.

But it isn’t that simple either: if my husband does nothing to protect himself from heart disease, and I lament and fret and worry meal after meal. . .well that’s a different story. If my Mom eventually fully enters the woods called Alzheimer’s, I will still need to sleep and accept it. If my sons keep choosing silly girls, well, at some point I can only sigh. Otherwise, I’d be codependent.

Enter the dangerous flaw in the design of the maxim. It is both true and untrue depending on how it is applied.

I have an alcoholic, drug abusing brother, who has been his own worst nightmare, who still has not hit rock bottom despite several arrests, one neck-breaking accident, and the near loss of his daughter to multiple semi-suicide attempts. When I was young, a teenager, I was of the mind that if I rescued him, I was gifted and emotionally superior to lessor beings. I outgrew that. I feel compassionate toward him. Any addiction is a painful dominatrix. But I also learned that he is his own victim, that only he can take whatever steps he can to sober himself fully, whether his state is rooted in genetics or society. It doesn’t matter; it is still his job. I no longer lie awake at night with worry. My happiness doesn’t depend on his sobriety.

My father however, drinks my brother’s drama like a warm cup of cocoa; pure enjoyment. He would vehemently disagree with me, and claim that he suffers deeply at my brother’s “lifestyle” (and the spawned drama of my niece who is a carbon copy of her father.) Yes, my father does suffer; he cries and loses sleep from his pain. However, he also relishes the adrenaline of being called in the middle of the night and running to the rescue. He adores the adoration of his son and his grand-daughter when they tearfully thank him (only to turn around and continue the shenanigans.) He loves having a subject to discuss that has weight, that has him as the hero in the center.

When I try to explain the dangers of this sort of co-dependency, nothing makes my Dad burn with rage faster. Isn’t a father supposed to help his child in any way he can? It has taken years (YEARS) of “rescues” after shocking events. . .And years of my hammering away on the co-dependency nail, before an eensy glimmer of understanding sank in. Dad resisted the concept that not helping IS help, because after all, isn’t his happiness a direct result of his child’s safety and happiness? (I couldn’t begin to get him to understand that no, his happiness was a direct result of his child’s chaos.)

My father was randomly reflecting on the concept of spanking a child. I can’t recall why. Some debate on talk radio? He argued that rewards and punishments work just as well; why spank? He began his lecture on the beauty of positive reinforcement. Somehow I was able to shift the angle of his argument back to my brother and this time, Dad didn’t see it coming. I said, “Every time Brother has made a really poor choice, what did you do?” He saw it immediately.

“Wrecked his car while drunk?” Bought him another.

“Broke his neck?” Paid hospital Bills.

“Went to jail?” Hired his lawyer.

“Lost a wife? . . .almost lost a child?” Bought him a house.

My father’s argument on the effectiveness of rewards and punishments suddenly dawned on him. Each time my brother has come close to what should be his “bottom”, Dad rewards bad behavior, reinforces it by resolving the “negative”. Classic. My father was speechless for the first time in my life. His need to fix was possibly undoing life’s natural fix.

But there’s the definition of co-dependence. When the structure of one’s life . . .one’s identity is reinforced by other people’s failure (or for that matter, success), one creates a cycle that keeps it all in perpetuation. In other words, Dad feels more like Dad when he saves my brother, so he wraps his life around this drama. My niece, who is on the verge of being diagnosed with border-line-personality disorder, lies constantly to my father, even from the occasional mental institution. Dad seems blind to it, because visiting her often and openly worrying about how to rescue her, (and fantasizing that he will save her) gives him meaning (and reinforces her behavior.)

He would say he would finally be happy when each is safe in body and sound of mind. I say, hogwash. He would disappear because they are not the kind who would remember to call him when their lives are fine. Does he subconsciously know this? The phrase “Don’t look to others for happiness” speaks directly to him, for THIS is codependency

It is the wife who keeps the household running smoothly while her husband drinks their world into oblivion. She will say she wants the drinking to stop, but somehow that order and power she has, makes her feel superior; she doesn’t leave. That buddy of yours who can only pull herself together if she talks to you at 3 am, who tells you every nasty detail of her debauchery with utter shame and never follows your advice, but goes on and on about how you are so awesome, and what would she do without you. . .each time you tell her, it’s okay; she has value; she deserves love too, when she breaks up with yet another horrible guy. . .believe it or not, you relish being the one she turns to. You deserve the 3 a.m. repetitive phone calls. THAT’s codependence. The fact that you know which friend will fall off the diet wagon at Bruster’s with you, and you blame each other . .THAT’s codependence.

But “looking to others for your own happiness” is not necessarily the hellion codependence. Because, like I said, to live so independently, so free of the needs and happiness of others is simply sociopathic. Those who are codependent will not break their own inexplicable pain until they learn the other people they keep expecting to change, should not have this much power over their happiness. My own codependence shows when I repeatedly expect my Father to see the light, when I am angered at how much my brother still hurts my parents. Because contrary to what I have said here, it is nearly impossible to turn a blind eye to the ones we love.

Underlying that truth is the other codependents anonymous truism: expectations are disappointments waiting to happen. I hate that phrase too, only because it and the happiness maxim have both been abused and twisted. Yes, my father expects my brother to see how much he is loved whenever Dad rescues him, and then wake up and change. But Brother doesn’t change, so Dad is then deflated. Expectation is disappointment waiting to happen.

But in any relationship, we have expectations. The danger is when we use these maxims to slough ourselves of the responsibility of other people’s feelings and expectations.

I listened to a woman (who was well-versed in the co-dependent anonymous mantra) argue that she should be allowed to hang out with any man she wants, and her husband should be okay with this, because “his happiness isn’t her job. He needs to make his own.” (Tadah. . .Maxim twisted.) My grandparents lived for each other’s happiness as they believed was the rule of a covenanted marriage. Well into their nineties, they never slept apart, they focused on each other, and they were still holding hands. I cannot imagine either of them ever spending time with anyone else that made the other uncomfortable. They would have laughed at the concept of independent happiness. I am sure anyone with these romantic expectations entering a marriage with someone who is not inclined to meet them will be unhappy, but does that mean they are wrong in their expectations?

My first husband who couldn’t carry on a conversation to save his life, once told me that this was how he was built, and if I wasn’t happy with it, tough shit; I needed to find something else to entertain myself and stop expecting him to do it. (badda-bing.. Maxim twisted) Well, I divorced him and eventually found a man who does talk to me about everything and anything. It didn’t make my ex-very happy. Yet he was right. I did find my own happiness, but it was still bullshit for him to say it wasn’t his responsibility. Don’t enter into relationships if you truly want that much independence, right?

This expectation-to-happiness ratio is why financial advisors say don’t lend money: give it. Lending it means you expect to be paid back; then suddenly you are unhappy when they don’t pay you back. Solution? Give them the money so you don’t have expectations. But still. . .is this really the solution, to just flat out avoid expectations? I shouldn’t expect faithfulness from husband and friends? A boss shouldn’t expect employees to do their job? Parents shouldn’t expect their children to pass their classes? Based on these two maxims, no. Or if you are disappointed by them, recalibrate your choices, or you are codependent. . .

These are complicated maxims: That we have to find happiness within ourself; that we can’t have expectations of others without facing disappointment. Are they simply a bungled version of “love yourself or noone else will”? Or an attempt to unburden oneself from the needs or expectations of other people? Do they free us from being judged? Or do they help extrapolate folks from the jaws of codependency? Whatever truly, they create a sticky wicket.

Maybe both combined should be phrased like this: Your happiness depends on others, but if they are not making you happy, only you can fix that, but you cannot fix them, and trying will often make things worse; you are not ever completely independent and you have certain responsibilities to make others happy sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t count. And if your spirit is broken: Don’t sit around waiting for other people to fix you, because, you my dear, can let go and find something out there joyful.

A mouthful. Not so simple as “listed.”

Capturing the Truth in Portraits

Image

I am not an artist, but I do draw and paint with some small talent.  Often, as gifts, I will paint a favored setting, pets, or even portraits for people I love. Those same folks then tell me I should try to sell my work.  (Right…Along with all the artists who actually are able to make a living this way.)  Maybe this is possible, but only for strangers. . .because painting the people I know is the most difficult thing for me to do.  Even as a writer, I have always found that the fiction I write is most stilted when I add real people, their real dialogue to the story.

What is it about knowing someone well that makes it nearly impossible to capture them on paper?  Their very essence blocks my view when I am sketching. Their needs strangle me, too, when I am shaping their noses, their chins.  I waffle between being the  ELLE magazine CGI master who thins out waist lines, straightens teeth, spaces out eyes, and the illustrator who is trying to capture what I see, what I know and love.

This past month, my parents celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.  Years ago I drew a large pastel portrait of their four cocker spaniels, which they richly framed and placed in their kitchen.  They proudly brag to visitors how closely each dog resembles the real animals, long buried, long-loved.  This year I chose to pencil-sketch their four grandchildren, and it was tough going for me.  I had to practice sketch each child repeatedly.  When I was ready for the larger sheet, I threw out seven different drafts, before I balanced them into one sitting. The cockers were so much simpler. 

Too many things to consider. . .which child gets center stage?  Will one head be much bigger than the other, (which, of my sons, we do have large heads, to the point where the doctor delivering my youngest scared me so much the anesthesiologist cursed at her, when the doc complained about trying to grasp my son’s giant head. . .)  Do I remove the nose bump that drives my dramatic niece to feel suicidal.  Will my nephew’s long hair which is certain to change once he leaves middle school, date this picture like all middle-school pictures do. . .?  Will my oldest want his ever-present glasses on or off?  Strangers do not effect these decisions.  I have no emotional investment in their portraits.

However, capturing my family was filled with heart.

My nephew has a devilish grin and the family Irish/Scots twinkle in his eye.  Each plane of his face was once my brother’s as well.  My niece has gorgeous, strawberry blonde locks, and certain Celtic beauty.  Her eyes tell so much about her, even in a pencil rendering.  And she is the epitome of my mother when my mother was a teen. (I seem to be the only one who sees it, but I am correct.) My oldest son inherited his father’s broad Saxon face and jaw, but his head is covered in the tightest blonde curls of anyone in our family.  Who gave those to him?  He lamented them when a Tween, but now accepts them as a great conversation starter.  

My youngest, I struggled with his drawing the longest.  He has the most mirthful smile of all the children, laughs and giggles with abandon.  And he has his paternal grandmother’s eyes, hooded lids, delicate eyebrows.  Every single draft made my child look Chinese.  As Seinfeld would say, not that there’s anything wrong with that. . .except that my child is so definitely English, German,  Scotts, with his smooth pale skin and ruddy cheeks,  He is, of all the children, the most Tribal Germanic, but in my sketches, he looked like I had adopted him.

I couldn’t just draw them without feeling responsible for their very image.  I found that they represent the eyes of my whole family, blue in all our known generations, with green pacific tones, yellow sunbursts, or pure aquamarine sky, but all blue.  All four of them have my chin in varying forms. I had never noticed.  All of them have eyelashes to die for, curly, dark blonde.  All share the hint of a dimple tracing along one cheek, my Mom’s contribution, though fully pronounced in my youngest.  My back hurt (as fused backs do) drawing and shading, but I ended up simply feeling so in love with these kids that I was able to ignore the pain.  There is much I want to redo, but my parents welcomed it, and wouldn’t let me touch up anymore.

Of course. . .the children were still my harshest critics.  The boys liked the sketches well-enough, though felt this or that should be changed.  But they feel that way when they look at photographs of themselves. . . so I didn’t mind (even if my oldest thinks he looks like that guy from  King of the Hill). My niece, however, felt that I had made her much too pretty.  The failings of drawings. . .I was worried she’d hate hers the way one deletes an unphotogenic selfie.  But instead, she felt she didn’t live up to her own beauty.  Let me tell you,  I didn’t enhance anything about her.  To me, she is exactly as she is in that sketch.

If only we could get people to see in themselves what we see in them.