More Up, Please

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Richard and I got married ten years ago today. All day long (and it’s been a LONG day), I’ve wanted a taste of wedding cake.

Our wedding cake was made by Cecelia Villaveces’ bakery here in Athens. The bottom layer was vanilla, the top chocolate. The whole thing wrapped in white buttercream icing. After Richard and I shared a bite, my friend, Sasha, sliced it up for the guests and served it on little glass plates. So sweet.

I’ve been thinking today about the youngest guests at that wedding–my brother’s sons, Grant and Jake. Let’s see, Grant is driving now so at the time they would have been 6 and 3. It was chilly that day, so they were dressed in turtlenecks and dress pants. I just remembered that Joe and Beth should have been on the way to Mexico for their annual spring break getaway, but they came to celebrate with us instead. I am so grateful for that.

The boys were in fine form that sunny day. After the ceremony, when the men were rolling up the Persian rug that we had used under the tent, I remember Grant and Jake insisting on “helping” to carry it back up the hill. Then they rolled down the hill until they had grass in their hair. I remember Jake chatting with Richard’s dad and how it tugged at my heart to see him with a little boy as his only son was dying.

As the luncheon wound down, Grant came by the little table where Richard and I were sitting to visit with us. He told me that he had been named student of the week. He was so proud of himself. I bragged on him and we clinked our glasses together in a toast to his success. Then he said, “Aunt Ashley? When are we gonna cut that cake?” I assured him that it wouldn’t be much longer. Then I leaned in close and whispered, “And YOU get to have the first slice because YOU are student of the week!”

We gathered around the cake table. Richard and I shared a little bite. The boys stood right at my elbow, first in line. Grant took his plate and walked back to the table where his parents waited. Big Gay overheard Grant as he looked his very health-conscious mother in the eye and said, “Aunt Ashley said I could have the biggest slice of cake and you can’t say no because she is THE BRIDE!”

Special days call for cake, so Grant and Jake each had a slice then lined up for another one. When it was Jake’s turn, Sasha asked if he wanted chocolate or vanilla.  Jake squinted at the cake and pointed to the top chocolate tier. “I want some…I want…um….gimme some UP!”

The adults in earshot laughed pretty soon we were all asking for “up” instead of chocolate.

That night, after the meds had been infused and the family was in bed, I sat up late writing thank you notes. The remains of the cake called to me from a white cardboard box in the center of the dining table. I opened the lid. All the up was gone, so I cut a slice of down. It was still deliciously sweet, but all I had to choose from.

Today’s the kind of day when I just want some up.

Actin’ a Fool

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After the kids were in bed, G came into the den and found me standing in the middle of the floor, watching “Godzilla” and writhing about.

“WHAT are you doing?”

I continued to flap my arms from side to side and wriggle my hips to the song inside my head. I squatted…rhythmically.

“I’m dancing.”

He kept walking.

Honestly, this is what February has reduced me to. Actin’ a fool is the only solution I have left to escape the depressive gloom that has been sitting on my chest for a month. So I have been actin’ a fool all day.

I have Bruno Mars to thank. While driving in to work in the pouring rain, already feeling like I had done everything wrong before 9 a.m., “Uptown Funk” came on the radio. I turned it up a tad then thought, “Fuck it, why not?” and turned it up so loud that my eyes were throbbing. I sang as loud and flat as I could, because nothing makes me giggle like singing loud and flat. Flat is FUNNY. (Take a second…try it…try singing “Blue Moon” like a foghorn) I danced in my seat, even at four-way stops where other people could see me. I tickled myself and it felt so so good to laugh at my own silliness.

charlie-chaplin-actor-failure-is-unimportant-it-takes-courage-to-makeActing a fool is different from cutting up, showing out, showing up, showing your ass, turning up, etc. I act a fool intentionally. I act a fool when the limits of reason have been reached and I need to jumpstart myself. I’m working on a couple of big creative things and find myself shutting down in the face of all that fear of failure.

I wore a garishly colored velvet scarf today with six inches of fringe. I bought myself an evil eye charm for my bracelet. I said “yes” to the lunch invite when I really wanted to curl up in a ball under my desk. I made jokes about holding a coworker’s taco. I danced like Elaine Bennis every time I passed Nicole’s office on the way to the kitchen for water. I squatted down by the road to take a picture of some daffodils in the rain. I changed my Pandora station from 10,000 Maniacs to Missy Elliott. I wiggled. I bought flowers for myself. I played with Carlos for half an hour instead of starting dinner. I watched Godzilla, for godsakes.

And I danced in the den to a song in my head. All too many pounds of me, shaking it like my rent was due. Instead of cleaning milk out of the carpet, or walking on the treadmill, or filling out those forms for the developmental pediatrician, or writing the RSVP (I’m coming to the wedding, Mandy!), or paying the $401 gas bill, or doing the taxes, or writing a better post than this, or working on that talk I’m doing at Missouri State in a few weeks, or finishing that quilt I started when I was pregnant with Vivi, or getting all those socks matched up once and for all, or writing a thank you note (I love the painting, Little Gay!), or cleaning out the freezer, or plucking these Sasquatch brows, or making plans for spring break next week, or planning our meals for the week, or or or or.

I danced. And I felt some better.

Don’t believe me? Just watch.

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An American Soldier

Sometimes, the best part of traveling is getting to see your own country through the eyes of another people. Like that time I was standing on the back of a boat going down the Mosel River in Germany and struck up a conversation with a local man. He said, “Yes! I’ve been to your country–ORLANDO!” Or the time in Greece when I asked for lunch “to go” and Richard and I shared a good laugh over how Americans like to walk and eat, walk and eat, whereas the Greeks would never think of disrupting a leisurely meal. Or on my first trip to France, when I had been advised to claim that I was a Canadian…but when asked where I was from in Canada, I couldn’t remember what part of Canada spoke French so I hemmed and hawed then said, “Um, Edmonton?” The young Arab hotel keeper laughed at me and whispered, “You are American!”

One of my favorite memories of learning about being an American while abroad happened in Luxembourg. That country LOVES America. Why? Because WWII, that’s why. While wandering around the city, Richard laughed and pointed to the map. We were on a street called “Boulevard F-D Roosevelt.” Neat, huh? Grand Duchess Charlotte and FDR were great supporters of each other during the war, and it was American troops that liberated Luxembourg from the Nazis. Over 5000 Americans are buried in Luxembourg, under our flag.

12th Armored Division soldier with captured Germans, 1945.

12th Armored Division soldier with captured Germans, 1945.

On the ride into the city, the train stopped in Bastogne and other towns I had heard of from the black and white war movies my parents watched. Richard and I pieced together our recollection of WWII history–the Battle of the Bulge, the Ardennes Forest. All that history had happened right there. I looked out the window at the trees along the track and wondered if they were all new trees, grown back in the last 60 years.

The Museum of the City of Luxembourg tells their story of World War Two in room after room after room. The exhibit is arranged chronologically, so that you get a growing sense of what the people of Luxembourg experienced. I remember a wedding dress made from a silk parachute. A flyer that, when folded the correct way, revealed a caricature of Hitler. Handmade flags, painted in red, white and blue to welcome the American liberators.

One object in that museum taught me a priceless lesson about being an American. I wish I had taken a picture of it, but photography wasn’t allowed. And I can’t find it on the internet, at least not the exact sight I saw.

In the exhibit about liberation, one entire wall was taken up by a larger than life sized photo of an American GI lifting a little blonde girl up on his shoulder as they both beamed with joy. She waved a handmade American flag. His helmet looked like it was about to slide off his head. The emotion of the photograph brought me to tears–the victorious joy, the relief of freedom, the letting go of some fear–all of that was rolled up in this one moment captured by the camera. The photo was entitled, “An American Soldier, Luxembourg 1945.”

GIs at the Battle of the Bulge.

GIs at the Battle of the Bulge.

I felt such pride for my country, what my ancestors had done to free the people of Europe after that horrible war. But the picture also made me feel grief for what my ancestors had done to the people of America, because the American soldier in the photo was black.

That girl in the photo smiled with every ounce of her being. He was there to save her. He was An American Soldier and everything was going to be OK because of him.

That American soldier in the photo joined up and crossed the ocean and fought his way through all those towns I had heard about in all those war movies. That American soldier fought in a segregated unit, because the American military wasn’t desegregated until 1948. Actually, that’s not true. During the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes forest, troops were desegregated for the first time–out of necessity. Units were being torn up so fast that the color lines fell by the roadside and all the Americans fought together. Counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest, 1944.

In Luxembourg, that man was an American Soldier and was celebrated like a conquering hero. Then he came home, to America, where he had to fight to be treated like a man.

That’s what I learned about my America in Luxembourg. A snapshot for Black History Month.

 

Blind Spots and Fish

TDS_Image_17This weekend, I learned that nothing improves my driving like a 15 year old in the passenger seat. The girls and I took a road trip to Wesleyan and Victoria rode shotgun. She’s preparing to take the learner’s permit test so she’s paying attention.

Knowing that she was watching, and being on my best behavior so that I modeled only good practices…well, it helped me see my own mistakes through new eyes. I used cruise control to keep my speed within the posted limit. I only looked at my phone at long red lights. Hands at 10 and 2. No fiddlin’ with the radio.

I signaled any and every lane change and I looked over my shoulder for good measure, even if the mirrors showed all clear.  My mother taught me to drive and she made the point over and over that whatever was happening behind me was just as important as what was happening in front of me. She taught me about blind spots–how people will sometimes ride in that spot that the mirror doesn’t show. How it’s my responsibility to turn my head and check, even if I’ve already checked the mirror.

So…I’ve been thinking about blind spots a lot this week. About how easy it is to crash into someone because you’re cruising along in your blind spot and forget to look, forget to take the responsibility to check twice and really SEE the people around you.

It’s so easy to get convinced that the angle from which I see the world is not even an angle–it’s the center.

In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College about the ceaseless challenge of living a life of empathy. The speech was later published under the title “This Is Water.” The title is taken from the opening story:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

 

Portrait of a fishI can’t get that image out of my mind–the difficulty of seeing that which surrounds us. The difficulty of seeing what we ARE IN from any angle other than where we are.

Blind spots and fish. They’re all tangled up in my mind with the idea of privilege and some of the verbal gaffes that have made the news this week (Giuliana Rancic insulting Zendaya Coleman’s locs, Patricia Arquette creating an “us/not us” dichotomy, a news reporter in Cleveland calling Lady Gaga’s style “jigaboo music”…good grief, people!). Sometimes we open our mouths and say things without checking to see if we have a blind spot. Talking can be just as dangerous as driving. It requires checking our mirrors, figuring our moves before we make them, then looking again over our shoulder, just to be sure.

Crying Over Onions

Don’t judge me for this story but I HAVE HAD IT.

Why was I standing barefoot in the 24 degree garage this evening, digging through the recycling bin in a desperate bid to locate an empty can of white clam sauce?

Because I had had it.

ONIONS 15I found the can. I read the ingredients list, there in the weak light of the garage. And then I hollered back into the house, “THERE’S NO ONION! NO ONION IN IT!”

Like I mentioned, I had HAD IT.

Let me back up. Tonight was noodle night at our house and I decided–since the kids won’t eat sauce anymore on their pasta–I might as well revive an old favorite easy meal from my past. One I hadn’t cooked in 10 years and I really missed it.

While the linguine boiled (and I tried to convince myself that Carlos wouldn’t throw a fit because it wasn’t spaghetti), I sauteed some fresh garlic and minced celery in olive oil. Cooked it nice and soft. Back in the day, I would have included an onion in there, but G doesn’t eat onions. Wait, he’ll eat French onion soup and Funyuns, and he buys onion powder for seasoning meat, but he won’t eat onion onions. They’re too oniony.

00182So…garlic, celery, olive oil. Then stir in a can of Progresso white clam sauce to save a few steps. Easy peasy. Serve over linguine with some fresh squeezed lemon juice and shaved Parmesan. Yummmmmmm.

Vivi scooped up her noodles…plain. Carlos added “shaky cheese” (that Parmesan in the green can) to his. G scooped up a plateful of linguine then skeeted about two tablespoons of the clam sauce on it. I fixed my plate and dreamed about the cold bottle of Soave I would have served with this and the crusty baguette…back in the day.

Not today.

Vivi started eating her noodles by shoving in an entire forkful, then tearing the hangy downy parts with her hands. No. Carlos took one bite then went on walkabout through the living room and den. Nope. I kept on enjoying my dinner.

I looked over and G is picking at his plate. Oh hell nope. I give him a look and he says, “Are there onions in this?”

“I didn’t put any in there. But maybe there was some in the canned sauce.”

Next time I looked over, he had made a little clam pile on the edge of his plate.

THAT’S what drove me to be digging around in the trash after dinner. ONION DRAMA. There’s not a damn bit of onion in there.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of catering to everyone else’s culinary choices. I haven’t sauteed an onion in EIGHT YEARS and sauteeing an onion was Step One of every recipe my mama and daddy taught me.

Vivi will eat an entire clamshell of grape tomatoes but won’t eat tomato sauce. No pizza or spaghetti bolognese. Carlos likes carrots if they’re raw but screams if he sees them in beef stew. Vivi will eat apples but not apple sauce. Carlos won’t eat chicken nuggets, for godsake! The girls will eat mac and cheese but the boy won’t. And don’t even think about making the version of mac and cheese I used to make with the Gruyere sauce and the butternut squash. Nope. Blue box. Shredded cheese is fine but string cheese is the devil’s own. One only eats toast with butter and the other won’t touch it if butter has been near. And by “butter,” I mean “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” because they like that better than real butter.

Victoria used to be a picky eater and had FINALLY broadened her palate…just in time to get braces. No sharp things, sticky things or stuck things.

I am so sick of the seven recipes I make over and over and over because there’s something in them that everyone will eat. Chili, taco salad, stir fry something, noodles, chicken broccoli casserole, cabbage soup. Yes, these weirdos tear up some cabbage soup like it’s birthday cake.

But DAMN, I miss real cooking. I used to make my own vinaigrette with freshly crushed garlic and grapeseed oil. The secret is to muddle sea salt with the garlic to really pull out the flavor. I had truffle oil and I used it to “finish” things. I roasted corn, baked bread, paired wines. I shaved my own damn Parmesan. The door of the fridge was filled with cornichons, pomegranate syrup, ground mustard, Irish butter, fig preserves.

The garlic press, the cruet, the wine decanter–all are gathering dust in the pantry.

I’ve been spending all this time in the kitchen keeping everyone happy. Except myself.

R-E-D

alphabet-150781_1280We have a Sunday morning tradition at our house. Vivi and Carlos pile on to The Big Bed and snuggle up with G and me. (Victoria outgrew this a few years back and opts for a good ole teenaged sleep in until noon.)

Carlos climbs up from the bench at the foot of the bed then folds himself quietly into my side. Vivi pounces onto the bed with her Pengy then settles under G’s arm. They kick and wiggle and make up games about the cave (under the covers) or the waves (over the covers). It’s delightful.

I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. Carlos said, “No, Mommy! Cover up your feet, Mommy! Go to sleep, Mommy!” so that I wouldn’t leave The Big Bed. I promised him that I wasn’t leaving, I just wanted to sit up for a minute. This morning, I was wearing my Heart Month t-shirt–the one that says “Keep Calm and Go Red.” Carlos saw the message on the back of my shirt and started naming letters. He’s been doing that for a year now–no interest in writing them, but he knows all the letters and the sounds they make.

But today, something magical happened, right there on The Big Bed.

I felt his little finger poking the back of my shirt. He chirped, “R-E-D…RED!”

alphabet-150768_1280G and I shared that look, that “Is it OK to freak out a little right now or would we scare him?” look. We kept calm and let him carry on.

“R-E-D spells RED! Exactly right, buddy! You are so smart!”

He read each letter.

“K-E-E-P….” He didn’t know what to make of these, so I said, “Keep!” He echoed, “Keep!”

“C-A-L-M…” I jumped right in with, “Calm!” He repeated it.

“G-O!” He waited for me to tell him the word. I said, “What’s the opposite of stop?”

Vivi shouted, “GO!” before she could stop herself and we all chimed in, “GO!”

Then he stopped. No pressure. But the moment happened and we had been there to see him take letters and pull them together to read a word. RED. R-E-D.

This afternoon, I had crept off to a quiet corner to read a few chapters of a wonderful book that my friends Abby and Rachel recommended: The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Get it. Read it. Love it. Thank me later.

Anyway, there’s a young girl in the book, Maya, who grows up in a bookstore, surrounded by people who love letters and words and stories. Yes, I cried a couple of joyful tears when I read this passage:

A.J. reads, “. . . on the very top, a bunch of red caps.”

The picture shows a man in many colored caps.

Maya puts her hand over A.J.’s to stop him from turning the page just yet. She scans her eyes from the picture to the page and back again. All at once, she knows that r-e-d is red, knows it like she knows her name is Maya, like she knows A.J. Fikry is her father, like she knows the best place in the world is Island Books.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Red,” she says. She takes his hand and moves it so it is pointing to the word.

alphabet-150767_1280When I made my bucket list all those years ago, one of the items on it was “Teach someone to read.” I didn’t know then that it doesn’t work that way. We don’t set out to learn how to read as something separate from our lives. We just grow up around letters and one day, they click in place and we realize that R-E-D is the way of expressing the idea that is the color RED. So my bucket list item should have been, “Watch while someone makes the leap from letters to words.”

Thanks, Abby and Rachel, for sharing this book with me. Thank you, Carlos, for sharing your world with me. I promise you a life of letters and words and stories.

Do you remember the first time the letters lined up into a word?

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It’s Going to Suck

Image courtesy morguefile.com

Image courtesy morguefile.com

It’s been a tough week and it’s ONLY TUESDAY.

Tonight, I talked with a friend who is going through a hard few months, and today was especially awful. I shared with her another bit of advice from my sage friend, Robin. You might remember Robin from last week and that thought she once gave me about the worst thing you can do for someone you love.

You know how, in tough times, people often say, “It’s going to be OK” when they’re trying to provide comfort? Well, when Fartbuster and I were divorcing, I said, “It’s going to be OK” in front of Robin one day.

She shook her head gently and said:

“Oh, no, honey…It is going to suck. You are going to be OK.”

And that is the truth. Tough times are going to be tough. That’s why we had to make up a whole nuther word to describe them because “good times” didn’t work. Death of a loved one sucks. Divorce sucks. Parenting struggles, health problems, foreclosures–all that messy shit we live through every day SUCKS. But YOU are going to be OK.

Share that encouragement with someone today, whoever needs to hear it–even yourself.