December 29, 2012

Are You Ready?

The New Year is a few short days away and the "Year in Review" lists are coming fast and furious, as are "The People We Lost" montages. Neither tells us much, really. They serve as much purpose as Chris Farley's in-depth interview with Paul McCartney.

We're like Sir Paul: we know what happened this year. We were there. What I wish those lists would relate are the things we've learned from the things that have happened. Seriously, I mean what are the take-aways from the Kardashians' latest breakup, or from reminsicing about the year's bitter bipartisianship, or even from Whitney Houston's untimely death? That we love celebrity soap operas? That we're sick of campaign ads? That drugs are bad? This is all old news. In fact, it shouldn't even be called news, it oughta be called Olds.
Granted, there is something fascinating about looking over the year and remembering, but what if we as individuals came up with our own lists? What would your list look like? More importantly, what would be your takeaways or lessons learned?

Here are some of mine.

Mourning and Celebrating Aren't Mutually Exclusive Events. One week before my birthday, my mom's last surviving best friend passed. Long ago, she decided that our family along with some surviving members of her family would see to the arrangements. So in the days leading up to my birthday, I dug through and scanned old photos for the slide show that would be played at the visitation. Tallked back and forth with the printers who would be designing the funeral program.. Ordered flowers. At the same time, my husband was like a giddy schoolgirl with a secret he couldn't keep: he had, quite uncharacteristically, planned something big for my big day. So one minute, I'd be choked up, the next looking forward to whatever his big surprise was. One minute, serving, remembering, mourning. The next minute, indulging, celebrating. Oddly enough, the emotions balanced each other out and I ended up appreciating the gift of another year in a way I hadn't before.
You Can't Handle the Truth! Actually I can, but the truth is a hard thing when you get it straight from FBI agents. This year, I signed up for the FBI's Citizen's Academy. It's a twelve-week long series of classes where agents educate the public on the Bureau's role in investigating terrorist threats, counterterroism, espionage, sifting through and investigating crime scenes like the World Trade Center and more. There was also "Shoot Day." We went to a range, learned to fire weapons and met with members of the SWAT team. They looked like babies, if you asked me; and calling the training they undergo "rigorous" is the mother of all understatements. These guys are always "on" and must be "at the ready" 24/7/365 because the bad guys don't keep bankers' hours. The whole experience was enlightening...and scary because there is a lot of local and international "activity" going on right under our noses, and these agents -- these men and women with families -- are quietly handling it while we go about our business.
Less than a month after "Graduation" from the academy, the Azana Spa tragedy happened: I realized that I knew the agents and those babies from the SWAT team heading over to the carnage. I had met them, talked and laughed with them.  Maybe Colonel Jessup was right after all.
Branson's Closer Than I'd Like to Think. 2012 was the year of concerts. Huey Lewis, Colin Haye and The Dukes of September (Michael McDonald, Boz Skaggs & Donald Fagan).
Years ago, these guys were headliners at Summerfest. We'd stand for hours, barely seeing the stage, because back then, we couldn't afford up-close-and-personal-seating, but now we're responsible working adults with less time to go out and fritter money away. Result: we can afford seats close enough to get sprayed by the performers' sweat. And so we get those tickets. However, nine times out of ten, the only people standing and dancing to the music during the concerts would be my friend and me (or Jamie and me on one of our too few date nights).
I began to notice that all of the concert dates were on weeknights, unlike back in the day when these guys played the Mainstage on the weekends. Now the weekend concert headliners have names like Britney or Justin or Carly. Most of them were learning to walk while I was dancing on a table in some smoky bar in Walker's Point. Meh...just goes to show you that time marches on.
Guess I better start saving up for flights to Branson, because sooner or later, that'll be Huey's or Colin's or the Dukes of September's next stop...and you can bet I'll be there. Weeknight or not.

Of course, there are more memories, more takeaways, some benign and some consequential. The point is not to just remember, it's to learn something and to move forward smarter and better....and to look for the lessons in the new memories that we'll make in 2013.

I'm ready to start looking. How about you?

December 14, 2012

No Newsday

In between swallowing back the crying lump and blinking back the tears, I’m fighting back the urge to scoop my daughter up from school.

Even as I’m heartsick, nervous and wondering if there’s any place safe or sacred anymore, my kid’s at school. Going about her ten-year-old business. Either chatting when she’s not supposed to be chatting; or most likely, making her dad’s birthday card right now.

The last thing on her mind is a lunatic desecrating her school – a place that Jamie and I consider to be a zone of safety – with a loaded gun. I hate that the consideration or threat of it happening even makes it onto my radar screen. I hate that right now, this tragedy is already evolving into battle of special interests.

I hate that screaming “Mama!!” or “Daddy!!” isn't enough to scare off the nightmarish bogie men of real life.

As hard as it is, I know I can’t let her see me being heartsick and nervous about this crazy, scary world. So until I pick her up, maybe I’ll just let the crying lump burst its way through and wipe away the tears as I mourn for those little ones and their parents while I pray for God’s grace over the whole situation.

And when we get home, it’ll be a No Newsday.

November 25, 2012

That Smell

That smell. That sour-sweet-earthy smell paired with the bite of the mid-fall wind puts me right there on 52nd street on the north side of town.

Even as I write this, I can smell it: it's October, and I can almost feel crabapples from the Grady’s tree pop with a thud under my feet.

These were all harbingers of winter – the smell, the bite, the pop. It meant things were dying and temporarily ceding their place to make room for blankets of snow.

The dying never bothered me. In fact, I looked forward to the smell and this natural cycle that meant backyard igloos, “face washes” (courtesy of my brother) and snow days off school were on the way.

Two years after mid-October of 1988, that smell was a punch in the gut. Tears started streaming from some internal well unknown to me up until that point.

Evidently, my mom’s diagnosis of liver cancer, her struggling through it for weeks and her death one week before Thanksgiving had tied that smell to that time.

That’s when I started to hate – hate that smell and the natural cycle. So I let that smell beat the heck outta me for about five years. Then I learned to ignore it, and then finally came to live alongside it at that time of year, albeit with a muted dread.

Look, I'm no anomaly. There are plenty of folks struggling with the loss of a parent, child, spouse, marriage, job, you name it. So here’s what I know: The triggers – be it smells or songs or food – sneak up.

They choke out the tears at the most inconvenient times and you may find yourself welling up at a board meeting…or at the mall…or in the car, and before you know it you and the steering wheel have a little secret.

But the triggers also lessen as the years go by because life moves on.

Between working, raising a child to be a decent human being, nurturing a marriage, fighting off the ever-present 800lb pound woman who’s continually trying to claw her way out of me, and figuring out what day I’m supposed to be in what room wearing what clothes, life hasn’t left a lot of time for breathing in that mid-October smell.

And that’s a good thing.

The anniversary of any loss is a hard and rocky road to travel. Holidays can make the road seem even harder. But all roads lead somewhere, whether the loss happened five, ten or even twenty years back.

The road I’ve traveled since losing my mom at nineteen and then my dad in the same year Georgia was born has brought me to a place where I’m healed a little bit more.

Now I can breathe in that smell, and it doesn’t hurt as much, but most importantly, I can appreciate the aroma…and look forward to the natural cycle once again.

November 6, 2012

Do the Right Thing

It’s beginning to become uncomfortably routine: disaster strikes by either an act of God or deranged person, and then we see them: the better angels in all of us. Celebrities hop on fundraising bandwagons for humanitarian organizations, “everyday heroes” do valiant deeds to sustain people in the hour of need and rival politicians beat their swords into plowshares as the rest of us look on and wonder why it takes a tragedy for people to simply. Do. The Right. Thing.
At least I do. I mean, why is it so hard to help? To really look someone in the eye who’s in distress – even a little distress – and help? It’s not for lack of people who are hurting, that’s for sure.
Just go to the store. Park your car in the first open space. Grumble to yourself that the space is ten miles away from the entrance and that you’re stuck hauling groceries alone. After working all week. Again. You see her, a woman about your age. She’s crying.  Weeping. It’s that familiar cry as if she’s just found out about a loved one’s death. And you know that gut wrenching cry because you’ve cried that way before. You’ve heard your own sobs that seemed to have been coming from someone else. Only now it is someone else. You start to run over because you want to say really, it’ll be okay even though you don’t know what’s wrong, or if it’ll really be okay…but that cry. You remember that cry and how all you needed to hear was that it. Would. Be. Okay. But your mind sees two other older people, maybe her parents comforting her, and you convince your feet that her parents are helping her, and that they should just head toward the entrance. Your feet obey, and even though something within you is relieved, you never forget that woman or her cry.

Years later, a different parking lot at a different store. Jamie, Georgia and I were piling in the car on our way to the next Saturday thing when I saw her. A different woman. “Jamie, she’s crying…” as if he could fix her situation just as easily as he fixed our vacuum cleaner. He swung the car around and caught up to her. “Honey, are you okay?” even as I was still halfway hoping she’d say she was fine, but she didn’t. “Between sobs she answered “I…have…to…get…my baby!”
You know, there’s something about a panicked, pained voice. “Where’s your baby?” She told us that he was less than six blocks away, and even though she was walking fast, she was still walking. Jamie and I looked at each other and in two seconds, she was in the front seat with him, and I was in back with Georgia. She stopped crying, but hadn’t really calmed down, and to be honest, I blanked out on what to say. But Jamie didn’t. Like a first responder, he calmly asked some critical questions: Is your baby in danger? Are you in danger? Can we call 911? Is your husband going to hurt you or the baby?” All her answers were negative. We pulled up to the house, and Jamie waited until she was in safely, and took careful note of the address.

And then we went onto the next thing. But I couldn't help but think...
People who need us are messy. That woman was sobbing, breathing hard and near hysterical. It was messy. Maybe we just like our messy-people-in-need at arms-length, far enough where a check will help them – or at least out of earshot. Maybe that’s what makes helping so hard.
Even if we help, everything won’t be okay. We can’t always make the crying stop or make everything magically okay. Maybe deep down, we know the only thing we can do is help someone limp along. Maybe that’s what makes helping so hard.
We’re not gamblers. Look, I know some people would say we took a gamble by loading up a complete stranger in our own personal space and going into an unfamiliar situation. They’d be right. And even though it was the right thing to do, it was a hard thing to do because of that. But leave it to Georgia to remind me why we we get messy, accept that we can only do so much and take the gamble -- and just do the hard things when she said:
“Well…we did the right thing, and God knows about it… right?”

September 10, 2012

Reasons to Stop Procrastinating and Just Do It

Facebook rants aren't my style. I mean, after all, Facebook didn't set out to hurt anyone, so why go off in such a public -- Facebookie -- way? I can understand clearing out the cobwebs, getting whatever it is off your chest, out of your head or away from your person in general, but what makes someone type out all that vitriol and then, rather than be all " it's out of/off of/away from" and move on from there, rather than pressing the "Post" button once it's out of/off of/away from?

I think I know now.

Perhaps it comes from procrastinating the inevitable until the last minute and you find yourself completing yet, another form for an extra-curricular that you know your fourth-grade daughter is excited about. You realize the only thing standing between her and it completing that form.

And so you pull up the PDF form over your lunch hour, dig out your health insurance card because you know this form is going to ask for the Group Number and Policy Number even though your card only has a series of numbers, none of which are labeled Group or Policy. But you figure you'll just type in all those numbers and let them figure it out, and so you begin typing. Only the computer won't allow you to type in those numbers or anything else. You decide that technology is overrated and print out the form. And that's when the computer shuts down completely.

Suddenly your mind's eye is flooded with your child's big doe-eyes and her excited chatter about this extracurricular, so you try again. Finally, the computer allows you to print the darned thing.

You begin to hand print in teeny, tiny letters and numbers in spaces meant for 9.5 Arial font. And that's when you see them. The boxes. The dreaded demographic boxes who ask "So, exactly what is your daughter anyway? Check one, please." It makes you flashback to your bartending days when an enamored patron asked "What are you?" before even asking your name.

You stuff the flashback down and decide to play along. You glance over your selection: Caucasian, Asian, Black, Native American, Hispanic/Latino...OTHER. That's when you realize your lunch hour's nearly half over and before you know it, you've checked "Other."
And you get mad.
At yourself.
At the form.
At a stupid system that doesn't know the difference between race and ethnicity, and despite all the statistics that point to the "browning" - the mixing - of America, insists on tracking this information anyway.

And then your hands shake at the thought of someone wanting to know the what - and not the who - about your beautiful, talented, loving, sensitive, intelligent child. Your baby.

And with shaking hands, you login to Facebook, type your frustration...and press "Post."

Then, like a three-year-old, you scribble through the Other Box and through the check you just made in it. And you check both boxes.

Over the weekend, you cool off about the whole thing. You blog about it and take your daughter to that extracurricular activity.

And you resolve to stop procrastinating...someday.

June 25, 2012

A New Normal

My mom was from the “Old School” where hair was defined as “Good” and “Bad” and it was no secret that mine was the latter. Now, stop shaking your head and thinking that I should probably seek therapy because of such a sad childhood. The label wasn’t an indictment against my personality or intellect; rather it was an indicator of the amount of work needed to get my nappy hair under control. Sometimes that meant just combing through and detangling, and other times, it meant going to Miss Thelma, the beautician who would “press” my kinks straight with a metal comb that was heated -- the "hot comb."

By the time I hit my twenties, I tired of the hot comb routine and decided to chemically straighten out the naps with a “relaxer.”
This process not only changes the molecular structure of hair; but also forces a crazy bi-monthly game of whack-a-mole in an effort to beat the naps out of the nappy growth just as it begins to burst through the scalp. Sometimes, that eight-week period would sneak up and I found myself firing off frantic emails to my girlfriend saying something to the effect of “THE NAPS ARE HERE…THEY’RE TAKING OVER!! HELP ME!!”

It’s a never-ending process…and a kind of crazy one too.  But hey, my hair was straightened.

Despite years of hot iron combs pulled through my hair (and sometimes burned ears) and numerous chemistry experiments in a box, straightened hair felt natural. Natural. Like if I pulled a comb through my hair and hit some naps, it felt wrong, and I’d start jonesing for a relaxer touch-up. Relaxers had become to me, as Chris Rock called it – the Creamy Crack; and I was addicted. The root of the addiction (no pun intended) was the feeling that those tight curls, those naps

How much sense does that make? Seriously, how many black people have you seen with Paris Hilton wispy hair? I thought so. Even Beyonce’s luscious locks have undergone some kind of science experiment to get it in that kind of shape. My idea of normal was upside down.

The fact is that my normal is nappy hair. Don’t gasp, it isn’t derogatory: it’s what my normal – my natural -- is.

So, about two weeks ago, I left the relaxers and hot combs in the rear-view mirror. Now I’m walking around natural – naps and all.  Sometimes it feels strange and I'm still somewhat amazed when I get compliments. But I know that its healthier for my hair – and for my daughter’s view of herself.

That's something I hadn’t thought of until Georgia looked at my new mini ‘fro" and asked if she could touch my “new hair.”

“Ooooh, it’s soft, Mom. It’s poofy…kind of like mine, huh?”
“Yeah, hun it is. Georgia, do you know how pretty your hair is?”
“Like when you flat iron it?”
“No…just the way it is…how it grows out of your head in little curly-cues. It’s perfect just like that.”
“You mean perfect, like when you say that my eyelashes don’t need mascara and that I don’t have to wear make-up or need to go tanning because my skin’s the perfect color?”

“Yup. It's perfect the way it is...and all of that’s just normal for you.”

Still not sure what the big deal's all about? Watch this video.
It's eye-opening even for me...even on my third time watching it.

May 25, 2012

Gems in a Sea of Stones: Part II

A simple double-click of the mouse would open an email from a complete stranger in another state who I cyber stalked in hopes that he could tell me about my relatives.  Highly improbable. But I double clicked anyway.

It wasn’t as improbable as I thought.  Turns out that Murray – that’s his name – was more than willing to help me.  He’s done extensive research that included my family for a yet-to-be-published book because they were at the center of an incident in Pierce City, Missouri that changed the town forever. While I was very interested in the incident, I was more interested at the time in knowing what he knew about my family.  He understood and immediately filled me in on information about my great-grandfather:
“Wiley worked at the lime kiln, where lime was dug up…He was a hardworking man.”
Out of all the stones on and the myriad of rocks on Google, it seemed like I had found a gem. We’ve communicated since that time, and he’s been emailing me his novel chapter by chapter, which I devour as soon as it hits my inbox.

One night, I received an additional email from Murray with the subject line “The Motherlode of Information For You.”  He explained that as part of his research, he had a genealogist research the Godley family history, and of course, he’s kept the documents since that time.  Including the family tree she pieced together. It was attached to the email. It dated back to 1795.

I sat staring at the screen, jaw dropped in unbelief.  I printed it and began to read, half-thinking I’d find out I had become emotionally invested in the wrong family over the past few days.
“Milla (also known as Milley) was probably married to Joseph [surname unknown, but not enslaved within the Godley family]. Milla was born (say about) 1795 in Virginia.”
I read on and soon found the name often mentioned by my mom and aunt: French; and the pieces came together:
French’s son was Wiley, who was
My grandmother’s dad, and also
My mom’s granddad, and
My great-grandfather.

I blurted out “It’s him!  This is him” (again with incorrect grammar) “Who’s him?” called Jamie. I started reading the main points aloud and before I knew it, tears flooded my vision and a big crying-lump choked my voice back. I handed the paper to Jamie, only able to squeak out: “This is my family...It’s really them.”

A Long but Important Footnote
History is just that. History. In my case, it means my 3rd great-grandma was owned by someone. It also means that the “incident” involving my family was lynching and subsequent banishment of all the black folks from Pierce City in 1901. Mark Twain even wrote this essay about it, and PBS' Independent Lens included it in a feature.

It takes courage to acknowledge things like this.  Murray’s done that through his research, his novel, an extensive exhibit for the local museum and a series about it that he wrote for the local newspaper. Some residents wanted to keep it a forgotten footnote, but he stuck to it because he didn’t want it forgotten.  So much so that he pretty much sponsored a marker for the people who were killed – they included a cousin Will Godley, his cousin Pete Hampton and my 2nd great-grandfather French.

I’m sure Murray didn’t do all of this to help me build my family tree. Heck, he didn't even know I existed before last Monday. He was just doing it because acknowledging history – good and bad – is the right thing to do.  I’m glad he did. By remembering that part of history, he’s allowed me to learn about not just the event, but more importantly to me -- about my family.

What I’ve learned is that, yes times were rough and things weren’t fair, but my ancestors were people who lived their lives. They didn’t sit around wringing their hands about injustice: they established community, fell in love, got married, raised babies, occasionally drank more than their fill (truth be told) and my great grandfather was even voted President of the Independent Colored Voters.

Here’s the bottom line: They were the ones who truly found gems in a sea of stones.

May 18, 2012

Gems in a Sea of Stones: Part I

Can you find the raw ruby in this picture?  Take a look; it’s right there.  Still don’t see it? It’s the one with the roundish, but jagged sort of edges. Maximize the photo if you still don’t see it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait here.  Did you find it? Look again. It’ll be the one with rich-red hues.

Okay, I lied: there’s no ruby - raw or cooked - in that picture.

But searching for a gem in a sea of stones is kind of what it’s been like piecing my family tree together. 

I knew my maternal ancestors were from a small Missouri town, and I even have a rough idea of their ages.  I used that information to conduct my search…and generated records for about eight billion people with the same last name from that same small town. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But there were a lot more than one or two.

One of the records belonged to a person with a name that I had heard my mom and aunt mention numerous times while they were having conversations that kids are too bored to be bothered with. “Is this the guy?” I thought.  And who did they say he was? My cousin? A great uncle or great-grandfather? …why didn’t I listen better when I had the chance?

I rolled the dice and did what everyone does when they don’t know what to do: I Googled him and that small Missouri town just to see what would happen.  What happened was that he appeared in newspapers stories from around the country from 1901, he was in collegiate history books, referred to as part of what inspired an essay by Mark Twain, but most interestingly a newspaper story from 1991.

This couldn’t be right.  Or could it?

By then, I couldn’t let it go. I needed confirmation – I needed someone to help me piece together whether this guy was a relative and if so, which one. And now I needed to know the story behind all the stories in cyberspace.

It wasn’t like I was going to find information from immigrant ship manifests and I knew I needed a black ancestry historical reference, so I emailed one of Milwaukee’s black historical resources for help. They emailed me back very quickly, and even pointed me toward an African American Genealogical Society here in Milwaukee that I didn't even know existed.

Then, on a lark, I figured, why not email the guy who wrote the article in 1991? Through some cyber-stalking, I found him working at a Missouri newspaper. I scribbled a note, asking if he had additional information or whether he could point me to someone who did. One nervously sweaty finger pressed “SEND.”

That was in the morning. As I was telling my friend the whole long story on the phone that afternoon, an email showed up in my inbox.

It was from the newspaper guy in Missouri. “Oh my gosh, this is him” I said, grammatically incorrect and interrupting whatever my friend was saying. “It’s really him.” I swallowed hard and noticed that my palms were all sweaty again and babbled “Should I open it? Can I open it with you on phone here with me?” Now I was breathing hard. My long-suffering friend said “Yeah!  Do it! I want to know what it says too!”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Here we go…”

The message in that email will be in my next post. That’s why this one has “Part I” in the title.

May 15, 2012

More Than a Gap and Knock-Knees

“I just love your gap!” A well-meaning person to whom I had just been introduced gushed the compliment. I was around twenty-three, and to tell you the truth, wasn’t even aware of this much-loved gap. A nervous giggle escaped as I politely said “thank you.” Later on after dinner, I pulled out my mirrored compact to reapply my lipstick, but that was a ruse. I was really checking to see if I indeed had a gap. I did. I do. In fact, just about everyone on mom’s side of the family has one. It’s hereditary.

Several years later, Jamie and I were a doting-dating-childless couple, strolling through the mall hand-in-hand. I tried on some jeans at a department store, and (quite uncharacteristically for me) did a little sexy model walk for him. I posed, expecting a wolf-whistle or a “how you doin?’” Instead I got: Are you knock-kneed?” Yes. Yes I am knock-kneed. First time I noticed it was in ballet class: the teacher told us to stand with our feet parallel, knees facing frontward – like headlights on a car. Well, my knees were like headlights but my toes were pointing at two opposite corners of the room. Yet another hereditary gift from mom.

Surely there’s got to be more to my ancestry than a diastema and messed up knees…right?

Well, lately, we’ve been watching Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots. Both series are about ancestry research, and they’ve often called to mind the (sometimes hushed) stories about relatives in my own family tree. I decided to pick up my research where I left off a few years ago: on, although this time, I’ve actually signed on for a membership (was too cheap to do it before). The membership is key because it allows you access to census records going back to the 1700’s, Social Security information, immigration documentation, birth certificates, draft cards and even slave manifests.

I’m early in this journey, but so far have discovered my paternal great-great grandfather, as well as my mom’s great grandparents from both her mom and dad. This is a pretty big deal considering that today, both of my parents would be upwards of 85 years-old, and more than likely, their great-grandparents were born into slavery, being listed only by sex and age on slave manifests. But these folks did show up on censuses after the Emancipation Proclamation, and that’s partially how I found them.

What I’m really excited about is the fact that I’m discovering how my maternal ancestors are showing up – by name -- in the country’s history with drama, intrigue and mystery that I never imagined. Once I uncover more, I’ll definitely be blogging about it.

As a history buff, this entire exercise is tailor-made for me; and as a mom, this part of my history is relatively (no pun intended) new to me and I’m excited I can pass it on to my daughter.

That way she’ll have more to thank me for than just the knock-knees.

(and by the way - she’s got Fritsch teeth, so there’s no gap)

April 13, 2012

Confession: Dogs Are Smarter Than Me

Instead of the “usual” status updates (e.g. Look at the mac-n-cheese I made, or We're at the Jelly Belly factory, etc.), a Facebook friend of mine posts a Question of the Day.  I love the idea because not only is it a way to get to know each other better, but because it’s less Let me tell you about me and more I want to know more about you.  My friend’s question can be silly or serious, but it never fails to get my mind percolating.  Today’s question was: What was the best advice your mom ever gave you?
Maybe its my way of keeping her alive, but I jump at any chance to talk about my mom, so the question was right up my alley. But she passed on so much wisdom in the 19 years I had with her, it was hard to decide. After a quick comb-through, it came to me:
Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone.
Simple translation: Don’t drag your feet about finishing that project or your degree, or traveling if it’s your heart’s desire, or saying “I’m sorry” or “Thank you” or “I love you.” You or the person to whom you need to apologize, thank or love may not be here tomorrow.
Perhaps it wasn’t an optimistic piece of advice, but you have to admit that it’s true. And besides, mom wasn’t one to mince words.
Later in the day, I saw this

Besides getting weepy and feeling thankful for the people who willingly put their lives on the line in military service, I realized that it’s taken me a few losses, more than a few bad decisions in my twenties, and a husband and a child to begin to grasp my mom’s sage advice while dogs seem to intuitively understand it.
Now, I don’t think the basis for dogs' excited expressions of love and welcome are rooted in their philosophic understanding of life's brevity.  All I know is this: when Charley sees my car pull up, his little tail frantically spins like a helicopter, he crouches down low, almost like he's trying not to burst from the joy inside; and by the time I cross the threshold, he’s so happy he dances. Sometimes the joy even dribbles out, bless his heart. 
That's all well and good, but here's the smart part of it: Charley doesn't care that he might have been scolded earlier in the day for bra-stealing (that’s another post) because grudges have no place in the message he's conveying in his doggie way. He doesn’t wait until he finds the perfect way to deliver his “Hi Momma Licks” or the right key in which to bark and yip. He smothers me with licks and yipping right then and there. Just like those dogs in the video.
It’s almost like they know that tomorrow isn’t promised.

March 29, 2012

Some Dreams are Garbage Bound

Once upon a time, long ago, I tried to be the Cool Chick. The unfortunate incident occurred during my mid-twenties, years before I had embraced my current Square Peg status. Here's what happened:
As I was perched railside at my favorite watering hole gabbing with my bartender friend, a tall, handsome stranger sauntered in. Our eyes met. Locked. I swear angels were singing. Instead of following my usual Square Peg M.O. of giggling like a schoolgirl because a cute guy was actually checking me out, I decided to become: the Cool Chick. I coquettishly raised my drink in slo-mo, never breaking my bewitching gaze (I thought it was bewitching anyway) with this debonair stranger and proceeded to sip it. From the straw….because that’s what cool chicks do. I tilted my head ever so slightly to greet the teeny tiny cocktail straw, eyes still locked with his and…
...missed my mouth completely and instead poked the teeny tiny straw halfway up my right nostril.
Needless to say, The Cool Chick dream was crushed right then and there in that bar, as was any prospect of ever dating that guy.  Listen, I’m more than happy with Jamie – he’s the love of my life, but geez – I swear I can still feel that straw up my nose every time I think about the time I tried to live the cool chick dream.
So why I tried to resurrect that dream again, I’ll never know.
This week is Spring Break -- a “Staycation.” Georgia and I decided to head over to Palermo’s Pizzeria in the Menomonee Valley for a factory tour (and a couple of slices).  I didn’t particularly feel like making myself presentable, after all, I was on vacation. On top of that I figured, I’m 42 years old. I’m married. I have a kid. I’m tired; and who the heck am I trying to impress anyway? But rather than just unleash my…um…Natural Self on unsuspecting people, I figured I’d at least go with the bare minimum of lip gloss and mascara.  But then I had another thought: Why not bust out those false eyelashes? They looked pretty good when I wore them to the Mad Men theme party a few weeks back.
It’s not like we’re on a schedule.  Why not?
Twenty minutes later I was ready.  Jamie looked at me: “So…you’re wearing your fake lashes?” No, my lashes grew a half inch in the past twenty minutes. [cue eye-rolling and internal DUH]  Then it was Georgia’s turn: “I think you look better without those.” Oh, how sweet. I love how kids think their moms are pretty no matter what. [cue warm fuzzies, kiss her on the head]
We headed out to Palermo’s. I greeted the front desk lady and she directed us to the café where we met our tour guide. I exchanged happy glances with parents of the other waiting families – about five – that were there for the tour. Then we went on the tour which was concluded with a pizza snack served family style. We sat with four other really nice ladies and chatted a bit. With the snack concluded, Georgia and I collected our souvenir shirts and hopped in the car.
I looked in the rearview mirror to back out and caught a glimpse of something not entirely unlike this:

If you happened to be on the Palermo’s tour that day and saw the Grinning Crazy Lady with Spiders on Her Eyes, please don’t hold it against me: I momentarily thought I could live the Cool Chick dream.  But I now realize that particular dream is far better off in the trash. The same place where I left those fake eyelashes. 

March 19, 2012

The Quiet Burden

It was nine years and a few months ago, but I clearly remember telling my OB that we didn’t want to find out the sex of prenatal Georgia. We said that we didn’t have a preference. All we wanted was a healthy baby, and that was true.  But not completely.

Deep down, I wanted a boy.

Not because I envisioned a star athlete, but because girls are talkers.  Sometimes even lippy.  I just didn’t think I was up for the task.  Didn’t think I had the chops for it.  More than that, I had reflected on my experience as a boy-crazy black teen in a predominately white school:  I was “too black” for some white kids and “too white” for some of the black kids.  So, there was no dating in high school. None. It did wonders for my self-esteem. Then I remembered being on the karaoke circuit back in the day (when I could stay awake past 10:00p) and having to tell deejays that, while I liked Aretha Franklin, my style was more Patsy Cline or Grace Slick. None of this bruised me for life, but I didn’t want my kid to go through it.

I thought of all this today because I read an article about a topic – no, a person -- that’s been blowing up in the Twitterverse.

Trayvon was a 17 year-old black boy who was visiting friends in a gated community. Upon seeing Trayvon, the community’s blockwatch captain called police about a suspicious person. He was told that a squad car was on the way. In the meantime, the boy and the blockwatch guy had a fight and boy ended up dead.  According to this article, Trayvon was armed only with Skittles and iced tea. The person who thought this boy was “suspicious,” the one who shot him, was white. This shooter hasn’t been charged with anything, and it seems like he won’t be, either.  Puzzling. Sad. And conversations about racial profiling are on again in full force.

Anyway, the article made me flash back to my mom’s routine talks with my older brothers about being careful when they went out for a night on the town. I can still hear her voice: “I don’t want you to end up like Ernest Lacey or Daniel Bell” and “I don’t ever want to get that call.”  Daniel Bell was stopped by the police in the 1958. Ernest Lacy was stopped in 1981.  Both ended up dead.  My brothers would "yes-mom" her with eyes-rolled. They’d kiss her and dash out the door; and it seemed as though her teeth were clenched until she knew they were back home safely -- no matter how late.

Back in the 1980’s, having a son stopped by police and "mysteriously" die while in custody were real fears for Milwaukee mothers of black sons. By 2002, I guess I was so far removed from that history that, despite having two brothers, I had forgotten this quiet burden carried someplace in the subconscious of all moms, but especially by moms of black sons.

If I could talk to my pregnant self, the one who secretly wanted a boy for all the wrong reasons, I’d ask that naïve mom-to-be if she had the strength to navigate the sometimes scary territory that moms of black boys travel.  But I’m not sure of what her answer would even be.

It’s something she never considered…until she read about Trayvon.

March 2, 2012

Old Enough to Know Better

I often joke about looking forward to my senior years because when you're a senior, you can get away with everything because: "you're old."  Like my dad. He was driving someplace and just decided to turn left. Out of the blue. No blinker. No courtesy "Sorry-I-forgot-to-blinker" wave to the poor soul behind us. Nothing. He just up and turned left. I said " really oughta use your blinker." And in that old southern man tone of his, he fanned me off and said "Girl, I'M OLD!" Evidently old people don't have to blinker. Guess I missed that lesson in driver's ed.

Then there was the gentleman with whom I chatted on a cruise. He mentioned being a WWII vet and I told that him my dad was also a WWII vet. He started reminiscing about the segregated troops, and offered an apology for using the term "black." He said he preferred saying "colored" because it doesn't sound bad like black does. Don't cringe; that's what black people were called back then and that was his comfort level. (Not to mention, that whole topic is a confusing one. Even I don't know what we're supposed to be calling ourselves these days, but that's a different talk show.)  Anyway, the point is that he wasn't being facetious, I wasn't offended and I don't expect him to change.  He's OLD.

But does being old afford a multi-billion dollar organization the same leeway?

Take McDonald's. They're 64. That's kind of oldish, right?  Diffference is that they've got all the marketing gurus, consumer surveys and probably wiretaps on all our phones. They've got the pulse of America.  They know what we want. How else can you explain the genius that is the Shamrock Shake? Or McRib? They're socially conscious.

Which is why I don't understand this.

It's At first I wanted to believe it was some national initiative to wear black for one year and proceeds would go to charity, but alas, no. is McDonald's online outreach to black people. No, I'm not misinterpreting it - just look at the georgous black family in that picture. Still don't believe me?
At McDonald's®, we believe that African-American culture and achievement should be celebrated 365 days a year — not just during Black History Month. That's the idea behind 
So create a separate website? What the what? That's as sensible as city planners who say that MLK and Ceasar Chevez were so important to all Americans that they rename streets after them...and then those streets only span the black and Latino neighborhoods. I don't know...if I had McDonald's kind of money and influence and saw a flawed national history curriculum, and knew I had marketing geniuses at my beck and call to sell it, I'd buy some people, have them create a McDonald's history curriculum that's inclusive of all ethnicities and implement it in school districts.

Then for everyone who doubts that McDonald's is "rooted in the community" like the "African Baobab tree" (seriously, they say that on the website), they let the "real" people talk.

Hey, McDonald's [with megaphone] We can see through that!  [megaphone down, in a polite whisper] It's kind of um...patronizing. Who did you consult about this whole thing anyway? At a time when you're being attacked from all sides about your food's nutritional value (especially as it relates to certain communities), not to mention the tone and timber of the country's racial, ethnic and political landscape -- do you really think a separate website is the way to cultivate inclusion?

If I was McDonald's and wanted to ensure a certain demographic felt included, I'd save myself the money on creating a slick a new website and just include them as models on my fancy existing website. Then when I was producing my quarterly (semi-quarterly, weekly or whatever it is) new commercials, I'd make sure that demographic was represented in them and run the commercials on all networks -- not just specific networks or programming geared toward that particular demographic.  I'd even make sure music accompanying those commercials wasn't the stereotypical music associated with that demographic.

Meh...what do I know.

What I know is this: old people deserve a pass on blinkering, left-handed compliments, calling me Rachel instead of Rochelle and being politically incorrect because they've paid their dues. Life is hard. They've gone through its hills and valleys and have the gray hairs and wrinkles to prove it. They have a wisdom I wish I could bottle. So yeah. Seniors get a pass.

But McDonalds? Come on...they're old enough to know better.

February 27, 2012

The Schizophrenic's Prayer

I go to church because I want something. I want to feel “full” by the time the hour’s over and I want to exit those doors with something I can chomp on throughout the week. Something to carry me through the weirdo challenges that life throws at me during Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,  Friday and Saturday. And of course, to tell, sing and meditate my thank you to God for getting me through the previous week.

So, like any other Sunday, I went. And I got fed.

But I didn’t think the food would have me praying a schizophrenic prayer.

The topic was “Forgiveness” and how forgiveness and forgiving is our most critical need as humans.  The Mayo Clinic even has studies to prove it.  As the pastor talked about how when we hold on to old hurts, old words and deeds, they take root and rupture the foundation of our lives I sat. Ears pricked, but I was, admittedly, a tad smug. Seriously...I’ve let old hurts go and my life is pretty peachy. But then he said something that got me in my gut: he asked us to think about whether there was someone in our lives who, if they sat down next to us – right now – would evoke some kind of visceral reaction.  Hoohboy.  At least five people came to mind.  Cringe. We were reminded that praying for those very folks could release us from bitterness and stress and all the other kinks that unforgiveness plants in us. So I prayed.

Then I straightened my halo and went home feeling good.  I was full.

And then not even six hours later, Jamie ticked me off.  Really ticked me off.  [For real?  I’m being tested on this stuff NOW? Jamie wasn’t even on my list of repulsive people! This blows.]

Okay, Lord I get it. I shall pass this test and pray for him:
Lord, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to say but could You move him? I mean, You made him, so You can fix him; there’s got to be some kind of warranty or something. Really, he’s wrong. I’m right. So please show him that I’m right.
An hour later:
Father, this is ridiculous. HE is being ridiculous. You said that I’m not supposed to let the sun go down on my anger, and it’s getting pretty late…so, uh… when are You going to shine the light on my…uh….righteousness? You do what's best in Your wisdom. My straightened halo and I shall wait patiently.
Two hours later:
Okay, this really sucks.  And You’ll forgive me for saying ‘sucks’ because Your grace is boundless.  Oh yeah, that’s right: Your grace is extends to me even when I say stuff like ‘sucks’ (and ‘blows’ earlier) so the least I can do is forgive him?  Really forgive him? This is some yucky old food. Blech.
Three hours later:
I went to church to get fed today. Thanks for the food. I guess I didn’t count on it choking me on my pride. Thanks, Lord.  I sure don’t like it, but I’ll thank You for it anyway.  Besides, the sun’s been down for hours now. I get it.

February 7, 2012

Football is a Martian's Game

Sometimes I don’t understand Jamie, and sometimes he doesn’t understand me.  It’s not an indictment of our marriage, it’s more of a man/woman thing.  The two sexes are wired so differently that it’s been said men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

I think the game of Football proves it.

Mental Wiring
Remember playing with the neighbor kids and there was always one kid who made additional rules up as they went along and by the end of the game, no one understood anything except the kid who made up the rules? Wasn’t the Rule-Maker-Upper usually a Martian?

I think that most Rule-Maker-Uppers grow up to be this guy:

Martians are wired to not only be this guy; but they’re also wired to listen to and understand guys like this.  A Venusian, on the other hand, can’t get through this twenty-seven second clip without banging her head on a table.  (At least this Venusian can’t) They can, however, remember a pediatrician’s phone number, office hours and when a child had the last round of vaccinations.  This isn’t an indicator of who’s smarter, just a difference in wiring. The difference isn’t only mental.

It’s Physical Too
I’ve heard few women say of childbirth: “Oh, it wasn’t that painful.” and any idealist lilting about birth pain being forgotten after a new arrival is usually still high from anesthesia. I love my daughter with every fiber of my being, and even after nine years, I haven’t forgotten about labor pain. It was an intense rhythmic twisting and turning and wringing of my guts like none other. Pre-epidural pain certainly isn't anything I would have chosen. 

Unlike a quarterback. He waits for the snap. Waits for it! And then in the few seconds he has the ball, it’s like he’s screaming “Look at me!  I got the ball!  C’mon…Hit me!”  And he does get hit.  Hard.

Yet somehow QBs are OK with risking that big hit.

Who does that? A Martian, that’s who. A Venusian QB would take a more cooperative, less-aggressive approach and either:
  1. Refuse the ball at the snap and begin negotiating with the other team about joint custody.  There’s never a reason to hit when things can be talked out. or
  2. Accept the ball at the snap, then scream like a little girl and race it toward the opposing team’s goal line ala Help me help you to not hit me.
Childbirth is one thing. Willingly accepting a ball at the risk of a freakishly large man smacking the You-Know-What out of you for it is quite another.

Our Emotional Wiring Could Possibly Be the Same But…
Team members hug each other, openly weep tears of joy and some even take a knee to thank God for a win.  They celebrate together.

That’s all lost in a loss, though; and it’s sadly ironic because when someone grieves, people touch them, pat their backs, hug them; or even pray with them if that’s what they need. People generally grieve – just like they celebrate – together. 

But not Martians on the losing team. They aren’t expected to mourn together, so they grieve alone post-game.

Don’t believe me? Just imagine if those crestfallen guys wept, hugged and comforted each other openly right after losing a game. See what I mean?  Venusians on other hand, can cry, hug and handhold to get through major defeat – even on camera.

It just doesn’t seem fair.

Then again, maybe I’d understand it if I was from Mars.

January 30, 2012

Don't Blink!

February's here. It's the shortest month of the year and it's designated to recognize all of black people's contributions to America.

Shortest month of the year. All of black people's contributions. Ummmm...How do the historical contributions of an entire people get crammed into 28 days? (or 29 days, since this is a Leap Year)

Is it obsolete? Granted, Black History Month came about because of Carter Woodson's desire to see recognition of what black people had done to build the country and build pride in a discriminated people group. But that was way back before voting rights, desegregation and all of the other civil rights stuff.  It made sense. For that time. Given the fact that so many boundaries have been crossed, is a singular month still needed to highlight one group?

And what about the other people groups that have a made an historical impact on America?

I don't know...maybe we still need it.  At the risk of outing my ignorance about current school curricula, I don't think history textbooks are all that different from when I was a kid.  The black history we learned was pretty much relegated to a page margin where there'd be a "Did You Know" followed by a snippet about Benjamin Banneker or maybe even Daniel Hale Williams; and of course, there were two or three pages dedicated to MLK.

Had it not been for my dad taking me to a black historical museum, that's probably where black history would've ended for me.  That field trip wasn't even intentional; it's not like my parents were Angela Davis and Huey Newton or anything. In fact, I think it only happened because my mom had enough of my endless chatter one day and told my dad to take that kid someplace.  He in turn, remembered that his friend Robert had opened up this place and turned my mother's moment of sanity into an impromptu education for me.

But it was all natural.  And I guess that's what I'm getting at.  Going to that museum with my dad felt normal. Natural. What I learned in school felt natural. It didn't seem like anything was missing; but at the same time, I could never quite put together the fact that there was one history at that museum, but another one in my textbooks.

Listen, I love history. I love thinking about people way back when and what made them tick; the music they listened to; how they eked out a living without IPads, computers or ready-made butter.  I especially love American history because so many ethnicities and races, all with their own stories, have built it.  And no one should be left out of it.

So as we approach Black History Month, I've got to wonder: do we really need one month to spotlight one people? Or do we just need to revise the history curriculum so it's always naturally encompassing every people group who have made this county what it is?

My guess is that we need to revise the curricula.  But until that happens, February's here. Don't blink, or you'll miss it.

January 26, 2012

And Now There Are Three

The television's volume was at Old Man Levels all the while I made dinner, which shouldn't be a big deal; but it is when you live in a small house whose living room is in close proximity to the kitchen.  And when making dinner is the first thing you do upon crossing the threshold after an eight-hour day, it's really a big deal. An even bigger deal when two people are talking to you over the television, which is now screaming, about two different topics. At the same time. While you make dinner.

But I pushed through it because I'm a trooper. Who am I kidding; I pushed through the screaming television, the chorus of conversation and even occasional dog barking and got dinner simmering/baking or however I was cooking whatever I was cooking because I had to potty. And I also had to free myself from the man made constraint that we women call a bra.

Finally I was freed, unencumbered and in comfy clothes (go ahead & call me George Costanza). The momentary relief was enough to make me forget about the TV's Old Man Levels; and I exhaled for the first time in about ten hours. It was rudely interrupted by BEEEP!! BEEEP!! BEEEEP!!  Dinner was ready. I retrieved it, served it, my family supped and then praised me accordingly.

Flopped down again when all was said and done...but something was wrong: the television was still screaming.  I grabbed the remote and mashed the volume down button.  Nothing.
"That's not the right remote." His voice instructed from somewhere in the distance.
I blinked and remembered, that yes, yes, there is another remote. I crawled under the now blaring noise like a soldier under razor wire and grabbed "the other" remote. Aimed it firmly at the television and mashed down hard on that volume down button.  But the clamor only mocked me.
"That isn't the remote, Rochelle." [said in a rather irritated tone, which is wonderful to hear after an eight hour day, after another hour in the kitchen while wearing a bra that squeezes the very life out of you while you reeeeelly have to potty while two different people talk to you about two different things while the dog is barking while the TV's at Old Man Levels.]
I bit my lip and fought back the urge to accuse him of trying to Gaslight me even as he grabbed yet another, different remote control. One that I remembered from once upon a time long ago when the television was new, before we had cable or surround sound.
He pointed it at the object of my misery and mashed the volume down button. The screaming, the blaring finally ceased.

Then he went to bed and I exhaled. Uninterrupted. In silence.

January 23, 2012

Little Lambs

No pontificating. No bloviating

Just this from my nine year old daughter.
"Mom, I just don't understand kids. They...they...just follow. They're like sheep."
Group Think. Third grade is about the time when that stuff starts to emerge, so I guess it's normal...but not for Georgia. She's a square peg like her mother, and she finds it frustrating.

And very confusing.
It relieves me to a certain extent, because I'd rather this kind of "sheepishness" be her confusion -- not her aspiration.

January 19, 2012

How I Got My Giggle Back

Working for a nonprofit has many upsides, not in the least is knowing that, in some infinitesimal way I'm helping people who are living with hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse and a whole host of other challenges.  Everyone is vulnerable to crises like these; and I feel blessed that our family hasn't fallen off the edge.  Knowing that I'm blessed: definitely an upside.

But there's a downside to this nonprofit work too.

Wallowing daily through the seas of stats about people -- including kids -- going hungry and being homeless and abused and drug-addicted can leave me with a certain darkness that crouches just beneath the surface.  And near enough to the surface to do this: I was talking to someone who works with homeless people the other night. In mid-conversation, I found myself getting glassy-eyed [this was supposed to have been a professional conversation!] The darkness was so close to the surface that all it took for a tear to eke out was the person saying "'re getting teary." That kind of just beneath the surface.  Embarrassing.

I decided that I have to lighten up and find my giggle again.

So, with this in mind I say:

Thank you, Casey.
Your lamentations over glitter nail polish gave me a good, belly-hurting laugh that I sorely needed. When I watch your video, I believe that Divine Providence must have orchestrated that loss just so I could get my giggle on again through your tears. Rodgers jersey or not, the Packers can shoot for the Super Bowl next season.  

Thank you, Would-be Track Stars.
You reminded me of the time I tripped over a rope in gym glass, and after what seemed like a five-minute hang time in mid-air, went flying at least ten feet across the floor.  My BFF laughed so hard she cried.  In fact, she laughed so hard she got in trouble.  She's probably laughing right now about it.  Come to think of it, she's the one who sent me the link to your video.

Thank you, Kelsey Grammar.
The mere thought of you gallantly falling off stage so suddenly puts me in tears. Yes, I know it happened a long time ago; and yes, I'm sure it was quite humiliating for a distinguished actor such as yourself, but think of the joy it has brought to the nonprofit sector.  Well, at least this sector of the nonprofit sector.

Thank you...ME. It get's REALLY funny in the last few seconds. That's all I'm going to say.
'Nuf said...and there's more where that came from.

If you needed to get your giggle back, I hope these videos did the trick.

So...what is it that makes you giggle?