As children grow and develop, so grows and develops a parents’ need to examine our use of foul language. This is a slow evolution. Babies don’t give a shit if you swear. Like puppies and houseplants, they are all about intonation.
But babies don’t stay babies forever. Soon, they become toddlers. And a toddler will repeat anything you say – no matter how softly you thought you whispered it. And the worse the thing you said was, the more times they will repeat it. In front of your husband’s parents. Or the babysitter. Or the neighbor kids who will go home and tell their parents they learned to say, “For fuck’s sake, again with the goddamn Cheerios,” at your house. It is a little-known fact that a toddler’s DNA profile is almost identical to that of an African Grey Parrot.
If you successfully make it through the mimicking phase, you are rewarded with the spelling phase. This offers you free rein to c-u-s-s like a sailor whilst preserving your child’s virgin ears. Beware however, that sometimes the spelling phase can overlap with the mimicking phase. Even if they don’t know what they’re saying, it can be disconcerting (or hilarious), to hear your child spell out, “S-H-I-T!” after she stubs her toe. Note: this phase will end without warning. And it will likely happen like this:
You to your spouse: There is so much C-R-A-P in this house, I want to scream.
Your child: Mommy, you spelled ‘crap.’
You: Oh shit.
After the spelling phase, you’re pretty much at a crossroads. You will have to decide that A.) Your kids are going to hear all the words anyway, so why shelter them – or B.) You are going to try to shelter them. If you choose A, your kids will be the ones who teach the other kids at school the A-word, the D-word, the S-word, the B-word, and even the Mac Daddy of them all, the dreaded F-word. If you choose B, your kids will learn the A-word, the D-word, the S-word, the B-word, and even the Mac Daddy word from his or her classmate whose parents chose option A. Either way, you’re fucking delusional if you think you can keep your kids completely away from swear words.
The way I see it, profanity is a part of our language. And I love language. I wouldn’t say that I am a heavy curser, but I definitely employ the occasional expletive when I think it will help make what I’m saying clearer. Or, more often, funnier. (See Above.) My father taught me from a youngish age that a well-placed curse word can really bring some oomph to your communications, provided you are smart about how you use it and don’t allow it to rob you of your creativity.
My husband, however, is of another ilk. He uses curse words like punctuation. I blame his brother for this, since his brother is the only person I know who swears more than he does. (It was no surprise to anyone when my 3yo nephew dropped his sippy cup at the church pre-school and exclaimed, “goddamnit!”) They, The Brothers Orr, feed off each other, escalating their frequency of expletives until what they’re saying becomes almost an unintelligible mashing together of the letter F and the hard-K sound over and over.
In general however, when my husband is not around his brother, he controls his profanity pretty well. There is one major exception to this rule. When confronted with a backed-up toilet (containing numerals 1 or 2) Jimmy Orr’s cursing-spigot turns on and cannot be turned off until the wealth and breadth of his considerable dirty-word arsenal has been completely exhausted, emptied into the air around him like a semi-automatic weapon at an NRA rally. And it always starts the same way. I won’t burden you with the exact phraseology, but it rhymes with, “Sock trucker, brother shucker, bun of a witch…” and so on and so on and so on. And it happens every single time there is a toilet issue. No matter who last used it (once it was our 3-year-old daughter). Or how many friends the kids have over (this weekend there were 3). Or how many times, I try to talk him down off his filthy-mouthed-ledge (that actually just acts as accelerant). When this happened over the weekend, my 10-year-old’s eyes went as wide as saucers. Then she started laughing. This provided the perfect opportunity to talk about the how and why of using profanity, without things getting too judgey.
I don’t encourage parents to use foul language around their kids in regular communications, but like everything else in this life, moderation seems to be the best course. If you try to ban this language completely, like a profanity prohibition, your kids will just run to the nearest speak-easy (read: any place you’re not) and cuss a blue streak. Not to mention, you’ll look like a hypocrite the next time you get caught mid road rage rant. Whether we like it or not, our kids don’t stay kids forever, and they are going to hear these words. It might be from you, it might be from their friends, it might be from my husband the next time someone uses too much TP. These words are a part of our language and since we all know the power that language has, its best to teach our kids how to use that power wisely. Or if not wisely, then at the very least, with style.
My parenting time these days seems to be split equally between putting out fires and quietly fading into the background. Things go from one extreme to the other around here pretty quickly. It’s fire and ice. Spicy or mild. Extra crispy or original recipe. (Author’s note: I probably shouldn’t write when I’m hungry.)
The point is, when my kids need me – they need me.
Mom, I need you to wash my uniform!
Mom, I need you to take me to the mall!
Mom, I need you to sign this form!
But when they don’t need me, I am largely overlooked. I am not reviled; I am not adored. I am simply there. A permanent fixture, like a banister on a staircase or salt on a pretzel. Necessary, functional, but not something you want to focus on.
At 10 & 12, my kids are not really old enough to be embarrassed by me yet, but I can tell they are starting to create a distance in their minds. Upon any expression of my individuality, my 12 year-old gives me the jokey eye roll; my 10 year-old calls me “weird.” (Author’s note: Boy-howdy do I wear that label like a badge of honor – if you are not weird to a 10-year-old girl, you are without a doubt the most boring person who ever lived. Believe.) And most pre-teens I know would prefer for people to think they were zapped into this world, fully formed, the spawn of nothing and nobody, a blank canvas devoid of any outside influence, parental or otherwise. But kids this age still need things – things they can’t really get on their own. Having once been a pre-teen myself, I kind of remember this stage. I wanted my parents to be like genies, an external force there in an instant when I wanted something, and then zoop! back into their bottle until the next time. I’m starting to get that vibe from my kids.
But to my children’s great dissatisfaction, I do not exist to fulfill all of their wishes at a moment’s notice. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t – but whichever way the hammer falls, I do what I do for my kids in service of their impending adulthood. It is my one job as their mother: To create responsible human beings capable of living on their own.
So I guess it isn’t a surprise, when I look at it through that lens, that my practical significance in my kids’ lives is starting to diminish as they get older. This is what happens. I recently read a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Newberry Award acceptance speech for The Graveyard Book, a book that appears to be about childhood but is really about parenthood. He said,“[it is] the most fundamental and comical tragedy of parenthood: That if you do your job properly, if you, as a parent, raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away.”
I agree with this sentiment down to my very bones. I mean, I don’t want my kids to ever “go away” permanently or anything. A phone call every now and then would be nice. (And it would it kill them to come visit once in a while?) But it is our job as parents to raise self-sufficient people. People who have lives of their own and jobs and families and friends and futures. People who hopefully like to spend time with their parents– but who don’t need us. Not really.
I know this is pretty obvious. We all head into parenting knowing what the end-game is. But when I used to think about the end-game when my kids were younger, I thought about it in 2 distinct stages: childhood and adulthood. I never really thought about what the process of getting from one to the other would look like. As I near the mid-point of this journey with my kids, I’m starting to learn what it feels like. For me, it’s a feeling of flickering importance. One minute, I am indispensable, the next I’m superfluous. I go from being the sun and the moon, to the wind in the trees, and back again, sometimes within the same hour. Sometimes within the same sentence. This schizophrenic push-pull is new, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
If I let myself think about too long, it makes me want to hold my kids tight and snuggle them into my bed and lock the doors and move to rural Alaska or 1902 or an episode of Little House on the Prairie -someplace or time when kids didn’t grow up so fast. But in other, more rational and less panicked-crazy-lady moments, I feel confident and comforted by the people I see them becoming – I know this is all as it should be, no matter how hard it is or how uncomfortable the process feels. (Author’s note: I guess they aren’t the only ones with the schizophrenic push-pull thing going on.)
I’d love to hear from others out there on how you feel about this – especially those of you with older kids. Despite the name of this blog, advice is always, always welcome here 🙂
As parents, it is our job to teach our children important life lessons. We teach them everything from how to treat others to how to tie their shoes. But in the midst of all this “being the expert,” it can be easy to forget that our kids have lessons to teach us as well. And I’m not talking about warm-fuzzy stuff like smelling roses and dancing like no one is watching. (Do not be fooled. People are always watching.) In a very practical sense, kids can teach us certain things that we tend to lose sight of as we age. Specifically, I’m talking about how to embrace creativity.
When it comes to creative pursuits, kids follow Yoda’s teachings: “Do or do not. There is no try.” They don’t try to finger-paint. They dip their chubby little fingers knuckle-deep into that paint and fling it like Jackson Pollock. They don’t try to write poetry. They just write it. They don’t let minor details like spelling, grammar, or coherency get in their way. When they tell you a knock-knock joke, they are a stand-up comedian. When they pick up a blob of clay, they become a sculptor. Have you ever seen a four-year-old transform into a mixed-media master while up to his eyeballs in construction paper and googlely-eyes? It’s a beautiful thing.
But this magical sprinkling of I’m-good-enough fairy dust usually wears off somewhere between five and eight-years-old. This is when kids start to worry that their drawing of the elephant doesn’t look like the one in the book. Or that the way they sing, “Roar,” sounds different from Katy Perry’s version. As a parent, you can see this change take place. It’s like watching a light go off. Whatever gatekeeper has kept the self-consciousness away walks off the job and doubt swoops in to take its place, all furrowed eyebrows and straight lines. Kids stop doing things and start trying to do things. And while this might be okay when it comes to sports or schoolwork (things that require mastery before advancement), when it comes to free-form creativity, it’s kind of sad.
Instinctively, we know this isn’t a good thing. We don’t want their light to go out. We don’t want them to hold their creations to someone else’s standard of perfection. We’ve been there and we know that is the surest way to run the imagination well dry. So we say to them, “Don’t worry about coloring inside the lines, honey.” But they still look at their picture like it’s a plate of boiled onions. Because even though we are saying one thing, too often we are doing another. How many times have we obsessed over wrapping a gift just-so. Or tried to make a project as perfect as it looks on Pinterest, only to ultimately fail and lament it out loud. Our kids see us try to be creative in the Right Way and they absorb it. They watch us judge ourselves, and since they view themselves as an extension of us, they apply those judgments internally. (Or completely rebel against them… but that’s a subject for another day.)
I think the best way to protect our kids innate creativity, is to do as they do. Turn our own lights back on and just do, without worrying so much about the outcome. Children know that creativity has nothing to do with being good at something. It has nothing to do with skill or talent or ability. And it certainly has nothing to do with Perfect. Creativity made up of 100% confidence. The confidence to do instead of try. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a painter, paint. If you want to be a dancer, dance. Even if someone is watching. Because they are – and chances are it’s your kids.
Back in college, I had a friend who went on a blind date with a guy I’ll call Billy Bob. That was not his name, but could have been for reasons that will become clear in a moment. On the date, Billy Bob took my friend to the McDonald’s drive-thru for dinner and while ordering, he yelled into the speaker, “I’ll have a number 2… and while you’re at it why don’t you go ahead and super-size that son-of-a-bitch.”
The moral of this story is two-fold. First, things could always be worse. You could be on a date with someone who:
- A.) Takes you to McDonald’s for dinner.
- B.) Orders a “Number 2.”
- C.) Calls his Number 2 a son-of-a-bitch.
- D.) And wants that son-of-a-bitch super-sized.
The second moral of the story is that people love to upgrade. It’s true. Entire companies – hell, entire countries – have been built on this practice.
- “Would you like a mid-size instead of a compact?”
- “Would you like to add the protection plan?”
- “Would you like me to change the election laws to allow me a third term as President?”
Once a person has agreed to something, getting them to agree to a small percentage more is a piece of cake that’s just been upgraded to a la mode.
I’ve decided I’d like to incorporate this highly effective strategy into my parenting regimen. I think it’s a natural fit as I often have to sell the idea of certain household responsibilities to my kids. Loading the dishwasher is fun! Raking leaves is great exercise! If you help me wash the windows, you can spray the Windex!
The problem is that at 9 & 12, my kids aren’t buying it anymore. They are no longer taken in by my enticements, and household gadgets have lost their appeal. I remember the days when my daughter begged me to use the Swiffer. Now she runs away when I get it out. They have discovered that the scrubbing bubbles don’t really talk or have mustaches, the fabric softener teddy bear won’t hop off the label and give them a big hug, and that no matter how clearly they yell, “Accio!” that broom ain’t gonna fly ‘em to the Quidditch pitch.
The problem with trying to up-sell my kids into doing their chores, is that chores don’t really have much of an upside. Sure, there is comfort that comes from a clean house, but that doesn’t mean much to your average preteen. Their comfort comes in different packaging. For them comfort is knowing their mother won’t rap along to that new Eminem song when their friends are in the car, or take them with her go bra shopping. Rather than the satisfaction of a job well done, their comfort mostly lies in being left alone. Except when they need money or food or help with homework.
So it makes finding the added-value in household responsibilities a bit of challenge for this age group. I’ve taken a stab at it and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
- If you clean your bathroom you can avoid getting dysentery!
- If you clear the table, you will be offered food again at the next meal time!
- If you pick up your dirty clothes, you will get to keep them and thus avoid having to go to school naked!
- If you throw away your trash instead of stuffing it under the couch, you won’t have to share the sofa with rodents!
- If you check your attitude even when you’re grumpy in the morning, I won’t yell, “Mommy loves you!” at the top of my lungs when I drop you off at middle school!
Ok. So some of these are more like blackmail. But still. I think they might just work.
I like the concept of teaching my children that there are added, perhaps under-appreciated, benefits to even the simplest of tasks. Even if those under-appreciated benefits are really just me making up ways to torture them should they decide to be non-compliant. Now that I think of it, maybe this isn’t so much me up-selling them on chores, as me super-sizing my threats. Either way, if it gets them to take out the trash, I’m good with it.
As an avid shopper, I know what I like and what I don’t when it comes to retail salespeople. It’s pretty simple: I like to feel that my business matters, that I am not being taken advantage of, and that the decision to buy something – or not – is mine alone.
I despise being “sold” to. To me there is nothing worse than walking into a furniture store with the intention of casually browsing and having some schmoe follow me around yapping about the great financing I can get TODAY ONLY! Sell-me too hard and I’m outta there. And chances are, I won’t be back.
On the flip side, don’t ignore me either. It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Remember when the snotty lady at the boutique won’t help her while she’s dressed as the Carol Channing hooker so she comes back later with an armful of bags from their competitor and says, “Big mistake.” We love that moment because at one time or another we’ve all been written off as not worth a salesperson’s time. It’s insulting. And it’s bad business on the part of the seller, because you can’t judge a shopper by how they look. Just watch Duck Dynasty. Those rednecks are rolling with some serious disposable income.
I was recently asked by the Columbia Business Times to come up with some Do’s and Don’ts of retail sales. Here’s what topped my list:
- Follow the adage A.B.C: Always Be Complimenting. People love to be flattered. Especially by someone in the know. In retail, as the sales associate, you are the expert, so if you compliment what a customer is wearing, it is especially meaningful. Also, if people are shopping with their children, compliment their kids. “Your children have wonderful manners.” Or if they don’t then, “Your children are adorable.” There is no faster way to a person’s heart than through their children, since most people who walk into a store with kids are just trying to get out of there without breaking anything.
- Exploit a Mob Mentality. We are nothing if not a competitive culture, and hearing, “We just can’t keep those in stock!” or “Everyone just loves these!” will often tip the scales if someone is on the fence. I’ll admit I once bought a scarf at a boutique in LA because the sales lady said Michael Jackson had looked at it.
- Gently UpSell. It can be really helpful, not to mention lucrative, if a saleswoman brings me a pair of shorts that would go perfectly with the top I’m trying on. This is especially effective if it’s combines this with the ABC principle: “I saw these shorts and thought they’d totally accentuate your legs!” Now, I’m buying 2 items instead of just the one I came in for.
- Thank people for their business. This sounds simple, but it is really important. At Nordstrom, the undisputed king of customer service, the sale associate brings each customer his/her bag by walking out from behind the register and thanking them for their business. This is a nice touch and helps mitigate against buyer’s remorse.
- Ask a woman if she is pregnant. Ever. Even if she looks like she swallowed a basketball, is holding What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and flashing a sonogram picture – do not assume she is pregnant. If she isn’t, you’ll never recover from that kind of awkward. My husband’s rule: Unless the baby is coming through the birth canal, you never ask a woman if she is having a baby. (He once did. She wasn’t. Result: He had to go to a different Panera for months.)
- Risk a bad joke. This falls under the heading Know Thy Audience. Recently while at lunch with girlfriends, a waiter joked that my friend was a “picky woman” because she ordered her sandwich with no onions. I think he was trying to be funny, but he wasn’t. He made it worse when he corrected himself with, “No – I mean, you’re a woman, therefore you’re picky.” Tragic. Had there been a man at the table with whom he was trying to have an Am I right? moment, then fine. Still offensive, but not into tip-effecting territory. In this case, we all just thought he was a jerk.
- Be inappropriate. Male sales associates have to be careful never to become too familiar with female customers or make comments about clothing that covers certain body parts. “Those are great shoes.” Good. “That tank top really shows off your assets.” Bad. Nothing kills a sale faster than a pervy sales guy.
How about you? Do you have any sales Do’s or Don’ts to share?
One of the great joys of parenting young children is getting away from them. At least for a little while. Be it a couple of hours or a couple of days, there is nothing like a little distance to recharge everyone’s batteries and make you grateful that you are legally/morally/financially bound to the little bloodsuckers darlings until the end of time.
The problem with getting away is finding someone to watch the kids while you and your sweetie are off guzzling margaritas and/or sleeping 16 hours a day. Trusting someone to watch your precious babies is not easy. Will they remember to use the dye-free detergent? Will they limit screen-time? Will they cut the hot dogs lengthwise and across?
No. No, they won’t. And that’s okay.
Years ago, my sister-in-law, Dawn gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from anyone before or since. I was about to leave my kids for a week for the first time with my in-laws, and I was a nervous wreck. I worried that favorite books would go unread, binkies would go unwashed, and (gasp) bedtimes would go unheeded. Dawn looked at me, told me to pull my shit together, and said, “As long as they’re alive when you get back, that’s all that matters.”
And she was right. Of course my in-laws weren’t going do things like I did. Or even like I asked them to. Did I really expect them to follow the 5 page, single-spaced, uni-bomberesque manifesto I’d left behind entitled, “A Typical Day in the Life of Fletcher & Ellie.” They probably had a good laugh before lighting it on fire, deciding instead to rely on what they’d learned in their 30+ years of parenting their own children.
And really, my fear had nothing to do with them. It was all me. As a stay-at-home mom, creating and protecting my kids’ routines was what I did. It was my job. My life. Whether it was a survival mechanism or simply my ego, I had to believe that those routines were essential to a peaceful existence. If not, then why the hell was I working so hard?
As long as they are alive when you get back… It was just the paradigm shift I needed! It helped me see that going on vacation would be a break for all of us. Just as Jimmy and I wouldn’t spend every day of our lives eating surf ‘n turf and drinking mai tais, the kids wouldn’t spend every day of theirs watching 8 hours of Thomas the Train and drinking chocolate milk by the gallon. The hard work I’d put in on sleep-training, potty-training, and don’t-think-throwing-a-fit-is-going-to-get-you-what-you-want-training, would still be there even if it went unenforced for a week.
The fact is that if you are going to reap the benefits of getting away (and they are many), you must get comfortable with the fact that whoever watches your kids will not do things your way. This goes for grandparents, siblings, friends, or hired help. I repeat: They will not do it your way. They will think your way is stupid. Over-protective. Unnecessarily complicated. Likely to turn the kids into entitled spoiled brats, who don’t know the value of a dollar. But that’s fine. As long as the kids are alive when you get home, it doesn’t matter if they’ve fallen asleep in front of the television 3 nights in a row. It doesn’t matter if they’ve eaten ice cream for breakfast every day. It doesn’t even matter if they missed that birthday party you’d RSVP’d to on Sunday. None of that is important. What is important is that you got some much-needed time to remember that you are more than just a mother/father, that you actually like your partner, and/or that you actually like your kids. Because time away provides one thing you simply cannot get while at home with your kids: perspective.
Would it be nice if the kids were well rested, well fed, and content when you got home from your vacay? Sure. But alive is all you should really hope for. If you set your expectations at “alive,” you will probably end up pleasantly surprised. After all, getting the opportunity to gain valuable perspective (read: sleep more than six consecutive hours) is luxury enough… you wouldn’t want to get greedy now would you?
Dear Loyal Readers*:
Several** of you have asked when you could see the video of my reading in the St. Louis Listen to Your Mother show, so I am posting the link to the YouTube video here. If you feel like maybe being mildly amused, you’re in luck! If you feel like being moved, astounded, touched, impressed, and inspired – watch the videos from my castmates. (Seriously, these ladies are a amazing.)
*Mom & Dad **Both
PS: I now know my bangs are way too long.
I recently had an interesting conversation while away for the weekend with my two best friends from high school. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, I won’t use their real names. Instead I’ll call them Lady Mary and Lady Sybil. During our interesting conversation, we decided two important things:
1.) Downton Abbey is the best show ever. Obviously.
2.) Their proper names have become irrelevant, and should never be used again because they each embody the persona of Sybil and Mary so perfectly – their given names might as well be abandoned.
My friend Lady Sybil is a kind, hard working, free spirit, who follows her passions where they lead. She has loved the album Free to Be You and Me since before and after it was cool. She goes on long rants about Monsanto’s world domination. And she has her graduate degree in ESL. Had she lived in early 20th century England, she would totally have championed women’s voting rights and run away with the chauffeur. When we told her she was Sybil, she preened (in the demure, non-smug way that Lady Sybil would preen, of course).
Now, my friend Lady Mary… well, let’s just say she was a little less thrilled with her comparison. Which is funny because she is Lady Mary. Not the mean, haughty version – but the smart, fiercely loyal, beautiful, and snobbish-in-the-best-possible-way version. She has always been confident and unafraid to blaze new trails. Example: Once, when my husband told her felt like a fraud every time he sat in first class, she said it’s where she felt she always belonged. Then on a dare, she ate a hair from his head on a cracker. Total Lady Mary.
After we had sorted my two friends, I cried, “Do me! Do me!” They stared at me with blank faces. “What? Do you think I’m O’Brien or something?” I asked. They said they couldn’t really match me up to any of the characters. These two people who have known me for over three decades had no idea if I was a Crawley or a ladies’ maid! I was very disconcerted by this. What is wrong with me that I don’t resemble anyone in this vast and varied cast of characters? Am I that boring? Or am I that much of an oddity? Naturally, I had to give this a little thought (read: neurotically obsess over it). Here is what I came up with.
I think it is clear that I am not Lady Edith. As cozy as that would have made our little trio, I’m just not her. For one thing, she is prone to insecure negativity. For another, she loves to drive. I avoid both of those whenever possible. We may both be writers, but she writes about women’s issues; I write about spray tans. Plus, she can’t even have breakfast in bed. Nope. Not Edith.
Who does that leave? Anna? I’d love to be Anna, of course. Who wouldn’t want to be the lovely Mrs. Bates, with her impossible work ethic and the quiet dignity with which she accepts her station in life. But that doesn’t line-up either. I’m a horrible slob, completely lazy, and I’ve never been one to accept my station. Plus, I would have straight up killed the first Mrs. Bates myself. Nope. Not Anna.
I ticked through the other Downton residents? Could I be Mrs. Hughes? Mrs. Patmore? Daisy? No, no, no. I’m not a benevolent taskmaster, a great cook, or a timid but cheerful scullery maid. (I’m a rather resentful scullery maid, actually.)
Then I remembered a character I’d forgotten. I’d probably forgotten her on purpose because she is my least favorite character on the show. Countess Cora. I find nearly everything about Cora annoying: that treacly tone, her clueless equanimity, and what’s up with those weird facial expressions? Plus, why the hell can’t she see O’Brien for who she is? (She was the only one who had access to the soap! Think about it, woman!)
Anyway. As I was going through the mental checklist of why I could not possibly be Cora, an uneasy feeling took up residence in my gut. Doth I protest too much? Am I Cora? OMG, am I Cora?
I asked myself what we have in common…
- American? Check.
- Polite? Check.
- Love to eat luncheon and boss people around? Check and check.
The proof is irrefutable. I am Cora. Oh, the humanity!
I spent a few distraught moments in which I cursed my newly discovered banality and wondered if this meant I needed to get my haircut and/or a lobotomy. I was heading fast and furiously down the rabbit hole of self-loathing, when I remembered something from my weekend away with my high school friends. At lunch one day, my Lady Sybil friend had a very Lady Mary moment when someone mistakenly put onions on her sandwich. And my friend Lady Mary often has Sybil-esque moments of extreme selflessness and great compassion. I decided to see this as a thread of salvation. Maybe we don’t have to funnel ourselves into one character. Maybe we can be hybrids – like one part Cora; two parts Anna, with a dash of Mrs. Crawley for good measure. I like that idea much better.
Besides, as I was panicking with the thought of being doomed to be an emotionally void woman who sighs heavily makes and creepy faces all the time, the wise words from possibly the best Downton character of them all, Lady Violet – the Dowager Countess – rang in my ears, “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.” And even being Cora couldn’t be worse than that! 😉
My husband is the type of person who runs out of gas. This is not hyperbole or some way of saying he gets tired easily. I mean he literally drives his car until it uses up all its fuel and stops moving. And he hasn’t done this just once or twice. It happens with some frequency. The worst part is, it isn’t like this happens when he’s out in the middle of nowhere with no gas stations around. It isn’t even because he doesn’t pay attention. He runs out of gas because he likes to play a twisted game of chicken with the inanimate object that is his gas tank. (Spoiler alert: The gas tank never flinches.)
I, on the other hand, have never run out of gas. I fill up long before the needle dips below the ¼ line – and I cannot understand how anyone in this day and age would ever allow their tank to get to empty – unless they were driving through a desolate wasteland, had a broken gas gauge, and/or had lost both their sight and hearing, in which case they probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.
From where I sit, running out of gas is ALL downside. The only upside I can think of is the satisfaction that… what? Your nerves of steel allowed you to eek out one last mile, landing you on empty at the exact moment you roll in front of the pump? Pretty thin upside, if you ask me – considering the downside is expensive, dangerous, time-consuming, and messy.
But downside be-damned, Jimmy loves to play Gas Tank Chicken. Except when I’m in the car with him. When I’m in the car with him, here is how things go down:
Ding-Ding. Ding-Ding. Ding-Ding.
Me: Is that the gas thing?
Me: We should probably stop.
Jimmy: Oh no– we have like, 50 miles left. Trust me. I do this all the time.
Me: But it’s dinging.
Jimmy: I know.
Me: Doesn’t that mean it’s time to stop?
Jimmy: No – that’s just what they want you to think.
Me: That’s what who wants us to think?
Jimmy: We’re fine. Relax.
Another few minutes pass. I try to get past the ‘relax’ comment.
Ding-Ding. Ding-Ding. Ding-Ding.
Me: It’s still dinging – I think we should stop.
Jimmy: Babe, we can go another, like, 100 miles on this tank. I guarantee it. I do this all the time.
Me: Did you really just call me babe?
Jimmy: Don’t you want to see how much farther we can make it?
Jimmy: Aren’t you curious?
Me: Not even a little.
Jimmy: You’re telling me you don’t want to know if we could get all the way home on this tank? He smiles with a slightly insane glint in his eye.
Me: If we run out of gas – we’d have to walk. I don’t want to have to walk. That’s why we have a car.
Jimmy: We won’t have to walk. I guarantee it. Trust me, I do this all the time.
Yeah, the problem is that the other thing he does all the time is RUN OUT OF GAS. These sorts of conversations usually end in me getting all panicky and hysterical and basically insisting that we pull over and fill up. Which he does. But the entire rest of the drive he mutters to himself about how he knows we could have made it without stopping.
Need I point out the irony of a man who is completely unwilling to risk bad fruit, travels with a 6.5 pound Dopp kit (actual weight) filled with ointment, medicine, gauze, and salve for every eventuality but who IS willing to gamble on being stuck on the side of the road with cars whizzing by while he is forced to walk who-knows-how-many miles to the nearest gas station? I guess I just did. But the point is, I think this behavior may very well mark the beginnings of Jimmy’s downslide into Crazy-Old-Manhood. (That and shooting at squirrels, Lee Harvey-style, out of our book depository bathroom window. True story for another post…)
Anyone else out there play Gas Tank Chicken? If you do, please comment and enlighten me on why an otherwise sane person would EVER do this…
Recently, my editor at Columbia Home asked me if I would write an article about how I came to live in Columbia. My first response was, “Are you kidding? 1300 words about myself? I’m in!” But when I sat down to actually write the piece, I felt a little stuck. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough material or narcissism (I have plenty of both), but rather I felt a lack of momentum, of motivation, of drive. As I telepathically willed my computer to burst into flames giving me an iron-clad pass on the assignment, it hit me: I am basically a pretty lazy person. And then it dawned on me that my laziness was the very thing that brought me to Columbia in the first place! I just love it when things work out like that.
I was born and raised in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, and like so many others, I came to the University of Missouri to go to Journalism school. Writing was the only bright spot on my otherwise stunningly average high school transcript, so I thought I’d become a journalist. I liked the way it sounded. I’d practice saying, “Hello, I’m a journalist…” in the mirror. It made me feel very Lois Lane. Plus, to me “journalist” sounded better than “unemployed English major.”
The other reason I decided to go to Mizzou was that the application was one-page long. And ironically there was no essay. This pleased the lazy girl inside me and after a fun-filled visit, I had made up my mind. So much so, that I didn’t apply anywhere else. I knew what I wanted, and my mother’s anxiety over the fact that I filled out a single college application was mere icing on the cake!
When I first moved to Columbia, I experienced some predictable culture shock. I missed the little things about urban life, like people honking at you and giving you the finger when you hesitated a second too long at a green light. Or someone rapidly punching the “Close Door” button in the elevator when they see you coming. Nobody did that in Columbia. In Columbia, people made eye contact with you on the street. Some of them even said, “Hello.” Complete strangers saying “Hello” to each other? I wondered what black-and-white TV show I’d moved into.
Whether it was because or in spite of Columbia’s friendliness, I had a great experience at Mizzou. After four years I grew to love so many things about this idyllic college town. But even still, my plan upon graduation was to head to Chicago, or Dallas, or Atlanta and get a job in Advertising (the lazyman’s sequence in J-School). I fancied myself a city-girl! But four months before graduation, fate, in the shape of a goofy guy with the best smile I’d ever seen, stepped in and changed my plan. All throughout college Jimmy Orr told me that someday he was going to ask me on a date. I’d roll my eyes and tell him that I’d be waiting. Well, one day he finally did. And I was. So that was it for Chicago, or Dallas, or Atlanta. Jimmy was going to dental school in Kansas City, and you’ll never guess where I got a job.
One Year Later…
After Jimmy’s realization that he, in fact, hated teeth; and my brief stint at an ad agency, we moved back to CoMo. Jimmy is from Columbia and the promise of rent-free living in one of his parent’s apartments was unspeakably alluring to two crazy kids who had just chucked their futures out the window. It was time to decide what to do next. I should mention that while I am lazy, I am also an excellent procrastinator. And nothing says procrastination like getting another degree! So that’s what I did.
I spent the next couple of years getting my Master’s in Social Work from the University of Missouri. This was the only period of time I didn’t really like living in Columbia, though it had nothing to do with grad school. Columbia is an amazing place to be in college or to raise a family, but not so much to be in between those two worlds. At least, it wasn’t for me. In my mid-20’s I wanted to go out to clubs and spend Saturdays shopping at trendy boutiques and go out for brunch on Sundays. (It was the late 90s and everyone wanted to live in an episode of Sex in the City.) The reality was that I felt old when I went to the same bars I’d been to in college; there was no Elly’s Couture or Girl yet; and through some deep, personal failing, I hadn’t yet discovered Ernie’s. Columbia felt really small to me, and not in a good way. So Jimmy and I spent many weekends traveling to St. Louis or Kansas City to visit friends. We saved up to take trips to both coasts. We got married. And then, for lack of anything else to do, we had a baby.
After I’d had my first child, Columbia suddenly became the perfect place to live again! I cannot stress enough what a lovely and supportive community I think we have for young mothers. I got my very own Parent Educator from Parents as Teachers who came to my house and “ooed” and “ahhed” over how gifted my one-month-old clearly was. We had drive-through dry cleaners and pharmacies, which meant I could go in my pajamas. And Hy-Vee even added two special front row parking spots for New and Expectant Mothers. My life was complete!
However, try as I might, it was very hard to be lazy and the stay-at-home mother of two young kids. It was hard work filled with what my father-in-law aptly called “combat fatigue.” They were wonderful, stressful years, and the only time in my life that I have ever been needed so completely. One of the things that got me through the hard moments were the friendships I developed in a weekly play group that we started under the guise of “infant socialization.” We were 3 Amy’s, a Beth, a Dawn, a Jill, and a Kaisa (she totally threw off our Popular Names of the 1970s motif). And these six women were indispensable to me as a new mother. We met once a week, sometimes more, for six years and together experienced everything Columbia had to offer young kids. Going Bonkers, Chuck E. Cheese, story time at the Library– if it needed anti-bacterial gel, we were there! Being a stay-at-home parent can be a lonely experience, but these ladies made it one of the most special times in my life. (I mean, in addition to my kids. Yeah, my kids made it special too.)
I wanted to mention this because I have many friends who live in larger communities who don’t have the same kind of close-knit support system that I have in Columbia. Maybe that has to do more with luck than location, but I like to think that Columbia has more than its share of kind, friendly, and supportive people. It’s one of my favorite things about this town.
Now that my children are in elementary school and gone seven hours each day, you’ll be relieved to know that I am once again back on the lazy-train! In fact, to procrastinate getting a real job, I’ve even written a novel. Because nothing says I Don’t Want to Get a Real Job like writing a book! And while it’s true that writing a novel in itself doesn’t actually bring in any income, it does give the writer the appearance of working – which ought to at least buy me some time. And who knows? If my book ever actually sells, then my laziness and procrastination can be reframed as my “creative process.”
So the moral of my story (note: having a “moral” is the laziest way to end an essay) is: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that being lazy won’t get you anywhere! It got – and has kept me in Columbia for the past 22 years. I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather live-lazy than in this friendly, supportive, drive-through-filled town.