Category Archives: Mars’ Greatest Hits

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Sleepover

The sleepover was planned by my daughter Veronica and her friend Tess without much parental consultation. I had flippantly agreed to it last week, now it was an inservice Friday, and I was committed, like it or not. At ten A.M. Veronica was standing in front of me windmilling her arms and telling me she told Tess to be ready at 8:30.

“Eight-thirty A.M.?”

“Yes!” she yells, impatient. I sigh in my well-practiced, beleaguered-mother way and call Tess’s mom. I talk to what might be up to three different children before I hear an adult voice. I have to yell into the phone because she can hardly hear me for the screaming of kids in the back ground,

“THE GIRLS HAVE PLANNED A SLEEPOVER I GUESS?!”

“QUIET DOWN!! What, sleepover? Yes, I don’t care.” I don’t care? OK, looks like it’s on. After lunch. I follow up with a call to a friend of Ivan’s, whose father is happy to bring him over, as he’s working from home for the day. I should be doing the same. Instead, I spearhead a shock-and-awe cleaning attack on the kids rooms. By the time the guests arrive I’m only capable of dazed web surfing interrupted by the fetching of water and snacks, and hourly refusals to turn on the TV. Mid-afternoon, our neighbor girl Fallyn shows up, and the count is up to five. I divide and conquer, keeping the boys and girls separated. As I sit at the computer, for a full half-hour Ivan and his friend battle invisible fire-monsters as ninjas, an on-going narrative that consists mostly of mouth noises. “CHHH!” is an exploding fireball,  “DSHHHH” is the sound of any ninja movement and “KAPUGH” is, I think, a complex mix of the two.

“Let’s say I have lightening power. PAGAH!”

“Me too, except mine is also thunder strength! BAHHH-PAH! More fire-monsters! If they get on the couch, we’ll lose our powers, but if we can keep them off the carpet, they’ll turn to ice. CHHHH!”

And on it goes. Meanwhile, the three girls are upstairs. They saunter to the stairs and stand lined up like Von Trapp children. In perfect unison they drone, “We’re bored.”

“Go play dolls.”

“We only have two.”

“Make some art.”

“We already did that.”

Veronica offers, “We could read books?” Crickets.

“Why don’t you play office?”

“OFFICE!” They spring up the stairs deciding who will be boss. I played office when I was a kid, using the triplicate shipping forms my mom brought home from the warehouse at work. I don’t know what these kids think happens in an office, but it involves the wielding of clipboards, signing of papers and much knocking on doors. In the meantime, Ivan and his bud settle in to some Power Rangers and yogurt until the boy’s dad comes to fetch him. The girls come down, exhausted from a long day at the office.

“Mom, we want to dance, can you put on some music?” I start flipping through my records. I pull Cyndi Lauper from the sleeve. Tess is at my shoulder and she runs a finger along the edge of the vinyl,

“What is that?” Wow. Welcome to Veronica’s Mom’s House of Obsolete Items and Curiosities.

“This is a record, it’s how we used to listen to music.” I put on Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Veronica flings herself into a dance. Tess bobs uncertainly. “What is this music?”

“This was my favorite song when I was about your age.” Ivan and Fallyn join in. Soon they are doing ring-around-the-rosie with Ivan in the center. He is smiling hugely and playing air guitar. I think it might be a Peak Experience for him. We follow it up with the Go-Gos while I make pizzas. Fallyn decides to spend the night. I’m chopping vegetables to put on my pizza, and out pull out some mushrooms.

“What are those?” asks Tess. Really? “Mushrooms” I say.

“Yeah but what ARE they?”

“Um, they’re food. They grow in the ground, they’re fungus.”

“Ringworm is fungus!” Veronica says. I don’t want to touch that. Literally.

“These are for me.” I assure a worried Tess, “You don’t have to eat them.”

While the pizza cooks I set up the kids to watch the Justin Bieber movie Never Say Never. I am excited because I know nothing of Justin Beiber except that he is some kind of phenomenon. Fallyn loves him. She LOVES him. Veronica likes him, but not that way. While I scroll through Netflix titles they discuss the boys in their class they would like if they had to. One of them, Kyle, has Bieber hair. He is unanimously their favorite. Ivan pipes up, “If Kyle were a girl I would marry him.” Aw. I ruffle his hair.

The movie follows the Bieb’s career from his start banging on buckets at age two to his sold-out Madison Square Garden show and ruling of the world. I think I might be getting Beiber fever because I grow increasingly annoyed with their chatter because I CAN’T HEAR WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT THE BIEB. The kids all have the habit of immediately repeating any line that’s remotely clever or funny or… anything. “He’s like, ‘I don’t think so.'” “He’s like, ‘where are my shoes?'” Tess turns to me constantly asking questions about Justin Bieber to which I have no answers. There is a heated absurdist argument about whether the girl on stage is Miley Cyrus or Hannah Montana which boils down, I guess, to whether or not she’s wearing a wig. By the time he sings the title song at MSG they are whipped into a frenzy, dancing and singing along, and I predictably am wiping tears away for the boy-wonder. Time for bed.

I sequester the girls to Veronica’s room and lie down with Ivan. I read him a stupefying book about dinosaurs, fighting sleep at every page. Eventually, I drift off with him, and wake up sweating a half hour later. The girls are all in Veronica’s bed giggling. It’s tennish.

“Time for bed.” I say. Teeth are brushed while I smooth out sleeping bags on the floor. Fallyn puts her hands on her hips. “I don’t want to sleep here.”

“Here on the floor, or here at our house?”

“Here. I want to go home.” I sigh. “Let’s get your stuff.” We gather up all six blankets and two stuffed animals and drag them downstairs, and then down the hall to her apartment. As her mother opens the door, she says, “I thought this might happen.” “Sorry!” I say as she closes the door behind her. I shuffle back to our place. I hear Veronica and Tess talking, not in hushed tones, as soon as I enter. I assume my a stern posture and dictate instructions,

“Get in bed, whisper if you must talk, and then close your eyes and go to sleep.” I repeat variations on this theme for the next hour. Finally, at 11:30, I’ve had it. Stern turns to impatient. Tess starts fake sniffling and telling me she can’t get to sleep. I tell her what I tell my children,

“You can’t sleep because you are standing on two feet, walking around and talking. No one can fall asleep like that. Lay down and I’ll rub your back.” She does, and I do, and the fake sniffling increases in frequency. After ten minutes she says, “i never sleep over at friend’s houses. My mom always has to come and get me. One time it was one 0-clock.” Helpful information. “Let’s get your stuff.” Her mom is laughing as she picks up the phone, and says she’ll be right there. I tell Tess about the time I went to a sleepover in the country, and the silence and strangeness of it scared me so badly I pretended to have an allergy attack in the middle of the night, and my mom had to drive fifteen miles to come and get me.

“What’s this?” She says, pointing to a marionette. “It’s a marionette.” I say. “Yeah, but what IS it?’ It’s a puppet, for playing with.” I look around our apartment: antique radios, butterflies under glass, carpeted mushroom foot stool and wool shag rug. (“Is that an animal?”) I wonder what her house is like, but I don’t have to wonder long to know it isn’t like this.

“I’m sorry you have to go Tess, but I hope you come back. Maybe just for a day-over.”

She shrugs and says okay. Then she points to the retro lamp hanging over our kitchen table, “What is that?” Sigh.

Finally, I crawl into bed a bit after midnight. I realize I haven’t slept there in days, as I’ve been vagabonding in St Cloud for the past two nights. I hadn’t missed it until I slipped in under the covers. Everyone in their own beds at last. Lights out, goodnight.

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10 Secrets of Keeping a Messy House

Some people might look around my slovenly little loft and think I’m lazy. But no! Withhold judgement. It takes a lot of hard work to keep this place in a state of constant disarray. And while I have many books on the subject of organization, housecleaning and home-making (most gifts from my mother) I haven’t read anything about how to preserve chaos in the home. I’m self-taught. I have outlined, for your instruction, a few basic principles of mess-making and maintaining in the home, laying bare my secrets for the first time.

1. It Helps to Have a Lot of Stuff

I remember once a co-worker delicately told me, “Jennifer, I think you just have too much stuff.” Blink blink. I hear the words you are saying, but I don’t understand them. How can it be “too much” when it is all absolutely necessary? For instance, at the time we had a lot of built in storage. One drawer was devoted to fur collars, cuffs and remnants I had picked up at a garage sale several years earlier. Sure, they were unused and generally unloved, but when would I ever find them again if I needed them? Huh? Never. And you never know when you might need musty fur parts.

Some people devote time to “weeding out” and “sorting” their things. I have even heard of complex sorting systems that involve separate piles for keeping, donating and trashing. I perceive that people enjoy this process, the act of purging. Then they take everything left in the “keep” file and sort and label that. And they enjoy that part too. You know what? I’d rather be writing, or cooking, or laying in the park on the grass looking up at the clouds while I listen to the children play. Or reading a damn book. Or doing other things that increase the mess in my house. So, the only time the act of “purging” seems like fun to me is when the alternative is moving it to another house. Then it’s just moving.

Books are heavy, colorful dust collectors that make you look smart!

2. Collecting Things That Collect Dust

It’s not just having a lot of stuff that counts, it will add to an overall impression of chaos if the stuff you collect is bulky and in need of display. Maybe you collect stamps. That’s very nice, but it’s also orderly, and therefor not a boon to a messy house. Whatever it is you collect, have more of it than you have room to store. For example, I like books. I have bookshelves that are packed, and still, I buy more books, which means I have piles of them everywhere – next to the bed, leaning up against the wall, stacked on top of the bookshelves. To add to the volume, my children have books as well, and they leave them scattered not in stacks, but singly, wherever they feel like it. My daughter has been leaving books on the bathroom floor for years – a resplendently disgusting habit that makes a mother proud. Tchotchkes of all kind are great at collecting dust. I can imagine figurines, antique dolls (creepy!), glass birds, and model airplanes fitting nicely into the mix. Records – as in vinyl record albums for listening on the phonograph player – are especially cunning if you never put them back in the their sleeves, but fan them out all over the floor while you drink box wine and sing Emmylou Harris to no one in particular. That is only a suggestion.

3. The Drug and Alchohol Option

Though I don’t endorse this method, television has taught me that all drug addicts and alcoholics are master slobs. I don’t even think you have to try, it just comes naturally.

4. Confessions of a Clotheshorse

If all my clothes were clean at one time (a purely hypothetical condition) there is absolutely no way  I could

These clean clothes are bound to put themselves away. Child included for scale.

fit them in my full sized closet and two Ikea dressers. Laundry is an ever present threat at our house, with baskets and hampers looming large at all times. Dirty clothes dub as wall-to-wall carpeting and clean clothes remain in baskets, sometimes folded, but rifled through and overspilling. Three key factors contribute to high volume of garments in our house. 1. Kids grow. Any parent knows that at all times, at least a third of the clothes in your kids drawers are too small, and up to one-fifth are too big. 2. The Wild Fluctuations in Weight of the Average American Woman paired with the optimistic belief that It Will Fit Again. And 3. Clothes aren’t for covering the body, but costumes that convey the character and personality of the person wearing them. if you have more than three alter-egos, you’re going to have a lot of clothes.

5. Children: Not Necessary But Exponentially Advantageous

I’m not going to say my kids are responsible for my messy house, because truth be told, I was an expert slob long before they came along. However, the character of filth that children add to the mix cannot be understated. Children are disgusting. They excrete a trail of discarded food, broken toys and bodily fluids wherever they go. They think nothing of stashing a crust of toast behind the drapes, or leaving a soiled kleenex at the top of the stairs where you are sure to step on it. And of-course, there are the toys, with all their SMALL PIECES. Legos are the exemplar. You can try to keep them sorted and in bins all you want, but eventually, you will wake up with one under your pillow at two in the morning. Another tip about children: don’t look under their beds. Why would you do that? You don’t want to know what is under there. That is why the monsters live there, because it is a naturally terrifying habitat. Once a year, give your six year-old a gas mask and a garbage bag and lock the door.

6. Pets: The Perpetual Polluters

Pets are a non-stop generator of messes. Dogs and cats that shed are recommended, especially when paired with hardwood floors and an aversion to brooms. Dogs that like to chew and destroy things are superb, as are cats who scratch the shit out of furniture. I had some finches once, and they left a daily spray of husked bird-seed shells in a three-foot radius around their cage, which invariably stank. Yes, pets add that special olfactory element that is the pièce de rèsistance to a messy home.

Just because it is contained doesn’t mean it has to be organized!

7. The Artist’s Way

I think artist’s really do have an unfair advantage in creating a cluttered, disorderly space. Some artists have to keep a neat studio because their materials are particularly hazardous and require vigilant supervision. And if the artist has a separate studio, then they may be inclined to keep a tidy home. But the economy sucks and real-estate is outrageous, so it is likely many artists must work from home. Here are some really good mediums for making a mess:

  • Painting of any kind (requires water, or toxic chemicals, or both)
  • Sculpture (especially from found objects, and especially if you work at a scrap yard, ahem)
  • Collage (scraps of paper everywhere, paired with adhesives of various sorts)
  • Charcoal drawing (charcoal, when combined with dust-bunnies, makes little poofy dust bombs)
  • Sewing (this seemingly benign domestic “craft” creates the biggest shitstorm of mess imaginable)
  • Printmaking (wood or linoleum shavings and effusive output!)
8. Don’t Look at Magazines
Don’t ever even look at Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Dwell or any other Clean House Porn. Next thing you know you’re headed to the Container Store, buying a label maker and losing sleep over how to organize your tupperware drawer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. However you can buy these magazines and leave them laying around the house. That’s okay.
9. No Tresspassing
Entertaining is great fun, but you will feel inclined to create the illusion of order within your home. Avoid it. If you must (as in the case of a children’s birthday party) don’t worry, you can just shove stuff in closets and under beds for the time being, thereby creating a secondary mess to savor at another time.
10 The Power to Avoid
There are people who find it impossible to concentrate on anything else while their surroundings are in disarray. I suffer from this condition in the kitchen, though to a lesser degree. On the whole, I have developed the ability to blur my vision so as to obscure stacks of dishes, mounds of clothes and piles of paperwork. This is a lifetime skill, and if you don’t care to cultivate it, that’s ok, because there is an alternative: just leave. In this way, over-scheduling and social obligations can be a huge asset. Lack of time is one of the easiest and most fool-proof ways to ensure a very messy house. Sure, you might not have time to create more messes, but eating and changing clothes without taking the time to do the dishes or laundry adds up fast. When you come home from a day packed with appointments, running errands and visiting friends you will undoubtedly collapse without another thought. Those dishes can wait until tomorrow!

Boys, Men, and Mothers

I went to a dinner party last night, at the house of a neighbor and friend. I went alone, as is my custom these days, and everyone was already seated and tucking in to one of four kinds of chili when I arrived. Introductions went around and the conversational thread picked up where it had been, apparently, when I came in. A kid in a ponytail and bandana was talking about the Middle East, and suggested the US might do well to align itself with Turkey. I, having been in the house for exactly five minutes and knowing nothing about the subject, expressed my skepticism. I really can be a bore. The conversation then turned to other more lively topics, and it was dropped.

After slowly and steadily defeating four bowls of chili and two glasses of wine I retreated to the cool night air of the back patio for a smoke. The ponytail guy was there too. I spoke first,

“Hey, I’m sorry for that Turkey comment, for being dismissive. What I said, I really don’t know anything about it. I was just there once and it struck me as patently corrupt. But what government isn’t, right?”  He raised his eyebrows, he smiled easily,

“Oh, no. Don’t worry about it. They are corrupt, but not as bad as maybe China or Russia…” and from there the conversation weaved from politics, to travel, work. I learned that he was 25, fairly well traveled, and wants to be a therapist. He was interesting, and I like interesting people, so I asked questions, made charming and appropriate replies.  The conversation turned towards our mutual friends and how we knew them, and the guests at the party. He said,

“It is nice to meet adults too. I mean, people who aren’t just out of college.” I realized he was talking about me and laughed.

“Yes, I suppose I fall firmly into the ‘adult’ camp at this point. Though sometimes I don’t feel like it. I mean, I’m still trying new things. Like I just sang with a band for the first time this weekend. I didn’t feel very grown up.”

“Yeah, like my friend’s mom, she’s so cool. She’s like my second mom…” At this point he kept talking about this woman, but I couldn’t hear him, because my head was filled with a loud voice saying “HOLY SHIT. YOU WERE JUST COMPARED TO THE MOTHER OF AN ADULT MAN. A 25 YEAR OLD MAN THINKS OF YOU LIKE A MOTHER.” Then he came around to his point, after describing our mutual coolness – me and this other mother – and said,

“She’s just a totally amazing and beautiful woman.” Well, that’s better. I smiled at him, happy in my assumption that I was amazing and beautiful too. Thanks kid. Someone else came out to the porch and he made to leave. We shook hands.

The spring after I left my husband, I dated a few young men – quite young. To say we “dated” would be misleading. It was spring. They were fleeting diversions, but I don’t think they saw me as, um… maternal. Unless they had some very complicated relationships with their mothers. Like, oedipal ones. At the time though, my behavior was not very adult. I was as unmoored as my twenty-five year old self, heady with the freedom and independence of being single, hanging out with people ten years younger than me. In fact, these younger men were often shocked to find out my age, to learn that I was a professional, and most surprised that I was a mother. It was fun, but I started to feel like the creep at the keg party. When I left St Cloud, without thinking about it, I left it behind. A year later, I’m a grown-up again. Ta-da.

During that period, that spring, I met a more age appropriate man, a friend-of-a-friend, named Rick. Rick was a sweet, sweet guy. We did that awkward, apathetic dating thing where we could never trouble ourselves to really get together, but not for lack of trying. Eventually I had to concede it was a spring fling, and nothing more. Last week he died. He was 35.

The news came to me as part of my facebook newsfeed, a post of our shared friend. Shocked, I went to his “wall” to try to find out the details. It became clear by the nature of the comments that he had killed himself. Of-course I was shocked. I scrolled down, reading everyone’s thoughts, the rawness of them, all messages he would never hear. Too late. His mother wrote simply: “I love ya and will miss you and why???????????”  I started sobbing. The mom in me sobbed. I didn’t know Rick well, and I never met his mom, but I could picture her grief with clarity.

That night I laid down with Ivan as part of our bedtime ritual. I watched him twitch and drift off to sleep. I thought of Rick, and how he was this small once. I thought of his mother putting him to bed at night. I thought about Ivan becoming a man. Will he grow up to be sad? So sad that all the lifetime of love I pour into him will not save him? I could not bear it.

I got up and walked back downstairs to my laptop. I went back to Rick’s page and read more of the posts, looked at pictures of him. I saw his last status update, about 3 weeks old:

“Somehow I just had a vision of what the difference is to be old, and to be young. I want my 20’s back because I’ve gotten too good at being old.” Hmm, a little cryptic. A woman typed a reply about agelessness of spirit, etc, and his reply to her read, “…yes- there is something timeless about anyone’s spirit. I was thinking more about a certain joie de vivre. Not physical health- but the spontaneity that comes with youth and lack of experience.”

He is right of-course. You can’t ever re-capture innocence, youth. But it turns out you can still sing in a rock band when you are middle-aged. You can become an adult and still go to dinner parties with ponytail wearing boys. You can practice the act of transformation over and over again, and grow up a little more each time. I am so, so sorry he never saw the joy and gravitas that comes from experience, with age. Something obscured his view. It is amazing and beautiful.

Dog Days in Frogtown

My ex-husband and I are not a pair known for our superior communication skills. Hence, the responsibility of finding someone to watch the kids for the month of August got lost. We We both non-comittally agreed to do something about it, and we both sort-of tried, but when the first of the month rolled around, we were still pretty much screwed. We hired a babysitter, but it became quickly apparent she wasn’t cut out for the job.

I called Dave and had a very stupid conversation in which nothing was resolved that left me angrily huffing on a cig and bitching to a neighbor. Robyn, a mother from down the hall, tells me about a program at the rec center across the street that offers free afternoon programs. Summer Dog Days Shangri La. OK, the next day is Friday I am taking the kids.

We show up and walk into the cool of the Scheffer Rec Center. It is your typical cinder-block box,   coated in institutional paint, a mural along the back side of kids playing sports. Inside, younger kids huddle around a foosball table and older ones linger in clumps, messing around. I find a woman in a baseball hat who looks like she knows what’s up.

“Hi, my neighbor told me you have afternoon programs? For kids?” I am embarrassed by how little I know about what is going on right across the street form my home.

“Yeah, that would be Summer Splash.” She says to me and then, “ANDRE! Put that chair DOWN!!” Andre freezes with chair held aloft, wide eyed, then slowly puts the chair down. I like this woman. She continues, “But that’s Monday through Thursday. Today is Friday and we’re taking the Circulator bus to a water park.” Ivan, standing next to me whispers, “YES!” and pumps his arm.

“Oh, well, can they go? When do you leave? I can get suits and towels, I just live across the street.” She nods and starts grabbing registration forms, permission slips, and hands me a pen, “We leave in about a half hour.” I take the forms into the next room and start filling them out on a ping-pong table. Veronica crowds in and says quietly,

“I don’t want to go mom.” I look up from writing, surprised. It is a water park after all, “Why hon? What’s up” She hesitates for just a moment, looking around the bustling room,

“Um. We’re the only white people here.” She is not lying. We are absolutely the only white people there. I crouch down to meet her eyes,

“You know, this is true. But that’s no reason to miss out on something fun.” Just then a tall, brown girl comes over to the table, points at Ivan and asks me if he has a life jacket.

“No, but he’s a good swimmer, he doesn’t need one.” She has giant, kind, almond-shaped eyes. I ask what her name is.

“Shaughnessy.”

“Well Shaughnessy, this is Veronica, and this is Ivan. Veronica is feeling a little shy about going along today. Do you think she should go?”

She smiles widely, “YEAH! It’s awesome!” Oh thank you nice girl! I look at Veronica pointedly. See?

I finish filling out the forms and we hurry home to pack towels and swimsuits. Veronica continues to voice her concern, “I feel happy and excited and upset at the same time,” she says as we hurry to our door.

“That’s called anxiety.” I tell her, “It’s normal when you try something new and you don’t know anyone.” As we’re cramming towels into backpacks I say, “You know, the town I grew up in almost everyone was white, but the few black kids didn’t let it stop them from doing cool stuff.” This is a half-truth, I realize as I say it. I have absolutely no idea how the one black boy at my grade school felt, but he kept mostly to himself and his few friends. But this is the truth I want for her, so I leave it at that. Ivan jumps on the bandwagon too. Gesturing with his hands like a lawyer he says,

“You have to try new things Veronica. Otherwise you’ll never know if you’re going to like them.” He is lobbying hard for the waterpark.

“But mom,” Veronica pleads as we head back to the center, “What if they forget us, and the bus leaves without us?” I can’t help but smile. “Oh honey. They won’t forget you.”

I shuffle them into the room where everyone is waiting. As I look around, I know, it is more than skin color that divides my kids from the rest of the crowd. Most of the kids are older, middle-school aged. The rest of the kids have been coming to this rec center all summer, they know each other’s names and are friends. And I am self-aware enough to know we are whiter than even most white people. Well screw it. We live here, this is our neighborhood, and my kids are just kids. I seek out the guy in charge, wearing a powder blue staff t-shirt and holding a clipboard. I make sure he knows their names. Veronica hangs back against the wall at the back of the line and Ivan bounces on toes. They look impossibly small, and pale, but I know they are going to be fine.

Our little slice of Frogtown, Census tract 327, has the following make-up: Black: 40%, Asian: 34% White: 19%, Hispanic: 4%, Other: 4%. By comparison, the neighborhood we moved from in St Cloud was about 86% White, and the area I grew up in, Hartford, Wisconsin, is about 95% White. Needless to say, it is, by far, the most diverse place I have ever lived. And I do, without reservation, love that.

I love watching the tiny elderly Hmong couples with sun umbrellas walking to work in the marketplace. I love that the Hmong Marketplace is so far out, I can’t even figure out what to buy there. I love watching the shirtless men of varying shades play pick-up basketball at the playground across the street, and not in an entirely innocent way. I love the chaos of the local Holiday station and the crush of humanity that flows in a constant, CONSTANT, stream through it. I love that as I bike through my neighborhood, people turn their heads to see me biking through, because well, I suppose: “there goes that fat white lady on the bike again!” I also like that living in Frogtown challenges my assumptions –about my self, about other people. Like many progressive white folks, I don’t think I am racist. I try hard not to be. But that is easy to say when you live around a bunch of other people that look exactly like yourself. Now when I catch myself factoring people’s race in as I see them, meet them, it’s like getting my clothes snagged on a nail. I have to stop and unravel my thoughts, reconsider. Maybe I am old to be learning this, but I am at least learning.

And though I am free to embrace the diversity, deconstruct it and measure it against my own experience, I have wondered what my kids make of it. I’ll never know what it is like to be on a bus, playground, or a field trip where I am the only white kid. Which is why I was so glad Veronica had the insight to name her feeling, that she felt comfortable enough with me to say it plainly and openly.

When I went to pick them up four hours later, Ivan was playing foosball with some boys, and Veronica was bossing around some younger kids by the vending machine. When they saw me they ran up and hugged me. “How was it?” I asked.

“It was awesome! Can we go back every day next week?” And we did.

Restaurant Review: New York

The menu from Ivan's Room remains, as a tribute to New York's historic roots.

I was recently invited to dine at the fine new bistro in the upstairs of our apartment. New York occupies the space formerly known as Ivan’s Room. In its former incarnation, it served up wooden and plastic vegetables amidst an atmosphere of dinosaurs and superheroes. It was then particularly known for the revolving artwork that donned the walls, almost always monsters, that provided an atmosphere of cheery terror.

The brother and sister team who run the restaurant, Veronica and Ivan, are charming and eager to please. Veronica, armed with a sketchbook and crayon, seats me at a table – a very small table – opposite a small Buffalo.

“This is our guest Miss Buffles” she smiles. Ivan calls from the corner, “It’s NOT a GIRL!” Veronica laughs demurely, “Well I guess that’s Mr. Buffles. I’ll get you a menu.” As she leaves the table, Ivan, approaches.

“After you are done eating, you might like to spend some more money in the gift shop!” He smiles widely and gestures to a child’s desk in the corner. The array of items for sale are eerily similar to the flotsam I skimmed off his bedroom floor earlier that morning; a yo-yo with no string, several markers, a couple feathers and of-course, a stack of hand made books. I promise to look before I go.

Veronica returns and hands me a Child’s Illustrated Atlas of the World. “Here is your menu.” I flip through the pages. “Salad is our specialty, ” she says, while I look at a map of Portugal.

“Give me the Porteugese Salad, please.” She nods and scribbles illegibly in her book. A sophisticated code no doubt. “We also have a vegetable soup.” She says. “Sounds good,” I agree, and she turns to begin cooking the meal.

While she cooks, I inquire after the name New York. “Well, ” Veronica begins, artfully arranging the wooden peppers on my plate, “We are named New York becasue we are…” she looks ahead, appearing to search for the right word, “We are functioned by the New Yorker.”

“The magazine, The New Yorker?”

“Yes, we give them all our money, but then we get some change.” As a reviewer, I’m dubious of the business model. As their mother, I’m proud of their dedication to the arts.

Ivan interrupts, “Would you like a RARE ORANGE BANANA?” I am never one to turn down a rare culinaryA healthful salad is their specialty. experience, so I accept. Ivan hands me hard plastic orange crescent. Rare indeed. I wonder if the service here might be improved by a better coordination of efforts, but then, my salad and soup arrive in a timely manner, accompanied my a thimble-sized serving of ice tea. The food is very similar to the fare served in Ivan’s Room; bright, simple, and perfectly portioned. What it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in presentation. I nibble at the air for a minute, producing satisfying eating sounds, and hand the plate to Veronica.

I pay my bill (one nickel) but before I am permitted to leave, am led by hand to the gift shop. This seems to be Ivan’s gig. He shows me a book, drawn in blue highlighter. “I made that.” He says, then grows impatient as I look through it. “This one is better, it’s called The Book. We were going to name it Monster’s Habitat, but I didn’t know how to spell habitat, so we called it The Book.” It is, in fact, monsters in their habitats. I choose to buy it, am again charged a nickel, and then allowed to leave to go finish the laundry.

Upon reflection, the staff’s attire – underpants and t-shirts – raises some sanitary concerns. However, given the lack of air conditioning, it is understandable. It looks as if the new tenants here in the second floor of our house will enjoy success, and even bolster the coffers of the esteemed New Yorker. I’ll just renew my subscription in their honor.

Food Shelf Caviar

The first time I went to the food shelf  it was a Friday, and I wouldn’t be paid until Monday. The cupboards were bare but for odds and ends that would make one sodium laden, frightful meal.  The kids would be there at three, gunning for snacks. Time to suck it up and go.

The Catholic Charities in St Cloud run a nice operation. It’s spacious as an airplane hanger, with quilts forming a colorful false ceiling. A thin man with sandy gray hair greets you and tells you what to do. Take this number, it’s this color, go when they call your name. He says it with a smile, gracious but not condescending. The women who work the counter are like any midwestern, middle-aged women who run small beurocratic hives of civic authority. Nattering amongst themselves, sighing heavily as they push paperwork at you and fill out a card with your name on it. They do not check income. If you are there, they assume you need to be, which is a small mercy.

They walk you around with your cart and you can take an allotted number of items from each area, depending on your household size. An elderly man checked off items from a clipboard as we walked. I got a lot of food. A lot of strange food. Huge bags of frozen fruit from some restaurant, a wide variety of beans, a bag of frozen french fries probably from Perkins, a jar of grape leaves that sit in my cupboard still. Pastries from the Cold Spring bakery, including a pie. A Pie! And zucchini. They gave away boxes of it at the end, after your cart was weighed. A cardboard sign said “Take all you want”. It would go bad soon, but I have many, many uses for zucchini. I grabbed two boxes.

I lugged my booty up the back stairs of the duplex and into the narrow kitchen and stashed it. My kitchen was brimming, I was wearing a sundress and I felt good. I had food for my family. I wondered if I should feel badly about taking charity, about needing it. I didn’t. I looked at the zucchini. Too much. I grabbed a box and headed over to Tracy and Kramer’s place. They lived in an apartment building next door. I cut through the laundry room of their building, and came out on the other side, at the base of their back steps, and walked up to their back porch on the third floor.

I found Kramer in her lawn chair, doing soduko and listening to the radio. If I had not found Kramer doing this very thing I would have fallen over the balcony with surprise. She glanced up non-chalant and addressed me,  “Crazy Neighbor Lady. Whatcha got there?” “Zucchini.” Tracy came out wiping her hands on a towel. I gestured at the box of zucchini. “You can make fritters.” I suggested. Her eyes brightened. “Look what I just got!”. She opened the screen door and I saw a fry-daddy still in the box. Later that night, I met Kramer at the bottom of my stairs and she handed me a tin foil packet of zucchini fritters, with a small bowl of home made ranch dressing. I ate them warm, at my windows, looking out at the stoplights lined up on Hwy 23, thinking about the past year.

People told me it would be hard. I was flip, “I’ve been po’ befo’e!” I said. But when the meager savings ran dry, and I was living on 85% of a junior copywriter’s salary, paying my own rent for the first time in five years, I felt the pinch. More like a squeeze. Playing the cup game where you pay one bill and run late on the next, pick up that one the next month, pay a different one. Keep the creditors at bay. Make your rent, buy generic, budget. It was true, I had been poor before, but never with two children in my care.

They asked for things constantly. From the gum ball at the grocery store to the Florida vacation, the answer was always no. I would be driving, and from the back seat they would ask, “When can we go to [fill in the blank]? When can we get a [insert item here]”. I would burst into tears. I begged them to stop asking for things. I dragged them to pawn shops and I thinned my book collection monthly. Money came in from family, from friends. Once, a paper bag with a cookie decorating kit, mardi gras beads and a grocery store gift card appeared at the bottom of the stairs. A generous gift from a girlfriend who had once walked in my shoes. I cried then too.

I worked an extra job, and I looked for a new job. I tried to get food stamps, but I made too much money. I tried to get legal aid to help with my divorce, but I made too much money. All around me friends lost jobs, and I felt lucky to have mine, though I grew increasingly unhappy there. But a woman who decides to divorce her husband in the middle of a recession doesn’t get too many choices, doesn’t have the luxury of job dissatisfaction. Finally, I suppose I did what every Republican Politician wants you to do. I pulled up the proverbial bootstraps. I got good and pissed off about it. I was too smart to be this poor. This is bullshit. And then I had the benefit of luck, and synchronicity, and incredible opportunity. I seized it. I was offered a new job, which would pay enough to allow me to move to the cities again, to take care of myself, to divorce my husband. I hung up the phone and I wept. Then I screamed. My relief was profound.

I called my friend Doug and told him about the job, and then said, “I know I don’t say this often, but you were right.”

He laughed, “Yeah, about what?”

“It’s hard. It was hard. Harder than I ever thought it would be. Being poor, leaving Dave. You were right. I didn’t know.” He sighed on the other end; my dramatic revelations are tiresome. I know this.

“Well, good for you.” he said. “You’re gonna make it after all, just like Mary Tyler Moore. Though I always thought of you as more of a Rhoda.”  I hung up happy.

That was months ago. Now it was summer, and while I still needed a bump from Catholic Charities, I could see a way out. I could exhale without it becoming a sob. I had friends, neighbors, fritters, hope.

The last time I went to the food shelf, it was July. I took Doug, who was a chef, and so the indignity of it was something we could only laugh about. On the way out he snuck me a sly smile. We loaded the groceries into the trunk, sweating.

“Come over to my house tonight? I’ve got the AC running. We’ll get some beer. Bring Otto.” Doug couldn’t refuse, it was too hot – and Otto, a 110 pound German Shepherd, couldn’t be denied. I picked him up and he loaded a bag of groceries and Otto into the car. We stopped at the store and he picked up water crackers, I bought a Belgian beer, which I really couldn’t afford, and a six pack of PBR tall boys, which I could.

We cracked the beer and sat in front of the fan, which blew air from of the window unit. “I got caviar.” Doug said. I clapped my hands like a toddler in delight. “And veal. I snuck them in the cart at the food shelf when you weren’t looking. We can eat the caviar now, while it’s hot, and I’ll cook the veal later, when it cools down.” I had goat cheese in the refrigerator, and we spread that one the water crackers, then finished with a glop of salty brown fish eggs. I had never had caviar before. It reminded me of the ocean, the salt of it. It made me feel lucky, like I had a delicious secret.

When we met, I was married and solidly middle class. Doug was the Executive Chef at the best restaurant in town. He made me lunches that nearly caused me to lose consciousness. Curry shrimp with mango rice, salmon with saffron risotto, bison osso bucco, the best fried chicken. Then, the restaurant folded, my marriage fell apart. It was more or less complicated than that, but bottom line, it was hard times, and we had spent our fare share of it in co-misery. We staved off the darkness; made music, cooked dinners, drank cheap wine, fought and made up. In a few months I would be moving to St Paul, which was scary but exciting. I didn’t know where I would live, how I would find an apartment, if I would be able to afford it. But here we were now, like a couple of swells. I licked some caviar from my thumb and smiled. There are times when you have too much zucchini, or too much sadness. An ocean of need or just a small jar of caviar. The secret is: it is all best shared.

Ten Things About Me & Bob Dylan

I don’t know that much about Bob Dylan, except he’s always been there. He’s been hanging around in my brain for almost as long as I can remember. And he’s not a quiet guy. I mean, he goes on and on sometimes. Standing over by the left wall of my skull, smoking and spewing brilliant, insane poetry. Sometimes he has a band with him, but more often he’s alone, with his big hair and his sunglasses. This is a partial catalogue of some of our more memorable times together.

1. I met my ex-husband for the first time, standing in line for “Don’t Look Back” at the Oak Street Cinema in about 1996. Everyone standing around in the classic Minnesota posture: hands stuffed straight-armed into pockets, shoulders hunched, shivering. I looked at all the characters in line; dudes in leather jackets, messy hair, scowls and their breath visible in the cold night air. Dave said he didn’t really like Bob Dylan, despite his similar disposition, he just wanted to see the film. He was a friend of a friend. It was a fantastic film. Dylan was such an asshole, and so beautiful. Joan Baez walking around with that apple like some freaking Goddess. Ubiquitous Robbie Robertson. Afterwards we went and drank Mextaca at a dive bar in St Paul. Much later, we got married.

2. My uncle Billy claims to have met Bob Dylan, in the sixties, in Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently, everyone was bummed out on Bob, because he was a pain, always bumming smokes and money. My uncle gave him a ride somewhere and told him he was never going to make it, “You’re from the wrong end of the Mississippi to be playing the blues” he said.  Allegedly. I want to believe this tale, along with what I knew as a companion story. That my Uncle also met Alex Haley, who told him about plans for writing Roots, and Billy said, “That’s preposterous! You’ll never be able to trace your roots to Africa.” I always hoped he would condemn me to failure so I would be wildly successful.

3. My first was The Greatest Hits album, of-course, because you had to have Rainy Day Women for parties. My older brother and sisters had taken most of the good albums when they moved out and left me with Saved and Slow Train Coming. Hours sitting cross-legged at the turntable and I walked away with “Gotta Serve Somebody” and that was about it. Then Oh Mercy, because it came out when I was in high-school. That had “Most of The Time” on it, which I listened to lying down on my bedroom floor, secretly smoking out the window and wishing someone thought about me most of the time. Which was either an acute understanding, or misunderstanding, of the lyrics. Then Blood on the Tracks (freshman dorms), Desire (duplex, red wine), and then Another Side of Bob Dylan and Hwy 61 Revisited (Mike Knudson’s apartment, after bar time) in college. Then in St Paul, it was Freewheelin Bob Dylan and Bringing it All Back Home. Those were Sarah’s records, and we would listen to them on a huge suitcase record player with surprisingly good sound, while we cooked in the little kitchen with sloped ceilings and filthy checkerboard floor. Now I’m back to Desire and Blood on the Tracks, fittingly I guess.

4. In the dream, I was at a party. Very mod setting, lots of white. A cat came up to me and began to rub against my leg. It seemed lost, so I picked it up. Then another cat started to rub my leg, but to my disgust, it had two heads. Not two side-by-side heads, but one one each end, like a push-me-pull-me. I felt like I had to find someone to take ownership of it – it was mangy and its eyes bulged out and oozed with puss. I tried to attach it to a leash (of-course, which end?) and I was juggling one cat in my arms and trying to wrangle the other (who I did not want to pick up) when along came Bob Dylan, circa 1964. I was speechless, and preoccupied, when he spoke first in his trademark nasal drawl, “I see you have a two headed cat. A two-headed cat bodes well for your future.” The two-headed cat mewled and tugged at the leash and I shrugged my shoulders and walked away. Then I woke up.

5. If anyone knows Kevin who worked at Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books… he has my copy of a Bob Dylan songbook for piano and guitar and I fucking want it back. Oh, and Jerry, I have that paperback biography you loaned me. Sorry. Julie, I still have the Complete Lyrics 1962 – 1985. Thank you, it was a perfect graduation gift.

6. A boyfriend broke up with me using the lyrics to “Don’t Think Twice Its Alright”. He wrote them on a piece of paper and added, “I’ll throw this to your side of the kidney shaped pool”. Wha? I asked my brother if he knew the song, and had a copy. “Yeah, there’s this pretty weird version on Live at Budokan, but you can have it.”  The record has scary Bob Dylan on the front, white face make-up and eyeliner. It’s the last song on side one, right after Ballad of a Thin Man, which is a scary song. But then it launches into this reggae beat, with a flute trilling along side the bitterly acerbic lyrics, served up by a merry Bob. I had to admit, the song was apt. “I aint saying, you treated me unkind, you coulda done better, but I don’t mind. You just kinda wasted, my precious time, but don’t think twice it’s alright.” Ok, yeah, it was kind of mean, but it was also fucking great, I knew that much. I never felt bad about that break-up, at least he’d given me that song.

7. You should not go see Bob Dylan on acid. Even if Santana is involved. Bad move.

8. I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau when I was in Poland. It is a nearly silent place, except for the crunch of gravel and low murmur of people whispering in collective horror. You read plaques about the empty room in front of you, where hundreds of people were killed, and you want to scream, or shout, and you might cry, but you mostly feel speechless. I wanted to listen to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, because I thought it would make me feel better, but I didn’t have the cassette with me, so I just went to bed feeling sick and exhausted and lucky to be alive. I think of that place when I hear that song, though. You might think a rock song incapable of adequately reflecting the gravity of such a place, or event. But really, what can?

9. I memorized all seven verses to Tangled Up in Blue when I was about 15, riding the Badger Bus to Madison. Play, rewind, play. Over and over. It seemed important that I know it. In college, it was a late-night, pass-the-whiskey, murder-the-guitar favorite. Once the guitarist figured it out, I just had to keep singing it forever. It’s an easy song to sing, and not hard to sing better than Dylan. (sorry, true) Later, I lived on the East Side of Milwaukee for a summer, and I struggled to learn, or decipher, the chords on guitar. Absolute lack of skill did not deter me, nor did the exasperation of my room mates. Later, I had a peak experience accompanied by my friend on guitar, backed up by twin sisters who happened to be the mothers of my friends. I sang in my normal voice, and they, skilled and gifted, lifted my voice with harmonies like folkie angles. It was more than worth it to have learned all those verses.

10. Right now, as I write, I’m listening to Greatest Hits Volume II.  I got my heart a tiny bit broken up recently, and I’ve got a dull hangover from disrespecting a bottle of white wine, so I’m gonna listen to Bob for hours. With all the relentless strumming, the shrill harmonica, incessant nasal whine – you’d think I might send him packing. But I’m so grateful he’s here, with all his words, plainspoken or abstruse. Listening to his music comforts me like leaning against a very old, gnarled tree. Scratchy and sometimes uncomfortable, but big enough to support whatever worry I pitch against it. There hasn’t been a heartache in my life that Bob hasn’t helped see me through. Me and him keep on keeping on just fine.

Pushing 40 in a Polyester Skirt

I’m thirty-eight now. For my sister, fifteen years older, this bit of news hit hard. It seemed more upsetting to her than when she herself turned fifty, a milestone she passed with trademark grace. “But I was thirty-seven for a whole year, and that didn’t seem old.” I pleaded. “No.” She stood her ground, “You’re old now.”

And so I am, quite suddenly, old. At my birthday party, I felt punchy, liberated even, as I developed for myself the catch-phrase: “I’m pushing forty! I do the fuck I want!” It turns out this catch-phrase is limited in both application and enduring charm. But it does express a certain sense of relief I feel having made it to middle age. Cause let’s face it, given certain lifestyle choices on my behalf, I’m definitely there.

Sometimes people wait until they are actually elderly to stop caring what other people think. Since I’ve only ever marginally given a crap, it’s just taken the tiniest nudge to push me into all-out apathy. One of the things I don’t care about because I’m so fucking old is certainly what the fuck I wear.

Again, this has never truly been something I worry too much about in terms of “public opinion”. But let me clarify:  I care very much about my appearance when it comes to prospective employers, prospective boyfriends, friends who are more hip than me, and the parents of my children’s friends. The rest of you all can suck it. To whit: I just went to the corner grocery store in pajama pants, a tank top that highlights my mooshy mid-section, a scarf that is part of a child’s pirate costume worn as a do-rag and a men’s cardigan from 1984. (acrylic, navy) And you know what? The clerk who works six days a week because he is single (wink), and doesn’t have anything else to do anyway as he kindly informed me, kind of hit on me.

Throughout my life, like many misguided women of my generation, fashion has played a major role in defining my identity. Just in case you’ve only known me for two weeks, let me offer you a brief history of some of the highs and lows along the way:

K-8: She’s so unusual
My mother not only let me dress myself, but never even offered an opinion on the whack shit I left my house in. I wore fake leather pants in fourth grade for God’s sake. And because I lived in an insanely homogeneous small town with no mean rich girls to make fun of me, I really had no idea what a freak show I was becoming. In my defense, it was the eighties. My fashion idols were, duh, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Having no access to clothing stores or the money to use at them, I raided my mom’s closet hand-me-downs, and a trunk of dress up clothes in the basement. The result was a midget-sized cross between Murphy Brown and Shelia E.

Highschool: Every day is Halloween
A crucial event between eighth grade and my freshman year was Art Camp. I smoked my first cigarette, met a boy who skateboarded and was introduced to Suicidal Tendencies. Also I met punk rockers from Madison.  I had packed every Forenza t-shirt and Esprit bermuda shorts in my collection, only to meet girls with shaved heads and combat boots who knew how to use blow torches. I returned to Hartford with a new bad habit and a head full of bad fashion ideas. Like torn  tights worn under jean cut-offs, or worse yet, long underwear under boxer shorts.

Thankfully I was delivered via Angie, my goth friend with access to and knowledge of the Army Surplus store on Wisconsin Avenue, and Sweet Doomed Angel, a vintage boutique on the East side of Milwaukee. Then there was Chris, my then-closeted gay friend, who became my own personal Tim Gunn. He could be cruel to be kind. He took me shopping for my prom dress, and actually blushed when I came out of the dressing room with decoletage, God Bless his queer heart.

I was, in fact, surrounded by like-minded, equally daring dressers. Each of us had our own signature – Jenny for example, favored hats neatly propped behind a massive wall of blonde bangs. Danielle did this thing with safety pins and the collars of men’s shirts… it’s hard to explain. But it looked cool! One thing we all had in common, as girls growing up in the eighties, was: at all costs obscure your killer bod. Giant, David Byrne like suits or men’s vintage shirts would mask any semblance of a breast. Youth, again, wasted on the young.

Personally, I settled into a new wave thing for most of high-school. I had a platinum bob and my style was not unlike Winona Ryder in Heathers. Lots of colored tights. It held until senior year, when I began to smoke pot, or at least pretend I did, and decided to become a hippie, or something. Things went downhill fast.

College: Rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes
Once I realized that head shops not only sold drug paraphernalia but also clothes and jewelry, it was over. So over, my friends. I wore Birkenstocks to the exclusion of all other footwear. Flannels, Guatemalan pants, and t-shirts ordered from the Wireless catalog – all at the SAME TIME. And weight gain. Dark times for this Little Wing. Thankfully I remember almost none of it. Except for my very expensive education which has been invaluable in too many ways to mention, Mom.

Twenties: Ballad of a ladyman
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The second step is to make a past-time out of shopping at the myriad kick-ass thrift stores of St Paul. Throughout my twenties I careened between ‘actually-sort-of-hip’ to ‘trying-a-little-too-hard’ to ‘what-the-hell-is-she-wearing-now?’ This was when I first heard people say to me: “I could never pull that off.” to which I might have answered “What? The cat-eye glasses, platform shoes or lavender pedal pushers?” I’m not joking. Look up tragically hip in the dictionary and I am cited. I had black hair with short bangs bla bla bla. Google Sleater Kinney. Next!

Thirties: Crossroads Blues
When I speak of the Crossroads, I speak not of the fabled place where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, but rather the horrible Crossroads Mall in St Cloud Minnesota. Shudder. Three important things happened during my thirties, fashion wise:

  1. I had kids. For at least a year I really didn’t care what I was wearing as long as it was washable. My kids spit up so much I thought I’d never wear black again. Then, when I started to wake from the newborn-induced coma, I realized I hadn’t gone shopping in two years. Which leads to number 2.
  2. I lived in St Cloud. The best dressed women in St Cloud shop by mail order, or drive to the cities. The shopping mecca of St Cloud is the Crossroads Mall, which is peppered with overpriced stores that cater to the tween and/or slut set. So instead I culled a weird wardrobe from the insane clearance racks at Herberger’s and the local Savers which is unparalleled, in my opinion.
  3. I got a professional job. This job required me to appear, well, professional. Since I was a “Creative” (yes, that passes for a noun) I could get away with more than you might expect. Like pigtails. But sometimes they let the Creatives (monkeys) out of the cage and we had to go meet clients. It turns out I look like a midget when I wear a suit. Wrap dresses for every season ladies! Also I wore neck-ties because they are, and will always be, sexy on women.

Forties: Black to the Future?
In my late twenties, out of boredom, I formulated a plan that when I turned forty I would wear only black for a decade. I think I was trying to be original, or funny, or maybe I just am really that weird. In any case, the closer I get, the more my closet is trending in that direction and I think it isn’t a half bad idea. Except that I actually like color. But at least I no longer try to get away with pigtails (very often) or child barettes (hardly ever) or costume jewelry (only for parties and sometimes the gay bar). And I almost never wear age-inappropriate retro t-shirts or vintage skirts that look A&W uniforms. But when I do, I rock it, because you know why? That’s right: I’m pushing forty, I do the fuck I want! See it is catchy!

Author’s note: I’m forty one. I let my hair go grey, and I look more and more like David Lynch (in a dress) every day. Perfect. 

Emergency Contacts

We leave St Cloud via 9th Avenue, past our old house. The kids crane their necks, as if looking harder at it will enable them to see more, see through the walls, see the past. I slow the car down enough to note plastic shopping bags, several, snagged amongst the Dogwood hedge in the front. How can I help but sigh? It was a beautiful house. It was another life.

I moved to St Cloud six months pregnant, after I quit my job at the bookstore and threw my lot in with a stand-up guy named Dave. He bought us a neat little rambler on a cul de sac and I spent the remainder of my pregnancy painting the house, sewing curtains and swimming. I burned up minutes on a long distance card with my old friends in the cities. I knew no one, and with no job, had no means of meeting anyone new.

Veronica was born in spring, and I walked her in the stroller all over our deserted neighborhood. Every other house I passed had a swing-set in back, and every one was eerily empty. As were the parks. As were the streets. I returned to our empty house and fretted over baby. We made daily errands of dubious necessity. My house was very clean. I baked bread for goddsakes. When Dave came home I lunged at him and talked without stopping until he invented some yardwork or errand to escape my cloying presence.

I am not a joiner, but I arrived at the Le Leche League meeting early and sat, sweating, with Veronica in my lap. I checked out every new mom and baby couple with the wide-eyed wonder of a tourist. I participated enthusiastically and quite possibly cried more than once. In gratitude. I sensed a slight evangelical undertone in the attitudes towards breastfeeding, but didn’t really care. I had found women, and at least a few seemed like they might be friendly. They told me about a play group at a local park next week. I couldn’t wait.

The play group was utter chaos. Toddlers and infants all knocking around while seven mothers with too much to say fought for the conversation. I sat at the picnic table across from Peggy while she nursed Wren. She too had moved from the cities, when her son Tennessee was born, three years ago. I didn’t track many details, but I knew two things: she knew who Lifter Puller was, and she had hung out on the West Bank. She was literally probably the only person in Saint Cloud who could claim this. Over the course of the next months, we lingered late after play-group, and talked until we were hoarse and our kids were screaming.

I picked up Artemis a bit later. She would bring over Wyatt, who was four months younger than Veronica. He began chasing her at birth and will, I predict, until she either marries him or someone else. Artemis confided she wasn’t married to Wyatt’s father, and I confessed that Dave and I weren’t married. We admitted we smoked. We admitted to many things. We met in the afternoons at parks, or in our living rooms, or walking around the mall where people mistook the babies for twins, and we assumed that meant they took us for lesbian partners.

Dave and I moved out of the cul de sac and across the street from Artemis and Jeff. Peggy bought a house near the hospital. I got a job. We met other moms. We formed and broke circles of friends. I had another baby, my father died. We fought with our husbands. Artemis and Peggy finished school. We drank too much. Our kids went to the same Montessorri School together, where we volunteered cleaning the classroom and gossiping about the teachers and fellow students. They were my emergency contacts on all my paperwork. We watched each other’s kids. We watched them grow. We grew.

The night I told David I was leaving him, I left the kids with Peggy. After that dread talk, I walked across the street to Artemis’ house. Peggy left the kids with Steve and drove over. We sat on the back patio, mostly quiet, with me uncharacteristically dry-eyed and shell shocked. I had a duffel-bag of toiletries inside, and I would be staying up-stairs in the extra apartment for the time being. From there I would move three more times before leaving town for good. Artemis was in Brooklyn Park within the year. Peggy was teaching full-time and pregnant when I left.

We keep in touch. Peggy’s voice is like a balm to me, she validates my feelings and behavior with such skill I will believe anything she tells me about myself. Once I called her, hung over and groaning, “Ohhh, I had too much to drink last night… ” She interrupted me before I could go any further to say, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were fine. you were fun. You were just drunk.” A friend that can sense and dispel self-loathing that fast is truly indispensable.

Artemis and I talk often. She has a way of distracting me away from my narcissism, where in I will talk on and on about some imaginary crisis at length and after a long pause she says, “I need a good cheese cake recipe. What have you got?” It’s really quite effective.

As for why they keep in touch with me, I can only assume they like to feel needed.

Now, our St Cloud visits make me melancholy. As soon as we get there, the kids evaporate. They fall in with the gaggle of kids they know like cousins. The adults take their place around the familiar kitchen at Peg and Steve’s. There will be soup, Peg will do the dishes every fifteen minutes or so. We circulate, we catch up, we pass the baby Cedar around. We used to drink wine, but now it’s coffee. We fall into conversation easily, we are still friends, but it all makes me homesick for the time when we were inseparable.

Later, alone at the glass patio table in back, I will remember a summer of Friday nights spent in that very chair. The kids ran wild until twilight while we drank wine. Neighbors and husbands would come and go, but we moms held court until long after the kids went down. We spilled our guts those nights. We ranted about politics, we confessed our regrets, we compared our marriages. Shit went down. It was the summer before everything changed. Like the summer between high-school and college, we were in limbo. Setting the stage for the next chapter, only we didn’t know it then. We just let it pass in the manner of teenagers, high on the ease of friendship and smell of the garden at night.

Inappropriate and Notorious

Wednesday night, two weeks ago, Ivan was hell-bent on finding the album “Green” by REM. It had been a long night, punctuated by bouts of hysteria from all corners, and we really wanted, needed, to find the CD. I dragged out every CD file I have and we began to flip through them.”Here it is!” he cried. And indeed, my 1988 original compact disc of REM’s commercial breakthrough still exists.

I put it in and Ivan skibbled around the living room. “Orange Crush!” he yelled. He air guitared and bounced around while I did the dishes. I cannot complain about my son’s musical taste or habits. I have heard children’s music.

Suddenly he was at my side, tugging at my sleeve, “Mom! I know! I can bring this for show and tell! “Orange Crush”! It starts with ‘C!'” Hmmm. Are children allowed to bring music for show-and-tell? Why not? And further, I reasoned, it is a compact disc, which also starts with ‘C’. Very clever, mom.

On the way to school the next morning, Ivan wondered aloud in the back seat, “Mom, I don’t think my classmates know very much about music.” Oh, sweet Ivan, if I had a nickel for every time I have thought that very thing! With conviction he added, “I think I have to help them.” I agreed, it was a noble pursuit.

Last Thursday, I picked up Ivan from school. “How was your day?” He held up an empty jewel case and pouted, “I forgot to bring my Duran Duran CD for ‘D’ show-and-tell day.” Sigh. “But, Ms Mary says I can bring it tomorrow.” Okay kiddo. Ruffle the hair, get in the car.

I had to call my ex-husband to procure the CD. It may surprise you to know that he owns a copy of their greatest hits and I do not. Ahem: we are unconstrained by gender stereotypes. “Oh brother.” he said, “is he going on about that again? I was going to send it along, but I thought it was kind of inappropriate.” I tell this to Ivan and he says earnestly, “I know almost every song on that and they are ALL appropriate!” Okay kiddo. Ruffle hair. We’ll see in the morning.

Inappropriate. The word has become positively insidious since my children have been old enough to, well, be inappropriate. For those of you who do not have children under the age of ten, I will explain. Inappropriate is a morally bland term to describe everything which our parents told us was wrong, naughty, or a sin. So instead of, “We don’t hit our brother, it’s wrong!” It’s “Please stop hitting your brother, it’s inappropriate”. Peeing in front of strangers at the park? Completely inappropriate! Peeing on another person? That is so inappropriate my head is going to explode!!

I have problems with the word’s vagueness, but I do employ it constantly, because it is code for “Don’t do that.” It also smooths over specifics that frankly, I am in no hurry to explain. Like when Veronica asked me the meaning of the word sexy. “Well, it’s like ‘pretty’ but more grown-up-like.” Blank stare. “You know how you feel embarrassed when people kiss in movies?” “Uh-huh. Gross” “Well, that’s kind of sexy.” More staring. “It’s inappropriate?” she offers. I nod furiously, “For an eight year old yes, absolutely. Sexy is inappropriate.”

And this is is how I find myself driving to school this morning reviewing the “greatest” of Duran Duran hits to determine which are appropriate to play for pre-schoolers. (Taste notwithstanding.)

“The first song has a naughty word,” says Ivan ominously, “nuclear war.” I’m trying to place it in the lyrics and start sussing out the melody aloud, “Yeah, it’s like “your something something something as a nuclear waaarrr…”

Ivan pipes up, “He says you’re about AS EASY as a nuclear war.” Gulp. Yep, inappropriate!

“Why can’t we do ‘Hungry Like the Wolf?‘” he asks.

“I think the panting sounds the woman makes in that song might scare your friends.” Also an immediate no: “Girls on Film“. “The Reflex” he doesn’t like, and I don’t blame him.

“What about Rio?'” I enthuse, “Everyone loves Rio’. It’s a classic. You can’t go wrong with ‘Rio’.” We listen together for a minute: ‘Cherry ice-cream smile, I suppose it’s very nice!‘ I start to protest.

“But mom! Every single one is going to be inappropriate! Why?”

“Well, Ivan. These songs are fine for you, because you don’t understand the meanings of most of the words, or the reason they are saying them. But if one of your classmates goes home, and sings something inappropriate, even if they don’t understand it, your school would be in trouble.”

“But I DO know what they mean!”

“Oh yeah, well, what does Notorious mean?”

Without missing a beat he says, “It’s just a woman’s name.”

“Ha!” I say, “Ha ha!! It means being famous for being bad! Like the Joker or Lex Luther!” I sure showed him, that precocious kindergardner! Whose the boss now?

Through his silence, my son concedes there may be hidden inappropriate messages in Duran Duran’s music – which, I assure you, there are legion. We agreed on “New Moon on Monday”, “Union of the Snake” and “Wild Boys”.

I picked him up from school and asked him how it went. He twisted his mouth up in consideration, “We just listened to half of two songs.”

“What do you do while you are listening? Dance?”

“Yeah. Until then Ms. Mary asked us to sit down.” He hung his head, slightly dejected. Okay kiddo, get in the car. I put in “Hungry Like the Wolf” for the ride home. I am not bothered by the woman panting, as I have explained to my son, she just has a stomach ache. And Robert Plant always has to sneeze.

Yes, my boy, ’tis a hard road – delivering the gospel of 1980’s rock and pop music. Next week it will be “E” show-and-tell week. I’ll be looking for my copy of Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True” this weekend. Do you think “Watching the Detectives” is inappropriate? Borderline, I think.