Tuesday, January 27, 2009

For Real: Best Friends

I had a friend, and her name was Sarah (but not really).

We stayed overnight at each other’s houses. We had long secret talks on the playground at recess. We drew pictures and designed clothes and ambitiously planned our adult lives. We brushed each other’s hair and played Barbies and traded clothes.

We were little girl best friends.

Except something didn’t feel right. Not “best.” And maybe not even “friends.”

In fourth grade (or maybe it was fifth), Sarah was staying overnight at my house. It was night and we were in my lavender bedroom sitting on my pink gingham-checked bedspread, looking for things to do as we stayed up late together. She proposed we write slam books.

I didn’t know what a slam book was. Turns out she didn’t really, either, but here is how she explained it to me: we were each to write down a secret about each other, and when we were done we would read our secrets aloud. I remember thinking this sounded boring and pointless, but she really wanted to do it, and I certainly didn’t have a better plan.

I don’t know what I wrote about her; I had trouble thinking of anything. But I remember clearly what she wrote about me: “You have a face only a mother could love.”

“It means you’re ugly,” she explained when I looked at her, confused and hurt and suddenly wanting to ask my parents to take her home. The rest of the sleepover wasn’t much fun.

Also in fourth grade (or maybe it was fifth), there was a bully. Her name was Angie (but not really). One day in the school bathroom I heard her talking about me to her group of five or six followers. “Teresa is ugly,” she said. “She’s stupid.” Her friends nodded.

I had already become used to people staring and making faces and even calling me names. I had learned to accept insults, and I had never rebutted.

But for some reason, on this day I was outraged. Maybe I had had enough.

I confronted her. “I heard you talking about me,” I said. She lied. She denied it. But I persisted and finally she confessed. “Fine, you’re right. What about it?” she spat. And, inexplicably, she challenged me to a fight. Equally inexplicably, I accepted her challenge. I committed myself to my first and last fight.

At lunch recess we met at the designated place on the playground between the jungle gym and the merry-go-round. Angie and I faced off. She had a large group of girls standing behind her. Behind me stood Sarah, my best friend. My only friend.

It was over almost instantly. Angie reached over and slapped my face. “You’re ugly,” she stated, plainly and spitefully.

It couldn’t have been a terribly hard slap, but it knocked me to the ground. Never before had I expressed any grief over all that had happened to me. I hadn’t complained or cried or stood up for myself or asked for any help in my struggles. On that day, though, that single insulting slap carried the full weight of all my unspoken grief.

And as I sat on the ground in devastated tears, Sarah walked away. My only friend turned away and went to stand with Angie, my tormentor.

“Why?” I implored between sobs.

“Because,” said Sarah, “I agree with her.”

Our friendship dissolved after that. Several times she tried to break up with me. “I just don’t think I can be friends with… someone like you,” she would say. "I don't think we have much in common." She would name the pretty girls in our class she wanted to be friends with instead, girls who were nice enough but who had also demonstrated that they had no interest in being my friends.

I cried and begged her not to leave. I was hurt that I wasn’t worthy of her friendship. And no small part of me was terrified. I didn’t think I could make any other friends. I would be alone.

But eventually she left. I was never angry at her. I certainly kept my distance, and I was hurt, but I wasn't angry. Mostly I was deeply, fundamentally embarrassed. I don't think I ever really thought her actions were my fault, but I definitely understood that by virtue of the way I looked, I deserved it all.

My humiliation prevented me from telling my parents why our friendship evaporated. I'm sure they wondered what happened. I didn't want to disappoint them; I was too ashamed to admit my social failures; I didn't want them to worry. I kept it a secret in order to protect myself and (I thought) to protect them. Those were the earliest of many years of feeling marginalized and lonely and ugly, and keeping those feelings tucked safely away, telling no one how badly I hurt.

But here is the thing I keep coming back to as I remember those years and as I hope my children never hurt so deeply and as I try to understand how cruel people can be: I am okay. I made it. And I am happy.

I had a friend, and her name was Sarah (but not really). And in fourth grade (or maybe it was fifth) she taught me a painful and valuable lesson about what a strong person I am.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Sister Collective

Most days, I am not a pink puffy heart kind of a person. Not that I wouldn't like to be; it's just not me.
But my sister, Ali? With her unnatural affinity for refined sugar and all things Hello Kitty, she is the very definition of pink puffy hearts.

But there are other things we share. Like an obsession with George Michael (most favoritest: Wham! Rap). And avocadoes. And jeans from, I kid you not, The Buckle. And any food containing soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, and green onions. "Cooks Illustrated" magazine. Fiestaware. Turtleneck sweaters. Anything from Aveda. Cribbage. Twizzlers. Southern Comfort Old-Fashioneds (God, they're good). Knitting. Football. Cheap flip-flops.
We dress identically without planning it. Our children confuse us for each other. We lie to our husbands about how much time we talk to each other on the phone. We dream about living next door to each other. (Only because we don't think our husbands would consent to actually sharing a house.)
I could go on, but I don't want to overwhelm anyone with our coolness.
For her, I abandoned my husband and children for four entire days (okay, that kind of needed to happen). For her, I flew to The Great White North. In January. For her, I am freezing my arse off this week.
I totally pink puffy heart my sister.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Back to reality

Tuesday rocked me.

The inauguration moved my spirit like nothing has in a long, long time. I gathered my children in my lap and sat in front of the television to watch President Obama deliver his inaugural address. With tears streaming down my face, I dreamt big dreams and tried my hardest to impress this memory on my heart forever.

When Evan, in an uncanny impersonation of a teenage girl, said, "Is this guy, like, ever going to be done? He's getting annoying."

So. Ruling out the chance that my four-year-old son is in fact a pubescent female, I can only surmise one of two other things.

The first possibility is that Evan, at the age of four, is a Republican. sigh

Either that, or in four years, the Inauguration Planning Committee (or whoever puts this shindig together) needs to seriously consider the timing of the inaugural ceremony, possibly going so far as to actually consult with me, so it does not conflict with my preschooler's lunch hour. Because I don't care if world sentiment is shifting and wrongs are being righted and the nation is joined in harmony for a few precious moments. When it's time for peanut butter and jelly, everything else must wait.

Everything, dammit.

Now that we've clarified our agenda, carry on, Mr. President.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wordless Wednesday: Yogurt

Monday, January 19, 2009

For real: Alone

Oatmeal is the loneliest food.

It's difficult to believe that oatmeal became a symbol for much of the unhappiness I experienced as a child. But that's exactly what happened during those early and bewildering hospitalizations.

There was pain, and fear, and grief, of course. But loneliness was the most pervasive emotion I endured. It had a physical presence that I still recall clearly: a frigid weight that radiated from my stomach, a sort of sick anticipation that tingled in my arms and legs and left a watery metallic taste in my mouth. It echoed inside me. It made me shiver.

I was eight years old, in a huge hospital, many miles from home. My parents spent countless hours with me, but they had two other children and jobs and lives that had to be tended whether I was sick or healthy. They sacrificed much during that time, more than I will probably ever know. But I still spent many cold hours by myself, waiting for someone to come. Waiting for everything to be okay again.

And of all the lonely hours, breakfast was by far the worst part of every single day. After the doctors made rounds early in the morning, but before my parents arrived, a dietary aide would bring my breakfast and place it on my tray-table. And there I would sit, alone, with the head of my bed elevated. I was groggy from pain medication and weak from lack of activity and awkward from IV tubing and rubber drains. My head and face were heavily bandaged. My jaw didn't work properly and I couldn't get the food from the tray to my mouth without spilling all over myself.

I wanted help.

I needed help.

No help came.

So instead of eating I would stare at my gelatinous oatmeal swimming in a pool of tepid milk, feeling the lonely sickness. And I would cry for my mom. No one ever saw these tears.

Other meals were bad too. Once a nurse thought it would be "good for me" to join the other patients in the day room for lunch. It was a miserable room that smelled of antiseptic and dust, with brown-tiled floors, a black-and-white television, and ancient board games on the bookshelf. I did not want to be there, and to escape I decided to read a book while I ate. The nurse snatched the book away and scolded me harshly for reading at the table. She called me "rude," she made my stomach hurt. I stared at the table and blinked back tears and knew I was in this alone.

There were times, of course, when generous people who could perhaps sense my loneliness tried to help. They did help. But somehow their acts of kindness also served to highlight my isolation.

For instance, there was the Sunday afternoon I lay in bed staring at a football game on the television. Alone. Sad. A custodian came in to sweep. "I like football, too," he said comfortingly, pulling up a chair. And he sat with me and held my small hand, bruised from IV's, in his big brown hand. We quietly watched the game together.

But he wasn't my dad.

And I adored Nancy, one of my nurses. She was 28, she told me, and she was beautiful, with long, dark-brown, feathered hair. Bedtime was lonesome; I always felt lost. No one ever told me "good night" or tucked the blankets around me. I was left to fend for myself and usually just fell asleep to the blue glow of the tv. But one night I was particularly restless and sad, and climbed over my bedrail and navigated my IV pole down the hall, the tile cold on my bare feet. When I got to the nurses' desk, Nancy smiled sadly at me. I started crying and meekly asked if someone would please tuck me in. "Oh, sweetie," she said, and picked me up and carried me to bed and rocked me to sleep.

But she wasn't my mom.

Repeated hospitalizations never entirely numbed me to the loneliness of being hurt and scared and sick in a big, fluorescent institution, but I got used to it. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I wanted desperately to know that I wasn't isolated in my experience. I wanted someone to understand, but it quickly became clear that no one did. No one could. At a young age I came to a resigned understanding that I really was alone.

At some point, I stopped waiting for everything to be okay. Then, what had begun as enforced isolation in the hospital morphed into a more generalized voluntary solitude that eventually became a source of comfort. It was easier to remain alone than to open myself to the insensitivity or rejection or cruelty that I frequently encountered. Friendships became difficult to establish, exhausting to maintain. I spent a lot of years isolating myself to varying degrees in the interest of self-protection.

I don't isolate myself anymore. I socialize, and have friends. But to this day I remain a bit of an outsider; I am just as happy to be by myself as with others. Maybe I have some lingering trust or self-confidence issues; I guess such problems would be natural. But they are minor now, and generally transient when they do arise.

No, mostly I am just very accustomed to being alone. It is peaceful. I am okay with that.

I have grown, and by some miracle I am secure. But still, there is the oatmeal: thirty years later, it brings tears to my eyes when I try to eat it. I cannot stand oatmeal.

It isn't over

Every year on Dr. King's birthday I read from a book of his speeches and essays. This is part of what I read this morning. Tomorrow will be a momentous day, but do not be fooled into thinking that having our first African-American president means that we have arrived. Dr. King's work is not done. When I read this, I know that there is hope. None of us knows where we are headed, but there is hope.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will will proclaim the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid." I still believe that we shall overcome.

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

(from Dr. King's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964; published in A Testament of Hope, HarperCollins Publishers, 1986)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lovey Fail

Until recently, I was an unmitigated failure in the "lovey" department.

I guess I just assumed that all kids have loveys. A tattered baby blanket or a beat-up stuffed animal or something (anything!) that they take to bed with them every night and cuddle with when their little worlds spin out of control. Something that makes everything okay.

But not my kids. I've actually tried to encourage this kind of attachment, but I must have missed the chapter on self-comfort in the motherhood how-to manual.

Jensen sucked his fingers. He sucked his fingers so much that he had a chronic fungal infection in his fingernails. (Lovely.) He sucked them until he was five, by the way, but he doesn't anymore so I won't dwell on that. That's how he made himself happy. Every once in a while he would decide to take something to bed with him at night, but it was always something decidedly un-cuddly, like a toy tractor or a football. And it was never consistent. If things got overwhelming he just popped his fingers in his mouth and sucked away.

Evan never consented to be comforted by anything. Not his thumb, not a pacifier, not me, and certainly nothing as silly as a blanket or an animal. Nothing. He still doesn't find much of anything that consoles him if he's unhappy, and I'm here to tell you that all of our lives would be a little easier if something calmed him down. A stuffed animal, perhaps. Or cigarettes. Or Jim Beam.

But Caleb has recently shown some promise in the lovey department. He sucks his fingers, too. But if he's really unhappy, we've stumbled across something that he adores.

A 15-ounce bottle of Johnson's Baby Lotion.


He cuddles it and snuggles it and talks to that stupid thing. He kisses it. He plays peek-a-boo with it, for God's sake.

My infant son is in love with a bottle of lotion.

I'm not sure this can be considered a success.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The fine art of forgetting

There is a name for this.

My sister called yesterday. She sounded tiny and tired and defeated. Before too many words were said, she was crying.

She had lost her wallet, and didn't even know it for three days. She was angry at herself and embarrassed and didn't understand how this could happen. She's a new mom, and this was her first time her Type A personality had crumbled.

Me? I'm used to this. After eight years I just assume that I will embarrass myself on a daily basis. I never know what form my absent-mindedness will take, but I know it will happen.

Like the time my husband was gone on business and not only did I leave the front door unlocked, I left it wide open all night long. In January, in Iowa. And yes, it was below zero that night.

Or the time I just forgot to go to work.

Or the time I remembered to go to work but couldn't because I could not find my keys anywhere. Couldn't find the spare keys, either.

Or the time I left the keys in the car and left the car running (unintentionally) while I grocery shopped, then proceeded to leave my purchased groceries inside the store when I left.

Or the time I forgot to renew my thyroid medication prescription. For an entire month.

Or the time I neglected to renew my driver's license for so long I had to take the written test and the driving test. Oh, and there's the other time I did that, too.

Or the time I sent Jensen for a week-long vacation at his grandparents' without his suitcase, which I had lovingly packed and placed carefully by the front door so I wouldn't forget it.

Or the time I permanently lost my glasses. The ones I didn't replace because I decided it's just easier to be slightly visually-impaired than to try to keep track of yet one more thing.

Or.... I have to stop now, before somebody comes and removes my children from my custody.

Smartest parenting move we ever made was deciding that the birth control pill should probably not be our contraceptive method of choice. Seriously: we'd have seven kids by now. At least.

You know the story: I'm relatively intelligent, relatively high-functioning, relatively organized. (Don't we all think these things about ourselves?) But on any given day there may well be no milk in the refrigerator because I keep forgetting to buy it. Or there may be four gallons of milk in the refrigerator because I keep forgetting that I remembered to buy it.

So, yes, there's a name for this phenomenon, but I don't like it: "mommy brain." I find it troublesome anytime an adult refers to another adult (or herself) as "mommy." But, more importantly, the term implies that there's something inherently wrong with a mother's intelligence. It's condescending.

Nevertheless. There is something that happens when we find ourselves permanently and irrevocably in charge of another human being. Something that leaves us mentally disconnected, grasping at cognitive straws far too often. No matter how well we plan, how many lists we make, how many times we check and double-check... sometimes we forget.

We are tired, chronically, from waking with babies and sleeping with one ear cocked and never really allowing ourselves to rest. We are responsible for something so big that we cannot wrap our exhausted brains around it, and we are distracted by being needed incessantly. And, maybe most importantly, our brains and our hearts are no longer our own. We are taken over by these little people who move into our homes and into our souls and make everything else-- wallets and glasses and keys-- entirely secondary.

Call it mommy brain if you must. I don't like it but I probably won't argue with you. Because it's true that something in me is just not quite capable of addressing life's pettiest tasks sometimes. I like to think it's gotten better, but I'm not sure the evidence supports that assertion. I've learned to live with it, Jeff has learned to live with it, and (aside from my occasionally-bruised ego) we are none the worse for it.

So, Ali, I can't promise you that it will get better, but I can tell you that you'll learn to accomodate your sometimes-slippery mental state. And if you can't take it anymore and need to talk to someone who understands, call me. If you can find the phone.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I dread the teenage years

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Evan is gonna give us a run for our money.

Jensen has an official Cub Scout t-shirt that he wears to school on meeting days. He's very proud of it.

Yesterday at breakfast he explained gravely to Evan and me, "It's Tuesday today, so I'm wearing my Cub Scout t-shirt to school. That's the rule, and it's serious. I can only ever wear it on Tuesday."

Without batting an eyelash, sweet Evan put down his spoon and said, thoughtfully and to no one in particular, "You know what I'd do if I had that shirt? I'd wear it on Saturday."

Then he turned back to his Raisin Bran.

If Jensen had an aneurysm anywhere in that curly head of his, it would have blown then and there. He had to physically restrain himself from knocking Evan's little block off.

Seriously. Evan's very life teeters in the balance some days and he doesn't even know it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

For real, part two

It was a tumor.

There had been much hand-wringing about what could possibly be wrong. My face was swelling by the hour, it seemed. And it hurt, curiously and sickeningly. I was to become intimately familiar with pain over the next months and years, but this was a unique pain that still haunts me on occasion. The skin covering my left neck stretched tight and burning over a malicious bulge that pushed on my jaw and throat and ear and made everything hurt deep into the bone. It made me cry and it scared me. There was something wrong.

That morning everything had been, quite literally, fine. There was no indication that this would be the day that everything changed. But by afternoon my jaw hurt so badly I couldn’t lie down on that side. It happened that quickly. Something was very wrong.

Nobody really knew what it was. After mumps was dismissed and my tonsils were ruled out and an abscess was rejected, my local doctor called in the experts. This was 30-some-odd years ago, and there were no CT scans or MRI's or other such diagnostic tools. Instead doctors probed and palpated and measured and examined my painful jaw and considered. And after all this, they declared it was a tumor.

My newly-acquired surgeon wore cowboy boots and had a big, bushy moustache. In his Texas-sized drawl that matched his Texas-sized stature, he announced that this tumor was the size of his Texas-sized fist, holding up his closed hand to demonstrate. And it was firmly planted in the small jaw of a shy, tow-headed seven-year-old girl. Me.

In the weird culture of medical celebrity, this tumor had the makings of twisted stardom. Not only was it huge, it was “rare as a hen’s tooth,” in the words of this surgeon, who had scoured the literature and found nothing comparable. With its remarkable size and originality, it was bound for grand rounds and medical journals and craniofacial conferences. It was a supermodel playing to medical photographers and throngs of surgical residents. It became a separate entity, and I was its vulnerable and unasked host.

There was a problem, though. This tumor, with Texas-sized greed, was pressing on my carotid artery and was growing at an alarming rate. It was trying to kill me.

It had to come out, and my surgeon and his cadre of loyal followers dutifully removed it. This was no time for conservative measures, either: nobody knew if it was cancerous. It had to come out before they could determine that. And to play it safe, they had to assume the worst, which meant they had to remove a lot of surrounding and seemingly healthy tissue. (It wasn’t cancerous, in the end.)

The left seventh cranial nerve wasn’t salvageable; the tumor had devoured it. In case you’re curious, that’s the nerve that gives you the ability to smile, and frown, and close your eye, and feel things touching your skin, and taste, and lots of other things. To address the cancer issue, they removed lymph nodes, and bone, and muscle, and some thyroid gland, and various other pieces of me. Important stuff, but stuff that you can learn to live without.

Kind of.


Surgeons have a phrase that they like to use to describe what they do: “Cut to cure.”

And they cut me, liberally. They had no choice; my life was being threatened and they had to act. So they opened up my head and neck as wide as they could. They peeled up my face and essentially removed my left ear to get at all the offending and potentially-offending flesh. Then they sewed it all back together as well as they could, which as it turns out wasn’t very well at all. They cut, and then sewed, and left me with a hole in my neck and a sunken ear and half a face that was for all intents and purposes dead, and a ten-inch scar running right down the middle of it all.

They cut. As a matter of fact, they butchered.

But cure? No. This tumor and its repercussions crushed my soul in ways that wouldn’t become apparent for a long time. I didn’t smile for a photo for years—I don’t think I ever smiled for a single school picture after this. I grew so used to social exclusion that I just kind of withdrew from my peers rather than risk inevitable rejection. I was angry beyond all reason. I hid it all well, but these things, and much more, were symptoms of an ailment that lay deep beyond the reach of the surgeons' scalpels.

The day that tumor appeared was the day that everything changed. My surgeons saved my life, but that was only the proverbial beginning of my medical and emotional journey. And as for finding a cure?
I was left to do that on my own.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Vote for Pedro

This week could have been devastating.

If I were at all sensitive about my age, which I am (thankfully) not.

First of all, I got my very first gray hair ever in my entire life this week. I only noticed it because it was curly and wiry and the rest of my [insert pathetic adjective: thin, limp, stringy... whatever] hair just hangs sadly from my head despite every $60 volumizing product in the entire world. I don't think I would have noticed it otherwise, because let's face it, it's hard to distinguish gray from dishwater blonde. This gray hair, though? It sticks straight out like a corkscrew. I like it. It has some life to it.

Second of all, Jensen and I had another esteem-boosting "holy hell, Mom, you are old as dirt" discussion. It involved the song "Jukebox Hero" by Foreigner. He's always thought it was called "Juicebox Litterbug" and sings his little heart out to it. This song really speaks to a seven-year-old-rock-star-wanna-be, even if he doesn't know the correct words. The other day, though, it dawned on him that maybe he had the wrong lyrics and asked for some help. I corrected him, reluctantly. Personally I like his version better.

Then he wondered what a jukebox is.

Me: "A machine that plays records."
Jensen: "Um, what's a record?"
Me: "Oh, just something we used back in the days of the
wooden Lite Brite peg."
Jensen: "Whoa. Was it fun to grow up in the Olden Days?"

Like I said, it could have been a rough week. Instead, a Juicebox Litterbug died and I began to go gray and it made me smile.

(Oh, the year on "Jukebox Hero?" 1981. I was in fifth grade, people. It is described as "vintage" on YouTube. Yep.)

(And perhaps this is a good time to start pimping my birthday, which is on the last day of this month and which I adore, even if it does make me almost almost forty.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wordless Wednesday, for real

This photo has words. You can find them here....

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

For real

My real-life name is Teresa, and that seems like a fair enough place to start.

Maybe eight months ago I started blogging about my kids and then, like the true mom blogger I am becoming, I realized I wanted to talk about myself or even some other random stuff. It all just kind of happened without any planning and the other day it occurred to me that, if you don’t know me outside of this blog (all four of you), your view of me is rather limited. These are the things you know: I’m a stay-at-home-mom with three sons. My hair is blonde, ish. I’m kind of chronically sleep-deprived, though that’s improving. I voted for Obama. And I drive a minivan.

This person I've just described? This pasty, nice, excruciatingly dull person who appears to have no personality whatsoever? This is not me. (Please God let this person not be me.)


So: my name is Teresa and I am not very good at self-disclosure and I haven't been completely forthcoming and there's something that I want to share. But the disclosure bit is hard for me. I’m shy. And, mostly, I cannot imagine that anyone would care about my life. It’s not unremarkable. But why would anyone care? I guess we’ll see.

Let’s start somewhere in the middle, and I’ll tell you the story of the Goldfish. I lived in Beijing, China sometime in the early 1990’s (and I’d have to think really hard to remember which year exactly). I went there chasing a dying relationship that had grown unpleasant but was at least proof that someone besides my parents could love me. I went there to fight demons and hate myself and run from ugliness and hide from beauty. I went there because I was sad and hurt and not at all the person I wanted to be. I went there because I didn’t want to stay here. But whatever. I didn’t know any of that at the time. I just went because I could.

I wandered around in a cacophonous city of car horns, bicycle bells, and a loud brassy language that I didn’t understand. I breathed in the pervasive odor of garlic and burning coal and rotting vegetables and human waste and incense and fried food and cigarette smoke and car exhaust and people and people and people. I turned away men who mistook me for a Russian prostitute (this I've never understood, but I probably could have made a fair bit of cash). I spent my nights getting blind drunk with a crazy group of expats who were convinced of their own glamour and who didn’t seem completely averse to self-destruction. It was lots of fun when it wasn’t crushing me.

Somewhere in the haze of hangovers and and homesickness and really good food, I started noticing the paintings of fish. You know, the koi. They mesmerized me. And, as with just about everything during those months, I completely misunderstood them. Turns out that in Chinese culture, the fish symbolizes wealth. (Whatever about that; I pay so little attention to money that it’s dangerous sometimes.) I didn’t get that at the time. I just knew that these paintings really resonated with something inside me.

I didn’t understand why.

I'll tell you more about this later, but since I had been eight years old, well-meaning people told me that it's what "below the surface" that counts. It’s a cliché, and people said it because they didn't know what else to say. They wanted to make me feel better. They wanted me to be happy. And it had always meant exactly nothing to me. It was a condescending platitude.

But then I tore myself out of the context of my self-pity. I went to Beijing. In a chaotic city that provided very little comfort to a sad, lonely, and angry Iowa girl, I started learning to see beauty beneath the turbulent surface. I found beauty in eating spicy noodles for breakfast. I found beauty in practicing my infantile and ugly Chinese on helpful cabbies. I found beauty in riding my bicycle past an abandoned and eerie Tiananmen Square at midnight.

And eventually I started learning where to find the beauty in myself.

I had never in my life seen beauty look back at me in the mirror. Lord knows I had spent countless hours looking. Hoping. Desperate. And hating.

But once I learned what had drawn me to the symbol of the Goldfish, I realized that I had been looking in the wrong place. The mirror wasn't going to show me what I wanted to see. Once I learned to dive deeper, I began to find peace. It didn't happen quickly or easily. And do not misunderstand: I am not all Pollyanna about this. I still have bad days and some days I cry and some days I rage and some days I wish pathetically that I were someone else. But those days are fewer now.

So, my real name is Teresa and that’s the story of the Goldfish. It's the middle-ish part of a much bigger story, which I'm not quite ready to share yet. (Soon, I promise.) In the meantime, the illustrated version will appear here on Wednesday. You might want to see where it all led….

Friday, January 2, 2009

This post is absolutely not brought to you by the letter "S"

This is just one example of why four-year-olds shouldn't be elected president or perform brain surgery. Or a lot of other things.

Two things you should know:
  1. We don't watch a lot of tv. But Evan does kind-of-semi-regularly watch Sesame Street. On public television (ie, PBS).
  2. He is going through this thing where he constantly asks us to spell words. 273 times a day. (254 of those words are "dinosaur," by the way.) I'll be ready for Scripps any day now.

So the other day:

Evan: "Mommy, how do you spell 'PBS?'"

Me: "Well, let me think about that...."

Evan: "P! B!... But what's the last letter?"

Me: "Hmmm. S, maybe?"

Evan: "No!!! It's not S! You're wrong!"

Me: "What letter is it?"

Evan: "L."

And that was the end of the discussion.

Any questions? I'm sure Evan will be happy to answer them for you.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

...and you can't make me

If I make a resolution not to make a New Year's resolution, have I failed already?

I guess today I'm supposed to make some sort of resolutions. I've never made a New Year's resolution in my life. The usual suspects don't apply. I'm so old and dull that I don't remember the last cigarette I had. If I lose any more weight my husband's going to commit me to an eating disorders program. I can't stay up late enough to drink too much. Don't get me wrong: it's not that I don't think I could use some improvement. Hardly. I just don't necessarily think a resolution made out of sentimentality and obligation is going to help in that department. I'm way too far gone for that sort of intervention.

Anyway. That's going to change this year.

I've thought about it for weeks now. And I'm ready to resolve. Here is my self-improvement promise for 2009:

I hereby solemnly swear that I will not read
a single paragraph of the Twilight series.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Don't be deceived. With this ubiquitous pop-culture cotton candy, it's going to be harder than it seems.

I know this from experience. I did the same thing with Forest Gump. I can't explain. I'm really not a movie snob, or a book snob. But I got so tired of people telling me that I "had" to see that damn movie that I put up a wall. I refused. Call me a petty rebel. No, I did not "have" to see it.

And I still haven't.

But I haven't entirely escaped it. Tom Hanks, a lot of walking, some historical traveling, something about "Mama." I could probably tell the story. Even with some serious effort, I couldn't entirely avoid the narrative.

Now, "Twilight." Vampires, right? Edward, and Bella? Is that it? About 17 books? A movie with some guy who's supposed to be smoldering but really doesn't strike me as being terribly attractive?

This isn't going to be easy. I've already gathered that I am the last mommy blogger on the continent who has not read these books. (Please correct me if I'm wrong; I'd love to not be alone in this.) My sister even threatened to read them.

I will not.

And that is my very first New Year's resolution. Probably this won't make me a better person. But I guess it does prove that three kids and marriage (not entirely in that order) and my failed attempts at Donna Reed-ism haven't completely changed me. The piercings are gone, but I can still rebel. Just a little.

Update: The day I posted this I read about PBN's "2009-- Year of the Mom" campaign at Motherhood Uncensored, which poses the question, "What are you doing to prioritize yourself this year?" And even though my post started out as a bit of a joke, this is exactly what I want accomplish: to learn to stay true to myself as I struggle to find my own way amidst my roles as mom, wife, sister, daughter, "housewife" (which makes me laugh), and whatever else it is that I claim to be. Yeah, I'm a little bit of a rebel. I have been since I was a kid. (I'm a very well-behaved rebel, but still....) And if boycotting "Twilight" helps me hold on to that and aids me on my journey, then I will have grown a little this year.