Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Questing by Quiz for the Quintessential Moi

When I was a teen, I lived and died by the advice rendered in Seventeen magazine. Far more than a mere fashion mag or teen idol rag, Seventeen dispensed advice regarding skincare ("de-fuzzing"), friendships, school, college AND boys. Its weightiest and most oft-repeated maxim:

"Be yourself."

Easy enough if you KNOW who you are, but at 13, 14, 15, and right on up through her 20's, who knows with any certainty who they are? Who I was depended very much upon my audience and I can't think I'm the only girl who felt that way. I had friends across the spectrum from nerds to cheerleaders to jocks to bad girls. I was a little bit of each of those (except cheerleader). How could I be myself if I didn't know who I really was? When I was a little bit of everything?

Seventeen had a solution to my identity angst: quizzes.  I took them all.

"What your favorite color says about you."
"What your favorite music says about you."
"Your favorite fashion trend demystified."
"Find your perfect college."

And so on.

I read my horoscope religiously and consulted the Ouija board whenever I could find a partner who wasn't freaked out by it. I read tarot cards for myself and anyone else who was interested. I analyzed handwriting and read palms. Phrenology was about the only sort of divination I didn't dabble in. I was determined to find the answers. I wanted certainty.

Now I know that certainty is just an illusion, but then it was the mirage in the desert that I kept desperately seeking, by any available means.

Those interest and aptitude surveys the guidance office had you take? I typically scored high in every category except clerical. Didn't help me much.

I did not grow out of this phase when I left my teens behind, says the woman who changed her major every single semester until her senior year in college. I did not have trouble settling on a major because I couldn't find a fit, mind you, but because I loved (almost) every class I took. Everything was interesting to me.

From the quizzes in Seventeen, I graduated to Cosmo, with its "adult" quizzes and annual Bedside Astrologer. I remember snapping up that January issue as soon as it hit the stands and settling in with my girlfriends and a supply of beer and wine coolers for an evening of gut-splitting laughter. References to its lurid descriptions would arise (pun fully intended) frequently afterward. I always hung onto it to assess every would-be beau all year long. My friends appreciated the service I provided by vetting potential suitors in bars. I brazenly asked the zodiac sign of every man we met and then referenced his Cosmo "performance index," which I had committed to memory.

I still love a good quiz, although I struggle to reconcile them all.

How can I be the same Myers-Briggs (ENTJ) as Lady Mary Crowley, yet be Rizzo in Grease? Dido the suicidal Queen of Carthage and Elrond the King of the Elves? Baffling, I tell you.

What struck me on my most recent birthday, besides the tsunami of love from friends and family, was how I feel so comfortable in my skin and with who I am, right now. I'm not worried about tomorrow, because I assume, based upon a lifetime of experience, that I'll chase new interests and change my hair at least 100 times in the next 50 years.

I'm comfortable just being myself, without apology or explanation. In fact, I think getting older is a lot like a chef's reduction. You become more intensely yourself with each passing year, as the extraneous and non-essential habits and traits evaporate, concentrating your essence.

If I had known this when I was 14,  maybe I would have worried less about having the answer. I don't know that I'd have believed it, though. Age truly has its benefits.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Love Story

“Sometimes the one who is running from the Life / Death / Life nature insists on thinking of love as a boon only. Yet love in its fullest form is a series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of one phase, one aspect of love, and enter another. Passion dies and is brought back. Pain is chased away and surfaces another time. To love means to embrace and at the same time to withstand many endings, and many many beginnings - all in the same relationship.”

- Clarissa Pinkola 
Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories 
of the Wild Woman Archetype 

Hombre and I will have been married Twenty-Two (22) years on November 2.  (Yes, I was a child bride.) We have known each other for thirty (30) years. He is the president of my fan club, and I am the president of his. I cannot imagine a life without him in it.

We met in September 1983, at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He was a freshman; I was a sophomore. I was a resident assistant in a freshman women's dorm. Each of our "corridors" was paired with a corridor in a freshman men's dorm. The two groups were to engage in social activities on a smaller scale to help the freshman make friends and adjust to college life. He was in my "exchange corridor" and he caught my eye right away.

Hombre was tall and slim, with a swimmer's body and a baby face. He had thick, dark hair, dimples and a twinkle in his hazel eyes. I was dating someone at the time, so although we flirted (outrageously, I'm sure), it went no further. We saw each other often around campus and at various social events. There was always an energy between us that made him seem more familiar to me than our interactions warranted. Each time we interacted, I had the sense that something was meant to happen between us, but the timing was never right -  either he was dating someone, or I was dating someone or getting over someone or had recently sworn off men altogether. I vaguely recall a few impromptu make-out sessions. We just never got it together.

By my senior year, our contact was only occasional, though friendly and flirtatious. I graduated a year before he did. We did not keep in touch after I graduated. My new job, in sales for Procter & Gamble, took me to Oklahoma. I loathed sales and did not fit the mold at P&G. I promptly took the LSAT and applied to law school.

In the meantime, Hombre was in a serious relationship and moving forward with his own life. He, too, took a job in sales upon his graduation and moved to Cincinnati. As he settled there, I moved back to Ohio to start law school in Cleveland. In our oddly parallel lives, we each were in love with people to whom we were completely unsuited. Not only were we in love, but we were each engaged to be married.

I had met someone mid-way through my first year in law school who swept me off my feet. It was a tumultuous, passionate and somewhat obsessive relationship. When it ended, abruptly, toward the end of my final year in law school, it was to the relief of my friends and family, though it was devastating for me. The wedding dress and invitations had been ordered, the church reserved and the deposits made. I had not applied to take the Ohio bar exam, since I had planned to move to Florida.

At nearly the same time, Hombre's fiancee showed a marked lack of appreciation for his wonderfulness  and they broke up, too. By then he had been transferred to Youngstown, Ohio, all unbeknownst to me.

I really hated Florida and had no desire to move there, but I had missed the deadline for the Ohio bar exam by many months. I had large student loans looming and no job in sight. I wrote a tear-stained letter to the Supreme Court of Ohio, pleading for a dispensation to sit for the exam. I started studying without knowing when I'd be tested: July or the upcoming February. I smoked and drank to excess.

I cried a lot (in private) and finally reached the conclusion that although the break up had been painful, my ex was not the love of my life. I realized in a moment of punch-in-the-stomach clarity, that we had never really even been friends; he didn't seem to actually like me, but rather the idea of me that he had created. He was uncomfortable with my loquacious, outgoing self, becoming possessive and jealous at every social event we attended. I realized that the problem had not been me; it had been us. It dawned on me that there must be someone out there who actually wanted a girlfriend who didn't hang on his arm; who would venture off with others at a social event; who had a life (and mind) of her own.

Two weeks before the date for the bar exam, I received notification that I would be permitted to sit for it. I loaded up on cigarettes and coffee and studied around the clock, while applying for jobs everywhere from Athens, Ohio to Anchorage, Alaska. I even considered the military. My growing stack of rejection letters was a fire hazard in the tiny attic apartment I lived in.

The three-day bar exam itself was as you would expect: grueling, stressful and yet oddly exhilarating. As soon as it was behind me, I gave up my apartment and house-sat for a couple of months. My brother and sister-in-law graciously stored my belongings in their basement. I found a job as a cocktail waitress, since law jobs in 1990 were scarce. I was a terrible cocktail waitress - so completely unqualified that I was forced to substitute charm for experience. At least the tips were good.

Finally, in mid-September, I saw a listing for a small firm looking for an entry-level litigator. The fact that it was in Warren, Ohio, was beside the point. They were as desperate as I was, by all appearances: a couple of older attorneys who no longer wanted to go to court and deal with the stress and work involved in litigation. I never considered not accepting their offer.

I moved to Warren the first week in October and plunged into work; researching, writing, going to court and learning how to operate a Dictaphone. Warren was a small town full of good old boys, so I was somewhat of a novelty around the courthouse. I only ever spotted one other female attorney at the courthouse and she was not at all friendly. The town had been heavily invested in steel and was well-rusted by 1990. There were not many young people who chose to live there if they had other options. I drove back to Cleveland every weekend to see my friends, at least those who hadn't moved away for work.

On Tuesday, October 30, my boss insisted I accompany him to a local Chamber of Commerce "mixer". It was time, he said, for me to begin networking so I could develop my own book of business. I walked into a hotel conference room filled with people and immediately spotted the only other person in the place who was under 60: my Hombre.

We greeted each other with enthusiastic, "What are you doing here?"s and "What have you been up to?"s and quickly made plans to have a drink together after the event, as I was being introduced around by my boss and couldn't linger.

We sat awkwardly sipping our wine at a hi-top table in a dark and cavernous hotel bar for only a few moments before our stories came tumbling out. I found out that Hombre lived just a few miles away from Warren, so we were practically neighbors. I found out that his experience with the local social scene was pretty similar to mine, although he had more stories to tell, having lived there for several years. I also learned that Hombre had survived his own heartbreak.  He, too, realized that it had been a mismatch. She was too introverted; too clingy. He said he wanted a woman who was independent: "someone who will take off and socialize at a party and let me do the same thing; someone who has a life and friends of her own."

With a wee bit of panic, I realized he was talking about me.

We talked until closing time and made plans to go out to dinner on Friday night, the day I would learn whether or not I had passed the bar exam. He called me Friday to confirm and was genuinely pleased and excited by my good news. He took me to a Japanese steak house that night and completely won me over with his skillful use of chopsticks and his unabashed enjoyment of the entire hibachi chef performance. He took me on a tour of his local haunts before we headed back to my place.

There was no fighting the chemistry, and we didn't bother trying to. Perhaps it all went a little fast, but we were not children, after all.

Our courtship consisted of long evenings spent playing Scrabble and Yahtzee;  rented movies and cooking dinner together, since we were both flat broke. We'd go out for walks in the snow and take long drives, exploring the countryside, talking incessantly.

Hombre had, until I surfaced, planned to relocate to Atlanta where his brother lived. He initially pretended that this was still his plan, but I was not fooled. I was not even worried about it. I just knew.  He travelled there once or twice over the next couple of months with my full support. I didn't tell him that I knew we would be together forever; he had to figure that out for himself. Since we had forever, I could afford to be patient.

We moved in together Memorial Day weekend, 1991. He proposed to me in front of my entire, very large family, on July 11, 1991. We married on November 2, 1991, a year to the day from our first date.

In our life together, we have called 8 places "home." We have, between us, worked at 18 different places of employment. We have only ever had joint bank accounts. We have traveled together all over the United States and to Europe.

We struggled with infertility for many years and then we joyfully added two daughters into our family.

We have supported each other through times of downsizing, unemployment, career change and soul searching. We have challenged each other to be better people.

We have fully and unequivocally shared the responsibilities of raising our children, each of us taking off stints from work to care for them.

We have gone through periods of financial stress and periods of abundance.

We have enjoyed each other's company, laughed at inside jokes and humored each other.

We have buried and mourned three of our four parents.

We have fought and made up; we have debated and compromised, but mostly we have just kept on talking; talking until we reached a place, a solution, where we could both be happy.

There have been unhappy times; times when we struggled with incorporating our individual selves into the "we;" times when our priorities were not the same.

Every time we have come through a challenging period, I swear it has made our bond stronger.

I have felt it again recently: a further opening up and deepening between us, due, I think, to our recent soul-searching together for the lifestyle that would best reflect our values and then our mutual efforts to bring it about.

Just the other night Hombre asked me why I looked so happy.

I said, "I think I am falling in love with you all over again."

His answering smile lit up the room.

Friday, September 6, 2013

All Good

It's all good.

The purging, the cleaning, the sorting, the selling, the packing, the moving.

The renovating: not as good, but improving.

In May we were slightly crazy, as often we are. We bought a house before we had listed ours for sale. We did this having watched friends weather the real estate crash and lose everything. We did this with a scary health issue looming (No worries; it turned out to be nothing.) We did this despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary because it felt like the right thing to do.

Hombre and I came from totally different places to the same conclusion with breathtaking speed. It seems that he had been thinking of selling the house and moving for quite some time. He had made comments to that effect, but I was resistant. I didn't think he was serious. I wanted so badly to make our house work for us, but once I opened my mind to his logic, I quickly became convinced that he was right. Once my mind is made up, the deed is done.

Over the course of one week, we read The Not So Big House and its various related books. We analyzed our needs and desires for a different space. We spent hours on the internet looking at real estate listings. We had our parameters, the biggest that we remain in the same school district. We took off on a Sunday afternoon to look at houses.

Hombre really liked the first one. I did not. We both hated the second one. We called realtors to inquire about several that looked promising, only to be told that they were "under contract" or in foreclosure proceedings and over-liened. Many drive-bys resulted in options scratched from the list.

The third house we saw that first Sunday in May was a surprise. I had pooh-poohed it after looking at pictures online. Because of it's perfect location, abutting the school campus, I agreed to have a look.

There were signs right away that it was a fit: the hand-painted flowers on the mailbox; the tire swing; the certified wildlife habitat designation; the open, sunny back yard, and the spectacular trees. I could see right away where my clothesline would go, where I would plant gardens and build a grape arbor.  It reminded me of a cottage in the woods, the way the hand-laid flagstone walk wove through the foliage to the front porch.

The house itself was significantly smaller than our current house. We quickly assessed the spaces against our needs: bedrooms, bathrooms, homework and office areas. We walked outside to find a very private deck and pool. We walked through the woods at the back of the property.

I looked at Hombre and said, "I think I could live here."

"I'm so glad you said that! I could, too."

"So what do we do now?"

"Let's talk about it."

We called the kids and told them we'd be home later. We went to a restaurant with our iPads and papers and had a glass of wine. We were flying solo this time. No realtor to suggest a price nor negotiate for us. We used Zillow and Trulia to research comparable sales and market value. Our plan was to go back and see it one more time, Monday evening, and then to make an offer, which we did. Our big surprise was that the sellers accepted that very first offer.

"Holy shit. We are really doing this. I guess we had better tell the girls."

We had debated bringing the girls to see it first, but we were not sure they would be on board with our plan. They knew we were looking for a house and that we would be moving, but we had only just explained that to them and they were still digesting the idea. Their current dynamic seems to be automatically disagreeing with each other out of principle.  Our best guess about their reactions was that one would like it, one wouldn't and we already knew we planned to put an offer in. The decision was ultimately ours to make and we decided that we would rather have both girls upset with us in the short term than to have one feeling like her wishes were disregarded and the other "winning."

When we told them, they were angry. Incredulous. Outraged, even.

I could live with that.

We took them with us to see the house on the day of the inspections. In just a few days, lilacs had begun blooming all around the house. They were oblivious. To our surprise, neither one took to it. B couldn't stay inside for long, because of the overwhelming dander from the owners' three cats and from the copious bunny fur floating from the cage in the kitchen. I sent them both outside to explore the trails that led to their school. That helped, along with the prospect of a pool in the back yard.

As soon as the inspection was done, we headed home to start purging our belongings. The neighborhood garage sale, always a big event, was on the calendar in six days. We had much excess to get rid of. We were giving up around 1,000 square feet of living space and halving the size of our lower level/basement as well. Good bye, formal dining room. Good bye, formal living room. Good bye, guest room. Good bye, sleeper-sofa sectional. Good bye, ugly hand-me-down furniture.

All this streamlining was exhausting and yet oddly exhilarating. Hombre was antsy to get our house listed. I did not want to list it until we had cleaned and staged it. On Sunday night, beaten down by his urging and pooped from the weekend sales, I succumbed.

"Fine. List it as, 'For Sale by Owner' on Zillow. See what happens. If we don't get any action in a couple of weeks, we'll have an open house and then list it with a realtor."

We posted the same pictures that had been online when we bought the house three years ago.

12 hours later we had a request to see the house. We put them off as delicately as possible until later that week. We did the best we could with the cleaning and staging on such short notice, but it did not look like I wanted it to look. Hombre met the couple at the house. He said they weren't there long. He was not very optimistic.

The next day, the husband called with a couple of questions, which I answered, and then he said,

"We'd like to put an offer on the house, but I'm not sure how to go about it because we don't have a realtor."

"Usually, the buyer provides the contract, but I am a lawyer and I have a form contract here, if that works. I'll email it to you to have a look. Let me know what you think and we'll work from there."

(Holy shit. We are really doing this.)

I put together a contract and emailed it over. The next day, it was emailed back, completed. The offer was low, but enough that we did not lose any money. We had no commissions to pay; no financing contingency; a couple of drippy faucets and an attic fan to repair. We accepted, changing only the closing date to give us time to do work on the new house before moving.

Did this really just happen?

The kids were out of school at the end of that week.

Swim team started.

We closed on the new place and promptly went camping for four days around Father's Day.

We decided to gut the kitchen and open up the wall between the kitchen and dining room, so we spent lots of time meeting with designers and looking at cabinets and countertops. I wrote lots of big checks.

We sent both girls away to Girl Scout camp the first week of July. I packed like a mad woman, while checking in on the painters, who were hard at work. So many friends gave up precious summer days to help us pack.

We picked the girls up from camp on Friday, did laundry and re-packed to leave for Unitarian Universalist family camp on Sunday. We had booked it shortly before the moving bug bit. We had talked about going for years. The timing couldn't have been worse. We would return on the following Saturday and the movers were scheduled for 8 a.m. on that Monday. What were we thinking?

Somehow, we had an awesome time. So much tie-dye and lefty, liberal love. It was bliss.

While we were gone, the carpets had been torn out and the wood floors installed. In order to do this properly, the kitchen demo had also been done.

This meant that we were moving into a house with no functioning kitchen. Not even a sink. We did keep the fridge and the old stove for the time being. We had no washer and dryer yet. We planned to move the washer and dryer from their previous location, just inside the back door, to the basement. Both a plumber and an electrician were needed to do the hook-ups. More checks were written.

It was kind of like camping, only with beds and flush toilets. And no clean house to come home to.

Less than a week after we moved in, B was headed to a youth leadership conference in western New York state. I drove her and four other teens to Canandaigua, because, you know, I didn't have much else to do.

Since we would be tantalizingly close to Seneca Falls, NY, I decided to take A on a little "Mama and Me" road trip! We went to the Women's Rights National Historical Park, which was very cool. We walked around the town and made friends with a local gardener and then headed off to Ithaca, home of the Moosewood Restaurant.

It was a whirlwind couple of days with my favorite 11 year old. She is the best traveling companion. The scenery was beautiful, we ate good food and talked up a storm. She discovered a love for steel drums at a funky drum shop and we made lamp work glass pendants together at the Corning Glass Museum.

B arrived home a few days later, completely exhausted and filled to the brim with good ju-ju and a renewed sense of herself.

Two short weeks later, school started.

We still don't have a kitchen, but it's on its way. The house feels like "ours" and we are settling in.

It's all good.

Crazy, chaotic, exhausting and challenging, but good.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Call Me Crazy

I can be a bit of a contrarian. But in a good way. I root for the underdog, play devil's advocate and try to assume good motives on the part of others. Sometimes, though, I'm just plain weird.

Take, for example, our house. We bought it nearly three years ago. It's lovely. High ceilings, lots of windows, gorgeous landscaping. It seemed to be a big step "up" from our old house - both in square footage and prestige. It is in a "high-demand" subdivision, where homes often sell within days of listing. The thing is, we weren't really in need of more square footage and prestige is not something that matters to us.

So, you may ask, why did we move?

We moved for different schools, because we didn't feel the school system we were in was serving our children well. Private schools didn't appeal to us because the thought of paying tuition on top of the very high property taxes in our community seemed ludicrous. We felt (and still feel) that supporting local public schools is the right thing to do for us. (No judgment here for those who make other choices; every family is different!)

We moved for green space and a less urban atmosphere. I love to garden and in our tiny urban back yard I had thriving blackberries, raspberries and blueberries, and three 16 square-foot raised beds. We had installed rain barrels and a clothes line. I anticipated even more of the same at our new house.

We moved for more privacy. At our old house, we had neighbors so close on one side that we could smell their cigarette smoke and hear them arguing in Serbian, even in the winter time. From the other side, we could hear the high-pitched yaps of a lonely lap dog through two sets of closed windows all day long.

We knew we were giving up walkability and some truly wonderful neighbors. We knew we would miss the eclectic personality of our neighborhood.

We were enchanted by the woods behind the house, the koi pond with the waterfall, the pool in the neighborhood. The house was so spacious, so new, so grand.

We didn't know that we would be one of a very small number of folks without lawn services to manicure each edge and bed. Or that we would be one of the few to eschew pesticides and herbicides on our lawn, so that our friendly yellow dandelions would stick out like hillbillies at a society cotillion.  Or that we would plant the only Obama sign on the street. Or that clotheslines are prohibited by the HOA. Or that our entire backyard, lovely as it is, is entirely shaded and gardens are prohibited in front yards by the HOA.

We never guessed that our house would feel too big; be just too much - too much to decorate, to accessorize, to furnish, to clean and maintain. As we made plans to update and decorate, we realized that this just isn't the right place for us.  We will never be able to live the life we really want to live in this house. It doesn't feel like "us". It's weighing us down. We want to simplify and own less stuff so that we can have more experiences with our girls before they are all grown up and gone.

And so we are on the move again. This time to a smaller house with fewer rules. Less stuff, more fun. Call me crazy.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Trip Around the Sun

I have been so dreading the coming of May.

This time last year I was numb with grief and by the end of the month, I was sick, exhausted and numb. I had one kid with pneumonia and one with a broken foot. Hombre had bronchitis and so did I. Dirty laundry had reached a never before seen high water mark and funeral flowers filled the house.

I made up my mind.  I declared it "The Summer of Fun." And so it was. For the most part. Father's Day, full of memories, came and went, along with 4th of July fireworks and swim meets. I felt Mom and Dad's  absence keenly.

We wisely went ahead with our Great American Road Trip, which turned out to be the best possible salve for an aching heart. 

We celebrated new babies, weddings and engagements. We made new memories and resisted the urge to pick up the phone to share our good news with Mom and Dad.

Somehow it was time for school again; mornings cool and misty, evenings a wee bit crisp.  No one to call with the annual first day of school report.

Leaves began to change colors like middle aged women adopting vivid hair color to distract from their aging faces. Almost too brassy, but so striking you can't look away. Mom's favorite season.

We picked apples and grapes; canned applesauce and grape jam. We ordered fire wood and raked leaves. Celebrated birthdays and anniversaries. Some of us pierced our noses.

We toasted them at Thanksgiving, their absence too obvious to be ignored.

We wondered what Christmas would be like without them. We discovered, like the Grinch did, that nothing can stop Christmas from coming.

Our family gathered, in large numbers, as it always has and laughed and talked and ate and drank;  missed them and thanked them for having taught us to value the precious time spent with each other.

The busyness of clubs and teams and scouts shuttled us through January and February.

With March came Mom's birthday; with April, Dad's. Last year's birthday celebrations had been tinted blue, since we knew then that they'd likely never see another. And yet we had celebrated.

April brought us crocuses, daffodils and then tulips. Forsythia and crab apple dressed for the prom, flouncing in the breeze. The trees exhaled green mist and then it was May.

It had arrived in all its dewy beauty, just like last year. The fresh prettiness that had been like a slap in the face of my sorrow last year seems so joyful this year.

There is no keeping these seasons at bay. Come they will and with them the memories.  But each year adds another layer of memories, happy and sad, slowly building the mural of a life.