Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Envy

Better colors than Xmas to my 6 year old eye
On Good Friday in 1969, I was almost 6 years old and my mother took me for my first visit to a beauty salon. I had long, thick brown hair and up until this day my mother had always been the one to trim it, outside on the brick patio, with her large, black handled, metal sewing scissors. My mother would yell at me regularly about the squirrel’s nest in my hair, but the squirrel’s nest wasn’t there; it would have been too wonderful for words to have my own squirrels. This day, Good Friday, 1969, my hair was gathered into a ponytail, secured with a rubber band, cut off, and handed to me. I sat in the salon chair, swinging my legs and holding my hair, stroking the long straight brown ponytail like it was a pet. I shook it like a whisk. I held it up so it could cascade out around my hand like a fountain. I brushed my face with it. When the stylist was done cutting my hair I had what my mother called “a pixie cut.” I thought it looked terrible and I cried silently all the way out of the salon, back to the front seat of our Ford Falcon.
On the way home I slid very low on the seat so the backs of my legs would not burn on the car’s hot, black, vinyl upholstery.   “What is Good Friday?” I asked.
“It’s a religious holiday. When Jesus Christ died,” my mother said.
My childhood was filled with mysteries; “Jesus Christ” was something my parents shouted at each other when they were very angry.
“Why is it a holiday if Jesus Christ died?” I asked.
“It’s part of Easter,” my mother said.
 I did not understand.
Easter was not one of the holidays we celebrated. We had Christmas. We put up a tree, made lists, and Santa brought presents. As far as I could tell, only the Presbyterians who went to the church across the street from us had Easter. They wore fancy dress-up clothes, the little girls in smocked dresses and white tights and shiny Mary Janes, the boys in seersucker sailor suits and saddle shoes and little caps with white piping. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down Optimist Baseball League t-shirts and cut-off jeans, and ran around with no shoes most of the time so my feet could take the hot pavement in summer. I spied on the Presbyterians lying on my stomach on the cool tiles of the side porch of our house. When the church bells were done ringing and the last of the church-goers filed in the door, I might go crawl around our suburban yard to see what the cat was doing or look for a long line of ants.  
I wanted the Easter bunny to come and bring me a huge Easter-colored basket filled with green plastic grass and stuffed rabbits and ducks and plastic eggs filled with jelly beans. I wanted to dye eggs with a Paas kit and hide them for my little brother, pretending that the Easter bunny had done it. It would have been like a second Christmas, with prettier colors. 
In the family photo album there were pictures of my older brother at an Easter egg hunt at my father’s parents’ house when my brother was 3. By the time I was 3, and I was old enough to ask for one, but there were no more Easter egg hunts. By the time I was old enough to wonder about religion or Jesus or Easter, my parents had stopped going to church and stopped sending us to Sunday school.  I was pretty sure maybe I wanted parents who would dress me up in a new dress with little ducks appliqued on it, who would buy me white tights and shiny new Mary Janes, and we would walk into church with my brother Clark holding my hand. Well, maybe I hated wearing dresses or any shoes at all, and my brother punched me, and church was very boring and Sunday school smelled like paste, but I still wanted that basket. I really wanted my own Easter basket.
Clark still likes to tell a story about our cat Sugar killing baby bunnies on the front lawn one Easter while the horrified Presbyterians (who were our enemies because of their poor parking manners) filed by on their way to church, stifling their screams, and hiding their eyes. Sugar was a prodigious hunter, able to catch a mouse in the ivy as casually as Clark would toss a baseball into his glove. Sugar did bring us a litter of screaming baby bunnies one day, one at a time, all in various stages of shock, but I think it happened on an ordinary quiet day in spring. My mischievous father was the one who suggested that Sugar should have done it on Easter, and gleefully described the parade of traumatized Presbyterians witnessing the slaughter.  My family was the kind that laughed at church-going-people, holding hands and wearing matching outfits, singing about Jesus’ love and yet parking so they blocked our driveway.
Many years later, when my own children were small, my old-world mother-in-law would send us tiny fancy Easter outfits, complete with matching socks and small caps with white piping. Sometimes we had to wait a year or two for the one-piece sailor suit to fit one of our boys; other times we might wait a whole year for an occasion worthy of stuffing our wild toddlers into dress-up clothes. If the outfits were worn, they were worn once; some went to Goodwill without ever being taken off the plastic hanger or coming out of the sealed, clear plastic bag. For many years, this Hungarian grandma, known as Nagymama, would send lavish Easter baskets, with huge chocolate bunnies and jellybeans and stuffed animals. Usually the package would take us by surprise because we never paid any attention to the arrival of Easter.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Parenting Your Preschooler"

Sending our kids to a cooperative preschool meant we went to monthly parent meetings and sometimes we had a parent educator. I remember that we had one named Fran and another one who was Not Fran. I don’t remember if this story is about Fran or Not Fran. Fran had short hair and a dry, academic way about her. Children seemed like unwanted and unexpected carbonation in her drink as they bubbled about the classroom, her fingers twitching in reaction. As irritated as Fran seemed by the presence of children, she seemed even more undone by parents, especially those with a lot of questions. Not Fran had a mop of curly hair and warm eyes and a sultry overnight radio DJ voice. Not Fran liked to say understanding things about parents and children having clashing personalities. Both were prone to silences and somewhat grave. They attended every other parent meeting and we received parent education from them. I was a coop preschool parent for many years, something like seven or ten, and I remember well only one parent education lecture.

January-ish, 1991
Taken in the subway in New York City
Me, with my oldest child
Even though this story is about my youngest, it would 
take me weeks to find a photo of me with me youngest, 
if I have one at all. Back then, when we were still using 
film, and it was our third kid, the photo-taking didn’t 
happen very often.

This one evening, I had had a long day. My youngest child was only a couple of months old and had had a whole set of shots that day. He was still nursing so he came along to the parent meeting. That evening, he was uncomfortable from the shots, and very fussy. We did our regular meeting business about upcoming field trips, snack schedule, and changes in classroom procedure, and I had to step away from the group to attend to my cranky infant. Finally, I got him quiet in my arms and I tiptoed back to the group.

The parent educator, Fran or Not Fran sat forward on the sofa, her knees tightly together, her materials in a messy stack on the coffee table in front of her. Parents sat all around her, in the living room chairs, on the sofa arm, in dining room chairs they’d pulled in.

Fran or Not Fran was speaking in a quiet monotone on a subject that had everyone’s attention. All eyes were on her. She was methodically explaining that the technique she proposed relieves stress for both kids and parents, makes for more fluid communication, and models emotional resilience. Because I hadn’t heard what the subject was, I was having trouble following her. She droned on for a while.
When the parents started asking questions, I tried piecing together what she was talking about. I took my attention from Fran or Not Fran to the other parents. They were concerned, serious, reflecting on the topic. There was not even a half-smile to indicate the topic of discussion: they were talking about using humor in parenting. 

I did what I always do in awkward situations: tried to be funny. Just to get things rolling, I asked, “I’m sorry. What are we talking about?”

Fran or Not Fran turned to me, saying gently, “Using humor in parenting.”

“Oh,” I said. “Does it come in a refillable pump spray?”

No one laughed. The other parents looked confused. Fran or Not Fran looked mildly annoyed.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


My husband is said to be the funniest man in his whole family, but all of his siblings are doctors in rather unfunny specialties, so how funny is that? Also, he really gets annoyed when I explain something he did by saying, “He’s the funniest man in his whole family.”

The perfect selfie: 
taken while sitting on the toilet on an airplane
Whether I am funny is a question I find hard to answer. I said I was funny on the first day of my writing class at the New School about a year ago, and my writing teacher asked me to clarify. “Oh, you’re funny?” she asked.

“No,” I replied, trying to be funny.

It wasn’t funny.

There are several ways to measure funny, like if you get a laugh, or even if you get a snort or a smirk or a smile. On Twitter you might get favorite stars or retweets. On Facebook you get “likes.” Sometimes west coast audiences clap for good jokes, instead of laughing.

When I used to teach night classes at the University of Utah, sometimes I had as many as 110 students. Ok, they didn’t all show up all the time, but I used to like to say that if you’re a math teacher and you can get a laugh in a room full of bored undergrads, you feel like you’re Johnny Carson.

Should I say Ellen DeGeneres now? Louis C.K.? Tina Fey? Back then, it felt like Johnny Carson. It was the 80s, you know.

Anyway, I was at a fancy party with the Bacon Provider, and while he was fetching drinks and tiny plates of hors d’oeuvres I found myself talking to a suit-wearing finance guy from a large media company. I have no memory of what I was talking about. Sometimes I just talk. I can do it without thinking. I can talk about dogs or cats or horses or children, about St. Louis or pure mathematics or Seattle, about figure skating parents or ultimate Frisbee, or Twitter or non-profit and governmental accounting, about skiing in the 1970s. I have stories from my childhood about crows, imaginary friends, and not eating mixtures of foods. I tell stories about being a math teacher. It could have been any of these, or something else.

As the Bacon Provider walked away for more drinks, the suit-wearing finance guy from a large media company said, “I know your husband, and he’s a nice guy and all, but you, you’re really funny.”

I probably smiled and nodded, with my eyebrows all the way up.

“No,” he continued, “really funny.”

Now. At the time I took it as an awkward moment at a party. But sometimes on Twitter I get mistaken for a guy. Not because I get called “Bro,” or “Dude,” because my kids and former students did that. Because I get wished a Happy Father’s Day. I keep my avi the same: a cartoon monster drawn a long time ago by my youngest child. I tweet about stuff I’m interested in. Some people can’t tell my gender from that. I’m A-OK if people don’t know my gender.

Really, I find it amusing, as I do almost everything. I think if you can’t find life funny you’re fucked.

There is another kind of funny, like funny meaning odd. I have the strangest feeling that I’ve written this essay before. That’s a funny feeling. Funny meaning odd.

My writing teacher pointed at me a few months ago and indicated that she wanted me to read next. “You,” she said, forgetting my name. “You, with the funny hair.”

Why do I get to be congratulated for being funny? Is it because I’m known to be unemployed? Is it because I’m a middle-aged-mom-type?  Is it because women aren’t thought to be funny?

Last Tuesday, I tried to tell the story of being told I’m funny at a fancy party by a suit-wearing finance guy from a large media company, and while the details seemed amusing to the person I told it to, he clearly didn’t get it.  Why would he? He’s a smart guy, good at his job, a dad, and a serious person. He’s a suit-wearing finance guy himself.

Maybe it’s because my stories never have a point.