Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Open Letter to Summer

Hi, Everyone!

How are you? Summer’s practically here, isn’t it? I love this time of year. I love the berries and days at the beach and camp outs and fireflies and general kumbaya-like vibe of the whole thing. In Chicago, summer means that you really survived something – especially this year when I was wearing my winter coat until the last week of May – so we savor the heck out of it. Summer makes me remember that last day of school, that last bell of the season, and a whole expanse of lovely days ahead of me.

We’re all in this summer thing together. That being said, here are a few things that might make the warm months ahead go a little more enjoyable for all parties.

To my son:

    1. When it’s hot out, please don’t lean on me. I love you more than I could ever express, but your silky (and SEARING) flesh against mine feels like a red-hot poker being pressed against me. Please don’t take offense if you touch my arm and I jump away like you just branded me with an iron. Let’s all just keep to our personal space bubbles, though, ‘kay?
    2. Stepping on a Lego is a plague for all seasons but hopping on one foot in pain when I’m already overheated is just not a lot of fun.
    3. “In or out? Am I paying to cool off the rest of the block?!” All those clichés that I swore I’d never say, well, I’m saying them. Shut. The. Door.

To whoever used the last ice cubes or drank the last iced tea:

    1. You wouldn’t think of leaving that empty, now, would you?

To my community:

    1. Must you drive with the bass turned up to eleven? It makes my head feel like it’s going to explode. If that happens, I’m totally aiming for your car.
    2. I get that most of you are not vegetarians. I totally understand that you enjoy barbecuing various animal parts. I just so don’t want to smell it, though, or walk through a ground-level ash cloud of it. While I’m at it, I also do not want to see discarded chicken leg bones on the ground as I make my way through life. It’s totally sad and gross. Could you kind of keep that stuff to yourself more?
    3. Ice cream trucks, don’t you think “Turkey in the Straw” (a.k.a. the “Do your ears hang low” song) is a little overdone? Plus when I was in camp, we changed the lyrics of that particular song from “ears” to “boobs” and so that’s always what is going through my head when I hear you. I’d rather not think of sweaty boobs right now, okay? Do you take requests? How about Für Elise? That’s pretty and it doesn’t make me think of sweaty boobs.
    4. To those who cannot leave their homes without a big puffy cloud of perfume all around your person, please know that this seriously makes my temples throb. In the summer, it’s like you’re surrounded by an ozone of magazine perfume samples. Can’t we just do a little spritz and call it a day?
    5. To the homeowners who aim your sprinklers so that they spray the sidewalk with water: all things told, is this the most considerate thing you could do? Should people have to walk on the street to avoid getting wet so that your grass can be Technicolor green? Somehow I think you are the same people who don’t shovel your sidewalks in the winter or do a half-assed job of it. This summer, I am going to take note of where you live and test this idea.
        a. If I find out it’s true, I’m totally going to give you a dirty look should we ever cross paths.
    6. To people who comment on my pale skin and tell me to get some sun: and muck up my meticulously maintained ghostly pallor? Millions of goth kids would kill for my Morticia-like epidermis, Besides, my skin will thank me for all my studious years of sun avoidance as I get older. Will yours? 

To movie theater managers:

    1. Please mellow out with the air conditioning. It feels good for about 10 seconds on a really hot day but after that my teeth are chattering, I’ve got goose bumps and I’m shivering uncontrollably. Seriously, I beg of you. I am dying over here. I should not have to put “pack a blanket along” on my mental checklist every time I see a movie in the summer.

To the mosquitoes:

    1. I am non-violent but you thirsty little bloodsuckers are totally pushing it.

To businesses:
    1. I get so depressed when I see back-to-school specials next to the Fourth of July displays. Come on! Talk about a buzz-kill. It would be nifty if you could all have a pact to wait until August to roll out the spiral notebooks. That’s all I’m saying.
    2. Please see what I requested of movie theater managers two points up.

To my sunglasses:

    1. Why must you be in my way on rainy days and get lost as soon as it’s sunny? What is it about you?

To my family:

    1. Please remind me when I am ready to really, really lose my temper about something silly and minor to just drink a little ice water. Better yet, get it for me. A little slice of lemon or lime will let me know that you really care. I’m just saying.

Okay, I’m ready for summer. Let’s do it, people!



Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Urban Woman: From Dirt Bike Wheels to Vegan Heels

To get this post, you'll have to be familiar with Ree Drummond, a.k.a., The Pioneer Woman. Oh, man - I mean, boy howdy! - is she ripe for satire. I cannot bring myself to link to her. Her website gets like 80 million visitors in the time it takes me to put on my shoes. My shoes are slip ons, too.

Basically, her Pioneer Woman empire is based on pure wish/fantasy fulfillment. Her story is so predictable as to be banal, something one would expect to find in the middle of the shush pile over at Harlequin Romance headquarters, yet somehow it is devoured by the masses. The story goes like this: The Pioneer Woman was a girl who grew up on a golf course fairway in an affluent suburb of Tulsa. She couldn't wait to leave this boring town so as soon as she could so she headed for LA to go to the university there and then to work. She loved the restaurants, the nightlife, the shops, the cafes, and, sweet Jesus, the sushi. How she loved the sushi!

The sushi is a symbol of her upwardly mobile, inwardly crumbling lifestyle. She had a laidback, drippy surfer for a boyfriend and they ate sushi together until she just couldn't take it anymore. She headed back for her parent's home in Oklahoma to sort out her feelings and plan for the future. She planned to go to law school in Chicago.

Little did Ree know, though, that an impossibly (and I mean impossibly) handsome, strong but sensitive, Adonis-meets-Gary Cooper-esque freaking cowboy would sweep her high heels out from under her, make her knees go continually wobbly and make her swoon like no one has swooned since at least 1953.
The love of a simple cowboy coaxed the sushi-eating Ree into becoming the Pioneer Woman she is today, a rancher's wife who loves red meat and therefore real men with big, all American penises. (She refers to herself as a former vegetarian, though she refers to eating fish during her supposed vegetarian phase. Whatever.) She calls her husband, apparently without irony, Marlboro Man. Marlboro Man has since married Ree, taken her to his cattle ranch, impregnated her no fewer than four times and so forth. The Pioneer Woman spends her days homeschooling their children and taking a lot of photos of Marlboro Man's behind. There are layers and layers of loamy subtext here, dressed up in chaps and resting on a hammock in a mythical landscape. Naturally, my thoughts turned to satire.

Meet Urban Woman, the Pioneer Woman's counterpart. This is the first installment.

I was raised next door to a city. When I was growing up with a giant metropolis and all that came with it (crowds, sooty snow and honking cars) within easy access, I used to spend much of my time locked away in my room, daydreaming about living in the boondocks. I was a misfit, a suburban girl who couldn’t wait to ditch my black skirts and high heels for jeans or even overalls and sensible shoes. Instead of listening to bands with guys with spiky hair and eyeliner, I rebelled, turning to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard instead. My parents shook their heads at me in dismay, sighed every time I consulted the Farmer’s Almanac instead of just checking the weather forecast like a normal girl. Their efforts to raise an urban, edgy and sophisticated daughter seemed to be in vain: I was determined to leave the sky rises, shops and museums behind and head off to the uninterrupted, serene landscape I was certain was just beyond it. My above-it-all attitude was obvious to everyone.

At eighteen, I graduated from high school and my parents could no longer contain me. They warned me that there’d be no culture in the country, that I’d become adrift. They felt betrayed that I rejected their values. My mother wrung her hands over where she’d gone wrong; my father paced at night, worrying of what would become of me in the country. My urban friends patronized me and said that it was a phase, that I’d come running back when I found there were generally no great Thai restaurants along rural routes. Nothing anyone said had any effect. I packed my bags, kissed my parents goodbye and never expected to come back to the city except for holidays.

I was off chasing my dream: I had my plans together. I couldn’t wait to leave all the trappings of my urbanity behind: the mini-skirts, the dark nail polish, the progressive politics, the diversity. I would head for the tractors and cornfields. I was determined that there was a mobile home community somewhere for me where I could sip Mike’s Hard Lemonade, watch the butterflies flit around and make idle chitchat with the neighbors. I would find a simple job - maybe as a cashier at a local grocery store with no more than three aisles or putting together arrangements at the flower shop. I’d meet a townie every bit as sheltered and boring as the man of my dreams and we’d spend a couple of years together aimlessly floating on inner-tubes in the local river, shaking flags at Independence Day parades on folding chairs, holding hands outside our starter mobile home as the grasshoppers chirped. Then we’d get married in an adorable church and have a few adorable blond children. That would be my life. No one could stand in my way.

Four years later, I was well on my way with my plan. I found my idyllic small town with just the right Mayberry-esque qualities, including a bumbling deputy sheriff named Bo. I set my sites on him right away and he returned my interest. When he wasn’t accidentally locking himself out of his police vehicle or unintentionally discharging his gun at inopportune times (is there ever an opportune time?), he was a catch. A little dangerous at times, but still a catch. Bo was cute but in retrospect, something nagged at me that he wasn’t right for me. I ignored that inner-voice, though, because he was by far the hottest commodity in our town of 650. I was determined to live the dream and he was part of the dream. My parents hated him, of course. They met him twice and my mother just cried.

I loved my life there, though. Aside for the frequent drunken arguments at the trailer court and Def Leppard being blasted at three in the morning, things were peaceful.  Once in a while the local water sanitation system would be faulty or the town’s supply of firecrackers would get stolen and ignited by pack of teen ne’er-do-wells, but generally my little town helped to keep me in a state of perpetual boredom.

Meanwhile, I worked as a cashier at the Rexall two towns over and continued reaching my goals with my plan of downward mobility. I slept no fewer than ten hours a night, my career trajectory was stagnant at best. I harbored no illusions of grandeur, no desire to leave my mark on the world. My life was developing exactly as I’d planned it out as a young girl. I was on pace to being married to the guy I thought would bring me years of predictability  – he’d proposed to me one night but I don’t remember much about it – and we were looking at houses together. My life was rote and exhilaratingly stable. I was on the path I’d laid out for myself years before.

Then I got the call that changed my life.

My mother had to have surgery on her knee: it was nothing serious but she would be out-of-commission for a few weeks. Could I come back home and help around the split-level?  As much as I hated the idea of going back near the city – and the fact that this would mean missing probably at least two fish boils – I felt I needed to go. I also looked forward to getting out of town to plot out my ten-year plan with Bo, the optimal spacing of our future children, the eventual cessation of my job. I was nervous to come back and interact with the people who felt I was a snob when I’d abandoned their values: how would they accept me and my new downward lifestyle, my preference for one stoplight towns over bustling cities?  I was wary but I also knew that going back to the big city was what I needed to do, at least for a few weeks.

I have to admit, in retrospect, I got a pleasant little rush and butterflies in my stomach as I drove through the city and looked at the high rises and skyscrapers all lit up against the skyline. I tried to deny the excitement I felt as if that would make it disappear. “I’m a country girl now,” I reminded myself. “I am on the slow track.” I got goose bumps seeing the outdoor cafés, though, the posters for foreign films, the multiculturalism, the fashion that considered both form and function. I buried myself in helping out at my parent’s house. I understand now that I felt if I could just distract myself with caring for my mom, I could ignore the pangs that kept burbling up and return to the life I insisted that I wanted, the one I’d created for myself with Bo in the country, the one I had more-or-less ambled toward my whole life.

We talked, predictable like clock work, at 6:45 every evening before Bo’s programs came on and hung up by 6:58. Bo was insecure about me being near the city. “Don’t find yourself getting swept away by some city slicker in black,” he told me, half-jokingly. “I need you and your child-bearing hips back here where they belong.” I reassured him that I would be back as soon as things were in order. He would talk to me more about his day and I would use the time to take a little catnap. He told me about the traffic violations ha almost issued tickets for that day, the cars he pushed out of ditches. I tried to sound interested but I was distracted. I told myself that it was just the fast pace of urban living that was wearing me out, that once I was back home, everything would return to normal. The truth was, though, that the thought of returning made me feel a little ball of dread in the pit of my belly. I labeled this as nerves and I kept myself busy.

A week before I was to return, though, I got a call from a childhood friend of mine, Suzanne. I’d been putting her off all week but she was insistent that I go to a bar with her and some friends Friday night. “You need to get out,” she told me. “You deserve to have a little fun.” Finally, Suzanne wore down my resolve. As stubborn as I was, I could still see that she was right, that I could use a little lift. I agreed. I would go out.

Friday night rolled around and I tried to get out of it. I called Suzanne and told her that I was tired, that I didn’t feel well. It was as though I sensed that my life was about to change and I was making a last ditch effort to circumvent that. Suzanne wouldn’t hear of it, though. She threatened that she would come and pick me up herself if I tried to get out of it. “Okay, okay,” I laughed. I picked out my one remaining black mini-skirt, my black heels for special occasions (none had really come up since I’d moved), a cute little top and fire engine red lipstick. It was as though after all these years, it all intuitively came back to me. My parents could scarcely hide their delight, standing in the foyer as I went out for the night. 

“I’ll be home early,” I said. “Don’t get your hopes up.”

Little did I know that two hours later, I would be head-over-heels in love with a vegan graphic artist-stud with long, flaxen hair, ripped up jeans and a bike-toned backside who lived in a Wicker Park loft. All my aspirations of a peaceful country life on the slow-track would be shattered in one fateful night.

Stay tuned for my next installment 0f Urban Woman.

Monday, May 16, 2011

This Artisan Life

The other day, I saw a sign on North Avenue promoting the “hand-pattied” hamburgers a restaurant offered and something clicked in the back of my mind. Later that day, it really sunk in when I saw an ad referring to an ice cream shop with hand-scooped cones. As it could be both tricky and unhygienic to scoop ice cream with one’s feet or elbows, this is an important detail to bring to a potential customer’s attention. I also realized that restaurants and artisan food merchants alike are quick to point out all the handmade, personal touches they bring to their work. Why don’t I? I don’t give myself nearly enough credit for all the things I do in this life of mine. I create countless artisan, handcrafted moments every single day.

The above paragraph, for example, was self-punctuated as are all the sentences that follow. Every word I select will always be crafted with my own synapses and typed by my own hands in-house: they have not turned over to an impersonal third party in any part of their journey to the screen. As I write, I am also sipping hand-poured local water prepared with house-made ice cubes that were produced in small batches in a glass that I choose myself among many others for how its form fits my unique hand. On that topic, machine generated, commercial ice cubes lack that certain flair, don’t you think, one looking exactly like the next? I would just as soon put toxic sludge in my glass than I would outsource my ice cubes. My ice cubes are as individualized as snowflakes. I honor them and I grieve when they are selected to chill my beverages. I do not take these things lightly. As a side note, if you are to drink chilled beverages, I suggest that you have the courage to hand-prepare and select your own ice cubes. If you cannot do this, I suggest that you please ask your ice merchants the process that went into making the cubed frozen water they sell. It could be an eye-opening experience.

Making my own ice cubes is one small commitment I make in order to create a detail-driven, handmade life. Let’s look at a typical but utterly organic day in my life…

After arising, I make my own bed, and, as I do every day, I hand-smooth the sheets and I self-fold the top of the comforter back just so. When I get dressed, my clothes - previously folded and sorted by hand - are chosen based on the temperature and my activities of the day and only then are they placed on my body. By hand, of course. When I exercise, I self-lift all my own weights and am responsible for generating my own motion. The sweat, of course, issues from my own pores that have been exfoliated by hand. My dental care, face cleaning, shower and house-prepared blended drink, of course, are done with myself and replete with this same spirit of autonomy and exquisitely rigorous attention to detail.

It is exhausting to think about, I know, and I haven’t even tied my own shoelaces with my singular bow (secured in the middle with two loops and the ends hanging loose) and walked my naturally conceived, self-gestated, and then umbilically-, mammory-, hand- and then finally self-nourished son to school. While my partially-free-range son is at school - in the district of the house that we selected after personally touring many others by foot, of course – more thoughtfully handcrafted work needs to be undertaken.

My day continues with more self-constructed sentences and the occasional personally guided Internet expedition for research and entertainment purposes. Micro- and house-brewed homemade iced tea produced with local water is also replenished throughout the day and lunch is foraged from my own kitchen and self-tended garden, comprised usually of personally selected, hand-washed, -peeled and –prepared local organic produce. Then it is back to writing again, except when I need to personally compose messages to send to my correspondences. It is not easy but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When my son returns from school, I continue his education by reviewing his homework and home-schooling him until it is complete. Snacks are prepared and plated by hand, of course, and based on whatever items are available that day. Juice is locally purchased, home- and hand-poured.

Dinner. So much handcraftedness, all prepared in small batches, too exhausting to detail…

After dinner, the table is cleared off by hand and the dishes are hand-rinsed and -loaded into the dishwasher. The floor is then swept by hand and items that have been carried elsewhere are placed back into their designated areas. The cat’s litter box is hand-scooped. As we are a family that prioritizes the DIY philosophy, we do our own dental care, maintain our own skin and so forth in house. At bedtime, we turn back our own sheets, read to ourselves and/or to each other, and then cease sensory activity for the day and pursue a state of reduced consciousness. We do this all on our own. Although it is not easy, we wouldn’t have it any other way. It is the way of the artisan, after all.

How have you handcrafted your life today, friends?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Universal Mother…

Some mothers I have known...

There was the young mother who ran into the dressing rooms screaming “Ada! Ada!” when her toddler was missing at the department store. Five frantic minutes later, she was found playing with a doll in the toy section and her mother was on her knees, holding her daughter in a desperately grateful embrace. They seemed to melt together, the little girl smoothing her mother’s hair like she was the child as her mother sobbed against her.

Just as vividly, I remember the mother walking toward me on the sidewalk at a street festival with her little boy, revelers all around us. In one horrible and totally ordinary moment, the mother’s sudden shriek cut through the air: the hard candy her son was sucking on became lodged in his throat and this completely lively boy was a minute or two from choking to death. The crowd froze around them – What’s happening? What’s the matter? - and the woman thumped her son’s back. The candy ball shot out and the boy started wheezing. She picked him up and deeply exhaled, her eyes squeezed shut as she held her son to her, another desperately grateful mother.

Just last summer, I was talking to a friend at a pool when she abruptly flung her cell phone onto the tile and, with a huge splash, dove in, fully dressed. I didn't realize it at the time but she’d jumped in after her five-year-old, who had gone under water. He didn’t know how to swim. My friend surfaced with him seconds later, both gasping for air, her glasses floating a few feet away. She told me that she didn’t let go of him for the rest of the day.

For me, there was that gasping moment when my normally cautious son got caught up in trick-or-treating mayhem and suddenly darted into the street before I had a chance to stop him. Racing after him, I screamed as loud as I could with my arms up in the air as a driver slammed on her breaks within a foot of him. With the next breath I took, this one with my son in my arms, I felt like every emotion that motherhood activated inside me was ringing and pulsing: the deep relief, the naked gratitude, the profound vulnerability. Also, the understanding that I was moments away from the worst kind of horror imaginable to a mother.

From a child’s perspective, I distinctly remember that fear-in-the-pit-of-my- stomach feeling when I was separated from my mother as a three-year-old at the Museum of Science and Industry. I remember the disorientation, being lost in a dangerous sea of unfamiliar, hurrying legs going every which way, and feeling such utter relief when my mother’s calves and shoes appeared, I thought my heart would explode. Although there are always exceptions, mothers and their children reach for each other, seek comfort in one another, do not feel safe if one is unexpectedly missing. This is natural.

One does not need to be human to feel the deep-seated instinct to protect her babies, to seek the warmth of one’s mother. When animal advocates point out the obvious – that mothers and their babies suffer profoundly when they are separated, that harming one’s baby causes emotional trauma to the mother – we are accused of anthropomorphizing. We are portrayed as having centers as squishy as marshmallows, as having naive, sentimental, childish minds. In fact, it is a cold biological imperative, not just an emotional one, that drives a mother to want to nurture and protect her young: entire species would be wiped out if not for a mother’s instinct to defend her babies. I think, though, that it’s highly arrogant and self-serving to presume that humans alone have an emotional stake in their babies’ livelihoods.

Dairy cows, with a gestation of around nine months, have their calves taken from them shortly after birth, destined to become forcibly impregnated milk producers and cheap meat like their mothers if they are female, veal flesh if they are male. The dairy cows bellow and moan, as any mother would, calling for their lost babies. The mother cheetah my son and I saw driving predators from her vulnerable cubs in the “African Cats” movie had the same fierce devotion to her babies that any other mother would, putting her own safety on the line to protect them. Hens show a physical response when they sense that their chicks are in distress: their heart rates elevate, they cry out to them. It is natural for the hens to do this. They are not machines. To claim that emotions are the sole province of the human species is committing the very crime that animal advocates are accused of time and time again: it is sentimentalizing.

One also doesn’t need to be a mother to be deeply driven to protect another. Long before I ever had a baby, I felt the same kind of adrenaline surge when someone intentionally whipped a hard rubber ball at my dog as I would have if he had done that same thing years later to my son. I chased that guy down the beach, screaming at him, and he ran away as if his life depended on it. Maybe it did. I’m a non-violent person, but you don’t mess with the ones I love.

For Mother’s Day, I propose that we honor this natural drive within all of us to protect the ones we love, the ones who depend on our consideration, by not consuming the products of exploitation and cruelty. This common thread of wanting our babies to thrive is natural and noble, a key part of our essential being. Whether we are men or women, children or adults, human or hen, that universal mother is in all of us. Let’s celebrate without exploiting another innocent mother who had not only the autonomy of her body but also her babies stolen from her for our appetites. Let’s connect to that profound mothering spirit that links us together. She wants her babies to be well and protected from harm. I think we can understand.

Happy Mother's Day to everyone.