all of the selves we Have ever been
The Hysterical Society
Except for a stint in the army, Uncle Lloyd spent his entire life on the family farm. He remained firmly attached to his caveman roots and his family ancestry working the land. This led to some peculiarities of manner and speech. For instance, when discussing if he might wish to donate some of the family heirlooms to the local Historical Society, Lloyd repeatedly referred to the organization as the Hysterical Society. That’s just the way the word came out when he spoke. No point in correcting him. He would not have heard the distinction. If Uncle Lloyd had lived to see the COVID pandemic, we might have given him some extra credit for his prescient prognostication.
Panic-stricken, agitated, frantic, distraught, beside ourselves—all manner of hysteria applied. My one retreat during that time was the library. Even when the doors closed during the worst of the pandemic, the drive-through remained open. It was during that time that I reconnected with a long-gone but much loved member of that other Hysterical Society. I write today to honor her: Happy Birthday, Erma Bombeck!
Even as a kid, I loved the newspaper. Not much for the comic section, I did try to peer into my future with regular readings of my daily horoscope. I practically earned an M.D. from the Ask the Doctor column, and I built a solid foundation for my future as a therapist by reading Dear Abby, but my favorite column was At Wit’s End by Erma Bombeck. While she was facing middle age, I was facing middle school.
At a time when people did not “air their dirty laundry in public,” she made a living from it – a middle age, middle class porn star to the homemaking set. She talked about things we experienced but no one else talked about openly, especially not in front of children. It was a glimpse into the foibles of family life in the suburbs and a sneak peek into the private parts of a grown up life.
During the COVID pandemic, as I was at my own wit’s end, I borrowed some of her old books from the library. The titles alone were hilarious: The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession, The Ties that Bind and Gag, When you Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to go Home, and I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, among others.
As I read and laughed out loud, I was reminded that so many “revolutions” have come and gone. Issues that once rocked the country came and went, and we remained standing. The women’s movement, including sexual freedom and birth control, and the mass migration of families to the fresh and growing suburbs were all new to Erma and her generation. While it was simply the state of things when I was born, I was reminded that it was all new and unnerving to the folks who came before me. They adapted.
As businesses closed and workers fled to their home offices, and children went to school at their dining room tables dressed their pajamas, Erma gave me some perspective: we have been through revolutionary changes before; we will get through this one, too. What a gold mine Erma would have unearthed from our pandemic experience! She knew that humor mixed with love was the antidote to just about everything, and she instinctively knew just the right mix of each to keep us laughing and healing without hurting ourselves or others.
Nietschze wrote that “in heaven all of the interesting people are missing.” I’m pretty sure he is wrong, at least since 1996. Maybe what makes heaven heaven is that it is full of all the people who died laughing.
See you there, Erma.
When I was in third grade, I gave my teacher a Valentine’s Day gift. It was a heart-shaped box filled with assorted Russell Stover chocolates.
I carried it to school so tenderly that an observer might have thought it was an actual beating heart about to be transplanted into the body of someone I loved.
Truth be told, my own heart was torn that day. I was filled with pride and excitement at being able to give such a spectacular gift. But my heart was also overflowing with an amount of envy I could barely contain. I wrestled with the devil when it came time to part with the gift. It was like holding the winning lottery ticket and having to hand it to someone else.
Oh, how I wanted that box of chocolates! A child would have never received such a Valentine back then. Gifts like that were reserved for adults only. That blessed grown-up might offer a lucky child the opportunity to pick “just one” from the box. The weight of such a choice was enormous. A child might pick a sweet, delicious chocolate-covered cherry, or find herself biting into a coffee cream as bitter as her disappointment.
All that third-grade day, I wondered if I would EVER receive such a valentine. It had nothing to do with finding romance, love, or even chocolate. I also coveted that box! A heart-shaped box?! It defied gravity and all of the other laws of nature. While it was reported that good things came in small packages, I was pretty sure that the best things came in heart-shaped boxes trimmed with ruffled red ribbon.
Obviously, the giving that day was more about me than about the teacher. At best I was showing off, at worst, I was brimming with envy. But as all children do, I was learning the life lessons that come so slowly, lessons about giving and receiving, about generosity and selfishness, about desire and self-control, about what lasts and what doesn’t.
Forrest Gump said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” Later in life I would learn that sometimes we can reduce the risk and increase the satisfaction by locating the key that is printed somewhere on each box of chocolates. It is possible to make better choices when you are a grown-up and know how things work.
Thankfully, giving is no longer about me and my own desires. My needs are met, and my heart is full, not with envy, but with a desire to win the lottery and pass it on.
May your hearts be full today and all of your needs met. Choose wisely and remember there is a key on every box of chocolates.
Happy Valentine’s Day! I love you all.
They paved paradise and put up a parkin' lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot…
They took all the trees, and put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got till it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot…
As I pulled into the parking lot of a large local shopping center, an earworm wriggled to life inside my head: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…” an old Joni Mitchell hit. I smiled to myself at the memory and the words, and I thought it might be time to hit the pavement at my favorite tree museum, The Franklin Park Conservatory.
I went into Staples and purchased ink cartridges for my home printer. Finished with the errand, I stepped to the automatic exit doors. As they slid open, I heard it.
Like a graceful flock of birds, the notes rose on the air and danced in the twinkling and brilliant sunlight of an unseasonably warm winter day. I was propelled in the direction of the sound and the light. Somewhere nearby, a violin played Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The music was so moving that I felt the urge to both weep and dance at the same time. I was not alone in this. At that very moment, the doors of Target slid open and a tiny preschooler stepped onto the sidewalk and immediately froze in his tracks. His mother tugged on his arm, but he was there to stay, eyes wide and pointed in the direction of the music. Surely, the child saw it for the wonder that it was.
We both stared at a man standing next to a portable speaker. We watched as he swayed and slid the slender bow across the strings of his violin. The instrument’s case lay open beneath a sign sharing news of the man’s financial hardships--his need to pay his rent and support two children. As I dug deep inside my purse for cash, I heard a couple walking by saying it was probably a scam.
I was taken aback by the irony of the situation: people flocking to this shopping center to purchase without question food, pharmaceuticals, and other merchandise from companies that overcharge us, produce products that harm us, and create waste that destroys our environment, yet this gentle man producing beautiful music was suspect. His performance was just too foreign in this land of parking lots, boutiques, pink hotels, and swinging hot spots. In the beauty of the moment, I pledged my allegiance to the wide-eyed child still capable of trust and wonder. I took what cash I had and dropped the folded bills into the open violin case. “The world needs more music,” I said. The violinist nodded his thanks and continued to play.
Filled with anticipation each time I step out onto a parking lot, I bring cash…and I listen. I hope to hear the stop-you-in-your-tracks sounds of that magic violin. Though I wish him well and that all of his needs will be met, I pray this street musician never stops playing. The world needs more music and a little bit of paradise in every paved parking lot.
But, But, Butt...
I thought they were for old people.
More specifically, for grouchy old men.
It was a dad’s chair. Dads became grouchy when other people tried sitting there.
But then I became pregnant with my first child. Anemia, heartburn, and sciatica became the side effects of an average, fist-sized uterus stretching to accommodate a growing 10 pound 2 ounce baby girl. Altogether, it was a recipe for insomnia.
My obstetrician suggested a recliner chair.
But I was only 34. And female. Destined to be a mom, not a dad. The medical science did not compute with the cultural anthropology.
But a pregnant woman needs her rest while she can get it. So it was off to the La-Z-Boy store. We settled on a soft, cloth-covered version of the recliner that came to be known in our home as thebluechair. It was the preferred seat of everyone. If you were ever a guest in our home, you sat there. If you were ever photographed in our home, you were probably sitting in thebluechair. One or both of the children were likely snuggled in beside you. thebluechair was a magnet. Even little children loved thebluechair.
It didn’t hurt that thebluechair was aimed at the TV. This is the arrangement recommended in the set-up guide for all TVs and recliners – they MUST face each other. Your warranties will be voided if you violate this rule. I suggest that if you are having trouble with your TV reception or your comfort that you check your room arrangement BEFORE you contact the retailer.
Television, La-Z-Boys and inertia all grew up together in the 1950s. They have an inextricable bond. If you have things to do, do not, I repeat, DO NOT sit down in a recliner chair. Physics will not be on your side.
I was introduced to the recliner chair in my grandparents’ home and later in the homes of wealthier aunts and uncles. It appeared to be some type of throne. I knew my family had moved up in the world when a recliner chair appeared in our more humble abode.
While it was a grown-up chair, it did serve a child’s imagination. Some days it was a rocket ship. That giant side-lever launched a few of us into space. Other days, in its fully-reclined position with an afghan thrown over it, the chair became a cave. One day, quite unexpectedly, little spelunker-me made a giant discovery. I struck gold! Literally. And I learned something more about physics. The same gravity that glued butts to the seat also forced change out of dad’s pockets and into the mechanical compartment underneath. Ever after, I was happy to volunteer to clean the living room on Saturdays, the day for chores in our family.
Somewhere between striking gold in the cavern of dad’s recliner and purchasing my latest chair, I did some research. Ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses liked to spread out on daybeds called “klines.” Later, reclining furniture would be extolled as a health aid. In the La-Z-Boy corporate publication on the history of the recliner, the development of the modern La-Z-Boy in 1928 is described as “a momentous event in relaxation.”
That’s truth-in-advertising. I can confirm that every time a La-Z-Boy has entered my domain, it has been a momentous event in relaxation. My obstetrician may have been old school and studied with Alexander the Great, but he was right about the recliner chair.
It was a sad day in our house when thebluechair finally wore out and went to the curb. Even the children cried, “Oh, no! Not thebluechair!” In our family, the La-Z-Boy is no longer the chair of grouchy old men and laid-back dads. It is the best seat in the house for everyone.
For Peace on Earth
Man is born broken.
He lives by mending.
The grace of God is glue. Eugene O’Neill
I pull into a parking lot where others wait in their cars for the office doors to open. Soon people begin hobbling into the waiting room. My son and I follow them inside. Their wardrobe accessories include slings, braces, and walkers. Winter coat sleeves hang loosely from shoulders. Slippers cover bound feet. Here, no explanations are needed for limitations that are so evident. Here, human brokenness is not just acceptable, it is the reason this place exists. The unique wardrobe accessories are badges of courage for a kind of brokenness legitimized by doctors and their prescription pads. People eye each other and joke about their state of dress, their appliances, and their injuries. I sit among this community of the broken as it gathers for mending. Some might call this church.
Instead of St. Peter at the gate, there is a woman named Brenda at the front desk. Her affect is bright and she greets each patient by name and with enthusiasm. While Brenda is not a physical therapist, there can be no doubt that she is part of the therapy. Brenda recognizes and greets each patient and regular caregiver. She knows each patient’s name, schedule, health insurance, and balance due. She remembers the weather the last time one patient was seen, and she jokes with another patient about wearing shorts on a cold December morning. On the rare occasion when Brenda is not at her desk, the entire experience seems off. I experience the feelings of unreality known to the lost: Where am I?
The high priests here are the physical therapists. They are generally young, fit, and sure of themselves. They are friendly and kind and greet each patient with that brand of humor that comes with familiarity. Patients seem to feel the need to urgently confess their sins the minute the therapists call their names: “I didn’t do all my exercises this week,” or “I re-injured myself chasing after a toddler.” There is no shame here, no reason to hide the truth. The therapists offer quick reassurance.
In a couple of months, we will all say good bye to Brenda and these high priests as we each go our own way with bodies healed. All-in-all, it is a pleasant experience. I ponder the example as I wait for my son to finish his therapy. Rarely, in our daily lives can we be so open about our brokenness. And rarely, is there such a clear remedy or so much hope. There is no sling for a sagging self-esteem, no brace for a broken heart, no boot to correct the steps of a wayward child, and no assurance that the suffering will be temporary.
We piece together our lives with threads that are not always sturdy. There seems to be no end to the threats that can break us. And yet so much of what hurts is hidden. What if we could be as honest about our brokenness and as open in our mending as these folks inside the physical therapy office? What if there was someone who could see to the place inside us where it hurts? Determine how much weight we can bear? Legitimize our suffering? Write a prescription for the cure?
We find ourselves preparing for Christmas in a time when the whole world seems broken. We await the birth of a savior. The example in the story of Jesus is that of a man who was born and then broken. He mended and rose again. Along the way, he healed the sick, found the lost, and welcomed the outcasts. He did this largely by seeing them.
May we celebrate this holiday season by seeing each other and by offering to others some of the glue and the grace that holds us together.
And in the New Year may we follow this advice from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner:
When you see something that is broken, fix it. When you find something that is lost, return it.
When you see something that needs to be done, do it. In that way you will take care of your world
and repair creation…realize the awesome power God has put into [your] hands.”
Happy holidays my friends. Good tidings of comfort and joy!
Deviled by Eggs
You might say we’re hair-brained.
I blame it on Ali McGraw. During our teen years my friend Kay and I wanted to look like Ali. Mostly, we wanted her long, thick, straight hair. It was difficult to tame our fine, wavy locks. The hairy romance turned into a horror story starring Dippity-Do and sleepless nights with our heads covered in hard plastic curlers the size of orange juice cans. As the years went by, we continued to be out of step with the latest hair styles, but that didn’t stop us from trying. We slowly shifted from Love Story to the Hair Wars Trilogy: stress, menopause, and aging. Dippity-Do didn’t do it for us, and our hair disappeared faster than Jedi morals. At last I could claim thinness, but it was the wrong part of me.
With the invention of the internet, Kay and I trolled like a couple of conspiracy theorists looking for ways to overturn natural selection. We both consulted dermatologists. We spent small fortunes on shampoos, chemical potions, powdery fibers, and essential oils. Nothing worked. At some point, we began to weigh the hope of voluminous heads of hair against the health risks of so many potions. We moved on to the more benign products: concealing haircuts, hairpieces, wigs, and a variety of caps.
We made frequent vows to “not worry about it,” to live in a Zen-like state of mind, to be brave and magnificent in our self-acceptance. That usually lasted until one of us heard about a new product or strategy. With the internet offering a cure a minute, our bravery and magnificence became as straggly as our graying locks.
Most recently, Kay called me with a new discovery: “apply raw eggs to your hair—it’s some kind of high protein diet for your head.” My friend continued with the internet advice: “Don’t get the shower water too hot or it will cook the egg making it difficult to remove from the hair.”
We discussed our reservations. Kay shared her fear that she would not be able to get the egg out of her hair and would awaken one morning to find mice nibbling on her head. Kay has a mouse phobia. In addition to growing more hair, her life’s work includes a daily inspection of her property for signs of mouse activity. The quality Kay desires most in a man is an exterminator’s license. And yet, she remained invested in this strategy. Ever-supportive, I said: “You go first.”
I checked in with Kay a week later. It was a hot summer day. “How’d it go with the eggs?”
“Well, it was hard to get them out. I went for a walk, and my hair puffed up like a soufflé. When a car door slammed, I ended up with egg all over my face. I am trying to salvage my sunglasses.”
There should have been a lesson in that, but I left the conversation with the idea that maybe I could tweak the recipe and achieve a better outcome. No longer one to say dye, I cannot seem to put the idea to rest. If you hear that I am being pursued by a fox, assume it’s not an extremely handsome young man.
On Fourth Down
A neighbor stops in: “Oh, your house is so clean!”
At my stage of life, which is just inches from the grave, I can’t risk the threat of eternal damnation by being a fraud: “Well, there’s order, but I wouldn’t say it’s clean. That’s not sheers on the windows.” I survey the rest of the room eyeing dust on the shelves so thick that it looks like starched doilies.
I grew up in an era when an entire multi-generational family was judged by the quality of one woman’s housekeeping. In those years, my neighbor would not have gotten past the front door. My mother would rather have been seen in the shopping mall with curlers in her hair than to let an outsider see our dingy windows and dusty shelves.
Hence, housework became my default occupation. I never applied for the job. I was drafted against my will by virtue of being a kid, a girl-kid, and living in a house. There was no lingering suspense to the draft process. There was no multi-million dollar contract, not even an allowance! I was not offered a name-and-likeness-deal. I did not even get a t-shirt with my favorite number. Once a baby girl could stand on two feet and hold a soft rag, she was signed up. I didn’t get to choose my team, otherwise, I would have picked Agnes’s house down the street where the rooms were arranged like art exhibits. All of the furniture was covered in plastic and no one was allowed to enter those museum-like spaces.
Saturdays were game days all over America. While most of us lived in smaller homes back then, about 1100 square feet, every inch was crammed with people—six in our house, along with a dog and a couple of neighbor kids who appeared to be orphaned. Despite the crowd, there was only one bathroom which was also typical of that era. Every space was over-crowded and over-used. To do a good cleaning meant every piece of furniture and every stationary person had to be moved down the field, cleaned, and returned to the starting line. One of the younger kids was constantly being displaced on cleaning day, chased from one room to another. They were out of bounds wherever they landed.
Of course, the work-out didn’t end when I got my own place. By then, I was well conditioned, hooked on Spic ‘n Span, and a psychological prisoner of the vacuum cleaner. A weekend could not go by without a darkened dust cloth and the smell of lemon Pledge. As a mother, the duties expanded exponentially.
Now with the children grown and out of the house and full time employment behind me, I am getting out of the inside game. I will give housework 15 minutes at a time. That’s my limit. Even young, hefty, well-conditioned football players get a pause every fifteen minutes, and so I head to the bench for a water break, to nurse my injuries, talk with my team mates, connect with the audience, and see how things look on TV.
Between games I’m happy to study the play books. I‘ve got a stack of House Beautiful magazines. I consider them a kind of pornography for the housekeeping derelict. It all looks slick, salacious, and out of my league. I am convinced that it must be illegal.
It’s a new season. Here on the fourth down of the final quarter, I punt.
Let a new team carry the dirtball.