Saturday, June 27, 2009

The long hot summer

We (and by “we” I am referring to the United States of “we”) are depressed . The world seems to be spiraling out of control – unemployment is up, the real estate market is down, Iraq is a mess, Iran is on the verge of revolution, there’s a drought in California and a new strain of the flu on the move.  There is a reason that this time is referred to as a depression.  It’s depressing.  It isn’t just an economic downturn.  It isn’t just a financial crisis.  It isn’t just that the government had to bail out the banks, that Bernie Madoff scammed hundreds of millions of dollars or that the car companies, once the backbone of U.S. identity as well as its economy, are going belly up.  It’s more than that.  It is a “depression.”  Everyone I know is suffering in this depression and I am not immune.  My version of depression in this current “depression” takes the form of anxiety.  I’m worried about the future.  I’m worried about the present.  I’m anxious about paying for school for the children, heat for the pool, clothes on my back.   Other people’s success, even people I like, is nothing more than a reminder of my own mediocrity. 


Maybe it’s that I was raised in Northern California (birthplace of “if its yellow let it mellow, if its brown flush it down”), but the drought has become the focus of my anxiety of late.  Even as I enjoy the full height of June bloom in my garden and the surrounding hills, the delicate yellow and white wildflowers popping up at random, the smell of the jasmine and the rich flush of bouganvilla, I imagine the coming months of relentless Southern California sun and the inevitable dusty brown that follows.  The tinder dry hills are a natural burn zone and were undoubtedly never meant to be home to thousands of upscale semi-suburbanites.  They were meant to be natural habitat for the howling coyotes, prowling skunks and coiled snakes that line the paths we urban-sprawl weekend warriors tromp down when feeling the need to get “in touch with nature”.  But nature has its own way of dealing and I fear this summer will be long and hot and very, very dry.  And so my anxiety gains momentum.  Some days the water running in the shower is enough to send me into a full panic.  I worry about wastefulness and the impending doom of the future.  I picture a world in which it is hot, hot, hot.  In Fantasy Doom World, drought has plagued Los Angeles so badly, and particularly the San Fernando Valley, that water is not only rationed, it is non-existent.   I turn my shower on and dust pours down on me – not in a waterfall kind of way but in a full on blast of angry red-brown dirt.  My shower, a place normally of great solace, becomes a chamber of dust-plagued panic.  It’s hard to be me sometimes. 


But this morning the world is still green.  We’re not yet in those long scorching days of summer. And so I’ll wander out into my garden and enjoy the hummingbirds drunk on nectar and the birds that sing too early and somehow mostly manage to escape the hunting antics of my two hounds.  This morning, I will focus on what is in front of me rather than what I fear is to come.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Blogged Down

To blog or not to blog…

If a blog falls in the blogosphere and no one reads it, does it make an impact? 

I blog therefore I am… what?  A blogger? 

The blog, the administration of a blogspot, carries with it a great burden.  I have a URL therefore I am responsible for the care and upkeep of said URL.  But really, why does it matter?  Only a handful of people are even aware of my blog.  And in that handful only one or two actually read it.  So in fact, all I’m keeping is an online journal, which I’ve somehow deemed appropriate for public consumption (albeit a small public).  Its silly really, isn’t it?  I mean, who cares about how I felt at dinner last night, or what I think about the state of global politics, how I feel about raising children, what its like to be a stepmother, or what I found at the farmer’s market that seems worthy of cooking. 

And yet I blog on.  There was an article in the New York Times last week about bloggers and the rate of attrition in the blogosphere – that is, how many of us start a blog and fail to keep it up?  Some blogs are, by definition, limited endeavors (say a blog about a particular journey or experience).  And some are defined by specific topic (organic food, movie gossip, literary criticism).  But the majority of the blogiverse is made up of blogs like mine – bloggers spewing forth on various topics with the assumption that others give a shit. 

Is this an exercise in self-exploration?   Maybe.  Is it a search for kindred spirits in the universe?  Maybe that too.   Sometimes the notion that I’ve not blogged in a few days can really blog me down.  I start to question why I started the blog in the first place and if I really need yet another responsibility – another opportunity for failure or disappointment.  What I do know is this.  When I finally blog, when I’ve finished enough work that I am unburdened by guilt, when my family of two and four-legged creatures have been fed and watered and tucked in for the night and I finally get down to the task of blogging, it makes me feel good.  The joy of writing again, of having something outside of my work life that makes me feel like I’m stretching a dormant brain muscle is gratifying.  And that feeling of good far outweighs the burden of responsibility that is blogging me down.  

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dogs ponder horse on misty morning birthday walk...

Happy Birthday to me!

Here it is.  The day that marks my 43rd birthday and thus the day that compelled me to start this blog.  The best thing about this birthday, so far, has been the discovery of the Facebook application "Causes" which allows you to dedicate your birthday wish to raising money for your favorite charity.  The $629 I raised for my brilliant rabbi has made my heart leap!  Another inspired idea from the clever folks who do internet things.  Bless them.  The other best thing was the sublime and truly decadent bracelet Sig Other gifted me with first thing this morning.  I feel unworthy.  But very chic.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Things I do while Sig Other is away...

1) I sleep on his side of the bed to feel closer to him

2) I take the cap off his cologne and sniff it before bed to feel closer to him

3) I rearrange the children's closets between the hours of 11pm and midnight in order to feel some sort of control over a life that is oft-times overwhelming

4) While rearranging the children's closets and shifting t-shirts and shorts from one room to another, I wonder why it is the housekeeper cannot discern between a tshirt meant for a 46 year old man and one meant for a 15 year old girl.

5) I stay out too late and feel the need to fill the void with social opportunities masquerading as obligation.

6) I drink too much white wine at said "obligations" and recognize that I would never even drink white wine were it not for the time spent during an evening designed to deny the void created by my sig other's absence.

7) If not out at inappropriate events drinking mediocre wine and not redistributing wrongly placed garments, I spend ludicrous amounts of time watching previously recorded mindless television and pondering the great mysteries of the world like "Why does Bethany care that Kelly doesn't like her when clearly Kelly is out of her mind?".  Or “Why does that New Jersey housewife keep all that cash on hand?”

8) And finally, when not socializing, drinking, channel surfing or organizing frenetically, I spend copious amounts of time conversing with four-legged creatures who stare at me with loving albeit vaguely confused (or perhaps vacuous) eyes.

I love my dogs.

I love my husband.

I do not like being home alone in a home designed to be filled with my people.

My father, the icon

Four days ago was the anniversary of my father’s death.  And it just so happened that I saw my cousin four days ago and mentioned that 28 years had passed since Daddy died.  I mentioned it more in passing than anything – more in a “wow, can you believe how old we are” kind of way.  My cousin asked how old Daddy was when he died.  “Forty-eight” I said.  And it struck me, even as I said it in a room full of people all hovering around that age, how truly young he was when he died from massive heart attack.  My cousin’s response was immediate.  “He was only 48 and already an icon,” he said.  “An icon.”  I repeated the word because it struck me as so odd.  My father was never an icon to me, I thought.  He was just my father.  But on further reflection, I realize that isn’t true at all. 

A dead father, particularly to a girl of a young age, is inherently iconic.  Having a dead father at the age of 14 defines who you are in every room you enter for the rest of highschool.   But the notion that my father had been an icon to others, to my cousin, was fascinating.  

There is certainly a romanticized version of Dead Father.  He had an incredible passion for nature, particularly the mountains.  Skiing was a favorite sport and he traversed any mountain with extraordinary grace.  He could fix anything, built gorgeous furniture and was, when he died, in the middle of building our vacation home in Lake Tahoe by himself.   Daddy loved to fly and a typical weekend outing would find us piling into his shared Cessna and taking a day trip to Vacaville or the central valley for lunch so he could log hours and satisfy his everpresent wanderlust.   And of course he adored his daughters.  Each of us, if pulled aside, would tell you in secret, “I was his favorite.”  It was the great gift of his excellent parenting that led us each to believe that we held the prime real estate in his heart.    

There is also the less romantic version of Daddy.  He was moody, could be short-tempered and wildly intolerant.  He was incredibly shy, easily embarrassed and incapable of full expressing himself.  He suffered from emotional repression in a way that I still believe hastened his death at such a young age.  I don’t remember my father ever telling me he loved me and yet I knew he did.  He was a classic Type A personality – a perfectionist who never suffered fools and let nothing slide.  He wrote passionate letters to the President during the oil crisis of the 70s and would leave the room if someone told an off-color joke that had a hint of racism, sexism or anti-semitism.  He was an ardent atheist and refused to partake in even the most secular of religious holiday ritual.  His atheism was so rabid, in fact, that it led him to what I believe was his most ill-conceived and unintentionally selfish decision.  According to my mother, my father had left very specific instruction in the event of his death.  He had instructed her that no funeral was to be held in his honor.  No memorial service.  No official remembrance.  He wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread in the Rockies.  What he didn’t realize, probably couldn’t understand at such a young age, was that these rituals are for the living, not the dead.  And that his directives left us with no script, no boundaries, no calendar by which to grieve.  The Jewish tradition dictates that we bury our dead very shortly after they pass, that we mourn for a year before setting the headstone and that we remember the anniversary of the death with yarzeit.  But my father was a staunch atheist whose great disdain for organized religion never allowed him to consider the virtue of its structures.  His belief in atheism was ironically as ardent as any fundamentalist of any modern religion.  He was dedicated to his beliefs as he was to his family. 

Daddy was a man to be admired, but not a man who was always easy.  We did, for the most part, what HE wanted to do.  We fulfilled HIS fantasies of vacation and leisure time.  It never occurred to me until long after his death that my mother might have interests that differed from his.  It never occurred to me that her idea of a good time might not be camping or skiing or spending two weeks driving across the country with three kids in the back of a Kingswood station wagon just so we could see the terrain and visit every national park west of the Colorado River.  It never occurred to me, until years after Daddy was gone, that Mom much preferred shopping to hiking.  That she enjoyed theater and eating out and dancing.  I never knew she liked parties and didn’t like skiing.  It never occurred to me that he, my dead father – the icon – took up such an extraordinary amount of space in all of our lives. 

And so it struck me, after this casual comment made by my cousin, that I did not choose Sig Other in spite of my upbringing or in defiance of it.  In fact, the choice of Sig Other makes perfect sense.  Sig Other is nothing like Dead Father in almost every way.  Sig Other is communicative and social and says things that would have made my father want to disappear into his shy cave.  Sig Other’s connection to his Jewish identity would have, quite frankly, freaked Dead Father out.  But Sig Other is iconic.  Sig Other takes up a lot of space.  And Sig Other’s whims and tastes and desires drive a large part of our family time.  Unlike my mother, I know how not to disappear inside Sig Other’s bigness.   I know where he ends and I begin.  I have the great gift of generational wisdom, which allows me to understand that my husband will love me even if I don’t share every one of his hobbies or beliefs.  But finally, I can look at Sig Other and understand why I was drawn to him and how that choice makes sense in the context of my childhood. 


Monday, June 8, 2009

Vesuvius Erupts

Child One turns 16 later this summer.  Summer birthdays can be challenging as friends are away and vacation plans trump parties.  So, as any good stepmother would, I suggest to Child One that we throw her Sweet Sixteen party a month in advance so that her friends can celebrate with her.  School is only just out and neither vacation plans nor summer jobs nor college tours have yet begun.   Merrily, Child One agrees that an early birthday party is just the thing to start the summer off with a bang and allow her to celebrate the blessed date with her best friends.

Planning a birthday party for a sixteen-year old girl is challenging at best.  No amount of responses to my Facebook queries could provide the answer to the ultimate question: what is the teenage birthday party equivalent of the bouncy house?  High tea was a lovely idea until the party became co-ed.  We’d just done middle-eastern food and henna tattoos at our wedding so that seemed wholly unoriginal.  “Make your own” anything (other than a bong) was definitely too juvenile.  I thought back to parties when I was her age.  Generally, we’d find a house with no parents and raid the Wine-In-A-Box.  Bad idea.  So we settled on pool party and barbecue and hoped that the persistent June Gloom would give us a much-needed break.

Party time came and I busied myself making sure everything was set up properly and that children were eating and mingling and not drowning and then, as suggested to me by a younger colleague, I retreated to my room with a script and a pair of dogs.  Apparently, the presence of parents, even cool step-parents, is unacceptable at a teenage birthday party.  Sig Other had somehow intuited that a subtle disappearance was imperative and had snuck away to another room for a conference call.  We emerged, like turtles out of our shells, for key moments of service such as grilling or lighting candles on the mini-parfaits and cupcakes I’d ordered from my favorite bakery in Santa Monica.  But for the most part we did a pretty good job staying hidden in our rooms while the teenage whirlwind whirled around the house.  I will admit that not much work was accomplished as I’d positioned myself strategically next to the sliding glass door in my bedroom, which led to the pool area.  And though the drapes were shut, the sliding glass door was open just enough that I could keep an ear out.  I wasn’t spying, exactly.  Just making sure no one was drowned or impregnated.  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by the chasteness of the evening. 

Hours passed and I suddenly found myself exhausted and desperate for bed.  I wondered if this was a midnight curfew sort of teenage pack or the sort with parents that came to collect them at a reasonable hour.  The answer came with the ringing phone – parents had begun to arrive by 10pm and so, in spite of my jammies and eyeglasses, I poked my sleepy turtle-head from the bedroom-shell and began collecting children for deposit with their respective parents.  It was about that time I noticed Child One sitting on the living room sofa.  She appeared to be crying and had her hands pressed to her mouth as though distraught.  I called out to her and moved to comfort her when she got up and ran away.  Oh dear, I thought.  Teenage drama.  What friend has hurt her feelings?  Who rejected her?  Did one of those damned teenagers say something horrible? 

I followed her around the corner and caught the tail end of an impressive display of projectile puke.  Bright red and plentiful vomit flowed from Angelic Child One as though she had been possessed by demons and transformed into a human Vesuvius.  My first thought was, oh God – she’s drunk!  This, of course, was ridiculous as even begging cannot force Child One to taste a sip of wine on the most holy of occasions much less consider sipping from the bar on her birthday.  My second thought was, wow – that’s bad.  I wonder who’s gonna clean that up?

The funny thing about being a step-parent is that you pretty much avoid things like dirty diapers and barfy babies.  I actually recommend it highly based primarily on the avoidance of such atrocities.  So here I was with a houseful of people, a floor covered in fluorescent red puke and few options.  Sig Other was on a conference call, which he paused briefly to comfort Child One.  He then took a look at the red pool, looked at me and said, “Wow, you’re gonna have to clean that up, you’re such a great stepmother.” 

Later that night I fell exhausted into bed having done a not-so-perfect mop up job in the hallway and having transferred the care and petting of Child One to Sig Other.  Sometime in the middle of the night, Child One got out of bed and came down the hall to spurt forth her volcanic flow onto our bedroom floor.  She likes to share.  Apparently (I swear I do not remember doing this and am rather mortified to admit it), I sat straight up in bed and yelled, “No!” and then promptly went back to sleep leaving Sig Other to clean up the soppy bile.  Child One told this story to me tonite, laughing as she did and not at all seeming to mind my utter ineptitude.  And so ends another chapter in Stepmotherhood.  A successful party, a semi-clean floor and a deep appreciation for Child One’s natural mother who has surely seen her share of Vesuvian vomit. 


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Confessions of a weekend mom

Friday evenings signal the arrival of my beloved stepchildren.  For the most part, we try to stick to a schedule.  We get the kids Friday evening through Sunday evening three weeks a month.  The fourth week, we take Wednesdays and Thursdays so that they can enjoy weekend life with their mother.   And so, on Friday nights, I leave the office as close to 6pm as I can and race home to cook dinner.  

In the early days of our lives together (and long before marriage made me their official stepmother), I subscribed to the notion that step-parenting required a certain kind of gymnastic ability.  As a stepmother, I felt a certain kind of obligation to bend myself into an acrobatic pretzel in order to please my stepchildren.  If Child One wanted a poached egg to go with the three course meal I made because she felt the need for extra protein, I would poach an egg.  If Child Two wasn't in the mood for the seven-vegetable paella I'd planned for the evening but felt more inclined toward grilled chicken, I would race to the store to buy a chicken.  Pancakes for breakfast?  No problem.  Guacamole with your quesadilla?  Let me just run to the store.  Always from scratch.  Always available at any time.  And while I'm at it, let me set the table, clear the table, do the dishes and see what I can whip up for dessert.

My love, I had somehow decided, would be expressed in my total devotion and servitude.  They would know that I love them by what I fed them.  And that was true.  To a certain degree.  But it was also an extraordinary underestimation of their character.  Sure, they appreciate my cooking.  And yes, Child Two would always prefer to have my homemade pancakes than the sticky-sweet ones from the diner down the road.  But it turns out that if I'm too tired or too busy to make them, he understands.  It turns out that he knows that just because I didn't make pancakes last Saturday morning, it doesn't mean I don't care.  In fact, it turns out that even though I haven't made him pancakes for months, he loves me anyway.  
As the years have gone by and I've realized that the Steps adore me as much for myself as for my ability to feed them, I've untwisted myself a bit.  This may even take the form of asking them to set or clear the table (though doing the dishes took until year five to feel like an acceptable request).  Or it may mean ordering in from the local Italian place which thankfully delivers in under 45 minutes. But last weekend, I really pulled off a feat.  I managed to get all the way to Sunday with barely a glance at my kitchen.  

I'd arrived home from a business trip mid-day Friday.  And the 48-hour jaunt to Paris left me wildly jetlagged and more than a little tired.  And so Shabbat was take-out Italian.  Brunch the next morning was an excursion to Child One's favorite bistro and dinner was a trip to the beach to pick up the teenager from her movie date with friends.  Clearly we should take Child Two to a restaurant on the west side so that he would starve while we waited for Child One.  Sunday lunch was a hodge-podge of leftovers from the various previously visited restaurants.  Which left only Sunday dinner.  And by the time the evening rolled around I was inspired to cook up a storm.  

The great victory for me was not so much that I had not sullied a pot or pan for almost 48 hours.  It wasn't even that I had not run the dishwasher all weekend.  The great victory was that I didn't feel guilty.