Monday, May 30, 2011

Tina Fey's Bossypants

Mia and her daddy imitating the cover of Tina Fey's new book.

No, Tina Fey is no relation, but she is an inspiration. And her book is a revelation that fills me with elation! (I'm stopping.) Bossypants, Fey's comic collection of stories about making it to the top ranks of comedy writing for Second City, TV and films, has plenty of no-nonsense, hate-free girl-power messages as well as belly laughs.

A couple of warnings, though. Don't read the Bossypants chapter called "The Secret of Mommy's Beauty" while you are taking your giant fish oil pill because you will snort water out of your nose and without that big gulp the horse pill can scrape something awful on its way down.

And don't start thinking you and the writer are buddies even though her voice is as intimate and confessional as that best junior-high friend who could nearly make you pee your pants from laughing so hard in Earth Science.

Just because she cuts her little daughter's fingernails in the exact same way you do, (fyi, "cutting the nails almost all the way left to right and then letting her have the honor of pulling the clipping the rest of the way off") and just because she dares to confess "things most people do naturally are often inexplicably difficult for me" and admits she has told her husband she was going to look for the diaper cream and then went and stood in her child's room just to get some "me time," that does not mean she "knows" you and "gets" you. (Remember how well that one time went when Liz Phair and you were in the same bowling alley? Remember? Remember?)

Because if you start over-identifying with the funniest woman in America (sorry Lily Tomlin! Still love you!), you're going to start composing little TMI chapter-musings in your head with titles like "My Favorite Hair (Not On My Head)" and descriptions of your experiences with Maxi Pads and their adhesive strips that worked as well as a circle of Scotch tape covered in lint. And you really don't want to do that. Really.

I finished Fey's book last week around the same time Oprah was saying her see-ya-laters. Oprah (why haven't I been watching her? She's so cute and funny! Because TV in the morning makes me feel like the day is getting away from me, that's why) anyway, I watched Oprah this last once and she got me all fired up with, "Take responsibility for the energy you bring in this room." I love that! Then I remembered that it's a great line to whisper to yourself but one that will be laughed at in this house if you hang it in a frame on the wall as a little passive-aggressive reminder to other people.

Hot on Oprah's heels was another empowerment whammy from Tina:

My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: "Is this person in between me and what I want to do?" If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then when you're in charge, don't hire the people who were jerky to you...Do your thing and don't care if they like it.

(I'm omitting the riotous context of that good advice that makes it slide down like funny honey, but you get the important point.)

Oh yeah, and one final warning when you go out and get Bossypants. (BTW, my favorite illustration of that title was Tina's story of demanding "What are you doing?" when she found her gay friend playing footsie with some guy she couldn't stand, because she described herself as trying to be funny and controlling at the same time. That line kills me.)

That final warning. Don't spend too much time wondering why we distinguish poetry and comedy since Tina Fey makes you realize both art forms rely on condensed and precise language, both achieve artlessness and ease in their greatest forms and both potentially make us stop and rethink the world. Because that's kind of interesting, but instead, you could be having a better time howling your way through something Tina wrote, like this:

Or this.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Monster Mom

One morning a few months ago, in the upstairs hall, Mia planted her butt down on my left foot and wrapped her long almost eight-year-old limbs around my leg.

"Walk!" she commanded, and I lifted my foot, and her, with an enormous effort. Mia's giggles enticed her little sister to join in the game and Nora took a seat on my other foot. I could feel their pointy pelvic bones through the soft skin of their bottoms. I groaned like Frankenstein's monster and did a shuffling Godzilla walk down the hall as they laughed and laughed.

It was a perfect moment because it seemed they had forgotten the day before when I roared in a way that was entirely scary and not at all fun and they cried and ran in fear. Their short memories are a kind of forgiveness I may not deserve but will accept with deep gratitude.

On good after-mornings like that one, I have been tempted to minimize the fury of the day before, chalk it up to something fleeting and temporary, admonish myself to be better in the future, a better mom, more patient, breathe through it, chant the mantras, wait a moment, wait ten, take a break, on and on the retrospective advice comes, from the wiser part of me, that wise mom who has all the best intentions, but who runs and hides when the monster reappears. And she better. Because let me tell you, during those bad moments, I will mess Wisey up. I will show her where she can put her "count to ten."

Full stop. Deep breath. Okay. As I was saying...

It's taken me a few months to formulate a plan to take care of my monstrousness, bring the Hulk back down to Eddie's father.

First she had to be understood. I started charting my periods, impossible before I had my oldest daughter Mia, when they would disappear for months at a time. Getting pregnant seemed to reset my clock, though, so once I started paying attention, the pattern became as clear as the red ink on my calendar: Seven to four day before onset, I usually freaked out. Like this:

Full blown anxiety attack. The phrase "wringing her hands" belongs in a far off literary place of gowns and fainting couches, but the actual action, the shaking and squeezing of my own fingers in helpless anguish, came naturally to me this morning. I scream, "Help me, help me!" as I careen through the house, sobbing, from window to window, slamming each shut to keep out the rain, but too late, I image, to avoid the neighbors' revulsion.

"This morning was sliding down," says Mia, after I recover and announce we can go to the pool and the Exploritorium.

So I had a description, defined symptoms, a timetable for her reappearance. I needed some help making a plan.

A complete physical, blood tests, a consult with a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner - this last taking place in a typical medical center and except for the tongue examination, much less New-Agey than I was expecting.

I am a big believer in the placebo effect. Just the act of taking a chunk of time out of my day, talking to a unflappable professional with a sympathetic manner and a familiarity with my type of symptoms affords a kind of relief in itself. Knowing someone is on the case, on my side. "Irritability. Anxiety. Um, rage." There. I said it, out loud. And no one recoiled.

Except me, I guess, when the lab results came back. I am a little anemic (not much of a surprise for this careless vegetarian, easy to remedy), a little deficient in vitamin D (well, of course, after a long winter, a few diet changes and supplements should do the trick) and here's the thing, I've got the progesterone level of a menopausal woman. .08 ng/ml. A pre-menopausal woman will typically have levels between 7-38 ng/ml at the same time in her cycle.

Blurg. Trying to figure how I feel about my body acting older than me. I don't feel old. I'm only 46! My baby is in kindergarten!

Progesterone helps the body metabolize the stress hormone cortisol, I'm learning. "Progesterone is the feel-good hormone of the body. When it is present in sufficient quantities, a person is more relaxed and able to cope with stress."

So maybe the reason why I feel thrown on the rocks today at the monster's appointed hour when I'm trying to wash some spinach and the girls start fighting upstairs is that I'm missing that nice soft cushion of girly progesterone that gives me a world of motherly possibilities instead of the only fight-not-flight solution I could drag out of the scree which was yelling, "I NEED HELP I NEED HELP YOU NEED TO HELP ME STOP FIGHTING AAAAAHHHHHHHHRRRRRR" which worked about as well as you can imagine.

Now I'm on a slew of supplements. D, B-50, Chinese herbs with dong qui, fish oil (blech), calcium, a multi with iron. Shopping for blackstrap molasses (for the anemia) and saffron (for the PMS) at Whole Foods. Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath as the acupuncture needles slide in. Calling in the prescription for the progesterone. Wondering where this trip will take me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Six Days of Good Work

Despite a few fleeting fears of wasting my time staring into space or going slightly mad in the room by myself and typing pages upon pages of "All Work and No Play Makes Jill A Dull Girl," I surprised myself with discipline and productivity at my week at Ragdale.

The weather worked in my favor -- rainy days and then sunny ones where it was too cold to venture outside long.

I did carve out time to run the prairie some mornings, past patches of violet that were as thick as a purple carpet, over streams via charming foot bridges, through woods lit by stars of white woodland wildflowers. And I rode a borrowed bike down to the beautiful lakefront a couple of times, past Lake Forest estates that made my jaw drop. It's crazy rich up here. There are a few real houses for real people too, but much ye olde mansionry with subhouses and fancy garagi, barns remade modern and glassy, chapels converted into Mumsie's yoga studio. I'm kidding a bit about that last bit, but I shouldn't judge. Old money made this beautiful artist's retreat and I'm the one who is enjoying the luxury of time, time, hours and hours of time to follow that thread through the entire chapter, to tackle the tough questions of purpose and agency, how to give the narrator agency, because that's the big problem, isn't it? Not letting life just happen to her, but making her an actor, one who ACTS on the world instead of letting it buffet her and carry her downstream.

Such is the work I've been doing and four actual shaped chapters have emerged and two more have been vigorously questioned. They are miscreants, those two, and they threaten the integrity of the whole. Can you guess how much I love my naughty trouble-makers? How much I love love to go back in time and write about that lazy period in my life in the early '90s when we slept late and walked the dog on the beach and worked our asses off to avoid the pains of searching for real jobs? How funny, that time was the polar opposite of this virtuous week.

Lessons learned here at my yellow painted desk in the barnhouse:

Separate. Separate writing time from mom time. Honor them both, but know they both suffer when they overlap.

Write in the morning, sleep at night. This has not been possible with Eleanor in afternoon kindergarten, but the end of school is within sight and a new configuration of our time begins soon. Late night composing produces diminishing returns and less than hopeful mornings.

Separate composition from research. Research is the fancy name I have always given to my wandering through Wiki-burg and Google-town, hey, AOL and Facebook live right next door and it wouldn't be neighborly to ignore them, would it now? But this week just to check email I have had to leave my room and go downstairs to a closet to work on a tiny old 'puter that made grinding noises every time it laboriously pulled up a page. It was about as fun as surfing over puddles. A lousy time-killer. I couldn't wait to get back to my fleet laptop. Great for my page count. Mac

Plop a big beautiful dictionary on your desk. Clear off everything else, except maybe a couple of inspiring photos and your current inspiring read. Learn stuff as you go, like ecce homo and edentulous and Gertrude Ederle on your way to endgame. Fall in love again with the thrill of discovering gems like "shambolic."

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I'm at Ragdale. This is writer Nirvana. A room of my own and long stretches of time to work. An angel in the kitchen to make lovely dinners for the eight of us in residence: a photographer, a mixed-media artist and six writers, including a poet and the novelist Elinor Lipman, who is charming and funny. And me.

I'm revising and composing and cutting in my pretty yellow room with its rose quilted bedspread and ergonomic chair. For inspiration I have a view of a crab-apple newly in bloom and on the wall, a framed Lynda Barry work in colored pencil. "For Ragdale," she inscribed. "With an arrow shot straight from the deepest street of my heart."

Randy has the girls, of course. A series of patient sitters play with my little ones before and after school. The separation is my only difficulty - I have never been away from the girls longer than a weekend. I will sneak away tonight to meet them at Key Lime Cove, then sneak again to return to this quiet and beautiful place.

I am so grateful to be here, grateful a place like this exists to support artists and writers, grateful that my dear dear husband supports me in my work.

Last night at the dinner table I read a rough draft of a chapter/essay I'd been honing all afternoon. The working title is "Does This Life Jacket Make My Butt Look Big?" and the warmth with which it was received felt very good.

Wish me luck and I wish the same for you.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day, Dear Ones

"Upward Over the Mountain" by Iron and Wine.

Mother don't worry, I killed the last snake that lived in the creek bed
Mother don't worry, I've got some money I saved for the weekend
Mother remember being so stern with that girl who was with me?
Mother remember the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body?

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds, flying upward over the mountain

Mother I made it up from the bruise on the floor of this prison
Mother I lost it, all of the fear of the Lord I was given
Mother forget me now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to
Mother forgive me, I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons could be birds, taken broken up to the mountain

Mother don't worry, I've got a coat and some friends on the corner
Mother don't worry, she's got a garden we're planting together
Mother remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry?
Blood on the floor, fleas on their paws,
And you cried 'til the morning

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds, flying always over the mountain