SHE WALKED LIKE SHE WANTED IT

One evening near my fifteenth birthday, I was summoned to stand before the Kitchen Tribunal.  My mother was there;  recently widowed, understandably shell-shocked, and exhausted by the demands of a fragile household and three needy teenagers.  Also in attendance were my two older brothers, their adolescent snickering temporarily pushed aside by the weight and severity of the matter at hand, which was this:  A few days earlier, an acquaintance of  theirs (several years older, a bit snarky, and appropriately enough, named Dick) had driven past me as I crossed the Market Street Bridge, then reported to my big brothers that their little sister walked like she wanted it.   The family was solemn and disapproving;  the kitchen smelled of fried egg sandwiches and scandal.

Well, I was affronted!  I was mortified!  I was. . .intrigued.  So after clearing my good name with Mom and the brothers, I retreated to ponder this new development.  I turned it over in my mind:  She walked like she wanted it.  Those words couldn’t possibly apply to me, a self-described wallflower and slow starter who hadn’t yet learned how to flirt.  I mean, I certainly knew what IT was, but I wasn’t sure I wanted IT anytime soon.  To be honest, IT was a little scary.  Besides, exactly how did I walk like I wanted it?  What was happening back there that I didn’t know about? 

Therefore,  I turned to my cultural icons for clues.  The men on Gilligan’s Island (even the Professor!) were dumbstruck each time Ginger walked by, but I’d have described my walk as more . . . Mary Ann-ish.  And there weren’t enough Underalls in the world to make my back porch swing like Ann-Margret’s.  But in the privacy of my room, I had to admit I kind of liked knowing something about the way I walked caused Dick to take notice.  Is this what made Aerosmith’s Walk This Way such a dirty song?

Conveniently placed bamboo conceals Gilligan’s interest in Ginger’s leopard skin swimsuit.

Until that moment, the only womanly walk I’d ever analyzed was my mother’s.  Her long legs moved with quick, purposeful strides.  “Keep up, Lisa!” she’d insist as we rushed from store to store each Saturday morning, trying to get our shopping done before some deadline (Yes, I grew up in a world with downtown stores but no Amazon.com.). 

Mom also instructed me on how to walk like a lady.  “Move your legs from the hips, not from the knees, Lisa.”  And because I tended toward pigeon-toes:  “Point your shoes forward, Lisa.  Don’t let your toes turn in when you walk.”  I assure you, Mom was not being critical;  back in the day, it was a mother’s duty to teach her daughter the finer points of being a woman.   How ironic that the very walk my mom worked to cultivate in me would one day attract the attention of boys like Dick.

I never managed to duplicate my mother’s walk, though.  At 4′ 11″ inches tall, I just don’t have the equipment to cover ground in the same fashion.  Now 79, Mom still out distances me step by step.

But as I made my way through the mall recently, I couldn’t shake the eerie feeling of being stalked by my Great Aunt Lois (May she rest in peace.).  Great Aunt Lois was smart and generous, a veteran school teacher with a no-nonsense attitude, a woman esteemed by the family at large during my formative years.  Great Aunt Lois’s walk, however, was nothing like my mother’s. 

The Grand Dame was short, stout, and plagued by arthritis.  She waddled stiff-legged from here to there with knees and hips that moved like rusty gears.  I imagined her carrying an oil can in that oversized handbag on her arm.  And whoever was caught climbing a flight of stairs behind Great Aunt Lois had better not be in a hurry;  coaxing those creaky joints to rotate in such a manner was a process that simply could not be rushed.

And so it was Great Aunt Lois’s walk that followed me  past each store window— in the form of my own reflection.  Nowadays, I walk like I want some ibuprofin and a nice, long, soak.  And since he’s a grandpa now, I’m pretty sure Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler walks this way, as well. 

Dick, too.

And such, friends, is the walk of life. 

~lisa

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SPEAKING OF JARED LETO AND MY LAUGH LINES. . .

If you’re like me, you woke up on December 26th thinking, “Finally!  National Candy Cane Day!”*  Or you might have noted its secondary reason for significance:  The day after Christmas happens to be Jared Leto’s birthday.

The Birthday Boy

Depending upon the number of candles you’ll blow out this year, you might recognize Jared Leto as a founder of the alt rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, or all pudgy for the role of John Lennon’s murderer Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27, or drugged out and sexed up in Requiem for a Dream, or as Jordan Catalano, the object of Claire Dane’s angsty teenaged desire in the short-lived but much-loved 90’s TV drama My So Called Life.   Point is, dude’s got legs and December 26th was his 40th birthday.  You read that right:  Jared Leto is 40.

My So Called Life, Requiem for a Dream, Chapter 27, 30 Seconds to Mars

My brain took several paths to comprehending this information:

1)  What the crapping crap?  This is what 40 is supposed to look like?  How come I didn’t get to look so good when I was 40?  And where do I send my tersely-worded letter of complaint?

2)  Jared Leto’s being 40 makes him totally doable.  True, the age difference is greater than the seven years my dear husband is older than me, but  less than the 16 years Demi Moore had on Ashton Kutcher.

And finally, 3)  Holy sh*t!  Jared Leto is middle-aged!

It’s true, you know, by the arithmetic.  If the average life expectancy for an American male is 77.9 years, then Jared actually reached his statistical middle age last year.  I passed that benchmark ten years ago, though it just didn’t seem right to think of myself as a middle-aged woman until well afterward.  Still, as any of my math teachers would claim, numbers don’t lie.   That doesn’t stop numbers from bending the truth, however.

Age-related numbers are tricky.  Not only do they denote, but they connote.  It’s a big deal when a kid moves from a single digit to double digits, and every adolescent will tell you there’s a world of difference between 12 and 13.  We know well the rights and privileges which accompany the 16th18th, and 21st birthdays;  just as well-known are the restrictions, caveats, and addendums attached to certain ages. 

“Do I still have to sit at the kids’ table?”  
“Act your age!”   
“Aren’t you a little old to be wearing that?” 

Don’t we all, on occasion, find it difficult to reconcile our chronological age with our perceived one?  The numbers themselves seem finite –we grasp each for exactly 365 days–but how we feel fluctuates dramatically during that time.  For some people, just one aspect of their personality seems to dance to the beat of its own drummer:  clothing choices, musical tastes, political leanings, or recreational activities might seem out-of-sync with others of their peer group.  But those restrictions are artificial, anyway;  who decided it was appropriate to continue reading the newest books, watching the newest movies, and following the changes in our favorite sports teams through the years, but inappropriate to continue listening to the newest music or maintaining an interest in popular culture?

On his 40th birthday, I looked closely at Jared Leto’s photographs for any signs of laugh lines.  You see, I’ve become very aware of those tiny creases radiating from the outer corners of my own eyes.  Perhaps it’s because these brown eyes are the only physical characteristic I actually like,** and therefore about them I still maintain a bit of vanity.  Perhaps it’s because, as the “baby” of my family I’ve always perceived myself as relatively young, and such obvious hallmarks of age chip away at my illusion.

I do know I’d like to find the person who nicknamed the little wrinkles laugh lines and kiss her square on the mouth.  Doesn’t laugh lines sound so much gentler than crow’s feet?  And the term is totally accurate!  An expansive, scientific study consisting of me staring into my bathroom mirror revealed that the creases are really only present when I smile or laugh.  And I am both a smiler and a laugher.  So in their own way, my laugh lines prove to the world that I have approached life with a sense of humor, that I have laughed through good times and bad, that I have a ready smile

Of course, that knowledge didn’t stop me from pissing away $32 on a 1/2 ounce jar of eye cream that was supposed to magically make my laugh lines disappear, and instead only made me feel like big rube standing before a snake oil salesman.  As P.T. Barnum might have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

I might not be embracing my laugh lines, but I am learning to live with them.  After all, what choice do I have?  Besides, I earned them.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome the fine Jared Leto into the ranks of the middle-aged–mathematically speaking, that is.  By the time Jared sees laugh lines staring back in his bathroom mirror, my own eyes will be so bad I won’t be able to find the bathroom.

~lisa

*Not making it up.
**Those who know me will say I’m also fond of my feet, which I love to dress up in cute little shoes.

HOW TO DRESS LIKE A PENNSYLVANIAN FOR HALLOWEEN

Autumn in Pennsylvania:  the fiery foliage, the crisp temperatures, pumpkin flavoring in everything from ice cream to toothpaste. 

If there’s one thing Pennsylvanians love more than a garage sale, it’s Halloween— a holiday that’s equal parts cute and creepy.  Well, this year you don’t have to look beyond your back yard  to find the perfect costume:  just in time for Halloween ’11, we offer the finest in scare wear based on surprisingly accurate Pennsylvania stereotypes!

PENNSYLVANIAN LADIES’ HALLOWEEN COSTUMES

It’s hard being a single mom with two jobs.  But ladies, one word makes it easy to dress up for your Pennsylvania Halloween:  slutty.

That’s right, Pennsylvania gals from Jugtown to Intercourse* will be whispering Victoria’s secret on October 31st as they don the lingerie they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any other time of the year.  Add a halo and wings, and you’re a slutty angel!  Pitchfork and horns?  Poof! you’re a slutty devil!  Switch out a few simple-to-find accessories to transform your look from slutty nurse, to slutty kitty cat, slutty librarian, or a slutty Catholic schoolgirl.  And don’t worry, moms, the irony of attempting to escape the drudgery of your life for a few hours by dressing up as a some man’s plaything will be lost on everyone!

All costumes come in pre-teen and plus sizes too!

PENNSYLVANIAN MEN’S HALLOWEEN COSTUMES

Guys, we haven’t forgotten about you!  And for once, the big fashion choices don’t belong to the ladies!

1) Steelers Fan
The very name—Steelers—evokes hardworking underdogs.  Like the millworkers who inspired their persona, the Pittsburgh Steelers are rough and ready, those f-able action figures that every man wants to be like and every woman wants to be with.**  
You can’t be a Pittsburgh Steeler, but you can be a feral, rabid Steelers fan for Halloween quicker than you can say, “Hey, yinz jagoffs goin’ to da Gine Iggle?”

How 'bout them Stillers?

The Steelers fan costume is easy to assemble and highly customizable.  By October your local WalMart will bleeding gold and black from every department, so just grab a shopping cart and go to town!  Clothing, jewelry, accessories, toys, snack foods, automotives, housewares—the possibilities are endless!  Throw on some face paint, cover up what nature gave you with a Steeler-striped wig, and it’s game on!  If your body is less a temple than a billboard, have your team loyalty burned right into your flesh (see illustration above) —that way you can be the source of sniggering side comments even when it’s not football season. 

Oh, and guys—don’t forget to stop in the pharmacy aisle for some black and gold Steel Curtain condoms in case you end up bobbing for apples with that slutty lady police officer you just met at the Halloween party.

2) Hunter
We Pennsylvanians have never met an animal too beautiful to kill.  In fact, the more magnificent the creature, the deader we want it.  Now, in the grand tradition of Pennsylvania blood sports, you can be a hunter for Halloween.

One of these two animals is having his best day ever.

The color palette for your hunter costume should be Earth tones.  Camo is essential, as it has magical powers.  Pennsylvania hunters are required by law to wear 250 square inches of flourescent orange on their heads and upper bodies, but authentic PA sportsmen interpret that amount to be roughly the size of one knitted ski cap.  More important than protective orange are the heated gadgets hunters must carry:  battery operated socks, gloves, seat pads, coffee mugs. . .Peppering your conversation with hunter-approved bon mots like thinning the herd and Did you hear a buck snort? will guarantee you more tricks than treats.   Sling a grimacing carcass*** over your shoulder and that coveted most disgusting costume trophy is in your pocket!

3)  Redneck
The great state of Pennsylvania is filled with history, beauty, and tradition.  You know what else is true about the great state of Pennsylvania?  It’s Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other, and Arkansas in between.****

So if the Steelers Fan or the Hunter don’t meet your costuming needs, you can turn to a real crowd pleaser:  the Redneck.

Someone’s been a very good redneck all year long!

The basics of a good redneck costume can be found in any Pennsylvania home:  the flannel shirt, the Confederate flag, and the ball cap.  What will make your redneck special are the personal touches you add:  How crude is the saying on your ball cap?  Is your t-shirt stained and short enough so that your beer belly is seen hanging over your waistband?  If you can’t grow scruffy facial hair or a mullet, see if you can rent them for the holiday.  Make sure your beer is of the lite variety, and remember that a redneck’s teeth take two forms:  1) missing, and 2) Austin Powers.

 
Above are acceptable looks for a Pennsylvania redneck.
 
4)  Amish Guy
Their culture restricts the Amish from having  photographs taken, so we’ll just substitute this photo of Harrison Ford in the movie Witness.

Not really Amish, but oh, so do-able.

Ahem.

Seriously, Pennsylvania is lousy with Amish people and there’s no reason you shouldn’t celebrate a night of terroristic threats (Trick or treat, yo.) and devil worship by paying playful homage to the plain people of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.  Just know that you’ll end up looking like this as you beg strangers for candy:

Later shunned for allowing themselves to be photographed.

Your Amish Halloween costume begins with a handmade suit in dark blue or black, along with a handmade shirt in a patternless fabric.  How do you feel about suspenders?  Just asking.  And we hope you’re not too dependent on buttons.  But in exchange modern fasteners and the like, you’ll step out into the night wearing a fly straw hat and work boots caked with manure.  Also necessary for your Amish look will be a long beard (Ah, ah!  No moustache!), wire-rimmed glasses, and hands the size of catcher’s mits.*****

How did this picture get in here? 🙂

 –

5)  Former Washed-Up Ex-High School Football Star Reliving His Glory Days While Flying A Bar Stool
Nearly 74,000 baby boys are conceived in Pennsylvania each year.  And all 74,000 of them are told from the post-coital cigarette that, one day, they will be football stars.  Probably going to the pros, yessir.  Consequently, the only thing Pennsylvania produces more abundantly than the hollowed out shells of fallen industries is former washed-up ex-high school football stars reliving their glory days while flying  bar stools.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A lifetime dedicated to reliving fifteen minutes of fame

Be a sport for Halloween by dressing up as one of these staples of small town America.  If you can still fit into your old varsity jacket or team jersey, that’s the way to start.  If not, cozy up to your local high school’s booster club for some replacement spirit wear.  Keep in mind that FWUEHSFSRHGDWFABS‘s often end up coaching at the community level, so polo shirts or hats embroidered with the word COACH go a long way toward reaching the desired effect.  Accessories would include a middle-aged spread, as many district championship rings as you can fit on your fingers, and a bum knee.  Authenticate your costume by using your beer bottle to gesture as you tell for the umpteenth time the story of how you saved your team’s ass with a miracle play.  The one thing that will put your costume over the top is a son whom you can push into sports and through whom you can live.  Rent one if you have to.

_________________________________________________________

So there you are, trick or treaters, set to rule All Hallow’s Eve in your Pennsylvania finery.  And yinz thought ghosts and goblins were scary. . .

Boo.

* Real Pennsylvania towns.  Also Blue Ball, Virginville, Ono, and Noodle Doosie. 
** Girls, proceed cautiously if your action hero is wearing number 7.
*** Available for a small extra fee, unless you have no problem with poaching.
**** An old joke, but a good one.
***** Missing fingertips are optional.

ANGRY POETRY: FALSE HERO

 

You said you’d be my hero
I’ll fight for you, you said
My hope was hung on pretty words
Spoken like a melody, and I
Believed your song in my despair

You said you’d be my hero
You’re safe with me, you said
Then pulled your white hat down low
Over both your faces, so I
Couldn’t see the lies you’d hidden there

And when you talk about me
When you sit and talk with friends
Do you say I got what I deserved?
Nothing you could do, would do
To stop the train wreck barreling down?

Washed my pain down with a beer
And my loss was your amusement
Do you say I got what was coming to me?
Pretended you cared, you dared
To turn your back and watch me drown

Are you happy now, hero?
Put a shine on your little tin star
And move on to the next suffering fool
Offer a life line, a good sign
While crossing fingers behind you

Next time, I’m my own hero
A hero who knows right from wrong
Carry a shiny shield and sharp sword
To defeat my foe, you know
Those goddamned false saviors who

Smile a joker’s smile. . .
Cry a liar’s tears. . .
Throw a silken rope that
Turns to a choking noose. . .

You said you’d be my hero
I’ll fight for you, you said
I hung by the neck from pretty words
Left twitching, retching, and gasping
While you rode off into the sunset

Of another day’s work. . .
Another job well done. . .
Another innocent lost. . .
Champion to no one.

DAMAGED GOODS (DUCK, OR THE METAPHOR WILL SMACK YOU IN THE FACE)

Damaged goods.  It’s an interesting term, isn’t it—an adjective and a noun that when put together would seem to create an oxymoron.  I mean, if something’s damaged, how can it also be good? 

Here’s a quick story for you:  The home improvement store where I work sells a wide selection of tool chests, including deluxe models for the most serious of handymen, contractors, and craftmakers.  One such tool chest stands nearly six feet tall, and in addition to the usual assortment of drawers and bins, features some pretty sweet perks like a built-in stereo and a mini refrigerator.  Lots of shoppers stop to admire that bad boy, but because of its hefty price tag few of them are actually purchased.

The other day, a customer returned his super-deluxe tool chest and asked for a refund because the item was damaged.  And by damaged, I mean that he bought it several years ago for something like $1,600, used it hard and beat the crap out of it, then decided to Smith the system.  See, the manufacturer has an unconditional lifetime guarantee, so the fact that the owner had covered the tool chest with stickers, broken several drawers, snapped the antenna for the built-in stereo, and left food spills in the mini refrigerator didn’t stop our store from accepting his return.  What can I say?  We have a pretty liberal returns policy. 

But what to do with the cast-off tool chest once it was in the store?  As I said, the chest was pretty badly beaten up.  After the options were considered, it was decided by management to have the tool chest cleaned up a bit, slap a “$200 as is” price tag on it, and roll the dice.

That evening I was fortunate enough to be working in the department where the used tool chest was set out for display.  It looked pretty rugged, and that’s no lie.  But customer after customer stopped to admire the thing.  At one point five men stood there testing its drawers, checking its wheels for rollability, and peeking inside its fridge.  Just pound out that dent, clean it up a bit, get those two drawers back on track; each of them saw the diamond in the rough.  An Amish fellow was especially interested, although he admitted he wouldn’t have much use for the stereo even if he could get it working.   As he walked out, he announced that if the tool chest hadn’t been sold by the time he returned, he’d have to buy it himself, which would probably make his wife furious. When I suggested that if she got mad enough he could always bring out his pillow and sleep in the top compartment of his new tool chest, it tickled him to no end.

Within a few hours  the tool chest found a new home with a gentleman who was able to look beyond its sketchy past to see its present and future value.  Sure, it carried a few scars— but it was still good!

And doesn’t that just describe us all?  Aren’t we all damaged goods

I’m reminded of this scene from Field of Dreams, in which Ray encounters the spirit of his father as a young man:  (click the link below)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cz1TJ4r7bOU&feature=relmfu

Watch it again, and let these lines really sink in:  “My God.  I only saw him years later when he was worn down by life.  Look at him.  He’s got his whole life ahead of him, and I’m not even a glint in his eye.”

 Wow.   Sooner or later we’re all worn down by life, but that doesn’t mean we cease to have value.  I’m surrounded each day by friends who never knew me when I was bright and shiny—they didn’t meet me until life had worn me down and dented me up—and still they are my friends.  Even sweeter are those people who have been with me throughout the journey; my husband, my family, lifelong buddies who can look at me now and see me as the same person I’ve always been:  Lisa.  I’m damaged goods; damaged, but still good.

My favorite Bible story is that of David.  Righteous king, victorious warrior, musician, poet, author of many of the Psalms, a figure central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. . .what’s not to admire?  But what I love most about David is his fallibility.  David did honorable things in spite of his baser tendencies—he was at times a liar, an adulterer, even a murderer.   Still,  God didn’t wait for David to shape up before guiding him to greatness; God watched with joy as a mere man navigated his own stormy seas and ultimately lived one of history’s most celebrated lives.

Here’s one more quick story:   I hosted a yard sale a few weeks ago, and while all the choice items sold quickly, I was left with a pile of things that nobody seemed to want.  After some time passed, I took those misfit toys and other oddities out to the corner of the yard where I displayed them with a sign that said FREE.  Within a few hours, every single thing had been taken by someone who saw it as treasure. 

From the safety of my porch, I witnessed two teenaged boys pick through the items.  When one of them tucked a couple of cute-but-inevitably-outgrown stuffed animals under his arm, this was their conversation:

Boy #1:  Dude.
Boy #2:  Hey, chill.  My sister’s birthday is this week.
Boy #1:  That’s cool.

Despite the fact that they’ve already lived one life, despite their mended seams and their lumpiness from having been cuddled to sleep or crushed by the weight of backpacks, those stuffed animals still will make some little girl very happy.  

We’re all damaged goods.  Sooner or later, we all fall down.  But we keep on going forward, and that’s called life.

Damaged Goods by Francesca Crescentini

 

The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise. – Alden Nowlan

LIVING JUST TO FIND EMOTION

This story begins with the ending.  Traveling home from a long Labor Day weekend visit, I asked our guest if he’d had a good time.  There was no hesitation whatsoever in his answer:  “Oh, yeah!  Your family’s lots of fun.”

“That’s right,” I wisecracked, “we’re dysfunctional, but in a totally loveable way.”   I was only joking, but my daughter’s response was heartfelt:

“But Mom, we’re not dysfunctional at all.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Just 48 hours earlier, twenty of us gathered around a table laid out with a seafood feast so vast and sumptuous it made our mouths water, our wallets weep, the Atlantic gasp, and the neighborhood crickets quiver in fear that we would run out of things to dip in drawn butter and come after them.  I could almost hear their crickety little admonitions:  “Dammit, Carl, keep your legs quiet—they’re down to their last dozen snow crabs!”

My family builds its calendar around beloved traditions, and the Labor Day get-together crowns our entire year.  Though it’s not a religious holiday, eveyone’s higher power is thanked freely.  And though the atmosphere is party-like, the only gifts exchanged are the gifts of each other’s company.   Gazing from face to face,I tried to define, tried to qualify this group of people each of whom occupies a special room in my heart.  Parent, child, cousin, niece, nephew, brother, sister, boyfriend, domestic partner, fiance, lifelong friend. . .every title an honor and a term of endearment.

By the numbers, we look like this:

2, 564:  the greatest distance in miles traveled to be there
650:  a conservative estimate of the dollars spent on seafood
148:  the combined years of marriage among the spouses
100:  average amount spent per family to make personalized t-shirts for the occasion
28:  the number of cell phones, iPads, and laptops running concurrently
18:  how many years we’ve gathered together for Labor Day
14:  various musical instruments played by attendees
13:  college degrees currently held by the group
12:  number of handmade trophies prepared to be awarded after games
11 – 79:  our range in ages
9 and 11:  the numbers of females vs. males
8:  hours held out until someone proclaimed Firefly to be the greatest TV show ever cancelled
5:  pots of coffee brewed each morning
3:  hours until someone compared our family to the one in the movie While You Were Sleeping; also the number of dogs vying for food slipped under the table
2:  hours until it was noted that the Orioles and the Pirates have lost a combined total of 162 games so far this season
1:  Irish Car Bomb consumed by me to the chagrin of my kids and the delight of my nephews

Demographically, we represent the following groups:
Christian
agnostic
Republican
Democrat
widowed
divorced
married
single
engaged
underemployed
upwardly mobile
recovering alcoholic
liberal
conservative
senior citizen
middle-aged
young adult
straight
gay
athletic
artistic
 

Around the same table each morning we laid out a banquet of a different kind:  tinctures and pharmaceuticals designed to manage hypertension, hypothyroidism, glaucoma, fertility, heart function, depression, anxiety, asthma, allergies, hormone replacement, attention deficit disorder, chronic pain—all of this because life is messy, and we live life.  We go out into the world and take what it has to offer, then bring it all back.  Triumphs and tragedies walk among us like poltergeists until they see that we are humans, whole and actual, because of—and sometimes in spite of—-their presence.  We absorb these experiences and emotions; they become part of our collective history, and then we move on to make even more memories and even more mistakes.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Later in the car, I contemplated my daughter’s firm proclamation, “But Mom, we aren’t dysfunctional at all.”  And here is my conclusion:

Taken as a group, we probably shouldn’t work.  We probably shouldn’t get along as well as we do.  And yet, year after year we seek each other out for company, for recreation, for playful hijinks, for advice, for lively debate, and perhaps most importantly, for emotional support.  In each other’s presence, we are unafraid to be imperfect, we are open to encouragement, and we are guaranteed to feel love—-the kind of love that is apparent even when we don’t like each other very much at the moment.

Every family has emotional baggage, and ours is no different.  We are just devoted to each other,  and through simple acts like cooking and eating together, playing card games, watching movies, making family t-shirts, giving out homemade awards, and somehow managing to keep track of seven rambling conversations at once, we help each other carry that emotional baggage.  Life is a big, old, emotional mess.  And we live life.

So now I amend my earlier comment:  We might be bat shit crazy at times, but we function like a well-oiled and time-worn machine.  As it is now, so shall it ever be. . .

LIVING WITH DEPRESSION: TONIGHT ON A VERY SPECIAL “CHEAPER THAN THERAPY”

At the risk of jumping the shark, I’m going to uncharted territory with today’s post. 

In this blog, I’ve written about everything from love and marriage to invasive medical procedures and bull semen.  I’ve revealed my thoughts on parenting, work, family, human nature, fashion faux pas, the tragedy of cat nip addiction, and my spectacular inability to master any form of choreographed dancing.  But one topic I’ve never discussed is my tendency toward depression.  It’s not that I’ve hidden this part of my life, and it causes me no shame.  Rather, I choose when and to whom I talk about a condition which I share with approximately 18 million American adults.

My goal here is not to provide you a comprehensive course on depressive disorders.  You can go to to WebMDWikipedia, or Google, for all the basics.  Instead, I want to write about my personal experiences, and how my life has been affected by the presence of such a stubborn condition.

Specifically, my type of depression is dysthymia—-a chronic condition characterized by consistently low moods.  I am not bi-polar.  I am not self-destructive.  I am not a substance abuser.  And I am generally thought to be a jolly, if not downright silly, person.  So how can I be depressed?  See, depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Our brains shift out of balance for lots of reasons—-falling in love, grief, extreme anger, terror, guilt, worry—all of these feelings happen because chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin have stopped working and playing well together.  When that happens, our brains are capable of resetting the balance and restoring order to our universe.  With depression, however, the brain cannot accomplish the reset by itself.  The feelings associated with depression (sadness, isolation, hopelessness, guilt, fatigue, apathy, anxiety, etc) become troublesome, and in the case of clinical or major depression, overwhelming.  Dysthymia (like other forms of depression) is more common in women and can develop into episodes of major depression, especially when paired with other health problems or stressful situations. 

I want it known that I’ve had a pretty sweet life.  All around me are folks who shoulder burdens much heavier than my own.  But I remember my first episodes of depression occurring after my dad’s death.  Cancer took him when he was 46 and I was 14, and chaos ruled our home during that time.  From the outside my family appeared to be adjusting to the loss and moving on; but trust me:  each of us carries individually relevant scars.  For me, they take the form of anxiety issues.  Experiences that cause me stress can transform my dysthymia into full-blown depression. 

It was years before I realized what was happening.  Hot flashes, obsessive thoughts, sleep problems, weight gain, guilt—both justified and undeserved—and worry, worry, worry.  The worst thing was knowing I was unable to control these feelings.  They seemed to live and breathe as they wreaked havoc in my mind and body.  Eventually I sought help, and a combination of medicine and behaviors keeps me from spinning off into outer space.  But  I live with it every single day of my life.

So how does it feel?  Most days I’m absolutely fine.  Don’t forget that in spite of my depressive tendencies I’ve worked, enjoyed a long and loving marriage, raised two fine kids, and maintained friendships.  I am, without doubt, a people person and a social creature.  But sometimes I do all those things through a slight haze.  And if I’ve recently had to deal with something stressful or I’ve had reason to be anxious, then that haze thickens into a heavy fog.  It feels like I’m trying to walk through waist-deep cement.  It’s a daily battle to accomplish simple chores like housework or cooking.  It’s realizing things that used to make me happy and satisfied no longer interest me, and I grieve their loss.  Thoughts are hard to control, and I ride a pendulum between nervous energy and deep apathy.   I might not make the best choices, I might act impulsively, or I might find it difficult to act at all.  Here are the words of an anonymous sufferer, in response to the question “What does depression feel like?”: 

Depression feels like a circle of guilt, worthlessness, inability, weakness, and fear. All wrapped up in silence and fog. You don’t function like you used to, you can’t think like you used to, you can’t participate like you used to and you let down those depending on you like they used to. You live in a circle of fear and guilt and your brain constantly reminds you that you no longer measure up and there’s no point in trying anymore.

The good news is I’ve learned to adapt and to adjust.  Yes, I take medications.  But more than that, I respect my condition and keep a watchful eye on it.  Remember when I said I’m generally known to be a jolly person?  I’ve always been a laugher, and since I know that laughter is a natural antidepressant,  I laugh every day— not just because I like the giddiness, but because it helps me maintain a positive outlook.  Reruns of FRIENDS and my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics work magic, as do intriguing conversations with interesting people, innocent flirting, great music, being social, and enjoying family time.  I write.  I make jewelry.  For awhile, I baked away the blues and really gave Betty Crocker a run for her money!  Especially helpful is having a husband who understands and is fiercely supportive of my needs.  During low periods I don’t watch sad movies, read scary books, or listen to news reports about tragic events.  Instead, I fill my mind with things that are happy and positive.  I also read devotional books, talk to God, and meditate on the Psalms.  That King David could really turn a phrase.

I also leave my own head and turn my thoughts outward.  My dysthymia (with its episodes of anxiety and outright depression) has actually made me more empathetic and less judgemental.  If people are incapable of knowing the twists and pivots of my mind, if they can’t feel what I’m feeling on a given day, then how can I know and feel them?  We are really, truly, all in this life together, and just as I’ve had to reach out for a strong shoulder or an attentive listener, I am determined to be those things for others in need.

Some studies have suggested that creative types (like me) are more susceptible to depressive disorders.  Perhaps it’s because we are a bit more aware of, or in tune with, or at the mercy of, our emotions.  The term tortured artist was coined for a reason.  But I’m certainly not looking for sympathy.  After all, I’m not the only person who struggles to manage anxiety or depression.  If the statistics are correct, anywhere one hundred people are gathered, at least 10 of them are suffering.  Life has dealt those of us living with depression similar hands, and even though we have to play them wisely, we’re still in the game.  Don’t you doubt that for a minute!