The Things We Do For Love

This week’s Modern Love opens with the description of a woman enduring a rugged backpacking trip with her husband, kids and in-laws, braving mosquitos, the lack of running water and flush toilets and endless card games.  She comes to the conclusion that love involves sacrifice.

Yes, we all know love involves big gestures. In a few weeks I myself will make such a sacrifice, driving for eight hours in a cramped car with my family to a ski resort in Canada, where I will have the pleasure of being cold and slushy, cooking three meals a day with limited food and kitchen supplies and washing and drying endless pairs of wet socks for a sport that (pardon the pun) leaves me cold.

I would much rather be lounging on a beach somewhere with a reliable supply of tequila, or feasting in as -yet-undiscovered Paris bistros or eating quinoa and kale and doing yoga at a Napa Valley spa.

The big sacrifices, at least those made for spouses, carry with them an implicit tit-for-tat, as in, I’ll make you stir-fried peanut chicken on Oscar night and do the dishes too, if you let me watch basketball for almost the entire month of March.

Sounds like a fair trade to me

But the little things and the every day things and the things you don’t have a choice about  are less quantifiable and there’s not necessarily a corresponding tat.

Except for the daughter who spontaneously gives you a hug one evening because you spent the day doing girly stuff with her and sharing stories about your adolescence while you are driving together side-by-side (still something of a novelty) in the minivan.

Or the daughter, previously surly and unappreciative, who comes downstairs to apologize, sporting false eyelashes.

Or the cats who, like Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, have trouble grasping the concept of a weekend, yet unexpectedly let you sleep in on a Saturday morning.

As mid-winter sets in, so does the drudgery of the things we do for love.  Sandwich generation friends I’ve spoken to have complained that their days off from work are spent shepherding aging parents to doctors appointments, everybody’s tired of making lunches, making dinner, monitoring homework and piano practicing and, especially, driving.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Some say one reason we aren’t thin and we are frazzled is because we aren’t French.

Apparently, their secret (in addition to lacy lingerie), is to go after what they want and not let anything stand in their way.

Once in a while, this approach backfires

There is a not-so-quiet revolution currently underway in the publishing world — a French revolution, if you will.

Writers, frustrated by the gatekeeper mentality of the traditional paths to publication, are taking matters into their own hands.  They blog, they share via social media, they create their own alternative forums (check out Modern Love Rejects) and more and more, they are self-publishing their books.

The other day I was at Aster Coffee lounge, where my friend Ingrid held an information session for a parade of neighborhood writers, all of whom are at various stages on the path to self-publication.  They spoke knowledgeably about Kindle Direct publishing, free Kindle downloads, Create Space, author pages and rankings, things I was previously unfamiliar with.  Though nobody was sporting a scarf tied just-so, there was a frisson of electricity in the air.

You can ponder the merits of self-publishing, the future of books and independent book stores and the You-Tubization of a world in which it is increasingly easy to have one’s fifteen minutes of fame.

You can have heartfelt discussions with your spouse about how much time you should spend on creative pursuits versus the practical ones that add to the family coffer mindful that you both wish to avoid leading lives of quiet desperation.

The writers I know aren’t necessary expecting to get rich or famous or to receive any other tit-for-tat, other than the satisfaction of putting their work out there and hoping it resonates with somebody. They write because they love to write and they’ll do it even if it means waking up at 5 a.m., sneaking off to coffee shops, hiding in their bedrooms to avoid the demands of family members (as I am doing now) and constantly jotting down story ideas in notebooks or on iPhones.

I’m pleased to have joined the Ballard Writers Collective, which, in partnership with our neighborhood independent book store and library, is fostering the work of local writers.  Like the Jacobins (though not nearly so bloodthirsty), we meet in cafes and community centers to plot different ways for our voices to be heard.

Next month, while I’m on that ski trip in Canada, in addition to cooking three meals a day with limited food and kitchen supplies and washing and drying endless pairs of wet socks, I’ll also be polishing my manuscript Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small to get it ready for publication sometime in 2012.

These are the things we do for love.

Who knows, maybe at the end of a satisfying day of skiing and writing, I’ll even manage to whip up Coq au Vin too.

If you are looking for some good reads, check out Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story, my friend Ingrid Rick’s riveting tale of escaping her fundamentalist Mormon upbringing and Jay Craig’s irreverent The Scottish Buddhist Cookbook, which saved me from going over the edge during Snowmageddon, when the kids were out of school for a week.

If you live in Seattle, Ingrid and Jay will be reading at Secret Garden books on February 15.

Finally, check out my friend Jennifer D. Munro’s funny book The Erotica Writer’s Husband and other Stories, available free today (January 29) as an Amazon Kindle download.

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Girls in White Dresses with Blue Satin Sashes

My daughters turned 13 and 11 this week amidst Seattle’s Snowmageddon.  We managed to survive a week with no school, a magazine article deadline, a hunt for an ice-cream cake when the streets were caked with frosty, frozen snow, a lively Mother-Daughter Book Group meeting and two birthday parties.  

As things wind down, I’m allowing myself a little walk down memory lane and want to share with you a piece I wrote, which appeared in Seattle magazine’s Balancing Act blog in June 2010.  

 All of us have changed, including Jennifer Carroll, who lost her baby weight and is no longer curvy, but no less ebullient.   I’ll be writing about those changes, including something you don’t hear about so much — parents’ emerging independence from their kids —  in subsequent posts.

Consider this the first installment of what I think of as “The Hormone Chronicles.” 

We are in the dressing room in the juniors department at Nordstrom and my eleven year-old daughter is cringing as she tries on the outfits that her fashion savvy, ”naturally cool” nine year-old sister and I have picked out.

It is fifth-grade graduation time and this old-school mom has proclaimed that Melanie must wear a dress or a skirt to the ceremony.  I have also instigated a movement among her friends’ parents, encouraging them to make their daughters eschew pants for the day too.  The teacher has encouraged the kids to wear something special.  Some of the boys have admitted that they will be wearing suits.

For the past year, Melanie has done everything possible to avoid being noticed.  Her uniform du jour has been jeans, a T-shirt and a baggy sweatshirt.  Her hair is always in a ponytail.  (To add insult to injury, I have requested that she wear it down on the big day).   Though two years ago she was thrilled to get her ears pierced, I have to remind her to wear earrings now.

I get what this is about.  After a year of learning about and experiencing her changing body, Mel wants nothing to do with these changes.   I have found the Old Navy sports bra I had bought at the beginning of the school year crammed behind the refrigerator.   She “forgot” to take the sample sanitary pads they handed out at Family Living and Sexual Health Night.  I was the same at her age, and she enjoys hearing the story of me ripping up each and every Kotex in the package my mother kept in the bathroom closet to be ready for the inevitable.

But now, staring down 50 like a deer in the headlights, it is hard to watch my daughter resist her young womanhood, while I cling so desperately to mine.  I enjoy being a girl now more than I have ever have and view my femininity the way I used to view vacation time – use it or lose it.  Though most days I dress like I did when I was 16, in jeans, a shirt and comfy shoes, I accessorize with care.  When I wear a skirt I feel pretty.  Heels would send me over the moon if they weren’t so uncomfortable. And underwear…

I discovered Bellefleur, the Fremont lingerie boutique, last Christmas when searching for something special to take me out of my drill sergeant efficient mom persona and add a little romance to my life.   I’ve never felt comfortable in “girly” stores (buying a wedding dress was torture.  Thank goodness for the late, lamented low-key Pike Place Market boutique Local Brilliance) and at Bellefleur I expected to be snubbed by a skinny French woman of indeterminate age, who would make me feel like I didn’t belong in her shop.

So it was a delight to discover Jennifer Carroll, Bellefleur’s curvy, ebullient owner, whose book Underneath it All, a girl’s guide to buying, wearing and loving lingerie, is a manifesto for women of every shape and size to allow themselves to be beautiful, not just inside and out, but also, well you get the picture.

The day of my maiden visit to Bellefleur, I saw a mother with her tall, thin, yet big-busted college-aged daughter stocking up on bras, relieved to have found flattering styles that fit.  A medical resident, lamenting lack of sleep, also stopped by for something to perk her up.

On a more recent visit to the new, expanded Bellefleur, still in Fremont, but now located at 3504 Fremont Place North, next to Bliss boutique, Jennifer explained that her clientele runs the spectrum of womanhood.  “Once, we had four generations of one family shopping here together,” she remembers.  “The needs of the youngest member of the family were very different from the needs of her great-grandmother.  We took care of everyone.”  Jennifer’s advice for mothers of newly developing daughters is to include them in the lingerie experience.  “If they see you enjoying lingerie and being comfortable with how your body looks in it, chances are they will be too.”  You don’t need to spend much money on training bras, says Jennifer, but once your daughter’s breasts have truly developed, be sure to get her properly fitted.

On graduation day, to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, a procession of students in a mish-mash of outfits – fancy dresses with high tops, suit jackets with ripped jeans – galumphed past their proud families.  They then stood at the podium, poised in their awkwardness, and told us what they could do to make the world a better place.  I felt something wet on my nose and eyelashes and it definitely wasn’t snowflakes.

After the ceremony, Melanie lifted her skirt to show me the shorts she had surreptitiously donned, then pulled off the skirt and went out to run around with her friends.  They seem so grownup sometimes, with their iPods and backtalk and bravado.

But underneath it all, I guess they are still girls and boys.

When Life Gives You Lemons…

One of my “day jobs” is education reporter, a role I fell into by accident.  As the mother of two school-age kids, I spend a lot of time thinking, talking and yes, complaining about public education (Jeff can attest to this.  In addition to boring people at parties with talk of fish oil, don’t get me started on the middle school math curriculum).  Because it matters so much to me, I’ve decided that in addition to volunteering in the schools, the best way for me to be part of the solution, instead of merely bitching about the problems, is to write objectively about efforts to improve our imperiled public education system and the people who are working hard to make a difference.

Some have called this the civil rights struggle of our time.

When my mother was dying and I was fighting to make sense of her convoluted Medicare coverage, I became an impassioned advocate for Medicare reform and especially for people of my generation — the sandwich generation — to educate ourselves about the harsh realities of elder care.

If all politics is local, maybe all activism is first and foremost located in our hearts.

Two years ago, I sat in a Starbucks at the Plantation Towne Square shopping mall in Florida with my childhood acquaintance and neighbor Beth.  I hadn’t seen Beth since high school, nearly thirty years before, and had only heard snippets about her life from my mother, who was the human embodiment of a social networking site long before Mark Zuckerberg’s birth, able to provide a status update on pretty much anybody from our hometown.

My mother came to visit me after the birth of my second child bearing Table Toppers, the disposable stick-on placemats that she told me Beth, a lawyer and now mother of three, had invented so that mothers trying to feed their toddlers in public places didn’t have to fret about germs.

To be honest, though I’d always liked Beth, I wasn’t interested in hearing about her innovation and applauding her entrepreneurial spirit.  I was in the full throes of an identity crisis that had stemmed from leaving my prestigious international career to be a stay-at-home mother.  Unlike Beth, I hadn’t crafted a creative new identity that merged my professional skills with my new role as parent. I didn’t want to be reminded that there were other women who, after giving birth, had managed to find fulfilling ways to blend career and family.

I came to Florida to care for my mother, who was scheduled for some outpatient surgery. But when I got there, her condition was much worse than I expected.  Our relationship, which had been strained over the years, was awkward, and so to make her feel better and to pass the time, I let her tell me about people we knew in common, including Beth, who lived nearby.  There had been a tragedy, my mother said.  Beth’s oldest son had contracted leukemia at age 11 and hadn’t survived.

I think it was more than cabin fever that led me to break free of my mother and arrange to meet Beth for coffee.

We sat across from each other and commented on how much we both resembled our mothers.  Beth’s chipper high school class president demeanor now had a careworn veneer, but I noticed she also had her mother’s softness and warm, quiet eyes — qualities I had always admired.

We caught each other up on our lives and the people we knew in common, and then we talked, mother-to-mother, about the unspeakable loss she had suffered.  It wasn’t the cancer that had killed Ian, Beth explained, it was the treatment.  Ian had been diagnosed with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) , a form of cancer that can have a 75-80% recovery rate. But his immune system had been so compromised by the toxic cancer treatment, that, though cancer-free at the time, he was unable to survive the meningitis he had contracted while the “cure” was underway.

Along with frustration over the futility of Ian’s death, Beth and her husband Brad were haunted by Ian’s own feelings about his treatment, which had been painful, isolating and humiliating.  Ian often asked why the “cure” had to hurt so much.

“After Ian died, I felt like I was going through the motions as a parent,” Beth admitted.  “Before his death I had thrown myself into parenting, yet I hadn’t been able to prevent something terrible from happening or been able to shield Ian from pain.  Afterwards, it was hard to get excited about birthday parties and school events for my other two sons.”

But Beth is a more than a turkey-maker, she’s a lemonade-maker. She and her family threw themselves into another innovative, entrepreneurial project — the creation of the I Care I Cure Childhood Cancer Foundation, which raises awareness and money to fund gentler treatments for childhood cancer. To date, the foundation and its partners have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cutting-edge, targeted therapies for pediatric cancer.

In addition to its ongoing fundraising, the Florida-based foundation hosts a 5K run and family fun day, so that activism can be a family affair. The fifth annual event will be held on February 12.  There is also a network of I Care I Cure Service Clubs for kids across the country, to share Ian’s commitment to community service with his peers, and new efforts to develop teen service learning projects.  You can learn more about these opportunities on the foundation’s website and/or “like” it on Facebook.

Three months after Beth and I met for coffee, my mother died and a year after that, Beth lost her mother. We live on opposite sides of the country and probably won’t ever see each other again.  Since I don’t have my mother to keep me up-to-date, I’ll have to rely on Facebook to follow Beth’s activities.

There’s a saying that books broaden your perspective because they enable you to lead a thousand lives different than your own. The same can be true of your encounters with other people.  I’m grateful for what I learned from my mid-life reacquaintance with Beth, just as I’m grateful every time I get to interview someone for an article and learn what motivates them.  We can’t always and don’t always want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  But we can listen to them share their experiences.

I’ve had a recent bump in readership and subscribers and I want to thank you all. Through this blog I have reconnected with old friends and have made new ones too.  One such person is Ken Rivard, who with his wife Jody Adams, writes the wonderful food blog The Garum Factory.  During my musings about the feasibility of mid-life activism, Ken, who I think of as a wise older brother, commented, “I think the hardest thing, the older you get, is to shake yourself out of the habitual rut of your own life, your own perceptions, etc. and remember when the world was wide open.”         .    

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.  When the situation is not so drastic, say on a gray weekend morning when you are waiting for snow, do yourself a favor and make these Lemon-Bay Scones with Currants, courtesy of the Garum Factory.  When you look at the recipe, you might initially be daunted by the effort involved in making and freezing bay leaf and Meyer Lemon-infused brown butter.  Don’t be.  It sounds harder and more time-consuming than it actually is.  And, like activism, once you set your mind to it, you’ll be glad you did.

Upstairs, Downstairs

First week of the new year and I feel like I’m recovering from jet lag, despite the fact that I didn’t go anywhere.  I’ve been dragging myself out of bed at 6:00 a.m., am exhausted by 9:00 a.m. and brain dead by 8:00 p.m.  Though I didn’t exactly vacation during the holidays — there were special meals to prepare, houseguests to host and lots of laundry and dishes — the absence from our usual routine was refreshingly stress-free.  We slept in, watched multiple episodes of Downton Abbey and ate whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

No sooner did January begin, then the onslaught of emails and calendar commitments began, along with a series of professional and personal deadlines, resulting in a feeling of impending doom.

It doesn’t help that the Seattle winter rain has begun in earnest, making excursions, especially evening ones, bone-chilling and soggy.  No wonder Daughter #1 wants a cloak for her birthday.  Cloaks make venturing out in nasty weather seem dashing and romantic, not mundane and pitiful.

Let us be off to piano lessons!

Thank goodness for books.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish the ever-growing stack of books on my bedside table.  Usually I have so many magazines and newspapers to read that the flow of my book reading is constantly interrupted (kind of like trying to work with the alluring distraction of email, Facebook and Linked in). I’m in a Mother-Daughter book group and a grownup book group, so am often juggling multiple tomes. Plus, I’m usually so tired by the time I crawl into bed that I tend to fall asleep with the book, newspaper or magazine on my face.

I have a pretty big stack of back issues of the New Yorker too

But while I was sick, I took to my bed for a few days and read.

Books.   One at a time, for hours at a time.  Just like I used to do when I was younger and didn’t have to contend with the competing distractions of electronics and other people.

I read Iranian-American chef Donia Bijan’s delightful memoir Maman’s Homesick Pie (and used her mother’s delicious fruit and pine nut stuffing recipe for our Christmas dinner) and finished A Tale of Two Cities, a book I hadn’t read since high school.  There is something very satisfying about reading a book with a famous first line and a famous last line, though when you try to apply these to say, the middle school experience, sometimes people don’t fully appreciate the comparison.

I read Day of Honey, journalist Annia Ciezadlo’s memoir of food, love and war (complete with recipes) in Baghdad and Beirut, which also includes such universal topics as mother-in-law clashes and spousal career clashes (as in, “I gave up my job to follow you to a war zone, I’m just beginning to establish myself as a freelancer and now you want me to leave?!”).

One of my favorite scenes in the book is Ciezadlo’s description of dodging gunfire aimed at her kitchen window to make sure the pasta wasn’t overcooked —  a woman after my own heart.

She has an especially garlicky recipe for melokeya that enticed me to buy some of the dried leaves so I can try it.

The women of Downton Abbey don’t appear to read books,  but the “upstairs” ones seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in their bedrooms resting, despite the fact that they have no jobs or household responsibilities, other than plotting and dressing for dinner.  Their bedrooms are like fortresses, impenetrable from the demands of public life.

We all know that in modern life, we are more like “downstairs” women (see paragraph one), though not as properly turned-out.

So as an experiment, and out of desperation, during the first few days of re-entry week, I tried heading upstairs to my bedroom in the early evening to “rest” with a book. (Michael Ondaatje‘s The Cat’s Table).  I’ve since decided that books will be my “upstairs” reading and magazines, newspapers and Facebook (where I get many of my ideas about what to read, courtesy of NPR, Slate, Salon, the Atlantic and my other “likes”) will be left downstairs.  The true test of this approach will come this Sunday night, when I have to forego the temptation to get into bed with the Sunday New York Times, my guilty pleasure.

Someone I know will appreciate the extra space

Work will also be upstairs, in the office, instead of downstairs at the dining room table, where’s it’s too easy to throw in a load of laundry or soak the beans for Boston Baked Beans, the first of many colonial cooking endeavors we will undertake this month, courtesy of Daughter #2 and her creative teacher Ms. P.  (I am envisioning an amusing twist on European Chicken Night, a F**k You, European Tyrants! recipe for Chicken and Wild Rice).

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  By mid-life, we’ve had years of dueling January admonishments to eat a more healthy diet, exercise more, be more productive, but also to take time for ourselves to stop and smell the roses and unplug (see what Pico Iyer had to say in the New York Times on the joy of quiet.  I read it last Sunday night in bed).

We also know that come early February, all of this will be forgotten in the push to promote romance and expensive chocolate.

I sometimes entertain myself by imaging the editors at O magazine, fed up with devising countless different magazine covers enticing us to “live our best lives”, creating a “dummy” issue:

Don't Bother

Stick With Your Dead-End Job Till Retirement

You Can Buy Bigger Clothes in Smaller Sizes at Target

I leave you now to exercise and tackle those pesky deadlines, while the Boston Baked Beans are in the oven.

But know that tonight, when I head upstairs and take to my bed with my book, to paraphrase Sydney Carton, whose fate was far more gruesome and noble than mine will be this evening, “it is a far, far better rest that I go to…”