The Smart One and The Pretty One

Back in the day, my father liked to introduce my sister and me as the smart one and the pretty one. He never said who was which. My sister and I argued about it for decades. Neither of us wants to be the smart one.

My father was a natural comedian whose favorite form of humor was anything that mortified his children. He’d play with words, or toss ethnic (Jewish) jokes and cringe humor into conversations for the sole purpose of embarrassing me. Dark comedy and gallows humor was his particular favorite. A few hours before he passed away from cancer in the hospital he still made wisecracks and told my sister to “go to the nurse’s station and find out what time people die around here.” I’m certain my insurance salesman father missed his calling.

Comedy is important in our family. Our personal currency increases when we make each clown-clip-artother laugh. My brother is great at physical humor, my three nieces are sarcastic and ironic to perfection. My nephews make clever observational humor, and my kids crack me up on a daily basis without even trying. We don’t make jokes that are mean spirited or insulting. Nobody gets their feelings hurt or is put on the defensive. We are mostly self-deprecating or point out daily absurdities. I think it takes a certain amount of intelligence and self-esteem to be funny, and the ability to slip into the third person. Plus we are excellent laughers. I absolutely love being around my siblings and their families.

My mother wasn’t funny, though. At least I don’t remember her that way. She rarely cracked jokes or found things ironic. She was beautiful, so her personal currency was her looks and assertiveness. But, boy oh boy, could my father make her laugh. She burst out a belly laugh if my father tripped, she smiled and rolled her eyes at his corny puns, but the best part was he could make her laugh when she didn’t want to. One time, my mother was arrested (for disrespecting an officer and then resisting arrest, which she totally did) and my father went to the station to get her. He approached the cell, and with the protection of her behind bars said, “Again, Elaine?” (He would never have said this if she was within swinging range.) Only my dad could come up with a punchline this brilliant at a moment like this. My mother couldn’t help but laugh.

My father was lean and fit from years of doing his own yard work. His eyes reflected his mischievousness. He seemed like he was up to something. He exuded cool. But he wasn’t classically handsome. He looked like Larry Fine when The Stooge wasn’t in character, or maybe a version of Bob Uecker. He’d say about himself, “If you’re going to have a nose, it should be a big one.” When I was a teenager I didn’t understand why my mother, who looked like Natalie Wood and could have married anyone, chose my dad.

She said my father was the nicest and funniest man she ever met. Nice and funny — two qualities that are very underrated. People look for wealthy, handsome or successful. Nice and funny usually lands someone in the friend zone, and oddly it was my mom who wound up spending time there. Growing up, my dad was best friends with her older brother and my mom was the annoying younger sister who hung around them. He didn’t pay her much attention until he returned from WW2 and realized she had grown up. He continued to hang around the house, but with the purpose of making my mother laugh. It didn’t take long for them to fall in love.

heart-treeI love this story because it reminds me that my parents had no pretense about one another when they got married. They knew each other well, and loved one another for their heart and not their surface. Their marriage lasted ’till death did them part — not that my parents didn’t fight — they did, but they fought with the passion and security of two people who knew they would never separate.

Which is the same way I fight with my husband.

Had my parents ever met my husband, a comedy writer who worked in film and television and now teaches at a large university, I’m pretty sure my dad would have liked him. My mom, on the other hand, would have been slow to warm up since he’s from a different ethnic background (not Jewish, but she’d eventually realize he’s “Jewish on the inside,” as I sometimes describe him).

But here’s the important thing — every day my husband makes me laugh, even on days Iswinging-bears-transparent-thumb don’t want to, or when I’m so angry that I can’t stand him. Also, he laughs at my jokes, and when he does I feel appreciated and understood. In these moments, I remember I married a man who truly “gets” me.

I wound up marrying the nicest and funniest man I ever met, but (thankfully) looks nothing like Larry Fine.

I guess that makes me the smart one.

 

 

 

Classes That Should Be Offered At College

  1. The Art of Arguing Respectfully
  2. How to Stick to the Point
  3. Writing an Effective Complaint Letter
  4. Understanding and Interpreting the News
  5. Texting as a Second Language
  6. Survey of Outdated Life Skills: Cursive, Telling Time, Tying Shoes, Reading a Map
  7. Listening Skills 101
  8. Staying Sane in an Overstimulating World
  9. The Art of Detaching from Toxic Energy Suckers
  10. Assertion 101

How I Spent My Midlife Crisis

My son is entering puberty. He’s going to be in a bad mood for several years and grow more hair. He will be hormonal, irritable and confused but when the years long transformative ordeal is over he will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person.

His adolescence coincides with what is supposed to be my second adolescence, or midlife crisis — or middle pause since I’m a woman. I’m also in a bad mood but my hair will thin. I’m hormonal, irritable and confused, but hopefully when my years long transformative ordeal is over I will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person. But chances are I will just be more wrinkled and neurotic.

My son and I grapple with the same existential questions: Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life? 

alarm-clockCliche dictates most people in a midlife crisis buy a sportscar. Or they get divorced, have a makeover or fall in love with youth culture. I think a midlife crisis is the natural outcome from realizing more of your life is behind you than ahead. You think, This is it? But I haven’t ________________ yet. So you make decisions designed to shake things up. But here’s the irony about shaking things up — it teaches you what your limitations are and maturity comes from accepting limitations.

I think the best part of my midlife crisis (so far) is cultivating a what the fuck attitude. I don’tgirl-angry-face mean the exasperated/befuddled “what the fuck???!” I usually exclaim. I’m talking about fuck it/why not/what the fuck do I have to lose kind of attitude that is remarkably liberating. It enables me to try new things like this hobby called blogging, or sign up to be the oldest student in graduate school this coming fall.

But previous to this I kicked off middle age with something drastic and insane by having a baby. While most of my friends prepare for an empty nest I’m preparing for preschool (again). My daily life has more in common with someone decades younger than me than it does with the lives of my friends. I potty train, play Candyland and know which one is Shimmer and which one is Shine.

We started thinking about having another baby while our oldest son was fighting brain cancer. We even discussed it with him. One day we asked if he’d like a baby brother. He said, “No thanks, we already have one of those.” Then he thought about it and said, “A baby sister might be nice.” He told us we should have more children, that we were the best mom and dad in the world.

Having more children didn’t seem crazy at that time, but it took a few years of fertility treatments before we finally had our daughter. We stuck with it because my husband and I knew one thing for sure — we loved being parents.

For those looking to shake up your shit, I totally recommend having a baby. Nothing adds new life to your life like adding a new like to your life. Plus, it’s the most optimistic thing a person can do. It requires a certain amount of faith in the future. You have to believe things will get better (or at least not worse). We decided to have a new baby at the lowest time of our lives, when we needed to find joy and attempt to lessen our pain.

Those last five words bear repeating because therein lies the optimism: attempt to lessen our pain. This is a very hopeful statement. It recognizes that we could change, over time, the debilitating pain we felt after our son died. The word “attempt” means we still had some strength in us to try something. The word “lessen” is significant because it’s not the word “heal” or “end” or “fix.” It lacks totality, as it’s impossible to fully heal, end or fix the grief after losing a child. However it acknowledges we had some power to change our situation — to make it more or less of what it was — but our pain would never be gone. The words “our pain” need no explanation.

I’m learning that second adolescence is a time to recycle one’s attitude and priorities. A time of physical change and readjustment. A time of questioning and repair.

Inevitably, I think about my mistakes. I can trace back and see several points when I made the wrong decision — my college major, quitting a job/taking the wrong job, not trying this or that. (I also see moments when I made the right choice — marrying my husband, having my kids, taking a risk on this or that). I can’t change the past, but I can attempt to lessen the impact of my mistakes (there’s that word again). I can rid my life of things that aren’t useful anymore — I’ll keep what I use and use what I keep. I’ll also detach (physically and emotionally) from people who drain me. I no longer have the patience or energy to pretend to be anything I’m not.

Oh, and I faced a breast cancer diagnosis this year (the ultimate Fuck You). Getting diagnosed with cancer puts everything into focus. It’s like perspective on speed. It forced me to face myself, let go of certain things and make decisions I had been putting off.

But all this middlepause makes me tired. From now on my motto is more midlife, less crisis.

If I Was A Car

Used vehicle, one owner. 50K miles. Needs green-carbody work. Some rust. Runs good. All scheduled maintenance performed. Above base model trim level but not fully loaded. Good fuel economy. Some original factory parts missing, others replaced/repaired/upgraded. Fabric worn and faded. Entertainment package has AM/FM stereo cassette, CD/DVD. Has airbags, alarms and automatic warning system. Non-smoker. One accident. Garage kept. Good GPS. Big trunk. Spoiler. Solid and reliable. Great for a busy family. As is. No warranty.

Let’s Party Like It’s 1979

One day, for no particular reason my son said, “Mom, I think you were born at a good time. You know, before electricity. And then you got to have electricity.” I asked how old he thought I was. My son shrugged.

I was born before a lot of life changing things were ubiquitous — cell phones, the internet, video games, tv remotes, MTV (do they still have MTV?) But one thing I wasn’t born before is electricity. Thank gawd he didn’t say indoor plumbing or ask about my pet dinosaur.

My childhood took place in the 70s, I explained. NOT the 1870s. And we did things a little differently. Most notably, hours went by without my parents having any idea where I was, what I was doing or whom I was with. I had boundaries — the busy streets that bordered my neighborhood — but this left blocks and blocks of territory to roam. I was most likely riding my bike downhill with no hands and without wearing a helmet.

I ate garbage. Not literal garbage but ravioli from a can, cereal with the brightest colors and a lot of Jay’s chips. My mom had a crate of flavored pop delivered to our house once a week and I slurped down the orange ones. Now I won’t buy anything in a can (chemical liners), bright cereals (artificial colors) or pop (sugar).

There were only a handful of channels on our television, which was a giant wooden piece of furniture in the corner of the room, and no remote control. Sometimes my dad shouted from the window for me to come inside to switch shows for him. Today my son speaks into a remote that understands english and changes itself from among hundreds of channels.

boy-sitting-in-grass-clip-artEverything was simple. I don’t remember feeling overstimulated, stressed out or FOMO, which are things my son feels strongly. I often used my imagination rather than electronics to pass the time. I didn’t have expectations of being constantly entertained. A favorite pastime was to stare at the clouds and find animals. I filled a lot of afternoons doing nothing. Yet it was enough.

I don’t think my son feels the same way. He has anxiety from having too many choices and a surreal awareness of the ticking clock hanging over his childhood. He thinks about the choices he didn’t make, things he doesn’t have and the experiences he didn’t create. Nobody escapes this thought loop these days — I certainly don’t — but I don’t remember thinking like this as a kid.

board-game-pieces-clip-artI suggested to my son we have a 1970s day, which meant we eat food I ate at his age and play outside. This was met with little enthusiasm. Canned Italian food was declared “gross” (it is) and going outside was “not good for our skin” (kind of). The whole experiment fell apart after I dug up my old Merlin and showed him what hand-held computer games used to look like.

It’s a vastly different world, and pretending the fun I had in 1979 is relevant to my son now is silly. His life would seem crazy to eleven year-old me. He suffers through brutal amounts of homework that’s more complicated than mine ever was, and I can’t imagine the stress of living with social media during the awkward tween years. (Is tween a new word?) When I put myself in his shoes (which actually fit my feet) I realize I have no idea how he does it. How is he growing up normal and sane with all these distractions? How is he not royally messed up from the pressure?

And when did my cute little baby boy become a tween with his childhood half over? I hate that he’s growing up so fast. It’s like somebody pressed fast-forward on our lives and then one day he woke up taller than me.

But he will always be my baby boy, who somehow thinks I did my homework by lantern light, yet knows too much about other more important things.

 

 

My Bright Ideas

  1. science-teacher-blank-chalkboardThe Hundred Year-Old Diet: Only eat foods that existed 100 years ago. This would eliminate most processed food from the diet.
  2. Eat A Rainbow: Only eat foods that are red, orange, yellow, green, blue or purple. Preferably all on the same plate.
  3. Take a bag and a box to Savers every Wednesday. Do not buy more stuff.
  4. A bed larger than a California King so there’s enough room when everyone and the dog winds up there in the middle of the night.
  5. A real life and online hangout for women called “Coffee and Whine.”
  6. A food additive that gives farts colors so I can avoid walking into them in public, and know who to blame at home.
  7. A doorbell that doesn’t ring but instead shouts “This better be worth it!”
  8. Treadmills on the Metra.
  9. Bubble-wrap clothing for toddlers.
  10. The Steve Jobs Diet: Eat the same meals each day. Takes the stress out of calorie counting, nutrition and meal planning.