Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Room of My Own

My new office has a view into the backyard, overlooking the deck and a deep thicket of bamboo. The walls are painted light gray, and I have a new, spacious desk. A reading chair and an ottoman sit in the opposite corner. Black and white pictures from T's trips to Italy hang on the wall. Just sitting here gives me profound pleasure.

I've never had a special place to work before. Sure, I've had a desk, but it has sat in my various homes in the bedroom or a hallway. Working remotely before, most of my time was spent in the kitchen or at Starbuck's with my headphones. With two kids and three bedrooms, we didn't have the square footage, so I made do and got things done where I could. It seemed like an extravagance. Or maybe I just needed to be in the middle of things.

For a two years after my daughter moved out to stay at her dad's full-time, there was an extra bedroom sitting empty. My son moved into her room, leaving the space at the back of the house empty, save for the cat. Last summer, we used it as a holding spot for the contents of the kitchen, as we gutted and rebuilt it into the beautiful heart of our home.

The cat was problematic. Beautiful, jet black and deeply affectionate, Midnight was terribly lonely when my teenaged son was away, as he increasingly is, even when he is staying at our house. She didn't love being outside, having been beaten up pretty badly by the band of ferals that overran the neighborhood when we first moved there. Inside, when left to her devices, furniture got scratched, and the big furry toddler that is our dog skirmished with her. The litter box smell was overwhelming. I dreaded dealing with it, and got tired of nagging my son to handle it. She took her loneliness out on the room, tearing up and soiling the already aging carpet. Midnight was a holdover from the divorce: in the process of the split, she showed up, a sweet young cat, and bonded with my little boy. I couldn't say no.

We told The Boy it was time to start looking around for a new home, as it wasn't fair to the cat. He nodded, but didn't say much. T made the rounds at assisted living centers to see if perhaps she could find a home being a loving companion to residents. We got one phone call, but it didn't go anywhere. I asked at the vet's office, and they gave me the number of a no-kill shelter. I couldn't dream of doing it. We decided on a Craigslist ad. T's daughter placed it, and said it was good that this wasn't Halloween, as people kill black cats around that time. I was clearly a terrible person.

T got a text one Sunday afternoon, and talked to a woman who wanted to know all about the cat and wanted to come over right away. I wanted to wait; T said no, she was ready now, and we needed to go for it. My heart was heavy as I gathered up the cat's toys, scratching post, food bowl, and vaccination certificate. The Boy was at his dad's, to be picked up the next evening. He wouldn't even get a chance to say goodbye.

The car was old, but it was clean. She was maybe in her early thirties, but the circumstances of her life were etched in her face. She was in sweatpants and an old t-shirt, and had a wild-eyed, squirming toddler by the hand as she approached the door. As she sat in the vacant room and held Midnight, who relished the attention, the woman got tears in her eyes. "I have three kids," she said, "but she's not for them. I want someone who will cuddle and love me." She wore a wedding ring, but there was such sadness in her voice.

Just like that, the cat was gone. Her new owner was thrilled that Midnight was spayed and had her shots, and we had a carrier that T put in the car. I was in the kitchen, crying. As usual, my man understood and gave me solace in his quiet way.

The pickup after Midnight's departure made us both apprehensive. The Boy knew something was up. "What?" I think he thought he was in trouble. We gave him the news, and he said, "Okay. I know we weren't spending enough time with her." A couple of hours later, we got a text from the lady, who said the cat was happily settled in her lap.

The painters came and pulled up the carpet. We got it replaced, and then Teddy's furniture arrived from California, assimilating wonderfully into the space. I sat at my new desk, looking out the window and at the fresh flowers I'd put in a vase. T came in, beaming. "You deserve this," he said. "I am so happy you have a place to write."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

When Your First-Born Leaves for College

It's the scene I've dreamed about since the day she was born. My daughter, delighting in showing me around her new home, a college campus. She is talking a mile a minute, giving me historic details of the beautiful grounds at the University of Arkansas, nestled in the Boston Mountains in the charming town of Fayetteville, and dating back to 1871.

Two weeks ago, her dad and stepmom did the hard stuff, driving a loaded car six hours and saying goodbye. I would have cried all the way home, and was grateful they took on the task. Instead, T and I got to see her settling in; our excuse for a visit, her birthday. Her boyfriend of a year--a bright, capable, and (best of all) calm, young man--is also attending, and when we met them for dinner the night we arrived, it seemed we were socializing with an adult couple, and that she had grown up in a fortnight. I remembered her summer before kindergarten, a time I thought I might reach the end of my parenting tether, only for her to grow into a delightful little girl after a few weeks of big kid school.

--Old Main, University of Arkansas

Not long ago, I visited my alma mater after almost two decades away. As T and I walked around the ivy-covered campus at Queen's University, I recollected how anxious I had been; as a kid from the sticks and holding a keen sense of the social pecking order, my status was surely that of an imposter, and it was only a matter of time before I was found out. It was exhilarating to be around all of these brilliant people, though, and eventually I realized that just reading and writing all day was a luxury I might not enjoy for a long time to come. When my years at school came to an end, I grieved it deeply. The time was coming to face the real world, and fear reared up again with a vengence.

Talking with my daughter over the weekend, I saw a woman with a plan. She said that people look at her sideways when she raises her hand in class to ask a question. Oh, you're the girl I was so in awe of, said I, truthfully. (This elicited a proud smile.) Her confidence has always awed me, as she's been in possession of it since she was a toddler.

On Saturday, the kids decided to go to a football watch party, as the Arkansas Razorbacks were playing Auburn. T is much better-educated than I, but he did it the hard way and didn't get the idyllic undergraduate experience of my youth. College football in the South is a thing unto itself, though, and Texas has taught me what little I know. But I love the game and find the tribal customs behind it fascinating. We decided to hit the sports bar near our hotel to catch a bit of it ourselves.

From a quiet parking lot, we entered a riotous, noisy sea of red. The second quarter had just started, and it looked as though the underdog Hogs, as they are called in local parlance, had a chance. Hope was in the air, and it was making its voice heard. We managed to find one seat at the bar and procured a weak Margarita. The drive began, and so did the call. "Soooey. Sooooooey." T had that wide-eyed look he gets, the one that makes me hysterical with laughter. Watching all of these fans in the grips of the fight song, he was like Anthony Bourdain on location, a stranger in a strange land.

At my daughter's birthday dinner that night, she was telling us about friends who are off at other colleges, and wondering aloud about some of their decisions. "She doesn't know what she's doing," said my daughter about one. I looked askance. She smiled. "Well, maybe I don't either, but at least I act like I do." Fake it 'till you make it. If only she had been around to give me this wisdom when I was eighteen.

The world of work offers us very few clear victories, and on a daily basis, parenting gives us even fewer. Sometimes, though, our children give us moments that rival a Nobel Prize. Watching my girl this past weekend, I know I must have done something well. Until the inevitable bumps ahead, I am going to rest on my laurels for a bit.





 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Life's Been Good to Me So Far

At a party this past weekend, a friend was talking about aging."My friend is a doctor, and he's this Ironman kind of guy. But still, he says the human body is built to last until age 45, and then we're pretty much wired to break down. It's possible, though, that modern medicine can keep us alive until a hundred."

We were gathered to celebrate the End of Summer, which in Texas means it's still another kind of hundred (degrees to be precise) but still, the kids are going back to school. For most of the crowd, it's the start of senior year of high school for at least one of our children. though three of us, including me, were talking about our first born children heading off to college. Another friend was absent, having just lost her mother.

The friend with the depressing news about the whole group living on borrowed time is facing down her own parents growing older. Her father is still active in his profession, but her mom is battling dementia.  At these times, people in marriages seem to close ranks--after all, what do we children understand about spending over half a century together? My friend lives 1,500 miles away and wants to find help to assist her father while he is at work, but he insists there is no problem. The worry is overwhelming. What if she fails to head off a serious issue at the pass? Yet, her parents want to manage things themselves.

Lately, parties seem less about having a great time than a kind of therapy session for all included. We talk about teenagers and parents, and who's had a health issue. Eventually we get around to books and movies, thank God, and there is actually something fun to discuss. I even found talking about what I do for a living turned out to be a respite from the general conversation.

It's not that my friends are boring: quite the contrary. We've all traveled and read and eaten well. It's just that we're squished by the demands of our current demographic. Our kids and parents need us to varying degrees, but they don't think so. Until they do.  At the same time, we're trying to figure out how to pay for everything and maybe retire before we are quite old ourselves.

T is a bit older than me, and I see he and his sister and her friends in a different place. They've lost parents and in some cases spouses, but have hung together and watched it all. Now they are heading into weddings and grandchildren, the sweet stuff. It's time to celebrate together and really appreciate these happy moments, knowing how to savor them with the awareness that we never stop worrying about our loved ones. Like my friends and I, we are there for each other, which is as much as we can do.

As for me, I am still skeptical that eating well and exercising every day won't help me live longer. But I'll concede that this attitude has its limits, because just going hard every day at work and beating myself up if I don't drink my 3.5 liters of water or do my planks or floss isn't really going to help me have more years, let alone happier ones. This weekend, I saw friends at the party and had real, relaxed visits with two others. Maybe the gift of middle age, if there is one at all, is the realization that making time for supporting our friends and sharing their happiness is what we'll remember when we're old. Let's hope we get that privilege.

 

Monday, August 18, 2014

What Your Fridge Magnets Say

A year ago we renovated the kitchen and everything stuck to the old fridge got thrown in a box for nine weeks.  Just as I had agonized over the paint colors and the backsplash, what got pinned back up on the new stainless number had to be carefully thought through. It gave me a chance to get rid of the twenty outdated coupons I'd saved for a rainy day that never arrived. While waiting on some asparagus to grill for lunch over the weekend, I took a considered look at my haphazard curation. 

First, a Texas Christian University magnet I was gifted for giving a lecture to an undergraduate marketing class there on my work on that front in the legal field. This was at least ten years ago, before I had any business telling anyone how to emulate what I do for a living. It holds up a sticker I picked up about four years ago at Avoca Coffee  on Magnolia. It reads: Make Fort Worth Weird. I may still have had an Austin crush back then, but have since dismissed it and now know I live in the superior city.  As my friend L once said, the original t-shirt should read, Keep Austin Pretentious. Fort Worth is plenty weird, but instead of it walking down the street, one must be admitted to the dining rooms on the West Side to get the full picture. Working on that still.

Andy Warhol covers his face on another magnet. I got this after the kids and I saw an exhibit of his work at the Modern--where else can one look at world-class art and be home in fifteen minutes? It secures an image from Tuscany's Hotel Monteverdi, as well as a New Yorker cartoon with a man crying at a bar and saying to his companion, "I suffer from accurate self-esteem."



I plan to live here at some point. Until then, I'll just gaze at it and dream.

Behind a pirate magnet is a picture of my daughter at three, grinning in a sundress and diaper, holding a cob of corn. Another with a soccer motif--my mom gave both to my kids when they were in elementary school, though it appears I've mixed up the child who matches which--holds one Chinese Yuan, Chairman Mao front and center. My trip to China almost three years back was such an experience and let me meet T

Life is what happens when we are making other plans, beneath which is photo of my beautiful children with in me my little black dress at our friends' wedding, a melding of lives of two strong and loving people with five teenagers between them. My son in black and white at three years of age is in profile beneath that shot.

A thank you from the North Texas Food Bank secures a postcard from Wendy Davis thanking me for a donation to her campaign. Proud of both.

In the midst of my divorce, I bought a magnet that reads, It's All About Me.  It seemed then that it wasn't about me at all, but I'd heard enough details of my selfishness that it seemed like a good way to flip off the Universe. Behind this lie cards from memorable San Francisco restaurants: State Bird Provisions (don't bother); Wayfare Tavern (if you are a Tyler Florence fan, you'll love it); and Chaya, the sushi bar on the Embarcadero where it all began. 



Finally I have a postcard with Rothko's Light Cloud, Dark Cloud. It is tethered by yet another cheesy note which reads, Leap, and the net will appear.

Once I was told that bookcases are a form of intellectual vanity. The person who said it avoids social media, no surprise and maybe he's found the easier path on that front. Still, my bookshelves and my fridge remain are things to which I pay occasional attention, though few people see them these days. Who knows why we choose what we do?  Send me your fridge gallery and tell me all about it.   

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

True North

The travel bug, once caught, may be impossible to shake. I've had the opportunity in the past five years, through work and love, to move about the civilized US and to Asia. It's been wonderous, and much of it has been done with T. We pinch ourselves on these trips, and yet have found the biggest capitals are growing more and more homogeneous.  Sparkling clean hotels and shopping areas dominate the downtown areas, and unless one knows the place, it's hard to find the there there.

Last week, we headed to Canada to visit my earlier life, in reverse. Toronto was where I spent seven years before leaving the nest for Texas.  When I first landed there in 1988 as a university student on summer leave, I knew for sure I'd made it, after a life in rural Ontario. Back then, it was struggling with an inferiority complex (God knows, so was I) but from what we saw, no more. With eyes that have seen Hong Kong, New York, Chicago, Singapore and San Francisco, it impressed me anew. It's a crazy mess of traffic and people, but the food (if you go, try Buca, and prepare to swoon) and the dizzying number of languages spoken in the street have made it an even more exciting place.

An amazing dinner at home with good friends, who always entertain with panache, and a lunch with others in the Distillery District and a walkabout by Lake Ontario rounded it out. Seeing people who've been dear to me for more than two decades moved me enormously. Being so far away means I remember my friends as perpetually young, and I suppose I expected to suddenly be twenty again when we met once more. But what we had was much sweeter than eternal youth: I heard of great strides in careers and places to travel, and got to see children who I met as little kids, now coming into their own. They got to meet T, and he them, and luckily no embarassing stories from my undergraduate career emerged, at least this time. 

Our next stops were smaller cities with my own personal history, and here we found authenticity. All those years of wanting to see the great metropoles, and now I find the littler places drawing me in. We went to Kingston, Ontario, and toured the campus of Queen's University, a place I had the great good fortune to gain admission to, and from which unbelievably (to me) graduate. When I arrived, and when we visited, it was a glorious place, with limestone, ivy-covered buildings. T was charmed by it and the gorgeous lake-front walks. I was thrilled that he was on for the trip I called "Sue, the Formative Years" and felt like a little girl showing him where I came of age.
Ontario Hall in early fall

I also tried to impress upon him that it isn't always that lovely. The man has spent many years in California, so he had a tendency to block out what it looks like for four months a year. And after 17 years in Texas, I don't know that I could bear it myself. All I remember from my winters there is that everything is gray--the sky, the streets, the buildings.


photo of University Ave during snowfall

Still, at an outdoor lunch one afternoon, we heard a strike on a drum and then a firing up of bagpipes. Through the crowd that gathered, it was hard to see who the bearer of those pipes was. Turned out the drummer, a sober wee lad, was around eight years old, the piper perhaps ten or eleven. These little buskers were cleaning up, with what I estimated at a couple of hundred bucks in their case. In deep United Empire Loyalist country (where I came up, the Red Coats were the good guys) this was an Upper Canada moment.

We headed to the nation's capital, Ottawa, to see my parents for a few days. We did the major stuff, Parliament Hill and the farmer's market downtown.  The beauty never fails to thrill me. The next day, we went to Almonte, a pretty town in the Valley, as my parents call it. We all had lunch by the river and looked up at the bridge where my dad had, at age seven, jumped off more than once when he was farmed out from a neighboring town to his grandparents over the summer. I grew up several hours away and moved due to my father's policing career, but this is the land of my people.



The next day, T and I were out for a walk, talking about how we have landed in a long-distance relationship and how far both of us are from our roots. The great part about leaving home is the tremendous adventure that lies in the broader world.  But striving to be a citizen of the world means one never truly embraces any single place. Where do you feel like you're from, I asked him.

Like me, the place where he feels most at home is not where he grew up,  nor where he lives. Much of his family lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the man does love to fish. Mine is the Ottawa Valley. These places represent the true north on our emotional compasses. Neither of us can imagine living full-time in our spiritual comfort zone, but knowing it is there brings us great comfort.  Things there may change, but so do we. Like reading a favorite novel, re-visiting these places tells us much more about ourselves than it does about the place.
 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

On Short Hair and Claire Underwood

It's my grown-up haircut. I can't imagine having long hair again.

-Robin Wright

Hair is a powerful thing for most women, especially for those who wear it long.  I've had mine at many lengths, though not past my shoulders since I was about nine.  I've chopped it off several times in my life, always, in retrospect, at moments of transition, and more than once it's been regrettable.

This time was definitely Claire Underwood's fault.  Like anyone else who watches House of Cards, I am mesmerized by her style and elegance, and I admire Robin Wright, who plays her, for refining the look. Over the years I have admired women I've seen on the street who pull off shorter hair with panache. They just look, in the era of beachy waves, so distinct. The problem with going this length is that, in the wrong hands, it very often says less "I am effortlessly chic" than "I have completely given up".

 

The first time I did it was in seventh grade. All the girls at my new school had this sort of mushroomy Dorothy Hamill thing going on, so I did it, too. It didn't make the girls like me any better, and not that anyone looks good in seventh grade, but had my parents not kept my school picture, I would have burned it.  Actually, I would have burned every picture of me through the end of high school, save for a brief pageboy phase. Perms would follow. I was aiming for sophisticated, but the record shows me resembling an alarmed sheep. 

Then was the college, won't-it-be-edgy-if-my-roommate-cuts-my-hair phase. Despite my adherence to earrings and lipgloss, this style rendered me dateless for the better part of a year. After another sheep phase, I was back to the pageboy, this time with heavy bangs from discount haircuts. 

Reinvention again came with motherhood. Two months after I had my first baby, I went straight to frumpy mummy. The move from Toronto to Texas with this bad pixie got me plenty of pitying looks, and by the time I was pregnant with our son two years later, it was time to go through the painful growing-out phase.  Despite being with child and managing with little clips and plenty of product, I felt beautiful throughout, a reflection of what I would feel as soon as my baby boy arrived. His smile made me feel like the prettiest girl in the world. By the time he was a year old, I had a bob and a pretty good look going on.

Unless she is Halle Barry, a forty year-old divorced woman cannot be going about with minimal locks, or so I was told by my follically-blessed girlfriends. So at that juncture, long I went, later with the requisite waves. (No extensions, in adherence with my personal ban on after-market parts.) Along with ditching the sale jeans at Old Navy for high-end denim--an expensive habit I adopted permanently and unapologetically--I was soon spending Real Housewives amounts of time on my mane.  When I met T, I was severely jet-lagged, but was wearing my J. Brand skinnies, and had definitely done my hair. 

Fast forward to a solid relationship and my first born leaving the nest. When telling her how besotted I was with Claire's style, she asked if I wasn't scared. It grows back, I countered.  That night, I draw T into the Underwood's web. "Isn't she gorgeous?" I ventured. T agreed. "Even with that hair?" He thought so.  Scales tipped. The night before I was to do it, we went out and sat at a nice bar for dinner.  "Would you still ask for my number if cut it off?" Babe, he said, I'm not in love with your hair.

Unlike previous attempts, this time I have a close relationship with a talented group of stylists. The folks at Lux Machine coached me through it, and by the time I was shorn of a good five inches, I had a support group. It felt like everyone in the joint was looking at me with admiration.  No small thing on the west side of Fort Worth.

Reviews have ranged from OMG, I love it to, "I see you cut your hair off" to not noticing at all. T adores it, but I think the man could love me headless, such is the generosity of his heart.

For me, it's been liberating, though I've had my moments. Gloria, owner of Lux, assured me I could come in for a tweak, which I've done. Again, the support has been fabulous. I think I might have finally found the equivalent of a black top and jeans, my sartorial go-to for many a year now.  When I walk by a window and see my reflection, my thought is not, that woman needs some volumizing gel but, wow, chic.  I'm maybe finally at the age where I can feel sexy on my own terms.  And I certainly haven't given up.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Springtime Gardening

I've killed a lot of plants in my life. When my daughter does some house and pet-sitting for me, she laughs and says at least there isn't anything to water. I've grown to see myself as a capable cook, an amateur decorator, and a tidy person with some occasional cleaning help, but that is the extent of my domestic capability. Only two green things, in my office, have survived over a long period of time, making my record over five years. They aren't thriving by most standards, but I have kept them alive. I figure between those and my kids and pets, my track record isn't bad. But still.

So when T built us a beautiful raised garden bed in the backyard, I was nervous. He's here, but not all the time. A large part of keeping these plants alive will be on my watch. T set up a little mechanism consisting of small posts and yellow tape, as the large canine toddler (now a teenager) was bounding through it with abandon before T planted this past weekend. It really doesn't look too much like a crime scene, and so far it seems to be working.

We've had a tunnel dug under the deck, where a pipe has had a habit of bursting and now has been capped with plans to reinforce and bury the line. Above all, we need water back there, but it's been a bit of a trial getting it done. The past several summers have seen rain at drought levels, and we've lost a couple of small trees and our ground cover appeared decimated. But the little bit of water we've gotten in there via nature and through the watering can, there are signs of life. 

Watching T this past weekend, with his absolute pleasure at digging in the well-heeled dirt, I felt some envy.  My feelings about my yard have been to keep it up appropriately where the neighbors can see it. Last summer, I felt so bad about the dead plants and the overwhelming weeds, I didn't spend much time on the wonderful deck. There is just so much to do, and yet T seems to enjoy it so much.

This evening, I pulled some weeds and made plans to get out there this weekend and tackle the rest, and maybe trim the hedges and fertilize the lawn.  Knowing I have an expert who will be around regularly helps me feel like I can handle it. 

After doing some watering, I strode out in my apron with my kitchen shears looking for herbs. I used to do this when I lived in my little rental house next to my Fort Worth mom, who keeps a fine garden of these and was always generous to let me raid her stock. But now I am moving beyond the little pots I've kept in subsequent years on the front step and into the real thing. This time I got onion chives, basil, and loads of thyme to stuff tonight's chicken. 

It felt satisfying to grow things with which to cook, and maybe this is my window into the world of gardening.  Texas isn't an easy place to grow things, but who knows? Maybe those eggplants and peppers will actually make it.  That will be a big win, if my black thumb turns green.