Friday, July 18, 2014

Pardonnez-moi. My Domestic Goddess Disguise Does Not Work

There's nothing like hosting an extremely intelligent French teenager to discover how one's spoken French is truly bad. It's been 37 years since I wandered into French 101 at LSU, and honey, it shows.

Never mind that I usually skipped language lab due to an undiagnosed ADD inability to sit anywhere for an extended period of time without food or company. Never mind it was a requirement that we spend at least "x" number of hours with headphones on in said lab, repeating over and over what was being poured into our ears. Never mind you may be repeating the sounds imperfectly, thus cementing bad pronunciation firmly into your memory.

If I ever went to the French language lab, it was out of fear of the emaciated and angry young female language instructor assigned to my class. We were a small group of 1970's kids, Star Trek/Star Wars nerds, dazed and frightened of this French woman who started yelling the lesson in frustration. She scared me even more than Professor Sidney Cohen, my favorite history professor, which is saying something.

Back to Pierre. Luckily for my family, his English is very good, including his pronunciation. No need to dredge the barrel of my memory for words like "butter", "car", etc. French grammar? Forget it. When I discovered that French grammar was just as difficult to understand as English, my foray into that language was doomed.

Pierre came to us at almost the last minute, courtesy of a French organization that organizes the exchange of American and French teens. Our youngest had stayed with a family in the Auvergne a few years ago, and this would be our last chance to host. Not enough American families had signed on, or emergencies had come up. M. Claude called me, as well as other past families who'd sent their children to France before, asking me in his beautiful and charming accent if we had room for a young boy. I'm a fool for a grey-haired man with a French accent. Of course, I said yes!

I blush to think that Pierre will go back to France with the illusion that our family is typically American. To a man and dog, we're insane. I have the hosting ability of a Neanderthal man, and am about to have a nervous breakdown trying to appear as a competent domestic goddess. There's nothing domestic or normal about me, so keeping up the pretense for three weeks is bringing me to my knees.

That Pierre has exquisite manners is not exaggerating, so when my family slips and there's a brief glimpse of the chaos we call family life, he laughs. Bless him.

Our hosting ends next week, while I'm attending the Romance Writers of America convention in San Antonio. My husband and youngest will be entertaining him those last few days, so I'll miss sending him off on Air France. Hopefully, he's seen past the smokescreen of our semi-civilized facades and still likes us, despite our crazy little dog, disorganized household, and my attempts to keep him company while youngest is working.

Because I'm semi-feral, socializing skills are all but beyond me, but Pierre has reminded me of the niceties of polite company. Something that one of my kids has a partial grasp on (and you know who you are, kiddo.). I hope our French son will forgive us for our roughness, and come visit again one day. Maybe by then we'll know how to act like civilized denizens of the world.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Finding Happiness Despite Myself

I spent a lot of time in my childhood listening to people who had low expectations of me. Quite often I heard things like "You're so lazy you'd not bother to pick up a $1000 bill," or "you don't care about anybody but yourself". If a kid hears these kinds of things long enough, and no one ever contradicts this kind of abuse, then they start believing it. Fall for it hook, line, and sinker, then actually start acting like the character failure their critics think they are being.

For the longest time I thought I was lazy, stupid, and didn't care about anyone. My mother said my dad didn't care about anyone but himself, so perhaps that's where the faulty genes had come from. We were a pretty cutting edge family back in the early Sixties. Deadbeat dad who made a huge amount of money as a union welder; mom who taught school and tried to keep a roof over our heads, and food in our mouths; sisters who never acted like they were related. We were a preview of what was to come for many Americans.

No one except a teacher or two seemed to think I had any kind of spark, and I usually was intent on letting them know how worthless I  was actually. My life is littered with broken friendships, estrangements, misunderstandings, and yet I managed to find my husband, Dan, and mother two boys.

I find my fractured humanity troubling, knowing the mistakes I've made rearing two boys, marrying a man who's far nicer than I deserve, but count myself infinitely lucky. I found someone who accepts my fractured humanity and loves me despite it, is my friend knowing my short-comings and frailty. Somewhere in the cosmic meaning of things, my life worked out despite myself, and I feel humbled by that. Loved despite not deserving love, achieving happiness even though I've sown unhappiness in other peoples' lives.

Life is a wonder, and I'll never understand the meaning of it, or the generosity of the human soul.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On Women and The Right to Say No

I've been reading a lot of blogs and articles about women and harassment this week following the shootings in California. It's as if Elliot Rodger's murder spree knocked the scabs off a long festering wound in the lives of women. The back and forth of women and men talking about sexual harassment, violence, social mores has been both fascinating and alarming.

Growing up in a single parent household with two other women, I had the antithesis of the Cleaver household. My dad beat my mother, cheated on her, left us destitute, and generally gave almost all men a bad name. Another man sexually abused me as a child, so my view of men was of fear and vulnerability. I both wanted a Cleaver type dad who'd protect us, and also the right to live without men in our lives. I embraced Feminism because it empowered women to claim their own bodies and minds, not needing a man to fulfill our needs or lives.

Flash forward to college, summer internships, and dating. I remember being told that I should be in Home Economics instead of architecture, something that would get a male professor in hot water, if not fired now. I spent an entire summer being sexually harassed by men in a Louisiana state media center, in a situation so repugnant that even now it makes me nauseous. Sexual harassment was a new term then, and I remember stumbling to explain my interpretation of it to a Baton Rouge news agency head when it came up in conversation.

More than once when asked I was shaken to even try to explain my interpretation of it because of my past, and worries about my future. This was in the 1970's and early 80's when people still joked about a woman going to college to get her "Mrs.". Get it?  Yeah, it wasn't funny then. I wanted to have a career, didn't want children after having a crappy childhood, didn't want to marry and be tied down and vulnerable. Men were turned off by my need to be independent and truthful, so most of my time in college was spent dateless until I met my first husband.

Girls who've been sexually abused have had their self protecting barriers torn down, dissolved, until life rushes at them like a tornado. One just can't stand up and lean into the wind of life until something happens, or we learn to cope.

One night over 20 years ago I was single again, starting to date a guy who didn't want to go public with our relationship yet. We'd gone to a trendy bar to meet people we knew through a volunteer agency, and sat next to each other, but not with each other. It was a table of mostly men in their twenties and thirties, and a sprinkling of women like me in their late twenties and early thirties. Off to one side was a dance floor, and music was pounding making conversation difficult.

A Marine Corps officer appeared at my side, and began to insist that I dance with him. He stood between me and my supposed boyfriend, ignoring all my polite words of refusal. The people around the table, including my boyfriend watched this conversation with interest, but no one made a joke or intervened. This went on for a few minutes, and I finally accepted just to be polite. This is something that many women are socialized to do: be polite if it kills us. As soon as the music stopped, I went and hid in the bathroom, trying to not cry and  stop my shaking. When I was calmer, I stepped out of the bathroom right into the Marine who was waiting, demanding to know if I was okay. I finally managed to get him to back off, and went back to my table, avoiding eye contact with my boyfriend as if I'd done something unfaithful. We left early and pretty much separate, and he never brought up the confrontation. Ever.

I wasn't angry at my jerky boyfriend that he'd not stepped in and claimed me, even though he was ex-Air Force and as big as the Marine, but at myself for capitulation with someone harassing me. Yes, it was harassing me to not stop when I'd politely refused a dance several times. It was harassment to wait for me outside the women's bathroom and not take a hint.

Guy friends would later tell me "You should have just told him no." But I did. Several times. Politely. If women get angry and reactive, we're called bitches or the c word. Not assertive or brave. We're bitches because we won't accept unwanted advances or comments. It frustrated my guy friends because it seemed so cut and dry.

So for the guys who have bad people skills or mental health issues, it's not our fault you can't find a woman who'll put up with you. It's our right to tell you to go away without fear that you'll come back and kill us, or call us a horrible name. It's about sex and not about sex, living without fear in a world where women can still be stolen from their schools by religious fundamentalists, stoned to death by family members when one marries whom they want, or being able to walk the street safely.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mr. C and Bataan

"U.S. medical men are attempting to identify more than 100 American Prisoners of War captured at Bataan and Corregidor and burned alive by the Japanese at a Prisoner of War camp, Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippine Islands Picture shows charred remains being interred in grave., 03/20/1945"1

He was a shy, quiet man, and at the time seemed quiet elderly. Kids in elementary school can quickly categorize anyone over eighteen as elderly, even then. He was probably no more than mid forties, but looked much, much older. Working quietly and efficiently, Mr. C cleaned our small town elementary school day after day, pushing a huge broom, making an old building function, making our little world just that much more special and kind.

He kept his head down, glancing at us from time to time, rarely making eye contact, almost a ghost than a man among all female teachers and a lone male principal. One day my Mother asked him to find me a snack for a school function, and he walked to a nearby hospital, buying food from vending machines. He returned and wordlessly handed me milk and candy, all he could find, then disappeared, leaving me staring at the bounty in my hands.  He was quietly kind like that.

My mother, who taught at the elementary school had been a young woman during World War II, attending a university in Natchitoches, Louisiana. She had had an American Army Air Force beau who died in Europe, shot down. Mother knew a lot about World War II, knew men who'd fought in the Pacific and European theaters. Bataan was not just a location in the Philippines to her, but a raw memory of US and Filipino servicemen who'd been forcibly marched by the Japanese until many had been killed or died exhaustion or heat. Those captives who collapsed were brutally murdered where they fell.

Estimates are that 10,000 men, 9,000 Filipino, 1,000 Americans died in the march.2

Mr. C was a veteran of Bataan, a survivor of that horror, and Mother imbued in me a sense of his heroism.

When he left our school to renovate and run a local movie theater, I hardly ever saw him again, and when I did, I don't think he remembered me.

On this Memorial Day Saturday, I want to remember Mr. C and the men he walked with in Bataan, remembering their sacrifice and heroism in the worst of wartime situations. All veterans of combat carry those memories with them, no matter if it was World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, or places such as Somalia.

Let their memories be honored, their heroism appreciated, their sacrifice was not in vain.

Item from Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 - 1985
Part Of: Series: Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity, compiled 1754 - 1954
Variant Control Number(s): NAIL Control Number: NWDNS-111-SC-212111


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Please "Don't Judge Me by the Contents of My Refrigerator"

Photo of a Katrina ravaged kitchen from

Someecards posted a link to this silly and somewhat creepy video: How to Tell What Kid of Person Someone Is By the Contents of Their Refrigerator , and it made me think of the first party my would-be husband I gave as a cohabiting couple.

It started out simple enough. Blenders, alcohol, frozen pina colada mix cans, Rotel dip, chips, the young pre-Katrina Oil Patch adult kids party. These parties were best given in rental houses with heavy duty vinyl flooring that could be scoured with a Zamboni later. I should have known something significant would happen that night when we had heavy rains and large pieces of hail pummeling our little New Orleans house. I opened the door and stared down at the white balls accumulating on the concrete steps outside our kitchen, and thought we'd be drinking pina colada drinks until Doomsday. Not to fear. Free booze and food always brought out the young, restless, single, and couples with babysitters with nowhere else to go.

I will backtrack a bit here. One January I found myself recently dumped by a mama's boy of a fiance', and soon had two guys of my acquaintance wanting to take me out. One was Tall Bill, a gorgeous guy who wasn't of the oil patch milieu, but an entrepreneur and business owner.  I had had a crush on him previously, pre-fiance' from Hell, and knew he was interested. Between those beautiful black curls of his and big blue eyes, he was a handsome guy with a great deal of scathing wit and intelligence.

My other would-be suitor, my now husband, Dan, was blue-eyed, blond curly hair, funny, sweet, wounded, and adorable. He was also the first guy of the two to actually ask me out, courtesy of my dear friend Linda's expert matchmaking.

My fiance' dumped me on Christmas Day, and my first date with Dan was on a Friday the 13th in January. (Between these two events was a run-in between my tiny sports car and a tractor-trailer rig on I-20 on New Year's Day.  My stress level was rather high during those holidays.) After that first date, I knew Dan was the One, and my ex-fiance' had done me a tremendous favor by dumping my keister.

Tall Bill called me soon afterwards, and was shocked that I'd already decided to only date Dan. He was disappointed and surprised. He'd secretly taken it very badly, but waited for until the night of the party to let us know. That sweet "revenge is a dish served best cold" kind of thing.

The party progressed, the vinyl flooring getting progressively stickier and stickier from spilled pina colada drinks and dropped cheese snacks. We were more than a little tight, so to speak, when Tall Bill made his appearance. Always polite, always cordial, always handsome and observant, he took in our little domesticity and a fuse was lit in his beautiful head.

Dan and I have never been deities of domesticity, and our large refrigerator was a chilly science experiment in progress. Tall Bill had a few pina colada drinks with us, then started examining our refrigerator. I have to say that there's no pretense in my lack of housekeeping skills, so when Bill started doing a comedy routine on the duplication of jars and bottles of catsup in his dry wit, I was one of the first to laugh.

Some of the comments got a lot edgier, but I was still laughing so hard I was on my knees crying. It was true. I couldn't tell you what some of the plastic containers in the back of the 'fridge had once held, because they were past identifying.  It was funny.

Later a friend asked me if I was humiliated that Tall Bill had done such a devastating deconstruction of our 'fridge, but I said no. Comedy often comes with truth, frequently comedy is edgy, and my perception of his routine was truth and not shame. 

I seem to remember being in Tall Bill's small bachelor apartment one Friday afternoon when our Oil Patch kids were having a nearby volleyball game out on the lakefront. He was lucky enough to have scored a tiny but perfect place almost at the lake seawall, and was the closest bathroom.  A girlfriend and I followed him home after he'd offered the use of said bathroom, and I can tell you his place was pristine. Even the fridge was perfect and organized when he offered us a cold refreshment.

So Tall Bill and I were not to be, and even if he'd asked first, one look at my single girl's fridge in Metairie would've set him straight on my true disorganized and distracted character.

He did judge me on the contents of my refrigerator, but I was past caring.

As a footnote, I finally went by that old rental on Athis Street in New Orleans during last year's Christmas break. After Katrina, I didn't want to see that part of town, and it's still raw, but signs of renewal are there. We found the little old wooden house and my kids asked about the dried slime line high on the front, a telltale sign of where flood waters had been. It looked close to six feet.

One of the common pictures that came out of the New Orleans area in the aftermath of Katrina was of bound refrigerators out by the curb of houses waiting to be saved. They were like tombs of what had been households' last meals. Now they were seal and waiting to be taken away to a dump or recycling, some poor souls having to pry apart the doors and take out the waste inside. 

It was a metaphor for the ruin of so many neighborhoods and lives. Not one person could tell the contents of that refrigerator for the stench and ruin inside. Abandoned Tupperware, antique Corningware, styrofoam takeout containers, bottles of catsup sealed in the metal tombs. The owners have moved on, and so have we.