LJ Idol -- Week, um, 9? Whatever. You have your Marching Orders

There is is, written on the white board in bright blue marker. Clean upstairs bathroom. Clean downstairs bathroom. Sweep and mop kitchen. Beside each job is an initial. Happy Saturday, and welcome to the house of The Meanest Parent In The World. Line up for your marching orders.

Miraculously, the house ends up clean and the children manage to survive, week after week. Washing dishes does not cause their hands to fall off. Cleaning bathrooms does not cause the Rampaging Germs From Hell to crawl up their arms and eat them alive. Even shoveling snow turns out to be a survivable experience. We live in the Greater Chicago area, and believe me, my children survive shoveling a lot of snow.

I went to a college with extremely high academic credentials. We were, we were told, the best of the best; it was actually harder to get into our school than to get into Harvard. I was told, very seriously, that when I left the school, I would find that nobody really thought the special way we did.

By the end of my freshman year, I knew that one of the ways we were special was that I had never seen such a concentration of academic bling accompanied by such a complete ignorance of the basics of housekeeping.

I seriously considered holding classes in the basics of doing laundry as a way of making money. You have to understand, when I say “basics,” I mean really, really basic. Basic as in, if you fill the washing machine with so much clothing that you have to lean on the lid to get it shut, you probably have too much in the washer. Yes, I actually saw a student doing that. I saw a very disgusted member of the Building and Grounds crew repairing the victimized washing machine a week later, too. Coincidence? You decide.

I swore that no child of mine would reach adulthood without knowing the fundamentals of cleaning a house. (I also swore that I would raise any sons so that no future daughter-in-law would ever be quoted in a women’s magazine article about husbands who don’t do their share of the housework. Feminism forever.)

No one has ever accused me of lacking the deviousness to get my way without my target figuring it out until it’s too late. When my children started asking, “Me help?” I stepped back, made a note to go back and scrape the plates properly before I ran the dishwasher, and allowed them to happily sucker themselves into doing housework. Thinking it was fun, they learned how to fold clothes, wash dishes, and run vacuum cleaners.

Little did they know where this was leading.

While it’s fun to learn to do something new with Mommy, after a while you’ve learned how to do it, and you’d rather go turn your Popple inside-out again. That’s when my children lost their innocence, because Mommy started saying things like, “This week, it’s your job to clear the table.” Evil Mommy!

I am now the mother of two teens and a tween. I am pleased to say that from watering the houseplants to scrubbing (and when necessary, plunging -- the basics, remember?) the toilets, they can handle any job in the house. They don’t necessarily *like* doing any of those jobs, but by golly, Buildings and Grounds will never show up at their dorm rooms with a wooden stake and a mallet intended for whatever villain sucked the life out of the dorm washing machines.

You live here, you eat here, you clean here. Mommy, Mommy, she’s our man, if she can’t do it ... that means we’re stuck with it. Again. I’m The Meanest Parent In The World, and you have your marching orders. The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be done.

LJ Idol -- What Week Is It? That's Such A First World Problem

“It’s kind of a first world problem,” I told my husband ruefully. After seventeen years at home, raising and schooling my children, I was back in the work force. Only part-time, and a job I really liked, but I was working nonetheless.

“I like my job, but I hate working,” I said.

“Welcome to the real world,” he responded, amused.

“I know. Plenty of people would love to have this problem. I’m spoiled.”

Then I had a nasty dizzy spell at work. I work in a hospital, and let me tell you, being on staff beats the hell out of being a patient. One of my coworkers took my blood pressure, eyed the readout with alarm, and the next thing I knew I was being bundled into a wheelchair and trotted down to the ER.

After four hours of blood tests, an IV, some poking and prodding, and a lot of sitting around waiting for something to happen, I was less dizzy, very hungry, and bored out of my mind. The doctor had diagnosed tachycardia, which is medical-ese for “your heart is racing.” Why? “We don’t know. Follow up with your own doctor.” They gave me a sandwich and send me home.

I followed up with my psychiatrist, instead. I take enough meds to keep a small city stable, so it seemed likely that a med, or more likely a combination of meds, was at fault. My meds get checked regularly for interactions, but with as many as I take, we’re out of “interaction” territory and into “critical mass.” It’s really anybody’s guess what all that mixed-up crap could potentially do. If my sanity didn’t literally depend on it, I would stop taking meds tomorrow and never put another pill into my mouth.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think it was your meds. I think you had a panic attack.” Aaaand ... “Check with your regular doctor, but follow up with your psychologist, too.”

Doctors do more passing than a quarterback in the post season. To make a long story short, a session with my psychologist ended with the conclusion that my psychiatrist was probably right. Solution? Um ... work on those anxieties, kiddo. And keep your emergency med handy.

Welcome to Louie’s real world. So much for my “first world problem.” I can’t be fired for the simple fact of having a panic attack, but if the panic attacks regularly prevent me from doing my job, and reasonable accommodations can’t fix the problem, I *can* be fired for that.

Nothing like adding anxiety over having panic attacks to whatever anxieties are triggering off the attacks in the first place. Like being depressed over depression (try it some time), being anxious over anxiety simply aggravates the problem. A couple more incidents left me more worried; I never got dizzy, or needed to leave work, but a few times I found myself shaking enough to be visible, in one case hard enough that I excused myself to the parents and walked out to get medication immediately.

I wish I could wind this up with a neat conclusion. I wish I could say I’ve overcome this and turned my job back into a First World problem, or that I’ve miraculously found a job that doesn’t trigger off my anxieties. I can say that I’m working hard on getting a handle on my anxieties, and things have been okay recently, but every once in a while, when a screen is looking iffy, I feel myself twitching, and suddenly I am on high alert again. I cross my fingers and breathe carefully.

Sometimes I think I run on gratitude and hope. I am grateful every time I make it through a stressful day without having a meltdown, and I hope that I’ll be able to do it again the next day. I keep in mind that my patients need my best side, so I do my best to smile and reassure, and sometimes it reassures me that I am succeeding in reassuring them.

Whatever works. First World, Third World, real world; if you’re smart, you deal with your problems where you find them. I still like my job, and I don’t really want to change. Pack up your anxieties in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile.

Bye week

Taking a bye. Work and family and holidays and some emotional wreckage and I just don't have it in me to write about anything. Does anybody know if we're getting a week off for the holidays? Because if we aren't, I'm probably done. I don't even know my schedule for Christmas thru New Years, but I do know that it's going to be bonkers, and I'm not going to have a bye to take.

Not of Your World

I am not of your world.

You probably think you know me. I fit right in. I talk around the water cooler. I show you pictures of my kid. Last week, when management went nuts and expected everybody to work an eighty-hour week, I bitched along with the rest of you.

I look just like you.

I know that when you look at me, you see a person who is talented and team-oriented, but quiet, and personally conservative. I come in early, I work through lunch, I stay late. I have a reputation for getting the job done. Even the gang over at marketing works well with me, and marketing doesn’t work well with anybody.

I show up at the office Christmas party, eat a bite or two of the food, and leave as soon as is politically appropriate. There’s a candy dish on my desk, and I always have some of everybody’s favorite candy. I get along.

There’s nothing all that unusual about me.

You’ll never notice. My disguise is perfect. At work, I am all professional; in the neighborhood I’m the nice guy next door. I bowl on Thursday nights.

Then, on the weekends, I hop in my car and leave. I camp. I commune with nature. I bring back fantastic pictures of wildflowers and rock formations. Everybody knows this about me; sometimes co-workers ask me why I don’t try to have my pictures published.

This week, I am on vacation. It’s time for a longer trip, and better pictures. I pack my tent, my sleeping bag, my camera.

Nobody notices that I don’t bother to pack a cooler. I don’t need one; I’ll find my food where I’m going. With a cup of takeout coffee in my hand, I pull out of town and onto the interstate. I have a long way to go, so I turn the radio and settle back.

I’ll be out in the desert soon. I can’t wait. I’m tired, and this time I’m not going back.

Thank Sreesik for that. I am ready to get rid of this ridiculous monkey suit and take off my helmet, stretch my eyestalks and breath a civilized atmosphere again. There’s the brush that conceals the ship.

As I said, I am not of your world. You will be of my world soon enough, however. Just wait until you find out what we discuss around the water cooler.

The elephant in the living room

My aunt died very quietly, early in the morning on Monday. She died at home, with my uncle and a friend sitting close by.

I spent over an hour on the phone with my uncle Monday night, and spoke with him again tonight. Since the family is scattered all over the United States and it's December, the worst travel month in the year, my aunt's ashes will be interred and there will be a memorial service next spring. My uncle and I agree that there should be apple pie at the memorial; therein lies a story ...

My aunt loved to cook. My brother hated apple pie. It was a combination that could only lead to trouble.

My aunt was an adventurous eater, and while she understood that not everybody likes everything, she was a big promoter of the "how do you know you don't like it unless you try it?" school. She decided that my brother had not given apple pie a fair chance.

You'd have to know my aunt. In what she later acknowledged to be a fairly serious misjudgment, she bullied him into tasting the pie.

Apple pie hasn't been safe in the house since. That's not where the fun comes in, though.

The fun comes in the next apple pie. And the next. And the one after that. All of which were *terrible*. Every time, there was a different mistake; the only consistent thing was that they were consistently inedible. It was nearly ten years before she managed to make a decent apple pie again. The damage had been done, however. To this day, it is only carefully ingrained manners that make it possible to share a pie with my brother.

We twitted my aunt about that for years; only a few years ago, on my fortieth birthday, the pies came up once again. Of all the pies to insist my brother eat, didn't it just figure she'd pick the only one that tasted good? My aunt was a good sport, and the story became a glorious mishmash of me retelling and her retelling and everybody else who had been there retelling. And lots and lots of laughter.

I loved my aunt very much. I *love* my aunt very much. She is dead, and I will miss her, and I will never let her live down those apple pies.


After last week, I thought it might be time to affirm life. I don't know of anything any more life-affirming than this little afterthought.

I’m not going to tell you what I was doing. Frankly, it’s none of your business. But let me state for the record that no matter what you’re doing, the words “birth control” and “afterthought” should not be in the same sentence.

“I think I’m pregnant,” I told my husband.

At the time, we possessed two charming children and an equally charming housemate. Let me also state for the record that if you’re going to treat birth control as an afterthought, there is a lot to be said for having your husband’s best buddy since childhood living with you, especially if he’s willing to babysit.

“You are pregnant,” my husband said. My jaw dropped. “How do you know?” “I know.”

Got your pen handy? Once again for the record, my husband can read me like a book. I do not possess the same talent, so it’s a good thing he uses his super-power only for good.

Needless to say, we had not been planning another baby. We’d stopped at two, much to the disgust of my mother. “If either of your mothers had stopped at two, neither of you would be here!” she cried indignantly. I raised my eyebrows. “Mom, I *am* number two,” I reminded her sweetly. “My brother is number three.” Using the truth in this kind of argument is dirty pool, but it’s family, so you take your advantages where you can get them.

My husband shrugged. No, he cheerfully admitted, he wouldn’t be here if his mother had stopped at two -- he’s number six. But then his sister wouldn’t be here either -- she’s number four. Nobody gets along with his sister. He said he’d accept lack of existence quite happily as long as it meant she hadn’t been born, either. Ah, the sweet love of family.

Just between you and me, I had already changed my mind. I wanted another baby. I had my campaign all planned; I was just waiting another six or eight months so that I wasn’t chasing a toddler while I was nine months along. The best laid plans of mice, men, and women of child-bearing age gang aft aglay, however, and all of my very best, persuasive arguments were now moot. I hoped my husband was not upset.

“So ...” he drawled, looking over his ice cream sundae (I’d waited to tell him until we were out on a date, hoping that being in public would keep things in hand) “... what shall we name the baby?” We were off and running, bringing up all the names we’d thought of for the other two but hadn’t been able to use, and adding to the already high heap with new names. Our oldest made it out of the hospital with only two names, but number two had barely escaped with four. This baby gave every indication of having a string of names long enough to grace a member of a royal family.

Several royal families. My husband’s eyes were glowing, he was smiling that mad “baby’s coming!” smile, and I gave a sigh of relief. It was okay. More than okay. It was good.

The day she was born, her father and I cuddled up in the big bed at the birthing center and checked her over. We don’t do the whole counting fingers and toes thing. That’s passe. Instead, my husband tells me how irrational I am when I’m giving birth (true), how badly I’ve crushed his hand this time (true), and wow, he’s hungry -- do we have any granola bars left? (Definitely true.) We found that both of us could curl completely around her, an activity that requires a working knowledge of higher mathematics and spatial warping. We argued a little bit more about baby names, and ended by giving her four, just like her sister, because we couldn’t narrow it down any further than that.

It has been eleven years since the birth of my little “afterthought.” She’s a bubble and a ray of sunshine, she drives me crazy when she won’t do her chores and I love to cuddle her more than just about anything. Once more, for the record, she’s the best afterthought I have ever had in my life. I am one lucky mama.

LJ Idol, Week 4, The Elephant in the Living Room

Not only is there an elephant in the room, but it's a dead elephant. Well, slightly more accurately, it's a dying elephant, and it's probably only a matter of days before it crosses the line into whatever heaven elephants in living rooms go to. It will still be there, though. Elephants are terrible guests, because once they get in there, it's tough to get them back out.

My aunt is dying, and death has become the Great Unmentionable. People are dancing around it, and because no one will talk about it, I don't know who will be offended if I say it. I shut my mouth, pick up my skirt, and join the pachyderm polka.

No one is trying to pretend that she's going to get better. It would take more than one miracle, it would take dozens of miracles. We're just not going to say, "She's dying." "She's going to be dead soon." We say, "It's only a matter of time," and, "There will be tears before this is over." But no one will use the d-word.

For one thing, it might be bad luck. For another, it might sound as though we want her to please get on with it, already. Plus, it's just uncouth to use any form of the d-word around someone who is dying, or around their family and friends. We wouldn't want to remind them about that uncomfortable elephant.

I have been quietly mourning my aunt for over a year, because the last time I was able to go east to see her, she was clearly on a downward slide that wasn't going to have a matching uphill slope. I haven't been flinging myself into the grave, just thinking about her and being sad that our good times are over.

Now, however, it is clear that she's likely to die in the next few weeks, and I need to cry. Among other things, while it's going to be fine to cry at the funeral, I'm going to be standing in the place of the daughter my aunt and uncle never had. My uncle is going to need me to be collapse-proof while I'm being tearful. That will be easier if I deal with some of my grief now.

Besides, she's dying. One of the loveliest people in my life is leaving me, and I have no religious conviction to persuade me that I will ever see her again. That's worth a few tears, as is the fact that in the last year of her life, she is so physically frail that the adventurous woman who loved me like a mother was gone completely.

My true fear, however, is that she will be erased. "Death" is a dirty word before, during, and after. I know people who would say, "Mother-fucking shit from hell!" in front of their grandmothers without batting an eyelash, but who respond to death with, "I'm sorry for your loss." Pay no attention to the elephant parked on the Persian carpet.

What frightens me is that a year from now, most people will think we should all have gotten over my aunt's death. They will also think that my uncle should decently retire his memories. They will not want him to darken their laughter with a reminder that sooner or later, death comes to everyone.

A good friend of my mother's once said that the hardest part about losing her husband was that everybody started acting as though he'd never existed. Sometimes she wanted to talk about him, and everybody put up a wall against any mention of his name. She was a hearty, cheerful woman, and she wasn't dragging around in her widow's weeds. She'd just had a wonderful marriage to a wonderful guy, and she wanted to remember that. It wasn't socially acceptable.

I do not want my aunt to disappear. I want my uncle to be encouraged to tell stories about her. You do not spend fifty years happily married and then suddenly shut your spouse out of your life because she is dead. I want to remember her. I want to keep on telling about the only good apple pie she ever made, and about ordering chicken at a seafood restaurant, and about how she introduced me to the best chili con carne I've ever eaten.

I have a plan. For one thing, right now, I am going to say, "What do we do when my aunt dies? Work is going to make it complicated for me to go east, but I have to be there for the funeral." But long term, I'm going to start asking my uncle the questions I should have asked a long time ago. How did they meet? Why did they elope? What was it like living in Italy, Hawai'i, San Francisco?

Talk to me. 2Good 2B 4gotten. We both loved her, so let's remember together.

Soon, my aunt will be dead, but if I have any choice in the matter, I'll teach that damn elephant to do circus tricks. I can't get it out -- as the Christian funeral service says, in the midst of life we are in death -- and I'm never going to be entirely happy about having four tons of elephant and the accompanying elephant poo in my life, but I can learn how to accept it as gracefully as possible. And I can negotiate couch space so that after pitching hay for the darned thing, I can sit down and live the rest of my life, side by side with the elephant in the living room.

LJ Idol -- Week 3, It's A Trap!

It should be obvious who I wrote this for. At the risk of being mushy, this one is for you, B.

It's All His Fault

It’s all his fault.

If I’m smart, that’s when I get a nice cup of hot tea and take a lavender bath with candles, because that’s when the jaws of the trap are starting to yawn wide open.

It’s all his fault.

A tough day at work. No dinner in the crockpot. My youngest comes home from school in a mood. My oldest has disappeared to his job without doing the chores. The kitchen is a mess, the house is a mess, my head is a big, big mess. And I’m looking to take someone down for it.

It’s all his fault.

My favorite person in the world is my husband. The funniest, the most interesting, the most caring, the most supportive. He got me through my last episode without killing me or divorcing me, which in all seriousness must have taken darned near super-human strength. As a result, I sometimes find myself royally pissed off at him, because I’m unhappy and he isn’t fixing it.

It’s all his fault.

One of the things I’ve had to do, in the process of learning to deal with bipolar disorder, is figure out how to identify real emotions, as opposed to emotions being generated by screwed up brain chemistry. If the emotions are chemical, I have learned to defuse them, to take my emergency med if I need it, and to remove myself if necessary. If the emotions are real ...

It’s all his fault.

... then I have to deal with them functionally. If I deal with them dysfunctionally, the stress will trigger off a chemical response, and then I’m dealing with real emotions that are being magnified and complicated by mis-firing neurons in my brain. Translation: I become an emotional mess, and when that happens, everybody else needs to keep their heads well down.

It’s all his fault.

I ask myself questions. How do you actually feel? Is there something real setting it off? What can you do about it? I also ask myself, Are you sure someone else has to fix this?Can you deal with it yourself? I remind myself to watch my step. The family has suffered enough. If there really is a problem, take a mental time-out to make sure you’re calm and rational. Don’t hurt anybody.

It’s all his fault.

When it’s chemical, I sometimes warn everybody that I’m feeling bad, and would they please either keep their distance or walk softly around me? I sometimes say, “I am about to start yelling. Can we please stop this whole thing until I’ve pulled it together?”

It’s all his fault.

I remind myself that my husband is not an emotional Mr. Fixit. If something is upsetting me, it’s not his job to pet me until I settle down. He’s not a punching bag, either. If I am feeling the need to take it out on somebody, I need to clear out. Even if I have a real reason to be angry with him, I have to keep a lid on it. I can tell him, “I am really angry with you!” but I can’t scream, “Why can’t you do anything right, you stupid son-of-a-bitch?” Even if it feels like he really can’t do anything right. Even if it feels like he really is a stupid son-of-a-bitch. Watch out. Those feelings are a trap.

It’s all his fault.

Recovering from my last episode of bipolar disorder has been different, because for the first time I am aware of what’s going on. As I stabilized, I started to realize how many of my feelings were irrational, or enlarged and twisted. For the first time in my life, I came up hard against the fact that I was going to have to take active responsibility for what I did in response to emotions, because my “natural” response, my unthinking response, was bound to be as twisted as the emotions.

It’s not his fault.

It isn’t my “fault,” either -- trust me, I did not ask to have bipolar disorder -- but it is my responsibility. Bad day at work? Agitated response to a negative comment? Depression showing up for yet another round? Figure it out. Learn to deal with it. Ask for help, but remember, while other people can hand me the hammer, I have to bang in the nail myself. I can ask someone to help lift the lumber, but it’s my house. I have to be the one to build it.

Looking at the last few years, I realize that I have not only been recovering. I have been maturing. I have been taking responsibility not only for my emotions and actions, but for other things, as well. I have to admit, it’s a lot of work and a lot of stress to be an adult, but it beats the heck out of having my head stuck in the trap.

My husband agrees with me. I think he appreciates knowing that, while I appreciate his help, I no longer think it’s all his fault.