Our View From Here

Perspectives of Five Women

Evil

This week, the news of the death of Osama bin Laden spread across the country and in its wake left us with a number of disparate reactions.  Some were jubilant, taking to the streets in celebration, which I understand but still find a little icky.  Some were reflective, using this moment to remember the gaping wound this person left on our nation and mourn anew for lost loved ones.  Others, like me, were unsure how to feel and what to do. 

If ever evil were personified, it was in the being of bin Laden.  He killed without regard.  I read an article this week that made the point as clearly as I think it can be made: “He killed without regard for those who perished. That’s the scariest thing about people like bin Laden: Believing themselves to be at war against all freethinkers, their definition of “enemy” is nebulous. Children are soldiers by virtue of being born in America.”  Undoubtedly, our world is a better place without people like him. 

I read another article that reflected on the shared jubilation and sense that, “We got him” expressed in the impromtu rallies in New York and Washington.  The author is a military wife who, in the past five years, has endured both lonliness as her husband went to war, and also an increasing feeling of alienation from the nation at large.  Support for the wars has been waning.  Americans are weary of fighting and tired of losing our friends, neighbors and relatives to battles that seem increasingly removed from our reality.  So the public celebrations struck her as insincere.  People who had given up their support of the wars or of our soldiers were suddenly shouting from the rooftops that ‘we’ got him.  Is it insensitive to pick and choose when to celebrate military action?  Or is it a symptom of a short national attention span? 

My heart leapt when I watched the news on Monday morning (early to bed on Sunday, so I missed the President’s announcement).  But celebrating a death, even the death of someone so dispicable, just seems wrong-headed to me.  Instead, shouldn’t we focus on the future?  Someone who caused us so much pain is gone. The search for him is over. The spectre of his influence on our national psyche has disappeared.  This was a huge step for us as a nation.  But now, we need to move forward and move on.  We need to uphold our resistance to terrorism, and realize that it’s not yet over.  We need to continue to remember the ones we lost, and focus on their legacy.  There are miles to go.

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My Summer Vacation

No, your calendar isn’t wrong. It’s January.  But, I’ll be conveniently ignoring that for the next few paragraphs because I am in the throes of the winter doldrums, and we’re really only a month into this slog.  We’ve had a fairly large dose of snow every week this month and all the digging, trudging and freezing are wearing thin my patience and pleasant demeanor. 

So, today, I’m planning my summer vacation. 

Last summer was one of the most fun I’ve ever had.  I kicked off the season with a week in Tennessee, on a houseboat.  It was great. There was nothing to do but sunbathe, swim, boat and drink cocktails.  At night we played games and watched fireworks.  We also held the First Annual Blow-it-out-Your-Ass Contest (a thrilling sport, in which contestants use their lungs to expell air through the hole in the center of a floating noodle held underneath the body. The championship is awarded to the contestant whose water goes the highest in the air.  It’s way more fun than it sounds.)

Waterworld

Following the trip to TN, I opened my family’s lake house to my friends for a week and a half.  You never really know how many friends you have until you have a free place by a lake for them to stay.  We boated and cooked and had camp fires and played games.  I stayed at the lake the whole week and half, and friends came up for a few days at their leisure.  The fridge was kept stocked with beer and fresh vegetables. We kayaked to secluded islands to pick wild blueberries, we swam, we floated, we went for long walks.  It was splendid.

This year, we’re doing it all again. 

And, this, my friends, is what’s keeping me going through the snow and the slush and the freezing rain.  Even though, right now, it feels like it will never be warm and sunny again, the memories of what last summer was and the hopes for what this summer will be are keeping me warm in this season of little sun and long cold nights.  

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go dig my car out from under a snowbank.

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The best decision I’ve ever made

I move a lot.  In the past ten years I’ve moved nine times.  No, seriously, I’ve just counted and I’m as astonished as you are.  These weren’t just cross-town moves.  Seven of nine moves took me to another state or cross country. 

Every time, it’s the same  fever dream of anxiety, heavy lifting and yelling.  In most of these moves (save one) my family has been the backbone of the moving effort (which explains the yelling).  Friends help out, lending me their arms and backs in exchange for beer and pizza.  But every time, I feel like it’s an unending torture and I hate it. 

Also, for some reason known only to meteorologists, I always move on either the hottest, or the coldest, day of the year. 

I have acquired something of a moving expertise, however.  I’ve inherited my father’s calibrated eye so I can easily determine whether something will fit in a small space.  I’m a great packer, and I usually emerge on the other end of the move with all of my belongings intact.  And I’m a pretty good weeder-out of things I no longer need.  (A separate and very funny story has two of my best friends in a deathrace for the give-away box of books and dvds from one of my more recent moves)

But, I finally got fed up with all the bullshit hassle that a move entails.  So, for my most recent move, cross-town from Somerville to Brighton, I broke down and hired movers. 

Let me tell you, that was the BEST $300 I ever spent. 

In typical fashion, the day of my move saw a 20 degree increase in temperatures.  I had asked my dad and my sister to help with the final push and they showed up early, before the moving team arrived.  My dad looked at me and said, “What do you need me to do?”

I wish I had a picture of the look on his face when I handed him the keys to my new place and said, “Can you go over and be there to let the movers in? Thanks.” Shock and awe and absolutely zero lifting.  He was bowled over.  He hastened out the door before I could change my mind.

The moving team arrived and they took 25 minutes to load the truck and were underway while my sister and I finished cleaning and throwing out the remaining detritus.  About another 25 minutes later, we were all in the new place, the movers were finishing up and I signed the bill and sent them on their way. 

It was all over by 11 am and worth every penny.

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Pass the Present

My family has a lot of Christmas traditions.  But, if I had to select one, I’d have to tell you about something my father’s been doing for as long as I can remember.  No matter what else happens, and what other traditions bend and change from year to year, one thing has remained constant.

Christmas morning, picture it:

My sister and I wrapped in our duvets, usually with a dog or two sitting with us on the couch.  Staring intently at the tree, lit up, gorgeous and buried with presents.  Now, my father begins his tradition. It starts with the explanation, which we can all recite by heart.

“We will do gifts one at a time. I’ll hand them out and then everyone can watch everyone else open all of their presents.”

As he passes out presents, in order at first, then, by the end of the morning, just whichever one he grabs.  He follows our instructions: “Give mom that one!” “Natalie needs this one next!” and reads each tag aloud then we all watch with rapt attention as the recipient opens his or her present, makes their oohs and ahhs and thanks.  Then, we start the cycle again.

By the end of the morning, several hours later, we’re surrounded by gifts, and crumpled and torn paper and boxes.  For all the reasons Christmas can be stressful and nerve-wracking, the morning of, with my family, makes up for all of it.

Merry Christmas!

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Stress Case

I’m not very good at sublimating my stress.  I will usually sit on it until it explodes in some dangerous or terrifying way.  There are lots of things that stress me out and only a very few that actually relieve and release that stress. 

One thing that takes me out of my own head and away from the troubles of being human is being with friends.  Having dinner, or drinks, or just talking on the phone can make me feel miles better, yet, I’m sometimes reluctant to reach out to them for that comfort. 

The holidays are built (at least in my house) around making time for family and friends.  So, I should have little to no stress in my life now, yes?  Nope.  Less time, less money and more seas of humanity (all also short of money and time) than usual provides a perfect storm of stress. 

Stress breeds.  When it meets more stress, it multiplies, especially the stress of strangers.  Stress is kind of a slut.  But, stress can also kills itself as an act of selflessness.  When it meets the stress of loved ones, it can go away to give you the opportunity to be with someone else and help take care of their problem. 

In closing this all-over-the-place post, I’ll first apologize for its lack of central theme or clear structure. Then I’d like to explain by saying that I’m a bit stressed out right now.

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A Tale of Two Families

Here’s my family related post that I was supposed to do last week.

I grew up with a small nuclear family – mom, dad, sister, and me. Most of the time it was just the four of us. When it came to major holidays, we’d add in my maternal grandparents, and on occasion my mother’s brother and his equally small nuclear family. That was as big as we ever got for any occasion, so for a good portion of my childhood, that’s all I ever knew.

In 1994, however, we moved from the Seattle area to Pennsylvania. I was halfway through high school when my parents decided to move there, in part because my dad’s family lived there. Now, my dad is the third of eleven children, so I went from nice, small family occasions to often overwhelmingly large ones overnight. Not all of the family still

lived there, but many did and many that didn’t came back for at least Christmas. I remember sitting on the floor of my grandma’s living room on that first Christmas, trying to remember everyone’s name. I saw most of these people so rarely (at that point, maybe twice in my life) that I really struggled to identify who was who and how they were related to me.

What was even weirder was that people recognized my name in that town. I have a fairly uncommon last name, at least uncommon enough that people recognize it and immediately make a connection to someone else they know. I ended up going to the same high school that most of the original 11 siblings went to.  I don’t know how many times a teacher of mine would say,

“Hey, are you related to (insert aunt/uncle/grandma name here)?”  Not just at school, but everywhere I went I had this experience. It was all new to me.  To go from complete anonymity to everyone knowing who you are because of your relations is just strange.

Seafood lasagna - mostly complete, delicious, ...

Image by mschutt via Flickr

My larger family wasn’t close, though. We’d get together for the major holidays (seafood lasagna for Christmas, anyone?), but for the most part, everyone went their own way.  When grandma passed away, the family drifted apart. I moved off to New York where I experienced complete anonymity. You know, I sort of missed having that family around me. Now back on the west coast, and after a parental separation, it’s just me, mom, grandma, and my uncle.  I have a couple cousins around that I don’t see much. I always dreamed of having family holidays, but at this point, I guess I’ll just have to make my own family.

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The family you make

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what defines a family.  In most cases, these definitions are strict, black and white: multiple generations sharing some genetic material.  This definition is not at all dependent on whether or not those generations of people can actually stand to be in one another’s company.  For me, though, the definition of a family is more fluid and expansive. 

I was born into a small nuclear family, but a large, bi-coastal extended one.   My paternal grandmother was a true matriarch, her clan gathered for holidays and important occasions.  We all tried to be together at least once a year.  Since her death, we still gather, but in smaller groups, at odd times, and the nuclear units tend to do their own thing more and more.  This could be because my generation is starting to form our own nuclear families and priorities are changing.  Also, dining rooms are only so big, and the family continues to grow (two new babies this year alone!)

On the other hand, there are people who are my family, even though we’re not related.  There are those people you invite into your life in ways that make the word “friend” seem insufficient.  This is something I learned from my parents.  In their lives they’ve introduced several new family members into my life.  Their friends became their family then became my family and added richness, love and warmth to our lives.  Some people just fold so seamlessly into your existence that you forget that you ever didn’t know them.  

So, I’m really lucky.  I have a wonderful, strong and happy genetic family, and I have an ever-growing real family.  I have more people to laugh with and love than I was born with, or than I ever anticipated.  That’s the beauty of life: it only is, it only ever can be, what you make it.

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Caffeine Genetics

I like good coffee. 

(Wow, that sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it.  Maybe I should just quit while I’m ahead today, with mind-blowing observations like that!  Is your life changed from having read that?  Good, then I’ve done my job.  You’re welcome.)

Beyond that, though, I really really don’t like bad coffee.

(Still cookin’ here.)

In my case, it’s a learned behavior.  I came of age during the Great Coffee Revolution: the birth of Starbucks and the mainstreaming of Gourmet Roasts.  My parents always make coffee at their house; and they always buy the good stuff.  So, when I started to drink it, there was always a really rich, aromatic blend available.  My sister learned to brew coffee when she was five years old.  By the age of seven, she was the go-to coffee maker in our house.  I focused my efforts on drinking it, rather than making it (which, I still feel was a smarter strategic choice).

So, my coffee snobbery has deep roots.  I turn my nose up at Maxwell House and Folgers.  I buy the best beans I can afford from artisanal roasters, I grind them myself and every morning I brew a press-pot.  If coffee isn’t brewed strong enough, I feel cheated.   I prefer dark roasts over light roasts, but they have to be done right.  I have a great deal of disdain for Starbucks, because I think they over-roast their beans to achieve a rich flavor, but everything ends up tasting burned. 

When I travel to tea-drinking societies, I drink tea more often than coffee, but only because the coffee tends to be instant.  If I do drink instant coffee (only out of necessity: heading to the airport, need something to stay awake before leaving the hotel room), I double the dose of powder, hold my nose and wait for the caffeine to kick in before I start making any big decisions….like where to find something decent to drink.

Because coffee-snobbery is a family affair, when I travel, one of the best gifts I bring back is coffee.  My parents babysit for Roxy when I go away, so I bring gifts from my travels.  In Indonesia this Spring, I spent four days looking for good beans, I bought some that were just ok.  When I got back from shopping, my host had bought me two pounds of incredible coffee, so when I got home, I gave away what I bought and kept the good stuff to myself.  (Go ahead, ask me if I regret being selfish:  I don’t.) Last fall, I returned from Colombia with an amazing kilo of Colombian coffee.  Two days later, I left for Norway, a country that consumes good coffee, but doesn’t produce it.  Four days into my stay in Norway, my mom called me on Skype. 

“We drank all that coffee.  When are you bringing back more?”   

Told you….I come by it honestly.

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In Stitches

All I really wanted was a scarf. 

I looked around for the right color,  length, width, the right combination of features that made up the PERFECT SCARF that existed in my head.  I couldn’t find it.  So, I set to making it.  I’m not the type of person who allows the nonexistence of some theoretical thing get in the way of my having it. 

I taught myself to knit.

I had some help in this endeavor.  A little from my mother who cobbled together memories of learning years before, much of which, in the long run, proved inaccurate and unhelpful, but I didn’t know that at the time.  A lot from my co-worker, an avid knitter who could see my mistakes and tell me how to fix them without making me want to abandon the project altogether. 

A year and a half later, I had my scarf. 

Award-winning mittens!

It wasn’t perfect, but the unevenness of its rows and its clumsy bind-off only made its not-quite-rightness more endearing.  I made that.  And, if I could make that, what else could I make?  I wanted to find out.  I kept going with a few more clumsy scarves made of large yarn on biggish needles.  I made some hats and  a dog sweater from leftover bits of yarn that makes Roxy look like Bill Cosby.  I found a community of knitters online who had advice and stories to share, I read books, learned to read patterns, bought expensive, beautiful yarns “to use later.” I found yarn shops, I made toys, I learned new techniques: felting, cabling, lace, fair isle. 

Christmas Stocking for LanaThen I started making socks.  And it was all over for me.  I had turned the corner, I had gone from being a person who knew how to knit to a knitter.  My friends and family tease me about my yarn stash, which I see as an investment in their futures, since my nearest and dearest are the recipients of most of my wooly knitted love.  I got a huge compliment recently when my mom asked me to darn the socks I’d made for her four years ago: my mother wore those socks so much that she walked holes in them.  (I told her how to darn them herself: Step 1, hold over trash can; Step 2, release; Step 3,  say, “darn.”)

So now, I’m the crazy knitting person that people know.  I always have a several projects on the needles, one or two in my bag (this week it’s a lace scarf and a pair of socks), I’m always reading forums and blogs, and making lists of projects for the next round of gift-giving (Christmas knitting starts in August).

Roxy warming Amanda's blanket

Now, though, I’m having trouble finding the PERFECT ARMCHAIR.  I fear I could be heading down a dangerous path.

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