Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Thanatopsis

My first experience with death was the passing of my great-grandmother when I was six. I still remember visiting her, prior to her death, at my great aunts' house. Withered and paralyzed in her legs, she so little resembled me or even my parents that somehow she seemed hardly human. I remember her always sitting in the back bedroom in a blue velvet chair. When she died, I had a “Wizard of Oz” inspired dream that my aunts Barbara and Maureen had dropped her off in heaven in a hot air balloon. Maureen and Barbara had round trip tickets, of course. And though it was strange that my grandma was no longer perched in her chair the next time I visited my aunts, I felt at peace. It all made sense: Grandma was old and now she was in heaven. I could live with that.

In my life, I have had little experience with real grief or real death. I mean yes, my grandma (not great) has since passed and there are other people, too, but the people I have been close to who died were within the right window of time. I had it all figured out. You see, I imagine the future with the same certainty as the past: there is a time line when a life starts and then after it goes on long enough; it is OK with me for the time line to end. Don’t get me wrong, I miss grandma, but I can’t be too upset that she died. For me, she died within the acceptable window. As I have heard said, “it was her time.” OK I can live with that.

I, like most people when faced with adversity, blame modern American society; not because we have it so bad, but perhaps because we have it so good. We have managed to isolate ourselves from our common, inevitable end in every way we can. Death is ugly; however, thanks to contemporary scientific and technological break-throughs, it has all but disappeared. Even the meat we buy comes neatly packaged in Styrofoam and wrapped in plastic. It hardly resembles a living organism other than that little smear of blood found on an absorbent pad under each chuck roast. Or consider the profits of plastic surgeons slicing away what the hands of time have worked so long to alter. The unspoken modern syllogism: aging means dying and death is ugly, therefore aging is ugly. Let’s pretend a while longer that we are immortal. Like elephants, people have even kindly found a place to die conveniently located away from the rest of us. According to recent statistics, anywhere between 75-90% of all Americans die while in hospitals or nursing homes. The dying are nothing if not considerate. Need more proof that we are in denial about our final, collective outcome? Consider the body before it is interred. Generally, the undertaker has gone to great lengths to remove all traces of death in order to create a sort of a human tromp lo’iel effect: grandma is still here. She is just asleep. Either that, or the corpse is reduced to a few handfuls of ashes that resemble nothing.

And so, the result when faced with real, untimely death, we contemporary Americans are innocents; blind-sighted and unprepared to deal with the thought of anyone close gently slipping into that good night. Perhaps I generalize too much. Perhaps I mean me.

Less than two weeks ago, there was an untimely death that took place in my own back yard. Not my husband or my children, but a dog. A coyote got over the wall and saw, not the beloved family shih tzu, Sadie, but an early morning meal. My other dog, a wizened Jack Russell terrier, sounded the alarm and my husband responded. We were all too late. Sadie was dead.

I feel childish comparing the death of a pet to that of human beings, but her absence has been a bit of a tragedy to me, starting with having to tell my children, one by one, as they awoke that Sadie was killed. My four-year-old, Scott, responded that I was wrong and went looking through all of the rooms in the house, certain that Sadie was right there; ready as always to greet him. It took only just a minute for him to realize that Sadie was gone, permanently. So my oldest three children and I wept in intermittent waves all day. We talked about Sadie and how she warmed us as she curled at the foot of our beds. We said how sad we all were that she would not greet us at the door any more with her riot of unbridled gratitude that we had, once more, returned to her. We even pulled out the pictures that Megan, had colored in her first grade class when hospice had visited the school. I found myself grateful for the coloring book titled “Life Losses” that had seemed inappropriate and macabre in the hands of my six-year-old just a week before. We cried again when we came home and my two-year-old announced, “Sadie’s not here. Only Jax. Sadie is in the box.” I cried again late that night when Scott woke up, drowsily crawled into my bed and wept silently with no affectation, for his lost friend.

Less than two weeks have passed and the kids have moved on. They can mention Sadie without tears and remember her happily. I no longer hear in thin, pleading voices, “Mom, I miss, Sadie.” My eight year old has even mentioned that it is kind of nice not worrying that the dog will chew her toys if she leaves them on the floor.

I still miss Sadie, but I don’t tell my children. I am glad they can live with that. Even so, with Halloween approaching my daughters are, for the first time, afraid of the plastic skulls and funereal decor. For the first time they want to know if I think ghosts are real. I approach the question mythologically, logically, theologically trying to vanquish their fears. For all of my efforts, Megan won’t brush her teeth in the bathroom by herself. In the end, Sadie’s untimely death has left none of us unscathed. My children are now left to contemplate how drastically ones life can change, even while asleep.

As for me, I wonder that I still grieve the passing of my pet, more so perhaps than that of some people. But, Sadie threw off my timeline. She was young; Jax was old. Jax would die and there would still be many good years with Sadie and she would sleep at the foot of Scott’s bed and be there, waiting to jump all over me at the door. And so, the inevitable truth that I have come to recognize as I look at the downhill side of my thirties: that between my husband of ten years and our four children, I have a lot invested in the certainty of my life and that fixed timeline of my future, that now seems less indelible than I once thought. I understand it is not death that I fear. It is grief.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dear Banksy,

I think you should send me a piece of original art. Here is why: after my recent viewing of your film, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" I have gained an abiding appreciation for your work as well as for the entire street art movement. I love the subversive irony associated with what you do. Additionally, your work encompasses all that I understand about contemporary art: that it is as much process as outcome.

You see, I have long appreciated visual art. One of my most vivid memories is stumbling upon Dali’s “The Last Supper” at the National Gallery where I stood transfixed for several minutes staring up from the middle of a stair case- immobilized by the proximity of myself to great art. I had seen prints, but was unprepared to process and internalize the beauty of the original. Art has moved me similarly since and I have longed to surround myself with it.

Regrettably, I have no real propensity for creating original art work, however, I am satisfied that I know how and what to enjoy: I know what speaks to me. It brought me joy, for instance, to see with what skill you sculpted shapes from paper with an X-acto blade and with what delft movement you could fold and unfold a giant stencil: an artist’s hands in action are as much art as the work itself.

And so, my proposal: please send art. One tiny piece would suffice- a stencil on the back of a 3x5 card, or a rendering of a rat small enough to fit on a postage stamp. Here is why I think you should: I know that you are paid grand commissions by the affluent of the world. I am glad they recognize your talent and sponsor your craft. However, I believe we can both see the irony in this. I read that Christina Aguilera owns an original. Surely, you and she both understand that she represents all you despise. Her work is cheap and will expire with the generation that exalted her. Therein lies the irony and the sting of compromise that all artists must tolerate when faced with patronage.

And so, Master of Irony through Juxtaposition, I would think you could see that I am the ideal consumer for your work. I am only a stay-at-home mother of four who teaches on-line high school English. I have literary aspirations, but never hope to be wealthy enough to collect art. I don’t really long for wealth, but I find it deply aggravating that the only people who can afford art work are often the cheap, celebrity sell-outs who want to possess it only for status and then buy and sell the way they would an estate or an automobile.

If you decide to send me a piece, I promise not to sell or charge admission. I will hang it on my wall, or set it on my mantle piece, or display it in my yard. I will admire the craft of it. To me it will develop and evolve in meaning as my own life evolves. I will consider, daily, the skill with which it has been crafted. Really, what greater commission could any artist hope for? So if you ever want to tag a blank stucco wall in a remote town in Arizona, I have just the one for you. Your work may not be viewed by more than the seasonal visitors or a rogue coyote, but it will mark the residence of an appreciative art connoisseur. Also, I promise not to let the dogs out into the yard while you are working.


P.S. How do you feel about the London Bridge?

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I am fortunate to come from a family with members possessed of various and significant talents. I could ennumerate the accomplishments of my six siblings, but then I would risk bragging while simultaneously making apparent my own lack of skill. The wonderful perk of being a member of such a family is that, someone is bound to be talented in an area where I lack. If nothing else, I am skilled at employing my siblings' gifts to compensate where my own fall short. My sisters, generous by nature, are at particular risk to be roped into my latest scheme. So my message to you, dear family, is; if ever you need a paper proofread or the insertion of a snide, sideways remark, I am your woman. I owe you, big time.

The above is a collaboration between me and my graphic design artist sister, Laura Barlow. It is true to my life. Many thanks to Laura for helping me laugh at a time when all I wanted to do was pound my head on the nearest wall.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mother Colors

Rumor has it that I have given up on my blog altogether. OK that's just me being optomistic. No one is actually talking about this blog at all. Anyhow, I have written a few odd things that I am going to indulge myself by sharing with you here.

The following is a satirical piece I wrote and actually submitted to one of my favorite magazines Brain, Child. I was solidly rejected, however, those who can get published. Those who can't self publish. OK so I'm not Erma Bombeck, but here it is:

What’s Your Mother Color?

Have you ever wondered what your mommy style is? With this simple quiz, you can determine the color that fits your unique parenting profile. Circle one for each item.
1. When describing my children to my friends, the word one would most often hear me say would be
a. “cute”
b. “genius”
c. “brats”
d. “gin and tonic”

2. The meal most likely to be served at my house would be:
a. vegetarian stir fry with organic tofu and bok choy served on a bed of brown rice.
b. a tasty, original casserole pulled together from last night’s meat loaf and Tuesday’s mashed potatoes.
c. only the touch of a button away. I have the number for the nearest pizza joint programmed on speed dial.
d. mostly comprised of condiments.

3. My underwear drawer contains:
a. hot lingerie for alone-time with daddy.
b. hot lingerie with maternity panels and nursing accessible cups for “alone-time” with daddy.
c. only items marketed as “control top”.
d. nothing. I usually get my panties direct from the dryer.

4. The reading material I provide for my children is:
a. the “Wall-Street Journal.” After all, you can never start them too soon.
b. Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia. Nothing feeds young minds like fantasy books in a series.
c. the closed captioning option during “Dora the Explorer”: entertaining and literarily bilingual!
d. the back of the cereal box. Whose first words weren’t “free toy inside” and “high fructose corn syrup?”

5. The contents of my vacuum dust bag are usually:
a. non-existent. I promptly empty my vacuum after each use.
b. pony beads, silly bands, and crayon pieces.
c. cheese puffs mingled with dirt and pet hair.
d. non-existent. Let’s hear it for free-range dust bunnies!

6. My greatest consideration when planning a family vacation is
a. its potential to be simultaneously entertaining and educational.
b. maximizing family togetherness (i.e. small tents, single bed hotel rooms, compact cars).
c. affordability.
d. the availability of convenience stores between “point A” and “point B.”

7. My favorite disciplinary threats
a. are seldom employed. I rarely have to resort to them with my little darlings.
b. often lead to the confiscation of one or more video game consoles.
c. usually result in me turning the car around and/or pulling over.
d. involve hypothetical clones of the offending child.

8. My biggest fear as a mother is that:
a. phenylketonurics are, in fact, carcinogenic.
b. that my mother’s curse will come true and I will have a child exactly like myself.
c. that some children never will potty train.
that my grandmother’s curse on my mother has come true and that my mother did have a child exactly like herself.

9. When seeking parenting advice, my best resource is:
a. the experts. I study up on what published psychologists and doctors have said.
b. people I know. I like to consult my friends and family first.
c. my mystical eight-ball. It always gives me a clear and immediate answer.
d. Oprah.

10. I usually cope with day-to-day stress by:
a. taking time out to relax and enjoy the company of my children.
b. exercising or doing yoga, especially focusing on deep breathing techniques.
c. smiling. It’s amazing how perfectly natural I look even while gritting my teeth.
d. gin and tonic.

Scoring: For each “A” answer score yourself 2,000 points. For every “B” answer score yourself with 500 points. For every “C” answer give yourself 100 points. For every “D” answer give yourself 2 points.

20,000-12,000 points: Your color is magenta.
Buoyant and sparkly, you are the mom everyone wants to be. Someday there will be a bronze statue erected in your honor. Not even the pigeons will dare poop on your likeness. You go, girl!

11,999-4,000 points: Your color is burgundy.
Intelligent and efficient, you can pull off anything. Your neighbors come to you for your sound advice. No one ever needs to know that you caught your son lapping rain water off the back patio during his “puppy” stage. You deserve a pat on the back for all you do. You go, girl!

3,999-300 points: Your color is vermillion.
Eclectic and energetic, you are a mother with a talent for flexibility. You know how to survive all conditions. So what if your kid had lasts night’s leftover carpet popcorn for a snack? Whether they’re admitting it or not, everyone else’s did too. You go, girl!

299-20 points: Your color is puce.
(Who has the time to add up the points for these stupid quizzes anyway?) Savvy and fun, your unique parenting style sets you apart from the rest of the crowd. Besides, your kids aren’t mismatched. They wear different colored socks on purpose and they pull it off, too. Your children are generally happy and so are you. Gin and tonic! You go, girl!