Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Today, I was asked to do the devotional to start our meeting. I hate doing devotionals because I so often want to use the moment to make a point and I know that's not the right attitude. Devotions should be about letting God shine through the lesson that I've written, not propaganda. So, like praying out loud in groups, I generally avoid it.

But I also feel that it's not right to say no when asked. It doesn't give me hives, so I figure that sometimes I should let God challenge me to do the right thing and tuck my ego away while helping others to reach some insight.

So, I was on vacation last week and tried very hard not to think about it. I caught up on a bunch of work Monday and tried very hard not to think about it. I sat on the tarmac for four hours yesterday and tried very hard not to think about it. I kept telling myself with all of the reading that I do, something is bound to occur to me. Or, better yet, like Moses, I hoped God would send me the words.

Last night, finally, I wrote several drafts of at least two totally different ideas. I wanted to show everyone else that I really do love Jesus, despite my abrasive personality. I wanted to persuade my colleagues in various philosophies that I have about the job that we do. I even wanted to prove some of my more heretical doctrines, subtly and incontrovertibly.

Luckily, as exhaustion set in, I decided that simple would probably be best and wrote the following lesson. One of my dad's friends was in the meeting and tattled back to Dad about it, so I'm sharing this with you at his request.

I have been thinking about salt. The American Medical Association (AMA) is pushing for warning labels on salty food and would like Americans to reduce their salt intake by 50% in the next decade. Most Americans eat around 2 teaspoons of salt a day.

So, I have been thinking about salt.

When I was a child, we often studied this verse from Matthew 5:13 in Sunday school:

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men."

I'll admit that I also sang about this verse in a few different versions of Godspell. My Sunday school teachers used to explain that since salt was used as a preservative in Biblical times, it was highly prized and that is where this verse comes from.

OK, I'll accept that. If I was feeling feisty, I might have mentioned that when soldiers salted the earth, though, it was a tactic to prevent farmers from returning to land they had fled. The phrase "salt of the earth"” is a dominant one is our society but when you really sit down to think about it, the verse is a little confusing. But, OK, it'’s a verse that reiterates that I'’m important to God and that I have a responsibility to use the talents he gave me. The verses that surround this one confirm that interpretation: you are the light of the world, you are the city of God.

But, I'm learning that salt is much more than that. Salt isn't just a preservative.

Salt is yummy.

I mean, seriously, it makes things tastes better. Eggs, potatoes, radishes, watermelon. Making cookies is one of my top five skills and one of my secrets is to double the salt in the recipe. With just the right amount of salt added to a dish, the dish doesn'’t taste like salt, it tastes more like itself. The experience is more intense.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Americans love salt. The AMA says that 70% of our salt intake comes from fast or processed food. In order to make us crave that crap, they load it up with salt.

Because salt is yummy. And it makes food taste more like itself, more intense.

A few years ago, my father's best friend died. 900 people came to his funeral and his family handed every one of them a yellow card about 2 inches by 3 inches with one of those individual packages of salt that you get at McDonald’s glued to it and Matthew 5:13 written on it. But they didn’t use the confusing translation that I'’ve always known. Al loved the new translation, The Message, and this is how it interprets the original text:

"Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage."

Let me tell you why you are here. I love this version because it sets forth Jesus's metaphor as an imperative. Let me tell you why you are here.

I am at a stage in my life when I'’m still figuring out how to be yummy, and how to make God taste more like himself to others, how to make God more intense to the people I interact with. I'’m trying to figure out how to make my actions taste less like me and instead accent the taste of God. So, I've been thinking about salt.

Let me tell you why you are here. I think we'’re trying to do that here today and for the rest of the week to talk about how to be yummier and how to help people taste godliness.

So I have been thinking about salt.

Let me tell you why you are here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Still alive

I was on family vacation to Hilton Head last week, came home for two nights and I'm now in beautiful Newark, NJ on a business trip. I'll proobably be in the Quad Cities for the 4th of July weekend.

It's kind of weird that I'm not home much because I am just beginning to feel like I am enjoying the home life that I have for the first time.

For instance, upon returning from Hilton Head, I got to my apartment around 6:00 in the evening, showered, put on my new sundress and headed over to Jess's house for her birthday party. I knew many of the people there, to the point that there was never a moment that I sat quietly, looking for the next person to talk to. And I looked pretty hot in the sundress, if I do say so myself. (And I was not the only one to say so.) I closed down that party and made it home around 12:30. Then, I went to work all day on Monday, and then met my best friend from high school, Lorinda, at Millenium Park. Yo Yo Ma was giving a free concert with his Silk Road Ensemble to launch the Silk Road project in Chicago, which is something like 80 free cultural events throughout the year showcasing the art of the countries along the old silk trading road. So, she and I and her six-month-old baby listened to a phenomenal concert for free in a beautiful setting. Then, she walked with me over to Michigan Avenue to meet a real live date for the evening. He's an ER doctor and didn't get off work until around 8:00. We had tapas dinner and walked around downtown for a little while. All very much like a normal city dweller.

Weird, huh.

So, I'll be back home in a little while and, oddly, I'm looking forward to my time being full when I get there.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

This will be my service to the world

Think of the strong people in your life. Go ahead, actually name the names in your mind. They don't have to be people you know well, just people that you would use the word "strong" if you had to choose three words to describe them. Who have you thought of? Is it your mom, the crossing guard for the school by your house? Is it your son, your accountant? Is it your best friend, your third grade teacher? Who are the people that seem wise to you? Who are the people who have faced terrible hardship without breaking? Who seems like they could? Who are the old souls in your life?

Do you have a few faces in your mind?

I want to tell you something about those people. I don't know if they will thank me for telling you their secret, but I wish that someone would tell the people in my life who think that I'm strong what is really going on.

The truth is, although we are often admired for our strenth, we did not choose to be this way and do not deserve your admiration. At least, a good majority of us didn't. For most of us, we cannot think of any other option than to appear to the world as strong. Most of us started when we were very young, before we could be held accountable for our responses. Whether in self-defense, or to make our family laugh, or to be a complement to a sibling or parent, the personality that worked was a strong one. Whether things went our way or not, events felt not-wrong when we had been fierce or stubborn or stoic. So we kept doing it. Wordsworth writes, "The Child is father of the Man," which means that as we grow, each response in an interaction adds another brick to the building that we are creating with our lives. The personality that we live in as adults is determined by the behavior and experiences of our childhoods. Strength becomes habit. It comes to a point that to show weakness in anything other than a controlled fashion (crying in the safety of your mother's or husband's arms, starting a difficult conversation by admitting a mistake so that your companion cannot use it against you) doesn't even occur to us. If we start to consider different responses to the hardships and joys of life, it feels itchy and we stop considering before we even realize that we began.

So, we are not necessarily better or more successful for being strong because strong people really have no choice in the matter, although certainly it seems to be a prerequisite for heroes to have that word be one of the three. Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Chief Joseph, Albert Einstein. But they didn't choose to be strong, either. They just did big things with their strength.

But the bigger truth is that strong people - people who don't take any shit, people that can't be knocked down by tragedy, people that make hard choices and follow through on them - strong people need just as much kindness and help as everyone else. I'm not talking about the help that a disciple, follower, employee lends to his or her leader to accomplish a common goal. I mean that they need help in being strong.

We all know that the poor and the poor in spirit need our help. Random acts of kindness to those who we see are struggling are good choices, whether with the car door because his arms are filled with groceries or with an anonymous donation to a family struggling to make the rent. Those opportunities present themselves to us on a regular basis and it is good and right to take advantage of them. We all know that it is not the physical result of the help (an open car door, a place to live for another month) but the sense of hope that we give to strangers that they are not alone that is the best result of these acts of kindness. Additionally, we all hope that we would be able to risk our comforts and security to help the helpless. We think we might be able to tell our boss that he needs to treat the immigrant support staff legally and decently or we'll report him. We hope that we would run in front of the bus to save the blind man.

But who realizes that the sassy girl in the office is aching for you to tell her boss that he's being unfair? (Because let's be honest about the fact that my motivation here is personal.) Who thinks that the neighborhood grandma who goes to all of the community meetings to demand more police presence really wants to be able to skip a week if someone would only go in her place? Who even suspects that the teacher that forgives his students each night and accepts them back with open arms every morning wants someone to take the worst of them out behind the shed and teach them the lesson so it sticks (metaphorically, of course) so that he doesn't have anything to forgive anymore.

It's harder to see the random acts of kindness that we can do to help the strong and easy to believe that they don't need acts of sacrifice.

But they need the help. And that is the biggest truth that I can reveal. Oh, they'll keep doing what they're doing and doing it well. If they never get help, they still won't take any shit, they will continue to withstand soul-crushing tragedy, they make the right choices without thought for what they really want. But they do it without the sense of hope that comes from knowing that they are not alone in their struggles.

Please do not overestimate us. Please look for situations in which you would want help in the lives of those that seem strong enough not to need it.

Even Atlas got to give up his burden to visiting heores every once in awhile.

You don't need to be strong enough to hold up the sky for us. But if you could slap that mosquito on my ankle, I'd be a little less lonely.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

From White to Navy Blue

When I was in the third grade, I was on a park district softball team. I was also 8 years old. We were named after the White Sox. We had this grizzled old man of a coach. Like a cinematic cliche. Also part of my team were the Sanderson twins. I'm not sure why the Sandersons were so mean. Maybe it was because they were identical and they resented all the social interaction that gets tied up in that. Maybe it was because their mom had another set of identical twins almost exactly 9 months after they were born, this time boys. Maybe it was because their hair was so blonde that their eyebrows were, for all practical purposes, invisible. All I know is that they both dated my teenage true love of a boyfriend before I dated him and both of them dated him after I dated him the second time and I'm fairly sure that both of them dated him in the in-between period, as well. Don't ask for details; I never asked.

Anyways, my history with the Sanderson twins did not begin with Ken. They began on the White Sox. They were a year older than me and so they had the benefit of having a summer's worth of experience batting that I didn't have. My dad is a great big jock, so I knew how to throw and catch, but swinging at a pitch was a new thing for me. So, when we had games, I would occasionally strike out, even swatting at underhand lobs thrown by other girls my age who were aiming for a green astroturf mat laid out just behind the plate. No big deal. Everybody's got to start somewhere.

But the Sandersons seemed to think it was a big deal. And when I was up at the plate, they would make fun of me! I have no idea which names were offensive to the 8-year-old me. Whatever they were, the Sandersons used them.

Like I said before, I have no idea why the Sandersons were so mean. Maybe it was a classic case of kids who got yelled at a lot needing to turn around and yell at kids that were weaker than they were in order to feel better about themselves. They must have expected that I would just flinch, take the abuse and feel bad about myself.

Apparently, they didn't know The Slugger very well. (Nobody ever called me the Slugger. But wouldn't it have been a cool ironic twist if they did?) I never had any intention of feeling bad about myself. In fact, I was indignant. My dad may have been a jock, but he was also, more importantly, a sportsman.

I mean listen, here is a man that had once been offered a minor league contract to play baseball and he declined to coach his kids because he knew that he would expect too much of us. Here is a man whose father ran the YMCA in Danville, IL for 30 years. Mr. Poppleton, the 8th grade social studies teacher who grew up in Danville, told me once that he always felt safe at my grandpa's Y, even though they swam naked in those days. Here is a man who apologized to me while driving me to college my freshman year because once when I hit a home run (see, I got better) and slid into home and knocked over the catcher, he wanted to know I'd asked her if she was OK before he congratulated me on the good hit. I have never had a memory of that zealousness. But he still felt guilty years later that he cared more about how I behaved than about how I played and how those priorities should have been reversed in a father rather than a coach.

But, at 8 years old, I certainly couldn't explain to you that the Sandersons behavior was unsportsman-like. I was simply indignant. That's not how the world was supposed to work. I was a kid who liked rules and that was definitely against any rule that I ever knew.

So I said something.

To the coach.

I took him aside at the end of the practice and told him that those girls shouldn't say those things to me and that he should make them stop. I can still picture his face looking down at me as we stood by the parking spaces that line the field across the street from the high school.

There is something happening at work right now that feels like the Sandersons are standing behind the fence yelling while I'm trying to bat again.

The naivete of childhood would be welcome right now.

I haven't done anything wrong. I'm not even really swinging at bad pitches. But someone doesn't like how I do my job and so she has started yelling. I would bet that this is not even personal. She's probably got something going on in another part of her life and I look like an easy target. If she loses control with me and then cites the few errors I've made to deflect the attention from her own unprofessionalism, she feel better about the fact that she has invisible eyebrows. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

And so I am indignant. This is not how the world is supposed to work. I haven't done anything to deserve the treatment I'm getting.

So I said something.

To our boss.


He has ignored my requests that he intervene and now we have hit the breaking point where I have confronted her angrily and publicly for her rude behavior and she has threatened that I better "get up out of her face" and "back away."

And he will take her side.

It's a helpless feeling and I hate it.

I have had to waste the last two and a half days at work writing up incident reports and documenting the history of our relationship, printing out old emails to offer as support for narrative and generally working hard not to tell everyone my side of the story to feel better about being right.

Being a professional sucks on every level but the most important one. What good is walking the high road when, by that path's very nature, you can't tell anyone that you're up there?

When I got fired from my teaching job that I loved, I continued to teach for three months without telling the kids that I was leaving so that I could retain the authority that I would need to actually make them learn stuff for those three months. I still haven't told any of them why I was fired because it was the mom of one of their peers who did it and I don't want that kid to feel bad. But I know that I am remembered by lots of those kids as the bitchy teacher that never got their papers back to them on time instead of the fun, sometimes eccentric teacher that was unfairly fired, which is a much more glorious way to be remembered. That's hard. I can understand why some rock stars might long to die young and let their legacy be shaped by the grief of their fans. If the exit is not dramatic, it can so easily be remembered as pathetic. I'm the Peter Frampton of teaching.

Let's not even talk about the number of ways I could have ruined my ex-husband's life but chose not to because I believe that the high road is the path that will take me where I want to go.

With this pattern of martyrdom emerging in my life, I am losing my perspective. My brother told me a couple of weeks ago that I'm starting to sound like a victim, which is concerning to him because I'm not a victim. I'm smart, funny, attractive, self-confident and young. I have good friends and better family. I will always be able to find a job that will pay me more than what I need to live. I can wield a pair of scissors with the best of them to make crafts that amaze and delight. No one in my family is sick or dying or dead who isn't old.

When my brother pointed out this dissonance between my life and my perception of my life, I made the decision to go back into counseling. It's helping and it will help more as I keep doing it.

But I'm also noticing that I am regaining my temper. My family has always said that my brothers didn't pick fights with me when we were little because I didn't know how to tussle. I only knew how to go for the kill. As I grew into adolescence and then adulthood, I worked toward maturity by gaining control over my temper. In fact, as a teenaged girl made shy because she wanted people to like her, I was completely bewildered that I ever could have been that 8-year-old girl who buttonholed her coach to tell him how to do his job. (Thank goodness my precocious nature was stronger than my ability to control it or I'd be a pretty boring WASP right about now.) The temper that I have worked so hard to control since then is creeping back and I don't know if it is a good thing or a bad thing. I'm sure that the appropriate advice for someone to give me is to find balance, find a way to vent my temper. But seriously, what is going to give me the same satisfaction of making someone else fully feel how human-and-therefore-flawed-they-are-for-the-way-they-have-behaved-by-using-big-words-and-epithets-with-logic-so-sharp-they-don't-get-a-chance-to-see-the-holes-before-it-pierces-their-self-esteem without actually hurting anyone? Somehow punching a pillow just doesn't seem like enough.

My coach did not keep the Sandersons from continuing to heckle me. So my parents requested that I be on different team the next summer. From a white t-shirt to a navy blue one. I had the daughter of one of those coaches (I swear to Jebus his name was Mr. Terdy) in one of my classes at the high school I got fired from. He still talks about the summer after 5th grade when I was 10 and hit a home run almost every time I went up to bat. He still quotes my batting average.

Who will request a different team for me now? And which team will I go to that doesn't have someone jerking wildly to find someone else to attack to make themselves feel better?

That's my mama!

Did I mention that Noah is linebacker huge? And (this is a big deal to the Murphys) his head is just normal size when compared to his body. When he was a newborn in the nursery with all the other special needs babies, Jen says he looked grossly out-of-proportion to the other delicates babies. She also indicated with just a hint of maternal pride that he received a lot of attention from the nurses because of this robustness.

I use little bits of dialogue in these posts because I am absolutely charmed by him. He talks like a storybook baby. When he only had 4 or 5 words, one of them was "stuck" with huge emphasis on the "uh" sound in the middle. And he generally used it appropriately: when he crawled between the couch and the end table or when he couldn't get his truck from under the TV. However, she was distracted when she was buckling him into his carseat and when he protested, "Stuck!" she hushed him and said, "You're not stuck." Then she stopped, reconsidered and admitted, "OK, yes, you're stuck. But you're supposed to be so deal with it." I love watching her smile at him. It's not all Brad Pitt sappy about this sacred bond that they share as creator and created of life. She just enjoys him and that makes her smile. Like ice cream makes those of us that aren't lactose intolerant smile.

Noah has almost all of his tubes out and has been moved out of the special unit and into the general unit, which is a great sign. They have to stay through the weekend, though, which is the longest hospital stay they've had. This paragraph in her email made me laugh, though: "The bad news is that while Noah is definitely more mobile, he isn't allowed to walk yet because of the line in his groin area. It can apparently come loose if he walks much. The problem is, he really wants to walk! I asked Dr. Ilbawi about this all yesterday during rounds and he sat still for a moment and then said, in his Syrian accent, "He wants to walk? Really? I have never encountered this before. I will have to think about this...I will let you know tomorrow." I'm not sure how he's never encountered this before, having done so many surgeries on 2 year olds, but the question did seem to throw him for a loop! We are also confined (trapped...stuck...crawling out of our skin) to the room because the playroom is full of too many germs (he's immuno-suppressed after having been on the heart/lung bypass machine during surgery). So, we have taken lots of wagon rides around the unit, and we've done our best to entertain him in the bed with his cars, videos, books, etc. But, it is really difficult to keep a 2 year old entertained in a bed in a small room, no matter what toys we have!" Did I mention he is huge, charming and robust? Oh, to have their problems. :-) Please keep praying for them if the image of a happy baby who can't play touches your heart at all.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Better than TV

I am working with a new self-image truth. I am having to examine my interactions with people, especially new people, with a lens that takes into consideration that I might be attractive to that person.

It's kind of fun.

As the genial drunk man said to me as I was walking toward the bus stop on a Saturday night, "Look at you! You know you gorgeous." Since he didn't seem threatening, I smiled as I pased him and he stopped his forward motion in the opposite direction to continue, "You must get whatever you want. If the first man won't give it to you, the next one will."

I'm not quite there yet. I'm still very boyfriend-less, although I must admit that I haven't been trying too hard because I haven't necessarily met anyone worth getting what I want from. :-)

But what I am extremely amused by are the guys of my demographic who have hit on me.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am extremely glad that I am a woman and do not have to face the societal expectations that I must suck it up, face potential rejection and make the first move like men do. I have tremendous respect for the effort that must involve. It's not these men's fault that I'm not interested.

I'm amused because I'm the object of their attention.

Ok, sometimes I'm just amused.

A few weeks ago, I was on the El on the way to the airport to spend some time back on Orcas. It was 6:30 in the morning. This is very important to remember throughout the story. It was 6:30 in the morning.

I sat in one of the seats that face the center aisle of the train and had my rolly bag pulled in front of the seat next to me. I opened my book, Parasite Rex, and quickly engrossed myself in this non-fiction book that argues that parasites have been instrumental to evolution. Maybe two stops down, I hear someone ask me if he can sit next to me, so, without looking up from my book, I move my suitcase towards me and rest it between my knees. A small part of my brain says, "It's 6:30 in the morning, could the train possibly be that full?" That small part of my brain also whispers, "Doesn't he seem to be sitting a little close?" But the horrors of the guinea worm have me transfixed and, like Homer Simpson, I ignore what my brain has to say.

It was harder to ignore the young man when he asked me what I was reading. But, I was on my way to some vacation, so my mood was light and I answered him, catching a brief glimpse of him before going back to my book. Tall, skinny, around my age, freckles, red hair, David Bowie teeth, playing up the Irish look with a tweed newsboy cap and black suit. I ask him about the book he has out, A Clockwork Orange, and he tells me he hasn't started it yet. I go back to my book. I keep reading as a little small talk takes place in which he asks where I headed, I ask where he's headed and names are exchanged. His is Stephen. I'm sure it's spelled with a PH. It just fits. It turns out he's headed to O'Hare because he works as a greeter for a limosene company. He gets ten whole dollars an hour and gets to read a lot. He was very excited about the hourly wage in a way that belied the worldliness he was trying to communicate. This was not a man who had ever earned a salary. But, he likes to read and I'm amused, so I continue the conversation while still keeping my eyes in my book. I ask him if doesn't he want to read his book and he responds, no, he'd like to read over my shoulder.

This is so amusing that I'm still laughing several weeks later. So, to see where he was going with this, I agree. Remember, it's 6:30 in the morning. There really is no threat in any of this.

So, he tucks his torso in a little bit behind my shoulder and begins to read. I throw out a couple of tester questions to take his measure, including, "I guess the Fantastic Voyage reference was inevitable, wasn't it." Thud. Lead ballon. Too bad, he fails the geek test. It's not necessary for a guy to pass that test, but it is preferable. I go back to reading without talking at the same time and realize that he pulls back every once in awhile to just look at me before cuddling himself back in and putting his hand out to readjust the angle of the book: not touching my thigh, just hovering over it. On one of these oh-so-suave manuevers, he asks, "How old are you?" Laughing uproariously on the inside, I answer truthfully, "28, why?" just because I want to hear the rationale that he'll make up. He disappoints and doesn't answer but goes back to reading.

At some point on the journey he must feel like I've gotten used to his closeness like a skittish horse take some time to get used to the scent of a new handler. As I turn the page, he zips his arm through mine, joining elbows and resting his head on my shoulder.

I am internally delighted at this turn of events and admonish, "Oh Stephen," like a disappointed favorite teacher. I deliberately unwind his arm from mine with my opposite hand and go back to reading. He begins to draw away like a chastised puppy. Without lifting my eyes from the book, I ask, "How old are you, hitting on me over there?" "25." Although I took that at face value at the time, knowing that boys mature less quickly, a couple of guys that have heard this story since then have assured me that there was no way this kid was more than 22.

We spend the rest of the trip with him drawing away gradually but valiantly keeping up the act of reading over my shoulder. As the El pulls into the O'Hare station, I stand up and pull out my card. I mean, this was better than TV! I say, "Show me that you want more out of life than a 10 dollar an hour job and reading books and we'll see where this goes from there." He holds the card in his hand, dumbfounded, whether at the fact that I've given it to him or at the fact that he's been hitting on the type of woman who has a business card, I'll never know. He even flips it over a couple of times, appearing as if he was checking to see if it was real. As I leave the train, he hurries to catch up with me, asking which terminal I'm headed for. As luck would have it, it's the same terminal he works in. As we start walking, though, his pace without a rolly bag is obviously much quicker than mine and I tell him to go on ahead. He begins to protest and I cut him off, making a little flapping motion with my hand indicating he should go on. And he does!

Needless to say, I did not have an email or a voice mail from Stephen when I got back from my trip.

Last weekend, I attended the Printer's Row Bookfair to see my friend Jess read her fiction at one of the booths. It's basically a grand gathering of used book sellers and their wares. It was a dream. I had resolved to buy nothing because I'm a little short of cash lately but then I saw a pristine copy of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson for a dollar and I buy that whenever I see it simply on principal because I give it away so often. With the seal broken, I came home with a bag full of books.

Anyway, halfway into the morning, Susan calls me because her bid on a house has been accepted and she's very excited and wants to tell me about it. I tell Jess to keep wandering without me and sit down against a building in the shade. As I talk with Susan, I watch the world go by and feel very self-satisfied when I see three people walk by wearing the "Reading is Sexy" t-shirt that I had eschewed that morning as too obvious. A bookish-looking man looking to be about my age sits next to me with less than two feet between us, although the wall we were leaning against was fairly bare. I know that men have a set of rules about which urinal to use if one is already in use and I felt a little bit like he'd indecently chosen the urinal that was right next to mine when he could have easily left one open between us. But, I figured that I was just unaccustomed to urban proximity, since he didn't seem to be paying much attention to me; he was quietly eating his sandwich and drinking his water. But then as my conversation with Susan got long and particularly girly, I realized that he was still sitting there, having finished his sandwich, doing nothing. He was a little bit cute, as bookish guys go, so when I hung up the phone, I started up a little small talk, apologizing for exposing him to girliness of my conversation. He denied all knowledge of the content of my conversation in way that completely communicated that he was embarassed to have been caught evesdropping. But he charged on valiantly once given the go-ahead to compliment me on my pants.

I was wearing a pair of pants that I had bought at the fashionable re-sale shop that looked a little like these but red and without a side tie. Also, my butt is a little bigger because I'm no longer 14 years old.They're called gauchos and, as a trend, they belong to the beautiful people who, despite my new-found attractiveness, will never be a group that I fit in with. I knocked on my brother's door as I was trying them on that morning to see what he thought because I needed to know if I looked like I was unsuccessfully trying to imitate the beautiful people or if I looked like I was co-opting their trend into my own style. At first he scoffed, but then said I looked fine. However, he also pointed out that he was dressing for a wedding that afternoon in a raspberry-colored ruffled tuxedo shirt, black pants and white belt, so I should be my own judge for how valid his opinion was.

One of the other things that I've begun to enjoy about engaging with these guys is watching them hit their foreheads in their imagination, saying "STU-pid! STU-pid!" to themselves when they say particularly basic observations. I thought that only happened on TV sit-coms but my bookish young man proved me wrong when he paused visibly for some internal dialogue after he said, "They're like a skirt . . . but pants." Doggedly, though, he pressed on, extolling the virtues of my pants. For instance, they seem to be cool for the summer but not so much so that at night I would get cold. He pointed out at this time that he's dated girls (count them, plural) in the past who seemed to have trouble when it got cold at night. He did pause for an internal head-smack on this one although I think maybe he should have. I guess it thought he was being suave to work in like that the fact that he's got actual experience with women. At this point, I wasn't as amused as I had been with Stephen, but I was mildly entertained. Not enough to stick around much longer, especially since he wasn't wrapping it up in response to my general movement toward getting up and getting back to my friend. Finally, he pointed out that the parts of my legs that weren't covered could use a little sun. At that, I stood up, smiled and quoted Daniel's best friend's wife Esther, "I don't think so; pallor becomes me," and I walked away without giving him one last chance to ask for my name or my number. If that was, indeed, his intention, he'd had plenty of chances before that final, STU-pid, STU-pid remark.

I'm tired of quiet guys. I mean, I'm fully capable of overlooking a few STU-pid, STU-pid comments because I know that they are not usually representative of a person's actual intelligence or conversational skills when uttered in that situation. Hence the business card to Stephen. But quiet guys who won't put themselves forward no longer stand a chance with me. I've paid a lot for the life experience that gives me the self-confidence to be open and flirtatious to the world. I'm not going to waste what I've spent on someone who won't respond in kind. Besides, if he can't work up the spirit to engage with me now by taking some of the first steps, how will he ever stand up to me later? And trust me, I need someone who will fight me when I'm wrong. Remember the Murphy family motto: "Often wrong; never in doubt."

Of course, as I write these stories to entertain you all, I encounter my own STU-pid, STU-pid situation. The drummer in the music team at my church is so cute and so frighteningly talented that I don't know what to say to him. I wish I could tell you the rediculous things that I've tried to say so that you can laugh at me as much as I've laughed at Stephen and my bookish young man. However, I've been so caught up in smacking my proverbial forehead as I've said them that blogging never even occurs to me (and I'm ashamed to tell you how often in my life I've thought to myself, "Cool, I can blog about this!"). And, of course, he's a quiet guy so he doesn't feel the need to fill the awkward silences that I generate. But every once in awhile during rehearsal, I look up and when I do, he breaks into this beautiful smile, all the way to his eyes. So, at the church picnic on Sunday, I gathered up my best feminine wiles, determined to grit my teeth and bear it through the awkwardness and talk to him. And it was OK. I committed a few atrocious faux-pas but he stuck around and talked to me. In fact, he answered my question of, "So, how long has this Jesus thing worked for you?" with some pretty personal answers. And I like him even more now. And although I was thinking frantically how I could ask if he wanted to have coffee sometime, I just could not figure out how to make my tongue form the words and I let him walk away with his roommate at the end of the picnic and our conversation.

STU-pid! STU-pid!

Perhaps I should be a little more forgiving of the quiet guys.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Milk and pretzels

My friend Jennifer's 2-year-old chunk of a baby has now been in heart surgery for about an hour. He still has five to go. He has a congenital heart defect that has already been operated on but now he has to has a shunt put in. This surgery is particularly nerve-wracking for Jennifer because it has a much higher risk of complications than the previous ones.

If you are of the praying persuasion, please pray for great big Noah Atticus (who I watched take a huge bite of peanut butter sandwich but skillfully skimmed the top of the sandwich with his teeth to only have to eat the peanute butter and none of the bread), Jennifer's anxiety and the skill and the wisdom of the surgeons and nurses that are taking care of him.

If you are more of the spiritual-but-not-religious persuasion, please send your positive energy in their general direction, which is Chicago.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Oh my my - Oh hell yes

It is a beautiful thing when someone you respect has you on the list of people to tell right away when something momentous happens.

I am constantly amazed when people want to be my friend. Much of the time, I am not a nice person to the people I am close to. If I feel safe with someone, I let my guard down sometimes and the queen bitch who is constantly fighting me for control of my tone of voice and observations of people's weaknesses slips loose.

So few people make it to the point where I feel safe with them in the first place that the law of averages demands that the dice haven't been rolled often enough for snake eyes - in the form of someone who then sticks around - to reasonably make an appearance.

But Susan called me the afternoon after the evening she got engaged. I'd say that makes me pretty special.

I kind of avoided Susan for the first semester of freshman year when she lived in the room next door. She was just so . . . happy. All the time. And she had these tight little blond ringlets that were just so . . . cute. I couldn't handle it.

But one day in the bathroom she backed me into a corner wearing her bathrobe with a towel on her head and demanded, "Did you do DDA?" When I hesitantly responded that yes, I had competed in Dramatic Duet Acting in high school forensics, she yelled, "Ha, I knew it. I saw you perform at State as that Holocaust survivor and you made me cry." I think she then quoted a few of my lines of dialogue to me in that awful Polish/German Jewish accent that was ubiquitous on the speech circuit in the early 90s. Or worse, she made me recite some.

When I told Daniel that story, he shook his head knowingly, recognizing instantly why I would let my guard down with this very perky, intrusive girl: flattery.

As a girl who didn't make many friends, I was (and probably still am) vain of my talents. If people didn't like me, I figured they should at least be impressed by me. So, when someone came along who actually lived up to my expectations, well, it must have been love at first sight.

I actually don't remember what happened after that. I cannot plot out for you the opening steps of our friendship dance. Ultimately, though, I got pulled into her group and finally had someone to sit with in the dining hall for meals. A lot of it may have had to do with the fact that the other girls in the groups were already paired off with their roommates as BFFs (best friend forever) but Susan's roommate was absolutely nuts so I filled that niche in the group dynamic, which I did not mind in the slightest. Outside of my family, I've never felt like I filled a niche in my life, except for that phase and later on during my first years teaching when my colleagues treated me as the baby sibling and picked on me a lot. So, I was actually pretty overjoyed to be something other than an after-thought in a group. Susan needed me. That was all that mattered. Also, I think we had Practical Criticism class together and although it was torture for her, I loved it and woke her up most mornings to make sure she got there. (Our reactions to the class say more about me than they do about her. Everyone thought Prac. Crit. was torture.) I was young enough that I never had a moment when I realized that she was family. She just always was. I can't remember ever feeling like I had to be something other than who I was with Susan. That's my definition of family. Susan and my ex-husband are the only two people in the world that have ever felt comfortable hanging out with my actual family when I wasn't there. That's a pretty good indicator that's she's important, as well.

(By the way, when I say that Susan't roommate was nuts, I really do mean nuts. She used to plan her outfits in a little notebook months in advance and actually took pictures of them, so she wouldn't repeat elements.)

Susan and I were roommates during our sophomore year in a room so small that we could hold hands across the space between our beds as we slept at night if we wanted to. We shared the same tolerance level for mess and also shared a love of Target and the China Star. It was perfect. I threw whatever was handy when she snored in the middle of the night and she backed away slowly when she came home and my head was under the pillow with Pearl Jam (what she deemed "scary music") was cranked on the stereo. She taught me how to use chopsticks and shared her food.

I can't give you reasons for why Susan likes me or what I contributed to the relationship. I know that in my own insecurity, I mocked her lack of worldliness that was the product of a Geneseo upbringing. I assume I lorded my intelligence over her at various times. Hell, I stuck my head under the pillow and cranked Pearl Jam. That's reason enough to abandon a friendship, in my book.

But let me tell you why I loved Susan:

Susan laughed. Loudly, freely and often. The panicked darting of my eyes around the dining hall as I looked for a place to sit were calmed because I could hear her laughter while I was piling my tray with Turkey a la King and cake. Her laughter gave me the freedom to laugh, to throw my own joy defiantly in the face of the social judgment that felt so restrictive to me. That year, almost ten years ago now, we went to see Vance Gilbert for the first time. We sat at a coffeehouse table right in front of the stage and at some point, he stopped the story he was telling and peered down into the darkness demanding, "Who laughs like that? Hee hee hee. Like she's reading it out of a book. Really? That's your laugh?" Of course, once he singled her out, she about fell out of her chair, gasping for breath with tears running down her face. I've heard him tell that joke again in the past couple of years, but I swear to you that ten years ago, he was coming up with it for the first time with Susan as his inspiration.

Susan cried just as frequently. We had to put her out of the room one night when we were watching Anne of Green Gables because she sobbed so hard that we couldn't hear the next bits of the movie. But her tears were just as liberating to me as her laughter. Life was intense for Susan. She didn't protect herself by waiting until she got home to her mom to react emotionally to things. She didn't rationalize and explain. She just was. Life was full for her. It was an amazing thing to be a part of.

Susan had a completely different experience of life than I did and it was interesting to me. She grew up in rural Illinois with lots of different foster siblings, she had a car, she spent a year in Japan her junior year in high school which ratcheted up my admiration for her since I knew that I never could have done it. She dated several men who turned out to be gay and I was honored to go through their coming out experiences with her. She had been rowdy in high school, drinking and such. All of these were just enough different from my own religious Chicagoland suburban experience that she held my attention as absolutely as any book ever had.

Susan liked me. For whatever reason. I felt valued by her and could do nothing but respond in kind. With her radiant internal joy, she had her choice of people to be friends with and she picked moody, arrogant, difficult me to be her friend. How could I not love her? What's more, she let me be intelligent by wanting to learn about things I knew. She let me be funny by laughing at stories I told. She let me be worldly by deferring to my experiences. Once, we spent an evening synchronized vomiting, sitting up in our beds that were so close, because I had drunkenly told her that she needed to drink more. She explains that since I was always right, she drank more. Not only doesn't she hold any ill-will toward me for leading her astray that night, she changed my sheets when the garbage can I grabbed turned out to have a huge hole in the bottom. She's the perfect friend.

Junior year, Susan broke my heart by transferring to another school. The fact that I neither went all self-protective and cut her out of my life nor let our friendship drift through the apathy that distance almost always induces is telling. I don't know who was responsible for keeping up the relationship, but there are plenty of pictures from graduation to show that she thought I was important enough to come back to IWU for at least a day. Again, I'm baffled.

Now that I think about it, aside from the year and a half at school, Susan and I have never lived in the same place. Nearly ten years later, I still consider her my best friend. A year and a half doesn't seem very long at all to build the foundation for the friendship we still have.

Although Susan is still my best friend, I am not hers. And there is no sadness in this. Her friend Jess lives nearby and shares the day-to-day closeness that creates best friends. In the beginning of their friendship, Susan would always refer to Jess by her first name and referred to her often enough that I suspected something was up. But by the time she slipped and referred to her as her best friend, she got all weirded out and embarrassed, but I just shushed her and told her not to worry about it. Me! Little Miss Sensitive-and-Insecure! I'm that confident, though. She said it best after I shushed her, "We have history."

I can't give you reasons for why Susan still likes me. I asked her not to bring her boyfriend to my wedding, I still mock Geneseo, I barely and with reluctance admit that she was right when she said the Indigo Girls were lesbians, even though I insisted that she shouldn't just assume that intelligent, artistic, strong women were lesbians. For awhile there, I only called her when I was in tears to the point that she would have to wait for me to calm down enough to speak before she was sure that it was me. Have you ever had to wait for the person that has interrupted your life with a telephone call? Isn't that annoying?

But let me tell you why I still love Susan:

Susan still laughs and cries as easily as she ever did. I take comfort that sometimes life is predictable and that these emotional outbursts are what I can consistently expect means that life is actually pretty good.

Susan has been through some shit. Whereas I rolled along the expected path for a young, intelligent strong young woman and then crashed into a tree when I was 25, Susan veered off the path into the underbrush soon after she transferred schools (and I never once felt even the slightest tinge of shadenfreude) when she was 20 or so. She's had to hack at the hanging vines and tear through the brambles to get where she is now. I just had to pick myself up off the ground and shake the stars out of their orbit around my head. I think we've both found news paths that are relatively clear now, but, man, has it been tough to watch her sometimes. But . . .

Susan impresses me. She has spent the last ten years moving forward with grace and panache. Once she realized what she wanted, she sucked it up and went back to school to get it. She's starting her student teaching in the fall and will graduate next spring. You better believe that on May 27th, I'll be there to have my picture taken as a testimony to how important she is to me. She has coached speech for her high school, and loved it, a baffling achievement to me. She acts and directs in community theatre, not caring at all that sometimes the dinner theatre performances take place in a truck stop. She still doesn't care a whit for restrictive social judgment.

Susan cares for me. Just as she held my flowers so I could dry Dennis' tears when I took my wedding vows, she held my heart for me so I could answer the judge without crying when I got divorced. When I couldn't make the decision to leave the island, even though I really needed to, she compared my experience to her pivotal time in Japan, which put it all in perspective for me and let me move forward. She is often the person I call first when I'm so full of something that it must come out. For instance, when I was driving to a party full of people that I didn't know, I let out a giant fart at the very same moment that the traffic light I was stopped out went out. Since it lit back up as soon as I was out of the intersection, I couldn't stop laughing for the thought that I had blown out the stop light. But if I went to the party without telling someone who already had her mind made up about me, I would have told the story to strangers and the dice would have jumped back into the cup before they even hit the table. So, I called Susan. And she laughed.

Susan is beautiful. We went to see Vance Gilbert again (he's a running theme in our lives) at a house concert, so at intermission, we just walked up to him in the woman's dining room to talk to him. He reached out and held her face in his hands as he said, "You look like how a woman is supposed to look."

So, now someone else has spotted my beautiful Susan. I have not yet met Dan the Man, but I can be pretty protective of her, so he better be on his best with me. I have already sent her my favorite bridal book with an offer that she should use my craftiness and assertiveness however she needs to plan this wedding. Now, I know this whole post sounds like a bid for Maid of Honor but I swear to you it's not. And I have only been wrong twice in my entire relationship with Susan (see the aforementioned Indigo Girls and vodka/lemonade stories). Susan and I are totally comfortable with the fact that we honest-to-God don't remember each other's birthdays. She'll make the decisions she'll need to make and I will love her for every one. She tells me she is happy and that she told me the very next day is more than enough for me.

"Well I don't know but I've been told, you never slow down, you never grow old. I'm tired of screwin' up, tired of goin' down, tired of myself, tired of this town, Oh my, my, oh hell yes - Honey put on that party dress."
-Tom Petty, "Last Dance With Mary Jane"