What’s in the Glass?

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. – Antonio Gramsci

When someone asks whether the glass is half empty or half full, I quite honestly have to say “I don’t know”. I mean, it depends on whether you just filled the glass halfway or had it full to the brim and drank (or spilled) half, right?

So I’m not sure how to answer the question of whether I am an optimist or a pessimist; possibly a little of both and it probably depends a lot on the day (similarly, I can score as an INFP or an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs, depending on how I answer a few of the questions). Like most people, there are days on which my glass is half, if not more, full (my glass runneth over) and other days on which it seems there is only the slightest bit of condensation on the outside of the glass.

What has kept the glass looking a little fuller is the ability to smile. I come from a family with a quirky sense of humor, and that ability to appreciate the absurd as well as laugh off some of what happens has helped the various generations even during some not-so-great life events. With humor comes resiliency, and we’ve been called upon  to be resilient a few times. Henry Ward Beecher once said, “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs; jolted by every pebble in the road.” Had he been born a century later, he could have been talking about some of my relatives.

A few years ago, my grandma (who was 81 at the time) fell while trying to cut down a tree in her backyard so that my 40-year-old aunt, who lives with her, wouldn’t get hurt doing it. She broke her hip and underwent surgery. Of course, when people are that age, falls are a bit worrisome. My mom freaked out and called all the relatives in Phoenix frequently.

When all was said and done, Grandma made it home from the hospital and carried her walker across the living room, putting it in the corner and out of her way.

A few weeks later, my mom and I went to Arizona to see her. I had a newborn at the time – her first great-grandchild – and, as she sat him on her still-tender lap, he farted. “He shot me!”, she gasped. She’s still alive, at almost 89, and is still just a bit nutty.

While I think that humor can be a form of optimism, I believe that optimism is a kind of bravery. I love it, for example, when I hear of cancer patients’ families and friends, proudly exclaiming that they are going to “kick cancer’s ass!” It’s a somewhat humorous thing to say (at least it puts a funny image in my mind), and even if cancer ultimately wins the fight, the fact that the patient and his or her loved ones went after it with a winning attitude makes the situation, I think, at least a tiny bit more palatable.

On the other hand, I see a correlation between pessimism and fear.

I was walking back to my car with a couple of friends and we were talking about being easily startled. One of them guessed – correctly – that something traumatic had happened to me when I was a kid. Without going into details, I learned from a very young age that this was something that could happen at any moment, so I walked on eggshells for several years, living in dread. Over time, I learned that it was also somewhat unpredictable and that I had little control of the situation. So during those years, I believed that my life would always suck and I could do nothing about it.

Thankfully, I outgrew the situation but carry the ghosts of childhood trauma with me. I became a more or less functioning adult, with a family, a good job, a house, and great friends. Occasionally, I will react viscerally to something and expect the worst but end up being relieved when nothing really happens. The next time I’m in the situation, I may have a little more faith that things will work out better, and because I’ve been there before, I’ll have the experience to back up this belief.

And that, I believe, is true optimism.


I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not a Soldier

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

So, I’ve been struggling a bit lately, with my faith (or apparent lack thereof).

Growing up, my mom had always at least talked to us about God, and she brought us to church  fairly often. I believed from the time I was five years old. My younger brother and I attended Christian school from first through sixth grade. Every morning in class we would pledge allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. We would attend all-school assemblies in the gym once a week, during which we’d enthusiastically belt out hymns like the one above. We studied subjects like English, history and biology from a biblical angle and had Bible Studies for a set period of time every day.  At one point I could even recite the names of all the books of the Bible (these days I can only get as far as Ruth). There was even a time in high school when I was pretty religious but that fell by the wayside after a while.

Since then, I have had a complicated relationship with God, with Christianity and with organized religion in general. I can’t not believe in God, yet at the same time, I struggle to find where I fit in with the tenets of religious doctrine.

A few years after high school, my then-boyfriend’s mom wanted me to officially convert to Catholicism. I had grown up going to a Catholic church but had never been baptized and, since my dad is Protestant, I couldn’t be a “cradle Catholic”. At least that was my understanding of why I couldn’t take communion but my mom could. Anyway, my boyfriend’s mom began to take me to a group for women who were interested in converting to Catholicism. It would take about a year to go through the process but in the end we’d be “official” and when her son and I got married, we could have a full Catholic mass at our wedding. After the second or third meeting, I said “I just can’t do this” and dropped out.

For several years, I was sort of vaguely spiritual. If asked, I’d say I was Christian, but I didn’t attend services and didn’t own a Bible for the longest time. I was somewhat curious about Judaism but didn’t know enough about it (or know any Jews I could ask) so I never found out more.

Several years later, when my husband and I were engaged and had been living in our current town for just a few months, we decided to go church shopping. We were going to be getting married the following year and wanted our little family to have a spiritual base. There was a particular church we were interested in visiting but we got out the door too late that morning to make the 10am service and opted to attend at the United Methodist church (UMC) down the street at 10:30 instead. We figured we’d sit back, listen, take mental notes and visit another place of worship the following Sunday.

That never happened. When we slipped into the back pews we were noticed and greeted enthusiastically by some folks sitting nearby. After service, someone grabbed us and said we needed to have coffee and get to know everyone. We found them to be friendly and open and were pleasantly surprised to note that there were some couples around our age (well, sort of. I was 25 and the next youngest person was 33. Close enough). We never looked back and a few months later, we both were baptized as Methodists. A few years later, we baptized our son at the same church.

What appealed to me about the UMC was the fact that all their literature was all about inclusion – of singles, of the young and the old, of folks from other denominations who were visiting – and all were invited to take part in communion. Our pastor was a woman, and very approachable. One night we went out for ice cream with her and her husband. She told us about how she’d come to a crossroads in her life, and was considering becoming a lawyer or divorcing her husband. Instead, she converted from Catholicism and went back to school for Theology. This particular pastor had the gift of gab, and her sermons were part speech, part stand up comedy routine, always in plain English and kept everyone’s attention. For the first time, I had a spiritual home.

Things started to fall apart a bit after I had my son. My husband and I no longer were attending as often and sometimes opted to just stay home on Sundays and recoup after a busy week of working and taking care of an infant. Our original pastor was transferred out of the area (they rotate pastors every few years in the UMC; not sure how it is with other denominations) and we got a new person. She was great – we had pizza with her one night and she talked about her divorce and conversion from Judaism – but we didn’t quite hit it off as much as we had with  our previous pastor.

Soon my husband began to lose interest in going and I was attending by myself with the baby in the childcare center, which didn’t always go well. He had been kind of generically spiritual when we met, but had an interest in Taoism. He seemed to be going back to that. I could feel that my fellow Methodists weren’t really interested in having a conversation during coffee hour.

The more time passed between visits, the fewer people said hello to me during the times I did make it. Some new people joined the congregation and thought I was new. Then, a few of the regulars I had gotten to know became ill and died. Not all were elderly; one woman was all of 48 when she lost her second battle with cancer. It was very sad. Church just wasn’t a warm and fuzzy place any longer. Eventually, I just kind of stopped going.

Which leads me to my current dilemma. I live all the way across town from the UMC and down the street from a Buddhist temple. On a clear Sunday morning I can hear the bells chiming from both places of worship. I’m not Buddhist so I’d feel like a poser attending services at the temple (I wonder if they conduct them in Japanese anyway; I only know a few words thanks to my mom). Not to mention that Buddhism is a completely different spiritual experience than I’ve ever had. But I don’t really feel like I can call myself a Methodist anymore either. I still get the monthly newsletter and read through it, but the people mentioned are virtually strangers to me. I feel very guilty about all of this.

And because I haven’t stepped foot in a church in so long I don’t seem to feel as spiritual in general. Every time something starts to go wrong, I wonder whether God is watching and listening or whether He’s not returning my calls because I’ve been so flaky.

I can’t make the leap to call myself agnostic – not quite. And I have so many more thoughts on the topic. But for now I wonder whether I can and should start all over again.

Over and out, last call for sin
While everyone’s lost, the battle is won
With all these things that I’ve done
All these things that I’ve done…

Judge Dread

It’s the end of June and that means performance review time at my company.  I have been feeling extremely nervous about the whole thing and, quite frankly, a little ill. I do not know my reviewers terribly well, and I have this (hopefully irrational) fear that I will sit down at the meeting and have a bombshell dropped on me.

Although the situation is different from last time, this is really nothing new. Last year when I was going through the process for the first time, my then-supervisor stopped by to drop off my written evaluation. I was on tenterhooks and my heart pounded so loudly I barely heard the words “Come into my office when you’re ready”. Things were fine, of course; I’m still employed there, and I took away from the experience that my supervisor was a nice guy and I should have trusted that I would have known ahead of time of any problems.

I hate the feeling of being judged. Even during such a mundane process as performance evaluations, I take each and every word personally and seriously and I tend to read and re-read the narrative to see if I can find anything written “between the lines”. My last two reviews weren’t bad at all, but I still found myself dwelling on the less-than-perfect parts.

And so it is for me in general. I can easily appear to be poised and nonchalant about things, but inside I worry what people think about my job, my weight, the amount of dirt on my car, the way my 7-year-old behaves in public… and the list can go on ad nauseum. This is a lifelong habit, easily learned and hard to break. Being a “fat” kid didn’t help. Neither did some of the jobs I held right out of high school. In fact, there are a plethora of experiences that shaped my fretful mentality. More than anything, I think, I worry that there is something wrong that I’m too dense to notice and everyone else does. Again, this possibly was born from childhood and early adulthood experiences in which I was blindsided by having something brought harshly to my attention. When I was a kid, I never questioned the motives of those doing the judging; I figured they knew something I didn’t. And I felt terrible about it.

I don’t believe that I am unique in my self-judgement or in my preoccupation with what others think. For example, I have at least a dozen friends on a weight loss regime (or expressing the desire to be on one) at any given time. Some are simply into healthy living and seem to have great confidence in themselves (my friend Lynda effectively coined for me the phrase “Birthday Suit Alterations“, which makes me smile every time I read it) but I do hear comments occasionally to the effect of “So you think I’m fat?” or “Oh, I could never wear a two piece bathing suit. I wouldn’t want to scare people on the beach”. To them I say pppppfffffttt! Which in turn makes me into a huge hypocrite. It’s perfectly OK for me to rail on myself but not for my friends, relatives and colleagues to do the same?

So, anyway, back to the performance review. I have just over a week to condense the past six months’ worth of projects and work – both those which went smoothly and those which I can consider a “learning experience” were it not for the fact that I tend to internalize everything, even those aspects of work that aren’t directly affected by my actions. I have to attempt to write a short narrative in as objective a way as possible. Luckily for me I have my previous evaluations to use as a guide, which helps, but there is still the temptation to think, and perhaps over-think the process. Wish me luck!

My Life as a Song

I suppose it’s fitting, somehow, that the number one song on the Top 40 Charts the day I was born was “The Streak”:

Here [s]he comes, look at that, look at that
There [s]he goes, look at that, look at that
And [s]he ain’t wearin’ no clothes 1

All seven pounds of me were eventually bundled up (but not too much; it was nearly 100 degrees that day) and, throughout the rest of my life to this point, singer-songwriters seem to have been writing my biography, musically.

Music means a lot to me. I nearly always have some melody running through my head, and I sometimes feel that song lyrics say it best. Since I was a kid, I have attempted to learn to play – with varying degrees of success – five different instruments. I also sing… sort of. I joined my first church choir at 15, had minor roles in two musicals in high school, sang with an Italian-American chorus in my late 20s and love to get together with a group of friends regularly to embarrass myself at karaoke night. In some past life I figure I may have been some kind of crappy, wanna-be minstrel, and might have been a frustrated musician in this one if I hadn’t discovered that I can write HTML.

As a young kid, many of the songs my parents listened to on the radio made no sense to me. Why, I wondered, would love hurt? I had no idea what piña coladas were and did not like getting caught in the rain. But by age five I was a cat lover, and one song spoke to me like no other:

Pussycat, Pussycat
I love you
Yes, I do!
You and your pussycat face! 2

Music was there for me when I matured a little and truly fell in love for the first time (Don’t know what color your eyes are, baby, but your hair is long and brown. Your legs are strong and they’re so so long and you don’t come from this town 3), as well as when that relationship ended nearly seven years later (I wonder how it’s gonna be, when it goes down. How’s it gonna be when you’re not around? How’s it gonna be when you found out there was nothing between you and me? ‘Cause I don’t care. How’s it gonna be? 4).

When I met my husband and we played out our courtship on the dancefloor during the swing revival, Mr Pinstripe Suit and Mr Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Ho 5 always had the answers we all wanted to know. We fell into an easy arrangement of domesticity and by the time we’d been together two years, we were spinning on a dance floor in a wedding gown and tuxedo, quietly, as forty-eight friends and relatives gathered around for our first dance:

And every time you think of me
I hope you think of true romance
And every time you want to leave
You give us both another chance 6

A couple of years later, we had a baby. Unfortunately, within the first two weeks, I found myself dealing with a screaming infant who had acid reflux (although it took us a couple of weeks to figure it out). My new son did nothing but eat, spit up, scream, and eat some more. All. Day. Long. I couldn’t even get a diaper change accomplished without a major screaming fit happening (usually the baby would cry too), and he wouldn’t let me cradle him in my arms; he had to be upright at all times.

My husband had become a volunteer firefighter right before the baby was born near the end of May, and could only take off a few days’ paternity leave before he had to go back to his day job as a high school teacher. So, while he got out of the house regularly and enjoyed his normal life, I sat at home, alone, with a cranky infant I couldn’t figure out how to soothe. Soon, the big black dog of postpartum depression was nipping at my heels.

I sat on the couch early one morning, feeding the baby and enjoying a rare quiet moment. the TV was already on from my husband watching it before he went to work, so I absentmindedly flipped the station over to VH1. A local band gone big had just released a new album and the video for the first single was premiering at that moment:

I need a sign to let me know you’re here
All of these lines are being crossed over the atmosphere
I need to know that things are gonna look up
‘Cause I feel us drowning in a sea spilled from a cup 7

I took a breath and relaxed a little. The baby even stayed calm during the video. Over the next couple of weeks, I put my son on Tagamet for the reflux and found someone to talk to. My depression did eventually subside and I was able to rejoin the rest of the human race.

Occasionally, I will hear a song somewhere that will strike a chord with me (so to speak). If the lyrics are well-written and profound, I respond emotionally rather than rationally, and they become part of me and of my story. After all, “I’m a war of head versus heart. And it’s always this way. My head is weak, my heart always speaks before I know what it will say 8.”

1. “The Streak“, Ray Stevens
2. “What’s New Pussycat“, Tom Jones
3. “So Alive“, Love and Rockets
4. “How’s It Gonna Be“, Third Eye Blind
5. “Mr Pinstripe Suit“, Big Bad VooDoo Daddy
6. “Try Whistling This“, Neil Finn
7. “Calling All Angels“, Train
8. “Crooked Teeth“, Death Cab for Cutie

Near to My Heart

Note: This short story was written for International Day for Sharing Life Stories (http://www.ausculti.org/)  last May and is about my grandmother, who, you might guess, is as tough as nails. If you do read it, enjoy!

“Valeri!” the teacher barked, “Valeri! Pay attention!”

Alessandra Maria Valeri turned her attention back towards the front of the classroom, where her teacher was conjugating French verbs for the small group of eight year olds. She had been staring out the schoolhouse window, daydreaming, as doodling in the margins was not allowed here.

Alessandra had been born to a poor single mother on Via Clelia, just outside Rome in the Italian countryside, on November 12, 1921. Her life thus far hadn’t been easy and there was no indication that things would ever change. She was being raised by an aunt and uncle and her mother had simply not been a part of her life. She had no reason to believe she’d amount to much; if she was lucky she’d someday marry and perhaps have children of her own.

After high school, Alessandra found herself working for a faction of the Italian government. On hot weekends she’d sunbathe with her girlfriends. She was beautiful, with movie star looks and always with a swipe of red lipstick on and – not surprisingly – popular with men.

When Alessandra was in her 20s she found herself with three suitors: two Italian men and an American GI named Ralph Miller, who himself knew what it was like to have an invisible ceiling over one’s head, having grown up poor in rural Oklahoma. Alessandra made her choice and she and Ralph were wed in April 1946, first in a civil ceremony, then again eight days later in a formal church service.

Ralph moved his new wife back to the United States where, as she entered the country, she ceased to be known as Alessandra and evolved into Sandra Miller. The story goes that Ralph, who spoke almost no Italian, couldn’t spell his wife’s first name and Sandra, who knew no English, couldn’t spell it for him.

During the course of their marriage, the Millers cris-crossed the globe. Their first child, Howard, was born on the East Coast. A daughter, Carolyn, in Denver. Ralph Jr. came along while the family was living in Casablanca (he renounced his Moroccan citizenship as an adult) and Cindy, the youngest, was born in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where they eventually settled for several decades.

While Ralph remained in the Air Force, Sandra learned to be extremely self-sufficient. During her time raising the kids while her husband was away, she learned English, passed her American citizenship exam and obtained her drivers license. Sandra, also a self-taught artist, painted in oils, did cross stitch and embroidery, made dolls, crocheted and sewed. Ralph helped her learn how to cook as well.

Although Sandra had, at times, a fiery temper and could be quite a serious person, she had a funny side as well. When her neighbors on Okinawa annoyed her, she blasted an LP of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haa!” at top volume out the living room window. Ralph possessed a deadpan Oklahoman sense of humor that would later serve him well as a grandfather.

He eventually retired and the family settled into life in a section of New Mexico known as “Dog Canyon”, near White Sands National Monument. One by one, three of their children married and moved away, soon bringing a gaggle of grandchildren into their lives. Howard and Barbara had Matt and Chris. Carolyn and Mike had Nora and Andy. From Ralph Jr. and Fran came Clint, Stacy and Crystal.

Sandra and Ralph loved their grandchildren and doted on them. I (Nora) have particularly fond memories of sitting at her knee as she taught me how to draw. When two of us grandkids asked Ralph to autograph a cardboard hatbox we were using as a bass drum, he signed it “Joe Blow”. When we had him try on a hat with cat ears, he popped it on backwards and asked, straight-faced, “Well, how do I look?”

Ralph passed away in 1991, the result of cancer. By then, the family had moved to Tucson, in an area once unfortunately featured in an episode of COPS. After Ralph had been gone for a few years, ATF agents came by Sandra’s street looking for a neighbor of hers, parking their van in front of the driveway. Sandra, fearing she wouldn’t be able to leave her house, stormed outside – all 5’2” of her – and confronted one of the officers, shouting “You get your goddamn van out of my driveway!” (he evidently complied).

Sandra enrolled, at the age of 77, at Pima Community College, where she took formal art studio courses from a fellow Italian expatriate, who challenged her sense of color, design and composition. She stopped attending when she and her daughter moved to Phoenix but not before having achieved nearly straight As (and one A-, which she was very unhappy about).

For her 85th birthday, all Sandra’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (at that time, Sammantha, Cody and Cole) flew or drove to Peoria, the suburb of Phoenix in which she lives, for a surprise bash, masterminded by her oldest son, Howard. He had had a local print shop make up a vinyl banner proclaiming a welcome reception for “All Peoria Artists” at a local park. Sandra’s eyes welled up as she examined the scrapbook made for the occasion, before wanting to know who “stole” her photos (which caused everyone to roar with laughter).

Today, Sandra is 87 years old and still lives with her younger daughter, Cindy, their little dog Millie and Charlie the cat. She recently finished radiation therapy for a third recurrence of malignant melanoma and, last I heard, was pissed off that my cousin Clint left a mess in her house on Mother’s Day. Here’s to you, Grandma! I love you.