Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What Do You Want for Christmas?

Posted By on Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 8:15 PM

“What do you want for Christmas?”

It seemed like a simple question, but neither of my children had an answer.

The interrogations started more than a month in advance. I asked, my mother asked, my sister asked, all three of us eager to get our seasonal shopping over and done with. Each time, however, we were met with blank expressions and shrugged shoulders. Somehow, my kids made it past Thanksgiving without giving any consideration to their Christmas lists.

I don’t credit myself for this phenomenon; I’m as baffled by it as anyone. I did everything I could to avoid it. What’s the point of letting them watch cartoons if they don’t come away knowing which crappy toys they have to have?

Personally, maintaining my online wish list is a year-round hobby. It’s where I put the books and CDs (those are music files that exist in three dimensions, kids) and shoes that never go far enough below retail price for me to buy myself. Lately, I’ve made an effort to pad the list with locally made products that support Memphis artists and wouldn’t require shipping, but I have no illusions that this effort makes it better to keep an ever-expanding list of stuff I want. I don’t expect to get everything on it, of course, but there’s still something comforting about the process. It’s like window-shopping in windows filled specifically for me. Looking at that lily-of-the-valley pendant necklace is, like, 17 percent as nice as actually wearing it.

I’ve tried putting the big toy catalogs that arrives with the Sunday newspaper in front of my kids and letting them get ideas from there, but that ends up being pretty useless. My daughter flips through the pages aimlessly and my son shouts, “I want that!” at everything from Beyblades to rechargeable batteries. At the end of the process, I’m still nowhere closer to practical gift ideas, but I’m a little more bitter about never having owned a Barbie RV.


After a week of cajoling, my son finally came up with something: a toothbrush that plays music. By my math, that’s two small steps above a lump of coal. I’m not sure if that’s his humility or guilt talking, but even on my meanest mommy days, I don’t think I could give my kid a toothbrush for Christmas.

I’m a planner and a deal-hunter, so I’ve been at the brink of aggravation over this whole gift mystery, even with four weeks to go. Then this morning, as we were listening to the radio during my daughter’s commute to school, I heard the WRVR deejays broadcasting from the Porter Leath toy drive. They were reading the wish list of a four-year-old boy. His top items? Socks and underwear. My heart broke, of course, as it was intended to do. But after that, it was filled with gratitude. Not only because my kids and I have so much, but because, at least right now, they seem to understand that.

There’s still plenty of time for the ghost of Christmas Spending to visit my children this season, haunting their dreams with Furbys and gajillion-piece Lego sets. It’s inevitable, really. But it’s a gift to know that, at this moment, they’re happy with what they have.

The WRVR Toy Truck will be parked at Bud Davis Cadillac at 5433 Poplar Ave. to accept new, unwrapped toys from 6am – 7pm through Nov. 30. Cash donations will be matched by their own Secret Santas and can be given in person or at porterleath.org. (I have no affiliation with any of these people, but since this is the organization that made me tear up most recently, it’s the one I’ll point out. Feel free to find your own.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Home for Thanksgiving in Minnesota

Posted By on Wed, Nov 21, 2012 at 8:43 AM

Dateline: Minnetonka, Minnesota. Home of the eponymous moccasin, Tonka trucks, and the purifying lake waters touted by Prince in Purple Rain.

I’m frequently asked where I’m from and I hem and haw on the answer, citing the half-dozen places I passed through in my first two decades, but this, really, is it. The ancestral homeland. I was born fewer than thirty miles from where I now sit. And where I now sit is the couch in my parents’ house, the house where I lived from my single-digits through high school graduation. My parents were raised 100 miles away. Their parents and siblings and mind-boggling numbers of cousins are interspersed in the prairies to the near west. If any one place is where I’m from, it is here.


And yet, this is the first Thanksgiving I’ve spent up north since the turn of the century. The unpredictable November weather combined with inexcusable airfares had made it pointless to even consider the trip. I made the best of it over the years, spending the day with my Southern family-by-choice when I could, taking my kids for dim sum when I couldn’t. I was actually planning on another Memphis Thanksgiving this year, most likely catered by Wang’s Mandarin House, but thanks to a last-minute influx of frequent flyer miles and the unbearable burden of a gluten-free holiday, the urge to travel became overwhelming.

So here we are. I just dragged two children and three overstuffed carry-on bags through the gates of Helta to spend four days in unfamiliar (to them) places with people they hardly see. Was it worth the trouble? Oh, Maude, yes.

The minute we pulled into the driveway and I heard the garage door open — the sound that meant, throughout my childhood, that somebody was coming home — I could feel a tension release somewhere deep inside my chest. It happens every time I’m here. It’s like when you suddenly realize you’ve been holding your breath. I don’t notice the generalized loss I feel from living so far from my family until that distance is gone.

Being closer to my nuclear unit means getting reacquainted with parts of myself that I then get to introduce to my offspring. My parents occasionally get it in their heads that they’re going to sell this suburban home and move to a hobby farm with their horses and absolutely none of their daughters’ Rubbermaid bins of college notebooks, but so far, it’s been an empty threat. I’m grateful for that, because if they moved, surely the drawers and closets would get cleaned out and I wouldn’t have the pleasure of watching my kids discover a music box that plays “Born Free” or a lost stash of Snork figures. Every time we visit, my children and their cousins unwittingly fish out pieces of my own childhood, one Weeble at a time.

But these trips are also about them making their own memories. On this Thanksgiving day, my kids will share a meal with their great-grandparents. It’s been so long since these pairs last saw each other, it will be as much an introduction as a reunion, and although I expect there to be as much awkwardness as I sometimes felt as a child around my rarely-seen relatives, I’m thrilled that they’ll have that opportunity. It’s a chance I never had, and I hope it’s something they’ll treasure. Or at least not act a total fool for the duration.

Really, Thanksgiving has never been my thing. I’m not big on the food (except for a nice gluten-y gravy and some soft rolls … dammit!) and loud televised sports make me a little twitchy. And for the last thirteen years, I’ve always had the awareness that my family was off celebrating without me, which sort of put a damper on the whole deal. Now that we’re together, though, I can finally see the appeal.

I know there are people all over the country dreading the time they’re contractually obligated to spend with their “loved” ones, but I can’t speak for them. My kids ran full-tilt toward my dad when they saw him in baggage claim. My dad hugged me so hard my feet left the ground. In those first thirty seconds, the entire trip was made worthwhile.

I’ve made a home in Memphis, and it’s a home I love. But this year and always, I’m thankful for the home that taught me what love is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Going Gluten-Free is a Big Change

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 7:13 AM

Let’s see, how can I put this delicately? Oh, never mind, let’s just pretend we’re on Facebook.

Sometime in late August, I started having pain, abdominal pain of a degree that warranted tests for appendicitis, kidney stones, and ovarian cysts. Within the course of two weeks, I saw three different doctors, forked over more than $125 in co-pays, had blood drawn and barium ingested and x-rays made. And the diagnosis was … nothing.

I could have just gone on my way, but the pain persisted and so did I. The best guess my physician could make was that the cause may be some hard-to-detect lady problem, so the suggested course of action was to follow up with my OB/GYN, who found nothing on ultrasound that warranted concern and suggested I come back in six weeks for diagnostic laparoscopy (read: poking holes in my belly and sticking a tiny camera inside to look around).


For some reason, that just felt like a bad idea. Or an ineffective one, anyway. I had a strong sense that the problem had more to do with my legendarily wonky digestive system. Sure enough, after sending myself to a highly recommended new gastroenterologist and undergoing a Kubrickian series of tests, I finally got a diagnosis: celiac disease.

For those unfamiliar, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by the gluten found in wheat, barley, rye, and for some people, oats. Different than an allergy, the disease, when triggered, results in damage to the digestive system that eventually leads to the inability to absorb nutrients from food. Which is pretty bad.

There’s no medical treatment for celiac. The only therapy is going on a gluten-free diet. Yes, I did just hear your bourgeoisie-fake-sickness sensors go off, but stay with me. Although glutenlessness has gotten trendy lately, the actual medical reason for doing so is real. (And really, really hard. You have no idea how much wheat we use in contemporary cooking until you try to avoid it.) Unfortunately, the stigma sticks like delicious, delicious pizza dough to a cross-contaminated kitchen counter. Every time I have to spend ten minutes examining the ingredient labels of my lunch or asking a waiter what, really, is in the vinaigrette, I can feel a wave of perceived public annoyance wash over me. I have spent my life as a quiet carbivore. I’m not built for interrogating sous chefs.

I’ve had this diagnosis less than two weeks, though, so I’m not going to present myself as an expert or an activist for my fellow celiacs (or maybe we don’t like being called that, I don’t know yet). But what I will get on the soapbox for is being your own advocate. As patients, we tend to be too, well, patient. We wait, we listen, we obey. We assume that the person in the white coat knows everything. Doctors are wonderful, but they’re not omniscient. I had a team of excellent physicians looking after me (and one awful one), but none of them were talking to each other and none of them had all the information I did.

And I had a lot of information. I got copies of lab results going back two years and passed them out, which let my doctors see connections and patterns that wouldn’t have been obvious at a one-off sick visit. And I had my own experience, which I wasn’t shy about writing down and bringing with me to appointments so I wouldn’t forget anything that might be important. Having that data put my GI on the right track, and that led directly to getting some answers. If I had followed the original prescribed course of action, I’d be home recovering from laparoscopy right now, still having my initial pain plus a couple new puncture wounds. Instead, I’m on the gluten-free-banana-bread-crumbed path to healing.

I recently heard about a woman in her 70s who’d suffered from celiac disease all her life and was only diagnosed when she was on the verge of fatal malnutrition. It’s a sneaky shape-shifter of an illness, and I could have easily gone years without knowing I had it, getting worse all the while. As much as I hate having to make this HUUUUGE life change, I’m lucky to know I should. I only have that knowledge because I kept pushing and asking and, most importantly, participating in my own care. I’m not better or smarter than anyone walking around with an undiagnosed illness, but I’m maybe just a little more stubborn and cynical. And I encourage everyone to be the same.

Oh, and keep putting your gross personal medical issues on Facebook. A friend correctly identified my diagnosis based solely on status updates months before my doctor did. Although I still refuse to “Like” it.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Well, An Election Happened

Posted By on Wed, Nov 7, 2012 at 3:37 AM


So that happened.

That was something, huh?

Okay. I don’t really know what happened. I’m writing this at just-after-kid-bedtime-o’clock on election night 2012. But you all know by now, and by the time you read this, you’ll be full-to-bursting with everyone else’s opinions on the subject. So let’s just take a breather.

Here we are. Still.

I hope we are, anyway. Maybe by morning we’ll all be conscripted to Haha I Was Totally Socialist The Whole Time Brainwashing Camp, or raptured off to our own tax-sheltered planets. The stakes sure seemed that high, didn’t they? Truthfully, the returns I’m watching most closely aren’t on NPR’s Big Board, but on the Minneapolis NBC affiliate’s website (whassup, KARE-11!). That’s where the results of Minnesota’s vote on adding a constitutional definition of marriage is being tracked.

I have certain beliefs about the place I was born and mostly raised. One of these, and probably the deepest, is that Minnesota is a calm, reasonable, and therefore socially liberal place. What? Okay, so maybe being Minnesotan makes me connect those three things together more naturally than others might. Or so I always thought. Something has happened over the last ten years, something which can be best and most frighteningly be defined as The Bach-Omenn. The good ol’ Keillorized Democratic stronghold of my upbringing was infiltrated by tea-partiers, which doesn’t even make any sense. No one’s ever been served tea in a Lutheran church basement. My people are coffee-drinkers. But I could rationalize with the best of them. It was the recession, of course. Being broke makes people freak out a little bit. Circle the wagons. Get conservative in every way. Long for the safety of the past as embodied in the mentality of the ‘50s (1750s, apparently, but still). I hated it, but I got it.

But then it got ridiculous. Instead of just hunkering down and muttering their grievances like good Norwegians, some especially misguided troupe decided that the only way to make things less confusing was to officially define marriage. In the state constitution. I really can’t even begin rationalizing that one.

Maybe they were hoping no one would notice. I mean, state constitutions are somewhat obscure. Until they aren’t. Not many people care about fuel taxes or timber management, but when you take a 150-year-old document and use it to inject personal prejudices into a government that was created to serve every one of its citizens, you’re going to attract some attention. Even all the way down in Memphis, Tennessee.

In the course of writing this, the electoral college decision has been made, and I’m thrilled with the results. But I’ve still got my eye on kare11.com, watching the marriage amendment votes sneak closer and closer to an even break. I really didn’t think it would possibly be this close. I know that voters in rural areas can be more moralistic, but come on, surely mine isn’t the only family with a gay farmer in it.


I have a very clear idea of the place I consider home, and it torments me to think I could wake up tomorrow and find out that that idea is wrong. I haven’t used this space to tell anyone how to vote and it’s far too late to do so now, even if I wanted to. All I can do at this point is hope for the best and send my support to all my loved ones who have already been affected by this battle, both in Minnesota and in the three other states that put their personal lives on the ballot. No matter what the final votes are, the very proposal of these laws and amendments suggested, very publicly, that their families are wrong and their home lives are worth less than their straight neighbors’. I know what I’ll be celebrating tomorrow. Now I just hope everyone can celebrate with me.

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