Barrack or Mitt — Will You Come for Dinner?

Before you jump to assumptions, please be aware this is NOT a political rant. This is not about one political party being better (or worse) than another. This is not a campaign ad. It is merely some observations. And an invitation to dinner.

FULL DISCLOSURE: From 1990–2006, I served 17 years as an elected local government official in a rural area of about 4,000 residents. For more than half of those years, I held the highest office possible in that form of government.

The other day, I was surfing home pages of different news organizations and I came across a photo of Mrs. Romney. As I write this, I cannot recall what the event was, or where, other than it was outside and there was lots of sunshine. I cannot tell you if there were other people standing behind Mrs. Romney. She was facing the photographer, but her eyes were focused on someone else. And she had an absolutely gorgeous smile that went all the way to her eyes. Can I tell you the color of her eyes? No. I faintly recall she had on a rose-hued lipstick. Beyond that, I cannot provide many details. But that smile was unforgettable. And it has hung in my thoughts for several days now.

Perhaps I was attracted to her smile like a moth to light for the simple reason that I have spent three afternoons of the last month in my dentist’s chair having assorted dental work done. Mind you, my smile isn’t model gorgeous but it is an attractive and warm smile. People have commented on it all my life. But no one has ever told me it was gorgeous. Mrs. Romney’s smile was gorgeous. Now maybe she inherited incredible “tooth” genes, but my guess is rather that for all of her life she had access to good dental care.

And any time I see a photo of Mrs. Obama, just like most women I am envious of her muscle tone and her fashion style. Mrs. Obama has often said she likes to purchase clothes from J. Crew, as if telling all of us that J. Crew is affordable. I looked once. It’s not in my budget, even if I am part of the “middle class.” And having good muscle tone requires effort and self-discipline, not to mention energy and time. On my best days I can only come up with one or two of those four things.

President Obama was on the David Letterman show recently and Letterman commented on how wonderful the President looked—indicating a fit and trim body. He did look fine indeed! It gave me pause to look at President Obama’s shiny leather loafers, dark (probably Gold Toe) socks, and elegant suit. Most people “clean up well” in those kinds of trappings. Most people don’t have access to a kitchen full of award-winning cooks, a personal trainer and staff who second as teammates for a game of pick-up ball, or an assortment of other aides. Okay, President Obama has one of (if not THE) toughest jobs I can think of. But the fact remains, he has access to things most people can only dream about.

And as hard as I try, I cannot lose the image from my brain of Mr. Romney piloting his overly large speed boat with a hull full of grandkids. It was clear from his posture and his expression that he felt very much at ease in the pilot’s seat and his designer-label clothes.

Headlines have been screaming for months about Congress’s record-low approval ratings. And lately it seems there’s a minimum of three polls each week giving us Obama’s and Romney’s approval/disapproval ratings, more often than not in less than stellar territory. Americans clearly feel their leaders are out of touch. Sure, we listened to Mrs. Romney talk fondly of their first “small” apartment and Mrs. Obama’s sweet story about an end table pulled out of a dumpster. But the fact remains those memories are from many, many years ago. During this summer’s political conventions we didn’t hear a single elected official or candidate for higher office discuss the difficulty of choosing between spending money on gas to get to a job or using that money to buy milk and meat and fresh vegetables for the week. We didn’t hear any of those speakers talk about waking up at three in the morning from nightmares about a health scare, knowing there isn’t any medical insurance. And for months, we haven’t heard any such talk from a single member of congress. Remember four years ago? All we heard every time we turned on the TV or the radio was talk about choosing to buy medicine or food. I haven’t heard that slogan in any campaign ads recently.

Local government officials—county board, city council, township—are in the trenches with us and are much more in tune with how most of us feel on a given day. Local government officials (usually) don’t have a staff that screens calls 24/7, or an on-site chef, or a personal driver. Locally elected officials sit alongside us at church, pump gas at the next pump over, buy groceries at the same store. They often greet us by name and ask about our sick child or if we’ve had any job prospects. They’re on the ground running with us. They’re in the trenches fighting with us.

And so as I jot down these musings, I’m pondering ways to create communication channels from main streets in America to two official buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. How can we eliminate the middle layers of staff and assorted others who essentially serve as filters to keep the “riff raff” from bothering these officials? How can we get around those people who serve only to guard a Congressman’s time? How can an average American—not an Olympic athlete, not a war hero, not a civilian hero—be invited to have a freshly brewed honey beer at the White House?

I am so concerned that our voices are not being heard. I am so worried that all the filters put in place to protect and triage priorities have instead silenced the messages from the trenches. We need reinforcements and assistance! We don’t need partisan politics nor billions upon billions of dollars being spent on campaign ads.

If by any chance the Obamas or the Romneys (or any Congressional leaders for that matter) are drawn to these silly musings of mine, please call and tell me when you’re coming for dinner. My husband and I will make you the best Italian spaghetti you’ve had in a long time. And we can toast to better times with some homemade lemoncello. And we will ask for nothing in return except for a couple of hours of your time to listen to the messages from the trenches.

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Still Pondering the Word “Friend”

I grew up in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. We lived in a decent neighborhood and there were lots of kids. It wasn’t an affluent area, but some families were better off than others. The last of eight kids, it’s fair to say I was spoiled and lived a sheltered life.

At the time, I would not have said we were one of the “better off” families. As an adult, there is no doubt in my mind that we were. All eight of us kids attended parochial schools. We always had food on our table and we regularly made room for one more at the last minute. We all had coats and hats and boots in the winter. And even though our mother didn’t work, we were always a two (or more) car family. Christmas always meant presents and Easter always meant candy.

There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood, and tagging along with some of my older siblings made it easy for me to make friends. Left on my own, it was tough for me to make friends. I was (and am) a bit of an introvert and I always felt different from everyone else. No, I didn’t feel I was better or smarter or richer. It was more a feeling of not belonging, that I wasn’t like all the others. I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or pretty enough to be “one of them.”

Going to private schools didn’t help because most of the kids in the neighborhood went to public schools. And we were the largest family on the block, so we always stood out no matter what. I loved getting attention, when I wanted it. And I loathed being the center of attention any other time.

One morning, when I was twelve, my mother didn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t recall that ever happening before. And I remember now being frightened as I crept into my parents’ room, stepping carefully to her side of the bed, and looking to see how sick she looked. I asked her what was wrong, why she wasn’t getting up, and I don’t remember her exact words but I do recall she said something about needing surgery. I was a sheltered, spoiled kid. What did I care about that? I just wanted to know why there was a different routine that morning.

Well, my mom was sick. In fact, she had been diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer and she spent the next two years courageously battling cancer that spread through every pore of her body. When she died, she weighed about 90 pounds. I was only fourteen and I remember thinking my mother looked like a living skeleton. And she scared me. It didn’t help that her funeral was on Halloween. To this day, I really detest celebrating that holiday.

Many of my classmates attended the funeral. And seeing them all there caused me to sob uncontrollably. My father and my siblings (and everyone in the church) thought I was crying hysterically because I was lost without my mom. That wasn’t it at all! I was mortified. Having my mom die only caused greater feelings of inadequacy within me. Moms weren’t supposed to die. Mine did. And so, again, I wasn’t like all the other kids.

A few days later when I went back to school, teachers and classmates expressed their condolences and I politely said thanks while all I wanted to do was slip into the shadows. I didn’t want my mother’s death to be the reason I was in the limelight. And after a few weeks, thankfully, people went back to treating me just as they had before, for the most part.

And then, one year later, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. In my mind, the world stopped spinning and ended. I was scared beyond belief about growing up without any parents, about how people would think of me, about what was to become of me. It was all pretty heavy and depressing. And I was afraid to talk about it. And my friends were afraid to talk to me, as if this cancer thing was contagious. And so now I really had a reason to feel like I didn’t belong. Another year later, my father passed away. I was sixteen.

I don’t know if it was my act of pulling away from friends or my friends being unable to fathom someone losing both parents or a combination of the two. But from that moment on, making new friends was next to impossible. Some of the kids in high school who hadn’t known me when my mother died tried to reach out to me, but they quickly left the scene when they found out I had no parents. Some stuck by me for a while, probably out of curiosity more than anything else. But there were a few who remained in my life, no matter how little I worked at building a friendship with them. (I’m grateful for each one.)

When I graduated from high school, I had big dreams but I still felt inadequate. In fact, I was shocked that a college had actually accepted me! I was excited for a new opportunity to make friends and to start over, where no one knew me or my story. Ah, yes. I may have changed locations, but my story still came with me. In October of my freshman year, I hit a bottom of sorts. I was failing classes, something I’d never done before. I had no “home” to go to, no parents to embrace me and tell me everything would work out. I was terrified. And even though people were trying to reach out in friendship, I pulled back into the shadows. I didn’t want to be the center of attention for the wrong reasons.

That was nearly thirty years ago, and a lot has changed in my life. I have many blessings and have achieved many successes. But the whole friendship thing still plagues me. I have a handful of friends I’ve known since high school and I cherish every one of them in my life. I have two friends from the days when I was raising kids and those women mean the world to me. And a scattering of friends I’ve made as an adult, moving from one job to another, one career to another.

But if someone were to ask me, “Do you feel you have a lot of friends?” I’d answer “No” without even thinking about it. I don’t have a lot of friends. And some days, that really bothers me. And lately, that’s been bothering me a lot as I watch my youngest daughter struggle to find her place in this world. She’s made some bad choices that alienated her from some good friends. She’s missed opportunities to form lasting friendships with others. At nineteen she should be in her first year of college making new friends, but instead she’s attending an online high school out of her bedroom. She doesn’t want to attend a regular school as a “super senior.” And she doesn’t want to take her GED. She wants to earn a diploma! Well, I give her a lot of credit for believing in that and working toward that goal. But I look at the challenges she faces, the obstacles she must overcome to try to make new friends. And I see my past. And it scares me. It’s bad enough that I had trouble making friends. That’s the last thing I want my child to experience. And yet I feel helpless and incapable of helping her learn this skill. It’s no wonder my anxieties about being inadequate are flaring up.

This week Brianna and her boyfriend broke up. I was silently elated, yet outwardly compassionate and consoling. This is a good thing, and I hope it’s a turning moment for Brianna. But without the boyfriend, there is a deep, dark void in her life. And I feel I must act quickly to show her that she does not need a boyfriend to survive. I know from history, that she will rebound and fill that void as quickly as possible. From mother to daughter. Oh how I hate some personality traits!

New Friends, Old Friends, True Friends

Someone once said, “Some people come into our lives for a reason, others for a season, and some for a lifetime.”

I’m working on the outline for my next novel and its focus is on relationships. So I suspect that is the driving force behind my thoughts focusing on friendships lately. Or maybe it was watching my four daughters renew their bonds with each other through the experience of my daughter Rose’s wedding. It was such a heart-warming moment for me to watch them reconnect. They have been through so much together and I suspect, through good times and bad, they will always be there for each other.

Last weekend my husband and I had dinner with some new friends. My husband first introduced me to Ted about four years ago and just in the last year I’ve gotten to know Alice. They were high school sweethearts who struggled through two marriages and two divorces each before finally coming together in their early sixties. Energy and motion come to mind when I think of these two. They are always going here and there, volunteering everywhere! I have wondered how they can possibly appreciate each other when they rarely take the time for just the two of them. And during dinner, they told us about a trip they had just taken—three weeks driving from the Midwest to California and back. They looked refreshed and their conversations about each other were much more respectful. It was interesting to witness this transformation in their relationship.

A couple of weeks ago I had the occasion to see some “old” friends whom I treasure very much. The occasion was my daughter’s wedding, so I regret that I didn’t take time to sit down and visit with Bob and Carol for longer than five or ten minutes. These two have been married close to thirty years, and we’ve known each other for almost all of those. I marvel at their ability to stick together through some pretty rough times. Of course they complain about each other’s quirks and pet peeves, but at the end of the day they truly love each other and they choose to be together. Their children are “launched” and from where I sit, it appears Bob and Carol are handling the empty nest just fine. They’re living a dream—growing old with their lover and best friend.

Another dear friend was at my daughter’s wedding and I have the same regret about not spending more time talking with her too. Linda is one of the kindest most generous people I know. And yet, if you asked her, she’d tell you she’s not special at all. She regularly performs random acts of kindness and would give you the shirt off her back if she thought you needed it. And yet, she’s never gotten a break in life. If someone’s going to get a flat tire, it’s going to be Linda. A lost paycheck, that would be Linda. An alcoholic husband? Yes, that too. Even after divorce she still ended up with next to nothing and no good turns in life. And a couple of years later, one of her children died tragically in an accident. I’ve tried to understand why bad things happen to good people, but I’ve had no luck. Linda is an angel on earth. But she’d be the first one to tell you she’s not worthy of that acclaim. I wish I knew how to help her to believe in herself.

When my oldest daughter was growing up I made fast friends with Jane. We had a blast together and I loved how I could count on her to always “tell it like it is.” A spade is a spade in Jane’s book. Unfortunately, things turned south after my divorce and for whatever reason Jane can’t fit me into her life anymore. Evidently my divorce was an open door for Jane and she cut and ran. It’s a loss that frustrates me because I can’t make sense of it.

I’ve had a similar experience with another friend. Her husband and my ex grew up together, so I understood our alliances would be different after my ex and I divorced. But I placed a lot of value on our friendship, and I have struggled with hurt and disappointment that she cannot accept my invitations to get together.

In recent years, several friends from high school and college have “friended” me on Facebook and it’s been great to walk down memory lane. I’m thrilled to have a few of them back in my life and I wish I knew of a way to pull them in even more. Time may help.

A couple of days ago my husband shared a friendship story with me. He hadn’t talked to his old girlfriend in probably three or four years. But the last time he did, Sandy was happy and enjoying her job and her life. They had once worked in the same field, so they had friends in common. My husband was shocked to learn that Sandy passed away in April at the age of 47. He had no idea. We found the obituary and it was suspiciously void of any cause of death.

My husband’s experience is one that I’ve dreaded happening to me with one of my old friends. Two years ago John walked out of my life and I haven’t heard from him since. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. I vacillate between anger and compassion when I think of him and his wife. Was once of them sick? Whatever could cause two people to just want to quit their current life and start all over anew?

I treasure my friendships, especially knowing that I have often not been as good a friend as I could have been. And I am learning, I need to work harder at being a better friend if I am to keep my friends.

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh