Thursday, September 15, 2011

McMansion of Cards

I used to suffer the delusion that I could do it all. At the very least, I could do it “all” for some defined period of time, if the results would be worth the effort. In case you don’t know it already, that’s a philosophy that, one way or another, spells trouble.

When I think about this, a time-lapse memory collage comes to mind, of a house that my now ex-husband and I built, acting as our own contractors. We hoped for a best-case scenario of nine months, but understood that a year or 18 months were more realistic.

That's haughty enough. But you have to add all this to the story, to understand it:

1) I was primary breadwinner at that time, always solely the one to carry the family health insurance, and the mother of three elementary-age children.

2) As a certain sadistic supervisor in my life began to understand the extent to which I needed my employment to complete our building project, my job went from “high-stress” to “possessed by Satan.” A slave to my dream and that damned “can-do” attitude, I often:  went to work at 4 a.m.; came home in time to dress and feed children before school; worked until about 4 or 5 p.m.; and returned to the office at about 9 p.m., after the children were in bed, until midnight or 1 a.m. or later. In hindsight, I am stunned by how little sleep I got. Weekends, I tried to work on the house that we were building.

3) About a year into the project, I got pregnant with my fourth daughter. Yes I know how that happens; I also now know how a body can get all wackadoo with stress, and surprise a person mightily. Wisely, I gave up my support-contractor duties when one day, as I was running the table saw, I looked down to see my 9-months-pregnant belly sweep awfully close to the running blade. Soon after that, I would have a baby on my hip almost constantly for a few years, trying to protect her from the dangers of an unfinished house.

I got tired. My recollection of exact dates is fuzzy now, but my ability to “do it all” ended somewhere around the 3-year mark. We were, by then, a family of six, living in an unfinished house that was open to the Four Winds and all the pestilence and critters they could carry into it. Plagues — great. One more thing to fight.

I also remember, with no small amount of guilt, how I got a man fired at Lowe’s during this time. I had picked up my three daughters from after-school care, after my own day at work, pregnant enough to make strangers wince on my behalf. It was dinnertime, but I still had to get the whole crew to our rental house and start cooking. The children were getting whiny and impatient, but I had to get several gallons of polyurethane right quick, or our entire project would grind to a halt,again. Trouble was, I couldn’t find “matte finish” on the shelf anywhere. I pounded the call-button that was supposed to bring help for what seemed like half an hour.

I’ve been treated like complete shit by male employees at home improvement centers so many times, I can’t really defend getting one fired over another. This particular guy finally showed up, stopped dead in his tracks, and rolled his eyes. He proceeded to baby-talk me about the differences between “gloss,” “semi-gloss” and “matte” finishes, no matter how many times I protested  --  “I understand that. I just need to know where the matte is.”

Finally, disgusted by my interruptions, he said, “Look, lady, your husband really ought to be here doing this.”

My daughters were watching.

“Get me a manager,” I said.

“What kind of manager?”

“A big manager. A general manager.”

* * *

Ultimately, my marriage flopped dead across the finish line, a marathoner in cardiac arrest with just enough sheer force of will to get to a certain point and not one single step further. (Don’t cry — this was one of several excellent developments in the whole nightmarish scenario. Another would be the big, fat equity checks that allowed us to divide our household in two, and set up our children comfortably for the next phases of their lives.) Whether a person would say we failed spectacularly, or succeeded, depends on your viewpoint. Interestingly, the very same goes for whether the fellow in Lowes should have been fired. I recall his face to this day, and realize I knew nothing about his viewpoint; the words “uneducated” or “unworldly” come to my mind when I think of it now. 

I wonder if I can find the same tenderness, for that younger woman who once thought she could do it all.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Drink Your Milk. Or Don't.

When I was 18 years old, I was in a television commercial for a dairy company in El Paso, Texas  --  specifically, touting their cottage cheese. I was horribly unsuited to the task. The poor owners of the ad agency who brought me on board were in need of a good stiff drink at the end of the day  --  “dairy” my foot. Whether they were going to be able to splice together 60 seconds of footage from the hours of effort was seriously in question. I must have said my lines a hundred times, but a self-protection mechanism has allowed me to black out on what, exactly, they were.

Yet, the commercial ran for years, long after the workout clothes I wore for it were out of style, long after I’d forgotten all about it. Forgotten, that is, until, all of a sudden from time to time, some group in one of El Paso’s mega-malls would start yelling, “Look! Look! It’s the Cottage Cheese Queen!” (Why always “Cottage Cheese Queen?” Evidence of my astonishingly bad acting skills, I guess, as I never wore a crown.)

Years later, after I’d worked for a number of years as a print journalist and during the time I was pursuing a degree in anthropology, my husband-to-be asked me if I’d ever considered going into television journalism. I looked at him like he’d grown a second head.

It’s funny because it’s so wrong.

Strangely enough, I’ve become a lifelong advocate for dairy  --  really really really  --  or more accurately, a one-woman proponent of individuals eating correctly for the particular set of genes they have. Food Anthropology was a sub-category of the discipline that particularly captured my interest. (See Gary Nabhan’s Why Some Like It Hot, about the interplay between biology and culture in what we eat.) In my case, the half-Norwegian organism that is me runs best on dairy, lots and lots of dairy. I actually don’t feel all that great, if circumstance forces me to go without for several days. The Cuban half of my genes, though, don’t seem to have expressed themselves, digestively speaking. I tend to be allergic to tropical fruits, for example.

It can be complicated to figure out, given that we human beings are a genetically mixed-up lot, but it’s possible, a worthy endeavor in the matrix of working toward better health. A good place to begin might be by asking, “What makes me feel good, what makes me sick or nauseous?” and then looking for geographical connections in those foods. Lactose intolerance is a pretty good indicator you didn't get certain genes from ancestral herding people, in so far as dairy is concerned. 

I got to thinking about all this today because I made a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. For my entire adulthood, I have never made a grilled cheese sandwich without thinking about the time my Great Aunt Nell came to visit when I was about 8 years old. She was like royalty, and my little brother and I were beside ourselves with excitement.

On the first full day, Aunt Nell wanted a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch, and  --  imagine the honor  --  my parents said I, the brand-spanking new cook of very simple things, could make it.

It would be the best grilled cheese sandwich in the whole wide world!

I put a quarter inch of butter on the bread. I put another quarter inch on the other side of the bread. I repeated on the second piece of bread, both sides. I sliced the cheese at least a half-inch thick. The stack went into the pan of melted butter:  butter, bread, butter, cheese, butter, bread, butter on top.

I finished the confection. I leaned really close into Aunt Nell as she took the first bite.

“So??? How is it?”

She made a face. “It’s kind of  --  buttery.”

“I know! Yummy, right?”