Inside the Furnace

If you know me in real life, you probably know that I worked in a factory during school breaks to help pay for college. It felt very meaningful for me to accept my first job after graduation: when the Corning plant shut down in State College, PA, I was hired to help the displaced factory workers write resumes and cover letters to hopefully transition to new employment.

These workers, over 1,000 of them, worked on the factory floor for decades with multiple generations of their family. They were paid good wages and lived a comfortable life. They sweated and heaved and toiled making glass tube televisions. As I’m typing this on a flat-screen computer across the room from my flat screen television, I think you all know why this factory shut down.

They lost their jobs not just to Asia, but due to automation in the manufacturing process and changing technology. It simply takes fewer people to make flat screen televisions than it took to make the glass tube ones. And Corning was moving those few jobs to a plant overseas.

When I started at this job, they took me on a tour so I could see what each worker did to help him or her articulate these tasks on a resume. With a practiced hand, I slid on steel-toed boots and rolled in my foam ear plugs. I saw the men working with the molten glass, their arms singed hairless in the unthinkable heat. There were no women in the molten glass section…maybe they had already been laid off.

Some of these workers found new jobs in other manufacturing companies close by. Some found work in an industrial laundry. Most of them competed with each other for hourly jobs at Home Depot or Lowes, the leftover ones turning to Wal-Mart. That’s what was left.

I remember working with a man named Kermit, who was in his late 50s and had worked in the furnace for 40 years. He was still a ways from retirement, but had done the same task at the factory for longer than twice the time I’d been alive.

Because of this experience, I feel like I understand what has happened in recent days with our presidential election. I can’t understand why my own father voted against the recommendations of the union that supported him through his own 45+ years of hard, physical work, because I believe unions always have in mind the best interest of those people who depend on them to be their voice. But I understand a crumbling blue collar landscape that no longer offers jobs that will support families.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m agonizingly sad that the newly elected leader drew on these voters with promises paired with racism, misogyny, and hatred. How can his impulsive spews of hate speech be excused in light of his promises to restore job security to the working class? We aren’t so far removed from an era where good jobs were denied to Irish or Italian immigrants, let alone anyone with brown skin or a uterus.

To keep from feeling hopeless, I’ve decided to focus on one issue where I can feel effective, where I can enact change. For me, it’s public education. If I can help improve schools such that every student graduates with the skills to pass a civil service test or pass the written exam to join the military, then I will have helped. It starts for me locally, as I read more and find organizations collectively working to make change. This is a whole new furnace I’m touring, and I’m learning now how this one operates.

Posted by on November 11th, 2016 No Comments

Clearance Rack

I had some free time today, and I spent it wandering around Target, as many moms do when given an hour alone.

At the back of the store, there were giant racks of garbage on clearance for 90% off the original price of $1-$3.

My mother would have gotten two carts full of crap and spent many hours back there, picking. She’d think ahead to any upcoming holidays and her vast gifting list. She’d just grab things randomly because they cost ten cents. She’d have made multiple bags of Halloween decor and sent it off to me–enough to decorate my whole neighborhood.

A year since her death, and one of the biggest absences I feel is the lack of little things just coming in from her. The tiny spoons for my sugar in my coffee. The magazine rack by the sofa. The toilet paper holders in my bathrooms. I look around my entire house, and all the little things that make my day operate more smoothly all came from her, such that I don’t know how to begin to buy such things. I never even needed to feel their absence to know I needed them. Shit just showed up, because she scoured a clearance bin for it and found it for under a dollar.

So I spent an hour in that clearance bin. I got too overwhelmed to think about next Halloween. I remain attached to my frustration with having tons and tons of tiny things just because they cost ten cents! But I did buy some gifties for all my nephews and cousins at Christmas and some decorations for Thanksgiving. These decorations cost 30 cents, so I really splurged.

I felt myself disappointing my mother by not having a cart. I could hear her voice yelling, “Always take a cart! You just never know when you’ll find a bargain.” Well, I didn’t have a cart, but there were Dory bags on clearance for 10 cents, so I just filled one of those. Then I hauled my giant tote of crap to the checkout and the whole thing cost $9.85, and I laughed and cried all at once.

My mom would have gone first to Starbucks, but if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have had 2 hands free to stuff my Dory bag.

She also would have bought the dog vests for my friend’s dogs. She would have gotten 3 pairs of socks for each holiday for my kids and she would have bought the bubble bath that gives them a rash.

I can’t do all the things just like her, because I reserve the right to still feel frustrated about shit like bath paint that stains the grout, which she bought all the time! But I’m glad I had an hour to myself and that I went outside my comfort zone to dig in those chaotic clearance heaps. Next holiday, maybe I’ll feel up to stocking up for the future.

Posted by on November 5th, 2016 1 Comment

Long Hair, Do Care

I’ve had short hair since high school, apart from an 8-month period where I had a contagious fungus and couldn’t visit a hairdresser. The only drawback to short hair is that you have to get it cut pretty frequently or else it just looks crappy. And this is a problem for me because I’ve got 3 kids, a partner who works a lot of hours, and I’ve got no real ability to visit a salon where I have to make and keep an appointment.

We’ve got this fabulous friend who is a stylist, and she will make a house call if there are enough heads to cut. Luckily, Team Lev has 5 heads to cut and we’ve had her over here a few times for back yard beauty parlor.

But, things just aren’t working out for me lately with timing. Corey has a huge event coming up this weekend at work, I never quite know when he will be home, and dang if I don’t also really need to get my brows waxed. (Our friend isn’t currently equipped to wax my face in the back yard)

Last night, I thought I was going to be able to slip away and go to Supercuts.

You know Supercuts? Where you walk in for a medium-ok haircut/wax job and that’s ok because it’s inexpensive and you didn’t have to make an appointment? Well. I spent so much time circling the block looking for parking that by the time I got inside, there were so many people in front of me, I wouldn’t have been able to get my hair cut before they closed.

I could have cried. I maybe did a little bit. And then I went to Target for ponytail holders so I can stick my overgrown hair into whale spouts until I can work it out to get my friend over to my house with her clippers.

I also bought a wee self waxing kit to try to do my own eyebrows. I messaged my stylist friend a few times, and she emphasized that she was very concerned about my choices. Thankfully, the waxing pen thing was a total dud and not one hair came out of my face. This is certainly preferable to me pulling out the entire blonde, Frieda Kahlo situation I’ve got going on.

The good news is that I can probably see my friend soon, which means limited days of whale spouts. The better news is that she’s buying a real home waxing machine (is it a machine?) so most likely, I can haul everyone to her house for the whole salon treatment and just let my kids tear apart her train table. I think all 5 of us will just get a buzz cut.

Evidence that whale spouts have been my go-to solution for many years now, regardless of who has overgrown hair.

Posted by on November 4th, 2016 No Comments

Ritual

ladybug in flight

Last week marked one year since my mother died. My grief counselor was encouraging me to think about rituals to mark this day, to help me wade through my grief. I came up with two ideas.

First, my mother had always wanted a wee ladybug tattoo on her ankle. She never got around to getting it, although she did get a breast cancer ribbon tattooed on her foot when her older sister was going through treatments for that. I decided that I would get a ladybug tattooed on my ankle on the day of her death. A ladybug in flight.

I’ve never really wanted a tattoo. I still don’t want a tattoo. It hurt–it burned the entire time and now it itches like hell and looks like a moulting ladybug. But I’ve got it there, on my ankle, perpetually flying upward and away.

People ask me if I like it. That feels like the wrong word, or the wrong emotion. It’s important to me. Significant.

I also wanted to release some fire lanterns in the evening. I was very moved when a local artist released a bunch of these to honor the victims of the Orlando massacre last fall, and felt like this type of light would feel meaningful to me on the anniversary of my darkest day.

She’d always talked of a place called Balloonia, where all the helium balloons traveled when an unfortunate kiddo let go of the ribbon. I didn’t want to release balloons, because I don’t want to kill any birds, but I did like the promise of these fire lanterns floating through the sky.

Corey got nervous about them setting a fire or still strangling wildlife, so he went out back to light a test lantern tied to a length of twine. Turns out it was too damn windy to release these “wish lanterns,” and so we still have them in a drawer, waiting for a better day.

Instead, I invited some friends over and we lit candles in the house. We ate Pop-tarts and remembered my mom and on that day, I was surrounded by love and light and things weren’t so awful.

In the end, it’s all the non-significant moments that are harder for me, anyway. All the moments every day where I want to call her to tell her each mundane thing that happened, but cannot. I don’t yet have a ritual for navigating this daily mourning of my mother. It’s just a process I’ll be working on the rest of my life.

I’ve still got a mason jar of her ashes on the mantle in the dining room, though, and I look up at it each time I will myself not to scratch this itching tattoo. I can almost hear her yelling, “Don’t pick at your skin!”

Of course, I’d promise never to pick a blemish ever again if I could just hear her actually yell this one more time. I know that’s not a choice, so for now this itch and the act of not scratching it is the ritual that’s getting me through this hour of this day.

candles with tulips

Posted by on November 3rd, 2016 No Comments

Trauma Response: An Evolution

When Miles was a few weeks old, I tried trimming his fingernails and clipped his wee finger. It bled. I felt traumatized and I wept.

Several sons later, I really can’t drum up empathy for a wound unless it gapes and appears to need stitches.

We chose a non-reactive pediatrician on purpose so we’d learn to know when things were really emergencies, and over the years I think he’s taught me well. If our kids hit their head, we look to see if they cry right away and then stop soon after. And then we go on about our day, confident in our knowledge that “out is better than in” and also that head/mouth wounds bleed a lot. 

We’ve learned what heights our kids can drop from without breaking any parts, and so we just stopped noticing when they jump from tables or staircases, particularly if they’ve created some sort of cushion for themselves at the bottom.

We keep a trampoline in the living room, for crying out loud.

So my kids fall down a lot and hit each other with things a lot and Miles went to picture day this year with a black eye and a missing tooth. This same cherub began his school career as a chronic bolter, escaping both Whole Foods and school with equal abandon until I barely even had a heart attack anymore when a store announced “Code Adam.” I learned he was usually heading toward the potato chips.

Sure, the first few years of parenthood, these episodes drove me to seek marijuana and I could often be found rocking in a corner, trying desperately to calm down. Now? I’ve really learned that children are very, very sturdy. I barely pause the Gilmore Girls when they get hurt.

So, this morning, the school nurse called to tell me Miles hit his head on the bus on the way to gifted. “There’s a large lump,” she told me. I immediately began thinking about how I could tactfully tell her This is nothing we don’t see on a daily basis without sounding like a horrifying person.

She gave him ice and asked if I thought I should get him to monitor his progress and I just didn’t answer, because I was desperately trying to decide how to explain how little this head bump actually mattered. She said she’d text me a picture and I had to go because another school nurse was calling to tell me that Felix had split his lip open in gym class.

Now, Felix is more sensitive. He needs a lot of cuddling when these things happen, but not so much that I’m willing to sacrifice Oren’s nap to go fetch him from school. “Do you think it needs stitches,” I asked.

For some reason, Felix’s injury occurring at the same time as Miles’s made me even less inclined to respond to either child. Both were in the hands of teachers who were eagerly giving out hugs and ice packs. Both were enjoying Mac N Cheese day in the cafeteria. How could I possibly go drag a napless toddler through the rain to retrieve them from this loving cocoon?

I don’t want to sound harsh and uncaring, but I mostly don’t care about either of these head wounds. For one thing, having had a husband in the ICU and losing my mom has really, really shifted my perspective on emergencies. For another, I have a lot of things to do today and I can’t do them with my children at home. I need them to be at school, where they need to learn about math and literacy.

So head wound and split lip? I’m very grateful my tax dollars support a nurse practitioner to watch over the boys and make sure they continue to be fine with a little ice, a few hugs, and proper documentation.

Posted by on November 3rd, 2016 No Comments

Where to Begin?

I’m never sure where to begin when I’m interviewing new babysitters. Corey and I don’t go out much, because it’s a lot of work to find someone capable of keeping our children alive for less than $100 while we go out for pizza.

We’ve actually found a string of teenagers who have been really helpful as mothers helpers or taking care of the kids for short bursts of time, but I’m currently on the hunt for people I can trust with the kids for a triple bedtime, potential diaper emergent evening…long enough for Corey and I to eat dinner and drink a beer.

Sometimes, I go right for the kill shot and start my interview with, “They will lock you out of the house if you give them the opportunity.” When met with blank stares, I expand, explaining how they like to lure sitters out the front door and then slam it behind them and turn the deadbolt. Once, when I was pregnant with Oren, I got a call from a sitter who got locked out by the older two. In January. They managed to get her outside without shoes on.

Other times, I start softer, asking if they know how to care for an uncircumcised penis. “No need to roll that back,” I’ll explain, demonstrating a diaper change. “Just treat it like a finger!”

Most often, I allow the children to answer the door when a prospective sitter knocks and I stand back, judging their response to whatever happens next. Are they horrified to see a ring of boys riding bikes through the house, pantsless? How does the sitter react if Oren takes a swan dive off the back of the couch into the bean bag chair? Can I see the sitter squinting at the ketchup on the curtains, trying to determine whether it’s blood?

A few weeks ago, our dear friend had a planned elopement and I hadn’t had time to find a new babysitter after our faithful champion moved to Virginia. I had to go with a recommendation from a friend, sight unseen. “Just don’t open the door, no matter what,” I said as we left the house.

When we returned in a few hours, she’d gotten the children to sleep, tidied up the downstairs, and washed my dishes. Then, she described my children as “mellow,” and I passed out.

Miles tells me (and his teacher at school) that his dream is to babysit his brothers, and I know I’m not too many years away from being able to leave them home with Mr. Responsible. For now, when none of them can reliably wipe his own butt after a poop, I remain ever hopeful that I’ll build a stash of unflappable masochists.

What questions do you ask when you’re meeting new babysitters?

Posted by on November 3rd, 2016 No Comments

Details

I took a break from my writing work during the month of April because I had a lot of extra parenting to do while Corey was away from us for work. I used the time to deal with many things, like ENT consults and urgent ophthalmology visits for the kids as well as stuff like Get the Van Professionally Cleaned.

I don’t love that I’ve become a person who drives a vehicle that requires professional cleaning, but I’m also incapable of convincing my kids to eat at meal times, and so they consume most of their daily calories while strapped in their car seats with nothing else to do. The van is brimming with applesauce and peanut butter pretzels, the floor littered with Lego pieces and the broken detritus of plastic toys gone by.

When I called the detailing place, they asked if I thought I’d need a light, medium, or heavy-duty vacuum. Who, I wondered, bothers to pay for just a light vacuum? A light vacuum I could manage with my trusty Dyson, surely. Many Honda Odysseys actually come with a built-in vacuum. “I’ve got fig bar pieces shoved in my seatbelt buckles,” I said. “I think we need the heavy duty.”

To prepare for this detailing, I had to bring in the five blankets and one picnic blanket that had accumulated in the back, along with several sets of new windshield wipers, sun hats my kids never agreed to wear, zoo keys, and school papers that might have been important at one point. I filled several bags of garbage and then wondered where I would put all the sunscreen and bug spray and backup underpants I dug from the crevices in the third row.

I dropped the kids at school and pulled into the detail shop, proceeded to uninstall the car seats and watched as cereal rained from them while I carried them to the stoop. This, I acknowledged, was a filthy vehicle.

And yet, even with all of this grime and pasted on raisin bits and Trader Joes stickers stuck to the surfaces, even then, the vacuum guy said this was actually still a light vacuum job!

Heavy duty, he said, was for broken glass and, like, oil spills. My filth was medium at worst.

And so, this perspective shift brightened my morning. I am medium dirty at worst, and that’s not so bad.

Posted by on May 4th, 2016 No Comments

April is the Cruelest Month

Six months ago, my mother died. She died suddenly, without warning. Utterly unexpectedly. She died without a will, without life insurance, and without giving me a list of which credit cards she had.

I talked to my mother every day, multiple times, but never asked her about these things, and so on top of my shock and grief, I’ve had to manage the paperwork involved in a person dying. My dad hasn’t been too much help. He, for instance, didn’t think he had a credit score, much less understand how to turn off the auto-payment on my mom’s Dunkin Donuts app.

Just last week, I think we finished tying up all the logistical ends of ending someone’s life on paper. It’s the paperwork that pops up in the midst of my grief, demanding that I try to pay attention and think clearly and give official statements. Or find notaries, sign affidavits, accept the apologies of customer service agents offering their condolences in addition to their prying questions they need to ask in order to make things official.

For the first few months, every time we opened a closet, we found more credit cards or online accounts that needed to be closed. It grew to where I found it easier to call and pretend to be my mother, closing the account because “I’m leaving the country,” than it was to deal with the actual truth and much more involved paperwork of closing an account for someone who has died.

I know things now that I didn’t want to know for many decades. I know how to order an urn from Amazon. I know I am strong enough to sign to accept the cremains of my mother and bring them back to my parents’ house. I know that I still can’t convince my father to sign a Power of Attorney document, so if he has a stroke, we can’t sell his house or car to help pay for his care. I know we’d have to wait for him to actually die, because at least we got him to draw up a will.

Just last week, I helped him gather up my sisters’ social security numbers so he could finalize the beneficiary paperwork for some retirement funds. Six months of torturous logistical detail on top of the agonizing loneliness of not being able to bitch about it all to my mother.

It feels ironic that my last post prior to this was advertising a Get Your Act Together event I was unable to hold, for all the reasons I just listed above. I haven’t felt up to organizing another one, but I want to soon, because this work is so important. Do it for yourself, do it for your parents, and do it for your children. Do not leave this burden for those who will mourn, because it sucks…but I’d so much rather it be me dealing with my shitty paperwork than my children. And I’d much rather my father handle all this than me, but there you go.

We have but one life, and we know is that it can end at any point, without warning. If you’re moved in any way by reading about this great sadness in my life, I’d ask you to please look into getting your act together. And, when you’re done, make your parents get their act together. Tell them they owe you this final kindness.

Hopefully I can get an event together for Pittsburgh sometime this summer. In the mean time, I’m still working on my grief now that I’ve finally (hopefully) finished the paperwork.

Posted by on April 25th, 2016 No Comments

Get Your Act Together, 2015 Edition

papers in the air

You probably aren’t aware that my husband was hospitalized with Lyme carditis this summer. He was just discharged from cardiology and infectious disease on Yom Kippur, so everyone is super healthy right now, but that was not the case in June.

You know what else we did in June? We bought a house. Or, rather, I bought us a house, because he was in the hospital. Thankfully, I had durable power of attorney, a document that allows a person to designate another person to do things like buy or sell property in our stead if we should be incapacitated.

This kind of thing–a rogue hospitalization–can happen to anyone. So can a much worse accident. That’s why I’m going to nag you to get your act together and fill out your growup-papers.

Ideally, you’d do these things with a lawyer, but this is expensive. In a pinch, DIY documents will do the trick. Ask me how I know!

I’m planning to organize two more notary sessions this fall where families can bring their prepared documents and get it all witnessed and notarized. I have a hot tip on a great new location for our collective children to run amuck, too, so you don’t even need to worry about childcare.

Meanwhile, you can hop over to a site like Rocket Lawyer or even check out software from the library. Get started filling out your Durable Power of Attorney, Living Will, and Last Will so you’ll be all set for the notary. These papers take some thought (especially if you have children and would like to designate someone to be their guardian should the worst happen).

But let me tell you! The ticks are still out there spreading Lyme in Pittsburgh. Don’t let these buggers derail your real estate plans.

More information is forthcoming! Start your paperwork today, though.

Note: I do not work for Rocket Lawyer, but I just find their forms super user-friendly. They ask you questions like Turbo Tax and you just click and print!

Posted by on October 19th, 2015 No Comments

Archery Season

Last week, our family joined Miles’ cub scout pack (den? I’m still not sure and say “troop” frequently) for archery and s’mores at the Boy Scout camp.

That’s right. Archery.

I’m still adjusting to the idea that this activity puts weapons in the hands of my kids. In like a year he’ll do a course on knife safety and he’s sold enough popcorn to earn a trip to a shooting range. He’s six.

We skipped the range this year but Corey feels like he should go next year to learn gun safety. I’m not done deciding how I feel about that but do concede that my son is super curious and should know what to do if he does find a gun when he’s playing.

Anyway! Range master Bob took great care to teach the kids safety before they could enter the archery range. Miles took him so seriously and I loved how he paid extra careful attention to form. When he did finally enter the range, he and Corey worked to set up each arrow meticulously.

Our perfectionist boy told me he would be “very frustrated!!!!” if he didn’t get a bullseye, and we had to prepare him for the reality that he might not even hit the paper. Or the foam backing, for that matter.

Then I got very distracted because there was a spare slot and the scouts let Felix have a turn. Felix couldn’t even draw the string back alone, so I was helping him while also wearing Oren on my back.

I mention all of this because today, I was hiking with some mom friends in a nearby park. We were meandering along a stream. Felix was building a house for a worm he found. Oren was throwing things in the creek.

And then, from the corner of my eye, I saw something emerge from the leaves. It rose from the forest, like a monster in a fairy tale.

The man was in head to toe camouflage, with only his eyes peeping from a slit in his leaf-patterned gear. He carried arrows and a bow. A man wielding weapons in the woods where I was hiking with my babies.

All I could think to say was, “I didn’t see you there…I guess that’s the point.”

He told us he doesn’t hunt in the park proper. Just on the ridge above our heads. Also he had special permission to do so. Then he walked away, and we called the police.

Apparently he’s allowed to be in there hunting, but only with a bow.

I’m trying to remember how difficult it was to draw back the bow we used at the scout range, how arrows can really only travel a short distance with enough force to harm someone.

But I’m not succeeding! I keep remembering how we saw the man walk from the strip of trees behind our old house. He’d been in there hunting with a crossbow a few hundred feet from an elementary school.

I feel like hunting makes sense to me as something people do. But why do these hunters do it so close to children? Hikers? Surely there are other places they can shoot their bows and arrows?

I’m sure I’m opening myself up for heated discussion, but I’m rattled by that hunter and I need some time to calm down.

Posted by on October 13th, 2015 No Comments