Tamarack Trail – July 13, 2014

For our second hike we hit up the Tamarack Nature Center, and the trails in the prairies, woods and wetlands behind it. It was a nearly perfect day, sunny and breezy. The trails are lovely, but seem to be almost deliberately poorly marked. I’m not sure exactly what trails we took, or how long we walked.  We began to find “clues” scattered along the trail, leading us from place to place searching for what we imagined to be a treasure. The clues ran out, sadly and Ivan panicked about 45 minutes into the hike, thanks to two mosquito bites. But he did loved the Discovery Hollow play area afterwards. What a hidden gem this place is for parents of young children. We had a wonderful time.

Nerstrand Big Woods – July 6, 2014

DSC_0008 We’ve endeavored to hike every Sunday. Our crew is composed of two middle-aged,  out-of-shape, well-intentioned adults Adam (49) and myself (41), and our healthy, reluctant charges, Veronica (11) and Ivan (8). With our particular combination of ability and initiative, we are well suited to the generally flat, unassuming geology that abounds in Minnesota.

The forecast, and the sky, teased us with the threat of rain all morning. We hemmed and hawed, and finally decided to take a chance a little after noon. We decided on a “no-electronics” rule for the less than one-hour car ride. Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 11.23.55 AMVeronica read manga and Ivan talked, sang, and complained pretty much continuously for most of the ride. We arrived at Big Woods, Adam bought us a new state parks sticker, and we headed to the parking lot/trailhead to set out, but not before dousing ourselves in bug spray, as the ranger had warned us they were ‘bad’.

The trail was rambling and lovely, deeply forested and dappled in sunlight, and there were wild raspberries for the taking. However the experience will forever be remembered as “the hell hike” for the 80% humidity and bugs so thick we fairly sprinted through the woods. To keep Ivan interested we devised a treasure hunt game, wherein point values were awarded for seeing certain bits of nature. This naturally led to obsessive searching and lots of arguing over the point values of disparate items like “weird trees” and “giant mushrooms”. Points were deducted for getting bugs up your nose.

Naturally, Ivan won the game, as he scored 100 points for keeping Adam from stepping in a patch of poison ivy. After the hike we went into Northfield for iced coffees, Veronica went to her first Ragstock, and we mused about the absurdity of olive oil stores. We drove back the long way, not on purpose, and wound up in East Saint Paul at El Burrito Mercado, a worthy reward for our fledgling efforts. We all slept like babies.

 

To whom it concerns

This is the letter I wrote to interested parties involved with my dear friend’s murder trial. He was the victim, but somehow, his character has been called into question. As if he were a woman wearing a short skirt “asking for it”. It’s pretty much that ridiculous. The letter itself is no great shakes. Whenever I tried to approach this task as a “writer” I was stalled out. And also kind of hating myself for worrying about artfulness at a time like this. Also worried what Doug’s critique of it would be. He once said of an article I asked him to proof that it was “dry as dust”. On the other hand, he also said of another piece, “reads like a dream, wouldn’t change a thing.” So he was level-handed in his assessments I think. 

Mostly, I am frustrated because no matter how many examples I could give to support his decency, his talent, his kindness, and his humanity – it isn’t likely to change much in the long run. If I want justice, I shan’t hold my breath. If I crave closure, I think I’ll have to look elsewhere. But this is the best I can do, under the circumstances. I hope it helps.  

To whom it concerns: 

I believe in the idea of sacred contracts. An idea that there are some people in your life you meet because they help you to grow, or facilitate change, or assist you on your life’s journey. I believe that I had a contract of this nature with Doug. Chance flung us together at a favorite watering hole Labor Day of 2008, where we met and formed a fast bond. This bond deepened and took on many forms throughout the course of our friendship, but we were nearly inseparable for three years, during which time we saw each other through difficult transitions through our mutual love of art, literature, music, and each other. As we once laughingly agreed, “no one loves us as much as we love us.”

It is strange for me to write publicly about Doug, and our relationship in particular, because he was a private person. Stranger yet to write in his defense, as I can’t think he did much other than to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But since this is the last thing I can do for him, tangibly, I’ll do my best. He did not abide sentimentality for its own sake, so I’ll do my best to stick to the facts – though it will be hard, because Doug’s imprint on my soul is what I want most to share with anyone who will listen.

IMG_1465During the time I knew Doug he went from being an Executive Chef at a fine restaurant, to working as a cook in a university cafeteria, to being unemployed and visiting the food shelf. He experienced this gradual decline with uncommon grace. Even in the darkest times – broken furnace, little food, no car – he was optimitstic. He was humbled, but never downtrodden. And even though he was unemployed he worked, constantly, both at finding a job and at making music. I knew his daily routine well, I lived with him for a short time. Up early with coffee, an hour or so at the computer either writing stories or articles for his mother’s bulletin, looking for jobs, or posting as a moderator on Huff Post. The Huffington Post was a great outlet for Doug, who was quite a hermit really, to exchange ideas and barbs over politics. He was always defending a broadly liberal point of view, but most likely the racial or sexual minority. And he did it with humor. He was so excited to be asked to be a moderator, because he was valued as someone able to diffuse contentious arguments with a sense of humor. Anyway, after that he headed to the living room to write music for the next few hours. Then a lunch break and a dog walk. Maybe a visitor in the afternoon. he retired at sundown with Otto, and later Gertie, by his side and watched movies and TV series he checked out from the library. It was an unglamorous life, but he was really contented. And he never complained much. When he did, he was apologetic.

At the same time, I was going through a divorce and learning to support myself and my two children. Doug worried and fretted over my welfare on all fronts; emotionally, physically, financially. He was sweet to my children, and he was supportive of me. More than anything, he gave me back my voice. In becoming a mother and wife, I had been living my life as if half-asleep. Doug woke me up. He believed that I was was smart and witty and funny and talented. He encouraged my writing, he pushed me artistically. He put a microphone in front of my face and told me I could sing. He modeled a work ethic that showed me how artists create: passionately, without concern for being discovered, or published, or accepted. He called me Queenie. Not because he revered me, but because it was how he wanted me to see myself.

We played. We had fun. We went for dog walks. We cooked and drank wine. We recorded albums, and radio plays. Doug’s living room was a universe where the walls fell away and anything was possible. It was a land of make-believe – our own record label, our own radio station, our own catering company, our own country of which we were the rulers. Multiple possible futures that all coincided. He was magical in that way, an allure that attracted many people to him.

Doug gave me a bed so that my kids had one to sleep on. Doug did my laundry while I was at work. He made me lunches and dinners too many to name. He taught me to cook mussels. He wrote songs for me. He made mix-tapes to accompany every road trip I took. He listened to hours of my crying, doled out reams of advice and never let me hit bottom. A bachelor to the core, he kept maxi-pads stocked in the bathroom for me. Later, when I moved to Saint Paul and would visit overnight to record music, he arranged a room in his house for me and kept it free of dog and cat hair so I could sleep allergy free. When I was on vacation in Santa Fe, he watched the weather and texted me to warn me there was a storm in the area. He was “there for me” in the most loyal and steadfast of ways.

Douglas was a complex person with a colorful life. He took the responsibility of being an artist seriously, which meant life wasn’t always easy. He kept up with his mortgage  as best he could, even when he couldn’t afford food. He never let his dog Otto want for food or walkies. I was with him when they put Otto down. I so admired his strength that day. When the vet came in with x-rays of Otto’s lungs, ridden with cancer, we were devastated. He was too far gone for treatment, and Doug didn’t want him to suffer another minute. We sat together as Otto’s ragged breathing ceased. Together we carried him clumsily from the car to the back-yard. Then I left Doug to bury him in the shady area he loved to sit in, which he did, bravely alone.

He was unfailingly, even annoyingly, moralistic. I’m a bit of a moral relativist, but Doug believed in right and wrong, good and evil, and he took great care in his life to be on the right side of that divide. Apparently his Christian upbringing, though lapsed, was not a complete failure. If we argued, it was about my ethical leniency. He was the champion of the underdog, and the defender of the meek. He wrote songs about misfits: Dorca, a song about an orca who doesn’t fit in amongst the dolphins. He wrote for the abused, and the neglected, and the persecuted. He himself was a misfit, and his sympathy was always with those who society looked down on and cast aside.

Our last night together we finished up some recording and listened to all the things we had recorded together. We drank some Rolling Rock and took a cab downtown. We tried to visit the bar we had met at, but it was crowded and unfriendly feeling, so we wound up at Saint Cloud’s only, recently opened, gay bar. He was pleased to find Saint Cloud catching up with the rest of the world. Doug had gay friends, mostly lesbians that I knew of, which is why when the three assailants claimed he yelled homophobic slurs, it rang so untrue. If Doug acted in anger, it would have been in defense of a woman or gay person, not in attack of them.

When Doug moved, we grew apart, but we were happy for each other to have moved on with our lives. It was as if we had traveled through a dark valley together and then parted ways to climb separate hills. Able to look at each other from a distance, on separate peaks, we were both happy, breathing the cool clean air of what other people would call a “normal life.” We were smugly pleased with ourselves and proud of each other, I think, to have come so far. It made his death all the more a bitter pill. He had finally gotten back to his career, found a place he felt he belonged, found love and was more content than he had been in years.

I began to get messages from our mutual friend Chris late on the night of the 26th. he sent me an article with the headline, “Man Stabbed to Death In Downtown Arcata Night Before Last”. The man, unidentified, was from Minnesota originally and “in his 50s”. Surely this wasn’t Doug. Surely it could be anyone. I called Doug and got his voicemail. Not wanting to sound alarmist, I left a message for him to call me. We had texted earlier that day, about holiday food preparations of course. I was starting to worry. I texted him. Then I called Chris and he told me, “He’s gone. Doug has passed on.” “Are you sure?” I asked. He was. I was hysterical, immediately. Incredulous.“what do we DO?” I yelled into the phone. Chris said something about planning a memorial and I cut him off, “No. I mean what do we DO?” I meant, “How do we undo it?” I experienced, for this first time in my life, cognitive dissonance. The idea of Doug being dead, being stabbed, was not one I could accept. I am still occasionally shocked by it, even now.

I have experienced sudden and tragic death before, I lost my sister when I was 17, but I didn’t know what to expect from a murder and all its consequent legal implications and proceedings.  An article online warned me to remember that “we have a legal system, not a justice system.” Even that could not have prepared me for what has happened since that day.

I wonder often what he would think of the events that have followed. He hated injustice, but he was also a very private person. He would be horrified to have his character smeared by strangers, but mostly because he loved his family and wouldn’t want to cause them undue pain. I wonder if he would find irony that in death he’s found a sort of twisted, post-humous notoriety, when in life, he was always a relative unknown.

I expect you’ll get many letters similar to mine. My friendship with Doug was special to me, but not unique to him. He was a remarkable man. He was like a blazing comet, but he was also heavily embodied and burdened by life. He was a vessel of light, which he shared with those he loved. When that light shone on you, it was a powerful, memorable experience. He loved easily, and almost carelessly. I adored him.

My hope in writing this is to inform the court of Douglas’ character. My hope for the case is that somehow the truth will out. I’m not convinced by the defendants’ version of events, and my most sincere desire is that I might find closure through understanding of what transpired that night. I have contacted a local friend, a defense attorney, and he is baffled by Ms. Firpo’ s recommendation to accept the plea. I don’t know or understand the circumstances which brought Doug, Nick, Sophie and Juan to this tragic conclusion. And while I may never know, I don’t believe that any sort of justice is served by the way this case has been handled.

Thank you for your consideration,

Jennifer Kohnhorst

Midnight Mass

This is a piece I wrote to read at the Unitarian Fellowship on Christmas Eve in 2009. It was the first Christmas I spent without my children following my divorce. As I got to the end of it, I couldn’t read on. I asked my friend Liz to finish reading it for me, and sat crying silently as she read the last few paragraphs. It was another painful Christmas, mourning a particular loss. 
The next morning I woke up and drove through a fresh 6 inches of snow to my friend Douglas’ house, and spent a long Christmas day with him and his 100 pound German Shepherd, Otto. We ate a southern Christmas feast, and listened to a lot of vinyl. I was sad, but as it often was in those difficult months following my divorce, the comfort of Doug’s familiar living room, his easy company – our universe of two was a balm to me.This year of course, I’m thinking of Doug and his family, and what a hard year it will be for them, with his tragic end so fresh and new. I hope healing comes in some form for them. I pray for grace. I imagine it will come in the form of music. I think it is good to cry.

———–

The year after my sister Julie died, my mother gently informed me she didn’t have the heart to “do” Christmas. This did not disappoint. I was seventeen, long past believing in Santa Claus. As a particularly self-involved teen, I found my family at turns both  irritating and embarrassing. And as the baby of the family whose siblings were all married with children, I often felt awkwardly displaced somewhere between the kids table and the grown ups. I was, possibly, too cool for Christmas.

Anyway, I had to work. I was a an “on-air personality” at the local polka radio station. Every DJ was obligated to work a three hour shift on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and I always volunteered for Christmas Eve.

Now, I hated Polka. Christmas Eve was the one night of the year I didn’t have to play it. Instead, I munched on Christmas cookies that Helen our long-suffering receptionist baked, smoked cigarettes in the newsroom, and gorged myself on Bing Crosby, Elvis and Barbara Streisand. Our station overlooked our tiny picaresque downtown Main Street, and I’d stand at the window feeling older than my teenage years, nostalgic for a past I never knew when crooners crooned and families didn’t get divorced, sisters didn’t die in head on collisions, and people still went to church on Christmas Eve, at least. I’d turn the lights off in the studio, and strike a sort of noir pose while the streetlights blinked red and green on the deserted street.

This year I was assuming a very hard-boiled outlook. My sister’s death had left me both emotionally raw and prematurely adult in ways I couldn’t begin to understand. My response was a poor attempt at cool detachment. When I got off work at nine, I had plans to drive out to Holy Hill, a stunning church on a hilltop in the nearby countryside, for midnight mass.

IMG_3282Holy Hill is a Carmelite Monestary and minor Catholic Basilica. The Neo-Romanesque shrine itself sits on about 40 acres, surrounded by an additional 400 acres of rolling woodlands. It features a 192 foot tower from which, on a clear day, you can see Milwaukee thirty miles away. The interior of the church is an amazement considering the rural setting; 20 foot rose windows, 8 foot marble statues, gold leaf frescoes and glass mosaics. When my sister Julie married into a large Catholic family, she converted – partially to appease the family, and I think, so that she could be married at Holy Hill.

The church entrance is on Highway 167, a designated scenic “rustic road” that winds and bends through the kettle moraine landscape. In the fall, tourists flock to drive the beneath canopies of riotous color on sun-dappled pavement. In the spring, pilgrims descend on the church to walk the stations of the cross. In the winter, the roads are icy, poorly lit and treacherous. My sister died on this same road in June, on a warm and rainy morning, making her way to work.

A few miles from the church, one of my closest friends Angie lived with her family in a remodeled barn. I was a frequent guest at their home, and actually, I think I might have earned resident status one summer. The Balistreris embodied an idea of family that was completely foreign to me, romantic and captivating. The parents Frank and Mary were hot blooded Italian Americans, artists and hippies who had moved from the city as part of the “back to the earth” movement. Angie was the eldest of five. In contrast to my single-mother upbringing, the Balistreri house was in near constant upheaval. They were always low on cash, the kids fought bitterly, the parents and children recriminated each other on a daily basis. There was shouting and tears and a sense of overwhelming love and togetherness.

I stopped in before the service, because the choir didn’t start until 11pm. The family was in the middle of exchanging gifts. Recently, Christmas at my house had become an escalating affair, with the pile under the tree spreading further into the room every year. I was humbled and heartened to see what the Balistrieri’s exchanged. Shampoo, one book, a wooden hairbrush. Every gift was accepted with gratitude and embraces were given in exchange. The highlight of the evening was the gift for young Peter, just over a year old. Frank had made a perfectly plain and beautiful red wooden wagon. As he wheeled it into the living room the whole family exploded in applause and laughter.

I had been quietly drinking tea on the couch, but was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I slipped out the door and heaved sobs into the crisp night air. I cried because I felt so blessed to be a part of this family. I cried because I was not really a part of this family, but my own. My own family broken first by divorce and now, death. I cried because I missed my sister, and I missed my mother, who was irrevocably changed. I cried for myself, because it was such a burden to feel so deeply, to feel so old when I was so young.

Angie’s mother Mary found me, and held me silently. There was no need to tell her what the matter was. I cried until I was shivering, thanked her for having me, and said I would head up to the church now.

In retrospect I might have skipped the service, being as I was nearly out of control with emotion. A sane person would have. But grief is not the territory of the rational. I was now an open wound, numb with the night air and blind to reason. The stars and midnight sky were bright against the steeple spires as I made my way up to the church.

There was no room to sit, so I found a place near the back wall, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, our puffy winter coats whispering against each other. The choir filed in holding candles and singing O Come O Come Emmanuel. It was achingly beautiful. I held it together for about five minutes, until they started in with O Holy Night. Then, I crumpled.

I slid down the cold wall of the church and buried my face in my hands, weeping openly, audibly. I lost control of my voice – the word caterwaul comes to mind. People stared: I am ruining their Christmas spirit. But I couldn’t stand. Someone helped me up and I with my head down I ran for the door. Tears froze on my cheeks. When I got to my car I sat with my forehead against the cold steering wheel and beat it with my hands, until I was finally calm enough to drive. On the way home I tuned in to my old Polka station and drove careful, careful along the frozen roads listening to Elvis singing Blue Christmas. When I finally made it home – warm, and quiet and dim – I was grateful.

The truth is, I’ve never felt more connected to my sister than I did that night. And that is the reason I return whenever I can to Holy Hill Midnight Mass. I’m really not one for visiting graves. When I go to my sister’s grave, I just feel awkward and inauthentic. Only her bones are there. But amongst the incense and the hymns in the cold upper church of a Carmelite monastery, I feel happily at peace with her. Though my family now celebrates together at Christmas, this pilgrimage I always make alone. To reunite with old friends and reconnect to a sacred place. And when I can’t get there, at least I have music. I listen to the carols I love, and happily, I cry.

Dear Big Discount Liquor Store, I Love You

Dear Big Discount Liquor Store
I love you
I love your strange inventory, your friendly flirty clerks
Your black girls with smooth round shoulders just the perfect color and size
For strapless dresses on the fourth of July
And your always at least one sort of crazy guy in the store

Frogtown, I love you too
Your lazy pedestrians
Your threatening thugs, who are just teenagers
With low self esteem, it turns out.
Your parks with basketball boys
Your bus stops with ancient Hmong
holding umbrellas to block the sun
And Your Big Discount Liquor Store,
I love you

In the shade of my brick warehouse studio
In the courtyard surrounded by the artists
And assholes, and holy healers
Looking out from their windows
Down at the children, who trail after one another
Oldest to youngest, bound in the unbreakable way
Of children, seemingly oblivious, though probably not,
Of the differences that mark them because they are
Children of Frogtown, and
I love you too.

From my window I can see a woman in a sequin hijab
Floating like (of course) a mirage
Past the sinkhole on Como Avenue
Through my window I can hear the kids at the playground
I can smell the fireworks, the fireworks! for days I’ve heard
their sizzle boom crack. I smell the fire of 100 barbecues,
BBQ, chicken legs, charcoal, sweat.
I’m drinking the cold can of beer,
From the Big Discount Liquor
On the fourth of July.
I’m looking at you America,
You stupid, big, galumphing giant,
If only you could see yourself like I do,
You might love yourself
a little more.

Keeping Up Appearances

Have you ever received news that literally makes your jaw drop? I have. I was standing in the entryway a few weeks ago, my ex-husband was dropping off the kids, and he asked me to stay behind, he had to tell me something.

“I wanted to tell you before I tell the kids, I wanted you to hear it from me. My girlfriend is moving in,” pause, “…and we’re having a baby.” That was when my mouth fell open. Then it broke into an unwitting smile. And then I just said, “Wow!” I was, I am, truly happy for him. Then the past few weeks fell into perspective; how much nicer he had been to me recently, improved coordination of schedules, a general warmth I hadn’t felt in a long time. Of-course, it was the sympathetic-pregnancy glow. That’s fine. Whatever the reason, if he’s happy, I’m happy. But, what about our kids?

I couldn’t say anything until he told them, obviously. When they came back after their next stay with him, I asked them each if they had anything to tell me. “Something interesting maybe?” Blink, blink. “Something about your dad?” Veronica guesses, “I might need new glasses?” I can’t tell if they think I’m not supposed to know, or if they honestly aren’t thinking about it. Out with it then. “Like maybe that your dad and his girlfriend are having a baby, and you’re going to have a little brother or sister?”

“OH YEAH.” they say, and all but shrug with enthusiasm.

We talk about it later, and the response is one of overall enthusiasm, with hints of trepidation. Which seems about right. It’s new to everyone involved, this whole blended family thing. I worry that they won’t want to come over and leave the bosom of a more nuclear family over there, and I worry that they’ll feel displaced when they return to his house. I worry because while I expected my ex to move forward, I sure didn’t know what that would look like. And I worry, oddly, about my perpetual singlehood. I wonder if there is something wrong with me that I haven’t moved on to the same degree. That while I’ve dated on and off, it has never been serious, and I’ve never involved my children.

As far as my kids know, I have been chaste as a nun since moving out. Which isn’t exactly true (ahem, no comments please), but it’s an image I’ve seen no need to contradict. However, recently I’ve started dating a man that I could imagine introducing them to. Not yet, it’s still casual. But one thing I realize is that once they are involved, it won’t be casual. So, I test the waters with hypotheticals. It comes up as we discuss my plans for an upcoming evening,

Me: “Maybe I have a date.” I do.

Ivan, quickly: “No, you can’t date.”

Me: “You’re dad is moving in with someone else and having a baby, and I can’t even have a date? That hardly seems fair.”

Veronica: “Ok, you can go on a date as friends. But just as friends.”

Ivan: “Yeah, no kissing. That’s for teenagers.”

I glean two things from this interchange.

1. I’m so old and mom-like the idea of me kissing someone is totally disgusting.

2. The time to introduce another big change into their life – the idea that your mom isn’t a nun but a sexually liberated and modern uber-woman – is not now.

I ask them regularly how they are doing, keep the lines of communication open, both generally and specifically, about the new situation. They seem to be fine. But sometimes, all you have to do is pay attention. They don’t want to keep me from dating, or kissing people with my old, disgusting mouth. They just want this one thing to remain the same a while longer. Ok, I’ll keep up the nun routine for now.  Kissing is for teenagers and also divorcés whose kids are at their dad’s house.

Sleepover

The sleepover was planned by my daughter Veronica and her friend Tess without much parental consultation. I had flippantly agreed to it last week, now it was an inservice Friday, and I was committed, like it or not. At ten A.M. Veronica was standing in front of me windmilling her arms and telling me she told Tess to be ready at 8:30.

“Eight-thirty A.M.?”

“Yes!” she yells, impatient. I sigh in my well-practiced, beleaguered-mother way and call Tess’s mom. I talk to what might be up to three different children before I hear an adult voice. I have to yell into the phone because she can hardly hear me for the screaming of kids in the back ground,

“THE GIRLS HAVE PLANNED A SLEEPOVER I GUESS?!”

“QUIET DOWN!! What, sleepover? Yes, I don’t care.” I don’t care? OK, looks like it’s on. After lunch. I follow up with a call to a friend of Ivan’s, whose father is happy to bring him over, as he’s working from home for the day. I should be doing the same. Instead, I spearhead a shock-and-awe cleaning attack on the kids rooms. By the time the guests arrive I’m only capable of dazed web surfing interrupted by the fetching of water and snacks, and hourly refusals to turn on the TV. Mid-afternoon, our neighbor girl Fallyn shows up, and the count is up to five. I divide and conquer, keeping the boys and girls separated. As I sit at the computer, for a full half-hour Ivan and his friend battle invisible fire-monsters as ninjas, an on-going narrative that consists mostly of mouth noises. “CHHH!” is an exploding fireball,  “DSHHHH” is the sound of any ninja movement and “KAPUGH” is, I think, a complex mix of the two.

“Let’s say I have lightening power. PAGAH!”

“Me too, except mine is also thunder strength! BAHHH-PAH! More fire-monsters! If they get on the couch, we’ll lose our powers, but if we can keep them off the carpet, they’ll turn to ice. CHHHH!”

And on it goes. Meanwhile, the three girls are upstairs. They saunter to the stairs and stand lined up like Von Trapp children. In perfect unison they drone, “We’re bored.”

“Go play dolls.”

“We only have two.”

“Make some art.”

“We already did that.”

Veronica offers, “We could read books?” Crickets.

“Why don’t you play office?”

“OFFICE!” They spring up the stairs deciding who will be boss. I played office when I was a kid, using the triplicate shipping forms my mom brought home from the warehouse at work. I don’t know what these kids think happens in an office, but it involves the wielding of clipboards, signing of papers and much knocking on doors. In the meantime, Ivan and his bud settle in to some Power Rangers and yogurt until the boy’s dad comes to fetch him. The girls come down, exhausted from a long day at the office.

“Mom, we want to dance, can you put on some music?” I start flipping through my records. I pull Cyndi Lauper from the sleeve. Tess is at my shoulder and she runs a finger along the edge of the vinyl,

“What is that?” Wow. Welcome to Veronica’s Mom’s House of Obsolete Items and Curiosities.

“This is a record, it’s how we used to listen to music.” I put on Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Veronica flings herself into a dance. Tess bobs uncertainly. “What is this music?”

“This was my favorite song when I was about your age.” Ivan and Fallyn join in. Soon they are doing ring-around-the-rosie with Ivan in the center. He is smiling hugely and playing air guitar. I think it might be a Peak Experience for him. We follow it up with the Go-Gos while I make pizzas. Fallyn decides to spend the night. I’m chopping vegetables to put on my pizza, and out pull out some mushrooms.

“What are those?” asks Tess. Really? “Mushrooms” I say.

“Yeah but what ARE they?”

“Um, they’re food. They grow in the ground, they’re fungus.”

“Ringworm is fungus!” Veronica says. I don’t want to touch that. Literally.

“These are for me.” I assure a worried Tess, “You don’t have to eat them.”

While the pizza cooks I set up the kids to watch the Justin Bieber movie Never Say Never. I am excited because I know nothing of Justin Beiber except that he is some kind of phenomenon. Fallyn loves him. She LOVES him. Veronica likes him, but not that way. While I scroll through Netflix titles they discuss the boys in their class they would like if they had to. One of them, Kyle, has Bieber hair. He is unanimously their favorite. Ivan pipes up, “If Kyle were a girl I would marry him.” Aw. I ruffle his hair.

The movie follows the Bieb’s career from his start banging on buckets at age two to his sold-out Madison Square Garden show and ruling of the world. I think I might be getting Beiber fever because I grow increasingly annoyed with their chatter because I CAN’T HEAR WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT THE BIEB. The kids all have the habit of immediately repeating any line that’s remotely clever or funny or… anything. “He’s like, ‘I don’t think so.'” “He’s like, ‘where are my shoes?'” Tess turns to me constantly asking questions about Justin Bieber to which I have no answers. There is a heated absurdist argument about whether the girl on stage is Miley Cyrus or Hannah Montana which boils down, I guess, to whether or not she’s wearing a wig. By the time he sings the title song at MSG they are whipped into a frenzy, dancing and singing along, and I predictably am wiping tears away for the boy-wonder. Time for bed.

I sequester the girls to Veronica’s room and lie down with Ivan. I read him a stupefying book about dinosaurs, fighting sleep at every page. Eventually, I drift off with him, and wake up sweating a half hour later. The girls are all in Veronica’s bed giggling. It’s tennish.

“Time for bed.” I say. Teeth are brushed while I smooth out sleeping bags on the floor. Fallyn puts her hands on her hips. “I don’t want to sleep here.”

“Here on the floor, or here at our house?”

“Here. I want to go home.” I sigh. “Let’s get your stuff.” We gather up all six blankets and two stuffed animals and drag them downstairs, and then down the hall to her apartment. As her mother opens the door, she says, “I thought this might happen.” “Sorry!” I say as she closes the door behind her. I shuffle back to our place. I hear Veronica and Tess talking, not in hushed tones, as soon as I enter. I assume my a stern posture and dictate instructions,

“Get in bed, whisper if you must talk, and then close your eyes and go to sleep.” I repeat variations on this theme for the next hour. Finally, at 11:30, I’ve had it. Stern turns to impatient. Tess starts fake sniffling and telling me she can’t get to sleep. I tell her what I tell my children,

“You can’t sleep because you are standing on two feet, walking around and talking. No one can fall asleep like that. Lay down and I’ll rub your back.” She does, and I do, and the fake sniffling increases in frequency. After ten minutes she says, “i never sleep over at friend’s houses. My mom always has to come and get me. One time it was one 0-clock.” Helpful information. “Let’s get your stuff.” Her mom is laughing as she picks up the phone, and says she’ll be right there. I tell Tess about the time I went to a sleepover in the country, and the silence and strangeness of it scared me so badly I pretended to have an allergy attack in the middle of the night, and my mom had to drive fifteen miles to come and get me.

“What’s this?” She says, pointing to a marionette. “It’s a marionette.” I say. “Yeah, but what IS it?’ It’s a puppet, for playing with.” I look around our apartment: antique radios, butterflies under glass, carpeted mushroom foot stool and wool shag rug. (“Is that an animal?”) I wonder what her house is like, but I don’t have to wonder long to know it isn’t like this.

“I’m sorry you have to go Tess, but I hope you come back. Maybe just for a day-over.”

She shrugs and says okay. Then she points to the retro lamp hanging over our kitchen table, “What is that?” Sigh.

Finally, I crawl into bed a bit after midnight. I realize I haven’t slept there in days, as I’ve been vagabonding in St Cloud for the past two nights. I hadn’t missed it until I slipped in under the covers. Everyone in their own beds at last. Lights out, goodnight.

10 Secrets of Keeping a Messy House

Some people might look around my slovenly little loft and think I’m lazy. But no! Withhold judgement. It takes a lot of hard work to keep this place in a state of constant disarray. And while I have many books on the subject of organization, housecleaning and home-making (most gifts from my mother) I haven’t read anything about how to preserve chaos in the home. I’m self-taught. I have outlined, for your instruction, a few basic principles of mess-making and maintaining in the home, laying bare my secrets for the first time.

1. It Helps to Have a Lot of Stuff

I remember once a co-worker delicately told me, “Jennifer, I think you just have too much stuff.” Blink blink. I hear the words you are saying, but I don’t understand them. How can it be “too much” when it is all absolutely necessary? For instance, at the time we had a lot of built in storage. One drawer was devoted to fur collars, cuffs and remnants I had picked up at a garage sale several years earlier. Sure, they were unused and generally unloved, but when would I ever find them again if I needed them? Huh? Never. And you never know when you might need musty fur parts.

Some people devote time to “weeding out” and “sorting” their things. I have even heard of complex sorting systems that involve separate piles for keeping, donating and trashing. I perceive that people enjoy this process, the act of purging. Then they take everything left in the “keep” file and sort and label that. And they enjoy that part too. You know what? I’d rather be writing, or cooking, or laying in the park on the grass looking up at the clouds while I listen to the children play. Or reading a damn book. Or doing other things that increase the mess in my house. So, the only time the act of “purging” seems like fun to me is when the alternative is moving it to another house. Then it’s just moving.

Books are heavy, colorful dust collectors that make you look smart!

2. Collecting Things That Collect Dust

It’s not just having a lot of stuff that counts, it will add to an overall impression of chaos if the stuff you collect is bulky and in need of display. Maybe you collect stamps. That’s very nice, but it’s also orderly, and therefor not a boon to a messy house. Whatever it is you collect, have more of it than you have room to store. For example, I like books. I have bookshelves that are packed, and still, I buy more books, which means I have piles of them everywhere – next to the bed, leaning up against the wall, stacked on top of the bookshelves. To add to the volume, my children have books as well, and they leave them scattered not in stacks, but singly, wherever they feel like it. My daughter has been leaving books on the bathroom floor for years – a resplendently disgusting habit that makes a mother proud. Tchotchkes of all kind are great at collecting dust. I can imagine figurines, antique dolls (creepy!), glass birds, and model airplanes fitting nicely into the mix. Records – as in vinyl record albums for listening on the phonograph player – are especially cunning if you never put them back in the their sleeves, but fan them out all over the floor while you drink box wine and sing Emmylou Harris to no one in particular. That is only a suggestion.

3. The Drug and Alchohol Option

Though I don’t endorse this method, television has taught me that all drug addicts and alcoholics are master slobs. I don’t even think you have to try, it just comes naturally.

4. Confessions of a Clotheshorse

If all my clothes were clean at one time (a purely hypothetical condition) there is absolutely no way  I could

These clean clothes are bound to put themselves away. Child included for scale.

fit them in my full sized closet and two Ikea dressers. Laundry is an ever present threat at our house, with baskets and hampers looming large at all times. Dirty clothes dub as wall-to-wall carpeting and clean clothes remain in baskets, sometimes folded, but rifled through and overspilling. Three key factors contribute to high volume of garments in our house. 1. Kids grow. Any parent knows that at all times, at least a third of the clothes in your kids drawers are too small, and up to one-fifth are too big. 2. The Wild Fluctuations in Weight of the Average American Woman paired with the optimistic belief that It Will Fit Again. And 3. Clothes aren’t for covering the body, but costumes that convey the character and personality of the person wearing them. if you have more than three alter-egos, you’re going to have a lot of clothes.

5. Children: Not Necessary But Exponentially Advantageous

I’m not going to say my kids are responsible for my messy house, because truth be told, I was an expert slob long before they came along. However, the character of filth that children add to the mix cannot be understated. Children are disgusting. They excrete a trail of discarded food, broken toys and bodily fluids wherever they go. They think nothing of stashing a crust of toast behind the drapes, or leaving a soiled kleenex at the top of the stairs where you are sure to step on it. And of-course, there are the toys, with all their SMALL PIECES. Legos are the exemplar. You can try to keep them sorted and in bins all you want, but eventually, you will wake up with one under your pillow at two in the morning. Another tip about children: don’t look under their beds. Why would you do that? You don’t want to know what is under there. That is why the monsters live there, because it is a naturally terrifying habitat. Once a year, give your six year-old a gas mask and a garbage bag and lock the door.

6. Pets: The Perpetual Polluters

Pets are a non-stop generator of messes. Dogs and cats that shed are recommended, especially when paired with hardwood floors and an aversion to brooms. Dogs that like to chew and destroy things are superb, as are cats who scratch the shit out of furniture. I had some finches once, and they left a daily spray of husked bird-seed shells in a three-foot radius around their cage, which invariably stank. Yes, pets add that special olfactory element that is the pièce de rèsistance to a messy home.

Just because it is contained doesn’t mean it has to be organized!

7. The Artist’s Way

I think artist’s really do have an unfair advantage in creating a cluttered, disorderly space. Some artists have to keep a neat studio because their materials are particularly hazardous and require vigilant supervision. And if the artist has a separate studio, then they may be inclined to keep a tidy home. But the economy sucks and real-estate is outrageous, so it is likely many artists must work from home. Here are some really good mediums for making a mess:

  • Painting of any kind (requires water, or toxic chemicals, or both)
  • Sculpture (especially from found objects, and especially if you work at a scrap yard, ahem)
  • Collage (scraps of paper everywhere, paired with adhesives of various sorts)
  • Charcoal drawing (charcoal, when combined with dust-bunnies, makes little poofy dust bombs)
  • Sewing (this seemingly benign domestic “craft” creates the biggest shitstorm of mess imaginable)
  • Printmaking (wood or linoleum shavings and effusive output!)
8. Don’t Look at Magazines
Don’t ever even look at Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Dwell or any other Clean House Porn. Next thing you know you’re headed to the Container Store, buying a label maker and losing sleep over how to organize your tupperware drawer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. However you can buy these magazines and leave them laying around the house. That’s okay.
9. No Tresspassing
Entertaining is great fun, but you will feel inclined to create the illusion of order within your home. Avoid it. If you must (as in the case of a children’s birthday party) don’t worry, you can just shove stuff in closets and under beds for the time being, thereby creating a secondary mess to savor at another time.
10 The Power to Avoid
There are people who find it impossible to concentrate on anything else while their surroundings are in disarray. I suffer from this condition in the kitchen, though to a lesser degree. On the whole, I have developed the ability to blur my vision so as to obscure stacks of dishes, mounds of clothes and piles of paperwork. This is a lifetime skill, and if you don’t care to cultivate it, that’s ok, because there is an alternative: just leave. In this way, over-scheduling and social obligations can be a huge asset. Lack of time is one of the easiest and most fool-proof ways to ensure a very messy house. Sure, you might not have time to create more messes, but eating and changing clothes without taking the time to do the dishes or laundry adds up fast. When you come home from a day packed with appointments, running errands and visiting friends you will undoubtedly collapse without another thought. Those dishes can wait until tomorrow!

Boys, Men, and Mothers

I went to a dinner party last night, at the house of a neighbor and friend. I went alone, as is my custom these days, and everyone was already seated and tucking in to one of four kinds of chili when I arrived. Introductions went around and the conversational thread picked up where it had been, apparently, when I came in. A kid in a ponytail and bandana was talking about the Middle East, and suggested the US might do well to align itself with Turkey. I, having been in the house for exactly five minutes and knowing nothing about the subject, expressed my skepticism. I really can be a bore. The conversation then turned to other more lively topics, and it was dropped.

After slowly and steadily defeating four bowls of chili and two glasses of wine I retreated to the cool night air of the back patio for a smoke. The ponytail guy was there too. I spoke first,

“Hey, I’m sorry for that Turkey comment, for being dismissive. What I said, I really don’t know anything about it. I was just there once and it struck me as patently corrupt. But what government isn’t, right?”  He raised his eyebrows, he smiled easily,

“Oh, no. Don’t worry about it. They are corrupt, but not as bad as maybe China or Russia…” and from there the conversation weaved from politics, to travel, work. I learned that he was 25, fairly well traveled, and wants to be a therapist. He was interesting, and I like interesting people, so I asked questions, made charming and appropriate replies.  The conversation turned towards our mutual friends and how we knew them, and the guests at the party. He said,

“It is nice to meet adults too. I mean, people who aren’t just out of college.” I realized he was talking about me and laughed.

“Yes, I suppose I fall firmly into the ‘adult’ camp at this point. Though sometimes I don’t feel like it. I mean, I’m still trying new things. Like I just sang with a band for the first time this weekend. I didn’t feel very grown up.”

“Yeah, like my friend’s mom, she’s so cool. She’s like my second mom…” At this point he kept talking about this woman, but I couldn’t hear him, because my head was filled with a loud voice saying “HOLY SHIT. YOU WERE JUST COMPARED TO THE MOTHER OF AN ADULT MAN. A 25 YEAR OLD MAN THINKS OF YOU LIKE A MOTHER.” Then he came around to his point, after describing our mutual coolness – me and this other mother – and said,

“She’s just a totally amazing and beautiful woman.” Well, that’s better. I smiled at him, happy in my assumption that I was amazing and beautiful too. Thanks kid. Someone else came out to the porch and he made to leave. We shook hands.

The spring after I left my husband, I dated a few young men – quite young. To say we “dated” would be misleading. It was spring. They were fleeting diversions, but I don’t think they saw me as, um… maternal. Unless they had some very complicated relationships with their mothers. Like, oedipal ones. At the time though, my behavior was not very adult. I was as unmoored as my twenty-five year old self, heady with the freedom and independence of being single, hanging out with people ten years younger than me. In fact, these younger men were often shocked to find out my age, to learn that I was a professional, and most surprised that I was a mother. It was fun, but I started to feel like the creep at the keg party. When I left St Cloud, without thinking about it, I left it behind. A year later, I’m a grown-up again. Ta-da.

During that period, that spring, I met a more age appropriate man, a friend-of-a-friend, named Rick. Rick was a sweet, sweet guy. We did that awkward, apathetic dating thing where we could never trouble ourselves to really get together, but not for lack of trying. Eventually I had to concede it was a spring fling, and nothing more. Last week he died. He was 35.

The news came to me as part of my facebook newsfeed, a post of our shared friend. Shocked, I went to his “wall” to try to find out the details. It became clear by the nature of the comments that he had killed himself. Of-course I was shocked. I scrolled down, reading everyone’s thoughts, the rawness of them, all messages he would never hear. Too late. His mother wrote simply: “I love ya and will miss you and why???????????”  I started sobbing. The mom in me sobbed. I didn’t know Rick well, and I never met his mom, but I could picture her grief with clarity.

That night I laid down with Ivan as part of our bedtime ritual. I watched him twitch and drift off to sleep. I thought of Rick, and how he was this small once. I thought of his mother putting him to bed at night. I thought about Ivan becoming a man. Will he grow up to be sad? So sad that all the lifetime of love I pour into him will not save him? I could not bear it.

I got up and walked back downstairs to my laptop. I went back to Rick’s page and read more of the posts, looked at pictures of him. I saw his last status update, about 3 weeks old:

“Somehow I just had a vision of what the difference is to be old, and to be young. I want my 20’s back because I’ve gotten too good at being old.” Hmm, a little cryptic. A woman typed a reply about agelessness of spirit, etc, and his reply to her read, “…yes- there is something timeless about anyone’s spirit. I was thinking more about a certain joie de vivre. Not physical health- but the spontaneity that comes with youth and lack of experience.”

He is right of-course. You can’t ever re-capture innocence, youth. But it turns out you can still sing in a rock band when you are middle-aged. You can become an adult and still go to dinner parties with ponytail wearing boys. You can practice the act of transformation over and over again, and grow up a little more each time. I am so, so sorry he never saw the joy and gravitas that comes from experience, with age. Something obscured his view. It is amazing and beautiful.

I live on Mars. This is my view from there.