Thursday, July 27, 2023

A Howl in the Darkness: Sinéad O'Connor

© Bryan Ledgard by Creative Commons license

Sinéad O'Connor understood the concept of tone policing long before we had a recognized term for what was happening to women in that era (and this one, too). She had the audacity not to care what people thought about her honesty, and she gave zero fucks about the discomfort people (mostly white, male) had with her rage. She raged against the patriarchy and the Catholic Church (which are pretty much one and the same) and it turns out she was right about them all along. For women my age (Gen X) she was such a scorching figure—one of righteous indignation and incandescent passion—that she burned our eyes. She validated us at a time when people were still raising their daughters to be silent. We weren't ready for her, and in many ways we still are not. I know she was traumatized, an abuse survivor, struggling with mental health issues throughout her life, and that her voice was a howl in the darkness. I'm so glad we were given the gift of hearing it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Making a Deck More Porch-Like

Many people use the terms deck, porch, and patio interchangeably, though if you have talked to me for more than fifteen minutes, you'll know that I have a tendency to hairsplit definitions. To me, a deck is an uncovered, more casual, recreational space for family use at the back of the house. A porch is a covered space that is on the front entrance of the house. There are of course, variations on this. You can have a porch on the side or back of a house, and Victorian era homes are a like a love letter to porches--stick 'em wherever you like-- have a front porch, a side porch, a kitchen porch, even a sleeping porch. A porch is a more traditional feature of an older home, while decks seem to look more fitting on a house with modern lines. 

Which is why, for more than a decade, I have loathed (I checked, and that is not too strong of a word), the deck on the front of my 1930s-era colonial. Not only do decks not belong on the fronts of houses, any houses (in my admittedly strong opinion), they also don't belong on this age of home. 

I disliked it from the moment I moved in, but the image above is a "before" photo from a few summers ago. What can't be seen from this image is the rickety railing, the warped wood, and the gaps and warps between deck boards that were beginning trip people up. This awful looking thing replaced a proper brick stoop, as you can see in this historical photo from 1942, below, and an even larger version with wrought iron railing that was added later, but not photographed.  

Below is a more recent photo, when we took a stop-gap approach to a stair issue that had become a hazard for our elderly parents. Now we were at the point where the deck was not only ass ugly, it was a potential danger to family members. It was the final motivation to get going on the renovation project, which we began last spring. 

While we did not have the budget or the skills to put up a true covered porch (we likely would have hired an architect and a building contractor for a project of that scale), our goal was to porchify our deck. That's a new word in the DIY lexicon: porchify. You heard it here first. We submitted our plans to our local municipal authority for a building permit. The design itself was pretty simple, traditional, but with certain elements beefed up to give that porch-like feel, and of course chosen to meet the safety requirements of local building codes. We married the elements of several designs we found online into something we felt matched the personality and era of the house. 

In the spring of 2022, Tom started demolition. And as the kids like to say, I was there for it. Nothing better than to see a particularly hated part of your house getting replaced for something better. 

Despite the sad state of the decking and railing, we found that the footings, posts, and joists were in great shape, and well constructed (almost to the point I wondered if they were done at separate times by different people? Hard to say.) Given the price of lumber during the pandemic, we decided to keep these in order to shave a little off the total expense.

Because we aren't home improvement television personalities or social media influencers, I'm not going to pretend this project took a weekend, or two, or even three. Tom was the driving force and mastermind behind this project, but he was not about to give up his summer kayaking or bicycling trips. And then we also had elder parent care, and visits from grandchildren, and yard work and jobs. When he was able to carve out time to work on the project, our front yard looked like this: 

He worked hard to get the stairs and decking in place, so that people could use our front door safely. Then the posts and railing went in as time allowed. 

One thing we did a little differently is that we kept the footprint of the existing deck, but routed the railing around the front window, so that it didn't obstruct it. That created a little ledge off the deck railing that is under the window, which you can sort of see in the photo on the right. Right now our potted trees are there. We might build some sort of planter box or feature in the future, but for now it's just a quirk of building around existing features. The photo is from this summer. 

Construction continued into the fall months because, well, life. It felt a little strange. In our Midwestern "work hard and get it done" culture, spreading projects out incrementally over months seems almost wrong. And while we did want to get it done, our priorities were all over the place last summer, so our efforts were too. It was not a straight line. We had to be okay with that. I think for the most part we were. 

One of the other accomplishments of this project was redesigning the stairs so that there were more of them, with shallower rises, so that our elderly parents could more easily navigate them. Stairs are particularly difficult to get right, and when you don't get it right, even by a hair's breadth, people stumble on them. It's really a credit to his patience and determination that these are well constructed, solid, and easier on old knees. Below is a picture from last September, when we were beginning to get close to the railing finish line. 

By October, Tom had finished the railing, the trim, filling and paint touch-ups that seem never-ending on projects like these. It has been downright glorious to pull up the curb of our home and see the big difference it has made in how our house presents itself to the neighborhood. (Ignoring the fact that we need to mow, and finish painting scraped window trim on the upper story window. Chores are never done!)

Even now, in the summer of 2023, we have one last task to do to finish our porchified front entrance, and that is staining the decking. Pressure treated wood needs to cure a good long time before staining, and we're hoping to get that job done this fall, so we can finally call the project complete. We also have a few other small projects that "accessorize" this one, like the replacement of a shabby and leaning old lamp post. But this was a big, big item to get checked off our list, and we feel really good about it. 

The next steps in the front of the house exterior mostlly have to do with updating parts of the front perennial and landscaping beds, which after a few years need a little tweaking and reviving. That's more in my wheelhouse, and I've already gotten a bit of a start with weeding and moving some plants around. More to come on that, soon. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Origin Stories

When my son Joe went off to college, I shut the door on his bedroom. Not just for a few days or weeks, but months. As teen boy bedrooms do, it needed some cleaning in there. Some decluttering. Maybe a bit of paint.

But I didn’t touch it. It would be easiest to say that work got busy, that I don’t like housework all that much, that I was respecting his space. Which are all true, but in ways that obscure another, more difficult truth– that really, I was hurt.

Joe was so eager to go to college and begin his adult independence that he spent the majority of his senior year and the summer after graduation firmly brushing off parental assistance and guidance. Not even brushing– at times he positively bristled with ferocity– that he alone would make the decisions, figure things out, do it his way. It was a long year of trying to stay out of his way when I could, and negotiating compromises when I could not.

By the time we pulled up to the curb in front of the dormitory in August, two hours from home, we were thoroughly irritated with each other. I managed a thin version of the cheerful enthusiasm expected of new college parents. It was mainly for show, for those volunteer students in school colors helping all the wandering freshmen move their stuff up flights of stairs. I trailed behind with an armload of blankets and frustration.

I explained to him, standing with the boxes stacked around us, that I wanted to help him NOT because I wanted to baby him, not because I thought he was incapable, but because this milestone was different for me than it was for him. It would be the only time that I brought him to college for the first time. When he next came home, he would be a different person. I wanted this last time to take care of my son. I wanted this time to say goodbye. Not just to the Joe he was right now, but to the mother I had been to him all this time.

He still said no to much help. I made his bed, popping new pillows out of plastic bagging. He sulked. I was angry and tried not to be. We walked across campus to get his student ID. Being out of the dorms helped, like it was part of our problem, or maybe just the stage for it. But lunch was over, his college program was beginning an afternoon of welcome to campus activities, and I needed to get back on the road.

“It’s time for you to go now Mom. Don’t call me.” I had to ask for a hug. He gave me one, but it was grudging.

This last week, finally, I opened the door to his room and began putting things in order. I opened the window and let in fresh air. I washed the bed-sheets, blankets, mattress pad, pillows. I sorted his clothes, finding plenty of outgrown jeans and shirts. Soon there were bags for donating lined up in the hallway. I discovered the curtains that had hung in his window since he was a grade-school boy were so sun-damaged, they were barely holding together. I carried them downstairs and stuffed them in the garbage can. For some reason, trashing them felt good.

I hesitated at his desk, not wanting to intrude on his privacy, but eventually deciding to at least dust and organize the jumble of electronics and gaming paraphernalia on the desktop, the stacks of books and other papers.

It was there that I found them. Yellowing and fragile comic books from my own childhood, mixed in with his own collection. I’d been a fan of the Fantastic Four, and there they were–Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch, and Thing. I showed my old comics to him once when he was in his tweens, hoping to make some kind of connection with him. At the time he seemed disinterested. I had understood– at twelve, it is hardly comprehensible that your mom could have ever been twelve once too. But, it seems, he kept them. It was good to see my old friends there, in among his own.

If you were an English literature college student in the 1980s, as I was, you didn’t get a diploma without a solid bit of Joseph Campbell and comparative mythology. For years, his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” held sway in collegiate lectures about fiction, folklore, and myth. Dr. Campbell told us that we humans, across time and cultures and distances, tell each other lots of stories. But in many ways, these stories are all the same. They’re all the same because we are all the same– we all want to be the hero of our own story.

Joe wants to be the hero of his own story. I’ve known this for a long time about him, when his autism made every day at school a struggle, not just with academics. He struggled to contain himself in a world completely engineered for the success of normies, and not at all for a little boy whose intelligence was like light shining through heavy branches–sparkling blindly at times, and then wind blowing, shifting in direction, shape, and intensity, sometimes shrouded completely. Or for a little boy whose expressions of frustration with a world who couldn’t understand him were often monstrous, heartbreaking, frightening to us and to him. Every day was like being presented with the same child, but under a new secret identity– new to us, and sometimes even to him.

As his mom, I saw him as his own superhero, Joe the Brave, who endured long years of struggling to succeed– and then succeeding– in an educational system that wasn’t designed for his brain or his behavior or his way of interacting with the world. Who never once said he hated school, or didn’t want to go. He was often far tougher as an autistic kid than I was as an autistic kid’s mom. And while that often meant that I felt like he was dragging me down the road as I struggled to keep my supposedly adult feet under me, it also meant knowing that if he could show up for himself, the least I could do was show up for him too, even if I wasn’t sure at times how best to help him.

In early grade school, Joe’s first favorite superhero was Batman, a superhero with no actual superpowers, a man with a tragic past who has to exist in the DC Universe as a flat-footed mortal, and make up for that lack using only his intelligence, his gadgetry, and his fighting skills. Later on, Joe’s favorite was Spiderman, who was an awkward, bullied, and outcast teenage Peter Parker before receiving the radioactive spider bite that superhumanized him. These days, he’s a fan of Venom, the symbiote anti-hero who may (eventually) use his alien superpowers for good, but only on his own terms. As Joe’s mom, I recognize pieces of his boyhood in his personal pantheon– feeling powerless, but making yourself strong anyway; being ridiculed without anyone knowing who you really are; having rebellious parts of you that you are not sure you actually want to control.

In the world of superheroes, everyone has an origin story. That fits with Campbell’s arc of the hero’s journey– they have to come from somewhere, before they go…out there. They have an ordinary, known world they have to shed and leave behind before they can become the kind of hero they need to be.

That is right where Joe is right now in his story. He’s crossing the threshold between his ordinary, known world, and answering the call to adventure. Heroes-to-be eventually realize that their origin story is not a complete one and that is why they go– they need to discover more about themselves and their real power.

What origin stories don’t always say, though, is how the people who live in the hero’s ordinary world feel about that call to adventure, that momentous departure. I thought about that a lot as I smoothed clean sheets and vacuumed floors in his empty room. This is the part of the story I can’t write; it belongs to him now. He will want, and need, other mentors that are not me. He will have trials and quests and triumphs that I can’t help him with, because he needs to know that he can do it on his own.

I’m proud of my part in this hero’s origin. I am in the process of learning to trust that he has the powers necessary to write the rest of his own legend. And I will patiently await the hero’s triumphant return. I know it’s gonna be a great story.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Waiting Out Empty

September is a soft and warm word for a soft warm month, and it was a good season to be empty. 

Just...empty. Not running on empty, or as in drained dry, or as in devoid of emotion. None of those things. 

More like empty as in absence of fullness. Absence of people that I love. Absence of happenings. Absence of thinking that I know things. 

Because I knew a lot of things about myself before I sent my two youngest sons off to college. 

I knew I spent years sharing custody with my children's father, giving me over a decade of intermittent training in having them out of my house, out of my view, out of my attention. 

I knew I never wanted to be that dreaded of all creatures, the "helicopter parent," who helps with freshman homework, emails college professors, and desperately clings to tasks that rightfully belong to their now nearly adult children. 

I knew I wanted a next chapter, one that perhaps belonged a little bit more to me than to my children. But it always seemed to me, year after year, that there were thousands of leaves to turn before we reached that particular page, that new direction in the storyline-- so I kept reading. Until now. I'm finding that I can't read any further. The aptness of my metaphor and my knowledge about myself have faded, running out like too little ink on dry paper.  

All of that knowing wasn't enough to prepare me for the large quiet space that opened up in my life when they began college, one at the "other" public university on the other side of the state, and another at a community college 45 minutes away. At first, that quiet space loomed like an entire undiscovered universe, especially in stark contrast to the short, noisy, and tightly wound days of packing and unpacking, driving loaded trucks, navigating two crowded campuses just days apart, and the rapid fire artillery of problem solving. Where do you get a bus pass? How do we get your window blinds fixed? How in the world did we forget toilet paper? 

The next chapter is here, now. There are no words on the page for me to read. At least, none that I can see clearly. Yet. It's an unsettling feeling. I have ideas, but they're struggling to form themselves into something coherent. That too, seems like part of the blankness I'm confronting. 

I spent the month of September letting myself be empty-- allowing it, and even sometimes insisting to myself that I sit with that nothingness for a period of time. Sometimes I failed, and attempted to fill it (poorly) with anxiety, insomnia, NYT crossword puzzles, crap food, and too much social media. Many other times, though, I found myself fully absorbed in the details of a simple action, pruning a houseplant, brushing my hair, scrubbing a saucepan, without my mind racing on some other unrelated concern. I realized how novel and uncluttered and undiluted those actions felt, compared to other times when my life was anything but empty. 

Now it's October, and I'm waiting out the empty. I know it won't be like this forever. I imagine there will be a time in the not too distant future where I'm able to put some words to the empty-- words like grief, change, transition, aging, self-realization, reflection, and respite. I realize I'm not ready to do that just yet, and that's okay. 

In the meantime, we've begun my favorite month of the year. We've danced our way through a family wedding, and are about to embark on a new adventure-- joy is a welcome vantage point to come to terms with, and begin to fill, emptiness. Eventually the words of the next chapter will become clearer. When that happens, I will write them down. Just like I have all the times before.