Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Toast to My Nephew

I saw you today.

Not the 18 year-old strapping young man who’s preparing to go to college. No. I saw the toddler Daniel, running around the house in his diaper shrieking at the top of his lungs.

To be fair, I was looking at my 2 year-old son, Sam. He looks so much like you at that age, Daniel. He acts so much like you. It’s weird to travel back in time 16 years on a daily basis.

You are my nephew, but you always felt like a little more than that. I was only 21 when you came into the world. I remember that trip home from college. Sleeping until noon in my childhood bed, waking to find Mom sitting next to me. Staring into space.

“Nora’s pregnant.”

I was shocked, unable to breathe, and yet it made so much sense. Nora had been acting secretive, moody. I mean, more so than usual (yuk yuk).

Before the thought could even register, I ran to Nora’s room where I found her sitting on her bed, teary-eyed. I pulled her into a big hug and told her I loved her. And I did. Possibly more so than I ever had.

But I was terrified. My baby sister would never be a baby again. At 15, she would face things that I was nowhere near ready to even think about for myself.

I know you know how hard it was for her. The harsh words she endured from our father, the judgmental glares from the folks in our tiny town, the hurtful words from her classmates. She had well-meaning family members begging her to give her baby up for adoption, and when she wouldn’t listen to them, they begged me to try to help her see reason.

But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell Nora what to do when I’d never ever been in her shoes. She wanted you. She wanted you and loved you fiercely. And her love transferred to me. I found myself so excited to meet you that I could barely think straight.

You came early, as you know. Induced into this world to save your mother from deadly preeclampsia. I wanted to be there when you were born. I was staying at a friend’s house, and they assured me the induction would take a long time and they’d call me when things got going. But you jumped into this world faster than anyone had planned.

You were so tiny. I was scared to death of hurting you, scared to death of the overwhelming love that flooded me. A little jealous that you were Nora’s and not mine.

I was home that summer when you were brand new. Some nights, when you cried, I’d sneak into Nora’s room and pick you up. Those moments when I could soothe you, or feed you, or rock you to sleep, I felt so important. So needed.

I babysat one night. Just you and me while everyone else went out. Everything was fine until you started to scream. Scream and scream and scream. I changed your diaper, I tried to feed you, I rocked you and sang to you and walked the floor with you. Nothing worked. I was sure I’d hurt you, sure I’d messed up. I cried my eyes out, praying Nora would get home soon. When she did, and I handed you to her, you finally stopped crying. That was the night I realized how tough it was to be a mother, the constant work, of course, but also the bottomless worry and self-doubt. That night may have something to do with why I waited another eleven years before I decided to have one of my own. (And I give a massive amount of credit to my baby sister who learned how to be a mom with you, and what a wonderful mother that woman is!)

As you grew, we became buddies. I felt tremendous guilt because I moved to New York when you were just a year old. My heart was so heavy, knowing that I would miss so many important moments of your life. And every time I came home for a visit, it was you I wanted to see first.

And you never forgot me. You’d squeal and run into my arms. And when it was time for me to depart, you’d get so sad I thought I’d die. My heart was ripped out more times in those twelve years than I care to remember.

I can’t calculate the number of hours we played trains together. I was Percy or James or Gordon, but never Thomas. You were always Thomas, getting dirty and needing a wash or overcoming obstacles or just chugging away, happily.

Every year at Christmas, I took the subway to FAO Schwartz where they had a massive collection of Thomas toys. I’d stand there, overwhelmed, until I finally called Nora and made her tell me what to buy. I wanted to bring you there with me, to see you face at the splendor of that amazing store. So, instead, I spent way more money than I had on things I hoped you’d like.

I was so humbled by your love. You LOVED me. Loved me in a way where I could feel it – down to my toenails. The fierce hugs, the sitting on my lap, the requests for books, the “again” when I did that trick where I held your hands and you walked up my legs until you flipped over. Your grand proclamations of “Aunt Randi, I love you!” when I agreed to walk you down to the playground and push you so high on the swings I feared my sister would kill me.

But I worried about you. I worried about what would happen to you. You were a picky eater, wanting little else than Hungry Man frozen meals and juice. Would you grow up to be healthy and strong? Your home life wasn’t ideal, splitting time between two grandparents’ houses, your parents teenagers in a tumultuous relationship. Would you grow up to be emotionally stable? The first school you attended wasn’t a great fit and you struggled to adapt. Would you ever go to college?

Here you are, ready to graduate high school – with grades so good that you got a huge scholarship to a great college. You play lacrosse and you’ve excelled in the band and you’re an independent thinker who loves to argue his viewpoints. You’re tall and healthy and kind and funny. You have a huge heart and you care so much about making this world a better place that I just can’t wait to see what you’re going to do to achieve that. My fears were so silly, so unfounded – and not a single one came true.

And now you’re the cousin that my own kids love so fiercely it’s crazy. They light up when they get to see you, they wear you out by making you chase them or pick them up or push them on the swings. And it’s like I’m watching a replay of me and you when you when you pick up my son and tickle him until he laughs hysterically.

I’m so proud of you Daniel. So proud of all you’ve accomplished, of all your hard work, of your integrity and humanity and intelligence. I have no doubt at all that you will accomplish great things in your future, and that our world will be a better place because you’re here.

But know that, as you walk across the stage to get your diploma, I will be the crazy, sobbing aunt, remember a skinny little boy in a Buzz Lightyear costume – dingy and dirty from months of continuous wear – sitting in my lap, asking me to read the picture book about poop that you couldn’t get enough of.

Congratulations, Daniel. I’m so proud of you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Glorifying the Invisible Mother

"I never know what to say when people ask me what my hobbies are. I mean, I'm a mom. I enjoy trips to the bathroom alone and silence."

You've probably seen this meme floating around the internet, especially if you're a mother. And it's funny. When you're a mom, especially when your children are small, hobbies seem like the greatest of luxuries. Reading a book? When? While rocking a screaming baby? Traveling? Not when I have to pack diapers and schlep a car seat from continent to continent. Dancing? Ha! Hilarious! I'd have to pay a sitter, and by the time the club opened, I'd be ready to go to bed.

Yep, I've been there. In the trenches, unable to do much other than take care of my kids, go to work, and barely keep myself fed and clothed.

But I never forgot who I was while I was there. The sleepless nights, the unwashed hair, the tears, the hours of taking care of another human being and wondering when I would have time for myself - through it all, Randi was there. Randi, who loves to sit and read for so long she forgets where she is. Randi, who feels most alive on a stage, telling a story to hundreds (or maybe someday thousands) of people. Randi, who's traveled the world, and hopes to get back there again some day. Randi, who - at age 40 - can still shake her groove thing and does, any chance she gets. Randi, who uses writing as therapy. Randi, who feels exhilarated by participating in protests and rallies supporting causes she believes in, and boy, are there lots of causes she believes in.

I got frustrated by how little time I could devote to my passions. I longed for those activities, and when I couldn't do them, fantasized about them regularly. And I knew that one day, my kids would be older and they wouldn't need me as often, and I could begin to pursue the things that make me me again.

Memes like that are meant to be funny - to help us laugh at the 24/7 job that is parenthood. I get that. But let me ask you this - do you see similar memes for fathers?

Would we expect to laugh at how a man loses himself after having a kid? Would we encourage a man to carve out time for himself, maybe "slip into a bubble bath" or "sip wine while reading an Us Weekly?" The idea seems ludicrous. Why?

Because even now, in 2016, we expect women to lose themselves in their job of motherhood, while men are expected to balance their own lives with their new responsibilities.

You know it's true. And we glorify this process. You are a wonderful mom if you haven't showered in 4 days. You're an excellent mother if you forgot to feed yourself lunch while getting food for your offspring. Good for you! You haven't slept more than 3 hours in a row for 2 years! Yes! You're wearing yoga pants with holes in the crotch while your own kids looks smashing.

This is not a judgment of mothers who do any of the above, mind you. In fact, I pulled that list out of my own past behaviors. But I don't think letting go of my self-care made me a better mother. In fact, it was just the opposite.

I found myself resenting motherhood when I pushed Randi to the bottom of the list, constantly adding responsibilities to the top. I felt depressed, unloved, unappreciated. I felt like my entire worth lie in what I could do for others, not in who I was. And that did not make me a better mother.

So, sometimes, when my work day is over, rather than rushing home to see my kids, I hang out an extra 30 minutes at my computer and tap out a blog entry. On the weekends, during Sam's nap, I sometimes neglect the dirty dishes to read a few chapters of my book. We hired a sitter just last week so I could attend a rally protesting a proposed pay freeze for teachers in my area. I'm still looking for a good place to go dancing, and when I find it, I will go and dance until my feet ache.

I know I'm lucky. I'm married to a great guy who gets that parenting is a partnership, who understands that being the gender he is does not entitle him to more time off from parenting than me. I have family who lives close by, and we have enough expendable income (not much, but enough) to hire our wonderful, reliable babysitter when we need her. Being a single parent or coparenting with a less supportive partner would make it harder to make yourself a priority. So I'm grateful that I'm able to take care of myself.

But I've gotten criticized for it. When a former coworker found out that I perform in story slams, she asked me, "How do you have the time for that? With teaching and storytelling, do you EVER see your kids?"

I was so hurt. Of course I see my kids. I see them when I get home every day from work. We play together and read together and eat dinner together. Almost every single night. Our yard doesn't look that great, and our house can be a bit messy, but damn it! I see my kids.

Dave plays in a band. He's played in one band or another ever since I met him 15 years ago. He works and has kids. And, as far as I know, nobody's ever asked him if he has time for his kids. Not once.

So, yes, there may be slightly less quantity in the time my kids get from me. But the quality is multiplied by infinity. I'm more energetic, happier, more engaged. And both my kids - the boy and the girl - are witnessing a woman who takes care of herself, who loves herself and places a priority on her own needs. My hope is that seeing me do that will help them both understand women's worth, and will shape how they act in their future relationships.

I know memes like the one I mentioned are meant to make us laugh. But I think it would be funnier if it said something like this:

"I never know what to say when people ask me what my hobbies are. I mean, I'm a parent. My hobbies were playing tennis and singing karaoke, and maybe when I crawl out of this pile of dirty diapers, I'll get back to them."

Saturday, May 7, 2016

My Old Kentucky Home, Far Away

My friends were crazy. This benedictine looks delicious!

I’m pretty sure it was the Benedictine that did it. Sent me straight into that downward spiral.
It was my third year in New York. I’d fled Kentucky right out of college, running from a crazy family and a crazy breakup and the crazy idea that my life would be filled with mediocrity if I stayed here. 

I’d finally formed a ragamuffin group of friends from various theaters and the internet startup where I had my day job, so I decided to share the experience of watching the Derby. I thought it would be a good idea to bring them all together. In the 400 square foot apartment I shared with a horrible roommate.

Although these friends were worlds apart, they all shared one thing: an adoration of my “making-fun-of-Kentucky” schtick. New Yorkers suffer from a major superiority complex and they love nothing more than hearing about how insufferable a home-state could be, and how much better life is in New York.

And since I was starving for camaraderie, I played right into this, reinforcing every negative stereotype Kentucky has to offer: inferior intelligence, ridiculous accents, a penchant for neglecting to wear shoes and shirts, global use of tobacco. My friends ate it up.

So, although I legitimately loved (and still do) the Derby, I knew my party had to be kitschy and quirky. I made mini-hot-browns, Derby Pie with bourbon-spiked whipped cream, mint simple syrup to make juleps, and Benedictine with extra green food die, for good luck. 

Immediately, we were crowded in like sardines. I hoped this would work to my advantage, that one of the guys I had crushes on might accidentally make out with me, but it just made everyone uncomfortable. 

So, it was time to get them all drunk. I made mint juleps and passed them around. Now, this was a hard-drinking group of people, but they universally choked and sputtered on my juleps. I grew up Southern Baptist – no drinking allowed – except for that bottle of Maker’s Mark my mom kept in the cupboard. 

Somehow, that was different, that was BOURBON, and I’d grown up on in the bourbon balls at Christmas, starting at the age of four. So when everyone – EVERYONE – asked for seltzer to water their juleps down, I felt as offended as a French person who must serve a wine cooler. But, dammit, I wanted this to be a good party, so I watered down their drinks.

Then, the food. Nobody wanted the hot browns. Many folks were either vegetarian or kosher, and the ones that weren’t thought the béarnaise sauce looked “gross.” The Derby pie was eaten, of course, although people kept saying, “Isn’t this just a pecan pie with chocolate?”

But the Benedictine put everyone on edge. “What is THAT?” “Is it supposed to be that color?” “Do people in Kentucky really eat that?”

Despite the color, I naively thought the Benedictine would be a hit. It’s vegetarian, it’s kosher, and it’s basically a cucumber sandwich, something that was kind of hot at that moment back in 2001. Nobody touched it. Except me. I began to shove Benedictine sandwiches down my throat at an alarming rate.

I’d had maybe three mint juleps by this time – the real, non-watered-down ones, and I was getting angry drunk. There were too many jokes. Jokes about hats, jokes about the in-fielders, jokes about the D-List celebrities.

The party was buzzing, people were finally meshing and mingling, but I sat on my dirty hard-wood floor, glued to the TV. There, in that little box, was home. The gentle blue sky, the puffy clouds, the twin spires and the bare shoulders of people enjoying a REAL Spring day. New York’s April had been rainy and cold, and the buds on the trees were just starting to open. I could see that, in Kentucky, everything was in bloom. People smiled easily. They didn’t seem worried about money, they didn’t look taunted by constant noise, they appeared as if no crazy people had accosted them on the subway that day. They reminded me of how lonely I’d been, how hard it had been to make friends, how much of a desperate struggle each and every day was.

“My Old Kentucky Home” began to play and I sang at the top of my off-key lungs. My friends thought I was being ironic and laughed. Then came the call to the post, and everyone laughed at the jockeys and their “costumes.” The race began, and I watched as my chosen horse lost. And when the race was over, more than a few people said, “That was it? That’s what all the fuss is about? I thought it would be longer.”

One person told everyone else that every single horse that ran would be shot – that that’s the dirty little secret of the Derby. When I countered that that might ruin the Triple Crown, they asked me what a Triple Crown was.

People took last swigs of drinks, and after-parties started to form. I declined all invitations, saying I had a lot of cleanup ahead.

When they left, I sat in front of the TV and cried my heart out as Dan Fogelberg sang “Run for the Roses.” I realized that, despite living in New York City, my life WAS mediocre. Lonely. Struggling. Empty. I realized that my Old Kentucky Home was a part of me, maybe the good part of me, and no matter where I lived I was going to be a Kentucky Girl who liked Benedictine. Unironically.

The above text is from a Moth story I told a few years ago. The theme was "Derby," of course. I ended up forming an amazing group of NYC friends who loved the Derby UNIRONICALLY with me, and those parties ended up being one of the highlights of our year. When Dave, Stella, and I moved from NYC in 2010, we had friends who sincerely asked us how they were going to celebrate Derby now. 

Happy Derby Day, to all who celebrate!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

On Prince and Other Artists Who Challenged Norms

Dave and I paid homage to Prince by going to an outdoor screening of Purple Rain.

I checked a local online news source right as my 6th period class settled into their seats. This is a habit for me, a way to assuage my anxiety, double-checking to see if the world has fallen apart before the end of the day.

The headline told me that Prince was dead. And I did something I almost never do as a teacher – I sat down. No. I didn’t sit. I was knocked down.

I was not a Prince fanatic. I had never gone to one of his concerts, and I hadn’t purchased his music since college, or maybe a few years after. Every time one of his songs came on the radio or at a club (back in the days when I regularly went dancing), I squealed like a child and danced my rear end off, but that doesn’t really set me apart from too many other folks.
But I’m mourning Prince pretty hard. And here’s why.

Prince was an artist who spent his life snatching up society’s expectations of him, turning them over in his (gorgeous) hands, then rearranging that Rubik’s Cube of patriarchy and racism and strict gender definitions into an intricate, lacy sculpture that floated away in the breeze.

He showed me that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the way the world had “always been” wasn’t necessarily the best way. That maybe just because someone expected me to fall into a certain line or behave a certain way, I didn’t necessarily have to. That - no matter how vigilantly others mocked me or failed to understand me or tolerate me - I could strut through this life, sunglasses on, lollipop in my mouth, twitching my hips and throwing shade that would thrust them right back into their places.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I spent a great deal of my youth madly in love with the guy, but again, that doesn’t really set me apart from most people between the ages of 20 and 60.

Prince is part of an elite club of artists who fed my closeted anti-establishment views. Artists who helped me feel less alone, less bizarre, less destined to spend this life trying to fit my round, round body into a very square peg.

In middle school, I went to an art museum for the first time. My wonderful art teacher took us on a field trip to the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, a hefty one-hour trip from my house, yet the closest art museum we had.

I loved all the art – the pretty Impressionist pieces, the weird Medieval paintings, the creamy marble sculptures.

But the world stopped right at the end of our tour. There, right on the floor of the museum, was something I’d never seen in my life. Shocking. A little scary. Provocative. 

 "Dejeuner sur L'Herbe" (1982) by John De Andrea

It was an incredibly life-like sculpture of a nude woman and two men, resting on the floor. The woman was so realistic, you could see the veins in her skin and folds of her stomach and her pubic hair. She lounged in a pensive way, resting along with the two fully-clothed men.

This was a modern adaptation of the famous Manet paining, “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” or “Lunch on the Grass.” It’s a portrayal of a model and two artists taking a break. I’d seen the original, but this was different.
I felt like I was invading on their personal moment. But I also couldn’t look away. The extreme realism unsettled me. The proximity to my space, the lack of a fourth wall or an ornate frame or a red velvet rope made me feel vulnerable. Why did so look so upset? What happened right before this moment?

I loved it. But, as I mentioned, this was middle school. The kids around me snickered so hard I thought they would explode. The boys were losing their minds over the nudity, the girls acted grossed out. Our teacher was exasperated, irritated, shuttling us along to the bus. But I hung back. I loved the way this piece made me feel. And I’ve never forgotten it.

In college, I read what felt like a million plays to fulfill my drama degree. But one knocked me to the ground: Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes. Every single character was a women. These women were strong and strange. There was a lesbian couple – fairly shocking to me in 1997. 

But the best part was that Fornes decided to take the traditional theatrical form and rip it to shreds. After the first act, the audience is divided into small groups, led into different smaller rooms. Group A will then see certain scenes in one order, while Group B will see a different order, and so on. So each group sees ALL the scenes, but in totally different orders. And these scenes reveal important things about the characters’ and their relationships that will color your views of the other scenes. WHICH MEANS YOU GET A TOTALLY DIFFERENT THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE DEPENDING ON WHICH GROUP YOU’RE IN.
Sorry, I get a little excited when I talk about this.

Years and years and years of men writing plays starring men talking about men’s issues, and here’s a woman that says, “actually, that doesn’t work for me.” And having the audacity to just change it. Mind. Blown. 

When I met Fornes years later at a talk and told her that she's my hero, she put her hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "Never make a human being your hero; that's a dangerous thing to do."

Moving to New York City where I had access to world-class art museums and theaters every single weekend, my world view just exploded. Performance art, bizarre video projections, large-scale installation pieces, avant garde and absurdist plays, risqué musicians – everywhere I looked, someone was validating my belief that the boundaries of society expectations and norms should constantly be tested.

The Sensations Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was massively controversial. Mayor Guiliani all but waged a war against it and its immorality. Art critics didn't love it, and to get in, you had to wait in a massive line that snaked through screaming protesters.

Of course I had to go.

Along the entrance were signs that read "May cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety." I went alone, and I'm so glad I did. The art I saw that day was so earth-shattering, so groundbreaking for someone who'd grown up in a rural town of 1,000 people, that I simply had to inch my way through, pausing in front of some pieces for over half an hour, sitting to catch my breath after something particularly mind-boggling.

I have recounted exact pieces of art and their effect on me to my husband so many times, that he has to stop me and say, "Yes, you've told me about the giant photograph of a shotgun wound that looks like something else from far away."

It did cause nausea. It did cause anxiety. It definitely caused euphoria. And it made me think and think and think and think.

The most famous piece is "The Holy Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili, because it is decorated with elephant dung. While this was considered offensive to the Catholic Church, while others argued that the dung is considered sacred in parts of Africa. Honestly, to me, this was nowhere near the most shocking piece of the entire exhibit.

To whom would that prize go? Too many contenders to count. But one piece that stands out to me is a giant portrait. From afar, it just seemed like a blurry, interesting black and white portrait of an attractive woman. As I approached, I realize the portrait was comprised of hundreds of handprints - small handprints. It was called "1995 depiction of Myra Hindley" by the Young British Artist Marcus Harvey. She was a convicted British child killer, found guilty of killing three children, suspected of raping and killing five total. She was a household name in Britain for all the wrong reasons.

Chills went up and down my spine. The handprints were vile, terrifying, mesmerizing. If I'd just seen her picture and read what she'd done, I would have been disturbed. Seeing her portait painted out of tiny handprints made me FEEL what she had done on a visceral level. 

The day sent me reeling. I left the museum, took the subway home, and sat in a daze the rest of the day. The world as I knew it was only that way because people had made it that way and others had perpetuated that notion. Art is paint on a canvas in a frame. It is? Why? Because that's what someone said a long time and that's the way it's always been.

Anyway, I digress. I'm grateful to the many, many artists who've shown me that questioning the world around me, challenging the norms that I think are outdated or harmful - I'm not alone in these actions. 

Thank you, Prince, for your life and works. Your death has inspired almost all of us to have the most kick-ass running soundtracks in our heads for over a week. You will be remembered and cherished.