Monday, May 24, 2010


I’ve mentioned before that I don’t care for the word “nice.” Part of my reasoning is that niceness often comes with a price. “Nice” isn’t genuine…it is something we often are in spite of how we truly feel underneath. We’re nice to the guy who is rude to us, just to get him to stop. We’re nice to our unfair boss so we won’t get fired. We’re nice nice nice, smile smile smile, fake fake fake.

When I lived in England, I learned that Americans are very different in this respect. We tend to be instantly friendly and nice , immediately welcoming and wonderful, then after we know someone we move on to gossiping and judging. The opposite seemed to be true with my English schoolmates. They were fairly standoffish at first, then after I knew them they were friendly and nice, and it seemed more genuine. Which is better? While I do appreciate American hospitality, I hate the fakeness we’ve all been bred to emote, like toothy, smiling cheerleaders telling a nerd she’s pretty.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we should be polite, and yes even nice, especially to strangers. We all need to give some positive energy, to put aside the fake crap and give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Those “reserved Englishmen” aren’t actually reserved. They just seem that way to outgoing Americans. Americans’ perceptions don’t make it so. It doesn’t make the judgment true.

The mean teacher you had in high school may have actually been a wonderful, caring, warm person, but at that point in her life was going through a divorce. Does that make her a bad person?

Pride and Prejudice provides an excellent literary illustration of my point.

When someone is mean to me, disappoints me, angers me, or misunderstands me, I tend to withdraw, making me seem quiet, cold, and distant. Does that make me a cold person? To that person, yes. They have no idea that inside I’m hurting. They will go on thinking the worst of me. Does that make their perception of me the truth? It’s true in their world.

We can’t change others’ perceptions of us. Survey a random handful of my acquaintances and I’m sure you’ll get several descriptions of the person I am. Nice, helpful, friendly, reliable, or selfish, cold, rude, disrespectful. I can’t change how they see me. And honestly, I don’t care to.

The trick is not to let other people’s perceptions, or misperceptions, define us. How do we do this? Retreat to the only person who truly knows you: You. Only you know the whole story. That is the only perception that counts. Inside, are you a good person? Are you loving and kind? Only you know the truth. We must find the strength to be satisfied with that knowledge.

So, it’s been a stressful week. And it’s interesting that my last blog post was about handling stress. I think I’ll go re-read it, make a list, and then go to bed. Again.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Crazy Chicken

How do you handle stress? I have always felt I’ve been fairly good at it, ever since my Mom helped me deal with teenage stress when I was a kid. She helped me make a list of everything that bothered me, and then we went through it and decided what could be done about my stresses, if anything. She also taught me to keep a diary, and by now I have tons of them, some with happy entries, but many written when I needed to unleash all my anger or sadness or frustration, and I felt the tension release with the flow of my pen. A diary doesn’t judge or react; it just listens.

Other stress-relievers? I’ve found that attacking a home project, like pulling weeds or painting a room, can be fairly cathartic, and it has the additional plus of marking something off my To-Do list when I’m done. Another method is to create…to paint, write, draw, or do something to get into my work and out of my head. Sometimes I’ve gone to a movie by myself; being by myself with the characters on the screen is comforting. And finally, if all else fails, I could use another method Mom taught me…just go to bed.

I was pretty stressed this Sunday morning when I was out of the house early. The tension of recent events, combined with a fierce case of PMS, caused me to find myself in tears. I’ve always been a crier; it’s another good way to release tension – Mom taught me that, too. But this time, I had nowhere to go. We have a houseguest right now, so I couldn’t go home and cry. My husband was at work and unavailable, so I couldn’t call and vent to him. And faced with the prospect of just sitting in my car and crying, I called my girlfriend, woke her up, and asked to come over.

She greeted me in her pajamas and sleepy face, then escorted me to the kitchen for apple juice and Kleanex, and we spent the next hour on her back patio enjoying the breeze and the warmth of the sun on our feet that stuck out from under the patio cover’s shade. Thank God for friends.

Then as I drove away (I finally felt good enough to go write at Starbucks), I received a phone message from another girlfriend who moved away a couple of years ago. She mentioned that she had been “running around like a crazy chicken” and that’s why she hadn’t had time to call or write recently. Her phrase made me laugh, because I assume she meant “like a chicken with its head cut off.” And yes, lately I too have been a crazy chicken who needs to sit back, make a list of everything that is going wrong and stressing me out, and see what can be done. Then I’ll go to bed.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Eh oh, don't be a stunad...have some gabagool & proshut.

My mother-in-law is visiting right now, so our house is full of the temporary smell of cigarette smoke and old-lady perfume (not meant to be an insult, just a fact). George loves having her around because she tends to drop food on the floor randomly, unknowingly, so he follows her around and waits for the goodies to fall. When she’s here, she makes her old standard recipes that she made when my husband was a kid: asparagus, eggs, & onions (a mixture that is eaten on Italian bread as a sandwich); homemade spaghetti sauce & meatballs with raisins in them (she’s been told repeatedly for 40 years that no one likes the raisins but she insists on them); and chipped beef on toast.

I grew up in a town where everyone was culturally the same: a mixture of various cultural backgrounds, mostly from Europe, whose families had been in the United States for hundreds of years. Until I met my husband, I never even asked what our family background was. I’d never thought about it – no one in my hometown ever claimed any certain heritage. And while I did travel a bit during my life, I always saw other cultures through the eyes of a tourist.

So it was eye-opening to suddenly marry into a family that is Italian. More specifically, Italian American. And I find it fascinating to compare the differences – the generations of Italians that have been here since their grandfathers came over are very different from the Italians who are in Italy. The American experience has morphed them into their own unique culture.

I never noticed this culture until the first time I was taken to my husband’s friend’s house for dinner. It was here that I first heard the loud “Aaaaaaaaaaay!” greeting (rhymes with day or pay) that Italian Americans always seem to use, to greet any long lost friend or relative, or just anyone new who walks in the door.

Lance and I had been dating for about a year when we went to his friend Craig’s Mom’s house for a dinner at Christmastime. Craig and his brother were what I considered almost stereotypical Italian-Americans, minus the New York accent. They were both big guys with dark-tanned skin and facial hair. They wore t-shirts that proclaimed their heritage and talked about wrestling, “Philly”, and their mama’s pasta. Their Mom, Edie, had the Philadelphia accent, short dark hair and constant smile, always telling us to “Eat!” No matter how many times we said we were stuffed, she would open up pots and pans to show what was cooking. “Looooook, it’s Pasta Fazool.” “Looooook, it’s Sausage & Peppers,“ she’d say, lifting lids while constantly stirring a pot of thick red sauce with her other hand. We ended up at the table, which was covered with plates of antipasti and half-eaten pasta. The eating had begun hours ago.

The house was full of activity. Edie ran back and forth between the kitchen stove, the table, and the front room, making sure everyone was eating. The kitchen table was packed shoulder to shoulder with family and friends who were used to piling their plates high when they came to this house. Craig sat at the table next to Lance and yelled a conversation back and forth to his brother Kirk, who sat in the overstuffed chair by the TV with a plate of food on his lap and a can of Coke on the floor. The TV blared a football game – probably some team from back East - because everyone on the couch shouted at the TV every few minutes.

Amid the chaos, somehow Craig heard someone at the door. “Come in!” he yelled above the din, and the door burst open. It was four people Craig and everyone in the room knew well, obviously, because suddenly the whole room – including the couches, kitchen table, and kitchen – erupted in a loud, long “Aaaaaaaaaay!” Edie ran to them, sauce-covered spoon in hand, giving them hugs and a kiss on the cheek. Kirk raised his Coke can in salute and resumed eating his plate of pasta. Not moving from his sardined spot at the table, Craig motioned for them to go into the kitchen, “Come and eat, there’s plenty of room!” but Edie already had them in the kitchen and was opening lids for them to see.

I sat at the kitchen table and marveled at the scene before me, which seemed straight from TV. My hometown had absolutely no minorities or people of any type of culture besides “Mutt,” as Lance called me. But these people were straight out of the kitchen scene from Saturday Night Fever or old gangster movies, which were my only frame of reference for Italian American families. I grinned through the whole meal, glad that this little Hoosier girl had broadened her horizons.

(Since then, I learned that I am a mixture of English, Danish, and Irish, and some of my ancestors fought in the American Revolution. I think it’s good to know where you come from, to give a sense of permanence – a linkage to the land and the people. I thank my husband for giving me reason to discover my history.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Miss Cool

I’ve mentioned before that Starbucks is a place to meet people – to hook up, to have a first date, to scope out potential mates. And this week I saw what I think could be a first date. After all, it makes sense to go to Starbucks for something like that. If you meet casually for coffee, there’s no pressure to dress up, no pressure over who pays (because it’s inexpensive), no reason to stay too long, and no pressure for a goodnight kiss or invitation to “come back to my place” (unless it’s a really successful date).

I saw the woman first – she walked in, replied to the Starbucks’ staff’s greeting, then sat in a chair by the wall without ordering. Obviously she was there for a purpose – she wore a tight shiny purple top, a tight black pencil skirt, and super-high black pumps with ankle straps. Unusual attire for 8:30am. She caught my eye because she strutted in like she was hot stuff. I didn’t agree with her own assessment of herself – her two-tone hair prevented her from looking classy. How can you think that black hair with a layer of blonde on top looks good? I’m not sure what look she was going for.

About thirty seconds after she sat down, a man joined her. He wasn’t dressed to impressed; he wore jeans, black sneakers, an untucked shirt and a baseball cap with his sunglasses sitting on the brim. They got their coffee and then sat at a table for two. On the way, he got a nice long look at her butt.

The reason why I thought it was their first date was because of the way she talked. Non-stop, loudly, importantly. And he sat with a half-smile on his face, not at all annoyed. Surely it was nervous talking? In the middle of her rambling, a few words floated over toward me. “Porn.” (Or I guess she could have said “corn” but that is less likely.) “No f—king way!” (Immediately I was impressed at her use of adjectives.) “He would call me all the time and they had to trace his calls!” (She obviously felt the need to show how desirable she is.) I also heard “water fight,” “white trash,” “pregnant,” and “a lot of drama.” The latter described her to a T, but I’m not sure if she was aware of that. All of this was stated while she tossed around her Cruella-colored hair with importance, flashing her smile and gesturing constantly – she even winked one eye at him one time to illustrate an especially cute point.

So who am I to judge? No one. And I shouldn’t be so harsh. She was happy, and the guy seemed happy, so who cares. She was friendly and animated – the only true fault I could find was her loud overuse of the f-word. Everything else could be forgiven. After all, from her vantage point I’m probably that weird curly-haired woman who sits at Starbucks all the time with her dog and always orders the exact same thing and wears sweatpants (It’s because of the dog park!) and needs to get her roots touched up.

In the interest of journalism (it’s all in the interest of my writing, I swear) I stood up and looked out the window after they left, trying to see how their date ended. They walked together across the parking lot to her car, where they spoke for a minute and then hugged goodbye. A hug. Hmmm. Maybe it wasn’t a first date after all. At least I know no one got lucky.