Friday, March 22, 2013

Sprinkler Private Parts

There's this song on the episode of Sesame Street that my son is currently obsessed with, and it's been looping through my head at the most inappropriate moments. It's about this one little girl ("ya know she's a girl/ she's gonna change the world/ she's gonna change the world/ she's gonna make the world a better world!") and it's lovely and clever and catchy, but it digs into my brain and festers there right at the moments I happen to be unclogging the sink, or bouncing an angry baby, or spooning a pot roast which took all day to make into seven separate Tupperware containers because my husband isn't coming home for dinner again.

In these moments, I rewrite the lyrics and feel satisfyingly dour about things: "ya know she's a girl/ she's gonna have some kids/ she's gonna clean some things/ she's gonna cook some complicated and evidently uninteresting things..."). Philosophically, I know that what I'm doing for my family right now is important, and even on an ideological level I can get on board with the idea that this is noble and necessary work, no less rewarding or legitimate for being unpaid, but then that god damned Muppet starts singing about being president and going to Mars and healing the sick and I think, what have I done for history lately? More to the point, when my husband looks at me, can he see past the baby food splatters and the Matchbox cars forever wedged into my jeans pockets to the mind beneath? Why do I feel so persistently invisible to the rest of the world (she asked the blog she hadn't posted to since September of the year prior)?

Anyway. Funny thing: this morning's mission is to go to the ranching supply store and trade out sprinkler parts purchased the day before because they are inadequate to get the job done. Their ends are male/male and we need male/female. I am going to go ask a farm retailer to help me find gendered sprinkler parts. I might make it really awkward and ask for penis/vagina parts instead of these double penises.

If I were feeling optimistic-- which, hey, let's say I am because honestly I have to be optimistic, I'm going on four hours of sleep and if I don't buck up quick it's going to be a long day-- I could look at this little errand as affirmation that the world (via the microcosm of a sprinkler system) doesn't work without both energies, masculine and feminine, and that those energies can take whatever form we want them to. The fact that my arrangement looks pretty traditional right now is not some kind of check mark in the column against progress, or evidence that I'm incapable of anything else, or affirmation that my husband sees me that way no matter how insensitive he is about my pot roast.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Let's take a break from sifting through my elementary school neuroses to chat a minute about some more current psychological scarring, shall we?

Today, our smoke alarms malfunctioned.  If it were just me here, this would be a minor irritation handled with several shouted F-bombs and perhaps a beer as a reward for fixing the problem.  But it's not just me.  There is O, my 23-month-old son who is obsessed with identifying the causes of all unidentified noises and then soliciting blood oaths that they will not happen again, and E, my 4-month-old who is in his third day of a grueling "sleep training" regimen, which is really just me turning the volume down on his baby monitor at night and encouraging him to tough it out as much as possible.  They are young; they are maybe a little more fragile than usual right now.  These are not seasoned combat veterans accustomed to range fire or Gitmo prisoners used to having piercing noises blasted at them randomly, is what I'm saying.

Anyway, we were having a peaceful morning.  O and I had weeded the front yard (which means I weeded, O threw yard refuse as close to the street as he dared before I caught him) with E napping in monitor range.  Just as we were getting ready for the shift change when O finishes lunch, reads stories, and goes down for a nap and E wakes up-- a delicate exercise in timing that, if accomplished PERFECTLY can sometimes buy me a 20-minute nap (maybe 15% of the time)--a piercing series of beeps issued from the ceiling and soon picked up in every other room of the house.  Evidently, we have an "integrated system," which sounds all new-fangled and desirable until you realize it actually means "sudden, cascading, multi-person deafness."

Seriously.  I remember smoke alarms from my youth, and from every single place I've lived since.  When they needed a battery, they chirped politely, albeit annoyingly, and you went room to room trying to hunt down the offending unit, replaced the battery or ripped the damn thing down and you were done.  This "integrated system" is an entirely different animal.  As I discovered during a frantic Google search with both boys now fully awake and howling (O was actually trying to stuff small handfuls of macaroni in his ears to stop the pain), this system is infinitely LOUDER and MORE SOPHISTICATED.  It could be pissed off at any number of things, including carbon monoxide, fire, or heat (this is the middle of the desert-- a heat alarm?  Really?).  All the alarms are linked through the house's wiring, and like a hot-tempered family, if one goes off, they all join in.

Being the modern woman that I am, I went for the low tech solution first, jabbing the business end of a broom into anything remotely button-like on the closest alarm.  While this worked well in the hallway and the boys' rooms, the vaulted ceilings in the living room and master bedroom proved far trickier and required several increasingly frantic hops with dead aim.  Luckily, I happen to have freakish dead aim with all projectiles when I am Hulk mad.  This approach bought blessed silence for about as long as it takes to get halfway through an explanation to a two-year-old of what the hell a smoke alarm is.  This while trying to nurse the infant who periodically releases his latch to resume screaming, thus causing me to shoot milk directly into his face, and trying to maintain an FM calmness to my voice that I did not feel at all.  Then--



Again with the jabbing, again with the nursing and the soothing voice.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  I begin to wonder if there actually is a fire somewhere, perhaps a tiny one hidden way up in the walls, or else miles away and the "integrated system" is powerful enough to sniff it out even though all my human senses say otherwise.  Finally, macaroni all over the kitchen floor, E soaked in milk and suffering a fit of hiccups, I surrender and hunt down an 800 number on the website and begin ushering my family onto the back porch.  A recording warms me that I should be prepared to recite the model name and number of the product I'm calling about, and asks me to enter a number to differentiate what type of integrated system I have.  I growl, mash the first number I can reach, and go back to herding.  The customer service rep who answers advises me over the howling maw of chaos how I must identify the faulty unit and dismantle its wiring harness.

Check.  Back inside, I find it.  Of course: the master bedroom one, the vaulted ceiling.  O refuses to step foot back in the deafness chamber his house has become, so I leave him crying on the porch and dump E in his swing, run to garage, and wrestle our giant ten-foot ladder back inside.  Up close, the noise is a stunning force, a wall, a fist punching the delicate little crumbs of bones that used to enable me to hear.  I remember, for a brief, insane moment, a story I'd read about how riot police were testing new non-violent methods of crowd control and found ridiculously loud bonks of directed noise effective.

I rip the smoke alarm from its mount and rake my fingers through the wiring bundles stuffed up inside the drywall until I find the one I'm looking for and wrench it free with a satisfying yank.  O has stumbled inside, drawn by the spectacle of the ladder, and stands shaking, asking muddled questions about firemen and a character from one of his stories who gets stuck in a tree and requires a ladder to get back down.  I collect him gently into my lap, figuring now is a good moment to "process" what happened.  I hand him the prize of the beheaded fire alarm, silent now, and get halfway through an explanation of faulty wiring and then--


Baby and toddler freak out anew (it's actually kind of amazing the number of times you can be unpleasantly surprised in the same exact way) and I snatch up the broom, thinking I've killed the wrong alarm and dart from room to room looking for the next victim, only now I've lost all directional hearing and can't tell where the beeps are coming from.  It's only when I pick up the dead unit and hold it directly next to my ear, causing something to actually, no shit, rattle inside my head, that I realize it's this same unit going off.  I grab it and run outside again (isolate it!  Separate it from the boys!  Throw yourself on the grenade!) and, officially beyond reason and resorting to the lower ape portion of my brain, I slam it into the concrete a couple of times before an idea occurs to me.  A chill runs down my spine as I see the twist any good horror movie is sure to include when its beast refuses to die: It has batteries.  As a back up in case the power goes out.  And get this: the latch to the battery compartment is a tricky little thing that requires multiple points of counter pressure, like a god damned prescription pill bottle.

Another call to the 800 number as I encourage O to take the battery out into the back yard and throw it far, far away.  He relishes this, and I see him run at breakneck speed down the pathway and huck the battery clear into the rose bush, yelling, "NO BATTERIES!  NO FIRE!  BEEPING ALL DONE!  NO MORE!" Back inside as I talk to the customer service rep, O cautiously approaches the now gutted alarm and fingers the scuff marks on its face.  His eyes glitter.  For the remainder of the evening, he hauls the alarm around with him, a carcass, a slain foe, a severed head to mount on the parapet as a warning to all other unexplained noises: THIS IS WHAT WE WILL DO TO YOU.

Amen, little man.  I've got a claim number and warranty instructions for getting a replacement unit, but I think O's trophy kill was a way more satisfying resolution.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Third Grade

Ah, here we go: welcome to the year my anxiety level skyrocketed so much that I no longer stood out to my teachers for charm and sass and was instead recognized right away for being wound a bit too tightly.  Case in point-- this was the year I socked a perfectly lovely boy, my best friend, Grant, right in the mouth at the school lunch table for having the gall to kiss me on the cheek.  Just to further illustrate how perfectly inoffensive, and in all ways tender Grant was, he later grew up to attend the University of Texas at the same time I was there, and after evidently spending weeks being too shy to approach me, finally did and revealed that he played the guitar, and was majoring in Humanities or Philosophy (something soul-searching and profound, I recall, while my own was "fucking English-- I'm going to be so useless.")  He was also teaching blind kids to swim, which I found out by running into him at a local pool since again, he was too classy to mention this, and oh, he was also incredibly hot.  This is the kind of guy I punched.

The Grant-punching incident led directly to my third grade teacher, Mrs. Garcia, taking me aside one day to explain to me that I needed to "hang loose" like a monkey.  To illustrate this concept, a couple of days later she brought me a neon green stuffed monkey doll with overly long arms and velcro on its hands so it could hug a variety of different things, including me.  Evidently I was the kind of kid whose potent anxiety haunts you and follows you to the toy store.  I've always remembered that act of kindness, but unfortunately, I think Mrs. Garcia would look at me tonight and shake her head: I am on my third glass of wine and am trying to figure out why my type A fighter pilot husband can't seem to understand why I feel that being a stay-at-home mom and non-writing writer puts us on unequal footing in all questions financial.  How's that for a rhetorical bomb?  Bla-DOW!  Moving on... third grade now making all kinds of sense...

The nightmare of my teeth continued this year, and on a family outing, I fell over a small waterfall and got washed a ways downriver, prompting a breathless retelling in sober reporter-voice in an essay prompt at school.  I was beginning to get strokes for my writing by this time, and had set my heart briefly on being some kind of evening news anchor, so I peppered the account liberally with terms like "allegedly" and "quote, unquote" written out just like that.  I couldn't figure out what made Mrs. Garcia laugh about my tales from the front lines of personal disaster, but I figured it at least proved she was listening, even if she was incapable of truly understanding the danger I had faced.

Fourth grade's up next: the year I had a teacher named after an improvised prison weapon, Ms. Shank, and boy, did she live up to the idea of sudden retribution.  Also: hello, crippling math anxiety!

What do you remember from third grade?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Second Grade

Oh my God, the teeth, the TEETH! I had promised they were gone until junior high, but it turns out I'm wrong. Some a-hole photographer got me either answering a question or letting my guard down and laughing and you have this, a tiny glimpse into my own private dental hell.

Here's the short version: though every hygienist and dentist who sees me now praises my teeth, gums and general mouth situation with glowing terms like "genetically superior" and "99th percentile," the dark truth is that for years and years my mouth looked like it had been hit with a wrecking ball, like each tooth was on its own desperate mission to either escape my head entirely or attack its neighbor. My husband, attempting to sympathize, says his own teeth used to look like someone had thrown a handful of dominoes at his head, but I think my layout looked more violent because it involved actual pliers and needles and a systematic plan to defang me.

Evidently, a baby tooth loosens only when its root is bumped into by the encroaching adult tooth. My adult teeth were working from a different map than the standard human one, so none of my baby teeth got the message to move on and had to be pulled every couple of months, in pairs and on alternating sides of my mouth so I could still chew, with their roots still fully intact. My dentist had tiny plastic treasure chests in which to encase extracted teeth for the traumatized victim, as well as a big plastic turtle tub full of toys (you could choose one toy per tooth yanked). My teeth, still gritty with blood and pulp, never fully fit in the treasure chests, and I always chose plastic vampire fangs from the toy box. Each time I got teeth pulled, my dentist, a gray haired Brooklyn native named Dr. Smith who always implored me sadly not to start with the "water woiks"used this giant metal syringe with a needle that I swore was the length of my forearm to inject the backs of my gums with novocaine. It never fully took effect, so they started leaving me to marinate under the gas mask for up to 20 minutes at a time before doing the shots, so I remember a lazy spinning sensation accompanying the sounds of grinding and twisting tooth root in my head as my ears filled up with tears... But today, after all that and three years of braces, I have GENETICALLY SUPERIOR teeth that have never suffered a cavity! I bear them aggressively in driver's license pictures, like I might actually bite through the plastic at your thumb, because Jesus, why not?

Anyway. Second grade. Mrs. Ledbetter was my teacher and she had a wild tangly halo of dyed black hair and this beatific, relentlessly peaceful smile. She was older, and had seen her days of sun worship, so maybe that's why I thought she looked a little like Abraham Lincoln. In a good way. I hope I never told her that, but knowing me, I probably did.

What am I about to laugh at?  Have I suddenly realized that I'm actually wearing white tights, with socks, and high tops with after-market neon laces?  My fashion choices this year were a little closer to my preschool days, when anything spandex or Jazzercise-appropriate rocketed automatically to the favorites pile, accompanied by unnecessary accessories like rainbow suspenders, stackable neon plastic bracelets, or a belt that looked exactly like a pink phone cord. Evidently I was vocal and determined about appearing in public as though I was some sort of performance artist or circus escapee, and I remember very clearly a dinner at a nice restaurant around this age where I insisted on wearing a plastic leopard nose that attached to my face with an elastic cord. Somehow, my mother was forgiving of this, and had the foresight to keep her mouth shut and take pictures.

It was either this year or the next that school district's plan of artificially creating racial diversity in our midst by busing in kids of color from other neighborhoods finally met with enough resistance to be reconsidered. This sucked, because my friend Umeka got sent to another school the next year, but was OK because giant Hispanic Rosemary who used to shove me off the monkey bars, did too. I didn't fully understand until later why the whole thing pissed my mom off so bad, or why the redistricting actually meant that I should have gotten shuffled back in with the kids at the poorer school in the crappier neighborhood where I actually lived.  Oblivious to the politics, I watched the slow bleaching of our school population and noted only that the birthday parties seemed to get smaller and have more rules and that we stopped getting checked for lice so regularly.

What do you remember from grade two?  

Friday, March 23, 2012

First Grade

Ah, first grade! The beginning of ACADEMIA! All the trappings of high nerdery were to be mine-- leather-bound books, medals of honor, stamped scrolls, a smoking jacket and a pipe... but wait! In an absolute cold sweat panic, I realized as I walked down the hall to my first grade classroom on the first day of school, I CAN'T READ. I almost threw up. I don't know who was with me, if it was my dad or my mom, but I remember insisting that I be taken home right then. It was worse than those dreams where you realize you're naked, and when it was explained to me that this was the purpose of school, that I was supposed to show up utterly ignorant and that these things would be taught to me, I think that may have made it even worse-- you mean I show up UNPREPARED and they KNOW IT?

Anyway, my teacher was Miss Seidel, and I think she was a former Lady Longhorn basketball player. She was very pretty and had impossibly perfect penmanship, which I threw my nerdy little soul into mimicking. I remember getting funneled into the accelerated academic groups, a program called Aim High, which was dangerous because it made me drunk with power and anxiety, and every test became like this Everest quest of Me Versus the World. Of course, the math end would all come crashing down in a few short years, torpedoing my haughty sense of world mastery, but look at it now! The dress with my name on it! The perfect helmet of shiny brown hair! The Casis Honor Student Badge, which only Super Cougars were allowed to wear! I am like a little Kim Jong Il here: the sun rose this morning because I commanded it so, and all is right with the world.

This was also the year everyone got checked for head lice, and predictably, I took the news that I had failed my hygiene test particularly hard. I remember lying on my back on the kitchen counter with my head in the sink, a towel rolled under my neck and the most evil, scalp-searing crap smothered all over my hair, feeling bug-ridden, crampy, and nauseous and praying for the oven timer to go off, at which point my mom would return and drag a teeny comb through the roots of my reeking hair. I took the infestation very personally, and the only thing I can liken it to years later is the look on our family Golden Retriever's face the summer when he got his glorious coat shorn so he wouldn't overheat. His head, by comparison, suddenly looked huge, and his giant flag of a tail, utterly ridiculous. It took one laugh from an adult and he retreated to his doghouse for the rest of the afternoon.

I had a small group of friends this year that I tried very hard to mimic as well. They had perfect little teeth and curly hair and sweet little singing voices, which was also dangerous because my descent into Kafka-esque dental hell was just about to begin.

My spectacular injury of the year was in learning how to ride a bicycle without training wheels, and my maiden voyage was down a street that curved next to a high gulch that led to a creek. I hadn't yet learned to turn or brake, but that's what happens when you learn, right? You start out doing the thing in question and somehow it just happens in progress, on the fly, like reading? Wrong, little nerd, wrong! I rode straight down the hill, gathering speed until the curve, doing absolutely nothing but worrying with greater and greater intensity, and then plowed into the weeds, flipped over the handlebars, and rode my face the rest of the way down the side of the gulch where I was caught by a nest of poison ivy and poison oak. My forearms and face were a mass of blisters, bruises and scratches, and the next day in school I got sent to the nurse's office for fidgeting and scratching miserably through reading group, where my fellow Sharks (we decided on a predatory name to reflect our prowess), scooted their chairs away from me. My mother received a call from the school secretary that was laced with more than a hint of indignation at my sorry state-- apparently every secretly abused kid blames the bike-- and she came and picked me up immediately and ferried me to the pediatrician for an official review of my injuries and bona fide sanctioning of her parenting history.

The only other event of note I can remember from this year was a car accident involving a classmate of mine, Candace. She was out of school for a week and when she returned, she had a giant red scar down one whole side of her face and her cheek was swollen up like she had a baseball in it. She cheerfully pointed this out, the swelling, and encouraged the baseball metaphor with a big, lop-sided smile. As a class, we were prepared for her return in hushed tones-- her mother's leg had been broken and a horse in their horse trailer had been killed-- and we were especially warned against staring, but for the whole time I knew her, Candace seemed to treat her scar like it afforded her a certain celebrity, which it absolutely did. I would even go so far as to say it suited her. She was from a wealthy family and had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of clever hair bows that managed to both distract from her scar and compliment it. (I totally envied her collection, as well as whatever it was that made her hair so magically obedient to French braids while mine went all limp and slipped any binding except headbands. I had a favorite that year that was pale blue and had a little puff of organza on the side, and like most fashion trends that I thought looked good on me, I threw subtlety out the window and wore it every damned day until someone threw a kick ball at my head and the headband broke.) She confided once that her mother had plans for her to see a plastic surgeon as she got older, and maybe take the scar away entirely, and she said she would miss it. I've always wondered if that ever happened, and if she did in fact miss the thing that catapulted her into her special place in our world that year.

What do you remember of first grade?

Up next: the year I played Martha Washington in the school play and realized historical accuracy in costuming is NOT necessarily a good thing...

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Welcome to an embarrassingly candid exposure of how I got to be who I am! Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be hunting down my various awkward school pictures and sketching a little background about what was going on that year. I got this idea from the brilliant Alice Bradley over at finslippy, who is participating in a project called where readers can contribute directly to classrooms in need. I am not affiliated with any such noble cause, but if the painstaking documentation of the horror of my school years inspires you, feel free to hop on over there and make a contribution through Alice's site.

Here we go:

Kindergarten was a good year for me. I was in Mrs. Quick's class at Casis Elementary, coming off the heels of a two-year stint at the University of Texas Lab School where I had established myself as something of a ringleader for playground gang wars, and may even have figured prominently in someone's Master's Thesis, probably on the rather chilling topic of tyranny's roots in imaginative play. Refined sugar is a hell of a drug.

Anyway, Mrs. Quick was a fabulous teacher, and what I remember are three instances of forgiveness on her part that amounted to grace, because had I been in her place I'm not sure I could have avoided profanity.

1) She forgave me for rewording a passage from the vinyl recording of Moby Dick that we sometimes listened to at nap time thusly: "Thar she blows! A hump like a snow hill! 'Tis Moby Quick!" (Mrs. Quick was a large woman, and I had yet to learn that this was a sensitive topic-- I actually asked another large friend of my mother's around this time if she was happy to float so easily in the pool).

2) I had a best friend in kindergarten, a boy named Paul, and our favorite game was to affect deep, gravelly werewolf voices and tear apart the "playing house" station in the classroom, laying waste to its baby doll occupants and sucking their blood. Ejected from the "house" one day by a group of overly sensitive girls, we went to the classroom pets station and got out the two gerbils, put them in a shoebox, and popped them up and down in the box repeatedly, claiming we were popping up a delicious snack. The gerbils died the next day and Mrs. Quick took us both aside and explained how playing "popcorn gerbils" had led directly to their demise. Somehow, we all ended up having a good cry over this, and Paul and I resolved to limit our classroom pets engagement to simply watching the snake eat his monthly mouse.

3) At the end of the year, there was an outside party of sorts and someone laid out a slip 'n slide. All the parents came and we played in the hoses and ate snacks, but what I remember most was Mrs. Quick's brave decision to christen the slip 'n slide by running down its length. As I've said, she was a large woman, both in height and girth, so when her feet went shooting out from under her, first one and then the other, straight-legged and at a right angles from her torso, the resulting fall was both acrobatically spectacular and comically brilliant. Unfortunately, it also had to hurt quite a lot, but kids don't understand this sort of thing, and so we laughed. No, we guffawed. We hooted. We howled like savages, and we couldn't figure out why the parents were so shocked and trying to hush us and being so solicitous of Mrs. Quick. All I can say now is that we must have thought it so in character with her warmth and sense of humor that she would voluntarily undertake this amazing prat fall, purely for our amusement and delight, that the very real possibility that she was either hurt or deeply embarrassed just never occurred to us.

One other moment I remember: one day we all went outside on a mission to find a "special rock" in the wooded area directly behind the school, and a kid named Duke spied the same piece of quartz I did and shoved me aside on our scramble to claim it. Unfortunately, we were on a steep hill, and when he shoved me, I rolled down it on my side like a log until my head met up with a stump, which knocked me out cold. It was maybe the second or third in a series of knock-out blows I would sustain, inexplicably, in the course doing rather mundane things over the years, but it was the first time I would wake up to a ring of concerned faces hovering over me, Mrs. Quick's included, and I remember another little girl asking as I came to, "Is she dead?" I remember feeling pretty special, having risen like Lazarus, a little punch-drunk and subdued, and been rewarded with the kind of deep, soft, all-emcompassing kind of hug only Mrs. Quick, scared shitless and grateful for my consciousness, could have given.

What do you remember from kindergarten?

And up next: the one and only appearance of my teeth in formal photography for the next six years, plus a budding penchant for the trappings of high nerdery: First Grade...

Monday, November 14, 2011

There's something about a centerpiece

Continental Airlines has just emailed me a receipt and trip itinerary for my impending--albeit brief-- escape from the Great Basin, and I could not be more excited. I have a more forgiving eye for everything this morning, knowing Little Man and I will be Leaving the Area for the duration of Pants' holiday work functions. I can even forgive the giant grey pickup with our telltale squadron sticker stubbornly parked outside my preferred writing spot this morning (amazing cinnamon rolls there), which spurred my squealing 180-degree turn before all the words got crushed flat inside of me. I don't even know who the truck belongs to, just the sticker was enough to punt me in the other direction.

The sticker. The logo. The name. I get so sick of discussing, ad nauseum, what new products and gear we can emblazon it on. We can etch it! We can embroider it! We can screen print it bigger than our heads! We can wear it on fleeces, T-shirts, hats, vests, jewelry, and onesies! If, by the end of our three-year tour here, any single one of our personal contacts is unaware that Pants worked with this illustrious instructional organization, it will represent an epic failure on the part of our wives' club. We are very, very good at the merchandizing side of things.

What we are not so good at: sharing useful information on babysitters, for example. I spent, no kidding, two and a half hours of Little Man's precious nap time, on the phone attempting to unfuck a writhing tangle of conflicting rhetoric on the "adult" solution to the accidental overbooking of a certain babysitter. It's too stupid to lay the whole thing out, but essentially it comes down to the ridiculous idea that we should be able to "claim" a babysitters' primary loyalty and expect her to run every one of her job offers by her primary family first, just to be sure they don't need her. In the absence of a retainer, or a contract, or, I don't know, ankle shackles, I find this a little too much to ask. Apparently, though, my view is dangerously naive, hopelessly optimistic, and likely to land my ass home alone with a baby while the rest of the wives of the illustrious instructors are out sipping wine, pinkies most definitely out.

What we are not so good at: discussing issues of substance, like how can we interact with our non-military community and justify the shadow our organization casts over the entire town, such that multiple private businesses bear our name, or the image of jets? How can we create meaning for our time here, given that our wives' club is not a tax-free entity protected by the JAG, and therefore able to engage in fundraising activities? Why do we exist, given that we don't support a full-out deploying combat squadron and the attendant needs of its families, but rather a fairly stable instructional school whose scenarios, while extremely valuable training exercises, are nevertheless elaborate works of fiction? The answer I've received so far is that we're a purely social organization whose main goal is to support each other, but by the numbers, I'd say we're a merchandise sorority with some pretty perplexing unwritten rules.

[A side note, perhaps unimportant: Pants' organization treats itself as do many special forces, i.e., they claim, in writing, not to honor rank amongst themselves in day to day interaction. Enlisted personnel and all officers are on equal footing and address each other only by call sign or first name, and salutes are dispensed with unless in the presence of outsiders. There is not a traditional commanding officer, per se. My brother did a beautiful job of explaining the pros of this system to me, namely that when someone reaches the kind of peak performance that allows them to join this organization, that competence deserves recognition; also, the organization prides itself on cutting edge thinking and innovation, so rank informality also encourages candid sharing of ideas and critiques.

But in practice this idea is sticky. Some people will take it at face value, others will read the words and mouth them faithfully, all the while struggling, sometimes without even realizing it, to create and enforce an alternate system of rank, such as simple seniority. Or a far more thorny perception of social popularity. The In Crowd. Both exist here, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised-- you can't spend a whole career breathing the culture of rank and suddenly set it aside like an outgrown uniform. More to the point, neither can your wife. Families become fluent in this unspoken language of rank because it's built into every aspect our lives-- our base houses are organized to group similar ranks together, we do or do not get saluted coming through the gates every day based on the color of a sticker on our cars, and most of us are used to fleet squadrons where the Commanding Officer's wife and the Executive Officer's wife run the wives' clubs, and the branches below them are where the department head wives roost, and below them, the junior officers', and then in a whole separate tree barely within shouting distance, the enlisted wives.

All of this is to say that part of the rudderless merchandising, backbiting, and clique enforcement of my current group likely stems from this well-intentioned vacuum where rank used to be. And, of course, the rest of it is simply because this is a wives' club and that's the nature of the beast.]

So now it's come down the Christmas party and the question of centerpieces-- should we have them or not, and if so, how much should we allot budget-wise, and finally, what elegant and economical design will most accurately capture the ambiance of an illustrious instructors' holiday soiree? Luckily, I've been a Navy wife long enough to recognize certain disasters from afar, and talk of centerpieces is definitely a cue to break out the flak jackets. I have been part of three separate gatherings in three separate states where a woman has left the room in tears over centerpiece planning. Hand to God. And if it hadn't happened three times, with three nearly identical scripts being recited, I wouldn't have recognized it so quickly this time and jumped on Continental's website to get the hell out of Dodge. Yes, for the record, I am fleeing the state to avoid the Christmas party.

Let us consider the centerpiece: its job is to sit in the middle of the table and create a certain ineffable ambiance, a mood, that says that this is no ordinary evening in which we simply eat food and go home, this is an event. It must somehow satisfy everyone's budget and everyone's artistic taste (or lack thereof), and ideally, it will generate some level of pleasant discussion. In reality, it is a fractious piece of frippery (boom! Alliteration!), over-budget and under-expectation, that will likely block fellow diners' view of each other and therefore achieve the opposite of its stated goal and shut down conversation. It occupies a space on the table that claims to be the focus, but for the majority of diners, it will barely register. (Most Navy parties I've ever attended end with everyone stumbling drunk anyway, and sometimes throwing food, so the idea that we even need ambiance is kind of laughable.)

The parallels between a centerpiece and a dysfunctional wives' club, in other words, are painfully obvious. We think we're the point, but we're not. We climb on each others' backs to achieve some kind of status in a rank-less, yet high-pressure, high-visibility world, and yet, as always, we're not the ones doing the actual job.

So. Home I go, for a much-needed attitudinal recalibration. I'll eat good Mexican food, wander through my favorite toy store, push Little Man around the lake in his stroller, and stay up way too late night after night talking to my mom and watching trashy crime shows on TV. I will not knife fight someone for a babysitter or squeeze myself into pantyhose and heels and scorch my hair flat to spend an evening smiling at people and wondering if I'll be able to reach all the little poison darts raining into my back. My only regret is that I'm leaving Pants defenseless for this... I hope he forgives me.