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Thursday, October 25, 2012

In the arms of a stranger

There are no more days where I get to hold little boys in overalls. My littlest boy is six, and while he likes me to tickle him endlessly, he is not really a little boy. He reads books with words like veterinarian and consequently. He ties his own shoes. He likes spinach salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, just like his big brother. My big kid has reached an age where he rolls his eyes at me, rarely holds my hand, and finds making bruschetta and drawing maps much more interesting than reading Richard Scarry together. Thankfully both of my kids still like that I read to them before bed. We’re currently engrossed in “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

So since I no longer have little boys in overalls, yesterday was all that more wonderful and perplexing.

After school, a friend and I (and our combined four kids) acquired treats from a bakery in Hayes Valley and then wandered to a lovely San Francisco park across the street. A variety of kids and their families came and went while we relished the warm, breezeless October afternoon on benches adjacent to the play structure. The kids played tag. They climbed and swung. They tossed a coveted bottle cap and had elaborate rules to support their improvised games.

Maybe an hour into our adventure, a dad with his little boy arrived at the park. The little boy was in blue and white striped overalls—identical to ones R wore when he was about two years old. This little boy had curly blond wisps covering head and he ran and climbed as well as the bigger kids. Before we left, I hoisted myself into the rope structure so that my friend could take a couple of snapshots of me and my boys. The little boy in overalls wanted to be part of our photo. He hustled up the structure and directly into my lap.

His dad tried to retrieve him, but he clung to me. I said I didn’t mind if he was in our family picture, so he stayed perched on my lap. I was reminded of what it felt like to have a little boy. When the shots were taken, I peeled him off of my lap and handed him down to his dad. He reached for me like a child does when it seeks the attention of the other parent—both arms outstretched and body leaning towards the desired torso. I took him and he clung to me, a stranger. As I held him, I told him about how R used to have the same overalls that he was wearing. Then I said we had to leave and gave him back to his dad.

He took my hand and said he wanted to go with me. I said maybe we’d see him again at the park another day. He didn’t want to let go of my hand. When his dad tried to pick him up, he ran ahead yelling, “No, no, no. I go too.”

As lovely as it was to have a little boy’s body in my arms, clinging to me, wanting to hold my hand, sit on my lap, reminding me of something lost through the accumulation of time, I felt bad for the dad. I have no idea where his mom was, but I can’t help but wonder if he lives with her all the time or part of the time or none of the time. It made me think about my own kids. C was younger than that boy when my ex and I split, and even now, almost four years later, my kids still ask me why Dad and I had to get divorced.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Time machine

Have you ever had one of those moments that shifted the sense of time, so that you were somehow in your current world and also somehow decades away?

That happened to me yesterday. It was such an ordinary moment. I was at the carwash and the sun was oppressive. There was just one bench in the shade and two people already occupied it. But surely I could fit between them with my book and my purse and it would be fine for the next 15 minutes as we waited. I asked and they obliged, each edging to the outer sides of the bench and I maneuvered between them on that waffled metal bench.

I didn’t really look at either of them, but once I was seated the woman to my right spoke to her husband in their foreign language as he came to join us. The three of us moved over, making room for him as well. Their conversation in foreign nouns and verbs transported me to my childhood where I was somewhere, like Burger King, with Italian grandparents when I had no idea what they said to each other.

Her perfume and the thickness of her arm made me want to lean into her softness as tears welled behind my sunglasses. I ached for my grandmother and my childhood more three decades in my past. I wanted to lean into her. I wanted to talk to her and try to explain to her what I was feeling and I swear her husband said “lasagna” several times, even thought I’m certain they were speaking Russian or Czech and definitely not Italian. It was so real.

The man to my left got up to retrieve his car, and the older couple and I sat on that bench at the carwash while “Don’t Stop Believing” played softly from the speaker near the exit sign. I loved her thick old lady necklace and her near-white orthopedic open-toed sandals with the stockings. I loved her in that moment. She was my grandmother and I was four years old. I so wanted to hug her and for a moment be hugged by that woman. My own grandmother approaches 100 years. I haven't heard her speak Italian since my grandfather died more than 15 years ago, and I didn’t even recognize her last time I visited her. She was hunched in a wheelchair in the nursing home she now lives in. She was nothing like the grandmother who lives in my memories.

A few minutes later, the couple got up. As they walked away from me, more than thirty years were instantly added to my age and I was alone on the bench.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The lost noun

Someone who loves is a lover. Someone who fails is a failure. Someone who disappoints is a disappointment. Someone who drinks is a drinker. Someone who learns is a student. Someone who teaches is a teacher. But what is someone who experiences a loss?

There certainly are a lot of adjectives to describe that person—sad, despondent, bereft, grief-stricken, let down, wounded, hurt, scared, worried—but no nouns come to mind. There are nouns that describe certain kinds of loss. A woman who loses her husband is a widow. Someone who loses a limb is an amputee. But I cannot find that definitive word that encompasses the common life experience of loss. Or more specifically, my loss.

The quest for this particular word started as an exercise from a book I'm reading. The objective was to describe myself using nouns--no adjectives allowed! I came up with daughter, friend, mother, divorcée (silly word, but it is the noun to describe a divorced person), dancer, and writer. But I also wanted a word that encompassed emotional trauma. Without a noun to represent that part of my life, my list doesn’t describe me completely.

When I pushed my son into the world nine years ago, I lost the motherhood I’d hoped for. Lost isn’t a noun, but it encompasses that feeling of not remembering how to breathe or sleep or eat. It encompasses the frustration around having to digest medical jargon. It encompasses the nauseating ache when wandering the hospital looking for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It encompasses the shock and disbelief after doctors said my baby only had half a heart and needed several operations. It encompasses that feeling of knowing that every dream I ever had around parenthood was just that—a dream. Yes, I know, birth certificates don’t come with return or exchange policies nor do marriages come with any kind of money-back guarantee.

Life is filled with loss, and when we are faced with it, we are, for a period of time (or forever) something. We’d hoped for something, dreamed of something, and then were given something else. What is that something called?

A friend suggested the noun I’m looking for is survivor. I like that suggestion, in theory. Someone who survives a loss, whatever its magnitude is a survivor. But that word implies past tense, and that the survivor has moved through the loss. But what are we while we’re are in the middle of that emotional trauma? While we are struggling with the loss? Or floundering as a result of a loss? A struggler? A flounder-er? A mourner? We are probably a struggling, floundering, mourning daughter/ friend/ mother/ divorcée/ dancer/ writer. Those are all valid adjectives, but I’m searching for something more definitive than a word that can be easily swapped out by flipping through the pages of a thesaurus.

I cannot let it go. I want to name that thing so that I can complete my list, creating a full and accurate description of me. My loss is just as much a part of me as the way I leap and spin during dance class. It is a part of my essence, the way that writing is part of the way I communicate. A list describing me without including a word around loss, is like trying to describe a sunrise without the word light.

Sure my loss has changed over the years as my son has grown, and it no longer swallows me with every inhale or haunts me every time I close my eyes. It’s chronic, not acute. The noun I'm looking for, I believe, is human.

To be fair, human does not technically complete the exercise. Being human means many things, one of which is someone who experiences loss. But considering human just might be the right noun reminded me that my loss isn’t unique or any more extraordinary than my friend’s loss when her baby died. It isn’t any more unique than my other friend’s losses with each of her failed fertility treatments. My loss isn’t any more painful or stressful than my friends' who have children along the autism spectrum. Experiencing loss is part of what unites us as humans. It’s also part of what makes us individuals and steers us as we identify with all the other nouns on our lists.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Selfish hour

In the last two weeks, I've been to the diner hosted by R's 3rd Grade class. I've read books to C's Kindergarten class twice and helped teach the last Garden Science lesson. I've been to two year-end picnics and to the Senior Center with R's class where I watched them sing songs and read books to their senior friends.

As a result, I'd prefer to spend the very last hour of the very last day of school alone, surrounded by quiet, and not at the talent show. I won't be curled up with a book or having a nap (as nice and luxurious as those things sound). Instead, I'll be gathering blankets and towels, beach toys, extra clothes, hats, and sunscreen. I'll be making lunches and assembling snacks and filling water bottles, getting ready of our own end-of-the-year celebration at the beach with friends.

When the show is over and I have missed out, I will have to take comfort in knowing that I will have the remaining days, weeks, and months of summer to witness my talented kid.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The giant house we'll never have

Car rides offer a time to talk about important world matters. Especially those matters that are of particular importance to little boys. On our way home from a friend’s house one evening, C started talking about marriage… something to do with Justin Beiber… something he had heard in kindergarten. Then he started giggling. I knew he wanted to say something more, but he hesitated. I urged him to speak.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you and A got married and Dad and S got married?” He giggled some more, and after a minute, I asked, “Would you like that?” He said yes. Then R chimed in excitedly. “No, no, wouldn’t it be great if Mom and Dad got married!?” I opened the window, tilted my face towards the breeze, and took a long drag of fresh air before answering.

“Mom and Dad used to be married. That’s how we got you two,” I said. I couldn’t see his face in the backseat, but I could hear his expression. He went from jubilation to a pout.

“So why aren’t you married anymore?” It was an accusation, more than a question. I said that grown-up relationships are complicated, and that mom and dad love them both very much.

Whether you're divorced, married, or in a committed relationship, grown-up relationships are complicated. They are even more complicated when there are children. Kids don't care about any of that grown-up stuff. What they do care about is that parents have complicated their lives, too. They end up with two houses and two sets of clothing and they get shuttled back and forth.

My kids love S and A and A’s kids. All of those extra people have become part of my kids’ family. I'm pretty sure that C doesn't remember a time before A or S. R does. And while R likes the idea of his parents getting back together, I suspect he also knows that if his dad and I got back together (and that’s not happening), he would lose those other people that he has come to love, too.

I’m sure what he’d really like is for all of us to live in one giant house together. Since that will never happen, no matter where I live or who else is in their lives, I will keep encouraging my kids to speak when they hesitate and try to make sure that my house, my car, and my arms are always a safe place to say all the things that can and should be talked about.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I’m just a girl from Lockport, NY

I’m once again feeling like that girl who blushed. And I think it all comes down to heading into something new. It’s about not having the experience that I want to already have. It’s about taking risk. It’s about the fear of not being good enough to succeed. This is a familiar feeling. I'm just a girl from Lockport, NY--a town of 21,165 people 20 miles east of Niagara Falls--so who am I to do something big?

I still think about my high school guidance counselor who told my parents that I should not be able to go to college in Boston because "she will never fit it." She encouraged me to apply to community college and some local four-year schools. She encouraged small-town goals. Fortunately my parents didn't listen to that guidance counselor. I went to college in Boston, and not only did I fit in, I graduated with honors.

When I was first out of college, that fear about being small-town didn't go away. I felt small-town as I interviewed for my first journalism job. But I was hired at CNET as an editorial assistant and quickly promoted to business reporter. When I left the comforts of my first real job, I wondered if I was too small-town to help launch’s west coast bureau. I was more than good enough. I broke news stories and wrote compelling pieces that made my employer proud. When I was transitioning from print journalism, my fear was about having years of experience doing the wrong kind of journalism. But I was hired at Bay Area Backroads and I helped produce several segments about this amazing part of the planet I get to live in. After taking time off to be home with my babies, it was about that gaping hole in my resume. I started to blog. Then I pitched and landed a cover story for Bay Area Parent Magazine. I was hired to be the official mom blogger for Oxygen Media. The same fears appeared as I applied for graduate schools, but I was accepted into each of the MFA programs I applied for.

In the words of Stuart Smalley: “I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.” Or in the words of soon-to-be-famous-best-selling-author Suzanne Galante (you’ve probably heard of her): Each time that nagging fear of being too small-town to (insert desired goal here), I tried anyway. And I succeeded. Building a writer’s platform won’t be any different. Falling back on being from a small town is a crutch, a way to give myself an out. I need to stop doing that. It doesn't matter where I came from. What matters is where I'm going.

Plus, there are a handful of famous (and infamous) people who have also had modest beginnings from my hometown: including Joyce Carol Oats (best-selling author), Kim Alexis (supermodel), and more recently Chris Sacca (venture investor), whose parents’ law firm used to be just around the corner from my mom’s house.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Getting famous: Step 3

Okay, I get it. I need to get my words published in places that have nothing to do with this blog, Facebook, or Twitter. Since I have a 90,000-word manuscript, I have copious amounts of great material to work with (Yes, it really is great). So, I've been packaging and polishing excerpts (They're great, too. This is no time for modesty!).

With those excerpts, I'm going to feed the literary world bits of my manuscript the way I might feed my boyfriend and his shocking sweet tooth bits of cake. When the excerpts get published, I'll be building my platform and my case for why the entire book should be published. Showing that I can get parts of it placed in magazines will prove to publishers that my book is something worth publishing before it even lands on their desks. The idea is that they, like my boyfriend, will want more.

Step 3: Submitted bits of my manuscript to two different literary magazines, while wearing platform shoes.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Getting famous: Step 2

Step 2: In an effort to build my platform, I wore platform shoes today. I figured it couldn't hurt. I also thought about clicking my heels together three times and saying, "There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home." But I thought that would just be silly.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Getting famous: Step 1

The motivation: In order to get my not-yet-published-but-surely-a-bestselling-memoir published, I need to be well-known enough so that publishers feel confident that I have a built-in audience who will be anxious to get themselves a copy.

The plan: I’ve carefully devised a 100-step plan to build a platform, aka get famous. And when I say famous, I mean well-known enough so then when people around the country hear that I--Suzanne Galante--have published a book, they'll gladly part with $20 for an opportunity to read it, but not so famous that I can't go to Trader Joe's with unruly hair and fleece pants after dropping the kids at school. Think Jodi Picoult versus Kate Winslet.

How it works: Each day, I will share a new step to building my rock-solid platform.  

Step 1: Bought new lipstick today. I definitely needed the right shade staining my lips, so that I could pursue my job of getting famous. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The good, the bad, and the platform

The good news: I have three literary agents reading my manuscript right now! Oh, how difficult it will be to decide which agent to choose when they all want to represent me.

The bad news: I always thought the hard part of getting a book published would be writing the book. But that was just the beginning. We never talked about “platform” in graduate school. A writer’s platform is sort of like a little insurance policy for publishers. If I’m hugely successful writer who speaks at conferences and writes a regular column for some newspaper or magazine, then people are more likely to buy my book instead of a different book from an author they never heard of. Publishers want writers who have a built-in audience who will buy the book. I get it. Publishing books is a business, and publishers want to invest in books that are going to do well with as little investment as possible.

So what's my platform? It appears that there is a slight hole in my book proposal (Promise me you won't tell anyone, okay?). I need a rock-solid Marketing & Promotions section. I am full of ideas. But publishers could care less about all the things I plan on doing to promote my book. They want to know what I’ve done, and how I’ve built a brand around myself. While I’ve published more than 1,000 pieces of writing in my career—not including this blog—that stack of by-lines doesn’t provide me with a sturdy platform, as much as I’d like to think it does.

But fear not gentle reader. I just need to start writing new material so that I can send it out and win some awards. If I hadn’t been in graduate school writing the book, I could have been busy becoming famous. Getting famous and building a solid platform surely must be easier than writing a book.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The other side of motherhood

As a little girl, I thought about growing up and becoming a mother. My childhood was not unlike many little girls’ as it came to fantasizing about being married and having babies. I played with dolls and mothered my dog and rabbit as if extensions of myself.

As a teenager, I equated babies with mistakes and accidents, something to avoid. In my early and mid-twenties, I equated babies with a loss of independence, a loss of alone time, couple time, friend time, camping trips, vacations, restaurant meals, and privacy. Still, even with all of those fears about the things that I would lose as a result of parenthood, I knew deep down there were wonderful and beautiful things to be gained as a result of motherhood. And in my gut, I wanted to have a baby someday. That desire is biologically hard-wired. It is real. And powerful.

Now that I’ve been a parent for nearly nine years, it’s hard to remember what my life was like before my two children. My youngest is five-and-a-half years old. He’s not really a baby at all, although I pull him across my lap every so often, his head in the crook of my arm like a newborn and his feet dangling near the floor like a big kid.

Intellectually and realistically, I’m done having kids. But my hormones clearly have other plans for me. As recently as a few months ago, I was having vivid dreams about pregnancy and nursing and the intoxicating smell of a baby’s head. At 38 years old, I suspect I have a few good eggs in there still. I felt intense pangs of desire, even though my body doesn’t like being pregnant. My vascular system didn’t like it, and I ended up with some varicose veins. My stomach didn’t like it, and I threw up until I was 20 weeks along. My sanity didn’t like it because sleepless nights and round-the-clock feedings are torturous. And, of course, there is the very real fear of having another child with life-threatening medical problems. But biology doesn’t care about any of my issues, and I'm sure that wasn't the last time my body will try to convince me to do it again.

The notion of having another has also come up a lot in recent months with other women whose youngest is also in kindergarten. I’ve also talked about it with my significant other’s sister-in-law when we visited them and their five-month-old twins in England just after Christmas. I’ve talked about it with close friends and acquaintances alike.* But what we’ve talk about, more than whether or not we really want another pregnancy and another baby, is what it’s like to be on the other side of the target that we aimed for from the time we held our first baby dolls 30+ years ago.

It’s just strange to be done, on the other side of motherhood. I still have lots of mothering to do. I’m not saying my job is done. But there won’t be any more pregnancies or nursing, and it’s a significant loss to realize it’s all behind me. Yes, I’m referring to the physical aspect of pregnancy and nursing and the logistical aspect of diapers and developmental milestones, but I'm also referring to everything else that separates holding your own baby from holding a someone else's baby.

(I also talked about my feelings with my significant other—not because I was trying to convince him we should make beautiful babies together, but because we talk about stuff :)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The empty house

For dinner, I ate the untouched peanut butter & banana sandwich my son removed from his lunchbox when he got home from school today. The kids went off to their dad’s house before dinner, so it was just me and that peanut butter sandwich.

You see, I’m a little disoriented. I always have my kids Tuesday through Saturday, but we swapped some days here and there over the holidays and now my kids are gone for a whole week. Their departure happened to coincide with the week my significant other is away on business. After I hugged my kids good-bye and locked the door behind them, I realized it was going to be just me all week. That hasn't happened in a long, long time. Not surprisingly, the silence, solitude, and lack of any plans reminded me of when I first moved out of the big house and into my own place as a single girl nearly three years ago. It was lonely and quiet and there were many long, restless nights. I often went to the movies or to the café as an avoidance tactic.

But tonight, I didn’t want to hide in a crowd, lose myself in some Hollywood tale, or need any avoidance tactics. I looked around my house at the photographs I’ve taken and blown up. I looked at the pastel drawing I’ve framed. I looked at all the kids’ art that decorates the rooms they call home four nights a week. I looked at pictures of my kids and thought about how I’m a much better parent than I used to be. And not just because when they sleep at my house I read to them for those crucial twenty minutes. Rather, I don't need to escape the way I used to. I looked forward to being in my quiet house with nothing to distract me from my unpublished book that needs polishing and some stories I’m supposed to read and critique for the writing group I recently joined. But even if I didn't have those things, I would have been content all alone at home.

I don’t need distractions anymore. I actually like my life. I’m proud of the things I’ve accomplished the person and mother I’ve become. I knew all of this, but it became that much clearer once all of my favorite people were away at the same time.

It also became clear that I need to do a better job making dinner for a party of one.