The Kids Are All Right

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The first thing I mothered was a turtle the size of a silver dollar pancake that I bought for 88 cents at Woolworth’s. The store clerk handed over Herman (I believe there was some legal requirement then that all turtles be named Herman) in a tiny Chinese takeout box, and his little claws scrabbled against the waxy interior all the way home in the family Dodge.

In a display of largesse, my mother financed a home for Herman, a clear, plastic, oval dish with a miniature staircase leading up to an island with a jaunty green-leaved plastic palm tree stuck in it. A little water in the bottom, Herman plopped atop the atoll, and my 7-year-old maternal instincts kicked right in.

I discovered that if I petted his nose, he jerked his head back into his shell like a collapsing telescope. If I held him upside down to count his yellow-and-green belly splotches, he peed in my hand. If I dropped turtle food flakes, which smelled dreadful, on the top of his head, he wore them for days. One morning, Herman was inert. I let him languish for half a week, and then, solemnly humming Tantum Ergo Sacramentum, I processed to the sandbox and buried him an inch deep. The next morning, he roused himself, dug his way out, and headed for the tall grass, his wee footprints bordering the track of a thin, dragging tail.

What they don’t tell you about mothering is how often you get it wrong.

I went on to nurture, with varying degrees of success, a collection of teeny-weeny toads; a terrier, a sheepdog, and a Newfoundland; several much-too-expensive orchids of obscure varieties, and three human beings. The toads were the pickiest eaters, the orchids most given to fungus, and the human beings 28 MILWAUKEE MAGAZINE MAY 2016 by far the most intriguing. When I was trying to teach them something, suddenly I learned something, instead. Despite having won debating trophies, I lost every argument I ever had with a 6-year-old — those creatures are born defense attorneys. It is not possible to make a 15-yearold happy on a family vacation — I have tried and failed, three times over. There is no scientifically accurate answer to most questions that begin with “Why?” And despite all my naive promises to myself, I lied about Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the way democracy works, and the specific details of how I behaved in college.

As the mother, I could run things just the way I wanted to when I was 12. I could declare the living room a gymnasium, pronounce chocolate an acceptable food group, and attempt to raise Democrats. I could set achievement standards at accessible levels — please, no chainsaw murderers — and force my progeny to memorize Dorothy Parker quotes.

Well, those are the glamorous things I could have done, but I actually did none of them. Mostly, I was a single mother, struggling to bring home the bacon and keep us in macaroni and M&Ms — food items that I threatened to combine into a single hot dish when the fighting over video games escalated into karate performed on the sofa. My children were admirably tolerant of my failure to become wealthy during their formative years. Once, a pair of stunningly expensive sneakers so bankrupted the budget that we set them on the dining-room table as a centerpiece for a week before Christopher was finally allowed to wear them to school. The afternoon when I learned the price of the hockey goalie pads Ian wanted, I had to hide in the bathroom and hyperventilate into a popcorn box. And the day Gretchen converted chocolate pudding and milk into papier-mâché paste that stucco-ed the living room walls shall go unremarked upon. But they lived, made it to the final level of Zelda, graduated college, and are quite lovely people. And not one of them is a chainsaw murderer. Yet.

What they don’t tell you about mothering is that once you are good and thoroughly in love with that toddler, fairies come in the night and take her away and bring you a preschooler, instead. And then you fall in love with the preschooler, and poof! She’s gone and you’ve got yourself a gangly child. And then that kiddo disappears and you’re presented with a teenager, and people start lighting candles and saying novenas for you. Despite 13-through-17, each age was delightful and I mourned its passing. Though my youngest is fully grown, I swear I wouldn’t be startled to open a bedroom door and find a 3-year-old in there, grinding Silly Putty and saltines into the carpet. Though they are long past, through some magic peculiar to parenthood, those ages of infancy and childhood seem alive and real to me now, and there’s something to be mourned there.

What they also don’t tell you is how despicably gleeful the little darlings are as they take off on their own, how heedlessly they leave behind the island of serenity and plastic shade you lovingly provided, and how eagerly they set out for the tall grass just outside the sandbox.

You can’t plan for motherhood (or fatherhood), as it turns out, because it never turns out as planned. But it often does turn out just fine, whether or not you knew what the heck you were doing. This is largely because children are born resilient and loving you, and possess the good sense to stick to their guns on those two points, bless their knees, even if you do get it wrong, sometimes or often. Which is something, come to think of it, that they really should tell you. At least every Mother’s Day.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Notices Hillary is A Girl

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Milwaukee County Supervisor Deana Alexander has taken to referring to Hillary
Clinton as “Ovary.” Alexander hopes her Twitter hashtags #OvaryClinton and
#OperationOvary will be mistaken for insightful political commentary.

They are anything but.

Alexander’s rhetorical move to name-calling based on body parts is not only
gender bullying, but reveals a self-loathing and desperate desire to gain the
approval of misogynists.

Alexander’s attempt to act like one of the boys by insulting women actually
insults the boys. Not all men fear women (or ovaries). Not all men think of women
who trash other women for being women as being particularly shrewd and
nuanced.

If Alexander wants to play with the big guns (or at least bigger guns) of political
leadership of any gender, she needs to engage with issues rather than deliver
sniggering asides about female anatomy.

Argue policy, voting records, and decision-making, by all means. Have at it.
Smart and incisive debate is required by democracy, and voters are hungry for
and responsive to it. Let’s talk issues, please. But not gonads.

Naming a body part and treating it as a witty riposte is what mean third-graders
do at recess. It is unbecoming of a public official and about as droll as calling
someone an ear lobe. Alexander’s tweets are embarrassingly self-
congratulatory—is she hoping for a phone call from FOX?—and she pats herself
n the back for her “call-it-out attitude” in identifying the presidential candidate as
being female. We caught on to Hillary’s gender a while back, Alexander. But
thanks for the tip.

All name-calling in politics comes off as mean-spirited and cheap; it doesn’t
matter who is doing it. It demeans the demands of public office and convinces
voters that candidates are less sensible than the rest of us. But making that
name-calling a reference to gender is particularly sinister. It implies that ovaries
signal difference and defect. It is a claim that a woman’s anatomy is adequate
grounds on which to castigate and discipline her. It is a judgment of a woman,
not on the content of her character, but on the contents of her abdomen.
Retrograde attitudes and cultural blind spots can often be revealed by performing
a classroom trick that I teach my students. I call it an identity flip. Look at an
advertisement, a media message, or a cultural attitude and reverse the genders
or the races or the classes of those involved. Flip White and African-American,
flip rich and poor, flip heterosexual and homosexual. Doing this reveals
unfairness and inequality that cannot otherwise be seen. When we are blind to
how women are sexually objectified in advertising, replacing a half-naked woman
in a vodka ad with a half-naked man makes us laugh—and then makes us
ponder.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan is credited with saying, “We don’t
know who discovered water, but it wasn’t the fish.” The very attitudes that we
swim in have been held so long by so many that they feel natural and right and
are all too often invisible to us. But flip the identities, and arrogance and
entitlement is exposed.

So if we think that gender bullying is appropriate political work for a public official,
let’s flip the gender. Let’s imagine that a male county official tries to skewer Jeb
Bush by calling him “Testicle.” What a perceptive critique! It is no offense to
Bush, who is surely aware of possessing this biological equipment. But it does
make that male county official start to look a little suspect, and the focus swings
to the strangeness of one man berating another for being male.

Fear of difference is initially useful. It is a primal fear that helps us all sort friend
from enemy in a preliminary, quick assessment. But then we apply logic and
reason, we consider experience and ethics, and ultimately allow our initial fear to
be informed by sound judgment.

Alexander’s moniker of Hillary does not argue intellectually or even lucidly; it
simply points to difference as if that is a sound foundation on which to base a
democratic decision. But democracy was ever about difference, Alexander.
#GetOverIt.

Pamela Hill Nettleton is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at
the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.
Appeared on www.milwaukeemag.com April 29, 2015,
http://www.milwaukeemag.com/2015/04/29/milwaukee-county-supervisor-
deanna-alexander-notices-hillary-is-a-girl/

County Supervisor Notices Hillary Is A Girl

By | Essays | No Comments

Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander has taken to referring to Hillary Clinton as “Ovary.” Alexander hopes her Twitter hashtags #OvaryClinton and #OperationOvary will be mistaken for insightful political commentary.

They are anything but.

Alexander’s rhetorical move to name-calling based on body parts is not only gender bullying, but reveals a self-loathing and desperate desire to gain the approval of misogynists. Her attempt to act like “one of the boys” by insulting women actually insults the boys. Not all men fear women (or ovaries). Not all men think of women who trash other women for being women as being particularly shrewd and nuanced.

If Alexander wants to play with the big guns (or at least bigger guns) of political leadership of any gender, she needs to engage with issues rather than deliver sniggering asides about female anatomy.

Argue policy, voting records, and decision-making, by all means. Have at it. Smart and incisive debate is required by democracy, and voters are hungry for and responsive to it. Let’s talk issues, please. But not gonads.

Naming a body part and treating it as a witty riposte is what mean third-graders do at recess. It is unbecoming of a public official and about as droll as calling someone an ear lobe. Alexander’s tweets are embarrassingly self-congratulatory—is she hoping for a phone call from Fox News?—and she pats herself on the back for her “call-it-out attitude” in identifying the presidential candidate as being female. We caught on to Hillary’s gender a while back, Alexander. But thanks for the tip.

All name-calling in politics comes off as cheap; it doesn’t matter who is doing it. It demeans the demands of public office and convinces voters that candidates are less sensible than the rest of us. But making that name-calling a reference to gender is particularly sinister. It implies that ovaries signal difference and defect. It is a claim that a woman’s anatomy is adequate grounds on which to castigate and discipline her. It is a judgment of a woman, not on the content of her character, but on the contents of her abdomen.

Retrograde attitudes and cultural blind spots can often be revealed by performing a classroom trick that I teach my students. I call it an identity flip. Look at an advertisement, a media message, or a cultural attitude and reverse the genders or the races or the classes of those involved. Flip White and African-American, flip rich and poor, flip heterosexual and homosexual. Doing this reveals unfairness and inequality that cannot otherwise be seen. When we are blind to how women are sexually objectified in advertising, replacing a half-naked woman in a vodka ad with a half-naked man makes us laugh—and then makes us ponder.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan is credited with saying, “We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t the fish.” The very attitudes that we swim in have been held so long by so many that they feel natural and right and are all too often invisible to us. But flip the identities, and arrogance and entitlement is exposed.

So if we think that gender bullying is appropriate for a public official, let’s flip the gender. Let’s imagine that a male county official tries to skewer Jeb Bush by calling him “Testicle.” What a perceptive critique! It is no offense to Bush, who is surely aware of possessing this biological equipment. But it does make that male county official start to look a little suspect, and the focus swings to the strangeness of one man berating another for being male.

Fear of difference is initially useful. It is a primal fear that helps us all sort friend from enemy in a preliminary, quick assessment. But then we apply logic and reason, we consider experience and ethics, and ultimately allow our initial fear to be informed by sound judgment.

Alexander’s moniker of Hillary does not argue intellectually or even lucidly; it simply points to difference as if that is a sound foundation on which to base a democratic decision. But democracy is ever about difference, Alexander. #GetOverIt.

Alone, But Not Lonesome

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Not to get all tragic, but when I go out, I go out alone.

It happens to be the way I roll these days.

I dine alone. I go to movies alone. I attend the theater alone. Table for one. A single ticket. Just one ice cream cone.

I am fine with this. It’s Milwaukee that seems to have a problem.

I have practiced my aberrant lifestyle in New York, in London, in Lugano, Switzerland, and along the decidedly uncosmopolitan north shore of Minnesota. Never have I been as challenged and pitied as I have been since I moved to Milwaukee.

When I and my latest Nora Roberts novel crave lobster, the maître d’ looks past my shoulder at the lack of anyone standing next to me and frowns. “Only one?” he asks, with the sort of attitude you might employ if you were inquiring if the guy on the bus who just sneezed on you has bubonic plague.

When I am bold enough to go see a film à un, the teenage twinkie behind the counter peers over as though I might be dating a toddler lurking down near my knees. “You’re it?” she asks. “I’m it!” I say jauntily. She rolls her eyes, snaps her gum, and hands me one ticket reluctantly, as if a single person hasn’t earned the right to sit in the dark alone.

When I go to the opera, which I love, I make an occasion of it. I dress up because it gives me pleasure – not because a man paid for the tickets and likes to see 3-inch heels. I take myself out to dinner first, and am usually seated at the saddest table in the joint, near the kitchen or restroom or draft from the door. Sometimes, a waitress or waiter adopts me and provides cheerful, friendly service (probably imagining some calamitous catastrophe has sent me out to the Third Ward dateless), but often, my server is grumpy from the start, assuming a woman alone cannot do the math to add 20 percent.

At the theater, the usher takes my ticket. I wait a beat. She waits a beat. I raise an eyebrow. She raises an eyebrow. I hold out my hand for the stub. She keeps it. “And the rest of your party…?” Her voice rises like steam from a kettle. “I’m the party.” She cants her head with compassion. Her voice drops to a Darth Vader register. “All alone?” she slowly intones, as if this is akin to being adrift at sea among sharks in a raft that’s rapidly deflating.

Through the doors, the second and aged usher hands me two programs, forcing me to hand one back. “Ah, flying solo tonight,” he says, as if he has just been told I will be dead of smallpox within hours. “Me and Lindbergh,” I joke, like a plucky girl who can cope with being out in public without a fellow, or a girlfriend, or a note from my mother.

I take my seat and look out over the audience. They seem nice, and I like people, I do. I don’t buy a ticket for one because I am a raging misanthrope. There are benefits that traveling in pairs won’t give you. Sitting alone in concert halls, theaters and airplanes, a person appears approachable. I’ve had many a fascinating conversation with a stranger, some of whom have become friends.

Alone is what all the television heroes and heroines are just before something really interesting happens to them. Alone, I can order French food and attend German opera and must justify or defend neither. Alone, I cheerfully eavesdrop on everyone else’s discussions of the merits of the play and am spared a tense ride home with a partner who just doesn’t get Ibsen. Alone, I can hear what the playwright or the painter or the composer is telling me, free of interruption. Alone, I can hear myself think.

True, going it alone, I miss camaraderie and insights and exposure to the preferences of another human being. But trust me, I get plenty of that in life – I have children. And I do things with friends; there’s a place for that. But there’s a place for being alone in a crowd, too. It’s a singular joy that nourishes the soul.

A crowd can be good company. In my head, I am not as alone as I look.

After the curtain, the usher reappears and, in a sweet and courtly gesture, helps me with my coat. I thank him, and he dips his head toward me conspiratorially. “Maybe next time you can bring a friend!” he whispers.

Maybe next time.

When Writers Write about Writers

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When the voice of a superb writer is stilled, a community of people who make their living by putting feelings into wise and nuanced words does what it does best. Writers write about writers we have lost.

The colleagues and friends of New York Times media columnist David Carr have remembered and mourned him since his untimely death in the newsroom on February 12.

Before he was published in The Atlantic Monthly and the Times, Carr wrote for and then edited an alternative weekly newspaper in Minneapolis/St. Paul called the Twin Cities Reader. The Reader took on civic issues of urban policy and social justice, running long form stories that annoyed and delighted people, depending on whether or not you were the subject of the news. Carr’s years in the Twin Cities, once legendary among local journalists, are now legendary on a national scale, thanks to his riveting Night of the Gun, an account of that time and his struggles with addiction.

During those years and beyond, I was a freelance writer and then a magazine editor in Minneapolis. I did not know Carr well, but everyone I did know well, did. He was admired. He was adored. Things he wrote made other writers shake their heads and say, “Damn. I wish I’d written that.”

Journalists are a crusty lot, given to harboring professional jealousies and doling out praise to worthy competitors with an eyedropper, but fiercely loyal to each other in foxholes and on barstools. The best storyteller at any party is a journalist, and one doesn’t always want another within earshot to fact check the veracity of the tale. We’ve all said things to each other about each other that we have forbidden each other to write about. But journalists have big, broken hearts and a yearning to make at least small corners of the world right again, so they remembered Carr by gathering together in that metaphysical, existential way in which words penned miles apart fly through the ether, meet and acknowledge one another, and then pass right by.

Minnesota boys Brian Lambert, Jim Walsh, and Scott Gillespie deftly eulogized Carr. David Brauer, who wrote for Carr’s competition, City Pages, and who has been my editor in other incarnations, tweeted a heartbreakingly gorgeous remembrance that is a lesson in how to write a memoir in 140-character bits. You can read what they and others wrote on the print and web pages of the finest publications in the land. They don’t need to be quoted by the likes of me. But I do want to take note of their task because it says something not only about a writer, but something about writing.

It hurts us so to lose a writer because a writer’s voice becomes a reader’s internal one, lingering like a party guest who forgot to go home, commenting and critiquing, suggesting better adjectives, and making certain we don’t miss the scenery or the good bits. The loss of a writer is the loss of a conscience.

In remembering Carr, other writers explore the human meaning-making mystery of laboring to leave a mark—on a cave wall, a page or a life. Writers feel a kinship with other writers, even ones we never meet, because we are mutually intimate with the frustration of staring at a blank screen and trying to will genius into existence. Like parents who are strangers but meet each other’s gaze over the heads of their toddlers in a shopping mall, we nod wearily in recognition when we meet. We know our own people, and salute. It is a noble and aspirational and doomed thing to try to write words that touch other humans, and it’s so rarely done well that one wonders why we bother.

As a media critic, Carr didn’t just do our work, he wrote about what it was like to do our work. He wrote about us and welcomed young people who wanted to be us and said cogent, sensible things about how to write your way through the world. He honored the heroic dream of journalism—that it ought to count, and change things, and be a tough slog. And he and those who loved his work honor, too, the doomed task of a writer: to attempt to delight and repair the world with mere syllables and semi-colons, because there may be no more mighty way to do it.

Pamela Hill Nettleton is an author and assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Marquette University.

Why Do Men Hit?

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THINGS TO CONSIDER while dating: Do we both like Szechuan? Does he get along with my cat? Will he kill me?

For women, the chief relationship issue isn’t how to find one. It’s how to survive one.

If a woman is abused, beaten, or killed, it will most likely be by her husband or her boyfriend. Being hit—eventually—is a very real risk a woman runs when she agrees to go to dinner and a movie. It’s a risk she can no longer afford to minimize or ignore, because all of us, from the news media to the courtroom, hold her responsible for his behavior.

Over and over again, when domestic violence is discussed, victims, shelter staff, divorce lawyers, domestic court judges, police officers, and psychologists are asked the same thing: Why do women stay?

Here’s a revolutionary question: Why do men hit?

Women are asked to justify why they continue to live in their homes, stay in their neighborhoods, and keep their jobs after their partner has hit them. The implication is that the only way to make a man stop hitting is to move out of his arm’s reach, and that truly healthy women should be willing to lose everything to achieve this.

Why don’t we ask men to leave?

Citizens are not required to identify criminals, know when they are dangerous, and avoid them in order to prevent crimes. That is, unless we’re talking about domestic violence.

Then, that responsibility falls to the woman.

There seems to be an assumption that grown men cannot behave in a humane, human, legal manner. When men are naughty, women must discipline them by withdrawing from relationships.

If the emphasis was placed correctly, this would never be the woman’s responsibility. It would rest squarely on the man.

Until we ask why men hit, we can’t begin to cope with the problem of domestic violence.

As a society, we are reluctant to expect men to refrain from killing the women they love. Instead, we hold women responsible for getting out of the way before they become gun or knife or fist fodder. Our judgment that she should leave ignores statistics that indicate her chances for survival are better if she stays, and just gets beaten. If she leaves, he buys a gun.

When women stay, they are blamed, and assigned unattractive character traits and neuroses. Beaten women are supposed to fit a pitiful stereotype.

I don’t fit that stereotype, and a man hit me. No self-esteem? Please. I’m a classic eldest child overachiever. No money? Made more than he did, in a good month, and would not have starved without him. Desperate for a man? I enjoy men, always have, but never believed my success or identity depended on having one of them on the other side of the breakfast table. Nowhere else to go? I have a wonderful family and supportive friends with whom I was close before, during, and since my own 911 incident, when he ripped the phone from the wall, threw objects around the room, terrified the children, slapped me, punched me, said he’d kill me, and did a few other things I’ll spare myself the retelling. We had not fought. There was no disagreement. He just walked into the room ready to hit.

The man who hit me was a highly educated, successful professional with Ivy League credentials who was charming and funny during courtship and who became an angry, erratic, irrational man after we moved in together. I didn’t cause it. I was just the thing he hit one day when he got mad. I don’t know what he hits now; I’ve been gone for years.

I don’t know, and I don’t think he knows, why he thought it was just fine to hit me. He only stopped because the judge told him next time he would go to jail.

By not asking why some men hit, we’re implying that all men are capable of committing violence and none capable of analyzing, controlling, or avoiding it. If I was a man, I’d be furious at this considerable disrespect. We are aiming our judgment at the wrong end of the fist.

Perhaps it’s time to turn our cheek and look the other side of the problem in the face.

 

A version of this appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune March 9, 1995.

The (Belated) Graduate

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I GRADUATED FROM college last month, at the ripe old age of never-you-mind.

Mine might’ve been the last cohort of young people who could earn a good living without initials stuck to the end of our names. While the boys older than us stayed on in grad school to avoid Vietnam, we Nixon-era kids dropped out as often as we graduated. Back in the 1970s, I, along with half the teenage population of the country, was in journalism school trying to be Bernstein and Woodward. With two or three reporting courses under my belt, I left school behind and set up for the real world to be a writer. Tolstoy, Twain, Thackeray and people whose names begin with other consonants, as well, had done just fine without benefit of a college degree. I figured I would, too, and worked my way far up a corporate ladder or three to send my own childen through school.

Then three years ago, a friend suggested I come teach at her college and for the first time in my life not having those initials stopped me from doing something I knew I would love.

Needing a school with no Phys-Ed requirement and which took my existing, albeit aged, credits, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota in a little-known program in the College of Continuing Education called the Program In Individualized Learning. Designed for adult learners, PIL is no easy street to a diploma — it requires students to complete degrees of their own design based on rigorous liberal arts criteria, a blend of regular classes, and independent projects that are rather like mini-theses.

For astronomy homework, I bolted out of board dinners and orchestra concerts to go measure the moon’s midnight progress across the sky. In biology, I memorized the Hardy-Weinberg equation (ask me sometime and I’ll draw it for you on a dinner napkin) alongside lab partners who somehow, bless their hearts, resisted the urge to call me “mom” or “that lady.”

Through distance learning, the U lets students take courses from home and mail in writing assignments; I studied the Vietnam War that way. Cheating, I know, to study history you actually lived through.

So the second week in May, I walked into Northrop Auditorium to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” wearing an utterly unbreathing polyester gown that is sure to become somebody’s Harry Potter costume, come Halloween.

When I walked across the stage and shook the Dean’s hand, she said, “It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?” And I guess it has. Out on the Northrup stairs where I remember kids demonstrating against the war in 1972, I had my picture taken alongside fresh-faced little Twinkies the ages of my children. The male members of my family were trying to take pictures of Trent Tucker, a fellow graduate and another grown adult who didn’t think he was too old to hit the books.

Today, kids can’t get a good job without a degree. Competition is fierce because we baby boomers refuse to retire and make room for the young ones. They need every leg up they can get, and we need them to succeed and thrive. Tuition costs cannot go higher; what should go up instead of down, as it has lately, is state-funded support. The U educates thousands of young people who will live way longer than Trent and I and who will eventually run the state. I would much rather live in a community led by well-educated people then save myself a few hundred tax dollars.

 

This was commentary on an education funding bill in Minnesota, and was published in the Southwest Journal, June 6, 2005, page 8. And that handsome young man in the photo is my eldest son, Christopher Hill Nettleton, now the proud father of Q and husband of Megan.

Mother & Child Reunion

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I WASN’T TOO HAPPY about him leaving at kindergarten, either.

As I watched my son Ian race up the steps to the school’s front door, he suddenly looked defenseless and tiny. I had obviously not been feeding him enough, causing malnourishment in some essential way. He bravely disguised it with that twinkle in his eye, that flashing dimple in his cheek, and that lilt in his step. When he broke away from my hand to run into the classroom and grab a sheet of green construction paper with a yelp of pure glee — “Cool! I can draw Ninja Turtles!”— I knew he was being strong for his mother. Driving home, I had to pull over and work my way through an entire box of Kleenex in sympathy for his loss.

When I left him at St. Olaf for his freshman year, I drove home clutching another box of Kleenex. My husband repeatedly listed all the things Ian had eaten lately, giving my meals four stars for nutritional value. Wise man. We stopped at T.J. Maxx and bought a backpack. Then I went back to school.

Back in the Paleozoic Age, when I was a journalism undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, the temptations of going into the world to write won out over the subtler charms of going to class. I left school, got a job, and spent a happy couple of decades writing and editing magazines. I still loved my work but now wanted to teach, as well — and for that, I needed initials after my name.

My first day of class, I stood in the hall and seriously considered running home. What was I doing here? I was old enough to be the mother of these kids yawning and slouching against the walls around me. I was the mother of one of these kids. I yanked my phone out of my embarrassingly new-looking backpack and dialed Ian. “Are you slouching?” I asked him. He was barely awake. “Never, Mom,” he said, and went back to sleep.

When I walked to the classroom doors and took a seat, my knees were shaking. But this was a big auditorium, so I figured my advanced age and patella castanets would go unnoticed. Behind me, a young man my son’s age loped down the aisle, clipping pretty girls on their shoulders and saying witty things like “Hey!” and “Yo!” I look younger from the back — trust me on this — so he clopped me on the shoulder, too. But when he got around to the front and looked into my face, he jumped and grimaced. “Steady, fella,” I said. “They usually don’t recoil in horror.”

In history class, the professor asked who had ever seen footage of the Vietnam War. I raised my hand. Of the Kennedy assassination, Civil Rights marches, Nixon’s resignation? Up, up, up went my hand. Later, when the instructor mentioned the Spanish-American War, half the class turned to look at me, expectantly.

Ian had a better first day. He sounded excited about his classes and happy to have found some old high school friends living in another dorm. “Did you try to make friends at school, Mom?” He asked.

“No,” I pouted. “I don’t want to.”

“You’ll have more fun if you make friends.”

We began mutual cell phone advice sessions, as he walked from Kildahl to Rolvaag and I wandered through Coffman Union looking for vending machines.

“Did I remember to tell you never to plug in a hairdryer near the shower?”

“Yeah, Mom.”

“Eggs. Did I ever teach you how to make eggs? You should know how to make eggs.”

“Got it, Mom.”

“Can I use your scientific calculator? I need to figure moon observations for my astronomy class.”

“In my top drawer, under the socks. Gotta go, Mom.”

“Are you eating well?” I asked him. “Because the kids in my classes look hungry. And tired. Are you sleeping enough?”

“I’m getting used to the top bunk,” he said.

“Do you need some shorts with all those pockets and some flip-flops? Everyone here is wearing shorts and flip-flops.”

He hung up, laughing.

Something shifted through that fall, his first at St. Olaf and my first back in the real world of reading assignments and midterms. I began to see him less as a boy who needed protecting and more as a sage young man with his own brand of wisdom to share. We became colleagues of sorts, a mother and son sharing what friends share — a mutual sense of doom as finals approached.

“Are you doing your homework?”

“Of course.”

“Do you participate in class?”

“I try.”

“How are your grades?”

“Look, Ian, I have to go now. I have class.”

“Study hard, Mom.”

 

This was published in the St. Olaf Magazine, September, 2004, p. 56.

The Best of All Worlds

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Being half Irish and half Norwegian means, among other things, never having learned to cook

 

MY FATHER WEARS orange on St. Patrick’s Day. According to him, it is the only honorable thing for a Norwegian to do. He maintains that the most worthwhile traits among the Irish were deposited by Vikings who visited the Emerald Shores in ancient times.

My mother is Irish. She believes that Scandinavian blood is much improved by the wearin’ o’ the green.

“My, but that’s an interesting combination,” the nuns at St. Raphael’s Elementary School used to say to me, referring not to my clothes but to my cultural heritage. My Irish grandmother’s bedroom was a library of enlarged-type issues of The Liguorian; my Norwegian grandmother kept copies of The Lutheran next to the tub. My Lutheran relatives made references to some exotic creature they called “pastor”; I was used to the guy in the cassock all the kids called “Fadda.” I can sing Latin high mass, which is Irish, but off-key, which is Norwegian. I feel guilty all the time, which is Catholic, but being Scandinavian, I’m not sure why.

I come from the two cultures on earth with absolutely no culinary heritage. I can create completely tasteless meals for families of 10 or more out of potatoes and other vegetable matter, which is very Irish. I also know how to throw in cream of mushroom soup, pour the whole mess into a casserole dish, and bring it to a church supper, which is pretty Norwegian.

After years of practice, I have mastered the preparation of the Irish Grill: Browning roast beef into leathery strings, steaming sliced carrots into mush, and cooking peas until they get those little octagon-shaped dents in their withered sides and can’t even role anymore. Irish food is penance for the diner and the food: Finnan Haddie is hell for haddock, boiling is purgatory for potatoes, and cabbage is lettuce in limbo.

Norwegians fare no better. Lutefisk is liked by no one, not even old Norwegians. It is consumed because, like drinking coffee with grounds floating in it or eating the wedding supper off a paper plate, it is traditional. All Norwegian food is pale: lutefisk, lefse, kringla, krumkake, sugar cookies. It is neither salty nor sugary but does offer appalling texture—Kumla, a slimy little dumpling made of ground potatoes and ham hocks, is just one example. The most delicious beverage and food is lefse, which has no flavor. I actually know how to cook this. Lefse is a sort of tortilla thing that requires hours of mixing, storing, rolling, grilling, and turning. The whole process coats the kitchen with flour dust and rewards the maker with steaming potato crepes that must be slathered with butter and sugar and eaten immediately before they harden into roofing tiles.

Given my familial clash of Celtic and Scandinavian cultures, I have never fully embraced either one. I have neither shillelaghs nor rosemaling in my home. My children are not named after selkies or Valkyries. I have yet to travel to either homeland. When I am at the Sandvig family reunion in Iowa, visiting with the Thorvalds, Petersons, and Christiansons, I am Norwegian, linked by Olaf, Otto, and Carolyn back to the fjords and mountains of Scandinavia. That tradition honors me, and I honor it.

But still, at mid-March of every year, the pipes, the pipes come calling—along with percussion sticks called bones, a handheld drum called the bodhran, tin whistles, fiddles, folk harps, and snares. I head to a pub where I can listen to a seisun (a Celtic jam session) or watch the dancers at a ceili. I recall the Rooneys, Cregans, and Noonans in my family, out of County Cork. I say “Do we?” When asked “Why do the Irish always answer a question with a question?”

I pull in wool tights, pleated skirt, and a sweater stitched and heavy cable. And I take, from a velvet-lined box in my dresser drawer, an ugly little rock sent to me many years ago by an old friend. It has a jagged edge and seems to be made of a bit of this and a bit of that muddled together in brown- and rust-colored streaks. It is not the Blarney Stone, but it is from that place. I rub its edges, and I think I see, from some memory never experienced but handed down to me in the bones, marrow, and cellular structure of clan and tradition, the green hills, narrow roads, stony shores, and bright sky of Ireland.

 

This appeared in Mpls/St. Paul Magazine, March 1996, pp. 30-31.