Tag Archives: Iowa

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to (mostly) Love Oklahoma: A Tulsa Memoir Part 5

As noted, I tend to get going on a topic and then trail off (I never did wrap up my commentary on the Feminine Mystique; I never did follow through with all the Big Ideas I had for “This is Not a Lifestyle Blog” – but this is a blog, and there’s time!). Before it gets too far from my memory, I wanted to wrap up my series about growing up in the conservative south and my recent trip back “home.” (Read the rest here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

When I last wrote, I’d been pretty thoroughly alienated from mainstream culture in Tulsa by a series of extremely negative interactions with conservative Christianity. Between that and poky grass, I was pretty much planning to get out of this place as quickly as humanly possibly. I began to elevate and romanticize the Midwest as the ideal and preferable alternative to the south. By age 15, I was using road atlases to plot an escape route and writing romance stories set on farms.

So what changed? Continue reading

Moving Out of My Grad School Office & My Academic Home

In case you’ve ignored everything we’ve written so far, I quit grad school this semester. I mean, last semester. Because the semester is over, which means… yeah. I’m done with the whole thing.

Scheduling a somewhat spontaneous, short notice road trip during the final week of the semester meant that I didn’t have a lot of time for sentimentalism while wrapping up courses, packing up my office, and turning in my key. Nevertheless, I had a bit of a lump in my throat as I hauled out boxes of books, knowing that this was likely the last time I’d walk through these hallways.

EPB houses English, Rhetoric, Philosophy, and a couple other little CLAS departments. I moved into the EPB shortly after we moved to Iowa to start grad school. EPB stands for “English Philosophy Building,” but we more lovingly refer to it as the EXTREME PARTY BUILDING!!!!

EPB is rumored to have been designed to be riot proof[Isn’t that a campus legend at your school? I remember rumors about another riot-proof building at the University of Oklahoma (where I did undergrad), but they are nothing alike.] It has terrible air quality, terrible lighting. It’s industrial and cold. But, it’s right by the river, a quick jog to the library, and has it’s own parking lot.

Corridor of offices in the EPB basement.

Mystery button in the hallway. I wonder if anyone has had the guts to push it. It’s like that scene in Joe vs the Volcano when he finally cranks that wheel that says DO NOT TOUCH after waiting for YEARS. (I did not actually push the button.)

I remember picking up my key as soon as I possibly could, thrilled to find a mailbox with my name on it. I painted my first office a robin’s egg blue and brought in rugs, lamps, and candles to warm up the room. Because I’ve taught in the Rhetoric department for my entire tenure in graduate school, the EPB has always been my academic home, no matter what program I was enrolled in or crazy academic rabbit hole I happened to falling through at the moment. I taught my first class on the first day of my first semester in grad school in the EPB, and my last class on my last day of grad school was there, too. My best work as a grad student has been as a teacher and leader in Rhetoric in the EPB, and I have tremendous affection for this ugly mutt of a building, and the wonderful people inside.

My office has moved several times over the years, but since I’ve always been in the basement, and all basement offices are identical, I can picture an office amalgam and it pulls together eight years of teaching memories.

Packing up my office. You can’t see the taped up newspaper clippings about my students, art from my kids, or the stacks and stacks of books I already removed. And yes, that’s a diaper box I used to store old student portfolios.

I’ve also always taught in the basement, in a series of identical classrooms.

It’s boring, but it’s home! Plus, whiteboards! Plus, good tech!

As I was moving out, I ran into an old colleague friend and we had a long chat about how tough school is. He said I had guts for leaving and spoke of his own stall out in year 8 or 9. As we talked, I felt glad to be on this side of the decision. I will miss teaching and Rhetoric, but I don’t miss grad school.

But, the best part of EPB life has to be the graffiti in the first floor women’s restroom. Sex, drugs, Jesus, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Sherlock… you name it, it’s there.

This is just one of many stalls covered in graffiti. The bathroom was deserted when I took these, by the way.

“No one hits the bullseye with the first arrow”
–> Unless you’re Legolas.
Or Katniss! (I added that part!)

“I BELIEVE IN SHERLOCK HOLMES.”
“Moriarty is real.”

“Lovers of English, understand.
There is a great difference between “God” and “A God.” The latter is too specitif
to allow the meaning of the word.
The first, encompasses the posibility (sic)
of ALL + Everything.”
–> and every religion and way of life
LEARN
TO
THINK!
Can’t, too busy smoking weed!

Someone who loves me went to
Raxicoriphalipatorious (sic) and all
they got me was this lame
egg thing.
Bowties are cool.
#SEXY

“THERE IS NO
GREATER JOY
THAN BEING COMPLETELY
HAPPY ALONE.”
–> Impossible sex=happy
–> Masturbation: best of both words!

DON’T HAVE SEX! UNTIL YOU’RE MARRIED!
Don’t have good sex until you’re divorced.

Bye, EPB. I will definitely miss you.

My Trip To Tulsa, By the Numbers

1168 — miles driven.

8 — days of travel.

170 — dollars spent on gas.

-1 — fantastic landmarks on the way out of Iowa. So long, Terrible’s sign.

4 — number of parks we visited in Tulsa, including Hunter Park and the fabulous La Fortune Park.

3 — Poopy pull-ups at rest areas (100% occurring within minutes of having been changed into a fresh one.

78 — average high temp during our stay in Tulsa, dramatically below the usual average and completely beguiling.

2 — total number of pictures in which I appear.

45 — seconds it took for Robin to pee in the wildflowers on the side of the highway. Girl can hold her Juicy Juice.

288 — approximate ounces of coffee consumed.

100 — percentage of grandparents with strange new dietary preferences and requirements.

3 — Awesome go-cart rides with Uncle D., our hero.

8 — meals the girls ate that were organized around pasta salad, because it’s their new fave and the ingredients are easy to come by.

2 — dead mice greeting us at the doorstep upon our return.

10,000 — number of MN readers we hit while I was on the road. Thanks!

0 — what we had in the cupboard for dinner when we got home.

PB on white bread (??), popsicles. Not shown: pizza. Nutrition ftw!

I have more to say and more to share but this mama is spent.

Report from the road: How much does where you live matter when it comes to who you are?

I’m posting this from a library in south Tulsa, where my youngest is screaming and kicking because this library doesn’t have a slide! The nerve! I wrote this post a few nights ago. I have very spotty internet access, so I’m sorry I haven’t been updating at my usual breakneck pace.

May 11th

Interwebz!! I’ve missed you so much!

I’m writing this in my in-law’s living room in East Tulsa. It’s dark: my in-laws have left to go to a dance at the American Legion; the girls are finally asleep after an evening playdate with high school friends and their kids; and for the first time in days, I’m alone. The TV is playing something called Sonic Tap 814: Modern Country. I believe I just heard a song called “Redneck Yacht Club.” I could turn it off, but it’s fitting.

Its only day 3 of our epic trip and so far it’s been really lovely. The girls are great little travelers and have settled into our gypsy life with relative ease. Nothing feels very far away in Tulsa, so we’ve been all over creation, zipping from point A to point B so fast, and with so much to look at! We’re used to long and winding country highways with cows and fields: here, there’s something on every corner and in between. Today, while driving out of midtown on 41st Street, Robin said, “Mom, I love this neighborhood. It is just so beautiful.” We were surrounded by muffler places, shops and restaurants. They’re even sleeping well: snoring all night and not waking once.

I’m not sleeping well. For whatever reason, I can’t settle into deep sleep (blame the beds? blame the snoring?). It reminds me of my Dad complaining about travel and how hard it was for him to sleep in a new place. As a kid I was like WHATEVERZ OLD DUDE but now I get it, and I do think it’s an age thing. I’m slipping into the middle age zone and my body isn’t that spry young thing. I recently started having chronic knee pain, of all things. It’s related to poor posture, even less cool: if only it’d been a rugby injury or something else kickass. I’ve been calling it “blogger’s knee” because I’ve been writing while standing up at the kitchen counter, locking my knees while I type. Apparently, this is anathema to crucial support muscles in my inner leg, because now I’m all creaky and groany and stiff.

I’m not the only one showing signs – small signs – of age. My gorgeous sister has several gray hairs (she’s not even 30! wtf!) and our parents – mine, hers, and Brian’s – are getting older, too. Not old old, but older. Like, arsenal of supplements and vitamins older. Like, multiple prescription medications to manage blood pressure and arthritis older. Investing in a longterm care plan older. Seems like my friends and acquaintances are also hitting new life stages: folks who’ve stayed close to home are ready for change, and all of us who left home are feeling the urge for the familiar. Seems like things are shifting all over the place, rearranging lives on invisible tectonic plates: jobs, marriages, divorces, babies, whatever.

I keep driving in Tulsa asking myself, “How’s it feeling? What would it be like to be here every day? What would it be like to live here? What about there? How about here? Where am I, anyway?” And the answer is…? OK? It feels fine. It feels like it always did: meh, but not awful, and ecstatically lovely in certain spots. The weather is beguiling: rather than blazing hot, it’s been cool and rainy, just like Iowa. I think it’s project what it would feel like on a daily basis: one moment, I’m thinking Holy shit, I love how everything is ten minutes away, it’s so convenient! The next minute, I’m thinking, How many fucking strip malls can one town sustain?? The whole landscape is characterized by retail:  no wonder living in south Tulsa felt like hell, it’s almost a parody of suburban life and parts are downright ugly.

I could go through all the calculus of the factors of which neighborhoods feel right versus which ones cost right or school right. There’s a ton of mental math happening, and it’s all in organized pro/con lists that run through my mind non-stop, especially when I’m trying to fall asleep while my girls are snoring. What I can picture for sure is: hanging out with my sister all the time. Checking out all the parks, going to Driller’s games, going to the fair. Having a house without a freaky portal-to-hell basement drain that occasionally belches human waste. Fretting constantly over the girls’ fair skin, new allergies, and freedom to play outside, unsupervised and safe. Feeling like a super minority in terms of both politics and religion, no matter how cool our neighborhood might be.

The big question I keep asking myself is: why. Why does it matter where you live? Does it matter? I know great people from shitty places and shitty people from Portland. It all seems like a crapshoot, but the stakes feel incredibly high to me. As I shuttle the kids from East Tulsa to midtown to Broken Arrow and back again, and interact with my in-laws and parents, I realize these questions point largely to issues of identity. What kind of people will my kids be if they are raised in a place like Tulsa? Or in a small farm town in Iowa? What if we make choices similar to (or totally different from) our parents: will we end up just like them, with the same tastes, politics, or regrets? How did our parents manage to raise intelligent and open-minded kids when they possess these characteristics only debatably? If we pick the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood with the perfect school, and raise our kids perfectly, could they still turn out to be assholes? Could choosing a place to live make or break how good and cool they can be – how good and cool we can be? What if they end up unrecognizable? What if we do?

Meghan Daum writes about a concept she calls “domestic integrity:” the idea that the place you live in somehow matches the person you feel like you are inside. I am in search of domestic integrity, but I confess I worry about who I might discover I really am as we make these decisions. These are burning questions in my mind, because I desperately want to have a great decade. My twenties were somewhat squandered on the futile pursuit of a PhD. My thirties have so much potential. I want to lead an interesting life, and I want to raise ethical, thoughtful, open-minded, interesting, cool people, too. Where can that happen best? Are those two things mutually exclusive? Or what?

An art project called “Domestic Integrity Fields”

With those deep thoughts, I’m taking myself and my blogger’s knee to the other guest bedroom for some R&R. With any luck, the girls will stay settled without me in their bed, and I can get a solid chunk of rest. Cross your fingers for this old lady.

Field of Dreams: A Tulsa (and Iowa) Memoir Part 2

This is part 2 of a series of posts about moving around as a kid and spending a lot of time living in Oklahoma. Check out part 1 here.

Of my immediate family, only my sister still lives in Oklahoma: my parents finally made their escape just two years after I moved away, and now live in Kansas City. Whenever I think about how much I love living in Iowa, I recall a passage from the novel Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella. Shoeless Joe inspired the film Field of Dreams, and was written by a grad student at the University of Iowa, where I’ve been teaching and attending for eight years.

“It was near noon on a gentle Sunday when I walked out to that garden. The soil was soft and my shoes disappeared as I plodded until I was near the center. There I knelt, the soil cool on my knees. I looked up at the low gray sky; the rain had stopped and the only sound was the surrounding trees dripping fragrantly. Suddenly I plunged my hands wrist-deep in the snuffy-black earth. The air was pure. All around me the clean smell of earth and water. Keeping my hands buried I stirred the earth with my fingers and I knew I loved Iowa as much as a man could love a piece of earth.”

I bought Shoeless Joe in early 1994: I know this because the dated sticker from the used bookstore is still on the cover, a 1982, pre-Field of Dreams mass-market paperback edition. I bought it because I’d loved the movie and considered myself a Midwestern ex-pat. I wanted to connect to the place I considered my true home and my ultimate destiny. I was fourteen years old and I’d been living in Tulsa for two years. I read that passage and thought, I want to go to there.

I’d moved all over the Midwest as a young child – hopping from Missouri to Illinois and then Indiana. We moved for my father’s work in the soft drink industry (yes, we really called it that in our house). Crush, R.C. Cola, A&W: the complicated gerrymandering of your regional territories forced us in and out of quite a few states before Dad left the world of soda altogether. Certainly, there are cultural, geographical, and meteorological differences among Kansas City, Peoria, and South Bend, but they all share a soft topography and a genial, white Midwestern mildness that made them feel more similar than different. They (we?) are friendly by default, but not excessively warm; and because we (they?) abhor conflict, no one will inquire about your religion, politics, or those funny plants you’re cultivating in the backyard, as long as you return the favor.

Don’t get me wrong: Midwesterners are as opinionated, judgmental, and full of shit as anyone else in America, but this was the stew I’d grown up in and I was too young to have that kind of meta-awareness. I was a Cubs fan; I knew what snow smelled like; my houses had basements; and we drove through miles of cornfield ribbons to get to Grandma’s house. I love the look and feel of old Midwestern homes: the pastel interior paints, peeling linoleum kitchen floors; arched doorways, white clapboard siding, creaking stairs with plastic tread protectors. The powdery smell of old bathrooms; the rotten stink of well water; hooked rugs. When we bought our house in rural Iowa last year, we bought exactly the kind of home I always fantasized about: a 1937 cape cod with light, wood floors, gauzy curtains, and a telephone cubby.

Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.

My Mom’s family is Irish Catholic. She has nine brothers and sisters and they were raised in a town near Chicago. Grown up, they scattered across the Midwest, concentrated in central and western Illinois, the suburbs of Chicago, and Wisconsin. A few of the sisters – my Mom included – left the Midwest altogether. There’s just something about this family: full of charisma, music, great hair, and extreme volume, every holiday with them was an event of a lifetime. As a child, I felt like a bit of an ugly duckling, wondering how my brainy brownness fit in with these fair-haired wild wondrous people. I sat in the middle of the living room, surrounded by the noise of forty people trying to talk over one another, and was all ears. I used to write and rewrite the list of names, anniversaries, and birthdates of everyone in the family: Linda Jo, Kathleen Ann, December 1, May 10, etc etc.

  • Fact: their last name is a synonym for “angelic.”
  • Fact: as in a sitcom, each member of the family is fabulously attractive and talented.
  • Fact: this family has been known to spontaneously burst into song and dance.

After four years in Missouri (from about age 4 until 8), we spent three years living closer to family (in Peoria and then South Bend IN), and I finally got to see my many cousins more than once a year. We went to christenings, 4th of July parties, random weekend visits, and every major holiday. I couldn’t get enough of being in the mix, eavesdropping on my aunt’s conversations, wondering at my cousins, who were a thousand times more cool and plugged in to culture than I was (they introduced me to NKOTB and the entire concept of “making out”). After we moved to Tulsa when I was 12, our attendance of family gatherings dropped to once a year, maybe twice. Tulsa is in the middle of the country but it’s so much further south: it really feels a million miles from everywhere.

I felt cut off from the universe: missing Thanksgiving felt like missing the party of the year. If I wasn’t there, I was going to be forgotten, and somehow being in this family felt like my one chance at being cool. And being in that family meant being in the Midwest. Thus as a pre-teen, my whole sense of personal possibility was set in a cornfield.

(More to come…)

Jen and Lauren Chat: Sisterhood is Powerful

Jen and I chatted this week about sisterhood, family, and babies. Conclusion: sisters are awesome. So is Eight is Enough.

Lauren:  Let me know when you are ready to chat!

Jen:  I am ready!

How many sisters do you have?

Lauren:  I have one younger sister.

How about you?

Jen:  I’m the 4th of 5 kids; I have an older sister and a younger sister. I also have two sisters-in-law (2 older brothers).

Lauren:  So you are both a little sister AND a big sister.

Jen:  Yes.

But my family is a little odd in that we are two separate generations: my parents had 3 kids close together, waited 9 years, then had 2 more.

Lauren:  So you and your young sis are the two littles?

Also, sidebar: what were your parents thinking??

(I say that in admiration and awe.)

Jen:  Yes: we are “the little kids” or “the girls”.

Do you have any other siblings? Or is just the two of you?

Lauren:  It’s just us two: we are 2 years apart.

My Mom came from a huge family and wasn’t interested in having more than two, nor was my Dad!

Jen:  My mom is the oldest of 5; my dad is the youngest of 3. (He has 2 older sisters.)

Lauren:  So did you feel it incumbent upon you to have more than 2 kids?

Jen:  I always wanted a big family. In fact, when I was pregnant with Margeaux I secretly hoped she would be twins, because I sort of knew I wouldn’t have another but actually wanted more than 3.

Lauren:  I adored my Mom’s huge family and fantasized about having eight kids.

Then I scaled it back to 4.

But I am probably done with my two girls.

Jen:  As I kid I wanted 12, like Cheaper By the Dozen.

Lauren:  YES

Or Yours, Mine and Ours

Or Eight is Enough

All movies/shows I obsessed over as a kid.

Eight is enough to fill our lives with loooove!

I think I really wanted to BE in a big family, not necessarily give birth twelve times or parent/pay for that many kids.

Jen:  Yes. I definitely had no idea what it would be like to birth/parent multiple children.

Though I imagine it will be substantially easier when they are older and not so needy.

Lauren:  Yes, I look forward to that as well.

I loved the idea of all those different personalities, all the hubbub at holidays.

Jen:  And for me, having a lot of siblings has been awesome because I have been closer to different sibs at different points in my life.

Lauren:  My sister married a man who has TWELVE siblings!

Jen:  When Tyler wanted to stop at 2, I worried about the pressure on them to be EVERYTHING to each other.

I still kind of fantasize about having 12.

Lauren:  I also really cherish my close relationship with my sister and parents, and I don’t know if that’d have happened if we had five other sibs.

I have half-joked with my sister that she is my true soulmate/long distance relationship, because I feel destined to get back to a life where we live close to each other.

Jen:  My sibs and I all live within an hour of each other; my sisters are both within 15 minutes.

We share clothes and take care of each others kids and pets.

Lauren:  That’s so awesome.

I’m deeply, deeply, deeply envious of that.

Jen:  When I lived in Iowa, we trained for a 25k road race together one year and then I came back to GR to run with them. It was awesome.

Lauren:  My Mom is close to her many sisters in that way.

Several of them live in IL/WI and they collaborate to care for my aging grandma.

Jen:  My mom and her siblings are taking care of my grandpa, who has Alzheimers.

Lauren:  Here’s the thing:

My sister is definitely my best friend.

I assume that Robin and Holly will be best friends for life: I basically teach them that.

But when you add more sisters to the mix, does it work out that way? Or does it change the rel?

I know some people who hate their sisters, or have gone through phases where they hate their sisters.

So how does this work?

Jen:  My sisters and I have gone through phases where we are very close and phases where we just didn’t have as much in common. But I definitely feel like my siblings are people I can COUNT ON.

They painted my house. They watch my kids. They have given me furniture. We celebrate holidays and birthdays together.

I know that if I need something, they will be there for me.

Lauren:  Exactly.

My sister is the first person I call for practically everything.

With the exception of three-ish years around junior high, we have always been super close and one another’s biggest fans. I named my firstborn after her.

Lauren's Sister/BFF

Jen:  Sometimes Dorothy gets mad and says she doesn’t love Lucy. I just keep telling them, “You might not like her right now. But you will always be sisters.”

Lauren:  There is TOTALLY an ethics of sisterhood in our household.

Sisters are tops. Sisters are number one. We treat our sisters the very very best.

Jen:  Right. Because even though they don’t get it now, I think that establishing that early on matters.

Lauren:  When I was pregnant with my second (we did not find out the gender), we both hoped and hoped and hoped it would be a girl, because I really wanted Robin to experience having a great sister. When Holly was born we were OVERJOYED.

Robin meets her sister for the first time.

Jen:  The other day, Dorothy said, “I am not going to come to your house to visit!” Meaning, when they grow up. And Lucy totally didn’t get the threat and said “We live in the same house.” But I thought it was interesting (and hilarious) that D understands the significance of that as a threat.

Lauren:  Lucy’s like “We will always live together.”

Jen:  I didn’t know the sex of any of mine, but we definitely hoped Margeaux would be a girl.

Dorothy and Lucy Meet Margeaux

Lauren:  As kids, we had family friends with three sisters and they fought terribly.

I mean, they treated each other horribly. But now, as adults, they are all super close and take care of each other’s kids, etc.

So is it in the genes?

Jen:  D and Lucy fight sometimes. It’s intense. And it will be interesting to see what happens when Margeaux grows up enough to really be in the mix.

Lauren:  My little sister (her name is Christine, and she’s 29 so I guess she isn’t really little) is insanely beautiful, smart, and talented.

So most of my anger towards her was motivated by jealousy.

She also has this amazing social life and always has, and I wished intensely to be more like her.

Gratuitous Image of Lauren's Sister

Jen:  I have friends who are brothers who are close in age but grew up in different states because of divorce/custody issues. They are really, really close friends, and they have a ton in common. But they have said that they think they are so close as adults because they didn’t grow up competing with each other.

Which would have been the case, if they had grown up in the same household.

Lauren:  Interesting.

It seems like there’s no way of predicting how things will turn out, but siblings trend towards (at least in our tiny and totally unscientific sample) awesome relationships.

I remember that Chris and I had this intense argument in high school that ended up with us both sobbing in the bathroom

Complimenting each other “You’re so amazing, I wish I was like you!”

“No! You’re amazing! I want to be like youuu!”

Jen:  HA!

Lauren:  I think that was our last major conflict, other than the time I adopted a cat without asking her if it was okay (we were living together at the time).

Jen:  My little sister and I worked together for a while in an after school program. Super fun.

Lauren:  We lived together for 2 years in college

And if it hadn’t been for evil grad school, we probably would live next door to each other or something.

I still fantasize about moving close to her. If only she didn’t live in stinky old Tulsa!

Jen:  Do you guys have any family in Iowa?

Lauren:  No.

We have family in IL and WI — my Mom’s sisters live in that area. But the closest people are still 2.5 hrs away.

Jen:  Does your sister have kids?

Lauren:  No — they are planning to get pregnant very soon.

That’s killing me, I want to help her out so bad.

Not with getting pregnant

With having a newborn.

Jen:  My sister had a baby on Monday.

And my girls are really close with their cousins. I think it would be so difficult to not have those connections.

Lauren:  I spent most of my childhood growing up far away from my cousins/aunts/grandparents.

I yearned to be closer to family in the midwest.

Jen:  I took the girls up to the hospital yesterday and Dorothy sang to the baby and told her about dolphins.

Lauren:  That’s really sweet.

Jen:  It was so amazing. I feel really lucky that they are growing up so close to my brothers’ and sisters’ kids.

Lauren:  They are lucky. You are lucky!

I wish I had that feeling of geographical and… heart… centerdness.

If only all the people who really matter in my life also lived in the same place, and that place did not suck.

Jen:  I knew, even when I was actively working on the phd, that I wasn’t interested in going on the academic job market because I wanted to come back to GR. And that was totally devalued by faculty. But seeing Dorothy singing to Paige? I feel like I got it right.

Not that there aren’t other ways to be right. But for me? This was right.

Lauren:  Because my family lived in a state where none of us felt quite at home

There was a lot of desire to “get out” of Oklahoma

Grad school was that ticket I had been seeking since I moved there in 7th grade.

My parents even moved away, two years later (they live in Kansas City, which is right between Tulsa and Iowa!).

I always thought that the kind of place you grew up was really important, because I’d lived in a place that felt so strange.

But, now I think I may have got it all wrong, because I miss my family like a pain, and raising kids without that support is more difficult than I ever could have imagined.

Jen:  Maybe your sister could move to Iowa?

Lauren:  We actually tried that…

It just didn’t take! She has a really amazing group of friends that have been close since jr. high.

She had a serious boyfriend who she ended up marrying… and he works for the Air Force base in Tulsa…

And his enormous family is all in that area….

So she’s pretty much there for life.

Jen:  So what’s holding you in Iowa?

Jobs, house, a million things, probably.

Lauren:  For the time being, yes —

Brian’s very decent pay at a not-so-great job, and our house.

But yeah — I don’t think I anticipated as a kid the amount of PULL my relationship with my sister would have on my adult life.

I think it was after HS when we were apart that we realized how much we like being around each other, so when we lived together in college it was like roomie heaven!

Jen:  Right. I would never have imagined that my adult life would be so deeply intertwined with my family.

Lauren:  She taped American Idol for me and we even shared a car for awhile without fighting.

Jen:  I put a picture of Lance Armstrong in my sister’s locker at work. We sent in an audition tape to The Amazing Race. I am trying to convince Tyler to move into my older sister’s neighborhood.

I eat dinner with parents or siblings (mine or Tyler’s) at least once a week.

Lauren:  My sister is the only other person in my life who I just never get sick of.

I don’t get tired of talking to her, hanging with her, etc.

(Other than my husband, is what I mean.)

Jen:  So, did our parents do something that made us connect with our sibs this way? Or would it have happened regardless?

Lauren:  I don’t remember my parents placing a particular emphasis on the bonds of siblings.

They were close to their sibs but we didn’t live near my aunts/uncles so I never had that modeled for me.

Jobs took us away from family pretty early on in my life, so it was all phone calls.

Jen:  My parents have always been very insistent on everybody showing up for one another: if there was a birthday or a graduation or some event, you were required to BE THERE. And if you were living out of state, you called. It was expected.

Maybe after a while, all that mandatory attendance tipped over into us actually knowing each other and valuing that?

Lauren:  I think that explicit messages about the importance of family make a lot of sense.

Otherwise, how would we have anyone on our side when we do stupid shit or make a big mistake?

You know? When we get depressed and alienate all our friends and smell bad, who is going to dig us out of that?

I really want my kids to understand that we value family in a way that goes beyond mere liking.

(’cause otherwise we’d have some real problems with members of our extended families!)

Jen:  Right.

And I think as we grow up and change and our identities shift, our friends and peers are often around only for a small piece of who we are. But our families are there for the long haul. They see ALL of us.

Lauren:  Yes

Exactly. Through thick/thin, with a full appreciation of all our complexities.

Which is probably why those relationships are so satisfying as adults. I don’t have any adult friends (other than Brian!) with that depth of connection.

Jen:  Right. And I value my relationships with my sisters-in-law too, even though they don’t have the same amount of history, they are there for the not-so-pretty parts of family life.

Lauren:  Totally.

Plus, I appreciate that my brother-in-law appreciates how fantastic my sister is.

Any mega-fan of her is a friend of mine.

Jen:  Right on

Lauren:  That was basically my wedding toast for them.

Funny stories, then stories about how brilliant my sister is, then complimenting my BIL for having such good taste.

Jen:  In my sister’s wedding toast I talked about how we all listened to my now brother in law’s voice mail at work and evaluated whether or not she should call him back.

Lauren:  Haha

Awesome!

My sister was the first person I called when I decided to quit grad school.

She was the first person who knew I was pregnant (I was visiting, out of town, and Brian wasn’t there).

Jen:  And actually, they met because a childhood friend of my older sister’s ran into my mom at the grocery store, heard from my mom that my little sister was single, and then fixed her up with a guy from work (now my brother in law).

I gave birth to Lucy 2 days after their wedding.

Lauren:  Aw!

Jen:  I was the most pregnant bridesmaid ever.

Lauren:  I was pregnant at my sister’s wedding, too.

I found out right after the engagement, so she had me pick a dress first and then the rest of them matched up to me.

Jen:  So: sisters (and brothers, based on my experience) are awesome, and if our girls don’t grow up to love each other intensely, we will have failed as parents?

Lauren:  Pretty much

I mean, I would be devastated if that happened.

But, it seems like that is unlikely!

Jen:  Agreed.

Lauren:  I do expect some bumps along the way

Namely, puberty

But otherwise, I think R&H will be BFF most of the time.

Jen:  I think it’s okay if it’s a bumpy road. And I’m even okay with them not being BFF. I just want them to grow up knowing that no matter what else is fucked up in their world, they have sisters they can rely on.

Sisters 4 Life

Lauren:  Definitely.

And, I would like to be able to model that for them in person

Rather than just tell them stories about it

Jen:  So in conclusion: you and your sister need to live in the city, and I need to go see my new niece again because this conversation is really making me want to be with my sister and her tiny new baby right now.\

the same city.

You and your sister.

What happened to my typing skills?

Lauren:  Yes, I might move back to Oklahoma to be with her, and that is REALLY saying something!

Enjoy your niece. I’m totally jealous!

There are babies everywhere and spring is a notoriously pregnancy inducing time for me.

Jen:  YOU SHOULD TOTALLY HAVE ANOTHER BABY.

and with that unsolicited possibly terrible advice, I have to go teach my class.

Lauren:  If I didn’t get sick for 5 months straight, and then have kids who didn’t sleep?

I totally would.

Jen: I should go teach my class.

Lauren: OK! Great chat. TTYL!

Jen: TTYL!

What about you? What is your rel with your sister or siblings? What does family mean to you? How did your relationship to your brothers and sisters shape your idea of what kind of family you’d like to have?

Not a cloud in sight.

Lauren’s severe weather post reminded me immediately of my own inner struggles with Iowa weather and meteorology. I can definitively second her description of the weather maps as an endless sea of undifferentiated potentially severe but maybe it’ll be just fine and the soccer game won’t be cancelled weather. One of my favorite features of the forecast was the weekly weather coaster, which featured an animated graphic of a roller coaster car with a local celebrity’s head photoshopped in riding the bumps of the 7 day forecast. Like Lauren says: weather does not appear to be particularly serious business in Iowa.

I spent most of my grad student years living in what can only be described as a shack. I say that lovingly: it was a tiny house at the end of a driveway/alley in a neighborhood of large older homes. and when I say tiny, I don’t mean cute 1 bedroom bungalow: I mean, the only door was a pocket door to the bathroom. It might have been 20 feet by 20 feet on the outside. It was the perfect space for a single grad student: walking distance from campus, cute little deck to read/drink wine in the evening, fireflies. It made no sense for us to stay there after T moved in but we did anyway, because I loved it so much, and so the shack eventually held not just the two of us but also a cat and a dog.

The shack would have offered absolutely no shelter from a tornado. None. But it was impossible to gauge the likelihood of actual, life threatening severe weather. If there was a tornado watch anywhere in the viewing area, normal mindless tv would be preempted for hours of mindless weather coverage, the meteorologist talking over endless loops of radar. When I lived alone,I found myself absolutely unable to turn it off. Not because it was so informative or engaging, but because it seemed like at any moment, the tornado could turn out to be in my neighborhood, bearing down on the elementary school soccer field.

The day the sirens went off was clear and sunny. I didn’t see a tornado; I didn’t even see clouds. But I completely panicked. All those hours of late night anxiety had built up to this moment. I stood in the yard for a couple minutes looking around. I sat in my bathtub, the center of my house, for about half a second before I decided that I was not going to die in the shack. I grabbed my bag and my keys and walked up the alley and across the street to the house of a faculty member from my department. The sirens were not as loud as I would have expected.

I knocked on the door and she was clearly surprised to see me. I hadn’t thought about what I would say. “I don’t want to die in the shack,” seemed a touch melodramatic given the clear skies. Instead, I stated the obvious, “The tornado sirens are going off.” She invited me in, though she still seemed confused: why was I there.

The tv was not on: no blaring nonstop weather emergency updates. There was no indication that we were going to the basement. She poured me a glass of wine, and I sat awkwardly in the kitchen while she and her partner argued over whether the Weight Watchers meeting would be cancelled because of the sirens going off.

How long is it appropriate or necessary to sit in someone else’s kitchen once you know you have completely overreacted in a moment of panic? I drank some wine. They decided not to go to Weight Watchers. The sirens stopped. I thanked them, slipped out the door, walked back to the shack, made dinner. Not a cloud in sight.

Stormchaser: A Tulsa Memoir Part 1

Between the early spring and a few severe storms lately, but I’ve been thinking a lot about and missing my home state of Oklahoma. We’ve been watching Stormchasers with the girls, one of the few shows they’ll watch that we all enjoy – and I mostly enjoy it for the scenery. I’ve been calling it “Norman Porn” because one of the chasing teams is based out of Norman OK, where we attended college. It’s weird how the wide, wild skies, that red dirt, and the scrubby grass in highway ditches gets me feeling all nostalgic.

Oklahoma: Land of Perpetual Road Work

There was a time in my life when I’d have recoiled in horror at a description of the Sooner state as my home or a place I’d consider myself “from,” but since moving to Iowa eight years ago, that’s how I’ve ended up responding to any question about my origins. I wasn’t born in Oklahoma, and I lived in several Midwestern states before we moved to Tulsa, a large city in the northwestern corner of the state, when I was 11 years old. I never loved it; I never felt like I belonged there. I moved away from Oklahoma when I was 23, just months after getting married, in August 2004. What is home, anyway? When I’ve lived less than 12 years in any given state in my short life, is it where I was born? Where my family originated? Where I became myself? I don’t know. But Oklahoma became a part of me.

Oklahoma has two seasons: brown and tornado. Christmas in Tulsa isn’t remotely close to a wonderland of any kind. If it snows more than about ½ inch, the entire city shuts down and cars carom through the streets in utter panic. Sure, it gets cold, and ice storms can and do wreak occasional havoc on homes and lives. My sister and brother-in-law once had to camp out and take showers at a friend’s house for weeks while waiting for their electricity to be restored after an ice storm. But it’s kind of hard to get into the Christmas spirit when the average high temperature is nearly 50 degrees. Oklahoma weather tends to vacillate wildly from one extreme to another: one January day it can be nearly 60 degrees, the next 20, then a week of mid-40s, then the cycle starts all over again.

Merry Christmas from Tulsa!!

In the Midwest (and please don’t get into a debate with me about whether or not Tulsa is in the south or the Midwest. It’s the south. Deal.), you measure life by seasonal touchstones. Birthday: autumn, brisk, crunchy leaves, apple orchards, hay mazes. Christmas: cold, snowy, dark, crèche in the town square, cocoa, ice scrapers, mittens. Easter: thaw, chilly, wet, egg hunts in dresses and parkas, open windows, crossed fingers. Anniversary: summer, warm, sunny, beach, farmer’s market, asparagus, splash pad.

In Oklahoma, you lose those touchstones. Everything sort of runs together in “coldish and brown” or “greenish and fucking hot” with no transition. Leaves go from green straight to dead: sometime in late October a switch flips. Similarly, it feels springish about half the time in February (the other half it’s just nasty) and by April the sirens are being tested and you’re making sure the batteries in your weather radio are still working.

Severe weather terrified me: things could turn on a dime and a day could go from bright and pleasant to a boiling green sky and fearing for your life. Live in Oklahoma long enough and you become resistant to weather scares, even though every other night from mid-April to late September, So You Think You Can Dance is pre-empted so Gary England can make sure you don’t die. My husband’s first instinct is still to walk outside and take a look when a siren goes off: he’s a millionth generation Oklahoman. My instinct is to carry everyone and everything we love into the basement and hide under a mattress for four hours. (OK: experience has mitigated that somewhat, but I’m still edgy until things clear up.)

This tornado touched down in Oklahoma less than a week ago.

To illustrate the difference between the corner of tornado alley where we currently live and the heart of tornado alley in Oklahoma, all you have to do is compare the weather reports.

In Oklahoma, if there is severe weather, you have information down to the street number about that storm’s location. All colors of the rainbow will alert you to the temperature, precipitation, lightning strikes, wind speed and direction of this particular storm system. A squadron of pro storm chasers fan out over the area to provide up-to-the-second info on hail location and size, damage, what the cows are doing, etc etc. An extremely serious and kind white man will offer you calm and reassuring information so you know exactly how likely it is that your trailer park will be obliterated. He will let you know that there is a tornado on Main Street in Purcell moving northeast (which is the direction all the tornados go in Oklahoma: they all follow the path of I-44) at fifty miles per hour: this storm is wrapped in rain so it’s very difficult to see and if you’re in that immediate area, take cover now in a central room of your house with no windows (amusingly, Oklahoma houses do not have basements, they have all been “built on the slab”). The night before Brian graduated from college, a huge storm system moved through the Oklahoma City area and the TV station was hit by a tornado. They evacuated quietly while the storm visibly shook the building (on camera!), and then returned immediately to work when it had passed. Oklahoma weather is serious and smart.

In Iowa, there’s just one color on your TV screen: scary red, and it’s spread over a huge area on the map because they aren’t exactly sure what county the tornado is in? Probably, like, southern Linn county, which is only 100 miles or so wide, so if you’re there, maybe you should hide? We’re just going to set off all the sirens, just in case. My cousin Fred called from his Ford Focus and he says that there’s some dark clouds in the general Marion area? So if you’re there, look out for those… clouds?

Last night, our county had a wind advisory. No storm watches or warnings, but the description of the weather said something like, “There might be some strong storms, and a tornado could possibly form.” Well, which the fuck is it? If there’s a possibility, why don’t you put us under a watch? If there’s not a possibility, please don’t use the T word! I am sort of grateful that I live in a place where tornadoes are rare enough that they don’t warrant an investment in technology or serious training, just like snow is rare enough in Tulsa that it doesn’t warrant investment in plows. But the confusion of bad meteorology is just as unnecessarily chaotic and potentially destructive as unplowed streets. People overreact; people underreact.

I was so relieved to escape scary spring weather when we moved to Iowa, but two years after moving here, a storm struck the heart of our college town, passing less than a mile from our apartment building. Ironically, after years in the center of tornado alley, that was the closest I’d ever come to actually being struck by a tornado. We crouched in the laundry room with our cats in carriers and the sirens going off over and over and over again. I hated the shitty meteorology that night: the uncertainty, the messiness of it, the fact that no one took it seriously so a bunch of fools were just wandering around downtown right beneath the storm, and then thousands of students flocked to streets filled with debris and downed power lines because it was just exciting (Idiots Out Wandering Around, fulfilled). No one respected the weather, because they didn’t have to.

Iowa had always felt like a huge upgrade from Oklahoma: everyone around us generally applauded the fact that we’d finally made it, that we got out. But that experience was the beginning of the end of our honeymoon with Iowa. Iowa is great, don’t get me wrong, but it ain’t perfect. No place is. So, what makes a home? Why are we here? Is this it, for life? In a series of upcoming  posts, I will talk about growing up in Oklahoma, my amusing juvenile romanticizing of the Midwest, what it was like to get here, and why we might leave.

Four (Secular) Family Easter Traditions

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I was raised by non-practicing Illinois Catholics, so my childhood Easter was characterized by Easter egg hunts, stiff spring dresses, and the occasional Mass. My sister and I anticipated the holiday with the same excitement as Christmas, knowing that it meant surprises, dressing up, and lots of candy, but little understanding of the spiritual meaning of the event. Somehow, my parents seemed more relaxed and present at Easter than they did at Christmas: Christmas was for the kids, an exhausting show of decorations, gifts and activities; but Easter was somehow more egalitarian and involved, especially as we got older and the Bunny was less necessary. We all had fun on Easter.

Now that I’m raising my children in a more definitively secular home, I realize that my parents cultivated some beautiful Easter traditions that I can pass down to my children. Our “Easter” has more in common with solstice celebrations (or equinox, I suppose): a focus on the joyful emergence from the dark waiting of winter. As I write this, I realize that Easter was also an occasion for us to connect to the places we lived. We ventured out to find the most attractive and special spots in our hometown at the time, even if it was a town whose weather and character often made us feel alienated and confused. Easter was a time where we were all happy wherever we were.

Here are four (secular) Easter traditions shared in my family.

1. Go Somewhere Fancy

I spent the golden years of my youth in a suburb of Kansas City, MO. Although it felt like we were a million miles from an urban epicenter, we were actually about 15 minutes down Hwy 71 from the cultural center of the city. The Plaza is a sort of schmancy shopping area with a Gap (or two) and PF Chang’s, and at Easter they set out enormous statues of bunnies and birds. We’d dress in our bestest best and walk around, taking pictures with the animals and twirling in our crinolined and aproned spring frocks to jazzy street bands. At lunch, we ate at the Italian Gardens, which for a family who never ate in restaurants other than the occasional Shoney’s? Was puttin’ on the Ritz.

I felt like a princess on Easter.

2. Go Somewhere Beautiful

When we got a little too big for egg hunts and moved away from Kansas City, we were in search of new Easter destinations. Instead of an urban promenade, for many years we favored Woodward Park in north Tulsa.

 

In Oklahoma, spring comes early, so the tulips are typically in full bloom on Easter Day. The park teems with families squeezing in portraits before church: adorable children competing over the best photo ops near the koi pond, by fields of blossoms, or goofy shots in climbing trees. Woodward has winding trails and a Queen-of-Hearts-style rose garden.

 

One Easter when I was not quite fifteen, my sister and I dressed in flowing cotton and my Mom took pictures of us sitting in various poses: tree limbs, grassy slopes, dazzling azaleas as our backdrop. Our long hair floated on sweeping gusts of spring air. I felt beautiful that day.

Less than a mile away, my future husband, Brian and his brother were having their Easter pictures taken at a place both fancy and beautiful: the gardens at Philbrook Museum.

He and I circled one another like mating birds for years before we actually met, over two hundred miles away, in a college English class.

3. Go Somewhere Wild

Sometimes we eschewed the fancy in favor of a Wordsworthian stride through hill and dale.

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something for more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting sins,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky and the mind of Man
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts
And rolls through all things. 
— “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth

If you’re up for a philosophical chat with your children about alternative or better ways to commune with the divine, a hike to a clear stream with “Tintern Abbey” or a bit of Byron is just the ticket. In this way, the woods can be your church, if that’s what you’re seeking. My parents never did this, but I can and will.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore

There is society, where none intrudes

by the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love man not the less,

but nature more.

– “Childe Harold” Byron

My family favored Redbud Valley Nature Preserve in Tulsa. We wore flannel and climbed paths through cliffs, my Mom gripping saplings to prevent bouts of vertigo. I remember these outings with intense fondness.

Now that I live in Iowa, Easter is sometimes balmy and clear and perfect for a hike. Today, we hope to get to Happy Hollow or Squire Point. Hopefully, it won’t be all muddy.

4. Find or make a Pagan Egg Hunt

But sometimes it’s too cold or wet to contemplate anything pleasantly in early Iowa spring. Our other holiday tradition is a heathenish egg hunt run by one of the teachers at our girls’ hippie daycare. You can get the idea below.

Gathering, coffee in hand, for the hunt!

The teacher is an older man with dreds down to his feet and a blue bunny costume. The little ones hunt for eggs crammed with jellybeans, and the big kids have a treasure hunt all their own. This teacher tucks eggs in around the fresh mounds of his garden and in pockets of dewy grass. Even if it’s gross outside, anyone can stand twenty minutes of ecstatic discovery and then head inside for tea and snacks. And if it’s nice out, the kids can frolic like little bunnies while the adults can actually have conversations.

Holly at 14 mo.

(Can you believe this is free? And no violent competitions or gladiator-style races to find eggs, either. It’s all about community and cooperation.)

I love how adult this conversation seems. Robin, 3 yrs, is on the right.

If you don’t have one of these, make one yourself. Once you make the modest investment in plastic eggs, the rest is fairly inexpensive, and I bet you’d be surprised how many families will show up.

What are your Easter traditions, secular or otherwise?

Four Bad Omens

1. I got an email from the faceless bureaucracy of my institution that I’ve been listed for “termination” from my TAship starting May 11, so unless I email them and change everything, my university life will end in six weeks. And obviously I knew that would happen, but seeing it in black and white felt strange and sad. I feel like my departure is an unremarkable event: my students don’t understand that I won’t be back in their program next year, that a new teacher will teach their future teammates and friends. Every summer means a shuffle in the TA offices, so who knows if my officemates will realize or care that I’m gone (except R, my office BFF. Shout out!). The regular rhythm of school life means people won’t notice I’m gone until next year. But for me? This is it, and it’s big, and it’s scary. Lately, I feel like I’m in the middle of a dream and I’m about to wake up to some brutal reality.

2. That would be true if I had a chance to dream, but sleep has been a precious commodity in our house. My kids have never been good sleepers. They both nightwake long past whatever fool age bullshit websites say they should, no matter what advice book we follow, and my 2yo is an early bird (which is why MN is often updated at 6 am). After our 2nd was born, we did a divide and conquer thing that has been mostly good, but lately we’ve had a hankering to sleep in the same bed at the same time, so we launched a big “YAY LET’S SLEEP IN YOUR BIG GIRL BUNKBEDS PLEASE GOD” campaign and it went fine until it did not go fine and the past four nights I can’t sleep away from them because I’m not used to it, and I can’t sleep with them. I end up on the bottom bunk with my 2yo, then my 4yo starts crying and leaves to find her Dad. So we essentially end up in the same configuration we have been all along, in different, smaller, shittier beds. Please don’t offer me advice or admonish me for our choices: I am so beyond the capacity for polite disagreement right now. Truth is, I don’t want to sleep with anyone, ever again. I want to mummify my torso in duct tape and sleep in a dark, quiet place for 8 hours. PAST 5:30 AM.

Me & Holly at 6am

3. Typically, March is a blustery and sunny month in Iowa, but it’s been downright summery for weeks now. My yard is full of daffodils in bloom, and the hydrangeas and rose bushes are greening up. Last night, the girls and I walked around collecting magnolia petals, pinecones, and rocks. I went to my local garden center and bought packets of seeds to try and fill in the weird gaps and, ya know, parts of the yard I don’t want to mow, but the guy there warned be that this is just a phase, it’s bound to turn bad, it’s bound to snow and snap and frost and nip all this new life in its bud. So instead of enjoying this, I keep wondering, when will it change? When will it go bad?

4. This strange sense of paranoia reached new heights when my in-laws emailed us to ask if it would be all right if they arranged a place for us in the country in case of the apocalypse. They watched this History Channel documentary that connects what we feel are legitimate concerns about fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, and general American idiocy to other, less legitimate, more insane worries about artificial intelligence and terrorism. Basically, the film posits that very soon, we’ll run out of gas, our water supply will become so overpolluted that we can’t drink, and people will still be wandering around wanting their grande lattes, and then everyone’s HOUSE ROBOTS will take over the planet at the same time some terrorist decides to finally shoot off that nuclear warhead he’s been sitting on all these years. Just like the collapse of the Roman Empire.

In the most respectful way, they would like to “dialogue” with us about this because they have been, and are, “concerned about the world situation.” I just don’t know how to respond to this. These are people who prepared for Y2K by purchasing gold coins, a flourmill, and a generator. They’re serious. They mean it. And my first reaction is: absolutely not. Predictions of the world’s demise have been wrong 100% of the time. Is the country really the best place to be at the end of the world? It sounds lonely and hungry to me. Stay in town? Forage, loot, and squat? Plus by most peoples’ definition, we already live in the country, in a farm town of less than 2k. Is this country spot in Oklahoma (where they live) or Iowa (where we live)? It’s such an outrageously expensive way to show their love. Couldn’t they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the girls’ education? Investing in a hope for their future, rather than the fear of Armageddon?

Yet I hesitate to reject it outright. I’m feeling rather desperate for a lifeline myself, and if you consider the way we’re squirreling away money “just in case” I don’t get work, lying awake at night doing mental math, and eating PB&Js at the office instead of Bread Garden or Thai Spice, our outlook is just as bleak, perhaps on an exponentially smaller scale. How can we refuse their offer to survive the end of the world, especially when it feels like everything that’s going right, right now, feels like it’s about to go terribly wrong (except sleep which is already at end-times misery levels)? At least they seem to care whether or not we’re sticking around.

If you’re interested in radical, beautiful plans for the apocalypse, consider backing The People’s Apocalypse, an anthology project by Ariel Gore and Jenny Forrester. It shall be superfun and there are rewards for every level of contribution.