Thursday, December 30, 2010

Holiday Cards; a Retrospective

Every now and then I feel I've accomplished something of note: writing a pithy blog entry for instance, performing for an audience who's clung to my every word, even cooking a mean pot of red beans and rice can make me giddy with pride. My list isn't terribly long, in fact some of my talents have waned over the years (these days I swim more like a geriatric manatee than the sleek porpoise of yore.) But I have recently acquired a later life skill which I would like to share with you. I have developed, if I do say so myself, an eye for constructing a heckuva good Hanukkah/Christmas/Winter Solstice/Kwanzaa/
Boxing Day/New Year's/and any other end of the year celebration you can think of holiday card.

All year long I keep an eye out for a unique opportunity that just might be a photo op for a possible kick ass card. And if no picture presents itself, well then, the Foster-Shepperds will not be representin' and mailboxes will be less full that year.

From four years ago...


Maxie was just six months old, Sebastian almost four. This card made quite a stir. It is still attached to refrigerators with dollar store magnets throughout the land. Complete strangers asked for this shot, and in debates on gay marriage and gay adoption this photograph has been used to quell opposition, I kid you not. The bar was raised pretty high with this one. It's golden, it's glorious and my hair is looking fabulous.

Three years ago...


A photographer came to Sebastian's preschool with vintage adult clothes and I was first in line, choosing the red dress and green overcoat for obvious thematic reasons. Let me tell you what I learned. Maxie loved having her picture taken without Sebastian, but the second they entered the same frame my baby girl turned into Aretha Franklin in those Snickers commercials. Nothing pleased her. Her Mae West pose is quite by happenstance. Maxie is really trying to push the hat off her head. Meanwhile, I'm just out of shot trying to keep it on. And what did Sebastian get for putting up with his sister's histrionics? A partially obscured face. The photographer did manage to snap a few traditional brother/sister shots but none of them included the divine hat. What does it say about me that I traded an Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter hat for a full view of my son's face? And just look at his expression (what you can see of it) it's so sweet, whereas my daughter's is pure vexation. What the fuck am I supposed to do with yet another strand of pearls?!

Two years ago...

Mailboxes were less full.

Last year...


This pic should have been used two years ago, but I wasn't totally in love with the Foster-Shepperds at a dude ranch motif. But it does have its charm and it slowly grew on me, so I sent it out last year. It's your typical family-on-vacation-so-it-has-to-be-our-holiday-card card.

And (drum roll please) this year...


I'm a little proud of this one. On the back it reads: The Foster-Shepperds, legally married since October 20th, 2008.

Now the idea wasn't to be political. No. Really. Watching other people's heads snap around to catch a peek of my family walking down the street is political enough for me. Besides which, I was worried that no one would want to put a holiday card with children with duct tape over their mouths on the fireplace mantle. But the more I looked at the other family picture I had in mind, the four of us in Maui waiting in line for a luau, the more I hated it. And so I asked Michael if we could use our NO H8 pictures instead.

For those of you who need a refresher course... In California, Proposition 8 was the anti gay marriage legislation that passed in 2008. One of the more visible organizations
speaking out
against this discrimination is the NO H8 Campaign. Get it? No hate. More information at

The truth is, I'm shallow. Being political had nothing to do with it. This, simply, is a better picture of me than the Maui shot, where I look like I'm in dire need of hair plugs and Spanx.

A very belated Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, and the rest... And let's have one helluva fantabulous 2011!

Mommy With a Penis

PS. Taking ideas for next years holiday card.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Shake the Waffle

On this, my son's eighth birthday, I made waffles. One would think I planned waffles as a special birthday breakfast. (When I was a kid my mother's birthday breakfast for us was oatmeal with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, sprinkled with brown sugar. Absolute heaven.) But no, the idea behind waffles had nothing to do with "birthday breakfast," it was born out of necessity. We are going out of town for the holidays and I'm trying to make do without going to the market. We have no milk, no eggs, no bacon, no oatmeal and for that matter, no vanilla ice cream. And so, the only breakfast staples I could think of that didn't require any of the above were waffles and that frostbitten package of sausage links stuck to the back of the freezer, purchased in aught eight.

I did have my concerns. For some unfathomable reason my children have professed a dislike for waffles. I know, how can they not like waffles? If I had my way as a kid, I would have eaten them thrice daily. An idea came to me, if I make the waffles special and top them off with their favorite things, Sebastian and Maxwell might learn to enjoy their buttery, perforated deliciousness as much as I do.

I would loved to have slice some bananas, but our larder being low we had no bananas. Nor fresh berries for that matter, nor whip cream. But a quick reconnaissance to the cupboards and fridge told me there were pears, boysenberry preserves, Nutella, a pickle jar void of pickles, and a Tupperware one third full of a viscous substance sprouting blossoms of penicillin. After rinsing out the pickle jar and throwing away the botulism, I convinced myself that a waffle bar will be a pleasant surprise and perhaps become a new favorite.

Sebastian opened a couple of birthday presents before breakfast. He guessed the Lego before ripping off the paper. I'm pretty sure I detected the slightest trace of disappointment before putting on a brave face and uttering, "This will be good." (Is it me or is the idea of Lego much more desirable before you open the box and scatter the pieces?)

Then it was time for Chi Chi's gift. Chi Chi is my mother, Sally. Long story short, my mother wanted to be called Sadie instead of Grandmother. Mom is of that subset of ladies who eschewed "Grandmother," "Grandma" and "Nana" for less doddering-sounding monikers. I think this trend started about the time Shirley MacLaine's character in Terms of Endearment insisted her grandchildren call her Mrs. Greenway. But Sadie turned out to be a tongue twister for my oldest nephew, Teddy, and instead, what came out was Chi Chi. And Chi Chi she will always be.

Chi Chi's was the largest birthday and Christmas gift under our tree. It was trapezoidal in shape and emblazoned on a sticker on the corner of the package were the words, balalaika with soft case, blem.

What the fig? Balalaika? As in Dr. Zhavago, balalaika? What hell hath Chi Chi wrought? She's usually so predictable in her gift giving. And yes, she's commented on Sebastian's natural rhythm but...balalaika! With a soft case no less!! And what the hell is blem? Oh, the responsibility of it all. Am I expected to search the greater Los Angeles area for a balalaika instructor? Which might not be so difficult considering Bash's school is sixty percent Russian...but even still! And if I actually do procure a balalaika instructor would I then have to suffer through Sebastian ploinking through "Lara's Theme" at balalaika concerts wearing a balalaika costume?

Turns out there was no need for hysteria. Inside the balalaika-with-soft-case-comma-blem box was a smaller trapezoidal box, reminding me of Russian nesting dolls. And inside that box...drum roll please...was a ukulele (which I'm pretty sure must be Hawaiian for balalaika.) And even though there was no soft case, this ukulele is not some plastic, Disneyrific toy. Oh, no. Chi Chi went all out in the hopes of encouraging her grandson's rhythmic gifts. It's beautifully crafted which made me a little worried for its safety. I will still have to get him lessons, but being born in Hawaii, I got this. Ukulele is within my wheelhouse, whereas balalaika...not so much.

After my near balalaika experience, I called the family to breakfast conscious to keep any anxiety from my voice. I kept telling myself, the waffle bar is going to be a huge success! It was immediately evident that that was not the case. Turns out it my kids hate waffles no matter how much they're spruced up. And here I thought they'd eat Nutella covered dirt.

I jumped into action. I brought out the last of the strawberry yogurt and started frying non-frozen sausage patties I was saving for tomorrow. But I missed my window. Appetites had vanished. All in all, a disappointing eighth birthday breakfast.


***

Fall, habitually you kick my sorry ass with your psychotic autumnal schedule: my birthday, Halloween, Michael's birthday, Thanksgiving, Sebastian's birthday, Christmas. The choosing of the costumes, the numerous presents to purchase, wrap and send, the sit-down birthday dinner party, the bounteous feast, the tree trimming party re-imagining the leftovers from the bounteous feast, the sending of holiday cards (221 and counting), the Christmas pageant, the travel arrangements and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer playing in the other room over and over again; all of it overwhelming and making what was once quaint seem vomitous.

Experience has taught me you're a bitch, Fall, and I have learned to accept your malevolent ways. However, this year, you have topped yourself. I thought Fall 2007 was a humdinger when Sebastian's Knights of the Round Table birthday party fell on the same day as our formal Toys For Tots Christmas gala. But that was a stroll through Versailles compared to Fall 2010. First there were the problems with Sebastian's education that have escalated so rapidly, once again we had to hire a lawyer. Then two uncles passed away in October and an aunt in November rendering me emotionally weak. And throughout it all I was dealing with horrific ear and sinus infections that left my head simultaneously throbbing like a motherfucker while feeling as if it were stuffed like a rag doll with thousands of Q-Tip tips. Making decisions became near impossible. Yes, Fall, you made me a waffler.

The thing is, tis the season for decisiveness. But my waffling has become so pronounced everything is getting done at the last minute. And haphazardly. Our New York friends have texted that they received our Christmas card envelope...without the Christmas card in it. I've all but given up making final gift decisions, instead posting on Facebook things like, "Xbox or Wii? Discuss." And because I didn't purchase them in time, it's dubious whether the Christmas Fairy will get holiday pajamas to the children on Christmas Eve.

One of my relatives sent Sebastian and Maxwell a board game and four C batteries for Christmas. At first, that didn't seem odd. But when it became clear that the board game didn't need C batteries, that they were extra for some inexplicable reason, I thought, "I'm slowly on my way to becoming that person." If I don't snap out of this haze, in next year's Christmas card envelope friends and family may find batteries instead.

I must shake the waffle!

***

I told Sebastian we had to take a birthday picture to commemorate the year. I tried to get him to smile, but this is what he gave me instead.


Please don't let waffling be contagious!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Soldiers and Bullies

Michael's nephew, Chucky, went to war. He served our country faithfully, rounded out his tour of duty and when he came home he was different. Friends and family noticed the change immediately. Chucky was more withdrawn and depressed. And there was something else...a quiet desperation, which I believe you can see in this photo. Look into his eyes. It's as if he wore a mask to cover the suffering within.

Michael's family used the tools they had at their disposal to help Chucky. His sister took him to the VA Hospital to get him psychological care, but since Chucky refused to admit himself the VA couldn't help. His parents tried to get Chucky to embrace religion, his mother is a Jehovah's Witness, his father Baptist, but it turned out getting on his knees and praying couldn't help either.

Sebastian loved his older cousin, and at the family reunion four years ago, the only person Chucky could comfortably relate to was my then four year old son. Interacting with Sebastian was nonthreatening. There were no awkward conversations to worry about or concerned stares to deal with. All haunting images of war were temporarily shoved aside while Chucky played with Sebastian, revving Hot Wheels across the floor.

That was the last time I saw Chucky; on the carpet with my son, working through his demons, hopefully on the mend. Not six months later, he bought a rifle and killed himself, as much a causality of war as if he had died overseas.

***

I didn't reach out to Chucky during that time. I had met him only two times previous and felt it wasn't my place. But now I wish I had. I would have said something like...

I get that you feel things are hard right now. I get that you feel all alone, like no one could possibly know what you're going through. But understand, those are feelings. And feelings are of a moment.

Think of it this way: emotion contains the word "motion." It's supposed to flow through us. We are not supposed to staunch emotion and wallow in it.

If emotion does take hold, however, get out of the house and do something. Go climb a mountain, or volunteer at a soup kitchen, or beat the fuck out of a punching bag. Getting off your butt is half the battle. Getting out of your head is the other half.

But if you choose to marinate in a dark room with a remote control in your hand, then you've also chosen to label yourself "victim." No one else is doing that. YOU are. Likewise, no one else can do for you. YOU have to do for you. Sure, people might extend their hands along the way, but you have to find your own path, flick on your own switch.

I speak from first hand knowledge. When I was an adolescent, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I took pharmaceuticals to stop the seizures, but the side effects of the meds made it really difficult to concentrate in school. I went from A minuses to Ds and Fs. My grades sucked, I fell down at inconvenient moments and I shook all the time. I felt I was a social outcast. I felt alone and insignificant. (Once again, "felt." Emotion, not reality.) And I chewed on that feeling of powerlessness, and it grew and grew. It was my choice to not look for the pressure valve. I didn't talk to anyone, or swim laps, or face my problems head on. My thing was to disappear into movie theaters and gnaw the fuck out of it until it was untenable and reality became distorted. At that point no one could say anything right. Friends' support sounded like taunts, my parents' concern, condemnation.

That's when I swallowed a bottle of pills.

I was lucky. My mother figured out what I did. She drove me to the hospital. Doctors gave me ipecac which induced vomiting. The pills went down the drain rather than into my system. I ended up physically fine, but mentally, I needed help from a therapist, who helped me discover the tools to move forward with my life.

Let me be clear. I am grateful the pills did not take hold. Suicide is not le grand geste. It is not romantic. You do not find answers in the last moments. It is final and lonely.

***

This note is not really meant for Chucky. It's too late to help him. This is for anyone out there who is grappling with thoughts of suicide.

Homosexual youth are four times more likely to kill themselves then heterosexual youth. Like Chucky, they too feel broken, alone and unappreciated. The wartime that homosexual youth are facing may not be car bombs, but there is a constant barrage of destructive statements and abusive actions being hurled at them. From the horrific gay bashing in the Bronx, to our religious leaders labeling homosexuals "impure and unnatural," to political bickering over gay marriage, gay adoption and openly serving in the armed forces, today's gay youth are inundated with negative images and somehow they must navigate the treacherous terrain of our divisive society.

Those who recently chose to take their lives, hurling this issue into the national spotlight, are Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase and Billy Lucas. Fallen soldiers who tried to live with dignity and yet were beaten down for being true to who they are.

My personal stand...

First, to parents: For goodness sake, keep your eyes open. If you get the sense your kid is a bully do something about it. Don't sit back and say, "Boys will be boys." Humans are supposed to be humane and compassionate. That's what separates us from the beasts. Also, if your kid comes to you at some point and says, "Hey, I'm gay," don't say something stupid like, "Well, I'm not proud of you." As a matter of fact, don't say anything at all. Go over to your child and give him the biggest hug of his life. And only then, after you've collected yourself do you tell him, "I love you so much and I will always be here for you." Because that's what parents do. They offer unconditional love. Don't try to guilt him and definitely don't try to change him. I can be made to wear brown contact lenses to disguise my eyes' true color, but trust me, underneath they will always be blue.

Next, to the bullies, the name callers, the finger pointers, the politicians using stump issues for reelection, and to our religious leaders who instill fear in their flock: There is no one as cowardly as you. You gather in groups and single out the unsure and the awkward. You say in the name of whatever deity you worship that homosexuals are not welcome. You say that you have homosexual friends, while strongly denying us marriage and adoption rights. You harass us, invade our privacy and beat us to a pulp. But here's an idea, it's in your Bibles, Torahs and Korans, let's be civil to one another. Can we do that? No one is asking you to jump into bed with, or even split a banana split with someone who is gay. Just nod your head in acknowledgement and move forward. We've all felt pain from another hand, from someone's hurtful words. We've felt the knife, imaginary and real, twist in our gut. Let's just stop it. Let's exercise civility and stop causing pain.

And finally, to my brothers and sisters who are wrestling with self doubts: There is so much chatter. And sometimes it is hard to hear anything but the negative. But do me a favor, call The Trevor Project. They will listen and lead you in the right direction. Sometimes all we need is a boost. Let the Trevor Project be yours. Seriously. Call them. Right now. I mean it. (866) 488-7386. Like the YouTube videos say, "It gets better." And guess what? It does. Take it from someone who's licked the bottom of the pickle barrel. DO NOT GIVE IN!

October 16th was Chucky's birthday. Yesterday was Matthew Shepard's. Both would have been 34.