French Vanilla hearts Rocky Road

Mood: Thoughtful
Drinking: Diet 7Up

One of my oldest friends wants to know what’s so bad about Vanilla. (She’s referring to my post from a couple of weeks back about the visiting Suck.)

And I don’t have a good answer for her. Because she’s right. Vanilla’s not really so bad. And although she didn’t say it in so many words, I know I should just be damn thankful for my Vanilla. Grateful for my life and for all the mundane simple things that make it so often amazing.

M from Alabama called that post my “pity party”, and I got my feathers all ruffled about that description for a couple of minutes.
But he’s right, too.

And although we’re all entitled to throw ourselves piteous parties every now and again, although we all sometimes wish to be someone else, someone brighter and more beautiful, a bit of perspective is necessary.

It’s like the celebrities who complain about the hardships of being famous, while all the world below them looks up in awe and green envy. Nobody’s ever just happy with what they have when they have it.

If my friend Sterling Girl doesn’t mind, I’d like to borrow a bit of her email to me. I think it’s very well said:

I never knew she had a name, the Suck. She is an old friend of mine. I guess she was overdue for a visit.

You are my alter ego. You are the complete opposite of me and yet we are the same. You are lucky. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a life like yours. Grow up in a wonderful, loving family. Do good in school, have something you are just naturally talented with. Love someone who loves you back, just live life and be happy.

Me, I’m the one who had that kind of life (from what I can remember) until I was 11 years old. That’s when all the bad things started to happen. Family ripped apart, bonds weakend, bad relationships, single parenthood, ADHD, runaway, talking to cops about my own kids, watching friends fuck up their lives with the shit they do, wondering if I will ever stop loving that one man, wondering why this friend of mine could ever think that Vanilla is so bad.

Sometimes I wish I could write like you do, let the words just flow from my fingertips. I have done my fair share of trying. I have so much pain inside that could easily fill a thousand books.

But I hate to talk about how fucked up my life is because to me that is normal. It is who I am. I am not ashamed and I am not proud.

You may be Vanilla and I may be Rocky Road, but you have always been my friend no matter what. …So if you ever feel Vanilla again just remember this: You are not just humdrum plain ole Vanilla, you are premium French Vanilla, the really expensive shit, with a few wildberries thrown on top along with a few redhots for extra spice.

She’s right. She’s completely right. Vanilla’s really pretty great. (Especially if I get to be French Vanilla ~ ooh la la!) And Rocky Road’s not so bad either. And when you mix ’em together — amazingly delicious.

So thank you, Sterling Girl, for reminding me to just be who I am and stop bitching about all the things that make me that way. And thank you for being my friend, lo these many years (since 5th grade!) Keep on rockin’ your Rocky Road…



-Lo, who’s really hungry for an ice cream cone now.

In Honor of Henry

Mood: Mixed Up
Drinking: Hot Chai

My Grandpa is dying.

His body has grown tired and gray, but I never remember him that way. I always picture him spry and whistling, pulling into our gravel driveway in his navy blue Oldsmobile, a red feather perched in his jaunty fedora.

Every day of my childhood, Grandpa was there. He always came bearing a ready joke and a baggie of Tootsie Rolls. (Even now I can’t untwist the wrappers without remember his endless sticky candy offerings.)

I know the years have passed us by, but it’s still so hard to imagine that the Grandpa Hank who built my sister and I a horse stable out of scraps of old lumber, clambering around with hammer in hand, nimble as you please, hiding a cigarette behind his back whenever us kids appeared (as if we couldn’t see the smoke winding up, wreathing him from behind)… it’s hard to equate the Grandpa of my childhood, joking and jovial, with the Grandpa of my adulthood, feeble behind his walker. And now lying so quietly in a hospital bed.

So today, in honor of Henry Witmer, I’m sharing a story my sister wrote about him last year. (She has a way with words, too.)

A True Glimpse of Grandpa
by Johanna Witmer Baldwin

Everyone wants a second chance, a chance to be redeemed, to start over. I just never thought Grandpa was one of those people. To me, Grandpa was my hero, invincible and un-aging, without fault. Or so I thought, back then when my world was so small and perfect.

More than President Reagan, Johnny Cash, or even Daisy Duke, I wanted to be like Grandpa when I was little.

After retiring from the steel mill, Grandpa began driving the 10 miles to our house every morning at about 6:30. By the time I crawled out of bed, Grandpa had already finished his cup of coffee, hammered out a few carpentry projects, and probably taken a break with his morning smoke.

Except I wasn’t supposed to know about that smoke. He diligently tried to hide it, even around Mom, who told him that she had known about the smoking for years. She even offered to buy him an ashtray.

Even so, he continued to slink behind the garage, barn or the garden to light up. I can’t remember how many times I walked up on him smoking and nearly gave him a heart attack. After regaining his composure, Grandpa would cough out the smoke from his last drag and pop a Vick’s drop into his mouth to drown his ashy breath. Then he would stand with the cigarette behind his back, in a futile attempt to look innocent while the cigarette smoke slowly curled around his ears grew into a hazy wreath behind his back.

“Oh, hey there! Did ya just now get out of bed?!?”

I played along, but spent more than one afternoon combing the gravel for his cigarette butt, so I could pretend to be a rebel smoker like Grandpa.

So why was Grandpa the secret smoker such a perfect icon in my childhood mind? Because only a few of my memories are of Grandpa pretending he never inhaled; the rest remind me of the selfless way he showed his love for us.

No one ever asked him to show up and work at our little farm, but there he was every morning, whistling a raspy tune while he invented an economical way to convert a shed into a 4-stall horse barn for my sister and me.

In addition to his carpentry skills, Grandpa was the only adult to recognize that I honestly COULD handle an entire Big Mac (minus the middle bun) and strawberry shake at McDonalds instead of a mere child’s Happy Meal.

More than that, he always knew the perfect time to offer me a Tootsie Roll to brighten my mood. Like on the days he drove me to school when my fake stomachaches had not convinced anyone that I was dying and needed constant bed rest.

Amazingly, the Tootsie Roll always healed me instantly. At every school program, Grandpa wandered in half an hour early, in order to get the best seat in the house.

In almost every corner of my childhood memories, I find Grandpa in his feathered fedora, flashing his false teeth to gross me out or standing proudly somewhere nearby.

Last summer, I flew back to my hometown to see Grandpa, whose heart was failing. Maybe all those years of hidden smoking had finally caught up with him. He had been in and out of the hospital every few months, and Dad said Grandpa “might appreciate” seeing me. In other words, Grandpa was dying.

The first night back in Illinois, my Dad sighed as he talked about my Grandpa’s health problems, “He spends all his time complaining about this ache and that pain, how he’s getting too old and might as well die. And he wonders why I don’t always want to come visit him. He forgets that he missed most of my childhood. I mean, for crying out loud! He was a horrible father! He’s never admitted all the affairs he had, or how he disowned me for years after he divorced Grandma. He said terrible things to me back then, things I don’t even want to repeat.”

He rubbed his brow in frustration, as if to erase the painful memories, “But he seems to have forgotten all of that now.”

I was still thinking of this new side of Grandpa the next day when I saw him. He appeared to have shrunk over the past six months and was so frail as he shuffled into the house with his walker, a mere shadow of his former self. But he didn’t seem like the playboy who once had abandoned his family, either.

What was Grandpa really like, and why hadn’t I seen the other side of him all the years when I scampered around in his shadow?

As I was deep in thought, Grandpa’s ashen face lit up and he interrupted my reverie, “I always think about how you used to run around, following me everywhere when you were just a tiny tyke…” A smile tiptoed across his weathered face, then cautiously crossed to mine.

At that moment, the foggy doubt about Grandpa lifted. Grandpa did remember all the hurtful years he lived as a father, and he had spent the next few decades trying to make it up to the following generation of family. I was Grandpa’s redemption. I was his second chance at fatherhood.

Sometimes I just want to go back to the way things were before, when I was little, swaying in the swing he built for me and listening to his stories of surviving through the Depression. Before I knew. Before I could read between the lines of our family history.

But maybe it’s better this way. Because now I know that all Grandpa wanted was redemption. One chance to make things right.

-Lo, who could use a Tootsie Roll or two right now.

The Wicker Chronicles

Mood: Too early to tell
Drinking: Caffeinated beverage

After spending some time reading and re-reading some work by my friend G, I am more convinced than ever that more people should know who he is. Everyone, in fact, should know. There should be shiny hardback volumes with his name imprinted on their spines.

G and I met in the minefield of mid-twenties suburban mega-religion and established a bond over our mutual affection for poetry, snarkiness and the lost wonders of DeKalb.

Upon meeting G, it doesn’t take long to discover that he is a genius. And once he began to share his writing with me, I elevated him to capital GENIUS status. He really is amazing. And although I’m here now and he’s there, he fills my inbox with intrigue every single week, without fail.

This is one of his poems, “Storm”…

“in the sanctuary
hundreds of people open
their good books
and it’s the sound of leaves
rustling in the tops of trees
and all I can think of
is wind and storm,
violence
not love.

the whisper of prayers from
a thousand lips is
a mushroomcloud of moths fluttering
the silver dust from their wings
falling like ash.

the clap of a hundred raised hands
is the distant clatter
of mortars exploding,
all the killing done in
the name of Whatever
flavor of the week
we’re worshipping.

and all the words they use
are bruised and faded,
bleached of worth;
He is hiding in the subtext,
behind tongues,
before birth.

who can hope to understand
the complex mess we’ve made
of earth?

not the books and not the lips
and not the hands

for He is hiding
and is deaf to our demands,

beyond tongues,
beyond death,
such amazing love
to let us live,
breath by labored breath?”

Get more here.

-Lo, who’s getting more G herself very soon. Right, my friend? Dinner. Monday. Downtown.

Guest Speaker

Mood: Fine
Drinking: Nope

My friend S wrote a lovely little poem the other day and I found it particularly inspiring, so I’m posting it here for all to see (with her permission, of course.)

She calls it “Being Seen All the Time”…

Her mirror is from the interrogation room
where they questioned Cain.

Her calipers, last used by the Masons
who threw over God for architecture.

The red pencil is from Office Depot.
It feels insecure about its ostensibly dull life story
and so avoids the mirror
and the calipers
at cocktail parties.

All of this looking
is about asking a big question.
She wouldn’t tell you what it is,
even if she could.
She tilts her head and furrows her brows,
sleek black wings of gulls in a photo negative.

Meanwhile, the world looks, with more mundane purposes:

The sharpener who fell in hopeless love
watching her cross the street
does portraits of her on the edge of
every knife blade.

The racetrack called: They’d like her to return
as soon as possible the elegant lope
of racehorse legs.

Paris leaves golden apples
in plain brown paper bags,
anonymously, on her doorstep.
(Helen of Troy is pissed.)

Her agent called with two voiceover gigs:
a marshmallow Peep and a five-alarm fire.

Lightning is so jealous of her style
that it smashes sand together
to fuse wicked gossip about her
in forked bits of glass.

In a few seconds
she will put down the calipers and pencil.
She will sharpen all knives with a glance.
She will teach the horses about the mysteries
of restrained grace. She will make a pie
from Paris’ apples and feed it to silly anorexic Helen,
who hasn’t eaten in years. She will laugh
like an inferno of marshmallow chicks.

It takes her three seconds of laughing
to break centuries of glass.

-Lo, who thinks S is the SHIT!

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