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As Summer Sets July 22, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Life, Personal.
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Idaho – This is where God lives.

There’s no denying it. The end of summer is in sight, especially since this year the first day of school has been moved up to August 20th. How can this be? I just emerged from my school-induced coma! My husband said I could become a professional sleeper, but I like to think of my inert state as similar to a medically induced coma. I’m allowing the swelling to go down, so my brain cells can regenerate.

It’s no secret that most visitors to my blog are seeking information on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). I don’t often write as much about school or my personal life. But there are times when I, too, need a respite. So please hear me out.

I feel the need to take stock in what I HAVE accomplished so far this summer. Mind you, it doesn’t help that I set the bar so low that I literally trip over it when I get out of bed. My summer mantra is “Things to do – get dressed by 2.”

1) I’ve watched the entire first season of Downton Abbey so I can hold up my end of the conversation in the Teacher’s Lounge. I did make the mistake of calling my husband “Carson.” I won’t make that mistake again.

2) I flew back to the Midwest to help my mother write a zillion thank you notes to friends and family who helped when my father died in early March. My sidekick was my niece, whose job it was to provide me with comic relief. Well done, Ali! While rummaging through drawers, I stumbled upon my report card from Second Grade. I was happy to see that I “read with comprehension.”

We ate at the wonderful Bluebird Cafe in Kansas City then wandered around the neighborhood. Cathy said that a lot of scenes from “The United States of Tara” were shot in this locale. What a find!

3) While back in the Midwest, I drove down to Kansas City to visit my college roommate, Cathy aka Catherine Sherman on my blogroll. She took me off to explore parts of Kansas City I never could have imagined. Way cool. Old friends are gold friends indeed.

4) At 1/2 Price Books in Omaha, I picked up two books, Olive Kitteridge and Year of WondersI read both. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of overlapping stories that revolve around a retired teacher living in a small town in Maine. Most of the characters would qualify for the senior discount, so when the going gets rough they cheer themselves up with the thought that if things get any worse, they can always commit suicide. Did I mention that this book won the Pulitzer Prize? Year of Wonders is set in the plague years in England. I highly recommend it.

5) We drove (with the younger kiddo) to Idaho to visit my husband’s family and celebrate his father’s 88th birthday. I haven’t done long haul driving in years, and our younger son was barred from driving my husband’s car, so it was just the two of us and all those Starbucks gift cards I received from students at the end of the year. The photo of the sunset was taken as we drove by McCammon, Idaho. All three of us had our iPhones out and then I remember asking, “Hey, who’s driving the car?!!!)

One of the musical chairs from the Extreme Makeover house made from the piano that was salvaged from the fire.

We stayed with my husband’s sister Jane in her Extreme Makeover house. She’s since opened a Montessori school, The Morningside House,  in her basement. My husband said when I saw it, he thought I was going to cry. There were actually TWO sinks and some newfangled things called electrical outlets.

6) While in Idaho we saw my oldest son and his girlfriend. We laughed so hard at the new Japanese restaurant, Sumisu, that the waitress declared that we were her Number One table for the night. It also helps that we Californians are accustomed to tipping 20 percent, whereas the local Mormons tend to only tip 10 percent. Is this what it feels like to be a “whale” in Las Vegas?

7) Having returned home, I’ve already (with a lot of help from my husband) repainted out bedroom in the same color that I loved in the Extreme Makeover house. It’s Sherwin Williams “Seascape.” When the guy told me how much the paint cost  (it was already mixed at that point) my jaw dropped. It must have flecks of gold in it!

Now that the end of Summer Vacation is in sight, I’m trying to make the most of every day. In no time at all, I’ll be sitting in the Teacher’s Lounge eating a partially defrosted Lean Cuisine. Up next is working on a picture book that I’ve had in mind for quite some time. I might have to start sleeping in my clothes so as to get a head start on each day.

Here’s to sitting out on the front porch and watching the world go by.

Photo Credits: Jan Marshall

1/4 of July June 13, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
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A friend recently asked me about my family’s sojourn in Mexico. I told her I’d send a link to this post which I published in 2007. But, low and behold, it  had vanished! As in “Gone Baby Gone.” Fortunately, in my early days of blogging, I  printed out a copy of everything…just in case.  So here it is again in all of its “Old Glory.”

When I was a kid growing up in Omaha, the days leading up the 4th of July included a pilgrimage just outside the city limits to buy fireworks. These were piddly-ass fireworks by today’s standards; sparklers, snakes, pinwheels, pop-bottle rockets, and the real show stopper – the Roman candle. My brother always managed to secure some M80s and cherry bombs. These served to remind us that it WAS possible to blow your hand off with one of these babies.

Neighborhood families would pool their fireworks and put on a show. My father arrived carrying a length of a tin downspout to these gatherings, which did double duty as a poor man’s rocket launcher.

As kids, we were only allowed to play with the snakes and sparklers on our own. We wrote our names in the air, immune to the bacon-grease snap, snap, snapping on our arms. On July 5th, the air smelled vaguely like gunpowder and the driveway had black spots where the snakes that grown, writhed, then turned to ash.

The 4th of July I’m thinking about today though was spent in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. We were desperately looking for Puente Numero Dos – Bridge Number Two, the only route, save wading crossing the Rio Grande, to get back into the U.S.

My family; husband Richard and sons, Taylor, 10, and Ian, 6, and I had moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to escape the high cost of living in New York. We’d had a ridiculously fun time in Zihuataneo, Mexico a year before and Mexico and the ghost of Frido Kahlo beckoned. Never mind that we’d never actually set foot in San Miguel. Hey, I’d done the research.

“You mean you’re moving to NEW Mexico,” friends queried.  “No, Mexico!”  we replied rather enjoying the look of shock on their faces. We were ready for a change, and we were up for anything, short of moving to New Jersey. A sojourn in Mexico sounded exotic and the price was right.

San Miguel de Allende is a gorgeous colonial gem nestled in the mountains three hours north of Mexico City. It’s long been a mecca for artists and has an established colony of American expats, who are drawn by San Miguel’s beauty and cheap real estate.

I flew to San Miguel two weeks before the arrival of the troops. It was my job to secure the beachhead and lease a house. “Remember,” my husband implored. “Only rent a house that’s already furnished and has a telephone.”

Well, can you imagine what kind of house I rented?  Three floors stacked like a stucco layer cake. No furniture and no phone. It was the garage that was the deal maker. Richard and the boys were flying to Omaha so my parents could give us their 4-cylinder Oldsmobile Firenza station wagon. We hadn’t had  a car in 11 years so this was a BIG deal. We couldn’t park our new/old car on the street!

My family arrived. It was then I realized it wasn’t New York that made me feel stressed. It was my family. Not a good sign. The house I’d rented had recently been remodeled and all of the construction had stirred up the scorpions. Every time we took a shower, a scorpion climbed out of the drain. Just the anticipation of their appearance made the shower scene in “Psycho” seem G-rated. There were so many scorpions that I took to sleeping with a flashlight on and aimed at the ceiling. Just in case.

Four days after we’d moved in, the toilet on the second floor wouldn’t flush. We tied a dog leash to a bucket and lowered it into the cistern beneath the patio to get water while awaiting the eminent arrival of the “handyman.” We carried the bucket of water up two flights of stairs just so we could use the toilet. I was starting to feel like I lived in Africa – my life was starting to revolve around obtaining water. All I needed was a jar to transport it on my head.

I’d first been shown the house during siesta time, the only time of day it turned out that the aerobic studio across the street was not open. We were awakened at 6 a.m. each morning by a pulsating disco beat and a woman yelling, “Uno, dos, tres!”  They knocked off for siesta then continued until 10 p.m. Disco was still alive in San Miguel.

The burro next door began braying at the crack of dawn. This was followed by ten minutes of silence and then the braying started in earnest. We joked that it was the Mexican snooze alarm. And the coyote tethered to the roof on the other side of us howled at night. We laid awake in bed. Less than three weeks into our sojourn, we’d lapsed into severe culture shock. For the first time I uttered the “L word” – leave.

There was one small problem. I’d signed a two-year lease and our landlord, Pat, had no intention of letting us wriggle out of it. Pat was a widow from Michigan who’d retired to Mexico. She’d married a local attorney, a certain Sr. Caballero. Pat bore more than a passing resemblance to Marjorie Mane’s “Ma Kettle” character. Finally, we told Pat we needed to talk about our situation.  I’d paid first and last month’s rent plus a security/cleaning deposit, so I thought that just maybe, she’d let us off the hook.

Just in case she wanted to play hardball, I was the designated weeper. The trouble was, once I started crying, “I want to go home,” it was no longer an act. I really wanted to go home. Pat was unfazed. “You know what you need?” she said matter of factly. “You need to go to the corn roast over at the Presbyterian church and meet some nice folks.” She added that if we did try and break the lease, her husband, Sr. Caberro, would have our car impounded so we COULDN’T leave.

Panicking, I ran up to the U.S. Consulate to talk to Colonel Maher, an ex-CIA op, whom I’d met with once before. It was siesta time and the consulate was officially closed, but the shuttered windows to his office were open. I could see him sitting in the dark, feet up on his desk, and smoking a cigar. He looked like he was plotting to overthrow a mid-sized country.

I called to him and he came over to the window. I breathlessly explained our predicament. He listened attentively, chomping on the cigar before giving me his best legal advice.  “I know Sr. Cabellero,” he said. “He’s well connected. So my advice to you is to disappear.” The shutters snapped shut.

Now when I’d leased the house, we’d also inherited a maid, Lara, from the previous tenants. Lara was incredibly kind and was paid so little I would have felt guilty not to keep her on. We’d never had a maid before and I felt so awkward about having someone clean up after me that I walked around and helped her clean. Lara told me the previous tenants, two American women, had left suddenly in the middle of the night after only two months. A pattern was beginning to emerge..

We frantically began packing up the car with Lara’s help. Pat lived just up the street and had a clear view of our house so there was an air of urgency. All of the furniture I’d bought at the mercado would go to Lara, and all of the housewares as well. To my mind it was not much, but I came to realize that to Lara, it was the world.  We knew her husband had cancer and she was supporting an unknown number of children.

A relative of Lara’s arrived with a truck to cart off the furniture. Lara’s husband sat in the back of the truck, too weak to help. I wrote out a letter and in my broken Spanish bequeathed all of  our personal items to Lara as regalos, or gifts. Lara cried with happiness. Her children would sleep in beds for the first time that night. We kept one small side table with a hand carved top, which we tied to the top of the car.

When Richard and the boys had arrived three weeks earlier, the car was packed to the gills. Now I had to squeeze in, along with my luggage and a set of Mexican pottery that I couldn’t bear to leave behind. The car was essentially a low-rider heaving under the added weight. Richard took the hills out of town slowly. With every bump, we could hear the bottom of the car scrape against the cobblestoned street. We headed north. From time to time we looked in the rear view mirror, half expecting to see Sr. Caballero chasing us with a posse.

Richard was retracing the route he’s already driven to get to San Miguel, but for me this was uncharted terrain.  I was trying to take in the surreal landscape that is northern Mexico. In the middle of nowhere, a person would appear alongside of the road. We passed people who sold dried rattlesnake skins for a living. They lived in “houses” with organ cactus as walls.

The first night we stopped at motel that had never seen better days. When the guy at the front desk asked for our address, we mumbled something about being in transition. “Hippies!” he ascertained. This was the early 90s and the mere mention of “hippies” made me feel like we’d fallen through a rip in some time continuum. But, Taylor set him straight. “We’re homeless!” he announced.

The plan was to cross the border into Laredo, Texas. On the south side of the Rio Grande, lies the sprawling bastard child city that is Nuevo Laredo. It’s the equivilent to living on the wrong side of the tracks. Nuevo Laredo has been plagued by the kind of violence that accompanies drug trafficking. Wearing a badge is akin to wearing a target.

It was summer and the temperature hadn’t fallen below 100 for days. Even after the sun had finally set, there was no relief from the heat. When we finally saw the lights of Nuevo Laredo we cheered. In the distance, we could see the lights of Laredo, Texas – the promised land. All we had to do now was find Puente Numero Dos and we’d be home free. It was then that steam from the radiator began billowing out from the hood. We cursed the universe. Then cursed it some more. We pulled over and waited for the temperature gauge to go down then drove another mile. We stopped and repeated the ritual. It was slow going.

The boys’ survival instincts had obviously kicked in because they’d stopped talking altogether. They knew the next thing to blow was going to be mom or dad. Finally, we saw the sign; Puente Numero Dos.

A huge American flag waved on the Texas side of the bridge. I’d never felt such a surge of patriotism. That’s my flag! I felt like the character Sally Field played in, Not Without My Daughter after she’s recovered her kidnapped child and is running toward the American flag at the embassy.

Only 40 feet from the border, plumes of steam engulfed the car and we shut off the engine. I steered and Richard pushed. Slowly, we inched toward American soil. A U.S. Customs agent walked over to greet us. Never had English sounded so melodic. We stood there sweating and shell shocked. As the border agent checked our papers, we heard what sounded like a series of explosions. “What’s going on?” we asked.  The border agent looked at us, incredulously. “It’s the Fourth of July!“ he said. We looked up to see the sky filled with fireworks.  We didn’t care that they were red, white, and green.

We got the last room at La Quinta, only a stone’s throw from the bridge on the American side. Taylor walked into the room and promptly threw up. He then rinsed out his mouth (“Mom, can I drink the water now?”) and announced, “I’m hungry.  Can we go somewhere and eat?”  Richard took the boys to the Denny’s next door where they gorged on chicken-fried steak. Me, I laid on the bed in the air-conditioned room and turned on the TV. The sound of Ted Koppel’s voice was the sweetest lullaby I’d ever heard.

Extreme Makeover Hits Close to Home August 19, 2010

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Always Jane

Karma has come ’round for my sister-in-law Jane who awoke yesterday to the sound of chickens, but by noon could hear the Extreme Makeover truck rumbling out in front of her house. Oh, what a year it’s been.  No, make that years for Jane and her amazing family.

Last summer when Jane went to her high school reunion in Pocatello, Idaho, her former classmates asked her if she wasn’t worried that her house might burn down while she was out for a night –  what with all those kids.  (Jane has a married daughter from her first marriage and eight children at home from her second ages 9-18.)  Jane just laughed, so when someone told her later that her house WAS on fire, she thought they were kidding – but they weren’t.  The fire started in the basement where the washer and dryer were located and where most of the kids slept. Everyone got out safely, but the house was toast.  All was lost save Jane’s indomitable spirit.

The fire came just a year after Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I wrote about that in Fortune Has Arrived.  Jane underwent a double mastectomy followed by chemo and eventually breast reconstruction.  Then she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, (which fortunately is benign and slow growing).

A friend shot some video and sent it in to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (a show I’ve never seen, but I’ve heard it’s the ultimate “feel good” experience). We all crossed our fingers, toes, and eyes. There were endless interviews and hurdles to clear.  I think the show spent more time vetting Jane and her family than they do with most presidential candidates.  And so we waited.

Last month Jane was told that the show had narrowed it down to five families. Meanwhile, rumors swirled around Pocatello about building permits being pulled.  It was like pulling off the world’s biggest surprise party ever and no one was supposed to spill the beans.

I can’t imagine any family more deserving than Jane’s. One year she drove down down with all of her kids to spend Thanksgiving with us.  They all packed into two rooms, the kids sleeping like puppies in a pile-up in the den.  Her children are all incredibly responsible, creative, and downright fun! That’s the way they’ve been raised by this single mother with a BIG heart. They work together. They’ve had to. Over the years Jane has received support (financial and otherwise) from family, friends, her church, and the government.  But they’ve worked hard to fend for themselves.

Her children all play a musical instrument, and I still remember when they set up outside a restaurant to make some extra change.  They had their own cleaning business. They’re very good at making do.

With the house uninhabitable, but still waiting for the insurance settlement, they spent last winter in a rental making daily trips back to their old house to feed the chickens. When we visited this spring they’d decided to move back and camp in the backyard.  There they’ve been living in a trailer and a small back house which was untouched by the fire.  The washer and dryer are in a tent. And it’s easier to tend their chickens.  Jane told me the kids refer to their outdoor digs as “The Haitian Five Star.”  When we left, Jane sent us off with a jar of smoked paprika.  She said that since the fire, the smell of anything “smoked” makes them all nauseous.  As the months went by, we began to wonder if this Extreme Makeover was for real.  The clock was running out.

Several days ago all of their cell phones were taken away, so it was only after my mother-in-law drove by their house that we got the news.  She reported that there were also two vans packed with their suitcases as they were being whisked off to an undisclosed location. They got a choice between a tropical island, a mountain resort, or a theme park. I still can’t believe they didn’t want to come stay with us, where we have our own extreme home makeover going on. (Though you can’t get much done with a crew of one.)

In case you’re here because of the NPD link, you can read Jane’s story on the Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Part 3 Comment 27.

I so wanted to blog about this great news, but waited until the story broke on Facebook. Their story will air later this year. In the meantime, they have their own Extreme Makeover Facebook page where you can follow the construction day by day by clicking on Photos. It was on this site that I learned they’re in Key West, Florida (even their dog Betsy went with them!).   Everyone loves a “feel good” story and this is it!  Karma has come ’round.

Photo Credit: Shellee Christiansen

Seeing Red June 5, 2009

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ginger

Better dead than red. That was my mother’s take on red hair. So it was my misfortune to have been born with red hair (as was my mother’s). There are gorgeous photos of my mother in college, but alas they’re all in black and white. So, there’s not even any hard evidence that my mother ever was a redhead.

My mother always felt that her red hair made her stand out, something she was loathe to do. As a child, I watched her mix the magic solution that changed her hair to a color that can best be called basic brown.

She mixed two shades of Nice ‘n Easy hair color to get just the right color for me. I called it “House Mouse Brown.” Can hair actually look beige?

Many people assume that with my red hair and green eyes, I must be of Irish ancestry. But my ancestors were from England, Wales, Scotland, and Germany. Scotland actually has the highest proportion of redheads with 13 percent having red hair and 40 percent possessing the recessive red hair gene. Even my father had reddish sideburns that emerged in middle age and remained red long after his hair started going gray.

While my hair was strawberry blond, my younger brother’s hair was carrot red. My mother tried to talk my brother into dying his hair too, but his defiant “stage” outlasted mine.

What I didn’t know (and what my mother didn’t tell me) was that for centuries “red hair was thought to be a mark of a beastly sexual desire and moral degeneration.” Hey, that’s me to a T!  To learn more, check out Redheads: Myths, Legends, and Famous Red Hair.

In college, I let my hair revert back to its natural color. And I finally quit trying to straighten my hair. I had a virtual mushroom cloud of golden red curls and, for the first time in my life, I was okay with my hair. In fact, I actually quite liked it.

My friend Lesley in England is a gorgeous cheeky redhead, and she’s joined a Facebook group called “Ginger – It’s not a hair colour, it’s an ethnicity and a way of life.” That’s where I got the photo above. I had fun reading through the group’s invitation to “live the ginger life.” (I’m still adjusting to this “ginger” thing.  It didn’t help that they did an entire episode on South Park on “gingers.”)

I keep my hair cut shorter now. I tell my hair stylist to think of my hair as a native shrub – low maintenance. There are entire weeks where I simply run my hands through my hair and that’s that.  But now I know – better red than dead!

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And eat men like air.

Sylvia Plath

London Calling May 9, 2009

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Screen shot of Lesley showing me her date book so I would pick a date.

I’m off to England, I’m off to see the queen!  No, not THAT old girl – my friend Lesley, a sassy redhead, who could teach the royals a thing or two about having a good time.

“You know this is all quite mad?” Lesley said as we chatted via SKYPE. But it wasn’t so much of a question as a statement of fact.

But some days, I think the whole world’s gone mad. Fortunately, I subscribe to the “Life is short, eat dessert first” school of thought. So, when I found out I got accepted to graduate school (See Masters of the Universe), I knew I needed to reward myself before I got bogged down with classes two nights a week for the next year. And since the classes start only four days after the last day of school in June, it had to be soon – before the end of school.

Lesley and I met via the internet less than two years ago. When she invited my husband and me to come to England to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her family in 2007, all of our friends thought we’d both gone quite mad. (See Thinking of England) But, we’re two crazy redheads, and yes, everything they say about redheads is true! I once read an interview with a man who’d lived to be 105. He said his secret to a long life was he stayed away from “wine, whiskey, and red-headed women.” Poor old sot!

After Lesley and her family spent two fabulous weeks with us last summer, we both worried it would be too long until we met again. So, I couldn’t believe it when she’d offered to pay half my airfare just to get me over there. I found a cheap enough flight, so I’m going on my own dime. I was able to sandwich (as in The Earl of…) the trip in between Testing and Open House, so I’ll only miss five days of school. The MANDATORY MEETING for grad school is May 15th. On May 16th, I’m outta here til May 25th.

We’re taking the train to London for a day to see the art at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. The rest of the time, I’ll be blissfully enjoying English village life in Framlingham where we plan to sit out front of The Dancing Goat cafe each morning, have breakfast, and watch the world go by.

I’m still deciding whether to take my laptop along so I can blog from the UK. I’ve been known to get “the DTs” (Digital Tremors) when deprived access to the internet for too long. I’m SO not PC –  as in I don’t do PCs, so I might have to pack my Mac. Okay, I’m taking it. You should know that we redheads are prone to impulsive behavior, but we DO know how to have a good time.

Can’t help but add Mad World from one of my all-time favorite movies, Donnie Darko.

The Zen of Gardening April 13, 2009

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slow-progress1

Growing up, my gardening experience was limited to weeding one very small strawberry patch, which was also our dog Holly’s favorite pooping spot.  To this day, I always wash strawberries one more time – just in case.

In the suburbs, people didn’t actually garden as they were too busy slavishly maintaining The Lawn.  One of my enduring memories is of driving past our neighbor’s house and seeing him sitting out in the front yard after dinner every night with a bucket, methodically digging up dandelions. Night…after night… after night.  What a monumental waste of time, I thought.  You go to work all day in a cubicle (though cubicles had yet to be invented and popularized by Dilbert) and come home to THIS.  But I was young, so what did I know?

In 1996, we bought our first house and the pipeline of “Better Homes & Gardens” began flowing (Thanks Mom).  I realized that I actually liked getting my hands dirty and watching the bugs and worms scuttle off when I overturned a rock. (See Bugs Don’t Bug Me.)  Rabid do-it-yourselfers, my husband and I broke out the concrete patio, then meticulously reset the broken pieces of concrete in a bed of mortar with a scattering of polished black stream stones.

In the middle of our new and improved patio, we planted two queen palm trees inside a 3-foot high circular concrete planter.  My husband and I personally hand-mixed 42 bags of concrete to pull this off in a day (with only one emergency trip to Home Depot to buy MORE concrete). When I look at the planter now, the only logical explanation for undertaking such a project is demonic possession.

We planted a variety of plants around the base of the palms.  Strawberries for our pig (above dog pooping level), some bulbs, a succulent, and ivy so it cascades over the top of the planter, which is outlined in bricks.

One night my husband noticed I was hovering over the planter, which I’d come to do more often than not. Night…after night…after night.  I fussed over every incursion by a weed and meticulously clipped away any leaf that dared to go brown on the tip.  What was happening to me?

I’d started teaching, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that my first three years of teaching, I had horrible classes.  Horrible.  I’d often come home feeling overwhelmed and then have to start calling parents about what their little darling had done that day.  It was incredibly stressful.

That’s when it hit me.  So much of my life was out of control, and the one thing I felt I could control was a little patch of dirt.  Suddenly, my heart went out for that neighbor from my childhood.  After a day at a mind numbing job, he was out picking dandelions most likely for the same reason I was hovering over my “garden” with manicure scissors.  To keep his sanity. To keep his head from exploding a la Scanners.

What better place to clear your head, but in the garden, where you can lapse into the rhythms of nature and use your hands to do something besides double click.  I can’t think of anything more zen than whiling away quality time in the garden, allowing your soul to feast on the beauty of the natural world.

I’m feeling settled as a teacher these days, and my newfound serendipity shows in my gardening, which is sporadic and in spurts. My husband likes to say there’s nothing I like better to do than sit out in the dirt.  It’s true, I’ve no need for those high tech knee pads, as I just plunk myself down and get to work.  I’m a Taurus and that IS an earth sign.  I wonder.

Not long ago, my husband wandered out back looking for me.  Not seeing me, he stood still for a moment until he could hear me.  I was sitting in the dirt behind a giant perennial, pruning.  Clip.  Clip.  Clip.  My jeans were encrusted with dirt, as was my face.  He took in the view. “You know, back in the pioneer days,” he said, “If you’d been kidnapped by Indians, you would have SO gone native.”

You know, I think that’s one of the nicest compliments my husband has ever paid me.

Little Squirrel Lost March 30, 2009

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Sunday – I woke up this morning worrying about my book club brunch. It wasn’t until noon, but there was still lots to do. That is, until the first guest arrived unusually early and with a splash. My husband, Richard, first saw the baby squirrel frozen behind a big pot. He was soaked. We realized he’d fallen 25 feet from his nest in one of the queen palm trees that surround our pond. Suddenly, running out to buy more orange juice seemed oh so unimportant.

After ten minutes the baby squirrel had managed to climb two feet up a tree. My husband tried to be optimistic. “At least it’s the right tree.”  But then he fell off the tree (the squirrel that is, not my husband). “I think I better get dressed,” I announced. I could see the future, and it involved squirrel wrangling and a very long ladder.

By the time I was dressed, Richard appeared with the squirrel attached to him. “He jumped into my arms!” he said, holding him tight.  So much for squirrel wrangling. He passed the squirrel to me, and yes he (she?) was adorable. I love squirrels. They always look like they’re having so much fun and they’re naturally caffeinated. Think about it. Have you ever seen a squirrel that looked depressed (unless it’s lying flat by the side of the road)?

We could see another baby squirrel peering down from the nest, but no mother was in sight. When this happened last year (different tree, no aquatics), the mother squirrel came down the tree and after scolding her errant offspring, and checking him out to make sure he wasn’t injured, grabbed him by the nape of his neck, and carried him back up to the nest. Just watching how attentive that mother squirrel was left both my husband and I in tears. So where was this little guy’s mother?

Richard woke up our son Ian, who’d worked the late shift at the restaurant.   Ian staggered out and I watched The Two Stooges try to round the corner of the house with the 30-foot long aluminum ladder. By then I’d gone into full maternal mode and named the squirrel Wet Willie. Our two dogs were very interested in our visitor, but their motives were suspect.

With the ladder positioned, Richard took Willie and made the slow climb to the top of the tree. He reported there were two other babies in the nest then climbed back down.  The ladder was put away.  Ian went back to bed. Richard ran out and bought more orange juice.

We had a lively discussion at book club, and no squirrels toppled onto the umbrella on the patio. Success! Later, I was googling information on abandoned baby squirrels, as the mother had yet to appear. I was relieved to read that mother squirrels will take their babies back even after humans have handled them. Mission Accomp…. whoa, not so fast!  At dusk, I looked out the window and saw Richard cradling something.  Something small and furry. Willie is obviously precocious.

I called the Pasadena Humane Society, and they had one of their officers call back.  She suggested we put Willie back in the nest, as squirrels settle down at night.  Out came the ladder – again.  Richard made the slow climb up into the tree – again.  He  said Willy sleepily slipped down inside the nest.  So he’s safe – for now.

It will be daylight in 12 hours, and that’s when squirrels start to act – squirrelly.  But, we’re no dummies.  We left the ladder tied to the tree.  

Monday - The question today was not “Who’s your momma,” but, “Where’s your mama?”  The Pasadena Humane Society is closed Mondays, so my husband’s calls went unanswered.   Richard located a great site on the internet with information on what do do if you’ve found a baby squirrel: Squirrel Rescue.  Did you know it’s illegal to keep a wild squirrel for more than 48 hours?  (Not that I know anyone doing hard time for this crime), but the intent is to get wild squirrels into professional wildlife rehab ASAP.)  Another great site is 911 Advice for Squirrels.

Late this afternoon the woman from the humane society finally called  back. Bless her.  She said with no mother to keep the baby squirrels warm (their body temperature should be around 99 degrees), they might not survive the night.  She gave us instructions on how to keep the babies safe until they can be dropped off tomorrow morning. There’s no room at the inn, what with 42 baby squirrels already being cared for, but she agreed to take them. 

So, Richard put a backpack on his front like a pouch and, as the sun set, climbed up the ladder one last time. That’s when he saw there were not three, but FOUR sleeping babies.  Three were scooped into the bag without a fight, but there was one stubborn one.  I heard some wild squeaking as I stood down below doing the really important work – holding the ladder steady.

And Willie?  To be honest, all the baby squirrels look alike.  We popped all four of them into plastic pet carrier with a pillowcase (no towels cause their claws get stuck).  Richard filled syringes with Pediatric Electrolytes (fancy Gatorade according to Richard, minus the sugar) and I fed them.  With their tummies full, they promptly dozed off.  (Note to self – Do not wear a cable knit sweater when feeding squirrels).  The carrier is now sitting atop an electric heating pad in our bedroom.  The squirrels are getting a good night’s sleep. And now that they’re fed and en route to a safe haven, we can get a good night’s sleep too.  Finally.  I wonder if I’ll dream of acorns

Tuesday – Before our baby squirrels were sent packing to the Pasadena Humane Society, Richard fed them some bites of avocado.  His assistant, Michele, let them try a banana and they took to it like sharks to chum.  The woman at the humane society said as soon as our squirrels are “of age,” they’ll be returned to us so they can be released.  Which begs the question – How will I know if they’re OUR squirrels and not somebody’s else’s?  Willie? Where’s the indelible ink when you need it?   

 

                                                                                                  

Pardon My Pig – Part 2 December 28, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Pets.
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Feel free to make a pig of yourself and read “Pardon My Pig – Part 1″ and “Halloween for Queen Porcine” first.  You’ll find these in Tags under Pets and Pigs.    

What’s that you say?  Keep in mind that’s my daughter you’re talking about. Okay, I admit that in “Pardon My Pig – Part 1,”  I used a picture of an adorable piglet, who Maisie once bore (boar?) a passing resemblance to.  But as you can see, she’s one big-boned gal.   

I tried to walk Maisie around the block once, but she doesn’t really walk – she ambles.  I took my eye off her for just a second and when I looked back, she had uprooted a neighbor’s mid-sized shrub and was carrying it her mouth.  First walk – last walk.

Maisie has since been confined to the backyard where she’s happy to lounge under the fig tree (waiting for a ripe fig to drop into her mouth, especially after she gives the tree a good nudge).  On a summer day you’ll find her lying out on the patio basking in the sun.  Sometimes my neighbor Stella, who’s originally from Greece, leaves a bag of fruit hanging over the fence for “the pork,” as she refers to Maisie.  I’m sure it’s just a language thing, but I did keep a watchful eye on “the pork” when I saw the Greeks had rented a large electric spit last Easter.  

Maisie escaped once.  I’d gone out for lunch with my friend Eunice and as we walked home we saw a small crowd gathered next to the power company’s right-of-way.  And what were they looking at?  My pig of course, who was nibbling tall grass and acting oh so nonchalant.  Eunice and I spent the next half hour “herding” Maisie down the alley with a big stick. Where’s a coolie hat when you need one?

When Maisie hit 100 pounds, the local vet would no longer see her (weight discrimination!) so we called Chris, the Mobile Vet, who’s way cool and makes house calls.  I know when he’s arrived because I can hear the whooshing sound of money flying out of our bank account.  The first time Chris came for a visit, he actually looked at us straight-faced and asked what kind of toys we had to keep Maisie intellectually stimulated.  I half expected him to tell us we needed to buy her a chess set.  I took notes. Chris suggested we plant strawberries so she could graze on them.  But after having seen the way she took that shrub out, roots and all, I opted to plant them above her grazing level.  

Chris also noted that Maisie’s hooves turned inward due to a genetic deformity, and said she could benefit from wearing some sort of orthopedic shoes.  And where would we buy orthopedic pig shoes?  Chris suggested that I could design them! I bought  a pair of  toddler’s sandals at Target and tried my best – really!   I’m afraid I’m no cobbler, so Maisie’s destined to be a hobbler. 

The visits from Chris to trim Maisie’s hooves (her “pig pedicure”) every six months were pricey.   Really, how hard could it be?  We’re real do-it-yourselfers, so I purchased some harrier clippers. (Think hedge clippers for horses.)  Now, to cut a pig’s hooves, you’ve got to first take them by surprise, then grab them by the back legs and flip them over on their back. One person holds them steady while they scream and moan, while the other does the clipping.  (You should know they’ve measured the decibel level of a pig squealing, and it’s right up there with the sound of a jet engine at take-off.) Chris and his assistant had made it look so easy.  Oh, the money we’d save!

We’d procrastinated long enough. We had to do IT.  Richard and I sat on the den floor with Maisie, who was already suspicious about our newfound interest in sitting on the floor beside her.   Every time Richard casually made a move to grab her, Maisie sprinted out of reach.  

Exasperated, I finally said, “Let’s just DO this!” at which point Richard lunged across the room and grabbed hold of Maisie’s hind legs.  How can I begin to describe what happened next?  For two minutes, Maisie ran figure eights around the den dragging Richard behind her as though he were some rodeo clown.  Richard finally let go and Maisie made a quick exit.  Richard was dazed and had a nasty rug burn on his face, but he couldn’t feel a thing cause we were both laughing so hard.  After that, we couldn’t call Chris fast enough.  Sometimes us do-it-yourselfers need to learn to delegate so we can focus on the really important stuff – like the strawberries.

California Christmas December 14, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Travel.
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I couldn’t imagine a Christmas without snow. So for the first two years I lived in California, I dutifully flew home to spend the holidays with my family in Nebraska. This was a spiritual pilgrimage as well, as I did learn there really is such a thing as Purgatory – it’s being stranded indefinitely at the Denver Airport waiting for the weather “to clear.”

My husband, Richard, is from Idaho so even after we got married we alternated flying back and forth between these two exotic snow-covered destinations at Christmas. But at some point, traveling with two small children over the holidays got to be too much. It was time to establish our own holiday traditions – but a Christmas without snow?

Can you say Feliz Navidad? While everyone was talking North Pole, I found my answer to a Christmas without snow South of the Border. When we lived in New York, one year we flew to Mexico the day after Christmas. We stayed in Zihuantanejo, a small fishing village on the Pacific Coast.  This is what I remember. As we rode in a taxi with no seat belts to our hotel, a huge pig sauntered across the road. I turned to my husband and said, “This isn’t a developing country – this is the Third World!) When we arrived at our hotel shortly after 8 a.m., the manager, Pepe, had two icy Coronas in our hands before our luggage hit the ground.

Not only was Mexico warm and sunny, but it was (dare I say it?) so Christmasy! There were Christmas trees at all the hotels and restaurants decorated with tin and straw ornaments and elaborate nativity scenes nestled in piles of Spanish moss. It was gorgeous, colorful, and the atmosphere was festive. Think about it. Margaritas are green and hot sauce is red. My sons got to break open a red and white star pinata and the kids were excited to get a piece of candy and an orange!

When we moved back to California it was a done deal. Adapt or perish. Tradition is tradition, but we chose to embrace new traditions. Last week we put up the tree. It’s a real one as I love that fresh pine smell (not the pine scent you spray around the house). Our tree is festooned with Mexican tin ornaments and colorful woven spirals and straw angels. (Which also makes it earthquake friendly!) There’s only one ornament on the tree that’s breakable. It’s a clay angel bell we bought the first year we were married at the gift shop outside Mijares, a local Mexican restaurant that’s still in business. The angel dangles from the top branch of the tree as a reminder of just how fragile life can be.

The stockings are hung from the chimney. And yes, when the temperature dips to 45 degrees in Los Angeles, it really feels like it’s freezing. (Who forgot to add insulation to the houses here?) Our pig, Maisie, loves to lay in front of the fireplace so I guess we really have gone Third World.

So if you drop by our house on Christmas Eve, prepare to enjoy tamales and Mexican hot chocolate.  With Global Warming, I just wanted to give everyone a heads up as to what could be in store. In the meantime, Feliz Navidad!

I, Santa Claus December 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Parenting.
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My son, Ian, was in the third grade when I, Santa Claus, was exposed.  Only weeks after Christmas, Ian approached me with a bewildered expression on his face, clutching a piece of paper. “Why do you have all my letters to Santa Claus?” he asked point blank.  Oh s**t!  He’d found our cache of letters the boys had written to the big jolly man.  

The frozen look on my face said it all. “You’re Santa Claus?” Ian asked incredulously.  (Yeah, like I couldn’t eat a plate full of cookies).   “I…I…I am,” I stammered, and my son burst into tears. Before I could begin to explain how this ruse worked, I saw my confession’s stunning ripple effect.  Still wailing, Ian choked out, “And the Easter Bunny?”  I nodded.  More tears. “And what about the Tooth Fairy?”  At this point I was so busted that I merely hung my head.   Ian locked himself in his room and a tsunami of tears followed.   What my son didn’t see were my tears. 

You have to understand.  As a child I loved Santa Claus.  Just at that age (third grade), when everyone else was muttering something about Santa being your parents, I received a pair of roller skates from Santa that were the wrong size.  This was proof that Santa WAS real.  My parents would have known what size to buy me.  But with so many children in the world, I could forgive Santa for not knowing my exact size.  This mistake bought me (and my parents) another year of me being a “believer.”  To be honest, I don’t even remember when I finally figured out Santa was my parents, or if we even talked about it. Maybe it was so traumatic, I’ve supressed the memory. But I tend to think I finally realized that it was a bit of a stretch that some jolly fat guy could deliver gifts all around the world without routing them all through Memphis.  

When our first son, Taylor, was born, we were eager go play Santa.  It’s the role of a lifetime and we played it to the max.  We were living in New York City and the city is magical at Christmas.  One year friends invited us to their block association’s “Visit from Santa” event at a small park in Chelsea.  It was freezing and we huddled together stomping our feet to try and stay warm while awaiting Santa’s arrival.  

All of a sudden we heard a jolly, “Ho ho ho!”  We looked up and there on the rooftop of a three-story brownstone, illuminated against a starry sky, stood Santa waving!   I got goosebumps.  I was five years old again.  I was a Believer!   Moments later, Santa emerged from the front door of the brownstone with his bag slung over his shoulder.  He passed out advent calendars filled with chocolates before disappearing into a waiting Cadillac. It was only later, I found out that Santa was actually a Jewish guy named Morty. Morty was so overjoyed that he’d married off his last daughter, he asked if he could play Santa that year.  That’s what I love about New York.  

When Ian was born the next year, his big brother Taylor was only too happy to fill him in on Santa’s penchant for cookies and his elusive nature.  

On Christmas Eve, the boys would write their letters to Santa.  When they finally drifted off to sleep, we went to work.  I snarfed the cookies then wrote a letter from Santa on parchment paper with a calligraphy pen.  I even burned the edges so it looked like something out of a storybook.  Before Richard and I went to bed, we pulled out the fireplace screen just a tad and made big sooty footprints over to where the cookies had been.  It was a crime scene worthy of CSI.  

One year the stockings looked so adorable hanging above the fireplace that Richard took a Polaroid.  The mirror hanging over the fireplace reflected the flash and the image blurred.  It actually looked like a being of light was moving toward the fireplace.  In the morning we excitedly told the boys how we’d heard a noise and rushed out to the living room just in time to snap a picture of Santa.  Taylor was determined to contact the National Enquirer because he knew they’d pay lots of money for a “real” picture of Santa. “Finally,” he announced.  “We have proof!”

Taylor figured out the Santa thing by the fourth grade.  We were living outside Seattle by then and he seemed nonplussed.  He said it explained why Santa always gave gifts out of the Hearthsong catalog.  That year Taylor helped set up the stocking for Ian and enjoyed watching his little brother delight in seeing what Santa had brought on Christmas morning. After we moved back to LA, Taylor continued to play along.  Wink, wink. 

So Ian’s heartfelt tears were like a knife to my heart.  This wasn’t how I’d imagined it.  But how much of life isn’t?   So what did we do to help our traumatized son deal with the TRUTH. Taylor finally lured Ian out of his room and we all went to see a movie – A violent movie.  All I remember is it was rated R and there was lots of shooting, which as we all know, Santa wouldn’t approve of.  Ian walked out of the theater and the storm had passed.  

Ian is now 22 and loves to retell the story about finding Santa’s letters.  The funny thing is his favorite thing about Christmas is still coming out to see what Santa has left in his stocking. (We tried to phase the stocking out when he was 17, but he wouldn’t hear of it).  So I told Ian if I, Santa, still have to fill a stocking then he has to write “Santa” a letter.  So Ian writes a letter giving me (I mean Santa) an update on his college grades, and I, Santa write a letter back, but don’t bother to burn the edges.  And I still get to eat the cookies!

My Son – Who Happens to be Gay November 22, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Life, Parenting, Politics.
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love-is-so-gay1

I have two sons. My younger son, Ian, happens to be gay. I didn’t set out to have a gay son. But then Ian didn’t set out to be gay, and to be honest, it came as a shock to him as well. He was confused about why he felt “different.” And he struggled alone. Even now, I can’t imagine what that was like for him when he was only nine and had a crush on a boy in the fourth grade.

When Ian was 14 and a half, we were sitting in the doctor’s office, and he announced he was gay. We laugh now remembering what happened next. I blurted out, “Oh my god, I hope my parents die soon!” This was because my parents had left their church in the Midwest over the issue of gay unions. My head was spinning. Driving home, I was in a fog. I’ve always had gay friends, but my son? My eyes brimmed with tears. Why me?  What I remember most is what my son said next. “Mom, I’m the same person I was before – it’s just that now you know.”

“Please don’t tell Dad,” Ian asked. My response? “That’s like asking me not to tell your father the house is on fire!” So he told his dad who was surprised, but ultimately okay with it. Then he told his older brother who shrugged. “Just don’t expect me to go riding around in one of those gay pride parades.”

Ian felt such a sense of relief to be able to be honest about who he was. This was the same kid who had written “I’m gay” in Sharpie on the back of another boy’s jacket in middle school. Talk about confused self-loathing. It wasn’t easy for him though.

Ian, who’s outgoing and always had lots of friends, thought once he came out, other students at his high school would come out as well. He waited…and waited. There was one other boy who was extremely flamboyant, who Ian wanted nothing to do with. Ian had played Little League baseball and considered himself a jock. His attitude was, “If I want to hang out with a girl, I’ll hang out with a real girl.”

Looking back, I can’t believe how brave my son was. Yes, he took a boy as a date to the prom. He was confident no one would give them a problem as Ian is infinitely likable and has a wicked sense of humor. No one did, but I held my breath. As a parent, I was frightened that someone would lash out at my son, verbally or physically. But being young, Ian was convinced he could change the world – or at least people’s opinions – one at a time.  And to his credit, he did and continues to do so.

Meanwhile, my husband and I found PFLAG ,Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians And Gays. (I should note that at the meetings I attended there were also families with transgender children.) We met so many incredible people at those meetings. People came because they too had family members and friends who were gay. Those who’d been attending for awhile always described being able to acknowledge their child’s sexual orientation as an amazing “journey.” It was painful though when parents who’d just found out their child was gay came to a meeting. Some were still in such a state of shock or denial they couldn’t speak. But the important thing was they showed up. It was the first step on their journey.

There was a Chinese woman who wanted to know if there were herbs that could turn her son, who was in his 30s and a doctor, back to “normal.”  There were African Americans whose childhoods were so interwoven with the church, they felt ostracized in their own community. And there were people who’d gotten married because, “I thought if I got married and had a family, it might make IT go away.” They’d come to the conclusion that telling a lie is easy, but living a lie takes a toll on one’s soul.

Eventually, I couldn’t keep The Secret any longer. After a year, I broke down and told my parents their grandson was gay. They were in shock, but they love Ian. Several years later when they were visiting, my father said to Ian, “Someday when you meet the perfect woman…”  He caught himself. “I mean man,” he said. Ian was overjoyed as he adores his grandparents.

My son has never been interested in the club scene. “That’s not the way you and dad raised me,” he said with such earnestness, that my heart ached for him. He talks about “when I have a kid.” He has that optimism that comes with youth. It helps that we live in Southern California. Ian is still put off by “girlie” guys and was critical of people who are transgender until he saw the movie Transamerica.  He watched it again the other night and said it made him cry. So even he has been on his own journey of understanding.

My son is now 22. He goes to college and he, and his boyfriend of a year, live with us. The other day he asked, “Mom, at what age are you considered a loser if you still live at home with your parents?” I told him with the economy the way it is, this might be as good as it gets.  But we’re all okay with that.

I really don’t give much thought to my son being gay anymore. It’s just one part of who he is, but certainly doesn’t define him as a human being. I was disturbed though when he came to me last night and told me how upsetting it was when several young men chanted, “Yes on 8!” when he and his boyfriend walked by. Ian is a peaceful person, and it was all he could do to not say something. And of course, you always think of just the right thing to say afterwards. But hate, even though Ian knows it stems from ignorance, still hurts.

So when my friend TIna, who also has a gay son, emailed this morning that she’s going to attend a peaceful march tonight to protest the passage of “Yes on 8,” I said count me in. She and some of our friends marched last weekend. They sent me pictures of them holding their placards. What impressed me most was that most of those who showed up didn’t have a gay child. They were there because they thought it was the right thing to do. They believe in equal rights for all Americans.

So now it looks like it’s going to be a gay day. I can think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing on a Saturday night. But the stakes are just too high. We’re not talking about one of THOSE people. We’re talking about my son.

One of the most eloquent and impassioned commentaries I’ve seen on this issue is “Keith Olbermann’s Response to Prop. 8.”  To view his commentary, please press the following link. Peace.

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole November 16, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Life, Teaching.
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During the school year, those nearest and dearest to me know that I disappear down the rabbit hole. I have the best of intentions – but isn’t that what the Road to Hell is paved with?  Between pushing all that paperwork around (without the benefit of a forklift) and being on-call to perform brain surgery daily (and according to NCLB, isn’t that what teachers are expected to do?), sometimes I’m hard pressed to know what day it is.

As a result, members of my family have abandoned all hope of receiving birthday cards. I don’t know how much a stamp costs anymore.  My parents don’t count  e-cards as real cards so I’ve been known to call them and have my entire class of third graders shout, “Happy Birthday!”  And my parents, who are increasingly hard of hearing, have been known to hang up thinking it’s a prank call.  Hey, I tried.

November is the worst month, what with the first report cards due and Parent/Teacher Conferences to schedule (and reschedule) and Thanksgiving. Every year I have my students write a paragraph about what they know about Thanksgiving.  Some don’t get past the date.  You have to understand that many of my students are not native born and Thanksgiving is an exotic concept when you’re from Korea, Pakistan or Bosnia. Most kids write a grocery list; turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce.  Last year one student wrote that Thanksgiving had something to do with Indians hunting buffalo wings.

But by Thanksgiving break, my students will be on a first name basis with Squanto and know that three women/girls did all that cooking for the first Thanksgiving, while the men played games.  (No snide aside here as my husband does most of the cooking).

Next week my students will take home an adorable turkey made from a tie-dyed coffee filter.  They’ll know what a “wattle” is and have written a paragraph about all of the things they’re grateful for that’s stapled to the back.  And what about me? The day before Thanksgiving I have my last Parent/Teacher conference scheduled.  As I drive home, I can finally start calculating how big a turkey I need to buy.  Long lines and over-sized turkeys await.  But I’m thankful that my students now know why THEY should be thankful.

December gets worser (Sorry, I slipped into 3rd grade mode when they’re still figuring out those slippery superlatives).  As I read about winter festivals throughout the world, my students crank out adorable holiday crafts.  Late at night, you’ll find me on-line ordering gifts to be delivered to my family in the Midwest.  I do put some thought into this.  Should I pay an extra $4 for a computer generated gift card? It’s a far cry from the day when I handmade gifts or at least bought them with my own two hands and packed them.  At some point, the ritual of shuffling my gifts along with my feet in the line at UPS lost its allure.  So while my students’ parents are oohing and ahhing (or so I’d like to think) as they unwrap those handmade treasures, my own family will have to settle for something that I personally added “to the basket.”

So don’t wait by your mailbox and expect anything from me.  From September till the end of June, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

Halloween for Queen Porcine October 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Pets.
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Never fail, the first trick-or-treaters arrive while we’re still eating dinner. Our dogs bark wildly and have to be herded into the den.  They’re convinced each time the doorbell rings, it’s just the mailman wearing a different disguise.  But our pig, Maisie, springs to her feet (okay, technically they’re hooves) and actually trots over to the front door.  She’s been waiting for this night all year.  For Maisie, Halloween is tantamount to a walk down the red carpet on Oscar night.  The pig paparazzi – dads with video cameras –  vie for the best angle to capture a shot of their little princess/Transformer with a REAL pig.  

Did I mention that this real pig is wearing an orange witch’s hat with a purple moon and stars on it?  Yes, I’ve become one of THOSE people.  People who dress their pets in costumes.  The minute I strap on her hat, Maisie knows it’s show time.  This will be her 12th year greeting trick-or-treaters.

You should know that our neighborhood is a throw back to times gone by, so come Halloween, busloads of extended families arrive from the Other Side of the freeway (aka barrio).  Three generations holding outstretched pillow cases.  There is always an adult who holds one out while motioning that it’s for the baby, who’s all of two weeks old.  Yeah, right.  

The first year, we had over 300 trick-or-treaters descend on our house. They chewed through the candy like a swarm of locusts in a field of spring corn. Since then, I’ve beefed up the inventory and I’ve developed a smooth slight of hand move so I can drop a lone jawbreaker into a plastic pail in such a way, that they actually think I gave them an entire handful of candy!   

The first Halloween we had Maisie, she stood out on the front porch “in costume.” People walking by would suddenly stop. “What IS that?” they’d ask. We enjoyed telling people it was a dog in a pig costume.  “Good costume, huh?” we’d say, relishing their confused reaction.  They’d edge closer. ” Holy sh*t!”  

For 11 years people have returned each Halloween asking, “Is this the house with the pig?”  Maisie’s got the routine down.  All I have to do is say, “Trick or Treat!” and she ambles (when you’re as big as Maisie, ambling is your peak speed) out onto the front porch, makes a very wide U-turn, plops down, and then opens her mouth.  She looks like those oh-so-cute dolphins waiting to be rewarded with a fish.  Maisie, though, is happy to feast on miniature Tootsie-Rolls or Now and Laters, paper and all.  She hasn’t met a candy yet that she doesn’t love.  Halloween means lots of photo ops and photo ops mean lots of treats.   Pigs are smart – diabolically so – and this pig knows how to work a crowd.

One year it was growing late and it was obvious the trick-or-treaters had moved two blocks south to where the houses are bigger and people pass out full-sized brand name candy. Maisie had called it a night and retired to the den.  

The doorbell rang and I was tempted not to answer, but I looked outside and saw a father and his little boy. I opened the door.  “My little boy really just wanted to see the pig,” the father explained.  When I told them Maisie was asleep, they both looked heartbroken.  Sucker that I am, I offered to usher the little boy back to the den, so he could take a quick peek at the pig. His father nodded approvingly. 

But when I opened the den door, there was our fox terrier, Wily, wildly humping Maisie, who was laying sound asleep with big grin on her face.  The little boy’s eyes grew large as I mumbled something about them “playing.” I grabbed the boy’s hand and took him back to his father.  “Did you see the pig?” his dad asked.  I didn’t wait for the kid to answer.  I dumped all the remaining candy in his bucket and cheerily waved them off.   “Happy Halloween!”  Once they’d stepped off the front porch, I quickly locked the front door and turned off all the lights.  Only then did I burst out laughing. Geez!  

Last weekend, I lugged down the box of Halloween decorations and unpacked the plug-in foam jack-o-lantern that we set next to the front door. Maisie’s ears twitched and she stuck her nose into the air and snorted. She knows it won’t be long now.  Halloween is in the air.  She can almost smell the Tootsie Rolls.  

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Cockroach Confidential September 20, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Life.
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5 comments

There were cockroaches everywhere. A biblical plague had descended on the Holy Land – the Holy Land being our overpriced New York City apartment. (Yes, I realize that using the word “holy” in the same sentence as “New York City” amounts to blasphemy.) The final straw came when we found them crawling in the cereal that my sons ate. Cereal killers! Drastic times call for drastic measures. We decided it was time to call in the professionals. Who you gonna call? – (No, not them) – Lady Killers!

I can’t remember how I found out about Lady Killers, but the woman on the phone assured me she could take care of “the problem.” I envisioned a highly-trained entomological exorcist who could banish these six-legged demons that had turned our lives into a living hell.

We’d exhausted the traditional “final solutions.” We’d already sprinkled crop circles of boric acid around the apartment, and all of the Roach Motels had vacancy signs. We’d taken to wiping down the kitchen counter hourly and keeping all food in tightly sealed plastic containers. It was like we were living in a bomb shelter and dipping into rations when we ate.

I eagerly awaited the arrival of the Lady Killer. So I was a bit taken aback when a dowdy, overweight woman arrived and introduced herself as Elaine. This was the Lady Killer? She had an unusually firm handshake. That’s when I realized the Lady Killers were not just ladies, they were lesbians. Talk about a niche market.

As Elaine regaled us with tales of the German Brown cockroach’s superpowers, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the crusty old shark hunter Robert Shaw played in Jaws. All she was missing was the bite out of her forearm. She informed us a cockroach could live off a single drop of grease in the air for a year. And just like those starving Russians during the Siege of Leningrad, cockroaches could survive by eating the glue from book bindings. We had an entire wall of books, which I now realized was a virtual Hometown Buffet.

From her purse, Elaine produced several unmarked plastic squeeze bottles containing a mysterious white powder. Boric acid?  “No,” she scoffed. She informed us that eating boric acid only made THEM stronger. To be honest, I was afraid to ask her what was in the bottles. Although Elaine assured us it was non-toxic to humans, where was the label? This was obviously some home brewed concoction. But we were desperate. Sometimes it’s best not to know.

For the next two hours, Elaine ransacked our apartment squirting the white powder into every nook and cranny. The entire time, we raptly listened as she detailed the down and dirty habits of the German army that had been occupying our apartment and holding us hostage. She informed us the reason THEY were inside the kitchen clock is that they liked the warmth, and it provided an excellent base camp to launch their expeditions. If I’m ever a contestant on Jeopardy, I can only hope that one of the categories is Cockroaches. I’ll take Cockroaches for $500 please!

We wrote out a check for a couple of hundred dollars and waited. Elaine had said it would take a week before we’d see results. My husband was convinced the white powder was plain old boric acid and the “wait a week” ploy was just to give Elaine time to cash the check. He of little faith.

After a week, THEY began dying. Within two weeks our apartment was roach-free (knock on wood!). The down side was that every time we opened a file cabinet or drawer, a plume of white powder would rise up, leaving traces of white powder on our face and hair. This was New York City in the 80s, so I’m sure our neighbors just thought we had a serious cocaine problem. Any New Yorker can tell you that’s not nearly as bad as a serious roach problem.

We didn’t see a cockroach for six blissful months. Six months may not seem like a long time. But after eight years of daily hand-to-hand combat, this was a dream come true vacation. I actually began to relax. We still kept all of the food in plastic containers; but I no longer swatted anything that moved in my peripheral vision, including my children.

After six months, the clock struck midnight and the spell was broken. The roaches began straggling back. So Elaine returned once again with the magic powder. By then, she knew the most intimate details of our lives – as she’d been through every drawer and cabinet in our apartment.

By the time we finally decided to leave New York City, the cockroaches were back in full force. If I had any second thoughts about our flight from the Holy Land, these were put to rest when I saw baby roaches crawling inside the digital display on the microwave oven. Gross! We waved the white surrender flag and were escorted safely out of the combat zone aka New York City.

We were excited to be moving to Mexico. Little did we know that a welcoming committee was already forming to greet us – of scorpions.

Why I Blog August 24, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Blogging.
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2 comments

“Enough of your BS!” is my husband’s way of telling me he’s tired of hearing updates on my blog stats.  It’s bad enough that when I turn on my computer, he announces, “That’s Jan booting up.”  When I pop open my breakfast Classic Coke (children, do as I say, not as I do), he announces, “There’s the second sound that tells me Jan is alive.”  

When my friend Lesley was visiting from England, she grabbed her camera and snapped pictures of me, so as to capture, “the blogger in her natural habitat!”  Every time I was having a creative surge, she or her daughter, Lucy, would circle me like naturalists, and in that oh-so-charming English accent, narrate their observations on the strange habits of the “lesser blogger.”  

As you can see, I have to put up with a lot from these malcontents, who envy both my passion and keyboarding skills.  These incursions into my creative space are what I call blogus interruptus.

Before I started blogging, I often worked as a writer for hire.  I was good at it and paid well.  But I can’t say I enjoyed it (other than cashing the checks). Writing screenplays is like being an architect who designs buildings that are never made, or building the best sand castle ever – just before high tide. 

So, why do I blog?  I blog because words ricochet around inside my head 24/7, and blogging provides an exit wound.  Words are my best friends. They’re the friends who always want to play and never save a seat on the bus so I can’t sit there.  I like to play fast and loose with words, spinning them like gunslingers twirl six-shooters.  Sometimes I shoot myself in the foot, but the more I blog, the better my aim has become.  Life is funny like that.  

I also blog because I’m an artist.  Sometimes I work with paint, but increasingly, I like to paint pictures with words, and I like to use LOTS of color!  I’m a Fauvist sitting at a keyboard trying to get the colors just so. (It’s so true – it’s all in the rewrite!)  

I blog because I know I’m not just talking to myself.  I like having an audience.  I like it when people comment or I find they’ve linked my blog to theirs.  And when all eyes are me, I don’t want to disappoint.  Writers don’t have a right to bore people.  I know a thing or two, and like to share my experiences and observations.  Humor is my Trojan Horse.  It allows me to get inside the gate so I can be heard.  

As a third-grade teacher, I have a built-in audience, and although I have way too much fun with my students, they’re not my demographic.  When a student told me he wasn’t coming to school on Halloween because it’s the devil’s birthday, I blurted out, “But my birthday is in April!”  He walked away with a quizzical look on his face.   But you got it, didn’t you?  

Finally, when I’m sitting at my keyboard and writing, I feel like all is well with the world.  I think about my audience – family, friends, and all of the amazing people I never would have “bumped into” in cyberspace had it not been for my blog.  This brings a smile to my face.  Then, I begin to write.

Close Encounter With A Narcissist – Part 3 August 15, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
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548 comments

Please read/reread “Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Parts 1 & 2” before reading Part 3.  These are usually featured in Top Posts in the column at the right.  If not, you can access them through Tags or Categories under Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Scroll down through Part 3 to reach Parts 1 & 2. Note: In Part 3, I’ll refer to a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) simply as a narcissist.  Again, I’ll refer to the narcissist as “he,” as the majority of narcissists are male.

Looking back on my own close encounter with a narcissist, I can see the Red Flags were there early on. In my gut, I knew there was something “off” about my friend Joe. But I had trouble putting my finger on just what IT was. The more time I spent with him, it became painfully obvious how illogical Joe’s reasoning was – it just didn’t jibe with “human” logic. He also seemed enamored with himself and professed to having many talents. I once teased Joe that he was “self-absorbed.”  But I wasn’t teasing – merely making an observation. For the first time, the word narcissist popped into my head.

Red Flag #1 – Grandiosity

Ah, yes.  Grandiosity and its sidekick Magical Thinking. While there is an overlap with other personality disorders when it comes to Lack of Empathy, it is Grandiosity that distinguishes Narcissistic Personality Disorder from all of the other personality disorders. Grandiosity is the jewel in the crown that makes the narcissist so very special.

According to the DSM-IV, “The essential feature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.

“Individuals with NPD routinely overestimate their abilities and inflate their accomplishments, often appearing boastful and pretentious. They may blithely assume others attribute the same value to their efforts and may be surprised when the praise they expect and feel they deserve is not forthcoming.”

An admitted “seminar junkie,”  Joe shared with me a dizzying array of plans he had that would bring him money, recognition, or just a change in scenery. After hearing these change weekly, I began writing down all of the things Joe was going to do “some day.”  When you’re a teenager, or even in your twenties, this kind of daydreaming is normal. But not in your 40s.

Narcissists love to envision grand scenarios starring – themselves! What they lack is the follow-through to make them reality. Why do narcissists indulge in this kind of thinking?  Just thinking of all of the great things they’re “going to do” brings a smile to their face. Think of it as mental masturbation.

One day I told Joe I believed the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. Not that people can’t change, but barring some life-changing epiphany, most people are creatures of habit. Joe vehemently disagreed. You see, the narcissist’s grandiosity goes hand-in-hand with Magical Thinking. Joe was big on the book The Secret, which holds that all you have to do is think positive thoughts and good things will happen. Now, I’m all for positive thinking and I like to think karma will come round, but Magical Thinking goes above and beyond. When you’re a narcissist, though, fairy tales can come true (besides, they’re already wearing that crown).

Here’s an example of grandiosity. Joe was considering taking a freelance job on the side. He’d never done this sort of work, but narcissists are convinced they can do anything. I warned Joe he could be getting in over his head, but he took the job anyway. Three weeks later, he came to me in a panic. Not only had he screwed up the job, he was being asked to refund the money he’d been paid, since someone else would now have to fix his mess. His client had mentioned the “L” word – lawyer. It was the first time I’d seen Joe visibly shaken.

Now, on some level, Joe knew he’d screwed up, but he refused to accept any responsibility. As I listened to him talk aloud about the botched job, I watched him mentally rewrite the scenario of what happened. It wasn’t his fault – it was that stupid woman who hired him. You see, narcissists are NEVER, EVER wrong. So, if a narcissist ever tells you he was wrong about something (a very human trait), brace yourself. Most likely he’s getting ready to do something really nasty – to you.

Red Flag #2 – Lack of Empathy

Empathy is what makes us human. We can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and share their joy or feel their pain. But a narcissist has only one one pair of shoes – and they fit PERFECTLY. Human emotions confound narcissists and make them uncomfortable. They don’t know the right thing to say. They’ve watched humans, so they know what they’re supposed to say, but it doesn’t come naturally. This explains their often odd and insensitive comments (The Inappropriate Effect). Any talk of feelings is just so – icky!  Joe was quick to point out he hated “girlie girls” or anyone who was “touchy feely.” He dismissed anything tinged with emotion as “drama.” What was funny was although Joe said he hated drama, it was his own bad behavior that sparked all of the drama in his life.

Joe often said he was “too nice.” He could talk a good game, lamenting the injustices in the world, as if he genuinely cared. But it was just that – talk.

I once listened to Joe make a comment to a young woman. They’d worked together and supposedly were friends. The comment was about her body and had a sexual undertone. It left her visibly distressed. Now, any normal person, seeing her reaction would have immediately apologized for hurting her feelings. But what did “I’m too nice” Joe do? He sat across the table from her for the next hour and never opened his mouth. Later, I asked why he would say such an insensitive thing. He shrugged and admitted it was a cheap shot, but added, smiling, “It was so easy – that’s what made it so much fun.” It was creepy.

When I talked to the woman several days later, SHE apologized to me!  “I’m sorry I got so upset,” she said. “I know the way Joe is, so I shouldn’t have let it bother me so much.” Can you see how a narcissist gets away with such behavior? People make excuses for him!  “That’s just the way he is,” they say, while mentally adding another tally mark after the word @sshole.

Asking a narcissist to “have a heart” has just the opposite effect. Reasoning with them also falls on deaf ears. A narcissist doesn’t want to change because there’s nothing wrong with him. YOU are the one with the problem, remember?

Red Flag #3 –  Confusing Communication

Communication (or should I say lack of genuine communication) with a narcissist is a crazy-making experience. Humans communicate to share information, ideas, and feelings. Not so the narcissist who uses words to confuse and paralyze his victim. Narcissists don’t like to play their nasty games on a level playing field. Their cryptic comments are designed to keep their victim constantly confused and wondering, “What did THAT mean?” This tactic gives the narcissist the home team advantage.

Any attempt to discuss feelings with a narcissist is doomed to leave the victim not knowing left from right. Joe had a short list of pronouncements that could derail any conversation: “Can’t you take a joke?”  “But no one got hurt!”  “Why do you bother talking about that?  It’s in the past!” (yesterday constituted ‘the past’) “If you’d just behave!”  “I’m really busy, so is this life or death?” or his ultimate putdown, “You’re such a drama queen!”

If you know a narcissist, you already know the kind of comments I’m talking about. They’re the equivalent to a teenager’s dismissive, “Whatever!” or the “Talk to the Hand” gesture.

When cornered, a narcissist is like the cartoon character who, when in danger, magically produces a pencil, quickly draws a door, and makes a hasty exit. When I read Stalking the Soul by Marie-France Hirigoyen, a French psychiatrist whose specialty is victimology, it was her chapter on Communication and the narcissist that hit a nerve. The verbal roller coaster, with all its twists and turns, came to a screeching halt and I decided then it was time to get off the ride. It was no longer exciting – it was making me sick.

Cerebral and Somatic – Sex as in “Table for One, Please”

Narcissists get their admiration, or Narcissistic Supply (NS), in one of two forms. Cerebral narcissists gain NS through their intellect, that is, by being “an authority.” Somatic narcissists may be equally intelligent, but they satisfy their need for NS through sexual conquests.

Both kinds of narcissist prefer autoerotic sex – masturbation – to sex with a flesh-and-blood woman. That’s because a real woman expects you to talk to her, or even worse, cuddle, after the main event. Remember, the narcissist can’t establish a genuine emotional bond with another human, so he finds these feelings unnatural and awkward. Faking it is hard work, and he’d just as soon get up and watch TV or check his email. You served your purpose and now he’s done with you. It’s like he had to blow his nose – and the Kleenex? Well, that would be you. He’ll toss it/you aside until he needs to blow his nose again. Romantic, huh?

Cerebral narcissists can put on a show during the idealization phase, but quickly lose all interest in sex. They’re essentially asexual. They derive pleasure from frustrating their partner by withholding sex. This gives them a feeling of power. Besides, to them, not only is sex down and dirty – it’s just so common. They’re way too special to engage in such a common pursuit. So they can do without.

Despite Joe’s love of sexual innuendo, I realized when it came to women, he was like my dogs when it comes to cats. My dogs love the chase, but if the cat stops running, they just stand there, looking rather embarrassed about what to do next. After a short impasse, they wander off to look for another cat that will run from them. Remember, it’s the chase that the narcissist loves.

A somatic narcissist, on the other hand, is like the town dog always making his rounds. But it’s not just his infidelity, and the accompanying lies, that are so disturbing. It’s his irrational rationale. “You made me do it” so “It’s not my fault.” (I apologize to all dogs for comparing them to a narcissist. Dogs are infinitely more caring and human than any narcissist could ever hope to be.)

The Myth of Curing the Narcissist

Remember the blanket analogy from Part 1?  A person doesn’t HAVE a personality disorder, they ARE the personality disorder. Narcissism in interwoven into every fiber of that blanket. Unravel the blanket and you unravel their personality.

If you’re a woman, you’re most likely a nurturer and think that with enough patience and love, someone or something can be helped. It’s that “I’ll nurse this fallen baby bird back to health using a medicine dropper!” thing. Sound familiar?

Even after I figured out that Joe had NPD, I was convinced if I could just reconnect with that inner child that was hiding deep inside, he’d feel safe to come out and show me his real face. Olly, olly, oxen free! Some call this logic “Peeling an Onion.” The rescuer thinks, “If I can just peel away the layers of hurt, I can get to the core of the problem, and I can help him heal.” But what’s at the core of an onion?  Ah ha! That’s a trick question, because an onion has no core.  Not to mention that peeling an onion makes YOU cry, while the onion feels nothing.

Know this. That wounded child’s True Self might as well be preserved in amber. It’s fossilized and will never ever develop. Besides, a narcissist doesn’t want to be fixed because he’s convinced he’s fine just the way he is. It’s YOU who has the problem, remember?

So, least you forget, write this on a post-it note and put it up on the refrigerator:  NO NARCISSIST HAS EVER BEEN CURED!  (I’ve since written more about this.  See Can a Narcissist be Cured?)

Discarded and Scarred – Life After the Narcissist

I was only involved with Joe for four months and we were just “friends.” (Friends is in quotations because narcissists don’t have any real friends). Joe had proven himself to be a first class @sshole on so many occasions. He showed absolutely no interest in me as a person – only in what I could do for him. He’d solicited advice, ignored it, then punished me for offering it. So why couldn’t I just “move on?”  I knew WHAT he was. I knew there was NO CURE. But still…

First, it was hard to forget how much I enjoyed Joe’s company during the Idealization phase. He’d bound up to me like an eager puppy wagging its tail. It was hard to believe this was an act, or just the giddiness that went with honing in on a new source of NS. It seemed so real – to me.

But, the most painful part was the feeling of betrayal – of being duped. It’s hard to admit that you were just a “thing” with an expiration date, especially to a person you genuinely cared about. You want to think that when all is said and done, at the end of the day you were special. But you are special, and that’s why the narcissist targeted you.

I was angry with Joe, but I was angriest with myself. I’m a confident person with strong boundaries, so how could I have let this happen?  This was all a game for Joe. But then he had an advantage because he’d played this game many times before. He knew the rules. Hell, I didn’t even know it was a game!

A word of warning: A narcissist will never give his victim the validation they so desperately seek or closure. This final act of control and cruelty leaves his victim hanging and twisting in the wind. This brings a smile to the narcissist’s face.

I’ve since forgiven myself. As a caring person, I only did what came naturally. I saw someone who was lonely and seemed to be in pain, and I reached out to help them. But Joe didn’t want or need my help, because he’s perfect just the way he is. So, you see, I’m the one with the problem. But it’s a problem I can live with. It’s called being human. And that, my friends, is what I learned from MY close encounter with a narcissist.

Acknowledgements

It was Joe’s self-involvement that led me to Google “narcissism.” Who would have known there were so many others online looking for answers?

Sam Vaknin’s book Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited was a revelation. How could anyone not know Sam?  A narcissist, he’s everywhere on the internet. I’m just glad a life crisis forced him to venture out into the light of day long enough to write this seminal book. Although I jokingly refer to Sam as the Head Vampire, he has shed such light into the darkness that is NPD. I’m only sorry I forwarded my highlighted version to Joe, who will never read it (I imagine he uses it to prop up one very short leg of a table.)

Marie-France Hirigoyen’s book, Stalking the Soul, was a godsend. I ordered a used copy from Amazon.

I first found on-line support through Careplace’s NPD community. Several of the online friends I met there are now my real-life friends, and I kiss the ground for my good fortune.

The members of MSN Groups Narcissistic Personality Disorder Forum constantly amaze me with their wisdom, insight, and yes, humor. It’s inspiring to see how people can gain strength from each other’s experiences, cry, learn, laugh, and move forward. Special thanks to Femfree, the forum manager, for posting the link to my blog.

Finally, thanks to all those near and dear to me. You know who your are. Your patience and support has made me realize how incredibly rich I am.

Looking to the Future

I always thought that as soon as I finished writing Close Encounter with a Narcissist I’d be DONE! But I’m a teacher, remember?  And there’s still so much work to be done to educate the public about this devastating disorder. So, I WILL be writing future posts on NPD. If you’d like to check in from time to time, please bookmark my site.  Peace.

Posts since written – You’ll find them in Categories or Tags under Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Can a Narcissist be Cured?
The Mirror Talks – Reflections on Narcissism #1, 2, and 3.

You’ll find these in Categories under Narcissistic Personality Disorder.


Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Part 2 July 31, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
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48 comments

Please read/reread “Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Part 1” before reading Part 2.  You’ll find it in Top Posts in the column at the right.  If you access it through Tags or Categories under Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you have to scroll down past Part 2 to reach Part 1.  Note: In Part 2, I’ll refer to a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) simply as a narcissist.

I was mulling over how to begin Part 2 when I happened upon a card in a shop. On the front it said, “Wonder if you looked deep inside yourself and found out no one was home?” The inside of the card was blank. What a perfect analogy for a narcissist!

Remember, that to avoid further hurt and abandonment, the child’s True Self retreated into a virtual human “panic room” to hide. There the immature child remains protected, but mortally wounded. His ability to emotionally bond with another human has been “disabled.”  The carefully crafted social mask, known as the False Self, is now firmly in place.

The False Self embodies everything the child is not, so the narcissist often projects an image of being all knowing and all powerful. I’m in charge here! I’m an authority! The narcissist is able to fly under most people’s radar because he can actually be quite charming when it suits him, or if he needs something from someone. You might even be tempted to think he is “normal.” Think again. Although the narcissist has matured physically and intellectually, emotionally he is a kindergartener who won’t share and doesn’t play well with others.

There’s a reason I chose the title Close Encounter with a Narcissist, and it’s not because I’m a big Stephen Spielberg fan. Only those people who dare to get too “close” to a narcissist see him drop his social mask. Since most of the narcissist’s abuse takes place behind closed doors, there are no witnesses.

For four months, I was Joe’s confidante and “go to” person. After my encounter with Joe, I talked to several people who knew him. These were people whom Joe regarded as part of his “inner circle,” yet when I asked them about Joe, they confessed they actually knew very little about him. Oh, there were those odd and inappropriate comments he’d make from time to time. “But, that’s just the way Joe is,” they shrugged, adding, “Besides, who’d want to get to know him better. He’s so weird!” Sheepishly, I raised my hand.

Humans – What are they good for?

Now I want to share the ugliest secret of the narcissist, the thing I found impossible to imagine, let alone to believe.

If the narcissist doesn’t think of other humans as caring others, then how does he view them? The answer is as things, i.e., mirrors. The mirror has one purpose. It’s to reflect back to the narcissist the image his False Self projects to the world. Period.

When I first read about this, the idea that a human = a thing just didn’t make sense. I’d spent hours listening to Joe recount stories of traumatic events from his childhood. Never mind that if I brought up my family or my life, Joe could barely stifle a yawn. I imagined myself as Joe’s safe haven. And I have to admit, I enjoyed this role. Maybe it’s a maternal thing. I have two sons and also have a younger brother. I imagined Joe thought, “I can be myself with her.” So I wasn’t a THING! Things are to be used. But that’s just what Joe did. He used me.

Let’s face it. One mirror is as good as the next and I was just one of Joe’s many mirrors. Every time I listened attentively and nodded my head or smiled, this was confirmation to Joe that the grandiose image his False Self projected to the world was, in fact, real. He liked the reflection of himself that he saw in my mirror. He found it flattering.

Joe’s co-workers and neighbors were also mirrors. The narcissist thinks of all these lesser people as human “wallpaper” like you’d have on your computer or cell phone. Something pleasant to look at in the background. Period.

My attention – anyone’s attention, whether it be positive or negative, verified to Joe that he existed. This is what’s known as Narcissistic Supply (NS). Drugs are to an addict as NS is to a narcissist.

Narcissists as Emotional Vampires

Narcissists are frequently compared to vampires and it’s not just because of that mirror thing. Narcissists are eternally seeking the life force of another, that perfect someone who will fill their inner void. They’re drawn to people who are vital and possess the very qualities they’re sadly lacking – empathy and a love of life.

I realized there were many things about me and my life that Joe envied. My energy. My social ease. My creativity. It was as though Joe hoped to expropriate these qualities by associating with me.

What the narcissist doesn’t understand is that what’s missing from his life is not someone, but something. It’s that something he never received in childhood, and it’s not something that can be “found.” Although their False Self projects confidence and knowledge, the inner life of the narcissist is emotionally barren. Their True Self is locked away. No one is at home.

D&D or Humans as Disposable Plastic Forks

Since most narcissists are men, that perfect someone is most likely a woman. But when it comes to relationships, narcissists are like robots with one foot nailed to the floor, destined to go round and round in a circle. This cycle has three phases: Idealization, Devalue, and Discard (D&D). This is the script and it never varies. Because of the narcissist’s magical thinking, he actually believes it’s possible do the same thing over and over again and each time the result will be different.

During the initial Idealization phase, the woman is put on a pedestal by the narcissist, who is almost giddy with excitement. He is like a small child anticipating a present. The narcissist is on his best behavior – charming, energetic, and seemingly caring.

Joe was a chronic flirt and always kept his phone on speakerphone. So I got to hear his convoluted conversations with women he was pursuing. It was painful listening to a woman explain to Joe that she wasn’t interested in him romantically as he looked over and gave me a knowing wink. “So what time should I pick you up?” he’d ask. Narcissists don’t like it when people say “No” to them. Joe even admitted he’d been told he had “boundary issues.”

Another woman told Joe he lacked basic conversational skills, so he went out and purchased a package of instructional tapes to boost his vocabulary. I tried to explain to Joe that his vocabulary wasn’t the issue, but he really didn’t get it. “Did you notice how I already inserted the word ‘cache’ into the conversation,” he said proudly. He continued to badger this woman until she finally stood him up.

You see, what a narcissist loves most is the chase. Once a woman actually shows any real interest in him, well, this is the beginning of the end. Huh?

As a Cross is to a Vampire: Emotional Intimacy is to a Narcissist

Whether you’re someone’s friend or their lover, there’s an expectation that as you get to know each other, you’ll grow closer. Ideally, familiarity breeds content. Not so with a narcissist. Remember, the narcissist is not capable of establishing a genuine emotional bond with another human. So for a narcissist, familiarity breeds contempt. A narcissist dreads emotional intimacy because it requires him to actually care and the best he can do is feign caring. When you are someone’s friend or lover, they naturally have expectations. Narcissists hate expectations and feel suffocated by them.

I have a close friend who was involved with a narcissist. A therapist told her that anyone involved with a narcissist should know that person is always looking over their shoulder. No, not backwards, but over YOUR shoulder, because a narcissist is always on the lookout for the next best thing. Like small children, they’re easily bored.

So when the idealized woman begins to exhibit “human” traits, e.g., caring, emotions, or expectations of emotional intimacy, the narcissist is repulsed and prepares to move on.

Remember, the narcissist’s mother emotionally abandoned him, so he is determined to never be abandoned again. This time he’ll abandon HER first. (Again, any woman can play the role of Mom) In fact, he’ll even engage in crazy-making behavior to hasten this cycle. If you apply “human” logic to sort this out, you’re doomed to get one very large headache. It’s just their nature. It’s how they’re hardwired.

When a Mirror Malfunctions

If you’re a narcissist, you want your mirrors to reflect a flattering image of you. Personally, I like mirrors that take 10 pounds off, and avoid one mirror in particular that highlights the scowl line on my forehead. So it is with the narcissist. When the image his mirror reflects back to him is less than flattering, it’s time to trade up. You’ve heard the expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” But what if the messenger (that annoying mirror) is delivering a message you don’t want to hear? If you’re a narcissist, this is a no brainer. Reach for the ammo.

Shooting the messenger aka Devaluation takes many forms: A snide or dismissive remark here, a sarcastic jab there, an odd, critical comment, or an inappropriate sexual innuendo. Each designed to chip away at the other’s self-esteem and allow the narcissist to gain the upper hand. The victim is left reeling and wondering, “Why would he say something so cruel?”

When Joe would say something mean out of the blue, it totally took me off guard. By the time I recovered from the sheer shock of this hit, he’d already moved on. It left me doubting my own sanity. I thought we were friends. So what was THAT about?

Time and time again, Joe sought me out just to talk or to solicit my advice. I’m a natural nurturer so when someone asks for my help, I spring to action. When Joe had questions about a shaky real estate venture, I hooked him up with a friend who knew that market. When he was considering taking another job, I arranged for Joe to meet with someone who’d actually overseen that job, so he could get the inside track.

What I didn’t realize was that a narcissist is most likely to devalue someone he owes gratitude to because asking for help damages his image. So the narcissist repays help (even though he asked for it) as though it were an insult. He must devalue the giver or it, as if such a contemptible person is incapable of really helping someone as grand as he. And that’s exactly what Joe did.

Let me give you an example from my own D&D experience.  This occurred behind closed doors so there are no witnesses, but I was there and this conversation is seared in my memory.

I’d been working in my garden pruning roses and hadn’t bothered to wear gloves. As a result, my forearms were crisscrossed with scratches.

Joe sauntered in.  “It looks like you tried to slit your wrists!” he said.

“As you can see, I’m directionally challenged!” was my reply. (I’m a hopeless smartass)

“Well, next time you want do it let me know and I’ll help you,”  Joe said, matter-of-factly.

Then smiling, he continued, “Better yet, I’ll do it for you to make sure you get the job done!”

Now, I’d had a very difficult day, so I actually winced when Joe said that. It didn’t strike me as funny. It hurt my feelings. I felt my face turn red and my eyes welled up with tears.

“What’s the matter?  Joe asked. “Are we thin-skinned?” He had a smirk on his face.

I dried my eyes and told Joe he reminded me of a child who professes to love animals then pokes the old bear in the cage at the zoo with a stick. Joe began laughing hysterically. I’d never seen him laugh so loud and so long.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

Joe was so doubled over with laughter he could barely get the words out. “It’s not an old bear,” he said. “It’s an old toothless lion with no fur left on its tail!” This sent him into another hysterical fit of laughter.

Now, I’m older than Joe and have a mane of red hair, so I instinctively knew “who” the lion was. Watching his glee at my expense was a revelation. Joe had dropped his mask and what was behind the mask? A cruel, selfish child, reduced to taunting another human.

Joe was my friend, but friends don’t hurt each other, at least not on purpose. The hardest part was realizing that I never really “knew” Joe at all. “Wonder if you looked deep inside yourself and found out no one was home?” What a sad life, indeed. But don’t feel sorry for the narcissist. Feel sorry for his victims because the narcissist doesn’t give them a second thought. He’s already moved on to the next best thing.

I know I didn’t tell you there was going to be a quiz, but I’m a teacher. It’s MY nature. Besides, I know you got a perfect score on the quiz at the end of Part 1. To pass, all you have to do is complete the following analogy:

As a cross is to a vampire; ________ __________ is to a narcissist.

Sorry, but I don’t have the technical capabilities to put the answer upside down at the bottom. So, if you’re stumped, you can scroll back and reread. Only you know that you’re cheating. To be honest, I don’t care. What’s important to me is that, in the end, you get it.

Part 3 (The final installment): Three BIG Red Flags of NPD; Grandiosity and Lack of Empathy; Cerebral vs. Somatic Narcissists; The Myth of Healing the Narcissist; Life After the Narcissist; and Acknowledgments.

Photo credit:  Unicorn Mask by Matty on flickr.

Click on this link to read Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Part 3.

Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Part 1 July 5, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
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46 comments

When you’re used to writing with a humorous edge, there’s always the danger that when you have something important, albeit serious, to say, no one will take you seriously. I’m willing to take that chance.

I’m writing this because, first, I want to expunge any lingering demons from my own close encounter with a narcissist. Even more important, as an educator, I’d like to see information about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) become common knowledge. Can you remember back to when you first heard about ADHD or OCD? Even now, you might not know all there is to know (that’s what Wikipedia is for!), but at least you know these disorders are for real. So is NPD. There will be a quiz at the end. Hey, I’m a teacher, and I need to check for understanding.

When most people think of a narcissist, they picture someone obsessed with their physical appearance. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” I’d certainly never heard of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a real-deal condition laid out in the DSM-IV. But being an experiential learner, I had to learn the hard way. Now I’m an armchair detective in the study of this condition, and I’m finally ready to talk.

I make no excuses for lacking medical or psychological credentials. Narcissists are an elusive breed, so you won’t find them in a therapist’s office embarking on a journey of introspection. When my husband was on jury duty, another potential juror was a therapist. When asked about NPD, the therapist sadly shook his head. “I’ve actually never seen a client with NPD because they’re convinced they don’t have a problem,”  he said. “But they leave a high body count,” he added. “Their victims are the people who come to see me.”

No wonder. A close encounter with a narcissist can leave you doubting your own sanity. The victim, and there is a victim, is left shaking her head wondering, “What just happened?”  (I’ll use the female pronoun since it’s believed that the 50-75 percent of those with NPD are men).  Want to get those party guests who’ve overstayed their welcome to leave?  Just start talking about NPD. If you try to explain the disorder to friends or family, they’ll look at you like you’re discussing alien abduction or as if you’ve grown another head.

I haven’t sprouted another head yet have I? Good. Because it’s highly likely you know someone who has NPD. Most likely, they’re flying under your radar. Narcissists make nice to people who are in the position to do something for them, or to people who just don’t have a speaking role in the grand production that is their life. Only those who dare to get emotionally close to a narcissist get to see them drop their carefully crafted social mask.

The DSM  – Not A Summer Read

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) is a hefty tome and the handbook for mental health professionals. I once trekked to the public library to consult it, after I was told by a therapist that a mutual friend suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. What on earth? I imagined someone teetering on the edge of sanity, in danger of falling overboard. When I finally read the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, all of the pieces fell into place. There was my friend. I had to sit down to catch my breath. If only I’d kept reading, I would have learned about NPD as well.

My friend with NPD, I’ll call him Joe, entered my orbit through a shared common interest. He seemed intrigued by my enthusiasm and talent. In retrospect, I think he was most drawn to me because although I’m a natural talker, I can also be a good listener. He struck me as someone who needed to talk, but was socially awkward. Initially, I found this endearing. If there was a lull in the conversation, he’d blurt out the strangest comment that had nothing whatsoever to do with what we’d been talking about. I overlooked these gaffes or mentally made excuses for them. He’s obviously uncomfortable talking to women. He’s from a different culture. English is his second language. He had a difficult childhood. He’s just outspoken.

Then one day Joe said something so cruel to me, I can still feel its sting. My eyes welled up with tears. “What’s the matter?” he asked, still smiling. “Are we thin-skinned?” I realized he was relishing my discomfort. It was creepy. After he left, I replayed the encounter in my head. Then replayed it again. Maybe I’d read too much into it. Later, I would be angry that I didn’t listen to my gut instinct.

Two days later, Joe stopped by to talk. It was as though nothing had ever happened. When I tried to bring the subject up, he dismissed my concern with a wave of the hand, “Nobody got hurt,” he proclaimed. What an odd comment to make, I thought. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Then, based on a hunch, I googled “narcissism.” I discovered there was so much I didn’t know.

DSM–IV Criteria for Diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

To make a diagnosis of NPD, at least five of the following nine behaviors must be evident.Remember that most narcissists are diagnosed in absentia since they’re loath to seek professional help. The comments in bold italics are mine.

1.  An exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) Think- Grandiosity accompanied by its sidekick Magical Thinking.  He’s so full of himself, he’s convinced he can do anything.

2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. Think “The Secret.” My talents know no bounds!

3. Believes he is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions) Think – I’m unique, therefore I’m misunderstood.

4. Requires excessive admiration  Think – Look at me Mom! (Any woman can play the role of Mom.)

5. Has a sense of entitlement Think – That doesn’t apply to me!

6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends Think – You’re just lucky I chose you to be of service to me, as spending time in my presence is reward enough.

7. Lacks empathy Think – It’s killing me to even pretend that I’m interested in your life or concerns. Your feelings make me feel uncomfortable so get over it!

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him. Think-You have something I want. Can I borrow it so it can become mine?

9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes. Think – All this time I just thought he was an @sshole!

Developmental Narcissism

Narcissism, itself, is not inherently bad and is even developmentally appropriate. Children until the age of six are naturally narcissistic. They’re inherently egocentric and “Mine!” is their mantra. This is normal. As children grow older, they become more aware of the needs of others. Prodded by their parents, they learn to share. They learn to take turns. Reluctantly, they relinquish the spotlight.

Adolescents are also prone to narcissistic behavior. “You can’t tell me anything I don’t already know!” punctuated with a slamming door. This kind of narcissism is remedied when real life smacks them with a dose of reality. Mom and dad sever the financial pipeline, or their boss doesn’t find it cute that they were late to work again. Adolescents don’t grow out of it. They grow up.

Many adults show narcissistic traits, which can render them fairly obnoxious at times. But that doesn’t mean they have NPD. If you’re wondering about some of your own less-than-admirable traits, that’s proof positive that you’re NOT a narcissist. Narcissists are convinced that they’re perfect just the way they are. It’s other people who have the problem. Other people, as in the rest of the world. You just need to accept them the way they are. But that’s your problem.

Personality Disorder vs. Mental Illness

How is a personality disorder different from mental illness? I had a hard time initially wrapping my head around this one. A mental illness (schizophrenia being the most widely known) can be treated, with varying degrees of success with medications or cognitive therapy. Most mental illnesses are caused by brain cell synaptic disruptions, most of which are believed to be genetic in origin. I have friends who are bipolar and as long as they take their meds, any symptoms subside and they feel and act relatively “normal.” Mental illnesses typically present themselves in late adolescence or early adulthood. The onset of the mental illness is often sudden and profound. A mental illness descends over a person’s personality like a heavy wool blanket feels on an already warm summer night.

A personality disorder, on the other hand, is all pervasive. The DSM-IV describes a personality disorder as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

With mental illness, a person’s personality is blanketed, or suffocated, by the onset of the mental illness. But the personality of someone with a personality disorder is virtually interwoven into every fiber of that blanket. Unravel the blanket and you unravel their personality.

So someone doesn’t have a personality disorder; they ARE the personality disorder. These personality traits are so deeply ingrained that they defy change. That brings me to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

An Analogy

Calcutta, India has the highest population density of any city on Earth, most of whom live in wretched poverty. Because only central Calcutta is serviced by sewers, during the monsoon season, raw sewage floods the streets. Helping the poor of Calcutta was Mother Teresa’s life’s work.

I had a friend who spent most of his childhood in Calcutta. One day we were shopping and he asked me to tell him which cologne smelled the best. He claimed to have no sense of smell. I was incredulous. My friend said rather matter-of-factly that he’d lost his sense of smell when he lived in India. He didn’t seem to view this as any sort of disability, for this “loss” he said had spared him from smelling the stench of humanity in Calcutta.

Now, I lived in New York City for 11 years, so I know first hand that there are smells worse than death. I saw how one homeless man, passed out and simmering in his own juices, could empty an entire subway car during the peak of rush hour. Just a whiff of a decomposing rat could make me retch.

But though this “loss” protected my friend against the putrid odors of Calcutta, it also robbed him of the ability to enjoy the sweet fragrance of night-blooming jasmine, the crisp smell of fresh basil, or the garlicky preview of a dinner to come. It was all or nothing. A package deal.

Are you still with me?  Because I’m going to ask you to take a big step now.

Picture a small child, totally dependent on his mother to meet his emotional needs. Now what if it’s not putrid odors that assault the child’s senses, but human interactions themselves?  A neglectful, abusive, or even an indifferent mother who leaves the child constantly feeling emotionally adrift.  Or a dominating mother who won’t allow the child to be himself.

Just like my friend, who “lost” his sense of smell, some children, as a coping mechanism to survive the pain of emotional abandonment, tune out the very people who are inflicting the injury. But again, it’s a package deal, because the child tunes out all other humans as well. It’s as though the child “loses” his sense of people. People in the sense that they are caring others. It’s a high price to pay, but it protects the child from future emotional hurt. The child’s immature True Self is “safe” behind a psychological mask. This mask is what’s referred to in psychiatry as the False Self. Unable to trust those who should be nearest and dearest, the child turns his attention to someone who will never abandon him  – himself.

The False Self not only protects the child from further injury. It embodies everything the child is not. While the child is powerless and vulnerable, the False Self of the narcissist presents itself as all knowing and all powerful. But behind the mask of the False Self lies an injured child – an emotional embryo.

Now if you’re a caring person, at this point you probably feel sorry for this child. Don’t bother – it’s too late. The child doesn’t feel sorry for you. This poor little child is now an adult. And it’s time for the victim to become the victimizer.

After I learned about NPD, I continued to be Joe’s “go to” person for several months. I so wanted to be wrong. It was only with my newly gained knowledge that I was able to fully see him for what he was, or more importantly, for what he wasn’t.

But what about the quiz, you ask?   Just answer one simple question.  If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a  _ _ _ _. Congratulations! You passed!

PART 2 The End Game of Devalue and Discard; Meet the Adult Narcissist; Humans = Things, Emotional Vampirism, and the answer to this analogy:  As a CROSS is to a VAMPIRE;  ____________ _____________ is to a NARCISSIST.

Click on the this link to read “Close Encounter with a Narcissist – Part 2″

Photo credit:  Unicorn Mask by Matty on flickr.


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