Monday, July 18, 2011


As an undergrad, I studied theater at UCLA. While UCLA was giant and somewhat anonymous, the theater department was intimate. Incestuous, you might even say. We were young, pretty, gifted and well, a little nuts. You know, actors.

My sophomore year, I rented an apartment in Westwood with a few actress girlfriends. It was on Ophir Drive (pronounced O-FEAR) and our male counterparts took to calling it the "House of Phir". We were indeed fearsome. I saw it then and I see it now. We were a whole lot of crazy beauty concentrated in one spot (emphasis on crazy or beauty depending on the day). A Shakespeare-spewing female tornado. We could suck you in and spit you out. We traded boyfriends and even occasionally girlfriends, we had screaming fights heard 'round the neighborhood, we boogied to Prince at three in the morning, tossing our yards of shiny hair. We were fun but, well, a little scary.

We had a private term used only in the house. And here I risk alienating you, Constant Reader. That term was - brace yourself - "cunt". As in, "Come on, cunt, time to go to the party." Or "Cunt, did you eat all the Top Ramen?" or "I love you. Cunt." It was an endearment. We used it as Ben and I use "honey" today. It made us laugh because it was so shocking. It was the worst word we could think of in association with ourselves. We never used this word outside of the apartment and never inside it if there was a man present. It was ours and it was not up for outside interpretation, or god forbid, misuse. It was an amulet we held against the boys club that was the Theater Department, the microcosm of the male-dominated Hollywood just outside the university walls. It was a little like gay men calling each other "Fag" or gay women lovingly addressing each other as "Dyke" or even African-Americans using the dreaded "N" word within their own community. It is owning your own slander - taking the knife out of the hand of the enemy and keeping it safely for yourself.

I so hate the term "stay-at-home mom". It's ridiculous, really. Demeaning. I'm a mom and I stay at home. That's all I do. I never go out, I never do anything that isn't related to my children. Staying at home, being a mom, that's it. Of course, I'm struggling with more than just the term. I, along with most mothers I know, struggle with personal identity beyond motherhood, balancing this most important job with the rest of who we are. I love that question "Do you work?". I always want to answer, "Aw, no, I'm just a laundress, short-order cook, dish-washer, chauffeur, maid, cruise director and personal hygienist for these three screaming people you see before you. I'm on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I don't get coffee breaks or vacations but it's pretty awesome." For those of us who aren't "working", for those of us "in the home", there is little time, let alone energy for the rest of ourselves - our creativity, our intellectual pursuits, even just our desire to have a little cash that's our own.

So when people ask me what I do, what's the short-hand answer? I've been thinking lately about "housewife". Talk about demeaning. It almost infers other wives. Like a guy has a housewife but he also has an officewife in case he's in need of a back-rub or cup of coffee while at work, or a boatwife in case he wants a cocktail while sailing or, I don't know, a golfwife to carry his clubs. The housewife, of all these wives, probably has the worst job, always stuck at home. But, could I perhaps own the term "housewife"? Could it become my forties equivalent of "cunt"? As in, "Hey, housewife, what's going on? I love those jeans!" or "Housewife, you just gotta tell him you're not going camping again until he buys an air-mattress" or "Meet me for a glass of wine in an hour, housewife, these kids are making me insane!"

When I was in high school, I ran with the most terrific, wonderfully dorky group of girls. There were a handful of us, give or take, depending on the year. We floated in the middle of the social strata. We weren't the self-possessed, derisive girls at the top but we weren't donning renaissance garb, either. Megan, my beloved Megan, was the tallest and loudest of us all (and that's saying something, given the height and volume possessed by each and every girl) and one day one of the surfer boys - the boy that Megan and I had silently worshiped for years - shouted, "Oh, look, it's Megan and her fag crew!" This is just after he yelled at her, apropos of nothing, "You're a dyke - spell it - D-I-K-E!"

The absurdity of the title of "fag crew", given that we were girls, given that calling anyone "fag" by that time (the mid-eighties) in that place (the San Francisco Bay Area) was viewed as totally ridiculous, was, while at first humiliating, in the end, liberating. Really, dude, that's the best you can do? You, king of the surfers, blond bowl-cut Adonis? Clearly you're not as smart as we are.

From that day forward, we were the Fag Crew. We're still close, for the most part, and at any gathering, there's always a toast yelled above blasting Eurythmics, "To the Fag Crew!" We took that name, we took that arrow thrown at us and we loved it because, almost impossibly given our age and hormonal status, we loved ourselves. We loved each other. To some we were second-class but not in our own eyes.

That's what it's all about, housewife.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

White Oleander

Ben was away on and off for a couple weeks and by last Friday I was losing it. I'm generally patient - my patience muscle has been greatly toned by my smallest, most challenging child. But when Ben is gone, I can go from zero to insanity in two seconds. I'll be cruising along, herding children in and out of meals and clothing and bed, all relatively well, when one will push the wrong mommy button, maybe one iota too much sass or ingratitude or, God forbid, daring to slap a sibling while my back is turned, and suddenly I'm hyperventilating, red in the face, shrieking that they've all lost treats and TV for a week.

My friend, Chrissy, bless her, took pity on me and invited us and our friend, Elizabeth, and her kids over for a bar-b-que on Friday night. We put the hot dogs on the grill and went with the kids to search for sticks for marshmallow roasting (my children were on treat probation, the only way they could partake in the marshmallows at the end of the evening is if they didn't give me any shit up until then).

We climbed Chrissy's driveway and found lots of stick candidates. Chrissy was stacking them in her arms when Ben, Elizabeth's husband (yes, they are Elizabeth and Ben and we are Liz and Ben - makes for some confusing introductions), newly arrived, pointed out the flowered oleander above us and wondered if these sticks lying under these bushes were perhaps oleander as well.

Chrissy quickly snatched sticks out of children's hands and we headed to the backyard, where there was no oleander to be found.

The meal proceeded. I spent a total of five minutes in my seat between fetching lemonade and ketchup and non-"burnt" hot dogs for my children. Finally the ordeal of feeding them was over and they moved on to the s'mores. I filled my wine glass, squinted my eyes against the smoke from the fire-pit and recalculated the hours until Ben returned.

Halfway through my chardonnay, I was vaguely aware of Elizabeth examining a roasting stick and Chrissy charging through the patio with that same bundle of oleander. "I don't know how these got back here!" she called as she rushed by.

Soon it was near bedtime - the close to another day, thank God - and, with many thanks in Chrissy's direction, I packed my kids into the van. It was late enough for a snooze cruise, what the girls have coded an "S.C.". I angled the rear view mirror on Mihiretu's drowsy face.

We drove the length of Butterfield Road, the long street that runs the three mile distance of our valley and then, Mihiretu still awake, I turned around to drive it again. Suddenly, half way down the road, I realized that something, digestively speaking, was not at all right. I fought the hot spits for a moment but then pulled the van to the side of the road, mumbled "Gotta throw up" and ran for the weeds.

I knelt there, all three kids dangling out of car windows spectating, Mihiretu now thoroughly awake, cars passing, certainly filled with tight-jeaned, highlighted moms that I vaguely know, and heaved into the grass. Just as I was pulling myself back together, Elizabeth and Ben passed in their car, then quickly turned around and parked behind us.

"What's going on?" Elizabeth called. I shakily stood and hobbled to her car.

"Food poisoning?" I said, wiping my mouth. "I don't know. Vomit. Vomit is going on."

I felt okay to drive again. I assured her that I'd call her if the upchucking continued. I ushered children back into seat-belts and swung around towards home.

Bedtime was ugly. I was making beds - this was not, it turns out, the day to wash the sheets - ordering children into pajamas, sticking toothbrushes in unwilling mouths, while intermittently running to kneel in front of the porcelain altar. Everyone was crying, not unusual for bedtime, but certainly more loudly than the norm. Mae was mad that I had implied she was selfish for insisting on the promised ice cream before bed and was choosing this moment to tell me that I hadn't been nice at all since summer had started. Lana was sobbing in Mae's arms, confused and scared, crying for Daddy. Mihiretu was hysterical, twisting in his bed like a python on PCP while I attempted to read "Goodnight Gorilla" as fast as possible so I could return to the bathroom.

Finally, finally, the children were stowed in their beds. I lay in my own and got on the phone with Ben on the East Coast to try to put together a rescue plan. I briefed him and he hung up to call Elizabeth to coordinate some form of assistance for the next day. I lay back, mixing bowl at my side, breathing in slowly through my nose to combat the nausea.

Moments later the phone rang. It was Ben, now quite concerned.

"Elizabeth told me about the oleander," he said.

I, in my pit of discomfort, had completely forgotten about it.

"I googled it," he said, talking quickly, "and then I called Poison Control."

I took another deep breath, trying to concentrate on his words but now aware of another wave of icky coming on.

"So, it's going to be okay, but the Poison Control guy said that anyone who might have had a marshmallow off an oleander stick should go to the emergency room." He cleared his throat apologetically. "Immediately."

I quickly calculated which of my children were in danger. Mihiretu, thank God, hates marshmallows. Lana probably had one or two. Mae had about fifteen.

As I was trying to envision waking the kids, getting them into the car and enduring the wait at the ER, all while comforting frightened and possibly poisoned children and, of course, vomiting, Ben said, "Wait, I've got another call coming in. I think it's Elizabeth, I'll patch her in."

The caller was indeed not Elizabeth but a doctor from the Poison Center, a salty old monologuer, thirty years on the job.

"You ever hear the story about the boy scout troop being poisoned because they roasted their hot dogs on oleander?" he demanded.

I burped as softly as possible and assured him I hadn't.

"They had FOOD poisoning! Bad weiners!" he chortled. "Urban myth debunked!"

"You know how they killed Socrates?" he quizzed.

I breathed in through my nose, willing my stomach to settle.

"Hemlock?" Ben guessed.

"Oleander!" he trumpeted. "You kids don't know your history. Those Greeks had to boil down buckets of oleander. One lady in Marin tried to kill herself by eating an oleander leaf sandwich. She didn't even get nauseous. Mrs. Capron," he announced, "you have food poisoning."

We finally got off the phone with the doctor. Ben called Elizabeth and I called Chrissy to spread the word that we weren't all dying. Chrissy had me talk to her daughter, Lindsay, who was weeping because she was sure her brother wouldn't ever wake up.

Oleander concern put to bed, so to speak, I finally turned off the light. It was now eleven-thirty and if the good doctor was right, I had at least eight more hours of misery before the tide turned. I slept fitfully, reaching for my bowl in a panic every hour on the hour.

Somewhere around two, Mihiretu woke up. I stumbled into his room, half bent over. The bed was wet, unfortunately, so we made our way to the bathroom to clean him up. I tried to convince him that instead of the usual routine of showering off under the tap of the bathtub, that tonight a wet washcloth would do the trick. No go. He clambered into the tub and I turned the knobs. The entire faucet head popped off and water shot upwards in a three-foot geyser.

The cleaning lady had made her monthly visit the day before and, in her thoroughness, she had loosened the tap. All I could do, between containing my nausea and attacking the spray with a towel, was laugh.

The next morning, Ben's dad and step-mom appeared like a mirage. They scooted the kids out the door and I swerved back into bed. I lay watching the clouds drift by through the skylight, a moment of silence and peace. I caught myself thinking: if the last twelve hours is what it took to earn the right to be in bed in an empty house on a Saturday morning, maybe it was worth it. It was madness, of course. My illness notwithstanding, the momentary belief that my children were poisoned is not something I'd ever, under any circumstances, voluntarily submit to. This stillness, the clouds above, were so eloquent because of what had come before. Sort of like waking up after a migraine, the absence of pain a joy in and of itself. I closed my eyes and didn't open them again for hours.