Chapter 1: A tongue in cheek guide to proper behavior

I’ve decided to write an etiquette guide for the recently widowed. I’ve been struggling with the extreme mood swings that are a normal (or so I’ve been assured) symptom of losing a spouse, and I’ve had concerns over how those mood swings appear to others with whom I interact. That, plus years of insomnia spent watching Law & Order have given me deep insight into human nature and what is considered acceptable behaviors for people in this situation.

Necessary caveat now required for anything meant to be humorous and most especially if the humor is somewhat dark:

Everyone I know has been helpful and supportive through these terribly hard months. In no way am I trying to be disrespectful of the very real difficulties those of us recently widowed face, or of the attempts of friends and colleagues to provide support.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can continue.

Chapter 1: Your Public Face.

There’s a public face to grieving, an expectation of what is considered appropriate and what is not. It’s important for the newly bereaved to understand this so as to meet societal expectations.

This is not Victorian England, and unless you possess wealth on a Kardashian-like level it is just not considered good form to sink too deeply into grief. Spending a month or so at a high-end resort is a fine way to get past emotional turmoil, but calling in sick to work for 3 straight weeks will get you fired.

An inability to manage daily life is considered excessive and wrong, showy even. Adults have responsibilities, and these need to be dealt with. Mourning the death of a spouse will not cut it as a reason for being late in paying bills. That “work family” you were told you had? Don’t even think about asking for more time off, or a lighter schedule after the first month is over. Overt, public expressions of grief are to be avoided at all costs, especially if any noise is involved.

On the other hand, doing too well is considered equally bad form. One of the staples of Law & Order was the surviving spouse coping too successfully. An ability to focus on priorities is a bad thing. How dare you be concerned with collecting the insurance money! Starting any projects or making major purchases, even if they were ones planned before the unfortunate event, should be avoided at all costs.

Worst of all is showing any signs of enjoying life or being capable of positive actions and responses. The grieving spouse needs to be in a constant cloud of despair (quietly and discretely expressed, of course). Public appearances are ideally kept to a minimum, and only to acceptable venues such as grocery stores and dry cleaners.

Acceptable ways to show your grief include losing an extreme amount of weight, staring meaningfully into space on occasion, not washing the kitchen floor, and dressing in dark colors. Unacceptable ways to deal with your spouse dying are any forms of physical contact or even admitting to a desire for dating (for reference, see “Silver Linings Playbook”), appearing to enjoy yourself in public at any time, for any reason, gaining weight or appearing too competent.

A good rule of thumb is to consider a potential activity or action and think to yourself, is this something that will make me feel good in a public, noticeable way? If the answer is yes, do not continue.

When encountering acquaintances who enquire how you are doing, the answer should be some meaningless platitude that relieves the questioner of any need to pry further or otherwise get involved. “Fine”; “As well as could be expected”, “Okay. Slowly moving forward” are all good answers. A long, rambling treatise on your combined anger, despair and grief, punctuated with swearing, crying and screaming, is not. Your answer should be delivered with a downward cast of the eyes but a raised chin, and perhaps a small shoulder shrug. Combing a head tilt with the shoulder shrug is permissible only if you are of Mediterranean or Semitic ancestry.

The goal of these interactions is to make the other person feel they’ve done their job in showing an adequate sense of concern, without in any way making them feel uncomfortable or obligated to intervene further. A sample interaction is:

“Oh, I heard about (fill in name of dead spouse). I’m so sorry. How are you doing?”
“Oh, fine… I guess”. This is delivered with a small, brave smile.
“Well, it must be really hard”
“I just keep moving forward, one day at a time.” Looking down, followed by a shoulder shrug.
“Good for you! Glad to see you’re hangin’ in there.”

Further chapters on acceptable vacation planning, allowable expenditures and when to change your Facebook status will be forthcoming.

Refrigerator door memories

There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance occurring in my head over accepting and coming to terms with being a widow. Most of the time, I occupy a world where my husband died almost 7 months ago. There are memories seared into my brain of that event and all that led up to it; in fact, I can’t stop those memories from playing over and over and over again in an unending loop that still makes it hard to fall asleep at night. The final frames of that personal horror reel are the funeral, and that final goodbye at the cemetery.

Despite this, there seems to be an equally strong part of me that can’t quite fathom what happened. I’ll see a picture of us on vacation, standing side by side, smiles on our face and some noted landmark in the background, and I can’t really believe that I’m still here and he’s not. It gives me a start every time.

Unlike our ancestors of long ago who left few records of their presence, those of us in the first world leave mementoes of our life like crumbs dropping from a toddler’s mouth; they’re everywhere. I can go to YouTube and see Rick in a TV performance and several other clips uploaded by people. There’s a CNN I-Reporter piece he did, and just a simple Google brings up articles and references and even pictures. Because of his work in broadcasting, I’ve got dozens of audio files and CDs of recorded materials. The computer has hundreds of pictures on it, and that’s separate from all the pictures that are printed. Even notebooks lying around the house have his handwriting.

I can surround myself with this and go through the day pretending that he’s still here, that maybe he’s just sleeping like that Norwegian Blue parrot in the Monty Python sketch. I can push away the knowledge that there will never be another new picture taken, he’ll never say anything new, that he won’t ever be writing a phone message. It’s over. The set of objects that were directly touched by him have now become a closed, finite set. I may not have seen all of them, but they have all been created and there will be no more.

It’s hard to get my head around that fact. Periodically I Google him, hoping to see something new, to find proof of his existence: some comment someone made, a picture recently uploaded, just something to keep me from having to realize that Rick, and my life with him, are slowly receding in the rearview mirror.

I bought a new refrigerator this weekend. It’s being delivered later this week, and that means I have to remove all the stuff that is on the door of the old one. The refrigerator door contains our history. It starts with a picture of the two us taken at a concert. This was when we were first dating, newly met. It’s our first picture taken as a couple. Rick looks healthy and his face is almost a little plump. He’s got his arm around me and we both look radiant. I remember posting that on the door, excited for him to notice it the next time he came over. A little to the left and up is a picture from our first trip together. There’s one of him broadcasting on location, looking jaunty with the mic around his head. Down lower, by the handle, is one of us with my parents. There’s a refrigerator magnet picture of us at Rockefeller Center, taken with a fake background that makes it appear we’re part of the crew building the place. Vacations, parties, special events have filled the door with pictures. I can watch us get a little older, see Rick slowly start to lose weight, look less healthy, as the pictures move forward in time.

Each item on the refrigerator door was placed there to commemorate an event in our shared life. That door is a timeline of our life together, starting with that first picture taken back in the summer of 2004. Taking down those pictures will be hard. When the new refrigerator is moved in and setup, I’ll put them back up. But it won’t be the same. They’ll go from being a warm, happy reminder of shared moments to a shrine. The pictures were originally put up one by one, as each was taken, over the 8 years together we had. There was no sense of finality or somber remembrance; each new addition was, well, just another picture. Now they’re imbued with meaning. Now I’ll review each one, carefully determining the right position for it: which side, high or low, angled or straight. The feeling I have now when I look at the fridge, that quick moment of believing that my life hasn’t changed, will be forever gone.

It’s probably a good thing. In the long term.

Daily Prompt: What was your favorite book as a child? Did it influence the person you are now?

I can’t choose just one; here are the 2 books that meant the most to me as a child.

The first selection is actually a series of four books, the original Mary Poppins as written by P.L. Travers. These books are nothing like the Disney movie. The real Mary Poppins was scary; the adventures the Banks’ children had weren’t pleasant outings she concocted for them, they were journeys that were sometimes wonderful and sometimes horrible, and almost always dangerous. This Mary Poppins had her own agenda, and lived her life on her own terms. Travers skewers the class basis of Edwardian England, and the books are as much trenchant social commentary as they are children’s stories.

These books influenced me in two main ways. First, and most important, they taught me to look for layered meanings. I picked up these books as a 9 year old and enjoyed them for the exciting tales they told of the adventures that Jane and Michael had with their nanny. As I read the books, it gradually dawned on me that there was another story being told, about the different levels of British society, and about the people in charge and all the other people who quietly and stealthily lived lives that were very different than what was being promulgated as the right way to live. I’d read other children’s books that had SERIOUS MESSAGES, but this was my first experience with a book that managed to get a point across without driving it like a hammer.

The second way this book influenced me happened when the Mary Poppins movie was released. My parents took us to see it, and I was so excited to see my favorite books on the big screen. I still remember how severely disappointed I was with the sweet, caring figure who was played by Julie Andrews. Over time I came to appreciate the movie, but the lesson I started learning that day was that movies and books are different media, and you can’t expect them to tell stories in the same way. It took me a long time to recognize that, but Mary Poppins started the process.

The second book that affected me was I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. I picked this up when I was 12; it the first science fiction book I’d ever read, and launched me on a life-long love affair with speculative fiction. The I, Robot stories were a revelation; the hero was a woman who broke every convention of what women were supposed to be. She was smart, often smarter than everyone else, and proud of that fact. She spoke the truth as she saw it, even if that upset other people; she didn’t care about how she looked; and she was in charge; and her career was important. Reading those stories in 1967 was my introduction to feminism.

Daily Prompt: 2am Photo; Dreaming of Spring

It’s 2AM and your phone has just buzzed you awake, filling the room in white-blue LED light. You have a message. It’s a photo. No words, no explanation. Just a photo. Tell us all about it. And what happens next.

I was sound asleep, dreaming that I was making pancakes, flipping each one up in as I turned it. One dropped onto the range top, sizzling and throwing off smoke. I grabbed it with the spatula and threw it into the sink but I was too late; the smoke alarm started shrieking. It wouldn’t stop, piercing through the dream into a realization that what I’d taken as the smoke alarm was actually the loud buzz of my phone.

Wondering who the hell was sending me something at 2am, I glanced at the phone and saw this picture, with a short message stating “Help. At diner.”
DSCN2550

It was time to get going. Sighing reluctantly, I hauled myself out of the warm bed and dressed as quickly as I could. It was freezing, and a look out the window just confirmed it; I could see puffs of smoke coming from every roof and a fresh dusting of new snow lay atop the foot or so of snow that had been in place for, well, it seemed like months.

Twenty minutes later I parked in front of the all-night diner and walked in. There he was, sitting at the table, with a cup of coffee and a short stack of pancakes in front of him. I walked over and sat down “Couldn’t this have waited until morning?”

“Sorry” he mumbled through a mouthful of pancake; “I wanted to be sure and catch you.”
“So, what’s going on”.
“He won’t let her leave. I need your help.”
I sighed. I’d figured it was something like that. “Okay; when do we leave?”
“Shortly.”

Hec finished his cakes and drained the last of his coffee. He dropped a twenty on the table and we got up to leave. I put my coat, scarf, ear muffs and gloves back on; it was cold out there. We left the warmth of the diner and headed outside. It was still night and the air was frigid. The seats in his car were so cold the upholstery didn’t give when I sat down. We left, and gradually the car’s heater started working. I pulled off my gloves and held my hands in front the heater vents to get them warm.

While we drove, Hec filled me in. Perri should have been back in town weeks ago, but no one had seen or heard from her. Last night he’d received a call; she was having troubles with her old man.

I’ve never understood their relationship. They would get together and seem blissfully happy, but within a few months or so there’d be a big fight and she’d leave and go back to her mother’s, swearing that this time it was for good. They had a habit of getting together, then breaking up, then getting together again. It was like clockwork; pretty much every 6 months something big would happen. She’d called her mother 5 weeks ago to say she’d be coming for a visit, but hadn’t shown up. Her mom called Hec, and he contacted me.

We were off to get her away from Hank, if not permanently, at least for a while.
Their place is out in the boonies and we ended up driving through the rest of the night and into morning. They live up North, in a remote location near the Wisconsin River. We had to cross the River. Unfortunately, the Merrimac Ferry was still out for the season so we had take the highway the whole way up there.

We finally made it up to their place. By now, it was early morning, and we figured they were up for the day. Hec and I walked up and banged on the door. Hank opened it; he looked gruff and angry, but then he always looked that way. “Quit banging!” he yelled; “You’ll wake the dead”.

I stood at the doorway; this was one house I didn’t want to enter. “Perri!” I called; “Come on, we’re here to take you home.” I peered around Hank and could see her sneaking out of a back room, pulling a suitcase behind her. Hank started yelling; he and Hec were going at it. While they argued, focused on each other, Perri quickly slipped past and ran to the car with me. I opened the door and threw in her suitcase, and she followed into the back seat. I went around and hopped in the front seat, started the engine and laid on the horn. As I did a quick turnaround, Hec came running into the passenger seat and I gunned it out of there.

We headed for home, stopping at a Culver’s along the way for some fried cheese curds. We dropped Perri off at her Mom’s, and by noon I was home.

I walked into the house, dead tired but not wanting to nap. We’d done our job. Perri was back, and the weather would start turning pleasant again. I knew that within 6 months she’d be ready to go back to Hank, but at least for now we’d have some decent weather.

Walking the tightrope from “us” to “me”

I started crying in the car on the way home from the store. The boxes containing the new bar stools were in the back seat and for some reason, I was bawling my eyes out. Suddenly, I felt as scraped and raw as I had back last fall, during those early days as a widow.

What the hell is wrong with me?

Back home, assembling the bar stools, it hit me. I was moving forward. I was reclaiming space, creating a new look to where “we” had lived that made it where “I” was living. We kept a bookcase under the breakfast counter because we never used it for eating. Friday night I moved that bookcase to a different spot.

It’s healthy to move forward. I’m not willing to spend the rest of my life in permanent mourning. I loved my husband, and one of the things I loved most about him was his enjoyment in experiencing life. The greatest tribute I can make to his memory is to continue being invested in life.

So, why do I have this pain and guilt, this feeling of being disloyal? Intellectually I know that rearranging the furniture will not destroy my memories, and getting rid of items I no longer need and will never use is not a betrayal. Yet, part of me doesn’t believe that. Rick and I did not have 30 years together. We didn’t have children. There wasn’t time to grow old together, to hit that point where we started looking alike. I’m afraid. Scared of losing the “us” that was such a big part of my life.

Last fall I had to clean out his house, the one he’d had before we were married and that had finally sold. It was hard, painful work, going through almost 30 years of someone’s life. Many of my earliest posts were on the difficulty of that task. The one saving grace, that I realized even through the pain of what was new, fresh grief, was that most of the materials I was dealing with had no imprint of “us” to them. That work is mostly finished, with only a few boxes left.

Now I’m starting in on the circles of his life that included me, and the work is far more difficult. I can’t detach, play archeologist, and employ a third-person narrative in my head. This is us, our life; my imprint is on everything. That box of books I brought in for resale; I remember us discussing where to sell them over a year ago. While moving the bookshelf, I think back to when he moved it there 3 years ago. Everything left to do will be like this, deeply personal and much more painful. I’ve started a new phase, walking a tightrope between the life I had and the life I’m going to have. There’s not a choice, or at least it is not a choice I’m willing to make; I must, I need to keep moving, to keep living, to carve out a life. I’ve climbed up the ladder to that tightrope, and this weekend I took my first, tentative steps out on it.

Snappy answers to stupid interview questions

There are few things in life more stressful than going through the interview process for a job, especially if you’re in the position of being out of work. I’ve been on both sides of the table, and retain sharp memories of the awfulness of being on the other side.

I never minded answering the good questions, the ones that were appropriate to the job and provided a way for the interviewers to get a sense of my abilities. What always bothered me were the questions designed to ambush a person or, worse, the ones that were just plain stupid. You know the ones I mean – those stock questions that make you groan inside when you hear them. What possible value is gained from asking these questions?

I was reminded of this recently as we’ve been hiring. Luckily, my employer does not do this, instead using the interview to ask questions that actually focus on the skills needed for the position. Still, the experience brings back memories of interviews where I was asked questions that just made me want to leap across the table and throttle the interviewer. My fantasy during those interviews was that I’d won the lottery and was interviewing just for the hell of it, with a personal goal of seeing how poorly I could do.

In case anyone reading this has just won the lottery, and is inspired to do just that, here are a few of those awful questions and my suggestions for answers. Use this as a starting point and go wild. In fact, to anyone reading this, I’d love to see your suggestions for answers (or even more questions with your answers) added as comments.

Why should we hire you?
• I need money to support my addictions
• I’ll buy the first round after work

What’s your biggest weakness?
• It’s hard to narrow it down to just one, but I guess it’s between hacking, theft or fits of uncontrolled violent rage
• An inability to answer stupid questions – like this one

Why do you want to leave your current job?
• They’re on to me
• I’ve stolen all the good office supplies

If you were an animal, what would you be and why?
• Body lice, because I’m a people person
• A rabid dog; I think that would help me be successful in the corporate world

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
• Either in jail or in office
• If my plan works, on a beach in a country that doesn’t have reciprocity with the US

Weekly Challenge: Truth is stranger than fiction; The Honeymoon Picture

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They are not spring chickens. He’s totally gray, and while the picture doesn’t show it, so are her roots. Despite their age there is a high school graduation looking forward confidently to the future kind of feel to the picture; this is their honeymoon. They have the same hopes and dreams of any newly married couple. There are decisions to be made, adventures to enjoy; the future is ripe with possibilities.

This picture was taken in September of 2005, at Mackinac Island. They were walking along the road after dinner and asked a passerby to take their picture. It was the end of a pleasant fall day, with a gentle breeze blowing back her hair.

They felt so lucky. Both had been through heartaches and failed marriages, and were well aware that there is no guaranty of happiness in life. One of the great things about a second marriage is being aware, always, of how special and wonderful a gift it is to find someone.

His past had wounded him deeply. It shows in the picture, in the look of someone who isn’t quite sure that things will be Okay. That look of hope mixed with hesitation and just a bit of distrust never went away. At its best, it manifested in an ever realized and frequently expressed sense of gratitude for what was good in his life. This person would never take that for granted. At its worst, it became a cloud of distrust that would occasionally rear up and cause the present to be confused with the past.

She had fewer ghosts, but also far more time spent alone. Her expression shows her complete joy in having found someone; an outcome she did not expect to happen. Her problem was that lack of belief, which in hard times would surface, causing her to need almost constant reassurances.

What’s next for these two? The same as any new couple. Life steps in and takes over. He is laid off from his job. Her salary is cut. They watch their parents get older, and end up taking a much more active role in care giving. He loses a sibling. She sees her child fully launched into adulthood and independence. They share these events. The happy are made more joyous, the sad more bearable, by that sharing.

They make decisions. They’ll live at her house; meaning his must be readied for sale. They enter the battle of many couples over whose furniture stays and, as usually happens, his couch ends up at Goodwill. A small business is started and many enjoyable evenings are spent planning its future.

Vacations become a special treat for them both, where their diverse styles mesh perfectly. Her forte is in the research and planning done ahead of time; his is in dealing with the unexpected situations that can occur. On road trips, she has the stamina of a truck driver and happily drives for hours. Once at the destination, he does all the driving; his innate sense of direction ensures they are rarely lost. They love simple weekend jaunts to different cities, where they walk neighborhoods, sample local microbrews, see music and watch baseball.

Issues and problems come up. He’s a packrat, and she would prefer to live out of a suitcase. She likes planning things, thinking through every possible situation and being ready with a response; he prefers to react as things happen. Her sense of time is self-described as “Germanic”, his “Caribbean”. These issues are small and laughable, and while they occasionally cause tiffs they’re easily resolved.

Others are not. He holds back on sharing bad news and fixing problems in hopes of things getting better on their own. This can backfire, causing some problems to become larger and more serious. She wants to face issues head on, but often does so in a blunt style that can be confrontational. He is stubborn and change averse; she is impatient and prefers actions to contemplation.

But, none of that matters this fine fall evening in 2005. They’ve just completed a lovely dinner and are on their way to hear music. The sunset is gorgeous. The clopping of horse-drawn carriages and the whirr of passing bicycles sounds in the background. The promise of the future, their future, is bright.