…My Life With The Upstager

The Upstager

Like all marriages, my husband’s and mine has had its share of joys and sorrows. Over the past thirty years, we’ve raised two amazing children; we’ve lost loved ones — friends and family. Through challenging times, we’ve recommitted to the partnership we vowed to uphold during our wedding ceremony when the priest symbolically bound together the hands of two twenty-somethings. And, like most marriages, we’ve learned the art of compromise. You might fall into the conventional mindset, laughingly assuming the husband makes all of the adjustments, being “trained” by the wife. Well, I take umbrage with that characterization because while, yes, Guy knows better than to raise my ire by tracking filthy shoes through the house or stacking his dirty dishes in the sink instead of emptying the clean ones from the dishwasher, I maintain that I’ve had to make the biggest adjustment. You see, I married The Upstager.

I was born the only girl, the youngest of three, and learned from an early age how to garner attention. I was a champion baton twirler — a bookcase jammed with trophies to prove it; I was a practiced pianist, the result of countless hours of running scales and transposing chords. By the time I hit high school, I had balanced a rigorous academic schedule with weekend parties and keg stands. I basked in praise for my accomplishments while, simultaneously, developing an inflated sense of self. By the time I was twenty-two and met my future husband, I had come to expect that my attributes and abilities would be lauded.

The first time I saw Guy, I was drawn to his disarming smile and boyish charm. I learned that he had that effect on most people. Somehow, he could do and say things that should be offensive, but with his mischievous grin and genuine goodwill, he got away with it. While in college, his friend, Sue, had a motorboat accident during spring break, losing all of the fingers on her left hand. Others pretended they didn’t notice or carefully avoided looking at her injured hand, but not Guy. He cheerfully yelled, “Hey Leftie!” across the quad, causing her to laugh for the first time since returning to campus.

From our early days together, I saw glimmers of Guy’s natural ability to attract attention. It should have been a warning that, no matter what I had to offer, I would be outshined by the irresistible allure of a perpetual adolescent.

Nevermind the wedding gift for friends of a one-of-a-kind serving platter that I commissioned from a local artist, with a hand-painted likeness of the pagoda where they’d gotten engaged. Instead, oh!, the excitement and exclamations over the ditty Guy had whipped up on the accompanying card with a perverse slant on “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue.”

Then came the time we threw a Christmas party and I, two months pregnant and in the throes of morning-noon-and-night sickness, spent weeks cleaning and decorating the house and preparing a lavish buffet, laden with sweets, savories, and rose lemon champagne punch. Guy spent an equal amount of time sweating over a comical poster that he titled “House Rules.” Yeah, it was funny, I’ll give him that. But, my mini quiches, lemon Madeleines, and eggnog cheesecake bars were distractedly scarfed down in between laughter and guffaws at Guy’s singular 36” x 48” creation that detailed punishment for offenses like drinking too slowly or being caught in the master bedroom.

I’m not saying I’ve never had my own opportunity for recognition. It’s just if my husband is within a square mile of my accomplishments, I become invisible. And, it’s not like he hip-checks me out of the way so he can stand center-stage in the spotlight. It just…happens. Let me continue.

After my father died, my mother and I, looking for an activity we could do together, signed up for a beginner oil painting class. I used the painter’s palette to mix colors and learned impressive words like “cerulean” and “viridian.” I began assessing the world around me with my newly acquired artistic eye and snapped photos to be brush-stroked into masterpieces. A corner of our living room was crammed with my easel, painting supplies, and sweeping landscapes and realistic still lifes, stacked on end in rows eight-deep. I was one step from completing my new image with a black wool beret when it happened again. I awoke one morning to find Guy perched in front of my easel, canvas in place, with all of my paints and brushes strewn on the table next to him. He’d been up all night, inspired by my enthusiasm, and decided to dabble in my artistic realm. In front of him rested a completed and, I’ll concede, pretty convincing replica of one of those jet-haired, pasty-faced women made famous by Patrick Nagel. That sort of stylized human likeness was Guy’s aesthetic and, ultimately, elicited gasps of appreciation from our friends and family. By contrast, my sunset seascapes had been met with lukewarm, murmured nods of acknowledgment. I never picked up a paintbrush again.

Still not convinced? Well, then there was the time Guy and I were driving down the highway and slowed when we saw several cars pulled off to the side. There was a commotion which we soon realized was a frantic dog evading capture by a group of good Samaritans.

“Stop!” I yelled, to which Guy responded, “There are plenty of people to help.”

“Pull over right now!” I opened the door, ready to jump out whether or not he stopped. By the time he reached me, I’d already gathered the terrified Beagle in my arms. A quick survey informed us that the dog had run into the road and been hit. Climbing carefully into the car, the shivering dog on my lap, I told Guy to drive to the nearest animal hospital.

“How are we going to afford this? We don’t even know if he has an owner.”

I checked the dog’s collar and found only a tag registering “Monty” with a town in Connecticut.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “He has to see the vet. We’ll figure it out later.”

Fortunately, Monty wasn’t badly hurt, just bruised and frightened. We brought him home with us and placed him in a quiet room to rest. I began making phone calls, trying to get information about dog licensing in that Connecticut town, determined to track down the owners. My persistence paid off. The family had just relocated to New Jersey but had called the township office in their old state to let them know the dog had escaped. I got the owners’ phone number and left them a message.

The following day, Guy was home when Monty’s owners called back, and they spoke at length. Guy learned that the owners had been in a car accident and Monty, traveling with them, had been thrown from the car and run off. They had searched for days but had been unable to find him. Guy assured them that Monty was safe and arranged to bring him home. When we arrived at the house, Monty yelped with excitement and ran to greet his people. They hugged us both then turned to Guy and said, “How can we ever thank you for rescuing our precious Monty?”

I believe my jaw sported a bruise for a month from where it hit the ground. To Guy’s credit, he informed them that I had been instrumental in the rescue, too. Still…

By this point, it was clear a trend was developing. You might try to tell me that these are flukes — rare occurrences. I contend that despite what I do, somehow Guy swoops in and gets the credit. Let me offer more proof.

It was dusk on a hot summer evening. Our car had broken down but, miraculously, we’d managed to coax it into a service station just north of town. This was back in the mid-1980s, b.c.p. (before cell phones), and we used the station’s landline to call our friend, Chris, to pick us up. As we waited, an enormous boat of a car drifted slowly into the station and up to a gas pump. An elderly couple sat in the front seat — the woman in tears and the man shaken. The attendant spoke to them, then told us they were looking for a place to stay overnight. I hurried to the passenger window and leaned in, asking if I could help.

“We are on our way to the Pocono Mountains and it’s taking longer than we thought,” explained the woman. “My husband can’t drive at night and I don’t drive at all. We don’t know where to stay for the night.”

“Not to worry,” I said. “Why don’t you let me drive you back to town and find you a place to stay?” I told Guy what I was doing and that once Chris arrived, to come and find me.

I got behind the wheel and maneuvered the car onto the road. The couple told me they were from West Virginia and going to visit their son’s grave. I learned about their daughter and grandchildren who lived in Maine. They asked about me, and I told them that Guy and I were soon to be married. I kept up the conversation during the drive back to town. The couple was relaxed by the time we got to the hotel.

“Wait here,” I said. “Let me just run in and make sure there’s a room for you.” There was not. I racked my brain for another option and decided on the only other place I could think of nearby — a tiny bed and breakfast. Hoping Guy would think to look there next, I smiled for the worried-looking couple, got in the car, and continued to drive. When we arrived at the B&B, again, I jumped out to check on availability. This time, we were in luck. I returned to the driveway, nodding my head in affirmation.

Just then, a car sailed into the drive behind us. Chris was behind the wheel, but Guy was sitting up on the passenger door, upper body on the outside through the open window. He was grinning, with arms spread wide, and I swear I heard the Mighty Mouse theme song playing somewhere in the background: “Here I Come To Save The Day.” When the car stopped, he swung his legs out and leaped to the ground.

“Please! Let me get your bags for you,” my Mr. Joie De Vivre offered gallantly, pulling their suitcases from the trunk.

As I linked my arm through the elderly woman’s to steady her climb up the steps, she turned to me and gushed, “Honey, don’t let him go! He’s one of the good ones!”

See? Are you seeing what’s happening?

I’ll offer one last story as evidence. This one happened while our kids were in elementary school. I had signed up to be a substitute teacher at their tiny Quaker school and received a call asking if I could fill in for the 4th- and 5th-grade math and science teacher for two weeks. Those two subjects aren’t necessarily my strongest but I figured 4th and 5th grade? Pfft! I could handle that! I arranged to take off time from my day job (full-disclosure — I do the finances for Guy’s business, so it didn’t take much convincing) and jumped right in.

A couple of points to note. First, the teacher I was covering had gone MIA and left no lesson plans, or even an overview, of what I needed to do. Therefore, I was left to fly by the seat of my pants. I spent my evenings reading the next chapters in the science and math books, developing lessons for the following day, and having my own children teach me the math that I hadn’t seen in about four decades. During school, I taught upwards of five classes while having to earn respect and cooperation from the children. I mean, who was I? Some mom? They thought that sounded like party time! The other point to note is that, while I wasn’t aware at the time, I was already very ill with Lyme Disease. The fatigue and headaches alone were enough to make me want to stay in bed and sleep all day. The seven-hour school day with another four hours of planning at night just about did me in.

Those two weeks turned into three months. The teacher had vanished and, by now, the kids were seeing me as a viable replacement. I enjoyed the job immensely but, by the time summer arrived, my illness rendered me nearly bedridden. When the yearbook came out, I wasn’t looking for accolades. I knew I had done a great job and was proud at having watched those children flourish. But, wait. There’s another piece of information pertinent to this tale.

My husband had “adopted” field day at the school. This meant that on the last day of classes, he sprang for pizza, six-foot subs, and cake for the entire school. Additionally, he purchased customized gifts for the graduating eighth graders. Everyone anticipated this day, and Guy was dubbed “Queen for the Day.” (That is a whole story for another time).

Back to the part about the yearbook. Yes, you’ve probably guessed. I flipped through the pages, positive I’d see a picture — just one measly photo — of me in my esteemed role as a teacher. I looked through all of the faculty and staff and did not find one. Oh well, I thought. It’s no big deal. That’s not why I took on the job. As I continued to leaf through the book, though, wouldn’t you know? There, prominently displayed in a section named “Field Day” was my husband! And, not just a single picture, but several. That’s right. One day — that man spent one day at the school! — with his food and his gifts and his cake, while I sacrificed day and night to educate those children. And, he got an entire yearbook section devoted to him.

As accustomed as I had become to my life with The Upstager, that one left me nearly speechless. Until I ran into the Head of School and then, oh boy, did she hear about it! I gave her the complete rundown of what I’d endured for all of those years. With the wedding gift and the Christmas party and the oil painting and the rescued dog and the elderly couple and on and on. That poor woman. She and I ended up laughing about it, but she could see my point.

So, while I’ve spent the majority of my life overshadowed by my husband, I’ve learned to adapt. That’s right; I’ve learned to compromise. It’s something my twenty-year-old self would never have imagined but, I guess there’s always room for growth. I’ve stopped looking for recognition for what I do and, instead, embrace the notion that it is the deed itself that is important. Plus, I have to say that even though I’ve been married to The Upstager for thirty years, I still find his mischievous grin pretty charming.

…You Should Have Asked For Help

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I showed up to the veterinarian with my elderly Spanish Water Dog, Josie. I try to make these trips quick because her shaking and whining during the entire ride to and from the office inevitably get on my last nerve. Racing down the interstate, I was making a mental list of what I hadn’t had a chance to accomplish before leaving the house. I pulled into the parking lot at 9:26 AM, with just enough time to let Josie do her business before going into the office.

Immediately, Josie scooted under the row of chairs in the waiting room, hoping no one would know she was there. I grabbed my phone and clicked open the Notepad app. Rapidly, I began typing out the to-do list that I was storing in my head, knowing it was unlikely I would remember everything by the time I got home. Schedule with the dentist…Call the bank…Start a load of laundry…Check on my husband’s prescriptions…Finish the outline for my next blog piece…

 I looked up when one of the techs sat next to me and leaned close, whispering, “You’re an hour early, you know.”

“Whaaa—?” I pushed aside my thoughts and tried to focus on what Heather was saying.

“Josie’s appointment is at 10:30. It’s only 9:30.”

“You sure?” I asked, popping open my phone’s calendar app. I flipped to today’s date and stared: Josie to vet: 10:30. My shoulders sagged.

“It’s okay. Really.” She patted my arm reassuringly. Or, maybe it was compassionately.

“Oh, Jeez. How’d that happen? How could I have done that?” I glared at the trusty phone organizer that had let me down. The truth was, my organizer was correct. It was me who had gotten it wrong.

As I sat there, resigned to losing a full hour out of my already overflowing day, I began to play that familiar blame-game that nearly every woman I know has played at some point. With my lists and my schedulers and my organizers and my reminders and my post-it notes and my…and… I was still failing. If I had it so together, why did I feel so inadequate?

I wasn’t inadequate. I was stressed and overwhelmed. I remembered a comic strip I had read in The Guardian by the French artist, Emma. As I thought about the illustrations, I stopped blaming myself. Emma introduced me to the concept of The Mental Load. It’s when one person in a household, usually the woman, is seen as the household manager. In a work environment, the manager is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operation while delegating the tasks to workers; in a household, it’s that, plus more. The woman often does at least half of the household chores in addition to overseeing the entire operation.

The woman thinks about every detail of the running of the house, from knowing when it’s time to go grocery shopping and what to buy, to maintaining health records for the children, to everything in between. This constant attention to, and organizing of, details is unrelenting and exhausting. Add to that performing at least half the family tasks and the inequity becomes clear. Next, layer on the outside job(s) that many women hold, and it’s obvious why things like showing up to the vet’s office at the wrong time might happen.

I’m not saying my husband and children aren’t happy to help cook dinner, switch the laundry from washer to dryer, or take out the garbage. I’m saying that it doesn’t happen unless I issue the order. This leads to me constantly reviewing the countless and endless tasks, determining what needs to be done and then assigning the job. I assume The Mental Load. The rug needs to be vacuumed. Am I the only one who can see that? The dishwasher needs to be unloaded. Does no one else realize those clean dishes don’t put themselves away? The dog poo needs to be picked up in the backyard. Am I the only one who doesn’t want to clean it off my shoes?

In one sample day, someone let the dogs in without wiping their feet; I spent twenty minutes picking up my daughter’s dirty clothes from her room; my son sat playing a video game as I juggled three dishes cooking simultaneously for dinner; the front doorbell was ringing, but no one was answering; the filthy floor from the muddy dog feet still went unmopped. When I snapped at my husband and he made a joke about my moodiness, I went on strike. All three of my people stood blinking at me in confusion and said, “You should have asked for help.”

The Mental Load. The expectation that I have to ask or instruct what should be obvious. I knew it couldn’t just be me, so I asked some of my women friends who are roughly at my stage of life. Was this Mental Load something that they carried, too?

Buddy One: “Oh, like the time my in-laws were coming over and I had to yell at my husband to get his dirty boxer shorts off the floral-patterned Queen Anne-style wing chair in my living room? He said I should have just told him to move them.” Bingo. The Mental Load.

Buddy Two: “You mean, like when I go away for a weekend with girlfriends and I get a phone call every time the dogs need to be fed to make sure they’re doing it correctly. I write it down in detail, every step of the feeding process, but it’s not enough. I have to talk them through it.” Even on vacation, The Mental Load.

Buddy Three: “When I get home from work and my teenage kids are all sitting around, watching tv. The first thing they want to know is ‘how long until dinner?’ I left the chicken thawing and the vegetables in the strainer in the sink. I ask why no one had started dinner and they just stare at me. ‘You didn’t tell us to start it.’” Yep. Mental Load.

Buddy Four: “My son has been having a toothache. I gave him the phone number for the dentist, but when I asked if he’s made the appointment, he said, ‘I thought you were going to do it.’ My son is twenty-two.” Check. Mental Load (and maybe a bit coddled).

Buddy Five: “The toilet and bathroom need to be cleaned. I ask my husband why he hasn’t done it when he’s the one who made the mess. He says because I didn’t tell him to do it.” Okay, Mental Load and…come on, gross!

Add to the daily list of household chores all the other activities. Planning family vacations. Organizing kids’ birthday celebrations. Overseeing holiday preparations and gift-buying. Scheduling car maintenance. All part of life. All things that need to be done. And, all I have to do is ask if I want help.

Now, to be fair, there is truth in the adage, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Someone must be the point person. Someone has to have the big picture view. The problem becomes when that someone who is carrying The Mental Load is also doing a large portion of the daily chores.

There is a valid reason why the women I know are exhausted every minute of every day. Having her significant other explain how difficult his day is, with all of the stress that falls on him, only underscores his obtuseness. When he needs some “down time” after work, with a recap of last night’s basketball game on the tv and a bottle of Bud, he forgets that the dinner being cooked also required planning, shopping, and prep. The Mental Load that was carried before that meal was cooked.

What’s on sale?…In how many dinners can I use this massive head of fresh broccoli?…When can I get to the store?…After I finish paying the bills and before I pick up tax forms from the accountant?…I hope the car doesn’t die on the way since I forgot to have it checked when the engine light came on…Do I have enough soy sauce or do I need to go back to the store?

Is there a remedy for The Mental Load? Is it possible for the average woman to be the family manager and delegate all the tasks to the others in the household? Maybe some women assume this role because it makes sense that one person has sweeping oversight. Or, as in my case, maybe there’s a touch of a control issue. I am convinced that things are done more to my liking if I am in charge of everything. I won’t pretend I have the solution to The Mental Load. I just know that it is a full-time, energy-sapping job. And, I know women should give themselves a break when they show up an hour early to the vet’s office.

…By The Hair On My Chinny Chin Chin.

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I’m staring down fifty-six – with a box of medium ash blond hair color in my hand, the kind specially formulated to cling to gray hairs. Yep, my hair color and I are staring down fifty-six.

I’ve been toying with the idea of letting my hair go gray. I just watched a video on Facebook of a woman, maybe thirty, having a makeover. Her shimmering chestnut hair was stripped of its natural color, then dyed gray. Why? Why would a young woman intentionally make her hair the color that so many women spend a fortune to cover? I was intrigued, though, when the stylist added a splash of electric blue to the underside of the back. I’m a little envious that these fun, bright colors weren’t a thing when I was a teenager back in the 1970s. I’d have jumped right on that bandwagon. Hell, I’d have been out front leading that band with my baton.

While the future of my hair color is still up in the air, there’s one hair issue that really gets my dander up. It’s those random hairs that sprout overnight on unsuspecting parts of my face. Is this how middle-aged is supposed to look? A cheap dye-job and a three-inch wiry, black hair jutting from my face?

The first time one of those charming little reminders of my advancing age appeared was about ten years ago. My husband, who’s learned to tread carefully when commenting on my physical appearance, began the hemming and hawing that precedes a topic he’s leery to broach.   

“What’s the matter?” I asked, watching him squirm in his seat as he steered the car.

“Well, you’ve, uh…”

“What??”

“There’s, uh, something on your chin.”

I rubbed, thinking it must be leftovers from dinner.

“No,” he said, glancing at me, then back at the road in front of him. “It’s attached.”

I pulled down the visor and flipped up the mirror cover, the sidelights casting a faint glow in darkness.

“Where? Where? I don’t see anything!” I jammed on my reading glasses, another joyful reality for the middle-aged, and began that game of closer-further-closer-further as my eyes tried to focus. “What is it?”

“I think it’s, er, a hair?”

“A hair? What do you mean, a hair?” The shrill in my voice drowned out “Hey There Delilah” on the stereo. I turned my head ever so slightly to the left and there it was! In profile, it stood at a proud and defiant ninety-degree angle from the left underside of my chin.

Using my thumb and middle fingers to form a pincer, I began fishing for it, trying to grab it between my nails. The car mirror was dimly lit; my glasses kept slipping down my sweaty nose; and, that whisker was as elusive as my grasp on the reality that the close-up in the mirror of that chin antenna really belonged to me.

“I can’t get it! I can see it; I can feel it. I just can’t get it!” I sank back against the seat in defeat, rubbing my thumb over the hair, trying to smooth it down against my skin. Maybe it wouldn’t be so noticeable then?

Once I got home, I flew to the brilliantly lit bathroom and found a pair of tweezers. I played that close-far game in the mirror until my eyes focused on the appendage. I aimed the tweezers at it, never blinking for fear that it would run for cover if I weren’t watching. Closer and closer as I angled the tips of those tweezers at the base. I closed them slowly…gently…not wanting to spook it. When the two sides came together, I triumphantly yanked. Where’d it go? It wasn’t attached to the tweezers. I searched the sink and surrounding counter, but it wasn’t there. I touched my finger to the place on my chin where it had been, assuming I’d feel smooth skin.

“Whaaaa…?” I felt a teeny bump that moved when I pushed it. Those tweezers had caused the hair to coil up into a ball, like a three-banded armadillo, protecting itself from extraction. Right there on my chin!

I yelled for my husband and, familiar with my history of self-inflicted injuries, he came running at full-throttle. When he appeared in the doorway of the bathroom expecting blood or a broken kneecap, what he found was his wife holding out a pair of tweezers toward him.

“Here. You get it.” I tipped my head back exposing the wiry curlicue on my chin. That is what I’d been reduced to. When we first met in our early twenties, my big, brawny husband used to watch my young, somewhat cute self with undisguised love and admiration. Now, he stood yanking an errant hair from my chin. I didn’t think any amount of eye-batting the following day could erase the harsh memory of the operation that had taken place under the stark lights in our bathroom.

I figured it was an aberration. A one-time thing. Throughout the subsequent years, my finger would check in with my chin to make sure a regrowth hadn’t happened. I became skilled at plucking at anything that dared break the surface. Never again has a tentacle emerged uninvited under my jawline.

Then came the morning, bleary-eyed from having just awoken, I stumbled into the bathroom and reflexively flicked on the light. I splashed some water on my face and grabbed my toothbrush. Absently, I regarded myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. It took a moment, but suddenly, like a spotlight with laser focus, I couldn’t see anything else except for the antenna growing from my left eyebrow. I knew it wasn’t there yesterday! Who could possibly miss that monstrosity? But, there it was now. Overnight, I’d become The Fly!

One yank and that thing was history but, seriously, is this what life is for me now? Gone are the carefree days of not thinking about skin care and stray hairs. Now, my daily routine includes a shelf of lotions and ever-ready tweezers. I can only imagine the delights I have awaiting me when I move out of middle-aged into the “old” category. Until then, however, I’ve decided to keep up my blond-in-a-box. I also went to the drugstore and bought some Indigo Semi-Permanent Hair Color. I figure a couple of strategically placed shocks of blue in my mane will cause a distraction in case there’s a return of that hair on my chinny chin chin.