Monday, May 11, 2009

Stirring the Great American Melting Pot

It’s no secret that my family is politically active. I fully admit to schlepping my seven children into the offices of legislators – each started lobbying before potty-training. I confess to offering up my offspring to march in parades and doorbell for candidates. To date, my kids have perhaps worked on more political campaigns than James Carville.

It was nothing out of the ordinary, then, when I carted my seven little activists to the state Capitol for an afternoon of meeting with Representatives and Senators last week to lobby for affordable housing. The Capitol is, and always has been, a place of education and empowerment. It is during Legislative Hill Day at our state Capitol and our annual trip to Washington, D.C. that my children have learned how government works and the power of our voices, as citizens.

This particular Hill Day provided a unique teaching opportunity.

A scattered crowd of men and women walked up and down the sidewalks, toting signs proclaiming their respective beliefs. I delighted in the opportunity to use the act of demonstration to educate my protégés on the benefits of democracy. “Look, children! A group of people have gathered at the Capitol to exercise their First Amendment rights!” I exclaimed, as my husband and I led our brood toward the Legislative Building. “Do you know why they can do that? Because we live in the Great Melting Pot of America! Everyone is different, and has different views. Our country promises us the right to say what we want, without fear of persecution from the government, even if we don’t agree!”

My lesson was cut short by a loud altercation brewing on the other side of the roundabout we were approaching. A large man was exercising his First Amendment rights by shouting obscenities at a small group of frightened-looking female demonstrators. When the man started calling the women vulgar names, they tried to walk away, but he followed them, verbally berating them the entire time.

“I’ll be right back,” my husband said, and started to walk toward the commotion. Oh, no, I thought. Here we go. My beloved suffers from a “knight in shining armor” complex. He’s the first to rush to a damsel’s aid – sometimes even before realizing she isn’t really in distress. The children and I waited for several minutes, watching the rescue effort. The women safely dispersed, but my husband continued his exchange with the man. When the complaints about the cold began flowing and the restless toddlers began crying, I left our eighteen year-old daughter in charge and walked across the roundabout to fetch my wayward man.

The large man’s face was tightly screwed into an ugly countenance of hatred as my husband gently but firmly said, “You have a right to your opinion, just like everyone else. It’s one of the benefits of living in this country. I’m just saying that you stand a better chance of people listening to you if you are respectful. You weren’t being respectful to those women.” Well done, Sweetie. Now let’s go. I tugged slightly on his hand. I didn’t even care what the two had been talking about. I just wanted to leave.

Suddenly, the ugly-faced man exploded with rage. “You’re an idiot! A complete moron!” he shouted at my husband, stepping aggressively toward us. “Anyone who believes the Bible is… is…” He was nose-to-nose with my husband; spit flying from his mouth like a rabid jackal.

The Bible? That’s what you two were talking about? Well, he’s entitled to free speech, just like everyone else...

“… is a complete idiot!”

Instantly, my perspective on free speech changed. Certainly, the jackal had a right to express any feelings he might have about the Bible, but who did he think he was, insulting my husband, who had expressed nothing but respectful sincerity? Suddenly, I remembered that free speech applied to me! I had a right to put the maggot in his place. My mama bear was poised, ready to lope into the verbal fray…

… but my inner evangel was faster. “Actually,” I said, coolly, “anyone who doesn’t believe the Bible is going to hell.” There. I said it. We can go now. I turned to leave, still holding on to my husband’s hand. Across the roundabout, I saw relief on my kids’ faces that we were finally on our way back.

Our return path was blocked by the jackal, who had one more thing to say.

“You’re a (fornicating female dog)!” (his words were a might more colorful, but I’m editing, on the chance that my pastor or grandmother is reading) he screamed in my face. I took two quick steps backward to put some distance between me and the spittle-spraying lunatic, and chanced a look at my kids.

Our eighteen year-old had one toddler on her hip, and our twelve year-old had the other toddler on hers. All seven kids were watching. What would I be teaching my children about an individual’s right to demonstrate and speak if I tore the jackal apart? If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I refuse to back down in an argument. My brain and my mouth become short-circuited, and the faulty current prevents my brain from shutting my mouth the hell up.

“Hey, you (fornicating female dog), do you even know anything about translations? Do you know how much of the so-called ‘Bible’ has been lost through translation?” He just wouldn’t quit. At once, I knew I was going to go off, mercilessly, on the ignorant bastard.

It’s true… the Bible’s been translated over and over again; along the way, it’s been “dumbed down” and made easier to read. About six more translations and even YOU might be able to read it, Jackass. “(Fornicating female dog)?” Is that your entire, intelligent, argument? Let’s sit down and compare IQ scores. Mine’s Mensa-caliber. Did you photocopy your hate literature on the job—the job that the Society for Jackass Employment helped you get? Nice Velcro® sneakers… couldn’t figure out that “loop and swoop” thing?

If my mouth opened, I wouldn’t be able to stop. A small part of me was scared of losing control, but the larger, louder, tougher part of me looked forward to getting the last word – and I knew, without a doubt, that I would.

Fortunately, my knight in shining armor came to my rescue. Stepping close so that he was chest-to-chest with the Bible basher, my husband quietly cautioned him to wisely choose his words when talking to a lady (“You can’t talk to my wife like that.”), and gave him some health advice and tips on longevity (“If you do it again, I’ll kill you.”) which must have made an impression, because the man began walking away.

I still hadn’t had my “last word,” though. Before I could stop myself, I turned back and shouted at the retreating loser, “Don’t you love free speech? GOD bless America!” My husband yanked, hard, on my hand, dragging me quickly away.

And that, children, is called “stirring the pot.” That concludes today’s lesson on the First Amendment.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Step-Wives: The Good, the Bad, and the Butt-Ugly

Step-Wives. Lynne Oxhorn-Ringwood and Louise Oxhorn coined the term in their book by the same name in 2002 to define the ex-wife and current wife of the same man; the mother and step-mother of the same children.

I count my blessings or curse the stars - depending on the day - that I have not one, but two step-wives. Of the three of us, one is good, one is bad, and one is, well... butt-ugly.

When Heidi made her entrance, it was not as a step-wife, but what I termed my "shack-in-law." That is, she shacked up with my then-husband, Rick. As scandalous as that sounds, I should make it clear that Rick and I had been separated for years but were not divorced, due to a lengthy custody battle over our son, Leif. To further complicate matters, my shack-in-law was pregnant with my husband's baby, and had two other kids of her own. Jerry Springer, here we come!

Leif returned home after a visit with his father, referring to Heidi as "my other mom." Livid hardly begins to express what I felt at hearing my son use MY given title in reference to some little trollop who got herself knocked up with my husband's baby. No, "livid" wasn't the word... and I found many other, more colorful words to convey my feelings the next time I saw Heidi.

"Well, when Rick and I get married, I will be his mom or, at least, his stepmom," she said.

"You two are getting married? That explains a lot about why he won't sign off on our divorce... I wouldn't divorce me, either, if I had to marry you!" I shouted. Yeah. I actually said that. Then, I did what any smart girl would do after a comment like that - I ducked. Just in time, too. She's got a mean hook.

Believe it or not, Heidi is the Good Step-Wife.

The past eight years have allowed both of us (mostly me) to mature and focus on what's really important - Leif. Heidi and I speak regularly about Leif's schoolwork, courses of discipline and social calendar. It's not unusual for us to work out solutions together before discussing them with our common husband.

When Heidi and Rick did get married, their collective kids stayed the night at my house so that their parents could enjoy their wedding night, sans children. My kids stay the night (or week) at Rick and Heidi's when I go out of town. Our families barbeque together. We go to family reunions. Our relationship is so functional; it boggles the minds of divorced people worldwide.

Did I mention that while Heidi was shacking up with my ex-husband, I was shacking up with my now-husband? Ah, yes... I'd found my Mr. Wright, and he came with accessories - four of them. When I met Greg, he was a single dad with custody of his four kids. He was light-years ahead of me on the divorce train; he had a parenting plan, for Pete's sake!

I made an effort to play nice with the children's mother. Really, I did. When she told the kids that the reason I worked nights and paid for things with small bills was that I was a stripper (Hello? I was a waitress!), I chose to take the high ground and be flattered that she thought I had the body for it. After all, it must be tough on a gal for her ex-husband to find a younger, thinner woman to raise the children she gave birth to. Gosh, did I just say that in my outside voice?

Guess which step-wife Greg's ex is.

I won't keep you in suspense. I'm the Butt-Ugly one. Know how I know? Greg's ex told me, as in, "If I were as butt-ugly as you, I'd have to get cosmetic surgery so I could look in the mirror."

Naturally, I followed that schoolyard remark up with a much more mature one: "Shut up, trailer trash. You are so... ghetto!"

Yeah, I actually said that. Suffice it to say, that remark resulted in me being labeled a racist, since "ghetto" refers to the inner-city plight of, largely, the African-American population. Of course, Greg's ex didn't want her children living with a racist, and she told him so.

The whole situation was blown way out of proportion, and the defiant, hurt part of me wanted to fall back on Sarah Silverman's declaration: "I don't care if you think I'm a racist... as long as you think I'm thin." The truth is, though, I did care. I am an empathetic and compassionate person. I feed the homeless. I love everyone. Well, at least, I try to.

Why can't I love her? Oh, wait a second... I'm receiving a text message... "You are a lying, crazy b****!" Oh. That's why I can't love her...

Perhaps it's simply that she is so openly hostile toward me, as if it's my fault she got the short end of the divorce-and-custody stick. I didn't even know Greg when all that went down... how could it be my fault? Or maybe it's that she punishes her children for showing any affection toward me. I hate when people mess with my kids' heads.

I remember how I felt the first time I heard Leif call Heidi "Mom." It hit me, hard, in the chest and knocked the wind out me like that misjudged line drive that ended my junior high shortstop career. I've never been so jealous in my life; not over status, not over money, not even over a man. During that long-ago yelling match with Heidi, she asked me, "Why do you have such a problem with someone loving your son? If there's one thing kids need, it's all the love they can get. Does it really change your role as a mother to him if I become one, too?"

Though it took me years to not feel threatened by the love that my son and Heidi share, I am now grateful for it. Leif has not one, but two moms who love him to the ends of the world and would do anything for him. He's a pretty lucky kid. During the rocky in-between years, Heidi extended no small amount of grace to me when I felt possessive, jealous and bitter.

I know a Bad Step-Wife who could learn a lot from her.