Sunday, July 15, 2018

Don't let them eat cake

“Sit up straight.
“Napkin goes where?
“Elbows!
“Is this really appropriate conversation for the dinner table?”

My daughter can be a real drag.

Being in a restaurant with her reminds me a little of dinners with my great aunt, Mildred. She was a proud, delicate woman who, from the perspective of this former youngster, seemed happiest when she was swooping down over the children’s table at formal family gatherings and offering clear instructions on how not to hold one’s fork.

“Do you find that your friends often call you Emily Post when your back is turned?”

“Har-de-har-har,” she replied with a more modern vernacular that I refuse to quote verbatim. But then with a tiny, almost imperceptible sneer, she corrects my pronunciation: “‘OFF-ten’ ... You enunciate the T in often.”

Two generations later, it seems, the reception of criticism has made not an inch of progress.

“No, you don’t,” I shoot back with dubious gamesmanship. “The T is silent. You don’t pronounce the T in soften, do you?”

This ongoing argument will trail off into hiatus for the evening as soon as our server appears with drinks, and asks us if we’ve made our decisions or if we need more time with the menus. 

We are never ready, but we order the “usual” by their proper menu titles as if “the same thing we always get” is now a seasonal delicacy.

My husband likes this restaurant. It has good food, and it puts up with us and our no-holds-barred conversations about politics, religion and all the topics that, we can be honest here, our grandmothers would have encouraged.

On tap tonight? Maxine Waters and the very tall order of serving our elected officials an entree of crow whenever they venture out into the world they apparently have no intention of sharing.

“That seems a little unfair,” says my daughter, who for six of her fourteen years refused to be seen in public with her little brother for fear he’d tantrum and cause a scene.

She’s not wrong. The boy never did get a single thing he wanted that made him go blue in the face. But making life a little unpleasant for others in line as we wait with a cart full of groceries isn’t precisely signaling the end of humanity.

It’s not like I could have left him at home by himself anyway.

Fair isn’t always a measurement that balances. But speaking up. Writing letters. Making signs. That’s part of the American way, too.

I tell her of my encounter last weekend with one of our esteemed US senators, Charles Schumer, who routinely congratulates 15K racers as they cross the finish line at the Boilermaker road race in Utica.

“I literally asked someone to hold my beer when I went to shake his hand and ask him to reconsider his admonishment of Waters.”

“We can never advocate harassment,” he responded, a stance that I can’t fault, but that doesn’t address our right to speak out against the abuse of power.

I could have argued, but that would just be the beer talking.

I said my piece. And went back into the crowd.

There’s a difference between a dose of social discomfort and, say, a bloody coup.

Our server arrived with hot plates and a wink toward the girl who wants nothing more than the world to be polite.
We’ve got your favorite dessert tonight. You might want to save a little room.

She sits a little taller, and her eyes get a little brighter as she considers the possibilities.

I narrow my eyes as if this discussion will be more thorough.

And all of a sudden she sees the power of NOT letting folks eat cake.




Sunday, July 08, 2018

Summer mysteries


It's a hundred and seventy thousand degrees in the house. 

All day long the people who live here have gone their separate directions: East, to work; West, to rehearsal; North, to camp, South on errands.

Finally, at home, we continue to go our separate ways, each to our air-cooled rooms.

Dinner is still a possibility, though breakfast cereal seems more likely.

My husband wonders if we put a steak on the flagstone in front of the grill will it cook to a medium rare?

It is too hot to laugh. At least that's what I tell the man when he repeats the punchline, looking for reassurance there is humor in that dad joke of his.

Our bedroom door swung open, and our son walked through it with the grace of a bull in a china shop. The sound of its wood boards thudding against the plaster of the wall behind it echoed through the room adding even more volume to the whirrs from the fans and air conditioning units. 

"Close it, please," I said, and he turned on his heel and shut it with a slam.

"My eyes feel sticky," he said, nonchalantly, as he slipped into our bathroom and slid that door shut soundlessly. Water rushed into the sink basin. 

"Lemme see," I said peeling myself off the bed and away from the cooling, binge-watching lethargy of the television screen. 

He turns his face into the light, and, for the first time, I see his eyes have changed. Their usual deep, round set now appear as two shallow almonds.

I look for redness on his cheeks and eyelids. There is nothing.

Does it hurt? Does it itch? When did you notice this? 

No. Nope. Shoulder shrug.

My Dr. Mom brain swims into the depths of likely possibilities: Random allergy, Pool Chemical imbalance, mild sun poisoning.

I prescribe a School Nurse remedy: "I'll get you some ice."

Of course, it was no better in the morning. No worse, either, which is why I sent the kid back to camp slathered in sunscreen and shielded by brand-name sunglasses of dubious origins.

At noon, when I went to retrieve him, he refused to remove the shades.

Cheeks flushed from exertion, his hair dripping with sweat under a baseball cap.

"I still look like a mutant wild mushroom," he said.

I asked about the puffiness, noticing it had seemed to spread up past the sunglasses.

"What's up with your noggin? Does it feel like the swelling is up in your forehead now?"

"No. That's probably just where I got hit with a baseball. Everything else feels the same. It doesn't hurt."

He gets in the car and slumps into the seat.

I'm tired of looking like a cartoon boy. Will this ever go away?”

Of course it will,” I tell him. “It's just difficult to predict when. Not sure what caused it.”

We go back to search his mind for event markers.

It happened after we got out of the pool the last time when the bugs started biting.

Did you get a bug bite yesterday?

Yeah … right here between the eyes.”

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Dog days

The dog came bounding over to me, a moist tangle of curly, black hair and slobbery jowls.

“Stay down, stay down, stay down,” I chanted as she proceeded to plant her front two mulberry-stained feet on my midsection.

Summer has arrived, and suddenly my desire to wear white departs.

And quickly, the true reason one never lets dogs on the furniture becomes self-evident.

Pawprints. Everywhere. Reminding me again why it is we can't have nice things.

The impulse strikes me to cut down the tree and be done with it. Weed tree has grown big and tall and fruitful.

But there are so many options.

I know I should be more consistent with training and consequences. I know the best practices: Ignore unwanted behavior, restrict access to the object of desire, reward desired behavior. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I stay cool and calm and collected. Not overly enthusiastic or encouraging. I turn my back. Still, black and purple berry stains dapple my clothes like bruises.

Oh, sure. Eventually, a calm will set in. The dog will get tired of pin-balling around and curl up near a kid. Compelled, as Summer usually is, to have at least one part of her being touching a part of theirs. Everything slows: breathing, heart rate, blood pressure.

At this moment, anyway, I wish we could all be a little more like dogs. Or at least the attributes we humans tend to ascribe to them:

Joyful, loyal, loving and just a little bit ludicrous. Resilient. 

Not that it would solve anything. We‘d still have to keep an eye on the royal Corgis, who will nip at your heels; and possibly that Great Dane, who doesn’t know his own strength.

Maybe it is just knowing they usually are what they seem, and that remedies are as straightforward as action/consequence that leads me to such thoughts.

I can tell who is eyeing whom with wicked thoughts, and when to intervene. I can gauge when a single timeout will reset the entire clock or when it won’t work at all.

And though I don’t know what’s zooming around in their minds as they chase a squirrel or run a fence with another pal, I just know in those moments they seem wholly unencumbered with any other trouble. And I wish we all had a lot more of that.

You know …except like the bumper sticker says, Bark less, Wag more.

In human terms, it seems like some kind of faith in humanity. Some sort of faith in the future. 

And the more I try to draw a distinction, the more I see how alike we are.

It’s always going to be messy. There will still be misunderstandings and misdeeds. Most of the time we will handle it easily. But not always. Especially when Summer eats my shoe.

But I also know, eventually this will end. The birds and squirrels will dispatch the fruit, and the remainder can be washed away with a hose. Maybe next year we could make wine.


Every season requires patience and persistence. Even this one.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Yard sale, a self own

It’s yard sale weekend in my town.

Ads have been placed. Maps were drawn up. Neighbors all around us have been setting up shop with GAP-like folding skills and designing their card tables and porch rails as if they contained the inventory of an Anthropologie.

The kids are giddy. They will canvas the neighborhood with glee. See, they have plans for a lemonade stand that would bankrupt Country Time if the snippets I’ve scrolled past in my Twitter feed are to be believed: 1) that municipalities across this great land are ticketing kid-run drink stands and 2). the lemon-powered-sugar mix magnate will pony up the cash little tykes will need to pay the fines.

Meanwhile, the husband has been stockpiling inventory his entire adult life for just this occasion. And like the hoarder he claims not to be, he will haul this stashed trash to the driveway in multiple trips, arrange the wares artfully, and refuse to barter under any circumstances.

You are looking at a five-gallon bucket of chains, man! Do you know how much you’d pay at LOWES?”

Of course, he is shrewd. And his junk, no matter how rusted and decrepit, retains value even at scrap metal prices.

But the real detritus is pretty much anything I would ever fold or fan out on a table.

The odd basket, a silly tchotchke, items of the one-use-wonder variety. Things that probably weren’t worth one dollar, let alone the twelve or more I had probably paid to cart them out of a store. A dull pair of scissors with handles that look like the Eiffel Tower and bruise the soft pads of your fingers. What a bargain.

It can feel a little too personal.

Let me tell you; it takes a certain mental fortitude to watch a stranger flip through a dusty milk-crate of your ’80s vinyl with an expression of disdain to realize your insides are made out of molten marshmallows.

I’ve had enough of this semi-annual setting up shop
with wares that become an irrefutable indictment of my life choices and my prowess as a consumer (or lack thereof).

Just take it,” I’ll say to the browser who approaches ... I’m so sure she will make me an offer. ...

No. I’m not interested in any of these bobble-head ducks. I was just wondering if you knew where Cortland Street is? The paper said they had antiques.”

I point in a southerly direction: “Go two blocks down, take a right and your fourth left. You won’t miss it.”

My favorite part comes at the end of the day - around three o’clock or so - when the cars don’t even bother to slow down to assess the trash/treasure ratio. That’s when you can take everything that’s remaining and drag it to the end of the driveway, dust your hands and be done.

Chances are, overnight the picker fairies will visit to disprove the theory that my stuff is so bad I can’t even give it away. Especially if they take the stuff and leave us the exquisite gift of empty boxes.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Don't let the bastards grind you down

The eighth-grade dance is coming up.

You know what that means right?

A sweet little ritual, with dancing and punch, that ends in fond memories of youth's splendor?

That was last week.

This week it means drama.

And torment.

It means a choreography of complicated steps that will undulate around dress selection and hairstyles and photo-perfect moments (to be virally shared on one of the grams or chats or other networks that bind our whole lives up in knots). It means invitations for pre-parties and post-parties will swirl in the web like a tangle and somehow disappear at the last possible moment like some form of cursed magic.

And some kids will sit it out, engaging in their first cake benders alone in their rooms with the saddest ballads they can pull into their playlists. Who needs a stupid dance, anyway?

Of course, "Cindy" will say something biting about "Jane," and people will say it's terrible but agree that they all secretly hate Jane. They use a cold shoulder as their filter. The "truth" becomes a blunt weapon.

Jane, no doubt, doesn't make things easy for herself. When she speaks her mind, unfiltered, it comes back to bite her. Few people, she's learning, can juggle these popularity batons because they are on fire.

The thick skin everyone's telling you about is really just a blister.

Please join me in a piece of spiced, chocolate cake if this sounds familiar.

I'm eating some now. Crumbs are gumming up my keyboard, which I should probably take as a sign.

Nothing good ever comes from venting.

Especially in a vice principal's office in 1984, where the best advice he could give me was in Latin: "nolite te bastardes carborundorum" - Don't let the bastards wear you down.

Harden yourself.

Which, no matter how much we hate it, is the best advice we can heed.

And I will have to do again because I am powerless to stop this seemingly putrid rite of passage, a phase of life that few people wish to relive but can't avoid if they have human children: The moment your best friend moves on without you, and you feel alone.

The moment all the kindness in the world seems to get sucked out of a gaping hole in your armor.

It's a moment that can haunt your life forever, but mostly because if you are honest with yourself, there was a similar hurt that you put onto someone else, maybe without even knowing.

It’s a problem that doesn’t have a one-size solution.

The dance isn't the problem. Nor are the hopes and dreams and expectations. Meanness isn’t even the problem since it is relative (meaning your relatives are most certainly the perpetrators and mine are the victims and vice versa).

Everyone is nursing a wound.

Expectations are hard to control. Feelings are hard to untangle. But we are all in this mess together.

Everyone's hurting. Just ask a parent.

For right now, the best advice I can give her is: get dressed, get out there and dance like nobody’s watching even if it winds up on one of the tubes. Nolite carborundum.


Sunday, June 03, 2018

Work, party


The weekend had arrived early. By Thursday our bags were packed and loaded into the car. The GPS clocked our arrival for sometime around midnight, but we’d pull into the deep woods of grandmother’s house in the neighborhood of one in the morning. Too late for anything more than to accordion ourselves out of the car and into the beds that awaited us, already made up and waiting. 

Perhaps we’ll unpack the car in the morning. The ultimate in early starts.

The children weren’t happy. 

Of course they love their grandmother. And Maine. And all the things that are familiar in their lazy-summer experience of our northernmost state, excluding the five hours of motion sickness they have to fight through to get there.

For this reason (and my general ineptitude) dinner wasn’t even a thought, let alone an afterthought.

It didn’t help that they were hungry as their stomachs started to settle and I hadn’t thought to brings snacks. I knew all the cupboards would be bare.

"You really are the worst mother ever,” my daughter says with glee. “Real mothers have all kinds of things in their bags in case of emergencies. Like lifesavers and packets of crackers and wallets.”

Darned kids. Forget your wallet one time and you’ll never hear the end of it.

Honestly, they have no idea how lucky they are to have a mother who is ill prepared.

They have had to be resourceful. They’ve had to problem solve. They’ve had to plan ahead … and around me.

They don’t see it quite that way … 

They’ve never been expected to do much of anything other than run, swim and play, and, on occasion, take their dirty dishes and put them near the sink. Asking them to load a dishwasher will provoke a panicked stare.

From their perspective, responsibilities come later. Once they are out of college and on their own. Right now they have an idyllic childhood to muster out of sea air and mosquito bites.

Now is the time for adults to take care of them; to make sure they get enough to eat and that they’re not playing with fire.

Except this trip -- one that commemorates 75 years of their grandmother’s life with the unveiling of her long awaited three-seasons room in her beloved year-round home — will require them to wear aprons and wait on tables.

Take orders and deliver meals to the big table. They will have to check in with guests to see if drinks should be replenished or if they've had enough of the sesame noodle salad. They will eat separately  … and in the ceiling-fanned comfort of the new room.

Maybe it’s to our credit that our children seem to be naturals at service. They’ve made place cards with menus inside they will mark with selections. They even seem to be having fun, as they deliver the meals with a smile. 

Invited guests marvel at the kids' efficiency and grace. Probably thankful their potatoes didn’t arrive with thumbprints.

But they were marvels.

They had circulated appetizers and taken beverage orders as if they were being paid in currency rather than good will.

My son had even affected the appearance of a snooty wine sommelier, who would judge you harshly for pairing salmon with merlot.

Even as they are sent out to the porch with their own dinners, they return at the sound of a bell, ready to be of service, to which we feel a little red faced. We had only meant to silence the table for an announcement, not summon the waitstaff.

Of course tomorrow they would be red-faced too, as we had plans to play with fire.

Literally … dragging brush from the woods onto the bonfire in the yard.