Sunday, July 23, 2017

One of the best

I don't hate weddings …

I have a job to do. And it starts with a mental affirmation.

Think of all the pretty pictures.

Don't even have to close my eyes. … the inspiration is all right in front of me.

A sunlit field. A treeline pond. The most beautiful place for a wedding if ever there was one. And I haven't even mentioned the bride; a natural beauty from all angles even when her face twists into an asymmetric sneer just for laughs.

There was no way to screw this up, short of equipment malfunction or stunning natural disaster.

There I was, cameras in hand and filled with dread, trying to blend into the woodwork.

I don't hate weddings. I just harbor the Charles Bukowski sentiment of happening to "feel better when they're not around."

It's an odd attribute for a so-called wedding photographer to harbor, I'll admit.

If shooting one wedding a year (that I refuse payment for) suffices for the use of that moniker.

I just have to do my thing. Be me. Plod on through the awkwardness of my being.

"Be careful of this one," laughed the father of the bride. "If anyone makes a horrible face, smacks a kid or falls into the water, she'll get the pinnacle moment. Guaranteed."

I am not put off by his jest or the statement. He knows me well enough to know he was opening a door. He'd probably even asked for that imaginary picture to be framed for posterity.

Of course, in that moment, I had to confess to feeling apprehensive. And going through a penance of meaculpas, to I'm not sure what ends. I should have said 'No.' The bride would have been better off with a real photographer. Someone who can control a crowd.

He assured me I am exactly the perfect fit.

I have never been a commanding presence. And weddings -- despite their familiar form -- always need someone at the helm whose skills include taming lions and herding cats.

That's not me. I'm not even skilled at pouring liquids through a funnel.

I can't seem to make the scene in front of me – the 160 guests; a roasted pig; the bathroom on wheels, fancier than any fixture in my house – fit into Just An Ordinary Day.

Behind a lens, however, I have a sense of timing that seems to work in my favor. I don't even understand why or how. It just happens. 

Maybe it's as simple as the difference between looking and seeing.

Which I guess is also the bridge between pomp and circumstance. 

For richer or poorer.

In sickness and health.

As long as we both shall live.

The most meaningful, if not somber moments of the entire event, lifted by a kiss and a DJ spinning "The Best Day of My Life."

And me, clicking away the whole time.

It was a really good day. Maybe one of the best.

That evening as pictures of smiles and glances full of love flash past me, and I funneled them into cyberspace for an optimal viewing experience; I breathed a little easier.

I know why I don't hate weddings. As good as they are, they remind me, the best days are still to come.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Doctor Google School of Medicine dropout

It happened while I was running.

Pain. The kind that makes you ask: is this live or pre-recorded?

It had been manageable in the beginning.
I thought I had even gotten past it after the first mile. The mental milestone of all long runs where will has to work against won't.

Eventually, all the individual parts of you that have been begging to stop fall silent and align with the path ahead. You hope it's the one with least resistance.

Until you feel something more.

Maybe it taps you on second mile or the third?

It has a familiar tug. Like a child's. You divert attention to it for a while and try to ascertain if its needs are urgent.

More often than not, I try to ignore this pain's chirpy insistence and lumber onward.

I hope the tugging will go away or wait its turn if it's not truly an emergency. As a last resort I will send my mind's "healing energy" to the spot that calls.

Sometimes it works.

But not this time.

This time the tugging promised to rage and break me into little bits if I didn't stop. Perhaps it was already too late for fingers-crossed reasoning by that point, I couldn’t be sure.

So I walked -- or limped, as literal accuracy requires – back home.

And then I rested. And rested. And rested. Until I couldn't rest anymore. At which point, I again tried to run.
Now, it was not the unmitigated disaster you might have expected since my ever-so-tentative performance was being enhanced by compression athletic-wear and a small, but mobile, dispensary of OTC anti-inflammatory medication.

But the next week?

It was, as you might imagine, a disaster.

And it never really got better.

But I persisted to believe it was something minor that time and rest would heal.

Still. Not. Better.

How many weeks, now? I've pretended not to count.

Smeared the pencil marks on the calendar and made the dates illegible.

Eventually I start to worry enough to enroll in the Dr. Siobhan M. School of Medicine at Google University.

By noon I had contracted three-quarters of the illnesses that end in "-itis" and every known cancer imaginable.

"You need to see a real doctor," said my daughter, who, at this point in the year, had already graduated from the Meredith Gray School of Medicine at the University at Netflix and was heading into her summer internship with Hank Med.

"But don't panic. The chances of cancer are still very slim. It's likely caused by inflammation from repetitive motion."

Still, I remain unconvinced. She is, after all, 13.
Seriously, try to remain calm.”

"How can you say be calm after that recommendation? EVERY Royal Pain on Gray's Anatomy ALWAYS turns into the worst-case-scenario!"

And in that moment, she smiled and laughed, and channeled her grandmother, who would have already sent me down the straight (if not exactly narrow) path toward professional intervention if she were still with us: "That's just the story arc on TV. You are not going to win the Hollywood lottery. Make yourself an appointment."

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Stealing thunder

The sun lit the horizon like a fuse, burning through to a center of plum-hued pink. The kids were antsy as we drove toward Who-Knows-Where.

They didn't -- for good reason -- believe Who-Knows was a real place. It's not like Stratford-on-Avon or Castleton-on-Hudson, which they've seen in travel magazines and during construction detours. They were just going along.

My imaginary hyphenate held the promise of fireworks, and that's all that usually matters to anyone enriched with time and a tank full of fossil fuel after sunset on July 4th.

The children probably would have appreciated the splendor of Albany's display. They might have even enjoyed the crowds.

Of course, I could be wrong on that last count.

My children's enthusiasm dampened for things that light up and explode one summer night four years ago amid a crowd of chain-smoking tipplers who by10 p.m. were all toppling over.

The scene frightened them enough to forgo public displays of pyrotechnics as if the razzle-dazzle only released rattle snakes into the air.

This year, emboldened by friends, we thought we'd try an adventure. Suss out the sizzle we'd heard happens annually at a nearby farm. We were told: Just park along the lane, pitch a few dollars into a collection plate and, you'll see celestial skyrockets until the cows come home.


But, as our luck would have it, the firework extravaganza was a thing of yesterday. And our rumor-monger informants had missed it, too.

Cue disappointed release bated breath.

So we did what all parents (who would rather have a root canal than traverse the seat of government looking for safe, yet percussive, patriotic explosives) are wont to do in this very situation:

We piled back into the car and started heading in the direction of water. We were on the lookout for small ponds, mid-sixes lakes, large puddles in front of new developments heretofore unencumbered by old-growth shade trees. Anywhere our sense of stereotype might pin DIY fireworks as a major part the evening's entertainment.

"I feel like a creeper," said my daughter, her voice somewhere between guilt and excitement. The earsplitting squeal she let out the moment a tiny pop of sparkle ignited above.


Off we went. Toward the lake houses, piled one on top of another, divided by narrow streets.

"You might try the turn-around at the end of the road," said a man who didn't want us to park near his gate. Not that we asked with actual words but I'm sure he could see the desire to park in our eyes as he pointed that-a-way ... "There's a cove down there ... it's pretty wide open."

We the cove much as he had described: A clearing bordering the lake's east-side elbow. Although it was open and inviting, the location obscured any view of the boats that had assembled along the western shores.

We could hear fireworks but we couldn't see them.

I tried to pretend; saying "Oooooh" and "ahhhhh" has the pops sprinkled the air. Described the sights I had seen (or wish to have seen) in my youth.

"Where are you looking?" exclaimed my exasperated son, who stopped himself from throwing a can of bug spray at me when I fessed up to fibbing.

"You are killing me!"

We got back into the car.

Windows open, radio off, we cruised along listening for bursts of manufactured thunder and  looking for cracks of chemical lightning.

"I think I see something," my daughter hollered. "Take a right."

We saw it, too.

We pulled off to the side of a long county road, inched up to a scrawny tree, and, giving the impression that we were trying to hide our gargantuan vehicle behind the sapling for cover, we turned off the engine and scrunched down in our seats.

No one was fooled.

The shooting lights that had erupted from the lawn party, to which we hadn't been invited, suddenly ceased and desisted.

We gave up and crept onward.

Over hill and dale, down one dark road after another we searched.

Nothing. ... And just as we were about to give up, the air above us exploded into red and purple sparks.

Everyone screamed. We pulled the car over and got out. Standing at the edge of knee-high corn and looking toward a driveway lined with angled pipes, we waited and bounced.

And the tell-tale whistles revved up.

One by one, fast and furious, the hits kept coming. Twirling, dancing undulating lights cracking into loud booms overhead and lighting up the sky. The girls screamed, the boys silently orchestrated with an imaginary baton.

When it was all over, we gave rounds of enthusiastic but apologetic applause. And our accidental hosts replied in kind with the ultimate sign of forgiveness:

"See ya next year."

We may have been stealing thunder, but we certainly hit the mother lode.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

In the swim

For a quarter of an hour or so, he adjusts his swimming gear until the fit nears perfection. His suit, mask, flippers, towel ready and arranged just so.

Swimming is serious business. It requires attention to all manner of details.

A smear of sunscreen across his neck leads my eye to the small patches of greasy foam visible on his arms. Since he's a do-it-himself kinda guy, I fully expected the shot-glass-full amount all the morning shows preach (for efficacy's sake) to be spattered all over the floor. Even so, he refuses to rub the stuff into his skin. This is fine, he tells me, as his swim shirt is the only real protection he needs.

He fights with his swim trunks trying to turn the pockets wrong-side inward. All pockets should be this way, he contends, lest he loses the stuff he's collected on the way to the beach. Fashion aside, there is no "right side out" when it comes to pockets. Mostly he ignores this social rule until he finds the smoothest shell or the flattest skipping stone.

He doesn't wonder why pockets exist in swimwear until he has to empty them into my bag before he ventures into the water.

He's already wrestled on a swim mask - tight over the head, extracting the fringe of his hair, piece by piece.

One errant lock and the protective bubble will pop, sending water cascading into his eyes and up his nose.

The process is arduous. Though not as arduous as it was before my son found a way to swim underwater without a full-body submersible.

Back then a single drop of water plopping onto his face was enough to make him sputter and claim to be "drowndeding."

And whoever was nearby at the time of the dousing got all the blame, deserved or not.

Mostly his contempt was well placed.

I still remember the moment one swim instructor nonchalantly dropped him off a diving board into the waiting arms of another ... before he said: "I'm ready."

It was the cardinal sin of all swim lessons sins and a sin which most parents thought had been abandoned during the sea change of a new millennia wherein no one in their right mind would advocate for simulated drowning as a teaching device.

She may not have known he was never going to be ready.

I knew.

And as I watched him sputter to the surface, screaming an incoherent recrimination to his now-chagrined looking torturer, I knew without a doubt that it would be a full year at least before he'd even step into a puddle again.

I knew swim class was over. For a long, long while.

He might not have forgiven her, nor me until I broke down and charged the cost of a toy-store mask and swim fins to my credit card.

Twelve dollars later, and with enough guilt ammunition to defy the printed No-Swim-Goggle rules, we returned to the pool.

Looking pinched and frog-like, he stepped back into the swim of things.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


He came bounding into my room, his mouth all foamy at its edges. A million light-years from sleep if I were to gauge drift-off by the thrust of his energy.

“I brushed my teeth. I changed into PJs. I'm ready for bed,” he said with rapid-fire excitement. “Come tuck me in.”

It melts my heart that he still needs me to shoo away the monsters, as well as remove all the litter and laundry that pile up in his room.

On any other night, he'd be taking his time, dragging his feet. Pleading with me for just a few minutes more with whatever he was doing.

But when he wakes up tomorrow he will be ten. He knows sleep cuts through the lag between now and then.

“I don't want you to grow any older,” I tell the boy as I sit by his bed, carefully ducking my chin so as not to hit my head on the top bunk.

He smiled at me as if I were kidding.

I was dead serious.

Scratch that. “Dead” is not the word I wanted to land on for this sentiment.

*Searches for a term that doesn't joke about mortality but imparts all the anxiety of a mother in an uncertain world, who worries that we are all just pinballs in some elevated tin-can of an arcade game.

*Shrugs shoulders.

Anxiety is a terrible thing. It's a frenetic heartbeat that races around in our minds causing all kinds of havoc. Many mothers aptly describe the feeling as if these babies entered the world and dragged our hearts out with them.

My thoughts race and collide as he drags the covers up to his chin, and finds his most comfortable position in which to rest:

I want him to grow up.
And willingly get in the shower without me having to ask a dozen times.
I want him to clean his own room.
And do his own laundry.
And finish high school.
And college.
And not be drafted.
Or killed in a war we can't win.
I want him to know real love. I want him to find it everywhere. Especially inside himself.
I want him to know he has choices and that others do, too.
I want him to grow old with someone he admires.
I don't care if he's a doctor as long as he can see one when he's sick, even if just for reassurance.
I hope he's not a hypochondriac like me.
But I want him to be sensitive. To remember he's not alone among strangers.
I want him to care about whether his neighbors are hungry, or cold, or hurting.
I want him to mow a little more than his lawn, just to help out.
I want whatever he has to be more than enough.
I want his heart to live outside of his body, too.

But I can't say any of that to him. I can only give my son a hug, which he gives me right back.

And then he thanked me for changing his sheets, which -- I'll be honest – had accumulated at least a cup-full of playground sand and who-knows-what-all-else since the last time I'd risked a traumatic head injury to strip them from his bunk bed.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Pep talk

I hate sports.

Kids' sports, especially.

Sorry. I know it's not a popular sentiment, nor a particularly fair one at that.

I wish I could just walk it off.

It's not any one thing. … The time ... The expense ... The constant battle against rage and emotive outbursts from just about everyone.




I hate pep talks most of all, which is what was going through my mind as I read the coach's email, reminding parents to tell our kids “they were just as good as, if not better than, the team that defeated them” a mere moment ago.

He didn't want to hear the words “we can't win, they're too good” come out of their mouths. All they need to do was bring their “A Game.”

He explained, if we are to do well in the tournament, this was the price parents had to chip in. And then he used the word “nemesis” in describing the opposing team of 10-year-old boys, whose friendships all intertwine.

He said nothing about the dirt-kicking or trash-talking that came from our side of the field.

He remembered to say “have fun,” which I imagine most people assume will absolve them of all other impure thoughts about “playing hard.”

I have impure thoughts.

I want to snark and send back a reply, reminding him that most of the kids not having fun appeared to be coaches kids. And kids who sat on the bench. Or kids who missed a play. Or hit a handily-caught pop fly. Or otherwise messed up, only to have his team turn on him with a string of "you shouldas."

But who am I?

Even if their team won, 10-year-olds weren't going to be happy with their individual lackluster performances. Or their teammates, it seemed. Winning isn't everything, as the old saying goes. On these occasions, it seems to be the only thing.

I don't intervene.

I don't complain to the coach or other parents. I know they are holding their breath, too. We are all trying to keep ourselves from crossing the line between support and suppression. It seems wrong to cheer the play at second. Someone caught the ball. The other someone got tagged out.

I try not to make noise, or sigh too loudly, as I know my natural stress release can stress people out. I don't always succeed.

It's probably a prejudice of mine born out of sour-grapes and a lifetime of bench-sitting and sore-loser status. But I just can't shake off the notion that 10-year-olds seeking a “competitive edge” are playing with knives. It's all fun and games until someone gets cut. And someone always gets cut.

That's life,” you say as you blame me for the emergence of participation awards.

Not really,” I retaliate as I blame you for year-round travel teams and sucking the life out of recreational games.

Eventually, we must face the truth.

My kid is never going to play professional baseball. (I erased the word “probably” from that sentence to eradicate any shred of expectancy, even slight.) And neither will yours.

But my kid will meet his “nemesis” at school tomorrow on the playground. And if he's learned anything about the value of sport, he will congratulate his friend for playing a great game. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A hot mess

He usually leaves this place a hot mess, my whirling dervish of a boy.

His face is reddened by exertion. His hair plastered upward into a look made possible by the automatic motion of preening and the natural pomade of perspiration. His white uniform and blue belt are almost as disheveled. But he is happy.

This is martial arts.

Twice a week, for four years, we've come to his humid gym so he might kick and punch his way toward a rainbow of belts.

As he moves through the “forms,” as they are known, he breaths out an audible current of air. There is a calm fluidity to the sequence that allows a moment of tranquility before it is ultimately broken with an ear-splitting yell called a K'ihap.

A K'ihap sounds nothing like Hiayah!

Lately, though, he's not been happy.

Transitions from school to home and from home to lessons haven't been as fluid. I brushed it off as a normal phase.

Sparring, a key ingredient of this particular discipline has packed too much spice for his taste. Also a common complaint.

The kicks have come at him harder, the punches more forceful. He wears his mad face more and more before and after class.

He never wants to talk about it.

Until one days he doesn't stop talking:

"This isn't fun anymore," he says one day after class. "I don't like getting hit."

Of course, I don't fully understand. My offer to skip those particular lessons is met with incredulity.

It's part of a process I hadn't fully processed during all those years I had perched on a folding chair, watching my phone, on the sidelines.

He knows without sparring he won't progress, and if you don't progress you just stagnate.

My mind runs through the Parent Ponders checklist:

What happened?

Is he angling for more screen time?

Will he regret coming all this way and giving up?

Do quitters never win?

I make him speak with his teacher.

It is the difficult thing to do. And something I think is necessary.

And all goes well until he cries and agrees to keep trying.

"Give it one more month," we all agree.

At least, that's what I THINK we've decided to do as my red-eyed, puffy-nosed boy sat quietly in the back of the car.

Until the following week.

When he just broke out in tears when I handed him his uniform and gave my usual 10-minute warning.

"I just want to be done. I don't want to do martial arts anymore. ... I want to do other things: I want to go to the playground after school. I want to play flag football. I want to learn to play the trumpet next year in school. I don't want to be a punching bag."

I wonder if tag-teaming with his teacher was the best thing?

He agreed to continue only because he was the smallest person in the room, and everyone knows the smallest people don't usually win in a fight. 

Fighting our own battles, we tend to agree, builds character.

And what about commitment? 

Does following through to the end mean committing to unhappiness?

If it does, it seems to me, that in itself unhappiness is a means to an ending of another sort.

And so, I agree. It's time to try something new.