Sunday, September 25, 2016

Adventures in dog-sitting

I'd almost forgotten how fun puppies can be with their short-bodied enthusiasm and full-on floppy joy.

Around and around she went. Ears after tail, tail after ears, sending the carpet flying. "She will sleep well tonight," I text her owner, attaching a picture of the mayhem unfolding.

It wasn't very good: just a brown-color blur of fur and tangled leashes but she’d get the idea.

It seems I have added "Doggy Daycare" to my resume. Pictures would make it pop.
It's not really work, but I like to count all the many "jobs" I currently perform be they paid or unpaid. So when you get the notice from LinkedIn of my work status change, don’t forget to congratulate me.

This one I shall list after "Kitchen Detailer" but before "Artwork Registrar” and “Homework Moderator,” since it happens midday. But I like to think of it as sharing my lunchtime walk with a furry friend or two. At least it’s a way to get out of the office and stretch my legs.

Of course, I do have a full staff for this fledgling enterprise.

Our five-year-old pooch does most of the heavy lifting. She has already taught the puppy the art of wrestling, the joys of couch surfing, and the shifty nature of squirrels. But she's only good for short spurts. An old lady by comparison, she takes many a coffee-break, staking out a spot mid-floor and resigning herself to lifting her head and wagging her tail whenever the puppy orbits her space.

The kids, once they're home from school, handle the arduous tasks of cuddling and doling out treats. They also serve as an alert system to any excitement piddles that require immediate sanitation, which, apparently, is my purview.

My husband thinks he's tech support. You know, because he knows everything. Even thinks he’s the boss.

"I know that look in your eye," laughed my husband, as the visiting canine tumbled around the house, her crumb-seeking senses fully enabled and I followed her with my eyes.

"What? I'm just smiling?"

"We are NOT getting a puppy!"

It's cute how he tries to lay down the law, thinking he can read criminal intentions in the upturned corners of my mouth.

But he doesn’t know what that look on my face actually means.

He needn't worry. The expression does not predict that I'm plotting something nefarious. I will not start clearing out humane shelters or become a taxi for deep-south rescue efforts.

Mine is just a smile that would stretch across anyone's face whenever a puppy skids into view and than past it, unable to stop forward momentum without the final sound of "thud."

I know puppies grow up. They become dogs with ravenous appetites and vet bills to match. They will come into our lives in 15-year intervals -- if we're lucky. Our time together will always be too brief.

Playing with a puppy for a half-hour seems the perfect way to get through the day. My husband is just jealous his job doesn't include belly rubs and scratching behind someone's ears.

No sense rubbing his nose in it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Knowing the unknowable

My children are studying 9/11 in school. Perhaps yours are, too.

Recently my daughter came home with Story Corp-styled assignment in which she was expected to interview someone old enough to remember the events of that day.

I was that someone.

She had a list of five questions and an impressive background knowledge in which to parse her instructor-led enquiries. She was taking it seriously, even demanding I comb my hair and sit under the glaring spotlight of a desk lamp, despite there being no intention of recording or filming the session.

Let's just say she was prepared.

She seemed to know all the basic accounting. The flight numbers, the tallies of souls onboard and on the ground, and all the places were planes crashed and when. She recited a timeline with an adroit precision. 

It was eerie.

My daughter - born more than two years after the worst attack on American soil - spoke in a hushed tone when she asked me to describe where I was and what I was doing the moment I learned about the carnage.

I knew what I would tell her. I knew it word-for-word.

We each have a version of events that we hold sacred. A version that marks our individual suffering and pinpoints the fissures that formed in the world as we watched the smoke rise on tiny screens. My version had been honed with each passing year.

I tried not to wax poetic as she scribbled notes in the paragraph-wide spaces partitioning each line of the script.

I spoke about the uncertainty and the shock. I tried to explain feelings of horror and numbness that somehow blossomed into pride and a sense of unity. I spoke about people I'd met who'd experienced unbearable loss, and people who had shown exceptional courage. I talked about how one horrible day changed the course of our nation.

And I talked about disappointment.

She kept writing as I tried to make it all my thoughts connect. There was nothing I'd said that hadn't been said before. Familiar, reverent stories looped endlessly to fill lulls in an intractable 24-hour news cycle.

She turned the paper over and asked one final question:

"How did you feel when you learned Osama Bin Laden had been killed."

I froze. The question took me by surprise. I sat there for a while and wondered in silence just what kind of response her teacher had expected to receive.

I hoped not elation. I hope no one felt that.

"Honestly, I didn't feel anything. I felt numb. There was no relief, no sense of closure, just reminders that we were still waging war In two countries, killing innocents as well as insurgents, and the man most wanted had always been somewhere else.

"How does this end?

"Hopefully not by building walls and bluster.

"It seems all we want is war. All we seek is conflict. 

"Somehow we lost our way between there and here. Maybe we had little choice, but we have changed. And not for the better."

I stopped rambling, and she stopped writing.

"Do you have enough?"

She nodded and started to read back the transcript of our chat: "She felt numb. ..."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

When your number's up

57? 57?

In my numb-from-cold hand, I claw-gripped a paper cup that was filled to almost overflowing with mint chip milkshake and other festive garnishes. Expecting someone to step forward and relieve me of this frosty burden, I just stood there and blinked my disappointed before trying again.


Not one of the dozens of souls who had gathered in the picnic area of the 4-H Milk Bar, waiting for someone to scream out their ice cream order, even bothered to look up.

As a parent and volunteer, I had never felt more invisible.

Just then, my daughter gripped me at the elbows and craned her neck past my shoulder.

"FIFTY-SEVEN!!!" She yelled in a clear and calm voice. "ORDER UP!"

A smiling woman in a summer dress stood and headed our way.

"Thank you, and enjoy!" my loudspeaker said as I handed over the milkshake.

My daughter patted my back, and applied my own patented "there-there, feel better?" salve.

Oddly enough, I did feel better.

The kids are the stars of this show. They take orders, make change, scoop and blend the sometimes complicated recipes to a frothy perfection. The few complaints received illustrated the level of expectation well beyond the workforce's median age of 12.

"How come my order number - 53 - came out after 56?" Demanded one disgruntled patron."

"I'm sorry for the wait, sir," came the chocolate-spattered preteen's measured reply. "But you ordered seven shakes. They ordered single cones."

"Not to mention THEY'RE 12," silently screamed the angry mom in my head.

Anyone could see we were busy, and yet the wait wasn't overwhelming. The kids still wore smiles as they rotated stainless steel shake cups around on the blender spindles, a glaze of ice forming on the outside.

They helped each other with big orders, and took over small jobs without being asked.

No one questioned the customer who said he'd ordered two. They didn't confirm with the cashier. They simply apologized and made another.

Happy workers beget happy customers.

I was a volunteer, but I couldn't help but think about the minimum wage fight, and how so many people think food service workers don't deserve more.

This was no cakewalk, despite the occasional lull in business when singing and dancing broke out.

Knowing when to put one's nose to the grindstone and when to cut loose is good for morale on both sides of the counter.

Three-hour shifts occasionally morphed into six- and nine-hour bundles before the crowds, or our supplies, dwindled or fresh recruits came to relieve us. We all managed to tackle six days of non-stop service.

This was the hardest work I had ever done. The most standing. The most lifting, and bending, and constant motion. After a single day everyone was bone tired. It felt ... Good.

The kids slept like the dead, and yet were eager to get started again once the sun rose on another day.

Of course this is out of the ordinary. It's Fair, a literal carnival of lights and excitement for six days only. A working vacation from the real world they are used to.

Soon enough a big yellow bus -- #20 -- will grind to a halt in front of our house. The familiar mass transit system for their usual daily grind.

I hope they remember the lessons summers' end taught us: smile when things get tough, and dance when things get slow.

You won't regret it when your number comes up.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Stick 'em up

It's the time of year when the kids and I fall into our favorite summer's end game. We start with hide and seek, mix in a liberal dash of treasure hunt, and then pretend cops and robbers have both just pick-pocketed me for good measure.

Fun, right?

It always starts innocently enough: I close my eyes and count to 10 as they scamper away. I barely get to two before the slap of their new sneakers against the cool tiled floor becomes faint and they begin to sing out in a kind of call and response.





Only ... That's not what they are saying.

She is calling for "Markers" and he is responding with "Pencils," neither seem to be able to find the other splashing around in the pools of supplies.



Their voices are beginning to raise into panic decibels.

Quickly, I make my way toward their screeching in Aisle 6.

You see, it is my lot to find them and the four million items their teachers have requested as we begin another school year.

When I said "favorite" in reference to this game earlier, you should imagine that I spit the word out just after running over my pinky toe with the only cart in the store with a wonky wheel. 

We had already gone through the basics. Searching out and scratching off pencils, paper, notebooks, binders, dividers and stick glues of all shapes and sizes in short order.

They had located rulers and protractors. Chosen a stapler and found the precise calculator (the last one left in inventory, hallelujah) itemized by make and model number.

When the list suddenly shifted to items of the grocery variety:

I want to be supportive. I know the responsibilities associated with teaching appears to have colored outside of the lines. I want to be able to toss the four boxes of two-ply facial tissue (no lotion, please) into the shopping cart with a smile. But I can't. Instead, I recoil at the sound the boxes make against the other supplies we've piled into the cart -- two rolls of paper towels, two boxes of Ziplock brand bags, a large bottle of hand sanitizer make a teetering tower above no fewer than sixteen thousand pocket folders (with prongs) of every conceivable color.

I've heard stories about school supply lists containing hygiene products and snack items, like cookies and chocolate, but I've never received one.

Of course, I have been made green with envy comparing our book-form list to one from a neighboring district, which contained little more than pencils and a pocket folder.

And if the rumor is true -- that children use their expensive graphing calculators once before seeking out internet apps they can download for free -- I might wish for some very bad things to happen to the math teacher. …

For instance, never experiencing the simple pleasure of having a movie's audio sync up with its visuals.



It's enough to make a person pine for the days when a few pencils and notebooks were the extent of the shopping list. Back when winters had snow and we had to walk up hill to school in them. Both ways.

"Mom! Why are you daydreaming? We're not even halfway through the list, and we still have three more stores and backpacks to find! Chop-chop! Labor Day is coming!"

Oh, I'm awake. I'm so wide awake, I'm twitching. Which makes me worry about what else is in store.

"Don't tell me we have to get coffee, sugar, and flavored non-dairy creamers next," I kvetch to my children. But they are gone. Searching, no doubt, for hotplates or tea bags or lemon-scented anti-bacterial wipes.

A school-teacher friend taps me on the shoulder and flashes a broad and sarcastic grin:

"I prefer almond milk and agave nectar, thank you."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Comfort stations

"Mom. Mom. Mom."

I might have slept through the commotion had my husband not nudged me awake upon hearing a tiny voice repeating the magical word that allows him to stay in bed:

"Mom ... Mom ... Maaaahhmaaa."

Along with the low moaning of a child, I could hear the dog’s nails clicking nervously against the hardwood floor.

It was after midnight, and my 12-year-old daughter was writhing on the floor of the bathroom, willing her body to rid itself of whatever offending bacterium was ailing it. The dog at her side looked at me with a Do-Something-About-This-Will-You stare.

Her Timmy had fallen down a well, and I was moving a might too slowly in the direction of good care.

"What does it feel like when your appendix bursts," she asks wearily as if she could be resigned to such a fate.

I rubbed my eyes and reached for her forehead. It was cool.

I was reassured, but the dog was still pacing.

"Where does it hurt?"

My daughter’s slender hand circled her abdomen a comfortable distance from her skin. "Everywhere," she said with a dramatic sigh. "It hurts everywhere."

"It's not likely to be your appendix," I say with the most reassuring "mocktor" voice I can muster.

I know (from attending the Dr. Google School of Medicine) that appendix pain often starts at the belly button and moves to the lower right side of the abdomen. The pain gets worse as you move your legs, or when you cough, or sneeze, or get jostled around inside heavy machinery.

And while the pain of an infected appendix can wake a person from sleep, I also know this particular person hasn't been sleeping as much as she's been trying to hang on to every last minute of summer vacation by indulging in late-night Netflix marathons with the cast of "Royal Pains."

But to be safe, I check for rebound pain.

"Does this feel better when I push here? Does it feel even worse when I release?"

"No ... it just feels weird and hurt-y all the time."

I suppose it could be a bug. Or maybe stomach upset caused by too many cookies that had passed through her mouth before they registered with her mind.

"Try to go back to bed and get some sleep. You'll feel better in the morning."

She just groaned pathetically and asked me to get her a pillow and a blanket so she could camp out around the comfort station "just to be safe."

I offer ice chips and a puke bucket if she will just go back to bed, but the words offend her sensibilities. She'd much rather weather the elements in the comfort of a cold, tile floor.

She's not a baby anymore. She doesn't need me to hold her hair, but should wouldn't mind if I would be so kind as to bring her a blanket.

I give her a bathmat and a pillow, and she curls up next to the commode. I tell her to wake me if the pain gets worse and go back to bed, feeling a little more tired and a lot less motherly.

"What's the matter?" my husband groans as I steal back some covers. "Stomach ache."

I stayed awake a while longer, listening for signs of distress. But from the bathroom, I heard only the tinkle of collar tags as our canine child circled the girl, and the dog's satisfied groan as she flopped down beside her for the night. I closed my eyes thinking of our furry friend as the real nursemaid of the family.

"She'll be okay."

When I awoke in the morning, I discovered the bathroom campers had moved to the end of my bed, where they had settled together in an adorable tangle. My daughter’s arm encircling the dog's shoulders; the dog’s head resting in the crook of the girl's neck.

Both were snoring lightly.

She tells me she feels better when she awakens a few minutes later.

"Maybe it was just a little pneumothorax?"

At this, the dog lifted her head and yawned.

"It was not a collapsed lung. And no more Hank Med before bedtime."

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Last mom standing

"It's not as easy as it looks," said my cousin with a bemused grin. A seasoned surfer, he'd made a detour from hiking with friends at Katahdin's Knife's Edge to surf with my daughter in southern Maine.

Only he wasn't talking to her.

He was talking to me as I dragged my daughter's surf board to the razor's edge of the sea.

What was I thinking?

Of course, he was right. This would not end well. What forty-something house frau -- who on a good day has to plan how to descend to a squatting position after she's dropped something she just can't abandon -- would risk life, limb and the potential for lambasting for a moment of glory?

Points to self.

Even though I know this is a sport for young people who have flexibility and supple joints, I couldn't help but delude myself into thinking that all the time I had spent on the beach -- camera trained on my daughter as she learned to surf -- had somehow rubbed off on me.

As I saw her paddle out, turn her board in the direction of the wave, and wait for her moment, I held my breath.

When her chance came, and she started to paddle hard to get herself ahead of the wave, I felt myself dig in.

But it was she who popped up and rode the current in. Not me.

I had been living vicariously.

No matter it was my turn now, and I was going to take it. Somehow I had gotten out there. I had hopped small waves and crashed through large ones. I had tried not to give the ocean too much of me to smash.

When my turn came, I pushed off, paddled as hard as I could until the ocean swished me around in its gaping maw and spat me out.

It wasn't pretty.

But I stood up, tugged at the board and headed back out.

I'd like to tell you this Old Lady conquered that sea. I'd like to tell you I managed not to make a fool of myself. But I know you don't believe in mermaids or fairytales.

I never made it to standing.

A half an hour later I was exhausted.

The next morning my body felt like a sticky, gelatinous substance one has to scrape off their shoe.

But I couldn't quit. She wouldn't let me.

"You can't give up, mom. I'll teach you."

This would not end well. What could a tween child -- who on a good day talks herself In circles as if her internal podcast was caught in a scratch on a vinyl record -- do to alter the time/space continuum. She couldn't return me to an age when I mightn't risk life, limb and the potential for lambasting so I could bask in a moment of glory?

Maybe it was just an exercise in futility. "Find your balance," she hollered as she leaned in and tipped my board sideways.

Stop that!

"Try to stand up."


"I think you're goofy footed. You should switch the leash to your left ankle."

I had no idea what she was saying.

Use English!

"Paddle out now. … Now come back. … Now paddle out again."

You are enjoying this, aren't you?

She smiled broadly.

How could this be any more mortifying you ask?

Is that the ACTUAL surf instructors right next to us watching and laughing?

That's how.

"Just push me out," I pleaded.

"Ok. If you think you're ready," she drawled with disdain.

One heave and a wave had taken me. And while I expected to be rung through the sea's spin cycle, something unexpected happened. The board steadied in the current and gave me time to crawl to my feet, where I crouched partway between down and up.

I'd like to tell you this Old Lady conquered that sea. I'd like to tell you I managed not to make a fool of myself. But I know you don't believe in mermaids or fairytales.

I never made it to standing.

Still, I was laughing. And I was surfing with my daughter, not caring who saw.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Assumed names

I wasn't myself.

Officially, I mean.

Crowds had lined the street. Some were holding signs. Some were ringing cowbells. Everyone was yelling something encouraging.

"You have got this! Almost there! You're doing great!"

A few were even calling me by name, "Patsy."

And that was the problem.

Technically, I was a bandit. And I was about to cross the finish line after running six point two miles toward a tiny lighthouse in Portland under an assumed identity.

Now, granted, the bib had been bought and paid for fair and square and the date for legitimate transfer had long since expired. It would have just gone to waste as the rightful titleholder was unable to run.
But it was the fine-print that was inside my head. Fine-print and the knowledge that there are some in the running community who devote all of their free time to outing bandits.

Guilt was getting the better of me.

It was also making me feel a bit discombobulated.

In fact, I had no idea where I was or how I got here. I knew I was in Maine, on a tree-lined street, with about six thousand people in brightly colored stretchy clothes who were checking and rechecking their watches.

I knew my friends had worn bright orange shirts, of which I'd taken careful note. It was kismet I thought since I had chosen to wear orange as well.

But I couldn't relax.

I just knew I'd never be able to retrace my steps without help. As soon as the gun sounded and the one-two beat of soles against pavement kept time, I was alone with my thoughts and my audible breathing for 62 minutes and 25 seconds.

The alarm had woken us before daylight, and I had slipped into clothes I had laid out the night before when the offer to run in place of a friend had climbed its way up the phone tree and settled in my resolve.

Hours earlier, I was still groggy and silent as my husband steered the car northwards. He was a trouper, providing shuttle service from point to point when he could have been sleeping.

The sky was a red color, orange like our shirts, and at this time in the morning the hue was not a happy omen.

Still, this was an opportunity not to be missed, a message my husband kept repeating to appease my guilt.

I had dreamed of this moment at least a half-dozen times since I took up running a few years ago and realized the premiere race is in our summertime backyard. Of course, the dream had been filed away behind other thoughts in my vacationing brain.

A brain usually preoccupied with the logistics of determining how much gear we should schlep to the beach and whether it's too windy to eat by the ocean once we get there. Sandwiches aren't tasty when they are literal.

But instead of the familiar surf, I found myself surrounded by a sea of bright orange shirts, none of which harbored my friends.

It occurred to me then that I really wasn't myself. I'd even left anything that could identify me behind. No wallet, no keys, no phone.

I could be anyone.

In my soul, I know I am still an outlaw despite an equally firm belief that the cosmos makes most of the rules we end up following. And in the grand scheme of things, letters of laws are usually open to interpretation.

I know it only takes the cosmos four minutes to shut a person out of running this race. If I'm found out, everyone in my orbit could be shutout for life.

And as much as I might like to think of myself as a robber of the rich and giver to the poor, I haven't fully embraced my inner scofflaw. How could I when I still feel slightly panicked at the thought of jaywalking?

The longer I waited to be reunited with my friends and family, the more I became convinced this deception would be discovered.

In the home stretch, now, a man high fives racers as they cross the finish line. He seems to know everyone and calls them by name as they sprint past.

My husband is smiling and waving beside him, amazed by the man's knowledge of names and faces. He hasn't caught on to the fact that first names had been printed under the numbers. (An oversight we will no doubt laugh about later).

But now I avert my eyes hoping to pass by unnoticed and unheeded. The final moment of truth revealed in a duel of differing kudos. But they both see me round the corner and yell at the same time: "You got this, Patsy! Strong finish!!!"