Sunday, May 28, 2017

Spin doctor

“Did you know if someone turns red they might have Scarlet Fever? We read about it in class. The boy in the Velveteen Rabbit turned red, and they said he had Scarlet Fever. They had to burn everything in his room. It was sad.”

My son is a font of tragicomic wisdom.

I tell him to wash his hands before dinner.

“Did you know a girl was dragged into the water by a sea lion? The news said it was the quick thinking of a man nearby that saved her, but I think she was just lucky the sea lion didn't swim off with her. It was scary.”

“Set the table, please.”

“Did you know that tops were probably the first fidget spinner? They date back to infinity. Maybe even beyond. I think Buzz Lightyear said that.”


“Sam's going to sell me his fidget spinner for a dollar,” my son getting to his main point as I was plating dinner. “Did you know that fidget spinners have probably been around for decades. His fidget spinner isn't that old, though. It came from Five Below last week.”

He really is a spin doctor.

Fidget Spinners – in case you don't have a 9-year-old boy of your own -- are these rotating toys that dropped into a few YouTube videos in late March and somehow materialized in the pockets of elementary schoolers everywhere by the beginning of May.

The spinners most often consist of three rotary bearings set into plastic, metal or ceramic cases that, when pinched between one's thumb and forefinger, can spin forEVER™.

They are billed as “stress relievers” and good for kids with attention deficits, though no studies have been proffered to bolster such claims. And of course, they have become collectable, running between a few bucks to a few hundred bucks.

Not that I want to be a naysayer.

Even I – the great and powerful user of the word “NO!” – have to admit the sensation of having a virtually silent and perfectly balanced rotating gizmo circling atop my fingertip was an unexpectedly satisfying experience.

“He didn't want it.”


“Sam! The kid I was telling you about with the fidget spinner from Five Below.

“It had a wonky bearing or something, and it didn't spin for more than a minute. Sam said he had others that were better so he'd sell me the wonky one for a dollar. I think I can fix it. It's probably just an unbalanced bearing or an ill-fitting finger pad. I could probably strip it down and rebuild it from scratch.”

Honestly … I was just staring at his lips by this point.

None of it made sense to me.

Almost as if he were speaking in tongues.

How long could this last? How soon until these spinney toys go the way of Zhu Zhu Pets and Silly Bandz and Bakugans?

“Even if I can't fix it, it would be worth it to customize. I could take the bearings out and marbleize it by running it through a bath of water and spray-paint.”

I don't like where this is going.

“You are not spray-painting my bathtub.”

“Hey! I wouldn't do that. … But I would clean the tub for the bargain price of $4. … I'd even throw in the sink for an extra fifty cents. I found an Anti-Spinner on Amazon.”



“That sounds like this spin cycle's already at its end point.”

“No. It's just marketed that way. It's just got a different rotation.”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A million reasons

I'm the woman who opens her mouth and inserts foot ... up to her kneecap. I'm so fervent I'm strident. 

You know people like me. We have opinions.

Our opinions have opinions.

And our opinions are not always right.

Not that we’d necessarily agree with your assessment on that particular point.

But you know me.

I haven’t thought that far ahead. My thoughts are on constant churn, macerating with some little tidbit of something.


I'm the lady complaining about how terrible coaches are ... to a coach. How scary religions are to the devout. How awful healthcare is to the doctor. Mine is the voice you hear from across a crowded room, saying whatever tone deaf thing that should probably have been left unsaid.

This lack of forethought isn't a new phenomenon.

Ever since I was a teen, I've been telling it as I see it. Somewhere between the dark side of the ashram and the upside of utopia. Of course, I know that not everyone sees the world through the same puce-colored lenses I do. Of course I know all about projecting. Of course.

But ... Maybe I can persuade some...

The hope of persuasion is some intoxicating gas, isn't it?

Hope is what saves us.

But I’m not usually able to persuade.

Often, a person will smile politely and immediately remember an urgent matter they have neglected to attend.

A few yards away.

I don't blame them.

We are, after all, adults. We can be adept at displaying some form of civility, either genuine or otherwise.

Of course, I'll regret saying whatever it was I just said.

I'll try to backtrack. Or apologize. I'll startle awake in the middle of the night with the memory, still fresh and vivid, though it may be years later.

You'd think I'd learn.

Or at least adapt.

Honestly, I don't believe I'm unique.

Most of us say things we wish we hadn't.

Most of us come across in some way we hadn't intended.

We make mistakes that seem huge and unfixable.

And some of us will pay a price that isn't at all justified.

Honestly, I mostly feel lucky.

These are the things that passed through my mind as I watched the Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher's novel about teen suicide, "Thirteen Reasons Why."

My daughter, you see, started watching the series without me.

She had viewed two episodes before deciding, on her own, it wasn't something she was ready to handle.

Once I tuned in, I could understand why.

The title was a misnomer: there wasn't just an odd number of reasons that had gone undetected. The list seemed an infinite distraction. The real cause went beyond bullying. It settled in the place between criminal law and mental health. Where the system we've created seems to fail just about everyone who can't "just move past it."

I have to admit; I think we adults can learn a lot from 13 Reasons.

Perhaps the most important of which is to accept that we can't ever know all there is to know, and our answers are not always correct. Our best hope is to stop talking and to start listening.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A mother's garden

It was Mother's Day, and I was in the garden.


To the casual passerby, I was a just a woman of a certain age, enjoying a quiet moment on a warm spring day, taking the time to indulge in a much beloved suburban hobby. ...

Wearing a "Rage Against The Machine" t-shirt.

Killing [weeds] in the name of ... 

It wasn't my finest moment.

I hate gardening.

And I hadn't intended on spending the day alone.

Truth be told, I had had the mother of all meltdowns, and the only thing l could think to do when nature met nurture in this head-on collision of emotional upheaval was to place myself in exile.

And by way of atonement, I would do the thing I hated most.


There I was, out near the road, tending a strip of curated nature I never wanted but knew would grow wild without me.

Tears stung my eyes as I dug out thistles with my bare hands.

The sporadic successes I've had raising plants hasn't been enough reward for the indignities of pulling weeds in full view of the world as its traffic roars past.

Is this motherhood?

Sometimes, I suppose, it is.

I know it doesn't pay to wallow in its indignities. They could be as fleeting as our children's childhoods if we just let them go on without us.

I know the pain I feel at this moment has little to do with being a mother, though. And everything to do with being someone's child.

Mother's Day – the switch hitter's card holiday – ready to give everyone a wallop. It doesn't matter if you're young or old, male or female, parent or not.

That's the garden, too.

A strip of space, bursting with white flowers. The colors will change as spring moves into summer and summer moves into fall. I won't remember everything we planted. The colors will surprise me, or they will remind me of my regrets.

What was I thinking … putting orange flowers there?

I didn't put them there. That will be my answer. These blooms were a gift, planted by a child on one of these annual Sundays during the past dozen years.

As I look around, I notice the rhythm of this garden has no symmetry. No color scheme. No discernible pattern. It is imperfect. Like me. This patch of earth may as well be my fingerprint.

And then I realize something unsettling: The only things I have ever had a keen eye for in this place have been the weeds.

Gardening in anger does that to a person. Focused on the weeds, we only see the flaws.

In the struggle for achieving rich, earthy spaces between the peonies, I lose sight of the whole. I can't enjoy the flowers when the greenery steps out of line.

Nature always has other ideas.

It occurs to me then that this patch of hell has grown on me.

As I mourn the loss of the showy poppies and the dinner plate dahlias I can't revive, I marvel at the Dusty Miller, an annual that, in my garden, has become perennial through sheer force of will.

This is motherhood, too.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Second nature

I drummed my fingers on the door of the car.

I had five hours to kill.

In a nearby county. An hour from home. On a Friday night. No Dogs. No husband. Just waiting on one kid immersed in an extra-curricular.

I was as alone and untethered as a middle-aged suburban mother in unfamiliar surroundings could be.

I won't lie. Going to a bar for a brew and a burger crossed my mind … but the idea of “bar-flying” alone in an unfamiliar place seemed, well … unseemly and possibly unsafe.

Instead, I chose to investigate the park. An inner-city wilderness where a five-mile trail winds its way around springs and creeks and meadows and shallow ravines.

As I walked around … mapless and alone. I hadn't thought this through.

I felt odd.

And somewhat vulnerable.

I jump when a twig snaps and leaves crinkle nearby. I forget to breathe. I don't see anyone around. I inhale the moment a little red squirrel hops into view.

Cute little critter. Explains the noise.

I hold my breath again when I realize it's barreling down the path, headed my way. It's not afraid of me.

Momentarily I think it might be attacking. Squirrels aren't rabid. Squirrels aren't rabid. Squirrels aren't rabid, right?!?

I smell skunk.

My inner voice bellows with a cartoon drawl: “What in the Sam Hill Tarnation ….”

Then, out of nowhere, two hoodied youths that had seamlessly blended with the landscape saw me and silently slunk away.

It occurred to me then that perhaps a walk in the park is not the harmless endeavor I imagined it to be.

This nature stuff isn't second nature to me.

Maybe the bar wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all.

I was no longer alone.

As I meandered into the woodland, humans sprang out of nowhere, out to see the sights and stretch their legs. Some brought their dogs, who were straining against leashes. Families gathered at grills to picnic. Runners passed by on trails, calling out they were “to your left.” A man in waders calmly fished while his two Viking children, clad only in summer bathing suits, thrashed around downstream.

I smile and shiver as I pass by; at once admiring their chutzpah for such an early-spring soak, but wishing they were wearing insulated wetsuits. I resist the urge to be the stereotypical mother figure, telling a child to put on a sweater just because she is cold. I am, after all, just a stranger in a park, taking a walk.

I smile at other people's kids. I ask to take pictures of cute dogs walking around in cute coats holding tightly to their prized sticks. I carry my phone and check on emails. I wander around the woods looking not at all “at one with nature.”

A couple holding a map at arm's length, and wearing backpacks and sensible hiking boots, stop to ask me if I happen to know where they might find the park's crown jewel. They think they might have made a wrong turn at the last dotted line.

I snort a little to myself. I had just passed the place they were looking for, so it would appear (wrongly) that I knew these woods.

The truth is I'm the neophyte lost in the forest. Not even possessing the common sense to stop at the park office and ask for a map. Instead, I was resigned just wandering around, hoping I might find my car before it gets dark or my cell phone battery gives out.

They laugh and offer the map for me to photograph just in case my plans don't work out.

Of course, it will be a few hours until this nature bar closes. There's still plenty of time before dusk.

I'm glad I came.

Daylight Saving Time offers a different sort of happy hour once the business day has ended.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bird of Jove

A dark shadow swooped down over the roadway, banked left and headed diagonally toward the river.

I craned to see what beast of the air had cast such a huge shadow over my afternoon commute.

Hugging the steering wheel and peering up through the top-most part of my windshield, I could see its distinctive white head and curved yellow beak.

I held my breath, not for a moment thinking about what perils would have befallen me had there been oncoming traffic.

There was no doubt. I had just seen a bald eagle.

A. Real. Bald. Eagle!

This wasn't a Muppet named “Sam” giving political commentary, or a gimpy-winged bird of Jove gripping the arm of a wildlife rehabilitator at a children's library event. This was a living, breathing, soaring, adult raptor hunting in my neighborhood.

And I'd never seen one in the flesh and feather before.

To say I was excited would be an understatement.

I sped home, ran in the house and regaled the first person I saw with a dramatic rendition of all the events leading up to this moment. … Starting from the late 1960s when only a single active pair remained of the entire state's bald eagle population.

Eyes glazed over as I meandered around a century of eagle history (thanks to Google and the NYS Bald Eagle Conservation Plan website) and recounted the ravages of industrial pollution and not-yet-banned pesticides on these poor birds' unviable eggs.

Weeks later, I was still talking about the majestic bird soaring over the highway when I noticed the three-foot hawk at the top of our backyard's tallest tree.

“That's not a hawk,” said my son, using a birding app on my phone and his own eagle eye. “You might want to get your camera.”

Which, I did. And through the longest lens, I could see its tell-tale white head and curved yellow beak.

As I crept closer to base of the tree, it craned its head to look at me.

And then it flew off.

It was magical and a little melancholy now that he (or she) was gone.

I began to fill the space of its absence by searching page after virtual page of eagle facts and trivia.

No one batted an eye as I read from my fistfulls of printouts: “Did you know bald eagles were one of the original species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973?”

In fact, just then, I think my oldest kid yawned.

“Did you know that the state set up a kind of foster program for eagles? They got eaglets from other states and gave them to the pair to raise?

And then she made the universal sign of teenage ennui: she rolled her eyes.

I thought for a moment about sending her to be fostered by eagles, but plodded on with my lecture:

“And while this proved successful, the mortality rate of the juvenile birds being high, and the fertility of the foster parent pair being non-existent, conservationists tried a falconry 'hack' that involved hand raising older nestlings and releasing them into the wild once they could fly. And I assume there was also a lot of breath-holding and agnostic prayers that the juvenile eagles would survive and thrive.”

My youngest kid was shaking his head.

“I can Google, too, you know,” he said with a hint of superiority. “Says here: 'The experiment worked. By 1980, hacking helped reestablish the first breeding pair of natural reproducing bald eagles. By 1988 the state had reached its goal of 10 nesting pairs. ... In 2010 New York had 173 breeding pairs which fledged 244 young. Each year, New York's bald eagles fledge about 10 percent more young eagles than the year before'.

“Hey! Maybe those 'ginormous hawks' you've seen aren't hawks after all.”

For a moment I thought I had managed to reel the boy into my obsession.

But then he whistled with fiendish glee.

“Now THIS is what I was looking for! It says there's a $20,000.00 fine for harassing eagles. … I'd be careful tip-toeing up to them if I were you. You might be tossing away my college fund for a closeup.”


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mall rats

I feel a slight twinge in the pit of my stomach. Then a moment of dizziness followed by a rapid heartbeat. For a split second, I wonder if I'm hungry.

No. It's not that. The thing I feel is the gnawing sensation of being out of sync with a place I once found familiar and comforting. I try to get my barrings as I survey the territory. But the landscape has changed. I hardly recognize anything.

The sun is blinding. I feel as If I should be wearing my sunglasses the way the optician intended, and not as a headband to hold back my hair.

I don't remember the mall being this bright.

Nor do I remember the layout being quite as sprawling. I could swear, half of these stores used to be located elsewhere, while the other half must have materialized like magic out of thin air.

“Weren't we just here at Christmas time?” I asked my daughter as I stare up at a sign I can neither pronounce nor determine what items it purports to sell. This shop wasn't here six months ago. I am sure of that.

But she didn't answer.

My daughter hadn't heard me. She and her friends had already taken their leave and pulled a disappearing act of their own. Probably said goodbye in a sing-song voice I hadn't registered amid my deer-in-the-headlights stupor. They had headed, no doubt, to one of the oodles of smoothie counters or dress shops or cosmetics boutiques they'd pined after. They each had a handful of gift cards burning holes in their intricately adorned little gift-card holders, and their cell phones were each set to the same infuriating ringtone.

If I called her, I bet, each of the girls would dig into their bags thinking it was their number that was up.

A part of me – the maniacal part – wanted to phone every few minutes to set off this digital dervish of whirly-girling activity even if I could only see it in my mind's eye.

Another part of me – the curious part – wanted to trail their every move. Watch as the girls weaved around this castle of commerce, and spy on them as they half-wave to the imaginary crowds of adoring fans. “Oh, to be young again,” I'd tell myself wistfully as if their joy – or, more likely, their perpetration of joy – wouldn't irk me to no end.

No! Ugh. Yuk! Who'd want to see that? A gaggle of girls walking around like they owned the place, holding food court as if everyone around them were jesters. ... And only they had survived the apocalypse.

Well, they and that rack of really cute blouses at that shop I couldn't pronounce.

God, I hate this place.

"It won't be long now," I tell myself.

Or that's what the news tells me every time it tweets.

The talking heads say malls, with their burgeoning rents and lackluster sales, will likely go the way of the dinosaur. They describe a slow death of a thousand remodels and one lost anchor stores. The view every small change as a cultural shift that will force new trends (like free shipping and same-day-delivery). Eventually, ghostly plastic shopping bags will be the only things tumbling through recently expanded parking lots.

Of course, it could be a quick and cataclysmic ending, like a meteor or liquefaction: The once solid ground underneath these megaplexes will soften and slurp them all up simultaneously. When the dust settles, and the ground hardens, a warehouse with robots and aerial drones will have taken its place.

The mall rats, bless their little hearts, will be gone.

This moment of nostalgia and whimsy dissolves as my phone vibrates.

“We're headed to the food court,” says my daughter in a cheerful voice she usually saves for friends. “Would you like to meet there and join us for lunch?”

I think about my stomach and the dizziness I felt before.

Perhaps it was only hunger.

“Now … Which way is the food court?”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An honest answer


My phone lit up the dark of my car. Tossed on the seat next to me, I could see my daughter's face on the screen, and one line of text:

“When are you getting home?”

The subtext was clear: “You should have been back by now …

“And I am tired. And working on homework. And need you for some reason I won't say, even if you beg. Any such exchange will diminish my autonomy as a burgeoning teenager.

“Also … we're out of milk.”

I didn't answer the question. Nor did I enquire about its urgency. At the traffic circle, I just told my empty car that I was on my way. As soon as there was an opening I'd weave myself in.  

I hadn't been gone long. There was another adult at home, so I knew there wasn't an emergency. But I understand the crazy perspective of time. When we're waiting on it, we don't control how it moves.

Time speeds up and stands still, sometimes simultaneously. 

She was smiling when I arrived. I was the victim she had selected for her homework assignment: A study of peer pressure in the modern age.

Apparently, the object was to ask an older member of your family four simple questions about what social jousting was like before the evolution of Snapchat. And I was that relic.

“What was peer pressure like when you were a teen?”

My eyes shone. What an opportunity! Not only would I be put on the spot – asked to reveal the deepest, darkest core of my misspent youth – but I could effectively reflect the searing light of mortification onto her and her 32 classmates just by answering honestly.

An honest answer – I suspected – is not what the teacher expected.

“Please keep in mind that your comments should be clean, free of expletives, and in no way should they include unvarnished truths. Varnish away, please.”

She knows me. But knowing me also assumes I have trouble adhering to the guidelines.

“Peer pressure is probably the same now as it was when I was a kid. The big things (whispers: sex, drugs, criminal misdemeanors) and little things (curfew violations, rebellious attitudes, acting against your own best judgment) are typical adolescent transgressions from the established norm. It happens. We all feel pressure to do uncomfortable things. Sometimes it's for the best (I quit smoking!). Sometimes not:(I start smoking in the first place). The strange thing is I've come to understand peer pressure never stops if I'm honest. You just have to hope that having more time here on Earth helps you develop coping skills.”

“Yeah … I'm just going to go with that first part –  'Not much has changed' -- and leave it at that.”

I shrugged my shoulders. 

We next traversed the dicey terrain of my most embarrassing moment (which was mostly about being immediately and irrevocably disappointed in my own behavior) and the age I was when I first felt peer pressure's downward forces (earlier than I expected).

The most important question, though was this: “How did you resist peer pressure?” Its answer was a bit of a surprise to me as well:

“I guess I used my parents. I'd out myself for whatever mess I'd made then I'd blame them unabashedly for holding me back.  I'd act mad at being grounded, but I was secretly relieved.”

“That's a pretty good trick. Terrible but effective.”

“Sometimes you just need something in the subtext. ... By the way, I got your milk.”