Sunday, February 19, 2017

Cold shoulder

The car passed me with an eerie silence.

The force of my breath and the beat of my heart made more noise sluicing through the carpet of new-fallen snow than his late-model SUV. Nature's insulator and sound buffer.

Why am I here?” is a question we've no doubt asked ourselves silently in our separate spaces outside of this early particular Sunday morning outing, before the plow operators have felt the pressure to clock in to this seasonal, over-time gig.

Are we crazy?

What we don't question is which of us has the right of way.

Each of us feels entitled to be exactly where we are in this moment. Me against the wind for a five-mile loop. He, perhaps, heading toward the warmth of companionship with a coffee and cruller. We pay our taxes. We know our rights.

I can sense the incredulity of the driver even though I can't see him clearly through the gun-turret-sized hole he'd brushed from the windshield. No one on this road welcomes runners. He feels confident he has the upper hand in his two-ton machine.

He probably wonders aloud in his empty truck why I don't use the sidewalk. (Because sidewalks are slippery. Because concrete is harder on my joints than macadam. Because they don't even exist here).

I wonder why he can't just accept I am here and slow down. I am a road condition, same as ice.

He guns his engine, hugs the white line and raises a middle fingers as he passes.

Still, I persist.

I feel righteous anger rush into every pore.

When it's cold outside, I put on an extra layer. I tuck hand warmers into my mittens. My gait changed by the conditions. My footfalls are closer together now that the ground underneath them has turned ice-solid and slippery. It's still just one foot in front of the other.

I've long stopped wearing earbuds. Even when I'm alone, I stay unplugged.

I want to hear the birds call from the bushes as well as the throaty mufflers of muscle cars.

I've see his kind before.

He's seen my kind, too.

He wonders why I don't hibernate or spin like the other gerbils on our indoor wheels.

Maybe what he doesn't know is that even if I had the room, any treadmill would gather dust. I need to leave the house and find myself somewhere half-way away if I am to return having gone the full distance. 

Not that it matters.

There's no law against me here. It's not a highway or interstate. Just a country road with cold shoulders.

He knows I don't always stay on my side of it, whichever that may be. Facing traffic, or greater visibility, whichever side that may be. I migrate to middle sometimes when winter heaves the center pavement from its sides. I cross before the blind curves for better visibility.

We are unlikely neighbors. We often pass each other in wary silence. Heads down. Full-steam ahead.

So lately, I’ve been waving.

Holding up a mittened hand and tipping it from side to side in the most jovial way I can manage. Smiling to anyone who makes even the least attempt at cordiality.

Slowing your car, giving me a wider berth.

And I try to smile as I acknowledge the driver in him that is inconvenienced by the runner in me. A little gratitude for sharing the road with me this morning.

I can tell the small effort has value. Today, he waved back.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Rock, paper, scissors fix

We have rules in our house.

Of course we do. Our rules range from the Set in Stone kind -- the THOU MUST BRUSHEST THY TEETH TWICE A DAY and LOOKETH BEFORE YOU CROSSETH THE STREET rules -- to the Mostly Unspoken variety, which are intended to insure we do not spend the majority of our maturity alone in some sad hermitage. These rules are usually whispered in question form and colored with a hint of disgust for emphasis: "pssssssst: must I continually tell you to flusheth the commode?)"

While most of these rules are proactive -- Get dressed before breakfast; Wipe your feet before entering the house; Feed the cats BEFORE they find a new family -- they also include a growing list of reactive commands. Don't slam doors! Don't pinch your sister! Don't make that face! These rules are designed to show disapproval for choices that come into direct conflict with our ability to hear ourselves think.

We are not, as they say, a Democracy.

My husband – the one among us with the shortest temper and loudest voice – doesn't want to be The Heavy. He doesn't want the job of Head of Household. 
But someone has to do it. We play Rock, Paper, Scissors for the role of The Fun Guy twice weekly. He usually wins. (I think he cheats). 

That job, therefore, falls to me.

But that's not my point. Exactly.

As the enforcer of The Rules and their corresponding sanctions, I strangely find myself preferring total (albeit benevolent) authority to a representative democracy.

This system of governance, after all, is proprietary. And of it, I feel somewhat protective since I have created this tiny empire out of thin air to incorporate the six main components of modern life: necessity, fortitude, love, forgiveness, screen time and snack foods. Glitter is an optional seventh, but until vacuum cleaners meet some regulatory standard currently not in place ... we shall outlaw recreational usage.

Who am I kidding?
It's just easier to be The Decider if you aren't stuck in committee.
Which is where we find ourselves when the bubble on this little fiefdom (The Royal) We have established was pricked by the pin of a separate governing agency: Elementary School.

Note from school:
"To the parents of Child No. 2.061907.C09
Your darling child had occasion to visit our infirmary today after an incident on the ground where post-dietary recreational education commences. Somehow during the quarter-hour of supervised activity, the aforementioned child suffered a kick to the abdominal region near the right hip, anterior side. 
Ice was applied. 
Efforts to extract cause of this injury were unsuccessful, though your child and Child (NUMBER REDACTED) were referred to the Vice Principal for clarification. Anything further inquiry and notifications will be forthcoming from that office.

School Nurse

Did Child No. 2.061907.C09 give me this note, you wonder?
Of course not.

It was extracted, along with three crusts of bread, a candy wrapper and seven rubber Superballs, from the bottom of his backpack as I was checking for unfinished homework.

"Oh ... yeah. I forgot about that. I've never been to the principal's office before. It's nice there."

"So ... what happened?"

"It was just an accident. My friend and I were jumping around some girls, and one of them kicked me in the stomach. Nobody meant any harm. Do you think my appendix will burst?"

Now ... since I don't have Child (No. Redacted)'s side of the story, I must be her advocate.

"So ... you do realize that when someone says "Stop" you have to stop? Right? It's like the tickle game. ... it's not always fun even when a person is laughing."

"I suppose," but I think it was just an accident.

"Maybe you should ask and be sure. You might have been frightening the girls, or at least annoying them to the point of frustration."

He lifts his shoulders and tips his head as if something he hadn't considered a possibility was now weighing on him.

"I guess, now that I think about it, the vice principal's office is the last place I should get comfortable."

Right. Because if that happens, I'm going to have to figure out the over/under on your dad's Rock, Paper, Scissors fix.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The paper chase

'Round about last week or so … maybe earlier, I can't remember, exactly since I didn't write it down ... I resolved to change.

I was going to organize.

Now, I wasn't going to Get Organized, in the uppercase sense of the phrase. I wasn't going to clean the house from top to bottom or throw out two items of accumulated consumption for every new object of desire. 

I was just going to attempt to bring order to some small mess within my existence.

Anything: A desk drawer; A closet; the cabinet nearest the sink, or just one measly shelf in that little old medicine cabinet. Something. Anything.

Now, you might be tempted to think this sudden desire to go from dissonance to consonance would have something to do with the Earth completing its rotation around the Sun, but its timing was merely a coincidence. 

The only temporal arrangement that matters was the moment I realized I had no idea where my birth certificate had gone … or our marriage license … or the title to my car.

Oh sure … I know it has to be here somewhere. I tap my finger on my nose as I prop my chin on my thumb as I squint into my sunlit home office. But where? Binders. Bins. Briefcases. File cabinets filled to overflowing. 

Paper chase.

It's not that complicated, you tell me. It's not like taking a Bar exam, or applying for a student visa, or making a souffle that doesn't fall. The answers are usually straight forward.

You just need to put all your import information in one place.

Which, in my way of thinking means an entire room of my house will be filled, floor-to-ceiling, with stuff. Picture an eight-foot-tall area rug surrounded by a couch and two chairs. It will have coffee and jam stains in a matter of minutes. The cat will chew the edges.

No. No. No, silly. You need a container. With a handle. An object you can take with you. In your travels. Yeah … travels.

It should resist flames and floods and all sorts of natural disasters.

You have already bought your fire safe container, where you've put your important documents. The basic life forms: Birth. Marriage. Death. In that order. You probably haven't even mixed them with documents of the more social-genealogical sort -- the newspaper clippings about friends of relatives, recipes from the Internet and kindergarten hand-print animals – as I have.

I know … I'm making it too hard. Those fire-proof vaults are never big enough to store papier-mache wildlife, which will probably be both literally and figuratively extinct by the time the kids reach middle school anyway. 

Shhhhh. The sky isn't falling. The sky isn't falling. I just need a place to put important papers I might need in case of inevitable doom. And up until now, I'd just been worried I'd lose that flimsy-little key that makes all “safe.”

Also ... I can be honest. Those things weigh a figurative TON, and I hadn't had the foresight to liberate a shopping cart before having the impulse to buy.

Just follow directions, and you won't have this problem, say the experts. It's as easy as Lather. Rinse. Repeat. 

But I don't want the SHAMPOO telling me what to do with my life. I don't trust it (or its legal team). I tried it their way, and all it gave me was dry, brittle hair.

Maybe organizing the medicine cabinet was too ambitious. Maybe I should have started by making a list ... Which I will do, after I organize the pens.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

See you next Tuesday

It was just your typical Tuesday:

The house was humming along in all of its usual disharmonies: the washer was spinning, the dryer was churning, the sink in the kitchen was belching up air.

"Someday," my husband says, "I'm going to fix that vent."

“I won't hold my breath,” I said under mine. 

I'd leave all the breath-holding to the girl, who was harrumphing and releasing huge amounts of pent-up air as she looked for the mate to one of her shoes. The boy added his own layer of buzz, making electronic shooting sounds as he waged an epic intergalactic war between his pieces of toast. "Only the crusts will be left to rebuild the world. Dun dun dun duuuuunnnnn."

Then the dog starts barking. She is not impressed with the idea of crusts rebuilding. She has claimed them for herself, but now she's tired of waiting for her tiny warlord to hand them over.

"What do we want? Toast! When do we want it? Before it turns into crumbs!"

The clock is ticking.

"Mo-ommm!" Yells the girl from over this din, "can you help me find my shoe?” It wasn't a question as much as a recrimination for the fact I could not.

Unlike most mothers I know, I am incapable of doing two things at once. If I look for a shoe while I'm making lunch now, she'll find a peanut butter sandwich in her room later. That's just a sad fact.

And yet, like most kids, knowing a thing is true can not stop her from taxing my system with alt facts.

"You never help me do anything, and now I'll be late!"

I stop her before she goes nuclear. 

"Calm down. Look under furniture in the general vicinity of where you found the other shoe. It will turn up."

I take deep breaths as I go back to shoveling the elements of a non-nutritious lunch into a SuperHero lunch box while my husband marks time. 

Think "cheerful drill sergeant."

"Seven A.M., folks, seven A.M.!  We have 10 minutes to get out that door. Ten-minute warning, folks!"

A new day was breathing down our necks, but I swear it had the same script as yesterday and all days before that.

At half past, I would switch the laundry and head off to work.

Of course, this scene ends promptly at ten past seven and silence blankets the house.

The voices were gone, the dog had settled in her sunny spot near the window, and even the machines had stopped their whirring and chirping.

Wait?! That can't be right. The dryer still had 20 minutes.

I push the buttons, but the machine won't resume its operations. Only a horrible, no good, very bad sound comes echoing back to me. I open the door to a belch of air and feathers. Was it the down comforter that killed the dryer or was it coincidence? Only the repair guys can tell me.

And they will be here between ten and noon next Tuesday.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Not looking for a free lunch

It is another morning in paradise. My husband switches on the TV and returns to stirring eggs in a pan. The noise comforts him over the commingled sizzling of proteins and fats.  It usually makes me steam from the ears as I'm fixing lunches.

This morning was no exception, as I took deep draughts from my coffee cup between the stuffing of sandwich bags. I was trying to ignore politics, but the news of confirmation hearings sluiced through the cracks in my over-strained focus.

A woman who has been talking the talk -- wanting to get rid of public education though she won't likely say as much outright -- may just get the chance to walk the walk, as she raised her wet finger into the rarified air of the Senate Chambers to check on the winds of change. 

They seem to be blowing her way.

All we can do is cross our fingers and hope it doesn't send us all in the direction of a perfect storm.

"Why not have a choice?" she and her ilk keep hammering. As if traveling hours away from the place where you live is possible, let alone sustainable. As if the private sector will have reason to reach beyond the remote. 

Before long, I will be shouting at the TV.

"Why not give the 75 million children wifi and Wikipedia while you're at it; drown the masses in YouTube videos of cats wearing toupees. So much for edge reception. 

Next followed more sound bites from a politically connected neighbor.

The same old song and dance:
Taxes are too damn high.
Regulations are choking NYers.
Commuted sentences of convicted whistleblowers will be our undoing.

But it is I who would come undone.

"Hey ... let's just privatize everything while we're taking the public out of education. Let's turn Social Security and Medicare and Public Safety over to private interests. Because when has that ever gone wrong, Enron? Securities fraud? Abu Ghraib? 

"No, I'm sure the coupons we get for our tax dollars -- after all is said and deregulated -- will cover most of the costs associated with education and healthcare. Please, don't forget tort reform. We wouldn't surely won't need any protection since we don't have to worry about our stockpiled guns!"

"I mean, who doesn't want to cross state lines to see a doctor that will accept your insurance? I love road trips."

Maybe we are just a nation strung together by a rope bridge of temper tantrums slung across our social network of choice?

Oh, wait? Choice?

"Choice" may as well be defined as "what we think other people have if they have the means."

But everybody spins.

Everybody seeks out something to prove a point, right up until they block out the noise of our opposition. 

Usually with a toggle feature on Facebook (sniff). Or Twitter (achoo). Or Reddit (gesundheit).

An American Spring doesn't look so promising from the vantage point of this sodden cold winter.

It feels more like a train wreck.

My son doesn't agree.

He's been on this earth slightly longer than nine years, and he knows that public/private partnerships are as old as time.

"You already pay so much for public school; it doesn't make sense to throw it all away."

"You mean through taxes and vouchers?"

"No! I mean through fundraising and lunch money. No one gets a free lunch."

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Words escape

I have no ability to define my mother. If I tried, I'm sure the attempt would read as though I'd shaken words from a dictionary and just added punctuation at some breathless end. Life, in many ways, is a patchwork of contradiction. A mystery with a seemingly simple solution if you can find its pattern. But I will never be able to pull together all the pieces of her puzzle and arrange them into a clearer picture. The pieces will jumble from moment to moment.

I can tell you some of the things she did in life. Where she was born; attended school; was employed; and to whom she married and made a family. These facts will likely seem unremarkable to you. Words on paper, no matter how dressed up, don't build a person up in three dimensions. They tend to meander around in generalization and gather together our familiars.

She was a nurse, and a wife and mother. She had closely cropped hair and clear, kind brown eyes that belied a sharp intellect and equally sharp sense of humor. A scar on the heel of her left hand served as a permanent reminder of how capable hands are not always safe from accidents with scalpels. 

Her smile made you wonder what she was hiding. She was incapable of telling lies. She preferred wearing slacks and turtlenecks made of natural fibers. She sang like Joan Baez and could make money grow on trees. She loved heated arguments and crossword puzzles and proving a point. She put duty to family above all things.

She loved each of her children best of all.

She'd tell you she never made any sacrifices for them. (You can not sacrifice that which you did not want in the first place.) And she'd tell you she couldn't sustain boredom (thanks to imagination and time). Both of these ethos served as key examples of her prime philosophy: Thinking makes change possible. Choices can be undone simply by making another one.

And while those attributes might describe her, they can't make you understand the uniqueness of her being. How do you define a force? How do you convey the depth of love that spans a lifetime of small moments? How can a daughter explain how good it felt to be sick in her mother's care? That knowledge you'd always be safe with her. How do you explain that what you miss most of all drove you crazy?

I know you've felt this way.

If you had a mother, you know.

My mother was sharp and kind and loving and fierce. She wasn't easy, but she could make any trouble less troubling. All she needed was pragmatism and clear-headed logic to smooth the problem. She was strong and generous and wise. And she was wickedly funny. Unfailingly kind.

She was outsized. Just like your mother. Only she was mine.

I loved my mother.
I pitied my mother.
I envied her.
My heart broke for her.
I have missed her.
I miss her still, always.

Perhaps it isn't a puzzle to be solved after all. Her life is not something I need to define. It wasn't static. I knew her as a child knows an adult, as a teen knows a piece of furniture in their house, as a mother from a new age knows a mother from a by-gone one. Our paths crossed often, and yet it wasn't until now that I understood our trails did not run parallel to each other or in opposite directions. She may be gone from this world, but she will never leave me.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The other side of the mountain

I had the bad fortune of being fully dressed. That's what crossed my mind, anyway, as I slowly inched my way up the snowy mountain road toward the ski resort, trailing our guide car at a glacial pace. I was trying not to look out over the winter splendor all around me, seeing as how none of it had been spoiled by guardrails.

Had I stayed in my PJs and bare feet, I might still be in the warm, safe, kitchen-centered house we'd rented.

It was already 8 a.m. on the East Coast, yet this sleepy little town in Colorado hadn't even seen a smidgeon of the sun. Wide awake, I had filled myself with caffeine out of habit as I checked and rechecked my watch, anxiously awaiting the moment our hosts -- natural born Mountain Timers -- would rise and shine.

The kids had ski school reservations and a firm 8 a.m. sign-in time. On a holiday week, it would be packed.

Since I was ready and pacing, it only seemed right that I should be the parent who ferries the children to their destination, as well as transports the gear that wouldn't fit in the first carload. 

I tried to be calm as I caught glimpses of the precarious edge, always a little too close to the white line.

And I tried not to think too far ahead. I still had down to look forward to. Maybe the sun would have a chance to clear the road.

Anyway, the worst feeling wasn't the fear of coming back down the mountain, it was having all of our children in this one car, and not making it to the top. 

I could barely hear the cousins' chattering above the sound of my fear. Though I had turned down the radio so I could hear my own thoughts, which were just a mantra of sorts to stay calm.

"Deep breaths," Was the answer I gave to every question the children fired my way. "Will there be a terrain park?"
Deep breaths.
"Will they let us ski together?"
Deep breaths. 
"Can we ski tomorrow if we want?"
Deep breaths.
Hey! I thought you said I could snowboard!"
Deep. breaths.

The air was thin here -- 10,000 feet above sea level. And it felt like I would never get enough of it.

Keep taking slow, deep breaths. 

We make it to the summit. The parking lot, where I slip into a spot next to our lead car. 

I hadn't wanted to come. Hadn't wanted to be responsible for ski fittings or waiting in lines. But now I didn't want to leave. Now I could handle, overanxious kids, and dropped gloves and forms in triplicate. I could handle anything as long as it meant I didn't have to face the other side of the mountain.

Eventually, though, there would be no one to wait with. The ski school day would begin, and the children would be whisked away. My husband would get his gear and be off to the lift with his brother-in-law.

For a moment, I considered chatting up strangers, seeing if I might wait with them. 

But the air wasn't thin enough to keep me from coming back to my senses. 

I would get down that mountain as slowly and surely as I had climbed it in the first place.

But I might just put on my pajamas the moment I get home.