Sunday, December 04, 2016

Cat meet bag

The mind is such an impressionable thing.

It leads you places you probably shouldn't visit as easily as it takes you on a hearty, after-dinner constitutional with friends. Which is where my mind started to wander.

Right away you'll want to stop me. 

But you can not. 

Our houseguest wasn't imbibing. She had politely refused the wine with dinner and the cocktails at brunch. She had curbed other things, too.

Like caffeine and sweets and soft cheeses.

In addition to the fancy foods she had procured to add to the fancy meals we'd planned over the course of this glorious three-day weekend, she had brought her own herbal tea, too. She didn't want to deplete my store.

I had noticed and disregarded the information - or so I thought. 

I knew enough to stop myself. The light at the end of this tunnel could be nothing other than a train.

We are, after all, of a certain age, with a certain amount of relief that our children can be trusted alone for the time it takes to complete an evening stroll. 

Such "evidence" therefore is no longer self-evident.

I wasn't going there.

We joked about our lives being perfect now that we are older and wiser, and now that our kids can make their own peanut butter sandwiches.

And we joked about how our lives could only be more perfect had we the forethought to adopt the right cat; instead of harboring the one that shreds our couch, claws our walls, spills the water bowl and terrorizes any and all guests while they are sleeping.

I even went as far as to virtually prank them with a photo of the aforementioned feline, who I happened to catch as she made herself cozy in their open luggage, the photo of which I uploaded to Instagram as our friends were packing their car.

For whatever reason, the crazy, hair-brained notion managed to worm its way into my head long after we had said our goodbyes and had waved at their fading taillights from the porch in our stockinged feet. 

My reason, apparently, was exhaustion and its proximity to the twilight between sleep and standing.

I had climbed into bed, but hadn't closed my eyes, when my husband - his face illuminated by the blue-light of his cellphone - made what seemed like an announcement:

"The cat is out of the bag."

I looked over his shoulder at his phone to see the Facebook profile of the friends who had just spent the weekend. 

My mind churned with fuzzy recollections. Snippets of conversations returned to form new understandings. A little envy reared its shrunken head.

Somehow I fell asleep believing it all amounted to the pitter patter of little feet.

Of course, when I awoke the next morning it felt as if I hadn't slept. 

I went for a run to clear the brain fog, and then for coffee at the shops.

The idea settled in that a new little member of our extended family would be arriving, even though the due date as of this moment was still uncertain.

Later on, at dinner, I mentioned it in passing. Or, more specifically, I mentioned my twinge of jealousy that our newborn days were past us while our friends' were beginning again.

"What ..." roared each member of my family in unison, though my husband finished the sentence, "ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?"

I stammered. His disbelieving voice had instantly cast doubt on all my thoughts for the past 24 hours.

"I thought you told me last night that she'd made an announcement on Facebook. You said 'The cat was out of the bag'."

"I said that, but I was being literal. It was their bag, but it was your cat."

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Tiny chairs

Why were we nervous? It's not as if this had come out of the blue. We'd had the appointment for months. A calendar date circled in red with a regimented time we'd have to keep to the second if we wanted to be considered good at our jobs. 

"PTC ...7:20 to 7:40."

Parent/Teacher Conference. A perfunctory thing every zoo-keeping adult looks forward to the way they anticipate creating wills ... or marital therapy ... only this task you can't exactly put off.

I checked the clock. 5:04. We had plenty of time. The kids had already eaten and done their homework. They were now fully immersed in their electronic surroundings. 

We would stop for dinner first. Have drinks.

I was dressed casually, yet I had been careful to choose shoes that clicked when I walked. Which, at this particular moment, as I waited for my husband to get showered and changed, sounded like I was pacing with exclamation points.

What would they say? 

I'd seen his grades already. I knew he was perfectly average, though his handwriting suggests he'd make an excellent doctor. 

It's what we don't know that worries us.

Does he make good use of time?

Is he kind? Polite?

Are people kind to him?

What will they say that could burst this bubble around us?

You can't stop yourself from wondering.

Our boy isn't exactly like all the others. Not that I would complain.

He still wears pajama-like pants and enormous shoes. His odd sense of humor and dry wit stand out. He can talk to strangers. And does. All the time.

"Do you know that Google was named after a googillion? Larger than a googol,  which is 10 with a hundred zeros, a Googillion is the largest unknown  number in the universe."

Of course, I didn't believe him.

Numbers are finite. How could one be "The Largest?"

And of course, a fact check via Google search usually deems his non-sequiturs 'Mostly True.'

His teachers will find this out about him, too. His knowledge potential is vast but often arbitrarily applied.

Most of them have told me it's refreshing to have a child who is willing to be wrong, even if he does sound convincing enough to sway the rest of the class.

They also don't always see what we see. A boy who can be emotional in the moment but resilient in the aftermath. A kid who does life his own way, on his own terms, smiling as much as he can.

Then again, his parents aren't like most parents; I said to myself as I perched atop a tiny (but tall) chair at the end of the bar.

I had ordered the spaetzle and a local pilsner. My husband had ordered a bratwurst and cider.

When the waitress asked what's the occasion, we shrugged our shoulders and admitted we had time to kill before a meeting with teachers.

She wished she'd thought of that when her kids were coming up.

“That would have made me more relaxed,” she said with a grin.


If you have to sit in a tiny chair, you might as well get comfortable first.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Keeping your wits about you

“Wrong answer!”

“Wrong answer?”

“Wrong. Answer.”

My blood began to boil.

Until that moment, I hadn't realized I was being grilled. Until THAT moment I thought I was merely stating my thoughts on an admittedly controversial topic and using facts widely accessible in the tranquility of my own home, using my own computer, through the magic of the World Wide Web. Mind you, some of the facts I had hand selected, unlike my adversary's, did not entirely support my claim. I didn't care … surely my argumentative friend would see the larger picture.

Nope. “You've been schooled!”

I could almost hear the whistle that leads to the silence that leads to the explosion.

“And you just proved my point … Lol Lol LOL LOL LOL!”

The Facebook fry-o-later has a tendency to do this to a person.

We toast our ideas, lightly on one side at first, and then walk away from the stove.

When we return, the whole kitchen is on fire.

It's not easy in this day and age to pick our battles.

As I took a deep breath and tried to gather my wits, I couldn't help but think about what really mattered.

It certainly wasn't this argument. Our lives as we know them don't hinge on whether you win a cyber spat with me. It may not even matter if we win and lose graciously, though this higher point is something we should all probably strive to achieve whenever we can.

But on what do our lives hinge?

I had nothing.

Ok … well, not nothing: We all count our chickens and eggs and relative humor on a regular basis in the grand scheme of things, don't we? This week we'll even count the roasted turkeys and slices of nut-meat pies as we hold hands for a blessing around our over-stuffed tables.

We will feel warmth for all who are with us, and nostalgia those who are not.

We will try to hold onto this feeling, and wish it could linger past the moment the last plate is washed and put away. But we will feel the tug of disappointment and know this feeling is just a random visitor.

Like a warm memory.

And that's when she came to me.

A beloved teacher … A slender-framed woman with cottony hair and prim woolen suits. Her name was Mrs. Burgess, an art teacher who taught more than contour and perspective. She was MY art teacher, for those who loved her took possession of her.

And sadly … we also mocked her. Twisting her name to resemble the white pasty substances we'd some day have to wash off our cars. These taunts would grow louder each time she ignored another tasteless jibe.

Kids branded her a doddery old woman.

Honestly … I didn't know what to make of her when I was 15.

How could she let it go? Did she not hear the mean words? The stupid chant? Did she not care that she was being ridiculed?

By the time I was 18 and graduation, I realized that she didn't care about that. Not one bit.

I had been sitting in her class, and one of my friends called me a name. In jest, for sure, but still unpleasant.

She rebuked the girl and told her she wouldn't tolerate that treatment of her students. Even if they were friends.

And then I realized her brilliance in defending me and my ignorance in not defending her. That was the day I learned that there never just One Thing. There is always Everything.


And we must pick our battles wisely.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Pass the cookies, skip the Kool-Aid


A sheen of perspiration gathered at the backs of my knees. My forehead was clammy. I had changed clothes three times that morning. First, I extracted my mother's favorite circa 1965 purple cashmere sweater from a drawer and separated it from its protective tissue-paper shell.

I wanted to wear something of hers to the polls but didn't want to damage the sweater with my nerves and their tendency to make a mess of things. 

Next, I tried on a white summer tunic and twill pants, a nod to Susan B. Anthony. 

Too obvious. And the sleeves cut into me uncomfortably when I layered on a trench coat. I had spent long enough feeling uncomfortable.

Instead, I settled on a pair of bright red slacks and a dark gray sweatshirt in which I usually sleep.  I draped two child-made necklaces around my neckline and pulled on a pair of boots. Fashionable ones that don't hurt when I walk in them.

It was a beautiful day. We'd take full advantage of it and walk, as a family, the half-mile to our polling place. 

We had it all mapped out. It never occurred to me we'd get lost.

It started to fall apart before we even got out of the front door.

I could tell my oldest was sullen. She wore a frown that has become increasingly familiar. It is not entirely concealed by a curtain of hair and the edge of shirt collar, which she had pinched between her thumb and forefinger, and which she now holds in front of her chin where a scarf might be. 

The girl, who is one month shy of officially residing in Teenager-land, was already gaining distance as she took off walking. Still, she told me exactly what she thought of the outing.

I was not only an embarrassment with my date-night clothes and chirpy demeanor as I announced history in the making. I was out of touch with the youth of today. And worse. I was a hypocrite. 

"You think you know everything, but you don't. You're voting for Her just because she's a woman not because she's the best choice. You are the one who is sexist."

It wasn't true. I wasn't a lesser of two evils voter. But I didn't want to argue that point in the street. I wanted to pretend my daughter understood and shared my brand of feminism. But she didn't. 

I caught up with her and told her to go home. 

I wasn't mad. How could I be mad? I know she has no idea what it's like to be dealt five cards in a game of seven card stud. But I didn't want her hovering over me in this moment with her dark cloud either.

It was as if she could vote. She didn't need to be there, watching her parents fill in circles on a sheet of paper and feed it to a machine.

 "If you are going to be angry at me, do it on your own. This election is important to us. If you don't approve, you are free to go."

But she didn't leave. 

She stood silently next to her father. Looking no more or less grim than any other face in the room.

It was unsettling. 

She apologized when we returned home. As did I. We didn't belabor the points, just moved on with the bullet points of the rest of our day.

Errands
Chores
Homework
Dinner
Bedtime

But in the morning, she couldn't quite believe the news I had stayed up all night practicing to explain:

"We are disappointed. But it will okay. ...
We just need to breathe. Inhale kindness, exhale service."

She didn't need me to say that, of course. It is already her mantra. 

"I'm not worried," she told me when she came home from school.  "Even in my school, Clinton won the popular vote. The one Trump supporter in my class celebrated by making seven dozen cookies to hand out to everyone. We'll be OK. "

It's a start.

"I might have eaten the cookie, mom, but I won't drink the Kool-Aid."



Sunday, November 06, 2016

Say Anything

Say anything.


I dare you. Talk about politics. Science. Economics. Interpersonal relationships. Education. Taxes. Feminism. Racism. Ageism.

Anything.

Don't forget the small stuff: the icebreakers and one-off conversations.

Mention the level of rainfall or the size of the apple crop. Say you think the weather is lovely this time of year or that the fall colors have been majestic, and watch as my 12-year-old wizens her face and disagrees.

Any little thing you say aloud will elicit its equal and opposite reaction at an even higher decibel level.

It's practically her job.

Oh, and by the way, that's not blue I'm wearing. It's more of a green-hued gray to be precise.

But I'm not bitter.

I realize that she is waking up; stretching her legs; and finding that cold, hard floor under her feet smarts a little when she presses the whole of her weight against it first thing in the morning.

It's not easy growing up.

And it can feel like the world is against you.

Everyone makes mistakes. Not enough folks apologize.

Which is why at dinner we are now treated to long recitations of misgivings and micro-aggressions that are weighing on the psyches of middle schoolers everywhere.

Especially hers.

Teachers are the worst. They just assume things and move on. Mocking as they go. It's so unfair.

Even when they are wrong, they don't apologize. It's dispiriting.

Of course, she doesn't want me to agree. Or disagree. Or say anything.

I can't possibly understand …

And she already knows what I'm going to say.

“Life isn't always fair.”

Adults don't know everything. They make mistakes. They don't always own up. And, sadly, you don't always win the argument because you happen to be correct.

“You never take my side.”

“I am always on your side, but being on your side doesn't mean it's always going to be comfortable. Like right now, you are like a thousand degrees of fire-spitting rage standing next to me, an arguably dried up old straw of human. My job is to hose you down, so you don't light me and everything around us on fire.”

Not a comfortable position, I might add.

She, understandably, stomps up to her room, where she slams the door and turns up the volume of her electronic thing-ama-whats.

Her father wonders where she gets it from, giving me side eye and half-laughing about our own arguments over which of my word choices – “Watch out” or “Look out” -- would imply operator blame since it was so clearly the pedestrian's fault for lurking in a blind spot.

"Just let her cool off," I tell him telepathically. "Don't go upstairs."

He goes up to talk to her.

More raised voices. More slammed doors.

Each of them blaming the other: "You don't understand!"

"No, YOU don't understand. I'm just trying to help! "

I realize she comes by this naturally. It's part of her genetic code.

All the huffing and puffing and stomping around isn't something she invented. Somebody else wrote that play she's just the most recent performer in our house to be cast in the title role.

“Do you understand?” he asks me upon his return from the circle of hell that is an unhappy middle schooler's bedroom.

Of course, I understand.

I just can't say anything that will change it.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

When Halloween sneaks up on you


Halloween kind of snuck up on me this year. It was terrifying.

I know. You're probably wondering … 'Where are earth do you live? Australia? Here in the great U.S. of A. the ghost of Halloween future has been hovering overhead since late August when the procrastinators among us started shopping for Back to School.

I'm not sure how it happened. My kids usually plan their costumes months in advance, making me lose my mind and days of sleep in the process. They visit me in the wee hours of the morning with their tablets and sketchbooks, waking me from pleasant dreams, to show me in gory detail how they would like me to sew a wearable submarine resembling a humpback whale playing croquet, or an acrobat delivering pizzas from a tightrope.

Then, as kids will do, they submit their change orders three days before All Hallow's Eve and expect I can accommodate the transformations. “Of course, the idea of delivering pizzas from a high-wire isn't going to work. Perhaps I can manage to knit you a magic rabbit costume using stardust and real unicorn fur. I have two days.”

End. Sarcasm.

Of course, I'm kidding.

The magic of my costumes is all in my mind.

My kids are old enough to realize this, too. They know my expertise in costuming revolves entirely around what I manage to scrounge out of the recycling bin or find at Goodwill, and even then they will have to explain what they are to the strangers they approach for candy.

I suppose if I'd thought about it, I would have realized that that Halloween has slowly been losing its mayhem.

Maybe I should have known from the moment we realized the unpleasant reality that carving jack-o-lanterns made our skin itch, or when most of the intricate costumes we had labored over make trick-or-treating a seem like just another dead-end job.

And don't get me started on the candy. So many aversions, so few treats they will actually eat.

Yet still, there's something about being out after dark. Pretending to be something your not. With your mother in tow.

It seems strange that I hadn't noticed. Having lumbered behind my troupe of doorbell ringers wearing the same old gorilla costume, all gussied up with this year's less than brilliant accessory:

Mermaid gorilla ...
Zombie gorilla ...
Housewife gorilla ...

One would think I'd have seen ...

I must not have been able with my mask's limited vision.

So it was with some amount of shock that I realized one day last week that October was almost over and neither of my children had mentioned Trick-or-Treating.

Did they forget, too? Have they outgrown this frightful holiday? Or worse … do they not want my help?

Have they finally noticed that any grandiose plans they may have will look pretty anemic once I unleash my considerably lacking creative skills in the construction phase? Is it possible they don't even want me to help, since they've learned I might be able to spray-paint their designs black, but they should probably move their bikes and everything else they own and hold dear in the general vicinity should they NOT want all of their belongings unevenly coated in Rust-Oleum?

Magic Eight Ball says: All signs point to yes.

It was a Haunted Hayride commercial that reminded me about my forgetfulness as I was burning toast for breakfast.

Oh no! Halloween!” I shrieked. “We are almost out of time!”

The kids poured their own cereal and laughed. “We already have our costumes for the most part. I'm going as a gumball machine and he's going as death.”

Turns out they managed without me.

This year instead of waking me up in the middle of the night to alert me to the horror of not having a clue what they would wear for costumes. They found their own:

The girl glued every pompom in the house to an old sweater and paired it with a red A-line skirt. The boy repurposed his ninja costume and found an old hockey stick he thought looked like a scythe.

A little face paint,” he said, and Halloween would be “good to go.”

Hey … you know who's great with face paint,” I'll offer.
Yeah, I know. My sister is Great with face paint.”

See what I mean? It's scary when Halloween sneaks up on you.



Sunday, October 23, 2016

Piece of cake




The melody was familiar, but without words, I couldn't quite put my finger on the tune. It wasn't exactly contemporary ...

Or was it?

"Your call is important to us. Please remain on the line for the next available customer service representative."

The Muzak returned to the spot it had left off.

Of course, that would be a guess. I wasn't exactly concentrating, and I still couldn't place the song. Sounded a little like “Cake by the Ocean.”

The dog was barking.

The boy was bouncing a ball.

In. The. House.

And I was waiting to be dipped in the hot lava that is tech support for troglodytes.

My son kept bouncing the ball.

I cleared my throat and sent eye daggers in his general direction. He stopped bouncing and let the dog out.

"Hello, My name is Ariel ... how can I help you today?"

I stammered for a moment.

"Oh, hi ...uh ... well ...

I'm just trying to get my game console to connect to our wifi and it's just not. ...”

Wait … that's not right.

"Well it's my son's game console ... which I really know nothing about ... and he's just a kid. Which I know ... he probably shouldn't be playing online games anyway, but he had a birthday, and there he is with his own money and ability to spend it on a game where vegetation and the undead duke it out over the world wide web."

Oh my god, stop! I think to myself. You're just sounding crazy.

"Besides all that, it's just not working, and I'm not even sure why it's not working ... so here I am ... 

"Calling you."

Arfff.

"That's our dog."

I don't think I could have sounded more desperate if I tried.

I could hear the laughter in her voice, which seemed warm and reassuring.

"Don't worry. I can help you figure this out. 

"First let me ask you some questions …"

I stopped holding my breath. Maybe this wasn't going to be the root canal I imagined. Maybe this friendly voice on the other end of the line COULD help me find my way back to the path and a virtual connection.

Now, you have turned it off and turned it back on, correct?”

Welcome to Internet gaming 101.

For the next hour and a half, we told each other everything. I told her how I spelled my name, and she told me how she spelled hers: “Cereal only with an A.” I'd had it all wrong. 

I told her how I wanted to kick the machine with malice and the full force of my left foot.
She told me that she understood, and could empathize.

Next, we established what kind of game console we were using, what exact words were spelled out in the error message, and that I needed to create an account.

She walked me through the seventeen thousand steps needed to make the appropriate accounts; and no fewer than four hundred security codes to authenticate them, including a one-time, credit-card payment of $.50, which would be donated to charity.

It would also be the two-bit proof of my adulthood.

Eventually, my new friend guided me through some more jostling of this and cajoling of that until the ISP whispered its secret language to the console and it opened like magic.

Presto! It's working! It's working! It's updating!”

You're not out of the woods yet,” said Aereal. “Once it's done updating – which could take a while – you'll have to download your new accounts ...”
And it won't prompt me, will it?” I said, finishing my new friend's sentence.

No. It won't. … But don't worry. You really do know what you are doing. I'll send you a link to the instructions and it will be a piece of cake.”