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.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Snapchats in airplane mode

When will we get there?”

That's the teenage equivalent of the much maligned toddlerism, “Are we there yet?”

Asked a single time, a parent's answer usually rolls off the tongue with an automatic nonchalance if not genuine excitement.

However, when uttered more than a handful of times over the course of an hour in the cramped confines of the family car after one flight cancellation and a frenetic, still-in-process attempt to navigate to an alternate airport via an unfamiliar road -- in the FREEZING RAIN -- not to mention the pressure of delayed arrivals and the added expense of an overnight stay, my final answer took on a life of its own.

That iPhone in your hands – the one you haven't released from a death grip since Christmas morning – has other features besides SNAPCHAT! Google Maps for instance."

Strange how a person can so keenly hear hurt feelings amid an otherwise stoney silence.

I will admit I might have handled that better.

Although I won't use as an example what has become known as "The Great ChexMix Meltdown of 2015," during which countless choice words took flight over the noise level surrounding ardently chosen travel snacks. Suffice it to say: if no one wanted the cereal bits, why for the loveofpete didn't we just buy bags of pretzels?

Next time, I vowed, everyone would eat before we left the house. And they would LIKE it. If they had to tote sustenance, they would have the choice of one of the silent fruits or maybe a chewy granola bar that had been previously unwrapped of its noisy cellophane, which would then have been properly disposed of in the correct receptacle -- not the front pocket of my purse. And they would LIKE it. Or they would starve.

As if THAT would ever happen.

The horror! Of course they would starve. No child in the history of modern travel has ever gone a mile beyond their immediate neighborhood before asking when they can expect an arrival, or requiring a handful of fish-shaped crackers and the affirmation that a beverage is available lest they spontaneously dehydrate.

Probably shouldn't admit that I've told my kids the heavily trafficked roads to our destination are traditionally paved with the dust of those poor parched children whose parents didn't plan ahead. 

It's of little consequence, though. My kids are as fluent in sarcasm as they are in English. And since they have come to know me so well over the past decade, they have also begun packing their own provisions.

Sure, the boy will ask me for a candy bar using the magic words as we pass by the airport newsstand, but I know he will conjure a sleeve of saltines from his own carry-on at the gate's waiting area if my response disappoints.

See? I know a little magic, too. Paradoxically, all it requires is less effort.

So when my daughter asks for the twelfth time when we can expect to arrive, I will just shrug my shoulders and suggest she ask the flight attendant.

At least until we get to turn off airplane mode.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas at Arm's Length

I stood in the soft glare of flattering light, holding a garment at arm's length.

It really didn't look like much: a thin gray and aqua "sweatshirt" that bore the name of an entirely different color in a fluid and conspicuous script across its narrow, size-indiscriminate chest.

But it was adorable; I had to admit. It had the undefinable something that would cause it to sell out of all sizes, leaving the desperate to settle for a one-size-up in yellow.

As I squinted my eyes, I wondered if the designers had anticipated the possibility that someone might actually perspire on its anything-but-natural fibers.

But it was one of the only items in the teen fashion catalog in which my teen showed any interest.

And it was $65.

My friend was laughing.

We hadn't been more than a few stores into our annual holiday shopping trip and already it had been an adventure.

See, we hadn't been in the store for an entire minute before a shopkeeper had asked to inspect our bags.

Now, ordinarily, when an alarm goes off and two customers walk into a store at the exact moment two rush out, one might think the extra effort of having store personnel step into the hallway and attempt to stop the fleeing customers would be warranted.

But honestly, I can understand the dilemma. An alarm had sounded, and we were there. The middle-aged shoppers are convenient targets. No one had to chase us down (even if they tried we don't move very fast). And who knows, maybe they'd find some pilfered goods from the bookstore as we walked back through the merchandise control towers.

 ... To the sound of silence.

"Ah ... well," the shop lady said with a smile. "They're stealing clothes they can't even wear."

I wanted to commiserate with the woman whose facial expression had softened toward me now that I had proved my trustworthiness with a security sashay and authenticated register tapes.

But I found myself holding her at arm's length, too.

Instead, I just held out my arm with the potential purchase I was considering - a garment that would amount to four-and-a-half hours of work in American dollars - and asked a simple question to no one in particular.

"Do you know what this is?"

My friend answered with a question of her own.

"Highway robbery?"

It was true. And I couldn't deny it.

Spending the kids' college tuition on single-use clothing was as insidious as spending it on the limited edition peppermint-flavored single-serve coffee pods only available for the holidays.

And yet, that very morning, I had stood zombie-like in my kitchen, popping two of these festive pods out of the caffeine convenience machine and into the trash, where they will remain a full thousand years after I have decomposed.

I do not feel good about this.

'Tis the season.

I put the hanger back on the rack.

The good of holiday giving happens elsewhere.

It happens at the children's holiday concerts. The rediscovery of family heirlooms unwrapped of their tissue paper and hung on a tree. They are found in our stories and our recipes shared around a table. They are in our memories and the good we will do for others.

And they may go unthanked.

We may be in need this holiday season.

But we are not in need of stuff.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Thirteen, our lucky number

I knew the moment I sat down that I had made a mistake. Throughout the day I had gone from one task to another without much thought or hesitation, so I hadn't even begun to calculate my "fatigue" level against my "tasks left to accomplish" ratio when I absently plopped down in an armchair by the fire.

The cake - now in the oven - would be safe for at least 30 minutes.

Almost immediately I felt my eyelids get heavy. They seemed heavier still with every effort to fight sleep.

It probably didn't help that I had grabbed a blanket from the couch and had curled up in the chair, a warm beverage cooling on a table, sadly, beyond a comfortable reach.

I could barely keep my eyes open now, so I stopped trying. Maybe I'll just sleep a bit, I reasoned, as the din of homework completion and meal preparations clanged against one another in perfect disharmony before fading in a new picture that has been dancing around in my sub-conscience, just waiting for these soul curtains to drop.

A few minutes of rest, that's all I need ...

A few minutes ...

Ah ... there she is.


Born during a snowstorm, a week from Christmas. All Six pounds, two ounces of her. Already trying to stand up.

The nursing staff will share the offerings we didn't get a chance to schlep to the cookie exchange: six dozen chocolate drizzled shortbreads.

The minutes seem suspended in slow motion as the hours tick by.

The winter turns into a spiral of springs and summers before fall makes its way toward winter again. I can't tell you whether I bought stamps last week or the week before, but I remember the faces of the maternity nurses in crisp detail.

Their smiles. Always their smiles ... even when I couldn't find mine.

These things rarely go as planned. You know this, but you don't really understand. Not until you experience this strange world.

A door opens, and a person arrives. A baby cries. The La-la-la sound of hunger. Someone has to tell you what it means.

One only gains fluency in this neonatal language through immersion.

In only a year or two, I will have adapted enough to translate for strangers.

It is a living language, after all.

So many times I have gotten it wrong.

Up. Down. No. Yes. Faster. Slower. Go. Stop.

How many times have I reached out my arms? How many times has she pushed them away? Too many to count, starting with an emphatic: "My do it!"

How many times had I not reached out? She can tell you; she's keeping track: "You're never on my side! You don't understand anything."

She's wrong ... but she's also right.

In the place of understanding, I count to ten: I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you ... I love you.

Add one for every year after.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Thirteen. Our lucky number. Or so we hope.

Do you hear that buzz? Hit snooze. Hit snooze!

But it's too late.

The cake is done. The birthday girl taking it out of the oven herself.

It's not a dream. The edges are too sharp. The lights - all LED and compact fluorescent - blur nothing.

I am wide awake now, but I still can't shuffle this feeling into chronological order. It just doesn't make sense.

She wasn't born yesterday. It just seems that way.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Secret war

To make way for Christmas, my husband finally scraped the pumpkin guts from the front porch and tossed them into the compost heap.

After he dusted his hands and rested them on his hips for a moment, he called for me. No doubt to gloat about his major accomplishment.

I didn't quite hear him. On purpose.

We're in a war, he and I.

A war with battle lines clearly drawn over “His and Hers” chores.

What? “What is that,” you wonder?

I can hear my friendly feminists out there choking on their free range, ethically grown, non-GMO and rainforest safe coffee.

Not to worry. It's not as if our roles in this household fall entirely along gender lines:

He cooks; I clean*.

*Unless his mother is coming by for a visit, and then he cleans.

I mow the lawn; he fishes dead things from the pool filter.**

**Unless the dead thing is a snake, and then he gets one of the kids to do it. (Snakes scare him).

I rake the lawn of its leaves, eventually; He cleans them out of the gutters … ***

***Oh wait! No, he doesn't. He had the fancy leaf-repelling gutter tops installed so he wouldn't have to climb that ladder. Genius!

Let's just say whatever each of us brings to this marriage -- be it videos we borrow from the library or orange gourds we hack apart at Halloween -- we are individually responsible for the disposal of said item before its expiration date has expired.

Rarely does this happen.

Shocking, I know.

This stalemate of a rigid job description is why our lawn is often shaggier than the neighbor's; why our Pumpkins often melt into a mushy puddle before New Year's; and why our Christmas trees often linger around in various states of needle distress until St. Patrick's Day.

Basically … we're lazy.

And easily distracted.

It's not as if I want the house to look like a tornado cycloned through the first floor. It's just that I have ten minutes before I have to leave the house, and emptying the dishwasher or folding laundry better fits into that time window. After all, the snowstorm of paper bits forming a second carpet on the floor is not my doing. The resident fake snowflake fairy, who has watched the movie “Elf” at least four times this week, will have to tackle her flurry's winter fallout. Eventually.

But I digress.

The real nature of our troubles in Toyland, was that I had asked him to put up the Christmas Lights, a chore we only adopted last year when an As Seen On TV product – primarily a Christmas-in-a-Can-Light -- made climbing ladders and staple gunning your thumb to the shingles a near impossibility.

“Putting up the lights,” therefore, entails finding two extension cords and plugging them into an outdoor electricity source.

I aim the can lights and dust my hands.

But, no ... My husband had to get fancy.

He had to “Go the Extra Mile” by taking a couple of strings of mismatched Light Emitting Diodes he found in an old box and draping them under the porch roof. Making sure to point out to the neighbors that not only are we lazy, but we probably ate paste when we were in kindergarten. Most likely the toxic kind.

“So, what do you think?” he asked when he had finished my task.

“I think it looks like this should be my job next year.”

“That's what I thought, too.”