Sunday, November 22, 2015

Cat nap

Out of nowhere she strikes. Well, not nowhere, really, this particular attack came from behind the newly drawn winter curtains. The toes of a warm, furry paw are outstretched, claws exposed. You might be watching television, or reading a book. Not paying attention. First you feel a soft, feathery flapping and then a sharp stick.

And then poof, she is gone. You have no time for defense. No time for retaliation. No time for a blast of water from the spray bottle or even an upraised voice. She's disappeared into one of her many nooks, and you are stunned and checking for blood.

There isn't any.

She's just playing at your demise. A game of wits and outwits.

I've begun calling her Cato, after the feisty and fictional manservant who kept Inspector Clouseau in fighting shape as well as in clean shirts.

Although my Cato doesn't know how to use the appliances or answer the phone, I can rely on her to assess where I am in the house at all times, and lie in wait for the perfect (most inopportune) ambush.

Maybe I'll be setting the dining room table. She will reach out and snag my thigh from the comfort of a rush seat. Or perhaps I will be climbing the stairs with a basket of laundry, she will weave between my ankles with the precision of a feline but the speed and indecision of a squirrel.

There is very little I do around here that doesn't pique her interest. Making beds, wrapping presents, changing rolls of toilet paper … each one a siren song for a full-scale attack. I'm not even safe when I'm using the commode. Let's just leave it at that.

Of course, in this scenario, I always play the bumbling Clouseau. I retaliate in full force. Chasing through the house, grabbing her in a damp towel and ruffling her fur with abandon as she harmlessly digs her nails into the thick pile of wet terrycloth.

“Aw … so cute. Wike a wittle baby all swaddled up.”

She growls and I let her go. Her tail wags, her eyes are all pupils as she considers her next move.

“Too far?” I laugh. “Too bad, you little fur bag.”

We part ways.

She disappears into the kids' rooms, where she can hunt the fat paintbrushes that make the floor their habitat instead of the desk drawers where they'd be safe.

Eventually, she'll curl up on a sun-facing windowsill, or in the basket with all the winter hats and mittens, and soak up some sleep.

She's got to get her rest.
Soon, nightfall is coming.

There will be dinner, and clean up, and bedtime rituals. Baths. Toothbrushing. The reading of books. The dog will go out and come in at least three more times. Until finally there is silence. And sleep. …

Except for the one still on the prowl …

I feel her eyes on me before I feel the soft swat. No claws this time.

Two or three circles on my side of the bed before she settles. Some part of her touching some part of me.

And then soft purring.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The camera isn't soul stealing, it's soul crushing

“I could have lived forever …”

My mother used to say that a lot, “I could have lived forever ...”

She rarely finished the thought, but I always knew what she meant.

“I could have lived forever … without that tidbit of information.”

Usually, it was the result of being thrust into an uncomfortable consciousness. Often linked to something that I had said or done -- something untoward – that jeopardized her hopes for a blissfully unaware immortality.
Or more likely, I was me just trying to take her picture.

We used to laugh about it.

Ok … she laughed. I just screwed up my face, sighed heavily, and wondered why she didn't just relax and let me capture the moment.

“Oh, don't take my picture,” she'd say to my dismay. “I don't like the way I look in them.”

She'd hold up her hands, a universal lens-blocking sign of protest, while I would fume at the idea that she would so denigrate my skills. After all, they were my pictures.

I was in control.

Of course, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if she obliged the lens, her lack of comfort would be recorded for all of posterity with a scowl or a smile so awkward it might register a ten on the pain scale.

Oh, how I wish I could take all that indignation back.

Because I get it now.

Eventually, we lose that all-important control, and that image we have of ourselves -- our mirror-image selves playing on a loop in our mind's eye -- is totally annihilated by an unflattering camera angle or an ill-timed stop in the action.

Of course, I might say she had it easy.

She didn't live in a time when people she barely knew were able to tag and ship this potential travesty to all 3,000 of her close and mutual friends via some invisible spider web. The picture, if she ever saw it again, would wind up in a drawer somewhere or at the bottom of a cardboard box not circling the world wide web.

No. … she didn't have the true horror of wondering if any of her imaginary friends would recognize her ... you know if they actually crossed paths in the grocery store. Since, for the most part, we've been curating our current likeness in the image of our twenty-seven-year-old likeness.


What is thrust in our electronic face is an undeniable fact:

“I look horrible.”

Those who love us will open their mouths to protest our assumptions.

“Please don't try and say I don't.”

Any words they try to say to the contrary won't smooth the wrinkles or trim the unsightly bulge. They can't level the puffy eyes, chicken neck, double chin. No one believes the camera adds 10 pounds. We fully understand our brains subtract 20.

I've crossed enough finish lines to know that after the endorphins have rushed through my system, after the feeling of exertion nausea subsides it will be chased by a different kind of nausea: The true horror show that is my race photo.

At first I won't recognize myself. But then my stomach will leap into my throat.

For a few days after receiving one, I will fall into a funk. I'll give up spandex ... and running … and facebook ... and generally being seen in public.

Ever. Again.

Eventually, the image will fade from my consciousness. Replaced, as it were, by over-filtered, arm-length shot that for a time will restore my ability to suspend disbelief.

It's my superpower, I suppose.

But until that happens, I will wish I could apologize to my mother. I will wish I could take it all back.

And then I realize I can apologize in the only way the universe allows.

When I look into my own daughter's lens, I will say it …

“I could have lived forever …”

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Constant and variables

"You were wrong," she said accusingly as she dropped her bags in the hallway and slammed the front door behind her. "The price of the car was a variable, not a constant."

I cringed in the slaps-my-own-forehead moment. Of course, it was a variable! Renting a car on a homework sheet is never as simple as one might imagine. There's always some small print you overlooked: While we were busy computing the cost of gas, base mileage rates and the number of days' rental, we'd forgotten all about the difference in price between a coupe and a sedan.

"It's ok, though. It was tricky. Lots of us had it wrong, and I eventually figured it out by myself."

Ahhh ... The true constant: my help rarely being helpful.

Still ... I don't consider it a total failure.

Failure is for other people.

“Most people don't know that broccoli contains more protein than steak,” the teacher said with a smile.

“Really? That's amazing,” said another mother helping to dish out fruit salad at the class party that day.

I turned away to stuff a carrot into my mouth, but mostly so the gathering wouldn't see me roll my eyes.

“Not really,” I coughed, choking on a lingering spec of orange fiber. “I think I need a drink.”

“Vegetable protein is different than animal protein,” I explained in my head. “It's incomplete. It doesn't have the essential amino acids humans need for proper absorption. I know it seems like these big mammals who live on nothing but grass should be able to show us the folly of our meat-eating ways, but our digestive systems are quite different.”

She couldn't hear me, though. I managed to keep my mouth shut.

I just smiled tightly and sipped on fruit juice, hoping it would make everything go down. A nice apples and oranges mixture.

It occurred to me that what I was experiencing was the real-life equivalent of one of the many AMAZING posts that scroll past my eyes whenever I peruse Facebook. Only I was in school, where it seems teachers are busily readying our children to opt out of the next round of standardized tests.

Had I been on Facebook, I surmised, I probably would have posted a response I hope would seem civil. Maybe a Snopes link or a page that didn't have the word “BLOG” in the address. Invariably it would have set fire to my friendships.

But there was no link I could pull from the air. No Mayo Clinic website to which I could refer.

“Be calm,” I told myself as I cleared the scattered debris of the party into a waste can. “Don't make a big deal out of it,” I murmured, as I moved toward the sink with a handful of sticky utensils. “Just keep washing. Just keep washing.”

It's not as if I'm perfect.

I make more than my fair share of mistakes. We've already established that.

I spell creatively, flub my tenses, mix my metaphors, add commas and apostrophes where they don't belong. And my recommendations should come with their own warning labels and a few extra grains of salt.

Run-on-sentences and I have gone together on many walkabouts over the years. Too many, perhaps.

One would think I'd be smarter than throwing stones from my glass house.

But I can't help but keep track. ...

There was the science teacher who, for some reason, told students snakes are “mostly nocturnal.”

The math teacher who routinely says “communative” property when he means “commutative” property.

And I'm not telling you how many times I've circled the grammar mistakes in the letters that get “backpacked” home.

I'm not proud.

I know how it looks. Snob. Rubbing people's nose in it.

I try to picture my sweet, loving grandmother – to whom I was always giving an unnecessary “heart a tact” – and let the red-pen-stained paper drift down into the recycling bin.
And when the kids tell me emphatically, “teacher says,” I remind them teachers are sometimes wrong. That's why it's important to think critically, which often means questioning the answer you think you already know.

“I mean, if you need an example of making mistakes, just look at me.”

Sunday, November 01, 2015

All dressed up with nowhere to go

The nights are getting longer but Halloween just flies by.

I've seen the last dozen pass by at the frenetic pace of a strobe-light. It's eerie.

My daughter the princess. My son the peacock. The witch. The pirate. The cheerleader. The bat. The cat. The shark. The superhero. The vampire. His favorite cartoon character. The protagonist in her favorite book.

I'd almost forgotten how sweet it was finding ways to make their wildest masquerade dreams come true. It seemed like eons ago.

My kids, for the most part now, devise their own costumes from remnants of costumes past, or thrift-store finds I will dutifully shred, or affix wings to, or spray paint some unnatural color.

They don't need us to eat all the unwanted candies that messes up their smooth with nutty or chunky. Their tastes are evolving.

It won't be long until we unleash them on the world, and hang back, hoping they haven't secreted away our last toilet paper rolls for some anti-neighborly ghost paper misdeeds.

But not just yet.

Just yet we are still following in the dark at a greater distance, perhaps, but still within view. They look back at us, seeking a nod and permission, before crossing the street.

We'll catch up by the next street, even if we have to sprint.

Our house is empty, except for the animals, who don't much mind the strangers Halloween attracts. Of course, that could be because we don't have a doorbell to send them into a panic.

However, we leave the porch lights on and a bowlful of candy propped in a chair as we made our way through the rest of the neighborhood in the pitch of night.

I'll admit, it's just the cut-rate stuff – the individually wrapped gumballs, artificially flavored taffies, and miniature lollypops. I'm softhearted, not stupid.

By the time we return from our own lawn-crossing, doorbell-ringing, trick-or-treat-begging circuit I know the bowl will likely be emptied.

Now I'd like to think a horde of fancy-dressed tots struggling to hold their masks at an eye level position while keeping their plastic pumpkins from spilling all their hard-earned sweets – a horde we have historically missed – descended like locust on our offering at the same time we swarmed across lighted doorsteps across town. Their parents, as we had done, would remind their children to “take only one piece” and say “Don't forget to say thank-you.”

But we don't usually get that many visitors. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole bowl wound up in one or two sacks though I can't say I don't smile at the thought of the mouthful of cavities the gluttons might get in return for their greed.

I refill the candy dish with the good stuff; the chocolates and caramels and nougats. The stuff I hope will be leftover when the kids, still wearing makeup and part of their costumes, are tucked into their beds and sleeping the sleep of the sugared-up dead.

Who am I kidding?

This is the cheap stuff, too. The 50-percent-off brands we bought the day before yesterday, not long after eating the full-priced stuff we hid behind the high fiber cereals when no one was looking. We broke into that candy the same day it came home from the store. (Of course, you do know I mean the royal “We.”) The ROYAL WE have replaced the stash of chocolates I can't say how many times.

Even the lowliest of confections look more expensive wearing chocolate.

“Hey … where have you been hiding this?” my husband asks as he dips his mitt into the bowl and claws up a fun-sized handful.

“Shhhh. Don't tell the kids,” I hiss as I pivot the palm of my hand and dig in. "Consolation prize."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The extra mile

How long had we been there trying on shoes? Maybe a half hour? Maybe more.

It had seemed to me to be a long time, anyway. The trip getting to the store was fraught with other commuters tailgating or performing automobile ballet and other magical maneuvers to get just a few feet ahead of us on the road.

I tried to relax by pretending there was a fire. Maybe they have an emergency to get to, and that's why they are so impatient. But I swore under my breath anyway.

Everyone always in a stupid rush to get nowhere.

She had her heart set on “combat boots,” or that's what she called the lightweight lace-up boots made of pleather that her generation would pair with a frilly dress and opaque tights. I didn't tell her about how my generation wore them, not after I saw the shadow of all the fashion possibilities parading past her eyes in the catwalk of her imagination.

And like any child about to get this weeks' heart's desire, she was thanking me profusely for this extra special spending spree.

Except …


I forgot my wallet.


Well, not exactly typical. Typical, for me, is walking to dinner with friends, having the wallet (unzipped) but not noticing as a credit card falls out of it like a single, solitary leaf windmilling away from its plastic tree.

Typical, as luck and mortification would have it, also involves friends finding it forthwith and spending the majority of the dinner hour making jokes.

Because, I can admit, my usual clueless has a humor all its own.

But I digress.

My daughter tries to conjure the card from thin air by going out to the parking lot to check the car as I dump out my bag's contents on the counter. Also a futile act, since I can see the card in my mind's eye where I left it … in a different wallet … on the dinning room table. At home. Twenty minutes away.

The lady behind the register is smiling her least awkward smile, not to mention apologizing to me for my own oversight.

My daughter came back into the store, arms lifted with the disbelieving expression of the tailgating drivers minus the anger.

Was it a minor or a major disappointment? I couldn't tell from her face. There were no frowns or tears. Just a half smile I couldn't decipher. She had planned to wear the boots tomorrow she told me; only I would be returning to the store at the same time to pick them up and pay for them. So she'd be wearing them in her mind.

But it was OK, she said, as the lady at the register tore a bit of tape, wrote our name on it and affixed it to our box, now stacked at the top of several others whose would-be owners also vowed to return at a later date.

It's just Picture Day tomorrow, and they don't show your feet.

And we drove home in a familiar silence that isn't exactly quiet since its filled with mild disappointment and pop radio banter.

I know I will drop her off at home, collect my wallet and go back to the store.

Who needs the hassle of a morning commute they don't need to make?

Especially when I'll get to see the official pictures: Her smiling face and unseen boots.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The bike path less traveled

Not long ago – and by “not long” I mean just prior to last Sunday – I had all but given up on the idyllic vision of our family riding bicycles through the countryside one day.

Now, I hadn't given up on this notion because of the lack of time or inclination on the part of adults, who, let's face it, aren't exactly the active sort in their off time. *Clears throat, cough-husband-cough, clears throat again.*

Nor was it my fear of winding, country roads with their dangerous blind curves; or newly licensed texting teens, Z-OMG; or even the middle-aged road ragers, some of whom have started making it a habit to show off the length of their middle fingers when we meet at the fulcrum of our weekend commutes – they in their cars, probably headed to a barroom at 7 a.m.; and me in my DayGlo-colored spandex, running at full jog along the road's shoulder, you know, sensibly.

No, my hopes for a family bike trip had circled the drain because of my youngest's insistence – at the ripe old age of eight -- that he would never, ever, never ever in a million years, ever ride a bike. Anywhere. Ever. Not unless it had training wheels, was tethered to a bike being ridden by his father, or was a part of some elaborate three-dimensional animated universe wherein he only had to stand in front of a blue screen and pretend to pedal. Then, and only then, would he even consider being anywhere near a bike.

No matter what I said or how I tried to convince him, no matter how many bikes he had to choose from, my son stubbornly stood his ground. He would not allow me, nor anyone else in our orbit, to run alongside him if there was even the remotest of possibilities they would let go of the two-wheeled death trap and watch incredulously as it catapulted off a cliff with him still astride, screaming in terror.

Because careening off a cliff as the whole world watches is what “letting go” apparently means to anyone who tries to define it.

Now, I must admit, a part of me felt a surge of relief at his intractability. Because of it, he would also never likely get a 35-pound bike in a tangle with a 10-ton truck. But the relief was tinged with sadness every time a six-year-old whizzed past us – training-wheel-free – on our way to the farmer's market.

But I was letting go.

And now I was moving on … to the grocery shopping part of my day.

I was even considering rolling the blasted training bike out to the end of the driveway just to be done with it. Maybe roll my own antiquated road bike right out there with it. Heck, the girl's peddle-pusher is over the hill, too. Ship them all out to the curb and dust my hands.

How many bikes had we acquired over the years anyway? This one is too small. This one is too tall. … A well-loved hand-me-down here, an unloved Christmas present there. It seemed our garage was a Goldie Locks and the Three Bears morality tale of bicycle ownership, except nothing fit quite right.

And then, as I was mentally cleaning out our garage in the cold cereals aisle, a text from my husband whistled into my phone.

Attached to it was a video of the boy riding the tiny bike at full speed around our quarter-mile driveway … sans safety wheels.

I let go of the idea of getting my garage back and remembered the middle-aged, middle-fingered roadways.

I took a deep breath and let that go, too.

Somewhere there's a bike path less traveled. And someday we'll get there.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A real eye-opener

He squints. One eye, mostly. The left one to be exact. I never thought any more of it than a quirk of personality hailing all the way back to the cradle.

His sister had oddities of her own when she was a baby. Like how she'd toddle around saying 'No' with an English accent; or how one side of her lip drew up into a tiny sneer whenever she parted the air inside her diaper.

She probably wouldn't want me to mention that the effects of infant effluvium made her grimace like a teacup-sized Elvis pretending to be a Beatle, but she's not speaking to me these days. It's not as if I'd understand her anyway. Sheeesh!

But while the girl's rock idol looks have shifted away from the coincidental to the deliberate as she matures, the boy has hung on to his concentrated wink as if it were his nature.

Which is probably why I felt stunned when his pediatrician suggested he see an eye doctor after his last physical.

“It's slight, but I think he has a correctable problem with his vision,” she offered and disappeared into the maze that is her office to find a list of referrals.

“Glasses,?” he asked in shock.

I nodded. “Maybe. … we'll see ...”

I tried to be non-committal as my own sense of shock trickled into guilt and dread.

Was this why his reading was lagging? How could I miss that he was as blind as a bat? Because, of course, this is where the mom-mind goes in the waiting room between preliminary diagnosis and specialist appointments: straight to wondering how the seeing-eye dog would get along with the family pooch.

His half-eyed squint turned into a gaze of tiny, flying daggers. He wanted answers, not shoulder shrugs and altered universes.

“I don't want glasses. I don't even need glasses. I see just fine.”

To which I just sighed and reminded my son that I'm not exactly the boss of him in this instance. That title would have to be transferred to the lady wearing the stethoscope necklace, who also gave him the clearance to pick out a few stickers.

“How does she know what I see?”

Honestly, I don't know how doctors can tell what a kid sees.

There he stood, heels against the wall, looking at a mirror reflection of the eye chart and holding one hand over his non-squinty eye. He was bouncing around from foot to foot as she asked him to read from the poster.

“Well, the words don't make any sense even if I could read them,” said my boy, without a smidgeon of self-doubt.

“Well, let's just try calling out the letters, then shall we?”

“Well, some of them look like numbers, so I'm not sure if I'm seeing the same chart.”

“Do your best.”

“E, P, F, T, O, Z, L ... L … M, N, O, P”

The alphabet song was a dead giveaway that he'd turned over his paper and handed back the test once the letters got to be slightly smaller than poster-sized.

“I just wanted to sing,” he noted by way of explanation.

So, we got to do it all again a few weeks later, this time with a specialist, in a darkened room, with the kid wearing a halo and space-age goggles.

“How's this?” asked the doctor as he spun lens after lens into place. With each click, he'd ask my son to tell him if the letters looked better or worse.

"I guess better. Although I think that S is a 5, which seems pretty tricky."

"Better or worse?"

"Definitely worse. It's all blurred out."

“Better or worse?”

“Better but also a little worser. Mom says worser isn't a word, but I think it should be.”

“Better or worse?”

“Oh, that's just terrible. I think you turned the S into a 5 just to trick people. And that O looks like a D now, too.”

“Better or worse?”

“Hey. That's pretty good. Better. Clearer, too.”

And so … you can imagine it came as an even bigger surprise when the doctor switched on the light and declared his eyesight … “Not that bad. I doubt he'll even notice the difference if I give him a prescription.”

Before I could clear my throat, the boy was making the decision.

“Oh, I DEFINITELY need glasses. My eyes are wide open, now.”