Sunday, August 21, 2016

Last mom standing

"It's not as easy as it looks," said my cousin with a bemused grin. A seasoned surfer, he'd made a detour from hiking with friends at Katahdin's Knife's Edge to surf with my daughter in southern Maine.

Only he wasn't talking to her.

He was talking to me as I dragged my daughter's surf board to the razor's edge of the sea.

What was I thinking?

Of course, he was right. This would not end well. What forty-something house frau -- who on a good day has to plan how to descend to a squatting position after she's dropped something she just can't abandon -- would risk life, limb and the potential for lambasting for a moment of glory?

Points to self.

Even though I know this is a sport for young people who have flexibility and supple joints, I couldn't help but delude myself into thinking that all the time I had spent on the beach -- camera trained on my daughter as she learned to surf -- had somehow rubbed off on me.

As I saw her paddle out, turn her board in the direction of the wave, and wait for her moment, I held my breath.

When her chance came, and she started to paddle hard to get herself ahead of the wave, I felt myself dig in.

But it was she who popped up and rode the current in. Not me.

I had been living vicariously.

No matter it was my turn now, and I was going to take it. Somehow I had gotten out there. I had hopped small waves and crashed through large ones. I had tried not to give the ocean too much of me to smash.

When my turn came, I pushed off, paddled as hard as I could until the ocean swished me around in its gaping maw and spat me out.

It wasn't pretty.

But I stood up, tugged at the board and headed back out.

I'd like to tell you this Old Lady conquered that sea. I'd like to tell you I managed not to make a fool of myself. But I know you don't believe in mermaids or fairytales.

I never made it to standing.

A half an hour later I was exhausted.

The next morning my body felt like a sticky, gelatinous substance one has to scrape off their shoe.

But I couldn't quit. She wouldn't let me.

"You can't give up, mom. I'll teach you."

This would not end well. What could a tween child -- who on a good day talks herself In circles as if her internal podcast was caught in a scratch on a vinyl record -- do to alter the time/space continuum. She couldn't return me to an age when I mightn't risk life, limb and the potential for lambasting so I could bask in a moment of glory?

Maybe it was just an exercise in futility. "Find your balance," she hollered as she leaned in and tipped my board sideways.

Stop that!

"Try to stand up."


"I think you're goofy footed. You should switch the leash to your left ankle."

I had no idea what she was saying.

Use English!

"Paddle out now. … Now come back. … Now paddle out again."

You are enjoying this, aren't you?

She smiled broadly.

How could this be any more mortifying you ask?

Is that the ACTUAL surf instructors right next to us watching and laughing?

That's how.

"Just push me out," I pleaded.

"Ok. If you think you're ready," she drawled with disdain.

One heave and a wave had taken me. And while I expected to be rung through the sea's spin cycle, something unexpected happened. The board steadied in the current and gave me time to crawl to my feet, where I crouched partway between down and up.

I'd like to tell you this Old Lady conquered that sea. I'd like to tell you I managed not to make a fool of myself. But I know you don't believe in mermaids or fairytales.

I never made it to standing.

Still, I was laughing. And I was surfing with my daughter, not caring who saw.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Assumed names

I wasn't myself.

Officially, I mean.

Crowds had lined the street. Some were holding signs. Some were ringing cowbells. Everyone was yelling something encouraging.

"You have got this! Almost there! You're doing great!"

A few were even calling me by name, "Patsy."

And that was the problem.

Technically, I was a bandit. And I was about to cross the finish line after running six point two miles toward a tiny lighthouse in Portland under an assumed identity.

Now, granted, the bib had been bought and paid for fair and square and the date for legitimate transfer had long since expired. It would have just gone to waste as the rightful titleholder was unable to run.
But it was the fine-print that was inside my head. Fine-print and the knowledge that there are some in the running community who devote all of their free time to outing bandits.

Guilt was getting the better of me.

It was also making me feel a bit discombobulated.

In fact, I had no idea where I was or how I got here. I knew I was in Maine, on a tree-lined street, with about six thousand people in brightly colored stretchy clothes who were checking and rechecking their watches.

I knew my friends had worn bright orange shirts, of which I'd taken careful note. It was kismet I thought since I had chosen to wear orange as well.

But I couldn't relax.

I just knew I'd never be able to retrace my steps without help. As soon as the gun sounded and the one-two beat of soles against pavement kept time, I was alone with my thoughts and my audible breathing for 62 minutes and 25 seconds.

The alarm had woken us before daylight, and I had slipped into clothes I had laid out the night before when the offer to run in place of a friend had climbed its way up the phone tree and settled in my resolve.

Hours earlier, I was still groggy and silent as my husband steered the car northwards. He was a trouper, providing shuttle service from point to point when he could have been sleeping.

The sky was a red color, orange like our shirts, and at this time in the morning the hue was not a happy omen.

Still, this was an opportunity not to be missed, a message my husband kept repeating to appease my guilt.

I had dreamed of this moment at least a half-dozen times since I took up running a few years ago and realized the premiere race is in our summertime backyard. Of course, the dream had been filed away behind other thoughts in my vacationing brain.

A brain usually preoccupied with the logistics of determining how much gear we should schlep to the beach and whether it's too windy to eat by the ocean once we get there. Sandwiches aren't tasty when they are literal.

But instead of the familiar surf, I found myself surrounded by a sea of bright orange shirts, none of which harbored my friends.

It occurred to me then that I really wasn't myself. I'd even left anything that could identify me behind. No wallet, no keys, no phone.

I could be anyone.

In my soul, I know I am still an outlaw despite an equally firm belief that the cosmos makes most of the rules we end up following. And in the grand scheme of things, letters of laws are usually open to interpretation.

I know it only takes the cosmos four minutes to shut a person out of running this race. If I'm found out, everyone in my orbit could be shutout for life.

And as much as I might like to think of myself as a robber of the rich and giver to the poor, I haven't fully embraced my inner scofflaw. How could I when I still feel slightly panicked at the thought of jaywalking?

The longer I waited to be reunited with my friends and family, the more I became convinced this deception would be discovered.

In the home stretch, now, a man high fives racers as they cross the finish line. He seems to know everyone and calls them by name as they sprint past.

My husband is smiling and waving beside him, amazed by the man's knowledge of names and faces. He hasn't caught on to the fact that first names had been printed under the numbers. (An oversight we will no doubt laugh about later).

But now I avert my eyes hoping to pass by unnoticed and unheeded. The final moment of truth revealed in a duel of differing kudos. But they both see me round the corner and yell at the same time: "You got this, Patsy! Strong finish!!!"

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Afterparty

I never thought it could happen to me.

Center stage. Limelight. Crowds of adoring fans.

I had barely done anything. Just sent an email with our home address and instructions to bring some kind of food item to share, and to remember to bring their bathing suits and towels.

And yet, there I was, standing in the driving rain, balancing in my left arm every single vegetable platter the local grocery store had assembled that day, and smiling like a fool as thirty-seven-thousand pint-sized community thespians took turns pushing each other into our backyard pool.

Did I mention the screaming? From apoplectic to blood curdling, each guest was a star performer.

Not for a single moment did I even consider how literal this “cast party” could get, although I did move the platters of potluck away from a mossy-deck to a place with a little more traction. Just in case.

Cool as a cucumber. That was me. Greeting folks as they arrived, directing them to various corners of the house where they could change into swimwear or grab something to eat.

My husband, on the other hand, was starting to question my sanity.

For days he'd kept asking the same things over and over.

Q. “How many kids are in this play?”
A. Thirty-four.

Q. Are they ALL coming?
A. I'm guessing they are all coming and that some will probably bring siblings.

Q. So … How DID we pull the short straw?”
A. We volunteered.

Q. And how does that work, exactly?
A. You raise your hand before you think it all through.

The questions kept bubbling to the surface, even as he kept one eye on the pool and five white-knuckles on the burger flipper, he could not fathom what was happening around him.

Q. And you raised your hand?
A. Technically, it was your daughter who raised her hand.

Q. But you said OK, and now I'm cooking?
A. Yes. It seems that way.

Q. When does this party end?
A. When all the food has been eaten, or when it starts to thunder, whichever comes first.

Q. Is there an app for that?
A. I'm sure there is … but the internet is on the fritz again.
I felt a little sorry for him. The deer in the headlights look is about as far from his natural expression a wide, easy smile is from mine.

And yet our daughter seemed to blend right in; a new animal that had encroached onto our territory. A natural socialite with chameleon-like flexibility and whip-smart perception.

The party was over soon enough. Most of the food had been consumed, and dusk had fallen. And I was surprised by so many Thank Yous, as well as how many plates had made it to the trash without any assistance on my part.

There wasn't much left to clean up.

My husband even admitted the threat level didn't match his anxiety level. And he only had to use his “Big Voice” once.

“I bet most guests thought it was improv.”

“That would explain all the screaming.”

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Blunt force instruments

It was around bedtime, and the children had nestled all snug in their
beds when my phone vibrated. A friend was on the line: "I've just got
to tell you what your son said today ..."

And although everything in my little world seemed to be right at the
moment, these are the words that send chills into the hearts of

The boy is nine now (despite looking only a full seven of those years)
and since school ended he has pestered me non-stop about riding his
bike to the park recreation program. All. By. Himself.

Of course, he had to pass a series high-stakes road tests, which
lasted five days and included a list of skills that would rival DMV's.
I followed him silently the first few days, watching how he crossed
streets, approached driveways and handled pedestrians.

He passed his final  -- he riding his bike toward the park in one
direction, and me driving my car toward him from the other -- with a
perfect score. By week's end, he had his permit to go off on the half
mile commute.

Without me.

On his own.

What could go wrong, you ask?

Abduction? Unlikely.

Accident? Possible.

Attitude? Bingo!

I begin taking a mental inventory of past scripts that have
highlighted my numerous failures - be they drama or farce - during my
tenure as a parent.

My left eyelid pulses with an involuntary rhythm as I replay each scene:

There was the time "Santa's helper" told me the boy had suggested Ol'
St. Nick slim down some if he wanted to worm his way down our chimney.

Only, my son's words weren't as delicate.

And then there was the time my daughter went on her very first play
date, and the kid's mother later (laughingly) reported:

"She pulled me aside after snack time to tell me: 'You know ... Your
refrigerator is filthy.'

"And again, when she needed to use the powder room: 'You know ... Your
toilet bowl needs to be cleaned.'"

I beg a thousand pardons.

The candor, I suppose, I understand. It's the persnicketiness that puzzles me.

No civilized person would call our house clean. Our dirt has dirt.

It doesn't get easier as they get older, either.

"Why on earth would you tell that girl you don't like her grandmother.
It's her grandmother, girl! Have you no sense of decency?"

Children are the original blunt force instruments.

“Are you still there ...” came a voice from the other end of the phone.

My right eyelid started to twitch when I finally cleared my throat and
asked my friend what the boy did.

Turns out there was a communication mix up and the rec program started
an hour late that day. Her husband, who was dropping off their kid,
noticed my kid playing alone in the playground. He felt weird about
leaving him there, so he told the boys he'd take them for bagels and
wait until the counselors arrived.

"Your son told my husband: 'No, I'm not going anywhere with you.
You're not the boss of me!"

When I got off the phone, I went in to kiss my boy goodnight.

"Did you tell Jay's dad he wasn't the boss of you?"

"No, I told he didn't have custody of me. I wasn't going to go with
him because he didn't have custody."

"You do realize we know them, right? It would have been alright with
me if you had gone with him."

"But how well do we really know him? How well do we know anyone? I
think my way is better. I am wiser than my years."

I smiled and kissed his head.

"Can you shut the door on your way out, mom? I have to get some sleep.
I've got a long ride to the park in the morning."

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pushing my luck

There is an enticing moment before any potential disaster when we could dial back all of life's misfortunes, and draw back inside a protective shell, like a turtle ... or a tape measure.

Unfortunately, and for the most part, when we are at that moment we are often talking ourselves through some other problem; or yelling at some poor slob who might have cut us off in traffic; or not have been paying attention at all. Not seeing the forest for the trees, that kind of thing.

In my case, it's not seeing the lawn for all the grass. 

And that's why, on a Wednesday morning with the temperatures climbing, I decided to tackle the mower.

You know what I mean, right?

It's that thing in your garage that might start if you stand on your head and rotate your arms clockwise four times in succession. Not to worry, though. Its engine will roar to a start once your shoulder has torn from its socket.

Ours is a riding mower I assume was made by some alien life-force -- as it looks like an unwanted robotic pet; half beetle, half tortoise -- cast off like so much space junk.

It had seen better days. Days when if you had the levers in a neutral position, pushed down on a pedal and turned a key the thing would start up.

These days, the thing only roars to life with the help of a hot wire and holding interpretive dance positions perfectly still.

Well ... There I was, standing on top of the open contraption, holding the clutch down with one foot while trying to touch one end of the wire to a terminal and the other end to the thing I think of as the CELL ANNOYED.


Crap! I forgot to have the key turned in the "ON" position.

I start again.

Foot. Wire. Key. 

The motor rumbles and catches, spinning the cutting blade. I feel the air from its fan; a cold chill on my other foot, which I had wedged rather painfully into the grass in order to stabilize my precarious balance.

Crap! I think to myself. I forgot to check the position of the mower blade. That could have been a disaster. 

Even so, with a lump in my throat and my heart racing, I took off on the machine, trying to cut a series of ever-narrowing ovals onto our lawn as one might attempt to peel an apple in one single, elegant strip. I'm not trying to be artsy, the machine's reverse feature hasn't functioned in years.

And all was going well, until the fifth circle when a rattling noise developed. The mower slowed a little, seemed to choke as it listed to one side. No matter how far I pushed the accelerator, it merely inched along.

"What now?" I said to the air, with disbelief. The humidity, so early in the day, was already conspiring to vacuum-seal my mind. 

I looked back to see a tiny front tire still rolling along.

A perfect end to an imperfect chore.

For a moment, I think about kicking it across the yard before it circles around itself like a coin and settles into a nest of still-uncut grass.

Miraculously, I am able to stop myself from coming unhinged.

I don't want to break anything else.

So instead, I take out my cell phone and record the breakdown for my husband. I send the picture off into the ethosphere with an audible swoosh.

A few minutes later a reply dings, and I open the missive to find a return image of what is to be my new best friend: A cobalt blue electric mower, with a whisper quiet motor and push-button start.

“Better to push a new mower than push your luck.”

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Imaginary worlds

One day you wake up … on your own … without the alarm blaring … or a cat staring you down for a bowlful of pellets … or a child … holding themselves around the middle and murmuring something about feeling like they are going to throw up. … It's just you ... and maybe the twitter of birds for a soundtrack.

Maybe it's a Sunday morning, and the sun is out.

Maybe you have something to do; maybe you don't. You're in no hurry in any case.

The house isn't silent. Make a mental note of this if you can. You think quiet is peaceful now, but in time, the truer silence will seem unsettling. Where is everyone?

There is movement deep within the house. A dog barks. A door opens and closes. A dog barks again. The process repeats.

If you are fortunate, there may be an aroma of coffee wending its way toward you. Already poured and colored the way you prefer.

It's probably not in your favorite cup … but that's just nit-picky of you to notice. (I hope you didn't say anything … It would seem ungrateful.)

Just say thank you, and let the words vibrate the rust from your vocal chords. Smile and invite the bearer to climb in and listen to music or read a book.

Be thankful the coffee is a little cold. It will probably spill a little.

Don't mention the little splotches on the floor, either. Scuffing your stockinged feet over the spillage will erase the damage.

We are lucky to have so little to do.

I'll admit, I get a little down some days … thinking of all the things I should be doing … but won't be doing. All the little chores that pile up around me: The grass is too long. … The weeds are overtaking the garden … The dog needs a walk.

The kids go here and there, but it feels like hours tick by with little movement.

Now that summer is in full swing, we are flitting from one thing to another, but with ample time in between to rest ourselves from the heat and humidity. It feels a bit like the house has turned into a pond, and we are all colorful amphibians, resting ourselves on lily pads before we jump at flies.

My son makes his own breakfast: A bowlful of granola and a dollop of yogurt. My daughter walks him to camp. I'll find his dishes tomorrow somewhere unexpected. It will be a surprise. Under his bed? Behind the door in the bathroom? In the hammock on the porch? He quietly keeps me guessing.

I'd tell you life was peaceful, but the truth is the peace and quiet were brought to me by a wireless connection. It roils my soul a little to know that in the quiet of their lairs, my children are building worlds in Minecraft. Or perhaps they are following their bliss around the block with PokemonGo.

As I read (and ignore) all the scientific-sounding reports of the dangers of screens on young minds, I am loathed to stop them. The kids are alright, I tell myself. This, too, shall pass.

They are playing together in their imaginary world. And I am drinking coffee in mine.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Game plans gone awry

I would have known her in an instant if she hadn't wrapped a towel around her waist, concealing a carefully mismatched bikini. My daughter -- technically out in the world, though not out of view -- could have been anyone. 

She certainly seemed taller from this distance. Older. The sun shone through her hair, turning it from tea to honey. I squinted and raised my hand in an eye-shading salute. There was a boy with her. 

The truth is, even in this heat, I wish she'd wear a snowsuit. 

I wish she didn't like the attention boys are paying her.

I wish she didn't have to grow up so fast.

She was running toward me now. Sand was kicking up behind her as she sprinted. It was starting to come into focus.

I began to understand what I was seeing.

As she got nearer; I could hear her laughter as it carried over the water. Forced and brittle. It was the laughter of discomfort. The boy wasn't with her, exactly, he had been following her.

Everywhere she went, he went, too.

He was tall and gangly and painfully thin. An oversized watch on his matchstick arm magnified a recent growth spurt. Everything about him had overstepped some boundary. He was the kind of boy her father has told her, jokingly, to be kind to when she turns him down.

I hadn't thought it bad advice in the abstract, though I'm pretty sure we saw the wisdom of this old saw from opposite sides of its double-edged blade: My husband wanted to preserve his gender's self-esteem, and I wanted to keep my daughter from having to dial 9-1-1.

Closer up, it was obvious; she was not enjoying the attention.

He'd done everything he could think of to win her over: He'd thrown his sister into the water and laughed when the poor girl cried; He was rude and snarky; He questioned her intelligence, her attractiveness, her reasoning and spatial understanding. 

And she did everything she could think of to tell him that she wasn't interested: She'd giggled nervously, tried politeness, then acted haughtily, answering questions alternating from monotone to streams of sarcasm.

None of it worked.

Her politeness was breaking into shards, and his demeanor had turned sullen and brooding.

Both of them were miserable.

"Maybe we should go," I tell my husband, who quickly agreed. 

The boy was persistent with his annoyance, and it was getting late. 

In the car on the way home, we kvetched about the kid and strategized how she could have handled him differently.

It wasn't an admonishment of how she HAD handled him, just possible alternatives. More like an after-game huddle without the whiteboards and dotted lines.

My husband started his armchair quarterbacking with the words "what you have to get him to understand," but then he stopped himself.

"It's not on you to change his behavior," I interjected. Don't get angry or try to laugh it off. Stay calm but don't engage. If he's bothering some one else, stand near them. Protect them. Don't engage. He wants a reaction. Don't give him one.”

My daughter's smile returned. 

And though I was relieved, I felt a little sorry for the boy. 

I wish he were in a car with his own people, figuring out better plays.