Sunday, January 21, 2018

Love and misunderstanding

“What’s that face about?”

Not surprisingly, she wouldn’t answer.

Still, I persisted.

“Come on. Tell me. Maybe I can help.”

Also not surprisingly, the result of my insistence on prying into the nature of her downturned mouth and razor-sharp glare was to reinforce her desire to clam up.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Did something happen at school?”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it.”

“On the bus?”

“Which part of “I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT” isn’t clear to you?”

“Is there something I can do?”

“Yes, you can NOT TALK ABOUT IT.”

Of course, to a parent, this is an impossible request. How could I NOT talk about this elephant she’d walked into the room on a leash woven from her woe-begotten demeanor? How could this beast she named “IT,” but refused to speak of again, not hijack the entirety of my attention? I had no idea what this IT was, but the mystery and not knowing was killing me.

Am I not her mother? Doesn’t she know my sole purpose on this Earth is to help guide her through the trials and tribulations of teenaged angst? Boiling frozen ravioli on demand is just a bonus.

I was once 14. Many, many, many, many, many ... many years ago. 

“Yeah, but you were my age before the Internet, and Snapchat, and Pretty Little Liars.”

“Is it your friends? Middle school can be the worst age of all. You read ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid.’ You know.”

“That’s not at all helpful.”

I realize. 

It’s odd how we sometimes have perfect understanding without really saying a word.

Not that we haven’t had moments of misunderstanding.

Like the time I told her that she could always use me to get out of uncomfortable situations.

“You know ... if your friends pressure you to do something you don’t want to do, just blame me. Tell them I won’t let you date boys … or drive in cars with people I don't know.”

That seemed simple enough. 

... Until she told one of her friends “Sorry, I can't go to your sleepover because my mom doesn't like one of the girls attending the party.”

“Why on earth would you say that?”

“You told me I could use you to get out of peer pressure situations.”

“Yeah, but this is not what I meant. You can blame me for general strictness, not for specific meanness.”

“You could have said 'I'm grounded' or 'my mom doesn't let me sleep over other people's houses' or even 'my mom is making us go to some lecture on the History of Walking as a Sport that day. Sorry'.”

Just as I realize my circular explanations of infuriating human behaviors tend to get tangled in the hairball of my thoughts on how to best address these rocky relationships. 

Including ours.

“You know what I mean right?"

Translation: I’m lost in my own desire to help.

She shakes her head.

“Yeah, I get it.”

Translation: “Let’s not talk about this anymore.”

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Universal remote

How does this dumb thing work?

I pointed a black plastic box at the television.

Nothing happened.

Well, not nothing, exactly. 

Eventually, a red screen came up, and then some pictures cascaded past. The effect was frustrating. Nothing I clicked would bring them to a stop. 

“Give it to me.”

My daughter. My savior. My technological sherpa.  

She pointed and pressed buttons, and the movie started to play.

The only thing that could make her appearance at that moment any more perfect would be if she stopped jamming her socks in between the couch cushions, where the remote controls, spare change, and granola bar wrappers usually tend to migrate. 

“If we had Alexa or Echo you could probably do this yourself.”

She said “probably,” because she’s never used a smart home device and doesn’t know its full capabilities. Could it feed the cat? 

Do you know how I managed before having children? 

It’s not a rhetorical question. My daughter would like to know. She refuses to believe that I was ever capable of changing channels on my own. 

Maybe it is wishful remembering.

When I try to think back, the only vivid memory that comes is the notebook I carried around like a bible during the early days of personal computing. I could never keep track of all the ways basic commands like “colon, copy, backslash, backslash, alt, shift, command” that combine with individual letters from the alphabet - say “S” - to make computers do things ... like, turn on. 

I like to think times were simpler back in the day, especially once I discovered Apple computers and their intuitive engineering. I must have blocked all those nightmarish memories of trying to start up a mainframe and create a word processing file from scratch.

“Never say ‘back in the day,’” my daughter pleads, shuddering from head to toe as if I had said, “Let’s be 'twinsies' and wear matching clothes.”

That aside, I refuse to admit that I never knew how to work the television. 

The red button turned the set on and off. The Volume and Channel buttons went up or down according to the corresponding arrows. Number buttons existed, too, but with fewer than two dozen channels, no one ever used them. 

And when you lost the remote in the couch you could get up and turn a knob. 

Though no one ever did.

Back then televisions didn’t do fancy things like take note of your “favorite” channels, or record shows when you’re at work. 

Not that I don’t appreciate all the bells and whistles.  I just wish I could go back to the days when my television didn’t “lisp.”

“Oh, I fixed that for you,” said my daughter. She adjusted one of the knobs I had no idea was at odds with another knob on two different machines that work our entertainment hub. 

“When the volume of the TV competes with the volume of the home theater system the actors all sound like they’re lisping or slurring their speech,” she explained.

 I don’t believe I recall seeing a section on remote control detox in the owner’s manual. 

The idea that two different volumes could make a single soundtrack play almost harmonically is a phenomenon I wish could just go in one ear and out the other. 

 The reverberations scrape at my eardrums like an over inserted cotton swab.

“How is it that I mess this up every single time? I used to be good at this stuff.”

My husband, who appeared out of thin air like magic when I uttered those fateful words, laughed:

“Honey, you were never any good at this stuff. You once tried to use a universal remote to turn off an alarm clock.”

Oh man, I almost forgot about universal remotes. “Those dumb things never worked.”

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Lovely, brutal

It's brutal out there.

Not just the cold, which is seasonably barbarous as well as inevitable, but also the climate. The air in which we surround ourselves is getting thinner and thinner.

I find it hard to catch my breath.

But you don't need me to tell you that things don't seem to be going well. The news torrent has made sure you understand.

As we welcomed a new year, four souls were savagely murdered in our city, two of them children. A young man in a unicorn hat laughed at a suicide victim and posted it on YouTube while hundreds of thousands of minions pressed a “like” button. And the old man at our helm rattled a nuclear saber as if it were a school-yard taunt.

Each day brings a new opportunity to let our jaws hang wide open.

There's no reason for any of it. Maybe there's just no reason.

To live in this age feels like jousting with Don Quixote. Only in our time, it seems as if the windmills at which we tilt have become truly dangerous.

Every misstep a potential disaster.

As we move from one tragedy to another, we think our skins toughen up or we just become numb. Or maybe it is the same as it ever was: precarious at best.

We live our lives as watershed moments.

Every change seems like a place in a river where water collects for a time before it drains off. Often in a new direction. Sometimes, but not always, with calamitous results.

We live, we die. In between we experience everything … anew. We can't learn history because we haven't experienced it.

We are not unchanged by the current or past events, perhaps, but we must move along. We may keep our heads down, holding our breath. Or we may find exhilaration in the tide and splash along happily.

My mother used to say there is nothing new under this sun. Even its shadows have existed throughout time immemorial.

I miss my mother.

She left this world last year around this time and went back to the earth. She is with her mother now.

But I know I'd miss her more if a part of her didn't live on in me … and in my daughter and son. Reminders of her are in the strangest of places. A song, playing on the radio. A kettle, boiling on the stove. A pencil scratching paper.

Even a look on my boy's face can bring her back: A curled lip that opens into a laugh.

Her laugh. Her smile. Her dark sense of humor filling the air with spice. Its particles floating around with the dust motes, as they glint in the sun and seem to stop time for an instant. Like a hologram.

Memories visit this way. Flashes only I can see that appear suddenly and unexpectedly.

It's not an altogether unpleasant feeling. It's warm and familiar, like finding glimpses of home as you pass through the unfamiliar.

The flashes leave as quietly as they came. An internal hug against the ordinary or mundane.

It's like sound after it snows. Everything blanketed in cold and silence.

It's not brutal out there if you can just listen to the snow and be still. It's beautiful.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year, Same old me

In one cozy moment, quiet had settled over the house.

Christmas had come and gone.

There was nothing to do but throw another log on the fire and relax.

Each child had retreated to their bunkers with their Santa loot and were happily engaged introducing the new to the old, and rearranging pecking orders.

Time enough to breathe and loosen my white-knuckled grip on this manufactured reality.

A carpet of canines had just settled in for a short winter’s nap while the cats that had lain doggo were finally stirring.

The Bumpass Christmas, as this year’s carnival of excess, would become known, at its most festive featured ten humans, six dogs, one ginormous roast and at least three subsequent meals made entirely from leftovers.

And despite some minor disagreements, some involving sharp words others involving sharp teeth, somehow we had survived mostly unscathed.

Of course, it wasn’t all happiness and fancy Christmas lights shot out of a cannon in the direction of the house, although the lazy light show did its part to lessen our grief the night “Luna,” still lustrous of fur though elderly in hamster years, finally trundled off to the giant cardboard tube in the sky.

Her departure serves as a tiny reminder of the humans we were missing this year, too.

All those shiny packages containing even the smallest of treasures helped to redirect our thoughts. Not that we will ever admit such selfish soothing.

What is Next if not a distraction from Last?

Life is good. Good. Not perfect, but that’s what keeps it interesting.

Tomorrow we will try to build us better selves.

We will strive to be more organized. We will seek to exhibit fewer vices.

 We will be our thinner, healthier, happier selves, though we will still be recognizable. It’s just that our finances will be in better order and our hearts will be at peace.

But the process in our house is also external, born of the unhappiness of others in us.

We squint our eyes and see where our lives would be better with less of someone else's life spilling over.

My husband wants less clutter and more peace and quiet.

My daughter wants to eliminate all the dog hair that seeks to cling to her formal-hued fashions.

My son would like his time on the internet uninterrupted.

I would like everyone just to get along.

We won't all get what we want. And that's as it should be. Even my most pessimistic self should know the process of resolve is incremental. Small starts are starts all the same.

And not all failures are regressive. Most of our missteps still send us forward, just in a different direction.

It will still be noisy and chaotic. But there will be joy.

Dogs will still leave a trace, but you will learn to use a lint brush.

Sometimes the internet goes out “unexpectedly,” and the world doesn't end.

Even when we argue, we're still talking it out.

Getting along sounds loud and angry sometimes, too.

So it is with some hope that I step off into a new year and another beginning. Next year may not be better, but it will always bring something for which we can be thankful.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Learning the ropes

“In four miles take a left onto Route Nine.”

For fifty minutes I’d been following Siri’s every instruction, starting with an easterly turn out of our driveway.

“In one mile you will reach your destination.”

I was worried.

“Did you hear her mention of our destination was on the right or the left?”

My co-pilot for this leg of the adventure was an eighth-grade friend of my daughter’s who’d apparently drawn the short straw.

The four other girls on this journey had already pretzeled themselves into the second- and third-row seats, and were nervously chirping away, twittering about what to expect, but trusting I would get us there.

We were going rock climbing.

Or, more precisely, wall scaling inside a two-story metal warehouse made to look like rocks.

It was my girl’s 14th trip around The Sun, and she had a dream.

Or rather, her father had a dream:

“Hey, kiddo,” he said one morning over eggs and toast. “I had the strangest dream last night. You and your friends went rock climbing on your birthday.”

She tilted her head and laughed the kind of laugh that threatens to either choke a person or propel orange juice from their nose.

“Oh that’s hilarious, dad,” she said with an overly dramatic flair. “I can’t see any of my friends agreeing to climb rocks.”

Somehow, between a second helping of bacon and me as the designated driver squinting off into nothingness as my Australian-accented navigational assistant insisted we had arrived, my daughter (having been fed a few web pages of details about a local rock gym) had managed to make his dream a reality.

And she had talked a handful of friends into accepting the challenge.

I’m not sure what I was going through my mind when I floated the idea that a rock climbing dream wasn't out of the question.

Because as I stood at the gym counter with five girls and no experience, the look on the guy’s face momentarily told me I had made a mistake.

There were too many of them. And I wasn't enough.

“How old are they?”


His face relaxed.

“Oh, great! They can belay for each other. No problem.”

Before anyone could have third thoughts, he’d taken the group to get equipment: shoes and harnesses and a little device that would help them return to safety after reaching unimaginable heights.

It looked like a candle flame snuffer.

In 20 minutes he’s talked all five girls through the process of literally “learning the ropes.”

Ropes, it turns out, is more involved than climbing, which had only one hard and fast rule: “if the belayer tells you to slow down ... slow down.”

And then... just like that ... one girl after another scaled to the top of a wall and repelled back down to the floor. Each girl putting their trust in another girl who was keeping their rope from going slack.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down.

It was almost as if they had been doing such a things in their sleep their whole lives.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Return to sender

My mailbox is over its quota.

Now, in the real world, this might mean that the nice folks at the Post Office are drowning in letters and parcels and cards that I’d been remiss in retrieving.

Which, let’s face it, at this time of year is perfectly plausible and a mostly accurate portrayal. I haven’t been able to walk to the Post Office in weeks without having to return home to get a vehicle to truck back that day’s haul.

However, I’m not talking about the real world, where mail takes up cubic space and costs many dollars and cents to transport from place to place.

I’m talking about an email box on a server somewhere in the ethosphere, overflowing with news of cyber sales and enormous opportunities I will undoubtedly miss since I just can’t seem to connect with that wealthy but unloved Nigerian prince who has money to give away to perfect strangers.

How do I know this? Well, my internet-service-provider-slash-old-email-purveyor forwarded a copy of the email they couldn’t fit into my mailbox.

... to another mailbox?

Don’t ask me to explain it. I still don't know how the Fax machine works all these years after it has become mostly obsolete. All I know is that the thing I might not have seen if they didn’t insist I couldn’t see it was an important message from Etsy. 

Apparently when some twee hipster has crocheted something “amazing,” that is now on sale just in time for holiday shopping, the entire World Wide Web could come to a crashing end.

Of course, this shouldn’t bother me. Thousands of unread emails taking up space at an address I rarely visit and only give out to the shifty types who will sell my information to other shift types, all of whom are trying to sell me something, should be low on my priorities list.

And yet, I am curious enough to spend a few minutes figuring out how to log on.

“You. Have. Fifty-thousand-four-hundred-twelve emails ...”

“And you can't delete them from your server by deleting them from your phone.”

But it turns out if you don't delete them from the server, you will hear from a tinny, robotic voice every hour on the hour, and on the half hour … forevvvvvvvvvver!!!

I’m not kidding. Even as I write this, I have been trying to pitch hundreds of these old pitches out of an open browser window. It's not as simple as crumpling paper and practicing your hook shot. I have to check each email individually and jetison them in groups that are no larger than 25.

Each batch takes at least 25 seconds to spin their way into the trash. Did I mention I have to go into the trash and repeat the process? (Trash mail counts and that just mega bytes).

Twenty minutes later and only three hundred and seventy-five emails have spun out. And of course, my available space still hasn’t budged.

Oh, wait ...

There’s been a development ...

“You have 1 percent of your usable space remaining.”

Why am I doing this? Honestly, I have Christmas cards to address, and laundry to wash and fold. I could empty the dishwasher and fill it up again. The dog is holding her leash in her mouth and looking at me plaintively.

Gosh, I could be learning about how net neutrality will make all of this worse, or why I should specifically hate bitcoin instead of just feeling generally opposed to its existence.

Seriously? Why?

If only I could mark them return to sender.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Grab tidings

I’m happy to be able to wish you a “Merry Christmas” again.

Of course, my glad tidings are true and genuine reflections of the profit and loss tally that will result in this year’s Christmas spirit.

A full accounting of which I've requested from the Congressional Budget Office.

I anxiously await their reply.

In the meantime, and in the service of this secular Christmas, which we celebrate as a nation by arming ourselves against any and all disappointments with plastic cards that accordion out of our wallets like all those pictures of babies and grandbabies no one at the office really want to gaze upon (but “oohed” and “ahhed” over politely anyway) I would like to formally surrender.

That's right: I give up.

I will not find the perfect gift.

Or select the right color.

I will likely get the size wrong.

I just want you to understand that I’m at peace with my failures in this battle.

I’d hold up a white flag, but I can’t manage to separate colors in this dimly lit laundromat of an economy. If I’m lucky the banner I pull from the front loader will be a healthy (if unwanted) shade of pink. My guess is, however, the object of my surrender will make its way into the Downey Soft scented air either a dull grey in hue or a distasteful brown.

I don’t think the kids will be too disappointed. They have their own money, saved by working odd jobs at the home front, not the least of which involves vacuuming the furnishings, and removing from them the inches of sediment comprised almost entirely of pulverized after-school snacks.

In other words, they buy what their hearts-desire year-round with the change they gather from under the cushions and the loot the Tooth Fairy brings.

It took several years to explain to my offspring the value of only parts of dollars. And it wasn’t until my rap on wrapping coins (complete with practicum and a share of the proceeds) that small money started to matter to them in a big way.

This is not to say that I was an early adopter of the penny-wise practices of my Depression-era forebears. There was a time (not long ago) that I deposited the nickel-backs into the recycling right along with the cardboard and tin foil.

I dumped handfuls of change into an old coffee can every laundry day for years, never really considering depositing the contents anywhere else.

Of course, my fear now is that small money will be the only income left for our children to earn. A life of shopping carts filled with deposit bottles to buy half-slices of avocado toast.

They’ve already reached the age where they listen to media reports and swear worse than an entire team of Bad News Bears.

They would make Walter Matthau blush, rest his soul.

I can’t worry about that. Just like I can’t worry about which of their “friends” is most likely to snap and bring a semi-automatic weapon to school one day.

I will pray the manufacturer turns out to be Nerf.

We parents aren’t supposed to think about that. We have already planned for the worst. Our district (and no doubt yours) has already installed a buzz-in entry point with bullet-proof glass. Protectionism is now 9/10s of the law.

And when I think of protection, I, of course, think walls.

Walls so tall it would keep all these passportless red-coated idealists out of our hair.

I will build mine out of the gazillion and four throw pillows I have acquired since the last holiday season, and line the top with thousands upon thousands of slightly over-cooked toffee shards I will make each night until the New Year.