Sunday, April 13, 2014

An exhibition at the exhibition


Taking kids on a family outing to an art museum is fun.

No. Strike that. It's more than fun, it's an adventure.

But there are a few things you should know.

First, be aware that when you make an executive decision to forgo the usual tennis match of fun activities you could be doing today (but won't be doing because, as it turns out, the argument IS the activity) and tell the kids WE'RE GOING TO AN ART MUSEUM, there will be tears.

Big, fat, you-might-as-well-have-shipped-our-dog-to-A FARM IN THE COUNTRY-type tears.

They might even go boneless and refuse to put on pants. Who knows?

Persevere. Culture and broadened horizons are worth the donning of pants.

You might get around this little road block by offering to let your kids each take a friend with them to the museum.

Don't think of it as your children having partners in crime, think of it as them having moral support.

They will each have a compadre with whom they can explore contemporary expressions of existentialism as well as play hide-and-seek in the coat room.

Note to future self: It may be a good idea to steer clear of the coin-operated lockers, or at least demand to be the holder of the dayglow orange key. You will thank me for avoiding that frantic (and ultimately fruitless) end-of-adventure key hunt, not to mention having to explain to two different sets of families how it was you managed to lose their children's jackets.

It may be also comforting to know that security professionals LOVE children.
They follow their every move.

Nothing gets their attention faster than a first-grader running at breakneck speed toward an irreplaceable piece of art or history.

And we are the careful parents.

Aside from wrapping our kids in padding and attaching them to harnesses with bungee cords, we've prepped them for every manner of temptation.

Do not run. Do not jump.

Do not touch. Anything.

Don't even think about touching. Anything.

Even if they tell you you can touch something, pretend it will give you a shock. ...

And don't pick your nose. Even if you think no one is looking.

Note to future musem-going self: There is a reason children give you the stink-eye when you tell them they will have fun at the museum despite the fact that they can't act like children there.

Moving on.

If you can manage it, you might want to follow a tour.

I'm telling you it will be a hoot when your guide walks you through the complexities of German Fluxist Joseph Beuy's “Lightning with Stag in its Glare,” describing in detail the features of the piece and how they relate to the artist's obsession with the primal, elemental world … with the exception of the one (and only) detail my son was so eager to point out:

“It looks like poop.”

Moving on …

But not too far … because when you turn around to clamp your hand over your kid's mouth, the docent will notice something peculiar about you.

Something the ticket seller … and the bathroom attendant … and dozen or so security guards prior to this very moment had somehow overlooked.

“Is that a backpack?”

“Uh … I suppose it is,” I answered thinking about the nylon drawstring bag containing all my worldly possessions: a credit card, wet wipes and a package of fruit snacks.

“How did you get that in here? You can't have a backpack in the gallery. Handbags only.”

She was kindly, though, and her words were not in any way as accusing as the voice in my head was translating.

I turn, red-faced, to notice all the gentile women gliding about the gallery encumbered with briefcase-sized shoulder bags but unencumbered by knee-high sprogs, but I said nothing.

All I could think about was how was I going to corral the cats without stepping foot into the space where they had dispersed.

“I'll tell you what … I'll carry the bag over one shoulder and we'll call it a shoulder bag.”

What were they going to say? “Go stow the bag in a locker, I'll herd your cats?”

Nope … it's more like:
“How about you get the kids and go stow the bag in a locker.”

Moving on ...

Of course, there are things you can do to alleviate your embarrassment.

You can drink.

Oh, settle down. I'm kidding.

You can't drink. You have to drive later … that is if you can find the locker key your son insisted on keeping in sweaty, art destroying hands.



Sunday, April 06, 2014

Common discord


I understood the words printed on the torn newsprint worksheet that came home from my son's first-grade classroom, but compiled into directions they confounded me:

“Put the items into a number sentence with the longest item first.”

Under the words -- which were growing more meaningless by the minute -- there were three line drawings of various tools. Pictured were a screwdriver; a pencil; and a tube of lipgloss, which had the words “glue stick” printed on its side.

And then there was this:
A. ____________________________
B. ____________________________
C. ____________________________


I was lost.

Were they being literal? Did they want us to cut out the pictures and paste them onto a line?

Maybe they wanted us to measure the pictures and incorporate the measurements into a haiku.
Perhaps we are supposed to get a real screwdriver, measure it and then sharpen a pencil until it is smaller than our screwdriver but longer than a lipgloss (as it so happens, we are fresh out of glue sticks) and then write all of those figures down in alphabetical order.

No. They didn't say we'd need a ruler for this exercise.

Wait! What's the mathematical equation for “screwdriver” again?

I scratch my head and start to hyperventilate as my son looks on, unperturbed.

He hasn't mastered reading directions in the same way the test prep people haven't mastered writing directions, so it seems they are evenly matched.

Or more likely, it's his teacher who has helped him interpret this strange new choreography.

“I'm just going to draw pictures. Longest first ... Shortest last,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Everyone has to have standards, I suppose.

At least that's what I tell myself every time my social network lights up with 140-character assassinations of this latest education reform we all know as Common Core.

I don't disagree, but I don't agree completely either.

Not that I'm a scientist. Or a sociologist. Or a teacher. Or an expert on anything, with the exception of the face my kid makes when I give him the elbow-kind of noodles instead of the shell-shaped ones in his macaroni and cheese.

I am an expert on that expression.

Which may explain why I haven't gotten too worked up over the latest incarnation of Education ReformTM.

I'm certain Scott Foresman and his descendants have been irritating parents, one torn-out worksheet at a time, since the late 1800s.

And I'm sure my father wasn't the first person in the history of education to complain to a third grade teacher that creative spelling isn't going to make human communication any easier in the long run.

The experts are always changing their minds.

It's a slippery slope.

I don't want to roll my eyes every time someone I love comes and tells me the latest research on coffee and apple cider vinegar being the cure for whatever ails. Or that Singapore math is better than any other methodology.

Not that I don't want to believe the scientific double-blind study of 164 randomly sampled people from Scandinavia.

I know being skeptical of science is likely to spin out of control. Who's to know which among us will end up on a Fox news camera talking about how Global Warming isn't really a thing or that Intelligent Design is definitely a thing …

You know …

Because winter is persisting. … 

And humans can't be happenstance. … 

And kids shouldn't be ready for college right out of kindergarten. 

… Or what happens to the kids who will never be ready for college?

It all boils down to the fear of the unknown, I think.

Fear that we aren't prepared for the future. Fear that we can't prepare for the future. Fear that our children will be the ones left behind because everything is different now.

But I can't help thinking things are always going to be different. And school is the textbook equivalent of a single page torn from the workbook of life. We can only prepare so much for a future that is always changing. Eventually we just have to react or adapt.

Maybe we should be taking great comfort in knowing that even if our kids can't string a few words together into a cogent math sentence, they won't be precluded from shaping the next great educational reform.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Top dog


He came loping into the backyard as if he owned the place. Perhaps in another life he had.


His coat -- a silvery-gray -- blended seamlessly with the blue cast of the morning sky. His feet pressed against the lingering hard-packed snow and lifted off again without leaving a print.

Sipping coffee in the living room and warming ourselves by a fireplace, we stood in disbelief, silent and safe behind triple-paned glass as he trotted straight for us.

A coyote in the suburbs.
We watched in awe as the animal turned suddenly -- head lowered, body arrow straight -- and made his way into the woods.

In a moment, he was gone. The only evidence of his existence, a photo on a cell phone we passed around the room to late risers and disbelievers.

He was here.

For a time we were elated to have witnessed such sharp and ferocious beauty up close. Relieved that something – a sixth sense, laziness, gluttony, whatever – had stopped us from taking care of the dog's needs before our own. If it weren't for coffee and company, we may have been out there beyond the fishbowl's protection when wildlife came sauntering up.
But the reality of this chance encounter is the unmistakable sadness of what is likely to come. He is probably not just a vagabond passing through, but a creature on a familiar path. And if the past is any indication, his path will eventually cross ours in some unhappy way. We can not live together in peace. Not for long, anyway.
Nature coming too close to nurture usually means trouble.

A part of us wants to marvel at the beauty of his existence in this realm, but eventually, we fear, he will bite the hand that feeds him.

The reaction we have is understandable, our brains trying to tie together some loose ends. Better to be safe than sorry.

And we are already sorry.

We have guilt. We know in some way, indirectly perhaps, this is all our fault. Something we did caused this conflict and perpetuated it.
Natural fears diminished. We took his plains and his natural predators. We've fed him at our compost piles, our bird feeders and our garbage cans. He's not picky.

Still … He is not a guest we can harbor. Or can we?

Better engage the professionals. They'll know what to do.
But it seems, even the professionals are at a loss.

Some say we should have rushed out there. Made noise. Shown that he has things to fear here. That it won't be easy to get sustenance.

Show him who's really top dog and he will move along.

But that's risky, too.

Others say removal of the nuisance is the only way.
Find, trap, destroy.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

It never ends.

Kill programs may have brought wolves to the brink of extinction – not an envious result -- but they've not touched the coyote population one bit.

Coyotes are opportunists, resourceful and adaptable, not unlike ourselves. Happily or unhappily, they will survive if not flourish.

Surveillance cameras have even picked up sightings of coyotes and their pups in New York City parks.
In fact, it seems according to recent research, coyotes have migrated from their native plains habitat to inhabit nearly every state in the nation. And they could prove to be the first wave of larger carnivores – bears, cougars and wolves – moving into urban landscapes, following the smaller woodland prey that have already come to forage for our leftovers.

I think of the wide open spaces that are no more and I wonder what place is left for him now.
It seems quite evident that they know how to live with us, perhaps it's time we learn how to live with them.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Where we left off


I wrestled the door open and stepped inside.

Hinges needed oil.

The old apartment. Two floors of incongruous space.

Live. Work. Horde.

A familiar smell greeted me. A wild musk of animal and mineral. I encountered it second-hand last summer. … In the middle of the night, bleary-eyed and sleepwalking, letting the barking dog out to exercise her demons.

Skunk.

I bet they're living here, I said to myself. It is, after all, an unoccupied barn.

Up until this winter, it was a place someone – many people over the years, in fact -- had called home.

Years after we signed the deed, we'd meet dozens of folks from all generations who'd lived at our place at one time or another.

Renters, mostly. Before they'd bought their real homes.

Once in a while we'd invite them in. Show them around. They'd give us their own grand tours. Smaller, cozier tours. Filled with all manner of changes someone else might have erased.

We'd laugh about our home-renovation adventures. We'd tell them stories about how before every major life event we'd make a drastic change. Weeks before our first Thanksgiving we demolished the kitchen; days before our at-home wedding, a friend and I (without a shred of experience between us) tiled the bathroom floor; and hours before we brought our first child home from the hospital we framed out her room.


For us, that old barn was where our adult lives really began: The first place we called our own. It was where we were married. Where our children were born and where the first dog was buried. It was where we'd planned to stay forever.

Circumstances change.

Sure, we haven't lived there in nearly five years. But we still own it. We've often joked that the building owned us.

I hadn't even been over there in a while. There isn't much reason to go other than the momentary checking of pipes or the cursory search for something left behind. My old snowshoes. His ski boots. The fancy siphon-brew coffee pot that seemed more like an amusement park ride than an kitchen appliance.

Our old stuff – the possession we didn't have room to live with but didn't want to live without – still dwell in this place along with the transient mammals that den up in this suddenly silent cave.

Soon it will be emptied of all the things we neglected.

We will have to make some tough choices.

Are we ready for the “good” couch to come and live with us? The children are still slobs, and I have trained the dog to comfort me as I laze about on the couch. It has been a three-dog winter, after all.

The old couch. The dressers. The bits and pieces of household inheritances that made their way into our lives from time to time. Things that were owned by someone we loved, of course, but perhaps nothing that contained memories of our own.

Some of it will stay, some of it will have to go.

We will argue:

“Why don't you want my grandfather's battered croquet mallet and his empty liquor bottle collection?

“Don't you love me?”

And we will laugh:

"These have to be yours," he tells me, holding up a box and pressing down to hear the flock of rubber chickens let loose a chorus of wheezy-whistles.

“Those are not mine.”

“Oh, right. They are mine. I remember now. I was going to make a rubber chicken pot pie. ...

“I think I might want to keep them.”

He's not serious. I hope.

Still, we will let it go.

The most painful choice has already been made.

When we close this door for good, we will leave all these memories there, too. Unseen, perhaps, but there. Another thin layer of history.

In time, someone else will take up where we left off.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Breakfast of champions


He is standing there glaring at me from the tops of his eyes, chin tucked in against his chest. His upper lip is pressed firmly against his nose.

A low, gravelly vibration erupts from his throat. He is growling.

This means war.

Well, war in as much as a six-year-old can wage it.


“Use your words,” I say in that exasperated way we've all overheard in pick-an-aisle at the grocery store on any given day of the week.


It's my voice, sure, but it could have come from any parent's mouth. It sounds like elevator music on a loop.

He relents.

He harrumphs and uncrosses his arms.

“I Didn't. Want. Pancakes. I. Wanted. WAFFLES!” he hollers, and then starts to cry.

Things just never go his way. Big, fat tears of frustration follow down this arduous path. And for what?

The water is running. The dishwasher is open. Amid the last remaining clutter from dinner of the night before, breakfast is fully underway.

I don't have the energy to fight this battle, or to cut through the weeds when a clear walkway is a half-step away.

Waffles are no more than pancake batter poured onto a different surface.

I plug in the iron.

He exhales deeply and sits on the library stool, which is always in the kitchen except when I need it to reach items in the upper climbs of the cupboards.

Murphy's Law.

In no aspect of human existence is the proverbial Murphy's Law more evident than in parenting.

Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. At least it feels that way sometimes.

They only remember the toy you donated to charity.

The kids never need to use the bathroom until five minutes after you've left the house.

They want everything, but can't make up their mind.

As soon as you think you have one thing figured out, everything else changes.

No matter how early you rise, you will always be late.

He will be missing a shoe, or a sock, or a glove. It doesn't matter how many replacement pairs you have to fall back on, the one in his hand that is missing its friend is the only one he can wear outside of the house on this day.

And of course, as you start to search … you turn over the rocks and the dust bunnies and what-ever-else has been waiting for spring to clean … you will find almost everything else you lost, but you will not find the bridge ...

Whatever it is that will get him from one activity to another.

So you have to make a different sort of bridge. You knit it out of necessity and desperation. It is rickety and unappealing, but it serves its purpose.

It gets you to the next place.

Adolescence.

A scary thought.

The angst. The silence. The separation.

The weight on that bridge is only going to increase, but my building skills won't likely improve.

When we cross it, I imagine it will still be decrepit and unstable.

But if we can keep it together, even barely, I think we can win the war.

We just need to use our words … and, on occasion, eat waffles.



Sunday, March 09, 2014

Time and distance


When did I get so old? I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and saw my grandmother staring back.

I don't feel much different than I did when I was a kid, mind you.

Well, except for the realization that I'd prefer to ask my kids to retrieve the things I drop rather than bend down. Of course, I tell myself that's not age, that's why people have kids.

But the advancing of time is evident nonetheless.

Maybe I started to feel my age when I stopped recognizing youthful celebrities.

Or when Courtney Cox moved from Monica Geller's Greenwich Village apartment to Cougar Town.

It might have been when a real life person – someone my age -- prematurely became a grandparent.
Perhaps it was the AARP membership letter that came in the mail with my name on it.

It could have been any number of things, I don't know.

The years keep coming.

Fine lines etching deeper on my face. Sharp lines softening elsewhere. Joints responding like rust when I wake them up most mornings earlier than any of us intended. It probably doesn't help that I think of my knees and ankles as separate beings, whom I'd rather would sleep by themselves so as not to wake me in the middle of the night with their creaking. But it's a marvel we get to sleep at all.

Is it time to switch to decaf? The dreaded decaf.

I don't dare ask my Facebook friends.

I get enough snake-oil sales pitches masquerading as double-blind studies, thankyouverymuch. Besides, who wants to be unfriended?

Instead, I've decided to embrace my impending decrepitude. I try out senility the way my pre-teen tries out moodiness.

“We just got the Netflix,” I'll say just to head off any helpful suggestions. “It comes on the line.”

For good measure, I pronounce “WiFi” like “Wiffle ball.

It's a put-on, of course. I know how to say WHY-FYE.

But I've started to refuse to learn new technologies. I'm not joining whatever comes after Facebook or Instagram. I don't even want to know how to use WHAT'SAPP.

Not until there's no way around it, anyway.

“What's a Flip camera?” My daughter asks as she holds out the device she fished from the bottom of our junk drawer.
“It's a pocket video camera we bought one year, and then it was made obsolete by the smartphone the following year,” I reply. “That's four weeks of time spent mystified and $200 I'll never get back.”

At least the awkward years between vinyl and compact disc stretched out over decades.

I suppose such stubbornness makes a person seem older, too.

An inflexible mind complementing inflexible joints.

That get off my lawn moment when you realize the words “Kids today don't know how to make change,” came out of your mouth at a party. And this time you we're making conversation not quoting the old guy who made you cry your first day on the job.

But “Old” is relative.

Compared to the universe, or the pyramids, or Methuselah, I will never be old.

Still, my kids think I was born before the dawn of the automobile and that I had to do my school work by candlelight.

And their kids will ask them what it was like to live in a world that didn't have television and flush toilets

“How old do you feel?” I asked my dad recently.

He didn't answer directly.

He just shook his head. “I'm going to be 75 this year,” he marveled. “How is that possible?”
“But do you feel old?” I persisted.

“I asked my mother that same question once,” he told me, noting the answer he received confused him. “She must have been 65 or so. She said she felt like she was 20. … Can you imagine?”

But I don't need to use my imagination. I just need to look in the mirror.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Mirror image


I don't know how long we sat there, husband and I, staring across the coffee table at one another, unblinking.

Our expressions were almost identical. A mirror image.

“What should we have done?” he asks in earnest. “There has to be consequences.”

The pounding of small feet still echoed in my head, though Ittybit and The Champ had stomped up to their rooms and slammed their doors at least 15 minutes prior.
It had happened so fast.

Just an ordinary Friday night, with dinner and a family movie on the menu. But first, a meal was on the table and the children were picking through it deftly. So skilled have they become in the art of fork wrangling that they are able to conceal whole servings-full of vegetables in the print of their plates' design before anyone says “dessert” let alone “You may be excused.”

Dessert has always been a bit of a free-for-all in our house. One can't be certain there will be any chocolate ice cream left, though the carton sits temptingly in the freezer.

Still, the two of them were standing in front of the open door, mulling their imagined ice cream choices when the room just seemed to erupt. First with the rapid-fire bursts of bickering, then an escalation of accusations – first he said, then she said – and, finally, a father reaching for the nuclear option.

It came in the form of a thunderous yell and then a moment of silence before … “Up to your rooms,” said none-to-kindly.

Dinner was ruined.

Desserts foregone.

The movie, a lost cause.

The only parts left of this day were the brushing of teeth parts and the going to bed parts.
Oh, yes, and the “talking to,” part.

Oh, how I hate the “talking to” part.

It's the part where it seems we go and bludgeon the children with the same words that we've already hammered home. As if it will extract apologies and meaningful change. It only seems to damage the parts that were holding everything together.

“Why?” we ask ourselves, “do they not listen?”

“Why?” we fret, “can't they just get along?”

I say WE, but I don't really mean me.

Not because I am immune to frustration. But I know they can't just get along. They are kids, and bickering this is what kids do. They argue and fight and drive their parents mad. They can't see the consequences in the heat of the moment. They don't sense a threat until it's no longer a threat but a reality, taking away their television privileges for the rest of their natural lives.

Not that it ever happens that way.

My husband understands this, but he doesn't fully accept it in practice.

He thinks there must be a concrete plan in place. Rules of engagement that are set in stone. Our failure is the failure to be follow through.

There has to be consequences. But it has to be fair. How many warnings should we give them before they lose their desserts? Two? Three?

I don't really think the number matters. In fact, perhaps it's the number of warnings that just makes it worse.
By the time the third one comes around his temper is a three-alarm blaze.

“How many times DO I have to tell you to stop?” he bellows. “I'm sick of sounding like a broken record.”

No. I think the consistency that matters has little to do with having the same reaction, every time, no matter what. That's more like the definition of insanity if your expectations are to extract different results.

We aren't getting different results. We're just getting the mirror image of our own frustrations gazing back at us.

“How many times has she yelled at the dog the way I've yelled at her?
“How many times have you noticed him yelling at his sister the way you yell at him?”

“So we should just let them fight and bicker and do nothing?”
No, of course not. There should be consequences, but we shouldn't lose our cool when we hand them out.

He was silent for a while, but he finally agreed. Then, together, we trudged upstairs to knock on doors and have a different sort of talk. One that started with an apology and ended with promises all around to try and be kinder when we are reminding ourselves to be kind.

And in time, maybe – just maybe – we'll start liking what we see in the mirror.