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.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Sent packing

Are you sure you have everything?

Did you bring your toothbrushes and toothpaste? Did you pack clean socks?

Remember we will be away for five days? You should pack some extra … just in case.

How about sweatshirts? Did you pack something warm? It gets cold at night.

Yessssss, mom. It's all packed,” they sound off in unison as I hear the thud of bags in the hallway.

I may have given up packing for the little people in my household, but I haven't given up quizzing them on the contents of their luggage.

I won't likely forget the phone call I received after the girl arrived at her grandmother's house the summer she turned eight.

She's got four stuffed animals, six books, seven dresses, three socks (none match) and no underwear.”

It could have been worse, I thought to myself, at least she had her toothbrush.

She may have been going “commando” on her first trip away from home, but she wouldn't be neglecting her chompers.

I'm not sure what that means, dear, but could you make sure you bring some of her shirts and shorts when you arrive next week? I'll make a trip to the store for some underwear.”

Of course. I said that aloud. Somethings you just don't live down.

Did you bring chargers? Flossers? Pajamas? Books? Swimsuits?

I get a "Yes," and an "Uh huh."

They don't even look at me as they stand next to the bags.

When are we leaving?”

As soon as we load everything into the car.”

They nod their heads and continue staring into their devices. They've been ready to go for ages. I'm the one who's lagging.

Leaving home for any length of time seems to bring out the obsessive compulsion in me.

Dishes must be washed. Floors swept. Laundry … what we don't take with us anyhow … has to be folded and put into drawers.

I worry more about the possibility of something festering than I do about the potential that emergency workers, saving our house from some unforeseen (but hopefully minor) disaster, would notice the general untidiness of our lives …

You know …

If visiting strangers somehow managed to miss the weeds in the front yard or toys all helter-skelter on the porch, they would most certainly be mortified by the crumbs in the couch cushions.

Not that those ideas don't take up more than enough space in my brain box.

Of course, I hadn't finished packing.

I couldn't decide how much I would REALLY need for four days and five nights.

I can always get away with less; I tell myself. Two pairs of pants, a pair of shorts, several shirts a few unmentionables. I pack my toiletries and running shoes in zippered cases that had come with the sheet sets.

There is still room at the top of my bag.

Space that is reserved for the spoils of shopping.

I may be compulsive, but I'm also fairly impractical when it comes to contingency plans.

Needing to pop out to a store to buy a pair of sunglasses or sand diggers or a really cute top is subconsciously factored into the packing process.


And as I close my bag and haul it to the car, I smile. Summer is here. We have somewhere to go and places to be. And I am sure I have forgotten something.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The good old days

Did you know birds can switch off half of their brain by closing one eye?”

That's my son. A font of interesting tidbits of information nonchalantly injected between each paragraph during our nighttime reading.

That's how they can get rest and still be alert.”

I just finished the passage in Judy Bloom's “Superfudge,” wherein the title character, Fudge, is told by his parents that the pet Myna bird he received as a gift would definitely NOT be allowed to sleep in his bed.

Birds don't really sleep standing up, you know," interjected my son. "They kind of squat. As long as their legs are bent, they are pretty much fastened on to their perch.”

Not only was my son taking issue with the author's facts about avian anatomy, but also her characters credibility.

THAT kid is OUT of CONTROL! There is NO way in a MILLION YEARS a real, flesh and blood parent would let THAT kid have a bird. I could see them getting him a Beta fish, maaaaaybe, but definitely NOT a bird! It's irresponsible.”

I like to think it was a different era … one in which parents gave their kids more responsibility earlier.

Back in the olden days,” I tell him (I like to use the phrase 'olden days' for nostalgia's sake) “Parents were usually pretty clueless … sometimes to the detriment of the unfortunate animals.

That was before Betty White and the ASPCA. ... Before people called police if a farmer drowned a litter of kittens.”

The look in his bulging eyes told me I'd gone too far.

To him, the 'olden days' means being entranced by a red Muppet who spoke in the third-person and wore Pajama's 24/7; yet he assumes the olden days for me must have included Prairie dresses and horse-drawn wagons.

Honestly … I thought that way, too, especially when I found a picture of my mother standing next to a Freihoffer's Bakery horse.

That was a novelty for the neighborhood … they mostly delivered by trucks back then,” my father had explained, noting the horse knew the route so well, he'd often walk a little ahead of the delivery man.

It was a story I'd heard so often I forgot the quaint memory wasn't first-hand.

Which may have been what I was thinking about when my dad gave my son of a vintage edition of Steinbeck's “The Red Pony,” as well as a Technicolor video for his ninth birthday.

A boy and his pony … should be a heartwarm-y tale,” I said as we all sat down to watch Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy make classic movie magic.

But as the kids become glued to all the wonders of late '40s movie special effects, I begin to remember what happened to children in the good old days …

You know … how they become orphaned and sent to work houses; or how their loyal yellow lab gets rabies and has to be put down. And how did I forget that the Brothers Grimm might have been more aptly named Brothers Grotesque in their original form?

Sitting there watching as the formula played out …

-- Lonely boy gets Red Pony as a gift
-- Red Pony gets loose
-- Red Pony is found
-- Red Pony gets sick

Wait? Did I even read “The Red Pony” or had I just pretended to have read it on some internet meme?

Better Google. ...

Turns out it gets worse:

-- Red Pony gets Trachiotomy
-- Red Pony escapes again
-- Red Pony dies in a canyon
And is eaten by vultures.

And there's more:

Farmhand feels so bad about the Red Pony situation he wants to kill his pregnant mare so he can give its foal to the boy.

What???? How was this even a children's book?

Of course, by the time I get all caught up, Little Tommy is covered in technicolor blood wrestling a vulture, and I can't turn off the TV fast enough.

That was so scary, but that would NEVER happen!” announces my little zoologist. “Vultures have relatively weak legs and feet with blunt talons. One would never scratch a human like that.”

I think Alfred Hitchcock would probably beg to differ.”

Who's Alfred Hitchcock?”

Another filmmaker from the olden days who made a bird movie. We'll probably watch that one next year.”


"Too bad I can't switch off my brain by closing my eyes."

The good old days

Did you know birds can switch off half of their brain by closing one eye?”

That's my son. A font of interesting tidbits of information nonchalantly injected between each paragraph during our nighttime reading.

That's how they can get rest and still be alert.”

I just finished the passage in Judy Bloom's “Superfudge,” wherein the title character, Fudge, is told by his parents that the pet Myna bird he received as a gift would definitely NOT be allowed to sleep in his bed.

Birds don't really sleep standing up, you know," interjected my son. "They kind of squat. As long as their legs are bent, they are pretty much fastened on to their perch.”

Not only was my son taking issue with the author's facts about avian anatomy, but also her characters credibility.

THAT kid is OUT of CONTROL! There is NO way in a MILLION YEARS a real, flesh and blood parent would let THAT kid have a bird. I could see them getting him a Beta fish, maaaaaybe, but definitely NOT a bird! It's irresponsible.”

I like to think it was a different era … one in which parents gave their kids more responsibility earlier.

Back in the olden days,” I tell him (I like to use the phrase 'olden days' for nostalgia's sake) “Parents were usually pretty clueless … sometimes to the detriment of the unfortunate animals.

That was before Betty White and the ASPCA. ... Before people called police if a farmer drowned a litter of kittens.”

The look in his bulging eyes told me I'd gone too far.

To him, the 'olden days' means being entranced by a red Muppet who spoke in the third-person and wore Pajama's 24/7; yet he assumes the olden days for me must have included Prairie dresses and horse-drawn wagons.

Honestly … I thought that way, too, especially when I found a picture of my mother standing next to a Freihoffer's Bakery horse.

That was a novelty for the neighborhood … they mostly delivered by trucks back then,” my father had explained, noting the horse knew the route so well, he'd often walk a little ahead of the delivery man.

It was a story I'd heard so often I forgot the quaint memory wasn't first-hand.

Which may have been what I was thinking about when my dad gave my son of a vintage edition of Steinbeck's “The Red Pony,” as well as a Technicolor video for his ninth birthday.

A boy and his pony … should be a heartwarm-y tale,” I said as we all sat down to watch Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy make classic movie magic.

But as the kids become glued to all the wonders of late '40s movie special effects, I begin to remember what happened to children in the good old days …

You know … how they become orphaned and sent to work houses; or how their loyal yellow lab gets rabies and has to be put down. And how did I forget that the Brothers Grimm might have been more aptly named Brothers Grotesque in their original form?

Sitting there watching as the formula played out …

-- Lonely boy gets Red Pony as a gift
-- Red Pony gets loose
-- Red Pony is found
-- Red Pony gets sick

Wait? Did I even read “The Red Pony” or had I just pretended to have read it on some internet meme?

Better Google. ...

Turns out it gets worse:

-- Red Pony gets Trachiotomy
-- Red Pony escapes again
-- Red Pony dies in a canyon
And is eaten by vultures.

And there's more:

Farmhand feels so bad about the Red Pony situation he wants to kill his pregnant mare so he can give its foal to the boy.

What???? How was this even a children's book?

Of course, by the time I get all caught up, Little Tommy is covered in technicolor blood wrestling a vulture, and I can't turn off the TV fast enough.

That was so scary, but that would NEVER happen!” announces my little zoologist. “Vultures have relatively weak legs and feet with blunt talons. One would never scratch a human like that.”

I think Alfred Hitchcock would probably beg to differ.”

Who's Alfred Hitchcock?”

Another filmmaker from the olden days who made a bird movie. We'll probably watch that one next year.”


"Too bad I can't switch off my brain by closing my eyes."

Sunday, June 19, 2016

An uncomfortable silence

Thanks to its ever-changing messengers, The News is a thing that enters my consciousness a sentence or two at a time. I used to devour it; now I can barely choke it down.

Each word more treacherous and painful than the next. There aren't enough cat videos to compensate.

I've long ago stopped reading the obligatory commentary that attaches to the end of every item like tentacles, growing unwieldy until it starts to tighten.

They are all surging rivers of discontent feeding an angry, roiling sea.

Instead, I use what's left of my psyche as a breakwater against the tide, and retreat into works of fiction.

We've often made it a family affair; selecting tomes that we can read aloud, and that will make us laugh, and cry, and cry some more until I feel a tiny sense of hope. I try not to let my anxiety seep through.

In this silence, a part of me can travel the world, meet people I imagine might be soul mates, and visit all the secret gardens I haven't the skills to tend. Surprisingly, I can also bring things back with me; things that change me just a little bit.

These stories make me feel off kilter and slightly groggy, but otherwise contented. It is a strange effect.

I can shut my eyes and cast off into a dreamless night.

It's only temporary.

The world has a way creeping in through the curtains, bubbling over like a wave before crashing into something else. It nudges this sleepy introspection, gently shaking me awake and into the current.

I wish I could say this awakening sends a jolt through me, enough to snap me back to some gasping-for-breath reality I must have had as a youth; anything that could stir my senses into frenzied action.

But I can not.

Sometimes knowledge weighs on me like a stone, dragging me down through the shimmer to the deep and dark.

No matter where I look, I can't see a clear way out. Do we tell the kids? Do we wait until they ask? Do we go around or through?

This uncomfortable silence is the new normal. More doors and locks to protect us from ourselves. The only thing I can do is keep holding my breath. 

Until the boy, on his way to school Monday morning, notices a flag at half staff.

I knew he hadn't overheard our whispers. He had been too busy with childhood to notice us with our coffee, heads down in our phones. The little attention he paid to our mouths covered by hands, came out as advice:

"Drink water. That's what I do if I try to eat something too hot."

But, now, in the car and with the neighborhood rolling along beside us, his eyes leaped from pole to pole, and the lowered flags worried him.

"Has someone important died?"

"Yes, dear. Many someones."

"Many? Were they Soldiers?"

"Yes, some of them were. And some were mothers or fathers or sons or daughters. People who will not come home to their families."

"Was it a war?"

"No, it was a nightclub in Florida."

He looked confused.

"An unstable man with a rapid-fire gun killed many innocent people."

"Oh, I thought we only lowered flags for the military."

"We lower flags to show national sadness.”

But it's not enough. It's just a sign of respect; it's not respect itself.


For the rest of the ride, we sit in silence, with tears, wondering what we can do.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Can't complain


How's it going?

Before you answer, I can assure you I know. I have access to the internet and a few spare seconds each minute to hit “refresh.”

I see the problems.

The Grand Old Party is likely to nominate a cartoon character and his punchline for president.

The Democratic presidential candidate wore a $12,000 suit to address the topic of income disparity.

And we're almost all Berned out anyway.

Besides we have so many more fires to tend in the outrage.

We have overly romantic notions of the past and an uneasy anticipation of the future.
We are still asking what she was wearing and what was he doing in that neighborhood? We want trigger warnings and trigger locks so we can continue to go off half-cocked.

We like to raise our voices. Point fingers. Puff up our chests until we are filled with equal parts anger and hot air. We are, after all, entitled to our opinions.

There are no accidents. There's only prevention, or persons responsible or blame.
Fat is good. Sugar is not only bad, it's toxic. "Natural" on a label means nothing. And there's mostly cow's milk in your sheep cheese. Welcome to marketing 101.
Oh, and Target knows more about you than you do.

I mean who can keep track anyway?

Oh … look, cute cat catches laundry.

Are those cupcakes? You found them on Pinterest?

Is it strange that I feel better?

The Internet has provided an exceptionally efficient way to “infect” change. With a virus … oh wait … I get that confused. Virus is bad. Viral is good. Unless it's bad. Neither really matters since it's all entertainment.
Mostly harmless. Fun.
For instance. …

Did you know today is National Sewing Machine Day?

Or is it tomorrow? I've gotten conflicting dates in my considerable research.
I just hope there's a parade. My Janome Hello Kitty ¾ craft sewer in sea-foam green would look lovely on a float. It might even win an award!

I'd say it would be buttoned up, but I'm not sure how that feature works.

And that's not all …

It's also National Audio Book Month and Perennial Gardening Month, which dovetail nicely since you can enjoy both activities at the same time. Something that is not the case with International People Skills Month butting up against National Zoo and Aquarium Month.

That could pose a problem ...

Wherever we meet in cyberspace this week we seem to define ourselves as kid people, or zoo people, or ape people. We cannot be all three if we want to keep our following.

Which reminds me …

It's National LGBT Pride Month. Which is awesome, but didn't appear up front in an internet behemoth's algorithm when I searched “National Holidays and Observances in June.”

Something doesn't seem right about that … Although it may have gotten lost in all the other things we could be celebrating:

*National Pet Preparedness Month
*National Accordion Awareness Month
*National Migraine Awareness Month
*National Sorgham Month

What? Sorgham? That can't be a thing …

It's also National Cataracts Awareness Month … so maybe I should get my eyes checked.

And whose idea was it to have National Dairy Month share the same calendar slot with National Dairy Alternatives Month?

If there IS a conspiracy, that right there is proof.

Conspiracies can be tiresome.

No matter. I have a solution!

Here, sign my petition. I think it will take the World Wide Web by storm.
I'm lobbying for the resurgence of “Can't Complain,” a floating holiday to be used at any time of the year, and especially when some idiot asks you “How's it going?”



Sunday, June 05, 2016

And the cupboard was bare

The cupboard was finally bare, and Old Mother Hubbard had no plans to refill it.

"Ahem," she sneered at me from above her nose. "This is MY story ...

"And I just want to revel in the clean lines of my closet before you go ahead and tell it," she huffed and puffed with design-show flair.

It was quite a sight.

As she sat in the pretty, pre-teen room sifting through the remnants of her pre-pubescent life, I was gearing up for a post-teen apocalypse and assembling boxes to contain the remains. Though we had long-ago repainted the peptic-pink of her little-girl walls with two coats a tropical turquoise -- We pronounce the shade of bluish green tur-kwazzzzz to make ourselves laugh. .... "We bought our Tur-Kwazzzzz from Tar-Jhaaay. Ah-ha-ha-ha." -- she hadn't outgrown her belongings.

Every bit and piece we had pushed to the middle of the room and covered with a paint-speckled tarp found its way back into her life once the color had dried. And though I knew this reordering would be for a limited time only, the baby dolls perched silently on their old shelves, and plastic people with flocked fauna continued to congregate in their plastic houses. Each evening when I came to kiss her goodnight, they would have moved like magic. A rabbit under the bed. A doll at the desk. Miniature clothes hanging on drawer pulls and door knobs.

"Let's clean this up in the morning," I'd say, using what I thought of as The Royal "Us."

Only the threat of keeping her from being Belle Ball, would get the plebeian "She" to tidying.

A clean house is low on my priorities, too. I usually wait to nag until minutes before any nobles arrive.

So I had barely noticed how, slowly, over time, these trinkets started to disappear. Her door is always closed now, a barrier to the cats as we had agreed but also to prying eyes that might be none-too-excited about the scatter rug she's made out of her stash of barely-worn clothes.

I tried to remain calm with each offering she leveled with an outstretched hand. It was her job to sort, my job to pack. Slowly her abode would be emptied of coloring books, scented pencils and the big-eyed stuffed animals she had collected in droves. Tinctures and glittery tints she could apply to her face in the off-school hours are taking their place.

Until all that are left are the picture books.

As I began stowing the books, she's snatched one back.

"Oh ... I remember this. It was my favorite!"

Another favorite and a third made their way back to the shelf.

But in between, she would hand me volumes she no longer wanted (or needed) and I would have to decide: trash or treasure? With each book I would sigh. Every other breath, heavy on its release. I couldn't stop holding my breath.

For as long as she can remember, and no matter where we lived, she always had a library in her closet. A little nook that fit shelves of colorful books, and when she was small enough, a comfortable chair where she could lounge, swinging her legs in repose with an early reader.

Now she wanted to fill it with clothes.

Most of the collection I obtained during lunch breaks on payday at a book outlet on Fourth Street during the nine months she was baking. I read to her from Dr. Suess, and bell hooks, and Mother Goose as she gently kicked inside.

The petite platinum-haired woman at the counter would look up and smile as I came in every fortnight looking for pretty pictures and poetic prose I could use to narrate our lives: Goodnight Moon, ABCs, and One Two Threes, Mama Always Comes Home, My First Day of School, Felix Feels Better ...

I liked to watch her delicate fingers move as she searched for the penciled-in prices and re-form the stack.

I rarely spent more than an hour's worth of work.

She didn't seem to mind.

"Sleepy Pendoodle," my girl said with a snort, starling me out of my memories and handing me a dusty pink colored picture book with dreamy watercolor illustrations. "That's a silly title."

The binding made that satisfying crackling sound when I opened it as if it were stretching its spine after having been awoken from a long rest.

My eyes began to sting as I turned the pages. I felt the swish of a sleepy puppy, and a little girl with mismatched socks and sticking-out braids who would try to awaken him.

"Why did you get that book?" She asked after I had read it aloud one last time and slid the slim volume into the box.

"She was an unusual and lovely character," I answered. "She reminded me of you."

She was silent as her slender fingers reached into the bin and extracted "Pendoodle."


"I think I can find room for just one more thing."