Sunday, December 09, 2018

What shall not be named

I’ve heard it said on numerous occasions that the ideas in books can be dangerous.

But it never really occurred to me that the library could be a hazardous place, even though there was that one time a couple-a three years ago when my youngest bloodied his lip playing a game of Quidditch on the library lawn as the children’s librarian refereed.

I was there on the sidelines, mind you, but I didn’t see the moment of impact. And I could barely make out the words as my boy reported through tears that he was a chaser for Hufflepuff when a keeper on the Ravenclaw team accidentally hit him with a Nimbus 2000. Broom checking was subsequently banned from future matches. Though he was upset because he thought I would pull him
from the game.

I did not. I wiped my son's lips, checked for loose teeth, and let him finish the match.

(Hufflepuff creamed ‘em.)

No, immediate bodily harm isn’t what most people mean when they say the ideas in a book can be dangerous, and therefore need to be controlled to the point of restriction. They are talking about censorship; often of critically acclaimed and classic works of literature, which tend to weave intricate tales about stark and complicated truths.

Works such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning southern gothic novel about racial injustice; and Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a critically acclaimed historical novel about a father and son's relationship in a changing Afghanistan.

Normally, I'd think about these things in September, when organizers of Banned Books Week remind me in forehead-slapping detail how many works of fact and fiction across the country face expulsion from school libraries because they make parents uncomfortable.

The way I saw it, these mouth-breathing parents probably hadn't read a book since “See Spot Run,” and would never understand why any self-respecting school district would allow any of J.K. Rowlings’ Potter volumes to take up space on library shelves because Hogwarts Academy exalts magic and witchcraft.

That was until my Harry Potter (the movies) -loving son came home with Susan Campbell Bartoletti's book, “Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler's Shadow.”

I felt like a deer in headlights. Or a first-year wizard getting beaned by a bludger. 

“I've been wanting to take out this book forever,” he said as he flopped down on the couch with the prestigious medal-winning tome. I perched over his shoulder and looked down as he slowly turned the pages. Pictures of boys, from the looks of their faces, not much older than him, juxtaposed to a column of biographic material. 

They didn't much look like monsters.

And that worried me. 

I had so many questions. Why is my son interested in Germany during the war? What has drawn him to wonder about Hitler Youth? Why couldn't he have started this quest for knowledge with “The Diary of Anne Frank?”

I wanted to ask a professional. Was this the beginning of some slippery slope?  The launching place where history doesn't repeat itself as much as it recasts the roles of the villains?

Will these new villains look and act like my son? 

Honestly, I was as close to calling the principal and demanding to know what steps he was taking to ensure my son didn't take this information and twist it into some grammar school version of INFO WARS, when I realized this is how ignorance gets a foothold. With people like me not wanting to talk about it.

If there's no room for discussion, there's nothing left but fear and silence.

And he who shall not be named will return, time and time again. 

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Watch. Us. Run.


Watch us run

No one ever pegs me for a runner.

I’m neither tall nor fast. My short stature is more penguin-like than cheetah-like. More tortoise than hare.

But run I must. 

Another thing no one tells you about running is how addicted to statistics we might become.

It might surprise you. 

Just as a very well-meaning loved one might surprise you one Christmas (or birthday) by plunking down a half a week's pay for a watch that lassos itself to satellites and provides a compounding list of moments for you to collect and compare. 

It will fold your best time into your best pace and sprinkle in information about the range of elevation and the weather conditions. It may even tell you who in the neighborhood ran the course faster, anything is possible.

It may seem too big and clunky for your wrist, but soon you will feel naked without it. A slave to its lusty numbers. You will love it’s impracticality if only because it brands you as a person who runs.

On rest days you will scroll down memory lane, and discover the ebb and flow of fractions of seconds over the past months curious if not positively maddening.

You may even vow to give up the technology for short stints, hoping to
reclaim your initial love affair with
simplicity.

 But it has turned you into a different person ...

Like maybe you’ll finally be able to follow baseball because to do so requires an encyclopedic knowledge of every play ever made since 1791, when baseball was first mentioned in the US after Pittsfield, Mass. banned the game from being played within 80 yards of its town meeting house. 

Anything is possible now that you are able to keep Jesse Owens’ 100-yard personal best (9.4 seconds) in your brainpan next to Joan Benoit’s record marathon time of 2:22:21, which, incidentally, she held for 18 years until Deena Kastor beat it in 2006.

It’s not as if you are competing against the elite track and field stars. You are battling against your own best 5K time and maybe a secret rival you pick out of the crowd on race day. 

You are lucky to break 35 minutes.

You don’t know why you do it, but you can’t help yourself. Breaking a half hour would be huge, especially now that you’ve bumped up to the next age group.

These personal records are numbers that might be searchable online, but won’t be entered into Wikipedia by a third party anytime soon. 

No, these are numbers only you will use, mostly to plug into your computer’s password fields so you might gain access to the World Wide Web and stalk other racers you know. 

Inspiration, after all, is just floating around in cyberspace waiting to be -ogled.

I don’t know ... you might find yourself searching the race results of friends and family, and maybe even the rankings of their dogs who race in what you ordinarily would have thought of as silly-named events called “Fast CAT.”

Who knows? You may even discover your sister’s Pembroke Welsh Corgi last year ranked 12th nationwide in her division with a top speed of 19.21 miles per hour.

Short legs and all.

You might also discover that your sister had no idea her short-legged, no-tail dog had attained such an athletic achievement.

But as a runner, inevitably you may wonder if anyone makes a watch a corgi would wear?

And if they can deliver by Christmas.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

29 Days and Counting

There are 29 days until Christmas.

There. I said it.

Twenty-eight if we're taking shopping days.

That's right, I went there.

The holidays are breathing down our necks, and have been since four days before Halloween. (Don't tell me you didn't notice the green and red tinsel-y twiddly bits not-so-cleverly hidden behind turkey plumes and things labeled "pumpkin spice" at your local supermarket?) It was all right there in plain sight near the automotive section a hop-skip from seasonal.

I imagine you've heard a chorus of "It's too soon!" from someone, if not uttered the words yourself, at least once already.

My son, bless-his-You-Can-Just-Get-Me-Socks-For-Christmas heart, has lodged his objection to any attempt to play holiday music or screen It's a Wonderful Life before he's stuffed himself with turkey.

Thanksgiving greases the wheels, but it doesn't really count as a holiday.

Not in our house, anyway. Even if the furnace went out or the Bumpass' dogs carried off the turkey, we'd find a way to celebrate even if we had to rely on burnt toast and popcorn.

Food holidays are different than gift holidays, or holidays that mark the passing of time.

Food holidays lack the hefty helping of angst that gift holidays and celebrations that mark the passage can wring out of even the most willing participants.

Too much pressure.

But every year I have hope. ...

Hope that I will find the perfect thing.

And that everyone I love will be happy, and healthy, and at peace.

And for once, I won't get bogged down in register tape and regret.

This year is no different. I make the same pledge to be truly present, not just a slave to the presents, fully expecting to fail.

I vow not to feel sad at the passage of time, and that this is the year the reindeer will trample the neighbors' roof and leave ours unsullied. Or that our Santa's elves no longer make toys.

So what if gift cards don't cause nearly the same heart swell as true gifts once did? Here they are ... a necessity of the age and a joy for the receiver.
And before I know it, I am able to anticipate the Capital H holidays without the nervous knots.

I am looking forward to snow.

And to my kids having days off from school.

I may not be so jazzed about staging a blackout to pry my kids from the isolation of screen time and drag them kicking and screaming the intimacy that is family time.

The memories, I tell myself, will be worth the battle.

I am looking forward to baking cookies with them. And making paper snowflakes. I'm even at peace with losing games of cards, and checkers, and chess to them, too.

Who could forget the snowball fights? Or dragging the Christmas tree home from the farm?

Or the farm store? That's memorable, too.

Christmas doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't even have to be the same every year. Maybe it's best if it changes.

Especially when we're missing something or someone important.

A mother. A husband. A child.

I will see my father and my sister, and we will remember our mom.

And it won't be nearly as sad as it sounds.

She loved this time of year. … And she hated it, too.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Up a creek

Amazon appears to have carved a new canyon in the commercial disruption landscape this week by cheekily announcing its long-anticipated decision on a city to locate its second headquarters will actually include a third HQ location as well.

Critics immediately sounded the alarm, saying the maneuver was calculated to get pit cities against one another in an effort to get as much tax benefit for itself as possible, while also gathering vast swaths of government data to use in future development plans.

One fear being business choice as we know it — Malls and what department stores remain there — will follow the Mom and Pop bookstores into Amazon’s dustbin. Leaving an untenable choice between high-tech indentured servitude and say a warehouse job in one of the many sprawling complexes that are quietly popping up around the globe. The shadow of Amazon looms large.

Not that I have any skin in this game. Nor am I in any position to stand in the way of progress. But I can't say I'm all that excited about drones choking the sky, raining down shoe-box sized packages onto our porches or into the state of the art delivery chimneys they must be developing to minimize theft from finding.

Did I tell you about the time my husband ordered tool sets from the online megastore, and what they delivered included one-third of a stripper pole, its installation instructions and a pallet of frosted eye makeup?

Another time maybe.

I’m not sure why but Amazon’s news has me thinking about my mother, and how she might have hated the company but taken some of her “mad money” and invested in its IPO anyway. She was all about offers you couldn't refuse.  Not that she wouldn't likely continue the shared family history of buying most of her books from bookstores and housewares from hardware stores.

From the percolators to toasters, it seemed almost every gadget in the kitchen one could plug into a wall socket she had procured from the same place my dad would buy penny nails and washers for drippy faucets.
There wasn't a widget you needed that our local mercantile didn't stock somewhere, even if the clerk had to dust it off to read the price tag.
I think I bought my first (and only) hand mixer at the very shop my mother bought her last and final whistle topped kettle.

I’ve mixed mashed potatoes and whipped cream (separately of course) with that $12 mixer for the past twenty-five thanksgivings, slowly at first and then giving my thumb a cramp trying to keep the lever at just the right location between speeds 3 and 4, because its motor had somehow slipped somewhere around the Thanksgiving Ought 2.

Why are you looking at me like that? It wasn't like Amazon offered a steady stream of gadgets until somewhat recently, whereas bookstores will probably seem like they existed in the good old days by the time we reach this new millennium's mid-century.

Everything is disposable these days.
I mean … that new iPhone you got in Rose Gold last year will be almost obsolete and entirely passe when the old apple tree introduces Sunshine Yell-O next year.

“I don't need a phone,” I say as I scroll through pictures in this meandering virtual catalogue.

I don't really need a new hand mixer, either, mine still works just as well (read terribly) as it did on Turkey Day Number Three. It could get through another.

But I put a pretty mixer of a trendy blue Easter egg color in my virtual cart anyway, and take a deep breath … before I abandon it.

If I don't get a 20 percent off coupon code in tomorrow’s spam, I'm going to the hardware store, where it turns out I can get a just as dicey a replacement for $10 on sale.
I think my mother would approve.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Payment in kind


We are not a demonstrative family. But from time to time the boy surprises me. He snakes his hand into mine and gently squeezes. “I love you, mom.”


It usually doesn't last long enough for me to question whether he has an ulterior motive, though I imagine this sudden burst of affection is payment in kind for some happiness he credits to my doing.


This time, after he let go, he disappeared into the cavernous house that was his cousins’, finding a few moments of freedom amid the family festivity. Freedom to secrecy in all manner of imaginary boyhood things.

His sister, who had also sidled up to me earlier, wrapped her arms around my shoulders to profess her love, was now winking at me from across the kitchen island. She found herself happily volunteered to unpack glassware and replace candles in votives. The planners could tell this wasn’t her first fancy party.

In another wink, she would help arrange charcuterie on a stone serving tray.

I may have been out of my element, but she was in hers. It was the first family fete that she’d ever attended that had an organizer and a spreadsheet checklist. She was in love.

The boy will be back, this time wearing a safety vest and holding a walky-talky. Unlike his sister, who is all serious business, he is gleefully squawking made-up commands into the box: “We got a 23-19 out here. REPEAT. A 23-19.”

His job, which he chose to accept, was to help park cars. “Help” being a word used euphemistically.

As guest cars approached, my son dodged behind trees as if playing a game of keep away.

Instead of trying to explain he’s wearing a high-visibility vest so he can be seen, I follow him around the yard begging him to stand still for a picture.


He's still young enough to be adorable.

His sister watches us from the kitchen window as she carefully builds a pyramid of macrons, creatively arranging them by where they fall on the color spectrum. She is happy to correct anyone who calls the tasty delights “macaroons,” explaining in detail the difference between the finicky almond meal sandwich cookies and the sticky coconut islands. She adds that her own attempts to make the confections have not been entirely successful.

She is trying not to sound like a condescending know-it-all.

Luckily, she is succeeding, though the guests won’t be put off by a precocious teen. This party, she will soon learn, has a wealth of guests who actually do know all things.


And in the company of people who are so charmed, one can witness the difference between the type of confidence that breeds benefactors and the type that fuels charlatans.


They don't have much they haven't already proved.

In fact, they will find her charming.


I know, because many of them will approach me with their impressions, which are laced with superlatives.


I thank them for the compliments, assuming they think I am responsible. But I take no credit for either of my children. It's hard to explain that for most of our lives together, it's they who have molded me. 


At the end of the evening, when I snake my hand into theirs and give a squeeze, I feel the love without question.

It’s more intoxicating than the wine.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Sugar coatings

I’m not going to sugar coat this.

Mostly because I’ve reached an age where you say things like ‘I’m not going to sugar coat’ things. 

On the timeline, it’s somewhere between ‘I can’t believe I sound like my mother’ and ‘get off my lawn.’ It's just a hop-skip away from wearing purple AND red, and not quite managing to keep my lipstick from traveling to other parts of my face.

There’s nothing quite like counting birthdays in terms of new and more invasive (not to mention unmentionable) health screenings that are really just looking for c-a-n-c-e-r.

I thought only people my grandparents’ age refused to utter the word aloud. People my age are supposed to say it with an expletive preceding.

But then I looked in the mirror one day and saw someone who resembled my grandmother looking back.

Eventually, if we’re lucky, we might get there.

But there’s a checklist.

You mark your forties by getting the fatty deposits in your torso pressed into an X-ray machine that looks like an icebox door.

And before you know it you’re facing a date with a tiny camera, which will take a week to prepare for, and a day to get over once you’ve been given the “good” drugs that will make you forget what happened.

Katie Couric, bless her heart, has tried her best over the years (and on live television) to prepare us all for the potentially life-saving test we don’t want to think about let alone discuss.

But it doesn’t really help to know that “thinking about it” is worse than “prepping” for it; which is worse than the actual “procedure,” which entirely melts away — along with the room and the monitors and the strange coiled object on the tray behind the gurney— a few moments after an efficient nurse injects two types of amber liquids into your saltwater drip.

It doesn’t help because I don’t know how to turn off my thoughts, which always run away to the darkest place imaginable in the weeks leading up to any date circled on a calendar.

All the ‘what ifs' running rampant.

More circles on calendars.

I can only divert my attention for so long. The holidays are coming. Thanksgiving and Christmas. Too much could happen between now and then.

You just have to do it. Hold your breath and get through one day ... one test … one solution at a time.

And be hopeful that you wake up to a room full of smiling faces, who have only the best news to share. And that all your worry was  for naught.
A sip of ginger ale breaks through the haze, and I begin to remember where I am, and how to pull on my shoes. And there are smiling faces as well as jokes at my expense.
When I go home to my calendar full of circles, I will settle for a Netflix comedy as I root around in the leftover Halloween candy. 
Perhaps I’m not ready to give up the sugar coating after all.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

For every season

Basketball season is upon us. 

I was positively giddy as I stood on the sideline as sixty two kids (some of whom were wearing orange pinneys that were almost indistinguishable from the red pinneys, while others were decked out in a purple that blended right in with the blue) vied for one of sixty-two-thousand basketballs drumming against the floors. 

In this case, I could see why green is the color of envy. The parents of the green-color-pinney players could easily find their kids in this crowd. 

But just as I had celebrated the advent of this thrice-weekly recreational activity, which is sure to chip away at my son's daily recreational inactivity, reality reared its sobering head.

Literally. Since most kids his age are a full head and shoulders taller. 

There is that sick feeling again, the one in the pit of my stomach: caused in part by the angst of being the parent of a kid who isn't the best at sports, who won't likely see much game time, and who is nearly certain to hear his name yelled in anger as he misses a pass or turns over the ball. 

And we’re just going through evaluations. We have an entire season to deep-breath our way through. 

It was all coming back to me.

I mean, we hadn't been there more than five minutes when a coach ambled over to ask why my kid was crying.

I didn't know. But I could guess. 

He's always been emotional and easily overwhelmed, especially in crowded, raucous rooms. He might have taken someone's comments more sharply than they were meant. Maybe he was jabbed intentionally. It could have been anything, really: a perceived fault. A missed basket. A dribble that was more of a drool. So many possibilities when you're beating yourself up in your mind. 

From my distance, I couldn't see the tears, but I could tell from the angle of his head and set of his jaw that they were there.

There was nothing I could do in the moment but wait. Eventually he will recover.

This isn't easy. 

Even though popular science and conventional wisdom would tells us boys should be allowed to have and show vulnerability, the reality of tears is more complicated. And I think if we're being honest with ourselves, girls don't get off the hook for wearing their emotions in public either. 

I think it's simply that few people are comfortable with someone else’s misery. It's hard to watch any kid struggle, especially our own.

And as I hold myself back from intervening, all kinds of worries ricochet around in my head, not the least of which is wondering who will judge and find this boy wanting? Who will decide upon witnessing that particular moment that he’s not worth their trouble? 

None of which is within my control.

The thing is, crying is not really the problem. The problem is coping. 

And I’m not talking about him. He’s already wiped his face and rejoined the fracas.

I’m talking about me.

I can’t stop the tears or the anger the moment they happen and neither can he. Neither of us can stop feelings from overwhelming us. We can only find better ways to wait them out and get back in the game.