Sunday, October 14, 2018

The point of no return

Some gifts really are a bother.

The gift of silence, for instance. It could be the absence of sound, or it could be the imposition of solitude depending on how you think about it and how much you want to share that thought aloud. 

However we feel about earbuds, my daughter had left hers on the dining room table where the cat had found them, and toyed with them until they were dead.

Another mother may have scolded her daughter and told her to be more careful with her things. Made her dig into her piggy bank to fund the replacement.

I had, on the other hand, just picked up another pair on impulse at the checkout.
Gift horse, meet mouth.

Which, a few days later twists into a bow as she unplugs one ear and holds one of two tethered earbuds inches from my face.

"Listen to this," she says with a hiss.

I don't know what to expect as I take the offering tentatively. Not sure how close I should position the device next to my ear, how loud the volume will be, or what flavor of music my daughter will introduce.

She listens to all kinds. Just like her brother ...

And their father ...

And, let's face it, myself.

Truth be told, I rarely find fault with the music she loves, though I'm not exactly keeping up with the times. My overall impression has been that the anthems of her youth are exponentially more upbeat than the anthems of mine. Though I can't quite say that the bulk of her songs are sugar sweet. Especially when they try to harmonize with the songs that seep out from the dark, musky-smelling sweat-sock lair that is my son’s bedroom.

Of course, I don't know for sure because I have enforced an ear-buds rule for dueling sound systems. The cacophony can be crazy making.

Which is what I'm gearing up for as I take a listen.

But what comes out of the earbud isn't music at all. It's the sound of metal scratching stone or static interrupting more static.

"Did the cat get them again!?"

"No ... that is just the sound one half of a $7 set of earphones makes three days after you buy them."

In case you were wondering ... she didn't say this with malice. She said it with the same exasperation I would have used had she bought them for herself. Knowing full and well that a $20 set may have fared no better. 

Of course, I know that the part of her that is appreciative of the act of replacement would NEVER complain about the amount spent on said replacement. Nevertheless, that part of her statement connected to the part in me that tells me I am guilty of always trying to save a buck by throwing away six.

Because ... let's face it, the likelihood of me returning the cheap and faulty earbuds diminishes by thirds with each passing moment, until the moment when I realize I've already disposed of the packaging, and then the likelihood of return evaporates altogether.

It's not as if marketers don't know the optimal price points for the point of no return.
It's kind of why we should all be looking gift horses in the mouths.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Cold, hard facts

Long before popular science nudged coffee onto the “good for you” list, I had adopted it as a health food.
Back then, the pots full of drip Folgers I drank every day took the place of smoking a full pack of Camels. 

Decades later, it’s entirely possible that the fluid coursing around inside my veins is a blackish brown in color and almost altogether caffeinated. 

Since I don’t add cream or sugar, I’ve assumed my beverage of choice would factor into at least 10 of the eight doctor-recommended glasses of water per day.

I’m knocking on a wood-based product as I tell you I can have a bedtime double espresso and still fall asleep at night. 

Now, I would wear this addiction proudly on my sleeve was it not for two tiny problems: the fact that I am spending the kids’ college education on single serve’s $45-per-pound equivalent; and the K-Cup mountain of trash for which I must also account.

Only two of the cups’ three component parts are recyclable: the foil lid and the paper filter. The cup itself is neither recyclable nor compostable. 

Oh sure, I have a set of green refillable pods taking up space in some kitchen drawer. I may have even used them once or twice before the mess of filling and cleaning and refilling convinced me the taste of the brew just wasn’t the same.

I tried to offset my callus return to disposables by reusing the pods as receptacles for seedlings. However, it soon became apparent we don’t have the acreage to support the farm my coffee habit would produce.

Of course, it isn’t just the pods that pile up in the trash. The machines themselves also seem to be disposable; as not a single device has lasted in our house for more than two years.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Vermont, my aunt is percolating a pot of coffee in the same hollow silver urn that my parents gave her as a wedding present a more than a half-century ago.

Which is what I imagine as I try unsuccessfully to descale our sixth single-serve monster in nine years.

I give up the ghost when the contraption groans like the undead.  My decaffeinated mind has already begun to fray. I even contemplated taking my mug to the next door neighbor and pressing my nose against their kitchen window until they let me inside.

My husband —  with two-cup limit — says nothing as he rummages through a cabinet and unearths an old aluminum octagonal stovetop espresso maker, dusts it off and fills it’s lower chamber with water. 

In the time it takes to boil water he’s magically turned three tablespoons of coffee into two mugs of nothing short of delicious.

Just a few taps of the filter, the swish of a bottle brush and a swirl of warm
water (no soap) and all that’s left is a bit of compost and a clean Moka. 

“I’ve also been thinking about getting a cold brew filter. You store a jar of it in the fridge and heat it up whenever you want. I understand the coffee tastes smoother, too.”

His voice seems far away as I hold my cup up to my chin, gripping it with two hands and inhaling deeply. 

I stare at this work of art in the dish drainer. I can almost picture myself divorced from the convenience of single serve and reintroduced to elegant ingenuity. My life’s blood thinner, maybe, but just as robust.

Maybe even get out from under this plastic mountain of guilt.


“They say cold is the new hot.”

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Loaded questions

The lights are dim in the restaurant, and I am sitting across the table from my daughter, who is able to read from the menu without the aid of a flashlight.

Unlike myself, who, holding the double-sided laminated tablet at arm’s length, I can’t even pretend I’m not reciting the list of options from memory.

But this is fun. Something special. Out of the ordinary. We dance around the choices as if we will try something outlandish. Something different than the usual things we order: Salad. Pasta. Extra bread, please.

Maybe, dessert before dinner, for instance.

Should we get appetizers and share? Separate entrees?

It doesn’t matter what we order.

It’s just the two of us. Dining out like friends.

We will chat, and laugh, and share bits and pieces from our plates as if the morsels were merely happenstance treasures.

The tales we tell about our day seem like threads of stories woven into a grand tapestry.

It really could be delightful.

If I didn’t try to insert a generous portion of parenting as a side dish.

I serve it up as if it were a casual conversation about current events.

I ask her a question about her opinion, which we both know is dangerous, but of course, I think I can control where the chit chat takes us.

After all, she is my child. I raised her.

And like all parents, I get caught in a trap hoping my kids will see the world as I understand it; or at least within the same grand scheme and plot points. After all, this is what we are expected to do as trusted adults: impart values and model appropriate behavior so that when we launch our kids into a space of their own, it’s really just an orbit of our own planets.

She knows it’s dicey:

Can she be honest? Can she have beliefs of her own? Or is this just a test, where I get to see how much of her wisdom aligns with my own?

There is no doubt we won’t see eye to eye.

The only question is will we be able to agree to disagree?

There is no doubt we disagree. Hissing at each other quietly as our server clears some plates.

Dinner is officially over.

And yet, I hang on the notion that my facts are accurate and in time, she’ll see them just as clearly as I do.

But the problem is at this moment I couldn’t be more wrong.

And it’s precisely what happens when you ask a question to which you are sure of its answer.

We can see it in each other’s faces —these one-generation removed reflections — that any test of this nature can only result in failure.

We are not of the same mind, and only one of us is currently OK with that.

It’s. Not. Me. But I’m silent.

The server brought the check without asking if we wanted dessert. Sensing the chill in the room had come from our table and neither of us would warm up to ice cream.

I paid the check, and we started to walk home. In silence at first, and then in a swirl of admonishments and accusations.

It. Wasn't. Me. Yelling.

But I did find myself apologizing in earnest.

I should have known how loaded questions have a tendency to backfire. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Running in my sleep

I dream about running. 

I get dressed in my sleep, tie my shoes, and rapid-eye-move my way through an unfamiliar course where I’m dodging all manner of obstacles: Sprinkler systems, barking dogs, limbs falling off my body. I repeat a number in my head like a mantra -- it's my personal record -- until my joints feel as if they are hardening into concrete. 

The alarm clock comes to my rescue, awakening me to a more realistic but still unwelcome sluggishness. 

It’s been a recurring dream for about a year now, on or about the time an injury took me off course for half marathon training and relegated my running status to a slow walk along the sidelines. 

More of a nightmare, really.

My husband will tell you, it hasn’t been the best year for any of us.

He can describe the way my mouth twists in envy as I sit in the passenger seat and gaze out at the runners dotting the usual roadside paths.

It’s not pretty.

I envy them as they rock their arms and seem to glide along the sidewalk. I crane my neck and contort my body to get a better look at "my competition." For what, I don’t know. My loving spouse thinks I must be secretly chanting some evil spell that will strike the runner at that very moment with some harmless but insurmountable obstacle: Like a cartoon pothole followed by an anvil from the sky.

I’m not wishing harm.

I’m just wishing my body would catch up with my mind and heal itself. 

I went to all the doctors. I had all the tests. They gave me a name of something obscure and unpronounceable but eminently treatable with more time and strength training than seems humanly possible. Of course, it’s something I shouldn’t talk about in polite company since the general location of this non-infectious, inflammatory injury rhymes with “Elvis.”

In six or 104 short weeks I might return to nearly normal.

Lucky me. And lucky anyone asking “how are you feeling,” just to be polite. Runners … especially ones who are sidelined … are nearly incapable of keeping tales of their injuries, and the 47,000 quack-prescribed remedies they’ve tried in an attempt to solve them, to themselves.

“I went to a pelvic physical therapist … you know the kind of treatment you may have heard about in the news by a disgraced Olympic gymnastics doctor, only this is totally legitimate.”

I get a lot of blank stares from my propensity for TMI … but the whole thing has been rather eye-opening. 

It had never occurred to me that the tremendous pain I had been feeling was the result of a muscle imbalance, which may have stemmed from an old c-section scar and an incrementally compensating posture, rather than just the expected over-running and under-stretching.

But in a few sessions, I was beginning to feel better.

Not great, mind you. Not back to normal. Just not as terrible.

And that was apparently enough to start running again.

And slowly, slowly …

… Literally one minute at a time ...

I have begun to run again.

It’s not great. I’m not back to normal, but it’s not terrible. And now when I dream about running it doesn’t feel like such a nightmare.

And that’s a start.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

This is only a test

I was building an epic sandwich when the phone rang.

It’s the landline. Whatever that means in a cordless world.

The sound simultaneously startles and annoys me.  I don’t know who could be calling the house at 6:30 in the morning on a school day, but I can guess: it’s either a robocall or an emergency. 

For some reason, our landline has become the phone of least importance.

All I know is this ringing phone is either a family member (who is relying on actual memory instead of digital memory) calling to say they’ve fallen and can’t get up; or a business to whom I have refused to give my cell phone number, asking me to take advantage of some “UHmaizing” opportunity. 

Chances are high that it’s the latter rather than the former. My husband, if he were to answer, would hang up after yelling an obscenity into the phone. As if the recording on the other end will dutifully comply. 

Of course, it could be a school administrator, perhaps, in a prerecorded message, letting us know some random bits of information and how they plan to proceed.

Information that isn’t intended to inform so much as cover some base that needs covering.

Maybe buses are late ... or a student posting a threat on social media. Nothing credible. Systems normal ... Keep Calm and Carry On.

Whatever the case, it’s still a ringing phone; a thing that siphons my away attention from the fury of day planning and lunch packing.

Of course, I will run from room to room trying to find a working handset — one that has been plugged in correctly and charged to capacity — before the answering machine clicks on and takes over.

As I chase the ringing from the kitchen to the living room and into the den, I am aware of how useless my endeavor. The working phones have been abandoned between couch cushions or stockpiled in a bedroom half-a-house-away by the only member of the family who still calls people routinely: my son. A prince of the new-age play: He leaves the caller on speaker while they dig around in a virtual world together.

No. The phones I am looking for are silent. The ringing ones - if I find them - will tell me they are “busy” when I press “talk.” The quiet ones have just lost their charge.

How I miss the reliability of the rotary desk phone of my formative years. How many hours did I spend on it chatting with friends as my mother warned I would get a “cauliflower ear.”

These cordless phones are less than a decade old. One of these days I will fix them with a total replacement, grumbling the whole time about repair being a thing of some bygone age.

Finally, the answering machine picks up, and I return to the kitchen and the Prince and the Peanut Butter sandwich I abandoned. 

A familiar voice goes through my head: “This is a test of the emergency broadcast system. ... this is only a test.”

Had it been an actual emergency your cellphone would be the next device to ring.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Baseball daze



Rushing around trying to gather all the things a list said he needed for the new school year, my mind was divided when the boy dropped a truth on me:

I don’t think I want to play baseball anymore.”

For a moment I stood in silence near the shopping cart, now mostly filled with paper and pencils and folders and binders.

I was holding up a pencil case for his final decision, wondering if the blue and black mesh would fit his newly-crafted style as a newly-minted sixth grader. “They don’t have any baseball cases. This one seems nice, though. Sturdy.”

No, mom. The case is fine. I mean I think I’m done with baseball. For good.”

I keep standing there, still a little dazed.

I should be elated at the news. But I wanted to be wrong.

Since his first game of rookie ball, I’ve waited for the moment he’d call it quits. Give up the dream (he never dreamt) of going pro.

I listen to coaches argue over the rules, parents scream at their children, and I come to realize when I cheer my kid catching a pop-fly I am ecstatic as someone else’s kid suffers a defeat.

I hate this game.

Season after season, I dragged a folding chair to one baseball field or another — two hours of practice here, two hours of a game there — holding my breath as my deep-in-the-outfield boy steps up to the plate.

I sit next to other parents who tell me what sports have taught their children. They usually get to the “winning isn’t everything” part just as my kid strikes out.

The only other thing I’ve known about the lessons of sports is that unless you excel, only a few make the cut.

The dividing is already apparent.

Losing with grace is something I should be able to teach, as winning has never been my strong suit. They’ve heard all the stories; how I made JV volleyball in ninth grade (because I went to all the practices) but never once played in a game (because I was a terrible player). It wasn’t for me, but I gave it a shot.

Winning isn’t anything if you can’t play the game. My boy can’t help but toss the bat and storm off the field when he swings and misses.

It’s not as if he’s alone in his disappointment. His age group still breaks into tears when they get called out at first base.

Maturity, I know, is the best solution. But that means everyone must have patience and perseverance. And me, especially, not making unforced errors.

Of course, he wants to quit. We had just spent a small fortune on the Little League-approved bat, a backstop and a bucket of baseballs for practice.

What enthusiasm he had gained from paying attention and seeing a little improvement was dashed when a wild pitch snuck in between his chin and helmet and left a stitching-shaped bruise on his jaw.

Game over.

So, what do you think?” He asks, flopping a package of paper into the cart. 

It’s up to you,” I say. “Why don’t you get through basketball season and see how you feel. You still want to play basketball, right?

Yeah, I love basketball. There is no way to get hit in the jaw with a baseball if I play basketball.”

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Selective hearing

I never noticed how many corners and crevices our house has, and how the sound doesn’t seem to reach around any of them with clear or even audible volume. I had just assumed the selective hearing of my children fueled the war between standing at attention for parental requests or relaxing into the at-ease slump as they tune in to the ambient electronic life: air-conditioners chugging, overhead fans swirling, and earbuds in full bloom. 

It’s hard to hear a parent calling up the stairs during a power outage in your ice-cold lair of a room, but amid a 21st-century wall of sound, it’s impossible.

A mother still tied to the 20th century opens her maw and screeches. 

I just stand at the bottom of the stairs and yell her name over and over until her brother - tired of my increasing vocal fry - knocks on her closed door to relay the message. “Mom wants you.” 

She lollygags. Mom is safe. “Mom has the patience of a saint,” she’s heard her grandmother say ... though she, having never been to church herself, doesn’t fully grasp all the ins and outs of beatification. 

Her father, on the other hand, will see this lack of sound transfer as willful disregard, and he will respond with the booming voice of a drill sergeant. 

Out of desperation and a disinclination to climb stairs one more time, I join the new millennium and text her: It’s dinner time.

And she texts back:  🍩😆.

Without an actual word her door opens and she clamors into the kitchen, plate at the ready. Voices trailing her in cyberspace.

This is how it is now. 

How often had I joked that I’m waiting in rapt anticipation for the Internet to break? Salivating for the moment when torment and ruination bring us back to basics.

Face to face. 

The grandparents would complain about “kids today,” but they can’t without a small measure of hypocrisy. They get just as sucked into games of smartphone solitaire.

But honestly, I don’t want to go backward. I like being able to change plans in real time. I love being able to make our impolite conversations quieter. 

After all, it has been a while since I lost my voice screaming into the voids of the house since the advent of Snapchat. And my daughter can “talk” to me without the usual barriers of time and space; and without having to interpret the look on my furrowed brow.

A part of me misses the nights I’d sit at the end of her bed, and we would chat, or brush hair or read bedtime stories. 

These days I poke my head in, and she waves goodnight. She’s in the middle of some teenage ritual, be it homework, or makeup or something I just wouldn’t understand. 

I close the door and retreat. Attending to my own nighttime routine: brush teeth, skin cream, read a chapter or two ... think about the morning when we’ll cross paths in the kitchen.

I will take a moment to lament laughter replaced with LOL.

Until my phone chimes like a spoon against a wine glass; she has sent me little face with tears.

My daughter, wanting a different kind of heart-to-heart, one with cartoon hearts and Internet shorthand that I will have to decode.

I do my best to find animal videos that seem apropos.

When she’s feeling better, possibly after the fourth cat meme I forward, I will start to correct her spelling and grammar.

And my phone will stop clinking its glass.

Perhaps I’ve found a corner of the internet where our teens can no longer hear us.