Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mall rats

I feel a slight twinge in the pit of my stomach. Then a moment of dizziness followed by a rapid heartbeat. For a split second, I wonder if I'm hungry.

No. It's not that. The thing I feel is the gnawing sensation of being out of sync with a place I once found familiar and comforting. I try to get my barrings as I survey the territory. But the landscape has changed. I hardly recognize anything.

The sun is blinding. I feel as If I should be wearing my sunglasses the way the optician intended, and not as a headband to hold back my hair.

I don't remember the mall being this bright.

Nor do I remember the layout being quite as sprawling. I could swear, half of these stores used to be located elsewhere, while the other half must have materialized like magic out of thin air.

“Weren't we just here at Christmas time?” I asked my daughter as I stare up at a sign I can neither pronounce nor determine what items it purports to sell. This shop wasn't here six months ago. I am sure of that.

But she didn't answer.

My daughter hadn't heard me. She and her friends had already taken their leave and pulled a disappearing act of their own. Probably said goodbye in a sing-song voice I hadn't registered amid my deer-in-the-headlights stupor. They had headed, no doubt, to one of the oodles of smoothie counters or dress shops or cosmetics boutiques they'd pined after. They each had a handful of gift cards burning holes in their intricately adorned little gift-card holders, and their cell phones were each set to the same infuriating ringtone.

If I called her, I bet, each of the girls would dig into their bags thinking it was their number that was up.

A part of me – the maniacal part – wanted to phone every few minutes to set off this digital dervish of whirly-girling activity even if I could only see it in my mind's eye.

Another part of me – the curious part – wanted to trail their every move. Watch as the girls weaved around this castle of commerce, and spy on them as they half-wave to the imaginary crowds of adoring fans. “Oh, to be young again,” I'd tell myself wistfully as if their joy – or, more likely, their perpetration of joy – wouldn't irk me to no end.

No! Ugh. Yuk! Who'd want to see that? A gaggle of girls walking around like they owned the place, holding food court as if everyone around them were jesters. ... And only they had survived the apocalypse.

Well, they and that rack of really cute blouses at that shop I couldn't pronounce.

God, I hate this place.

"It won't be long now," I tell myself.

Or that's what the news tells me every time it tweets.

The talking heads say malls, with their burgeoning rents and lackluster sales, will likely go the way of the dinosaur. They describe a slow death of a thousand remodels and one lost anchor stores. The view every small change as a cultural shift that will force new trends (like free shipping and same-day-delivery). Eventually, ghostly plastic shopping bags will be the only things tumbling through recently expanded parking lots.

Of course, it could be a quick and cataclysmic ending, like a meteor or liquefaction: The once solid ground underneath these megaplexes will soften and slurp them all up simultaneously. When the dust settles, and the ground hardens, a warehouse with robots and aerial drones will have taken its place.

The mall rats, bless their little hearts, will be gone.

This moment of nostalgia and whimsy dissolves as my phone vibrates.

“We're headed to the food court,” says my daughter in a cheerful voice she usually saves for friends. “Would you like to meet there and join us for lunch?”

I think about my stomach and the dizziness I felt before.

Perhaps it was only hunger.

“Now … Which way is the food court?”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An honest answer


My phone lit up the dark of my car. Tossed on the seat next to me, I could see my daughter's face on the screen, and one line of text:

“When are you getting home?”

The subtext was clear: “You should have been back by now …

“And I am tired. And working on homework. And need you for some reason I won't say, even if you beg. Any such exchange will diminish my autonomy as a burgeoning teenager.

“Also … we're out of milk.”

I didn't answer the question. Nor did I enquire about its urgency. At the traffic circle, I just told my empty car that I was on my way. As soon as there was an opening I'd weave myself in.  

I hadn't been gone long. There was another adult at home, so I knew there wasn't an emergency. But I understand the crazy perspective of time. When we're waiting on it, we don't control how it moves.

Time speeds up and stands still, sometimes simultaneously. 

She was smiling when I arrived. I was the victim she had selected for her homework assignment: A study of peer pressure in the modern age.

Apparently, the object was to ask an older member of your family four simple questions about what social jousting was like before the evolution of Snapchat. And I was that relic.

“What was peer pressure like when you were a teen?”

My eyes shone. What an opportunity! Not only would I be put on the spot – asked to reveal the deepest, darkest core of my misspent youth – but I could effectively reflect the searing light of mortification onto her and her 32 classmates just by answering honestly.

An honest answer – I suspected – is not what the teacher expected.

“Please keep in mind that your comments should be clean, free of expletives, and in no way should they include unvarnished truths. Varnish away, please.”

She knows me. But knowing me also assumes I have trouble adhering to the guidelines.

“Peer pressure is probably the same now as it was when I was a kid. The big things (whispers: sex, drugs, criminal misdemeanors) and little things (curfew violations, rebellious attitudes, acting against your own best judgment) are typical adolescent transgressions from the established norm. It happens. We all feel pressure to do uncomfortable things. Sometimes it's for the best (I quit smoking!). Sometimes not:(I start smoking in the first place). The strange thing is I've come to understand peer pressure never stops if I'm honest. You just have to hope that having more time here on Earth helps you develop coping skills.”

“Yeah … I'm just going to go with that first part –  'Not much has changed' -- and leave it at that.”

I shrugged my shoulders. 

We next traversed the dicey terrain of my most embarrassing moment (which was mostly about being immediately and irrevocably disappointed in my own behavior) and the age I was when I first felt peer pressure's downward forces (earlier than I expected).

The most important question, though was this: “How did you resist peer pressure?” Its answer was a bit of a surprise to me as well:

“I guess I used my parents. I'd out myself for whatever mess I'd made then I'd blame them unabashedly for holding me back.  I'd act mad at being grounded, but I was secretly relieved.”

“That's a pretty good trick. Terrible but effective.”

“Sometimes you just need something in the subtext. ... By the way, I got your milk.”

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Earth Day, revisited

It had been a long day.

You know, the kind of day where you go from one place to another, from one thing to another, with barely a pause.

The type of day you can't quite wrap your mind around without checking and double checking a list. Or a calendar. Or a schedule. Or whatever marker stain remains on your lower forearm from the night before ... to remind you of that one extra thing you are no doubt forgetting.

We've all had this kind of day; the ones that make you feel old and out of shape because, of course, you will not be able to keep up. You will gloss over something. And that thing you lost track of would have been glaringly unforgettable to you a scant decade ago.

And even when you get to the end of a day like this, there's always more. There's dinner to make, dishes to clear, pots and pans to scour and scrub. There's homework to hassle, baths to draw and bedtimes some little someone will draw out for as long as humanly possible.

That's the kind of day I had had as I stood over the trash can, my foot pressed down on the pedal, its clamshell mouth opened wide and waiting for the jar I dangled above to fall inside.

This is wrong.

So wrong.

Growing up in the '70s nothing had affected me more than the iconic image of Iron Eyes Cody, and his second-generation map of Italy face, shedding a single tear over the modern, litter-infested environment he tried to traverse in his buckskin and feathers.
It was a powerful message.

And while the ad seemed wildly popular as it spoke a simple truth – that we humans were mucking up the planet – it has been criticized like all popular, well-intentioned things are, for being overly trite and under effective.

And old Iron Eyes wasn't even a smidgeon Native American.

So there!

I am supposed to shrug my shoulders and admit that facts are as malleable as opinion. But oh, how I hate it when my closely-held beliefs are torn asunder.

In my mind, and despite the facts, that one ad changed the world. I remember those trash-strewn highways and smog-belching smokestacks. I remember driving in the back of my parents' Buick, watching the car ahead of us unwind its crank-driven window and release a confetti of fast food wrappers into the air all around us.

Inevitably a cup with drops of orange soda would glance off our car and stain the windshield.

My father would swear under his breath. My mother would tell me to keep my window rolled up and my hands in the car at all times as if I were the monkey who would see and then do.

Since then, it seemed, the world had cleaned up its act.

Trash no longer begot trash. In fact, recycling became a new filing system of our family's (and probably your family's) extensive scrap library. Eventually, something called single-stream recycling came into our lives, and the hardships of source separating glass from paper and paper from plastic went out. The only effort now seems to be remembering to drag the recycling bin to the curb on the designated day.

Except …

As I stand here in the here and now, holding my jar and its thin film of peanut butter remains, over the trash … It was as if I'd turned back time, cranked down a window in the old sedan and was waiting for the moment when it would be right for tossing.

The moment passed.

I felt Mr. Cody's tear.

And I brought myself to the sink.  

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Keeping one eye open

Her green eyes shone like moonstones despite what seemed like utter darkness.

A sliver of light from a street lamp slunk past the curtains and found its way into her cold, steely glare. It was just enough to set her orbital sockets aglow.

Which, quite frankly, scared the bejeebers out of me.

I still call her The Little Cat, but she's grown as ferocious as a tiger and meaner than your average of numbers.

Of course, I was not asleep. But I was close, just teetering against the blissful gray of nothingness and the unhappy, imaginary figment of falling upright. Heart all aflutter but still not wide awake.

I sense the cat the same way I sense an impending hot flash. Waking before the heat spreads across my flesh until a river of sweat extinguishes the blaze. Covers off. Covers on.

She is there. Watching.

A twitch of a tail. A bird-like chirp -- cultivated, no doubt, in the rich spiderweb that is our ecosystem cats have the maximum efficiency to fool their prey into thinking they are more friend than foe.

Even if she only kills the fat, sable brushes that I use to dust my cheeks with powders and tints.

She knocks the makeup brush around the bedroom floor for a while until I drag myself out of bed or until my husband throws a pillow in her general direction.

Eventually, she will find her way to me; lifting herself gracefully from the floor to the bed. A single, almost silent bound.

She turns around twice before settling near my shoulder. She is careful to press only her back feet against my scapula. Her tail flicking the air before she curls it around herself like a shawl.

It is a loving gift the proximity; her catlike whisper, a mechanical purr, that shows me to be the person she identifies as her own. It is also a threat: "If you make any sudden movements, I will cut you.”

She can tell that I never liked cats.

I think cats have always known this about me.

Even as a child, cats have found their way to my lower extremities. Weaving around my legs, jumping into my lap, even curling up around my neck like a diabolical scarf while I stay still as a statue. Waiting for them to leave.

At slumber parties, I'd be the one to wake up in the dead of night thinking I'd somehow become paralyzed in my sleep, and worst of all, that I'd have to tell an adult of my predicament once the sun rose and my newly useless legs wouldn't carry me to breakfast.

Of course, in the morning I would find the cause of my paraplegia: A fifteen-pound cat named ?ainbow,or "Mittens," or "Mr. Fluffynoodle."

I know, it's hard to believe, but I'm not as neurotic in my advanced years. Although I now have cats, so I think it's a trade-off.

Until we got a cat, I thought the continual parade of dishevelment was the result of the husband, or the children, or the derpy old dogs. None of whom wipe their feet, or put dishes in the sink, or did anything much to the laundry besides pile it into life-like models of Kilimanjaro and then tear it down like a leaf pile in autumn.

None of them compare to the cat, who is a typhoon of destruction. She tears at the furniture, claws at the walls, knocks over water bowls, lets herself into to kitchen cabinets and helps herself to the snack foods.

"Training techniques" have only made her irritated and vengeful.

This is why we don't have nice things,I say with a laugh and a wince.

But I know how it works. I sleep with one eye open. She has me trained. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Foodie frenzy

It had been a lovely night. The invitation to a potluck meal hosted by a circle of friends I distantly orbit was a nice change of pace. 

I wasn't even nervous.

Food and drink folded readily into conversation and laughter. Even our children, who have begun to resemble the Narrowest of Hipsters, had tagged along and tucked themselves away in a far off bedroom, good-naturedly stabbing their flags into the hilltop where the most embarrassing mother gets ceremonially planted. 

I usually (and unapologetically) win that honor. But who doesn't wish to impress?

I'm not sure when it happened. But somewhere between the Salad Days and We're All Stocked Up on Dry Milk and Preserves, I lost enough of my social anxiety to accept an invitation to a foodie foray and not worry that I'll stand out like a sore thumb until, well, I inevitably end up standing out like a sore thumb.

It's a relief, honestly, not to worry what people must think. Not to twist yourself into knots trying to seem effortless and flexible.

Still, everything had gone smoothly.  As previously agreed, I had brought wine and dessert that I didn't agonize over too much.

Ok … well, maybe a little. 

The people at the wine store are knowledgeable and always point me in the direction of something that won't turn people's faces inside out if they manage to get it past their noses and into their gullets. I don't always take their advice if I'm distracted by an eye-catching label, but I've managed to curb those impulses. 

And I have, on several occasions, made desserts that didn't wind up spat into a wad of napkins and jammed into the neighbor's shrubbery. Although I'll be honest, I did attempt a scientific experiment with vanilla cake and limeade that got a thumbs-down from my test subjects, who implored me to use their tried and true favorite, which comes fully measured and packaged with easy-to-follow instructions.

Since I stirred in an egg and a half-cup of water, then poured the results into a pan and slid that pan into a 350 oven, I felt confident “homemade” wasn't a falsehood.

As my rich, decadent dessert started to get raves, my confidence wavered. 

My teeth set on edge, as I accepted praise. 

I changed the subject from dessert to politics hoping to avoid having to produce definitive information about my cake's origins.

I hold my breath as I pull the empty cake pan into my sternum as the night comes to an end. My daughter laughs as I exchanged pleasantries with our hosts and head for the door.  A mantra loops through my head as we make our escape: Please don't ask for the recipe. Please don't ask for the recipe. Please don't ask for the recipe. Please don't ask for the recipe. Please don't ask for the recipe. Please don't ask for the recipe. Please don't ask … 

We made it to the car, and I started to breathe again. Celebrate, almost.

Mt. She flopped herself down in the passenger seat and took a long breath as if she were savoring the taste of smoke in her mouth.

“Yeah … The idea of having to fess up to making a box cake terrified you, didn't it?”

It was true. And the words hung in the air of that car as rank as if they were clouds of toxic gas.

What happened? It was all going so well. I NEVER feel bad about making a boxed cake, or buying produce that is not only pre-washed but also pre-sliced and diced or even julienned.  

Why did I suddenly feel the need to hide my laissez-faire self?

I didn't sleep soundly. I tossed and turned until the smell of strong coffee, and the ding of my phone's message app drew me out of bed.

“Oh no!”

“Don't tell me,” my daughter laughed over her cereal bowl as I shuffled over to the coffee maker, my shoulders slumped in defeat. “Someone just asked for the recipe, didn't they?

“You're not going to tell her, are you?” 

“What choice do I have?”

“I'll tell you what choice you have. You will go online and find a recipe and give her that.”

But I can't do that. That would be a lie.

“I'll tell you what I CAN do. I will go online, find a recipe, go into the kitchen and not come out until my scratch cake tastes like the one from the box. THEN I can give her the recipe!”

“See, that's the mother I know and love.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Pancakes are good, the taper is better

My phone was vibrating on the nightstand. An almost silent alarm, it turns out, I didn't need. I was already awake and squeezing into a third skin-tight layer.

I had pulled back my hair, pulled on an extra pair of socks, and had tied one sneaker before hopping out of the bathroom holding the other by its dangling laces to finally make the infernal buzzing sound stop.

“You are not actually going out in this, right?”

My husband, still snoring away, wasn't the culprit.

I just snorted, unsure which part of my anatomy questioned my sanity, but I certainly wasn't going to reward such a rude question with an answer.

Of course, I was going out. It was Saturday, and I had 15 miles ahead of me.

Fifteen miles? In single-digit temperatures? With thirty-mile-an-hour winds?

Did I mention the hills?

At least it wasn't snowing. Or raining. Surely there would be places along the way that would be sheltered from the wind.

See … It's possible to have positive thoughts before you spend nearly three hours doing something you love to hate.

It's all part of the plan: A six-week training schedule designed (by someone else) to ensure readiness for an early spring half-marathon.

I was just following blindly and looking forward to the pancakes at the end of the road. Please let there be pancakes.

Eight miles here. Ten miles there. This run was overkill, but apparently necessary.

Half-marathon turned out to be the fastest growing distance among road racers. According to Runners World magazine, in 2014 there were more than 2 million finishers of the 13.1-mile distance in the United States.

Although complicated plans include intervals and tempos and carefully calculated pace targets, the purpose is pretty straightforward: Build up endurance slowly and try not to get hurt.

Go the distance and try not to break, snap or pull anything important. This tact seems to be wise advice because as hard as it is to run as fast as you can on race day, it's nearly impossible to get your race fees refunded.

Anyway, you can probably guess that I am stalling.

Pretty soon a small gathering of other half-crazed runners will gather in the town square. They will head off without me if I am not there. I will not be able to catch up, and I haven't memorized the route.

I know how to get where we're going by car. But I always take shortcuts. This will take us the longest way possible. One wrong turn could change the coordinates from only "half-crazy" to a full-on marathon-level insanity.

If I am to keep up, I have to leave now.

I have my balaclava, my mittens, my hat, my sunglasses. I strap water bottles around my waist, even though I know the liquid inside them will freeze.

I am ready. And even though the first five miles of windchill feels like being tortured with sharp knives, I don't entertain the notion of turning around and going home. In a few more miles I'll be more than half way there, anyway.

It's all downhill after here. Not literally, sadly. But figuratively.

The rewards will be self evident: This week there will be pancakes with real maple syrup, and next week there will be a taper.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

This will (probably not) make your hair curl

She was going on about something with the level of sustained excitement parents find easy to ignore.

I was folding laundry. And then I was emptying the dishwasher. My daughter's voice was in a constant state of uplift. It had a sing-song quality that put me at ease. She was happy. I continued to half-listen as I freed a clog in the stick vacuum's frozen beater-bar. The thing I pulled out looked like ...

Well … I'll let you imagine the complicated forms bits of detritus we shed from our scalps or track in on our shoes take on as they collect over time. Suffice it to say what I only partially sucked up in the Dustbuster may or may not have resembled a small rodent of a decidedly muskrat-coloring.

But that is not the point.

My daughter had gotten a small part in the school play and was twittering about all the things that go into to making the actual performance so wondrous. Most important of which was that Yours Truly would be doing her hair before each and every performance.

“They want us to look like we're from the 1930s.”

Honestly, I hadn't been paying attention. But something told me to stop wrestling the dust bunny in the Dustbuster and tune in.

“Wait? What? Back up a bit. What did you say about your hair?”

“We have to make it curl and do fancy things like people did in the olden days.”

The way she looked at me as I gripped the vacuum filter, clawing giant dust balls into the trash, it was as if she had all the faith in the world that I could actually do this thing call 'a hairdo.'

Who does she think I am? I mean, I am the person whose Twitter feed describes her thusly: “Still getting up in the morning, but have given up combing my hair.”

That is not a euphemism. That line is the unvarnished truth. If I rake my fingers through the conditioning process in the shower, I count it as combed.

I get my hair cut once every three years, and the extent of my styling skill is to sweep up my stringy locks into a ponytail, hoping to catch all the wispy-bits at the back of my neck (I often fail).

The more I think about it, the more I'm sure that this thing called haircare might not be in my DNA. Growing up, I recall the errant pink-foam hair rollers I'd find around the house. I'd assumed they were my mother's even though her hair was close-cropped – like a man's – for as long as I could remember. Certainly before close-cropped hair on a woman was ever fashionable.

I'm still standing in a cloud of dust over the garbage can when my daughter hands me a picture of Ginger Rogers in the precisely-lit grandeur of her Hollywood heyday.

“They want me to make your hair look like that?”

The coiffure to my eye was an incomprehensible mountain range. It kept its shape – foothills above the shoulders, sloping peaks at the crown – despite appearing as smooth and buttery as silk. It flowed in rivulets nature had no part in making.

I didn't know where to start.

“They said that hot curlers would work.”

This hot curler thing – turns out – is a fishing-tackle-type box you plug into a wall, which then heats up a couple of dozen foam-lined spools that one is then supposed to wind around individual strands of hair.

Don't laugh at me.

Thankfully, the box came with simple instructions.

Plug in
Let heat for 10 minutes
Make sure lid is open while heating (to keep stored hair clips from melting)
Roll hair
Leave in hair for 10 – 15 minutes

I tried it on my own hair first.

It did seem foolproof. Not even waiting the full ten minutes, the hair that released from the flocked spools bounced into a loose coil.

Excitement abounds as we realized hair styling success was within our reach.

After a 10-minute reheat, it was my daughter's turn. But her younger, thicker, more lustrous hair was ambivalent. Some tresses doubled over at awkward angles; others refused to bend at all to the curlers' whims.

“What do we do now?” she asked in a panic.

I had no answer. “Maybe the Dustbuster … the hair that comes out of that always curls. …”

I know. ... She looked at me with that same horror, too.

I know. I'll Google “How to use bobby pins” maybe there's still hope.