Sunday, September 17, 2017

The stuffed horse of the apocalypse

The horse's glassy eyes stared straight at me. Someone had pushed the three-foot tall, plushy relic of two early childhoods nose-to-nose with me as I slept.

"Butterscotch," we'd called her, and apparently she was now my charge.

I look around my home -- a mix of old and older, encapsulated in a structure that echoes a similar span of time -- and I see the field of damage caused by life's mostly harmless hurricanes.

When I step on the discarded carcasses littering the way forward, they squeak.

Or they squish.

Or they scrunch down into a soft, flat carpet of fabric I will refuse to launder on principal.

Such is the nature of motherhood.

Room to room, wall to wall, wherever I turn there are the many remnants of an ongoing if not an entirely adorable storm.

The flotsam and jetsam of experimentation.

I imagine it's not unlike the 23,000-and-counting pieces of aeronautical junk floating in space; Clouding the view of Hubble.

"How many hours does it take to bake an inch-wide brownie with a lightbulb?" my eldest asks.

The question didn't come from thin air.

Curled up with a blanket and viewing screen, and next to a growing pile of empty wrappers, she was watching reruns of  "Friends."

She had gotten to the part where Monica Geller admitted the temptation of uncooked batter was always too great to overcome the wait time on her EZ-Bake oven. 

And she thought it was funny but ultimately unbelievable: How could anyone enjoy the runny consistency of uncooked batter with raw eggs?

"Four hours seems right," said my daughter; no doubt talking to the screen though I was sitting right beside her. "I made a sad little cupcake in one of those toys once with my friend, Amy. I remember it took four hours to bake! I never understood why we couldn't just use the real oven."

There were so many reasons why.

Toys are fun.
And distracting.
And physical reminders of our position in society. They help you grow up and remind you you were once a child.
Not to mention the point that your poor mother didn't have to worry about industrial accidents or fingertip burns.

"I'm glad I never had one," she says, again to the empty space between us. "It seems like such a waste."

I can't help but be annoyed.

"Unlike the rock polisher? Or the plastic ceramics wheel? Or the science kit that got used exactly once each?"

She jumped as if she hadn't seen me sitting there in the same room at the end of her couch. As if I were a pillow propped against the furniture that speaks.

"It's not as if I asked for any of those things," she said with all of the truth and a single grain of salt.

These gifts - still taking up residence on shelves and in closets - all failures of excess: Pretty boxes to wrap and unwrap on special occasions. 

But there were successes.

There was the inflatable water slide (finally retired after umpteen years and numerous fabric patches) and that rideable pony, which was blank staring me right in the eye.

The stuffed horse of the apocalypse.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

No place worth getting

We meandered through summer with neither care nor plan.

Truth be told, I felt bad about this; my apparent “unparenting.”

Plans are good I suppose if you can make or follow them. Especially good if you can change those plans quickly and without strife.

He stands by the curb, my son; waiting on the bus. He is finally scrubbed of the summer's dirt, although it will take a few days before the fair stamp on his arm, which allowed him full access to carnival rides, cracks and starts to peel. His badge of courage ... and privilege.

He is certain this year will be the best one yet. He likes his teacher. Likes the first week's lesson plan, which promised a temporary moratorium on homework and a gradual reintroduction during the forthcoming weeks. He is looking forward to learning to play an instrument. He chose trumpet.

"There's a special way you have to blow into the nozzle," he tells me with
equal parts wonder and excitement. 

I laugh. "I think the first thing you'll learn is the mouth piece is NOT called a nozzle."

He doesn't care that I laugh. Or that I correct him. Or he doesn't seem to care.

He is changing. Maturing.

More able to say what he means and to mean what he says, which has signaled his eagerness to try new things, leaving old ones behind when he's ready …

Whether I am or not.

Over the summer, he traded his martial arts whites for a flag football uniform, and somehow his body changed to match his new sport.

The skinny little kid who got off the school bus last June is gone; replaced by a square-shouldered boy, now tall and brave enough to ride every ride at least once. 

Now he lines up with a new team of boys, waiting for a ball of a different shape to fly in his direction. The new challenge: catch it and run toward a new goal line. 

"Coach calls it 'turn and burn,' don't think about it, just run with it."

It's hard for me not to think about it.

So many moving parts. So many things can go wrong. Turning off the mind and taking that first step is a daunting task. 

Having a plan helps, but it doesn't prevent a person from getting sacked ...

Or whatever term they put to the tearing off a person's flags. 

This is just a game. It's easy to reattach the colors and start again. 

They are a team now, with a good coach who will make them see opportunity in their weaknesses. If they are successful, win or lose, players will smile and thump each others' backs. They will leave happy and tired and motivated to do better next time.

That's the hope, anyway. 

The reality, of course, is not always as
lofty. Disappointment can be crushing, and crushing injuries don't heal easily. 

But that's my fear. A fear I'm trying not to project.

Of course, it's too soon to lose hope. 

He's still small, I suppose, and there is no place worth getting that has you walking in a straight line.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Reading, Righting and Relics

I pushed the wonky-wheeled cart around the office supplies store and stubbed my toe. Again. I've lost track of how many trips this latest one makes, though I could count the years and multiply by two. Each trip extracting a little more blood.

The boy's list is simple, still.

Pencils, paper, notebooks. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Her list, however, is explicit. And she, like all peers in her age group, is loathe to deviate from its parameters.

In addition to the ream of paper and horde of pencils she could lash together into a raft with the laces she's removed from all her shoes (it's not a style-thing she assures me), she also requires tissues and paper towels and ball point pens that don't leak. 

She will need folders and page tabs and correction fluid. Highlighters and permanent markers and one's that will erase with a dry cloth. 

She selects each item as if it were a cog in a machine.

The color-coded notebooks and binders I'm sure I bought last year are somehow all wrong for this year's scholarly pursuits. Too thin. They must be replaced with larger examples.

As too will the calculator required for last year's honors math, be traded for a more expensive version, which she assures me will last her through high school. How clever that the $99 graphing calculator comes in jewel tones.

"My brother can have my old one," she says with all the graciousness of a girl who never gets her supplies second hand or chooses drab colors.

Who am I to judge the function or fashion? I'm just the one wielding the plastic card to pay for it all. Sadly, the store is out of models colored black or dark gray.

"It's really worth the investment," she coos, hinting at all the calculations she will make with her turquoise-colored device. "Look. It's even rechargeable."

I laugh.

Just the other day I'd been busy staring off into my phone, pretending the last-minute rush of back-to-school spending was a deluge I could avoid when a story popped up from 3,700-year-old Babylonia.

It seems a recent study of a device discovered near the turn of the 20th century -- a pressed-clay tablet known as Plimpton 322 -- contains hints on figuring out complex trigonometry problems three-thousand years ahead of its time. And it has some mathematicians wondering if the ancient calculator could have lessons for modern day students since its calculations use ratios rather than angles.

Of course, it has others wondering what's the agenda?

To sell some other theory? Creating solutions to problems that don't really exist?

This isn't really new.

We're always trying to reinvent the wheel, aren't we?

When mathematicians fight, apparently, you get a knock-down-drag-out over whether base 60 is better than base 10.

When mother and daughter fight it's over whether a fancy new cerulean graphing calculator is better than last year's gray one. ... or even a sand-colored lump of clay from centuries ago.

I know which one of us will win.

The only question remaining is whether this pretty device will become a hand-me-down or a relic.

Time will tell.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

That's progress

The phone rang.

It was the automatic refills service from my local pharmacy mispronouncing my name and asking if I'd like to reorder my prescription.

I usually hang up.

These are among the few legitimate phone calls we receive on our antiquated landline. A phone we can never find because unlike the corded wall phones of years' past -- the cordless handsets of today are never where we left them.

Not that it matters. It's the listed number for sales calls we can't legally block.

The kids and I have stopped rushing to its siren song, not caring who's on the other end. We listen instead for the answering machine to pick up and reveal the sales pitch.

More times than not, it's a telemarketer. Or a politician. Or a wrong number. But more often than not it's the drugstore.

"I'll call back when I'm ready," I say to myself, bristling with the irritation of having to deal with an automaton that never gets my medicinal history quite right.

The complexity of taking two different strengths of the same drug in alternating intervals is too much for the modern machine mind to follow. And, apparently, asking in person NOT to be put on automatic renewal doesn't tend to keep one from being automatically prompted with robocalls.

Ignored, I know the tin man's calls won't go away. They will become insistent.

This evening perhaps, or tomorrow, the phone will ring again with its irritatingly pleasant mechanical voice: "Hello! ... This is ALL-CONSONANTS PHARMACY ..."

It's inevitable, so I stay on the line.

"Your prescription is ready to be refilled. Would you like to refill this prescription?"

"Oh ok ... I'll just press one. Sure fill away!"

BOOOOOOP.

The mechanical man tells me my prescription has expired and my doctor has to approve the latest refill. Shall we call and renew this prescription?

Please press One.

"Sure ... call away!"

BOOOOOOP.

"Your prescription will be ready for pickup on Thursday," advises the machine. 

I hang up the phone.

I don't know why this irritates me so.

Maybe it's the impersonal nature of progress? Or, more likely, the lackluster imitation of personal nature that's really at the heart of my ire.

There's only so much patience a person can maintain as they try to get a computer to understand the spelling of their names.

"I said 'C not 'T';"

This is why I try to speak to a human whenever possible.

It's why I forgo the do-it-yourself check-out kiosks and wait in line where there is the possibility of a smile, some chit-chat, and a "have-a-nice-day," no matter how scripted it sounds.

So many pet peeves, so little pet peeve pellets to feed them with. Let this one go.

But then the phone rings again ...

"Hello! This is ALL CONSONANTS PHARMACY. Your prescription can't be refilled at this time. Thirty days have not transpired since your last refill."

I want to scream. So I do. ARRRRRGHHHHH!

I know how you feel,” said my son, who had recently found the limit of his own communications patience as he tried to phone a friend and was told he had to dial a few extra digits.

Do you know I have to dial area-code 518 now to call my best friend, who lives in the same town as me? Isn't that crazy?”

Yes. It's almost as crazy as your pharmacy calling you to refill a prescription they have no intention or capability to refill.


But that's progress.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Culture shock around the clock


Even in a house where no one removes their shoes, or vacuums regularly, or mops ... ever, we have lived quite happily and, surprisingly, stomach-ailment free following the erroneous food safety guideline set forth by the five-second rule.

Specifically: If the snack item of one's desire accidentally drops to the floor, one has fewer than five seconds to retrieve it before having to point out the whereabouts of the toppled tasty tidbit to the resident retriever.

Of course, the rule only applies in practice to foodstuffs that are bite-sized and crunchy, be they salty or sweet, or things that are more sturdy, and can be rinsed under a tap. Anything saucy or creamy that winds up peanut-butter-side-down may be left for the canine-vac, no questions asked.

My brittle memory pins this sketchy science on an Oreo commercial from the early 90s, wherein some harried but well-coiffed dad/actor drops the last available sandwich cookie on a filthy floor, picks it up, shrugs and pops it into his mouth anyway.

"Five-second rule, right?"

Since then, the rule has evolved into a kind of common law, challenged only during slow news days by scientific journals and Matt Lauer, who seems to have a thing for "culture" shock.

Lately, however, we've endured a different kind of culture shock.

Or, our kids have.

One in which basic civility has died an unnatural death and the only response we seem to be able to muster collectively are shrugged shoulders.

Even in our household filled with dust rabbits and tumble clumps of pet hair we can't help but argue politics and predict our society's proverbial end.

Of course, we're all on the same side; no one even claims the role of devil's paralegal let alone his advocate.

The "I-can't-believes" and the "This-is-totally-insanes" have been stifled briefly by an expression that more closely resembles the silent struggle of a fish out of water for oxygen.

And so it came to pass one day, after much flapping of gums, and gnashing of teeth, and hyperventilated retellings of the day's surreal headlines, that the eldest child, in a fit of exasperation, declared a new rule would take hold and become law in our house.

"You have Two-Minutes," she said as she flopped down in the car next to me and secured her seat belt.

Two minutes?

"Two minutes to talk politics. Whatever happened in Washington, whatever mealy-mouthed, boneheaded thing the guy down the street said in the name of the district, you have 120 seconds to tell me how you feel about it, and then we're done for the rest of the ride home. The clock will reset after I have lunch and watch an episode of Glee."

I want to argue.

I want to tell her that my gall is necessary. My refusal to "quietly let things go" is what keeps me from despairing. And that I want her and her brother to know how I feel about policy beyond politics is just one of the maddening things she will one day have to tell her therapist … if health care still exists when she comes of age.


"You can still do all that,” she assures me. “But you better get to it. Your time started five seconds ago."

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Something to crow about

My head was pounding.

The space between my eyes throbbed as I turned over in bed. The morning was insistent. I squeezed my eyelids shut, trying to keep the sun's intruding light from splitting my skull in two.

It didn't feel like it would work.

I could hear crows calling each other overhead. I wanted them to hush. Why couldn't they be songbirds?

Why did they have to be so brash?

It was my own discomfort that answered. Ever songbirds right now would seem too loud.

Allergies? Maybe. Too many black thoughts not enough black coffee? A distinct possibility, but who knows? My daughter likes to blame alcohol. But she wasn't counting the single glass of wine I drank only to half before pouring out in the sink. I'm nothing if not a one-drink wonder.

Pottery clattered around harmlessly in the kitchen. I could hear her cheerful voice mix with others as the morning grew older. Paper thin walls and an open portal acted to transfigure me into the conversation. I could smell bacon, but I couldn't reach it, not that the pain in my head would have unclenched my stomach enough to allow such grift.

It's late. I should get up and find painkillers.

Instead, I pinched the webbing between each thumb and forefinger with the opposing afore-named digits.

It is not in my nature to subscribe to the art of medical hocus-pocus. I prefer to employ the socially accepted services of Dr. Google and panic. But I am trying to believe "doing no harm" is still possible, if only in the adage of "less is more" or "wait and see."

I have to admit, the web-skin-pinch seems to work in alleviating my sinus pain, even if just to take my mind off it until I muster the gumption to locate a pair of analgesics and a glass of water with which to wash them down.

In 20 minutes I will be me again, which I'm not saying is fine. It's just a person - foibles and all - who's become familiar to the voices in the kitchen if not entirely recognizable to myself.

"You are like a crow," my daughter said with a laugh the night before at bedtime. The room stoped breathing as the barb came perilously close to the truth before it veered into a safer direction.

She nodded at my wrist, which had a sleeve of bangles and other baubles she recognized as hers, and which I've readily admitted to having collected as I tidy up the floor, or sink basins, or from between the couch cushions where they'd been abandoned. Places, I am quick to point out, were not where these beloved things belonged.

What one person calls finding another calls theft.

I am like that crow. ... And all of the others the fairytales warn us of.

I will be the person who swoops into the conversation unannounced and ill-informed. Adding two cents that throws off the balance.

My voice sounding more and more like a cackle. Again with the allergies!

"Can you believe she's fifty? I know my mom is 50 but ..."

"Your mom is not 50!" I holler from above, a disembodied voice out of nowhere, fully invested in the misery that also sparked laughter.

And although I was fervent in clinging to the last year of my forth decade, I had to admit the moment was funny.

I am that old crow. Curved of beak and black of hair, now from a bottle instead of nature. Fooling no one.

It's a feeling that will pass as soon as the ibuprofen takes effect.


Sunday, August 06, 2017

States united

It has been quite a while since People for Less Unrest in Marriage – a wholly imagined and completely uncertified relationship think tank, which often fills to the brim with useless information at inopportune times or in the wee hours of the morning, and is also known (by no one) as PLUM -- has issued any public service messages.

Now, ordinarily, this absence of seething, snarky or nonsensical advice, which could be contraindicated for 98.7 percent of the happily coupled public-at-large, would indicate a certain amount systemic health.

But these, as we know from Twitter, are not normal times.

We are experiencing summer.

And summer begets vacations.

And vacations lead to road trips.

And road trips lead to long car rides and traffic jams and fights over the last cookie or who's kicking the back of my seat and why?

No really, why?

And let's not forget that game of 20 questions is going to take the tone of an interrogation in no time, buhleeeeeeeeeve me!

Stop it! Just stop!

Might as well plug in and disengage. (But not unless the device comes with earphones.)

You know all this. So do I.

What I didn't know was that being better "prepared" wouldn't have helped.

Apparently, being prepared or having plans indicates a damning amount of collusion a person can't readily disavow later. 

Plans have a way of turning in on themselves anyway.

I didn't just make that up out of thin air, everyone knows it.

Before it ever started, our vacation had already stepped off on the wrong foot.

Literally.

As we were packing, my daughter hobbled around her room on a recently turned ankle, making quite the racket. With each garment she tossed from her bureau into a suitcase, she'd squeak out in pain. "Don't worry, I'm fine," she'd assure me each time I poked my head in to enquire. Ouch!

Having just spent three weeks, four doctors, and who knows how much money (insurance hasn't yet weighed in) trying to suss out the cause of a mystery pain -- which has kept me away from the sanity-inducing effects of literally running away from my problems -- I was hoping upon hope we wouldn't have to make another unplanned trip to emergent care.

By morning her foot was better. Stupid kids and their stupid quick-healing bodies.

But I digress.

Truth be told, by the time our party arrived in Vacationland the stress had settled in, and I was feeling sorry for myself. And that may have turned a might rage-y before it ignited a war over the perennial question: What are we doing for dinner?

Now, as skirmishes go, this would seem to be a pretty tame one. Expected, even. Easy to settle, shake hands on and move on to dessert island, where you could retire from warring and drink in a few tequila sunsets or gobble up a quickly melting ala-mode.

But not for us.

We don't settle. We need to win. At all costs. Especially on paper where it's counted.

Late into the night, we'll battle for a tiny strip of ground neither of us wanted yesterday.

It might be the same skirmish we had last year and the year before, but it seems different, more urgent even as it loses its grasp on cogency.

And then he asks the question I hadn't asked myself:

"Is it possible that in this climate of inflated alpha-maleness that you have equated me and my alpha-maleness with certain unhinged political factions currently inhabiting the pillars of government?"

I hadn't considered that possibility.

And then I couldn't think of anything else. It is possible that some degree of transference happened. It is possible that with it amplified virtually everywhere I could no longer accept any amount of chest beating in my proximity.

The days of the alpha male are over. There are no zero-sum winners.

We can't bulldoze our way out of an argument and claim it a win. But we also can't back off of our principals. We just have to make sure they are principled.

We have to listen. And think. And work together.


If we don't we won't stay united forever, Fake News or not.