Sunday, October 23, 2016

Piece of cake

The melody was familiar, but without words, I couldn't quite put my finger on the tune. It wasn't exactly contemporary ...

Or was it?

"Your call is important to us. Please remain on the line for the next available customer service representative."

The Muzak returned to the spot it had left off.

Of course, that would be a guess. I wasn't exactly concentrating, and I still couldn't place the song. Sounded a little like “Cake by the Ocean.”

The dog was barking.

The boy was bouncing a ball.

In. The. House.

And I was waiting to be dipped in the hot lava that is tech support for troglodytes.

My son kept bouncing the ball.

I cleared my throat and sent eye daggers in his general direction. He stopped bouncing and let the dog out.

"Hello, My name is Ariel ... how can I help you today?"

I stammered for a moment.

"Oh, hi ...uh ... well ...

I'm just trying to get my game console to connect to our wifi and it's just not. ...”

Wait … that's not right.

"Well it's my son's game console ... which I really know nothing about ... and he's just a kid. Which I know ... he probably shouldn't be playing online games anyway, but he had a birthday, and there he is with his own money and ability to spend it on a game where vegetation and the undead duke it out over the world wide web."

Oh my god, stop! I think to myself. You're just sounding crazy.

"Besides all that, it's just not working, and I'm not even sure why it's not working ... so here I am ... 

"Calling you."


"That's our dog."

I don't think I could have sounded more desperate if I tried.

I could hear the laughter in her voice, which seemed warm and reassuring.

"Don't worry. I can help you figure this out. 

"First let me ask you some questions …"

I stopped holding my breath. Maybe this wasn't going to be the root canal I imagined. Maybe this friendly voice on the other end of the line COULD help me find my way back to the path and a virtual connection.

Now, you have turned it off and turned it back on, correct?”

Welcome to Internet gaming 101.

For the next hour and a half, we told each other everything. I told her how I spelled my name, and she told me how she spelled hers: “Cereal only with an A.” I'd had it all wrong. 

I told her how I wanted to kick the machine with malice and the full force of my left foot.
She told me that she understood, and could empathize.

Next, we established what kind of game console we were using, what exact words were spelled out in the error message, and that I needed to create an account.

She walked me through the seventeen thousand steps needed to make the appropriate accounts; and no fewer than four hundred security codes to authenticate them, including a one-time, credit-card payment of $.50, which would be donated to charity.

It would also be the two-bit proof of my adulthood.

Eventually, my new friend guided me through some more jostling of this and cajoling of that until the ISP whispered its secret language to the console and it opened like magic.

Presto! It's working! It's working! It's updating!”

You're not out of the woods yet,” said Aereal. “Once it's done updating – which could take a while – you'll have to download your new accounts ...”
And it won't prompt me, will it?” I said, finishing my new friend's sentence.

No. It won't. … But don't worry. You really do know what you are doing. I'll send you a link to the instructions and it will be a piece of cake.”

Sunday, October 16, 2016


My kid saw the snarling cat faces, electronically pasted two layers deep, on the cover of The Daily News before I did. He started to giggle, as any nine-year-old boy might.

To him, the layout was funny -- just felines and fangs in the place of some letters in a word he hadn't known had a second meaning. "Look, mom! It's so funny!"

"Grab 'em by the (P 🐱 🐱 🐱 y )."

Heat crept up my neck.

We were at a sandwich shop, awaiting our turn. Ahead of us in line were several men who kept eyeing me nervously, shifting their weight from one foot to another. I hadn't noticed them until my son brought my attention from the over-head menu to the under-the-counter cats.

Impulsively, I wanted to turn over the few unsold copies remaining, but I knew the cat was out of the bag.

Instead, I focused on the discomfort of the men.

Suddenly, I felt all eyes upon me. Suddenly, I felt this was somehow my fault.

Was I supposed to stand in front of the news rack?

Was I supposed to shush my son with a hiss and a promise to explain later?

I couldn't.

Cue difficult and public conversation #357 in which I use too many words and not enough punctuation:

"It's not funny," I say with more sorrow than anger. "It's mean ... and the man currently running for president made that statement a few years ago while he was waiting to be interviewed on national television. But unlike all the rest of the awful things he's said about people, no one heard this comment until now. And now some people are saying it's just Guy Talk - locker room banter taken out of context.  But I believe what he said is much worse. It says hurting women is not only acceptable; it is one of the benefits of being a man."

I take a deep breath and look up, half expecting the ceiling to fall in around me.

With every other car in the parking lot brandishing a "Make America Great Again" bumper sticker, I knew I could be in hostile territory.

Nothing happened.

There was no audible gasp from the live studio audience.

The room didn't go silent.

The men ahead of us paid for their sandwiches and left.

Business as usual.

My son doesn't understand. Why would he? He's nine.

But my daughter understands. She was 11 when a boy she liked called her a "slut."


Don't ask me what she said to him. Or what she was wearing.
Don't tell me it takes two.
It only takes one.

She is as blameless as I was when a boy I barely knew grabbed between my legs when I was 12.


As blameless as my mother, and her mother, whose stories I never learned but I know exist from my memories of them and their abundance of caution.

They might have been even younger than we were ... back in "the good old days," when folks didn't speak of such things.

But I had never heard my husband's story -- the one from inside the locker room.  And I needed that side.

"Is this 'locker room talk'?"

"If it's not true, it could be," he admitted. "But what you have to understand is there's only one guy in there saying things that vile. No one likes him, and no one trusts him."

"You mean, except for the folks wearing t-shirts and carrying signs and erupting into applause every time he says "We're going to Make America Great Again."

Sunday, October 09, 2016


I'm a homebody. I'm a worldwideweb traveler, whose heart palpates at the challenge presented in renewing an expired passport … just not in a good way. I travel vicariously.

And it haunts me.

I've traveled out of the country a handful of times and only left North America once. For my honeymoon, where I met up with my mother-in-law, who traveled with us, showing us the sights.

Just let that sink in for a moment. My mother-in-law was the tour guide on our honeymoon trip. And the only key bit of information is there wouldn't have been a need for a passport without her. We wouldn't have gone anywhere.

Yes, I'm a homebody alright.

I guess I should just admit as much. Sink into the deep, soft cushions of my couch and put my feet up.

I've only ever traveled alone once. And since I was meeting someone at the destination, I'm not sure it counts.

And counting is what we all seem to do these days.

Which is exactly what I was doing one Sunday evening recently as I waited at a bus station in Albany to collect a friend visiting from Portugal: I was counting all the fears that lead me here. Literally.

My friend -- a world traveling, couch-surfing, ride-sharing, life-liver was arriving from New York for a brief visit -- had offered me a stop closer to my house.

And I said NO because I was unfamiliar with the area.

An area NEAR where I live.

She had come thousands of miles, crossed oceans, figured out transportation snags in I-don't-know-how-many cities and I couldn't meet her at a Park and Ride in Catskill because I was afraid I might get lost on the way.

So if you heard the infernal noise of a car horn's rhythmic blaring, it was likely just me beating my forehead against the steering column of my own inertia.

Of course, this is the part of the story, dear friends, where I tell you I am changing my ways*.


I am going places**.


I am changing the scenery. And not just in my mind***.

***Crosses fingers.

I am slitting the cellophane on this store-bought dinner and taking a risk****.
****Sorry, I have no idea what that means either.

But I do know that this year, around Thanksgiving, I will get on a bus headed in a southerly direction. At Christmastime, I will get on a plane headed northwest. And after the New Year, I will make plans to renew some passports and visit the country of my name's origin.

“It will happen this time,” I say over and over again.

Although, I am probably just weaving together all the fibers of my wishful thinking and coming up with the sweater vest of vacation options, I'm not sure it's entirely a fabrication. I won't likely get a dozen “Pinocchios” or a “Pants on Fire” designation from the fact checkers, even if none of these plans turn out to be a resounding “True” or even a lukewarm “It's Complicated.”

My mind is made up. Things are already in motion. Tickets purchased and calendar dates marked with indelible ink.

This time, it will happen.*****

 ***** Because my mother-in-law is making the arrangements.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Squirrel food

The sliding doors of the grocery store opened with a metallic click and the sound of rushing air.

They stayed open as the gales from the humid outside mixed with the piped-in air conditioning inside and circled me.  I just stood in place at the mouth of the colorful produce department -- in full view of the optic monitor and pyramiding boxes of citrus -- and stared straight ahead.

This hesitation is the stutter before the start. It’s easy to feel lost in the options.

When did I begin to think it was like an amusement park in here? Was it when I noticed the new, fun-sized carts or the proliferation of sample hawkers offering a little taste of excess during the weekdays? Or maybe it’s was the smell of stale beer near the bottle return and the aroma of fried foods wafting forth from the deli case.

It was my second supermarket visit of the day. The first time I had dropped by on the spur of the moment, thinking I'd just pick up a few essentials I never seem to manage to scratch onto a list. Toilet tissue, dish soap, bulk cheese.

Not that it would matter. The more detailed the shopping list, the more likely it is to be left on a kitchen counter next to the reusable tote bags I keep buying on impulse and with all my good intentions.

What had I come here for again?

Oh yes. Video return.

I dug into my bag and produced two red plastic-encased rentals. I pushed a button, and the machine slurped them up. I feel a surge of relief. A few more days gathering dust at our house and we could have owned these box-office flops.

But now that I was here, I might as well have a look around.

The phone in my bag pulsated. I dug it out.

"Plz gt seltzer H2O."

Another three vibrations followed in rapid succession:

"We're out of juice boxes."

"Soy creamer!!!!"

"Cat says she's out of cat food."

I zig-zag around the store, collecting items with the efficiency and precision of an over-stimulated squirrel.

At times like these -- without an agenda or serious need -- I find myself attracted to shiny things and novelties, tossing one silly thing into the cart after the next.

I think about all the Wednesdays from now until the end of the semester. I will be racing a clock to feed four people two different meals before we go in three different directions. I toss a half-dozen frozen dinner packages on the pile.

Mmmmm. Chicken L’Orange.

There are no components in my cart. Nothing to cook, just reheat.

The cashier barely looks at my purchases as she rings them up. But I know my label-reading husband will give me the side-eye when I get home and unpack the polypropylene bags of my trick-or-treat-like haul.

"Muffin in a cup?"

Just add water!!!

"Puzzle-piece cheese puffs?"

Limited edition AND holiday themed!!!

He just shakes his head and reaches for a bag of chocolate sandwich cookies.

"You really need to get out more."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Adventures in dog-sitting

I'd almost forgotten how fun puppies can be with their short-bodied enthusiasm and full-on floppy joy.

Around and around she went. Ears after tail, tail after ears, sending the carpet flying. "She will sleep well tonight," I text her owner, attaching a picture of the mayhem unfolding.

It wasn't very good: just a brown-color blur of fur and tangled leashes but she’d get the idea.

It seems I have added "Doggy Daycare" to my resume. Pictures would make it pop.
It's not really work, but I like to count all the many "jobs" I currently perform be they paid or unpaid. So when you get the notice from LinkedIn of my work status change, don’t forget to congratulate me.

This one I shall list after "Kitchen Detailer" but before "Artwork Registrar” and “Homework Moderator,” since it happens midday. But I like to think of it as sharing my lunchtime walk with a furry friend or two. At least it’s a way to get out of the office and stretch my legs.

Of course, I do have a full staff for this fledgling enterprise.

Our five-year-old pooch does most of the heavy lifting. She has already taught the puppy the art of wrestling, the joys of couch surfing, and the shifty nature of squirrels. But she's only good for short spurts. An old lady by comparison, she takes many a coffee-break, staking out a spot mid-floor and resigning herself to lifting her head and wagging her tail whenever the puppy orbits her space.

The kids, once they're home from school, handle the arduous tasks of cuddling and doling out treats. They also serve as an alert system to any excitement piddles that require immediate sanitation, which, apparently, is my purview.

My husband thinks he's tech support. You know, because he knows everything. Even thinks he’s the boss.

"I know that look in your eye," laughed my husband, as the visiting canine tumbled around the house, her crumb-seeking senses fully enabled and I followed her with my eyes.

"What? I'm just smiling?"

"We are NOT getting a puppy!"

It's cute how he tries to lay down the law, thinking he can read criminal intentions in the upturned corners of my mouth.

But he doesn’t know what that look on my face actually means.

He needn't worry. The expression does not predict that I'm plotting something nefarious. I will not start clearing out humane shelters or become a taxi for deep-south rescue efforts.

Mine is just a smile that would stretch across anyone's face whenever a puppy skids into view and than past it, unable to stop forward momentum without the final sound of "thud."

I know puppies grow up. They become dogs with ravenous appetites and vet bills to match. They will come into our lives in 15-year intervals -- if we're lucky. Our time together will always be too brief.

Playing with a puppy for a half-hour seems the perfect way to get through the day. My husband is just jealous his job doesn't include belly rubs and scratching behind someone's ears.

No sense rubbing his nose in it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Knowing the unknowable

My children are studying 9/11 in school. Perhaps yours are, too.

Recently my daughter came home with Story Corp-styled assignment in which she was expected to interview someone old enough to remember the events of that day.

I was that someone.

She had a list of five questions and an impressive background knowledge in which to parse her instructor-led enquiries. She was taking it seriously, even demanding I comb my hair and sit under the glaring spotlight of a desk lamp, despite there being no intention of recording or filming the session.

Let's just say she was prepared.

She seemed to know all the basic accounting. The flight numbers, the tallies of souls onboard and on the ground, and all the places were planes crashed and when. She recited a timeline with an adroit precision. 

It was eerie.

My daughter - born more than two years after the worst attack on American soil - spoke in a hushed tone when she asked me to describe where I was and what I was doing the moment I learned about the carnage.

I knew what I would tell her. I knew it word-for-word.

We each have a version of events that we hold sacred. A version that marks our individual suffering and pinpoints the fissures that formed in the world as we watched the smoke rise on tiny screens. My version had been honed with each passing year.

I tried not to wax poetic as she scribbled notes in the paragraph-wide spaces partitioning each line of the script.

I spoke about the uncertainty and the shock. I tried to explain feelings of horror and numbness that somehow blossomed into pride and a sense of unity. I spoke about people I'd met who'd experienced unbearable loss, and people who had shown exceptional courage. I talked about how one horrible day changed the course of our nation.

And I talked about disappointment.

She kept writing as I tried to make it all my thoughts connect. There was nothing I'd said that hadn't been said before. Familiar, reverent stories looped endlessly to fill lulls in an intractable 24-hour news cycle.

She turned the paper over and asked one final question:

"How did you feel when you learned Osama Bin Laden had been killed."

I froze. The question took me by surprise. I sat there for a while and wondered in silence just what kind of response her teacher had expected to receive.

I hoped not elation. I hope no one felt that.

"Honestly, I didn't feel anything. I felt numb. There was no relief, no sense of closure, just reminders that we were still waging war In two countries, killing innocents as well as insurgents, and the man most wanted had always been somewhere else.

"How does this end?

"Hopefully not by building walls and bluster.

"It seems all we want is war. All we seek is conflict. 

"Somehow we lost our way between there and here. Maybe we had little choice, but we have changed. And not for the better."

I stopped rambling, and she stopped writing.

"Do you have enough?"

She nodded and started to read back the transcript of our chat: "She felt numb. ..."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

When your number's up

57? 57?

In my numb-from-cold hand, I claw-gripped a paper cup that was filled to almost overflowing with mint chip milkshake and other festive garnishes. Expecting someone to step forward and relieve me of this frosty burden, I just stood there and blinked my disappointed before trying again.


Not one of the dozens of souls who had gathered in the picnic area of the 4-H Milk Bar, waiting for someone to scream out their ice cream order, even bothered to look up.

As a parent and volunteer, I had never felt more invisible.

Just then, my daughter gripped me at the elbows and craned her neck past my shoulder.

"FIFTY-SEVEN!!!" She yelled in a clear and calm voice. "ORDER UP!"

A smiling woman in a summer dress stood and headed our way.

"Thank you, and enjoy!" my loudspeaker said as I handed over the milkshake.

My daughter patted my back, and applied my own patented "there-there, feel better?" salve.

Oddly enough, I did feel better.

The kids are the stars of this show. They take orders, make change, scoop and blend the sometimes complicated recipes to a frothy perfection. The few complaints received illustrated the level of expectation well beyond the workforce's median age of 12.

"How come my order number - 53 - came out after 56?" Demanded one disgruntled patron."

"I'm sorry for the wait, sir," came the chocolate-spattered preteen's measured reply. "But you ordered seven shakes. They ordered single cones."

"Not to mention THEY'RE 12," silently screamed the angry mom in my head.

Anyone could see we were busy, and yet the wait wasn't overwhelming. The kids still wore smiles as they rotated stainless steel shake cups around on the blender spindles, a glaze of ice forming on the outside.

They helped each other with big orders, and took over small jobs without being asked.

No one questioned the customer who said he'd ordered two. They didn't confirm with the cashier. They simply apologized and made another.

Happy workers beget happy customers.

I was a volunteer, but I couldn't help but think about the minimum wage fight, and how so many people think food service workers don't deserve more.

This was no cakewalk, despite the occasional lull in business when singing and dancing broke out.

Knowing when to put one's nose to the grindstone and when to cut loose is good for morale on both sides of the counter.

Three-hour shifts occasionally morphed into six- and nine-hour bundles before the crowds, or our supplies, dwindled or fresh recruits came to relieve us. We all managed to tackle six days of non-stop service.

This was the hardest work I had ever done. The most standing. The most lifting, and bending, and constant motion. After a single day everyone was bone tired. It felt ... Good.

The kids slept like the dead, and yet were eager to get started again once the sun rose on another day.

Of course this is out of the ordinary. It's Fair, a literal carnival of lights and excitement for six days only. A working vacation from the real world they are used to.

Soon enough a big yellow bus -- #20 -- will grind to a halt in front of our house. The familiar mass transit system for their usual daily grind.

I hope they remember the lessons summers' end taught us: smile when things get tough, and dance when things get slow.

You won't regret it when your number comes up.