Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sleep cycle

These days, at least around my house, sleep is like an errant teenager. It comes home late, sneaks out early, or locks the door and does all manner of things we won't talk about in pleasant company.

It's always worried.

When it does address you, it is sullen and what it relates is unsatisfying.

And no one is exempt.

I can hear sniffling from two rooms away.

And now there's a cough.

“I can't sleep,” announces the smallest voice, not a bit raspy from actually trying.

A light snaps on … and then off.

On again.

The toilet flushes. And then the faucet on the sink opens up.

But it doesn't close all the way.




There are footsteps back to bed.




It just seems to get louder by the drop.

Soon, however, the girl can't stand it. She growls and swings open her door, using every ounce of her being to pound against the floor in protest as she turns off the tap and the light.

Her noise inferring neither were not her responsibility … but there she was putting herself out to have quiet if not peace.

“I need to sleep!” she announces into the air, knowing it would reach her brother … and her parents, who haven't twisted his arm any to toe the line.

The door slams and there is a roil of bedclothes.

Her unfinished thoughts persist in a tumult of tossing and turning.

We are half past the time where I can help. Now I have to wait for her to come to me.

And even then I have to be resigned to the notion that I can only listen and offer suggestions she won't take.

She has to make her own mistakes. And then blame me for them.

More tossing. More turning.

Sleep can't come in just yet.

And it won't visit the boy while it waits, either.

Sleep scrunches its shoulders and listens in the hallway for its chance.

Another sniffle.

Another cough.

The boy pushes past it once again and appears at my bedroom door in his too-small pajamas – his second visit in the half hour – rattling off complaints about the determination of Sleep to stay at a distance. It won't come … or it won't stay.

He is afraid bad dreams will hover over him in the upper bunk.

He doesn't want to count sheep or think any happy thoughts, the only two suggestions I have. And so I follow him to his room and settle down alongside him waiting for this errant guest to arrive.

I will know it by the deep and rhythmic breathing …

and the sound of questions turning into the sound of snoring.

“What's that noise?”

It's a tree limb rubbing against the house.”

“You can't really dig all the way to China, can you?”

“No, you really can't.”

“Are snakes nocturnal?”

“Not exactly.”

“Are they diurnal?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well then, what are they?”

They're cold-blooded, so they're active when they need to be and when it works out temperature wise. Could be night, could be day. It depends.”

But wake-life of reptiles isn't what's keeping him up. It's something else.

“Do I need glasses?”

“Probably. Maybe. I don't know,” I hedge. “We'll have to wait and see.”

“But I can see now. Why do we have to wait?”

“You see now the way you've always seen. But after you get tested you might see better. Then you'll actually see.”

Before he can ask another question, I remind him of my purpose here in the dark: To help Sleep find its way into the room. Because no good things will come if sleep doesn't visit.

And even if no good things ever come, you'll need Sleep even more.

“You really don't make sense when you talk.”

“I think I need your Sleep.”

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Still sitting in the dark

The room was dark.

No one was talking.

Occasionally, a beep or a ping would start a war between siblings.

“You did that on purpose,” accused the girl.

“You set my house on fire,” lobbed the boy.

“It was an accident.”

“There are no accidents.”

Such are the pitfalls of weekends filled to overflowing with virtual entertainment.
“Let's go to a movie,” my husband chirped on this particular Saturday afternoon just as the kids were settling into their semi-weekly “School-has-taken-my-weekday-'Mindcrafting time'-and-sent-it-into-the-nether” computer games binge-fest.

And though he had given the order, it was up to me to rally the troops.

A roar went up from either end of the couch, where our two little potatoes had sprouted.

“Now?! We can't go now1 I'm not done building the super-mega-world out of emeralds and diamond armor, and I have to find all the sheep that got out of my Ultra Castle,” whined the boy.

“And I'm on the verge of finally getting a horse farm,” noted the girl, with exasperation.

“It'll all be there when we get back,” I say with utter certainty though I have no idea if the games have a pause button. “We're going to a movie, and that's final.”

The irony that we are swapping one static media experience for another on this fleetingly beautiful fall day isn't lost on me. But I am quiet as the kids snap shut the computers and shuffle around the room looking for their footwear.

Nor do I seem to care that I can't be bothered to sound at all enthused.

“How far is the theater?”

“Not far.”

“What's the movie?”

“I don't know. Something rated PG. Ask your dad.”

They don't seem to want to open that can of worms, so they dodder around scanning the floor for sneakers instead. I should feel relieved there wasn't more of an argument. And do feel a temporary relief that they're not acting like an air-conditioned cinema is the entertainment equivalent of a dank and musty cellar, where people like us throw children who complain. But that relief is shortlived.

“Found one,” the girl says to the boy and tosses the rubber-soled shoe across the room, striking him in the ankle. “It's yours.”

“OWWWWW! You did that on purpose,” he hollers at me.

“Say you're sorry,” I holler at her.

“Sorry,” she hollers back at him and throws another shoe in his direction.

I just stand there … mouth agape … catching flies. (Literally: local farms are spreading manure on their fields and flies have ventured forth).

I'm not sure it can be made any more clear. We are a cliché.

We are just a camera crew and a laugh-track away from being a 70s-era made-for-syndication sitcom or direct-to-video movie.

You know, the kind of show where the child is smarter than the parent. And the parent spends the whole 22-minute episode cluelessly puttering around the house looking for her sunglasses, which have been on her head the whole time?

Or where the kids, accompanied by an eerie soundtrack and no parents, insist on going down into the dark, cobweb-garlanded basement during a power outage when there's a serial killer on the loose.

You can probably guess where each of us would be cast.

I'm envisioning a brunette Hope Davis playing me while a hologram of James Gandolfini stands in for my husband.

The kids, on the other hand, will have to be played by their Minecraft avatars.

Eventually, we make our way out the door and into the car. Seatbelts are fastened, and we ease out of the driveway in the direction of our destination.

Soon we'll be seated. Side by side, in the dark, not talking to each other. Again.

I wonder if we can take bets on which of us will spill the tub of popcorn?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Time and space

What time is it?

I sense the panic before I hear it. Lights go on across the hall. There are audible sighs and other noises of discontent. The clamoring around starts next. Small items mostly, I can't tell what they are, but I know they are being shuffled and dropped. I can sense the disappointment next.

She did not find what she was seeking.

She harumphs around some more but doesn't call out for assistance.

A part of me wishes I were still asleep. The other part wishes I were awake and dressed and smiling some beatific parental smile at my daughter as she started her day.

But I am not that person. Not these days, anyway.

She hasn't needed me to prod her along, so I don't get up with her anymore. I lay in bed and listen to the tap run until the shower switches over.

Close the curtain, I think. Water is probably sluicing over the edge.

Later, I'll use the wet towel I find on the floor, by the side of her bed, in a heap of clothes that will greet me when I go into her room to shut off lights.

Why bother harping?

I turn over and cover my shoulders with blankets while she hums as she dresses and brushes her hair.

But I can't go back to sleep. I just put off for as long as I can the feeling of shock as my feet first press down on the cold floor. Like knives piercing bone.

I won't limp around long. I know in three steps I will feel fine.

But my feet haven't touched the floor yet.

What time is it?

I reach for my phone.

It's so early …

The sun hasn't even crept out from its nighttime roost, somewhere beyond the earth. ...

But I know by the numbers on the screen that it's almost too late. The bus will be coming soon and with it more panic.

I'm still in bed. She can't hear me ask the questions in my head, but they fill the space between us anyway.

Do you have your homework packed?
Do you have your shoes on?
Did you have any breakfast this morning?
Are you buying lunch today?

A curt “yes, mom,” with increasing irritation, is her answer each time. Or so I imagine.

Thing is, she has this all under control. Even if she's not doing things the way I would do them, things are getting done.

Downstairs, the refrigerator opens. Glass rattles for a while and becomes silent. The door alarm sounds.

Let's not refrigerate the kitchen, shall we?”

But I didn't say it aloud.

The bottles shift and clink again as the door slurps closed. The beeping stops. I know she hears my voice in her head sometimes.

The television switches on, or maybe I hear chatter from a computer tablet propped against the coffee machine as she pours cereal, and then milk, and finally rummages for a spoon. She has a routine.

She will put the milk away, but she won't wipe up the spills.

I might be annoyed once I see it later, who knows? Sometimes just grab a sponge and sop up the angst along with the slop.

What time is it?

I already know it's later still. The sky is filled with light now, and the house is silent once again.

And then comes the real panic.

I get up and grab yesterday's clothes. I pull them on and find some scuffs. I make it out to the edge of the driveway before it's too late.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A milkshake in time

“My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,” sings my daughter in the back of the car on our way home from fair.

“And their like, it's better than yours,” her father answers in kind.

“Damn right, it's better than yours,” I declare as and the pair of them launch back into circular rounds of the risque song and we slowly inch along with the rest of the fairgrounds-leaving traffic.

It's late, past bedtime, but even rubbing his eyes the boy joins in:

“Maaaaaah milkshake brings all the boys to the yard! Our shake was better than yours,” he adlibs.

Of course, we were being literal as well as a little self-congratulatory.

For three of the five days of the county fair, our 4-H club had been taking shifts at the milk bar; a small shed tucked away on a back street of the fairgrounds, farthest from the midway.

The line always snakes around the building as people wait patiently for their vanilla shakes and hot fudge sundaes, each one dished up by a kid who can get into the fair for free because of their age.

It's tradition.

Tt had been at least 30 years since I'd been inside the pink-painted building -- or scooped ice cream into slick stainless-steel cups setting them up to spin on the milkshake machine for that matter – and the terrible sound of the metal rotors grinding against the inside of the stainless mixing cup reminded me of the rust that had built up on my muscle memory.

And, truth be told, as we stood there waiting for instructions on that first shift, I had to admit the rest of it wasn't coming back to me. I'd forgotten almost everything about the milkshake process that I'd learned while I was a 4-Her and had volunteered with my own mother “assisting” at the very same booth,

“Don't worry,” said our fearless leader. “It will come back to you. All I need you to do is rinse out the milkshake cups and keep the counters clean … you think you can do that?”

I'm pretty sure the sigh of relief that came out of me at that moment blew some napkins out of a basket five feet away.

Dishwashing and counter cleaning are my life, at least they are some of the chores I'm not unhappy doing.

Turns out milkshake making and “root beer floating” could be my daughter's life, and customer service seems to come to her naturally.

“Twenty-seven,” she yells, holding up a Blueberry Cheesecake Double-dip with a little whipped-cream in a dish. “Special order. TWENTY-SEVEN,” she hollers louder when she gets no answer the first time.

She smiles as the customer steps up, and she hands over the treat, saying “This was my favorite one to make. Enjoy.”

As I witnessed her little moment, I was so proud. The kind of proud you're not supposed to be. The kind of proud that comes from ownership, from having made something yourself with your own two hands.

Wash, rinse, repeat. That is my job.

Support staff.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

And I am happy watching her work.

Traditions like these are important, too.

“This really is the best thing at the fair,” said an elderly gentleman as he waited for his coffee thick-shake with chocolate syrup. When she calls his number and hands him the milkshake he compliments the club and its service. “It's lucky they have you. You do a fine job.”

She stands a little taller and smiles. “We're all pretty lucky, especially you. We're almost out of coffee ice cream.”

Another fair tradition.   

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Just a regular Joe

Excitement was all around us. The crack of a bat. The roar of the crowd. There was even a dancing mascot balanced with cat-like precision on the concrete wall between our section and the outfield.

Then I saw the ball. It was headed our way. High overhead, ready to land somewhere un-gloved and un-helmeted with a thud.

And for the briefest of brief moments I was wondering “What was I thinking?”

Fully three-quarters of our small family had never been to a real live baseball game in our lives.

My husband, the exception, had been to Fenway when he was 10. … And blah, blah, blah something about how it was terrible and how baseball wasn't really his game. But I don't know, I had stopped listening after 'Fenway,' until his voice went silent and I was able to slip in “Hey, we're all going to The Joe on Monday night.”

Now … most people around these parts have been to the baseball stadium located on the Hudson Valley campus at least once since it opened in 2002, right?

Love of Baseball? Curiosity? Or just something to do on a lazy summer evening that won't cost you a house payment?

Well … To tell the truth, the thought never crossed my mind until some friends decided to purchase a block of tickets for a night of Class A short season play.

In fact, the whole room fell silent as my children wondered why on earth THEIR MOTHER would ever drag them to a game NEITHER of them were playing in?

And with foul balls cracked in wild trajectories over the stands, it seemed they might have been right.

I started to hold my breath with every 90-mile-an-hour pitch.

“This one's coming straight for us,” yelled a man in the crowd.

Sure enough, an incoming foul ball glanced off a neighboring shoulder and bounced into the next section.

The man who had “taken one for the team,” was, luckily, still smiling.

And strangely enough, so was I – pressed metal signs warning of the dangers of foul balls, notwithstanding.

Because all around me were signs of things I never expected. Signs of real memories in the making that aren't part of any year-end statistics. There is the grandfather who kisses his grandson's head. A father bouncing his daughter on his lap. A row of people smiling and laughing as their kids holler “batter up.” A man with a fishing net scooping up foul balls to hand to the kids in stands.

This was more than fun.

The score was 4 to 2, and my kids were going wild.

Sodas. Hot dogs. Popcorn. An ice-cold beer. … The only thing missing was the mechanical burp of a t-shirt gun, as the stadium reps tossed the freebies into the stands by hand.

My daughter, dressed in the shortest shorts she own and wearing her complementary baseball hat ironically, was busy creating a dramatic reading of the player stats as they flashed on the outfield screen.


She lost her mind, and potentially her voice for the next few days, when trying to tip the Noise-O-Meter into the red.

But then a blast of music from the loudspeakers sent my son toward me at top speed.

“Hold this,” he hollered, thrusting a cup-full of freeze-dried ice cream spheres into my hands.
“This is my jam! I gotta dance.”

And with those words, the entire group of us – a club of friends and neighbors in the pursuit of running – were treated to an eight year old's version of locking and popping. His hip-hop style made even more entertaining by the alternating heights of already mismatched socks, and his new baseball cap worn backwards and on a tilt.


“Do the worm,” his sister begged.

“Not enough room,” he responds as he reaches out to reclaim his space-age dessert and the seat next to me along left field.

Another lefty at bat.

“Another foul ball, headed our way,” announces the boy as if he were paid to. “Be on the lookout.”
And so we watched carefully and exhaled great shouts of delight when the batter knocked the ball straight into center field, setting the stage for a grand-slam homer.

“I have NEVER seen this team lose,” yelled the boy.

To which I just had to laugh. “Game's not over, champ. You haven't seen them win yet, either.”

Nope. I don't care who you are -- die-hard bibliophile or bookish baseball fan – it doesn't get much better than this on a summer-fading night.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Simply complicated

They were gathered around me like medical students crowding a hospital bed. They watched every move I made as if lives depended on their ability to bear witness.

And they were silent.

But it was my turn to ask the questions.

How do you turn it on?” I asked the boy.

This lever, right here, slides down,” he said, raising and lowering his hand in the air in front of him.

How do you adjust the settings?” I asked the girl.

I believe that knob underneath the lever has number markings. That's how you make adjustments.”

Good. Good.

Tricky question: How do you interrupt the process in an emergency?

Hit this button right there,” said the boy with a smirk. “The one that says 'Cancel'.”

OK, almost ready … One more question:

What should you never, ever, ever, ever do. ... Not in a million years?”

And they answered in unison using the tone-deaf-sing-song voice of pre-adolescent apathy: “Stick anything metal into the slots. … We know, we know. ... Can we just make toast now?!”

This was a momentous occasion, after all.

We have never, ever, in the dozen or so years of being a family, owned a proper toaster.

If you wanted evenly crunchy bread to slather with butter and jam in our house you had one of three options:

1) Let it go stale.
2) Stand in front of the toaster oven and burn all your fingers (as well as the bread).
3) Go to a diner.

Your wondering why you're reading this right now, aren't you? You are wondering: What kind of person doesn't have a toaster? What kind of rube can't toast bread in a toaster oven?

Well, I'll tell you.

The kind of person who secretly calculates the cost ratio of oven-to-toast-product efficiency. And then asks: How many ovens in a kitchen is too many? We already have a convection oven, a microwave oven and a toaster oven, do we really need the smallest in the series of nesting ovens to crisp bread?

Oh, wait. … That was my husband back there. He was the one questioning my sanity and my counter space as I gushed over how the kids had made their own whole grain “toast flags” at grandma's house. How they'd even looked up nations' flags to accurately represent in stripes of peanut butter and jam. Not to mention how cute Japan's center looked in a bright red, homemade raspberry blend.

For the sake of their global education, we need a toaster.”

So off to the department store we went.

Picked out a cherry of a toaster. Now, I can't be certain, because I didn't do any in-depth research into the purchase. But it sure looked like a snazzy device, with its name-brand logo, its bagel-sized slots, its one-touch cancel feature, and its easily removable crumb tray.

We would not be burning our house to the ground because we'd been unable to empty a more difficult crumb tray, no sir-ee.

As we stood there -- mouths watering for the taste of toast-y goodness -- I started to wonder why I've neglected this simple culinary pleasure.

Wondering why I'd ever settle for burnt-on-one-side-soggy-on-the-other substitute the toaster over spit out at me all these years when a toaster was always just a hardware-store impulse-buy away?

But then reality has a way of needling in, reminding me that “simple” has a way of getting complicated.

Turns out, I am also the same person who buys a toaster, plugs it into the wall, gives their kids a five-part tutorial on the safety and efficacy of using counter-top appliances only to find out the toaster is a dud.

That's right. It didn't work. Fresh off the shelf and out of the big box store and … Nothing. No light. No heat. No toast.

I was speechless.

I say we zap it with the mixer,” laughs the girl. “I'll rub the beaters together and yell, 'clear!' That should get it working again.”

“Wait. Hold on. Hold on. ... Since when do we have a mixer?”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Do they feel our pain?

Do I need a pencil sharpener,asked the boy as he skipped alongside the shopping cart, thumping his feet in time with the clank of a rickety wheel.

Nope,I answered with confidence. His third grade school supplies list was refreshingly brief:

Twenty-four pencils, two erasers, a large box of crayons, two glue sticks, two dry erase markers, one spiral note book, three composition books, a cube of sticky notes and a few yellow highlighters.

But do I neeeeeed one?he asked again, prompting me to read the paper in my hand more carefully.

It was a crumpled, messy thing. All summer long I had taken it out of his hot little hands, refolded it and pegged it back onto the refrigerator above his natural reach but not above his much taller, chair-dragged-out-from-the-dining-room height.

It's not time yet,I said gruffly, knowing that other families may be able to save on school supplies by buying early but not us. All those shiny new things would be soggy and used before September if they lived in our house too long.

Are you sure I don't need a pencil sharpener,he interrupted my flashback with new urgency.

The only other items on the list two boxes of facial tissue and a box of gallon-sized resealable plastic bags we would find at the grocery store.

I turned the page over.

It was blank.

No. Pencil sharpener is definitely NOT on the list.”

His face told me that somehow I had not understood his question, I had missed the subtleties of tone with respect to his back-to-school shopping voice, which was only slightly different from his hen is it Summer Vacationvoice and his re We There Yetvoice.

But, even he understood that his mom's School Shopping voice seemed a little too relaxed to be catching his meaning. He had to be more blunt:

Can I have a pencil sharpener anyway?”

I didn't even speak I just nodded toward the cart. It was a supply-side demand that seemed a breeze compared to what I faced with his middle-school-entering sister, who stalked along behind us, staring at her list and muttering to herself as we crisscrossed the store.

She smiled faintly and her eyes glazed over as she unfurled the two-sided, tiny-print scroll that one might presume from its size listed every item available in inventory at the office supply warehouse.

This may take a while,she said with an air of adolescent importance. There are so many things I need.

By the time we finished, the wonky-wheeled cart was having trouble navigating turns it was so overfilled with notebooks and binders, reams of loose-leaf paper, page dividers, index cards, pencils and pens, pocket folders and zippered pencil cases, markers and rulers, and tools I had to look up online.

Is a 'four-function' calculator a standard device,I asked the cardboard display of scientific instruments, presumably visiting from Texas.

It never answered, it just mocked me with too many buttons and symbols I didn't understand.

Mom, you're losing it,sang my daughter as she dropped an inexpensive calculator in the carriage. It was a pretty pink-colored plastic cherry on top of the haul.

By the time we got to the check-out line I was worried my credit card might just collapse under the weight of this pending debt. But I was more worried the forrest that gave its life for this school year would haunt my dreams.

And I just hope all the pencils my boy sharpens unnecessarily don't feel any pain.