Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Merry Crisis to All

I don't have a middle name.

My first name is worry.

From the moment I sluice out of bed each morning until I pour myself right back in at night, I am a full glass of anxiety.

The whole season leading up to this day just adds to the confusion. Consumerism. Praxises. Pressure.

I move through it like a clockwork mouse – quickly and in circles. So many thoughts. So many directions. Same old things: MOM! Did you send our Santa letters? … HON! Did you get my text? … MOM! When is Grandma coming? … HON! Did you get to the Post Office?

So, I wasn't really terribly surprised when a scratchy throat on Sunday evening turned into a raging fever and crippling body aches by Monday morning. I just grumbled: DAMN YOU, FLU SHOT (that I never got) how could you forsake me?

Only to have the Seasonal Influenza Vaccine reply, “How many times did you go to Target in December? Speak to my plunger, you lilly-livered sap, I KNOW you saw my sign.”

Oh yes. It was laughing at me as I just lay there on the couch in a miserable, radiating heap. “You'll just have to sweat me out.”

My husband took over, bless his atheist soul, and unlike most Hollywood plots would have it he directed the choo-choo station traffic with better precision than I ever seem to manage. I didn't even have to get out of bed to give “kisses goodnight.”

He juggled all the balls I threw his way with grace, but by Friday I was crazed:

I. Am. Going. To. Die. My kids will be motherless. (And they won't even miss me.) Their dad will be a widow. (Until he decides which of my friends to date.)

You can't really blame me. Fevers each day. Feverish dreams each night. But blame you shall: “Get thee to a doctor and muster some little pink soldiers to knock down this invading army of microbes, you twit.”

Or was that my husband?

No matter.

Physician, who had previously advised “Heal thyself,” was now piping: “Here's Z-Pak to-save-the-day.”

Of course, with the first dose I felt better immediately and just in time to witness (if not fully participate in) the amazing three-ring-spectacular that would be a “Craftacular Birthday Party” to mark the start of Ittybit's Year 8.

Three weeks' planning and about 65 tons of glitter went into the extravaganza to which her entire Second Grade class (which if you add for sound and excitement factors equates to approximately 3,004 children) and their siblings (another 5,000) would be invited.

Did I mention it would be at our house?


Should have. Sorry.

Sure the doctor told me to “REST!” but I was feeling better just one day with the Z-Troops. I could go up the stairs. I could go down the stairs. Up. Down. Down. Down. I'm gonna sit down. For a while. Am I having trouble breathing? Do I feel light headed?

I settled the question by answering the 11th hour Phone Call of Concern: “You know, SO-AND-SO nearly DIED when they were recovering from pneumonia? Be VERY careful.”

I'm picturing it all over again.

I. Am. Going. To. Die. My kids will be motherless. (Only this time a birthday will be ruined forever.) Their dad will be a widow. (And he's met many new, potentially single mommies at the party I missed while I went to the ER.)

But I do feel light-headed. I AM having trouble breathing. I need to go get checked out, so a friend takes me.

When the nurse hooks me into the vital statistic pole, it's painfully obvious to me that everything is under control except my anxiety.

I'm lucky it's a slow day at the ER because we're home for the opening of presents.

I'm also lucky to have a husband who is so good in a crisis. I'm even pretty sure he would have been able to talk me out of mine if he hadn't been juggling 8,004 little crafters with only a handful of very lovely assistants.

Merry Christmas to all, and may all your crises be small.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

All scars heal

“Where do babies come from, Mom?”

It's the question du jour from the inquisitive four-year-old.

Especially a four-year-old whose new neighbor is getting ready to celebrate an entirely new birthday come the New Year.

And all this newness seems to attach itself quite indelibly and in opposite proportion to the fact that our little ones aren't so little any more.

It doesn't surprise me that the place to reminisce has always been around cakes with growing number of complexity and an increasing number of candles.

In fact, I'm beginning to think birthday parties and birth stories go together like cake and ice cream.

As you stand there watching your children tear through presents and serenade each other with off-key songs with added verses that have been around since you were a child yourself, or choruses of “cha-cha-chas” as is the new way, you can't help but go hurling back in time however many years to the moment this crazy, whirling dervish came into your life.

How many times have I mentioned that “I can't believe they'd let me take an infant home?” I'd hardly ever so much as babysat an infant besides a few minutes of holding them at arms-length, praying they wouldn't cry before their moms got back from the restroom.

So many women. So many stories.

And though each of us has a slightly different experience, we are part of a collective. I stand there blinking as I learn the majority at this party have had caesarian sections. Only one was lucky enough to go the natural, no-drugs way.

I stop myself from adding to the choruses of reassurance that having the doctor hatch them was the only way that our babies were ever coming out. Could things have been different is something I've filed away in that place that makes the disappointment less of a nagging reminder.

These days, though, I'm not doing a good job of reassuring myself that was entirely the case.

So many children. So many questions.

The Big Question, right about now is not exactly “Where do babies come from?” though, that's just how they ask it. They frown a little when you point to your abdomen and tell them they grew inside. “No no no no no no: “How do babies get out of your tummy?”

My best friend in the entire universe gently steered her son from his train table to a popular birth reality television show when a pushing, grunting, screaming woman brings life into the world the conventional way.

“That's pretty much how it works.”

He thought that was pretty cool.

I thought I got lucky … There's only reality for us.

All I have to do is point to my incision and remind them a doctor had to go in and get them.

As they look at me in naked awe, I know there's no need to rationalize the scars that brought them to me. All scars heal but only some scars remind you of something so amazing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

For sale - best offer

You ever look at something so closely that you can't quite see it at all?

That word that you say over and over again until it loses its meaning?

Sitting in front of the old coffee shop, waiting for a friend you haven't seen in god-knows-how-many-years. Maybe you're early. So early that you'd drink your weight in caffeinated beverages if you went inside.

So you sit in your car, waiting. Perhaps you run through the radio presets. Check your bag. Write a list. Think of all the things you have left to do before Christmas. You check the time. Still too early, but getting closer. Once you've exhausted the entertainments inside the car, you turn your attention outside.

Place seems dead. Not like the old days. How many customers have come through the door? You've not been paying attention. You don't think much of it. Times change, people find new hotspots, trends come and go.

Squinting through the windshield you start reading signs:

“Parking for customers only.”

… with dramatic emphasis.

“Parking .. foooooooor cuuuuuuuustomers owwwwwnnnnnleeeee.”

“For Sale – Best Offer.”



“We've Moved!”


Weeeee've Mooooooooooooooooooooooved.

“Oh wait … They moved.”

You read the sign a little more closely, and without the Aussie accent, and head over to the new address … where you find an automatic coffee machine and a few packages of individually-wrapped slabs of marshmallow and puffed rice cereal.

And your friend … looking a little lost, too.

That's a little like the way I felt – lost – reading a piece this week in the New York Times about the unwholesome connection between the nation's schools and the food industry.

“How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid's Lunch” tells the story of how 32 million children in this country – 21 million of them eligible for free or reduced priced meals – feast each day on farm surplus food that, in many cases, began its journey through the elementary canal at the commodities level. It begins its round trip as fresh meat, fruit, milk -- provided free – which is then turned over to for-profit food processors, only to return to the schools' defacto kitchens as nutrient-poor chicken nuggets, potato logs and HFC-laiden fruit drinks.

It's not as if I haven't been reading the lunch menu that comes home monthly with Ittybit. I know the lunch choices in any given week offer two kinds of pizza, two kinds of minced and re-formed chicken substances and the wildcard offering: burger, hotdog or taco.

When I was a kid, walking the school lunch line was a different experience. We had pizza and tator tots on special occasions, it's true. But we also had women dishing out food they'd made from the boxes of greens, sacks of potatoes and trays of whole chickens that waited for their attentions – on a loading dock or walk-in-cooler – each morning.

It seems almost a foreign idea to me that school districts ever provided working kitchens, complete with potato mashers and ricers and hair-netted cooks whose job it was to provide scratch meals for 400 or more children each weekday noon-time.

We've become so specialized, we've outsourced virtually everything.

Someone else can do it better. Cheaper. Faster. More appealing to kids and their picky appetites.

Only, according to the Times article, the savings haven't materialized. Schools may have cut the cost of staffing and preparation, but the fees associated with food processing has made it a wash.

As I sit here, blinking at this new legacy we're doling out like rubbery chicken nuggets, a reality that should have been apparent to me all along finally dawns on me: Even our schools are “For Sale – Best Offer.”

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Virtue that is patient

It wasn't going to be a big deal.

We'd checked with all the doctors. All but one were in the network. And the doc who didn't par with the the plan assured us getting approval to leave the green was merely a formality.

After all, he was the only white coat for miles who specialized and The Champ had been his patient since Day One.

But when I called the pediatrician's office the day before the scheduled appointment -- thinking quite naively that this sacred document known as an Out-Of-Network Referral was as easily obtainable as a prescription for antibiotics in the '80s – I learned the wheels of bureaucracy travel from Point A to Point B in roughly four business days.

Patience is a virtue.

That wasn't the worst part, though.

The rescheduling of appointments I could handle. The contradiction was another ballgame entirely.

As one doctor giveth … an office manager taketh away: According to her experience, it was not only possible but “PROBABLE” that my insurance would deny the request and make an in-network referral of their own.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.



Three offices, five people and seven self-induced heart attacks later I was still holding my breath and my hand firmly on my ...

Eventually it was all sorted out with a few dozen extra steps … Gone was the convenient in-office tests. Replaced with a fun-filled trip to the imaging center of the big hospital, followed by a nearly two-hour layover for the doctor's appointment. Peanuts, however, would be available for a nominal fee at the vending machine.

It would be ok. It really wasn't a big deal. It was just like hopping a connecting flight.

Except I was dreading it.

The instructions were daunting. “Follow the walkway to the main building. Check in at the check-in then go to registration. You will need all of your documents and a picture ID. He needs to be here, with a full bladder, a half hour before the test. … If you have to bring siblings, you will need a second adult to watch them while you accompany your son. If you are late your appointment may need to be rescheduled.”

This is your mission … You have no choice but to accept it.

Truth is, what I really dreaded was spending even a minute in a room marked RADIOLOGY/ONCOLOGY with my boy. I dreaded looking into the faces of mothers whose children weren't there for something routine.

I have to admit, up until that moment, I cursed the insurance company for making me feel as if I were wearing a red foam nose and oversized shoes to jump through their flaming hoops.

But there was my son, dressed in his best worn-out pajamas and bat-winged jacket, selecting a Santa from the coloring sheets and reaching for the crayons one at a time. “He will be a Rainbow Cwaus,” he whispered. “I'll give him to the nice lady at the desk when I'm froo.”

He entertained himself like this from one waiting area to another ... and another ... and another for the better part of hours.

Climbing onto the exam tables. Climbing down. Crawling under chairs. Back up to the exam table. Opening and closing doors. Curtains. Blinds. Fogging the mirrors. Break dancing. Until he realized: The. Rolling. Stool-thing-a-ma-seat!!!!! was out of its garage and ready for a test spin.

He'd just be the valet. He'd drive it on over to the doc once he knock-knocked on the door.

The Champ is one patient who IS truly patient.

Even with the limited space and plentiful requests to stop, sit, shhhh, let go, don't pull on that and leave that thing-I-can't-pronounce alone … he was mostly all smiles … until he had to pee:

“I have to pee.”

“That's good. They're probably going to want a sample.”

“What do they want with my pee?”

“They're going to test it to see if there's anything in it that shouldn't be.”

“Are they going to give it back?”

“Do you want it back?”

And then he was all laughs.

“Only if there's LEGOs in it.”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rustling up the ghosts of Christmases past

As I rustle through the stores this holiday season mulling the purchases that will either make Santa a hero or me a zero (because, lets face it, blaming the big guy for getting the wrong toy just isn't done) I thought I'd wander down Memory Lane and remember all the gifts that haven't been forgotten the second the wrapping paper had been cleared away:

Toy story

BIC Mark-It permanent ink markers – $23

We bought the 36-count set ions ago. Likely before The Champ was even born. We still have all 36 and all of them work. There is no substitute for good markers. And no end to how you can use them. This year we'll be making tie-dye shirts with permanent markers and rubbing alcohol.


Optic Wonder by Toysmith – $7

It's not really a wonder … it's a binocular/compass combo that rarely gets used in our house for either of those functions. But this a $7 hunk of plastic (now missing the compass feature) has certainly repaid its price ten-times over … though I doubt I bought it. Honestly? I had no idea what this mystery gadget was. It just turned up one day and it's been an important tool for propping up toys, spying on sisters and viewing the opera from the living room ever since.

Toy Story

FurReal Newborn Chimpanzee - $14

We call him “Monkey Baby” and The Champ won't leave home (or sleep) without him. Luckily (because of temporary misplacement) we have three of these babies. The “real” part of the monkey – chittering, snoring and squawking have all lost their appeal (not to mention battery juice). Even I must admit it's creepy how cute he is.

Toy Story

Vintage camera, thrift shop - $1

The kids will always dig this baby out of the toy box.

You can find them at etsy, but I'd go to Salvation Army … or Goodwill … yard sales. You might also want to check grandpa's attic.

Toy story

Haba Geomix blocks - $46

We received these Geomix block by Haba as a gift when Ittybit was two. I'm not sure anyone would outgrow these. Ever.

Toy story

Hello Kitty Sewing Machine by Janome - $115

Cute. Versatile. Sturdy. Indispensable.

Santa brought a Sew Mini by Janome, ($60) which was handy and good for light-weight crafting, but ended up needing repairs after only a few months. Santa now recommends spending just a little more.

Toy story

Wooden train set - $50

Their father had a small set … probably from the Brio company.

We went with Circo at Target. Got a 120-piece set for about $50. It's easy to assemble, fits with the old Brio set as well as another plastic model recently and lovingly handed down. I think the best part may be that it's a toy that won't end up in a yard sale.

And it's hours of fun.

Toy story

Legos – Anywhere from $3 to a small fortune

You will step on them, sweep them up, step on them again … but you will never curse the day they were invented. Neither will your kids.

Toy story

Littlest Pet Shop - $4 to $40

Ittybit got her first Littlest Pet Shop when she was two. I got an apology from the benefactor. “They're like crack,” she whispered so that her own daughter wouldn't hear. Now we have more than a hundred of these little bobble headed things. Parents hate them. Kids love them. Can't win every battle.

Toy story

Superstar Mic - $1

Target dollar bin. Looks like the biggest piece of crap going: A plastic ice cream cone housing a metal coil. Batteries not even needed. Big whoop.

Yet … It's been the best dollar Santa ever spent.

This year Santa is looking into

A pottery wheel

A marble chute

A microscope

and an ice cream maker

I'll let you know how my kids think they stack up against the best toy ever made …

Toy story

The cardboard box.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's true, actually

The Champ knows everything. It's true, actually.

The only thing he doesn't seem to grasp is the ability to get my attention without tugging on my shirt.

As I gaze down at the creature testing all his weight on my boiled wool cardigan, he smiles cherubically from under his favorite winter hat, his ears sticking out at an elf-like angle.

I catch his hand and gently peel each finger away from the over-stretched fabric.

“What is it?”

“Did you know bats mostly don't eat blood? It's true, actually. They eat bugs and fruit. We should have a pet bat. Can we get one next time we see a bat store?”

“Sure thing. Let's make a list so we don't forget.”

His expression, now puckered and overly cute, tells me he knows the bat store is a figment of his imagination. I have failed to take the bait.

He continues to quiz me.

“Did you know that there's a wolf what eats nothing but insects? It's true, actually. They're called ART Wolves!!! I think they also eat paint and crayons if it's winter out and the insects go off to hibernate or something. But that's only in the winter time. On all the other days they just eat bugs.”

For a moment, as I make a mental picture of a jackal-like ant-eater snacking away on a waxy stalk of Cornflower Blue in the arctic chill of a South African winter, I consider correcting him. “Aardwolves, a relative of the hyena, eat mostly termites, larvae and carrion. ARTwolves are mythical beasts who eat the crafts of children who don't put away their markers.”

Another failure on my part.

He and his sister are fond of nature shows. They've been watching “Wild Kratts,” a nature series for children on PBS starring the Kratt brothers – Martin and Chris – two science grads who've taken the basic documentary tenant of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and blended it with the modern animation and dramatic license of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

Among recent topics has been the diet of aardwolves, the tracking of Monarch butterflies and how to identify venomous snakes. There's always some tidbit of information that makes you look at whomever else is in the room and repeat what you just heard.

“Did you know Zebras can't see orange?”

The adults will answer: “I had no idea.”

The sprogs will blank stare you as if you just walked in from the moon. “Of course they can't see orange.”

By the time the show is over both kids want to be zoologists, sneaking up on their stuffed animals in an effort to study their behaviors.

But the Kratt brothers sometimes do things you NEVER want to do … Things that will make you think there's a little more Steve Irwin in the brothers' background than Jim Fowler or Marlin Perkins.

Just little things like vexing a venomous viper … or hugging an 80-pound crocodile … cuddling up with a beaver.

It's not as if The Champ is going to be swimming with sharks or aping gorillas any time soon, but I still feel the need to tell him manhandling nature, no matter how gentlemanly, might not be in his (or their) best interest.

“Did you know apes can talk … with their HANDS? It's true, actually. If I saw an ape I would talk to him with my mouth.”

“That's probably a better idea then trying to get his attention by tugging on his shirt.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

You never have all the answers

“Do you remember when Amah ate paint?”

How could I forget?

No one had seen it coming, least of all The Champ. Certainly not me.

His palette was a circle of dots of tempera paint on a sheet of freezer paper. Paintbrush in hand, he was mulling his choices before deciding what color to paint the engine compartment of the unfinished balsa wood train.

I thought it was a project we could all focus on together.

She was starting to wander. … He was noticing something had changed. We were together for the afternoon.

Everyone seemed confused and agitated.

Painting, I said to myself, would be a pleasant diversion.

Better than watching TV …

or playing games with complicated sets of rules.

Rules that were changing all the time.

But even as her fingers dipped into the light blue paint and mixed a little with the orange next to it, I thought she was forgoing the brush and painting, literally, by hand.

When the swirl of marbled color disappeared into her mouth, I knew nothing would likely be easy again.

I wiped her hands and her mouth, put away the paints and then redirected my son, who was stunned and angry.

“Let's just play with cars until papa comes back from the store.”

Thinking back, it seemed like something that happened years before ... not just weeks ago.

Thing is this thing that happened to her – first the stroke, and then dementia, and finally delirium – has left us all staring into the high-beams of oncoming disbelief.

It's not as if we had to tell the kids. They already knew.

They could plainly see Amah was different. Her conversations ran on the same loop. Mostly questions that cycled repeatedly: How long had we lived here? How long have you had a pool? I didn't know you had a cat? Your dad has a cat, you know … it just showed up one day … looks just like yours.”

She couldn't remember the answers we gave her minutes ago. She couldn't say our names.

It was happening right in front of us. All I could do was try to explain what they were witnessing, even when I barely knew myself. All I could do was ask them if they were OK … if they had questions … and then answer them as best as I could.

“Amah isn't herself. She's had a brain injury and some things are getting confused. It's not something she can help. We have to be patient.”

But patience isn't something that comes without practice.

I expected The Champ to need lots of patience from me. He was angry and scared and wanting to be far away from her. It was a natural response, and one I didn't try to reform.

I gave him time and space. He didn't want to visit. I didn't make him.

Amah knew she wasn't herself. In between the barrage of questions, which I believe was her own way of trying to make sense of this new state in which she found herself, she wanted to make sure the kids weren't hurt by her forgetting.

“I know them. I know who they are.”

“I know, Ma. They know, too. Try not to worry. Rest … don't try to remember.”

But it was all just slipping away from her grasp.

The Champ can see that now, too. But he's no longer mad.

When he comes with me to visit her, she smiles at him and tells him he's amazing in words that aren't exact translations. I just know what she means and tell him so.

He reciprocates by tossing a ball and helping with her exercises.

I praise everything he does for her. I celebrate every smile he gives her and that she returns.

Being helpful makes him feel good in ways I hadn't really understood he needed.

“I want to visit Amah today, too. I want to tell her I'm sorry for being mad at her.”

“I think she knows, buddy. I really think she knows.”

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A little about my mother

Something was wrong. I was playing Words With Friends with my mother and I was winning.

We'd been playing the game together … at night … in our separate houses … 11 miles apart … for more than a year. It was always the same. I would come up with words like “Pro” for six points and she would counter with “Pyxes” for 104 points … and then she would send me a note over the game's little messaging system with an apology.

She always felt bad about winning.

She'd often joke that I'd taken so long coming up with my plays that she'd had to let the game select strangers for her to play with as she waited. She liked that she could juggle 12 games at once.

For a few days, though, her plays were taking longer and resulting in smaller scores. It. Was. Here.

She told me she'd been having trouble finding words in her letters, but I'd just assumed she'd gotten a load of vowels and no consonants … or something like that. It's an excuse I've used all the time to explain my pathetic strategizing.

I wanted to believe her because the thought also crossed my mind that she was letting me win.

Some things we leave unspoken.

When she called on the phone and told me she was having trouble writing an email to a relative, I just assumed she meant that she didn't know what to say. She hated email. She felt self conscious writing sentiments.

We. All. Do. That.

But that wasn't it.

She confessed she'd started putting the tiles into spaces and letting the game tell her if she'd made a word or not. I've done that so many times, I now know that “Qi” is life energy – the central underlying principal in traditional Chinese medicine, thank-you-very-much.

But. Not. Her.

These. Were. The. Words. She. Had. Been. Guessing. Words she could have spelled in her sleep.

It had taken me four days to understand that my mother, who did four crossword puzzles a day, who had the best vocabulary of anyone I knew, couldn't spell simple words.

Oh. My. God.

“Mom, you need to go to a hospital. You may have had a stroke.”

She tried to dismiss it. “I haven't had a stroke,” she said, worried she'd spend all day in an emergency room only to have a smiling resident confirm her worst fear: This was the beginning of dementia.

But she was also a nurse. She knew that stroke doesn't always come with severe headache, unilateral weakness or slurring of speech. It can be silent, too.

My father took her to the emergency room.

Turns out she'd had several strokes all over her brain.

Still we thought the news was good. No one could have known she'd had a brain injury. When she left the hospital a few days later she was in good spirits. She was walking, talking and conversing rather normally.

She still played Words With Friends.

But it was frustrating. Words didn't come any easier with time. She worried that it was getting worse. I joked that the only reason I was winning was because she'd had a stroke. I assured her things would improve.

I never imagined it would get worse. She'd already stopped playing strangers and now she couldn't read the buttons. She kept resigning games instead of submitting plays. The buttons confused her.

Eventually she stopped playing all together.

Her decline was so precipitous, it was as if she had slipped away as we were talking and someone only vaguely familiar took her place.

But hope persists. My father kept saying “it could be worse” even as it was getting worse.

I searched the Internet, I spoke with family and friends who’ve had similar experiences or who work in medicine. We had some success in finding root causes of her worsening condition, treated them, but nothing turned around. Not the way we'd hoped.

Doctors spoke of new baselines and tough roads ahead. Long-term care was something we, like many families, couldn't have predicted. Not even a few months ago.

I just kept thinking about that first diagnosis, and how the doctor had remarked no one who didn't know her would have noticed the difference.

Now she doesn't recognize me until I tell her my name.

Sometimes I think this is the saddest moment of our lives together. Me and my mom.

But then she smiles at me with her familiar crooked smile …

and she tries to spell something.

And I realize:

She's still in the game.

She's still my mother.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thinking outside of the cardboard box

When I was a kid costumes were easy.

Or so I assumed.

A week or so before the last day in October some garment so incredibly wonderful and perfect in every way shape and form floated down from the heavens and beckoned me to wear it.

Of course it only seemed special to me if it came in a thin cardboard box with a cellophane oval on the front that revealed a plastic mask stapled on each side with a strand of rubber band.

Special meant store bought. It also meant “would-break-rip-or-become-musty-by-mid-evening.”

The first costume I remember adoring was a vampire assembled out of my mother's navy wool nursing cape, some red lipstick, talcum powder and a touch of burnt cork to hollow out my eyes and cheeks. It was simple, yet effective. Early arrivals were convinced I was the devil, and their shrieks could be heard loud and clear.

I felt bad enough to let my mom take over handing out candy, though not bad enough to change.

The fact that my parents had scoured the closet for old shirts that could be cinched at the waist or stuffed with pillows to recreate any number of clever personas on a smaller scale, was lost on me.

I was equally as oblivious to the sentiments my uncle scrawled – a thickly veiled expletive -- in permanent marker on the sign I paraded around, explaining I was masquerading as “Edith Anne … and you're not. PHPHPH.” It was years before he told us the inside joke on that last bit.

But this is a family paper so I can't spell it out. Let's just say I should have just schlepped around an oversized rocking chair to help people figure out who I was.

But, ahhh. Those were the days. We ebbed and flowed between spontaneous creativity and Saturday morning cartoon as effortlessly as butterflies took flight.

Some things don't change.

My kids have always had a mix of homemade and store-bought costumes. Princess garb has long been a favorite, as have Space Rangers and Spider Men.

And honestly, I've been fine with going the commercial route. Traffic moves faster there.

It took me so many months to come up with a cardboard box parade dragon for Chinese New Year that we finally used it in July.

Although it would give our neighbors a chuckle, I'm not sure I can make the kids wait for Christmas to go Trick-or-Treating.

But it looked like we were heading for Halloween in December this year as each passing day brought no clear decisions from either Ittybit or The Champ.

They knew what they didn't want to be.

“Not a princess.” “Not Batman.” “Someone already took the 'Fire Fairy.'” “And I am not wearing a Pirate outfit.” Racks and racks of perfectly presentable machine-made costumes left them mostly uninspired.

But there was time. Halloween browsing usually starts in mid-July. Stores know this kind of decision making doesn't happen overnight. They plan accordingly. Like right after swimsuit season is over in the Spring.

Still, my kids go down to the wire and eventually come up with stuff so out of the ordinary that even Lady Gaga's designers would have trouble delivering.

This year, in a stroke of inspiration at the break of dawn, a week before the big day, Ittybit appeared at my bedside with grand plans to be a butterfly whisperer.

“You want to whisper to butterflies?”

Her stern look set me straight. No, she will be a girl so sweet and so lovely that she just attracts the fragile insects wherever she goes. They will gather on her clothes, in her hair and drape around her like jewelry.

“She doesn't even wait for the question that is planning to escape after I rub my eyes of sleep.

“Construction paper and hot glue gun.”

It's nice to have a kid who has all the answers.

“Hey … your brother said he's decided he wants to be a superhero skeleton … how can we do that?”

“Oh … he wants to be Metroman when he faked his own death. In the movie, Metroman borrowed a fake skeleton from a nursing school and put it in his cape. You know of any nursing schools?”

“No. But I know where we can borrow a cape.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Waste not, want not

Technically we shouldn't have been there.

DropOff SwapOff is a semi-annual event for the community of Concord, Massachusetts, wherein residents drop off piles of hard to recycle recyclables as well as carloads of serviceable items, such as grandma's old sewing machine, and exchange them for things they could use, like a bookcase or a stroller or a big basket. You never know what treasure awaits.

But there we were in in this historic Boston suburb, visiting elderly relatives, smack dab in the middle of the social (and environmental) event of October. How could we miss it?

The idea is pretty self-explanatory: Some people haul their unwanted stuff to the department of public works, and a veritable army of volunteers sort the goods according to destination: Rags here. Lightbulbs there. Hmmm. … What's this? Working telescope? Walk it over to the swap yard.

It is trash and treasure hunting at its finest: A giant yard sale without the hassle of pricing or paying or keeping watch over the shop.

Since dumps have closed in cities and towns across the country, household waste days have by necessity gotten more creative. Most communities have opportunities for residents to pile their unwanted junk at the ends of their driveways so, in the early morning hours, a municipal truck can spirit it away … never to be seen again.

Not all of our seen-better-days stuff winds up in the trash, of course. But that's a conscious decision made by the few, the proud, the willing to dumpster dive. College students, and even first-time apartment dwellers, have long engaged in this brand of midnight curbside shopping.

Scavenger hunts ahead of the garbage trucks, however, aren't the meat as much as the byproduct. Concord, by contrast, puts reuse ahead of refuse.

Waste not, want not has special meaning for this community.

After midday, the SwapOff was still refreshing its second-hand inventory, though now in a trickling stream. One man hauled in a basketball hoop while another schlepped out a pile of lacrosse sticks.

A woman pushes in a tiny tricycle and rolls out with a spiffy, new-to-her two-wheeler.

As I watched the controlled chaos of the exchange it occurred to me that what I was witnessing was so much more than an ordinary clean-up day. It was more like a challenge-your-imagination day.

Smack dab in front of the DPW building, a man wearing a bright orange vest was building an elaborate sculpture out of the junk that no one wanted. His nametag read “Bill.”

“Today I'm really just an editor,” he said as we were walking by. “You can make suggestions. You can even help,” he told the children as they showed some interest.

It was my husband, though, who couldn't resist. He's the real junk-art-aholic.

As they positioned cross-country skis this way and screwed ping-pong paddles to bird feeders that way, I meandered through the SwapOff. I looked back to see the men upending a battered old Dog Igloo onto a floating basketball hoop, and imagined them discussing the finer points of screw guns and duct tape.

I continued browsing, thinking truly there was nothing I needed. That's when I nearly tripped over the wooden two-room doll house sitting alone and unwanted. I picked it up, my mind whirring: the roof drooped from a broken hinge, a window bulged out, the wallpaper was water stained and faded. It was perfect. The toy I always wanted but, as a self-declared tomboy, had never asked for.

I hauled the prize back to my family and our new friend, Bill.

“Is that for ME?” my daughter asked a little nervously. She already has a dollhouse that suits her fine.

“No. It's for me. I always wanted to make a haunted dollhouse. Now I have my chance.”

The look on her face told me I never really had to worry about my tomboy status.

The only thing I have to worry about now is what occasion will bring us back to Concord in May.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Digging out of the money pit

It all started when I bought him the wallet. Alright … it was, in all likelihood, some time before that … possibly when I told him he could have any money he found under the couch cushions if he helped me vacuum … but that's neither here nor there.

Vacuuming wasn't The Champ's first choice of employment options. With his slight frame and fear of loud noises, it simply wasn't a good match.

The wallet, on the other hand, was the thing that pulled the whole idea together. The wallet meant independence. It also meant incentive.

The fact that the blue, nylon billfold sported an adorable pirate smiling out in sweet cartoonish innocence under a red sticker marked “Half Price” was only incidental.

It was a perfect storm of development milestone meets consumer millstone … a fiduciary accessory that was cute to boot.

Of course it was an impulse purchase.

Regardless, it seemed like the perfect time to introduce the concept of cold hard cash. Shopping trips as of late had become interesting, mostly as a result of his interest in points of purchase and my dwindling income. “Just go to the bank,” was never a viable solution to the perennial “We don't have any money for that frivolous purchase” conundrum anyway

How much things cost was the easy part. How much he was worth, harder. Confusion about why I could not give him a job that could earn him riches beyond his wildest dreams lead to many questions … and then, like any good capitalist, the ignoring of answers all together.

“And then we'll go to the Toy Store … and I will buy my own toy,” he said with the resolve of a thousand boys who'd only just yesterday been thwarted from that very pursuit with a single “No” for an answer.

“Son. You don't have enough money to buy the Super Duper Connecting Blocks Activity Set with the Inlayed Gold and Ruby Encrusted Helipad that I told you we couldn't afford yesterday … and the day before that.”

“But I have a wallet now.”

“And you haven't earned enough money. You only have 16 cents you found in the laundry and a pile of crumbs from the sofa.”

“You could give me more money. I would put it in my wallet and then I could buy the toy.”

“You have to save your money and stop spending it on Alien Attack packages you don't remember two days after you've bought them.”

“But you could …”

“Nice try, but no.

“The. End.

Dusting hands.”

Ok .. it was a string of Nos in rapid succession, but no one behind me in line would challenge my right to use the parenting express lane just because I'd put more than 14 items in my basket. Fourteen Nos are basically one item. Fourteen Nos aren't anything like one No and 13 Maybes … (if you Stop Carrying On like a Spoiled Brat or any number of other potentially mollifying flavors).”

Sounding crazy is just a perk of seat-of-my-pants parenting. I believe most kids intuitively know this and test you at inopportune moments just because they like proving their impish power.

It also shows where the power truly lies … with the squeakiest wheel.

Where was I? Oh yes ...

The empty wallet, which was still a problem in the eyes of The Champ.

“If I had a million dollars, ma, I'd buy you breakfast at Old McDonald's.”

“If you had a million dollars I'd want more than Old McDonald's my friend. I'd want you to pay your fair share of taxes so we could stop firing teachers and start fixing bridges.”

“So how can I earn the money for my Legos?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“Perhaps you should go out to the garden and dig for buried treasure. I'm pretty sure I saw some. All you need to do is clear away the weeds.”

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A model husband

“Did I miss a memo ...?”

His text messages were blinking. It was Sunday night, but his office manager had a pressing question that couldn't wait until Monday.

My husband laughed as he held out his phone so I could see the barrage:

“Is there something I should know? … Such as ... Have you changed professions? Exactly how long have you been a male model?”

She'd been leafing through her copy of This Old House magazine and recognized her employer's face in a Campbell's Soup ad.

Well, actually she only thought she recognized his face. She wasn't exactly sure until she studied the two children balanced on the back of the line-backer-esqe man pretending he was a bucking bronco.

“I'd know those kids anywhere,” she said of Ittybit and The Champ.

He was laughing as he typed a response: … “Ever since I married a photographer.”

He's a good sport.

How could he not be when the focus of my camera often makes my heavy-object-moving, truck-driving husband the target of cheek-biting barbs.

“You sure you can lift that all by yourself? I wouldn't want you to break a nail … or muss your hair ... now that you're a model and all.”

He's a better sport than I'd be, anyway, if my hairdresser had done the double-mirror inspection bit wherein I learned he'd been photoshopping hair on my bald spot ... for years, by the size of it.

I meant well. Really, I did.

But I digress.

I've been selling stock photographs for a few years: A couple of regional ads here, a few website illustrations there. Most of the sales amount to pocket change, which I try to squirrel away so the kids will be able to buy themselves sweatshirts from their college bookstores in 12 or 15 years.

We rarely see the finished advertisements or know where they end up other than the monthly statement of sales telling which ad agency bought what photo. Based on those accountings, it's been apparent that non-US sales are the bread and butter of my little toaster factory. In fact, his minor popularity abroad has become a running joke. He likes to tell people he's “big in Belgium,” though technically his likeness has been licensed more times in Germany.

So being recognized in this country, not to mention finding out (from another Facebook friend) that the same ad appeared in Sports Illustrated was an extra special treat. And one that meant he and I would spend our anniversary “date night” at the newsstand carefully leafing through every possible book that might contain ads for soup.

Honestly. I never knew there were so many magazines. Or so many ads. Or soups.

I think we might have been there an hour learning about the intricacies of advertising one publication at a time. Few ads seemed to be repeated, and don't bother looking for anything save performance enhancing potions in men's fitness magazines.

“So,” I wondered. “If we're blaming fashion magazines for bulimia can we blame fitness magazines for baseball?”

He shrugged.

“Look at this: Page after page of statistics. Honestly, I think I'm missing some genetic component for spectator sports. Reading this kinda thing would make me go blind.”

“Nope. This would make you go blind,” I laugh, holding up the prize he thought I'd overlooked: Maxim. I knew he'd poured over it slowly and carefully as I inspected every single offering in the home design section.

“I think I'll just go through that one more time. I may have missed a page.”

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Having influence often means trusting theirs

Most of the time, as a parent, and even as citizen of the world, I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing.

It's not as if I don't look around and see all the things that others do differently. Do better.

The truth is, having so many directions to turn makes every step we take seem precarious. Go this way and you meet a dead end. Turn that way and you may fall off a cliff.

It's enough to make a parent crazy.

Raising children is life's eternal experiment.

Someday we will unleash these people we made into the world, our bath-phobic, pajama-wearing-in-public, screaming-mimi children will eventually be the bosses of themselves. I'm not sure I will ever be ready.

As I think of all the possibilities, I find myself wishing for perseverance instead of luck. In my anxious, hovercraft parent brain, failure is inevitable and luck is not only fleeting it's fickle. The same providence that wins the grand prize in the lottery also temps many a not-so-happy fate, of which we parents can't speak.

Yet, from the important to the seemingly inconsequential, decisions must be made. Navigations charted. And though we can see our destination, we rarely have a clear path to its shores. We can never really know with certainty which choice will affect which outcome.

What should we encourage? What should we dissuade?

I hate dance class. I've made no pretense of liking it though I wish, for Ittybit's sake, I could manage a better poker face.

I've been working on that.

We all carry our own experiences. Prejudices. Pride. Things that makes rebellion so intoxicating.

I talked her out of Girl Scouts and into 4-H.

I plan on indexing flyers for pee-wee football in the revolving file.

I'm wondering if I can convince them Disneyland is really just a bowling alley in southern Maine. "Hey kids ... look ... It says 'Vacationland.' I hope Mickey isn't on vacation."

I'm hoping neither of my kids get tattooed, but I know I'll learn to accept their bodies with scribbles. If I must.

I ebb and flow with and against convention.

She wants to be a ballerina-veterinarian who sings on stage. He wants to run away from home and take me with him. I'm sure he thinks I'll support him, even in his resistance from parental interference.

I shouldn't laugh. Must. Not. Laugh. It probably doesn't matter, I'll always embarrass them.

Instead, I just move from moment to moment wishing for calm and peace and hoping I don't inflict any lasting damage to bodies or psyches.

Who wouldn't like to raise a doctor? So long as they don't have to sell their souls lest they default on student loans.

And yet, when The Champ came to me and said the only thing he wanted for his “fird birfday” was a skateboard, I barely hesitated. Safety first: Helmet. Pads. Board. The three musketeers, all for one and one for all.

I'm not sure what possessed me: I just kept invoking the holy trinity: Helmet. Pads. Board.

And as he was working on balance, low and slow on the driveway, I quietly thanked the force behind his interest that I didn't have to sit in the bleachers at the Little League field passively rooting against someone else's kid on an opposing team.

But I know I can't keep them from the world. I can't even control how they move in it, truth be told. I can only hope to influence and that my influence, even with the best of intentions, isn't misguided.

He's a year older, now, and still dragging his board out on the driveway from time to time.

When a local skatepark opened this week, he wanted to go and bring his board.

But when he saw “the big kids” doing their thing ... he wanted to leave it in the car and just watch.

Then he wanted to go home.

And practice.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Selling it short

When I learned that our school district was closing two neighborhood schools this year I experienced all the usual emotions a parent feels. I was disappointed that my children wouldn't be able to walk to school, up hill, both ways, in the snow and sleeting rains of September.

They wouldn't learn to diagram sentences or practice fluid writing at the brick school building just a few doors down the street. The joyful noise of students on the playground would be silenced.

As a community member, though, I was resigned. If there really were fewer students to educate, and less money with which to teach them, consolidation was inevitable. I felt sorry for the elderly people who showed up at board meetings voicing a widely held belief that with the economy in its current state something had to give … but it wouldn't be them.

They'd already given enough.

Consolidation wasn't a perfect solution. The buildings would still need to be maintained, though not to the same extent as they would were they being used. The real savings was in the form of jobs. And so it was decided the schools would close. Class size would increase. Scores of teachers would be released to hunt for employment elsewhere.

We weren't an exception to any rule. We fit a pattern that is being cut and sewn across the country. Tighter waistlines everywhere.

Schools nationwide are feeling the pain of this severe recession. Some districts have been decimated; half of their schools and staff already scraped off the chopping block. Schools are combining classes, cutting back on arts, some are even scaling back their hours of education all together. Teachers are buying communal supplies out of their own pockets. Some are ending their school day cleaning their own classrooms as maintenance jobs are eliminated.

Bare bones in the classroom, for some, has even meant doing away with soap and towels in the bathroom, opting instead for anti-bacterial hand sanitizers.

Doing without is something that seems inevitable for everyone in every industry. Unless you happen to be in a corner office in Corporate America, where profits are soaring despite jobs being stagnant.

It seems only the rich are eating their cake and having it, too.

But for how long?

I shake the thought from my mind long enough to help the kids on with their bike helmets. They want to ride to the playground. It will be their first bike ride outside of our meandering driveway.

They've been practicing.

They know they'll have to stop and look before crossing driveways. They're ready and eager to hop off and walk their bikes through intersections.

Getting to the playground under their own pedal power has important meaning. Another step toward independence as they embark on the long road to self-sufficiency.

All was as it should be.

Until we got to the school and found great heaving craters where the playground equipment used to be. Gone were the slides and monkey bars and climbing walls. Gone were the swings. The only thing remaining was an octagonal picnic table and a few chunks of discarded cement.

Where did it go?

I asked ittybit if they maybe moved it to another school, the most likely possibility.

She didn't know. They didn't move it to her school.

Maybe they sold it.

Whatever it was, it wasn't here - in this neighborhood - any more.

Standing there staring at the empty schoolyard felt more than depressing. It felt vaguely apocalyptic.

The only thing that could make that moment worse would have been if we had been holding ice cream cones and accidentally dropped them in the detritus.

Or perhaps a balloon, popped by the need to give investors their profits.

The disappearance of the neighborhood school wasn't so much of a weight lifted as a missing piece.

Small pieces gone for now. Maybe even forever.

If this is the future, I can't help but think we're selling it short.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Making lemons out of lemonade

She was so busy counting her money that she wasn't listening as her father tried to explain how IT worked.

The IT that was making him turn blue in the face was profit margin.

"Remember how you went to the store and bought all of the supplies?" he said slowly.

"Yes, I remember," she sung in response, pretending his stern look was a part of a game that started yesterday in the grocery store. "Mommy wanted canned and I wanted real lemonade. She won."

"Do you remember who paid for the inventory?"

"What's inventory?"

"The lemonade you sold today."

"Mom paid. We're not shoplifters!"

"No, no you're not shoplifters. But because mom paid for the supplies fair and square, it means she's an investor, and, as a shareholder, some of that money you made selling the lemonade she bought goes back to her."

"What does that mean?"

"You owe mom the cost of the lemonade out of your profits."

"What does THAT mean?"

"Basically, it means half."

She stopped counting her money. Her face clouded and tears filled her eyes.

I'm not sure if he recognized in her expression that telling her a percent more than the initial investment was supposed to come from her earnings, too, would send her over the edge.

He told her anyway, and off the cliff they went.

"This is MY money. I earned it."

"No. Technically, part of it is OUR money and we deserve to be repaid."

In essence, what followed devolved into each of them shouting "mine, mine, mine" at each other like a flock of seagulls at a clam bake.

She was too young for this lesson, I thought as I listened to my husband become more and more adamant about return on investment, and our daughter become more focused on the dollars in her grimy, this-is-why-we-chose-cans hands.

Poor little business girl knew she wasn't going to win this one. She forked over the cash her father had demanded and stormed to her room.

"What was I supposed to do?" he asked me guiltily, as if I had a clue.

Economic principles shouldn't be this hard to explain, I think to myself. You have a business. You buy supplies. The profit comes after you sell the product AND pay back your loans.

But it's never that easy.

I couldn't stop thinking about a story I'd read in the New York Times about how video gaming is the most heavily subsidized industry in the United States because it fits all the criteria for technological research and development, which the government will pay for to bolster the greater good.

Changing the criteria seems almost impossible because no one wants to kill tax breaks or jeopardize jobs, which are both substantial. According to the article, the industry's median job pays $80,000 and the amount it writes off completely is in the neighborhood of $123 billion.

No wonder why education is so screwed up.

Teachers, schmeechers. X-Box is more important than algebra anyway. Even the IRS thinks so.

The more I think about it the closer my shoulders align with my ears. How can I relax when I think the only hope for the future is if the gaming industry hires the teachers we fire so they can educate the next generation of video game makers? But then it strikes me that self-investment is the only viable answer to our own sour lemonade stand-off.

Next time she wants to set up shop, she'll just have to stake her own business. With all the loot she's been hoarding from from birthdays and tooth fairy visits, she's certainly got enough cash to keep from making lemons out of lemonade.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Look both ways, but cross the street

Dear Ittybit & Champ,

On this day ten years ago, at 8:57 a.m., I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the newspaper's office. Stunned. The radio station had stopped regular programming to announce a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. As I sat there, blinking at the announcer's voice streaming into my car, I thought a small plane had gone off course and struck the building. 

 I shut the car's engine off, ran upstairs and told the only other soul in the newsroom to turn on the television because a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. When the picture faded in, we watched as a second plane hit the other tower.

Clearly, this was no accident.

I don't think I've ever been so stunned or uncertain or quiet in my life. I couldn't really absorb what was happening. It was all just rushing around me like waves of ice cold water.

The day went on like that, and the feeling continued into the next, and the next and the next. Whole months went by in a fog. 

Things changed. People were nicer to each other (for a time). We made decisions because of (rather than despite) the tragedy. In my case, the hopelessness I felt made marriage and children important where it hadn't been before. It made YOU important. 

Then time wore on and we found ourselves in a war that seems meaningless; a war on the crime of terrorism that is as "winable" as the decades-long war on drugs. We find our constitutional rights eroded, and we accept it as the price of safety. We have gone from a nation united in tragedy to one that is divided by ideology. 

Ittybit, you attended your first day of pre-school on the fifth year of this tragic anniversary. As I kissed you and watched you greet your teachers, I wondered what will you ultimately learn from this new milestone, school? I wondered what legacy we are handing you and your classmates?

Since the Champ came along we haven't spoken much about the events that in so many ways made you both possible. Made your father and I rethink what it was we were doing together. Playing house? Pretending to be adults? What was the purpose if not to raise children.

Getting married and having children wasn't an act of defiance. It wasn't a political statement. It was the understanding that the rest of our lives started right that very minute and it needed to count. It needed to be more than just us. 

Nevertheless, we have come to realize the world we brought you into has changed in ways we can hardly comprehend ourselves.

I know you cannot be safe. None of us can. And yet I am a part of this collective anxiety in which our bodies respond to Code Orange as if it had meaning other than to instill fear and loathing. I want to put it all into perspective, but the constant coverage of what-ifs and could-bes makes it difficult to remain calm. 

Home of the free? The brave? It doesn't feel like it much anymore.

Perhaps this is my cause, lovies. Something I want for you more than anything else. To realize our time here is brief and some of it will be tragic. There will be sadness for which we cannot prepare, and yet we have to be brave. To not give in to fear or hatred because it is likely to lead us down the wrong path. 

I want to tell you to take chances, my beauties. Play in the mud and the muck and the paint. Get dirty. I want you to learn how to talk to strangers. I want you to come to love them, even when they prove to be imperfect. I want you to be aware that you are not alone in this world. Look around and take it all in. Take precautions, too, but don't let them take over. Look both ways before you cross a street, but cross the street. 

And please, little ones, try to play nice, OK? 


Sunday, September 04, 2011

We are our own worst frienemies

Something was in the air.

Ittybit had been scouring the yard for poultry feathers. She had a fistful and I could see her mind turning with all the possibilities. Maybe she'd make pens for writing … or a headdress … or maybe she was planning on cloning an entire Gallus Gallus flock of her very own.

I also noticed she was running toward my friend, who, I noticed, was curling and uncurling her finger in my daughter's direction.

Whisper, whisper, whisper …. Pssst psst, psst, pssssssst … Giggling.

Here it comes ...

“Mommy, Can we take one of their roosters home with us? Abby's mom said it was OK.”

Abby's mom was sitting in the lawn chair, cackling like a possessed chicken, as her flock of fledgelings darted about the yard, diving into mud puddles and hunting down all manner of creepy-crawling things to eat.

As were our children, who, as the weekday backyard birthday party came to a close, were still finding themselves as hungry as if we'd fed all the festive fare to the fowl.

Well … most of our children, anyway. My youngest, filled to the gizzards with cake and ice cream, was sitting on my lap blowing soap bubbles. It would have been an unspeakable horror for him to have to walk on the grass – which was wet from all the make-shift water slide fun – and forever endure the squeaking of his shoes.

“Does he have sensory issues?” one mother had asked discretely. “No, he's just weird,” I laugh.

I was an outsider, a last-minute guest who had never even known such a thing as Weekday Birthday Parties existed.
I marveled at the turnout.

Abby's mom just laughed. “Well, none of them work.”

She wasn't making a judgement, she wasn't picking a fight ... she was just stating the obvious: These women didn't have to punch a time clock or show up at an office to put in eight hours before they could go home to their families.

So here I was, a new member of the maternal organization of free agents, finally seeing all the possibilities.

It's not as if I don't have work … like this column … or photography … it's just that I also have vacuuming … and carting of kids from one event to another ... taking the cat to the vet. I just have to get over the idea that sweeping up dirt that gets tracked into the house is my new job description. ... It is not.

It's not like I died.

I'd just been laid off. My job added to a pile of more than 3,200 positions torched by the news industry in 2011.

But oddly enough, once the shock of timing had worn off, all I was left with was relief.

I can do anything I want to do.

I can be self-employed. I can freelance. I can do whatever I want. ... Sort of ...

I could garden! If-I-could-find-something-that-didn't-need-sun-or-skill-to-grow.

I could write that book! If-I-could-figure-out-a-plot.

I could even raise chickens! If-I-didn't-live-in-a-village-that-has-outlawed-farm-animals-within-its-borders.

“You know, we haven't had a tick all summer and that's pretty amazing for this yard,” my friend gloated, as only a woman who lives outside of zoning can.

I just smile as I try to brainstorm something to reciprocate her kindness. Maybe I'll bring her kids a puppy.

With friendships like these, who needs enemies?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Just another suburban legend

The wilds of Maine are filled with roaming gangs of feral children. And no amount of logic nor arguing will tame them.

Or so it would seem as we, members of the Clan of Aging Hipsters, filled to the brim with barbecue, gather around the backyard fire pit clutching our bottles of pale ale. We chat idly about the salad days as we watch our progeny organize their rebellion near a giant cedar play set, which is festively draped in Christmas lights.

We are holding court and they are playing the sabatours.

No matter how many times we tell them not to trample flowers, aim foam-blunted projectiles at body parts or tear into delicate tent zippers, they simply nod their heads and continue onward.

Their giant shadows dancing raucously under the rippling dapples of green and red light as their tiny bodies act out all manner of imagined adventures.

Soft swords slash the air and foam bullets ricochet off the tent flies landing smack dab in the center of half-eaten delicacies piled on paper plates.

A three-year-old, the smallest active member of the battalion, is the only one to hit vital targets: My husband's cranium, my cleavage and her own father's groin region. She wasn't even aiming.

There were great roars of laughter and eardrum-piercing squeals of delight as the children darted animately about the yard making memories. We stared unblinkingly into the flickering firelight silently reliving ours.

I listen as Ittybit barks orders to the ranks, some of whom smirk at the novelty of a pint-sized general sounding the battle cry, but they carry out her requests without question or hesitation. Everyone is having fun.

As night falls, so do the children. Their bodies can't keep up with their over-stimulated minds. They trip over tent flies and fall to the grass. Some cry. Others complain. Everyone is losing the plot. Someone herds them inside and turns on a television. An electronic narcotic for all ages.

The air was chill and the bugs were biting. A soft couch and a flashing screen of classic cartoons seemed the perfect end to a perfect day.

We were a little jealous. We mused about how everything seemed easier when we thought our lives would be an adventure ... and that any problems we encountered could be eradicated with a shot of (insert the name of vexing problem here) spray from Batman's utility belt.

For a moment around that fire we were all kids again, trading lines of remembered script as if we were still sitting in the living rooms of our childhood soaking up the latest Johnny Quest, just the the way our kids soak up Sponge Bob.

We peered past the flames to the picture window as someone threw more wood onto the fire. "Holy crow, they're watching Thunder Cats in there," said one of the dads wistfully. "We're all out here talking about cartoons and they're in there watching them."

It occurred to me that the first crack in the generation gap has formed as we continue to compare and contrast the virtues of our cartoons against the vices of theirs.

"Yeah ... but Sponge Bob has nothing on Thunder Cats. They don't make shows like ours anymore. You know that 'Finneas and Ferb' show? I don't get that at all. The sister is always trying to stick it to her brothers but her parents never see what's happening. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. I don't get that."

Of course, once you have had that conversation with your kids you might as well hang up your clicker and your righteous indignation for good.

"Yeah ... Well, how about that Coyote ... always missing the Roadrunner ... Lather, Rinse, Repeat?"


As the flickering lights start to fade and the party wanes, a cold gust of air reminds me that summer is also coming to a close ... as are the days in which we rule the kingdom.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hey, Lady

Whenever I hear a self-described lady say: "I'm not a feminist, but ..."

I want to stop her right there and tell her whatever she plans on saying next is completely unimportant.

It is of no value or consequence.

Because that's what women were ostensibly told before our grandmothers and great grandmothers fought for the right to vote. Before our mothers secured the ability to be in control of the size of their families. Before they refused to accept the standard choice of careers.

I hold my tongue. Perhaps it's also the lady's choice to define herself and feminism so narrowly.

Feminism, for women like her, has morphed from a word to a dreadful afflictions. Perhaps it references a person she believes to be the opposite of womanly. A pushy broad she'd like to keep at arm's length. A woman she neither liked nor wished to emulate.
A woman exactly like her mother.

Feminism for those women, and lets not forget the men, is something entirely different. To them feminism is the basic component of a free society.
It has nothing to do with who opens doors for whom, or who stays home with the kids. It's not about forcing women into military service or mandating that men mop floors. It isn't about turning people into something they're not. In so many ways feminism is the exact opposite.

Although I'm sure our comfort with specific gender roles does blind us to the real issues of equality.

Personally speaking, I find the idea that feminism can be boiled down to the assigning of household chores insulting. But I had to mature to realize the hubris.

Like many young women trying to find my own voice, I mouthed the same anti-feminist idiocy that took my very existence for granted:

"I'm not a feminist, but ..."

And what I meant was:

"I'm not a man hater."

"I'm not angry."

"I don't think I'm better than you."

" … But I am ... better than you."

What I didn't understand was that feminism wasn't about any of those things.

Feminism isn't about obliterating feminine traits or emasculating men. It's about teaching boys they are not masters of the universe and teaching girls they are not victims of it. It's about having respect for each other, and realizing we need to work together.

In my way of thinking, feminism doesn't even have much to do with personal fulfillment, although that is certainly a benefit. On the contrary, feminism has everything to do with equality. It has everything to do with acknowledging the need for all people to be afforded the same opportunities - regardless of gender - for the betterment of society. It's acknowledging that where you have empowered women you have stronger communities.

Feminists are everywhere women are respected. It doesn't matter what they wear, or what they do, or even which pair of chromosomes they posses. When we accept feminism, it means we believe men are capable of nurturing. We believe women are capable of leadership. It means we are not narrowing the possibilities.

It's not special treatment. It's equitable treatment.

So, dear ladies and gents, if you believe women and men should be treated equally under the laws of society in which we live, you may call it whatever you like, but you are a feminist.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Smart phone. Dumb users.

I don't usually pick up the phone when I'm driving. Not only is it illegal, but I'm probably one of the few people on the planet who feels that each time I do it successfully I am tempting fate.

But something, perhaps the string of bad news and unfortunate events that had been dogging me that week, made me reach for the phone when I saw my husband's number blink across the screen.

"Where are you?"
"On my way ..."
He didn't let me finish.

Something was wrong. And the phone kept cutting out.

"... I was .. lawn chair. ... finger. ... cut off ... ambulance ... You need to get the (expletive deleted) home NOW!"

I heard that last part loud and clear.

He added an "I love you," to soften the panic in his words before he hung up.

I tossed the phone and concentrated on driving. But my mind was making moving pictures of the possibilities:

He had invited some friends over for swimming. There had been an accident and someone was hurt. Possibly disfigured. My initial understanding was that my husband had cut off a finger in a mishap with a folding chair. That was bad enough, but the mom side of my mind couldn't let go of the idea that maybe it had been a child whose name could rhyme with "I was" if you said it just the right way against the static.

I started driving faster than my usual, senior citizen-like speed concentrating on the road instead of my mental motion picture.When I arrived the ambulance was turning around and ready to leave. I could see my husband on the gurney hugging his arm, wrapped in a towel, to his chest. He smiled painfully.

I breathed a little in relief. "Damage to a finger isn't as bad as damage to a four-year-old's body."

Still, I stood like a deer in the headlights, stopping the ambulance to ask all the questions our guests, waiting inside, could have answered: What happened? Amputation! What hospital? AMC!

Inside the children were watching TV, but not as calmly as it first appeared. Ittybit all but ignored the video and tried, instead, to gauge the situation by parsing how many expletives rushed forth from her father's mouth.

Everyone was trying to change the subject.

As soon as my children saw me their tears started to flow. They had seen more of the accident than they had let on."It's just a bad cut that needs more than a Band-Aid to fix," assured our guests, one of whom had also hunted in the weed-choked yard during the dusk-descending aftermath, for the remnant. The other had called for the rescue squad.I stood silently, nodded and hugged my kids. "It's just a deep cut. Not as bad as it sounds. He's going to get a few stitches and be home before you know it."

It was all true, of course - the cut was neither as bad as it seemed nor as bad as it could have been in the crushing jaws of an ancient, adjustable lawn chair. It was just a mishap gory enough to warrant sewing, antibiotics, a bandage as thick as a boxing glove and at least two visits of follow-up care. Not to mention the investment in updated outdoor furnishings.It would be all right. But it was also going to be a long night. The boy would have his first-ever away-from-home sleepover, the girl would get as much sweetened cereal as she liked, and I would get a security badge and a chair in emergency room B-19.

Oddly enough, when a terrifying event isn't as bad as you'd otherwise expect, you can almost relax and enjoy yourself.

You tell jokes. You make conversation. You take pictures with that very same smart phone you wish you didn't have to answer.

And you call to thank your friends again, and to let them know it's going well ... and not to open any pictures the patient might have sent in his shock-induced frenzy. At least, not if they planned to eat anything for breakfast.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Goodnight, sweet Madeline ... see you in my dreams

February, 2004

She wasn't the dog I wanted.

The litter of lab mutts she came from had three distinct varieties: Black as night, yellow as the sun and a her — a mix of both with a visible splotch of mid-day hound dog for good measure.

The others had wriggled their way into my lap and were covering me like a blanket of unabashed love. She had sniffed me and walked away.

Oh, I had pick of the litter but I knew the pretty pups had people lined up to adopt them. ... No one wanted the one that looked like a mongrel.

So, home she came with me, this tiny little eight-week-old ball of not-as-attractive fur. I named her Madeline ... the prettiest name I could think of.

Wanted or not, it didn't take long before I knew she was the dog I needed. She was not in my house more than an hour when she moseyed on over to the door, sat down and scratched it.

So smart.

So smart, she could later open the door herself.

So smart, that even when her dumb owner handed her an old shoe, it was the only one she ever chewed.

So smart that she learned to get around the other rules.

Like not eating the food off of plates balanced by humans momentarily looking the other way.

Or becoming so stealth in thieving that she could rise up on her hind legs without jingling her tags and drag a whole pie, pan and all, off a stove top without her nails even clicking. What's more, she could consume her ill-gotten gain, filling, crust and crumbs, with its baker standing within eyesight.

So cunning that NOT hearing her eventually sets off alarms.

A sweet, lovable and obnoxious dog. Wont to bark intermittently for no apparent reason. And knock over small children or step on their feet. A chaser of cats (until she cornered one and then realized they kinda scared the dog out of her). And my personal favorite, always being where I needed to be ... and refusing to move.

Lovingly, I added an initial to her formal name: Madeline J. Dog ... The J standing for Jerk.

I had considered, and then dismissed, adding an “I” for Infuriating.

Of course she was also the dog who would lay by your side, looking at you worriedly, should your back happen to spasm. She would always be there, even when she seemed utterly disinterested. Babies came home and her place in the pecking order changed. Though she seemed to want no part of these crying teacup humans, she couldn't take her eyes off them.

Even though she was standoffish ... she never stood off too far.

Until now. In perpetual sleep.

I gathered some photographs I'd taken of her over these past 16 years, and was surprised by how many pictures she'd been in just around the corners. Never too far from the main activity. I smiled at that thought of her feigning disinterest. How many walks had we taken? Probably not enough. How many sticks had we thrown? She never grew tired of bringing them back. How many times had we said "Bad DOG!" while trying not to laugh? Too many to count.

I know everyone says their dogs seem more human than canine. I'm not going to be different as I look back on her life. Maddy always seemed more playful, more intuitive, more comic and more in tune with us than I ever thought possible. She never stopped changing. Her quirks, likes, dislikes all seemed fluid as she aged. Only her sweet disposition -- and her penchant to jump up suddenly and race out of the room as if it was on fire — remained constant.

Near the end, as I was over-feeding her palliative French fries and marveling at her still keen ability to chase and pin her late-in-life cat friend, or abscond with an entire plate of food mid-meal, I couldn't help but think of all the joy and the life lessons I would have missed had she not been stuck with me.

I never thought I'd miss her infuriating traits: Her running roughshod over the kids, her chewing of all things important, or her petty thievery.

But that was the flip side of all the traits that made her sweet and endearing. too. Without one we wouldn't have appreciated the other.

Sweet dreams, my sweet Madeline. I couldn't have imagined a better friend.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

When moms croak and cats fly magic can happen

"He stole my gnome and then he pinched me on my foot."

"Well, she tookt my esperamint and woozent given it bact."

They've been bickering all morning. He coveted her Lego Gnome figurine with the fishing pole and hat set at a jaunty angle. She wanted his Mad Scientist with the pointy, rubber wig and plastic beaker filled with green bubbles. Neither wanted to trade.


When they stood shoulder to shoulder at the kitchen door trying to prevent the other from getting to me first, I wanted to run away from home.

The only thing keeping me from screaming right there and then was a case of allergy-induced laryngitis.

"You," I croaked, pointing toward my son: "Stop touching your sister. And you," I turned to my daughter: "Stop tattling on your brother, and handle this yourself. You are a big girl."

Her eyes got all big and she clutched at her chest as if mortally wounded from being falsely accused.

"Me? I'm not tattling. Tattling is when you tell something that isn't true about a person, and he most definitely PINCHED me AND took my Lego. It's not fair."

"No. Telling a lie is 'fibbing.' Tattling is when you tell of someone's actions, hoping to get them into trouble. It's really a breach of confidence."

"No it's not. Not telling when someone hits you is letting them be bullies, and it's not allowed. You have to speak up. Anyway, you're the parent. You are supposed to tell him to apologize for hitting me and then get back my toy."

All I wanted to do was soak my throat in a mug of warm tea and honey, and arguing with a seven-year-old over my perceptions of the effectiveness of Zero Tolerance polices wasn't going to get me anywhere.

The bickering continued and I thought I would lose my mind. Even our mostly-deaf, incontinent dog started to bark, presumably because one of my warring minions had left their breakfast uneaten and teetering just out of her reach.

The only recourse I could muster at that moment was to let loose the full power of my rage and hope it didn't do permanent damage to my vocal chords or the children's tender hearing.


My voice sounded like a cartoon. And yet, only the cat, who launched herself three feet straight up into the air and then shot into the next room as if her tail were on fire, seemed to be upset by my Exorcist-like outburst.

I felt bad for scaring the cat. A little, anyway.

Everyone else (except for the geriatric dog, who still wanted the waffles) started to laugh at the feline's fleetness.

And then a real, Miracle of Supply happened. The boy handed back the girl's Lego and she in turn told him to keep it.

It must have been a true hardship to have lost the appetite for bickering just when the rewards were greatest. For I could see in their eyes how much they wanted to see their old mom make the cat fly again.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Like mother, like son

The Champ used to be so sweet.

A happy child. Friendly and amenable. A parent's dream. That's what people called him. Of course, they'd see him playing happily by himself, nary a whine nor whisper of discontent ...

OK. ...

He was never one to immediately share his toys, or anything even remotely resembling toys — lint balls, perhaps from under the bed — with visiting playmates, but eventually the kindness of others would rub off and he would relent. He might even ofter a broken rubber band to the patient guest.

But that's just how kids are sometimes. Selfish little jerks.

Mostly you try to let that stuff pass with small reminders of how we "should be treating our friends," hoping the operative word FRIENDS will eventually make an impression with repeated use.

Lately, though, life with The Champ has seemed a little like being forced to to sit in a darkened movie theater watching sneak previews of his teenage self saying all manner of unscripted lines, in a language I don't quite understand. Only the smell of butter-flavored treats or the feeling of an arm's length detachment would make this "phase" seem less dreamlike.

He growls at strangers when they try to make his acquaintance, or worse, he'll describe physical features instead of using names when asking questions of his own.

Even when he's trying to be pleasant, there's the unmistakable awkwardness of candor:

He'll respond to an emphatic "Thank You Very Much" with an equally effusive "You're not welcome."

"Hey, Mr. Fat Guy, did you ride your bike all day way over here? Dat's pretty cool."

"Mrs. Old Lady. You dropped somepin from your poctet."

"That kid is out of control. I'm not playing wit him."

I smile painfully, wishing I could clasp my hands tightly over his mouth two seconds before the words tumbled out. But there is no two-second delay in real life. ... It only feels like time slows, since the words hang in the air taunting you with the fallacy that they would be so easy to clear away with only the swish of a hand.

Those moments of pure mortification, however, are the flip side of the moments of undeserved perfection.

Like the time, in high school, I walked home from the bus stop and some catcalling seniors drove by in their muscle car making a spectacle of themselves.

I thought it may have been some act of divine intervention when their transmission fell out onto the roadway a few yards after they sailed past me. I remember feeling vindicated as I walked by the broken down jalopy and they were quiet as mice.

Or when my otherwise disobedient pooch, heeded my whistle at the dog park and ran to sit at my side. As a crowd watched.

Even though you know these moments were gifts and unlikely to be repeated, the seed of hope that you can control the universe is planted anyway.

Someday ... if you just keep reminding him ... he will be charming again.

"Oh, Champ. That's not polite. We don't describe people ... we use their names. We try to find something nice to say. We try to avoid things that could hurt people's feelings. What if I said you were out of control and I didn't want to play with you?"

"You do!"

I stand there squinting in the glaring light of truth: Parents can really be jerks sometimes, too.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

And justice for ...

I'm one of those moms people have been talking about.

Kind of. ...

I'm surely the kind who can picture themselves faced with the horror of dealing with a missing child. Or, more likely, not dealing with it. Picturing themselves, instead, crumpled up on a couch somewhere in a darkened room, not coping at all.

Truly, I don’t know how I’d react to such a tragedy, and I hope I never have to find out.

But I’m not the kind of mom who could bear to watch the media coverage of the Casey Anthony trial. And not because I couldn't fathom how a woman could kill her own child. Or how a child could die and a mother move on with her life, seemingly unaffected by the loss.

I can fathom that, and it is soul crushing. No one will ever have satisfying answers. I know this, too.

What I really couldn't stand was to see all the law-abiding citizens lining up for a chance to gawk at a woman they believe murdered her daughter and then covered it up, rationalizing their own behavior as anything other than morbid fascination combined with mob mentality.

I couldn't stand the presumption of guilt.

And then Casey Anthony was acquitted, stunning pretty much everyone except, it seems, folks who believe evidence should weigh more heavily than the circumstances surrounding that evidence. More heavily than emotion. Especially when first-degree murder is charged.

I can understand the shock. I can understand the anger being raw and natural. But I had to admit I was proud of that jury. Proud that they came to such an impartial judgment based on law for an otherwise unlikable woman, especially in light of the vocal, pitch-fork carrying masses.

Most people it would seem, at least the ones who stepped up to the microphone in the immediate aftermath, see the decision as proof of a fatally flawed American justice system. And already states around the country are trying to remedy it with more hastily constructed reactionary laws that will will more likely erode it than strengthen it.

Laws proposed that seek to revoke double jeopardy and the fifth amendment among them.

I hope they come to their senses, though. Because what happened in Florida is how the system is supposed to work. It is supposed to err on the side of the accused, especially in cases where the death penalty will be imposed.

The prosecution has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. And it didn't.

They can't just trust their guts. Proof and evidence are not just technicalities. Crimes that call for the death penalty can't be judged on basic instinct. Ever.

Of the many things I heard people say about what they really thought of Casey Anthony in the wake of the verdict, the most interesting to me was how many believed the jury failed because of a technicality. “Her daughter probably did drowned, but Casey Anthony was still responsible because she tried to hide it. ”

That statement alone shows me this jury didn’t fail. The prosecutor did. The crime they describe does not fit the charge of first-degree murder, it is more in line with manslaughter.

And somehow, I think the more we craft laws that are steeped in the emotion of high profile cases, the consequences won't be justice for all. It will be vengeance for the mob.

That's not justice for anyone.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Of mice and men and plans that go askew

You know how it goes, right?

You get an idea. Perhaps it is the best idea in the history of ideas, though you and just about everyone you have ever known sincerely doubts it. No matter. You have this idea and you must follow it until its bitter end — usually to a place called Harsh Reality.

If you could see me right now I'd be waving and drawing attention to myself.


I'm that person.

Rabid with ideas but completely insusceptible to inspiration.

Now, usually these notions are harmless. However sometimes they wake me up at night, which means they are likely waking my husband, too.

And that can be dangerous.

"Who died?"

"Nobody. I just had an idea. ... What if we were to have an art show for children and invite all the neighbors to submit their favorite pieces?”

"Sounds fine .... but it would sound even better sometime other than whatever ungodly hour it is right now. Go to sleep."

Ok ... That's not the best example.

A better one would be the time ... back in January ... when I was trying to keep the kids busy one winter vacation and thought it would be pretty awesome to make a Parade Dragon for Chinese New Year.

Neither fact that the Chinese New Year had already passed nor the reality that the winter months are not optimal for parading around in the Northeast could rain on my parade.

I had cardboard boxes. I had red paint. I had yards and yards of shimmery fabric, and most of all I had a cool idea for Peoples' Parade — an Independence Day extravaganza that brought out all the big-idea and little-idea people together in one place.

Most of all, I had six months to get it all together.

I could just see it play out:

Kids would come from all corners of the county to march to the beat of this drummer.

We'd line the driveway with kids gluing do-dads and twiddly bits and all manner of sparkly attachments to the miles of fabric our dragon would trail.

The kids, as kids are wont to do, would come up with their own labor-intensive additions. In our case, that entailed making dozens of dragon-shaped cookies to be handed out along the parade route.

“Oh ... this will be fun,” you think as you wonder if handing out homemade cookies during a parade is something that one might need a permit to do, or at least a brief but thorough inspection from the health department?

“No,” you answer, fingers crossed. “It's not as if we're selling anything.”

But alas your mind’s eye doesn’t have 20/20 vision:

Vacations. ... Holidays ... schedules ... never seem to match up.

Or that's what you tell yourself ... and the kids ... when folks start declining your invitation and you realize everyone is going to be busy that day doing something other than walking in a parade under a cardboard dragon.

Not that you lose hope. Not even when the kids, who called at the second-to-last minute to join in ... but changed their minds at the actual-last-minute. You know they made the decision BEFORE they saw you walking down the street with your box of Dayglo-colored fluff and your bags of individually-wrapped (and slightly over browned) sugar cookies.

That's just how it goes.

There's always room for improvement.

Something to think about, anyway. ...

For next year.

When your plans will be bigger and better than ever.

Little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

— Robert Burns'