Sunday, December 29, 2013

Parrot Eyes by the Dashboard Lights

I have a tendency to get a little lost in translation.

It's not uncommon.

Eddie Money didn't sing: “I've got two chickens to paralyze” and Jimi Hendricks never excused himself to “kiss this guy.”

But it doesn't stopped me from singing along that way.

I also have a tendency to ignore things to see if they'll just go away.

I know it's not advisable. And yes, I did walk around on a broken ankle for two weeks before I admitted defeat and sought the attentions of a medical professional. But that's beside the point.

I like to think my car would agree with me … if it's weren't an inanimate object.

Having a newer car is a joy not unlike having children who won't disappear at the grocery store. Every trip, even the most mundane, is predictable and relatively worry-free.

When I slide into the driver's seat, all I need to do is turn a key, click a seatbelt and check the rearview mirrors. The fact that my husband and I share roughly the same inseam means I don't have to adjust the seats. I don't even have to sweep the car of snow since my chivalrous, short-legged husband has seen fit to move his collection of power tools and other accumulated objects to make room for the new ride underneath the carport.

Even in this bitter cold, all I need to do is drive.

So you might imagine my surprise as I neared the end of the driveway, headed to the grocery store with aforementioned child in tow, and an alarm sounded, that, previously had meant the driver's seatbelt wasn't properly secured.

Only I was strapped in. The kid was strapped in. No doors were ajar. The sky wasn't falling.

What the … s-i-l-e-n-c-e.

I was only slightly relieved when the ringing stopped. Because it was at that exact moment that a dashboard light went on. A light that I had never seen before … in the three decades I've been driving.

I mean NEVER SEEN, not just willfully ignored.

I couldn't even decipher what it meant. It didn't look like any of the lights I'm used to overlooking. It looked nothing like a gas pump. The Check Engine light would have resembled a large outboard motor. The brake light should have letters. The oil light looks like the doohickey the Tin Man needs in the Wizard of Oz.

Nope. This one looked like a keyboard emoticon someone with an eighth-grader's sense of humor might send to their fourth-grade friends on Facebook.

Or maybe it was Beaker finally having the breakdown he so richly deserved after suffering one too many injuries at the hands of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew in the Muppet Labs.

I tapped the plexiglass. Nothing.

I even laughed a little because, let's face it, some dashboard light designer somewhere is totally having a laugh that his creation will delight untold numbers of motorists who, like me, will stop everything, open the glove box and dig out the never-been-opened-but-mysteriously-has-coffee-spilled-on-it Owner's Manual.

“Tire Pressure.”

Seriously? You get tire pressure out of two parentheses, an exclamation point, a mustache and two tiny fists raised to the sky?

And I can see Parrot Eyes by the dashboard light.”

This, too, shall pass.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Yes, Ittybit, there is a Santa Claus

“She's waiting for you,” my husband said when I got home. It was long after bedtime, and she couldn't sleep. “Something happened at school today, and she wants to talk to you about it.”

She was heartbroken. The magic was gone, and she was covered in the cinders of destroyed fairy dust.

And it was all Avalanche McBoyerson's fault.

He's the one who just blurted it out in fifth-period history class: “There is no Santa.”

“It's really not his fault,” she sniffed, wiping her eyes and staring hard at me. It's not as if she hadn't known something might be awry. How many times, within her earshot, had I claimed an almost ninja-like shopping prowess for the items she thought had come from the big man himself?

“It's just so hard being the only kid in the fourth-grade who still believes in Santa.”

And she does … she still believes.

To prove it, she had come home after school and written a detailed letter to Santa, which she slipped into an envelope and left on my desk to be mailed.

It began thusly: “A boy in school I know told me that you aren't real. But I know that's not true. You are real.”

It was a paragraph of wishful thinking that reminded me of the most famous holiday letter of all … from 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon to the editor of the New York Sun.

Cuddled up with my daughter as she sought solace, I felt the fire of a thousand suns as I tried to recall the beautiful sentiment expressed in “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” from memory.

But she didn't want the poetry. She just wanted a straight answer to her question: Who puts the presents under our tree? Is it a mythical being or do you do it?

The thing is, I don't want Ittybit to leave childhood thinking the magic of Santa was all just a lie.

I don't want her to think his spirit disappears the moment your mind can no longer expand enough to believe that some roly-poly old elf could miraculously fit down a chimney (that you might not even have) to leave your heart's (manufacturer's retail value) desire under a Christmas tree.

Santa's shouldn't vanish. Santa should evolve.

Santa isn't just a parent who pretends. Santa is also a family that donates to Toys for Tots and local food pantries.

Santa is the person who organizes a fund drive for the family that just lost their home in a fire.

Santa is the person ahead of you in the “14-Items or Fewer” line who lets you go first because you have only a handful of things.

You never know, Santa could even be the kid who chooses an ornament from the Tree of Needs and uses their own money to buy a present for a kid less fortunate.

Looking into her eyes as I try and express this idea, though, I wonder what the 10-year-old Virginia thought of that Sun editorial.

I can only hope time will help show her that an evolved Santa is even better than the original, you know, because the Santa within each and every one of us can decide to celebrate year-round.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Running partner

It's 27 degrees. The sun is shining. And I am wearing Spandex.

I try to ignore how many ways this combination is wrong as I search under the bed for my most colorful footwear.

Ah … found them.

The dog dances around me as I lace up the sneakers. She knows where I'm going and has every intention of getting in my way.

She pretends this isn't futile.

The dog calms down as I gather more things. Gloves. A hat. Earphones. My smartphone.

She sits and stares at me. She's no longer panting. Her head has lost its cocked-to-the-side cuteness. She is as serious as a security dog.

Something is missing. Hmmmmm … Where's the armband that holds my iphone?

I look over at the dog. She couldn't have had anything to do with its disappearance. Yet, she seemed to be giving me the malocchio – the evil eye. I wasn't about to let it intimidate me.

My dog is all bark and no bite.

Anthropomorphism that's all. The application of human emotion to a hang-dog stare.

I don't feel sorry for her. The dog had enough chances, and, on more than one occasion, proved she wasn't up to the challenge.

First, there is that neighbor dog she can't ignore at a quarter mile.

The hydrant at the first turn.

Laying down at the start of mile three.

And who could forget the chaos in the last stretch. ... I've since dubbed that corridor “squirrel alley.”

She might be a good runner, but she's definitely not a good running partner.

Now. What to do about the missing armband?

I feel like a mother of invention as I snip the toe off an old wool sock and snake my arm through. I slip the music device into the pocket created by a single fold. This will do.

The dog skulks away as I slip out the door. I can see her fogging up the window with her breath. She doesn't waste any of it barking. I wouldn't hear her anyway. Not with the panes sealed up tight with new weatherstripping.

I start off slowly. I know it will take me a while to find the place where a quickened pace feels as comfortable as walking. Usually it turns up a little ways past the first mile, but sometimes not until I get sight of squirrel alley.

I imagine my personified pooch would feel pleasure knowing the wind had burned my thighs into pin prickles and numbness. She's much better equipped for this outdoor running business … what with her fur coat and youthful joints.

Not that she'd rub it in.

She'd rather redecorate in celebration of my return.

Plastic bags are shredded hroughout the hallway and into the kitchen. A roll of paper towels has been nibbled at each end and sits upright on the floor. Pencils, chewed to the eraser, are in splinters all over the couch.

I shouldn't be surprised when I walk through the door but I am. She only seems to use our things as chew toys when I go running without her.

Oh lord, she's found Ittybit's collection of flavored lip balms and eaten up the waxy sticks of lemon and grape.

Wait until your girl gets home,” I sing ... 

She slinks off into her crate before I can say another word.

Soon I hear the soft sounds of neoprene and vinyl being torn into tiny pieces.

Ugh, my armband.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Guessing games

It's always a guessing game.

“What animal are you thinking of,” she asks, beginning the hour-long car ride, which will bring us to our first family hike since the kids were small enough to tote around in backpacks, with our own version of round robin.

I hesitate long enough to pretend I am not going to use my trusty old standby.

“I'm thinking of an animal that lives in North America.”

There are no direct answers in this game, just clues that will lead to more questions. It's formulaic, sure, but it distracts the booster-seated-passengers from asking the more nettlesome “Are-We-There-Yets?”

The Boy jumps right in: “You said North America … is it the North America where we live or is it the South America, where Disneyland is?”

“They are both part of North America … so is Canada. (*Makes mental note to hang the world map Santa brought two Christmases ago.)

“The North American Wood Turtle,” says Ittybit in her bored teenager voice.

“How did you guess?”

“You ALWAYS say North American Wood Turtle on your first turn.”

She brightens as soon as it's her turn. She's spent so many hours at National Geographic's website that she's sure to stump us all.

“I'm thinking of an animal ...” she says, pausing for effect.

It's a good game. It keeps us from having to turn the car around. I mean it.

The exercise also keeps me from playing out the multiple choice future that is circulating in my mind as we get closer to our destination. How far will we be able to go before someone A. gets tired. B. gets hungry. C. decides their legs don't work D. falls off a cliff. E. all of the above.

By the time we arrived, we'd gone around the car (clockwise) about a dozen times, the questions becoming more absurd. “Is it bigger than a mailbox?” my husband asks, and then pretends to get exacerbated when I parse the question: “That depends on the size of the mailbox. If it's like that one, (I point to a fifty-gallon drum welded to a post by the side of the road as we speed by) then, no, it's not bigger than a mailbox.”

There is an audible groan from the other passengers in the car. “Oh look, we're here!”

The questions don't end when we cut the ignition and tumble out of the car.

Can we take this trail?

Can we climb on the rocks?

When can we eat our picnic?

I am happily surprised that the further we go into those woods the more excited they become.

The Champ makes up names for the birds that fly across his path.

“That is a spiral-tailed yellow-bellied whistler. It has wide stripes. Hopefully we'll see a flat-tailed orange-bellied squint. It has fur.”

Of course, the terrain is more rugged than I thought it would be. We get lost momentarily once and backtrack twice. The trail is steeper than I expected. The leaves and pine needles that are beneath them are slippery. We all lose our footing in places, but only the boy falls.

“I'm OK!” he says before we can even ask the question just so we aren't guessing. “This is fun. We should do this every weekend.”

I guess I'll have to study up on the real yellow-bellied whistler for the next time we play our game of round robin. At least the Champ will know exactly where we can find its spiral-tailed cousin.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Defying the laws of tradition

The wind was cutting when she got off the school bus – coat slung over one arm, balancing what only seemed like all of her Earthly possessions in the other. Her messenger bag filled to bulging, she handed me a paper plate with a grin.

“Here, it's for you,” Ittybit said, smiling a smile that looked as if it was holding back a river of laughter.

I looked down at the plate – a single, white paper circle – and what appeared to be demised candy corn glued to its surface in the shape of a semi-circle.

“What's this?”

“I have no idea.”

We are both laughing now.

“Oh good, because for a minute I thought that you had been demoted to kindergarten, which would be surprising considering your recent report card.”


Inside the house, she dumps her things and heads for the place where the TV lives while I contemplate asking the most taboo question of all.

“So … if you don't know what it is … can I throw it away?”

I tried to use the same smile she used when she got off the bus, but the chill of sarcasm must have been completely melted away by the warmth of the wood stove.

I think this because she barely reacted as she stood by the stove with the remote control posed, flipping through channels and warming her backside. But I am quickly proven wrong by her response:

“I don't care if you toss it, but it has a poem on the back that my teacher says I should read to our guests on Thanksgiving. … so … maybe you should read it first.”

Of course, she's fluent in sarcasm. Should have known.

Carefully, I turn the plate over and see the circle of print glued to the back.

It describes the Legend of the Five Kernels, a story about how the pilgrims survived their first winter in America, with a ration of food that on some days equaled only five kernels of corns. In the spring, the pilgrims planted the remaining corn and were able to harvest much food in the fall.

Every Thanksgiving thereafter, the legend says, the pilgrims placed five kernels of corn beside each plate to remind them of their blessings, and to count them.

The first kernel was to signify the beauty of autumn; the next kernel was to remind them of their love for each other; the third to remind them of the family's love; the fourth reminds them of love of friends, specifically the native Americans who helped them survive; and finally, the fifth kernel reminds them of their freedom.

She watched me as I read the back, probably wondering if I'd break down and cry at the sentiment.

It seemed hollow. Like a sentimental piece of history we know to be wrong. Even the tip of the hat to the “Indian brothers” seems like an afterthought and, knowing the generations of oppression that followed, somehow diminishes the freedom the Pilgrims took for themselves.

“Perhaps, next Thanksgiving we will count our blessings with strawberries,” I offer instead, reminding her of a recent trip to Howes Cave and the Iroquois Museum, where the docent gave her ideas for a school project.

Strawberry drink.

Strawberries, she explained, were the first blooming fruit of the new year, and they symbolize a new beginning. They are food, a fruit and medicine. When you were welcomed into a village you were given food, shelter, and your clothes were washed and mended. You were also given a strawberry drink to cleanse your palate and your soul.

“That's a great idea,” she said. “I think we should make our tradition from now on to count our blessings with five strawberries … especially since the dog just ate the candy corn.”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Cutting and mustard

My husband stands at the kitchen counter, looking lost. He doesn't know how to cut the sandwich. Diagonal? Perpendicular? Does he like mustard? It's a make or break moment, and he knows it. This is just the kind of thing that can ruin his son's day.

He calls for help.

Can you make his lunch?” he asks me. “He won't blame you if it's wrong.”

I wouldn't be so sure of that. But I take over, and do something completely novel. I ask the Champ what he wants.

I don't like sandwiches any more. I'll just eat the meat,” he informs me.

So I give the bread to the dog and pack the ham and cheese in a bag, add a yogurt, a few oranges and pretzels and stow it in his backpack.

Every day seems to send a different kid my way.

Yesterday at the bus stop he'd wrapped his arms so tightly around my legs that I had to shimmy toward the waiting bus, peel away his hug and hoist him up the steps.

Today he won't let me smooth his hair, or squeeze his shoulders through his thick winter jacket. He would wither and die if I leaned in to kiss him as the bus approaches our stop.

Who knows how many kids could witness such public displays of affection?

I don't mind. I know how it is. I've been right where he's standing now.

The awful, pinching discomfort of love.

Well, not love really. It's not love, in and of itself, that hurts. It's all the incidentals that are added on that takes its toll.

My mom would have understood, too.

I sheepishly asked her once why she didn't chime in when her friends were all singing their children's praises.

I thought maybe she wasn't terribly proud of me.

But she said it wasn't that.

She said she stayed mum because it wasn't what they thought that mattered.

Love is a complicated thing.

On some days, love is having perfectly uniformed pancakes fanned around the plate and spread with just the right amount of butter. No syrup.

Three days later love is raisin bran. No milk.

Sometimes love makes a fuss and sometimes it stays quiet.

It tells you “No” as much as it says “Yes.” It makes you do your homework, feed the dog, clean your room, brush your teeth.

Love also means accepting that underwear goes on backwards, and that the same tiger shirt must be worn day in and day out with and three layers of pants: shorts first, pajamas next and finally, jeans. Love is socks with just the right amount of stretch, and red sneakers with double knotted shoelaces.

Love is knowing that anger, frustration and fear of loss (not to mention selfishness) often come with the territory. And love seems to disconnect as easily as a phone call caught out of range.

But just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there.

My son understands this, too. He also knows the accommodations meter has its limit.

When your mother isn't cutting the mustard, sometimes you just have to cut it yourself.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

You've come a long way, baby … but maybe not as far as you think

I started watching "Mad Men" recently.

I know what you're thinking: It's been six years! What took you so long?

The sets? The costumes? The actors delivering strings of lines that include zingers like: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”

Of course, the fact that I remember (albeit briefly) what it was like to be able to smoke in an office makes the sexist, alcohol-fueled workplace of the fictional Sterling Cooper seem as if it were part of my own nostalgia despite the fact that I was an infant at the tail end of the 1960s.

One would think -- given its subject matter and my fascination with publishing and advertising, not to mention my affinity for mid-century Danish modern furniture – that Mad Men would have amounted to must-see television in our household.

Well, in my defense, I did give birth to a baby exactly one month before the show premiered in 2007. Not to mention being so thoroughly engrossed in a competitor's (commercial-free) offerings that I couldn't possibly give AMC another hour of my time.

But truth be told, I would still be watching reruns of The Sopranos if it weren't for my husband, who, on impulse, borrowed the first season of Mad Men from the library a couple of weeks ago.

He brought it home with a sideways glance and the bravado of a man who just filled the freezer with meat he murdered himself. I imagined him asking “Who's the man?” as I briefly considered preemptively high-five-ing him and hollering “You're the man!”

Although … that might have been a bit of an exaggeration on my part.

We start watching the episodes together. He drifted in and out of sleep while I stayed up late into the night watching back-to-back episodes. By the next evening as I change disks and begin the new nightly ritual, I have to fill him in on the plot points he slept through.

As expected, the contrasts are, at times, breathtaking:

When Betty Draper calls for her children to account for their being too quiet at play, she finds her daughter Sally wearing a dry cleaner's bag over her head. Before I can even transfer an image of my own children's labored breathing against a plastic film, Betty is telling Sally that if she finds the clothes that had been in that bag on the floor there will be consequences. The girl skips out of the scene with the bag still over her head.

As the scene ends, I think about the warning imprinted on virtually every plastic bag and how it feels like a revelation.

Yet, the more I delve into the story lines for my slumbering husband, the more I realize I'm having a revelation of an unexpected variety:

It's not how much has changed since the 60s, but how much really hasn't.

Sure, most executives don't slap their secretaries bottoms or drink their lunches, but the fact remains that, in so many fields, the gender of key movers and shakers is overwhelmingly male.

Recently, Toys R Us unveiled its holiday advertising campaigns with a prank-style video wherein a bus load of kids who were expecting to attend an educational, woodsy field trip instead wound up at a toy store, indulging in a pre-holiday spending spree.

The ad strategy tanked with women, according to Forbes magazine, because its comparison – placing education and the outdoors in direct opposition to the consumerism of the holiday – was in direct conflict with their values. Moms, in other words, didn't buy it.

The more I read about the situation, the more I came to realize the reason the ad came off so tone deaf to women – who are the target of such ads – was because a woman probably had nothing to do with creating the campaign.

The ad agency responsible for the piece doesn't have a single woman on its web page titled “leadership.”

Moreover, according to the Forbes article, it seems only three percent of ad agency creative directors are women, a figure that made me wince.

How is it possible that in this day and age women are represented so feebly in an area where their money has so much clout?

Why are women still under-represented in decision-making roles?

Why is there still a wage disparity?

The only answer that comes to mind is that it's not part of our constitution.


This country never made women's equality implicit. The Equal Rights Amendment, while passing both houses in the early 1970s, failed to be ratified by the states and never became a part of our framework.

Until it is, I can't imagine gender discrimination will ever be as rare as a smoke-filled office.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

New car smell

“If I were a dog I would be riding with my head out of the window right now,” the Champ said emphatically … but in disgust.

The offending odor was New Car Smell. More precisely, the stench was New Car Smell Spray Freshener, which, as many of you know, is a detailing chemical specifically formulated for use in pre-owned cars. And it is cloying.

Even I wanted to roll down the windows of the new-to-us micro-van (a miniature version of the mini-van if you can believe such a thing exists) as we took our post-sale, matron voyage home. I'd have called it a maiden voyage, but this is, after all, a Certified Pre-Owned Vehicle and it's already been around the block a few times if you know what I mean.

Not that I am biased against used cars. The pragmatist in me is all for them, not to mention the thousands of dollars they save in sticker shock.

This baby had fewer miles and more bells and whistles than any vehicle we've parked in our driveway during the past decade. What's not to love? It has room for six, leather seats, Bluetooth, a 6-CD changer, fog lights, a digital compass in the rearview mirror and a moonroof. There is even an indicator on the dashboard that, if I had, in fact, rolled down the windows to let out the NEW CAR SMELL, would have told me we might all freeze to death.

Behind the wheel, just sitting there in the car lot -- adjusting the mirrors and programming the radio -- I felt like a kid in a candy shop. The fact that it had an automatic transmission – the thing I despise most in a car – didn't even spoil the sweetness.

And despite the state of the air in our passenger compartment, the kids were excited, too. This is the first “new” car my children have ever been a part of procuring.

At ages nine and six, my kids are a rarity among their peers, whose families have updated their modes of transportation every three to four years on average.

Not that they didn't corner the car-buying learning curve like it was on rails.

Before we even had scheduled our first test drive, the kids were kicking tires and comparing options. At the supermarket parking lot, they'd even stop strangers climbing down from SUVs to ask “How'do yah like that car, mister?”

In fact, my daughter could distinguish a Honda Odyssey from a Mazda 7 from six car lengths away. And my son was well aware of all the kid-friendly luxury add-ons that these dreamboats could have, such as on-board DVD players, dual cup holders and built-in vacuum cleaning systems. They even knew which celebrity starred as the Gummy Bear who got to ride in the much-hyped suction device, in a recent mini-van commercial.

“He was Gallaxhar in 'Monsters vs. Aliens'!”

Listening to them prattle on about the wonders of automatic seats and in-floor storage compartments that will fit ALL THEIR TOYS! I can't help but wonder, and fret, about how they will take the news:

We didn't buy THAT car.

We bought the car we could afford.

The one that had seat warmers (in the front seats only); no built-in entertainment systems other than the 6-CD changer, which may cause WWIII when one of them wants to listen to the radio and the other wants to hear an audio book; and certainly no on-board vacuum cleaner, which they no doubt had decided would be a hilarious toy with which to torment the dog during long trips.

They didn't listen to my warning. They didn't even care.

They only heard: “We bought the car ...”

And they had more pressing things to decide between themselves. … like who was going to get the seat in the “way, way back?”

Sunday, November 03, 2013

A tale of two cities

I'm not sure what I was thinking … taking the kids to New York City for a weekend.

Oh sure, I had envisioned that we'd see some sights, visit friends, do a little shopping. Just your average, basic, run-of-the-mill adventures exploring big cities that are a little more than a hop-skip from home. I thought they'd Love it with a capital L.

And, for the most part, the Big Apple itinerary was pretty straight forward.

We took a train downtown. Checked into a hotel. A nice, clean place with a bathroom that rivaled the size of the bedroom. The kids could jump back and forth between the beds without fear of slipping off. I didn't even worry that they would hurt themselves since there was nowhere to fall but into a mattress. Still, it was the Taj Mahal compared to some of the flea bag places we'd stayed in the days before kids.

We walked. Met friends. Walked some more.

The New York experience was old hat to us, it was all new for our little tourists, each of whom were directed not to bring anything in their backpacks they couldn't carry all day. Under no circumstances, I stressed, would I be lugging around their bags, so they might want to make selections based on weight.

Soon, it was pretty clear New York City was a bit of a culture shock.

The kids were overwhelmed by all the contrasts: The giant buildings housing tiny cubicles. The bright lights and the grit. Everywhere we stepped there was something to be avoided.

Manhattan isn't so much a place as it is a living, breathing entity with an unimaginable array of surprises in its pockets.

It is place where unbelievable wealth rubs up against unimaginable poverty. Where homeless families look remarkably similar to us: A mom dragging a wheeled suitcase through the subway, her kids hefting their best things in their backpacks.

My kids, hefting their own backpacks without complaint, skipped across East 64th Street, happily noting the neatly-kept stoops and doorways of the stately brownstones. This is the New York they understand. The one they've seen in movies. This New York with its cloistered entryways decorated in the muted, tasteful colors of fall. The word “manicured” perfectly fits the condition of the teacup gardens we are able to see as we make our way to our destination. Symmetrical topiaries and ground covers tended in pots flank doorways. Perfectly round pumpkins dot stairs.

This is the New York they appreciate. The land of FAO Schwarz and Central Park, and the Upper West Side.

It occurs to me as we make our way to the zoo and its tidy self-serve ticket booths that most people don't see the allure of New York City until they reach an age where designer handbag knockoffs seem irresistible.

Below Delancey, where we had been staying, the city is steeped in smells of a different place. An atmosphere made from the mixture of old garbage with fresh fruit and fish.

With their shirts stretched up over their noses, they jumped over schools of cigarette filters swimming in oily puddles. They gawk at shopping carts filled to overflowing with deposit bottles and other possessions parked along the sidewalk and locked with heavy bike chains.

A woman is sleeping next to one of the carts. Two dogs awake in her lap stare up at the kids. They don't wag their tails. A young man with a scarf leans down with his camera and takes a picture. His friends laugh.

Ittybit looks sad. She doesn't ask for an explanation.

We keep moving. Past markets and shops. Schools and pocket parks. Anything you can imagine and more than you could ever imagine are here somewhere. Street musicians, pop-up shops where you can get your shoes shined or your clothes mended.

It occurs to me that this is the city I found when I came to visit the first time, a place where small and large are one in the same, and where no space ever goes to waste.

But it isn't the one my kids will remember. Their NYC has real live toy soldiers as doormen, and snow leopards in its parks.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Blast from the past …

My Facebook is blinking. It's practically pulsating with a red alert that reveals someone has “tagged” me in some old picture they've posted to their wall. My stomach lurches into my chest before I even click on the link that will send me jettisoning who-knows-how-far back in time.

For an instant, I hesitate.

I know as soon as I see it the myth of myself will be shattered.

I can just imagine my expression, caught somewhere between a smile and a sneeze.

My round cheeks still chewing. My racoon-rimmed eyes either bulging or blinking.

The unfortunate perm I got one summer that made me look like Cher's Keebler-Elf cousin.

Inevitably, I will find a replica of my younger self, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a group of people I'll have trouble remembering by name, wearing a tight smile and an unflattering arrangement of clothes that I won't ever be able to forget.

Even now that I want to.

The lace-up, combat-style boots.

The boy-cut jeans.

Something with shoulder pads or bat wings or shiny buttons. Maybe all three.

The chunky sweater.

And the ever-present shearling coat that I refused to take off despite being indoors.

As if I'd just come in from the cold.

… With my tin cup full of pencils.

And my bottle of rot-gut.

I feel a little sick.

It's a kind of illness that sets upon a person suddenly, like the realization that you know virtually every REO Speedwagon song word-for-word or that you thought Milli Vanilli was “mint.”

I don't know why, exactly, but I always feel as if I'm looking at a stranger when I see myself in old pictures.

Yes, that was me. Dressed in thrift shop clothes that may have belonged to an elderly Wisconsin man, who likely met his maker while scraping ice from his driveway one winter during the previous two decades.

I'm also positive that if I were to dig deep into my dresser or wade to the back of my closet, I could find the entire unfortunate ensemble. Or worse.

Not that I will ever wear that I-Dream-Of-Genie jumpsuit again, I'm just hanging onto it for sentimental reasons.

Of course, the real horror of the trip down memory lane is that my wardrobe decisions haven't evolved.

Ten years from now I'll be clicking on a picture from last week and wondering just want I was thinking ...

The baggy jeans. The formless sweaters. The footwear that begs the question: Was I BLIND or just completely without judgement and taste?

I should be ashamed, and yet I still enjoy telling people how I paid next to nothing for the article they just complimented. … Or, even better, how I fished it from the trash.

“Oh this? Yeah, thanks. It's great isn't it? I found it one morning washed up on the beach. Thought it was a dead seal at first but when I poked it with a stick I realized it was a black hoodie. One swim through the wash, and it was good as new.”

Those, right there, are the words of a crazy person.

Because looking at the pictures, I am forced to realize such compliments are likely the result of polite small talk rather than genuine admiration.

A true blast from the past.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tick or treat?

I used to love ladybugs.

They seemed like bright red dots of happiness punctuating the garden, protecting it from the evil aphid marauders.

That was before the scarlet ladies visited in droves one Christmas. No matter how sweet a thing seems on its own, thousands of the tiny, uninvited, arthropods swarming around our heads as we tried to unwrap Santa's loot could have been the opening scene of a horror flick.

I can't help but think of it wistfully now as if the invasion were a charming cinematic feat of the lowest budget -- visible nylon strings an all -- and I didn't appreciate it while I had the chance.

Had I known the stream of horror shows that would follow – the flea infestation of 2011, the annual summer earwig convention in the master bathroom that is becoming as common as … well … the ants that parade around our kitchen counters come May through August – I would have cherished each moment of our “Ladybug Christmas.”

Perhaps I should just pretend each new seasonal plague is just a gaggle of ladybugs in disguise.

Maybe it's fitting that Halloween is just around the corner. It makes it easier to pretend these prehistoric-looking tortilla chips, which have been crawling through cracks in the sills and sticking to my curtains, are just ladybugs in costume.

But it's hard to suspend disbelief the moment the stink bugs startle at my gall – trying to sweep them back into the great outdoors from the warmth inside – and ooze their stench of putrid cilantro.

“Cilantro?” my husband scoffs.

“That's what they smell like, cilantro.”

See, I have that gene … the one that makes cilantro smell like soap and taste like mashed bugs. Not that I know what bugs taste like. But that's beside the point.

These agricultural pests are relatively harmless to people, but they are tenacious. They stick to textiles as if they were affixed with glue. They are slow moving when they aren't flying, yet they seem to appear out of nowhere.

Evidenced by the blood-curdling screams of my children when they are brushing their teeth and one of these shield-like bugs sneaks up behind them.

“What is that thing?”

It doesn't matter. If it's small, has a segmented body and spindly, jointed legs, I will be expected to drop everything, run to the scene of the disaster and take care of the relocation and remediation.

I've decided it helps to know what I'm dealing with.

Is this a biting thing? A disease-carrying thing? A harmless thing? Is it the kind of thing that will make me want to find new homes for the pets? Is this something I can crush with a shoe? Spray with hairspray? Trap under a glass and put into the basil patch?

What happens if I just throw it – damp bath towel it's clinging to and all – into the washing machine?

Will it come back to haunt me?

Probably walk right up the porch steps one night at ring the bell.

After all, how many trick-or-treaters have shown up at our door wearing red wings, black spots and antennae?

I figure it's only a matter of time before kids start dressing up as stink bugs.

Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Identity crisis

The question left me momentarily speechless.

My shoes were off, my clothes were folded neatly on a chair and the woman reading off the bullet points on my chart had seen a big old blank next to “occupation.”

So she filled it in, I can only assume, by tearing a page out of the script for “Mad Men.”

“Sooooo …. You're a housewife?”

Housewife? Did she say HOUSEWIFE?

Honestly? She could have told me I'd sprouted a second head that required immediate amputation, and I'd have been less shocked.

The dictionary describes “housewife” in its first definition as a married woman who stays at home, does cleaning, cooking, childrearing, gardening, sewing, manages household accounts and generally refrains from paid employment outside the domicile.

That's not me.

OK … well it kind of is, since I do most of those things (excepting that last one).

In its second definition, the dictionary explains a “housewife” as a needle case or small sewing kit. Basically a thing you send your sailor off to sea with so he can mend his own darn socks.

Ugh! Another moment in life when a person's identity doesn't fit neatly in a four-inch gap in an application form.

So there I was, blood pressure cuff on, waiting to explode.

“You know … my husband puts “self employed” on his questionnaires and no one ever asks him if he's a househusband.”

Of course that term – Househusband – only came into being in the 1970s as a putdown describing a married, graduate student whose wife's skills and salary exceeded his own.

I know this is my own battle.

This isn't about a word use. It's about identity crisis.

My jobs are old-school in a new economy. They are part-time and flexible. They fit around the kids and dog and the personal needs of other people. They no longer supersede them.

I am a mom. A wife. A writer. An editor. A photographer. And I do all the same things at home now that I did and home when I worked in an office for someone else: I sweep floors, do laundry, accompany children to doctors' appointments and occasionally cook inedible meals.

And, it's true, I have picked up some new jobs out of necessity. For instance, I mow the front lawn and take out the trash. Duties that, I'm told, in a traditional household would be performed by the “breadwinner.”

Who's got time to wait?

She apologized for treading on my landmine.

I accepted her apology, but I didn't feel better.

It wasn't her fault. Salt in a wound ...

Thing is … I did feel a little better when my kids got out of school later in the day and gave me my just desserts as I met the bus.

Of course, my son pestered me for the 57th time to sign him up for the after-school program his sister attended when I worked full time. And as icing on the cake, my daughter asked if I liked being a “stay-at-home-mom.”

And then it occurs to me what's really bothered me.

“You know … I don't stay here when you're at school right?”

They were stunned …

They had the same vacant stare that glazes their faces when they see their teachers at the grocery store.

“What? You're not home!!!!”

I'm not a stay-at-home-mom, I'm a work-from-home freelance journalist who gets in twitter fights and burns water but who is reachable by cell phone.

What? It's a thing.

Go ahead, look it up.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

No pain, no pain

The worst pain I can recall (prior to childbirth) I suffered when I was 17.

A half-dozen people (I can barely remember now) piled into a rickety old panel van and drove to a concert venue three hours away. Typical weekend in high school.

But don't worry, it wasn't tragic.

Actually, decades later, it seemed like comedy.

I don't remember what month it was, but it was definitely winter. And the chill in the air was compounded by a drafty old truck with a broken heater.
It felt like being seat-belted into a vegetable crate and shoved in a walk-in freezer.

By the time we got to my house in the wee hours of the morning, I slid out of the van and realized instantly that I couldn't stand up. As my friends pulled away, leaving me in a cloud of choking exhaust, I hobbled inside as if I were still sitting. I didn't know such a thing was possible, but evidently the fluid in my knees had frozen.

The actual pain happened a few hours later as I began to warm up under a pile of blankets that would have rivaled the stack of mattresses from “The Princess and Pea” story. Free-ranging ice crystals seemed to be clinking around, stabbing me in the hollows of my knees as I tried to sleep, and then alternated between kicking me in the shins and shackling my ankles.

Honestly, I thought I would die.

I had similar thoughts last weekend as I was finishing up the first mile of the 5K I shouldn't have been running because my ankle twinged with remaindered pain from a run a few days earlier.

But there I was, taking in the news of my fastest mile ever with the face-crinkling reality that the pain in my leg was no longer in receding.

I wanted to cry.

More precisely, I wanted to teleport home through a portal in the universe and pretend this lapse in judgement n-e-v-e-r happened. I just wanted to disappear into the nagging self-doubt that is my own personal prison.

But as luck would have it, the course – held on the inside of a local apple orchard within fifteen-foot fences – proved to be as restraining as an actual prison.

I imagined myself scaling the fence to get back to the road, hitchhiking the mile or so home, and feigning ignorance to anyone who might have seen me running. Who was I kidding? I might as well ask for fairy dust, or start searching for a cellphone app that would help me materialize an invisible flying scooter that would whisk me home.

I was humiliated enough. I did the crime, now I was going to have to do my time.

So I started to walk … or limp …. toward the finish.

Seventeen minutes later I was probably another 20 minutes away from being sprung when I realized another painful truth: It hurt more to walk than it did to run.

So I started to jog. Mind over matter, I told myself. Just put one foot in front of the other.

Fourteen minutes later it was over. Almost.

I still had an “urgent care” visit to muscle through, which, I can admit, I was anticipating like a cavity search.

“So … what happened?” asked the nurse.

“I broke the cardinal rule. … I ran on a painful ankle.”

“So … how long was your run?”

“Oh … It took me about 44 minutes,” I answered with disappointment.

“No,” she chuckled, “how many miles did you run on a hurt ankle?”

“Sometimes it seems like all of them.”

“Don't worry. It's not tragic. Next time, just stop running when it hurts.”

I wonder if there's an app for that?  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Omens and omissions

My husband doesn't believe in signs. Even the posted ones – the ones that clearly translate important information such as speed limits and wait times and even the one's exclaiming “YOU ARE HERE!” with a big, red “X” – are met with some degree of skepticism.

He certainly doesn't believe in omens.

So it was somewhat of a surprise to me that, as we walked inside the entrance to the corn maze after having signed the official waiver of indemnity and responsibility for bodily harm, he instructed the kids to first notice a tiny sandpiper, which had lit in front of us, taking two or three hops before taking off again into the stalks, and then to follow it.

Of course, his instructions were only implied, as his actual words said “Look, that sandpiper is trying to show us the way,” but he should have known our kids would interpret the meaning thusly: “Follow that bird!”

I don't know how you feel about them, but I feel slightly off kilter and extremely thankful that I am not a single parent whenever faced with the proposition of visiting the agricultural destination mecca that corn mazes have wrought.

I BELIEVE in signs, especially the one I just read at the mouth of the maze that instructed us to keep our children within sight throughout the whole of the attraction. Yet, sprinting through weather heaved and stalk-riddled corn rows isn't within my abilities.

It only took one visit – an ill-fated 2009 solo sojourn to a big, destination farm in which I lost my oldest child in the corn rows for over an hour as I clasped her baby brother's hand in a too-tight grip as I screamed her name over and over in a panic – that convinced me “family togetherness” in such situations is the only thing that matters.

Well, that, and a working cell phone – which I am now crushing in my too-tight grip as my school-aged son takes off at a full-out gallop after the bird.

One turn at the head of the row and he's gone.

My husband realizes the error of his ways and tries to correct the mistake. He levels the only thing known to man (and boy) that has any chance of keeping the boy from flying off into the abyss … Ice cream.

We take turns yelling: “STOP RUNNING!” and “You won't get any ice cream if you get lost in the maze.” It feels like we're just hollering into the wind.

Each time, the boy returns. Though, he is silent as he stalks back under a dark cloud. “You are NO fun!” he accuses.

Still, we play the game.

There is trivia to learn and stations to tick off along the way as if collecting stamps on a passport. A sign that would prove “we were here.”

It took longer than he expected, even though the sign said to expect a two-hour walk.

But in the end he could agree, we got no help from the sandpiper, which, to the children's delight, seemed to lead us through the maze. Flitting this way and that, from one dead end to another, until we eventually found the exit.

I don't think birds really believe in signs, either.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sins and sons

I see little boys everywhere.

Happy little boys who look like mine. Little boys who wear the same clothes day in and day out like a uniform.

Little boys who hug and say sweet, if not slightly inane, compliments because it's Sunday, and everyone needs something to get them steeled and ready for Monday's grind.

My little boy is like those little boys.

A splash of mud here, a magic marker slash there. Sometimes quiet. Sometimes loud. Sometimes rough and tumble, sometimes timid and shy.

He smiles. Talks to strangers. Tells them about his dog.

And how she died when she got too old.

They smile. Uncomfortably.

They try to change the subject.

He talks about the new dog. Who looks like the old dog. And you know what happened to her ...

Of course, when this one dies he wants to replace her with a Chihuahua.

I smile. Uncomfortably.

He's such a sweet kid.

He knows there are rules now. He makes his own from time to time. He tries to follow them all, but he also wants to see how far they will bend.

That seems natural.

He has moods, now, too. Anger slips into them on occasion. Sometimes arbitrarily.

I think that's natural, too. I just wonder. … Was he always this angry?

Or do I see him differently because he's a boy and I've never been a boy?

Or maybe it's because he's in school and the pressure to be liked by his teacher is overwhelming.

I know he saves his anger for me. A safe person. A person who loves him. No matter what mood he's in between dinner, homework and bed time.

Yet. … Every outburst. Every cross eye. Every ounce of resistance ...?

Do I have to worry?

Little boys who don't growl at their sisters, or argue with their best friends over imaginary rules they have no intention of heeding.

Do these saintly little cherubs tell their mothers they hate them?

Or chew their toast into the shapes of guns?

Do they paint the kitchen with yogurt splatters?

Or jab their best friend with a pencil in retribution for trying to sneak a peek at “a secret notebook” ... A volume that is almost certainly imaginary?

What happened to the first rule? 'Don't hurt anyone inside or out?',” I demand.

That's not the first rule. That's the fourth rule,” he argues.

Well, in this house it's Rule No. One.”

Do their mother's ever worry about getting a call from a teacher … or the police?
I shouldn't have read “We Need To Talk About Kevin.”

I shouldn't listen to the news, and its talk of increasingly disenfranchised boys.

Boys who don't go to college.

Who can't find jobs.

Who aren't getting married.

Who live with their mothers.

Forever. Or until they live inside barbed wire fences.

“My brother stabbed me in the back with a screwdriver when we were kids,” said a woman, trying to reassure me that her brother, now a respectable citizen, didn't mature into a sociopath. “He still feels terrible about giving me a scar.”

I feel better.

It has a familiar ring to it.

Or maybe something that is more of a “clunk.”

Like the sound of a wooden push toy hitting the head of a little girl who tried to take it away from me.

Afterward I felt terrible, too.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Gone around the bend

The man's expression was transparent. His half smile and head tilt were as clear as the words that formed through silent lips: "Hang in there. School is just around the corner."

I didn't even blink.

I know how I must have looked ...

A sullen, if slightly zombified, version of the Staples mom, who danced through the office supply store back in the late 1990s, knocking school supplies into her cart, as her children shuffled along behind looking as if someone had just run over their dog.

My kids, in contrast, race down the aisle, in different directions. All of us talking too loudly. They screech in jubilation: "School is starting!" Which means new clothes, backpacks, pencils, pens and all manner of stationary staples we already own but aren't fresh and new for a fresh, new school year. I scold in frustration: "Stop running. We don't need an electric pencil sharpener. NO! You can't have a walkie-talkie."

The sum of it all means spending more money than a week's worth of groceries and taking some teachers' names in vain, trying to find the exact size and brand of glue stick demanded on their supplies list.

The word for it is frazzled.

I suppose I am. Frazzled.

The bickering has gotten the better of me. And when the school bus stops and blinks its red lights waiting for my children to climb aboard, I will breathe a sigh of relief. I'll pour myself another coffee and actually get something done.

During the daylight.

But it's a bit of a cliché. I feel more like the kids in those old commercials than the parent.

There's a whole lot of schoolday things I'm not looking forward to. I know things will be added to my to-do list that are not always within my control.

Homework. Tests. Clashes of personalities.

The thing I've always disliked most about being a parent is that horrible, suffocating feeling that my failure is no longer my own.

Every flaw seemingly multiplied under a magnifying glass, burning pinholes into my soul.

At times, the whole thing just seems too big to manage; A new curriculum, new tests, more ways to fail. Consolidations have meant more students, fewer teachers, and the possibility that education could get so big it can't possibly do anything but fail.

Finally, I blinked.

The man is still there, holding a basket of real office supplies, not the pint-sized colorful ones I'm juggling as my kids find something else they are sure will help them get into the back-to-school spirit.

Portable music players with headphones … the kind that play CDs, and totally cover their ears.

They rejoice and carefully put their packages in the basket when I laugh and nod my head. After all, they have an hourlong bus ride to school each way, and in these impossible-to-open clamshell packages are a vintage of technology that I truly understand.

Thing is, school isn't 'just around the corner' anymore. Sometimes it seems like it's gone 'round the bend.