Sunday, December 27, 2015

Away games

We pass through the gauntlet of admissions and concessions sellers and into the gymnasium of a foreign school.

Sometimes there are bleachers to climb, sometimes there are chairs to unfold and set into rows. We try to arrive a little early. Often we arrive too early.

We don't know if we have the right place … or even whether we've selected the correct color of the reversible team jersey to be facing out.

I can never remember … Is white Home or Away?

In a few minutes, as teammates trickle in, it is apparent. Blue is Away. Quick! Turn the shirt inside out.

We hand over some cash, hold out our fists for a smear of ink that might have been a smiley face, and decided on a bottle of water and a bag of chips.

That was the easy part.

As our kid takes off toward the direction of the bench, we take our a place among the crowd. We look for familiar faces and find some. People make room.

The buzzers are always louder than I remember. I watch my kid cover his ears as the clock starts and his teammates hustle out onto the court. He waits his turn on the sideline, playing an imaginary game of some other sort in his mind. We just hold our breath and hope he'll be ready when the coach looks his way.

I always hated this game with its back and fourth. Swish. Back and fourth. Thundering herds of gangly players in the professional leagues making it look easy: two points adding up to the hundreds.

Not here.

Here I can't turn away. I have to remind myself to exhale and breathe anew.

Here on the court, the kids fight for everything. Timidly at first, perhaps. … They fight their own limbs and their ability to do two things at once. Look up. Dribble. Cut to the ball. Get open. Help them out. Every game there is progress.

I hold my breath as the turnovers happen. It's not easy watching your kid as they look lost.

The tension often gets the best of my partner in parenting. The tendency to armchair coach is hard to quell. He yells “Get a head of them, Blue” as if it were a cheer.

I jab him slightly with my elbow and he reels himself back.

This is supposed to be fun, win or lose.

But there are times it is decidedly not fun.

The times your team loses by a landslide.

Or when your kid's ears turn bright red after losing the ball to the other team.

And especially amid the times your team wins but your player is distraught because he never even laid hands on the ball during the game.

I often wonder why we put ourselves through this. I even say it aloud in the car on the way home ...

Is it for the moment of joy when another parent claps for your kid as they make a shot during practice. The belief that at some point it will all come together?

Maybe all the incremental moments of improvement you detect over time?

I wonder, do we do this because we worry that one day all the struggle will stop?

We may talk a big game about the trophies for everything, but it's the atrophy we all fear. These shiny metal and marble towers don't fool the children. They know when an award has been earned and when it hasn't.

One day, and maybe that day will be soon; the disappointment will be too great. The groans from teammates or the sidelines will be heavier than the weight of missing the shot.

On that day, your kid will stop trying.

And that will be the worst day of all. Though a part of you may be able to breathe again, another part of you will still be clenching its fists.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Giving shouldn't hurt

"That's it?" The boy was looking at me like I'd shorted him in his share of a chocolate bar.

I checked my watch. Six-thirty?

I tapped it twice and held it up to my ear. Still ticking alright. That can't be all; I said to myself.

We'd started just a half hour earlier.

"We're done? We just got here!"

"Here" being in a church on a Sunday night, sorting food for holiday deliveries to needy families. More than 1,600 according to the man with the clipboard, who was now thanking the large group of volunteers that had made short work of the evening's to-do list.

I'd assumed he was the minister, but I didn't want to temp fate by asking. Our family is so far from religious that I had secretly thought once we stepped through the doors to volunteer, the light from Religious would travel with the speed of a lightning bolt and strike us.

But it didn't.

Instead we were met by other people we know in the community - some heathens like ourselves and others more devout - and together we hauled sacks of food from one room to another. We sorted and separated. We checked dates and arranged each item by food group on tables that were already set up and waiting.

The system didn't take long to learn. Peanut butter goes here. Tuna fish goes over there. Pasta and sauce can share space in between.

"Where do I put this, mama?" asks my son, holding up a bag of "popcorn seeds." I point to a table in the far corner where all the snack foods have landed. He disappears and is back in a blink, this time with a stack of soups three cans high.

"I'm good. Don't need any help. I know where the soups are," he says as he zips past.

His sister, heading now into her last year of her tweens, tried to be cool with her ripped jeans, bedazzled top and colorful beanie perched on her head at a jaunty angle.

Her job, self-appointed, of course, was to second-guess every date of every item I had cleared and placed on the sorting table. "This says 2015 not 2016," she said in the booming voice she inherited from my side of the family.

Because, don't-ya-know, when you are old, people need to shout at you.

"It goes under here," she said slowly, as she bent down to toss the offending foodstuff on top of the pile of other non-perishables that had already died in the back of someone's kitchen cabinet.

Just looking at the growing pile stacked under the tables, I felt the dull ache of remorse.

How old was the stuffing mix I'd donated last month? I never even checked when I filled a bag. Multiply that bag by the many years we've lived here and watch my remorse grow ...

I start to feel a little sick.

Honestly, this was the most painful part of volunteering. Looking at the many donations that had been fresh when the artist currently known as Prince was just a symbol. And knowing some of those "gifts" might have been mine.

And then I think of that short-changed candy bar in my kid's tone of voice. ... A piece handed over between friends and loved ones might be sweet. But given to a stranger, it's not much of a treat.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Light bright

A war had broken out in the backseat, and there was still an hour of bumpy road ahead of us.

I pulled over and immediately the kids stopped arguing.

But I just sat there in a stupefied silence staring out the window.

 "Will you look at that," I said to my children, who were still trying to wrap their minds around the fact that I had finally "pulled this car over" after years of empty threats.

"Sorry mom ... " they said in unison as they waited for me to resume my usual toothless parenting and ease back into traffic.

"No, not that ... Look at that house ... It looks like it's been dipped in glitter!"

Again the car was silent.

Isn't it bee-eeee-aaaaa-yooooouuuuu-teeee-full?”

"Alllllll-right .... " said my daughter using her most cloying Mom's-lost-her-mind drawl. "I guess that's kinda cool."

I blinked back tears.

"Kinda Cool? Kinda Cool?!? #%^&!!!!" … I sputtered out some more keyboard characters before I had to take a deep breath and accept I was alone in my enthusiasm.

No matter how I tried I wouldn't be able to articulate all I was feeling.

Even in my mind's eye, I couldn't fathom such an impressive projection. A single spotlight planted in the ground that sprayed pinpricks of colorful light everywhere.

Just poke it into the lawn, plug it in and push a button. Presto!

I'd never seen anything like it (since I watch Netflix and missed the AS SEEN ON TV infomercials) but I knew the moment I beheld this holiday attraction (AS SEEN ON A NEIGHBOR'S LAWN) it was a bit of magic that I would willingly plunk down either my firstborn or two payments of $19.95.

There would be no ladder to heft. No roof to scale. No half-lit string of icicle lights to drive a person mad as they searched for a single bad bulb.

And best of all, there will be no neighbors tsk-tsking that summer has come and gone, and our lights are still littering our eaves.

Pry the sucker up, pack it with the tree ornaments and dust your hands of the holidays.

Now everyone everywhere could be an honorary Griswold.

Turns out my $40 guess would have won me a trip to the showcase on The Price is Right, but the store clerk was playing Let's Make A Deal.

I've sold a bunch of these, not a single one has been returned.”


Of course, I had to buy it.

Of course.

How could I turn away from a chance to tart up our front yard without risking a trip to the emergency room … or sucking up a year's worth of kilowatt hours while we count down twelve days.

This could be a game changer for the lazy and those of us who had been happenstance humbugs. With an all-weather extension cord, we too could revel inside our festive exteriors.

This starlight spotlight thing-y or-what-ever-they-call-it offers more than just tacky holiday illumination; it offers true democratization for the decorating disabled in a single – albeit potentially blinding – laser light beam.

We really WOULD be keeping up with the Joneses.

I could see it all unfold in a blaze of glory as I dragged my family out onto the lawn to witness this historic moment.

I pressed the button.

And to my utter amazement it worked.

And it was beautiful.

Dots of light danced around my house as if my retinas were detaching.

The kids oohed and ahhed with enthusiasm.

My husband even kissed the top of my head in a moment of solidarity.

This was a new beginning, alright.

Next year, I'm getting another one!”

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Here's hoping for many happy returns

The spirit of the season is upon us.

The Pomp is starting to play with dancing lights and decorated houses.

Holiday songs and the smell of snow are in the air.

We're almost there.

We just have to get through the Circumstance:


Long lines.

Short supplies.

Even shorter tempers.

The list of holiday stressors, perennially in need of trimming, seems to grow unchecked.

I used to love this time year. It always felt like a warm pocket filled with festive delights: Evergreens. Snow days. Dressed up trees. Small gifts for growing children. Even “Zuzu's petals.”

But somehow, time and deepening pockets makes me feel lost in all the wrapping paper.

That's what I tell myself, anyway, as I wander the aisles looking for the perfect something for cousin Elliott, or auntie Saya or Dappa John. I am disappointed to find the same old same old.

Decisions seem tangled up in thoughts I can't iron out, no matter how many gift guides I commit to memory.

Each year I feel myself transitioning more completely from the cool auntie who found the ideal gizmo for a toddler, to the crazy loon who knitted a full-sized pink bunny costume for a boy pushing the button on eleven.

I just can't keep up with technology.

Take Amazon planning to send drones bearing boxes of shoes to our backyard landing pads a mere 30 minutes after we place the order.

Well … that is if the FAA ever gives the A-OK.

I'm not sure I'll ever be ready.

I'd miss the store … or at least the friendly face of our mail carrier. And the idea of life without other humans seems totally unappealing, despite the current political hocus-pocus.

But if I must think about this holiday through the lens of consumerism, I'd prefer to imagine the true spirit of holiday shopping is sitting in an overstuffed, plaid lounge chair answering phones at a flagship outdoors outfitter named for a legume.

And now I can, thanks to my mother-in-law and a story she tells about being flabbergasted and just a little embarrassed when a store clerk whisked away her 15-year-old muck boots and replaced them – free of charge – with a brand new pair.

Fifteen years -- lifetime warrantee notwithstanding -- seemed to be a fitting age for any respectable footwear to go heels up.

But she was even more embarrassed to realize she'd forgotten to remove her new custom-made arch supports, which couldn't be found even the next day when she returned to the store to wade through all the unhappy returns.

However, when she unexpectedly received a check from Legume HQ for the cost of her lost lady arches, she was faced with yet another dilemma. She would never – literally or figuratively -- be able to buy another boot.

And for every person who hears that amazing tale, another tells similar story:

I had a printed throw blanket from Bean's that I loved,” says another satisfied shopper. “But it got damaged. Ripped by the dog maybe? I don't remember exactly. Anyway ... I went back to find another one, and they were out. They searched stores across the Eastern seaboard, found one, shipped it to my house and didn't charge me a dime.”

I can't help but picture a grandmotherly woman answering the phone at customer service. A portly man in a red flannel shirt and a white beard listens to her end of the conversation as you explain the situation.

What's this now? Your dog ate your throw blanket. Oh, you don't say … Why that's just a shame. …” she'll cluck.

He kindly offers advice, which she will shush because she's already ten steps ahead of him.

What's happening, Martha? It's Christmas, for Pete's sake. Send them another throw blanket.”

Now, papa, don't get yourself in a tizzy, we're taking care of this. Have yourself a nice cup of cocoa there, and stop droning on.”

Of course, these days receiving excellent customer service seems out of a bygone era if not an According to Hoyle miracle.

Sometimes I think that's all it takes to get back into the holiday spirit: A pleasant voice at the end of an 800 number and free shipping. No fairy dust required.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Days of ramen and salad

I never could fathom why the nebulous "They" -- the ones who coin all the popular words and phrases -- minted the term "Salad Days" to mean the period in our unencumbered young adult lives when we were fresh and inexperienced.

Shakespeare. Shhhhhucks.

As if we could afford salad -- or anything that was perishable -- back then.

Everything about those days seemed capable of living forever.

Maybe that's why I tend to think of them as the Ramen Days.

The time in my life when a dry brick of woven noodles packaged in cellophane and purchased with pennies I scraped from under the seats of my car was my only square meal. Even if it was only literally and not nutritionally.

When mixed with the enclosed flavor packet, a splash of water from the tap, and cooked for three minutes on high, the squiggly noodles seemed satisfying and substantial, and also tangible food for thought: This was the salty soup of youth. Containing all of our desires, hopes and fears, even if our parents didn't think it counted as nourishment.

Strange that I would think of those days and that briny broth as I shared a meal with friends recently. Parents ourselves, now.

In the dimly lit restaurant, we were just a few mothers out on the town. Older now, wiser, and illuminating our menus with cellphones as we had once illuminated stadiums with lighters. Each of us demurely ordering salads and sophisticated wines. 

These Salad Days seem more apt a description. We don't need the extra calories. Life doesn't move as fast even though time seems to be speeding by like a freight train. It reminds us of how delicate we are. Still fresh, perhaps, but also perishable.

The meal that says the magic is slowly ebbing away. 

Like the link we've all noticed in our children, who are now cresting adolescence. Another curtain is closing or opening depending on which magician you are applauding.

"Who knew that one day they'd believe in Santa Claus and the next day would be asking for the definition of the word virginity," one friend asks rhetorically.

"I know! I gave my daughter a book about her changing body and the first page said 'if your child still believes in Santa Claus she is not ready for this book. ... Boy, was she mad at me."

"I inadvertently outed the tooth fairy," I admitted. "My daughter came to me the next morning holding out the raggedy bill with a red ink splotch the dotty, old fairy had slipped under her pillow as she slept. 'I saw this in your wallet yesterday,' she'd said. 'Either the tooth fairy is stealing from you, or ...

And one simple deduction later, the whole race of magical creatures was wiped out.

" 'Hey ... Are you Santa, too'?"


We didn't speak of it again. Stoney silence usually becomes tolerable given time.

They still want to believe even if disbelief usually wins.

They are growing up.

There's no doubt about that.

But are we?

We have respectable lives, respectable jobs, respectable cars. We might even understand how zoning works. Maybe. We even eat salad as a meal now.

But I can't help but think we still need to believe.

We have met our expectations and married our experiences, even if we don't always see eye to eye or stay hitched to them. Over dinner and drinks, we chat about everything and nothing. We laugh. We enjoy each other's company. We make plans to meet again.

And I think, maybe that's why I have been craving ramen? Because I'm still hungry.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Cat nap

Out of nowhere she strikes. Well, not nowhere, really, this particular attack came from behind the newly drawn winter curtains. The toes of a warm, furry paw are outstretched, claws exposed. You might be watching television, or reading a book. Not paying attention. First you feel a soft, feathery flapping and then a sharp stick.

And then poof, she is gone. You have no time for defense. No time for retaliation. No time for a blast of water from the spray bottle or even an upraised voice. She's disappeared into one of her many nooks, and you are stunned and checking for blood.

There isn't any.

She's just playing at your demise. A game of wits and outwits.

I've begun calling her Cato, after the feisty and fictional manservant who kept Inspector Clouseau in fighting shape as well as in clean shirts.

Although my Cato doesn't know how to use the appliances or answer the phone, I can rely on her to assess where I am in the house at all times, and lie in wait for the perfect (most inopportune) ambush.

Maybe I'll be setting the dining room table. She will reach out and snag my thigh from the comfort of a rush seat. Or perhaps I will be climbing the stairs with a basket of laundry, she will weave between my ankles with the precision of a feline but the speed and indecision of a squirrel.

There is very little I do around here that doesn't pique her interest. Making beds, wrapping presents, changing rolls of toilet paper … each one a siren song for a full-scale attack. I'm not even safe when I'm using the commode. Let's just leave it at that.

Of course, in this scenario, I always play the bumbling Clouseau. I retaliate in full force. Chasing through the house, grabbing her in a damp towel and ruffling her fur with abandon as she harmlessly digs her nails into the thick pile of wet terrycloth.

“Aw … so cute. Wike a wittle baby all swaddled up.”

She growls and I let her go. Her tail wags, her eyes are all pupils as she considers her next move.

“Too far?” I laugh. “Too bad, you little fur bag.”

We part ways.

She disappears into the kids' rooms, where she can hunt the fat paintbrushes that make the floor their habitat instead of the desk drawers where they'd be safe.

Eventually, she'll curl up on a sun-facing windowsill, or in the basket with all the winter hats and mittens, and soak up some sleep.

She's got to get her rest.
Soon, nightfall is coming.

There will be dinner, and clean up, and bedtime rituals. Baths. Toothbrushing. The reading of books. The dog will go out and come in at least three more times. Until finally there is silence. And sleep. …

Except for the one still on the prowl …

I feel her eyes on me before I feel the soft swat. No claws this time.

Two or three circles on my side of the bed before she settles. Some part of her touching some part of me.

And then soft purring.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The camera isn't soul stealing, it's soul crushing

“I could have lived forever …”

My mother used to say that a lot, “I could have lived forever ...”

She rarely finished the thought, but I always knew what she meant.

“I could have lived forever … without that tidbit of information.”

Usually, it was the result of being thrust into an uncomfortable consciousness. Often linked to something that I had said or done -- something untoward – that jeopardized her hopes for a blissfully unaware immortality.
Or more likely, I was me just trying to take her picture.

We used to laugh about it.

Ok … she laughed. I just screwed up my face, sighed heavily, and wondered why she didn't just relax and let me capture the moment.

“Oh, don't take my picture,” she'd say to my dismay. “I don't like the way I look in them.”

She'd hold up her hands, a universal lens-blocking sign of protest, while I would fume at the idea that she would so denigrate my skills. After all, they were my pictures.

I was in control.

Of course, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if she obliged the lens, her lack of comfort would be recorded for all of posterity with a scowl or a smile so awkward it might register a ten on the pain scale.

Oh, how I wish I could take all that indignation back.

Because I get it now.

Eventually, we lose that all-important control, and that image we have of ourselves -- our mirror-image selves playing on a loop in our mind's eye -- is totally annihilated by an unflattering camera angle or an ill-timed stop in the action.

Of course, I might say she had it easy.

She didn't live in a time when people she barely knew were able to tag and ship this potential travesty to all 3,000 of her close and mutual friends via some invisible spider web. The picture, if she ever saw it again, would wind up in a drawer somewhere or at the bottom of a cardboard box not circling the world wide web.

No. … she didn't have the true horror of wondering if any of her imaginary friends would recognize her ... you know if they actually crossed paths in the grocery store. Since, for the most part, we've been curating our current likeness in the image of our twenty-seven-year-old likeness.


What is thrust in our electronic face is an undeniable fact:

“I look horrible.”

Those who love us will open their mouths to protest our assumptions.

“Please don't try and say I don't.”

Any words they try to say to the contrary won't smooth the wrinkles or trim the unsightly bulge. They can't level the puffy eyes, chicken neck, double chin. No one believes the camera adds 10 pounds. We fully understand our brains subtract 20.

I've crossed enough finish lines to know that after the endorphins have rushed through my system, after the feeling of exertion nausea subsides it will be chased by a different kind of nausea: The true horror show that is my race photo.

At first I won't recognize myself. But then my stomach will leap into my throat.

For a few days after receiving one, I will fall into a funk. I'll give up spandex ... and running … and facebook ... and generally being seen in public.

Ever. Again.

Eventually, the image will fade from my consciousness. Replaced, as it were, by over-filtered, arm-length shot that for a time will restore my ability to suspend disbelief.

It's my superpower, I suppose.

But until that happens, I will wish I could apologize to my mother. I will wish I could take it all back.

And then I realize I can apologize in the only way the universe allows.

When I look into my own daughter's lens, I will say it …

“I could have lived forever …”

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Constant and variables

"You were wrong," she said accusingly as she dropped her bags in the hallway and slammed the front door behind her. "The price of the car was a variable, not a constant."

I cringed in the slaps-my-own-forehead moment. Of course, it was a variable! Renting a car on a homework sheet is never as simple as one might imagine. There's always some small print you overlooked: While we were busy computing the cost of gas, base mileage rates and the number of days' rental, we'd forgotten all about the difference in price between a coupe and a sedan.

"It's ok, though. It was tricky. Lots of us had it wrong, and I eventually figured it out by myself."

Ahhh ... The true constant: my help rarely being helpful.

Still ... I don't consider it a total failure.

Failure is for other people.

“Most people don't know that broccoli contains more protein than steak,” the teacher said with a smile.

“Really? That's amazing,” said another mother helping to dish out fruit salad at the class party that day.

I turned away to stuff a carrot into my mouth, but mostly so the gathering wouldn't see me roll my eyes.

“Not really,” I coughed, choking on a lingering spec of orange fiber. “I think I need a drink.”

“Vegetable protein is different than animal protein,” I explained in my head. “It's incomplete. It doesn't have the essential amino acids humans need for proper absorption. I know it seems like these big mammals who live on nothing but grass should be able to show us the folly of our meat-eating ways, but our digestive systems are quite different.”

She couldn't hear me, though. I managed to keep my mouth shut.

I just smiled tightly and sipped on fruit juice, hoping it would make everything go down. A nice apples and oranges mixture.

It occurred to me that what I was experiencing was the real-life equivalent of one of the many AMAZING posts that scroll past my eyes whenever I peruse Facebook. Only I was in school, where it seems teachers are busily readying our children to opt out of the next round of standardized tests.

Had I been on Facebook, I surmised, I probably would have posted a response I hope would seem civil. Maybe a Snopes link or a page that didn't have the word “BLOG” in the address. Invariably it would have set fire to my friendships.

But there was no link I could pull from the air. No Mayo Clinic website to which I could refer.

“Be calm,” I told myself as I cleared the scattered debris of the party into a waste can. “Don't make a big deal out of it,” I murmured, as I moved toward the sink with a handful of sticky utensils. “Just keep washing. Just keep washing.”

It's not as if I'm perfect.

I make more than my fair share of mistakes. We've already established that.

I spell creatively, flub my tenses, mix my metaphors, add commas and apostrophes where they don't belong. And my recommendations should come with their own warning labels and a few extra grains of salt.

Run-on-sentences and I have gone together on many walkabouts over the years. Too many, perhaps.

One would think I'd be smarter than throwing stones from my glass house.

But I can't help but keep track. ...

There was the science teacher who, for some reason, told students snakes are “mostly nocturnal.”

The math teacher who routinely says “communative” property when he means “commutative” property.

And I'm not telling you how many times I've circled the grammar mistakes in the letters that get “backpacked” home.

I'm not proud.

I know how it looks. Snob. Rubbing people's nose in it.

I try to picture my sweet, loving grandmother – to whom I was always giving an unnecessary “heart a tact” – and let the red-pen-stained paper drift down into the recycling bin.
And when the kids tell me emphatically, “teacher says,” I remind them teachers are sometimes wrong. That's why it's important to think critically, which often means questioning the answer you think you already know.

“I mean, if you need an example of making mistakes, just look at me.”

Sunday, November 01, 2015

All dressed up with nowhere to go

The nights are getting longer but Halloween just flies by.

I've seen the last dozen pass by at the frenetic pace of a strobe-light. It's eerie.

My daughter the princess. My son the peacock. The witch. The pirate. The cheerleader. The bat. The cat. The shark. The superhero. The vampire. His favorite cartoon character. The protagonist in her favorite book.

I'd almost forgotten how sweet it was finding ways to make their wildest masquerade dreams come true. It seemed like eons ago.

My kids, for the most part now, devise their own costumes from remnants of costumes past, or thrift-store finds I will dutifully shred, or affix wings to, or spray paint some unnatural color.

They don't need us to eat all the unwanted candies that messes up their smooth with nutty or chunky. Their tastes are evolving.

It won't be long until we unleash them on the world, and hang back, hoping they haven't secreted away our last toilet paper rolls for some anti-neighborly ghost paper misdeeds.

But not just yet.

Just yet we are still following in the dark at a greater distance, perhaps, but still within view. They look back at us, seeking a nod and permission, before crossing the street.

We'll catch up by the next street, even if we have to sprint.

Our house is empty, except for the animals, who don't much mind the strangers Halloween attracts. Of course, that could be because we don't have a doorbell to send them into a panic.

However, we leave the porch lights on and a bowlful of candy propped in a chair as we made our way through the rest of the neighborhood in the pitch of night.

I'll admit, it's just the cut-rate stuff – the individually wrapped gumballs, artificially flavored taffies, and miniature lollypops. I'm softhearted, not stupid.

By the time we return from our own lawn-crossing, doorbell-ringing, trick-or-treat-begging circuit I know the bowl will likely be emptied.

Now I'd like to think a horde of fancy-dressed tots struggling to hold their masks at an eye level position while keeping their plastic pumpkins from spilling all their hard-earned sweets – a horde we have historically missed – descended like locust on our offering at the same time we swarmed across lighted doorsteps across town. Their parents, as we had done, would remind their children to “take only one piece” and say “Don't forget to say thank-you.”

But we don't usually get that many visitors. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole bowl wound up in one or two sacks though I can't say I don't smile at the thought of the mouthful of cavities the gluttons might get in return for their greed.

I refill the candy dish with the good stuff; the chocolates and caramels and nougats. The stuff I hope will be leftover when the kids, still wearing makeup and part of their costumes, are tucked into their beds and sleeping the sleep of the sugared-up dead.

Who am I kidding?

This is the cheap stuff, too. The 50-percent-off brands we bought the day before yesterday, not long after eating the full-priced stuff we hid behind the high fiber cereals when no one was looking. We broke into that candy the same day it came home from the store. (Of course, you do know I mean the royal “We.”) The ROYAL WE have replaced the stash of chocolates I can't say how many times.

Even the lowliest of confections look more expensive wearing chocolate.

“Hey … where have you been hiding this?” my husband asks as he dips his mitt into the bowl and claws up a fun-sized handful.

“Shhhh. Don't tell the kids,” I hiss as I pivot the palm of my hand and dig in. "Consolation prize."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The extra mile

How long had we been there trying on shoes? Maybe a half hour? Maybe more.

It had seemed to me to be a long time, anyway. The trip getting to the store was fraught with other commuters tailgating or performing automobile ballet and other magical maneuvers to get just a few feet ahead of us on the road.

I tried to relax by pretending there was a fire. Maybe they have an emergency to get to, and that's why they are so impatient. But I swore under my breath anyway.

Everyone always in a stupid rush to get nowhere.

She had her heart set on “combat boots,” or that's what she called the lightweight lace-up boots made of pleather that her generation would pair with a frilly dress and opaque tights. I didn't tell her about how my generation wore them, not after I saw the shadow of all the fashion possibilities parading past her eyes in the catwalk of her imagination.

And like any child about to get this weeks' heart's desire, she was thanking me profusely for this extra special spending spree.

Except …


I forgot my wallet.


Well, not exactly typical. Typical, for me, is walking to dinner with friends, having the wallet (unzipped) but not noticing as a credit card falls out of it like a single, solitary leaf windmilling away from its plastic tree.

Typical, as luck and mortification would have it, also involves friends finding it forthwith and spending the majority of the dinner hour making jokes.

Because, I can admit, my usual clueless has a humor all its own.

But I digress.

My daughter tries to conjure the card from thin air by going out to the parking lot to check the car as I dump out my bag's contents on the counter. Also a futile act, since I can see the card in my mind's eye where I left it … in a different wallet … on the dinning room table. At home. Twenty minutes away.

The lady behind the register is smiling her least awkward smile, not to mention apologizing to me for my own oversight.

My daughter came back into the store, arms lifted with the disbelieving expression of the tailgating drivers minus the anger.

Was it a minor or a major disappointment? I couldn't tell from her face. There were no frowns or tears. Just a half smile I couldn't decipher. She had planned to wear the boots tomorrow she told me; only I would be returning to the store at the same time to pick them up and pay for them. So she'd be wearing them in her mind.

But it was OK, she said, as the lady at the register tore a bit of tape, wrote our name on it and affixed it to our box, now stacked at the top of several others whose would-be owners also vowed to return at a later date.

It's just Picture Day tomorrow, and they don't show your feet.

And we drove home in a familiar silence that isn't exactly quiet since its filled with mild disappointment and pop radio banter.

I know I will drop her off at home, collect my wallet and go back to the store.

Who needs the hassle of a morning commute they don't need to make?

Especially when I'll get to see the official pictures: Her smiling face and unseen boots.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The bike path less traveled

Not long ago – and by “not long” I mean just prior to last Sunday – I had all but given up on the idyllic vision of our family riding bicycles through the countryside one day.

Now, I hadn't given up on this notion because of the lack of time or inclination on the part of adults, who, let's face it, aren't exactly the active sort in their off time. *Clears throat, cough-husband-cough, clears throat again.*

Nor was it my fear of winding, country roads with their dangerous blind curves; or newly licensed texting teens, Z-OMG; or even the middle-aged road ragers, some of whom have started making it a habit to show off the length of their middle fingers when we meet at the fulcrum of our weekend commutes – they in their cars, probably headed to a barroom at 7 a.m.; and me in my DayGlo-colored spandex, running at full jog along the road's shoulder, you know, sensibly.

No, my hopes for a family bike trip had circled the drain because of my youngest's insistence – at the ripe old age of eight -- that he would never, ever, never ever in a million years, ever ride a bike. Anywhere. Ever. Not unless it had training wheels, was tethered to a bike being ridden by his father, or was a part of some elaborate three-dimensional animated universe wherein he only had to stand in front of a blue screen and pretend to pedal. Then, and only then, would he even consider being anywhere near a bike.

No matter what I said or how I tried to convince him, no matter how many bikes he had to choose from, my son stubbornly stood his ground. He would not allow me, nor anyone else in our orbit, to run alongside him if there was even the remotest of possibilities they would let go of the two-wheeled death trap and watch incredulously as it catapulted off a cliff with him still astride, screaming in terror.

Because careening off a cliff as the whole world watches is what “letting go” apparently means to anyone who tries to define it.

Now, I must admit, a part of me felt a surge of relief at his intractability. Because of it, he would also never likely get a 35-pound bike in a tangle with a 10-ton truck. But the relief was tinged with sadness every time a six-year-old whizzed past us – training-wheel-free – on our way to the farmer's market.

But I was letting go.

And now I was moving on … to the grocery shopping part of my day.

I was even considering rolling the blasted training bike out to the end of the driveway just to be done with it. Maybe roll my own antiquated road bike right out there with it. Heck, the girl's peddle-pusher is over the hill, too. Ship them all out to the curb and dust my hands.

How many bikes had we acquired over the years anyway? This one is too small. This one is too tall. … A well-loved hand-me-down here, an unloved Christmas present there. It seemed our garage was a Goldie Locks and the Three Bears morality tale of bicycle ownership, except nothing fit quite right.

And then, as I was mentally cleaning out our garage in the cold cereals aisle, a text from my husband whistled into my phone.

Attached to it was a video of the boy riding the tiny bike at full speed around our quarter-mile driveway … sans safety wheels.

I let go of the idea of getting my garage back and remembered the middle-aged, middle-fingered roadways.

I took a deep breath and let that go, too.

Somewhere there's a bike path less traveled. And someday we'll get there.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A real eye-opener

He squints. One eye, mostly. The left one to be exact. I never thought any more of it than a quirk of personality hailing all the way back to the cradle.

His sister had oddities of her own when she was a baby. Like how she'd toddle around saying 'No' with an English accent; or how one side of her lip drew up into a tiny sneer whenever she parted the air inside her diaper.

She probably wouldn't want me to mention that the effects of infant effluvium made her grimace like a teacup-sized Elvis pretending to be a Beatle, but she's not speaking to me these days. It's not as if I'd understand her anyway. Sheeesh!

But while the girl's rock idol looks have shifted away from the coincidental to the deliberate as she matures, the boy has hung on to his concentrated wink as if it were his nature.

Which is probably why I felt stunned when his pediatrician suggested he see an eye doctor after his last physical.

“It's slight, but I think he has a correctable problem with his vision,” she offered and disappeared into the maze that is her office to find a list of referrals.

“Glasses,?” he asked in shock.

I nodded. “Maybe. … we'll see ...”

I tried to be non-committal as my own sense of shock trickled into guilt and dread.

Was this why his reading was lagging? How could I miss that he was as blind as a bat? Because, of course, this is where the mom-mind goes in the waiting room between preliminary diagnosis and specialist appointments: straight to wondering how the seeing-eye dog would get along with the family pooch.

His half-eyed squint turned into a gaze of tiny, flying daggers. He wanted answers, not shoulder shrugs and altered universes.

“I don't want glasses. I don't even need glasses. I see just fine.”

To which I just sighed and reminded my son that I'm not exactly the boss of him in this instance. That title would have to be transferred to the lady wearing the stethoscope necklace, who also gave him the clearance to pick out a few stickers.

“How does she know what I see?”

Honestly, I don't know how doctors can tell what a kid sees.

There he stood, heels against the wall, looking at a mirror reflection of the eye chart and holding one hand over his non-squinty eye. He was bouncing around from foot to foot as she asked him to read from the poster.

“Well, the words don't make any sense even if I could read them,” said my boy, without a smidgeon of self-doubt.

“Well, let's just try calling out the letters, then shall we?”

“Well, some of them look like numbers, so I'm not sure if I'm seeing the same chart.”

“Do your best.”

“E, P, F, T, O, Z, L ... L … M, N, O, P”

The alphabet song was a dead giveaway that he'd turned over his paper and handed back the test once the letters got to be slightly smaller than poster-sized.

“I just wanted to sing,” he noted by way of explanation.

So, we got to do it all again a few weeks later, this time with a specialist, in a darkened room, with the kid wearing a halo and space-age goggles.

“How's this?” asked the doctor as he spun lens after lens into place. With each click, he'd ask my son to tell him if the letters looked better or worse.

"I guess better. Although I think that S is a 5, which seems pretty tricky."

"Better or worse?"

"Definitely worse. It's all blurred out."

“Better or worse?”

“Better but also a little worser. Mom says worser isn't a word, but I think it should be.”

“Better or worse?”

“Oh, that's just terrible. I think you turned the S into a 5 just to trick people. And that O looks like a D now, too.”

“Better or worse?”

“Hey. That's pretty good. Better. Clearer, too.”

And so … you can imagine it came as an even bigger surprise when the doctor switched on the light and declared his eyesight … “Not that bad. I doubt he'll even notice the difference if I give him a prescription.”

Before I could clear my throat, the boy was making the decision.

“Oh, I DEFINITELY need glasses. My eyes are wide open, now.”

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sleep cycle

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

It's always worried.

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

And no one is exempt.

I can hear sniffling from two rooms away.

And now there's a cough.

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

A light snaps on … and then off.

On again.

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

But it doesn't close all the way.




There are footsteps back to bed.




It just seems to get louder by the drop.

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

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

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

The door slams and there is a roil of bedclothes.

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

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

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

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

More tossing. More turning.

Sleep can't come in just yet.

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

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

Another sniffle.

Another cough.

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

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

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

I will know it by the deep and rhythmic breathing …

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

“What's that noise?”

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

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

“No, you really can't.”

“Are snakes nocturnal?”

“Not exactly.”

“Are they diurnal?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well then, what are they?”

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

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

“Do I need glasses?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I need your Sleep.”

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Still sitting in the dark

The room was dark.

No one was talking.

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

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

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

“It was an accident.”

“There are no accidents.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How far is the theater?”

“Not far.”

“What's the movie?”

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

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

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

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

“Say you're sorry,” I holler at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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