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."