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.