Sunday, January 31, 2016

Building blocks

Sometimes I imagine our house is almost fully supported by haphazard piles of second-hand books.

What we don't read -- and there are many -- we prop under wobbly tables or set in the place of draft dodgers.

 We've got everything from Aesops fables to Zadie Smith stashed in just about every nook and cranny.

As their pages await turning, their stacks grow to overtake the window frames, the side tables, and the benches by the door that also store our winter accessories -- all the hats, and the scarves, and the mittens -- which haven't seen much of our attention this year either.

I mean to read each and every one of these books, I really do, I just can't seem to get through all the words I haven't been compelled to read aloud.

The stories for adults -- which are stuffed to the spine with blight and wars and despair -- will have to yield to magic and mythical journeys and toys that slowly awaken to the pain that is love.

Sitting crooked legged at the edge of my son's bed, I could read forever. In my warm comfy sheets, I'll be fast asleep three pages in. Rereading the same passages night after night feels more like a fruitless endeavor than a guilty pleasure.

I've always read to my children. Way back before they could focus their eyes or support their own heads I would plop them down in my lap and tell them all about Velveteen Rabbits and Paper Bag Princesses. I could recite "Homemade Love" from memory, it was all good, good.

I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me that my children didn't disappear into the pages of stories once they had learned to read. But it did.

Hadn't the parenting golden rule -- the rule of thumb -- been to read to your kids? Talk to them like big people? Involve them in the world of words?

Of course this rule must have been written in stone because technology hadn't been invented yet. I can just see the rule-makers scratching their heads wondering how they could erase their giant slabs of outdated advice as they witness my zombified kid staring into the rarified eyes of his favorite "YouTuber."

How in the hobble-de-heck did watching other people play Minecraft on the Internet become an all-consuming amusement? (You might want to hold off on that answer, at least until I'm finished watching a series of cats being frightened by cucumbers.)

Perhaps that's what's been troubling me.

One distraction appears acceptable while the other seems intolerable ... And yet each has exactly the same likelihood of changing the world in the unpredictable way worlds undergo transformation.

Like the spot in the back of the waiting room that gets no cell service. It's the place where parents who are waiting for their kids to finish dancing, or jumping, or shooting at circles and arrows can watch. Or think. Or read from things made of dead trees. Or just tune out for an hour. It's always available, this spot. Everyone else is jockeying around the only other spot in the place that gets reception.

I'm not sure how it started, but I've found myself sitting in this dead spot more often. This week I brought a book. A kids' book, it's true, but a book nonetheless.

As I turned the pages something wonderful happened.

A story spilled out. And all around me, people noticed. They asked me what I was reading and I told them.

Oh, how they loved that one. Had I read any of the others by the same author?

Soon my own son, sweaty and exhausted from organized play, was standing next to me cooing over the volume in my hand.

"Oh I loved that one! We read it in school!

"Can I show you something" he asked excitedly.

I handed the book to him, and he flew through pages, landing on one in particular and cleared his throat.

He began to read ...

 And as the words came clear and fast, I could imagine all the books propping up my life finally falling down around me.

It felt like a breakthrough.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sneezy, Dopey and Doc

I plunge a quarter-sized dollop of hand sanitizer into my palm.

The crowd goes wild.

He looked pale and thin with eyes of water-slicked glass. In our family these symptoms generally mean healthy with a touch of rhinovirus (the common variety) and an aversion to vegetables (of all varieties).

No fever. No Fatigue. No trouble breathing. Just a lingering cough and sniffles.

Of course, he'd been coughing all morning; one dry roar after another followed by lengthy rubbing of his nose onto a shirtsleeve. I remind him to use the crook of his arm to catch the sneezes as we mingled with the masses.

Of course, we have things to do. Places to be. Volunteerism forced upon us by the recreational league.

Buck up.

Yet every sternutation sent my gaze to the floor and my shoulders to the ceiling. What kind of mother brings her little bundle of typhoid into the world at large on the weekend? Doesn't she know she'll just spread his disease?

I sense the condemnation even though it's unspoken.

“Well … that's why I put him at the cash box instead of making hot dogs,” I said wryly to the person in my head who censors what words are allowed to escape my mouth. “Everyone knows money's filthy anyway ...” Lately, she's been tsk-ing a lot but letting none of my thoughts pass.

Shhh. No need to be like that,” she hisses in my ear. “Let's just get through the day, shall we? You are doing the best you can. Repeat that.”

I may have no trouble listening to my inner voice, but I have a difficult time believing her sometimes.

It doesn't matter that the crowd is pulsating with a rhythm and harmony of phlegm. I only hear the nasal hum of the boy trailing after me as I work the concessions table at the school game. I feel a shocking desire to pretend he's not with me. And guilt.

I feel guilt.

Which turns out to be something my son will always help grind in like dirt at the knees:

“I've been coughing for a week,” he announced as if he had pulled a microphone and speaker from his pockets and switched it on. I cringed at the sound of it as it hits my ears.

“No, you haven't,” I respond with a loudspeaker voice of my own. “You came HOME from SCHOOL with this two days ago,” as if making the point we are at the place of likely origin will absolve me of any parental blame.

No time to lather and rinse, I plunge another coin-sized dollop of hand sanitizer into my palm and repeat.

I know … I know … He should be home in bed, warm in bed with hot soup and G-rated cinema. I should be feeding him citrus and feeling his forehead, asking him if he has enough blankets.

Eventually, that's where we'll be. Home, with our pets and TV.

Home, where tissue after tissue I hand him winds up scattered on the floor like discarded gardenias not yet past their prime. Each one wrinkled from rubbing against the nose as if to scratch an itch. One per sniffle. A new flower drops to the floor at regular intervals.

I will pick them up with the tips of two fingers and deposit them in plain brown paper bag – an inch-wide cuff folded at the top the way my mother use to do. I will wash my hands until they start to crack.

“You need to blow,” I will scold.

He will comply, half-heartedly, and start rubbing his nose again.

Of course, in the morning, when he looks at me with the puppy dog eyes and barks at me with a productive howl I will have second thoughts about sending him back into the mill …

These thoughts only last a minute. Just long enough for the beep of the thermometer.

“Sorry, kiddo: 98.6. You're going to school.”

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Gearing up for 'Swinter'

It's snowing. Finally. A thin mist of flakes floating to earth, covering everything in a light gauze that looks like fresh cotton.

I love this weather! I love this …. and yet ...

I am torn between rejoicing and retrenching.

Oh, now we can ski! Oh, now we can ski. Perhaps it was just the idea of bundling against the cold that I had missed … not the packing of bags, the lugging of gear, or dealing with tempers. Somehow, I always manage to blot out those bits.

My shoulders hunch forward under my coat. Hands jammed in my pockets. Muscles tense against the chill, barely remembering the warmth from just a few days ago.

Once the air cuts at my skin, I start to shiver. No matter how many layers I add, I won't  get warm. Maybe not even until spring. I wish I could climb back into bed until the gopher gives the OK.

Where are my gloves? I swear I just saw them around here somewhere. I swear they are worse than socks at disappearing.

A blanket of white clings to the annuals, which have been stubbornly clinging to life waiting for winter.

Instead, we got "Swinter," a sloppy mix of seasons that also makes a mess of our emotions as well. We should hate this global phenomenon … but some parts of it seem helpful right now … at least in the short term. Sure, you might miss ice skating on frozen lakes, but you could use the savings on the heating bills.

I have to remind myself that polar bears are dying, and entire communities will soon be submerged.

The grass, freshly green -- the result of nitrogen gifted by a surprise January thunderstorm -- will not lay down for this more appropriate weather arrival. One more month of warmth and I feared I might have to dig out the mower.

I'm sure the fat robins, who haven't left for winter yet, don't mind. They can still pull up tasty things from the ground, which is far from frozen.

They're no more bothered by this layer of snow than I am. I will scrape ice off my windshield and slog through traffic, slowly creeping past motorists who are victims of first-snowfall skids.

I try not to gloat. I feel at one with the retirement crowd. I don't worry about being late these days, so I never feel compelled to meet the speed limit. Slowing down for snow is just in my nature.

Still, I wish it could have been a Snow Day. I know the kids wish so, too, even though I wonder what difference it makes? So they can watch videos of other kids doing things for the entire day and not just the two hours between dinner and bedtime.

It's probably for the best this snowfall waited until mid-day to make its arrival.

Instead, the kids are waiting to be picked up here, and transported there, as per usual.

I don't feel I have any right to complain. It's been mild enough that our bikes are still on the road and weekend long runs can be completed comfortably in shorts.

It's not as if I hadn't weathered umpteen winters before this one. Swinter will feel like a day at the beach.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hurry up and wait

"This was supposed to be fun," said the disembodied voice in my head. The one that always needs interpreting, but no one ever seems to understand. Especially now that it sounds like it could use a hot tea with lemon to soothe the grating.

We were all together. Dressed up and clean … ish.

He shifted his weight and approached the desk. My husband smiled uneasily at the maitre di and gave our sir name.

Of course, we could wait in the bar until the rest of our party arrived. It would be a while.

After a childhood of waiting, he was finally in a position to be early. So he was taking an overfull advantage. He ordered a drink and asked the kids if they'd like sodas.

The boy didn't seem to mind, but she was prickly. It was apparent in the intractable way our daughter stood in the lounge -- her mouth tightly set, her eyes fixed at a point just shy of glazed over – a slight nudge could set her off. If he had been paying close attention, he might read the whole story in her body language ... from tragic beginning to decimating end.

A story as old as life itself, or so we are told, and yet it's something we've never experienced before. Not in so many words, anyway.

To tell it would seem like extracting the plot from a Tarantino film and wringing out all the gratuitous violence.

No matter how you tell it, the story won't make sense on the surface, and the narrator always runs the risk of losing her audience.

A story where the author doesn't always have the last word ...

But here goes:

It was her favorite place. This crowded restaurant. A family dinner in which we were also meeting friends. There would be children her age; children she liked. There would be food and theatrics and maybe even a hint of drama.

Just enough to be exciting, not enough to spoil the soup. And of course, there would likely be dessert.

Right now she'd rather be anywhere but here. She couldn't hide it.

Ask her a question? She'll answer in a whisper. Ask her to repeat herself and she'll say it again even quieter.

Cue record needle being dragged across vintage vinyl.

"What's wrong with her," my husband asks me since I am the translator whenever he finds himself in the inhospitable territory of Ticked-Off Tween.

Oh right. Seems illogical doesn't it?

Not really. I know what's wrong, but what I don't know is the right way to explain it. Do I cut the red wire or the blue wire?

It's a dangerous position to have between the volatile generations: translator. One indelicate word, one misinterpretation, and the whole place blows. I'd be sweating if it weren't so cold here by the door.

Instead, I close my eyes and clamp down on the nearest wire.

You know how you hated it when your father was always late? … Hated it so much you made a vow that you would never be late to anything? A vow so important to you that you leave an hour early to a fifteen-minute commute?”

Yes,” he answers with solid recognition and a dash of pride.

Well … She feels the exact same way about being forty-five minutes early.”

And with a look of understanding, he showed me I had chosen wisely.

History might repeat itself, but eventually, we'd all be served.

Sunday, January 03, 2016



We all have it this time of year, don't we? That sudden deflation of spirit. The storm after the calm. The end of the year blues.

Christmas has come and gone, and though it may have brought with it all the joy a credit card can buy, it extracts a price we will struggle to pay for the rest of the year.

It never says goodbye. It just quietly slips away as we start to clean up its mess.

But it's a mess of our own making. And we know it.

With every poorly received gift, we are reminded.

We are reminded of these shortcomings each and every time our kids ignore new toys and opt instead to play their old familiar game of "I'm bored."

We can't help but point out the irony we could just as easily apply to ourselves.

As we worry about space, and how little we have of it now that an entire aisle of Target has been transported to our living rooms via the magic of the season and a few trips in the good ol' SUV.

“You don't even play with the things you have ...”

We don't want to admit it, but we know we have a tendency to sabotage the season. We compare it, maybe not to our neighbor's or our friends, but to our inflated expectations.

It's kind of sad how much we invest in this Ponzi scheme of a holiday, hoping the tangible will offer a bridge to the intangible on which we can cross some raging waterway safely.

It doesn't usually work that way.

But we all know the word usually is filled with hope and possibilities. "Usually" doesn't mean never. And as long as there is hope there should be effort. And where there is effort there should be reward.

But when there is no reward what is left?

Recrimination? Retribution?


Or maybe it's why we have a whole holiday dedicated to resolutions exactly one week after overindulging on this glut of good will.

This year will be different; we tell ourselves. This year we will perfect our traditions, and they will be more than satisfying. They will be sustaining.

The thing I think we forget is that no matter what happens, this year can be different. And it can be better ...

Even if we buy too much ...

Or eat too much ...

Or don't get exactly what we wanted ...

We don't have to lose 10 pounds ...

Or get a better job ...

Or become our best selves overnight ...

But we have to stop dwelling in those places.

We have to move on.

I suppose I learned just that this year when the best present in the world … the twelve-piece big-girl bed set was all wrong. Wrong color, wrong fabric, wrong style.

It wasn't until we returned it a few days after Christmas that I understood, getting it wrong might have been the best thing after all.

We got to be together, enjoying each other's company.

We walked. We talked.

Noticed smiles and smiled back.

All because I made a mistake.

So maybe we shouldn't worry so much about meeting expectations.

Or even playing by the rules.

Maybe we should just play through … even when the rules keeping changing and there's no way to win.

The rules are universal anyway:

Lose with grace.

Win with kindness.

Keep playing.

Downtime has a way of turning itself around especially when you're not paying it much attention.