Sunday, July 31, 2016

Blunt force instruments

It was around bedtime, and the children had nestled all snug in their
beds when my phone vibrated. A friend was on the line: "I've just got
to tell you what your son said today ..."

And although everything in my little world seemed to be right at the
moment, these are the words that send chills into the hearts of

The boy is nine now (despite looking only a full seven of those years)
and since school ended he has pestered me non-stop about riding his
bike to the park recreation program. All. By. Himself.

Of course, he had to pass a series high-stakes road tests, which
lasted five days and included a list of skills that would rival DMV's.
I followed him silently the first few days, watching how he crossed
streets, approached driveways and handled pedestrians.

He passed his final  -- he riding his bike toward the park in one
direction, and me driving my car toward him from the other -- with a
perfect score. By week's end, he had his permit to go off on the half
mile commute.

Without me.

On his own.

What could go wrong, you ask?

Abduction? Unlikely.

Accident? Possible.

Attitude? Bingo!

I begin taking a mental inventory of past scripts that have
highlighted my numerous failures - be they drama or farce - during my
tenure as a parent.

My left eyelid pulses with an involuntary rhythm as I replay each scene:

There was the time "Santa's helper" told me the boy had suggested Ol'
St. Nick slim down some if he wanted to worm his way down our chimney.

Only, my son's words weren't as delicate.

And then there was the time my daughter went on her very first play
date, and the kid's mother later (laughingly) reported:

"She pulled me aside after snack time to tell me: 'You know ... Your
refrigerator is filthy.'

"And again, when she needed to use the powder room: 'You know ... Your
toilet bowl needs to be cleaned.'"

I beg a thousand pardons.

The candor, I suppose, I understand. It's the persnicketiness that puzzles me.

No civilized person would call our house clean. Our dirt has dirt.

It doesn't get easier as they get older, either.

"Why on earth would you tell that girl you don't like her grandmother.
It's her grandmother, girl! Have you no sense of decency?"

Children are the original blunt force instruments.

“Are you still there ...” came a voice from the other end of the phone.

My right eyelid started to twitch when I finally cleared my throat and
asked my friend what the boy did.

Turns out there was a communication mix up and the rec program started
an hour late that day. Her husband, who was dropping off their kid,
noticed my kid playing alone in the playground. He felt weird about
leaving him there, so he told the boys he'd take them for bagels and
wait until the counselors arrived.

"Your son told my husband: 'No, I'm not going anywhere with you.
You're not the boss of me!"

When I got off the phone, I went in to kiss my boy goodnight.

"Did you tell Jay's dad he wasn't the boss of you?"

"No, I told he didn't have custody of me. I wasn't going to go with
him because he didn't have custody."

"You do realize we know them, right? It would have been alright with
me if you had gone with him."

"But how well do we really know him? How well do we know anyone? I
think my way is better. I am wiser than my years."

I smiled and kissed his head.

"Can you shut the door on your way out, mom? I have to get some sleep.
I've got a long ride to the park in the morning."

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pushing my luck

There is an enticing moment before any potential disaster when we could dial back all of life's misfortunes, and draw back inside a protective shell, like a turtle ... or a tape measure.

Unfortunately, and for the most part, when we are at that moment we are often talking ourselves through some other problem; or yelling at some poor slob who might have cut us off in traffic; or not have been paying attention at all. Not seeing the forest for the trees, that kind of thing.

In my case, it's not seeing the lawn for all the grass. 

And that's why, on a Wednesday morning with the temperatures climbing, I decided to tackle the mower.

You know what I mean, right?

It's that thing in your garage that might start if you stand on your head and rotate your arms clockwise four times in succession. Not to worry, though. Its engine will roar to a start once your shoulder has torn from its socket.

Ours is a riding mower I assume was made by some alien life-force -- as it looks like an unwanted robotic pet; half beetle, half tortoise -- cast off like so much space junk.

It had seen better days. Days when if you had the levers in a neutral position, pushed down on a pedal and turned a key the thing would start up.

These days, the thing only roars to life with the help of a hot wire and holding interpretive dance positions perfectly still.

Well ... There I was, standing on top of the open contraption, holding the clutch down with one foot while trying to touch one end of the wire to a terminal and the other end to the thing I think of as the CELL ANNOYED.


Crap! I forgot to have the key turned in the "ON" position.

I start again.

Foot. Wire. Key. 

The motor rumbles and catches, spinning the cutting blade. I feel the air from its fan; a cold chill on my other foot, which I had wedged rather painfully into the grass in order to stabilize my precarious balance.

Crap! I think to myself. I forgot to check the position of the mower blade. That could have been a disaster. 

Even so, with a lump in my throat and my heart racing, I took off on the machine, trying to cut a series of ever-narrowing ovals onto our lawn as one might attempt to peel an apple in one single, elegant strip. I'm not trying to be artsy, the machine's reverse feature hasn't functioned in years.

And all was going well, until the fifth circle when a rattling noise developed. The mower slowed a little, seemed to choke as it listed to one side. No matter how far I pushed the accelerator, it merely inched along.

"What now?" I said to the air, with disbelief. The humidity, so early in the day, was already conspiring to vacuum-seal my mind. 

I looked back to see a tiny front tire still rolling along.

A perfect end to an imperfect chore.

For a moment, I think about kicking it across the yard before it circles around itself like a coin and settles into a nest of still-uncut grass.

Miraculously, I am able to stop myself from coming unhinged.

I don't want to break anything else.

So instead, I take out my cell phone and record the breakdown for my husband. I send the picture off into the ethosphere with an audible swoosh.

A few minutes later a reply dings, and I open the missive to find a return image of what is to be my new best friend: A cobalt blue electric mower, with a whisper quiet motor and push-button start.

“Better to push a new mower than push your luck.”

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Imaginary worlds

One day you wake up … on your own … without the alarm blaring … or a cat staring you down for a bowlful of pellets … or a child … holding themselves around the middle and murmuring something about feeling like they are going to throw up. … It's just you ... and maybe the twitter of birds for a soundtrack.

Maybe it's a Sunday morning, and the sun is out.

Maybe you have something to do; maybe you don't. You're in no hurry in any case.

The house isn't silent. Make a mental note of this if you can. You think quiet is peaceful now, but in time, the truer silence will seem unsettling. Where is everyone?

There is movement deep within the house. A dog barks. A door opens and closes. A dog barks again. The process repeats.

If you are fortunate, there may be an aroma of coffee wending its way toward you. Already poured and colored the way you prefer.

It's probably not in your favorite cup … but that's just nit-picky of you to notice. (I hope you didn't say anything … It would seem ungrateful.)

Just say thank you, and let the words vibrate the rust from your vocal chords. Smile and invite the bearer to climb in and listen to music or read a book.

Be thankful the coffee is a little cold. It will probably spill a little.

Don't mention the little splotches on the floor, either. Scuffing your stockinged feet over the spillage will erase the damage.

We are lucky to have so little to do.

I'll admit, I get a little down some days … thinking of all the things I should be doing … but won't be doing. All the little chores that pile up around me: The grass is too long. … The weeds are overtaking the garden … The dog needs a walk.

The kids go here and there, but it feels like hours tick by with little movement.

Now that summer is in full swing, we are flitting from one thing to another, but with ample time in between to rest ourselves from the heat and humidity. It feels a bit like the house has turned into a pond, and we are all colorful amphibians, resting ourselves on lily pads before we jump at flies.

My son makes his own breakfast: A bowlful of granola and a dollop of yogurt. My daughter walks him to camp. I'll find his dishes tomorrow somewhere unexpected. It will be a surprise. Under his bed? Behind the door in the bathroom? In the hammock on the porch? He quietly keeps me guessing.

I'd tell you life was peaceful, but the truth is the peace and quiet were brought to me by a wireless connection. It roils my soul a little to know that in the quiet of their lairs, my children are building worlds in Minecraft. Or perhaps they are following their bliss around the block with PokemonGo.

As I read (and ignore) all the scientific-sounding reports of the dangers of screens on young minds, I am loathed to stop them. The kids are alright, I tell myself. This, too, shall pass.

They are playing together in their imaginary world. And I am drinking coffee in mine.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Game plans gone awry

I would have known her in an instant if she hadn't wrapped a towel around her waist, concealing a carefully mismatched bikini. My daughter -- technically out in the world, though not out of view -- could have been anyone. 

She certainly seemed taller from this distance. Older. The sun shone through her hair, turning it from tea to honey. I squinted and raised my hand in an eye-shading salute. There was a boy with her. 

The truth is, even in this heat, I wish she'd wear a snowsuit. 

I wish she didn't like the attention boys are paying her.

I wish she didn't have to grow up so fast.

She was running toward me now. Sand was kicking up behind her as she sprinted. It was starting to come into focus.

I began to understand what I was seeing.

As she got nearer; I could hear her laughter as it carried over the water. Forced and brittle. It was the laughter of discomfort. The boy wasn't with her, exactly, he had been following her.

Everywhere she went, he went, too.

He was tall and gangly and painfully thin. An oversized watch on his matchstick arm magnified a recent growth spurt. Everything about him had overstepped some boundary. He was the kind of boy her father has told her, jokingly, to be kind to when she turns him down.

I hadn't thought it bad advice in the abstract, though I'm pretty sure we saw the wisdom of this old saw from opposite sides of its double-edged blade: My husband wanted to preserve his gender's self-esteem, and I wanted to keep my daughter from having to dial 9-1-1.

Closer up, it was obvious; she was not enjoying the attention.

He'd done everything he could think of to win her over: He'd thrown his sister into the water and laughed when the poor girl cried; He was rude and snarky; He questioned her intelligence, her attractiveness, her reasoning and spatial understanding. 

And she did everything she could think of to tell him that she wasn't interested: She'd giggled nervously, tried politeness, then acted haughtily, answering questions alternating from monotone to streams of sarcasm.

None of it worked.

Her politeness was breaking into shards, and his demeanor had turned sullen and brooding.

Both of them were miserable.

"Maybe we should go," I tell my husband, who quickly agreed. 

The boy was persistent with his annoyance, and it was getting late. 

In the car on the way home, we kvetched about the kid and strategized how she could have handled him differently.

It wasn't an admonishment of how she HAD handled him, just possible alternatives. More like an after-game huddle without the whiteboards and dotted lines.

My husband started his armchair quarterbacking with the words "what you have to get him to understand," but then he stopped himself.

"It's not on you to change his behavior," I interjected. Don't get angry or try to laugh it off. Stay calm but don't engage. If he's bothering some one else, stand near them. Protect them. Don't engage. He wants a reaction. Don't give him one.”

My daughter's smile returned. 

And though I was relieved, I felt a little sorry for the boy. 

I wish he were in a car with his own people, figuring out better plays.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Sent packing

Are you sure you have everything?

Did you bring your toothbrushes and toothpaste? Did you pack clean socks?

Remember we will be away for five days? You should pack some extra … just in case.

How about sweatshirts? Did you pack something warm? It gets cold at night.

Yessssss, mom. It's all packed,” they sound off in unison as I hear the thud of bags in the hallway.

I may have given up packing for the little people in my household, but I haven't given up quizzing them on the contents of their luggage.

I won't likely forget the phone call I received after the girl arrived at her grandmother's house the summer she turned eight.

She's got four stuffed animals, six books, seven dresses, three socks (none match) and no underwear.”

It could have been worse, I thought to myself, at least she had her toothbrush.

She may have been going “commando” on her first trip away from home, but she wouldn't be neglecting her chompers.

I'm not sure what that means, dear, but could you make sure you bring some of her shirts and shorts when you arrive next week? I'll make a trip to the store for some underwear.”

Of course. I said that aloud. Somethings you just don't live down.

Did you bring chargers? Flossers? Pajamas? Books? Swimsuits?

I get a "Yes," and an "Uh huh."

They don't even look at me as they stand next to the bags.

When are we leaving?”

As soon as we load everything into the car.”

They nod their heads and continue staring into their devices. They've been ready to go for ages. I'm the one who's lagging.

Leaving home for any length of time seems to bring out the obsessive compulsion in me.

Dishes must be washed. Floors swept. Laundry … what we don't take with us anyhow … has to be folded and put into drawers.

I worry more about the possibility of something festering than I do about the potential that emergency workers, saving our house from some unforeseen (but hopefully minor) disaster, would notice the general untidiness of our lives …

You know …

If visiting strangers somehow managed to miss the weeds in the front yard or toys all helter-skelter on the porch, they would most certainly be mortified by the crumbs in the couch cushions.

Not that those ideas don't take up more than enough space in my brain box.

Of course, I hadn't finished packing.

I couldn't decide how much I would REALLY need for four days and five nights.

I can always get away with less; I tell myself. Two pairs of pants, a pair of shorts, several shirts a few unmentionables. I pack my toiletries and running shoes in zippered cases that had come with the sheet sets.

There is still room at the top of my bag.

Space that is reserved for the spoils of shopping.

I may be compulsive, but I'm also fairly impractical when it comes to contingency plans.

Needing to pop out to a store to buy a pair of sunglasses or sand diggers or a really cute top is subconsciously factored into the packing process.

And as I close my bag and haul it to the car, I smile. Summer is here. We have somewhere to go and places to be. And I am sure I have forgotten something.