Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas at Arm's Length

I stood in the soft glare of flattering light, holding a garment at arm's length.

It really didn't look like much: a thin gray and aqua "sweatshirt" that bore the name of an entirely different color in a fluid and conspicuous script across its narrow, size-indiscriminate chest.

But it was adorable; I had to admit. It had the undefinable something that would cause it to sell out of all sizes, leaving the desperate to settle for a one-size-up in yellow.

As I squinted my eyes, I wondered if the designers had anticipated the possibility that someone might actually perspire on its anything-but-natural fibers.

But it was one of the only items in the teen fashion catalog in which my teen showed any interest.

And it was $65.

My friend was laughing.

We hadn't been more than a few stores into our annual holiday shopping trip and already it had been an adventure.

See, we hadn't been in the store for an entire minute before a shopkeeper had asked to inspect our bags.

Now, ordinarily, when an alarm goes off and two customers walk into a store at the exact moment two rush out, one might think the extra effort of having store personnel step into the hallway and attempt to stop the fleeing customers would be warranted.

But honestly, I can understand the dilemma. An alarm had sounded, and we were there. The middle-aged shoppers are convenient targets. No one had to chase us down (even if they tried we don't move very fast). And who knows, maybe they'd find some pilfered goods from the bookstore as we walked back through the merchandise control towers.

 ... To the sound of silence.

"Ah ... well," the shop lady said with a smile. "They're stealing clothes they can't even wear."

I wanted to commiserate with the woman whose facial expression had softened toward me now that I had proved my trustworthiness with a security sashay and authenticated register tapes.

But I found myself holding her at arm's length, too.

Instead, I just held out my arm with the potential purchase I was considering - a garment that would amount to four-and-a-half hours of work in American dollars - and asked a simple question to no one in particular.

"Do you know what this is?"

My friend answered with a question of her own.

"Highway robbery?"

It was true. And I couldn't deny it.

Spending the kids' college tuition on single-use clothing was as insidious as spending it on the limited edition peppermint-flavored single-serve coffee pods only available for the holidays.

And yet, that very morning, I had stood zombie-like in my kitchen, popping two of these festive pods out of the caffeine convenience machine and into the trash, where they will remain a full thousand years after I have decomposed.

I do not feel good about this.

'Tis the season.

I put the hanger back on the rack.

The good of holiday giving happens elsewhere.

It happens at the children's holiday concerts. The rediscovery of family heirlooms unwrapped of their tissue paper and hung on a tree. They are found in our stories and our recipes shared around a table. They are in our memories and the good we will do for others.

And they may go unthanked.

We may be in need this holiday season.

But we are not in need of stuff.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Thirteen, our lucky number

I knew the moment I sat down that I had made a mistake. Throughout the day I had gone from one task to another without much thought or hesitation, so I hadn't even begun to calculate my "fatigue" level against my "tasks left to accomplish" ratio when I absently plopped down in an armchair by the fire.

The cake - now in the oven - would be safe for at least 30 minutes.

Almost immediately I felt my eyelids get heavy. They seemed heavier still with every effort to fight sleep.

It probably didn't help that I had grabbed a blanket from the couch and had curled up in the chair, a warm beverage cooling on a table, sadly, beyond a comfortable reach.

I could barely keep my eyes open now, so I stopped trying. Maybe I'll just sleep a bit, I reasoned, as the din of homework completion and meal preparations clanged against one another in perfect disharmony before fading in a new picture that has been dancing around in my sub-conscience, just waiting for these soul curtains to drop.

A few minutes of rest, that's all I need ...

A few minutes ...

Ah ... there she is.


Born during a snowstorm, a week from Christmas. All Six pounds, two ounces of her. Already trying to stand up.

The nursing staff will share the offerings we didn't get a chance to schlep to the cookie exchange: six dozen chocolate drizzled shortbreads.

The minutes seem suspended in slow motion as the hours tick by.

The winter turns into a spiral of springs and summers before fall makes its way toward winter again. I can't tell you whether I bought stamps last week or the week before, but I remember the faces of the maternity nurses in crisp detail.

Their smiles. Always their smiles ... even when I couldn't find mine.

These things rarely go as planned. You know this, but you don't really understand. Not until you experience this strange world.

A door opens, and a person arrives. A baby cries. The La-la-la sound of hunger. Someone has to tell you what it means.

One only gains fluency in this neonatal language through immersion.

In only a year or two, I will have adapted enough to translate for strangers.

It is a living language, after all.

So many times I have gotten it wrong.

Up. Down. No. Yes. Faster. Slower. Go. Stop.

How many times have I reached out my arms? How many times has she pushed them away? Too many to count, starting with an emphatic: "My do it!"

How many times had I not reached out? She can tell you; she's keeping track: "You're never on my side! You don't understand anything."

She's wrong ... but she's also right.

In the place of understanding, I count to ten: I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you ... I love you.

Add one for every year after.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Thirteen. Our lucky number. Or so we hope.

Do you hear that buzz? Hit snooze. Hit snooze!

But it's too late.

The cake is done. The birthday girl taking it out of the oven herself.

It's not a dream. The edges are too sharp. The lights - all LED and compact fluorescent - blur nothing.

I am wide awake now, but I still can't shuffle this feeling into chronological order. It just doesn't make sense.

She wasn't born yesterday. It just seems that way.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Secret war

To make way for Christmas, my husband finally scraped the pumpkin guts from the front porch and tossed them into the compost heap.

After he dusted his hands and rested them on his hips for a moment, he called for me. No doubt to gloat about his major accomplishment.

I didn't quite hear him. On purpose.

We're in a war, he and I.

A war with battle lines clearly drawn over “His and Hers” chores.

What? “What is that,” you wonder?

I can hear my friendly feminists out there choking on their free range, ethically grown, non-GMO and rainforest safe coffee.

Not to worry. It's not as if our roles in this household fall entirely along gender lines:

He cooks; I clean*.

*Unless his mother is coming by for a visit, and then he cleans.

I mow the lawn; he fishes dead things from the pool filter.**

**Unless the dead thing is a snake, and then he gets one of the kids to do it. (Snakes scare him).

I rake the lawn of its leaves, eventually; He cleans them out of the gutters … ***

***Oh wait! No, he doesn't. He had the fancy leaf-repelling gutter tops installed so he wouldn't have to climb that ladder. Genius!

Let's just say whatever each of us brings to this marriage -- be it videos we borrow from the library or orange gourds we hack apart at Halloween -- we are individually responsible for the disposal of said item before its expiration date has expired.

Rarely does this happen.

Shocking, I know.

This stalemate of a rigid job description is why our lawn is often shaggier than the neighbor's; why our Pumpkins often melt into a mushy puddle before New Year's; and why our Christmas trees often linger around in various states of needle distress until St. Patrick's Day.

Basically … we're lazy.

And easily distracted.

It's not as if I want the house to look like a tornado cycloned through the first floor. It's just that I have ten minutes before I have to leave the house, and emptying the dishwasher or folding laundry better fits into that time window. After all, the snowstorm of paper bits forming a second carpet on the floor is not my doing. The resident fake snowflake fairy, who has watched the movie “Elf” at least four times this week, will have to tackle her flurry's winter fallout. Eventually.

But I digress.

The real nature of our troubles in Toyland, was that I had asked him to put up the Christmas Lights, a chore we only adopted last year when an As Seen On TV product – primarily a Christmas-in-a-Can-Light -- made climbing ladders and staple gunning your thumb to the shingles a near impossibility.

“Putting up the lights,” therefore, entails finding two extension cords and plugging them into an outdoor electricity source.

I aim the can lights and dust my hands.

But, no ... My husband had to get fancy.

He had to “Go the Extra Mile” by taking a couple of strings of mismatched Light Emitting Diodes he found in an old box and draping them under the porch roof. Making sure to point out to the neighbors that not only are we lazy, but we probably ate paste when we were in kindergarten. Most likely the toxic kind.

“So, what do you think?” he asked when he had finished my task.

“I think it looks like this should be my job next year.”

“That's what I thought, too.”

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Cat meet bag

The mind is such an impressionable thing.

It leads you places you probably shouldn't visit as easily as it takes you on a hearty, after-dinner constitutional with friends. Which is where my mind started to wander.

Right away you'll want to stop me. 

But you can not. 

Our houseguest wasn't imbibing. She had politely refused the wine with dinner and the cocktails at brunch. She had curbed other things, too.

Like caffeine and sweets and soft cheeses.

In addition to the fancy foods she had procured to add to the fancy meals we'd planned over the course of this glorious three-day weekend, she had brought her own herbal tea, too. She didn't want to deplete my store.

I had noticed and disregarded the information - or so I thought. 

I knew enough to stop myself. The light at the end of this tunnel could be nothing other than a train.

We are, after all, of a certain age, with a certain amount of relief that our children can be trusted alone for the time it takes to complete an evening stroll. 

Such "evidence" therefore is no longer self-evident.

I wasn't going there.

We joked about our lives being perfect now that we are older and wiser, and now that our kids can make their own peanut butter sandwiches.

And we joked about how our lives could only be more perfect had we the forethought to adopt the right cat; instead of harboring the one that shreds our couch, claws our walls, spills the water bowl and terrorizes any and all guests while they are sleeping.

I even went as far as to virtually prank them with a photo of the aforementioned feline, who I happened to catch as she made herself cozy in their open luggage, the photo of which I uploaded to Instagram as our friends were packing their car.

For whatever reason, the crazy, hair-brained notion managed to worm its way into my head long after we had said our goodbyes and had waved at their fading taillights from the porch in our stockinged feet. 

My reason, apparently, was exhaustion and its proximity to the twilight between sleep and standing.

I had climbed into bed, but hadn't closed my eyes, when my husband - his face illuminated by the blue-light of his cellphone - made what seemed like an announcement:

"The cat is out of the bag."

I looked over his shoulder at his phone to see the Facebook profile of the friends who had just spent the weekend. 

My mind churned with fuzzy recollections. Snippets of conversations returned to form new understandings. A little envy reared its shrunken head.

Somehow I fell asleep believing it all amounted to the pitter patter of little feet.

Of course, when I awoke the next morning it felt as if I hadn't slept. 

I went for a run to clear the brain fog, and then for coffee at the shops.

The idea settled in that a new little member of our extended family would be arriving, even though the due date as of this moment was still uncertain.

Later on, at dinner, I mentioned it in passing. Or, more specifically, I mentioned my twinge of jealousy that our newborn days were past us while our friends' were beginning again.

"What ..." roared each member of my family in unison, though my husband finished the sentence, "ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?"

I stammered. His disbelieving voice had instantly cast doubt on all my thoughts for the past 24 hours.

"I thought you told me last night that she'd made an announcement on Facebook. You said 'The cat was out of the bag'."

"I said that, but I was being literal. It was their bag, but it was your cat."