One of my favorite holiday traditions is watching stuff I’ve seen a hundred times and sobbing in front of my television. By the time Harry Bailey says, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town,” I’m pretty much a mess. Among these odes to the season, my very favorite happens to be an episode of The Family Guy. It’s sacrilege to even mention it in the same paragraph as It’s a Wonderful Life, but it leaves me crying with laughter, which I tend to prefer.
The beauty of this episode is that it reveals one of the purest truths of the Christmas season, that every mom you see is filled with both the warm spirit of the holiday and the potential to snap at any moment.
To summarize: The episode begins with Lois, loving mother, admiring the star atop the tree in the town square. She comments on the miracle of the season, the importance of family, and love for all mankind. Her children are greedy and ungrateful, and her bumbling husband accidentally gives all of her family’s Christmas gifts to the needy. Later her tree catches fire, as does the living room and the turkey. No problem. At least they all have each other and the promise of the joy of the season.
Then Lois runs out of paper towels. It’s just paper towels, not a big thing when you consider what’s already happened. But she snaps in a manner completely out of proportion to the situation, jumps through the kitchen window and runs down the street screaming.
It’s a lot of pressure to be the mom at Christmas. It’s like being the director, producer, set designer and playwright for a month-long show. It’s more than just the gifts and decorations. It’s the mom’s job to create the magic. We strive to create an atmosphere of warmth and excitement that will stay with our kids forever, as if the quality of their Christmas memories is going on our Permanent Record. It’s a 25-day photo op, and the stakes are high.
As the first window of the Advent calendar opens, the memory making begins. Christmas looks like twinkly lights, sounds like Bing Crosby and smells like butter and sugar cooking at 375 degrees. We resurrect old family recipes that were penned, presumably, back when there were 58 hours in a day. We agree to attend a cookie party without reading the fine print – please bring seven dozen cookies. What?! That’s usually the first snap of the season.
But we regroup and strive to look chipper. We wear too-bright red sweaters and dress our already-frumpy cars in antlers. The car antlers, to me, are the definitive sign that the driver is just two dozen cookies away from a straight jacket. Look, they scream, I’ve run out of things to decorate!
In a sense, December is the Super Bowl of being a mom. We do all of the above things, plus we still have to do our regular jobs. Life doesn’t stop for the production of Christmas. Stuff still breaks during the holidays, socks still need to be matched, kids still need stitches. In short, just because I’m making a special roast on the 25th doesn’t mean my family isn’t hungry on every one of the 24 days before that.
The years that I’ve snapped, it’s been about something as trivial as paper towels. I’m prepared for the tree to burn down. And, sure, I’ll get the flu. 99% guaranteed. But it’s the tiny unexpected things that bring me to a running-out-of-paper-towels moment. Once (okay, yesterday) it was when I realized that the holiday cards I’d ordered came with envelope liners that needed to be individually inserted into the envelopes by me. Seems like no big deal, right? It nearly took me down.
I’ve worried about Santa. Would he ever snap? All that hot cocoa and jolly laughter. Something’s bound to give. Will there ever come a time when one too many requests for a Princess Anna sleeping bag sends him over the edge? See, I think not. Santa’s advantage is that he only has to do the one thing. I’ve watched a lot of Christmas movies, and I’ve never seen him throw in a load of laundry or file an amendment to his tax return. In fact he’s pretty well staffed, and it seems like kind of a seamless operation. Our kids tell him exactly what they want, and the elves make all the stuff. Santa seems to be the front man, primarily in charge of P.R. and delivery. From what I can tell, the guy only works like two days a year.
If you look closely at Mrs. Claus, you will see she’s not quite so rosy. You know she’s had it with remembering the Elf on the Shelf and looking for the scotch tape. I’m sure she’d agree that in the end it’s all worth it, that there’s not one aspect of Christmas we’d agree to give up. It really is a magic time. But I’m definitely stocking up on paper towels this year.
Being a contestant on a reality TV show is an amazing journey. I know this because, when interviewed, each and every one of those contestants (win or lose) says what an amazing journey it’s been. I’ve never been on one of those shows, so I’m going to take their collective word for it.
When I was watching the election returns last week, I was shocked to find that the conceding candidates had also, in fact, just completed an amazing journey. They said it again and again, like they were standing next to Ryan Seacrest. The journey was their decision to run for office, the development of a platform and a constituency, ending in a loss. Interesting? Sure. Amazing? No. There were only two ways the election could have gone. But again, I’ve never run for office.
Here’s what I have done: I’ve been married with kids. So when I see my Facebook friends wishing their amazing husbands a happy anniversary, I take pause. When I see “Happy Birthday to the most amazing 9 year old in the world”, I think what gives? Is everybody’s family amazing but mine? What, I wonder, is so amazing about these people?
Just to be clear: Amazing (adj.) Causing great surprise and wonder. Astonishing.
I picture these husbands swooshing into the bedroom in tights and capes. Maybe they clean the gutters dressed like Liberace and spinning plates in one hand. Amazing connotes a bit of flash. It suggests that an unforeseen “ta-da!” is just around the corner at all times. This kind of thing almost never happens in my house. My husband and children are good, even excellent, but I just can’t remember the last time any of them pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
My husband is not a “ta-da!” kind of guy. His superpower is his ability to make the perfect joke in the most tense possible situation, thereby returning all participants to equilibrium. The value of this power cannot be overstated, and the first few times I experienced it, I have to admit that I was amazed. But now it happens so regularly that there’s probably another word for how I feel about it. After the 8th or 9th time Superman stops a train from running over your girlfriend, you are no longer amazed. Maybe it’s “grateful” we’re looking for?
Actually my favorite thing about my family is its un-amazingness. They are consistent. The kid who says he’ll be home at midnight, walks through the door at midnight. I know what to expect. They wake up, get dressed, eat bacon, and leave their stuff out in the rain in such a consistent matter that I’d be astonished if they didn’t do these things.
After 18 years, if my husband was constantly amazing me, I think it would kind of get on my nerves. “Look honey, I painted a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on our front door! Check me out, I’m entering the house through the chimney today!” That’s amazing, honey. Now stop it!
Same goes for that amazing children’s movie you just saw. I understand that it was good, and that you liked the music and whatever little talking animal they threw in. But were you really amazed that it all worked out in a happily ever after fashion? Were you amazed the princess didn’t end up living alone, hoarding mayonnaise jars and caring for cats? Really?
It’s clear why I don’t wish my husband happy anniversary on Facebook, apart from the fact that he’d never see it. We’ve gotten to a place where it’s hard to talk without hyperbole, because the truth seems a little dull. Happy anniversary to my consistently good husband! That would be the truth. Thanks for entering the house through the front door like you’re supposed to. What would people think?
I’ll tell you who’s amazing: The Amazing Spiderman. It’s in his name. He can shoot webs out of his wrists and use them to get around. He can be glum and sort of untalkative, but still keep Mary Jane’s interest. I’ve seen him kiss upside down! That guy, and only that guy, is amazing.
I always wondered why parents went so mental when their kids were applying to college. I tended to give them a knowing nod, the “knowing” part being that I knew there was no way I was ever going to act that. If I asked a question about where their kid was applying, they would reply with a practiced, “we are not discussing it,” like they were members of a covert ops team. As with all other stages of raising children, you just don’t get it until you get there. From where I now sit, next to a son who is perched on the edge of 11th grade, I admit there’s a good chance I’m going to go a bit mental myself.
I take solace in the fact that the same parents who go berserk during their kid’s senior year are completely Zen a year later. They say things like, “Oh it all works out” and “There’s a great school for every student.” And I notice that their collective hair is starting to grow back where they’d previously been tearing it out. I just want to fast forward to that stage. I want to grab hold of that Zen and cloak myself in it for the duration of my child’s college admissions process.
Unfortunately, I have a history of going a bit overboard. Fact: when I was sixteen and going through the college admissions process myself, I completely lost my mind. I applied to a dozen colleges and sucked up to every admissions officer that visited my school. While I’m being honest, let me just say that cookies may have changed hands. When decision time came, I camped out on the curb waiting for the mailman. The first envelope to arrive was a rejection. From my safety school.
Everything went silent.
And so began a period of time when I questioned my basic worth as a human being, the possibility of my amounting to anything at all, and my right to breathe the air on this planet alongside the “accepted ones.” It’s disturbing now to think of how deeply I internalized this rejection. It was like I could quantify my lack of value based on the politely worded language in that rejection letter.
Long story short, I got into another college and pinned my self-worth on their approval. Phew! That was close!
Recalling this dark time, why on earth would I think I wouldn’t go nuts when my child goes through this process? The sane part of parents knows that our children are wonderful, complex beings, with value that is infinite and separate from the whims of college admissions officers. Our kids will thrive in any number of environments and grow up to be bigger, more knowledgeable versions of who they already are. The crazier side of us worries that this is somehow about us, that our child’s admissions results will be a report card that either rewards us for driving to violin lessons or penalizes us for all those hours spent in front of The Family Guy.
One thing I hope to remember, besides the fact that this is not about me, is the fact that it’s harder now. I don’t know how it’s possible that so many things can be easier when this thing is so much harder, but it is. The ugly truth about my generation is that few of us would be accepted to our alma matters today. I don’t care if your first name’s Carnegie and your last name’s Mellon, you’d probably be waitlisted in 2015.
This adds to our stress because we know that our kids have to be twice as smart and accomplished as us we were. I do alumni interviews for my college, and these kids come at me with their state science award and their orchestra compositions and the import / export business they started while volunteering in Africa. I nod as if to say, “Yeah, I did that too.” And by “that” I mean I went to the beach a lot.
I’m not quite engaged in the college thing yet. I’m looking at it from a reasonably safe distance, clutching the words of those Zen parents like the hand of a child who’s about to run out into traffic. I write this as a reminder to myself and to my children that life is not pass / fail, and that it is so much more often circular than straight. And that the smartest person I know attended a college with a 73% acceptance rate.
When I had my first son, someone gave me one of those School Days photo frames to house all the school pictures I would collect over the years. It has twelve openings for photos from K through 11, and then a big celebratory photo for a senior portrait. I tend to be fairly goal oriented, so I liked the idea of having a way to visually track my progress while my kids go through school.
In reality, that frame is the most depressing thing in the world. And I don’t just mean the dwindling empty spaces that show me how many years I have left, like an X’ed-off calendar on a prisoner’s wall. The depressing part is the photos themselves, my kids against an artificial background looking like they’re under duress. If I wanted a collection of thirteen awkward photos of my kids smiling nervously at a stranger, I’d just wait for the mug shots to roll in.
I imagine that school photos made sense many, many years ago. My grandparents and great grandparents were seldom photographed except at school or at their own weddings. They did not live in a culture where parents watched every school play through the back of their smart phones. And they certainly didn’t turn their cameras on themselves to commemorate every social gathering, every meal, every outfit change. In a pre-selfie world, I can see why school photos were necessary to commemorate the passage of a year. I’m not sure we need them now.
At last count, I have nearly a zillion photos of my kids. There are so many that I seldom go to the trouble of printing one out and putting it in a frame. My favorites feature my kids looking like kids: outside, laughing, and a little dirty. When Future Me gets around to printing out the best of these photos and putting them into carefully assembled photo albums, I’m pretty sure the annual school photo won’t even make the cut.
With your first child, you get sort of excited about their being professionally photographed. When the order form comes home, you pick the A package that costs $54, the one that includes the 8×10 and six 3x5s and enough wallet sized photos for all of your friends. Because, really, who doesn’t want to stuff her wallet full of photos of other people’s kids? You maybe spring for the retouching, the personalization on the back, and the refrigerator magnet so you are sure that the photo ends up in multiple rooms.
Smartly, the photo company asks you to commit to this purchase before you actually see the photo. Your kids are so cute, how could they take a bad photo? The picture day photos of my children are honestly the worst photos that they take all year. Sit on this stool, lean a little forward, tilt your head up toward the ceiling while keeping your eyes on me, the stranger who just combed your hair in a direction it’s never gone before…. Say cheese! They often end up with an expression that suggests they’ve recently been punched in the kidneys.
I wised up by the time my second son was in school. I ordered the Z package which is maybe $15 and comes with one individual photo for us to laugh about and also the class photo. (I have to admit I love the class photo. It feels like a historical document. I keep them in case one of my sons ends up marrying the girl in the third row or in case kid making the funny face ever runs for President.)
One year when my third son was in pre-school I brought him to class on picture day, and the teacher gasped when she saw him in his customary Yankee t-shirt and basketball shorts. “Oh no!” she cried. “I forgot to remind you it was picture day!” I knew darn well it was picture day, and I thought he looked pretty good. I wasn’t about to add a starchy collar and a necktie to the awkwardness of the event. I didn’t spring for the refrigerator magnet that year either.
People seem to really like to talk about the good old days. Remember when kids played outside and could shake your hand because they weren’t playing Angry Birds? I remember those days too, but here’s what I also remember about growing up in the 70’s: driving down the freeway, inhaling that first morning puff of second hand smoke (I still like the smell), and watching my mom swerve a bit because the driver of the car in front of us had chucked the remainder of his McDonald’s meal out the window. This was such a common experience that we didn’t even flinch. My mom would just run the windshield wipers a bit and be done with it. I don’t know if this was even illegal in 1975.
So now every time I hear someone say how we are all going to hell in a hand basket, that image crosses my mind. I see a chocolate milkshake dripping down the windshield, carrying with it a discarded pickle and maybe an empty ketchup packet. Sure, things aren’t perfect today, but the fact that we don’t do that anymore shows that we have the potential to improve.
The freeway of my childhood was literally lined on either side with garbage, not just lunch remains but sofa cushions, newspapers and tire irons. Traffic pushed the garbage onto the shoulder the way plows form snow banks. I honestly never thought anything about it.
Then at some point in elementary school things changed. It became unpopular to be referred to as a litterbug. I am still not sure if this is an entomological term for an actual bug who chucks his Big Mac wrapper out the window, but being a litterbug was a worse social stigma than having the cooties. Naturally I’d had my cootie shots, but in 1978 there was no inoculation for being a litterbug.
My school had a contest to see who could collect the most pop-tops off of the ground around our community. You might recall that in the early days of Tab, sodas had pop-tops that came all the way off. It was glamorous to pop open your Tab and then drop that little piece of metal into the tall grass, where it would later choke your dog or cut your foot. I collected literally hundreds of pop-tops off my school playground and the surrounding few streets, and I wasn’t even really trying that hard.
My mind is blown by how far we’ve come, that this same careless generation has managed to change its habits. The early days of recycling required so much personal retraining that I wondered if it would ever catch on. You mean I am going to have to separate my garbage? Like, touch it? Are you kidding? But now we design our kitchens around the task, and the separating is unconscious. My kids would sooner eat cauliflower than put a plastic bottle in the regular garbage.
Plastic bags are illegal in our town. You can’t even buy a plastic bag with a permit and a four day waiting period, that’s how illegal they are. Carrying reusable bags is a major behavioral change, and we embraced it because it involved a bit of social pressure. If I forget my bags and have to take the paper ones offered by the store, I am awash with the childhood stigma of being a litterbug. We have even repurposed the phrase “walk of shame” to describe the trip through the parking lot carrying these wasteful bags.
I wonder if my kids can even fathom the madness of my childhood. Their generation is miles ahead of us and my hope is that they will keep us out of that quickly descending hand basket. They learn songs at school about the subtleties of recycling different types of paper: “If it’s grey, throw it away; if it’s brown, pass it down.” That really beats “If you’re done with your fries, just chuck them out the window.” Which doesn’t even rhyme. I think there’s hope for us yet.
I have just returned from my very first house swap. It was an unbalanced sort of exchange in that my family stayed in my friend Paige’s apartment in Paris for two weeks, and she stayed in my house in Rye for three days. We had more contact during that time than we’ve had in the past 25 years, asking questions about appliances and sharing photos of our families in the other’s town. (I sent photos of my family at the Eiffel Tower; she sent photos of hers at Bar Taco. I told you this was unbalanced, right?) But more than anything, being in each other’s spaces and trying on each other’s lives makes me feel like we’ve actually spent time together. It’s uncanny how much a home tells you about a person.
Whenever people are coming to my house, I do the standard mad dash. I stash the papers in a cabinet or two. I collect armfuls of socks and take them to the basement. I stack unsavory reading material, stray shoes and golf balls on the back stairs. I clean up in a ‘please don’t open any drawers or look at any one surface for too long’ kind of way. If people don’t stay long, they generally leave thinking I’m running an orderly ship. This may be why I don’t usually invite people to stay for very long.
I straightened up my house in this way before I left for Paris, excited to be going on vacation and hyper focused on arriving at the airport my customary three hours before flight time. It wasn’t until I turned the key at Paige’s picture perfect apartment that I started to wish I’d given my place another once over. We were going to learn a lot about each other, and I’d left a lot of myself lying around.
Paige and I went to high school in Los Angeles together. We were great friends, but due to geography we haven’t seen much of each other since then. We now keep in touch in a Facebook kind of way, meaning that we mostly hear about each other’s good days. Neither of us ever posts a photo of vomiting children or personal meltdowns. I would certainly never post a photo of my three kitchen junk drawers.
Paige is preserved in my mind as the California girl that the Beach Boys were always singing about, eternally 18 and always a little sandy. That may be why the reality of her home hit me so hard. It was a shock to learn that in France they don’t have mail. Or dust. Or socks. By the third day I was frantically opening cupboards looking for signs of weakness, or at least a few broken crayons.
With horror I pictured Paige in my kitchen, opening any number of cupboards to find tax receipts and dead batteries thrown together like a poorly conceived blind date. My opened mail sits in neat-ish piles, with story ideas scribbled across the top. Phrases like “Madman takes over sanitation department” or just “slow, untraceable poison” are everywhere. I’ve not scratched the surface of my domestic quirkiness, but standing before Paige’s artfully displayed canisters of coffee, tea and biscuits, I felt a little naked. Yes, Paige, this is what’s become of me.
I was equally shocked to find out what’s become of Paige: Namely, she’s gone French. In her kitchen are handmade mother’s day cards that read “Bonne Fête des Mamans,” or something more correct than that. She has a bowl full of shallots and a bottle of truffle oil. Shallot and truffle oil cooks take sauces seriously. They care deeply about subtle flavor and are usually, among other things, French. Flipping through a cookbook called Qu’est-ce qu’on Mange Ce Soir? I thought, “She’s really a long way from the beach volleyball circuit.”
I’m sure she was just as surprised that I’ve turned into a suburban New Yorker. I buy coffee beans in a three-pound bag and eggs four-dozen at a time. I have paper towels to get me through two seasons, because that’s the only way I know how to buy them anymore. I wondered if she was dying to ask, “Why do you have so many televisions?” as much as I was dying to ask, “Why do you have so many scarves?”
As I fell asleep in her bed every night, I’d run my eyes over her bookcase and happily note that we have read the exact same books during the past decade. I hope that she noticed too. As strange as it sounds, the highlight of my vacation was catching up with my old friend.
Like everyone else on earth, summer meant everything to me when I was a kid. I can still remember the feeling of the last day of school when the nuns made us take our desks outside and wash them. That hint of sunshine and welcome splash of water in my saddle shoes was a preview of things to come. Soon I’d be staring into the wide open space of summer: no have-tos and no ankle sock tan lines.
My mom had a rule about my having to be engaged in one activity every summer. During the summer that I was fourteen, that activity was taking tennis lessons. I know, this may come as a shock to those of you who have seen me play tennis. Is it possible, you wonder, that this person has ever had the benefit of professional instruction? Of course not. By “taking tennis lessons” I mean that my mom dropped me off at the tennis courts on her way to work, and I waited until she’d left the parking lot before hopping the Wilshire Boulevard bus to the beach. Once there, rotating the position of my towel according the movement of the sun was my only real have-to. She never noticed that my tan lines looked more like Baywatch than Wimbledon.
Later, when I got my first full time job, complete with health insurance and the makings of an ulcer, they told me I was entitled to two weeks vacation. Two weeks sounded pretty good for, say, Christmas vacation, but I was alarmed to find out that they meant for the whole year. And then I found out that those two weeks didn’t kick in until after I’d worked a whole year, straight. That was the first year I had no tan lines, and a vitamin D deficiency.
So when I scored the stay at home mom gig, I figured I had it made. I’d be on a kids’ schedule with summers and spring break! All of that childhood freedom would be mine again. Long lazy, sundrenched days, lemonade in a crystal pitcher on a porch. Me, in a white sundress that would somehow stay white after a whole day of frolicking. Being a mom is practically all vacation if you think about it.
I realized my miscalculation right away. But I still try to steal back that summer feeling, that impending freedom. I decide which book I’m going to read first and outline elaborate writing projects. I buy new sunscreen and identify a spot on the beach where my blood pressure will hit dangerously low levels. This dream feels so obtainable, all I have to do to get there is drive my kids around a bit.
That task looks a bit like this: I drop one child at camp at 8, come home to feed another and drive him to camp at 9. I come home in time to eat breakfast myself and consider starting my summertime reverie but realize there’s not enough time before I need to wake and feed the oldest one whose work starts at 11. Ah, 11 o’clock, time to start my day… though the 8 o’clock kid needs to be picked up some days at 12, some days at 2. Throw in a 3pm pick up for the 9 o’clock kid, 5:30 dinner and a basketball game at 6:30…
And I’ve just explained why moms wander around for most of July saying, “I feel like summer hasn’t really started yet.” Or why people keep asking me, “Where have you been?” In my car! You?
I’ve also just explained my peculiar tan lines. I have a driver’s tan, just on my left arm and the left side of my face. It’s half a tan, something out of a Batman movie, which seems about right because moms get half a summer vacation. Half good and half driving.
The hard truth, as I am finally coming to accept it, is that being a mom is really just like any other job. You don’t get three months of vacation. The have-tos remain and sometimes multiply, so the best you can do is just enjoy the hard work that summer eliminates: finding people’s mittens, shoveling the driveway, talking about homework, and avoiding volunteer jobs.
At this stage of life, the only way to create vacation is to actually take it, to pull my children out of their lives and place them somewhere where none of us has any have-tos. I am writing this from my actual, legit summer vacation, which I define as eleven days in a place where I do not have access to a car. And I’m trying to turn the right side of my face to the sun, just to even things out.
When you give birth to a child, that child entrusts you with a thousand small tasks that are necessary for his survival and comfort. It’s important to remember that these tasks are on loan, that we need to eventually give them back to the child for our own survival and comfort. The bathing thing reverts back to them. The shoe-tying thing reverts back to them. I delight in each of these milestones, but none has felt better than letting my kids pack their own stuff for vacation.
I should have learned my lesson when I was first married, the time my husband was running late and asked me to pack his bag for a wedding. Instead of a suit, I accidentally grabbed a tuxedo, and he spent the weekend overdressed, annoyed and repeatedly mistaken for a waiter. On the bright side, he has never asked me to pack for him again. I believe this is what they refer to as a self-correcting problem.
But when I had kids, I found myself once again in the capacity of packing other people’s suitcases full of all the wrong stuff. I would spend my vacation explaining why I chose to pack the t-shirt with the too-tight sleeves, the bathing suit with the grabby liner and the book that he finished two weeks ago. Or answering questions like, “You didn’t bring my headphones? Who goes on vacation without headphones?” I don’t know. Me? Henry David Thoreau?
Whoever coined the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” was certainly up all night with a child who couldn’t sleep because his mother had packed the scratchy pajamas. When it comes to packing for your family, please follow this simple rule: Don’t.
My failure as a packer stems from the fact that I’m neither a professional valet nor a mind reader. One person’s mind is not broad enough to grasp all of the nuances of another person’s complex system of sorting and choosing. Personally, I own 20 T-shirts, all with different purposes. I have some for exercising, some that don’t leave the house, some that are good under a sweater but should never be exposed to direct sunlight. I could hire a curator to come and catalog my T-shirts and she still wouldn’t be able to pack for me.
And jeans? As if. I have many, many pairs and each is slightly different in terms of size, length, wash, and waist height. I choose jeans based on event venue, height of attendees, phase of the moon, and whether I’m going to be standing or sitting. In fact, if there’s any chance I’m going to be sitting on a barstool, I only have two pairs of jeans that would prevent me from offending the people behind me. I am the only person alive who knows which two those are.
If I threw caution to the wind and asked my kids to pack me a pair of jeans, I’d end up having a conversation like this:
“Why would you pack those jeans?”
“I don’t know. You just said ‘jeans.’”
“Those jeans haven’t fit me since 1987.”
“Then why do you even have them?”
“I liked 1987.”
I pack my own stuff primarily because I don’t want to have to explain what was so great about 1987.
I want to offer a metaphor here about my children’s packing their bags as a part their learning to think ahead and gather what they need to embark on life’s great journey. But that’s really not what this is about. My kids’ packing their own bags is about honoring the basic concept of vacation: taking a break from what you normally do the other 51 weeks of the year. If I’m fielding complaints and looking for other people’s stuff, I’m pretty much just doing my day job.
Letting your kids pack for themselves may seem a bit like letting the inmates run the asylum, so it’s important to protect yourself. I type up a deliberately vague list and print a copy for each of them: 4 pairs of shorts, 4 T-shirts, 5 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of underwear…. Then for insurance I add, “Anything else you may want to bring.”
I pack one copy of the list in my bag for reference. When they say, “Mom, I don’t have any extra socks,” I produce the document and counter with, “Oh darn, let’s look and see if that was on the list…” Sure, that kid’s going to spend a week in the one pair of socks that he left the house in, but see how it’s not my problem?
Raising kids isn’t cheap. At first it’s just the basics like shelter, clothing and food, but it quickly spirals out of control into music classes, their own seat on an airplane and many, many pairs of subtly different cleats. The first time I saw the price of six weeks of summer camp, I gasped and (briefly) considered hanging out with them myself.
Then there’s a point in the tween to teen transition where kids need actual cash. Their social lives no longer happen on the playground. They meet up with their friends at and around places that sell pizza and snacks, and without a few bucks it’s technically considered loitering. They don’t need a lot, just a five or a ten (please, Mom). It was at this stage in my oldest son’s life that I started to feel like there was a hole in my pocket.
Which brings me to my big news: My kid got a job. Like for money. I’m trying to let this inevitable but totally unanticipated event sink in. At the most basic level, I’m blown away that he’s going to be spending the day doing something that I’m not paying for. It’s like he’s going to free daycare and coming home with a pocket full of minimum wage.
That’s not even the best part. While he’s at this place (for free, plus salary), he’s actually going to learn what $20 means. He already knows what it buys: it’s eight slices of pizza, a trip to the movies or the price of the basketball he just lost. Frequently it’s just one slice of pizza and a soda, the change from which gets crumbled in his pocket only to be found and kept by me on laundry day. Any which way, a twenty goes pretty fast.
What he doesn’t yet understand is where that $20 comes from. A person with a job quickly learns that a trip to the movies costs nearly three hours of work. Specifically, he’s going to have to fetch beach chairs and umbrellas in the hot sun for three hours in order to go to one air-conditioned movie with popcorn. This watershed learning experience marks the exact moment when people get a little pickier about the movies they see.
The $20 lesson is one of the many, many things that you can’t teach your kids through talking. I tell them about pre-tax dollars and social security contributions and they give me that look that I give people when they talk about grandchildren. I get the concept, but how is this ever going to apply to me? Only the experience of holding that precious first paycheck in your hand and thinking, “Wait. That’s it?” can teach you what $20 really is.
My mom did not have a hole in her pocket, so I got my first summer job at fourteen. In 1984, we weren’t bound by things like working papers or the truth. I walked into a local store and asked if they were hiring for the summer. When asked my age, I replied, “How old do I have to be to get the job?” I thought it was a fair enough question. In this way I worked through high school summers folding sweaters, then scooping ice cream, and eventually answering phones. These are all skills that I brought with me into adulthood.
It was the office jobs, filing stuff, that made me really think about the future. Cooped up under the fluorescent lights, breathing the re-circulated air, and watching the clock move backward, I realized that money isn’t easy to get. I started to understand how much of someone’s life is spent working and the importance of finding a job that captures your interest. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it wasn’t putting other people’s paper in alphabetical order.
It’s ironic how much time and money I spend giving my kids experiences when the best ones are those that they go out and get themselves. I hope that this first job is a step on the way to understanding the world and tasting the exhilaration of self-reliance.
Oh! And the best part? They’re going to feed him lunch.
I think it’s kind of funny that the same culture that thinks seven-year-old kids need a snack in the middle of a sporting event also expects those same kids to top off a six hour school day with 75 minutes of religious instruction. Imagine being in the second grade: word problems, spelling lists, alphabetical order, worksheets! You’re finally sprung at 3 p.m. and race like a pack of uncrated puppies onto the playground… only to be marched over to church to hear the likes of me talk about God. Some days I feel almost as sorry for them as I do for myself.
I’ve taught CCD for nine years. When I tell people that, I feel like a different sort of a person, like maybe a person with a more conservative manner of dress, a clean house and a less colorful vocabulary. People generally think I’m kidding, and they wait for the punch line like I’m going to make C-C-D stand for something wacky. CCD (FYI) stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, which I am sure of because I just Googled it. It’s a weekly religion class that Catholic kids have to go to if they don’t go to Catholic school.
This year I co-taught a class with my friend Emily. They gave us 15 children, 12 of whom are boys, presumably because she is a world-class athlete and I’m paying off a staggering karmic debt. I only know a few things about little boys, and one of them is that they cannot sit for very long. If at all. Asking little boys to sit and listen at 3:45 in the afternoon is like asking a coop full of chickens to perform Swan Lake. There are phrases that we repeat constantly: Please sit back down. Please get off the desk. We can talk about who’s lost the most teeth if there’s time at the end of class. (The rate of tooth loss at this age is alarming). Yes, that clock on the wall is actually moving.
I’m not at all prone to self-sacrifice, so I wouldn’t keep at it year after year if there wasn’t some sort of a payoff. I like teaching CCD in that same way you might like camping. It seems like a shiny, wholesome idea at first. You over-prepare and purchase a bunch of supplies that you don’t really know how to use. You slog your way up a mountain, trying to ignore the blister that is forming at the back of your wet sneaker. You want to give up, because really why in the world would you put yourself through such torture? In your darkest moments, you’re worried that someone’s going to get hurt. Teaching CCD is actually exactly like that. With 15 kids strapped to your back.
But then something happens, an unexpected view or a shooting star. Sometimes they’ll surprise me by connecting a complicated concept like forgiveness to their own lives. Or they’ll start to understand God as someone good, as a part of themselves and everything around them. I once had a student who noticed how the leaves come back on the trees to give us shade just in time for the hot summer. “God is thoughtful,” she said. I caught my breath at that unexpected view.
The first class I ever taught is now finishing the 10th grade. I ran into one of the girls from that class on Mothers Day, and I had to get on my tippy toes to say hello to her. I remember her six-year-old face, terrified, on the very first day. I remember when she got a new puppy and brought him into class to show me. When she’s 50, I’ll look at her and remember that face and that puppy.
This year’s merry band of maniacs just had their First Holy Communion. As the ceremony was starting, one of the boys gave me a hug before he’d had a chance to think better of it. Call it Stockholm Syndrome if you want, but I will remember that hug and every single tooth he lost this year when I see him dressed up again for the prom. The trek’s been totally worth it.
When I first heard about the Rye Civility Initiative, my first thought was: Boy, do I live in a town with high-class problems! I mean are we really going to start worrying about something as nebulous and old fashioned as civility? How about a Fix the Potholes Initiative? Or a Teach Everyone How to Use the Traffic Circle Initiative? I’m even willing to head up the Put Your Phone on Silent in The Nail Salon Initiative if I can garner enough support. But I’m starting to think that encouraging civility is a huge step to solving all of those problems and more.
When I’m walking through my happy day in my friendly town, nothing could be easier to muster than civility. I chat with the smiling lady who’s telling me she liked my last article, and I think what’s not to respect? Let me into the left hand lane or return my lost cell phone, and you can be sure I’ll respect the heck of you. Civility really becomes relevant and critical at times of tense disagreement, when emotions run high and much is at stake. Like in a parking lot.
Last week I was at the YMCA, doing my granny run with just enough time before I had to get home, shower and get to a meeting. When I got to the parking lot I found that a car had parked behind me, and the driver had forgotten to leave her keys with the valet. The attendant went inside to try to find her, but apparently she had decided to leave the gym and do a few errands in town. She’d gone walkabout, as it were, and took my morning with her. I was literally stuck, boxed in, and boxed out of the shower-meeting portion of my day.
What do you say to a person in this situation? This is where the notion of mindful, deliberate civility is critical, when maybe the warm fuzzies for your fellow man are not flowing so easily. Is there an easy way to internalize civility so that you rely on it like a habit when you’d rather fly off the handle?
George Washington tried to give us guidelines for living a civil life in The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. (There is a rather civil debate on the Internet as to whether he wrote these rules or copied them.) I didn’t happen to have my copy handy in the YMCA parking lot but the first of these rules is, “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.” Then there’s lots of stuff about not taking your clothes off in public and how much and where you should eat and drink. They conclude with the 110th rule, which reads, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” Bingo. I think our forefather was directing us to the two critical ingredients of civility: respect and awareness. Look inward with honesty and look outward with compassion.
In the YMCA parking lot I was wholly focused on my own interests. I’m going to miss my meeting. I’m going to miss my shower. I’m really sweating here. How could this woman do this to ME? Since I was already so involved with myself, I decided to look a little closer. Yes, I too sometimes do thoughtless things that inconvenience others. I sometimes forget to signal or don’t notice that the light has changed. I sometimes stop my car in the middle of the street to chat with a friend and fail to notice the cars lined up behind me. There’s more, but you get the idea.
It was a humbling exercise, and by the time I finished my self-examination I was feeling pretty darn civil. If I can figure out how to make this a habit, then maybe I can keep it together the next time someone parks so close to me that I have to crawl through my trunk to get into my car. Because, guess what, I sometimes park like an idiot too.
All of this makes me think that maybe the Rye Civility Initiative is the most important thing happening in our town right now. The overriding vibe of mutual respect that comes from civility is good for everyone, and it’s even key to furthering our own self-interests. If you want your words to be heard and understood, choose civil ones. Calling the guy at the city council meeting a big fat dope isn’t the fastest way to bring him around to your way of thinking.
Interestingly, an addendum to George Washington’s Rules of Civility was just found on the underside of his flip desk, revealing three more timeless guidelines:
111. When quitting your carriage, endeavor to occupy only the number of parking spaces that corresponds to the number of carriages you are currently driving.
112.Do not become exasperated with the elderly person in front of you who is struggling with the self-checkout at Ye Olde Stop and Shop.
113.Be fastidious in your commitment to putting soiled socks in the hamper.
“How much longer does this go?” I ask the parent next to me. “It’s only the first inning,” she responds. What?! I have this conversation several times a week during the start of baseball season. How could my buns have gone numb against these metal bleachers in only one inning? I check my watch. I check my phone. I wonder why no one else looks like they’re trapped in an elevator. I’m sure my hair’s grown an inch since this game started.
A little kids’ baseball game can start to feel like a hostage situation. The fact that it might last for three hours could be the reason that it’s called America’s pastime. By the bottom of the third, I’m pretty much thinking it’s past time. I spend the first few games of the season resisting baseball in this way, mentally willing that kid in center field to catch just one fly ball to move things along.
For me, baseball is like yoga. From the expressions of concentration on the faces around me, I have the sense that something very important is happening, yet I see almost nothing happening at all. I get fidgety and start making mental lists. Everyone else seems to have come seeking this slower pace, and I’m baffled by their collective tranquility.
You can probably tell that I need baseball and yoga more than anyone. I tend to approach a Saturday with a list and move through the events on that list as quickly as possible to obtain that fleeting sense of accomplishment that comes with having gotten in bed at night with a list all checked off. I’m a bit hooked on getting stuff done, which is probably why I like basketball. In at noon, out at one. On to the next thing. Watching a red-faced child stumble off of a basketball court gives me the sense that much has been achieved in an economical amount of time.
Yoga is avoidable, but baseball keeps dragging me back in year after year. And each season, around the third game, I surrender to the fact that there’s just no rushing in baseball. I start bringing my own chair. I start bringing my own drinks. I stop planning things for the afternoon. I notice the newly familiar faces around me, and I edge my way into their conversations. All lined up, watching I’m-not-sure-what, the conversation is easy and is seldom about baseball. I start to hate it less.
I start noticing that people bring their parents, and I start noticing how much I want to talk to people’s parents. I scoot my folding chair closer to the older generation, and within minutes I start actually liking baseball. I ask them questions, they tell me stories. Long stories. They’re not the sort of stories you can fit into a Facebook post or a tweet. In fact, older people don’t feel at all compelled to make a long story short. We’re at a baseball game, after all. We have all the time in the world.
When a 75-year-old man meets you for the first time, he immediately recognizes you as a new set of ears. He starts in with some well-seasoned small talk, and then he brings out his best stuff: the time he met Jimmy Carter, the time he dated his wife’s sister and realized he had the wrong girl, the distance he walked to caddy as a kid and the lessons he learned eavesdropping on golfers. My father-in-law has a story about the time his four-year-old brother wandered off to the movie house during the war. I’ve heard it a dozen times, and I can’t do it justice. In a lifetime, a person accumulates maybe ten great stories. A baseball game is almost long enough to share five of them.
Meanwhile, someone kicks up some dust, someone finally makes contact with the ball, and little children are running the bases, over and over. My heart rate is down and my pulse has slowed to the rhythm of the game. People around us start to pack up their coolers, but the last story’s not quite over. We make no move to leave. I’m not sure what the big hurry was anyway.
I am so happy to have been asked to follow Susie Orman Schnall, author of the novel On Grace, in the “My Writing Process” Blog Hop. I’m passing the torch to Colleen Oakes, author of the Elly in Bloom series and the Queen of Hearts saga, who will be posting on May 5. My job is to answer four questions about my writing. If this interests you, read on. If you are a person who prefers not to know how the sausage is made, stop here. I totally understand.
This is tricky because I write two totally different things: fiction for young adults and a column for moms. My approaches to these two kinds of writing are totally different and maybe even contradictory, so for the purposes of this hop, I’m just going to talk about my column.
What am I working on? Right now I’m working on a treatment for a children’s movie, and I’m also working on a bigger project related to my column. Vague enough for you? Sometimes you’re not quite pregnant enough to fully share.
There’s also a Disney Channel Movie being made based on my novel, A Girl Named Digit, which I’m not really working on at all. I do, however, spend a whole lot of energy worrying about it and, trust me, worrying about things over which you have no control can be a lot of work.
And, of course, I’m always working on my next article. The current one is about civility in the suburbs. I swear these articles (almost) never turn out to be quite as lame as they sound.
How does my work differ from others in its genre? Jeez, I don’t know. It’s different, but I may be too close to it to say why. It’s more of a feeling. Sometimes I read something and think that it’s similar to what I would have written, and other times I think that I would have taken it from a totally different angle. The difference is my perspective, and I can’t really say what that is.
Why do I write what I write? My intention when I sit down it write is to say something that’s true. I started writing my column for fun, just for the satisfaction of expressing myself and to burden others with my internal dialog (sorry!). What surprised me is that it had a unifying effect on my readers. I heard a lot of “Me too!” and “I’ve always thought that!” So I kept writing it.
Being a suburban mom can be a bit isolating and competitive. We all stand on the playground inquiring about each other’s kids, and we shout a chorus of “Great, great! They’re all great!” Likewise for our marriages (three times a week? Really?), our aging parents, and our mental health. We’re not lying as much as just keeping our chins up. We want to know that we’re not the only ones overwhelmed by the socks, baffled by the chronically-full dishwasher and marveling about where the day went.
If we’re all living in the same loop (wake, feed, drive, rinse, spin, fold, shop, feed, rinse, sleep), my hope is that these articles will illuminate the humor and value in that loop.
How does my writing process work? Frankly, as dysfunctional as it is, I’m surprised it works at all. I have an article due every two weeks, and it’s pretty much the same insanity every time: I finish the previous article and email it to my editor. At that very moment I decide that I am washed up, that I do not have another one in me, and that I will never, ever have another idea. I decide to wait a few days to tell her, but I am at peace with my decision to quit writing forever.
The next day I feel a bit depressed. The only way out is to start an article, but, as predicted, I don’t have an idea. I start to get nervous and eventually panicked: I really am washed up. But, really, how am I supposed to write an article when I have this birthday party to plan or when I’m sick with the flu or when my house is infested with stray socks? Invariably, I end up writing an article about the birthday party or the flu or the socks.
So I begin. I sit on my deck or in my living room (these tend to be sock-free zones) and I just type random thoughts about my topic. The writing is terrible, but I save the file and open it the next day and find that it’s gotten a little better with age. I usually find my point towards the last paragraph and move that paragraph up to the top. Then I comb through the rest of it for more days than I’d like to admit, until it feels like the rhythm is right. Sadly, I often have to delete my favorite part, as it’s irrelevant and lumbering and only meaningful to me.
Last step: I make my kids read it to assure I didn’t say anything overly embarrassing (it’s not healthy to sleep with one eye open). Then I send it to my husband for quality control (he’s gotten tougher over the years), and then to my sister and sometimes my oldest friend for overall vibe approval. I then send the file off to my editor and promptly decide to quit writing forever. Rinse, repeat.
Thank you to Susie Orman Schnall for tagging me, and to Eileen Palma, author of the novel Worth the Weight, for tagging her. We will all three be talking and selling books as part of the Moms Night Out Author Event at Athleta in Scarsdale, NY on Thursday night, May 8 from 7-9pm (more details below). RSVP to email@example.com.
I am almost always called out of the line at airport security for a “random screening.” Statistically, it can’t be random. I suspect the fact that I’m traveling with a bunch of kids who don’t share my last name has something to do with it, as my stature and demeanor aren’t really that menacing. It takes an extra few minutes, and I quietly accept the punishment for never having legally changed my name. It was totally worth it.
During the first 25 years of my life, I frequently had this conversation: “What’s your last name?” Schwedes. “What?” It’s Schwedes, pronounced Shway-dis, and spelled like Schweppes, the tonic water, but you’ve got to drop one p and then flip the other one upside down. As you can imagine, whomever I was talking to would lose interest early on. It’s a German name and one that I don’t really relate to. Aren’t the Germans supposed to be precise and tidy and smart about their finances? There’s no way I’m more than a tiny bit German.
When a man named Monaghan proposed to me, you’d better believe I said yes in a hurry. I never spell it. No one even asks me to. I don’t care if the silent G makes it in there or not. Pronounce it Moynahan if you want, I couldn’t care less. With a quick “I do,” I became Irish and easy to deal with, like I always should have been. I know a few things about beer and potatoes. And I don’t really tan. It didn’t take long before I had children with names like leprechauns and I started decorating my house for St. Patrick’s Day. My poor Spanish grandmother (other side) hardly recognizes me as the matriarch of this family.
So with all this enthusiasm for my new heritage, you’d think I would have legally changed my name on the first day. I actually meant to. I’m generally an all-in sort of person, particularly where my family is concerned. Changing your name can be a touchy topic, particularly among women who have established themselves in a career. They feel torn between giving up their hard-earned reputation and making things confusing.
I had neither of these concerns. I wasn’t exactly a world-renowned anything before I was married. In fact I dreamed of all the things I could accomplish if I didn’t have to spend the day spelling my name to people. But there was something about giving up my quirky tonic water name that didn’t sit well with me. It might be that the paperwork overwhelmed me, or maybe that deep down I thought it was sort of unnecessary and off balance. My husband wasn’t changing his name, so was this marriage thing really more of a transaction than a union? And if I changed my name for good, where would that younger self be?
My solution was to keep that younger self and give her all of the hardworking German stuff to deal with. Miss Schwedes is listed on a marriage certificate, three birth certificates, a tax return and a mortgage. She’s got a lot of problems and probably an ulcer. But as consolation she’s virtually un-Googleable, so if she was mean to you in middle school (sorry!) and you feel like getting a little revenge, you won’t find her. Half of her has shuffled off her German coil and is hanging out at the pub.
I’ve given all the fun stuff to the Irish lass. She’s decidedly more laid back, has lots of friends and does a job she really likes. She has no debt. She doesn’t even have a medical history, so I imagine she’s in pretty good health. I believe this is what they call the luck of the Irish.
For my oldest son’s fourth birthday I took 15 kids on safari in my backyard. I transformed the space into the African savanna and led them all in pith helmets and sunglasses on the adventure of their lifetimes. I was living in New York City at the time, and took three separate trips downtown to a professional theater supply shop for equipment. There were lifelike animals, games led by me, a cake shaped like a lion and elaborate safari themed party favors. I spent more time and mental energy planning that party than I did on my wedding. And it cost nearly as much.
My son remembers nothing about that day. But the photographs are great, so great that I’m hoping I can convince him he’s actually been to Africa. Eleven years later, I’ve hosted a lot more birthday parties with varying degrees of difficulty. And I’ve learned a thing or two about the word “necessary.” My youngest son turned eight today and I am writing this with 110 minutes to spare before his party starts. I’m not saying I’ve conquered the birthday party, but I am happy to report that I am currently devoid of a migraine, a facial tic or a dangerously high blood alcohol level. Benefit from my experience:
1. Manage your expectations. The party is going to be fun only if you’re a child. Don’t plan to enjoy your child’s birthday party or even your child at that birthday party. That twinkle in his eye isn’t joy, it’s madness. Children understand scarcity, that this only happens once a year for two hours. They’re going to party like they mean it, and it might get ugly.
The stress of having to keep track of 15 kids at once makes you wonder about any social construct that supports the drop-off birthday party. These are not soldiers we’re managing, they are little children hopped up on sugar. Throw in variables like vomiting, the weather and the clown not showing up and really anything can happen.
One year, for a fifth birthday, I had 20 kids for a backyard extravaganza, and naturally it poured rain. So I ended up with 20 kids playing tag in my house. Carrying chocolate cake. I found one little girl hiding with her cake in my bedroom. Quick on the uptake, she saw me and wiped her hands clean on my drapes, and then stashed the rest of the cake in my husband’s sock drawer. I appreciated her discretion. Which really brings me to what probably should have been my first point…
2. Don’t have the party at home. It’s funny that we throw these parties on the anniversary of the day we endured childbirth, because the two events are really so similar. They’re painful, not for the squeamish, and invoke a feeling of elation when they’re over. So if you had the sense to give birth in a hospital where there were professionals to supervise and clean up, you should have the sense to do the same with your child’s birthday party. Go anywhere: a sports place, or an art place, the candy store, the park, a construction site with a port-a-potty. I cannot overstate the intense tranquility of returning home to my ordinary mess after one of these events.
3. Bring another adult. There was this one year when I took a bunch of kids to laser tag and my little one got his eye sliced open and needed stitches and I had all these kids and there was a lot of blood and thank goodness my friend Maria was there and drove them all home. I’ve blocked out the rest, but you get the idea.
4. Have the party on the actual birthday: This is one thing I’m getting right for the very first time this year. I used to choose the Saturday closest to my child’s birthday for his party. I’d have the Saturday party (suffering all manner of stress, hair loss and intestinal ailments alluded to above) and then a few days later on his actual birthday, he’d ask what we were doing to celebrate. I’d scramble to find photos to refresh his memory, but to no avail. The party’s long forgotten, the frosting’s been fully metabolized and the gifts were already broken. His actual birthday felt like a letdown. Bring on round two: another cake, fresh balloons, and the general merriment that can only be found at Party City.
5. Party favors can be anything. By the time those kids leave, they are so tired and strung out on sugar that they don’t care what’s in that goody bag. But I’m not saying you can skip it! Children over the age of two are programmed to expect entertainment, pizza and cake, followed by a bag of stuff offered as payment for having attended the party. They’ll stand there and wait, holding your gaze until you meet your end of the bargain. Don’t prolong their departure by having to explain that you are too green to give them a bag of landfill.
My kid’s party starts in an hour. I’ve got to go find some stuff to put in those goody bags. Any stuff will do.
I don’t mean to brag, but my kids totally listen to me. It would be nice if this communication happened while we were sitting together by the fire, with me sharing decades of hard-earned wisdom and them taking it in with smiles of appreciation. In reality, it’s more complicated than that. They listen, but never at the right time.
I used to suspect that there was a barrier, a semipermeable membrane that separated my children’s ears from the stuff I say. Reminders of tasks, any variety of nags, and warnings of impending injuries didn’t seem to form the right shapes to pass through. Conversely, the sound of an ice cream truck six miles away, or the first three notes of the Spongebob Squarepants theme song were perfectly shaped to slide right in and elicit an immediate reaction.
Now I wonder if it’s even simpler than that. Like soccer-simple. I wonder if the friendly advice and folksy life lessons that I deliver directly to their ears are diverted by a small but nimble goalie. Direct shots are easily caught. The only things that my kids hear come indirectly, like a ball shot high in the corner off of someone else’s head.
I take a lot of direct shots. I tell them to put their laundry away, that I’ll be 10 minutes late to pick them up from school and that swinging a golf club in the house is a bad idea. I’ll stand right in front of them and say, “I’m going to the market.” They will reply as if they’ve heard, but ten minutes later I’ll get a text in the produce aisle: “Where are you?”
I tell them to be kind. I tell them not to judge people, that it’s not our job to decide how other people should live their lives. I tell them to see the good in people, no matter what. They stare blankly at my enlightenment.
But recently, when I was leaving the house to go celebrate an acquaintance’s birthday, one asked, “You’re going to meet her? Isn’t she the one you think is kind of passive aggressive?” Another added, “…and braggy, since she bought that summer house…” How did those words get to their ears? Those comments were made in whispered tones to someone else, but somehow made it past the goalie. Score one for pettiness.
It seems that my children hear and take in literally every word that I don’t direct at them. As they have multiplied and grown, I’ve realized that I’m never completely out of earshot, and they are never as completely engrossed in their TV show or school work as I think. The words I choose, like the way I react to a setback or respond to a compliment, are all being recorded behind those seemingly tuned out eyes. It can make you feel a little paranoid.
I first realized that I needed to clean up my act when my oldest son was two years old. One night he finished his spaghetti dinner and asked for more. I obliged, and he stared in awe at the second large plate of spaghetti sitting in front of him. He exclaimed, “Holy sh*t! That’s a lot of noodles!”
I was horrified. Who could he possibly have been around that would use that kind of language? How is it possible that this small genius not only absorbed this strange idiom but also used it perfectly in the face of all those noodles? He must have heard it more than once. I watched him dig into his noodles and thought, “Holy sh*t, he’s listening!”
I will occasionally use this phenomenon to my advantage. I will stand at a misleadingly safe distance and tell my sister on the phone all about a new study that definitively links drug use to brain damage. I can then carelessly leave the article near them, without actually handing it to them. It might get read.
And it’s not all cautionary tales. I find that saying “I’m proud of you” is often too direct, and maybe embarrassing. It gets deflected. But telling my sister on the phone how proud I am of something they did will sneak in.
They really do need to put their laundry away. It’s piling up, and I’ve delivered this message in every direct way I know how. Here’s hoping they read my column.
I enjoy my one-sided relationship with Siri. I press a button when I need something and she is always there with the correct answer or a promise of a reminder. In return, she asks nothing of me. I don’t have to respond to any of her needs. Actually, I’ve never even bothered to ask what they are. Our relationship is 100% about me. And I don’t feel that bad about it, because, at some point, we’re all Siri to somebody.
The Siri dynamic happens during a time when a relationship is off balance. One person takes on the roll of the Asker and the other becomes the Responder. The Asker reaches out when she needs something, and the Responder’s job is to always be there. Assuming an adequate level of self-esteem, you decide to be Siri for someone because you really love them. And because you know it’s going to be temporary.
For example, you often have a Siri relationship with a friend who is in crisis. That friend calls you with her problems, and there’s no other pretext for the conversation. If she’s going through a divorce or a serious illness, that topic trumps whatever you’ve got going on. Your friend in crisis doesn’t want to hear that you’re annoyed because you just drove all the way to the market to get ground beef for meatballs and all they had was ground turkey. If she frequently forgets to ask how you are, it’s just to protect herself from this ground turkey conversation. It’s basic crisis survival.
Increasingly, I have the Siri relationship with my older children. Teenagers, by definition, are people in crisis. For my particular teenagers, the crises generally revolve around food. They press a button to text me from their rooms: “When’s dinner?” or “I’m starving!” or the ever-important “Did you buy bananas?” And I respond. This dynamic seems as natural to me as their learning to walk and talk. It’s just part of the process, and it’s temporary.
I know this imbalance is temporary because my mother was Siri to me during my teenage years and beyond. I would call her from college only when I was knee deep in a crisis, back when a phone call was a major event that cost money and happened in a public hallway. I would regale her with my crises and my resulting needs. She would respond. And then the following week, after she’d wrung out her hands in worry and I’d forgotten about the whole thing, we’d talk again. “Oh, that?” I’d tell her, “It’s fine… I passed the test / we got back together / the doctor said it was nothing…”
See, here’s the thing: You don’t follow up with Siri. If you ask her for the closest Chinese restaurant, you don’t text later to tell her how the Moo Shu was. You just wait till you’re hungry again and send out a new request.
When I had children of my own, I elevated my mom from Siri to Saint. I saw with newly human eyes her humanness, felt with a tired heart how tired she must have been all the time. How did she pull off Christmas every year? How did she work full time and put together such elaborate dinners? How was she always wearing make-up? And so I started calling just to ask how she was. I wanted to know how work was going and what she was reading. Did she have plans Saturday night and, if so, what was she going to wear? I started downplaying my own drama in favor of a cute story about one of my kids. We were back in balance.
Sometimes the most valuable thing you can do for a person is to be Siri for a while, to stand still while they are spinning. Teenagers in particular seem to need to know that we are planted firmly in place, texting distance away (and preferably looking frumpy). They don’t need to know about our friendships, our ups and downs, and our worries while they sort through their own.
I’m grateful for all the times people have been Siri to me. And as a show of my gratitude, I’ve stopped asking the actual Siri to call me “Foxy.” She’s never complained about it, of course, but I don’t want to push my luck.
I like to drink coffee with my husband in the morning while he gets ready for work. He has the sort of job where you have to shave and get dressed. I have the sort of job where you have to do neither. I tend to feel defensive about this, particularly when he asks, “So what are you up to today?”
The question sounds flip. Up to? ‘Up to’ is a phrase used for kids and retirees, people with tons of free time. There is no way in the world Sheryl Sandberg’s husband asked her what she was up to when she left the house at five this morning. My answer is at once “not much” and “you name it!” I’m defensive because it’s impossible to explain what I do all day without inducing a coma: drop off the kids, go to the gym, go to the market, call the orthodontist, pick up the kids, prepare the food, clean up aforementioned food, find the socks…
And it seems that every time my husband calls me during the day, I’m goofing off. I picture him hunched over his desk with a vein throbbing at his temple. He pictures me as whomever Donald Trump’s married to right now. If I’m out to lunch I shush the waiter and say something like, “hang on, I’m looking for the plunger.” If I’m taking a nap, I clear my throat a few times before answering.
I actually get a lot of stuff done during the day, but very little of it is visible to my husband. In fact, to the untrained eye it looks like nothing happens at all around here. When he leaves in the morning, I’m in my pajamas and the kitchen’s a mess. When he comes home at night, I’m in my pajamas and the kitchen’s a mess. How can I explain to him that, though the pajamas are the same, the mess is a totally new, fresh mess? Hello, those are dinner dishes, not breakfast dishes.
I want to explain to him the critical distinction between “still” and “again.” The children aren’t still hungry, they’re hungry again. The dishwasher’s not still full, it’s full again. (Ditto for the pajama thing, I’ve had at least two costume changes since I put them back on). In French there’s one word for both ‘still’ and ‘again’, which I find fascinating. Maybe French housewives don’t care what their husbands think they do all day.
The stay at home mom’s job is pretty much just getting things back to zero. Getting the fridge and the stomachs back to full, getting the beds back to made, getting the dishes back to clean. Getting the children up and out and then home and back in bed. They awake imperceptibly bigger and further along the path towards moving out. And then moving back in again. It’s a loop.
There are days when herculean effort is made with absolutely no result. One day I got a call in the morning from the school saying that my son’s shots weren’t up to date. Apparently there were going to be dire consequences. So I called the doctor and used all of my powers to get a noon appointment. I pulled my kid out of school, headed to the doctor’s office, and waited an hour only to hear that the shots were indeed up to date and that the form had been misread. I returned to the school to explain this to the nurse, and then had time to fill my car with gas before returning for pick up. This is the sort of story I would never make my husband sit through. But that day, it was what I was up to.
Occasionally I have something on my calendar that might register with my husband as an actual event, and I milk it. I’ll mention over four mornings worth of coffee that I have a meeting scheduled at the elementary school. I’ll remind him that I’m on the Executive Board there. Because they asked me to be. I was appointed, you see. I pronounce it Ex-ec-u-tive and raise my eyebrows as I say it. He seems adequately impressed, and for a minute I feel like I’m wearing Sheryl Sandberg’s pajamas.
The Rye Record on January 24, 2014
I’m pleased to announce that my midlife crisis has come to an uneventful conclusion. I have emerged untouched by an obscure tattoo, a tennis pro, or the leather seats of a new sports car. I didn’t even start wearing cut-off shorts with boots (you’re welcome). There should be a parade or a ceremony to mark the ending of this stage of life, a Hallmark card at a minimum.
I’d outline for you the progression of my midlife crisis if it wasn’t equal parts boring and personal. Let’s just say it started the day I saw Crazy, Stupid, Love and realized that I was supposed to relate to the middle-aged Julianne Moore character, not the twenty-something Emma Stone character. And it ended with the realization that the Julianne Moore stage of life is actually pretty great. What it lacks in excitement and angst, it makes up for in joy and appreciation. Ryan Gosling would have started to get on my nerves anyway. Maybe.
During this time, I was surprised to learn that people engaged in a midlife crisis seek each other out. At first I didn’t know if it was the law of attraction or the fact that I’m starting to look a little like Dr. Phil, but people came out of the woodwork to tell me about their crises. Three times in the past year I’ve gotten “I’m having a midlife crisis” in response to “How’s it going?” Recently, a colleague began a work-related call with, “Before we start, you should know I’m having a midlife crisis.” The shock value ran out pretty quickly. I started telling everyone to take a number and hunker down.
I tend to roll with the 40 to 50 year-old set who are optimistic enough about living to be between 80 and 100 to call this midlife. The women tell me about the careers they left behind and that feeling of financial powerlessness that comes with having spent a decade or two as a stay-at-home mom. They tell me about their marriages, that disconnected feeling that begs questions like “What happened to us?” and “What are we going to talk about when the kids leave?” From both men and women I hear the question “What now?” more than anything.
By the time you hit midlife, there’s a good chance that you’ve been doing what you’re currently doing for a while. I’d be unloading my dishwasher for the third time on a Saturday and think, “I should really be in France.” I mean I’ve explored the whole dishwasher thing. I load it. I unload it. I get it. What now?
The midlife crisis is preceded by decades of running at full speed, chasing stuff like promotions and fertility and real estate. When we finally have some subset of what we set out to achieve, we are shocked to find that what we’ve really been doing is amassing a big pile of responsibilities. We can’t just pick up and move to France anymore. We’ve got too much stuff.
But there is a way through it. I’ve seen people look at the next 50 years and decide that there are things from their youth that they actually can get back without abandoning the life they’ve made. Those things are a really satisfying answer to “what’s next” and are often what we loved doing when we were young. A friend of mine is a very talented drummer turned Wall Streeter who, at midlife, has gotten his band back together. He recently invited us to his home to listen to them play, and we were all transported to a younger, freer time. I was inspired. And, because it was mid-life, the beer was imported and the hors d’oeuvres were passed. As my husband noted, everyone there was on drugs, but this time it was Lipitor and Viagra. It was still cool.
The common theme here is the desire to reach back to the excitement of the possibilities of youth. We want to feel like we still have it all ahead of us. Behind us is falling in love for the first time, naturally blonde hair, and getting out of bed in the morning without noticing how your back feels. But ahead of us is knowing who we are and maybe having a little more free time to explore that.
And if someone’s midlife crisis results in her feeling compelled to publish every single thought she has in her local newspaper, then so be it.
The Rye Record on January 11, 2014
I’ve just come back from a vacation where I spent a lot of time on something called The Lazy River. The Lazy River is loop of chlorinated water, just wide enough for two inner tubes, that pulls you along with a gentle current. You travel slowly under the shade of palm trees until you reach the end where there’s a guy waiting for you with a tray of Mai Tai’s. It sounds pretty relaxing, but all I thought about as I traveled down this lazy river was how boring life would be without a little stress.
I think a lot about stress. It’s kind of a catchall, nebulous foe that seems to be at fault for everything from bad skin to cardiac arrest. It’s out to get us, and its triggers are everywhere: in the CVS parking lot, on your answering machine, in the article you just read about weight loss after 50. I’ve had doctors tell me, with straight faces, “You should really avoid stress.” And I laugh and laugh as I fork over my co-pay. “Great idea,” I want to say. “How about you come to my house and deal with my reality for a while? Sound good? How’s 4 p.m.? You might want to stop for a full tank of gas.”
Ordinarily, I would hate something called a lazy river — all that sitting without even having to paddle, and all that going with the flow. But what makes the Lazy River relaxing rather than boring is that it is peppered with small stressors from beginning to end. It mimics the actual rhythm of life: tense, relax, ebb, flow.
I begin my journey by walking up three flights of exposed stairs in a bathing suit, standing in line making small talk in a bathing suit, hoping the person in line behind me is either a relative or legally blind, and then riding my inner tube down a slide at a breakneck pace. This is a my-world equivalent of being chased by a lion, or making gravy.
At the halfway point in my lazy journey, I am confronted by a freezing cold waterfall. Just like when approaching the CVS parking lot, I am faced with two choices: either avoid it or suffer through it. As I am not quite coordinated enough to maneuver around it, I go right under it. For me, the ice-cold water registers at the stress level of hosting a toddler’s birthday party. When I’m through it, I enjoy the rest of my trip in a fresh way, like the way you appreciate the quiet when the last little guest is gone.
I can live happily without the big stresses, like illness, moving, or any kind of loss. But mild stress is just a byproduct of life. It’s how we react while wading through a world where everything isn’t necessarily designed to go our way all the time. The little stresses can sometimes jolt us out of complacency and toward action. The stuff that stresses out one person seems silly to the next, because stress is highly personal. I find that small doses of it remind me to enjoy the tranquility when it comes.
As I hoist my relaxed self out of my inner tube, I can hear Yogi Berra in my head: “If life were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
I share my deep thoughts about The Lazy River with my waiting family and marvel at how well they conceal their interest. In reverse order of when I met them, they respond:
- Can I get another ice cream?
- What’s so stressful about wearing a bathing suit?
- Sorry. Did you say something?
- How many Mai Tai’s have you had?
As published in The Rye Record on December 21, 2013
This summer, I visited my old friend Valerie during a very sad time. We spent our visit in the shadow of this sadness, but to my intense surprise, we found ourselves laughing more often than not. It made no sense and seemed wildly inappropriate, but there we were laughing like we did when we were twelve. Being with her, things were funny in a way that they hadn’t been in a long time. Every idiotic situation paralleled a more idiotic high school situation. If it didn’t, it was something right out of Valley Girl, which we decided in 1983 was the best movie ever.
My only explanation for all this laughing is that there is relief intrinsic in old friendships. In the presence of old friends you don’t have to keep selling the crazy notion that you’ve got it all together. Why bother putting up a front for a person who’s seen you with a perm and a Flashdance sweatshirt? She remembers when life as a welder-turned-stripper seemed oddly appealing to you both. Your old friend knows you deep down; there’s no place to hide.
Valerie and I have never been out of touch. But before this summer it was more of a checking-in friendship, with status updates on major life events. After our four days of laughing, I have spoken to her pretty much every day. I can’t seem to let it go. We are back where we were at fifteen, in the middle of a conversation that lasted a decade. It’s counter-intuitive but true that the more frequently you talk to someone, the more there is to talk about.
Valerie knew me during the dark years before my face grew big enough to accommodate my nose. She stood by me when I dedicated an entire summer to growing out my bangs. She has patiently listened to the retelling of a hundred first dates and ninety-nine breakups, in real time. She knows when I’m lying or leaving something out. And she’ll call me out on it, because, after all, she’s not interviewing for my friendship. She’s got the job, tenured with full benefits.
Old friends know what you’re made of. They know what the end of the world looks like for you, and what it doesn’t. When life kicks you in the teeth, you can call your old friend and pour out your heart. “I’ll never get over this,” you tell her. And she reminds you that that’s exactly what you said when you thought Duran Duran was breaking up. And you seem to have gotten over that.
In this sense, old friends put things in perspective. Life has been long, time passes and it will continue to pass. They see patterns in your life and are not afraid to point them out. They also know where you’ve been wounded, giving you the benefit of their good counsel while saving you the agony of having to retell your life’s story.
I am particularly grateful to have Valerie today, at midlife. I highly recommend wading through this tricky time with the same person that you leaned on during adolescence. There’s really no difference between the two stages of life: you look inward, wonder if you look okay, and then try to decide where you’re going next. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nodded my head at the TV, thinking, “Wow. That Zoey 101 really knows how I feel.”
If life is a sentence, then adolescence and midlife are just commas – there to give us pause and to allow us to move forward with a new subject. Who better to help you figure out who you’re going to be for the next thirty years than the person who launched you into the last thirty? There’s efficiency in not having to explain your parents or your prom date or the essence of what you’ve always wanted. Your old friend was there when it started.
I am grateful for all of this, but mostly for the laughing. I’m convinced that it affects me on a cellular level. I’m looking forward to old age with Valerie, sitting in rocking chairs with tears streaming down our faces, laughing about when we were in our forties.
I’m starting to really like Facebook. I like seeing what people are up to, even if it’s just what they want me to think they’re up to. I like reading the articles they post and watching the video clips that they like. I would have no idea where to find all this stuff without them, so it’s like I have my own personal army out there mining the Internet for content. Man, what a time saver! The trick is to carefully construct a filtering policy so that you only click on the stuff that you’re going to want to see. Here’s mine:
The first hurdle is my personal compatibility with the person who is posting. In the same way that you trust certain people for movie and book recommendations, you need a little experience to vet whose video clip is going to delight you and whose is going to leave you wishing you had your four minutes back. It doesn’t take long to determine which of your Facebook friends has a similar sense of humor to yours and which has a fondness for posting videos of dogs being tortured. I scroll past friends who secretly want to overthrow the government, those who have proof that the end is near and those who think kittens are intrinsically comedic. I’m no intellectual. I like to roll right down the middle.
The next most important factor is the length of the video you’re about to watch. As a general rule, I will not watch anything longer than four minutes. If you can’t get it done in four minutes, maybe it didn’t need to be done at all. Time is money here, people. This is 2013 and, I hate to brag, but my four-minute attention span is thirty seconds above the national average.
I also won’t watch video clips of people’s kids. It’s not that I don’t like other people’s kids in person, but the Facebook community doesn’t generally post bloopers of their kids missing fly balls or tripping in their prom dresses (I’d love that!). Instead they post sort of annoying clips of their kids playing the violin or performing on Broadway or unloading the dishwasher without being asked. In short, things my kids don’t know how to do. These videos make me feel bad and are often too long anyway.
People try to entice you to click by leaving a little comment above the video they’re sharing. Consider this comment to be a warning label. For example, I don’t read anything that’s been marked with “OMG, watch this, it’ll make you cry!” Even if it’s less than four minutes long. Why in the world am I going to risk the click, watch the thing, and then find myself slumped over my computer, crying? Do people have any idea how many hours a day I already spend slumped over my computer, crying?
If you tell me it’s funny, provided it’s less than four minutes and you haven’t let me down in the past, I’ll probably watch it. But you’ve got to mean it. A video accompanied by “this is funny” might not be compelling enough. Lots of things are funny, but I’m guessing that if this wasn’t funny enough for you to use even one exclamation point, I’m not going to like it. For my four minutes, I’m looking for a recommender that confesses to losing bladder control.
I have a hard time not clicking on meaningless lists, no matter who posts them. I see the words “Five Things Happy People Know” and I’m rendered powerless. I’m happy, I think, I bet I know all five of those things. I go ahead and click, smugly, only to find out that I am not in fact happy at all. Or “Twelve Things Your Husband Doesn’t Want You to Know.” Shoot. I can only think of four – click. Likewise for “Ten Signs You Probably Have Cancer.” How can you not click on that? It’s practically medical care. And I don’t want to freak you out, but if you experience occasional bloating, well, never mind.
Here’s what I will watch: Justin Timberlake doing anything, the first four minutes of any Ted talk, videos of people who just lost over 200 pounds, people being reunited with their military loved ones, amateur flash mobs, and marriage proposals gone wrong. It’s a good thing I don’t let Facebook waste my time.The Week on November 21, 2013
My husband flips back and forth between the NFL and home-style cornbread stuffing, mesmerized by the way these TV chefs prepare elaborate meals in perpetually clean kitchens. I suspect he thinks an onion comes finely chopped and in a perfectly sized glass bowl. I don’t want to burst his bubble, but as Thanksgiving nears and I find that none of my vegetables chop themselves, I’d like to see a little more reality on this reality TV network.
The programming is pretty much the same every year. The food celebrities invite us into their shiny kitchens and urge us to take it up a notch. Why not make a mosaic out of fresh herbs under the skin of your turkey? Why not use a blowtorch on your apple pie? Or my personal favorite: Why not take three different kinds of birds, debone them and tie them all together, separated by a thin layer of stuffing? This, the hauntingly named “Turducken,” signals the fall of civilization.
Just for once, I’d like to see the army of choppers, measurers, and cleaners that seem to disappear just before the cameras roll. If you’re telling me to add my 40 cloves of garlic, I’d like you to acknowledge just how long it takes to peel 40 cloves of garlic. I’d like a bunch of kids to run into the kitchen tracking dirt and blood and Fritos while you’re slicing the pancetta for your stuffing. I’d like to see Ina Garten look kind of annoyed because she just found out that she has a vegetarian coming for Sunday dinner. I’d like, just once, to see Giada De Laurentiis stand there with her 24-inch waist and eat and entire portion of her cheesy mashed potatoes. We can see you, Giada. We can see you.
But what I’d really like to know is exactly what Bobby Flay’s been up to behind the scenes. In fact, I’d pay $69.95 to see the fight that preceded his most recent show. Recently, he invited us into his kitchen to watch him prepare breakfast in bed for his wife. Shhh, he reminded us, she’s still sleeping upstairs. He started by making homemade sausage and biscuits. By homemade, I mean he started with meat bits and flour. Then he made scrambled eggs, homemade doughnuts, and homemade strawberry jelly. From actual strawberries.
How early do you have to wake up (or how late does your wife have to sleep?!) for you to make homemade sausage for breakfast? Pretty early, I’m guessing, and Bobby confided to the audience that he always makes this breakfast when he’s “in trouble.” Trouble? What did he do? This isn’t like an I-forgot-our anniversary apology. He actually carries this stuff up on a tray with a cocktail of tangerine juice and gin to wash it down. I’m hard pressed to think of what my husband could possibly do to make him feel like he needed to wake me up with gin. I had to watch the show all the way through to the credits because I was sure the police would be cuffing him at any minute.
The only thing I can think of is that he deep fried a turkey and burned down the garage. I have been mentally preparing myself for this eventuality ever since my husband first watched the Deep Fried Turkey Marathon on this evil network. Deep frying a turkey appeals to my husband in a visceral way. And I get it. The only thing missing from this, the fattest day of the year, is something fried. It’s only a matter of time before I own a deep fryer large enough for a 30-pound roaster, and I’m pretty sure we’re not insured for what ensues. At least I have breakfast in bed to look forward to. Thanks, Food Network!The Rye Record on November 1, 2013
Welcome to cold and flu season! It’s go time for moms, as the children in our houses will take turns being sick during the action packed weeks between Halloween and New Year’s Eve. Our pockets are packed with tissues, our pantries are stocked with Ginger Ale, and we’ve got enough Motrin stashed away to wear down the stomach lining of a large zoo animal. We’ve trained for this, and we can handle it. As long as we don’t get sick ourselves.
Everybody knows that moms can’t get sick. We need to be above the virus so that we can take care of everyone else who catches it. The mom is like the household Wi-Fi in that she is the link to a complex web of critical systems, but no one really seems to notice till she goes on the fritz. Such was the panic in my house last week when I had the audacity to be sick for five days. My family’s cries could be heard across Westchester County: “The server’s down!”
I have to sympathize with them. When I was a kid, there was nothing that stressed me out more than when my mom got sick. It was like the world stopped. I remember walking into her room and seeing her lying in bed (by the way, moms are not supposed to sit, let alone lie down!) and noticing that, to my horror, she wasn’t wearing her signature red lipstick. Mom’s not wearing lipstick, I worried, how am I going to get to school?
Unfortunately for my kids, I’m not one of those stoic sick people who pops a couple of tablets out of the aluminum casing and forges on with her day. I get in bed. I stop making dinner, and I fully engage in the pursuit of rest. I want sympathy and I respond to every email and text with “I’m sick!” I drag myself to pickup brandishing a hanky and a cup of tea as proof. I’m in your face with it.
During the first day of my illness, my children’s reactions were a mixed bag. In no particular order, one came upon me in my darkened room, surrounded by tissues, to ask me for a ride. “I’m sick,” I told him. “I can see that,” he replied, “but can I have a ride?” Another one thought to text me from a pep rally to see how I was feeling. A third actually stayed home with me on Friday night and brought me water and tea. Naturally, each of these behaviors was age-appropriate. (Naturally, I have adjusted my will accordingly.)
After the first two days, however, any sympathy in my house dried up faster than your sinuses on Nyquil. It turns out that I’m only allowed a maximum of two sick days. Once again, I am kicking myself for not reading my employment contract more carefully. After the second day, a sick mom is, frankly, kind of annoying. “How are you feeling?” is replaced by “You still sick?” The tissue boxes, the red-stained Nyquil measuring cup, and my unmade bed were starting to get on their nerves. And I imagine the growing stack of pizza boxes was too.
At the end of five days in bed, I had read a 719-page mystery and had made a full recovery. As a collateral benefit, I had managed to lower the expectations of everyone in my family. My husband gasped when he walked into the house, “You got dressed!” My kids delighted in eating a meal that did not come out of a box in the company of people who were sitting upright in chairs. Slowly, the mystical force that manages the socks and knows how to operate the dishwasher reappeared. The server was back up and running.
It’s mammogram day. My nerves are a stretched thin as I drive to Greenwich Hospital. All of the songs on the radio are either aggravating or by Pink, a color that’s been getting on my nerves since I woke up. I try to remind myself how happy and relieved I’ll be in a few hours. But right now I know this can go two ways. I focus my anxiety outward: Stupid breast cancer. Stupid pink.
The pink-clad lady at the reception desk asks my name and birthday and then sends me to the registration office where I’m asked my name and birthday. My wristband prints out with my maiden name, which I like because it seems like this whole ordeal is happening to a much younger and more carefree woman. She feels like someone else.
I’m directed to a pink robe. I’m not sure if they’re always pink or if this is part of Breast Cancer Awareness month. If you have a TV, a newspaper, the Internet or a kid who plays soccer, you’ve probably seen a lot of pink lately. The amount of money and attention that is directed toward breast cancer research in October is inspiring. The entire NFL looks like a line of girls waiting to get into the American Girl Store, pink gloved and pink shoed. It seems to be a cause that transcends gender and age. Everybody’s been affected by breast cancer in some way. Everybody cares.
But here’s the thing: I am not the target audience of the pink campaign. I am not someone who needs more breast cancer awareness. For me it’s like if I held a month long campaign to raise my son’s awareness about the monster that lives in his closet. Trust me, he’s hyper-aware. And the more attention we give it, the less he sleeps.
I am courteous but suspicious with my breasts, like I am with salesmen who ring the doorbell at dinnertime. I want to be respectful, but I don’t actually know what danger they have in store for me. I regularly thank them for their prior service, what with looking good in the 80s and then feeding my kids later on. And I ask them to stay on my side.
Someone once described a mammogram like this: you place your breast between two metal planks and then an elephant stomps on top to squeeze you into a pancake. I’d like to put that person in charge of re-describing everything that is currently painted in a falsely shiny manner – children’s birthday parties, camping, the prom. Today the elephant’s name is Ellen. She asks my birthdate again and checks it against her records. She asks me to stand in the most awkward possible way and tells me, unnecessarily, not to breathe. Funny, I haven’t breathed since I left the house.
When we are done, I am told to wait for fifteen minutes. I really only have two ways of coping with stress so, as there seems to be no one here to offer me a pink cocktail, I start writing this article. Eventually, another technician comes to get me and wants to know my birthday again. “Are you guys throwing me a party?” I ask. She smiles at me tentatively and explains that she is just confirming my identity. It was a joke, I want to say. I’m freaking out here, I want to say. I just nod.
Next is the sonogram where you can actually look at what’s going on in there as they go. From what I can tell there is not one thing in my breasts that doesn’t look suspicious. She clicks screenshots way too many times, measures way too many black circles. My eyes dart back and forth between the screen and her face, wishing she had Botox so her brow would quit furrowing. When she has finished, she smiles and tells me to relax, the doctor will be right in to discuss my results. Relax? Really?
I am in the room alone for between three and a thousand minutes, I can’t tell. And this is when I allow myself to go there. I play the whole thing out in my mind. I decide how I’m going to tell my family. I know exactly who I’m going to call to find the best doctors, and I vow to walk in the Avon walk next October if I make it through this. In fact, I make so many deals with God that we’ve both forgotten most of them.
And then the kindest thing happens. The door opens and before the doctor has even stepped foot in the room, she says “It’s all perfect!” I am immediately released from this hell of my own creation. (Really, is there any other kind?) I thank her and the technician and the other technician and the pink-gowned ladies in the waiting room and finally my breasts themselves as I get dressed. This was totally worth it.
I am light as I stop at reception to schedule my 2014 appointment. She has an opening on Halloween and I take it. Why not? It’s the scariest day of the year anyway.
The Rye Record on October 11, 2013
Remember how you felt that time you went to the office Christmas party and met the attractive young woman that just started working with your husband? And remember how you noticed for the first time that your cocktail dress, circa 1998, was somehow too long, too short, and too snug all at once? The very next day you barreled in to the plastic surgeon’s office and demanded “the works.” We’ve all been there. I’m pretty sure that’s how the Stop and Shop in Port Chester feels now that the new Whole Foods is opening up right down the street.
You can feel the panic the instant you walk in there. Stop and Shop is in the midst of the fight of its life, and it’s opted for an extreme makeover. With the facelift nearly complete, I have to admit I kind of miss the old version. The pre-op store did a pretty good business selling grocery staples and good-enough produce. It was just the basics, everything you needed. No surprises. I knew where everything was and knew my way around without really even paying attention. It’s possible that I’ve heard my husband describe me in the exact same way.
You can’t blame Stop and Shop for panicking. How are they supposed to sell people a package of Perdue chicken when a mile away you can get chicken that is certified to have been humanely raised? Once I have options, I’ll probably never eat tortured chickens again. I’m starting to wonder if the energy of that poor chicken, blindfolded and marched to his death, has been keeping me down. Poor Stop and Shop. It’s hard to compete with happy chickens and the promise of a better life.
For now, I’m still loyal to my saggy old market, even as it squeezes itself into a younger woman’s jeans. I nod cheerfully at the new cheese section, which houses the exact same cheeses as before, but is arranged vertically rather than horizontally. I overlook the fact that the lettuces are now senselessly located in three separate spots. I want to make this work.
And I’m not alone. The newly revamped store is packed with dazed but loyal customers, pushing empty carts through the now slightly wider but completely mixed up aisles. The nip and tuck has resulted in something unnatural, and the new (dis)order is baffling. We mumble as we try to reorient ourselves: “Why is there bleach here next to the corn chips?” “Where’d the bread go?”
Well, if you really want to know, I’ll tell you where the bread went. While the bread used to be in the center of the market, a location suitable for the staff of life, it is now pushed to the left-hand corner. It’s a corner that feels like a shameful place, where one might keep any other dark, dirty secret. For emphasis, someone seems to have shot out the lights in the bread area, making gluten fiends feel like they’re in the midst of a back alley transaction as they snatch their Wonder Bread and scurry away.
On the opposite side of the store is a brightly lit oasis. It includes two aisles labeled “Natural Foods” which beg the question: what kind of food is in the rest of the store? (This is sort of like when you get your eyes done and then you’re suddenly aware that your neck looks like a turkey’s waddle.) In these natural aisles you can feel like you’re actually in Whole Foods, surrounded by organic almond butter, chia seeds, and six kinds of farro. This area abuts the new natural meat section where you can buy organic chicken, though the butcher makes no claims about anyone’s emotional state.
By the time the scars heal on this nip/tuck, we’ll be used to the new Stop and Shop. We’ll start to appreciate the effort they’ve made and will forgive them for the confusion. But Stop & Shop don’t fret — we’re never going to leave you. Don’t ever underestimate our dependence on routine. And, as alluring as pampered chickens can seem, we still need a place to buy Bisquick, Skippy, and Eggos. You can’t get that stuff at Whole Foods.
The Week on September 26, 2013
The most unnerving part of any flight is when the flight attendant reminds me that if all the air in the plane happens to disappear, I should secure my own air mask before helping my children.
Now, I’m not really worried about the air disappearing, but if it did, the idea of helping myself first seems completely counterintuitive. I can’t imagine saying to my child, “Hey, hang tight and hold your breath while I help myself to this free flowing oxygen…”
We always help our children first. We feed them when we’re starving. We read to them instead of watching something awesome and adult on TV. I’m pretty sure putting them first is written into my employment contract. And yes, the air mask thing is probably logical. How are you going to be able to help your kids if you’ve just passed out from lack of oxygen? I guess that makes sense. But as a mom, I may need to hear it a few more times.
Women are a self-sacrificing breed. It’s innate. We are genetically programmed to say, “What’s that? You want to be born? Help yourself to my birth canal. It won’t bother me a bit.” The kids come out thirsty and we offer them the only parts of our bodies that still look any good. “Have at it, no problem, there’s a painful surgery that will fix those right up.” From the day we become mothers, we’re pretty darn accommodating.
Maybe that’s not so great for our kids. What if they learn to see adulthood as a time of drudgery and self-sacrifice? To my kids, adulthood looks a lot like driving other people to do things that they want to do, and then sometimes staying to watch them enjoy it. Maybe the reason our kids won’t move out of our houses is because they are afraid they’ll end up in servitude to their own children.
I really want my kids to want to grow up, so I’m trying to embrace this idea of watching them struggle for a second while I deal with my own air mask. In fact, I started on Saturday. On Saturdays, I usually stand in front of the stove, off and on, for three hours, preparing made-to-order breakfasts as my children wake up in shifts. Between feedings, I hunt down cleats and drive to the farthest corners of Westchester County. By the time the last child is up, the first one wants lunch. There is no air flowing for me on Saturdays, which is a shame because I spend the day smelling like bacon.
So this week I got up and had my coffee first. I read the paper and went for a run. By the time I was ready to fully engage with Saturday, I was armed with caffeine and endorphins. No one starved to death while they waited, and everyone breathed a little easier.
The flight attendant is always careful to caution us that, even though oxygen is flowing, the plastic bag may not appear to inflate. That’s totally true. My small gasps for air have gone nearly unnoticed by my family. What they notice is that I’m a little softer around the edges and that my good humor lasts until a little later in the day. I’m trying for small things: Did I exercise today? Did I eat something that wasn’t shelf-stable? Did I sit down to write something? If I hit two out of three of these, I feel pretty good.
I’m also thinking about becoming a stronger swimmer. I don’t believe for a second that those seat cushions can be used as flotation devices.
The Rye Record on September 13, 2013
My apologies, in advance, to anyone who makes plans with me this month. There’s an 80 percent chance I’m not going to show up. Likewise to anyone who invites my kids to a birthday party, relies on me for carpool, or asks me to perform any kind of simple task. Like someone who’s just arrived in New York City for the first time, I can’t keep up with the pace of the new things being thrown at me. It’s September and I do not yet have my head screwed on straight.
As an illustration, let me play for you the best track on my September’s Greatest Screw-ups album: In 2006, at 9 on a Monday morning, I was in the parking lot of the Stop & Shop when my phone rang. “Where are you?” asked the voice on the other end. I get this question all the time in September, so my answer was ready: “Why? Where am I supposed to be?” It turns out that this was the morning of the Kindergarten class coffee, and it also turns out that I had volunteered to bring all the food for said class coffee. I assured the hostess that I was on my way and raced to the Patisserie to buy all the carbs they had. Miraculously, I arrived at the party just 15 minutes late, a bit out of breath, but seeming like I had everything under control. That is, until I removed my jacket to reveal to everyone in attendance that I was still wearing my pajamas.
In this way, the whole month of September seems kind of like a recurring nightmare. I am either a day late, a day early, or not there at all. I’ll arrive at a cocktail party with cupcakes and at Back to School Night with a bottle of wine. And the reason for my disorientation isn’t that I’m too overcommitted and busy. I am always overcommitted and busy. In fact, busy is my drug of choice. The dysfunction of September is that it looks like all the other months, but all the tiniest details have been changed.
We would sail right into the new school year if it weren’t for the fact that in September everything’s the same but slightly different. If you’re not paying attention you’re lost: library books are now due on Wednesdays; pick up is at the other playground; the spelling words that had to be copied three times on Monday nights into a blue marble notebook now have to be copied four times on Tuesdays into a black marble notebook. They’ve even tweaked the cafeteria payment system, so I apologize if your kids end up buying my kids’ lunch until I’ve mastered that in October.
It’s the small details like these, the ones that can easily slip under the radar, that are my undoing. Success in the housewife/parenting biz hinges almost entirely on one’s ability to put the details on autopilot. We rely on the routine as the framework for the chaos. It’s Meatballs on Monday, basketball on Tuesday, piano on Wednesday. September is the month of reprogramming yourself to know who needs to be where, when, and with what supplies in a world that has shifted almost imperceptibly.
To add insult to injury, this September the high school and middle school will now be dismissed five minutes earlier every day. I’m pretty sure they’re just messing with me. I will pick my kids up at 2:32 instead of the (equally arbitrary) 2:37 that I’d spent a previous September getting used to. There is a logical reason for this that smart people seem to understand, but I am not yet in the know. Maybe next year they’ll pick up the high school and move it six inches to the left.
By the time this is published, we will be 13 days into September, and my level of disorientation will have peaked. I’ll be barking orders at Siri full time. I’m making it her job to make sure I get to the right school on the right Back to School night this year (it’s happened). Between the two of us I’m hoping we’ll be able to reboot my autopilot and get me out of my pajamas and where I need to be.
As published in The Rye Record on August 22, 2013
I’m prone to crushes like some people are prone to sinus infections. As a young person, I had a crush on any boy who took the time to talk to me, and as an adult I still tend to have an overexuberance for people I really like. In fact, if you put all the people that I call my ‘best friend’ in one room, we’d need a fourth bottle of wine. Over the past few years I have developed an entirely new kind of crush, kind of a professional crush, on a writer named Joe Queenan. He writes, among other things, my very favorite column in the Saturday Wall Street Journal. And I pretty much think about him all the time.
Sigh. It’s gotten so bad that I’m trying to write him a letter. When I started writing, I wasn’t even sure where I was going with it. I just wanted to connect, sort of like the way I used to get a rush by calling a boy and hanging up as soon as he answered. Mr. Queenan writes essays about whatever it is that happens to be annoying him each week. He’s a curmudgeon, Lou Grant-style, who takes a topic as narrow as a single word and delves so far into the absurd that I have no choice but to follow gleefully behind him. I’m not qualified to summarize his genius, but trust me, he’s dreamy.
At first, the letter felt like a no-brainer. A fan letter is really just a love letter without the romantic intent. How hard could it be? I’d pile on with the rest of his fans and email him to tell him how I feel. But it turns out he has no website and no published email address. He doesn’t want my letter, and, as per the Universal Laws of the Crush, this makes me want to contact him even more. (On my website there are 25 different ways to contact me. I feel so lame.) His indifference makes me so desperate to write to him that I scour Google to find his home address. Brace yourself: It turns out he lives 15.27 miles from my house. OMG!
At some point in the middle of every crush you invent, an “it’s meant to be” moment like this. Suddenly it was all so clear. I was going to get on highway 287 and take this man to lunch. We were going to become friends. I would no longer have to wait until Saturday to hear what he was doing. He’d e-mail me drafts of his column during the week for comments. That’s what besties do! He’d maybe write a whole column about something I did that he found annoying. And during the course of our friendship, some quality of his would rub off on me, making me a better writer and a more curmudgeonly person. After all, isn’t this the driving force behind any crush?
But my letter is off to a bad start. I mean it’s creepy when strangers look up your home address on the Internet. I’d have to explain to him that I am in no way a threat to him or his family. I consider several strategies to mitigate this cyber-stalking before I spring the fact that I live 15.27 miles away and would like to take him to lunch. I decide to add the phrase “in a public place.”
To keep him reading, I need to let him know how much we have in common. I tell him that I am a writer, and I start to tell him that I write a column too. Halfway through the paragraph I decide not to mention my column at all on the off chance that he’ll look it up. Let’s face it — he’d hate my column. My upbeat worldview would bug the heck out of him. I also leave out the fact that I dream of writing for the Wall Street Journal, thinking I’ll save that tidbit for our third date. I seem to remember that you can get anything past someone on the third date. I spend the rest of the paragraph trying not to sound too perky, and of course I come across false. I have the sinking feeling that I’m totally not his type. (Most of my crushes get to this point too.)
In the end I don’t feel comfortable about how I’m coming across: a potential stalker who’s trying too hard to sound sardonic. I feel the need to establish that I’m married, happily married, which effectively takes the awkwardness of this letter to a whole new level.
I haven’t mailed it. I haven’t even printed it out. But if any of you happen to know Mr. Queenan, tell him I say hi. And to call me!
Everyone says the media’s ruining our kids. They’re given a warped sense of how people should look, how people behave, and what the real world’s going to be like when they get there. We like to blame the media like it’s new, like there’s been a management change on Madison Avenue and the new guys no longer know how to grow young people into wholesome, perfect adults like us. The truth is that the television commercials that were responsible for forming my worldview in the 1970s painted such a wacky image of what being a woman was going to be like that I approached adulthood with some trepidation. Here’s why.
According to the television of my childhood, when I became a wife and mother, the one thing I’d want above all things would be to keep ‘em home for breakfast. I’d stop at nothing to keep my kids from getting on that bus or my husband from escaping with his briefcase. I’d be desperate to keep them home — desperate enough to feed them commercially prepared cake at eight in the morning. Boy was I duped. As a wife and mother I fail to see any circumstances short of a nuclear disaster that would make me want to delay the blessed morning departure of my family. I now wonder what that woman was so afraid of, what was going to be so bad about being home alone. Truly, the only thing that delights me more than seeing those smiling faces return at the end of the day is knowing that they are going to leave again in the morning.
I was also taught that grown women have fetishes for sneaking around the supermarket in hopes of squeezing the toilet paper without the store manager seeing. They actually can’t bear to pass toilet paper without fondling it, and will go to any length to cop a feel. What mad world was I being prepared for? I have (almost) never had any such urge.
Alternatively, my TV told me, I could grow up to be a woman who chose to bring home the bacon. I would then proceed to fry it up in a pan and then do some unnamed thing involving perfume that would never, ever let my husband forget he was a man. I imagine my actual grown self returning from work and wrestling the spatula away from my husband, insisting that I be the one to prepare dinner. In my adult reality, I don’t bring home the bacon and I’m sort of tired of cooking dinner. Is there a perfume for that?
I don’t know what ever happened to Yuban coffee, but these commercials particularly freaked me out. They led me to believe that whatever my career path, I would eventually become my husband’s mother. If he was offered (gasp!) a second cup of coffee, I was to immediately jump in and admonish the hostess: “Jim never has a second cup at home.” Further, should he actually want that second cup of coffee, I was to be personally offended because I was going to grow up to be a person who was competitive about coffee. Not only do I not feel responsible for how much coffee my husband drinks, if I’m going to someone’s house in the evening, it’s not to drink coffee.
You can see why I was a little overwhelmed by all that womanhood had to offer me — the job, the chores, the neuroses. The lady at the nail salon was going to trick me into soaking my hands in dishwashing liquid. All this was going to be some sort of an improvement because, after all, we’d come a long way, baby.
Now when I watch TV, I think: so what if my kids grow up thinking that birth control is something to sing about while performing synchronized swimming routines? The media’s always thrown a lot at us. Calgon, take me away.
The first meeting of the Mothers Organizing Madness (MOM) union was called to order at 1 p.m. by the self-appointed Interim President and Secretary of MOM. Said individual asked for volunteers to replace her in both capacities.
Preamble to constitution and adoption of bylaws:
We, the members of MOM, realize that the struggle to better our working and living conditions is in vain unless we are united to protect ourselves collectively against our constantly broadening job description.
Though we live separately, we are united by the bond of carrying out the same repetitive tasks, answering the same questions, tracking down the same jerseys and driving the same circular route each day. We agree that an organized union is necessary to defend effectively our interests and improve our working conditions, if not our wages.
1. Membership is restricted to moms and male adults primarily engaged in caring for children who wish to provide a better working environment for all. We acknowledge that we have half the vote, all the minivans and, therefore, a right to certain accommodations.
2. While we each have the same number of hours in the day, we all have different skills at our disposal and different demands put upon us. We acknowledge that each of us is just trying to do our best, and we agree to endeavor to cut each other some slack.
3. Hereby forbidden:
i. Making value judgments about other members with regard to those who are leaning in, leaning out, or just downright lying down. This includes but is not limited to: those who have too much help, those who do not have enough help, those who work though they don’t seem to need the money, and those who work for free. We agree to stop second-guessing each other’s choices so that we may have more time and energy to focus on our own.
ii. Gossiping about children, their intelligence, their deficiencies, or their promiscuity. All members agree to admit that they were once children, too, and that their children are not above reproach. The term “children” is hereby defined as anyone under the age of 25. We collectively acknowledge that this increase in the length of adolescence is at least partially our fault.
iii. Wearing UGG boots with short skirts.
iv. Using qualifying phrases that are meant to mitigate bad behavior including, “I know this sounds like gossip but…” and “I hate to be shallow but…” If we are going to gossip and be shallow, we pledge to own it.
v. The worship of Gwyneth Paltrow. We agree to accept her as a member should she be interested in joining MOM, but denounce her as our Queen. We will no longer be disheartened thinking we are supposed to work full time, raise children, track down the ingredients for her complicated recipes, and do it all while wearing a pair of size two leather pants.
As MOM’s first official act, we shall seek to reclaim the most hallowed of holidays, Mother’s Day. This begins with the ban of all sporting events on said day, including but not limited to soccer, baseball, lacrosse, AAU basketball, the NBA playoffs, and golf in any form, televised or actually played. We stand behind our commitment that these events can be played on Saturday and Monday, just as easily as on Sunday. The Secretary of MOM shared that she was forced to eat her Mother’s Day dinner without the company of her middle son due to the scheduling of 3 (that’s three!) basketball games on Mother’s Day. Let it stand on record that her family does not function effectively without this middle son. Awkward family photo was submitted to the archives as supporting evidence.
MOM is grateful to one mother who has offered to find out if the mothers of Carmelo Anthony and Phil Mickelson may want to join our union and help lead the charge on this important issue.
The Secretary made a motion to adjourn at 2:40 p.m. to allow time to beat the rush to elementary school pick up. As the last order of business, the madness of elementary school pick up was added to New Business for the next meeting.
The Rye Record on June 7, 2013
I just saw my 7-year-old neighbor driving his parents’ car down the street. I did what any thinking, responsible adult would do. I rolled down my window, scrunched up my face, and asked, “What the heck are you doing?”
“I got my driver’s license,” he replied.
“How is that possible?” I was being nice because, after all, little kids are adorable.
“I turned 16½ last week.” Huh? He seemed so confident in that statement that I had a fleeting thought that maybe I was the one who was going crazy.
Sixteen and a half? How is that possible? When I met him he was 7, shooting hoops on the Midland School playground. Sixteen and a half? I sorted through all the facts I knew about this kid: the last time I’d seen him he was running down the court as a member of the varsity basketball team. And, okay, he’s 6’2.” His story was starting to hold water. If he’s right about his age, I thought, then he’s nearly half my age now…
Of course, it was that particular calculation that slapped me into reality, revealing what my mind had been hiding from me: If he’s not 7 anymore, does that mean that I’m not 34 anymore either?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m completely delusional. But 34 feels like the right age for me. When you’re a kid, every year comes with some sort of milestone like turning double digits, staying up later, or being able to see an R-rated movie. This constant change makes the years feel distinct. The only difference between me at 34 and me at 43 is one more child, lots more Christmas ornaments and, of course, the cruel effects of gravity. If I stay away from old photos and glass surfaces, I can easily convince myself that I’m still 34.
Seeing that boy driving that car reminded me of so many similarly shocking moments. Like when you ask your high school friend how her baby sister is, and she tells you that she’s on maternity leave from her job at Sloane Kettering. How is that possible? Or when you’re watching a romantic comedy and realize that you have more in common with the heroine’s parents than with the heroine herself. To be overly specific, it’s the moment you realize that you’re never going to date Ryan Gosling. If I was still 34 (and single, and the recipient of a television makeover), well, sure. But not now; not at 43.
My friend Valerie thinks that everyone has an inner age. It’s the age you’d say if someone woke you up from a dead sleep and asked how old you were. Her inner age is 28, though I don’t think this means that she feels six years younger than I do. I think your inner age is just the age you were when the glue sort of hardened on who you are going to be. When I was 28, I was a mildly micro-managing and hysterical first-time mom. The glue was still sticky. By 34, I’d figured a few things out, and, in my mind’s eye, I am still her — adjusted for my well-earned laugh lines and a truly impressive mortgage.
It’s time for a reality check. If I’m going to acknowledge that the nephew that I used to carry around on my hip is nearly 21 and that my 14-year-old son bangs his clavicle into my forehead every time he hugs me, then I’m going to have to wise up to the fact that I’m getting older too. And I’m okay with it. I’ll just start with 35.
The Rye Record on May 17, 2013
J.K. Rowling wrote, “It is our choices that show who we really are.” This is true not only in what we choose to do, but also in how we choose to react to things over which we have no control. On May 15, 109 moms from Sandy Hook Elementary School came to Rye and brought with them a poignant lesson about the power of personal choice. Their motto was the theme of the day: We Are Sandy Hook, We Choose Love.
Like parents across the country, our town watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut in December. We were overcome by the pain and heartache that had swept over a town just like ours, a town that feels like it’s just up the street. Rye mom Cliona Cronin attended the Rye vigil last year and was moved to wonder what she could possibly offer this community to help them heal. A few days later, while walking along Rye Beach, she had an idea — she would offer them the beach.
Cliona gathered a small group of friends to vet her idea. She would invite the moms of Sandy Hook to Rye Beach to spend a restful day of pampering and friendship. It would serve as a much needed nurturing getaway, just after Mother’s Day. “Is this madness or genius?” she asked her friends. They all agreed that it was genius.
With their enthusiastic support, Cliona approached the PTO at Sandy Hook. She assured them that there would be no publicity, no press, no agenda. Just moms reaching out to one another, and a chance for the Sandy Hook moms to get away. The Sandy Hook community has received thousands of generous offers of support from all over the country, but this one happened to be the first mom-to-mom event. Cliona, her co-chair Jannine Moran, and their growing committee were honored when the invitation was accepted.
After months of planning, over 100 Rye moms clad in We Choose Love T-shirts waited for the Sandy Hook moms under an arch of green and white balloons. Many of us were a bit nervous as the buses pulled up. What would we say? What could we possibly say? But our nerves calmed as the Sandy Hook moms greeted us with hugs and thanks-yous. Some were excited to start a fun day; some were a little overwhelmed. Personally, I was both.
The fact that they came to this event at all is truly extraordinary. As the day unfolded, we learned that many of the mothers had struggled with whether they were comfortable being so far away from their children for the day. For some, it was the first time since December. One mother told me that she keeps the private cell phone number of the school security guard with her so that she can check in during the day if she feels anxious. After all they have faced, it was truly a leap of faith to come spend the day with strangers.
Fresh off the bus, the Sandy Hook moms were matched with Rye mom buddies. We ran off in pairs to sign up for massages, kayaking, and paddle boarding. Some opted for Pilates, yoga, boot camp, and Zumba classes along the beach, while others enjoyed knitting, sewing, art, and bulb planting. A relaxation station was set up on the beach, where those who just wanted to rest could read a magazine and gaze at the Sound. Gerber daisies were available at the shore for anyone who wanted to toss one in as a silent tribute.
What made the day feel intimate was that every last detail was attended to by Rye moms – from the massage therapists to the fitness instructors to those who served food and drinks. The committee even recruited a mom who is a public relations expert to handle any press that might have shown up. This idea of the day being strictly mom-to-mom was part of Cliona’s early vision and created a feeling of warmth and safety even in such a public place.
The two hundred-plus women broke for lunch at midday. Everyone had sweated their nerves away, and all that was left was easy banter and budding friendships. Luncheon and champagne were served at elegantly set tables under the Rye Town Park pavilion, where pink and green paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. Our voices all but drowned out the sound of a string quartet (again, directed by a Rye mom).
With the ice broken and the champagne popped, the conversations that we’d started on the beach continued. We all had so much in common, raising school aged children in the suburbs. We laughed about the mundane details, the dishwasher that always seemed to be full. But the conversation frequently returned to the tragedy, the ways in which the moms felt they were coping and the ways in which they felt they were not. Many said that the extra burden placed on them as mothers had squeezed out any time for self-care and exercise. Some shared details of what their child had experienced that day; others did not. There was a rhythm to the conversations, serious then light, serious then light. It was all welcome.
Lunch was followed by the dedication of a bench in honor of the Sandy Hook families. The dedication was officiated by Rye mom Rev. Andrea Raynor, who reminded us of all of the simple moments enjoyed in that park that we likely take for granted. She expressed hope that this Sandy Hook bench would remind us all to be better friends, better mothers and better human beings. She encouraged the Sandy Hook moms to return to the bench for a rest, reminding them that, “not only will we stand by you, we will sit with you.” It was hard to find a dry eye.
Everyone has a story to tell about the day. I was matched with a woman who is the mother of three, the youngest of whom is a first grader. As we walked to her waiting kayak, she told me that her son lost ten friends that day, including a beloved neighbor. I was uncharacteristically speechless, realizing that sometimes there is actually nothing to be said. Later in the day, she won the raffle and gave me her prize bottle of champagne. “Take it,” she said. “We’ll have this between us.” I thought, this champagne won’t last long at my house, but we are both parents of first graders, now friends, just trying to make sense of the world. We’ll have that between us, too.
The day ended too quickly. As the bus pulled away, we waved goodbye to our new friends with both arms — like little kids. We gathered for a few moments afterwards to debrief and take it all in. Some people shared stories, others cried, maybe just a bit overwhelmed by the grace that permeated the day. Looking out at the Sound behind Cliona, Jannine, and their committee, I had the sense that I was in a sacred place, and that we were at the beginning of something, much more so than at an end.
Since our day at the beach, many of us have been in touch via email and phone. One email from a Sandy Hook mom said, “I hope you know that the warmth and love we received yesterday will ripple out among our families – you have given to all our SHS kids too!” I think that was the idea from the start.
Our keepsake of the event is a quilt that was completed during the day. It will hang in the Rye Free Reading Room, wearing 26 hand-sewn stars and the words, “We Are Sandy Hook, We Choose Love.” Through this quilt, we are left with the gift of the Sandy Hook community’s resilience and wisdom and a reminder that in the face of anything, we have the opportunity to choose love.Rye Record on May 3, 2013
I’ve just returned from the Midland School Fair. I am completely dehydrated, my feet hurt, and I am in possession of one partially mutilated cake that my son won at the cakewalk. My youngest son got his face painted, and I’m watching him casually transfer that paint to all of the upholstered surfaces of my home. If I had 15 percent less sugar in my system, I could get up and wash that face.
All that said I consider it a pretty successful day because I got through the fair without acquiring a goldfish.
I have radar for innocuous things that are going to turn out to be my problem. I can see it in the eyes of the lady who is approaching me with a great idea for a fundraiser; I hear it in the voice of my son who’s asking me for a shoebox for a school project. I knew that my husband’s new juicer was going to be my problem before I got all 19 hand-wash-only pieces out of the box. After a month in my kitchen, a crime lab wouldn’t be able to find a single one of his prints on that thing. That juicer is my problem. The school fair goldfish is no different.
I cringed as I watched other people’s goldfish acquisitions replay themselves in front of me all day: the elated child running up to his parent, “I won a goldfish!” The word “won” is a bit of a stretch. For the price of one punch on your fair card you get a chance to scoop a balloon out of a kiddy pool. If you get it, you get a fish. If you don’t get it, you get a fish. This partially plays into our culture of sending everyone home a winner, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that whoever is in charge of the goldfish station doesn’t want to be schlepping 600 goldfish home at the end of the day. That’s really an inordinate amount of flushing.
The parents groan. They know that this little goldfish brings with it a teaching moment on the circle of life. And that moment’s coming soon because that plastic bag prisoner is probably going to be floating by cocktail hour. But they smile and congratulate their child, agreeing to carry that little bag around for the rest of the day. We lock eyes as we pass, nodding our condolences with a sarcastic, “Oh I see your daughter won a fish too!” Echoes of “dead fish swimming” fill the halls.
If you don’t have a floater in your baggie by the end of the fair, you’ve won a fish that lives for multiple years. (I have heard no stories of fair fish that live a few months; it’s either hours or years.) This hearty fish is the one that becomes my problem, and I’ve had plenty. This fish survives any amount of neglect, extreme temperatures, and an extended family vacation. This is the fish that lives long enough to actually finish the container of fish food that we bought on the way home from our first fair.
Of all the thankless things mothers take on, I think the weekly cleaning of the goldfish bowl takes the prize. The fundraiser raises money and the juicer keeps my husband healthy, but I get nothing back from that fish. He doesn’t wag his fin at me when I walk in the house. He doesn’t know any tricks at all. I just watch as he circles the bowl with that impassive (and maybe insincere) kissy face. To be honest, I even get a little bored watching people swim.
Yes, my kids hit the cupcake room more times than I care to count and “won” multiple Woopie Cushions today, but they somehow missed the fish station. My fishbowl is still safely packed away, so I’ve had a very successful day at the fair.
There are a few things in life that I am absolutely sure of: The earth is roundish, the sun rises every day, and I wear a size seven shoe. I am so sure of this last fact that I often buy shoes online or buy unreturnable sale shoes without even trying them on. I am a seven in every brand of shoe from Target to Louboutin. Of this I am sure.
So when I walked into a store I’ll call Local Running Store (I won’t use their real name, I’m not a hater) and asked, “May I please have these shoes in a seven?” I thought things would be pretty simple.
“Would you please take off your boots and run on our treadmill so that we can analyze your gait?” asked an earnest young woman. My what?
Why in the world would I get on a treadmill when I didn’t have to? “No, I’m not going to do that. But may I please have these shoes in a seven?” What she didn’t know is that I wasn’t even planning to try the shoes on, much less subject myself to a medical exam.
“I can’t sell you a pair of shoes without checking your gait.” Again, my what?
“There’s nothing you can do to get me on that treadmill.”
She consulted with her male colleague for maybe three minutes on the subject and returned asking me to just walk to the entrance of the store and back so they could see my walking gait. I obliged, awkwardly, ignoring the voice in my head that was shouting, “Keep walking! Go toward the light!”
When I returned to them, they talked for a while and concluded that, in fact, my gait was normal. “So may I please have these shoes in a seven?”
I felt like I’d accomplished something when she agreed to go downstairs and get the shoes. She returned with two boxes, “I thought I’d have you try the seven and a half because you seem like more of a seven and a half.”
Now I had the giggles. I seem like a seven and a half? How does one give off the vibe of a shoe size? I could see how she might think that I seemed like a person who might be losing her patience, but a seven and a half? How can you seem like that?
Again she discussed it with her colleague and they agreed that I, in fact, seemed more like a seven and a half. I grabbed the box with that heavenly little 7 in the lower right hand corner and began to try on the shoes to prove myself right.
And, guess what? They fit perfectly! I felt terrific!
The salespeople shook their heads. “Those are too small.”
“They feel great.”
“We’ve had extensive training.” The young woman really said that.
And I didn’t want to insult her extensive training. I know what it’s like to have extensive training and have people still think you don’t know what you’re talking about. I was starting to understand that my desire to just grab a pair of shoes and leave was an insult to her education. So I tried on the size seven and a half shoes to be nice.
“They’re too big,” I apologized. I wondered if they’d had to pay for all this training.
And then something happened that I’m really not proud of. It’s the part that makes me pretty sure I might be an idiot. I sat on the little shoe-trying-on bench and I listened to the two of them, in tandem, explain to me why that big pair of shoes really fit. They used shoe jargon and running lingo. And they were so darn sure of themselves. I’d seen Hari Krishnas with less conviction. I thought: maybe the earth is flat. I bought those size seven and a half clown shoes and left.
This morning I took them out for a spin. I have a pretty good blister working on the back of my heel from where my foot slides in and out of the shoe when I run. I’m still asking, “May I please have these shoes in a seven?”The Rye Record on April 5, 2013
There are many baffling questions we ask again and again, hoping that maybe in the afterlife their answers will be revealed to us. Why are we here? Why can’t time fly when we’re not having fun? Where did my waist go? And, of course, there is the eternal question of the missing socks. Where, oh where, do they go? Well somebody ring a bell, because I have the answer: They’re all at my house.
There was a time when socks in my house were found in a sock drawer, in a hamper, or on a pair of feet. Then I had children. There are now socks in every corner of my house. They are under couches, mixed in with toys, and hanging off the fireplace grate. They are strewn on the stairs, as if someone was running from a burning house and had to strip off their socks in order to speed their escape.
I recently said to my reclining children, “I’m going to clean up this room, and I’m going to charge you a dollar for every sock I find.” They replied in unison: “Nyeh.” Nyeh is a response I get a lot. I believe it means, “Whatever you want Mom, but could you please zip it while SpongeBob’s talking?” So I began to collect socks, counting out loud as I went. I made $18 that day.
When I’ve collected and washed them all, they amount to a staggering pile of needing-to-be-matched socks. We are a family of ten feet. I, for one, go through no more than one pair a day, mainly on principle. My husband ranges between one and two. But the others — they don’t exercise such self-control. It seems they need different socks for every activity, and if they make a sock-footed trip outside, they need a fresh pair upon their return. My kids take many sock-footed trips outside each day.
It is not difficult to personify the sock pile. Mine actually has a pulse. It is a living, breathing, growing entity capable of doing anything but matching its own kind. Each week, the Nike and Under Armour socks seem to be breeding and spawning a new race of socks that I have never seen before. There are argyle socks, Adidas socks, and even pink socks in my pile. It’s like Studio 54 in there.
Which brings me to my big news: your missing socks are at my house. The trampoline is primarily to blame. Every child that comes to my house takes off his shoes and runs out to the trampoline in sock feet. The mud immediately renders those socks squishy, and they are discarded like confetti all over my backyard. It’s actually quite whimsical the way they dangle from the shrubs. The child leaves with just his shoes, deciding he would rather ride bareback than touch those muddy socks again. In this way, my sock inventory has risen by two every day for eight years.
The good news is that I don’t buy socks anymore. The sock supply happily replenishes itself. But the sorting of the socks can be soul-crushing. I imagine my parents sending me off to college and hoping that my life would amount to some higher purpose than this. The black dress socks in particular could make you go blind, holding them up to divine each mate. Some have gold toes, some have wider ribs, some are longer than others. Each time, I wonder: who would ever know if my husband’s socks did not match? Who would even know if he was wearing rainbow tube socks under his suit?
Like Cinderella, I dream of a way out. I dream of a day when I take one (maybe several) large garbage bags and throw out every single sock in my house. Then I go to the mythical Sock Emporium and buy multiple pairs of identical socks for each member of my family. There would be no matching — just five baskets of a single type of sock each. Freedom! Like Cinderella, I do not act. I’m waiting for someone to rescue me.
In the meantime, if you want your socks back, you can come get them. But be warned: they could be anywhere.
The Rye Record on March 15, 2013
Is there anything more awkward than the parent-teacher conference? It embodies all the stress and apprehension of a performance review with the added discomfort of being perched on a teeny tiny chair. Like most moms, I’ve squirmed in my fair share of these chairs, waiting to hear the verdict on how my kids are turning out. Any of my kids’ teachers can tell you that I become a nervous, babbling, over-explaining version of myself. It’s not pretty.
I suspect that my conference anxiety is a throwback to my own elementary school days. My mother was told twice a year, in no uncertain terms, that I was not living up to my potential (really, who is), and that I talked too much in class (hello, I’m female). As with most things, she had a good sense of humor about it, but I took it to heart. As an adult, I am still longing for a few words of affirmation from a teacher.
An outsider might remark that my son’s conference isn’t really about me; that it’s about him. Well, I’ve seen enough slander come home in his backpack to know better. All year, he’s been bringing home writing assignments that could have been penned by Kitty Kelley. They are exposes about what really goes on inside our house. He writes about how his brother got stuck in the bathroom at Thanksgiving, which inappropriate video games he likes best, and how his mom serves frozen taquitos for dinner. Woefully absent from his memoirs are the jigsaw puzzle we just slogged through, the fact that I remembered to sign him up for soccer, and his up-to-date immunization record. I’m a little defensive about whether his teacher thinks I’m living up to my potential.
These conferences only last twenty minutes, and they’re usually running a bit late. I sit outside the classroom, waiting and fidgeting myself into a panic. My kid’s doing fine in school, I’m not really worried that the teacher’s going to give me some unwanted diagnosis. But I dread a line like, “Tell me, is there something going on at home?” What isn’t going on at home? We live in loosely controlled chaos — the love child of over-scheduling and sink-or-swim parenting. I want her to tell me that I’m doing a good (enough) job, and that my boy seems to feel confident and loved. I couldn’t care less how well he’s learning to read. That’s her job, not mine.
I sit in my tiny waiting chair, suddenly aware of my hugeness and wondering at my choice of clothing. Did I make enough of an effort? Or, worse, did I make too much of an effort? Is she going to think I’m a person who spends the whole day blowing her hair dry rather than preparing healthy snacks for the afternoon? Is that why my children are eating frozen taquitos? I decide to wipe off my lipstick and pull my hair into a Good Mom Ponytail.
When I’m called in, I say hello and shake her hand. I have no idea why I’m being so formal, as I see her every single day at pick-up. But here we are alone, with nineteen minutes ahead of us to engage in the school district’s version of speed dating. Her objective is to tell me how my son’s doing in school. My objective is to keep my mouth shut long enough to let her meet her objective. The keeping my mouth shut part proves to be a challenge.
She starts with his progress in reading and nicely comments that she imagines I read to him a lot at home. I could simply nod, but apparently I need to elaborate. I start to explain how I read much more to my older kids when they were little, but now with all the driving to sports in the evenings it’s hard to fit the reading in. I explain how my three sons play in several leagues and how we don’t always all eat dinner together. I cannot stop talking and am on the verge of confessing to sloth and occasional impure thoughts when I catch her glancing at the clock over my shoulder. I conclude with, “Yes, I read to him.” There are now only ten minutes left.
He knows his math facts, whatever that means. I offer, “We do a lot of math at home.” Now I’m just plain lying, and she knows it. No one does a lot of math at home. The only math we do sounds like “If you don’t get your shoes on by the time I count to five…” But I hold her gaze because I desperately want her to forget about the frozen taquitos.
Our conference goes five minutes over, and I find the next nervous parent sitting in the hall in the tiny chair. Behind me, the teacher is scribbling in my son’s Permanent Record, probably something about how his mom talks too much in class.
As published in The Rye Record on March 1, 2013
I had a pretty productive stay-cation over February break. I cleaned out three closets, gained two pounds, and rekindled my love affair with Legos. My 6-year-old pulled out that beautiful old box of colorful bricks, and I heard Peaches and Herb singing “Reunited.” It really does feel so good.
When I was a kid, Legos were pretty much the only things I played with. I could sit for hours and build utopian cities out of these plastic cubes, running my thumb along the sharp edges as I planned where to put the next piece. It was the kind of play that they now give a name because it’s so rare. They call it “flow,” because you are so deeply involved in the creative process that you are unaware of time passing.
I can attribute a big chunk of my adult skill set to the hours I logged with my Legos. At an early age I knew that three was a multiple of 12, mainly because you need three of those little four-top cubes to cover a longer brick of 12. Legos taught me about spatial relations and balance and patience. The best way to learn how to honor every step in a process is to have one poorly affixed brick at the bottom of your tower. You learn pretty quickly to take the time to go back and repair something if you want it to last.
As a kid, building with Legos was what writing is to me today. It is the process of making something out of nothing, something that only you would have thought of. Of course, the Lego bricks and the words already existed, but not the way you put them together. The creation sometimes works and it sometimes crumbles. If it doesn’t work, you tear it down and start again. Eventually, you learn that what you made doesn’t matter as much as the joy you felt in the process of making it. I can think of few things as satisfying.
You would think that this love affair with Legos would have been burning strong over these past 14 years that I have been raising boys. A younger me would have imagined motherhood taking place in an environment that looked more like Legoland than an actual home. But Legos and I had a falling out when my first child was 5. All he wanted for his birthday was the coveted Spiderman Lego set. I was emotional as I bought it, anxious to see his childhood unfold in front of him as he started to play. But when he opened it, out of the box poured all these tiny pieces, specific only to Spiderman. There were webs and hooks and lampposts. There were also a few of the familiar building bricks, but certainly not enough to build a house.
As if to deliver the final blow, my son handed me the directions. Directions?! For Legos?! I was horrified. You might as well have handed Van Gogh a paint-by-numbers set. Why not take Lady Gaga to Party City to buy a Halloween costume? There were 32 carefully outlined steps for my son to follow to create Spidey’s web lair. When he got to step 17, I was despondent. My son wasn’t being trained to think and create. He was being trained to work on an assembly line. From then on, I turned my nose up at Legos the way my mother turned her nose up at store-bought cookies.
Conventional wisdom is that the next economic boom will be fueled by the kind of innovation that comes from thinking outside the box. Some big idea, bigger than the iPhone even, will spur job growth and exports and tax revenue. We are looking to the younger generations, the ones who know how to design websites and upload to YouTube, to create something new. We’ve got to get the directions out of the Lego box.
The discovery of those old Legos made our week. My 6-year-old built a house that was too wide to put a roof on; he built a car that was too big to fit in his garage. He got frustrated and then he started again. He built a basketball court with a trampoline next to it so that it would be easier for little kids to dunk. He put a chair nearby so that old people could sit and watch.
I want to live in a world where little kids can dunk and old people have a place to sit. There are Legos all over my house again, and all is right with the world.
The Rye Record on February 10, 2013
Last weekend I met a high school basketball coach who told me, “We are not here to help your kids win. We are here to help them grow up.” I tensed the muscles in my arms to keep me from throwing them around this man. How did he get so wise? What if he had been around to coach a young Lance Armstrong? From what I’ve learned from the constant loop of Armstrong news on ESPN, the guy’s done enough winning. Maybe it’s time to grow up.
Before I lose you, because I too am sick of Lance’s story, I just want to ask why? Why would a person go to such lengths to keep up the charade of winning? I wonder if his problem is that he never learned how to lose. Losing isn’t really that big of a deal if you’ve done it a few times. I’ve had so much experience with losing that I could teach a seminar. There’s the initial disappointment, the chorus of “it’s not fair” and then the regrouping. You look around and see that the world is still spinning, that you are still the same person you were before the game. And you move on. But to someone who has never dismounted a bike without a trophy in his hand, losing might seem like the end of the world. It almost makes me feel bad for the guy.
It’s no secret that we live in a winning-obsessed culture. I recently saw a grown man at a basketball game jump into the air like an Alabama cheerleader when a child on the opposing team was injured on the court. He is an otherwise perfectly normal man, but the children watching heard the message loud and clear: winning is everything.
At the writing of this article, my 11-year-old son’s basketball team is undefeated. I’m not sure how he feels about it, but to me it seems like a lot of pressure. I just want to get the big loss out of the way so that we can move on with our lives. When you are undefeated, losing becomes something bigger than itself; it’s not just the loss of the game, it’s the loss of perfection.
We like to see our kids happy, and we do everything in our power to keep them winning and succeeding. We stop short of giving them steroids, but we hire tutors, check their homework, and write their papers. Someday they are going to leave and get jobs and have to manage things on their own. I wonder if a little losing might help soften the transition from school to life. Going into the playoffs undefeated is a lot of pressure. Going into life undefeated is probably terrifying.
If you want your kids to have a little experience in losing, try some games you can only win after losing a few times. One of my favorites is “The Morning Game.” The object is to get out of the house with all of the stuff you will need for the next six hours. If you forget your lunch-homework-library book, you lose. As a consolation prize, you learn life skills such as begging for a half-sandwich, making up excuses, and negotiating with the librarian. The player is disqualified from this game the instant his mother arrives at school with his forgotten items. The player who wins five days in a row has mastered a game that he will be playing every single day for the rest of his life.
Another good one’s called “Where Are My Cleats?” It involves two players, the younger of whom is looking for his or her cleats. The older player knows where they are (having previously lost the game called “Who’s Gonna Clean Up This House Every Day?”), but pretends not to. The older player keeps asking, “I don’t know, where do you keep them?” until the younger player finds them and decides that having a dedicated spot for the cleats would be a good idea. Both players will lose during the first few rounds, being late for practice and managing the crankiness of the other. But in the end, both will win. It’s a hoot!
There’s a part of me that wants to turn my kids into serious losers. The kind that knows how to say, “Sorry I’m late” and “Sorry, I forgot.” The kind that has to run extra laps, and leave the library without a new book. Medical science has proven that it’s impossible to die from such losses, but be warned — side effects may include dizziness, nausea, and growing up.
As published in The Rye Record, January 27, 2013
Boy, do I need a vacation. I’m actually on my way to a four-day weekend with my husband, no kids. My normal life doesn’t really generate enough stress to warrant a getaway like this, but the amount of work and planning necessary to leave my boys with a sitter for four days has wiped me out.
It’s not like I’m leaving them with someone unqualified. I’m leaving them in the care of a tag-team babysitting trio of siblings, maybe Super Siblings, the kind that might have been assembled at the Hall of Justice. They arrive in their glory (no capes): a teacher, a nurse, and a genius! If my kids need help with algebra, or have a weird rash, or want to turn our toaster oven into a robot, they’re covered. I am so overstaffed by these three, who are innately more qualified to deal with my kids than I am, that I really should have nothing to prepare. All I should have to do is photocopy my calendar so they know who needs to be where, when. So why did I spend a week compiling a six-page (single-spaced) instruction booklet before I left town? Because my job is much more complicated than it appears.
Mothering is not brain surgery — there are actually schools that you can go to that will teach you how to perform brain surgery. For mothering, all we’ve got is the school of hard knocks. You can apprentice for the job if you have younger siblings, babysit, or watch TV, but it still isn’t enough. Even if you know everything there is to know about diapering, discipline, and dioramas, you may still be totally unprepared for parenthood. What you have to learn, the hard way, is how to parent your particular brood. It’s a sticky, three-dimensional art project, not a science. After 14 years of on-the-job training, I have a lot figured out. And it has very little to do with what’s on my calendar.
You start small in this job, usually with just one child who eats and sleeps. After a few months, you get brave enough to throw in Gymboree on Thursday mornings at 9:30. It’s a big deal. My husband used to say with a mix of pity and envy in his voice, “So what have you two got going on for this week?” I’d reply, as if I was Secretary of State, “Well, you know we have Gymboree on Thursday. Nine-thirty.” What I didn’t tell him is that I was secretly concerned about getting there at all, what with naps, the unpredictable weather and such.
Then you have another baby and you honestly don’t know how you’ll ever get out of the house, get them both bathed, make dinner. But slowly you learn. You get stronger — savvy even — as you gain confidence that maybe you can do this. You know better than to rely on one pacifier. You move your jewelry to someplace where they won’t be likely to grab it, lick it and toss it in the trash. And, as you learn, your brain starts to loosen up. You let go of your expectations of perfection and make room for lots of other information. Thursday is no longer Gymboree day. Thursday is: recycling (remind Kid 1), basketball for Kid 2, library day for Kid 3, and your last chance to feed Kids 1-3 protein before the Friday pizza bender.
My six-page tome to the Super Sitters includes the calendar, of course, but has so much additional information that I worry they are going to laugh at me. But I offer it anyway, because I can’t send them in cold: When you leave for the tutor, take the baseball stuff with you because if you go back home to get it, everyone will take their shoes off and you’ll never get them back in the car. Speaking of shoes, Kid 3 has a tendency to take his shoes off in the car and tuck them out of sight under the driver’s seat. So, before you make yourself crazy (and late) looking under couches for his shoes, look in the car. Kid 2 will text you right as you are coming to pick him up from school on Friday to ask if he can go to Jack’s house. So don’t rush to pick up, it’s a waste of time. No matter how lucid Kid 1 seems when you wake him up in the morning, he’s going to fall back asleep the second you leave his room. Check back ten minutes later.
It takes time to season a mom. A seasoned mom doesn’t react strongly to dirty hands or lost socks anymore. She has her radar up for big stuff and stays in touch with the even more seasoned moms so she can brace for what’s coming. She avoids conversations that involve gossip about children, because she’s learned that her kids aren’t perfect either. She’s got a lot in her head and knows in her heart what pitfalls may be ahead for each child. She knows because she’s been at this awhile.
As I board the plane, I get an email about a birthday party I’d forgotten and (what?!) noon dismissal on Monday. I text the Super Sitters an amendment to the aforementioned document. I have to shut off my phone before I realize that I actually forgot to tell them about the shoes being hidden under the driver’s seat. Oh well, they’ll figure it out.
The Rye Record on January 12, 2013
The other night, I was driving up to my house and saw a man unloading garbage from his car into the dumpster at the construction site next door. Is this a crime? Probably. Am I the Sheriff? No. He turned his head away from my headlights so that I couldn’t I.D. him in a line up, just in case. What he didn’t know is that, at 15 miles per hour, I had a chance to read his entire biography on the back of his car.
The only reason I slowed down to look at the back of his car is that I have an unusual interest in bumper stickers. You could almost call it a hobby. I have a collection of about 50 great ones, all which I find hilarious and none of which are on my car. I’m generally fascinated about how much information people post about themselves on their rear windows. They are mostly for fun (Life is Good!), or for bragging (insert fabulous vacation destination here), but if you’re going to be on the wrong side of the law you should really be careful. I don’t have access to technology that would let me run his plates, Cagney and Lacey style, but here’s the data I gathered in 12 seconds:
His oval RYE sticker identifies him as one of approximately 7,500 males that currently live in Rye, New York. Another sticker told me where his kids go to school, narrowing my search down to 300 dads. The soccer ball on the gas cap eliminated no one, but the sticker advertising specifically which travel soccer team his child played for narrowed the choices down to 12 dads. Now I’m not that interested, but I’m pretty sure that with one phone call I could figure out which of those 12 dads drives a minivan and is affiliated with that impressive eastern university. Gotcha!
The only way he could have made this easier on me is if he had the stick figure family bumper sticker. That thing might as well include your Social Security number and your blood type. I’ve spent a lot of time in traffic marveling at the choices that the driver in front of me has made to identify her family. I’ve even been on the stick figure website to look through the choices, so I know what she’s been through. They replicate your family in a very specific line drawing that you’ve compiled from 3,000 variations. I’m not sure that genetics even gives us that many possible options.
You start by choosing the size and shape of your body and the exact cut of your hair. They want to know if I have straight hair or straight hair with layers. The distinction eludes me so I go on to choose a personal interest for each of us. At this point in the ordering process, I imagine most people just log out. I mean this is a bumper sticker and here I am asking myself existential questions about who I really am. I have a lot of interests. Am I supposed to pigeonhole myself with one and then paste it on my car? I am more complex than that triangular lady with the shopping bag! I like cooking, but not for children; I like the Wall Street Journal, but only on Saturday; I like sports, but only as a spectator and only if it’s not too cold or wet outside. I like bumper stickers, reality TV, and ironing. There are no icons for that person. I’m at once annoyed and delighted that I’m not among the choices for “adult female” on this website.
As I start to design my husband, I’m generous with the amount of hair I place on his head. I can make him a golfer, a guy with a lawnmower, or a businessman, but none of those get to his essence. His likeness would include all of those things, plus a clicker and a martini glass. And he’s only got two hands. I give up at this point, wondering again why I would want the person in the car behind me to know how my husband spends his time.
Bottom line: if you have a tendency to do anything that could be described as surreptitious, you should probably keep identifying markers off your car. Last spring, there were a couple of teenagers that liked to park in front of my house for a smoke before school. They drove a very popular car but with two distinct bumper stickers on the back. If I were so inclined, I could identify them faster than you can say, “Cheech and Chong didn’t finish high school.”
I only have one bumper sticker on my car: Peace is Possible. I’ve chosen this one because I think peace actually is possible and because I believe the message limits the amount of honking and gesturing on the part of the driver behind me when I’ve forgotten to yield at the traffic circle. And if I were ever to be spotted on the wrong side of the law, the witness would have nothing to go on. “I didn’t get her plates, Officer, but she seems to have an optimistic outlook about the future of mankind.” They’ll never find me.The Rye Record on December 16, 2012
Dear Mr. Bernanke,
First of all, I’m sorry to butt in. I know you’re really busy trying to figure out how to massage the economy back to life. There is no amount of money that you could pay me to do your job. But I was thinking about how I could use a little help around the house these days and how even Santa has elves. So, in the spirit of the season, I thought maybe I could offer you a hand. I know you have endless organizations out there tracking non-farm payrolls and sniffing out inflation and whatnot, but I thought I’d give you a fly-on-the-wall view of what’s happening in my town.
I live in a small town outside of New York City. We’ve got one or two Wall Street types among us. OK, to be honest, you can’t throw a snowball around here without hitting a One Percenter. True story: Back in the spring of 2007, I was at a party and listened to a woman recount the mishaps of her family’s trip home from the Caribbean. She said these words: “It was awful! I’m never flying commercial with my children again!” I know. I should have called you then. Those words signaled a turning point, the beginning of the end.
That was the beginning of the Great Financial Enema of 2008. I’m sure you remember it. People in my town hunkered down. One friend’s husband famously admonished her, “If you can’t eat it, don’t buy it.” And that mentality has gripped many of us for years. I waver between buying the organic chicken that costs $2 more per pound and the equally friendly-looking hormone-infused chicken. I even file my own nails. But I’m writing to report that I see some green shoots around here. I’m not saying it’s 2006 again. Or even the misguided months of late 2007. But I am saying there are a few data points that your guys might have missed.
Babysitters are now making between $15 and $20 per hour. And I don’t mean the kind of babysitters that drive and know CPR. Or even the kind that throw away the pizza box after dinner. I just mean a teen-ager who is there to watch TV with your kids so that you can say someone was there watching them. I recently had a babysitter tell me that she charges $17 per hour. (Who wants to come home after a night out and multiply 17 times 6?) That compares to my salary at Goldman Sachs in 1991 of $26,000 per year, which works out to $8.33 per hour for a 60-hour week. Pre-tax.
My street has been under construction for three years straight. The day they finished construction to my right, they broke ground to my left. I know it’s eight o’clock every morning because of the beep, beep, beep of a truck in reverse. Some might find this annoying, but to me a jackhammer is like the sound of a cash register ringing. It’s the sound of progress, industry, and prosperity. I’ll send you an audio recording separately, you’ll love it!
There has been a measurable uptick in the quantity and quality of holiday cards I’ve received this year. People are using a higher quality paper stock and maybe even attaching the separate glossy photo. Many are once again springing for the envelope liner ($135 extra per 200 cards) and the printed return address ($50). But not the large grosgrain bow that costs a bundle and requires extra postage. Again, this is not 2006.
I have been invited to SIX holiday parties this year. That is two more than the total number of holiday parties I have been invited to for the past four years (I could graph this if it helps). I think we can take this to mean that people are starting to feel better, that they don’t mind springing for a caterer with passed hors d’oeuvres. Or at least they are feeling more open to drinking in the company of others. Of course, I haven’t been to any of these parties yet, but if there’s shrimp I’ll let you know ASAP. Everyone knows shrimp is a bull market indicator. If prosperity sounds like a jackhammer, it tastes like cocktail sauce.
Durable Goods Orders
My husband has asked me what I’d like for Christmas this year. The comparison is subtle, but for the past four years he has worded his question: “You don’t want anything for Christmas this year, do you?” I’m still stunned by this new wording, and this year, I’m actually going to take him up on it. I would like a gift — a real gift, the kind that comes in a box too small to contain slippers.
I hope this was helpful. Feel free to share with Treasury Secretary Geithner or the Prez. I’ll keep my ear to the ground around here, and you just keep doing what you’re doing.
And no need to thank me. I’m happy to help.
As published in The Rye Record on November 30, 2012
The daydream is always the same: It’s December 1st and I gently toss my holiday shopping list into the recycling bin. I’d planned ahead, you see, taking advantage of the November lull. I’d walked the quiet malls, collecting thoughtful gifts for everyone on my list. I even found someone to answer my questions at Toys“R”Us. They had no choice, as I was the only one in the store. Then I brought my parcels home and wrapped them with carefully selected holiday paper. I had done it all. Before December 1st. There is nothing left to do but enjoy the holiday season.
The dream may come across with more detail than you’d expect. That’s because I did this once before. Back in 1999 when I had one child, no job, and a babysitter, I finished all of my holiday shopping before Thanksgiving. That year, I reveled in Christmas. I baked cookies that were shaped like seasonal things. I made gingerbread and took my son to see “A Christmas Carol”. My holiday cards contained handwritten notes and were mailed on December 1st. Those cards landed in mailboxes all over the country, horrifying my friends with the news that the season had begun and that I was maybe a little too on top of my game.
You should know that in December of 1999, I was the most annoying person in the world. My sister would call, harried, and ask, “What are you doing?” I’d reply sleepily, “Reading.” Honestly, who reads during the month of December? Now that I have three kids, two jobs, and zero babysitters, I want to smack that show-offy early achiever senseless. Christmas is something that sneaks up on me like a gray hair. I know it’s coming, but I’m never, ever going to be ready for it.
I have approximately 20 people that I buy gifts for. They are not obligations; these are people that mean everything to me and to whom I would like to give the most heartfelt, treasured gifts of their lives. I want to give them something that shows them how deeply I know them and how carefully I’ve thought about their interests. Instead I find myself running through the mall, throwing stuff on the cashier’s counter, and barking, “What’s this thing for? Never mind. If it comes with free gift wrap, I’ll take it.”
The Christmas season feels like a stick of dynamite, with a 25-day fuse. And that fuse doesn’t stop burning because you have two holiday concerts, one Multicultural Celebration, and a cookie exchange to slog through. At Christmas, time is money, and we’re all on a budget.
But here’s what’s interesting: I feel like retailers are starting to bend toward the needs of the procrastinators. For example, last year I tried to get a head start on my shopping and bought my sister a sweater for $129 on December 3. On December 5, I got an email from the store announcing that all sweaters were 15% off. That’s annoying, but what are you going to do? It’s $19.35 that I wasted by getting my shopping done early. Hey, I’d probably save that much by shipping the gift to her by normal mail rather than FedEx. On December 11, when I received the email that all sweaters were now 20% off, I checked to see if the one I’d bought her was still available. Gray, size small: Still available. I’d wasted almost $26, but I’d already been to the post office to mail it. I’d chosen super snail mail and had paid $5.25 to ship the sweater. Using emotional math, I told myself I’d probably come out ahead.
By December 18, they were offering this same sweater for 40% off. What’s wrong with this sweater, I started to wonder? It was too late to do anything about it, but I’d wasted $51.60 and found myself driving by the Post Office to assure myself that there were nightmarishly long lines there. On December 20, they were still offering 40% off, but threw in free giftwrap and shipping, Christmas delivery guaranteed. I was out nearly $57 and an unnecessary trip to the Post Office. Ah, the irony!
This year, I’ve learned my lesson. The retailers have spoken, and I am going to do it their way. From December 1 through 20, I am going to do nothing but bake cookies, light fires, and listen to kids sing carols in church. I’m going to remember to do the Advent calendar and pay my respects to the Rockettes. I’m going to make a popcorn garland and maybe pick up a copy of Good Housekeeping to see what sorts of holiday crafts those kinds of people are making.
And on December 21, I’m going to buy a bunch of stuff on sale and ship it for free. It may sound a little risky — retailers could change the rules on me in an instant. But if I find myself without Christmas gifts on December 21, 2012, is it really the end of the world? Oh, wait…
The Rye Record on November 17, 2012
I’m starting to really rethink this whole monogamy thing. It sounds kind of racy, and no I haven’t met anyone, but in the aftermath of the Hurricane Sandy nightmare, I find myself in possession of sister wives. And I’m not sure I’m willing to go back to the way things were.
I live in a very male household. It’s my husband and three sons and me. The only pink item in our house is a breast cancer awareness pepper grinder. We do not have a single Barbie doll or set of fairy wings. No one notices my clothing or the slightly lighter tint of my hair. No one’s interested in my grandmother’s tea set. If we’re talking, it’s about the Knicks, the Spurs, the Giants and the Steelers. Not one of us knows how to apply mascara properly.
So when my power went out and then was miraculously restored on the 9th day, I had two friends (now sister wives) come stay at my house with their families. In the first few hours we circled the island in my kitchen, not knowing who the top hen was or where we all stood in the pecking order. We didn’t want to step on each other’s toes or be bossy about how things got done. It was my coop after all, and I think they were waiting to see how I operated.
Then one of the sister wives mentioned that she had a lovely chicken dish that she liked to make, and asked if we would be interested in having that for dinner. Gasp! Sigh! Swoon! That was pretty much it for me. I wouldn’t have cared if she was scolding my children or flirting with my husband. The woman came up with something to make for dinner. And then (please remain seated) she left for the supermarket to get the ingredients.
At three o’clock the normal bedlam kicked in, times three. The kids were home, excited to see their new siblings and scurried off to play. The sister wives and I tag-teamed on laundry, took turns driving kids to sporting events and caught up in a slow, meandering way that I didn’t know how much I missed.
I grew up in a household of women. For much of my childhood it was my mom, my sister and me. We had a lot of conversation. We could rehash a dinner party, a sideways glance, or the neckline of a dress for hours. Women talk about an event and how they felt about it. And then we like to go back and describe how our feelings about said event have evolved over time. It’s what we think of as conversation, and this may be why men avoid conversation with women with such determination.
In a house full of boys, there isn’t this sense of rehashing, or just conversation for its own sake. Boys use words to convey information or to make requests. “I’m hungry” or “can you drive me to basketball?” are staples. My boys don’t start conversations with, “You know what I was thinking about today?” or “Do you think my hair would look better if…” It’s baffling.
The sister wives and I drank tea until teatime turned into cocktail hour. We made dinner. We fed the children and the menfolk as they rolled in, one by one. We wondered to each other which of the husbands we’d choose to keep if we really were to become sister wives. This made for a hilarious assessment of all of our husbands’ good and bad qualities. There was a pretty good case for keeping each of them. And we laid out their worst flaws for comparison: 1. makes too many lists, 2. doesn’t know where anything is, 3. works from home.
One of them got her power back last night, and I’m afraid the other might get hers back soon. Life’s going to get back to normal and the testosterone imbalance will be restored. I’m hoping they’ll come back, even when they don’t have to, with tea and wine and suggestions about what to make for dinner.
The Rye Record on October 19, 2012
When people talk about their “guilty pleasures” I’m usually a little underwhelmed. They just seem like regular pleasures to me. They confess to eating two squares of dark chocolate in the evening. Or reading People magazine in the doctor’s office. I buy the 4-pound bag of peanut M&Ms at Costco. And I know the first and last name of the most recent “Bachelorette”. Pleasures, sure. Guilty, not so much.
My actual guilty pleasure is a doozey. It truly makes me feel like less of a person, as if some part of my soul has been chipped away. I’ve seen the bottom of more than one bag of M&Ms, and it has never made me feel this bad. You see, I watch “Hoarders”. I like to get in bed and watch mentally ill people struggle with their dirty houses on television. It feels cathartic even talking about it, and I admit it is the most despicable show on television (unless you are counting “Toddlers & Tiaras”, which I am not emotionally prepared to discuss at this time).
For those of you who value your time enough to have missed this show, “Hoarders” is a reality-style show where mental health and public safety professionals go into hoarders’ homes and clear out decades of newspapers, clothing, and soiled diapers, just to name a few items. The hoarders have amassed piles of stuff so high that they navigate their homes through narrow pathways. They face the threat of having their children taken away from them, because they have cats and other animals burrowing in piles of old pizza boxes. I’m telling you, it’s not for the faint of heart.
The guilty part is pretty obvious. The pleasure? Well, watching “Hoarders” makes me feel tidy. I look over at the perma-stack of clothes on the chair by my bed and shrug, “things could be worse.”
After the fleeting rush of having briefly and with great delusion aligned myself with the tidy people of the world, “Hoarders” always makes me think about the fine line between sanity and insanity. These people are not deemed insane simply because they amass large amounts of stuff. People who hoard money are praised as savers. People who hoard those little spoons from different countries and hang them on special spoon racks are considered collectors. People who hoard people are networkers. The thing that makes the hoarders insane is that the things they are hoarding have no value or use to them at the present time, but they have a true fear that they may need them in the future.
Hoarders seem to play a lot of “what if.” What if they run out of bleach and need the coupon that is buried deep in that old newspaper? What if videos are once again produced for the Betamax? What if I decide to start canning and need hundreds of glass jars? In this sense, I think that we all may have a little hoarder in us, just in more subtle ways.
Just to be clear, I am not a hoarder. When my kids bring colorful drawings home from school I immediately file them in a special blue bin, the one that the sanitation department picks up weekly. I imagine they deposit them in a local storage facility, but I should check on that.
But if you saw my closet you might wonder. Though I tend to rotate through the same six items every week, my closet is packed. I have a pink dress hanging in my closet that is so small that if it ever fit me again, I would immediately check myself into a hospital. But I keep it, not because I can get it over my head anymore, but because what if…what if I had the stomach flu for eight weeks in a row and then recovered to find a worldwide famine? I might need a fancy summer dress in that size. And I loved wearing that dress, back in the days when I had fewer ribs.
I am also guilty of email hoarding. Is it possible that I need all 3,712 previously read emails in my inbox? No. But the hoarding principle applies – they are of no use to me, but I am afraid I may need them in the future. What if CVS starts honoring coupons from 2010? What if that kid who emailed saying she liked my book is the last one to ever like my book? What if the soccer coach stops sending directions to the games? What if I need the order number for that shirt I bought (and returned) from J Crew last summer?
The one act of hoarding that I am most guilty of is the hoarding of my time. Again, the principle fits. I am not paid by the hour and am not scheduled to perform brain surgery at any time today. In effect, my time is worthless. But I’m afraid I might need it. I worry that the second I commit to devoting a huge chunk of time to something, I’ll need that time back. So I’m cautious with it, measuring each hour that I give away and then hoarding a big chunk for myself like so many old mayonnaise jars. What if my 14-year-old son decides to stay home on a Friday night? What if my husband wants to take a walk? What if there’s something good but disturbing on TV?
And, let’s face it — in the future I’m more likely to need a little extra time or a pink Barbie-sized dress than one of those tiny spoons from Portugal.
As published in The Rye Record on September 22, 2012
My sister had an electrician working in her home, and, after a long day’s work, she said to him, “Would you like some farro and chard?” He replied, to my delight, “I don’t know what any of those things are.” She had obviously hired an electrician who was not up to speed on super foods.
My sister’s a foodie. By that I mean that she cares deeply about the quality of the food she prepares. She’s not a lunatic, but you’d have a better chance of finding Waldo in her kitchen than anything containing partially hydrogenated oils. One’s natural inclination may be to tease her about it, but if you saw how great she looks you would (like me) do pretty much anything she says.
Trust me. I’m up to speed on farro. Everywhere I went this summer someone was serving me a heaping bowl of it. And it really is super. In addition to having twice the protein of wheat, farro is rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, lignans, and betaine. My sister serves it to me with kale like it’s medicine. She hands me the bowl with two hands and a bowed head. The thoughtful presentation is accompanied by a knowing, “It’s an ancient grain.” Always grateful to be served food that I did not prepare, I know enough not to remark that in ancient times the people died at like 30.
Farro and quinoa (ancient buddies) have become what sundried tomatoes and pesto were in the ’80s. During that decade it was impossible to order a meal that did not include one of those items. You were sure to eat your sundried tomatoes with a half pound of pasta and, of course, a nice crisp baguette on the side. It was the age of the carb. Back then, the knowing line was “It’s not the pasta, it’s what you put on it…” The ’80s gave way to specialty bread stores and kiosks where you could buy nothing but soft pretzels. All of this was okay as long as any topping was low fat.
With pasta as the food police’s health food of choice, even the actresses were a little heavyset in the ’80s. I’m above naming names, but rent any movie from this era and you will be shocked. Fashion responded by offering us the long bulky sweater that, when worn over our dangerously snug jeans, hid the fallout from the farfalle. Our hairstylists helped balance our hips by perming our hair to give our heads a few more horizontal inches on each side. Plus the jeans rode high enough to catch any spillover, and the legwarmers gave us a nice tapered looked around the ankle. These were kinder times.
The pendulum swung during the ’90s and we became heroine-chic and low-carb. Even beer was offered with low carbs, as a sort of alcoholic health food. It was okay to eat fat again (rejoice!), and even potato chips were sanctioned as long as they were laced with a healthy amount of Olestra and we stayed close to a bathroom.
I’ve noticed that the same big long sweater is back this year. What’s different this time is that it is there for its own sake, not necessarily to hide anything. Sadly, the big sweater has not brought us back our carbs. In fact, the carb crackdown has gotten dramatically worse. At a buffet where someone had prepared a fresh corn salad, I was nudged and admonished by a friend, “It’s loaded with carbs.” Et tu, corn? Thou hast forsaken me!
Wheat gluten, it goes withoutsaying, is out. You’d be better off just chugging a gallon of Red Dye #40 than eating wheat gluten. But if you don’t mind paying for it, you can buy pretty much anything gluten-free. (Farro, you’ll be happy to hear, contains only a particularly weak type of gluten molecule which is much more easily digested.) It seems to me that the gluten-free movement was brought forward by very smart health professionals, but then may have been sullied by some very smart marketing professionals. For example, my supermarket displays a particular brand of water with a sign that reads “gluten-free.” Gluten-free water? What will they think of next?
All this information has made me a bit suspicious. In one day I read two articles citing these nutritional studies: 1. Women who drink seven alcoholic drinks per week have twice the risk of getting breast cancer as those who don’t. And 2. Women who drink one glass of red wine every day have lower instances of breast cancer than those who don’t. Can you see why I can only trust my sister?
As with so many things, it all comes to going with your gut. My gut feels pretty good with a heaping bowl of farro and chard, and even better if I wash it down with a glass of red wine. Spaghetti makes my gut strain against the waist of my jeans until I wish for a really big sweater. See, I can change with the times. Just don’t mess with my coffee.The Rye Record on September 7, 2012
To me, the day after Labor Day feels a lot more like New Year’s Day than January 1st ever does. I’ve been out of school for 17 years, so it may seem strange that when I say “this year” I am almost always referring to the school year. Calendar years seem arbitrary and are separated only by the dropping of the ball in Times Square. You awake with resolutions and maybe a headache, knowing you will spend the next month writing the wrong year on your checks. But nothing’s really changed, not even the season.
The end of a school year, on the other hand, is celebrated over the entire month of June (is anyone else still trying to shake that cupcake hangover?), followed by a whole summer of resting and playing and growing. By the end of the summer we’ve had enough sun, rosé, and guacamole to propel us into our new year.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. The geniuses who do the advertising for Staples run a commercial every September featuring a dad doing his kids’ back-to-school shopping, while gleefully skipping through the aisles of Post-Its and binders to the holiday tune, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” I couldn’t agree more. And it’s not just because I get sick of applying sunscreen and shaking sand out of shoes (which I do), or because I like having my house to myself for a large chunk of the day (you have no idea).
September feels like the crisp possibilities of a fresh pack of college-ruled paper. It is marked by newness: new teachers, new classmates, new routines. It’s like if you had a job where you got a new boss and new colleagues every year. You’d get to make an entirely new first impression, and any mishaps from last year would be forgotten. On the first day of school your GPA and your attendance are perfect, and there’s usually no homework.
As a kid I would barely sleep the night before the first day of school. I’d sleep in my new school clothes on top of my already-made bed so I wouldn’t waste any time the next morning. I’d stand by the car, tapping my foot, 10 minutes before it was time to leave. Everything about me shouted, “Game on!”
In September, I still find myself wanting to buy new sneakers, number two pencils, and a Trapper Keeper. And I also want new jeans. Of course, the jeans will be identical to the ones I wore all spring and all summer, but I will think of them as my fall jeans. I will wear them to meet new teachers. I will wear them to football games and to back-to-school nights. If I were J. Crew, I’d market fall jeans in one color: Clean Slate.
Summers are like placeholders between these new beginnings, like one really long New Year’s Eve. My summer memories are defined entirely by the space they held between two school years. For example, if you ask me about the summer of 1984, I have no recollection. But if you call it the summer between ninth and tenth grades, I can tell you that Prince released “Purple Rain”, the Olympics were in Los Angeles, and that I ate a grilled cheese sandwich every single day for lunch. I remember my white bathing suit and the blue bus line that I took every single day to the beach. I can still smell that summer.
Of course, as an adult, I’m not really between anything anymore. My life is like a long string of Saturdays — not in that hammock-laying, lemonade-sipping way you might think, but in more of a dishwasher-unloading, Volvo-driving, cleat-tying, food-preparing sort of way. But this “game on” sort of feeling has become ingrained in me. On the day after Labor Day I’m raring to go, but I have no idea where I’m going.
All this Pavlovian fall energy needs to be channeled. I find myself wanting to make some resolutions. I’ll start going to yoga and Zumba. I’ll have freshly prepared snacks waiting for my hardworking kids after school. Maybe I’ll take everything out of my closet and then color code it to look like a California Closet ad. I wonder if it’s too late to make baby books for my two younger kids…
Actually, maybe I’ll just wait and see how much energy I have left after I’ve skipped through the aisles at Staples.
Rye Record on August 23, 2012
I’m watching you walk back and forth with that baby in your arms. You wear a path like a dog on a chain. You just laughed at the joke someone in your party told, but you laughed too late, and I can tell you didn’t get it. I’m guessing you haven’t slept more than twelve hours in the past six weeks. It’s all I can do not to run over to you and shower you with my hard-earned wisdom, but I control myself because I remember what it was like to be a new mom.
When I was a new mom, there seemed to be no boundary between strangers and me. They swarmed me with advice and admonishments. As a rule, their comments made me feel like I was a danger to my child.
One day a woman marched over to me in Bloomingdales to declare, not say, but declare as if it were an irrefutable fact of the universe, “That baby is going to die of suffocation in that sweater.” I nearly cried. Did she have any idea how long it took the two of us to get out of the house that morning? Did she not know that just the day before another well-meaning woman had told me my sweaterless child was going to freeze to death?
So I don’t approach you, New Mom. I’d rather leave you alone and just hope that you pick up this article during a midnight feeding, just after having jotted down “15 minutes on left” and switching sides. I want you to know that you have not been Punk’d. This moment that you find yourself in with this six-week-old baby is not what motherhood is going to be. Swaying from side to side, trying to follow an adult conversation about things you no longer feel a part of, is not the culmination of that big wedding and festive baby shower. This is just a moment.
I also want you to know that your baby has colic. People might be telling you he’s a little fussy or that he takes after his cranky Uncle Al. Or they wonder if you eat too much dairy while nursing, or not enough. They’ll tell you he’s screaming because you don’t let him sleep on his stomach or because you had an epidural during delivery. You’re secretly afraid that he’s defective in some way. I tell you it’s colic, and I’m guessing you have another six weeks left. After consulting many doctors, I have determined that colic is loosely defined as: There’s nothing at all wrong with you or your baby, but he’s gonna scream for the longest three months of your life.
And if there was an audio component to that definition, it would surely be the sound of your baby crying. Your baby’s cry is not a regular “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired” or “You just scraped my back with your bracelet” cry. It’s a screech as loud, jarring, and rhythmic as a car alarm. Except car alarms have an auto shut-off function that kicks in after 10 minutes. This scream evokes sympathy so deep in me that I want to run over to you and cover your ears.
You just caught my eye. You think I’m staring at you because of the screaming baby. I want you to know that the screaming doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s not my car alarm. What bothers me is that I have seen you try to sit down to eat three times tonight. And every time you try to pass that baby off to a friend and make contact with the picnic bench, the impact activates the car alarm. That baby does not want you to eat or sit. I want you to know that you are going to sustain your own life by snacking while swaying and standing for another two months. And then it’ll be okay.
When the women gather and tell you how beautiful your baby is, how lucky you are and how this is the happiest, most precious time of your life, I want you to know they are out of their minds. They have grown children who are drinking and dating and talking back. They don’t remember what it was like to sleep for only 90 minutes at a time and to have scabby nipples. You are not the first person to think maybe this whole motherhood thing wasn’t such a good idea. You are not the first person to fantasize about maybe being hospitalized with some minor ailment for three days so that you can sleep.
You probably have a few friends who’ve just had babies, too. And you probably have a friend whose baby slept through the night the minute he came home from the hospital and feeds on an every-three-hour or whenever-it’s-convenient-for-Mom schedule. And you probably hate that friend and her lazy baby. I want you to know that I was that friend. My friend Eileen and I had babies at the same time; mine was the sleeping and smiling sort and hers was the car alarm on a Maserati. She did not sleep for the first six months of his life. Obviously the better mother, I liked to offer suggestions: “Have you tried rocking him?”
I also want you to know that life is fair and that my second child was hell-on-wheels colicky. And that he almost never screams now. I want to march him over to you in his full 11-year-old glory and say, “Look!” I’d make him show you how he can dribble with both hands or how he can calculate the per-glass cost of a bottle of wine. (Have you ever tried to divide by 4 ½ ?) He has a strong sense of how to solve his own problems and a heroic pain tolerance. Skills learned during infancy? Maybe. I want you to know that he now wakes up on a Sunday morning and grabs a granola bar, letting me sleep until I’m good and ready to face the day.
Most importantly, I want you to know that if you have any money at all – money you’ve been saving for a vacation, retirement, or a medical procedure – hire help. Indulge in the pure luxury of a nap. Don’t sneak the nap. Instead, shower and put your pajamas on in the middle of the day. If money is not here to help us repurchase a bit of lost sanity, I don’t know what it’s for. And when you wake up, take that screamer back in your arms. He won’t have forgotten you.
And I’m sorry for reading your mind, but I can see the question you really want answered. No, you will never have your life back the way it was before. Never. Nor will you want it back. Just hang in there.
The Rye Record on July 20, 2012
A few weeks ago I met my husband in the city for a charity event. There are three things you can count on in such a situation: it will take me the entire day to figure out babysitting and carpools for my kids, I will arrive 20 minutes early to the train station, and I will be grossly overdressed. Such is the plight of the overly enthusiastic suburban mom who rarely gets to bust out during the week.
As we were leaving the event that night, a city dweller was telling me that her husband really wants to move to the suburbs. “He’s dying to go,” she told me, “but I just don’t think I could deal with those suburban women.” It was a bit of a City Mouse – Country Mouse moment. She in her evening couture, and me in what could have been my prom dress. Part of me wanted to duck into a nearby phone booth and emerge with a cape and a large S that marked my role as champion of the Suburbs. Another part of me couldn’t really blame her, because I used to fear suburban women, too.
I know what the City Mice think about us. They think we are these hovering soccer moms who drive unusually large cars and frequently opt for a ponytail in lieu of a shower. They think we’ve abandoned weekday dressing in favor of tennis whites or black yoga pants. They think we sip Chardonnay at lunch and then gather for scrapbooking in the afternoon.
Okay, I guess there’s a seed of truth to every stereotype. With the exception of the scrapbooking and, of course, the tennis skirt (genetics being as unkind as they are), I am guilty of all of the above.
My first impression of the suburbs when I moved here eight years ago was that it seemed like a day camp for women and children. There are very few men around during the day, and the women and children mill around between the schools and sports and music lessons. Weekends are visiting days for the men, some with whistles around their necks, some with tennis racquets, and some ready to tackle household chores.
Taking my kids to their first day of suburban school, I took a deep breath. Bring on the housewives, I thought. What will I say when the first one offers me a recipe for snickerdoodles? Will some of them be in aprons? Curlers? They looked sportier than I thought they would, in tennis whites with leashed golden retrievers at their sides. This suggested both a tennis match and a long walk with a big dog. I knew I was way out of my depth.
Among these moms, all draped in small children and pets, I found a journalist just back from the Middle East and a woman who runs a foundation to help parents whose babies are in the NICU. There was a former accountant, a former Wall Street trader turned yoga instructor, and a former teacher who had just created a science enrichment program. One mom had just decided to go back to medical school after raising three kids. I learned a lot that day, but nothing about snickerdoodles.
It turns out that most of these moms have an impressive career behind them and a handful of passions that they are pursuing while raising children. Whether these passions are charitable, artistic, or spiritual, I have found the suburbs teeming with energy and creativity. At some point many of these women will hang up the ponytail and go back to work full- or part-time. For now, the local talent pool is stocked.
Individually, we do a lot of dropping off and picking up and pushing swings at the park. But the magic happens when the Country Mice gather. A small group of environmentally-conscious mice recently helped pass a City ban on single-use plastic bags. Another group has raised $1 million in the past five years to provide support for people affected by cancer. Imagine $1 million raised by women who don’t even have subways, sidewalks, or The Gap! In fact, the work of these women, which goes so far beyond the bake sales I remember as a kid, is the engine of this town that keeps our property values high and our schools excellent.
Because of our geography, we can reach over the hedge to touch our neighbors. Their lives spill into ours the way the smell of a freshly baked pie flows from a windowsill to the nostrils of a cartoon cat. There’s little anonymity here; people, for the most part, know your business. In bad times, there is a silent group of women who gather to see what needs to be done. Like ninjas, they appear with dinner on your doorstep and escape into the night. It is done in silence, no thank you’s and no ah, it was nothing’s.
What grows in this community is an army of people who show up for each other. While it’s sometimes nearly impossible to do, showing up is often the most heroic thing you can do for someone. The suburban moms show up at City Hall to fight a building proposal. They show up to wish a beloved teacher a happy retirement, years after their child has left the school. And they show up en masse to support a friend who’s trying something new.
From far away I can see how we look. I’ll admit it: I can become obsessed with things that relate to my children, I can’t fit my family into a Prius, and I know my way around a glass of Chardonnay. I’ve used my Costco card more times in the past year than my Metropolitan Museum card, and I haven’t really gotten dressed since Saturday night. And I love living in the suburbs, mostly because of those suburban women.The Rye Record on May 26, 2012
My kindergartener, Quinn, is really starting to read. Last night, he read the sentence, “My hands are for catching,” and my heart swelled up with pride. Once the swelling went down, panic struck. Pretty soon this kid’s going to be able to read The Rye Record! I might as well squeeze in one more article about him before I’m shut down for good.
Two weekends ago, Quinn and I were at a basketball tournament, and during halftime he challenged my friend John, a grown man, to a game of HORSE. Now John might read this, and I don’t want to embarrass him, but let’s just say Quinn was pleased with the outcome of the game. John was gracious about it and suggested they have a rematch some day. A week later, John showed up at our house at 9 a.m. to pick up his son after a sleepover. Quinn opened the front door and said, “Hi, Mr. Tartaglia. We can’t go downstairs because there’s another play date down there, but…”
And that pretty much sums up the life of Quinn Monaghan. In a thousand years it would never occur to him that this grown man — a taxpayer, husband, and father – wasn’t there to have a play date with him. After all, he is the youngest of three and his world is designed entirely for his pleasure. And why wouldn’t it be? He’s so darn cute. His parents and his older brothers love him in a grandparently way: Sure, have another cookie.
I know what it’s like to be Quinn. I was the baby in my family, also the youngest by five years. Like Quinn, I always had the sense that I was an add-on, there for my family’s amusement. And, like Quinn, I always did pretty much whatever I wanted. I remember my brother, older by 10 years, having chores to do and being nagged about his homework. My sister did all of the family’s laundry. Not me — I did my first load of laundry in college, and I don’t think I ever did a chore until I had my own home.
The thing about birth order, particularly when there is a big age difference, is that the kids are growing up in totally different families. When I had one and then two kids, we were a young family. It was a time when I used to say, “Chairs are for sitting” and “You may have a cookie after dinner, but just one.” And I meant it. We were zealous about rules and routines, mainly because we could be. But by the time Quinn came around, we were no longer a young family. We were a family in the midst of chaos, with bigger fish to fry than how long a time-out should last. If only I had a penny for every time I’ve said to him, “Fine, have the cookie. Just get in the car.”
Quinn goes to bed a lot earlier than everyone else. And it is the bane of his existence. While he gloats over the fact that he’s the only one who gets the bath-pj’s-storytime routine, he goes to bed suspicious. He wonders what we’re doing and why he can’t be part of it. All we’re doing is watching the rest of “American Idol”, but he suspects we’re all engaged in some unspeakable fun, the kind that can only happen when the baby’s not around. I say goodnight to him with a pang of guilt, because I used to feel exactly the same way.
The youngest child is privy to a lot of information. While the oldest child watches “Baby Mozart”, the youngest lives in a world that is almost entirely PG-13. Quinn’s never seen “Sesame Street”. Not even once. Pretty much everything he knows about life he’s learned from CNBC, “The Family Guy”, and listening to my telephone conversations. He notices everything, like how people spend their time or contradictions between what people say and do. He stores information and then springs it on you at just the right time. He was 5 when he asked me, “Would you rather make out with a monkey or be stuck in an elevator for three days?” He was 6 when he noticed, “Jesus must have been a really nice guy. He’s been dead like forever, but everywhere you go people are still talking about him. It’s like Jesus this, Jesus that, all over the place.” There are a lot of reasons why I wouldn’t peg this kid as the future Pope, but at least he’s paying attention.
By the time I was in high school, my sister and brother had left home. I suspect that parents are born with a set capacity for supervision, and by the time I was a teenager my mom had run out. No one really ever knew where I was (the only potentially glorious thing about the pre-cell phone age), so I was free to spend my time however I wanted. Like any kid that age, I divided it evenly between the church and the library.*
But, surprisingly, by the time I was a teenager, I’d gathered so much information about how the world works and the perils of bad choices, that I managed to turn out okay. The youngest child doesn’t have rules or naps or piano lessons, but we end up being scrappy and street smart. We are sheltered from very little, so we grow up already knowing what the deal is and how to be flexible in the face of change.
Someday in the not too distant future, Quinn’s going to be the only one left at home. I imagine we’ll be begging him to stay up with us to watch “American Idol”, Season 19. We’ll probably be lax about some things and will have wised up about others. I’m pretty sure he’ll be reading pretty well by then and will be resourceful enough to have found these articles. Let’s just hope he keeps his sense of humor. If not, I can always give him a cookie.
*Note: Two of my kids do know how to read, details may have been modified.
The Rye Record on May 10, 2012
Had any good play dates lately? Me neither. Well, except for the one that was at the other kid’s house. That one was pretty painless. I arrived a few minutes late to pick up my kindergartener, invigorated by all that I’d accomplished with the extra two hours to myself. The other mom greeted me at the door before I had made it all the way down the walkway, unconsciously looking at her watch. She had a smile on her face but had developed a slight facial tic that I hadn’t noticed before. She had my son’s shoes and backpack right by the door to expedite our departure and seemed to visibly relax as we headed to the car. She’d served her time.
Let’s face it — play dates are brutal. And they stay brutal until the kids start calling them something else. By the time my kids say, “Can Ryan come over to hang out?”, the pain of the play date is over. Kids that come over to hang out are old enough to entertain themselves and solve their own conflicts. Since hangouts are scheduled by kids, and not parents, the kids have selected each other based on compatibility. The success of a hang out doesn’t generally hinge on magic markers, costume changes, or me posing as a mummy while they wrap me in toilet paper.
The play date set, which I will define loosely as ages 3 to 8, is all about satisfying immediate needs and really not at all about decorum. They open up my refrigerator and pull out the gallon of orange juice, declaring, “I need a cup.” . They take a bite of their lunch and say they’re full and then ask for a snack, almost all in one breath. If you tell them you don’t have any snacks, they go into your pantry to prove you’re a liar: “You’ve got cookies!” If the play date starts to get a little boring, they come right out and call it: “Your house is boring.” Little kids have no filter.
And then there’s always the kid who needs a little more help in the bathroom than I’m entirely comfortable giving. He finds nothing awkward about the situation and seems to find it strange that I do. I’ve already said too much.
The most exhausting thing about play dates with little ones is that you really cannot take your eyes off them, even for a second. It seems to be some sort of rite of passage for every child under the age of 6 to come into my home and find the heaviest toy possible and drop it from the highest point on my staircase onto my (now dented) hardwood floors. Worse, I once caught a 5 year old out on the railing of a second-floor balcony attempting a pretty impressive balance beam performance. I pulled him to safety and tried to explain how dangerous that was. His eyes told me that if he knew the phrase “buzz kill,” he would have used it.
So, if the play date is going to last two hours, you have to get off the phone, shut down the computer, and be vigilant. But it’s totally worth it because you will have accomplished two things: 1) You have exposed your small child to an experiment in socializing, compromising, and sharing (yawn); and 2) You have just bought yourself two hours of free time when that other kid’s mom reciprocates. It’s like a modern-day barter system, a co-op parenting strategy.
I’ve recently taken things up a notch. Please try to follow my math, as I am about to blow your mind. Because I know that I am going to be watching over two children for two hours in order to purchase two hours of free time, why not watch over three children for two hours to purchase four hours of free time? This is identical in concept to syndicating a column: you work once and get paid multiple times. About halfway through kindergarten, I broke through to another dimension. I started inviting four boys for a play date at the same time. The math: I supervise five boys for two mind-bending hours to purchase eight hours of free time. The Nobel Prize people should be calling any day now.
The play dates have gotten easier as kindergarten has gone along, just as they did with my older sons and their friends. The kids get to be more relaxed with each other and they’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. This time around, I take none of it personally, because I know that all of this stuff is age-appropriate. The big kids who come to hang out at my house now clear their own plates and thank me six times for every meal. They like my pork chops and inquire about my choice of seasoning. These are the same kids who told me my sandwiches tasted yucky years ago, and I can’t wait for the next time they come to hang out.
As published in The Rye Record on April 27, 2012
A cry for help can take many forms. Sometimes it’s a subtle as letting your roots grow out, and sometimes it’s as overt as a temper tantrum at a PTO meeting. I never knew mine would be inadvertent and take the form of an innocuous article for The Rye Record.
About a month ago I wrote an article called “My Paper Piles: Or Why I Still Haven’t Registered My Kids For Camp”. I got some emails from friends and comments on Facebook, all saying pretty much the same thing, “I hear you, Sister.” Then I got an email from a stranger, a Rye mom, who said, “I hear you, Sister. Maybe I can help.” Present Me felt a little defensive. I don’t need help. I get along just fine, even if I have to spend 30 minutes a day looking for things or explaining why I forgot to turn in the permission slip/health form/library book.
My new nemesis identified herself as Alexandra Hickey, Professional Organizer, and offered to come over and help me sort through my problem. Now there are several things I can’t stand: 1) help; 2) people telling me what to do; and 3) any invasion of my personal, private space. Call it a hunch, but I had a feeling she’d be tall too. In the spirit of hard-hitting journalism, however, I agreed to let her come goose step around my kitchen, and I felt my dread mount as we got closer to our appointment. My husband, on the other hand, was intrigued, asking every day, “Is the organized lady coming today?” To be honest, what man doesn’t have the maybe-there’s-someone-out-there-who-can-fix-my-wife fantasy?
She arrived promptly at 9 a.m., and she was tall. She had a shopping bag with mystery supplies and a surprisingly warm smile. With a flourish, I showed her the piles, my eyes asking as only Britney Spears and my 6 year old can: You want a piece of me? She did not blink, gasp, or run. She asked me a few questions and listened to my responses with sincere interest. Her goal seemed to be to figure out how I live and what I do (Where do you write? Everywhere. Where do you pay bills? Anywhere), and then create a system that would help me. I was surprised to learn that her game wasn’t to turn me into her personal Mini Me, rather she was just trying to invite Future Me to take a step forward. I was starting to see this as less and less of an assault.
We went through everything — things to file, things to do, things to pay, and things that I had a hard time explaining. She created a home for everything in a location that I could access, and then she created a system so that I could easily maintain it. For example, I now have a three-slotted device that contains my bills, my checkbook, and stamps. Sometimes genius flows from simplicity.
We then turned to the large pile of things that had gone obsolete. I had expired credit cards, broken crayons, greeting cards with no envelopes, and a stack of 50 business cards from Bear Stearns. Was I saving them for when they constructed the Museum of Financial Tragedies? I clutched a stack of ten 20% off coupons from Bed Bath and Beyond, and she kindly asked, “How many times are you going to go to Bed Bath and Beyond before they send you another one of these?” I haven’t been in two years. With a sigh, I threw half out.
Besides her compassion and alien skill set, one of the greatest gifts she gave me was permission to get rid of stuff. She’s not a wild or wasteful tosser but she made it okay for me to unburden myself of things that I thought I had to keep. I realized that I have a lot of guilt associated with getting rid of things. It’s as if I am declaring myself ungrateful if someone has given me something that I don’t want to hang on to forever. Alexandra helped me amass a trunk’s worth of giveaways, including a collection of 30 cookie cutters (in 42 years I have never made a cookie in any shape but round). Calmly, she repeated, “You don’t need it.” She’s practically a healer.
As we went though my fourth cabinet of junk, we came across a notebook where I had stashed receipts and service records when I first moved into my house. It was such an overwhelming time, and there were so many new switches and do-hickeys to understand, that I amassed all this information to protect myself. Flipping through them now, I am starting to understand that hanging on to stuff that you don’t need is really about fear. It’s the fear of not having the information, resources, and ability that you are going to need to survive. I understand how people can bury themselves in sweaters and receipts and canned soup, just in case.
When we were nearly done, she reached into her mystery bag and pulled out a label maker. I could have sworn I heard violins play, it was really so beautiful. She carefully labeled my cabinets so I would know what was what. On Mondays, new and improved Present Me is going to move all the way through that To-Do bin. It’s only 2 inches and is suddenly so unintimidating that I might even do it right now.
All I can say is that you should call her. She’ll tackle any room in your house with the compassion of a mom who knows life isn’t always (or ever) super-squeaky clean. I’m going to give her a little space to have a good night’s sleep and maybe a vitamin B-12 shot before I ask her to come back to have a look at my mud room.
The Rye Record on April 12, 2012
I did the Book Fair for five years. That phrase rolls off my tongue like a lullaby, as I have said it thousands of times in response to requests to volunteer. Like a dueling cowboy, I pull it out of my holster at the first sign of, “Hey, we’re looking for someone to chair the…” Kapow! I did the Book Fair for five years. That, and “you know, I have a baby at home…” seem to stun the requester long enough for me to make a quick escape. Eventually the truth catches up to you: my “baby” is now 55 pounds and can do simple algebra in his head. I know I have to do my share, as it’s part of the social contract when living in a community with great schools and limited funding. So I carefully calculate my volunteering budget and then decide where I’ll spend it.
Initially, I looked for jobs where I could lend my diverse skill set to the community. But you’d be surprised how few volunteer opportunities involve ironing, shooting the breeze, or eating peanut butter until you need to nap. I’ve come to realize that my skill set doesn’t necessarily need to meet the demands of a volunteer job anyway. Volunteering is the perfect time to bust out, try something, and fail. They can complain, but they cannot fire you. I’ve checked.
So last week was the Fifth Grade Play – The drama! The laughs! The nerves! The monologues! The tears! And I’m just talking about the Costume Committee. About six months ago I was asked to chair this committee, and I responded as any sane person in my shoes would have, “No thank you.” You see I cannot sew, have no visual creativity, and am not particularly organized. But the woman on the other end of the phone, who probably logs 40 volunteer hours per week, offered a strong pleease and a promise of a great committee to help. What was I going to do?
I’d done the costume job three years earlier when my older son was in the fifth grade. They say that insanity is making the same mistake over and over again, but they also say that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. I knew that this was a job that I would be terrible at, but I also knew that it perfectly fit my carefully contrived three criteria for volunteering: finite duration, pleasing venue, and exposure to the under 12 set.
Finite Duration: It is critical that the job has a clear beginning and ending date. Ideally, the duration is 10 to 12 on a Saturday, but even if it’s six weeks you still know when it’s going to be over. The Book Fair is the perfect example of this, as you set up a full retail store and break it down again over a period of 10 limit testing days. On day 10, the Scholastic truck pulls up, collects the leftovers and you can head for I did the Book Fair for five years retirement. Jobs like Class Mom and PTO President have a lingering quality about them and do not meet this criterion.
Pleasing Venue: Where are you going to spend those precious volunteer hours? Personally, I choose my jobs so that I won’t ever, ever have to go to a meeting. I don’t like agendas, fluorescent lights or the sound of lots of people talking over each other. Meetings trigger a sort of post-traumatic stress response in me, possibly due to a brief career in banking. I find myself getting restless, then silly. I desperately want to pass a note to the person next to me, maybe with a funny drawing of whoever is currently talking. It’s not that the meetings are not productive, it’s that I’m not productive in the meetings. I’m too busy doodling, rolling my eyes, and looking at the clock like a middle schooler in Friday afternoon Social Studies class.
But I love any job that can be accomplished in the sewing circle format. I am a worker bee at heart and like to complete a task. I like sitting around with a group of women that I don’t really know to iron on patches or address envelopes. There’s a certain type of conversation that flows in this setting, unpressured and honest, not unlike the conversation you have with your kids while driving. Silences aren’t awkward because no one came there to talk, and thoughts aren’t edited because no one’s really looking at one another for a response. I have gotten to know the nicest people this way, and have known them differently than if we had met at a party and exchanged the obligatory facts about our lives. It’s the difference between “I have 2 kids and a dog” and “What I’ve really always wanted to do is…” It is my secret mission to bring the sewing circle back into vogue.
Exposure to the Under 12 Set: If I’m going to be working for the school, I want a backstage pass. I want to be in the school, I want to get to know the teachers, and I want to know the kids in my son’s class before they start helicoptering beer into my basement. (I’m told this is coming). The Costume Committee meets this criterion in spades, as I now know 75 fifth graders by face, name and shirt size. Mission accomplished.
So, with the help of four limitlessly resourceful women, the costume job got done. There were pirates and lost boys and animals and Indians. And they all had to be altered in some way and organized in bags and put back after each performance. This is not brain surgery, I admit, but it was at once challenging and hilarious. I’ll probably do it again when my next son rolls through fifth grade. But until then, I’m going to stay choosey. And I can, because remember: I did the Book Fair for five years.
As published in The Rye Record on March 26, 2012
When I was a kid, I didn’t play any sports. I don’t mean I didn’t play very well or competitively, I mean I never played any sports at all. At recess, I specialized in hanging out, a skill I mastered and carried with me into adulthood. At gym, I’d secure a spot in far, far left blacktop, where I was sure to be safe from an aggressive kickball coming my way. If a ball happened to get far enough to potentially reach me, I’d calmly back up until it was more the third base kid’s problem than mine. You sporty types might think of me as that kid; I preferred to think of myself as more like The Fonz.
So when I grew up and married a man who, according to Canadian legend (his mother), was an All Star State Champion hockey player by age 4, I ended up having a bunch of kids who are really into sports. And when I moved to a town that seems to fuel itself on children’s athletics, I found myself in seriously alien territory. But like Magellan, Margaret Mead, or The Bachelorette, I entered the realm cautiously, gathering information in a take-me-to-your-leader sort of way. Who are these hundreds of parents who come out to watch 5 year olds play soccer at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? What’s their angle?
Like a lot of kids in town, mine play at least one sport a season, often on multiple teams for the same sport. It takes up all of their free time. I initially tried to temper the sports mania with some activities that I thought they might be able to use later in life, reasoning that, statistically, only .2 kids (that’s not even one whole kid) currently in the Rye City School District will become a professional athlete. And I hate to say it, but if their mother is 5’2” (and me), the statistics don’t sway in their favor.
I tried to steer my children away from what I saw as organized running around and more toward things like reading and playing the piano. But many years and many rented musical instruments later, I gave up. I finally get it: Team sports are giving them exactly the life skills they are going to need for a future of strength, resilience, and commitment.
As far as this town’s obsession with its children’s sports goes, I’m all in.
I first started to understand the value of team sports when my oldest son was in third grade and played on his first basketball team. The gym was crowded, and he dribbled down the court as point guard, looking for someone to pass to. He passed the ball over the intended recipient’s head into an opponent’s hands, triggering a turnover. My heart sank. I was sure he would just sit down in the middle of the court and weep. I mean, who wouldn’t? He’d screwed up, after all, in front of all these people. I reached for my bag, figuring we’d make a quick exit and maybe move to a neighboring town. But with an invisible shrug, he ran down to the other end of the court and kept playing. For you athletes, this probably seems like no big deal. For me, I was watching my 8-year-old child master a level of resilience that I didn’t learn until age 30. His coach’s impassive face telegraphed to my son, “This is not the end of the world.” In an instant I saw the future possibility of my son getting fired or dumped or sick and knowing that he could get through it and keep playing.
I also underestimated the value of being part of a team. These kids learn how devastating it can be if a few players don’t show up and they have to forfeit. They learn that if you commit to doing something, you have to do it even if you’re sleepy / cranky / busy. They learn the importance of being the kid who passed the ball to the one who scored. And if the scorer gets all the attention at the end of the game, they learn that a job well done feels good even without the praise. In this sense, they start to see that it’s not always about them, and they are part of something bigger and interconnected. It’s practically cosmic.
Perhaps most importantly, kids on teams learn how to interact with adults who are not their parents or teachers. It’s an in-between relationship, more formal than the one they have with their parents but more casual than with their teachers. It’s both subservient (the kids have to run suicides if the coach says so) and social (the coach will reappear at a birthday party, without his whistle). It’s a relationship outside the role that the child plays in the family and outside the limitations or expectations of their academic performance. It is often a child’s first respectful friendship with an adult, and for my kids these relationships have been invaluable.
As we enter what I like to call The Driving Season, I just want to offer a shout out to these coaches who have built our kids up, year after year. There are the coaches with the great sense of humor who remind my kids that sports are supposed to be fun. There are those who offer rides to games who make my kids feel like their presence at the field is critical. There are those who keep an extra pair of socks in their car who make it okay for me to be forgetful. There’s the coach who buys every soccer player in town a pink jersey to wear during the month of October, reminding us again that we are part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.
While I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of “offsides” and the reasoning behind prohibiting more than three seconds in the key, I have finally grasped what all the fuss is about. And I have to say I still do a pretty good job hanging out like The Fonz on the sidelines.
The Rye Record on March 13, 2012
I’ve never really been one for spring-cleaning. Spring seems like such an arbitrary time to organize your life, clean your closets, and generally get your house together. I mean we’ve usually just come off of three months of shut-in weather, so if I haven’t done it by March 21st, it’s just not going to happen. But I always hold out hope that it might happen next year, because, you see, Future Me loves this sort of thing. She tackles paperwork with pure joy, she scrapbooks, she RSVPs on time. She carries tissues in her purse. She is detail-oriented and dangerously fit. I just adore her, but today all I have is Present Me.
Present Me doesn’t really mind the great mass of paper strewn around my kitchen. I suspect my Present Husband does, so I try. My version of spring-cleaning is straightening the piles and then remarking to myself what nice straight edges I’ve made. Report cards, bills, coupons, insurance forms, and medical clearance forms that were due weeks and weeks ago have become part of my visual landscape.
But even tidied, those piles aren’t going anywhere. They have a healthy pulse and a voracious appetite for reproduction. Every day, the mail makes its way inside and the backpacks seem to spew sign-up sheets, reminders and sticky depictions of snowmen. The paper multiplies like so many wet Gremlins. Or the laundry. I eyeball one pile that is about eight inches high. How many paper-thin liabilities does it take to make a pile that high, I wonder? Future Me is proactive and full of enthusiasm for finding out. Present Me kinda wants a nap.
I know I’ll have to actually tackle them all before tax time, but the problem is that each piece of paper sets into motion a complicated chain of to-dos that seems like it’s better suited for tomorrow than today. A simple camp registration form, for example, necessitates a call to the pediatrician to schedule check ups so that I can include a recent report on my kids. I look up the number, sit on hold, negotiate a post-3 p.m. time for all three of my children to come in, provided it’s after basketball season and before baseball season and not on a Wednesday because of religion class. I have to be extra friendly on the phone to convince the scheduler that I am not in fact insane. Though I hang up with a pit in my stomach, knowing that she’s telling everyone I’m insane.
That task, completed in nine minutes and at great personal expense, is just the first step in getting that one piece of paper out of the pile. To the naked eye, that pile will still be eight inches high when I’m done. I try a different approach: I sort. I take the pile and make it into three less intimidating piles. The first is stuff that has to be dealt with or my water will be turned off and my kids will be home all summer. I label it Code Red and straighten it furiously. The next pile is stuff that means something to my husband but not to me. I mark it “Tom”, and put it out of my line of vision. I’m really getting somewhere.
The next pile (rejoice!) is stuff that I should have dealt with but now it’s too late, so I can throw it out. It’s the order form for the yearbooks, a flyer for a seminar I wanted to attend back in the fall, a request for me to make cookies for a bake sale that was yesterday, and a note home saying someone in my kid’s class had lice. As these things seem to have worked themselves out with no involvement on my part, I sashay to the recycling bin and rid myself of three inches of paper, secretly happy that I forgot about the yearbook. It’s just more paper, bound in cardboard.
Now I’m left with just a two-inch pile that’s not my problem and my three-inch Code Red pile. I go back to the camp registration forms and see that they want me to provide my kids’ T-shirt sizes. That really just involves looking at the ones from last year and going up a size, but they’re all the way in the basement. So I pick up the next paper. This one’s not so bad — the insurance company wants me to call to verify my date of birth. I hold it determinedly in my hand while I make tea. And then I put it down without calling because I have a great idea…
I decide to make a sub-category called Problems That Can Be Solved With a Checkbook. I pay three bills and see that my pile is down to two inches. It’s two inches of Code Red, but still, I’ve made some progress. Future Me is going to be so proud. And she can take it from here.The Rye Record on February 27, 2012
Some of the best people I know are waiting for college admissions decisions right now. They’ve aced all their AP courses, and taken the SAT, the ACT, and the subject tests numerous times. They’ve scoured their souls for material worthy of a personal essay. In short, they’ve worked really hard to get to this point.
Unfortunately, they are completely unprepared for the one thing they have to do now: wait. I think it is cruel and unusual punishment to subject these kids to waiting, as they have no experience to prepare them. Over the years life has provided so much instant gratification that patience has been bred out of us. Waiting is a skill that no longer seems necessary for survival, as useful as webbed feet on a species that now lives on dry land.
My generation grew up with a modest understanding of the need for patience. I had to wait to get home to use the telephone. For many painful years, I had to wait through the grating sound of a busy signal. I waited an eternity as the dot matrix printer lumbered back and forth, line by line. I even had to wait for the summer reruns if I missed an episode of “The Love Boat”. But patience is a quality that I’ve started to let slip away. I have an iPhone, an EZ-Pass, and Hulu now, and I wait for nothing.
My parents’ generation is still patient. They had to be patient for so long and in such excruciating ways that it’s ingrained in them. These are people that waited until their wedding night! These are people that carried a baby for nine months without ever knowing its gender. They waited until the 5 o’clock news to get caught up on the world and checked the status of their investments by looking at those tiny symbols and numbers in the back of the newspaper the next day. The women set their hair in curlers and slept in them. They mixed flour, eggs, and milk together and waited until it turned into a cake. Some of them even dried clothes on a line. These people were patient, I tell you.
Prior generations sent loved ones off to war only to find out whether they lived or died when the war was over. Imagine how different these peoples’ mindset was. If I don’t have a text from my son within 30 minutes of school getting out, I start to panic. It’s as if we don’t have the faith or mental fortitude to wait anymore, to quiet ourselves and resign to not knowing.
The need to know exactly what is happening everywhere, all the time, has come about simply because it is now possible to know these things. If it suddenly became possible to know on January 1 exactly which days it was going to rain every year, we would convince ourselves that we needed that information too. Future generations would look back at us, baffled at how we tolerated having to schedule rain dates for our picnics or look out the window to decide whether or not to bring an umbrella.
I don’t mean to criticize these kids for being less patient than their grandparents. That would be like accusing them of being unable to learn a language that they’ve never heard spoken. My kids never have to wait for anything. Their grades are available online immediately after every test, their friends are standing by ready to communicate at a second’s notice, and their popcorn is ready in less than three minutes.
When my little one was littler, he used to have an expression to reflect how exasperating it was to wait five seconds for a video game to load: “This is taking SO BORING!” Could he ever have waited for the Pony Express to roll into town or for crops to grow? Try telling him he is going to have to wait three months to find out if he got into college.
We should start retraining them now. Maybe we could slow down the Internet speed in our houses or just start arriving a few minutes later to collect them from school. Better yet, we could change the college admissions process to reflect how we live now. What if there was an app you could download onto your phone where you’d enter the name of a school, your scores, your GPA, and then check boxes to indicate which extracurriculars you’ve excelled at? You’d enter your credit card information, of course, and then wait a few seconds for a decision. The school would text you to say whether you were accepted or not.
And there would be no waitlist. The waitlist is like winning a prize that entitles you to an undetermined amount of more waiting. Trust me, we are no longer built for this sort of thing.The Rye Record on February 10, 2012
My kids watch this unbelievably ridiculous show, “The Deadliest Warrior”, where modern day super nerds re-enact fantasy battles between warriors from various times in history. Examples include Attila the Hun vs. Alexander the Great or Joan of Arc vs. William the Conqueror. I’m not making this up; it’s really on TV. So in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to create my own smackdown, a battle of the lovers, “The Ultimate Mate: Edward Cullen vs. Your Husband”. If your heart’s already racing, this article is for you. If you are wondering who Edward Cullen is, well, you have my sympathies and can skip straight to the Police Blotter. No judgment.
For those of you who are still with me, I’m guessing you’re Twilight fans too. Some of you, like me, read all 2,458 pages of the saga in a week, pausing only occasionally to order your kids pizza or take a cold shower. You probably feel a bit of shame about your preoccupation with an eternally 19-year-old vampire — who’s not real. Hey, I’m here for you.
But on with the battle…
Stephenie Meyer has been criticized for her overuse of adjectives like beautiful and gorgeous in Twilight. I’m here to argue she didn’t use enough. Edward Cullen is depicted as the handsomest specimen of a man ever to be born, bitten, and sent to eternal death/life. He’s tall and chiseled, with skin that even shimmers in the sunlight. I haven’t met your husband, but I’m pretty sure this category works out like this: Score 10 points for Edward.
Edward is completely devoted to Bella (I like to superimpose my face, nicely airbrushed, over hers) and is committed to her protection no matter what. And I mean no matter what. For example, one time he came across Bella in the woods making out with Jacob, his romantic rival. Let’s all pause and imagine how our husbands would react. Well, Edward was totally okay with this because, after all, he realizes this isn’t really about him. He just wants Bella to be happy. Score 12 points for Edward.
Edward is fabulously wealthy without all that pesky going-to-work and then complaining about it later. He never needs to be driven to the train, has no dry cleaning to be picked up, and requires no dinner. He also doesn’t sleep and likes to spend the wee hours of the night watching Bella sleep and lightly stroking her hair. In my fantasy, he just strokes my hair a couple of times and then sneaks down to the basement to do laundry until the sun comes up. Let’s give him points for that, because you know he’d do it. Score 15 points for Edward.
The battle seems a bit uneven, I admit. I mean how in the world is your mortal, aging husband going to compete with this? He’s confined by that darn time-space continuum and can’t fly at all. Well, I’ve given this a lot of thought, mainly because I really like my husband and I’d hate to have to leave him for a vampire (who’s not even real and may not be interested in me). Here’s where Your Husband measures up…
Edward only has two topics of conversation – how beautiful Bella is and how he wants to be with her forever. I can see how this would be pretty fun for the first few weeks of a relationship, but I imagine Bella would get a bit bored after a while. “Yeah, yeah, I’m beautiful, you love me. What else have you got? Do you know any jokes?” And the truth is that for a guy who’s been alive for more than 200 years, he really should have a lot more to say. Hey, Edward, what can you tell me about World War II? “Not much, but you sure are pretty.” See how this would get to you after a while? I’ll take topics like gridlock in the senate, real estate taxes, or the NFL draft any day. Score 18 points for Your Husband.
Believe it or not, there are a few physical drawbacks to Edward. First of all, his body temperature is 32 degrees. No matter how handsome an ice sculpture is, I’m not going to want to snuggle up with one on a cold night. Not even in August. And, besides the obvious perks, it would be awkward to grow old with someone who remained 19 forever. There’s sympathy in nature, where my husband’s eyesight gets a little worse every year, as I get a little less easy on the eyes. Furthermore, there is really no amount of Aquafresh that could convince me that all that blood has really been washed off of his teeth. I mean blood is blood, right? It stains. Another 20 points for Your Husband.
So it’s decided. In the match up of Edward Cullen vs. Your Husband, Your Husband wins, 38-37. Happy Valentine’s Day, and eat your heart out, Bella.
As published in The Rye Record on January 27, 2012
Why is that when you turn 12 your mom becomes so embarrassing? She asks too many questions, wears that blouse in front of your friends and waves goodbye in the loudest possible way. I feel the collective pain of the 12-year-old community, because when I was that age my mom was so embarrassing. For starters, she looked about ten years younger than all the other moms, with Farrah Fawcett’s hair instead of Dorothy Hammil’s.
She wore her hair in pigtails, disco danced, and listened to my music while driving carpool. She butchered the words to Dr. Hook while boogying her shoulders from side to side. You can imagine my distress.
While my friends swooned over the fact that I had the coolest mom ever, I secretly fantasized about what it would be like to have one of the other, more muted moms. With their mom haircuts and cardigan sweaters, these moms seemed to know their place. They’d fall in line at pick up in sensibly colored station wagons, sporting nothing more fashionable or eye catching than maybe a little simulated wood paneling. My mom would appear in the line up in her powder blue and white Chevrolet Monte Carlo, like a Skittle in a bowl of almonds. Even as a kid I was fascinated by this car choice. I mean, weren’t station wagons standard issue? Not only was she driving a sedan, but it was a two-door, the kind where the person in the passenger seat had to get out and fold forward her whole seat any time anyone wanted to get in or out. To this day, I don’t think I know anyone with three kids and a two-door car. The Monte Carlo was fabulous and impractical, my mother personified.
Truth be told, there was never a day in my life that I did not fully appreciate the supreme awesomeness of my mom. These were my words at 12, and I have no better words today. She was beautiful and brilliant and funny and strong. From an early age, I saw her as a softer, hotter Statue of Liberty. She did plenty of mom things like cooking, sewing, and listening — just not out on the playground where everyone could see.
You’ll be glad to hear that since I’ve been a mom, I have not driven anything but a station wagon. One was silver, the next black. You would never notice me in the traffic circle. I am more fashion-neutral than fashion-forward, and I’ve been rockin’ the same pair of sensibly colored corduroys for years. Yet I have somehow managed to become infinitely more embarrassing than my mom in the most hideous possible ways. My 12-year-old self recoils at the sight of me. For starters, I’ve written a book that includes kissing. It’s actually not just kissing, but teenagers kissing. I am also incapable of keeping my mouth shut in the car. I’ve tried, but it’s like the hinges of my jaw don’t allow for it. Throw in a regular column in the local paper, a mad crush on a fictional vampire, and my own Facebook page, and I’d say I’ve outdone my mom by a factor of 10.
So what compels us to such outrageous behavior? Can’t the over-40 set just settle in and back off the scene? The truth is that 42 candles look a lot different now that the birthday cake is mine. I am the exact age that my mom was when I was 12, and I’m still just a kid. It’s not that I’m out to mortify my kids, but that I’m not as old as they think I am. Sure, I’ve been known to sing in the car to a couple of jazzy Top 40 tunes. But in my mind it’s still my music, not theirs. I mean Rihanna is closer to my age than she is to my kids’, right? (No need to correct my math, but thanks for paying attention.)
I think my mom understood that you just have to do what you want to do in life to be happy, and that you can’t always play to your critics. And if those critics are 12, you’re not going to win that battle anyway. Had she spent those years indoors, knitting in a nice beige cardigan, I would have been embarrassed by that too.
It’s been said that we are all destined to grow up to become our parents. In some ways we look at this fact with resignation, and in others with hope. From where I’m sitting, 42 is not “the new 30”; it’s the same old 42, just a little more embarrassing.
As published in The Rye Record on January 13, 2012
We decided to stick it to Santa this year. Christmas is so hectic, and we all needed a little down time, so we did the unthinkable – we went to Turks and Caicos on December 23. I’ve felt guilty about this since booking the flights. I mean no Christmas Eve turkey to cook and clean up after, no Christmas day roast to burn? Who do I think I am? What mom is relaxed over Christmas? Well, I’ll tell you, it took some doing.
Already revved up from spending, wrapping, shipping, and baking, I get my kids up at 4 a.m. to go to the airport. As we taxi down the runway, I unceremoniously power off my iPhone, not realizing that once we land it won’t work — for a week. Like a smoker looking for a hit, I power it back on the instant we land and get a message from AT&T threatening sky-high roaming charges. As my kids ooh and ah over the turquoise water, I take deep breaths and remember there’s supposed to be Wi-Fi at the hotel. I ditch my phone and clutch my laptop with both hands. So begins Day 1 of the unplugging process.
We register at the front desk, our kids are immediately checking out the pool, and I am paying the additional $42.50 for a week’s worth of Internet access. When I arrive at the room, I ignore the view and promptly check my laptop. I still cannot connect, so I march back to the concierge to complain. He apologizes with a shrug and asks me, “Why you want Internet access anyway?” I’m stunned and mutter something quickly before storming out. Why? Is he kidding? The financial markets are open. Ashton Kutcher is newly single. Heck, J. Crew could be offering free shipping. I even have an article to write and am going to need to email it to my sister to see if it’s printable. I need Internet access! I fall asleep wondering where the Nasdaq closed and if there is Wi-Fi in the front lobby.
I wake up and immediately check my laptop. There’s a connection! One message in my inbox, a coupon from Old Navy. I delete it with satisfaction. I’m back! Tom and I go to the gym, grab a coffee, and come back to get the kids for breakfast. The waitress asks if I’d like a mimosa. “It’s 8:30 in the morning,” I inform her. She gives me a why-you-want-Internet-access-anyway look and walks off to get my egg white omelet. Tom’s Blackberry is buzzing and beeping in the most annoying possible way, making me feel judgmental and jealous at the same time.
It’s Christmas and Tom has left his Blackberry in the room. I agree to a single mimosa with my egg whites. The bacon’s pretty good too. Before we head out for the day, I sneak a peak at my laptop. My dad and aunt have emailed to say Merry Christmas and Staples is offering 30% off printer ink.
Two mimosas with breakfast and, man, these pancakes are good.
The gym seems kind of crowded, so I grab a coffee and a chocolate croissant and get back in bed. Later, I tell my new friend Tanny, who’s in charge of mimosas, to lay off the orange juice. I snorkel, then ride an inner tube down something called the Lazy River. At lunchtime, I find myself eating a bacon cheeseburger in a bathing suit. I notice that my whiteness is less white and my grossness is less gross. Must be the clean living.
I’m really starting to relax. My little one has been taking candy canes from smiling strangers all day and has eaten every single one. My older kids have been swimming up to the bar all afternoon and ordering virgin (I’m pretty sure) pina coladas. Tom’s Blackberry is still buzzing and ringing and beeping, but in a much happier, more melodic way. I remember I have an article to write, but I have no ideas and think I see a hammock with my name on it.
We land in Miami and are all the way through Customs before I remember that I can check my phone. There’s the free shipping offer I’d been waiting for from J. Crew and a little Facebook activity: a girl from my high school posts that she went to the Ikea in Burbank and bought napkins. I might just stay unplugged for a few more days.
As published in The Rye Record on December 16, 2012
The holiday cards are starting to roll in. It’s my very favorite part of the season, with all the voyeuristic joys of facebook but with photos that you can actually touch. Some people like to string theirs along the mantle or tape them to the refrigerator. I prefer to pile them on a lovely tray and sift through them at day’s end. They are magical to me, all those smiling faces and catchy holiday wishes. They are windows into the lives of the families who sent them. And my card lies among them, the big fat lie that I distribute annually through the mail.
My philosophy has always been that there’s no room in the holiday card for reality. Every year, I produce this costly document, to be preserved for the ages, as a snapshot in the year of my family. And it’s propaganda like you wouldn’t believe. The photo is always taken outside in some beautiful venue that, to the untrained eye, might be an exotic vacation spot or even a summer home. The one with the fall foliage could have been the day we all went apple picking. Two things you should know: we’re an extremely in-doorsy family, and we have never been apple picking. Ever. Look a little closer and you might recognize the shoot locations as Rye Town Park or my neighbor’s leaf pile.
The second step in my scam, after choosing the fake vacation spot, is costume design. My kids frolic in coordinating sweaters in holiday colors and clean pressed pants. I look back and wonder: who are these children? My kids don’t wear sweaters. Or clean pants. The receiver of this card marvels at the casual elegance of my children and the implied beauty of my life. This family must play polo in the Hamptons and certainly employs a woman to iron full time.
The photo that makes the cut always features my kids laughing in delight. You know, the way kids generally sit in a neat row and laugh at the sheer pleasure of being together and having their photo taken in uncomfortably clothing. They are often looking at each other in hilarity, as if the pure goodness and comedic genius of their brothers will sustain Christmas joy the whole year through. The truth is they’re laughing at me. Not with me, at me. I’ve just taken 50 photos and have screamed, “You sit there and look happy — or ELSE!” My Three Wise (cracking) Men are the only ones laughing.
This year a little reality snuck back into my card. I don’t know how it happened. Time and patience being as scarce as they are, I just picked a day when everyone’s hair was reasonably clean and no one had a black eye. I skipped the costume design in favor of the Under Armor Couture that they were already wearing and made them sit in front of our front door. Reality, you ask? How often do you happen upon three kids squeezed uncomfortably together in front of their front door? I know, it’s a stretch, but it actually was where we vacationed this year. I snapped a few photos with my iPhone until they looked sufficiently happy to be mocking me. Done.
Next year I’m considering giving up the game altogether and just snapping the three of them in the basement in their pajamas, Xbox controllers in hand, a trace of Cheetos dust coloring their lips. The truth is that the beauty of my family lives in those messy moments. But who really wants to see that?
Christmas is a shiny time, when we’re all a bit nicer to one another and come out of our own little worlds to consider the needs of others. We notice the beauty around us as a clean blanket of snow covers the world’s imperfections. It is the season where Tiffany’s tries to sell us the fantasy of the dashing man hiding the tiny blue box behind his back. And where for one moment, immortalized on 4×6 glossy, I pretend that my life is a Ralph Lauren ad.
We can get back to the business of reality in January.
The Rye Record on December 6, 2012
The great thing about Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders is that they can be played in less than 15 minutes and take very little mental effort. Even so, when my husband comes home from work, I can still add “played a board game with the kids” to my list of heroic accomplishments. I could be on the phone (or even writing this article) and breeze through one of those games, no problem. Unfortunately, my 5 year old has developed an unhealthy interest in The Game of Life, the only game I own that is possibly more complicated than life itself.
At first I try to convince him that the little cars that lead us down life’s path are there to be zoomed, and that whoever gets to the end first wins. But he isn’t having it. So I figure if we were going to have to play, we’ll do it right. I’ll teach him a few Life lessons and get the dialogue going about the world around us. You know, actual parenting, like on TV. We are just finishing up the ten minutes it takes to set the game up when I remember that he doesn’t know how to read. I resign to read the events of his life to him as they unfold.
The game starts at age 18, and I am pleased to see that he chooses to go to college. Having made such a wise choice, he is faced with many career options after graduation. I encourage him to choose the accounting job because it comes with the possibility of the highest salary card. To my horror, he chooses to be a singer because, he claims, that’s what he likes to do. Why would he spend his life doing something he doesn’t like just for the money? Sigh. He’s got a lot to learn.
Meandering through Life, we each stop to get married. He thinks carefully before choosing a pink peg for his spouse rather than a blue one. He buys a house, which he chooses for its color. Later, I have to inform him that his house was robbed and that he should have bought the insurance as I told him to. I didn’t know I’d get robbed. Ah, an actual Life lesson! He rejoices every time he lands on a square that gives him another baby. He fills up his car with the allotted four children and then hoards the extras, laying them at the feet of his other kids in the back seat. (I have another son who likes to collect the child pegs too, but leaves them on the side of the board with his money, claiming, “I don’t want those kids riding in my car.” I like to refer to him as The Smart One.)
Life gets more complicated as you move along. He wants to know what a Pulitzer Prize is and if it comes with candy. He wants to know who has the Solution to Pollution and why anyone would want to swim across the English Channel. I can only answer one of those. At some point I find myself explaining what a stock is, then what a dividend is, and what taxes are for. And how dividends are taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income and why Warren Buffet doesn’t really like that.
As Life winds down, we are laden with cash and real estate and lucky heirs, and we race toward retirement. Now retirement is a tricky thing, if you can afford it you get to go to Millionaire Estates and if you can’t you’re relegated to Countryside Acres. Before you enter either, you sell your house, the price of which is determined by a random spin of the wheel. That actually sounds about right.
Life ends, and I realize I’ve just spent a full hour explaining to a 5 year old how life works. I wait for the applause and maybe a little confetti as we each count up our money to determine who wins. And because I chose the rejected accounting job with the coveted yellow salary card, I have the most money. I tell him with great humility that I have won and he has lost. He shakes his head and tells me, “I have the most family. I win.” I may need to rethink a few things.
As published in The Rye Record on Nobember 18, 2012
There are times in life when fate smiles on you in an unexpected way, and you wonder if you’ve done something wonderful to deserve it or if it’s just good luck. Maybe you find yourself upgraded on a long flight or your child becomes a professional athlete and buys you a condo in Palm Beach. Or the ultimate: you are invited to be a guest at Thanksgiving dinner. No ironing linens, no greasy roaster. It is the gift of time and tranquility, the true golden ticket.
I have been in this coveted position twice in my adult life. On both occasions I have rekindled my childhood love of Thanksgiving, tasting cranberry sauce as if for the first time. One particular year, I sat with my feet up in front of my hostess’ blazing fire and thought: if I play my cards right I can do this again next year. But that’s the catch, you have to play your cards right. And I have to assume that, maybe a bit giddy with free time and a clean kitchen, I didn’t play them right, because I have never been invited to the same house twice.
I have, on the other hand, hosted a lot of times. We have very little local family, so we always invite friends for Thanksgiving. I spend the first half of the year compiling a mental list of friends who may not have big Thanksgiving plans, and then I determine whom among them I would like to spend two weeks cooking dinner for. If you’ve been to my house for Thanksgiving dinner you know two things: what it’s like to eat a mediocre meal and that I really, really like you. I have, after all, given you the golden ticket.
So if it happens to you this year, if fate smiles upon you and you are invited to someone’s house for Thanksgiving, please benefit from my mistakes and consider these suggestions to improve your odds of winning again next year:
1 - Go to any length necessary to conceal the fact that you purchased the one thing you were asked to bring to dinner. If you have to bring your own pie plate to Rye Country Store and pay Chris extra to bake the apple pie in it, do so. If your savvy hostess suspects, claim he gave you the recipe and you’ve been peeling the apples (that you picked yourself) all day. To be on the safe side, make a small incision in your left hand as proof.
2 - Do not regale your hostess with stories of what you and your family did all day. Do not mention how Timmy enjoyed the parade, do not comment on how beautiful the leaves were when you went for a run and, (I shouldn’t have to say this) under no circumstances, are you to mention a nap. Your hostess woke up at 3 a.m. to get the turkey in the oven and was on her hands and knees cleaning up the brine she spilled all over the hardwood floor until 4. She did not get a nap. She has spent two weeks dusting, polishing, and ironing her grandmother’s good things. She’s been to Costco, Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, and Fairway. If you’ve been to Fashion Nails in the past ten days, keep it to yourself.
3 - If you endured any traffic on your way to dinner, don’t complain about it. When you mention the word “traffic”, all your hostess hears is that you were sitting and listening to music for a couple of hours. Because she has been either standing or scrubbing since 3 a.m., she’s unlikely to be sympathetic. And may well be holding a knife.
4 - Wear sensible shoes that suggest you plan to stand in front of the sink for a few hours after dinner. Your red-soled Louboutin’s will play like a cape in a bullring if they are kicked up after dinner.
Ticket holders, take this advice to heart. And if you still end up hosting next year, carefully consider the worthiness of your invitees. Or just to be sure, invite me. I’ll bring a pie.The Rye Record on November 8, 2012
From the first time I cut the crusts off a peanut butter sandwich, I have been chewing on this thought: By doing too much for our kids, we’re probably doing too little. Seldom has this been more apparent to me than on a recent Saturday at Frank’s Barber Shop. I made my normal comedic entrance, dragging my 13-year-old son, whose hair had recently grown past Lacrosse Flow and was speeding toward Crystal Gayle. The young barber motioned us toward chair number one and asked me what I wanted done with my son’s hair. Too cool to be characterized as That Kind of Mom, I told him, “Whatever he wants, it’s not my hair.”
The haircut was halfway over when a 10-year-old boy walked in all alone, and I immediately realized that I actually was That Kind of Mom. What in the world was I doing there, supervising my teenage son’s haircut? It wasn’t as if I had nothing else to do. Our food supplies were down to two eggs and a packet of soy sauce, I had a pile of laundry in the basement the size of my Volvo, and a little exercise wouldn’t have killed me. Yet I was sitting at the barbershop, watching his haircut as I did when he was 2.
I focused on this other boy and imagined his knowing mother dropping him at the curb with nothing but his own survival skills and a $20 bill. I wondered if this was his first time or if he’d been master of his own hair for years. I admired that mom, for her wisdom and for all of the things she was allowing this child to learn by letting him fend for himself.
First of all, he had mastered the art of walking into a room filled with strangers. The most confident of us still struggle with this, being the one to swing the door open to a row of turned heads and judging eyes. Once inside, he had to make eye contact and announce his intention to have his hair cut in order to secure his place in line. This is no small task for the under-70 pound set.
Once in the chair, he told the barber exactly what he wanted. No mumbling, no shrugging. This convinced me that the quickest cure for “I don’t care” is a visit to the barbershop. The stakes are high and the consequences last three to four weeks.
I’ve been lecturing my kids for years about speaking up and expressing themselves, when all I needed to do was let them gaze into the barbershop mirror to see the price of indifference. Imagine a whole generation of children who are just one Prince Valiant cut away from embracing verbal communication.
And how about a free vocabulary lesson? Try to explain to your kids the difference between a couple, a few, and several and watch their eyes glaze over. But when the barber asks if they want several inches cut off, and they shrug in ignorance, they are in for a visual demonstration that will be immortalized on picture day.
I don’t know who that brave kid was, but I do know that he got a great haircut — and that I want to meet his parents. Someday he’s going to choose a university, a spouse, a necktie. And he’ll do it with the assurance of a guy who knows how to ask for a “Number Two buzz cut”