Monday, June 29, 2009

Poor Mrs. Smarty Pants

I’ve had a hard time writing lately.

Ever since Father’s Day actually, when a group of us sat around the picnic table trying to define "intellectual." Someone had been telling a story about a woman none of us knew. He described her as an intellectual. Someone else picked up on that and ran with it: What makes someone an intellectual? Isn’t it more than simply being intelligent? Or well read? Everyone around the table that day could have been described as smart – some extremely smart – but we all agreed, none of us were intellectuals.

No one could quite say why. My husband described it as the difference between being athletic and being an athlete. Another person suggested that maybe it was like pornography – difficult sometimes to define, but you know it when you see it.

Someone then asked, Hey, how many of us are pseudo intellectuals? Several hands went up, including mine. I had unwittingly interpreted that to mean “intellectual wannabe” instead of “big fat poser.”

I came home and looked up Intellectual (n.) on, mainly interested in the subtleties that differentiate an intellectual from just someone who is super smart.

It said: “a person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect or the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or philosophical matters, esp. on an abstract and general level.”

And after that, I couldn’t write. In fact, I could barely even think. I felt so inadequate about my inability to be abstract and general. (Not to be confused, of course, with my highly refined talent for being cryptic and meaningless.)

I still have a lot to say. But I’m afraid no one needs to know any more about my gecko or my crickets, my coconut bra or my flailing tennis game.

I know people will email me privately, begging me to write further about the nuance to my backhand. And, you know, I’ll probably comply. But I’m just saying, it might be different around here from now on.

And then again, maybe it won’t.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Beauty Secrets

I don’t even know how we started talking about make-up. Gina said she never wore any at all until she went to college. And I, as a freshman in high school, wouldn’t even walk out my front door to get the mail without a full face applied. By the time I got to college, I had sworn off most of it.

My roommate insisted I didn’t look any different with mascara on. So, eventually, that fell away. And the rest of it seemed superfluous once my eyelashes were bare. But I had this teeny tiny obsession with my eyebrows that was a little harder to shake.

Throughout most of my teen years, I convinced myself that my face was too boyish. I didn’t have fine chiseled cheekbones – or any chiseled anything – so I was afraid I would be mistaken for a boy if I didn’t do something radical to my face. And that something was browicide. I started out just wanting shape and definition. My eyebrows were never bushy, but they occupied a lot of facial geography. Once I got used to the feeling of yanking a hair follicle out by its root, I actually grew to enjoy it. And so I became an obsessive plucker.

At the end of high school, I plucked my eyebrows so often – and so unsparingly – that what I was left with was essentially a single-hair-deep browline. I doubt there are micrometers that measure that sort of thing, so I will just say that the net effect of having an eyebrow that thin is to appear to have no eyebrow at all.

I plucked my eyebrows daily – sometimes twice a day – and prided myself on extracting a stray hair (and they were all strays) at the very moment it broke through the skin. I couldn’t see that I looked like a cancer patient. Only that I was tidy and feminine.

My best friend in college finally staged an intervention. She filled the room with naturally-browed women who tried to convince me that I needed to fill in my brow line. They said it wouldn’t be easy, and that they were all committed to help.

Then they took away my tweezers.

Four excruciating weeks later, I had my old teenage face back. I slowly began to pluck again, but this time only true stragglers. Unlike many who recover from addictions, I never really had a setback. Sometimes I let them go too much, but I have never been browless since.

Gina asked what it was I replaced that compulsion with. “You know obsessions like that never really go away,” she said. “They just take a different form.”

I’m not really sure of the answer to that, but I guess maybe you’re looking at it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

Last week my husband told me he just ordered himself the new iPhone.

You what????

This is exactly the kind of information that makes me think I’ve married a crazy person. “I have to go out,” I said. And I got in the car and headed to some supermarket or other to recreate some equilibrium in my cerebellum. When I returned, I calmly stated all the reasons that we don’t need another iPhone, and then not so calmly declared that I just this day passed up a new Swatch that I’d been coveting for years because it seemed like an extravagance.

To my surprise, Scott agreed, and he said he was going to cancel his order. And on top of that, he made a special request: “Buy yourself the Swatch. That’s what I want for Father’s Day.” I said I didn’t need the Swatch. And, of course, I felt very small.

Days later, I noticed him walking through the house with a small brown box. “I was too late to cancel the iPhone,” he said. “It had already shipped. I’m just going to return it.”

The new iPhone has a voice application that the old one apparently doesn’t have. This comes in very handy for Scott, as he can’t see very well in general, and can barely see a phone screen at all.

“Go ahead and keep the phone,” I said.

Later that evening we were on our way to a party and I was feeling particularly merry and generous. “I really meant what I said before,” I told him. “I think you should keep the iPhone.”

Apparently no need to reassure. He’d already charged it and transferred his contacts. “Well, consider that your Father’s Day gift,” I said, a little surprised he took me at my word.

This is what it’s like to be married to me. The “gifts” I bestow are basically promises not to harass him for buying himself what he wants. It’s not enough that I deny myself most everything I fancy, I need to take him down with me.

It might seem like this is an easy solution to gift giving, but it’s not. Similar to his Fiftieth-Birthday-Flatscreen-TV, it takes considerable effort to hold my tongue.

I went for a walk with one of my best friends this morning, and in her usual considerate way she asked me if Father’s Day was hard for me. I thought of the iPhone and then of my own father, gone from my life for over 30 years already, and my response was quick and glib. “Nope. It’s really easy.”

But there I was, lying again.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Trouble With Pancakes

The other day I was speaking to a neighbor about my oldest son entering high school next year. Just as in middle school, I know he will enter as one person, and come out as someone else. There’s a part of me that wants to say to him, “Can you just go shoot heroin and impregnate a minor and get it over with, so I don’t have to sit around worrying about it all the time?”

This neighbor has an older boy – a high school junior who is her oldest child – and she talked about the ups and downs he’s experienced over the past three years. She talked about his struggle to find himself and define himself. And her own struggle to recalibrate her expectations accordingly.

She said something like, “You know what they say about pancakes? You always end up throwing the first one away.”

Well, I make pancakes every weekend. Not just for Sunday breakfast, either. I make a big batch that goes in the freezer and I use them all week. (I put vanilla flavored soy protein in the batter so my kids are eating something a little more nutritious than maple-covered cake, although that fact is not at all germane to the story.) The point is, I know the oldest child is "the experiment." The one you learn on and with whom you work out the kinks. But my pancakes are actually pretty good – golden and fluffy – right from the get go. If anything, it’s the later ones that I have to toss. The ones that I’ve stopped paying attention to as I go quickly to check my email while they’re on the griddle. It happens almost every weekend. Three mid-batter pancakes become black and charred and I have to let the griddle cool down and start all over again.

And every weekend, as I toss the burnt discs into the trash, I vow I will pay closer attention next week. I will get through my whole bowl of batter without losing a single pancake to distraction or ennui. How hard could that be, really?

I don’t want parenting to be at all like making pancakes. Or muffins. Or any delicate little breakfast food.

I want it to be like soup. Where you can just throw everything you’ve got into it and, with enough salt and garlic, it will turn out simply amazing.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

God vs. Karma

On our way home from a long, late lacrosse game, I cheerfully told my three passengers that we had to stop at the pizzeria before I took anyone home. My younger son had been there earlier in the day, I explained, and he forgot to pay for his food.

“Mom!” my older son groaned. “We’re so tired! You don’t have to pay for the food now.”

“Really,” agreed his friend and teammate. “That was so long ago. They won’t even remember.”

I told them I had to. They asked why. And I said Karma.

One of the things I love about teenagers – especially teenage boys – is their propensity to argue about every piece of information that lands remotely in their direction.

“Karma!?” said my son’s friend. “What does Karma have to do with anything? It’s not like you’re going to come back as a bug if you don’t pay for an order of French fries.”

I told him it wasn’t about "coming back as" anything.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” I said.

My son and his friend beseeched me, harangued me and even mocked me. “Just bring us home,” they pleaded.

“Besides,” said his friend, “you can’t believe in Karma if you don’t believe in God.”

“Well, that’s not true,” I said. And then I tried to explain the Law of Karma as it had once been explained to me. The teacher had said, “the only way we can have an experience is if we have created that same experience for someone else. Good or bad, without exception. This means that whatever quality or experience we desire, we must set out to create that very thing for others.”

“It has nothing to do with God,” I went on. “It’s a natural law of the universe. But, that said, I do anyway.”

My son’s friend was a little stunned. “Do what? Believe in God? You believe in God? What are you, like, the only person in Montclair who does?”

I took a deep breath and smelled the mix of grass stain and boy sweat that filled the car alongside the music and their giggling. Sweet air rushed at us through open windows and the sky was moving fast toward purple night. The three boys in my car were funny and smart, beautiful and perfect, and had exactly their entire lives in front of them.

What I said to him was, “Yeah, maybe.”

But what I thought was, “Oh, Sweetheart, how could I not?”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Byrning Down The House

Last week at the David Byrne show, I turned to my row-mate and said, “How happy am I that there’s no one in these two seats?”

I didn’t know him, but our elbows had been touching for the last ten minutes so I felt I should make our relationship more formal. He agreed about my dumb luck about having an unobstructed view and pointed to the guy sitting just ahead of him and said, “Yeah, you could have had him in front of you.”

The gentleman he was referring to was big and happy and appeared to be The Most Enthusiastic Audience Member in the theater. He danced in his chair and clapped his hands over his head right from the very first note. Two songs in, he realized no one would be taking the seats next to him and he moved into one of them to give himself more room to sway.

“You jinxed it,” said my row mate, once it was obvious that The Most Enthusiastic Audience Member had taken up permanent residence directly in front of me.

I was actually delighted to have him sitting there. He personified half of what was electrifying about the show – the sheer exuberance of the crowd. It was palpable and contagious. Bespectacled men and graying women danced in the aisles. Arms raised in applause revealed happy, jiggly flesh. Before we left the house, my 17-year-old babysitter asked who we were going to see. The name David Byrne did not register. “Is that an Old People’s band?” I hadn’t thought so at the time, but looking around at the show, I guess I’d have to say, yeah maybe.

But even that was great. What a relief not to be the oldest fan in the room. I never once worried that a theater full of underdressed, over-tattooed revelers would look at me and wonder, “Hey, is that the drummer’s mom?”

Byrne played music from all over his career, much of which I’d once used as accompaniments for my college Modern Dance class assignments. If I’d have had a little more room at my seat, I could have performed my whole choreography to Born Under Punches, perhaps snatching the moniker of Most Enthusiastic Audience Member swiftly and definitively from our friend in Row K.

There is something about this guy’s music that will always speak to me. When I think of David Byrne, I think Intellectual, not Poet. I’m not saying he’s the smartest rocker, or even if I were, that that’s an especially good thing. I’m just saying that there aren’t many other people making infectious, danceable music that do it in that same heady way. I can’t really put my finger on what it is.

Maybe it’s the way his songs seem to move beyond the personal, even beyond the political, and sit more often in the ambiguously philosophical. Or, maybe it’s just that he has really good posture.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Dr. K Has Come A Long Way

“Dr. K has come a long way,” I said to my husband.

I said this because I’d just gotten out my Netti Pot, at the suggestion of Dr. K, to begin a twice-daily sinus cleanse – a procedure he recommended heartily after shining his little examination light up my nostrils. He called what he saw up there “cobbly” which reminds me of a charming street in Paris, but is apparently not the ideal state for one’s sinus cavity.

Scott immediately began to recount a visit he’d had with Dr. K years ago for some ongoing ear pain. “He looked inside my ear and said, ‘What have you been putting in there?’”

Scott then tried to explain to him the ins and outs of an Ear Candle. “It’s this long, thin roll of wax – it’s in the shape of a taper candle – and you stick one end in your ear and then you light it on fire!”

Dr. K had blanched but Scott went on, “There’s a ton of smoke while it burns toward your head, and then afterwards, you can look inside the candle and see all the gunk that’s been drawn out of your ear.”

Dr. K is very young, very earnest and very kind. But at that point he looked at Scott firmly and said, “Don’t ever do that again.”

At my own physical last week, not only was I met with benign nodding when I listed the homeopathic remedies I take for my various ailments, I was also really surprised by his reaction when I said I believed the Trochanteric Bursitis he’d diagnosed me with a few weeks ago was not entirely due to tennis.

“The Swine Flu story broke on a Monday and by Friday I couldn’t walk,” I said. “I think that whole injury was due to my crazed mental state.” I know I’m asking for trouble when I make these kinds of proclamations to an MD, but I’ve loved this doctor since the first day I walked into his office six years ago, and I’m always afraid it hurts our relationship on a deep level when I hold back this kind of information from him.

No blanching this time. Not even an eye roll. He merely said (in his doctorly way), “Well, you never know.”

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Here’s How Life is Like A Walk In The Park

My morning walk usually starts out with a lap around my neighborhood park. There’s an elementary school right there and the gym teacher uses the park as the school’s “field.” The kids file down into the park, run a lap around on the park path, and then move to the baseball diamond or do relay races or whatever.

I was halfway around when I heard voices coming up behind me. They were the voices of three kids (two boys and a girl) far ahead of the pack in their lap running. They looked to be in about fourth grade and were talking in that deliberate and pointed way people seem to when they run. Not really a chat, more like saying things that need to be said.

I don’t know what made me turn the volume down on my iPod – maybe something in the boy’s voice. He had the intonation of someone who was holding court. I felt obliged to listen.

We had all just rounded a turn where the smell of dog excrement was especially pronounced. The three kids got closer to me and I could hear now what one of the boys was saying: ”You have to take a big smell of good air early on and memorize that smell completely. Then, when you go by the bad smell, you just replace it with the memory of the good smell. That’s how you do it.”

He was talking about how to manage the smell of dog shit.

The kids were passing me by this time, and I watched their little muscled arms pumping, their long sloppy strides.

The other boy was nodding at his friend’s wisdom. The girl said, “I just breath through my mouth.”

A minute later they had arrived at the feet of their gym teacher. They collapsed in the grass and sucked in big gulps of air. I wanted to ask the first boy if he would consider just leaving fourth grade and becoming my guru.

But the gym teacher was right there. And I couldn’t imagine any way he’d ever understand.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My New Coconut Bra

Speaking of bras, not only do I have the two new ones I bought at the lingerie store last week, I also received one as a gift from Laura the Tennis Pro. We all did, actually. At our End of The Indoor Season Tennis Luncheon, which Shelley hosted and is now, days later, still recovering from.

Laura wanted to give us all a little something that was meaningful, yet whimsical. And what fits that description better than a coconut bra?

Laura thought we should all have some sort of matching apparel, split and particular as we are about our panties. I was surprised the bras came in more than one size – but the fit is not as exacting as the ones from Bra Heaven. Still, they were comfortable. We all put them on over our blouses and soon forgot we had them on.

Gina was the first to disengage and start fiddling with it. She determined quickly that if you tap the two cups together – so just the edges meet – it sounds just like the “horses” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Of course you’ll remember Eric Idle and Company “air galloping” through some or other wood and each having a coconut shell that he clapped together to create the clip-clop sound of the “horses.” Gina was frighteningly good at softening the clap to make it fade out. “This is what they sounded like when they stopped,” she said.

I don’t typically leave my undergarments lying around the house, but I did drop my coconut bra on the kitchen counter along with my car keys when I got home. From the other room I heard my husband and my younger son trying to figure out what it was. “What are these brown clam shells doing here?” my husband asked.

“It’s something of Mom’s,” my son rightly said.

I could have let them go on like that, but I’m afraid it would have gotten stored away with our white ceramic clam-shaped dish, the one that sits in the back of the cabinet and never sees the light of day. So I yelled out, “That’s my new coconut bra!” and pretty much just left it at that.