Thursday, June 30, 2011


The day had started with a small blood bath. A big, framed poster of Batman had fallen off the wall, down the stairs and shattered into hundreds of little glass daggers on the landing. My husband and I picked up what was big, vacuumed what was small, and pulled out the remaining few shards that had lodged in the wall. But neither of us had checked the bathroom and that’s where the little one cut open his foot, emitting a surprising amount of blood, just minutes before he had to leave for school.

I had too much work to do that day. And the Scrabble app was down on Facebook, so my usual method of wasting time wasn’t available to me. I’m not sure what all else went down, but when the teenager came home from school I was ready for a fight, I could just feel it.

The teenager sat at his regular place at the kitchen table, eating his regular after school snack, with his usual look of disinterest in anything I had to say. We started talking about the upcoming SATs. He was about to take two subject SATs (not the regular SATs) – Math and Chemistry – and we’d been arguing about it for a week.

“I don’t want to take the Chem,” he told me again, probably the fifth time in as many days.

“You’re already signed up. Just take it.” This is how the dance always starts. We began it again.

“I’m not going to do well, so I don’t want to waste my time,” he said.

He wasn’t going to do well because he didn’t study enough. That didn’t seem like a good reason to me. I said what I usually say. He said what he usually says. And then he said something new. He actually gave me a reason for not taking the test that seemed well thought out and solid. It changed my mind. So I said this:

“Ok, teenager, do whatever you want.”

“Why do you have to say that?” he said. “Do you say things that way just to make me feel like I haven’t won?”

I was about to argue him down again, but I instantly knew he was right. That’s exactly why I say things that way.

I was too ashamed to admit it, but he could tell by my silence that it was true.

“If you just said, ‘Ok, you’re right,’ then we could all leave here feeling good,” he said. “But now I have this kernel of doubt in my head that I’ll keep going back to and wonder if I’ve made a mistake. The whole process could turn me into a depressed teenager with big emotional problems. Is that what you want?”

No, that’s not what I want. I just want to be right all of the time, which is my big emotional problem.

And if I’m not right, I at least don’t want to be called on it. But mostly I want to learn how to graciously back down from an argument and not feel like I’m defective in some way.

I want to be able to talk about the merits of taking an SAT test as dispassionately as I am able to clean up a hallway full of shattered glass. And when I see that the teenager is right, not clench my innards as if something is being ripped from inside me, but instead feel my heart light and buoyant at the wonder of having he who I taught how to speak in the first place, able to now speak up for himself.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Folding Back The Page

I play tennis with Ann on Fridays. Or, I did, until her surgery. She had to get some things in her wrist fused together from an old injury and she hasn’t been able to play for a while.

Ann loves Friday tennis for much the same reason we all do: it makes us feel better. Not just the hitting (or the occasional winning) but the being together – a sometimes unlikely group of women who know just enough about each other’s triggers and downfalls that with a little time and a lot of good vibes we are often able to put our collective Humpty Dumptys back together again. At least for a little while.

Ann is especially good at this. Probably the best. It’s her superpower – making people feel better about whatever crappy circumstance they find themselves in. She does it as naturally as breathing.

After her surgery, Ann showed up at the courts on Friday with her dog, her field chair and a big canvas tote. She set herself up by the net (where a referee might stand) and tethered her chocolate lab, organized her water bottles, applied her sunscreen and donned her hat. Before she sat back to enjoy, she reached into her tote and pulled out a bubble machine.

It was small and brightly colored – not the kind of thing you’d use for Danceteria. More like for a playdate with 3-year-olds – that last contraption to amuse before things begin to deteriorate. She set it up at her feet and every time one of us hit a great shot, or we had an especially good rally, she tapped the button with her toe and hundreds of tiny celebratory bubbles flew out.

“Great serve!” she’d call out. Or when that didn’t apply: “Good try!”

Ann can see the good in everything, and she helps you see it, too.

When she came to my house last week and got me talking about the teenager and his impending Alaska trip, she couldn’t have been more excited for him. In an effort to put a damper on that goodness, I ran to my magazine pile and pulled out the Trip Brochure. It’s a glossy, 48-page catalog that lists all the trips from this particular outfit.

The teenager’s trip is on page 34 and 35, and the brochure has been folded open to that page for months. On the left, there’s a small picture of someone sea kayaking in Prince William Sound and a little detail map of where they’ll be hiking. The right-hand page has two large, vertical photographs, one of a group backpacking at the foot of a mountain range and another of the crevasse. It’s not called a crevasse in the brochure – it’s described as an “ice climb on the Matanuska Glacier.” There are half a dozen kids in the photo, some standing close to the precipice holding ropes, and the others at the ends of those ropes making their way up what seems to be an endless drop down an ice-walled canyon. The photograph is taken from just far enough away that you can see the vastness of the glacier and the profound vulnerability of the climbers.

People who have seen the picture – “outdoorsy” people who hike and climb and eat snakes for breakfast – all look at that shot and say, “Hmm, that looks dangerous.”

I shake the photo in front of Ann, daring her to try and find something positive to say about what the teenager is about to do – what I have agreed to send him off to do. She takes the brochure from me, looks closely at the picture and then folds the page in half. Meaning, she tucks the crevasse away so that only the backpackers at the mountain are showing. They’re all facing the camera and smiling. They’re all on rock solid ground.

That’s how I’ve been spending this past week – trying to keep folding back the page. Even in the middle of my madness about thunderstorms and bears and the earthquake that rocked some part of Alaska last Thursday night (7.2), I take another breath, fold the page back and tentatively move a little closer to putting him on a plane Monday morning.

I try and picture Ann at the airport with me as I’m walking back to my car, my child in the air, and I imagine thousands of tiny bubbles surrounding me in some kind of surreal Lawrence Welkian moment. I can hear Ann’s voice in the background, “You can do this, Mom -- you’re doing it! Good job! Good job!”

Thursday, June 23, 2011


The following piece ran on Patch a few weeks ago, in my regular Monday column profiling kids. This kid is my son's friend and it's one of my favorite profiles. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and Ben, the teenager and I were sitting in the kitchen. I'd just had two people cancel interviews and I had a kid column due on Sunday night. I didn't know where to find another kid -- everyone was out of town. Then, like a gift from G-d, a profile emerged.

My conversation with Ben started out casually. He was in my kitchen with my son and I asked him to describe his process of getting rid of clothes or shoes that he no longer wears. “I put them in the box in my room,” he said.

You keep a box in your room for outgoing garments? Like a hamper? “No, it’s a trunk that sits under my mirror. Whenever I have a shirt or something that doesn’t fit me anymore, I put it in the trunk and every once in a while my mom and I go through it and decide what to throw out and what to give away. My hampers are in my closet.”

Hampers? How many hampers? “I have one for clothes that definitely need to be washed and another one for things that I’ve worn once but that I might be too lazy to wash. So I can fish that stuff out and wear it again.” He clarified further that he put the box there for the unwanted clothes and he created his own hamper system.

Wait, you’re a 16-year-old with no dirty clothes on your bedroom floor? “My room is perfectly organized. I hate clothes on the floor,” he said.

Ben described his laundry routine, his kitchen routine, his house tidying routine. He has a reputation among his friends for keeping things neat and organized and sometimes being stife with snacks (a word I learned means “stingy”) because he doesn’t like messes of crumbs.

“If I come into a room and it’s really neat and organized, I just feel a great sense of relief,” he said. I kept glancing at my son during the conversation, as if to say, “See, I told you there were people like this in the world,” but my son wouldn’t meet my eye.

“I don’t like stuff sitting in a dish drainer,” he said. “What if it needs to dry?” I asked him looking over my shoulder at my dish drainer piled high with drippy plastic ware. “Take a towel and wipe it off,” he said. “The drainer is just like a waiting room. There’s no reason for that stuff to stay there.”

This is the child I’ve always said I wanted, although I feel the uncomfortable need to clean off my countertops while he talks. “My mom thinks she’s really tidy, but when I do a clean sweep of the house, it’s always her stuff that’s lying around,” he said.

I began to quietly empty the dish drainer.

Many people are hard-wired to be tidy, and Ben seems to be that, but also there may be bit of a reaction to the Oscar/Felix dynamic that exists between him and his older brother. “You can’t believe what his room looks like. You can’t go in there,” said Ben, adding, “That’s where I got my second hamper. He would never use it.”

Ben believes that cleaning helps clear your mind. That even though things are going to get dirty again, it’s worth doing just to see them clean for a little while. And getting into good organizing habits leads to other useful things, like learning general life skills and how to keep things in working order around the house.

Ben’s Tips to Keeping Things Clean and Organized

1. No procrastination.
2. Don’t put stuff away just to get it out of the way. (If you stuff everything into a closet, you’re just going to have a messy closet.)
3. Use it, clean it, then put it away.
4. Don’t rush. Take your time and do a good job.
5. Leave things better than you found them.
6. Don’t let things get to the point where someone has to ask you to clean things up.

Do these rules of Ben’s inform his life overall? “No, not all,” he said, all smiles. “This is just strictly about my own house.”

Monday, June 20, 2011


“Can you give these books back to your mom?” I said to my son’s friend, handing three novels out my car window.

“No, I can’t take them,” he said. “I’ll probably lose them.”

“Just bring them into your house,” I said.

“I’ll lose them before I get inside,” he said.

We were having this conversation at the curb just a few yards away from his front door. I took the books back and replaced them on the passenger seat of my car, because I suspected that he was probably right.

“Remember yesterday, B went to the bank to get a debit card,” my son said. I nodded, one of the few things I did remember about yesterday. “He lost it before he got home.”

“Come on!” I said. These boys are all prone to exaggeration.

“He really did. He left the bank with his parents and went straight home and by the time they got home it was nowhere to be found,” reported my son’s friend.

I wish I could pin this phenomenon on teenage boys, but the 11-year-old and two of his friends were scouring the house this weekend looking for his lost video camera. “It was right next to the computer,” one said. “Yes, it was. We all saw it there,” another concurred.

“One of you must have moved it,” I told them, “picked it up and accidently put it down somewhere when you went to get something.”

“We didn’t. No, no. No one touched it,” they insisted.

“You must have picked it up and you just don’t remember taking it with you somewhere,” I said. I offer up these pearls of wisdom, not to make them feel inadequate, but in an attempt to expand their thinking. To break the vicious little cycle they create for themselves of walking to the computer, then over to the front door, then back to the computer, then back to the front door, looking in the same two places over and over again like a small contingent of ants whose brains are the size of atoms (I’m guessing) and cannot conceive of any reality beyond what they’ve been programmed for.

The ants, however, reject my theory out of hand, in that inimitable way that only pre-teen ants can. “Well, I’m going to look for it other places,” I said, and in under a minute the camera was in my hand.

“It was on the kitchen counter,” I told them.

“Oh, you must have put it there when you got us Vitamin Waters,” one ant said to another.

“No,” said my son, the most stubborn ant of all.

We have a game we play in my house. It’s called, “Do you think it will take me more than 15 seconds to find your lost thing?” At least that’s what I call it, because finding other people’s lost things – especially boys’ lost things – is apparently my one and only superpower. I almost always win at the game, and part of the reason for that is because 90% of the time, the cell phone is wedged deep within the sofa cushions and I guess I’m the only one who remembers that fact from one lost cell phone to the next.

But the other reason is a little scarier, which is that after all this time I believe I have actually come to think like a boy. In that scattered, too-many-things-going-on, pinball machine way that boys appear to process information – which is to say from every direction and not at all both at the same time.

When I witness boybrain in action, I don’t even think “Oh, you poor, poor creatures,” anymore. Instead, I just put the books back on the passenger seat and say, “Yeah, I get it.”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Does This Stranger Make Me Look Fat?

Last Thursday, I spent the whole morning nearly buck-naked with a perfect stranger. And it wasn’t by accident. In early May, as Mother’s Day approached, I said to my husband, “Please don’t send me flowers. If you’re going to spend money on me for Mother’s Day, buy me a session with Jennifer.”

This was a big step for me on many levels. The first being Asking For What I Want, and not because I’m depleted and at the end of my rope, but just because I might enjoy it.

The second was Asking For Help, specifically for something other than killing a bug or plunging a toilet.

And finally, of course, the naked thing.

Jennifer is a wardrobe consultant and I was about to try on for her everything in my closet.

People who know me – who know how infrequently I leave my house – are puzzled that I’d even need such a service. “Did you tell her you were looking for some Downstairs Outfits?” one friend joked.

But this idea came about because I had a meeting to go to a few weeks ago and I nearly cancelled because I didn’t have anything to wear. I don’t mean, “Oh, I don’t have a thing to wear.” I mean, literally, I had a skirt and no top that matched. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone shopping, but I couldn’t believe I’d let things go this far.

Years ago, when I worked as a bartender, I remember sharing with a few of the “regulars” that I was about to start therapy. “You’re going to pay someone to listen to you talk about your problems?” they said. “Don’t you have any friends that will do that for you?” That exchange echoed in my head when I made my initial request to my husband. I have many fashionable friends. Why not just ask one of them to go through my closet with me?

But there’s something about cleaning out your closet with a total stranger that feels a little reckless – a little more dangerous than with a friend, tried and true. My friends are not going to force me to get rid of the skinny jeans that I wore exactly twice but I now can’t button, because I’m going to tell them that I’ll get back into those jeans one day and they’ll humor me because they love me. A stranger won’t do that. That’s the beauty of strangers; you never know what they’ll do.

I told Jennifer about my cranky feet and how I have to start an outfit with whatever shoes I’ll be able to tolerate that day and work my way up from there. I explained that I’m not very fancy, but I want to look more put together.

“I get it,” she said. “You want to look good, but not like you’re trying too hard.”

Yes, I told her, because right now I look like I don’t try, ever, at all.

She explained what we would do for the next few hours. We’d go through everything in my closet, make outfits, toss whatever looks awful and then she’d make suggestions about what I should pick up to round out my wardrobe. “Do we need coffee for this?” I asked. “Or wine? Or Xanax?”

We ended up needing none of the above and the process itself was the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on. (That was cheap, I know, but I couldn’t help myself.) Jennifer has a keen eye and is a master of diplomacy. She cheerfully rebranded all my Grateful Dead clothes “Bohemian” and let me put them back in the closet.

Even so, in no time at all I slid comfortably into my role as the naysayer. “I can’t wear that! I look too hippy. I’ll be too cold. Too much skin.” But she took me by the hand and forced me to look at myself with new eyes, and by the end of the first session, I had a dozen new outfits to wear – things I never would have put together myself – and I already owned them all!

But it wasn’t just the outfits that made me giddy. There I was, doing something I probably shouldn’t have been doing, with someone I don’t even know, and once I got used to unfamiliar hands reaching around me to clasp necklaces and smooth pleats, I couldn’t help thinking, Girlfriends, we should all be spending our mornings naked with strangers.