Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thankful After All

I have a friend whom I really, really love. When she goes away I feed her cats for her. She's very devoted to her cats and leaves long instructional notes (plus Post-Its) even if she's only gone a day. Over the weekend, part of her instruction note said, "If [the sickly cat] hasn't used the litter box, please bring him to it and put him in. You don't have to hold his ass straight while he pees (though I do) but that will ensure that the pee stays in the box."

Now, when a friend writes a note like that, she's saying, "you don't have to hold my cat's ass," but you know what she really means is, "I hope you can find it in your heart to do what I do for him." These are the little moments where you come to understand what your friendships are really made of.

I was grateful, this Thanksgiving weekend, that the sickly cat HAD used the litter box and that I did not have to put him in there or hold his ass while he peed. Although I like to think I would have.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Decidedly Ungrateful Thanksgiving

A few years ago, my family and I signed up to deliver Thanksgiving meals to shut-ins.  I’m not sure what prompted me to do this, as most of my community service involves writing copy or writing a check.  But this was something we could do as a family and that seemed like a good idea. And, at the time, it was.

In fact, we did it the next year and the next.  Last year, we didn’t do it. But this year we signed up again.

Somehow, this turned into the worst decision I’ve ever made.

Everything about yesterday's meal delivery expedition was a nightmare, and what’s worse is it was really no different than it had been years before.

Had I forgotten that when they say, “Show up at 10,” they really mean, “Show up at 10 but be prepared to wait forever until the meals are all assembled and ready for delivery”?  This year, we waited until 11:30 to get our meals, which was the time I had hoped we’d be finished delivering and on our way home.

Had I forgotten that the list of turkey dinner recipients do not live in my town, but in a neighboring town … an unfamiliar neighboring town … an enormous, unfamiliar neighboring town, one that is largely poor and full of old brick apartment buildings on streets where there’s nowhere to park and you wouldn’t want to leave your car even if you could?  Or that the list of 22 addresses they give you are in alphabetical order by street name, not grouped by geography, so that entering them into your GPS system might have you criss-crossing the enormous town five…seven...fourteen times before you hit every address? Why didn't I remember to bring a map?

Had I forgotten that some of the addresses don’t even show up on the GPS?  As in, it has no record of them. And, yes, you’re given a phone number for each residence, but even if someone answers the phone, and speaks in an English that you can understand through a cell phone, they will probably not be able to give you directions from where you are to where they are.  This has happened every time we’ve gone delivering.  Why would I think this year would be different?

So after waiting 90 minutes to get our delivery meals and then spending another 30 minutes trying to get my GPS to plot the most efficient route for all the stops, we had already spent two hours on a task that I’d hoped would be finished in that amount of time.  And we hadn't even started delivering yet.

When we were given our address list, the Volunteer Coordinator said to me, “Oh, this isn’t too many…should take you 30-45 minutes.”  More lies.  It took hours.  And there was much failure along the way.

There were addresses we were never able to find.  And sometimes people simply weren’t home.  Once we left only one meal at an apartment that was supposed to receive four. 

Besides Kvetcher, my main role was Driver.  I’d send my husband and sons into the apartment buildings while I sat double-parked on the street.  Sometimes it felt like an eternity for them to deliver one or two dinners.  “What’s your status?” I would text them over and over.  “Almost done,” they’d say.  But it never felt fast enough for me.

I did not want to be here this year.  We’d put our turkey in the oven at 8 in the morning and left two hours later, thinking that we could resume basting at lunchtime.  I had been cranky the day before and had not done any pre-prep beyond peeling and slicing some carrots.  The table wasn’t set.  I hadn’t had time to have someone give me a primer on how to make gravy (something that would haunt me in the hours to come).

By 1 o’clock, my kids were hungry. (This has also happened every year…why don’t I remember to bring food along?)  My husband was lamenting that he could have gone to his morning yoga class after all.  We all wanted to go home, but we couldn’t.  We still had over a dozen meals to deliver and every single place we went felt like there was a big obstacle to overcome. 

I cursed while I drove. My older son patted my leg and told me to relax, which just made things worse. My husband gently mocked me: “How rude of all these poor people to live so far apart when we have a big Thanksgiving turkey at home that needs tending.”

His mockery was right on.

When we arrived at 404 Munn Street, I actually took the meal into the building myself while my husband and the boys went to 400 Munn Street with other meals.  The building attendant let me right in, the apartment was easy to find and a woman answered the door right away.  She was probably a nurse or live-in aide for the resident, who was confined to a wheelchair.  The shut-in rolled herself out from the kitchen and greeted me.  She was heavyset and dressed only in a thin, pink housecoat.  A live parrot sat on her shoulder. 

“I like your parrot,” I said, and she said something very warm and effusive in return, something that, for one split second, made me feel like this whole miserable morning was worthwhile.  But the feeling disappeared as soon as I walked out of the building.

I rarely embrace Thanksgiving.  Even though it’s a National Day of Gratitude, for me, it always feels like a Personal Day of Loss.  A time when I’m reminded that the people I wish were with me, no longer are, and those feelings usually are too big for me to get past.  It’s much easier for me to feel gratitude the other 364 days of the year.  In fact, this is the main reason I was moved to start delivering Thanksgiving meals in the first place.

In past years, delivering meals felt great. It was fraught with the same frustrations, but I felt my heart grow in the process.  This year, nothing grew but my temper.

We finally got home at 2PM, our turkey having cooked a only smidge longer than it should have.  We then whipped together an entire Thanksgiving meal – stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato fries, Brussels sprouts, sautéed carrots and (epically failed) gravy – in an hour.  The meal was incredible – possibly the best we’ve ever made and if there were an unintended gift of my morning, it was that sitting and eating Thanksgiving dinner this year was the unexpected highlight of my day. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

College Schmollege

There’s a lot of talk about college here these days.

I went to a state school.  Not a big state university, but a mid-size college in my own state that had a reputation as a great teacher’s college and was driving distance from my parents’ home.  I chose it largely because I liked the way the buildings looked in the brochure.

Last night, after working long and hard on his essay supplements for his Early Decision application, The Teenager asked me whether I’d had a good experience at MSU.  We happen to live in the same town as my Alma-mater and its reputation here is very different than when I was growing up.  It's used as a generic diss that kids hurl at one another at the high school.  “If you don’t take any AP classes, you’re going to end up at MSU.”  The way I threaten my kids' about their laziness by promising them a life of working at Burger King.

I never considered MSU a bottom of the barrel school – not when I went there, and not afterwards – that is, until I moved back here as an adult.  The kids I went to high school with were not well off and many were downright poor.  Several of my friends never went to college at all and those who did went mostly to big state schools where the tuition was much more affordable.  Even when I worked in Manhattan with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met – all graduates of prestigious private colleges, many of them Ivies – I was not embarrassed and never felt the need to make excuses for my education. 

But here, where I live now, I am truly in the minority.  Most every one of my peers has at least one degree, many several, from schools that currently boast an acceptance rate of under 20 percent.  When it becomes apparent that I need to share where I went to college with a new acquaintance, I often preface it by saying that my dad died when I was a high school senior and I needed to stay close to home, but the truth is, even if he’d survived his cancer, I doubt I would have gone anywhere else.

When I was in high school, I didn’t want to go to college and my grades and behavior reflected that.  I wanted to leave home, get an apartment, get a job and be independent.  I didn’t care what the job was, only that I wouldn’t need to wear cowl neck sweaters or pumps. 

When The Teenager asked about MSU, I began by getting all philosophical.  “I believe that the education is up to the kid,” I said.  “You can be a go-getter in a mediocre school and if you take advantage of all the opportunities there for you, you’ll get a really good education.  Conversely, [I actually use words like that with The Teenager in informal conversation, even after SATs are behind us] you can go to a great school and if you just plod through it and don’t grab what’s available to you, you’ll get an ‘ok’ education, but probably not a great one.”

He was expecting me to tell him what a go-getter I was; I knew that by how surprised he seemed by what I said next.  “I didn’t take advantage of much of anything when I was in college.  I got an ok education at MSU, but it could have been much, much better.  I wasn’t that interested in being a student.  I was too concerned with learning how to be a grown up.”

And then, in a voice that was kinder than any he’s used with me since this whole, God-awful college process has started, he said, “Well, you’re a good grown up.”

Although I’m not entirely sure he meant it as a compliment.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hello, Muddah...

This summer, my 12-year-old went to Skateboard Camp for a week, an institution that should have its own Parent Support Group.  There’s a 100-page waiver you need to sign before they’ll accept your child and every time you call the camp, the person answering your questions sounds like she’s 15. 

“The counselors are all 16-year-old skaters that drink Red Bull all day,” my friend told me after I sent in my deposit.  Her son went there last year.  “He said it was the best week of his life.”

I thought she was exaggerating, but when I told a neighbor where my son was going, she said, “Oh, is that the place that serves Coco-Puffs and Red Bull for breakfast?”

My 12-year-old had never been to sleep-away camp, indeed he rarely leaves the house altogether.  Like me, I think he does a quick cost/benefit analysis of the types of compromises necessary once you step out your front door and opts for the only sane choice: stay home.  So when he told me he wanted to go to this camp – begged me, actually – I felt almost morally obligated to say yes.  This could break the agoraphobia chain, I thought, ever hopeful that my offspring do not end up like me.

It’s not as if I keep my family on lockdown, but I do feel more at ease when everyone is in the house.  The 12-year-old, usually happy to oblige, was really throwing me with this newfound adventurism of his.  In the weeks leading up to his departure, I managed my anxiety in my usual way – denial.  I simply pretended he wasn’t going anywhere.  Then, the night before he left, I quickly wrote his name on all his clothes, jammed them into a bag and fanatically began to hope for the best. 

The camp was three-and-a-half hours away, and he and his friends arranged to take the chartered camp bus from a nearby shopping mall.  We arrived at the designated spot in the parking lot – Area 8 between Sears and Macy’s – and I stood, slack-jawed, as my 4’11” skater boarded the bus with all manner of riffraff and ne’er-do-wells, many of them hovering near 6’ tall.

As it happened, my best friend’s son was also at his first time sleep-away experience at a different camp that same week.  That boy is younger than my 12-year-old and he went to a Jewish camp that my friend attended when she was a girl.  Aside from receiving incessant online postings of photographs and emails throughout the week, my friend also managed to extract specific information about her son’s experience through several calls to the camp’s main office. 

“He’s having a great time,” she reported to me.  I envied not only her information gathering skills, but also that she was able to sleep easily at night, knowing that her son was being well cared for.

I was a part of no such info-loop.  I called the camp to check on him.  "I'm sure he's doing fine," said the 15-year-old. 

"I didn't even tell you his name," I said.

"If he'd gotten hurt, you would have been contacted."  Click.

I had let my son take his cell phone to camp with the promise that he’d text me each night and let me know he was ok.  “If you could let me know whether you like it there, too, I'd be grateful,” I’d said, knowing he was a man of few words when it comes to texting.

I received one text from him on his second night at camp (“I’m still alive”).  Then, another, days later (“Not dead”), but only after I’d called the camp office again and beseeched them to have my son contact me.

After seven days had elapsed, I returned to the Area 8 drop off spot at the mall.  The first kid off the bus had his casted arm in a blue sling.  I was prepared for the rest of the passengers to look like the walking wounded, but they didn’t…they just looked scrappy and tired.

I never did learn much about my son’s first week away from home (I guess, what happens at skateboard camp stays at skateboard camp), but what I did learn was this:
•    Save for a few eating breaks, all they did was skate from 9 in the morning until 10 at night.
•    There was only one counselor for a bunk of 15 boys.  He was 18 years old and the boys considered him “an adult.”
•    The highly touted air-conditioning in the cabins barely worked.
•    The highly touted swimming pool was “gross.”
•    No one showered.
•    My son wore a single pair of socks all week long.
•    The toilet in the cabin didn’t work, yet that didn’t stop most of the boys from taking a dump in it anyway.

And, yes…it was the best week he’d ever had.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Teenager

As a tribute to The Teenager's 18th birthday, I am reposting what might be my favorite blog post about him.  It was my 10th blog post, written way back in 2009, and even though Facebook has gone through a half dozen redesigns and incarnations since then, he still refuses to re-accept me as a Facebook Friend.  Which is probably for the best.

This was written during what I consider Facebook's heyday, when all status updates appeared in the third person:

I was just banned from Facebook. Not from the whole site, but from anything even remotely interesting on my son’s page. I didn’t even know he could do that, but he did, right before my eyes, and he narrated his withholdings in an onscreen chat.

It started when he took issue with my Status Line. Jessica was just mocked by her 14-year-old for not knowing the name of The Immigrant Song, I wrote.

He said that event wasn’t a big enough deal to warrant a “stat.”

“Oh? Since when are you the boss of my status lines?” I typed to him.
“Since now,” he typed. And then, “I’m blocking you from all of my stat lines.”
“AND I’m blocking you from all of my Wall Notes.”
“Because you don’t like my status line?”
“I just blocked you from seeing anything about me,” he typed. Then added this:

And then the remarkable happened. He left the screen of his laptop and came marching in to my office to have an actual face-to-face conversation. “Your status lines are SO STUPID!” he said, nudging me out of the way of my own keyboard. He scrolled down my Profile Page. “Look! Look at this!”

Jessica experiences an inexplicable glee when she sees the geese just standing on top of a frozen Edgemont Pond.
“Why don’t you just say: Jessica likes geese?”

Jessica is taking the new popcorn maker for a test drive.
“This should say: Jessica is eating popcorn.”

Jessica is worried that the gecko is depressed.
“This is so stupid it shouldn’t even be up there at all!”

I guess I’d have to agree with that.

Jessica loves discussing is her downfall.
"Just write, 'Jessica loves to use words that no one can pronounce,'” he said. "That’s what you’re really saying."

Is this my comeuppance for making my mother walk three car lengths behind me for my entire adolescence? (Everyone can pronounce minutiae – it’s just hard to spell.)

Have I mentioned that I was in labor with him for 23 hours and it ended in a C-Section?

Finally, he cut me a little slack.

Jessica hates wind.

“This one’s ok,” he said. “But it’s still stupid.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why I Chant

I lost my sunglasses on a Tuesday morning.

I remember the day because I’d been invited to chant that morning even though the group I chant with usually meets on Wednesdays and Fridays.  But this week they changed the schedule because Wednesday was Independence Day.

It was only two of us that Tuesday morning, and if I’d known that in advance, I’d probably not have gone in the first place.  I’m new to chanting and I feel very self-conscious without the usually substantial number of chanters to carry me along.

The day was overcast and I took my sunglasses off as I walked up to the house where we chant.  I remember sticking the glasses into a shallow pocket inside my purse, noticing that they didn’t really fit well in the space but leaving them there because my host was on her porch watering her impatiens and once we started talking I just couldn’t be bothered moving them into their proper case. 

After the two of us chanted, she offered me a bouquet of white Hydrangeas – maddeningly big ones – and also a piece of her homemade mixed berry tart that was red, white and blue for July 4th.  I slung my purse onto my shoulder, grabbed my goodies, walked to my car, loaded everything onto the passenger seat and then drove the two minutes home. 

I realized my sunglasses were missing before I walked through my own front door.  I went back to the car to see if they’d dropped on the floor (they hadn’t) and then called my host to see if they’d fallen out when I’d scooped up the flowers and dessert.  She couldn’t find them in the house and even went out to the sidewalk to look for them.  “I don’t see them anywhere,” she said.

So I looked around my own house again, looked in the car more thoroughly, sat down and concentrated very hard on whether I really did have them with me that morning or whether I just imagined it, and, finally, decided to shelve the whole thing for a while, go for my daily walk and clear my head.  I loved my sunglasses and would typically wear them to walk, even on a cloudy day like this.  I missed them already. 

The chanting I do is a Buddhist prayer ritual that I’ve been doing for a few months and about which I know very little.  Out of the blue, a friend called and invited me to a meeting and it was one of those odd moments where I happened to say yes to something I would typically say no to.  Two days later, I found myself in a stranger’s living room, sitting before an altar, attempting to recite the Lotus Sutra, which is written in some foreign tongue and broken down for English speakers into a series of syllables and punctuation marks. Thirty-two pages of syllables and punctuation marks, few of which I could wrap my tongue around, that left me feeling very incompetent and about as far away from enlightened as a soul could possibly be. 

My husband has been studying Buddhism for a few years now as part of his yoga practice.  What I know from him is that Buddhism is based on the laws of cause and effect.  Some people refer to this as Karma, and it appears pretty simple: whatever you put out into the world is what you’ll get back.  Many teachers regard this phenomenon almost literally.  They say, if you want good health, spend your time ministering to sick people.  If you want wealth, give your money away to people who need it.  It’s never made the least bit of sense to me, but my husband insists this is how the world works.

Perhaps it was for that reason that I found myself a little mystified by my missing sunglasses.  Just days before, I’d been at the beach, walking along the shoreline, when I saw a pair of black sunglasses bobbing up and down in the surf.  I walked out into the water and snatched them up.  They were big, stylish, Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and I imagined how happy their owner might be to get them back.  So I took them to the lifeguard and he hung them on his stand.  “It’s a long shot, but maybe someone will claim them,” he said.

According to the laws of cause and effect, I figured that act alone should be enough to get me my sunglasses back.  But even as I paced my kitchen again, they were not materializing. 

Finally, I got in the car and drove back to the chanting house. 

Because of my beach experience, I wasn’t surprised to find my sunglasses lying in the street right next to my car. But when I picked them up, I was confounded; they’d been run over and mangled.  As I turned them over in my hand and assessed the damage, I cursed the thoughtless driver who ran them over and I decided unequivocally that the whole Cause and Effect thing was bullshit. 

However, unlike all my many calamities that have come before, I did not spend even two minutes feeling sorry for myself about this loss.  Nor did I ruminate about how I might get the sunglasses fixed for free – my typical mental calisthenics on how to cash in on what the world surely owes me.

Instead, I drove directly to Sunglass Hut, bought a new pair of the exact same glasses and felt instantly happy that I didn’t waste any time stewing about my sad misfortune. 

Later, much later, I felt grateful for the opportunity to see clearly that this was a little problem with an easy solution.  And even later still, it occurred to me that I may have been the one to run the sunglasses over in the first place. 

I had expected my chanting to provide me with my sunglasses back, like magic.  But instead, what I got was an inexplicable will and desire to move quickly from sadness to joy, rather than to sit in sadness indefinitely – a desire I hope emerges again in the face of events much more important than broken sunglasses. 

The mangled glasses now sit in a drawer in the kitchen where I keep my car keys.  I can’t bear to throw them away, even though they are completely unwearable.  My yogi husband says I’m still missing the real essence of karma: Letting go of what’s broken and moving on.  Obviously, I’m not there yet.  In the meantime, I chant.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

I Haven't Been Around Much Lately

Twenty years ago, my third psychologist gave me a diagnosis of Clinical Depression.  Therapists #4, 5 and 6 always wrote me up as Anxiety Disorder, but I'm pretty sure it was just to be polite.  (My first psychologist never diagnosed me. Plus, she only wore purple, so I feel like she doesn’t count. And my second psychologist wasn’t actually degreed – she was sort of a yogi/shaman type who sometimes practiced talk therapy.  Before you roll your eyes, please know that she has passed from this life and was one of the most helpful of the bunch.)

The first time I went to my Medical Intuit (I don’t really know what to call her – Energy Healer sounds so 1970s) she said that the “information” she was getting for me was that I should start taking antidepressants.  This was jarring counsel for her to pass on and she said so.  “Usually my work with people involves helping them get off of antidepressants.  I’ve never had this kind of advice come up for a client before,” she said.  And to drive her point home, she wouldn’t accept payment for the session.

Despite years (decades, really) of professionals and paraprofessionals all suggesting that drug therapy might be just what I need, I have not ever – not even once – tried antidepressants.  One reason is that I’m a hypochondriac.  If there are any known side effects associated with a drug, I will surely manifest them.

Another reason is that antidepressants are known to make you gain weight and suppress your sex drive, two conditions that I am absolutely positive will never help my supposed depression.

Finally, (and this might be the clincher), I was afraid of who I’d become if I were stripped of my sadness.  Or my cynicism.  Or even once-removed from my negativity.  These characteristics feel like my calling card.  I was afraid that the friends that I have liked me because I was gloomy, not in spite of it.  I was afraid I would lose my sense of humor.  I believed I’d no longer be able to write.

This is the point in the story where it seems natural for me to confess that I have started antidepressants and that none of those fears materialized.  But that’s not at all what happened.

I remain drug-free, but I joined a chanting group about five months ago and, almost instantaneously, everything changed.  I felt my sadness and my cynicism fall away and my knee jerk reaction in almost every situation is to now see my glass full and brimming.  I joke with my friend Ann that it feels like I’ve turned into her mother.

The other change is that I don’t write.  I was about to say, “I can’t write,” but here I am typing away, so I know that’s not true.  And it’s not so much that I don’t want to write.  I couldn't be happier at this moment.

I think it’s that I don’t feel like I need to write. 

Which is sad to me.  But in a joyous, bubbly, brimming glass kind of way.

This blog has been a great place for me to hang out for a long time; I hope I can find my way back here again soon. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Letting Go More

The other day I wrote about Letting Go and I didn’t even mention its ugly stepsister, Forgiveness.  I suspect that’s because, for whatever reason, forgiveness seems like a practically impossible feat.  Especially if I need to forgive someone that hasn’t sprung directly from my loins.  Or if it’s just someone that should have known better.  And especially especially especially if what the person did was 100% wrong.

Although it happened over a decade ago, I remember, like it was yesterday, the moment that Mike Brady stole my couch.  Not really a couch – a chaise longue.  And not really mine – my mother in law’s.  It’s not as if he came under the cloak of darkness and scurried off with it.  No, it was worse.  It was broad daylight and I held the door open for him and thanked him as he and his helper loaded it into their truck.

I didn’t even really like the chaise.  My husband used to call it The Psychiatrist’s Couch and I usually rolled my eyes.  He brought it back from his parent’s house and I was forced to find a place for it.  The carved wood frame needed refinishing and the gold satin fabric was frayed in areas.  The shiny gold didn’t go with anything we owned, plus it had little embroidered bees on it (bees!) and it took a year or two before I could even accept it as part of my household, then another year before I could muster the energy to have it recovered.

“It’s going to look great,” Mike Brady told me (yes, like the Brady Bunch) the first time we met.  He was my age – 30-something – and bore no resemblance at all to the namesake patriarch of my favorite childhood TV family.  He said he would order the fabric and call me when the chaise was ready.  He took the couch, a $400 deposit, and drove off.

Weeks and weeks went by and I didn’t hear from him.  His small side-street shop was always closed and his phone always went to voicemail.  I started stalking him, pushing the stroller past his store every time I took my son for a walk.  Finally, one day, I happened upon his landlord who told me that Mike Brady worked evenings as a waiter at a restaurant near the park.

I called the restaurant one night and got him on the phone. 

“Where’s my couch?” I asked.

“Oh, it was delayed.  I should have it next week,” he said.

Next week came and went, as did the weeks following.  I called the town to file a complaint and they said there was nothing they could do.  I took him to small claims court, but he didn’t show up for the hearing.

“Doesn’t that mean I win?” I said to the bailiff.

“Yup,” he said.  But he didn’t explain that winning didn’t mean I would get my couch back.

I tracked down Mike Brady’s bank account from my cancelled deposit check.  I called the police to have him arrested.  I called the courts to garnish his wages.  No one could do anything.

I went to the restaurant to confront him face to face and the hostess told me he was off that night.  “But he’s right across the street,” she volunteered, giving me the address of his apartment, a second-floor walk up in an old stucco row house that was painted Kelly green. 

I had no business doing it, but I rang the front bell and was buzzed in.  The hallway was dark and musty, the stairs unlevel.  There was a door at the far end that sat ajar and I walked up to it and pushed it open, not really sure what I was going to say to Mike Brady now that I was about to step into his home. 

No one stood to greet me.  Mike was one of three young men sitting on a couch (not mine) amid a roomful of billowy smoke and a bong (yes, like Cheech and Chong) and when he finally realized who I was he didn’t seem the least bit rattled. 

“I want my couch,” I said.

“Yeah, see, I’ve run into some problems,” he said, and started in on a skimpy explanation about how he owed his upholsterer money and my couch was being held as collateral. 

“It’s a family heirloom,” I said.

“No worries,” he said.  “You’ll get it back.  I’ve got the money for him and he’s going to drop it off next week.”

“I don’t even care about it being reupholstered,” I said, “I just want the piece returned.”

“Yeah, sure.  Call me next week if you don’t hear from me.”

Of course, I didn’t hear from him. 

Over the next year, I kept a dossier that listed every event that took place, notarized letters I collected from witnesses, the certified letters I sent Mike Brady that were returned as undeliverable.  I met a woman who’d also had chairs “stolen” by Mike Brady and I kept a journal of her progress as well.  I went back to the police.  I filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the Department of Consumer Affairs.

One day, I brought it all to the courthouse, where I was going to file for another hearing.  The woman behind the glass was eating a bag of Cheetos and I could tell I annoyed her just by being there.  She handed me a stack of forms that I filled out for 30 minutes and when I brought them back to her, she brushed off the orange Cheetos dust and ripped them in two.  “Sorry, those weren’t the right forms.”

I spent that year so busy being enraged, I completely forgot that I didn’t even like the couch.  Finally, when my husband could listen to me rant no more, he said, “You have to let this go.”

“But I’m right,” I told him, as if that was ever going to matter to anyone.

“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

My husband didn’t say that.  Mark Twain did.  Long before my couch was stolen. There’s so much I love about that sentiment, but I now know that the analogy is incomplete.  Because while it captures the sheer impossibility of the gesture, it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter, which is that the emanating fragrance is not for the heel’s benefit, or even to make the world a sweeter smelling place.  The fragrance is solely for the benefit of the violet – its crushed, crumpled self – which somehow it manages to make whole again.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Difference Between How Children and Grown-ups Think

Child: When is my skateboard going to be here?
Grown-up:  I’m not sure.  It’s coming by UPS.
Child: What time does UPS come?
Grown-up: UPS usually delivers around 10 in the morning or around 4 in the afternoon.  So, expect it to come around 4.
Child: Why 4?
Grown-up: Because then if it comes at 10 you’ll be really happy.
Child:  If I expect it to come at 10 and it comes at 10 I’ll be really happy.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Everything I Believe About Shopping (In A Single Sentence)

I was recently asked whether I prefer to shop for clothes online than in stores and in some ways I do because clothes shopping seems like a completely frivolous activity that I never have time for (even though I regularly need clothes, and they do need to somehow be acquired) so if I’m looking for something in particular, I might go online and check out several different sources for the single item, or, like my recent Zappos experience, where I thought it would be more efficient to find a pair of summer sandals by ordering 40 pair of shoes in varying sizes and colors and having them spread out all over my living room (a phenomenon my husband described as a shoegasm) so I could walk around the house in them and try them on with some of my clothes and get the opinions of visiting friends (one of whom needed to return multiple times because my head was reeling with too many shoe choices and I was beginning to have an identity crisis), and then send back whatever I didn’t want (which was all but one pair – shoes that changed my life for a few weeks but that now feel a little too stretched out and which I may send back as well), a process that, at it’s completion, proved to be wholly inefficient and stressful in a different way than shopping in a store, where, yes, you can touch things and see true colors in real time, but where you also have the opportunity to be struck by a certain something that you may not have been looking for at all, a prospect that scares me because I spend so little of my life browsing that the sheer act of visually taking in all that’s available in the world sends me into a kind of manic state and I end up buying far more than what I was looking for – far more than what I need – and, like any kind of mania, leaves me feeling exhausted and blue after the climax has passed, so that, for me, any in-store clothes shopping is best accomplished the way I did it yesterday, which was like this: I wandered into a clothing boutique at the Jersey Shore (looking for something more interesting to wear over my bathing suit than the cargo shorts I currently had on) and quickly eyed all the racks for a starting point, landing on a long, flowy, blue-and-green batik slipover dress that was cut in a way that would accentuate my lean torso and de-accentuate my child-bearing-hips; I pulled it off the rack, took it into the dressing room, slipped off my shorts, slid the dress over my bathing suit, looked in the mirror, stepped out of the dressing room to look in another mirror and also to give a sales clerk or another customer the opportunity to see me in the dress and spontaneously offer that it was the perfect dress for me (which no one did), returned to the dressing room and into my regular clothes and headed for the cashier, dress over arm, quickly scanning the rest of the store, not so much to find a different dress, but in the way that some old philosopher I’d once read (Sartre? Kierkegaard?) described the act of looking for a friend in a coffee shop – how you see everyone’s face not for what it is, but only to determine that it’s not who you’re looking for – and then, after that brief 30-second scan, satisfied that there were no other contenders, I paid for the dress and left the store, the whole process taking under five minutes, and had only a slight amount of buyer’s remorse as I walked up the boardwalk, remorse that completely dissipated later when I put the dress on and my husband told me how awesome I looked, which is really all we’re looking for as the fruit of our shopping sprees – aren’t we – someone to think that we’re awesome.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Letting Go

I’m wondering why, on my morning walk, I even started thinking about a certain exclusive pre-school that sat atop a certain bluff in a certain riverfront town.  A preschool that, 14 years ago, decided that my then-three-year-old wasn’t advanced enough to join all of his friends that September in their hand-picked, crunchy granola classroom and benefit from the finest progressive pre-k education a co-op could offer.  I hadn’t thought about that school, or that incident, in over a decade – I had certainly stopped ruminating about it long before that.  But this morning, as I leaned down to pick up some discarded frozen yogurt cups on the corner – cups that I’d noticed on my walk the day before and now realized were not going to get into a trash container any other way – I felt very sorry for myself because it was so hard for me to bend forward to retrieve them. 

My stiff midsection made me think about calling my friend Suzanne, who happens to live in that certain riverfront town, and tell her about my body woes, because she is a massage therapist and acupuncturist and also because she understands my particular lot in life, which is that I hold my emotions so tightly in check that they wreck havoc on my musculoskeletal system.  If I called Suzanne, I would have told her about the woman I’ve been seeing who does “energy work” and how, after two sessions with her, having embarked on a process of (in her words) unfurling all the tension and stress within, I can now barely bend forward and do not feel in the least bit unfurled, but rather achy and stiff, as if I’ve aged 15 years in the last four weeks. 

But as I continued to walk, my mind quickly jumped from that Suzanne to a different Suzanne, one who also lives in that certain riverfront town, and whom I happened to run into a few weeks ago on a train ride into Manhattan.  I hadn’t seen This Other Suzanne for almost as long as the preschool incident, because her daughter was one of my son’s friends who did get accepted to that certain exclusive pre-school and not long after that, we moved.  This Other Suzanne’s daughter just finished her senior year in high school and was off to college somewhere, I forget where, but I’m sure it’s someplace fabulous, because This Other Suzanne’s daughter was fluent in two languages by age three and has a rather unusual name (after the wife of a famous painter), but most importantly, she attended a certain very exclusive preschool. 

I didn’t spend a minute of my walk trying to remember the name of the daughter’s college or the name of the painter for whose wife she was named, but instead turned my attention quickly to a certain exclusive college that The Teenager wants to apply to Early Decision, in the hopes that it might better the chance of his acceptance from under 10% to perhaps 12 or 13 percent.  This is exactly the type of college I have not wanted The Teenager to apply to at all because I have developed, over the years, a reverse prejudice about Schools Like That, and have deemed them, in my mind, haughty and elitist and basically just institutions that manufacture assholes.  I hold this opinion strongly and deeply, even though many, many of my close friends went to Schools Like That and not a one of them is an asshole. 

Yet, on my walk, I began to have a fantasy of The Teenager receiving an acceptance letter from a certain exclusive college and rather than worrying about whether or not he would turn into an asshole, I immediately imagined taking a picture of that acceptance letter and mailing it to a certain exclusive preschool along with a simple handwritten note containing only a certain vulgar two-word phrase that is meant to convey both disdain and superiority. 

And the prospect of that made me smile.

As I was replaying my fantasy over and over, imagining my note being read by the self-same woman who, 14 years ago, thought it was reasonable to judge three-year-old children on their “potential,” I found myself becoming really excited by the prospect of The Teenager getting into that certain exclusive college, largely so I could thumb my nose at a woman whose name I will never remember and whose face I wouldn’t recognize in a million years. 

And then I wondered whether, maybe, just maybe, the Energy Healer’s work isn’t working because I have a tendency to hold on so tightly to old resentments and wrongdoings.  Whether I can’t bend forward because there are too many things my muscles won’t let go of; that perhaps they’re forever tethered by my every longstanding rebuff. 

I had to wonder whether the frozen yogurt cups were left on my corner for A Reason.  Whether some cosmic force knew I would lean down to pick them up and they would remind me how easy it is to get rid of garbage that’s not your own, and how it really shouldn’t be any harder to get rid of your own garbage, but, damn, it sure is.

And how letting go of something that’s been a part of you for a long time, even something that you know doesn’t belong there anymore, feels a little like being broken.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Meta Physics

Yesterday I learned that The Teenager has a seemingly irreparable conflict in his schedule for senior year.  Two classes that he really wants to take meet only during the same period.  One of the classes is AP Physics C Part 2.  I’d certainly like him to get the classes he wants, but if I never have to know about another physics project for the rest of my life, I may possibly die a happy woman.

Physics projects have aged me.  Is that a Law of Physics?

The Teenager is driving home from the beach right now with a full sized catapult in the back of the car.  The catapult that was due last Friday and built, for the most part, Thursday night.  The catapult that needed to be designed and constructed to hurl an egg an unknown distance to hit the instructor.  A distance that could be anywhere from 20 to 50 feet.

The catapult was the final exam for AP Physics C Part 1.  The students had already spent the year designing and  building other irksome projects. A balsa wood tower that had to adhere to height, weight and girth requirements and also be able to sustain 30 lbs.  A mechanical helicopter that needed to fly and remain airborne for at least 60 seconds.

Both feats were miraculously accomplished by boys who, I’m fairly certain, have no idea how to make a bed.

I try not to get involved in these projects, but when the assemblage takes place in my home, the stress permeates the premises.  I am a sponge, and I absorb any and all angst within my purview. 

Unlike the tower, where I was called upon to fetch more balsa wood, replenish glue-gun glue and procure Venti Lattes, or, in the case of the helicopter, order a sanctioned building kit (replete with 23-page instruction manual) to be delivered overnight and secure three different types of modeling glue, I was not asked for any assistance at all with the catapult – a shame, really, because the project reeked of Monty Python to me, and, as a result, warmed my heart.  In fact, when The Teenager’s lab partner jokingly intimated that they were just going to buy a catapult and call it a day, I didn’t even try and dissuade them.  “I don’t want to spend countless hours building this thing . What a colossal waste of time,” he said.  And I was like, Yeah, I could think of better things to do.

So, wasn’t I surprised when, two weeks ago, they came lumbering in with two-by-fours (sorry, bad pun) and rope, and headed to the basement workbench?  They spent a chunk of time building the base that night and, once complete, left it, in typical teenager fashion, untouched for nine days until the eve of its due date. 

“It’s almost halfway built,” said The Teenager.  “We’ll be able to bang out the rest of it really fast.”

I won’t bore you with their hapless setbacks, I will just say this:  The whole point (it seems) of a physics project, is to give yourself time to make the types of modifications necessary when you can’t get your egg to sail more than 18 feet.  Time that simply does not exist when you begin the project in earnest at 7 o’clock the night before it’s due.

“Is it the torque or the trajectory?” I asked, pacing the basement and trying to sound helpful but, in truth, barely knowing what either of those things mean.  By this time it was almost 11 o’clock and I wanted to go to sleep.

Unfortunately, one of my many shortcomings is that I can’t sleep when a catapult is being built in my midst.

Every time they needed to test the catapult, they had to haul it up the narrow basement stairway and around the island in the kitchen, and out the back door to the yard.  They'd set it up on the driveway and let it rip.  The egg would barely make 20 feet.  They’d then haul it back down to the basement again to make adjustments.

The Teenager and his lab partner argue a lot. They’ve been friends for years and they’re like two old men on a park bench with nothing in the world better to do than contradict each other. Much of the building session was spent this way, with both of them taking seats on the patio, trying to reason and cajole each other to modify this way instead of that.

“We need a longer throwing arm.  We need to get to a lumber yard,” one of them finally declared.

“There are no lumber yards open at this time of night,” I told them.  “You’ll have to use what you can find around the house.”

They texted other classmates to check on their progress.  They replaced their wooden arm with a lacrosse stick.  They barreled through my ($5.99/dozen organic!) eggs.

Splat, splat, splat.  My driveway was full of yolk.  None of it landing further than 22 feet.

“Forget it,” said The Teenager. “Twenty-two feet will have to be good enough.  I’m going to bed.”

But his lab partner talked him into further adjustments and modifications while I lay tossing and turning on what may as well have been a bed of nails.  Is there anything in the medicine cabinet for a Catapult-Induced Sleep Disorder?

Eventually, they too called it quits.

Bleary the next morning, I asked him how it went.  My past experience with The Teenager is that things always seem to work out. I somehow let sleep overtake me and when I wake up, the thousand page paper has been written or the minutia-laden architecture model has been constructed.  I don’t ever believe these elfin surprises will materialize, but they always do.

“The egg never landed beyond 22 feet,” he said in his gloomy voice, a situation we both knew would not bode well for his grade.

Yet, six hours, eight two-by-fours, two bungee cords, one lacrosse stick and two fresh eggs later, catapult magic happened.  An egg was launched and landed inches before the teacher, a distance of over 49 feet. 

There is no scientific explanation as to how this was possible.  How someone can repeat a process dozens of times and get the same lousy outcome every time, and then, finally, that one time that it counts, everything falls into place.  Is that a Law of Physics, too?  Or is it something bigger, like a blessing, or just good old-fashioned grace?

I know it’s too much to hope that the schedule conflict magically resolves itself in a similar way.  I mean, it’s just not possible.  Everyone has already told me so.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"Happy Mother's Day"

“Please dress nicely.  If possible, please wear pink and/or green which are the Home Tour Colors.” 

These words were included in a last minute instructional email sent to me and all the other women who have volunteered to staff the House Tour.  Seven spectacular houses were opened to the public as a fundraiser for my younger son’s school.  I’d been asked to write descriptions of the homes for the program booklet and also to serve as a docent in one of the homes during the tour.  I’ve been working on this fundraiser for months, yet I still find it baffling that someone might send me an email suggesting I wear pink.
“Welcome! You can tour this house shoes-in-hand or you can slip those little booties over your shoes.”

This is practically all I say for the three hours of my shift. I say it over and over again, to the hundreds of women and the few brave men that I greet at the door of the Upper Mountain mansion.  I imagine that’s why my jaw aches so much right now but deep down I suspect it’s really because of The Teenager. 

Sometimes, to break up the monotony, I say to the guests, “This is a booty house,” and I point to the little wicker basket filled with blue crepe galoshes like the ones that operating room nurses wear over their white sensible shoes.  Although, in truth, I don’t need to break up the monotony much, because I have a teenager, and no matter how much I prepare otherwise, that teenager always seems to find a way to commandeer my day.
“Mom, I have this big architecture project due today and the teacher is letting me have the weekend to finish it because of the AP tests…”

This is the teenager, prattling on from his cell phone about his current crisis.  I have my iPhone up to my ear, half listening, while I smile at entering guests and point to the bootie basket, assuming that they’ll understand what I want them to do. 

He wants me to pick up his architecture project between 2:00 and 2:30 because he has to get on a bus to a track meet.

“I can’t,” I tell him. “I’m working.  Get someone else.”   I’m smiling and bootie-pointing while he tells me no one else can help him with this.  No one.  I listen to him longer than I should, mostly because my iPhone case is pink and I’m using it to comply with the dress code.

What the teenager doesn’t know – can’t know – is that my hot pink iPhone has been at my ear almost from the moment I arrived for my shift. I’m stationed in a big house with six volunteers slated to show guests around, but one volunteer was called away and another called in sick.  I’ve been handing out booties and fielding calls from event coordinators who have been trying to send me replacements but are instead calling with regrets.
“I can’t get anyone else to do this, Mom.  Please.  If you don't pick up this project,  I’ll get an F.”

When The Teenager calls on my hot pink iPhone, a picture of him comes up on the screen.  It was taken the day he got his driver’s license and it’s a sweet shot of a man-boy who is almost-but-not-quite smiling and looks almost-but-not-quite innocent.  It’s a picture in which you can see his underlying goodness and easily forget about his overarching disorganization. 

My heart warms ever so slightly as I regard this picture and I soon find myself calling and texting friends to cover my bootie-offering position while I dash over to the high school to retrieve The Teenager's work. 
I present the requisite picture ID needed to enter the high school and scurry to the main office to get a pass to the architecture studio.  I’m feeling buoyant and benevolent – new volunteers have been sent to the house; I’m able to help my son; and I’ll still be back to the house tour in time to close up and clean up for the homeowners. 

The High School Receptionist offers to walk me to the architecture studio, rightly prescient that I’d never be able to locate it in the bowels of the building on my own.  The studio teacher hands me a huge wooden board – a portable drafting table – with The Teenager’s drawings taped to it.  My keys are dangling from my fingers and my bag is slipping off my shoulder as I haul the unwieldy thing up the stairwell and call out to the kid ahead of me to please hold the door so I can manage through.

During our short walk together, I tell the High School Receptionist how The Teenager lets me know (as often as he can) that he thinks kids should be afforded more independence and that mothers really just get in the way and botch things up. Yet, here I am, dragging his work home for him.

This conversation takes place at 2:00, long before The Teenager will ask me to pick him up from his track meet 20 miles away and give me a snort and an eye-roll when I ask him if he’s sure he has everything as we get in the car.  Longer still before I drive him to his own high school’s field house, where he’s left his car, and where I watch him search, futilely, for his car keys, which must have fallen from his pocket at the track meet. Longer even still from the time when, back home, I scream every curse word I’ve ever learned at him because he is stomping and grousing about having to go back to the track meet to find the keys. 

If I had told the High School Receptionist any of that, she would not have been left with a particularly savory impression of The Teenager.  The High School Receptionist doesn’t have that pink iPhone picture to look upon and remind herself how The Teenager can light up a room with his giggle and his smile. 

And she herself might have found it even more wry, maybe even ironic, as I teetered through the door, off balance not only as a result of The Teenager’s architecture project, but perpetually off balance just by virtue of my ongoing proximity to teenagers in general, that her parting words to me still echo in my head: “Happy Mother’s Day!”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mother Enchanted

“Don’t fall in love with your son’s girlfriend.”

This directive was recently offered up by Cathy, my best friend from high school.  We were together at a small reunion and we resumed our natural roles, me sitting at her feet as she dispensed advice.  Cathy married first and had children first, so she’s always been a bit of a mentor to me. 

Cathy was the one who, early in my parenting, told me, “You can’t force a child to eat or sleep or poop, so don’t even bother trying” – a piece of information that saved my sanity if not my life. 

In fact, I’ve taken to heart most of the mothering advice she’s handed down, so, I admit, her cautionary words did dance around in my head the first few times I met my son’s girlfriend. But I’m afraid, for the most part, Cathy, it’s too late.

Is that because The Girlfriend is fresh-faced and dresses like Stevie Nicks?  No.

Is it because she has an infectious smile and an easy laugh?  No.

And it’s not because she’s smart or funny or upbeat or urbane.  In fact, I don’t know if she’s any of those things, because I barely know her.  But what I do know is that she’s a girl – a commodity this household has been woefully under-stocked with in the last seventeen and a half years.

“Hi,” she says to me when she walks in the house.  “How was your day?”  (This is a sentence that has never been uttered by my own offspring.  No, not once.)

“My day was great,” I say, and I begin telling her about the jewelry show I’d been invited to that day.  I tell her how a woman in town makes interesting costume jewelry and sells it at a very reasonable price and that I normally would just go to look, but today I ended up buying five pieces and the whole experience made me downright giddy. 

I notice, as I tell her this story, that there’s a fluidity missing to my speech.  I hear myself deliver it in tentative chunks, waiting for her eyes to glaze, as my sons’ do whenever I offer more than two words of detail about anything that has to do with clothing. Or jewelry.  Or haircuts.  Or me. 

But there was no glazing.  Instead, she responded in a way that was so remarkable I found myself replaying it in my head for the rest of the day and even for days beyond. 

She said, “Really?  Can I see it?”

She just asked to see my jewelry!!!

I bounded upstairs and reemerged a minute later with a silly smile on my face and a fistful of baubles in my hand.  I showed her one piece at a time, offering detail after detail of the event itself – how three strangers told me that the turquoise piece was perfect for me, and how I just went ahead and bought it even though it was a little more of a “statement” than I was used to making. 

“Ohhh, it’s so pretty,” she said, in a sing-song girly way that couldn’t be more foreign in my burp-and-grunt home. 

Is she blowing smoke up my butt? I wondered.  Maybe.  I don’t even care.  In fact, like it. 

As a mother of boys I’ve told myself certain stories over the last many years: Girls are high maintenance. Girls have too much drama.  Girls are petty and bossy and mean.  As an ex-girl myself, I know all too well how vicious and rude girls can be to their mothers.  I tell these stories to feel ok about living in house full of boys – boys who don’t want to discuss the nuances of nail color or the finer points of feelings – and I’ve convinced myself that I’m somehow better off in the long run because I don’t have all that gooey girl stuff to deal with.

But I’d forgotten about this.  The authentic and palpable excitement about some very important aspects of life that, let’s face it, boys can’t even be bothered to feign. 

Am I really in love with my son’s girlfriend, Cathy?  No, of course not.  But I do have a wicked mean crush.

Monday, April 16, 2012

No Sorries

I played mixed doubles last night for the first time.

It wasn’t exactly an accident, but I didn’t know until I got on the court.  I’d gotten an email during the day from Rachel, a woman I usually only play with in the summer.  She told me to meet her at 6 p.m.  When I got there, she was standing next to a tall, slim guy in his forties.  “Do you know Peter?”

I actually did know Peter, as he’s the husband of a friend of mine.  “I usually play with him,” said Rachel.  “Is it ok if you play with Joel?”

I nodded, sure, but what I wanted to say is, “Really? We’re playing with guys?”

As it turns out, I knew Joel, too.  I had played with Rachel once last summer against Joel and his wife.  Aside from pros stepping in during clinics, that was the first time I’d played doubles with a man.  And it’s a little different.

First off, men hit hard.  Fortunately, my Friday group hits hard, so I’m somewhat used to it.  But there is something different, almost ineffable, about the slam of a man.  The power is similar, as is the satisfied afterglow.  But if you pried open a woman’s brains and could actually read the thoughts in her head, that slam of hers might be accompanied by a “Take that!”, whereas a man’s thought balloon is almost certainly, “Crush! Kill! Destroy!” 

A woman’s slamming face is full of retribution.  A man’s is filled with glee.  It takes a little getting used to.

However the biggest difference is this:  Men don’t say “sorry.”

I’ve always known this intellectually, but I had never experienced it firsthand. Starting with the warm-up, hitting gently to each other across the net, it’s commonplace, if you hit too high or too wide, to express regret to your hitting partner.  In women’s play, that is.  Here, that was not done.  I was “sorrying” all over the place, and other than that, the court was silent.

We gathered at the bench for a quick drink before starting the match and I mentioned the phenomenon.  “Y’all don’t ever say sorry, do you?” (Sometimes I talk like I’m from the Deep South.)

I may as well have been speaking in tongues.  I could see them both trying to figure out what there might be to be sorry about and they were simultaneously drawing blanks.

“Women say sorry all the time,” I offered. 

Joel said, “Well, maybe if I hit my partner, by accident, I might say sorry.  But to those guys over the net…?”

And with that, I commenced upon my very first, sorry-free game of tennis.

It was sort of remarkable.  I felt exhilarated afterwards in a way I haven’t in a long time.  It reminded me of when I first started playing and just being on the court created boundless energy.  There is something very liberating about not having to say you’re sorry.

What do we women mean when we apologize every time we hit a ball that’s too high, too wide, too short, too hard?  When we’re rallying and warming up, do we mean “I meant to hit it right to you but I didn’t execute properly (sorry)”?  When we’re playing a game, do we mean, “I feel sheepish and slightly undeserving of the fact that I just hit an amazingly good shot that there was no way you were going to get (sorry)”?

Or maybe in all cases, we mean, “I just acted careless/reckless/thoughtless/selfish; I hope you still like me.”

If that’s what we’re saying (and I think it might be), it is exhausting.  The feeling that you not only have to play good tennis, you also have to make sure you don’t offend anyone.  That dynamic was completely absent last night, as these guys hit one brutally aggressive shot after another and not only didn’t apologize – they rocked a little fist pump afterwards. 

Joel hit one shot from the baseline that whizzed past Peter and literally knocked him down.  We all stopped for a second while he got to his feet and regained his equilibrium. 

He wasn’t hurt, he’d just lost his balance.  At that moment, even in my apology-free jubilation, I said to my partner, “I think you could have said ‘sorry’ on that one.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ready for the Real World?

I hate so many things about this college search process, it makes my head spin.  I hate having too many choices.  I hate looking at schools (largely because I hate traveling).  I hate the guesswork involved in trying to figure out where The Teenager will be happy and thrive over four (or five, or six) years.  But the thing I hate most is the random, arbitrary feeling of it all. It seems like a process that lacks anything that even remotely resembles fairness or order.

You’re playing the odds in a game whose rules seem totally capricious and are likely to change from school to school. 

The teenager told his college counselor that he may be interested in a particular engineering school and she told him that as a white boy from New Jersey, his chances of being accepted were very slim.  He’s got the grades.  He’s got the scores.  He’s got the interest.  Not enough.  “It would be easier for you to get in if you were a girl,” she said to him.  And I start to wonder whether there’s enough money in his college savings for a sex change operation.

“The system is broken,” said a friend of my husband’s whose daughter applied early decision to a certain Ivy League school (his alma mater) and was wait-listed.  His daughter has excellent grades, great test scores, does lab work as in intern at Harvard, has her own research projects and is an accomplished equestrian.  Here’s what happened:  Her classmate’s dad is friends with the Ivy’s crew coach – good friends – and he called in a favor for his own daughter.  The coach spoke to the admissions office and the classmate was accepted early decision as a recruit for the crew team.

My friend’s daughter was devastated that she’d been wait-listed and to have a spot given to her classmate seemed beyond outrageous to her.  Why?  Because the classmate has never rowed crew a day in her life.

The classmate is apparently an ok student and a very good artist.  Perhaps an artist who would have thrived at an art school.  But maybe the art schools she was drawn to didn’t have a crew teams, or at least not teams that were coached by her dad’s friends, so she was better off, I guess, taking a spot the Ivy that her more qualified classmate could have had.

Who knows whether the our friend's daughter was next in line for that early decision slot.  Who knows whether the young artist will turn out to be a star coxswain. 

Deep down most of us just want our kids to spend time at a school that will prepare them for the real world. Still, to tell The Teenager a story like this, and then when he looks at me all mystified and full of disbelief, to simply nod my head and say, “I know.  That’s sometimes how the world works.”  Well, I hate that, too.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Getting Ready For College

People have been asking how’s our college search going.  Specifically, they ask: What are you doing?

I’m sorry to report, not much.

I am armed with books and websites that I don’t look at because they’re too overwhelming, or because The Teenager has no idea what kind of school he wants to go to.  He vacillates between Ivy League and County College, depending on how onerous his workload is that week. 

I’ve tried to do the questionnaires on websites like College Board, an activity that’s supposed to narrow your search down to a manageable number of schools that you can then research further.  I’ve done this particular questionnaire three times, each time pretending I’m The Teenager and answering questions as I think he would (or should).  Each time, when I reach the end of the questionnaire, there are no suggestions.  Zero.  Apparently, there’s not one single college that fits my criteria.

I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong.

In between my bouts of inertia, I’ve been dismantling all our old Lego sets so I can sell the pieces by the bag.  There’s a local consignment shop that I give quart-sized Zip-Locks filled with hundreds of dollars worth of colorful plastic and the proprietor says there’s a waiting list for them.  I sit in the basement pulling apart Harry Potter sets and Star Wars sets that result in the same back aching stiffness as when I sat for hours with my kids putting them together in the first place.

I have five huge shopping bags of Legos in my trunk right now. 

Lately, The Teenager has been broaching the subject of California.  As in, Would you consider letting me go to school out there?

I’ve said no to this in the past.  It’s a long ways away and, you know, they have earthquakes out there.  But in some ways, California would really suit him and I’m now trying to pry open my stubborn mind and at least try to consider his applying.

I’m not a big fan of earthquakes (or most any destructive act of God, really), but the main reason I don’t want him to go to school in California is because I’m afraid he’ll want to stay there forever.  Should I live my life in sunny California, or should I move back to New Jersey?  Duh.

He says things like, “I like such and such school, but they don’t offer a Latin minor,” and I say, “For God’s Sake, do not pick a school based on whether they offer Latin,” even though I know that if he spends a lot of time studying Latin in school, there’s a really good chance he’ll end up close to home after college; maybe even back in his old bedroom, which would address at least one of my concerns: deep down I don’t really want him to leave.

Many of the Lego sets I’m pulling apart are structures that The Teenager and I worked long and tireless hours on.  The instructions have no words and you simply do the best you can to interpret what the diagrams are asking of you.  There’s something about the pictograms that level the playing field for parent and child.  You teach each other how to build together.

I’ve never been a Sporty Mom or a Video Game Mom or (perish the thought) an Action Figure Mom, so Legos became one of the few things I could spend time doing with my boys where we’re both really engaged – where I wanted to be doing just that. 

So, not to get all goopy, but breaking down the Legos feels a little like taking apart a childhood.

There will be mothers at the consignment shop who will happily plunk down five bucks to score a bag of random Lego pieces.  Mothers who have never thought about Subject SATs or how they might manage to nag their child effectively across several time zones, and are only trying to find something to occupy their kids for a time – to engage their creativity and delight them with something new.

I try to make each bag unique by distributing the cool Lego accoutrements evenly.  One gets a little yellow life boat.  Another gets some teeny gold Lego coins.  Lego snakes in one.  Lego-copter in another. 

I want their new pint-sized owner to stick his smooth, perfect hand deep into the bag of plastic parts and pull something out that makes his eyes go wide.  Something that he holds out to his mother and says, “Look what I got!” and it becomes another little thing that the two of them have together – that they can cherish and marvel how lucky they were to pick a bag that held such a special little secret, just for them. 

I want the mother to treasure the look on his face – the look that says, You got me this…You did this for me!  I want her to burn that look into her heart so she always knows where to find it, long after she herself has packed the Legos away.

I don’t think it’s getting me very far, but that's what I've been doing to get ready for college.

Friday, March 23, 2012

To Poo and Back Again

A few days ago, I started writing a blog post about why I haven’t written any blog posts for a while, and now I can’t find it.  It’s taken a lot of resolve to stop looking for it and start again.

It began with me explaining how, every so often, I decide that I need a Real Job and I kick around the idea of getting my Realtor’s license.  And then some kind of divine intervention occurs and I end up with a writing gig or in a writing workshop or basically doing something that has everything to do words and ideas and nothing to do with houses and closing costs.  As if the universe is trying to tell me something.

I would actually make a good Realtor in some ways, because I really like showing people around and telling them nifty little things they might not know.  About a house, or a neighborhood, or a town.  It would also give me the opportunity to wear some of the cute outfits my Dresser put together for me last year when I broke down last year and paid someone to help me figure out what to wear.

But instead, I’m in ratty jeans, sitting in front of a computer screen that I’m absolutely certain is the cause of my failing eyesight.   This is because I’m six weeks into a writing class.

I come to writing classes in perhaps the most arrogant way.  I must need to conjure up a certain amount of egotistical overconfidence just to get myself to sign up.  Because, writing workshops are kind of scary.  At least they are for me.  You’re basically paying someone a chunk of money to allow you to sit in a circle and have 10 people tell you why your essays don’t work.

So, all puffed up and full of myself, I walk into a room of other writers, fairly certain that I will be the most competent of the group.  I soon discover, quickly and incontrovertibly, that I suck. 

Ok, maybe that’s too harsh. Let’s just say, it dawns on me that not only am I not the best in the room, I may possibly be the worst. 

As you might expect, this is not an ideal mindset for churning out blog posts.

This exact process has transpired so many times in precisely the same way that I feel like I should know by now to just walk in humble in the first place.  But my brain is a rat bastard sometimes and it won’t let me just decide to be humble. It requires experiential proof.

I’m not sure if it’s like this for everyone, but I find Being Humbled very liberating, but absolutely exhausting. And not for just an hour or two; I’m kind of wrung out for a long time. 

It also makes me really hungry.

So between spending the last many weeks writing, reading other people’s submissions, commenting on those submissions, overeating and generally feeling like poo, you can see how blogging might get shelved for a little while.

I think I’m back now, though.  Thanks for being patient. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Sublimation vs. Sublime

My partner and I were at a big disadvantage today, just based on who our opponents were.  One of them has an insanely powerful serve and groundstroke, the other can get almost anything at the net.  My partner and I are both recovering from injuries that kept us away from Friday Tennis for a lot of the fall and then, after that, left us fumphering around the court, trying to compensate for our shortcomings, an activity at which I’m all too well-practiced.

She and I shouldn’t even play together, but we do.

We lost the first two games quickly and embarrassingly.  We swung at balls and missed them entirely.  Repeatedly hit shots into the net.  Not here and there, but over and over.  By the third game, we were high-fiving that we had simply scored a single point.

The subject of sex came up (as it often does in Friday Tennis) and after a short discussion (the details of which are better left unshared), my partner and I started playing the littlest bit better.  We took a game.  Then lost a game.  Then took two games in a row and we were tied 4-4. 

The reason this is important to mention is because there are different ways to lose a set.  There’s the humiliating way (6-0 or 6-1), and then there’s the way that we did, 6-4, with our heads held high.

We started a new set and my partner and I made the mistake of switching sides, something you should certainly try if you’re getting creamed (6-0), but not if you’re playing decently with lots of close games, as was our situation.  This was because we convinced ourselves that our short sex conversation had been the key to our success.  That we had found ourselves in some sort of Bull Durham Reverse Universe where the transmutation of sexual energy was enhancing our strokes (so to speak), a phenomenon Freud may have considered a type of “sublimation.”  If we just continued thinking about sex while we were playing tennis, we reasoned, we would be unstoppable.

This conviction proved very, very wrong.

I’m not sure what was responsible for our inexplicable underdog comeback in the first set, but whatever it was, it was gone once we switched sides and no amount of lascivious thought or innuendo seemed capable of getting it back. 

My partner and I went from being Roadrunners back to being Coyotes, with shot after shot leaving us tail-singed and gape-jawed.  I looked around for some Acme dynamite and in doing so, managed to miss yet another ball.

I think we ran out of time before we could finish the second set, but we played about five games and my partner and I only won one of them.  I think that one was a fluke.  I had stopped thinking about sex head on and instead began trying to remember the name of the Bull Durham movie, not actively, exactly, but like Muzak in the background – using just enough brain power to wrest my mind away from berating myself for our bad judgment and occupy it enough to let me go about hitting a proper backhand, which is likely the precise function our sex talk served to begin with.

By the end of the game, I still didn’t have the movie title.   All I could conjure was Susan Sarandon writhing around while Kevin Costner is painting her toenails, a scene I remembered as itself sexy and unexpected and, in the world of movie scenes, perhaps even sublime.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ok. I'm Still Doing It.

During my time with Therapist Number 2 (Number 3 if you count my short stint with The Woman Who Only Wore Purple), I felt like I had some really big fish to fry – namely, I wanted to quit smoking cigarettes, leave my job and lose weight, three things that were unlikely to ever happen together.

I would lay on her leather couch with her Dachshund on my belly and bemoan my inability to become waiflike despite how meagerly I ate or how ferociously I exercised. 

“We don’t exercise to be thin,” she told me one day, her long, reedy legs crossed at the knee in her massive leather shrink chair.

“We don’t?”

“No, we exercise to have a relationship with our body.”

That was one of those statements that, depending on my mood, could strike me as either totally asinine or absolutely profound.  On that day, it was profound.

Everything I understood about exercise suddenly shifted.  It no longer became a means to an end, but an end unto itself.  I stopped caring about results.  It stopped being about my self-esteem. I stopped doing things simply to suffer through them and made a commitment to stoke that relationship that she talked about in a good way, every day. 

I just had a similar revelation at a writing workshop I attended last week. 

Surrounded by a dozen women, writing from prompts, reading aloud, sharing reactions, reading some more, I began to remember why we write. As Natalie Goldberg says, “We write to study mind.” 

Maybe she didn’t say exactly that, but that’s her general gist: writing helps us understand how the mind works.  The writer’s job is mostly just to show up and write. 

This is a perfect revelation for today, because today is our third birthday.  I started this blog February 1, 2009 with this post.  I wrote then, “I’m not entirely sure this is a good idea…” and in retrospect, I can say it was a very good idea.  It did, in fact, keep me out of trouble.  It landed me a bit of work.  It keeps me connected to a lot of folks. 

But mostly, it helps me understand how mind works. That delicate mystery machine that I delude myself into thinking I have control over. It is here that I learn what’s important to me, when I sit down to write one thing and come up with quite another.  I’ve posted things that crack me up and that scare the shit out of me, and doing so has created that relationship that Therapist Number 2 was talking about: no ends, just flexing and stretching and trying to engage my heart.

Thanks for being here with me for our birthday.  Sorry, no cake.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Boyz 2 Men

The world is feeling out of whack to me.

In the last few weeks, I’ve learned about the conditions of several local boys – teenagers who are going through the kinds of trying health situations I’d expect to hear about my mother’s friends.  Not about my son’s.

A heart surgery.  A gall bladder operation.  A mysterious loss of vision.  Circumstances that would make a parent pine for something as mundane as a concussion or a broken foot.

Hearing about these incidents reminded me of my husband’s story, a story that I tell with the authority of someone who actually witnessed the events, even though they took place before I ever knew him.

My husband lost his vision when he was in his twenties.  It happened gradually but efficiently, over the course of a few months.  Initially, his vision became blurry.  As if he were driving in a car whose windshield was very dirty, is how he describes it.  As time went on, he was barely able to see things directly and was left with only a peripheral vision.  And colorblindness.

It took a while for a diagnosis.  He went to ophthalmologists and neurologists, submitted to scans and spinal taps, and ultimately it was decreed that his condition was Leber’s Optic Atrophy – a rare affliction that involves the degeneration of the optic nerve.  It’s genetic.  It’s not correctable by glasses.  It’s neurological and untreatable and has left him with either 20/200 or 20/2000 vision (I can’t remember which).  In either case, legally blind.

My husband was a PA when he lost his vision.  That is, he was a Production Assistant at The Movie Channel, an entry-level job that require he screen a lot of movies and write snappy 30-second promo spots to run on the network.  I think it was his first “real job” out of college, and he had moved from his home in Boston to New York to start his career in television.

Once he received his diagnosis (and prognosis – which was, basically, this is your lot in life), he went to his boss to resign.  He said that his vision problems were uncorrectable and he planned on moving back with his parents and figuring out how to go on with his life from there.

His boss said to him, “Look, you have a lot of problems. You’re unorganized and your workspace is a mess.  Why don’t you go back to your desk and work on those problems and I’ll figure out what to do about your vision issues.”

My husband’s boss then went to bat for him.  Somehow, they found machines and contraptions that would enlarge text and video sufficiently for my husband to do his work.  His boss got the company to buy it all for him.  The idea that an organization would make that kind of investment in a Production Assistant was outlandish. 

Yet, they did.

My husband remained at The Movie Channel for a while, and then moved on to become an On-Air Producer elsewhere.  After a year he took the same job at Nickelodeon and remained there for 16 years, where he became a Senior Producer, Department Director, VP, Senior VP and ultimately Executive VP Creative Director of Nickelodeon Worldwide, which was an insanely highfalutin title for someone who remained as messy and disorganized as he was as a PA. 

Disorganization was not the only characteristic that remained a constant for him.  Another was his Vision.  Not his eyesight, but his ability to see and create things that don’t yet exist in the world.  Losing his eyesight didn’t affect his Vision at all.  Perhaps it even enhanced it.

What I’m saying is, he went on to become an award-winning producer of visual entertainment and groomed a staff that went on to run divisions and networks of their own – a prospect that no one could have seen or predicted through that dirty car windshield.

I am heartbroken when I imagine what these young men are going through with their medical hurdles.  I can’t even fathom how scary it must feel.  And for their parents – the anxiety of what’s to come, what kind of lives their children will now be able to lead.

I don’t know anything about medicine and even less about having to endure that kind of struggle in a life, but I see it proven time and again that our essence, our magic – our superpower – exists in a place beyond our physical circumstances.  I want to believe that these boys, like my husband, will discover a power within themselves that will transform them.   That they will find their own greatness not in spite of their hardship, but perhaps because of it.

What if they learn early and with certainty that our perfection has little to do with flawlessness and everything to do with loving the parts of us that are broken?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Zen And The Art Of Auto Body Maintenance

It’s no secret that my Friday Tennis Game sometimes takes on the qualities of a sacred confessional.  Last Friday did not disappoint.  I ran quickly through the details of The Teenager’s first vehicular mishap, explaining how he backed out of a driveway into a car that was parked opposite that driveway, a maneuver that I myself have managed to execute on three separate occasions in the 11 years we’ve lived in suburbia.  I told them how the car he hit belonged to his friend and how the driver’s door needs to be replaced, how the friend took it for two estimates, and how each estimate came in at $4,000.  I had given the friend the name of a particular auto body shop that I thought might be more reasonable, but the boy neglected to take it there.

“So, I took it myself,” I told them, with a self-satisfied smile.  It was obvious from my demeanor that the estimate I acquired was much, much lower.

“Did you cry?” asked Shelley.

I was startled by this, because that was going to be my big confession.  Not that I did cry, but that I announced to the owner as soon as I met him, that I might cry.

“I hope you cried,” said Eileen.  She told me that she uses a certain brand of gum as an aid for just such interactions.  “If you put it in your mouth and just let it sit there – don’t chew – it’s so strong it will make your eyes tear.”  She keeps some in her purse all the time.

When I was 27, I worked with a guy who accused me one day of using my feminine wiles to get what I wanted in the workplace.  He wasn’t even talking about promotions – just getting my projects moved up to the top of the roster so I could meet my clients’ deadlines.  I remember being so affronted when he said this to me that we had a big falling out and didn’t speak to each other for days.  I also remember being mortified that my tactics were so transparent.

Now, I’m barely even sheepish. 

It’s no secret that a woman reaches a point in her life where she doesn’t have many feminine wiles left.  I’m thinking I may have two or three at most; I may as well use them.

As I’ve matured, I’ve found the Threat of Crying to be more effective than Actual Crying.  You can still come across as pathetic, but you don’t get all pink and puffy.  For me, it allows oxygen a continued clear passage through my nasal cavity.  Also, there’s no awkward moment when someone has to decide whether it’s appropriate to put their arm around you.

The auto body shop owner was a man, but I’ve used my few remaining wiles with women as well.  “Are you really nice?” I asked the woman at the insurance company when I called to find out that The Teenager’s insurance rates would increase almost 100% if we filed a claim for the damage.  “Because I might cry during this call and I need to be talking to someone really nice.”

“I can be,” she said.

“Would you?” I pressed.

These conversations didn’t need any gum or onion-chopping or any pinching myself hard on the underside of my arm.  Because I really am on the verge of tears over this incident, even though I got a much lower estimate from my auto body shop and even though no one got hurt and no one is even angry about what happened.  But from the moment I got The Call from The Teenager, a truth solidified for me, one that I had been entertaining as hypothetical, but been able to push safely away, which is that my baby boy has gained a level of independence and taken on an amount of responsibility that I have no control over.  And things are going to get broken, despite how much I try to will them otherwise.

There is a Buddhist saying that goes, “The teacup is already broken.”  I usually take that to mean, don’t get too attached to the way things are – they’re going to change; impermanence is the nature of the world.  This has been a notion I’ve found solace in over and over when I find myself too worried about things I can’t control. 

But it’s a concept that’s harder to embrace when your child is getting behind the wheel of a car every day. 

For now, a better maxim might be, “Don’t send a teenager to an auto body shop to do the work of a distraught and zealously frugal middle-aged woman,” which may not be as elegant a metaphor, but is a notion I think every one of us can get behind.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year

Many, many years ago, I spent New Year’s morning walking through Hoboken with my boyfriend. We’d decided that morning (or maybe the night before) that we needed to break up. We’d been together for several years – longer than I’d been with anyone at that point in my life – but the writing was on the wall and we both knew it.

I think I was 29.

It was snowing that morning, which made our walk all the more wistful. Because we really liked each other, and we loved walking through Hoboken together, and also because Hoboken is especially beautiful during an early winter snow. It made the whole sad thing all the more sad.

Somewhere along our walk (I remember it being around 14th Street), one of us had an uncharacteristic moment of profound maturity and suggested something that, even as I write it, seems so outlandish I can’t believe the other even entertained it. One of us suggested we go see a therapist to break up. Because we were both in our twenties and each of us understood that we had gotten to “that place” we all get to in a relationship where we start doing our stupid, self-destructive things and that it would just be a matter of time before this union crashed and burned as had the others that came before it.

If we saw a therapist together and hashed it all out, we thought maybe we could do it differently with the next person. Maybe we could walk away from each other feeling not like victims, but empowered to stop playing out our same silly games in every subsequent love affair we had for the rest of our lives.

The logic was: If we broke up mindfully, we could perhaps each go off and find happiness in the world.

Therapy took a good, long time – much longer than the two or three sessions either of us had envisioned. After we were done, we bought a house together. And then we went on a 10-day trip to Hawaii, a trip that, after we got married, we referred to as our honeymoon, even though it took place before we had exchanged vows.

I just received this message today from an old friend: “On this first day of 2012 let go of the past. Don't waste a good minute worrying about a bad one. Know that everything is perfect exactly as it is. Trust that there is a reason, even when you can't see it.”

I don’t really believe in New Year’s Resolutions, but I’m making an exception this year and resolving to try and remind myself of my friend’s wise words every single day. And maybe to also try and eat more kale.

Happy New Year!! Thanks so much for spending time here with me.