Monday, December 2, 2013

Happy Hunting

The way my brother tells it, it was a quiet morning in the woods. Just him, his shotgun, a few cigarettes and a weak sunrise. From his old tree stand, he spotted a decent-sized buck, quietly took aim, and shot the thing in the pre-dawn light.

Unfortunately, the deer didn't drop to the wet ground. He ran. Fast. Bounding from bush to bush, staggering at times, and leaving a trail of blood and broken sticks for my brother to follow. Which, as any good hunter would, he did. The distance he covered to track the deer has been a subject of debate and memory for years. A mile and a half through the frigid winter. Where he found his target finally, and summarily dead. He should have been overjoyed...the smell of venison stew filling his nostrils as he hoisted the near 200-lb creature (again, this detail may be the victim of fuzzy memory) and dragged it out of the woods on foot. The entire time, while he is imagining the waft of venison steaks filling his kitchen, the deer had other plans.

"I noticed he didn't smell right," my brother recalled in his 50th retelling of the tale. "He stunk. Bad."

The stink didn't go away when they prepped the deer for skinning and butchering in the woodshed. His impressive rack was a footnote to the odor coming off of him.

"I knew it was gonna be bad," my younger brother chimed in. He was there in the tiny woodshed to "help" clean the impressive beast. "That smell was ripe. It had a tangy, piss smell. As soon as they opened it up we all ran out of the shed and started f***king dry-heaving in the snow."

It is unclear what the smell was. In earlier accounts, my older brother (we mercilessly refer to him as "the huntsman" for this and other tales of bad luck with deer, one involving getting a truck stuck in the middle of a cornfield, the other referring to a sheetrock knife that didn't quite do its job...)swears he shot the thing through its bladder. In other renditions of the story, the buck already had blood poisoning from a previous hunter's bullet, and my brother may have done the poor thing a favor.

Either way, the loss of all that meat was a tragedy. We all felt it because we were all guilty of smelling the imaginary venison wafting through our homes as we prepped a pioneer Sunday dinner. My brothers felt bad for the thing.

"I can't imagine running through the woods shot through the pisser," one said. "I mean, man."

Of course, given it's impressive antlers, my older brother did take one trophy from the ill-fortuned hunt: The head. Bucky is mounted on the living room wall. He looks a little greyish and mangy. Not the bright-eyed noble stag of cabin lore. He is a monument to an effort. And the only part of that deer that wasn't laid to waste in the woods behind my brother's house.

"Not even the huskies would go near it," he said of his pack of sled dogs who are opportunists when it comes to food of any kind.

It is the opening day of shotgun season here. I've already heard the irregular pops off in the woods. Our abandoned road is busy (sort of) with trucks full of hunters hoping to snag Bambi's father before the big freeze sends us all inside, unable even to hunt for root vegetables or anything wild. I hold out hope that I will be sizzling up some venison sausage in the coming weeks. But I know that food karma trumps my sausage and my desires for a hearty breakfast courtesy of nature's wild.

Food karma has been driving my eating habits for a long time, since I was pregnant with my first child nearly 14 years ago. It has become impossible to purchase meat from the grocery store. Even the Thanksgiving table is a source of anxiety, wondering where that turkey came from and wondering about the nature of his death (and life) and what kind of bad juju I'm putting into my body while trying to enjoy the tender dark meat. What if it suffered terribly? What if its life was one of complete misery jammed into an industrial pen, waiting to die? I think this. I feel bad. I say prayers of thanks to the turkey and hope that it hears me. And that my guts are not immediately entangled in a karma battle that plays out on the bathroom floor ('cause that's happened, too).

The food chain is exactly that. It is a chain, snapped snugly around our human wrists. If we pull on the chain too hard, it's gonna hurt like a bitch. If we don't pull at all, we starve in a sense. I am chained to the lives of these animals (and vegetables, let's not forget the karma of Monsanto that is spreading havoc across the world with cancer, dead honey bees, obesity and the ousting of small time farmers) and my need to know outweighs my longing for neatly packaged bacon.

We will make it through the winter, with or without Bucky. My freezer is full of meat from the farm just down the road and fish that we ourselves yanked up from the water (and I silently prayed over as their throats were being cut and their heads were tossed into the sea, chum for the birds). It's a small gratitude for a big sacrifice.

Bucky watches over us, his eyes seeking us out across the living room. Conversations over coffee are conducted under his nose. Birthday cake is devoured across the room. Meatballs are speared with toothpicks. As I am chewing on a hamburger, I swear I see him wince.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Let her loose

There have been numerous opportunities to escape this madness. My friend A and I were driving on the NY state thruway, up into the Adirondacks, and we saw the sign for the Montreal exit. She slowed down. I started breathing funny.

"God, just do it," I said.
"Montreal?" The car was crawling in the right lane.
I paused, lit a cigarette, exhaled and sighed a long, sad sigh.
"Nah. Wouldn't be far enough."
"So true."

I'm not sure what I meant. "It wouldn't be far enough." Certainly, at some point, family members would come looking for me. My cell phone would heat up with texts and calls and frantic voicemails--Where are you? Are you OK? Do you want me to send your father? Nichole, this is your mother, get your ass back here right now...I would have to ditch the phone in a motel toilet. Then keep driving.

But how far would "far enough" really be? How far would I have to run to drown out the cacophony of responsibility and obligation? Because it's not the external sound of loved ones and friends that cuts through the desperate desire to just keep driving into the sunset.

It's the piercing scream inside. The one that would go on forever if I (we) left it all behind, took up a new self, and never looked back into the wake of what I had created.

"I could fake my own death..."

"Nah, your Ma would find you."

I had a classmate back in grammar school. We were all totally jealous of her...or "totes jelly" as my daughter would say, which continues to drive me nuts. That and "whatevs" and "adorbs."

Totally fucking nuts.

Our envy, turns out, was unwarranted. Her beauty, her great perm, her amazingly expensive collection of high-top Reeboks couldn't fill the void that her mother left when she jetted off to Hollywood, leaving my classmate and her little brother floating aimlessly in a state of motherlessness.

It's one thing to be fatherless...I mean, 35% of children in this country (actually, most likely the number is higher) are being raised by single mothers. This is not to say that not having a dad around is cool. Cause it isn't. Good dads are solid and fun,  average dads at least make you feel safe and not listless.

But no mom. Who is tethering you to the earth? Who is making sure that your soccer uniform is clean for the third day in a row and that your pants aren't too high at the ankle and that you hold the door for elderly people and that you drink a full glass of water upon waking up and that you take your Vitamin D every day, twice a day in winter 'cause you're white and black? Who?

I always felt empathy for my friend. With her mom choosing to be so far away. I talked about it with my mother once, while she was fixing yet another shirt that I'd ripped.

"Those poor kids. They'll never forgive her."

But as I close in on 40, and my daughter rages alternately between tenderness and narcissism and my son fights me on every shower and homework assignment and my job prospects as a writer are limited and I can't get Ethiopian food or crawdads...running away seems to have its merits.

I look at that mother from years past, fleeing to that greener pasture, and how can I judge her? I mean, I can, but it wouldn't be an honest judgment. Who doesn't seek adventure? A new lease on life? Maya Angelou left her young son back in the states while she toured as a dancer for "Porgy and Bess." All through Europe, gone and gone. She had a blast. Took lovers of all nationalities, saw the world, drank good wine, hit the beaches in Greece. And not once did she seem to regret the decision. She made a good living. She supported her son while he lived with her mother.

The other day, I made an off-hand remark about going to Italy for a few months on a writer's retreat. I was daydreaming in front of my mother. She didn't look outwardly horrified but...

"Oh god, you couldn't leave the continent. You'd be too anxious about the kids. You'd never be able to relax. And forget taking a lover."

I nodded. Yet I could smell the Mediterranean as the bus pulled up and ejected my two ragged children from its squeaky bowels. I imagined myself there, alone, writing, hitting the beach, smoking, drinking good coffee and wine, wandering through vineyards...blissfully alone.

"Ma, what's for dinner?"
"What are we doing tonight?"
"I need new ear buds."
"Can we go to Olympia?"

"C'est va, guys. My day was good. Thanks for asking."

I'm in too deep. I know what I'd miss while sunning myself on volcanic rock. I would miss my daughter's first goal ever in soccer. I would miss the look on my son's tuba solo (yeah, they actually have tuba solos). I would miss my nephew's first varsity football game. I would miss random Instagram messages from my niece where she has a dog nose and a flower crown. I'd miss watching my papa get tipsy on egg nog at the Reveillon.

I'd be lying if I said the urge has gone away. It never does. Sometimes at night  I count the years until my son graduates from high school. And I think of ways to fill those years with travel to obscure towns and islands and experiences and people...until I can finally disappear into the nighttime throng on Frenchman Street or some remote beach in Sardinia--pen, paper, bikini, thick-haired Adonis with a Ducati...


"Yeah, papi?"

"Can I live with you until I'm at least 25?"

Monday, September 23, 2013

Not accounted for

I had a distinct and healthy fear when I was a teenager (and before and after) that if I did something bad, something bad would happen in return. I wish I could say that I was sophisticated and wise enough, at that point in time, to understand the workings of karma. I was not. I lived in the moment as most youngsters do. I did, however, understand the workings of consequences. That was made plain before I was old enough to walk. If I hit my brother, I would go to my room and lose a favorite toy. If I sassed a teacher, I'd be made to sit in the corner of the classroom, or, on rare occasion, take residence on the bench of shame outside the principal's office while they phoned my mother.

As was the case with most of my peers, I'd rather face the principal than my parents.

And it's not as if my folks were violent, unpredictable people. Spankings were economically doled out for those times when I simply didn't listen to the 3 or so verbal warnings prior to my offense. As I got older, the consequences of my actions remained relevant. Caught smoking or drinking...there goes your social life for at least a month or more. Or worse, expulsion from school, or even worse, getting kicked off the team, whatever team it was. The knowledge that I wouldn't be pitching for a softball season, or allowed to go out with my friends, or to get a ride to work kept me pretty much in line. Sure, I still did the stupid shit that kids do, but the risk was so high -- in my mind at least -- that it had to be worth it. And eventually I did get in trouble, and for the most part accepted the consequences of being and idiot.

I got caught, I paid my dues splitting wood and in social exile. I didn't get caught, I spent months worrying that eventually I would. Basic stuff.

Not so basic, it would seem, in this era of enablement that has completely paralyzed our country. Recently, a local story caught my eye and my ire. Apparently, nearly 300 high school students broke into the home of former NFL player Brian Holloway. Holloway was at his primary residence in Florida. This residence is in New York state. Anyway, long story short, the little shits trashed his house, pissed all over the floor, broke stuff, and basically had a drunken free-for-all. And, of course, they posted their criminal antics in real time on Facebook and Twitter. Good going, dip shits.

Holloway did NOT press charges. Instead, he put a call out to the teens and their parents to help him clean up the damage and do some community service work. Guess what, one kid showed up. One out of 300. And some of the parents are threatening to SUE Holloway, ya know, the victim, for identifying the kids online. (Actually, I think he just identified the schools they go to, based on, ya know, their tweets.) I don't know who to slap first, the parents or the kids...You figure that's nearly 600 parents who did not respond to an opportunity for their kids to learn a lesson and NOT be arrested. I'd be all over that with several hundred 'thank yous' on my lips for Holloway. My kid would be scrubbing his goddamn floor with a toothbrush.

Where have we gone to, folks? Where is the dignity in doing what is right and accepting responsibility for what you did wrong? And you're going to unleash your child on the world, send him/her off to college not knowing that there are consequences for everything. That Mommy and Daddy will not be there to save your ass when you get yourself into hot water.

I have been a high school teacher. And I watched as over the years, the parents of my students became increasingly enabling. One parent, who was a guidance counselor at another school, called me and told me that she hated me because her son was failing a film class. A film class! You know, where you watch movies and take notes and just be chill and learn stuff. I told her I'd called, sent notes home, so why is she surprised?

"I never got those notes," she stammered. I knew she was lying. Immediately. But still, at the end of the day, I was "strongly encouraged" to allow her son, a sports player, an honors student, blah blah blah, to make up the work so he could pass. At the end of the session, he "passed" the class by one point.

"Thanks, Ms. D." He handed me his nearly empty notebook.
"Don't thank me," I said, not even making eye contact. "Thank your mother."

He turned a million shades of red. "You'd do the same for your son."
Then I made eye contact.
"That's where you're wrong, man. I wouldn't. I'd watch him squirm and fret and fail the class out of sheer laziness. Lesson learned. That's my job. To make sure the lessons sink in. But I'm not worried about my son. He's not the baby here."

He moved to say more, I just put up my hand. "Enough. I'm not getting paid to make you feel better about yourself. Good luck in the real world."

I don't know whatever happened to that kid. I think he dropped out of college, lives with his parents, still borrows money. Probably like a majority of other teens who never learned the right lessons. We have a whole generation of pansies coming through the ranks right now. Kids in their 20s who can't hold a job, still have their mothers call in sick for them, have never paid for rent or groceries. They have nothing to be proud of. Least of all themselves. They never learned those lessons. They never learned that when your ass is on fire, you're the only one who can douse the flame. Or make it bigger. Your choice. It's your choice every single time.

My kids know I've got their back. They also know, beyond doubt, that I will not be the one who swoops in and rescues them from themselves. You don't clean your room, you don't go to the sleepover. You don't do your homework, you don't go to football practice. Simple as that.

It scares me to know that those 300 kids may have avoided life's most valuable lesson. And that one day, they will be walking the same streets with my kids.

Nobody ever said parenting is easy. It's not. But it's simple. Do the right thing. Every time. And your kids will follow.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Taxing the taxed

I meet the start of the school year with increasing dread. While I'm delighted, and I mean totally effing delirious, that the kids are off to those hallowed halls again, and I can have a moment's peace, I basically sit in wait for the forms to come home and the great march towards poverty to begin. And it always does. Not a week goes by where I am not spending $80-$400 on kid-related stuff.

Your kids are spoiled you are thinking. I know that's what you're thinking.

I wish. I wish it were that simple. Let's begin, shall with, with the "supply" list that comes home every friggin' summer, and gets longer and longer as they get older. Glue sticks, gel pens, flairs, ball point pens, paper, erasers, pencils (yes, goddamn pencils), a scientific calculator, 18 composition books, 15 three-ring binders, scissors, index's unreal. First, we raid last year's pencil boxes...then off to Staples with the lists. It is a trip that requires a black coffee in a milk-jug sized to-go cup. At the door of the store, the kids each grab a basket. The sales clerk is about to tell me that there is no food or drink allowed in the store, but I stare him down. My face says, I'm bringing this coffee in. And if you don't let me, I'm leaving these kids here. They've just had an ice cream cone.

And then I unleash the hounds into the aisles. It takes about 40 minutes (minus the time it takes to rip my son away from the tablet/laptop display where he is playing games, his basket still empty save for one lonely pink eraser. We check things off the list. I begin to do the math as the baskets fill up. I add in my head so that I won't have an actual heart attack at the checkout, or worse, exclaim some mortifying expletive that I cannot take back.

Compass, check. Rulers, check....$223...Check?

I wait until we get in the car to have a fit. Now, I've worked as a teacher for many years. Many years. And whenever I ran out of paper, or pencils, or needed scissors or tape, I went down to the supply room on Wednesday mornings with my modest list and was given exactly what I needed, which in turn was handed over to my students. Little blue journals, pencils...nothing fancy, but the basics. And I seem to recall when I was in school that these things were supplied to us. My mother bought us each a Trapper Keeper (design of our choice) and off we went.

Why the hell am I purchasing pencils for my kids? F***ing pencils?! What school doesn't supply pencils for Chrissakes? And after all this money is dumped into the school experience, then the paperwork starts coming home. Form after form that needs signing. Does your child speak English? Well, why don't you ask her. Will you be able to volunteer to be a classroom aid? I thought they paid people to do that, as per, you know, the law. Here are the fundraising packets...can you please start selling this wrapping paper and cookie dough immediately...oh and these magazines. And volunteer for the spaghetti dinner that is in two days. Oh, and you gotta make the spaghetti, too. Buy it, out of pocket, make it, then serve it...

This week, I got an email that nearly sent me off a ledge. It was innocent enough. From the band director, whom I respect deeply. Kids are marching in the parade, they're gonna need to show up in uniform to meet the bus, etc, etc...scroll down..."if you haven't already purchased a uniform for your child" they need a white tuxedo shirt (to the tune of at least $40), special band shoes (I wrote the check for $22 last week), black slacks (at least $30) and a black bow tie (what, like $10?).

When I played in the marching band, we all got measured and were given uniforms to wear for the year. Oh, and the school provided me with my sousaphone. The uniforms were itchy, mustard yellow, and some had sweat stains, but whatever, they were FREE. Because it is a public school and things should, you know, for the most part be FREE. Like pencils and shit. Oh, and I also shelled out another $15 for a soccer jersey. Even though, of course, they already have jerseys for both home and away games, but they want different ones 'cause "these are old."

I used to wear my aunt's dresses to school. Those were old. I looked like a friggin' pilgrim for almost all of second grade.

My question is twofold: 1) Why are we being made to pay for such basic stuff that has long been supplied by the school? and 2) Why don't these coaches and teachers and band instructors and PTO peeps sit down and tally up what it is they are demanding of us every year? They would probably pass out. Shit, I'd pass out. That's why I don't keep the receipts.

Yes, I know what you kidless conservatives will say....just don't buy it for them. The kids will survive.

Do you know what being "that kid" does to a child. They crave normalcy at every turn. They just want to be like everybody else. You're setting them up for many uncomfortable moments that they will need to unravel in therapy (which you will be paying for).

The other day, my friend B sent me a text. To put this into some kind of context, her son is an avid Boy Scout, and football player. She's been there throughout, to all the fundraisers and spaghetti dinners, etc...ON the very same day that I will be carting my daughter (and her very expensive rental alto sax) to and from a parade, she will be manning the Scout booth with her son. But she doesn't wash her hands of her duty after that.


Apparently there is a new rule this year that every parent must volunteer for at least two Scouts events every year. A rule.

Do you know what this is doing to parents who want to be involved to the extent that they are able? This massive heft of expectation and money and time? It's making us less enthusiastic about, well, everything. If I didn't have to shell out hundreds of dollars on stuff the school used to supply, I'd certainly have a little more free time to say, serve spaghetti. But as it stands, now I need to work several more hours to make up for the money I just blew on fucking pencils. Pencils, people.

The cookie walk is coming up for the holidays...that's the one where you spend at least 30 buck on ingredients (or store bought cookies because they want at least 3 dozen) and then buy them back from the school.

Looks like we're gonna be eating a lot of spaghetti this year.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Just In Case You Were Curious

I don't know anyone as lucky as me when it comes to the texting department. My day is riddled with messages that, on many occasions, have sent coffee flying out of my nose. Usually the best messages arrive when there are throngs of professionals around me, serious and planning this mag or that issue. I know now not to even look at my messages. Since my laugh is utterly too loud according to my twelve-teen daughter, you can imagine the sound that my snickering guffaw makes down the marbled halls of, oh, let's say the Met Museum. Or worse, the tiny basement office of a human resources office...en route to do an interview. I don't know if it's a good thing or a poor reflection on my character that people send me these texts, know, I'm sure, that I'll laugh until I cry. And I can just see them on the other end of their iPhones, waiting, hoping my reply will be as witty and inappropriate.

For instance, take my friend Jamie, who, a few months ago sent me a text while I was in the waiting room of the doctor's office.


He is an opportunist, Jamie is. Always looking on the bright side. I want to write a play with him someday. About life, liberty, hairy bears in New Jersey, and strategies for not blowing a piss test.

And then there is B. My sarcastic equivalent who happens to understand my genetic code for "nervous stomach" problems. She too shares those desperate moments in Barnes and Noble or the supermarket. With children in tow, of course.


I can picture her flying down to the basement of her old office building, to the scariest most abandoned bathroom on earth, the clock ticking like a scene from a Hitchcock film. Tick, tock. She also sends me some lovely images from the People of Walmart website, usually around lunch or dinner time, so that I can properly gag at man's fashion and hair and hygiene decisions (or non-decisions). My response is the usual journalistic query:


There really needs to be a book, or at least a website, that catalogues these texts. Think of the million hysterical comments we are missing. The profound insight. Even my daughter sends me, well, some of her best material. And my gentleman friend, whose random "sexting" messages usually blow up my phone while I'm visiting with my grandmother or at parent teacher conferences, is relentless. Just recently he dropped the Don Juan from Jersey messages in favor of a picture of the 'action' he was getting off our back porch. Three raccoons perched on our dome light, climbing up the side of the house. The accompanying text conversation (since I was across the state "glamping" on the Cape, while listening to a bratty-ass kid cry for 48 hours straight):




YOU USED THE AIR RIFLE DIDN'T YOU....(at least fifteen minutes elapsed)

I'M GONNA MAKE A NICE RUG FOR MY emoticon of a balding man....

The entertainment never ends. Just as I doze off to sleep, a fellow writer will text me a) a grammar question and/or b) that he's finally getting a piece. Good for him. Anna will text me from the other room that she doesn't want to clean the litter box.



Endless material. Endless.

There is no moral to this story, btw. Wear pants when you go out. Don't pee in the street. And watch out for laxative coffee.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

This Coat of Many Colors

There has been an interesting debate boiling over in our house. Actually, it's not a debate, it's more like the kids looking for answers while I try to remain neutral and somewhat politically correct while making my own stance remind them that I'm human, of course. It began not too long ago, in the usual spot (the kitchen island) at the usual time (butt crack of dawn, before the school drop off). My daughter was sipping her chai -- not homemade this time -- and shaking her head. I tried to look busy packing lunches, pretending I didn't see her chagrin.

"I gotta say, Mom, I'm not a fan of Steiner moms."

WTF? Where was this conversation going? Certainly we've chatted about education in the past. All the cousins go to different schools. Some public, some private, each parent trying to navigate the best way through the whole education thing.

I slug back my coffee, which I've treated with standard bleached sugar, having run out of the raw stuff...and money to purchase said raw stuff. Agave is now way out of my financial league.

"Why do you say that," I asked. This is leading somewhere. There is an anecdote in here. I know this child too well.

"They're so, just, perfect. Or they think they're perfect, and that their kids are perfect. It's a sham."

"OK, so what happened?"

As my 12-year-old tells it, with her hormonal flair for drama, she was at a "Steiner gathering" with her dad. She's hot and cold about these gatherings because she is always the oldest child and usually the only girl, and is pretty removed from the younger set. We've all been there. All the kids were playing, her brother in the mix (he's the 'badass' public school kid, apparently, because he is allowed to play video games on Saturday mornings) and Anna pulled out her iPod to kill some time. A "Steiner mom" at the gathering rolled her eyes and made a snide comment about 'electronics, Anna, really?' And huffed off.

"So what did you do?" I asked, nervous.
"Don't worry, I didn't sass her or anything." Phew
"Did you say anything to her at all?"
"She came back and apologized to me for giving me an attitude about the iPod. I'm still not sure what the big deal is. It was my weekend, too. Sorry I can't dance around a May pole and sing Kumbaya in German."

I stifled a laugh. Then went on a mini-schpeel about how everyone has different rules in their homes and you need to respect those rules, etc. Anna just shook her head.

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean that their rules or their lives are better than everybody else's."

True that, kid. Just a few week's prior to the iPod incident my son was beaten with a curtain rod. By a 'Steiner kid.' He had the marks on his back to prove it. I was enraged.

"Did you tell an adult? Why didn't you beat his ass?! That's ridiculous."

"Mom, he's little. And his parents wouldn't have done anything anyway."
Anna piped in, "They're snobs. I think. They don't believe in video games. Or hot dogs. Or disciplining their kids. But they can drink beer and sneak cigarettes like bikers."

"Well, if I had ever had the money, I would've put you both in Steiner school," I said. Worried about the backlash. "It was a toss up between that or saving for college."

"I'm glad you didn't," she said. "Otherwise I'd still be crying like a baby and have no math skills. And by the time middle school rolled around, I'd be screwed. Public school made us tough."

"Yeah," said her brother, chomping on a homemade granola bar. Yes, I make granola bars on a weekly basis. So you can see my angst. I am always on the teasing end of my mothering habits; no lunch meats (nitrates), no T.V. (except for movie nights and the occasional Myth Busters episode), no desserts, no commercial-brand cereals, organic milk, no store-bought's kind of exhausting actually. I wish I had the mental freedom to just say 'fuck it' and take them to Pizza Hut twice a week--throw a Lunchable in their backpacks and be done with the whole thing. But cartoon bubble thoughts like 'cancer' and 'obesity' and 'depression' loom over my taxed momma head.

I thought I was doing well, but, there's always going to be someone sitting over in a lawn chair, at a function, judging me, my kids, my 'way of life.' Just as I tsk and shake my head when I see GoGurt commercials and some of Anna's classmates wearing make-up and spaghetti straps at a band concert, another parent is tsking and shaking his/her head at my more-than-occasional use of cuss words and the fact that I let my kids shoot air rifles and listen to K'naan. Or that I don't let them eat Lucky Charms, or drink Coke, or let them go to sleepovers at 'questionable' houses.

I just sigh, suck air through my teeth, and repeat a million times, "To each his own. To each his own. To each his own..." while I wait for a good moment to sneak a cigarette while they've gone off to bed after their grass-fed, farm-raised meal. And try not to choke on my own irony.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sting Like a Bee

We have these really aggressive carpenter bees that tend to hang around the back steps like they own that piece of the 'hood. They're pretty cocky, and have been known to bounce off my son's head while he runs screaming into the house, ditching his backpack and whatever else he is carrying into the yard. I've tried to cajole the boy, saying that they won't sting him. But he'll have none of these half-truths. He practically begs me to walk in front of him to protect him on his journey from the car to the porch.

"Aaaaah!" His scream is like a pre-teen girl's. "Moooom, come help!"

Of course, the sounds coming from him are terrifying...and they have the gut-twisting pitch of a baby that's been dropped or pinched its finger in the door (or pinched its chin in a zipper; all of which have happened to my own children many times).

"Lucian, relax. They're not going to sting you. I sit out here all the time and they have never once come near me." Another half-truth. The little buzzy bastards get pretty darn close to scope me out. I just blow smoke at them.

"That's because they're afraid of you," he says, matter-of-factly. "You're meaner than they are."

I laughed at the off-color compliment. It is an honor that my son, who is a man in the making, thinks I'm tougher than a swarm of bees. His sister shares his sentiments, I think. She's had a cold of late and when I told her I thought it was allergies because I've had the same headache for nearly 5 days, her jaw dropped.

"How do you do it? You don't even act like you have a headache. Nobody would know that you have a headache right now."

What a badass, right? Me with my bee repelling force-field and my stoicism in the face of a chronic migraine...I wish. It's hard to explain to them, that for all of my physical rigidity in the face of their worst fears, I'm a total wimp. And I blame them, completely, for my wimpness. They are the source of it, just as they are the source of my Herculean strength.

My friend B (ironic I know, but I'm now talking about a real person, not an insect) has two teenage sons. Growing up, she was a mild girl, really quiet and well-behaved. Even as an adult, she's calm, hilariously funny, likes girly things and exotic food. But do not cross her when it comes to her boys. Suddenly, B will sting. Hard.

"I never really stood up for myself, didn't want to ruffle any feathers," she said, sipping coffee and being careful not to drip any on her vintage, lacy blouse. "But man, after I had kids...having kids will make a fighter out of any mother."

Then I must be a fucking gladiator. I see myself, from the inside, as a bare-chested, lean-hipped warrior, painted for battle--because battle can come at any time. When I hear Johnny Cash sing "Ain't No Grave," I hear my anthem when my children need me. No matter the situation, I am there, dirty, armed, and baring teeth.

On the outside, I am wearing a white linen dress, nautical sandals, and pink bobble earrings. Gotta take the enemy by surprise.

If the kids knew this, they'd be scared, I think. But if they knew, even for a second, how much power their existence has over mine...that would produce the greater fear. We've often had "what would you do if..." chats in the car, usually on the way to school. It makes them a little prickly in their seats.

"Mom, what would you do if the only way to keep us alive was to cut off your own arm?" My son is usually the purveyor of these cataclysmic scenarios. He's in third grade, and going through a heavy 'end of the world' phase.

"Then I'd cut off both my arms. And my legs, just to be on the safe side."

Anna's jaw drops. "That's awful. Lucian, stop asking Mom such awful questions."

"Would you die?"


"No, no, it's OK, Anna. Yes, I'd die. But I'd die knowing that you'd be safe. Otherwise, I'd die of a broken heart if anything happened to you."

He is still mulling over the whole death by broken heart thing. But then again, he's never had children. He doesn't remember the day, when he was just two years old, that he went missing in a crowd of thousands at a harvest festival. He doesn't remember that I scooped up his nearly six-year-old sister like she was a tiny bird, and pushed my way frantically through a sea of people, screaming his name, not recognizing the sound of my own voice. It was a desperate sound, a howl. He doesn't remember the look on my face when I saw him walking to me from the Lost and Found table. Or when I nearly passed out with relief and kneeled on the ground and held his sweaty little body so tight that his hat flew off and he lost a shoe. I sobbed relentlessly.

"It's OK, you gotta calm down. He's here." A friend, and non-parent said. "Everybody's looking at us."

Indeed a small, confused crowd had gathered. But the mothers knew. They knew exactly what happened when I dropped to wrap my son in my iron grip. And they were crying, too. Relieved that the fortress would not fall, at least, not that day.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tell Her About It...

I was listening to Billy Joel the other day while baking yet another dozen blueberry muffins. (I've got a lot of cooking projects going on most days, not wanting anything to go to waste.) The music got me to wondering what every happened to Billy Joel and his bombshell wife, the fabulous -- though too teary-eyed -- Christie Brinkley. What ever happened to them? The rest of us little people thought that the Jersey boy had it made in the Antiguan shade when he married the beautiful blonde. It was as if one of his songs had come to life; Uptown Girl meets a boy from the wrong side of the Hicksville tracks, gets married, rides off into the Hudson sunset while synthesizers and rock drums beat in the urban distance.

Nothing is ever that good, it seems. Rumors flew, did Joel cheat? What a fool? C'mon every man in America would've given his left (or right) nut to be with the Sports Illustrated demi-goddess. My brother was madly in love with her. It was the 80s and Christie was the prize. Now I know what happened to some of the Cover Girl ads that were ripped out of my mom's Vogue magazines.

I guess fairytales don't last forever, not even if you have great musical talent and perfect make-up. Fairytales take a lot of maintenance. Like we're talking Brazilian waxing-type maintenance. And ironically, the onus isn't always on the "ugly one" to make the relationship work. Perhaps Christie was too cool to the touch. That happens far too often in most pairings. One is too cold, and one is too hot. The chi is all messed up and the yang murders the ying.

I am supremely guilty of being frosty, as it has been pointed out again and again. It does not occur to me to dole out grand embraces and to steal kisses when no one is looking. I don't gush, I don't bat my eyelashes, I don't initiate much hand holding. It's not a punishment (I'm much more creative than that). I just don't think about doing these things. Maybe it's because I've been on my own for so long, even when I wasn't technically "alone" that that stuff just, somewhere deep in my cavernous mind, well, isn't important. It's the rosettes on the icing on the cake. Totally superflous, and silly, like potted daisies and doilies on the coffee table.

Well, maybe not that bad. And besides, I'm learning pretty quickly that people cherish their daisies...especially in the winter as a centerpiece to a dull table. And that doilies remind us of our grandmothers who hand crocheted each one for an Easter brunch with the family. It isn't enough to just be comfortable in the fact that we love and are loved. It isn't enough to make popcorn and plop down next to my lover thinking that my nearness and the popcorn are enough. Or that vacuuming the entire house is clearly my way of saying, "I love you." 'Cause let's be honest, it's not. It's my way of saying, "Jeezus f**** Chr****!! This place is a catastrophe." Really no thoughts of love there.

Even the Dalai Lama, the most spiritual, seemingly grounded man in our modern world, knows that affection is a roaring fire when compared to the tiny candle flame glow of most other human conditions and concoctions.

"We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection."

I was told that you need 12 hugs a day to sustain a happy life, ward of depression, maybe even combat cancer. It didn't seem like that much until I counted how many of those hugs I give and how many I receive. Apparently, in the deep subconscious of my dark mind, 12 is a frivolous "too many." But would it be too many if you actually knew how many hugs you would have given and gotten by the end of your life? What if you're only 36 hugs away from no more hugs? Same goes for kisses, reassuring pats on the back, handshakes, and yes, of course, sexual encounters.

It's a horrible thought. But, maybe inspiring for this frosty wordsmith. Just this morning, my boyfriend called me saying he had been in a minor accident. No injuries, no seriousness -- but it struck me about a half hour later. "I didn't kiss him before he went to work." In fact, he came to ME before he left and tried to give me a hug. I returned it with a hurried lame-ass squeeze and breezed by him saying something about forgetting to pack lunch money for the kids.

That's not going to be his last memory of me. Or the thing that sends him off to a day of unknowns. It's time to take more care.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Cruel intentions

We all have those standout moments in school, the kind that either make you are break you or put a carcass around your neck and toughen you up. I had so many, from first grade, right on up. Some felt like Olympic gold -- bases loaded, we're up by one, I've thrown two strikes and three balls...bam strike three; on to the tournament. Others felt like tuberculosis. They were those cruel moments where, as a kid, I couldn't breathe because of my lack of ability to handle the meanness of my peers. And they were f***ing mean. None of this anti-bullying campaign when I was growing up. It felt like kill or be killed, even in the cruddy confines of our tiny, run-down elementary school.

First, of course, were the teeth. I've always had big teeth. It's a family trait, supposedly they are charming now. But then, my god, a day didn't go by that somebody, usually the same somebody and his cronies, would make a nasty comment about my teeth. Of course, the first time it happened, I was floored. And hurt, and couldn't come up with a response. I had no idea that others found me ugly. My grandmother seemed to think I was pretty cute, my teachers never said anything about my teeth. It probably didn't help that I was taller than any other human being in class, skinny as a rail, and pretty smart.

By sixth grade, the teeth thing was nothing new. I just let it roll of my back, or worse yet, would say something more cutting. Something like "At least I can fix my teeth. There's no hope for your brain, SPED." Yeah, it was that low. The kid(s) who pricked at my confidence were the very same who were taken out of class for special help with reading and math. An eye for an eye, right? I had my tough skin now. And when the braces finally came off the first week of ninth grade, I thought for sure that I was totally fixed. That the taunting was over. I was golden, right?

Cruel illusions. Really. We had all melded into our unbroken groups by that point. I tried to mingle among the pods of "types." I had my athlete friends (I played three sports for awhile, then finally knocked it down to softball, lifting and a shitload of hiking); my theater friends (Shakespeare productions and a few high school musicals); my work friends who were older and taught me how to make a killer penne, play chess, and love good wine (and roll a joint behind the French cafe I worked at); my family friends. But no matter how many alliances there were, no matter how many bonfires and whiskey flasks surrounded us, there was always, at the most unsuspecting moments, some kind of useless cruelty that went along with the whole culture. Even my close friends, my "peeps", who had all pretty much outgrown me by a foot, called me "Shortround." I just learned to deal with it. It even made me laugh at some point. Sure, sure, Shortround. No problem. I just ploughed ahead, kept up with the grades, and the sports, and the jobs, and prayed that I'd make it out alive. Ugly, it seems, but alive.

Things went well. Sort of. Nobody minded me in college. In fact, it seemed that I drew quite a crowd (of mostly men) in my 20s. I had no idea why, what with the big teeth and all. Even after I had my daughter, there was no sudden drop off in dates and phone calls. On the eve of my wedding, I was teaching high school and the younger (like way younger) brother of a former nasty classmate of mine congratulated me.

"Yeah, I told my brother that you were getting married and he just couldn't believe it," he said, defensive on my behalf. "He couldn't believe that someone would marry YOU. I told him you were an awesome teacher," he blushed. "And really pretty."

"Thanks," I said, the wind knocked right out of my bridezilla sails.

But then I got to thinking. That mean, nasty boy. I remember him. He was a short little troll of misery that walked around berating everyone and everything, but we let him do it. A good student, sure. A star wrestler, yup. But, in the end he was a dick. And all I could think was, well, I'm glad I'm not marrying him.

I wonder if anyone every married that a**hole?

I'm not above it. None of us are. There's still a little bit of that terrified, beat up, awkward kid in me yet. It's a bitter solace I take in seeing some of the people from those days. Some of them are fat. Some of them are alone. Some have kids and jobs, some don't. Some drink, some have criminal records, some finally grew up, some didn't.

We all made it somehow, but just barely. It's an ugly business. The silver lining...success? Good looks? A solid marriage? Kids? I wish I could know for sure.

For the record, on the eve of my 36th birthday, I'm pretty thrilled about my big shiny teeth. The better to smile on my even shinier kids. Who will knock your kids right out of the water with their gorgeous brilliance.

Na, na, na--meanies.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Problem With Power Booty

First, let me reassure you that I know that there are people all over the world who are starving. And that this may, on first glance, seem like a frivolous commentary on our equally frivolous culture (we can warm our asses on our car seats for godssake), but somewhere in here is a bigger issue. A grander scale that needs investigating. I should preface this by saying I don't have all the answers. If I did, this blog would be history.

The Halftime Show. Yes, I'll start there. I promised my darling, yet brutally over-tired children that they could watch Beyonce perform before they brushed their teeth and hit the sheets. I sat down with them, but not too close because Lucian's breath smelled oddly of hot dogs, although he doesn't even like/eat hot dogs. It's one of those mysteries I have no desire to solve. Anyway, back to halftime. There is the bodacious Beyonce with her long Rapunzel-esque locks, surrounded by leather bedecked dancers and a ring of actual flame (from propane tanks, as Lucian noted). We watched her sing and swing and widen her eyes so big I thought, for a moment, that I was watching some kind of vaudeville throw back and not a decadant American diva. Actually, to be honest, there wasn't much singing. More booty-shaking and hip grinding than anything else. My son left the room, saying the dance was "disgusting" and he didn't want to watch a bunch of women "in bathing suits, doing that weird dance." My more pop-savvy daughter stared on in disbelief.

"I'm really going to have to rethink how I feel about Beyonce," was her hesitant response.

It sounds like a scene from the Flanders' household. You know, the Evangelical neighbors of the debauched Simpsons? But, sadly, we are not the Flanders. And this halftime show was no joke. I am not a conservative woman, not by any stretch of any leotard or bustier. Basically, I follow the French (as in 1920s French, not the current terrifying conservative, racist, anti-immigration French government) line of thinking. Topless beach, no problem. Sex orgies, sure if that's your thing, girl power, black power -- yes, yes, yes -- all cool. But I couldn't shake the feeling, as I was watching all that leather and, well, lace, bopping around, that we (and Beyonce) have hit a strange low in our collective culture. She really didn't sing that much, and the real flames didn't fool me. And the set list, utterly confusing (at least the five minutes she did sing). My daughter and I felt a little glimmer of hope when she started singing "Independent Woman (or is it Women?)." That's a song we got. She sang the refrain, we rocked out for about five seconds, high on the empowerment (The shoes on my feet, I bought 'em, the rock I'm rockin'...yeah, that's right). But not two minutes later, she sings, while bouncing (everything) in a Playboy meets Tron unitard, "If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it..."

But wait a minute...I thought you were independent and you could buy your own ring. No problem, right?

Anna turned to me, her brows knitted together. "I don't get it," she said, and left the room. A little disappointed it seems.

Me neither, babe. I don't get it anymore. Why weren't the Rolling Stones half-naked (blech!) when they performed the halftime? Or at least wearing jock straps or some ridiculous outfit? Because people would've gone ballistic at how weird and disgusting and pandering it was. But yet Madonna sports a friggin' Cuban bathing suit, Beyonce wears lingerie (mind you, this is the same woman who was the epitome of class at the presidential inauguration, the same woman who rocked the national anthem dressed to the nines) and all of us are standing around scratching our heads.

My conclusion, the message is simple: Be what they want you to be when they want you to be it. More bang for the buck.

The problem, we don't know what any of our leaders and role models and celebrities stand for anymore. It's a minute by minute, candle in the wind, fake it 'til you make it (or make money) kinda thing. Very few people seem to start solid and stay solid. I can't imagine not knowing where Nina Simone stood on segregation. Or wondering what George Carlin thought about the human race as a whole. Ha. It all seems so impermanent.

And frankly, unsexy. Yeah, you heard me. I know sexy can sell anything. And there's nothing sexier than Aretha Franklin singing "Ave Maria" in a blood red ball gown, every word weighted and every note beautiful. And let's not forget a few of those words, about the Virgin herself, "Tis thou canst save amid despair."

Thou. Amid despair. No need for fishnets or flamethrowers. Thou. A poverty-stricken, pregnant, unmarried mother. That's as real as it gets. I'm not saying you should go out and start preaching the gospel, but for us, for us women especially, it's essential to make the message clear, strong, and pretty goddamn eternal for all those little eyes that are looking up and wondering when someone else is gonna put a ring on their finger and make them worth something.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The mean mommy

Awhile back, maybe two years ago, Amy Chua published a book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The main premise of the book was to defend the tough parenting style that many Chinese mothers exact on their children. For instance, any grade lower than an A is unacceptable. Sleepovers and playdates are not an option. Period. Never compliment your child in public. Always take the side of teachers and coaches. You get the point. Of course, her book "sparked controversy" (I hate this media phrase, but it's the only one I could come up with, you know, since I am a journalist), especially here in the States. You can imagine why. Our Western sensibilities and sensitivities couldn't handle the seemingly harsh treatment of the most precious, most innocent of our population: The Children.

Well, I loved the idea. Still love it and I'm sure many of you will groan in horror at my loving it. I think Ms Chua has her sights set on the ever-threatening horizon of adulthood that her children must face, especially in this country. She knows that it is her job to make sure her children not just "get by" but excel in life, in whatever they pursue. I'm all for it. In fact, the older my children get, the stricter I become, to their natural dismay.

"Lucian, you are not leaving this room until every sock and every Lego is put away."
"But I haven't even had breakfast yet! I'm hungry."
"That's good. It'll give you some motivation."
"You're mean."
"I know. But you can have water. I'll give you that."

And just to drive the point home, while he is cleaning his room, pancakes are fluffing out on a skillet in the kitchen, fillng the house with a delicious breakfast aroma.

These same conversations about cleanliness happen with my tween daughter. Usually, they are more heated, until I pull the "food, shelter, drive" card. And just end the conversation with, "Just do what I tell you to do. I'm not doing this for my health, but for your benefit." And right before the door slams, I put my foot in the door jam and say, icily, "Better think about it." Then she quietly shuts her door and commences the relentless clean-up project. That should be in all CAPS: CLEAN-UP PROJECT.

It's exhausting. Truly. And some days, I don't even want to personally uphhold the standards that I have drawn in stone for my kids. And I am nowhere even close to Chinese mother status, but when I look around me...yeah, swimming against the tide.

"Hey, Mom, I got an A- on that geography test!" Anna is all smiles as she puts the test on the fridge. I immediately remove it and comb through the answers to see what she got wrong, then quiz her on the wrong answers.

"Are you going to put it back on the fridge now," she asks, disgusted.
"Of course, it's a good test. Next time, though, honey, you need to pay more attention to what the question says. This could have been an A."

Total dumbfounded silence. And her brother is not safe from this scrutiny either. He is often forced to help me make meals in the kitchen, from scratch, or to rewrite his entire homework sheet because his handwriting is not up to snuff.

"But I got every answer right," he complains. "See? Check plus plus."
"It's good practice," I say, watching him from the doorway, coffee in hand.

I have been scrutinized and criticized for years about this kind of parenting. About how I keep them from social events if there is even the slightest hint of illness, or how I don't allow them to stay up late, not even on the weekends, how I floss and brush my son's teeth still...

Thankfully, I don't care. My eyes are set towards the future in which I will not be able to afford to pay for college for two children, so scholarships are a must. And school comes first, screw your dreams, you're only gonna get there if you have an education, kid. Fact. As for happiness, well, that's up to them. They aren't going to be happy being mediocre and not knowing how to take care of themselves, so...false praise will not a better human make.

So what if you're kid can write an essay, can he write an amazing essay? So what if she does her own laundry, she's supposed to, she's 12! So what if he plays the piano, does he play it well? Does he practice? Better be. Oh fifth place, that's good I guess. If you had started your project earlier you would've won first place.

We're not helping them by patting their backs because they ate their apple at lunch. Or because they are helping with the dishes.

The only thing I will say about holding back on praise, is, in this house, we never hold back on saying, "I love you." Even at the height of frustration at the rules and the strict atmosphere and the high standards, never will I not say to my children 'I love you," before they go to bed and when I drop them off at school or drop them off anywhere. No matter the fight about the saxophone practice, the bad handwriting, the plethora of chores, I will always say it.

"I love you, no matter what."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Will set you free...

Years ago, when I was young lass of 18 (we're talking nearly 20 years back if you must know), I journeyed across the pond to Ireland, making sure, of course, to bring a fair amount of cigarettes because I was told that cigarettes were twice as expensive in Europe, which is true. But, alas, I ran out of my precious addiction feeders less than half-way through the trip. There were lots of opportunities to smoke in Ireland -- sitting on a wet curb waiting for the bus, hustling young men out of their Friday earnings in a billiards game (which would pay for my train fare to Galway), a scorching cup of tea sitting on the steps of a crumbling castle/youth hostel barraged by the frozen sea. Plenty of opportunity, even for this poor American student. What I didn't spend on Guiness and whiskey I spent on cigarettes and coffee. I bought my first 10-pack of Winston-Salems at a bodega right before we boarded a ferry to Black Rock. The pack was slimmer than its 20-count American brother, but what struck me most was the warning label. It stopped me dead in my tracks.

Two words: Smoking kills.

Indeed, it does, I thought while the ferry was tossed like a soggy muffin in the churning Irish sea. So it does, but do they have to be so blunt about it?

I shacked up with an Australian fellow for most of the trip. He was a pilot for Quantus and more than ten years my senior. Very nice, but like that pack of cigarettes, or fags, very honest.

"It is such a shame that you smoke," he said, his hand on my knee. "You're so pretty. And with such blue eyes. It will be sad to see your beauty destroyed in 20 years, if you're not dead from cancer." He tsked and shook his head again. Such a shame he kept mumbling.

Of course, I was insulted and ashamed. But the honesty of it kept me from even trying to pretend that what he said wasn't true. Or what the warning said wasn't true. Smoking does kill.

I look to that time now, and wonder, where is that kind of honesty? What a relief it would be to not turn heads in parking lots when I tell my son that if he doesn't pay attention to the cars, he's going to get hit, and possibly die. It's a plain fact, but I hear other parents with the same concerns, presenting the information gently as an 80-year-old woman in an S.U.V. nearly backs into a first-grader while

his mother gently tugs on his arm.

"Be careful, honey," she says mildly, "You don't want to get hurt by the cars."

Hurt?! Don't you mean 'hit and dead'?! 'Cause that's a real possibility here. The same goes for cruel behavior. Many a time, my voice has gone from zero to holler in three seconds or less because either child has done something so remarkable stupid, and dangerous, that I cannot shield my amazement and fear.

"Don't ever run off like that again!" I remember screaming at my daughter in a dead panic. She had hidden UNDER the food table after church and I spent the whole of ten minutes looking frantically for her while she crouched and giggled and chewed her way through several cookies. Some other concerned parents heard my panic and were calling her name as well. When we finally found her, they relaxed and patted her shoulder.

"You gave your mommy a scare," one nice mother said, smiling.

"Gave me a scare," I screamed. "I thought somebody took you. I thought you were dead! Have you lost your whole mind, girl?! Do you know what people do when they take children. They kill them. They hurt them first and then they kill them."

By that point, the entire congregation was staring at me, horrified. I grabbed my daughter's hand, crumbling the cookie that was in it, and went straight to the car, still yelling about the horrors of kidnappers.

Was it overkill? Not to me. Because it was true. Very, solidly, terrifyingly true. And she never did it again.

Just as it was true when a student of mine didn't do an ounce of homework for an entire semester and despite several reports home, and calls, his parents wanted to know why he failed.

"He's a great kid," I said. "But lazy as the day is long."

That went over like a ton of bricks. But it was true.

Or when a colleague of mine was bemoaning her weight while cramming her third cookie into her mouth. I said the cookies weren't helping, and she didn't speak to me for three days.

Are we so afraid to tell the truth? Is it so offensive these days that instead of getting to the heart of the matter, we tip-toe and dance pointlessly around the very thing that holds the promise of progress, and healing, and maybe, dare I say it, a better life?

My father told me years ago that I was too critical of people, especially people who had done me wrong. He was right.

"Let it go," he'd said. "Let it go. You're getting backed up in the details. You're very detailed in your criticisms. It's too time-consuming."

It has never been easy to tell the truth. And even harder to hear the truth. But we have so much to gain and so much to lose. And if we're not telling the truth to other people, then I assume we aren't telling the truth to ourselves. Even harder to deal with, yes, but imagine if we did.

Smoking does kill you. You can die in the grocery store parking lot. Butter makes you fat. War is never the answer. Love is trumped up. You're too attached to your dog. Having a baby doesn't make you a good mother. Getting laid improves your mood. Drinking in excess and screwing the people who love you most means you're an alcoholic. Not paying child support makes you a loser. Writers never make money. Bottled water is an evil enterprise. Slim Fast is a scam. Even nice people are racists...

The list goes on and on. But just think, what a sharp breath of air, if just once, the truth was told. Sorry Emily D., but we've been telling it slant for too long.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The history

The cold weather makes everyone raw. On edge. A little bit meaner than usual. Or, the optimist in me sees the potential for sharpening one's mental skills when the slag of heat can't trudge through a mind that is burned by the sun and foggy with squinting. Winter truly brings out the sharp corners, at least in this house it does. Lucian reads more and asks more scientific questions. Anna understands the workings of middle school drama and usually (not always) tries to avoid getting caught up in the hormone cyclone that is sixth grade.

I just turn into a bossy bitch. With a bend towards philosophy and nihilism. It's fun for me, scary for my "house mates."

On the way to school this morning, Anna informed me that her grade would be watching a movie in the auditorium tomorrow, and that she would bring a permission slip home today. Her watching the film is contigent upon my signature, naturally. I asked her straight up if it was going to be another Civil Rights film. They watched "Ghosts of Mississippi" last year, so I just needed a head's up as to what kind of turmoil would be visiting our house this year in the form of preteen racial confusion and sadness at the abominable history of the treatment of African-Americans in this country. It may just be a movie to you, but to us, in this house, these films rip open new wounds that take lots of explanation and soothing and "fake-it-'til-you-make-it" optimism provided by yours truly.

I could already feel the tension rising in the truck as we pulled into the parking lot.
"So, um, what's the name of the film," I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
"I'm not sure, Ma. It'll say it on the permission slip."
"Is it about slavery and/or segregation again this year."
"Most likely."

I wanted that to be the end of the conversation. Keep it light, you know. But I parked the truck and sat there for a moment.

"Mom, we're going to be late," Lucian piped up from the back, his voice muffled by his "face hat" as we call it.

"Ya know what chaps my ass," I started then, and Anna sat back, readying herself for the impromptu litany. "I totally understand that you need to learn history, especially that history," I said. "But I think the curriculum misses the boat a little. That was 50 freakin' years ago. What about TODAY?! The only images you and your classmates have of black folks in America is freakin' slave stories, church bombings, and MLK getting his damn head blown off by some crazy-ass white assassin. Where are the positive representations?! Where are the modern day heroes in all communities who you should be learning about, too? What the hell? Why do you think I throw those damn book orders away the moment you bring them home? All the characters are one color. And if there are black characters, it's because the book is about friggin' slavery."

"Or baseball, don't forget baseball," Lucian said. Apparently, he was listening intently.

"Yeah, and baseball," I said, softening ever so slightly.

"I did notice that about the book orders," Anna nodded. It killed her to agree with me.
"But can I still watch the movie tomorrow?"

"It depends on what it is," I said, thinking 'My god what if they try and show them A Time to Kill or some other equally horrifying film with a simplified, outdated message of hate.

"I will find out today," was Anna's response. We all shivered in silence in the parking lot. Anna cocked her head to one side in a moment of small revelation.

"There's not a lot of positive, modern lessons about women either," she said.

"That is true...maybe it's time you demand an education that goes beyond the Civil War," I said.

"I think that part's gonna be up to you, as usual." She gave me a hug and they jetted off. Brother and sister, who share blood, a home, a family, the same slippers sometimes, but never in the history books will their paths ever cross peacefully. It is a confusing lesson, if it's even a lesson at all.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Magic cookies

I've been letting the words gel and form and slide down into my belly, churn, come back, sort of like a mother wolf feeds her young. It has to be digestable, otherwise there is no nourishment, and that is exactly how I feel about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Oh, goddamnit, Nichole, why'd you have to bring that up...? Perhaps, that's what you're thinking. I mean, it did happen before the holidays, so it's old news, the world has moved on to the fiscal cliff and more Syria. Right?

Nope, not this mama. I felt the same anxiety when I dropped my clever, beautiful, completely innocent children off at school this morning. I felt like an unwilling farmer, taking my lambs to the slaughterhouse. The panic lingers after they disappear into the building, and only subsides when the afternoon finally comes, and the bus will soon arrive, and they will emerge smiling, scuffing their shoes, and complaining about how much homework they have. I play it cool, give them a quick hug and tell them to hop in the truck. My arms have been empty all day, and sometimes, I think of how those mothers and fathers must feel, how the ache of that emptiness doesn't leave them, even when they are sleeping. Surely, somewhere, they have turned to stone, their arms locked in a permament cold embrace around a child that is no longer there.

I don't know how they stand it. Most of us don't know how they stand it.

I told my daughter about the tragedy, and her face revealed an expression that was better suited to a 40-year-old woman than to an 11-year-old sixth grader.

"He shot them?" she asked, pulling milk from the fridge for her tea. "How old were they? It must've been in a high school..."

"They were in first grade, babe. Younger than Lucian."

She set the milk on the counter and crinkled her eyes at a picture stuck to the fridge door, one taken years ago when she still had a roundness to her face that belied childhood abandon. She is with her little brother, whose eyes engulf a good portion of his head and whose teeth are on the verge of spontaneous extraction. He is wearing Spiderman pajamas and they are both giddy with the excitement of Christmas.

Her gaze is broken then by tears. Silent tears and a cracked expression. I tell her it's OK and hold her until her fearful sobs die down. We are both crying, and, I think, for the same reason. She knows, she sees the innocence in that picture. She sees the trust, and then, like me, she imagines the fear that such a face must have exhibited. The very last expression, not a smile, not even a pout, just fear.

She has stopped asking every morning if I think she and her brother will be safe at school that day. Perhaps she has forgotten, or, perhaps she knows me too well, and knows that I won't be able to lie to her, not even this time. It's too awful some days. On those days, I wake up early and pack their lunches -- their favorite things; granola bars, apples and peanut butter, a banana with "I LUV U" carved into the peel, and even a treat, which I emplore them to hide from the lunch authorities. Once I put three little cookies in a bag. When my son saw me packing this contraband he thought, truly, that I had gone off the deep end.

"Did you just put a cookie in my lunchbox?! I mean, a couple of cookies?!"

"Yes. Do you not like cookies? Would you like me to take them out?"

"No way! It's just that, you have NEVER packed cookies. Never ever, ever, ever..."

"I get it. Well, a little treat now and then never hurt anyone. It helps get through a long day, if you have something to look forward to."

"Even if it's a cookie."

"Yup. Even if it's just a cookie."

I think about them opening up their lunchboxes and finding the cookies and it warms me just a little. I think about how they will get on the bus, loaded down with their backpacks and the burden of the day, with cookies in their belly. From me, with love. Maybe they will never know the extent, or rather, the extreme, to which I love them. It might be too scary, maybe they are too young to know. Maybe all children are too young to know that their mothers love them like wild animals. And that grief and happiness grow from the same tree, and that we sometime cannot sleep for worry over them. We cannot eat, we cannot get warm because we still think that by some magic they are here, and we are only human, and therefore, our magic won't keep them here, not long enough.

And so, we have cookies.