Thursday, December 4, 2014

Knowing better

It’s time to talk about this. Time to come clean. If you don’t like it, tough shit, it might be time for a little self-examination. If you agree, then it’s time to do something. Get uncomfortable. Tear your ass away from that chair and that Instagram account and that cocktail recipe you’ve been meaning to try from Pinterest and get fucking real. Because for everyone else, shit just got real. Or, as my daughter says almost every day of her adolescent life, “Ma, the struggle is real.”

So, what’s real? Here’s what’s real, on the ground. On my ground. Where I walk every day with my kids in tow. And if you’re sick of hearing it, which many of you have expressed that you are…let me tell you…we are sick of living it. EVERY DAY. It’s not a figment of my imagination that when I let my daughter roam the aisles of the grocery store to help me do the shopping that she is stared at, followed and in some cases, glared down—especially when I send her to the health and beauty aisle for the expensive face creams that she and I both insist on purchasing. That we share.

‘Cause we share everything. We sip from the same mug of coffee, she pilfers my sock drawer, I steal skirts from her closet, she watches re-runs of “Full House” in the same bed where I’m reading a recycled farm magazine. Some people think we are sisters. Most cannot even fathom that we are blood.

“We look exactly the same,” she says, pulling Moroccan oil through her springy curls. She hands me the bottle so I can use the oil on my wild “stick” hair she calls my “Cherokee ‘fro.”

But, to the outside world, to this culture that I am struggling to raise my children in and against, we are one thing and one thing only. Black and white. Night and day. Not child and mother.

A few weeks ago we made the mistake of going to the mall. She loves to shop. I’m not a fan. But I choked back my hatred of chain stores and took her into…god help me…Delia’s…to shop for trendy graphic tees. A wardrobe essential for her, who wants to fit in. There were at least 10 other girls her age in that store, not to mention a packed cluster of six giggling and hovering around the jewelry section. And yet, while my daughter obliviously wandered the place looking for that perfect thing, a sales clerk was hot on her heels at every turn.

“Can I help you with anything…?” became the battle cry of that experience. Every store—every single fucking store—seemed like it had a designated clerk assigned to following my kid while she blithely shopped for skinny jeans, T-shirts and, because she is mine, the perfect ‘ugly Christmas sweater just for fun.’ I pretended that she was a Saudi princess and that these people were waiting on her hand and foot because of her exquisite beauty and regal stature.

But we all know the truth. We are all part of the truth, whether you want to admit your complicity or not. Your complicity in the complete plundering of the innocence of kids because of the color of their skin. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, or you don’t care, there’s this essay highlighting the disproportionate rate at which black students (as young as preschool age) are disciplined over their white counterparts. Wanna know why? There is a perception, apparently, that somehow a 4-year-old child of color should “know better” and is less innocent than his/her white peers.

Can you get your head around that shit? I’ve been prepping my 13-year-old for months about watching "Schindler’s List" in school. She’s going to be a wreck.

She’s just a kid.

But, bit by bit, I’ve felt compelled to warn her about things. About things that I’m guessing other mothers don’t talk to their kids about. I am the one chipping away at her innocence for the sole purpose of trying to protect her. It’s unconscionable. But, it’s my job. I cannot trust that society will watch out for my kid when I’m not there. Because it won’t. The same police officer that will help your white daughter back to her sorority house because she’s had a few too many is the one who will look at my daughter like a piece of dirt, and bloody her lip and throw her in jail…or worse.


We have a problem in this country. And that problem translates into the kind of anxiety that no one wants to understand. Because, as a mother, my thoughts naturally go to the worst place possible. Most mothers go “there” occasionally. We have to, to get that horrible shit out of the way and move on with our day.

Where your thoughts have stopped, mine keep going to the routine traffic stop where my daughter is a new driver—probably speeding if she is anything like her mother. The car will be searched for drugs. She will be roughed up, handcuffed, and possibly injured, or what the hell, shot. Forget a fucking citation…that’s for other people’s kids. That’s for ‘good’ kids who don’t know any better.

“I think there is a huge difference between calling someone a nigga’ and a nigger,” s/he says, in between drags off a cigarette. I am stunned. The air is heavy. I can’t breathe. S/he is a cop. S/he has a gun. These are the thoughts…
“Why don’t you ask my daughter,” I say, slowly. “I’m pretty sure she won’t notice the difference. They both sound the same to me, especially coming out of your mouth.”

I suddenly remember my daughter’s third grade social studies folder. And a packet she brought home, entitled ‘Teaching Tolerance.’ We should be grateful that society puts up with us.
And I wonder. Who’s tolerating who?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The folly of youth...sports

My insider posse is crossing their demonic fingers hoping for a blog about this wedding I've got coming up in five days. There have been some too-good-to-ignore events and comments and gaffes and I will give them my full attention before the big day while they are still fresh in my mind (and raw in my soul). As a teaser, 'dis bitch don't wear way, no how. I'll leave you with that.

But there's something else pretty fresh on my mind as well, a little more pressing, and it needs to be addressed before we all put away our football/soccer/other contact sports jerseys for the season. Before winter settles in and we all start the mad frenzy of trampling each other at Walmart to get a hooker-murdering video game to jam in the sugar-filled stocking of our darling 5-year-olds, we need to address...or rather I need to address the madness that has become youth sports in America.

Be warned, this may offend all people. Also know, that I am the mother of two sports-oriented children and I have tripped on, rolled over, and accidentally washed those goddamn cleat balls. My grocery bill has tripled, my laundry machine is in constant use, my car smells like ball sweat and cat urine, all of my frozen vegetables have been rendered null and void because they are now used to ice knees, shoulders, necks, ankles, backs and groins. We lovingly refer to one particular bag as "crotch corn". So know this, since the time they could walk, I have been a "sports mom." I am not speaking from some didactic point high above. My lawn is filled with divets where soccer moves have been practiced over and over. I have been forced into playing goalie, catcher, pitcher, lineman, quarterback, attacker and slide tackler.

Here's the deal. Common sense in youth sports is dying a quick death and we, the parents, are letting it happen. Straight up. I had inklings of this when I reluctantly (think teeth being pulled out through your butt) allowed my son to play pee wee football when he was 9. He had been playing soccer up to this point and decided it wasn't his thing (while his sister excelled and he scored accidental goals for the other team and chased butterflies at half field--for years). It was a disappointment to me. And a horror. I knew a little bit about head injury statistics and what have you. But not enough to arm myself with a sound-proof argument.

Every clash of the helmets made me want to puke. I had a full three months of emergency runs to the bathroom. Every day, headlines from high schools across the country blasted across my computer--Junior dies from severed spine, head injury renders varsity player brain dead, paralysis for college all-star. And yet, my son played on. He complained of neck pain about three weeks in. Then migraines and more nosebleeds...the machismo ER doctor just gave my son a manly clap on the shoulder pads and said "Welcome to football, kid."

Meanwhile, my daughter, who was just starting 7th grade, was launched into playing JV soccer. She suffered a knee injury about a month in. I demanded that she baby it. Ten days on ice, no practice, elevation, Advil. Our house was starting to look like an infirmary. But they loved their game. Each one, despite the obvious trauma, loved being on the field. Yet my concern, was not with my daughter. Her coach was great. She insisted that the knee heal. She saw into Anna's future, and didn't want this to be a game-ender for her. Football, on the other hand, was a totally different beast. Play 'til you puke. Play 'til you bleed. Play 'til you die. One kid broke his arm. He was back on the field in two weeks. Another fractured an ankle--back out there three weeks later. My son had a bad lung infection at the very end of the season, so couldn't play the last (unofficial, mind you) game of the season. His neck was still bothering him, he was on antibiotics, coughing. We still drove an hour to the game so he could support his team. He sat the sidelines (in the rain/snow) and cheered. And do you know what his coach said to him. To this little 9-year-old kid..."You should be suited up and out there with them..." gave him a look of disgust and walked away. Nine years old.

Three ambulances came to that game. A pee-wee fucking football game. Parents cheering and screaming and some yelling at their kids to get back out their and "how bad does your leg really hurt, c'mon, toughen up, it's the last game of the season."

Pee-wee football, guys.

(I think it warrants a second blog about the coach calling the kids "retards" and the assistant coach screaming at his ex-wife, for all to see, calling her a "fucking cunt" in the parking lot while she was dropping off their son to a game on a nice sunny Sunday at the home field...but I digress...they still coach, by the way.)

It was such a relief when he decided to join baseball. Yes, the games were excruciatingly long. But it was fun. The kids were having fun. They hung out, they learned the game, they did a little conditioning. They were kids. I, as the traumatized mother of the previous football season, was amazed at the difference. Nobody got hurt. Not too bad anyway. And my daughter played her first season of tennis. The knee flared up, as I expected. But, again, there was a general mutual feeling of understanding that it was our jobs, all of us, to keep the kids safe, teach them sportsmanship, and preserve their bodies while they grow into athletes of their own choosing.

Now, fall, again. No football for Lucian. His neck hurts. Still. His pediatrician just shook her head and said "You want your son to be a battering ram? These injuries don't get better if you play more. They get worse." I almost got the sense that we were borderline child abusers even allowing him to play the one season. And who's to say we weren't? Who's to say we all aren't? What the hell are we waiting for? A death blow? My 13-year-old has an orthopedist. She plays entire soccer games without a sub. She's still growing. And people keep asking me why she's not on the weekend league in addition to the JV team. Are you nuts? Because I want her to actually be able to walk on Monday. Look into the future...

I saw a parent last week, he looked more bummed out than his kid. She has to have surgery on her ACL and will be off the field for 10 months. She's not even 17. Did it just so happen that this child had a freak injury, or is it from years and years of constant play: practice every day, games during the week, games on weekends, school league, special spring league while also playing another sport, skiing then rushing off to basketball practice or vice we honestly think that this stuff won't somehow catch up. And not to us, but to them? What about plain old burnout? I would be heartbroken if Anna decided one season that she was just done playing soccer. Heartbroken. I love watching her play. But who can blame a kid for calling it quits if they've played for three teams and on weekends since they were 8 years old? I'd say fuck it, too.

In this case, it is up to the parents to look into the horizon. We are dealing with growing bodies, and growing bodies are fragile bodies. My daughter's knees can't keep up with the rest of her. So, it's my job to watch her gait during games, it's her job to respond to pain. They will only love the game so long as the game loves them back. If you force them to play it, be prepared for backlash. I know plenty of parents who force their kids into sports. I admit, I practically begged Anna to go to one tennis practice.

"Just one," I said. "If you don't like it, you don't have to go again. I promise. Just try one."

It's not even the end of soccer and she can't wait for tennis. Am I stoked? Of course. Would I have forced her to go? No way. Same goes with my son. I asked him if he would be willing to try martial arts/self defense as a substitute for football (we don't like to have idle seasons around here, the devil finds work...) He said sure. Now he's in his second month of MMA and loving it. On his own terms. And no ambulances in sight. And with such respect in the air with his instructor.

They say that youth football will be obsolete by 2020. That the injury rate will be so high, it will be banned forever into eternity. But why wait until others make the decisions for our kids? Why wait until your kids knees are torn to shreds internally and they've had three concussions and one shoulder surgery and foot reconstruction to finally say, "Shit, they're just kids. Maybe we should let them be kids. And play sports the way kids play sports."

It's not the Olympics, people. Very few get to the big leagues. Sports scholarships are infrequent. And fickle. I thought the whole point of all this was to keep fit and build character, not to burn bodies and kill dreams. Let them play. Let them compete. But in the end, always, in the end; You are in charge. So be in charge. You think it doesn't kill me, this baseball-obsessed former pitcher, that neither of my kids has taken the mound or has even an inkling of interest in doing so? It stings. It stings that they both hate basketball (oh love of my youth) and fishing and archery and competitive singing and Irish punk bands and neither has any interest in learning how to play the piano. Kills me. But I won't live out the wayward dreams of my youth at the expense of their bodies. Or their own dreams. I run this ship. To me, you are Messi. Right in my own backyard.

It's an honor to trip over your cleat balls and bring you frozen corn while you do your homework.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A single, sensical pebble...or, stop supporting potato salad online!

Ahh, summer. Anesthetizing summer, where each raw nerve and astute observation is somehow made numb or less sharp by the alluring scents of grilling meats and potent flora. And what we should see and do see is often shaded by big, leafy trees that leave us longing for a nap and a book in the sleepy heat.

I love summer. The blade is dull. Summer is the flame, we are moths...insert more cheesy metaphors here.

But shit is happening all over the globe. Real shit. Big serious shit that is incomparable to about 90% of the conversations I have on a daily basis. I cringe at myself sometimes, I cringe at the words spewing out into a cauldron of conversation. I see what people are posting about their daily lives and think, "Jesus Christ, Gaza is on fire and we really have the audacity to give a shit about body image...still?" But these things are important, all things are important to all people.

Perspective. Perspective. Where did all the perspective go?

I think we should all be suffering from a little bit of survivor's guilt. Maybe even shame at times, for choosing to ignore the vast sea of suffering that roils right at our feet while we play in the sand. Maybe I should stop trolling the web at night. Nothing sets off my insomnia like a GoFundMe page for an already privileged white kid wanting to raise funds for his/her private school education. Or a litany of posts about the sad state of affairs in third world countries interspersed with numerous pictures from a second home "on the vineyard", a trip to the American Girl Café, and then another post about women's reproductive rights. Then "This stuff in the Middle East is awful" and "Those poor girls in Nigeria" then "Great waves in Malibu today..."

We've all gone totally batshit crazy. Or, perhaps, it just appears that we have.

Where are the causes? Is anyone getting behind a cause anymore and sticking to it? Does anyone feel the weight of their privilege when their GoFundMe site pleading for money to take their kid to a trumped up beauty contest/state gymnastics championship is flanked by one where a baby needs life-saving cancer treatment? Who hits a donate button on a multi-billion dollar museum expansion project but deletes a newsletter asking for small donations to stamp out local hunger?

Our hearts are bleeding and good for us, but I can't help but wonder if we're bleeding into a drain sometimes. There is a logical order to things and the older I get, the more I wonder about the logic.

Let's teach kids math by getting a big grant to have dancers come to the math classroom and do integrative dance to incorporate algebraic concepts...

That's admirable. But you've gotta figure that at least 46% of the kids in that math classroom haven't eaten breakfast and are probably too hungry to give a shit about dancing around. They can't learn on an empty stomach. Empty stomach=empty brain.

Guess which one will get the money...ballerinas attempting to teach right angles.

No one really knows how to save the world. We think we do. We wish we did. But there is a way to start that makes sense. There are priorities. Somehow. Start with life, then take it from there, I guess...

Stay tuned.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hey, bulldog

When I think of bullying two images come to mind: an atomic wedgie in some locker room in Texas and the collective groan of my former teacher colleagues at yet another staff meeting on said subject. Bullying has some new creative pseudonyms thanks to today's wild social network dictionary. Slut-shaming, cyber-bullying, mean girls, you name it -- it's bullying. I always thought that getting pushed around was a rite of passage that, once you cleared high school, would be over. Once we scaled the awkward hurdle of youth, we would no longer have to defend our every eclectic habit. Our every choice. Our every breath while mortar fire besieged the foxhole of our fragile existence.

I was, of course, wrong. Even big people get goaded and pushed around. Like a dry dog turd on the lawn that gets nudged with a sneaker, but never fully picked up and thrown. Cowards.

I've had a couple of bullying incidents recently that were so passive-aggressive they were laughable, hardly threatening, hardly bullying, right? Nobody got hurt, no wedgies were delivered. But the premise was there, lurking just beneath the civilized surface. Do this, no, do this, why don't you do this? Oh you're not going to do this -- you're the c**t then.

We were all finally seated, surrounded by a nice meal of a fresh salad from the garden. My gentleman friend had grilled up a nice steak. It was a perfect night. We served ourselves. I doled myself a healthy portion of salad and just got my first bite in my mouth. The avocado practically melted. It was so good...

"Hey, aren't you gonna have steak?" My soon-to-be-in-law #1 asked.

I fucking hate it when people ask me questions right when I'm diving in to my dinner.

"Um" Hand up to mouth, chew quick, avoid getting said avocado stuck in throat. Crunch. Chew. "Um, no. All set."

"It's really good steak," said in-law number two. "You should try it."

"I'm good with salad. I love it." Charging steady into my second bite.

"So what, you're not eating meat. Jesus Christ, is it because it's not organic?"

I really just wanted to eat my salad and talk about...NOTHIING...

"No, it's just that I stopped eating meat at Lent and really haven't..." I let the sentence trail off while I deliberately chewed with my mouth open and full of salad. I didn't put my hand in front of my mouth. Just chewed, talked, had to explain myself. The vicious, saber-tooth creature inside me wanted to turn the conversation around--for all different reasons. Why are YOU eating red meat, of all people? Ya know, this salad is a little different because it's comprised of more than just iceberg lettuce, so...

But that would be bullying, wouldn't it?

I remember this time, it was a Friday in winter. I had put a roast in the crockpot with the intention of taking it to my then brother-in-law's house for dinner. The weather started to get dicey by noon, and by 5 p.m., just as I was supposed to head out and meet everybody at the little house in Hillsdale (with dinner in tow) it was down right stupid to be on the roads. I called my then-husband, who had a 4wd Nissan and who had picked our daughter up from daycare.

"I don't think I can make it. The driveway is barely passable. The road isn't even plowed. And Route 23 is a mess."

"Well, I'm almost there. And you've got the dinner, so...just drive slow."

"But I don't think it's safe. Honestly, the driveway like an oil slick."

"Why do you have to put up a fight about everything? Everybody's relying on you to bring the roast. Just drive slow."

I risked my life and limb to bring those drunks a goddamn roast that night. I piled the crockpot, the dog and most of my anger in my tiny 4-cylander Hyandai (before the changeover) and slid backwards down the driveway, nearly over the embankment on the other side of the road. The kind neighbor saw that I was stuck in the snowbank across the road and pulled me out with his plow truck. I drove for 1.5 hours, white knuckling it the whole way. The dog whining in my ear as the tiny car fishtailed and slid its way to the brightly lit house, where, of course, no path had been shoveled. Beef juice dripped into the snow from the crockpot and I remember thinking, "shit, I nearly just died. I'm an idiot for driving here."

Of course, it was agreed that I should leave the car there that night, because it was just too dangerous to drive it in such weather. Yet no one objected to me driving it there...

It's a matter of convenience, this bullying thing among the big people. Because we let ourselves be pushed around, or we push other people around for different reasons. Maybe we think it's for their own good. We're just trying to help. To be "show" them "the right way." We do this a lot with the older folks in our lives.

"Ma, the speed limit's 55 you can..."

"Don't tell me how to drive, Jesus, I've been doing this longer than you have."

"You may wanna stop for this guy in the crosswalk. Ma, Ma, blinking lights!"

"I see them!"

Should I be telling my mother how to drive? Absolutely not. Can I help it? Absolutely not. Is it bullying? Probably...

It's bullying when another adult, friend or foe, tells you you need to quit smoking. No shit. Like that's not completely obvious. But if you fire back with, "yes, I do. And you need to quit feeding your ass and hitting the tanning bed every 10 minutes and crying like a 1930s silent film star" guess who wins the asshole contest. You got it.

On a self-righteous side note here, I have, with a few lapses in sanity and judgment, said goodbye to cigarettes. This is the first week in four months where I have not had a single craving for one. It's been hell. And whoever says you can replace cigarettes with food is a total jerk liar. There is no substitute for a best friend.

The line is fine because we think we've reached civility. We're not giving anyone an atomic wedgie or a bloody nose, so it's acceptable to not accept, to push the last buttons, to poke the bear--if that's what you really want to do. My daughter tried that once, on the sidelines of my son's football game.

"Ma, you're cheering too loud. People can hear you. Shush..."

"You didn't just shush me. I'm cheering for my son. On game day. I know you didn't just shush me."

"Yeah, but you get too into it. And you laugh too loud, too." She uncrossed her legs and gnawed on a Skittle. I pasted my hands to my thighs.

"Do you think I got this far because I let people tell me how to be?" She shifted uncomfortably. My voice started to rise and rise...

"Ma, I'm just saying..."

"You just saying what? That I laugh too loud. I cheer too loud. You kiddin' me? You can't tell me how to be. Bigger men have tried. Don't ever think you can. I don't tell you how to smile or how to cry or what to laugh. You're a crazy fool. Go take a lap around the field. Get rid of some of that attitude. You're lucky I'm laughing right now."

I watched her saunter-huff to the concessions stand for more junk food. The father sitting next to me was chuckling to himself.

"They can't tell us what to do," he laughed. "And it's getting to the point where we can't tell them what to do."

I can't wait.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Normally I feel pretty good about what’s going on in the morning (after coffee and a shower, of course.) I can heave up this miserable pile of humanity, even on a snowy (fucking April) day and make it presentable to the world. Of course, some days are better than others. Some days, I get in a few more sets with my little dumbbells, a longer stretch…no pressure. Whatever there’s time for. Some days, I am practically eating a yogurt in the shower and asking my 10-year-old to start the car while begging my daughter to pack me a lunch.

“Put anything in there, I don’t care. Just do it now. We are going to be late.”

Those mornings make for some interesting hair. It’s a crap shoot. Farrah Fawcett-Tina Turner love child or Eponine dying in the rain. Either way, we’re leaving the house.


So when I think about my little dumbbells, and my weird, Herculean hikes, and the Frankenstein scars, and the big feet…well, I don’t really think about those much. In fact, I usually only think about the imperfections of the shell I live in when I’m trying to make someone laugh. Usually a friend who is worried about her imperfections.

“God, I got a full visual of my face yesterday…it was just…”

“I used two mirrors. I don’t even know how people look at me.”

“How did my nose get so big?”

“Where did my chin go? My teeth must’ve ate it.”

“Oh stop…you’re gonna make me go off the road.”

“I’m serious. Where did it fucking go? And the back of my hair…How long has that nest been there? Why didn’t anyone tell me about the nest. It’s a miracle my neck can hold it all up. My neck is pathetic. It’s not even a neck. It’s…”

“A golf tee.”


Funny, right? I actually feel better. We are laughing. It’s cool, things are cool. Then we go and eat our weight in really good food, including orange zest EVOO cake and life just feels good.

So why then, do I not feel this confident when the Huffington Post inundates the web (we’re talking deluge via FB, Twitter, smoke signals) with “body image empowerment” stories. We're supposed to feel good, right? That's the point of paying a writer to scrawl out 600 words on how Jennifer Lawrence ruins her white set gowns with Dorito dust. Or how Kate Winslet was a "fat kid" in school. Or how the cellulite on Kim Kardashian's thighs was photoshopped out of a cover shoot.

Oh, phew, I feel so much better now. Thanks, newsfeed, for the coiffed photos of beautiful women in expensive dresses leading the charge in favor of feeling good about myself while I sit here in my 10-year-old yoga pants knowing it's only a matter of time and gravity before my boobs will rest solidly in my lap and that the veins in my hands are starting to look like the highway clog entering L.A.

But thanks for placating me with the photo montage of post-partum moms in black panties and bras holding their smiling infants and toddlers. That takes the sting off a bit. Nice black and white noir shots, good lighting... Close, very close, and very brave.

If you want hyper real, try a dimly lit bathroom at 3 a.m., full color saturation--so you can see the nice purple-silvery stretch marks that will never go away, bags under the eyes so deep Tim Burton should be calling to cast you in his next morbid Claymation film. Now that's body image reality. Oh, and don't forget the clinging baby...but wipe that smile off his face because he's just puked all over himself and you and you're both going in for a bath. No black bra, no soft light, no luxuriant hair.

But it's all good, 'cause he still thinks you're cool. And his big sister (age three) will be leaning over the bath tub, while you are bathing the puke off your broken naked self and the baby, and she will point to different parts and ask hilarious questions.

"Why do you have hair there?"

"What are those? What are those in the middle of those?"

"What's he got there?"

"Why are there drawings all over your skin?"

"What's a tattoo?"

"You're belly is really floppy. It floats! Cool!"

Here are the real body image warriors. Stick with them. They will tell you the truth, build up your armor, and never steer you wrong. And if anyone says anything bad about your shell, they are trained to kill. But don't expect Disney-esque miracles of enlightenment.

"Nice dress, Ma. I like the color."

"Thanks. It's black, though."

"Yup. Like I said..."

I'll take it. I'm sure Dorito dust looks good on black.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Human terroir

So, there is this word that I’ve been swirling around in my mind palate/palette for a while now. It pertains to all things I love, not least of which is coffee (followed by bourbon, chocolate, wine and cheese and not necessarily in that order). Of course, it is a French word, because for some reason English does not have that all-encompassing quality that other tongues do when it comes to creating a scene as opposed to just saying what a thing is.

Terroir is one of my favorite words. I use the term more in my head than I do out loud (I know how to pronounce it just fine, by the way); maybe because it would sound ridiculous explaining to my brothers that I think Dunkin Donuts coffee tastes like shit is that there is no sense of terroir, that the beans are roasted with a bunch of chemicals and mixed together in a whorebed of greasy casings and unnatural flavorings.

“I can’t taste it anyway. I can’t taste the difference between black coffee from the Mobile or from some fancy café.”

At least they are honest. It makes me cringe and have sympathy heartburn pains.

Terroir is this: a sense of place; the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.

So, if your Bolivian coffee tastes remotely of chocolate and black cherries and mountaintop, that’s because that stash of beans is surrounded by those elements and in a good bean, you will taste the flavors of the geography around it…you will taste the story of the place. It’s there, somewhere. For coffee geeks like me, it’s transformative. I drink good coffee because I want the experience of the coffee, not just the caffeine. I want to be transported to the tiny farm on some fog-covered hillside in South America. Or, if it’s a good French roast, a street café in Provence, watching the world go by while I sit back and sip and just be.

People rely on these moments. Mothers rely especially on these moments. It never fails that when I go into the furthest room of the house with my coffee, just to sit on the sun porch for a few minutes before the day explodes into work, school, permission slips, baseball, robotics, etc., that one of them will follow me into the room, guns blazing.

“What’s the most powerful car in the world?”

“I don’t know. A Bugatti?” Sip, sip. I can almost hear a Saint’s Day parade at the top of Machu Picchu…

“What’s the fastest Formula 1 car? Who drives it? Where’s the most dangerous track? Do you think I should be an architect or a race car driver?”


“Architect. That way I can sleep at night. Go brush your teeth.”

I know full well he will try to continue the conversation with a mouthful of toothpaste from the top of the stairs.
That’s his terroir. Toothpaste, cherry tomatoes and wood smoke are the overtones. He’s young, so things haven’t had a chance to deepen quite yet, but my guess is that he will have a floral quality to his skin and that his feet will always smell like soil and maybe a little bit of rubber from the years on the trampoline.

“You’re friggin’ nuts,” my daughter says in her most eloquent, pre-dawn tone. My theory on human terroir has lost me some credibility while we drive to school.

“I think about it all the time,” I say, turning down the radio that Lucian has just cranked to the ElecArea station which nearly gives me a heart attack. “It’s too early to feel like I’m in a nightclub in Berlin,” I say.

“So people have smells, is that what you’re saying. People are smelly because of where they live?”

“Well, that, too…but no. People will always carry the essence of how they grew from season to season. Like, this year, we had a lot of bonfires and campfires, so we are smoky. And we ate a lot of raspberries so there is a tanginess…sweet but sharp.”

I make eye contact with her in the rearview mirror.

“Very funny,” she says. “So, some years, can people turn bad? Can they be shitty and ‘taste’ like bad coffee?”

“Sure. I knew I guy who smelled like onions and bad Chinese food. It got stronger as the years rolled by.”

“That’s a lonely smell.”

“It is. Very lonely.”

I think back through the years of our terroir. How we’ve nearly ruined it with chemicals – Prozac, bad bourbon, cigarettes, Hamburger Helper, urban dust – and wonder how much of it we can hide in the final cupping. What will that last sip reveal? Will the despair of diner coffee overpower the longstanding presence of sawdust and cherry tobacco and fresh herbs from years of toiling in the garden? What a shame that would be.

Lucian pipes up, his 10-year-old face is ethereal like an alabaster statue.

“It’s not just the terroir [his pronunciation is more like ‘terror’], Ma. It’s how you prepare it, too. Sometimes people can have really good smells that are ruined by a crappy coffee maker.”

We drive by a flooded, icy field overrun by water seeping out from the Housatonic River.

“Toxic terroir,” my daughter says under her breath. “Totally toxic.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

Making a face

This past Saturday, a group of us mother-writer-warrior types gathered to give a reading as the opening event for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. The prompt was given to us awhile ago and was inspired by Taylor Mali's poem, What Teachers Make. For the group of us, we were asked to consider "what do mothers make?" We make messes, we make babies, we make babies cry, we make muffins and shitty one-dish recipes from Pinterest, we make fun of ourselves, we make coffee...We make essays. In case you weren't there to catch the live reading, here's my thoughts on what this mother makes.

I try not to make a face as the hairdresser runs a flaming hot iron down my daughter’s jet-black hair. What she is doing defies gravity. The afro that my girl came off of the bus with, the one we have all come to love and recognize from afar, is transformed into a smooth airstrip. She is only 11, but the hair makes her look 15. I sip my coffee. The winter sun disappears behind the trees. The afro is gone.

“What do you think?” They both look at me expectantly. My daughter’s eyebrow is raised, the hairdresser is excited. I am trapped.
“You look beautiful,” I say. “You look beautiful.”

And she does. She is a stunning child. Always has been. Now, with the hair, she looks more like me than ever, but brighter. So much brighter. I try not to make a face.

In the car, my coffee is gone. My mind is stuffed with sadness. My girl, the puffy-haired queen who came into the world fighting and screaming for her life, is disappeared and a woman now occupies the passenger seat.

“What do you really think, Ma?” Half of her face is lit by street lamps. The other half is a mystery.

“I really think you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. No matter what your hair looks like.”

I want to stop the car. To sweep her in a never-ending hug. To somehow make her understand the fierceness in me. But I keep driving. I try not to make a face.

My mother was good at not making a face. First, in fourth grade when I finally insisted that my waist-length Pocahontas hair needed to go. She made the appointment, she took me to the hairdresser; She watched as nearly two feet of my childhood was hacked from my little head and slithered down my back to the floor. She said she liked it. I was happy. She was happy. We went home happy.

My father nearly wept. “It’ll be much easier to manage,” my mother said nonchalantly from the kitchen. I watched my father’s face. “I’m still me,” I reassured him. “It’s still me. Besides, you shaved your beard.”

The haircut didn’t have quite the effect I was hoping for. I still had to do dishes. My mother made me wear stupid, Victorian-era outfits that I deliberately tried to sabotage at school. The yellow corduroy mini-dress mysteriously torn at the seam. The calico pinafore with the behemoth collar became filthy during a muddy kickball game.

“What happened to your dress?!” My mother always exclaimed, horrified.

“I told you, we had gym today.” I looked with envy at my brother’s overalls and t-shirt and short hair.

I tried not to make my daughter wear anything, remembering my mother’s attempts at disguising a cactus as a lily. For years, everyone thought my girl was a son. Her soccer jerseys and denim shorts did little to dispute the fact. Her afro was universal. I thought she was beautiful then. Even when people would ask “how old is he” I would correct them.

“SHE is eight,” I would say. I would say it with the same conviction when strangers asked if she was my foster child, or if she was adopted. They did not see the mirror of my face in her face. They did not see that we were of the same cloth. Hers was a bit darker, sure, but the eyes. The high cheekbones, the stubborn set of the mouth.

“SHE is mine” I said, so many times. I wanted them to know that I made this beautiful creature. That I alone and young and without resources raised up a healthy child in a sea of hard times. She was mine and I was hers.

I make her come with me everywhere I go. She tugs at my sleeve. Even now, as a teenager, she tugs at my sleeve while I am deep in conversation with this writer or that official or this teacher.

“Ma, we should go.”

I look right through her, mid-conversation. My eyes are ice and the air sucks out of the room (or the café, or right there on the sidewalk). The moment becomes awkward for everyone but me.

“Don’t interrupt me,” I say quietly. “Not ever.”

I nearly make her cry. She backs up slowly, just far enough to escape the frigid air, but close enough because she knows there is no place to go. And she knows that I will make her squirm in the car once the public pleasantries are finished. Her brother waits. He is patient with his mother who “knows everyone.” He makes me smile. In return, I make him a lot of hot chocolate. I cut him slack.

She makes no bones about my favoritism. If she only knew, if she only remembered what I made for her. The space that I carved out just for her. I made her a pink bedroom and I slept in the living room. I made her soups and cassoulet and soft biscuits, anything that would put a slow smile on her face. I poached eggs, I melted crayons, I took every small step with her; She never trailed behind me.

I made up the difference. I made her as proud as she made me.

Now, we are in the car, I am lecturing her. I make her cry.

“You are not the only person living in this house,” I yell. Her brother pretends to read the registration to the truck. My voice makes him uncomfortable.

“You have no right to treat anyone this way,” I am at full blast now. “Especially the people you live with. The people who are closest to you.”

She makes a face. “I’m not listening to this anymore.”

Then I put the nail in the coffin: “Is this how you show your love?”

We make amends after she gets off the bus. By the end of the day, we are speaking as if no rift occurred. As if the divide of psychological damage had been crossed by one bowl of matzo soup and one joke and one goodnight hug.

I make sure she knows that I love her. Because I do.

Later on in the week, I make a phone call. To the school.
“There is a group of them,” I say. “They’ve been calling her names on the bus. In the lunch line, behind her back. Sometimes to her face.”

“What kind of names,” they ask.

“Names like nigger,” I say. I make them uncomfortable. The word makes me sick. I want to go to each one of their ignorant houses and make them pay. Stuff their words into their foul mouths and make their parents weep with shame at how they have raised their children to speak to my daughter. The light of my days. The queen of my life. I make a sound in my throat. They assure me, they will take care of it.

I ask my girl about it. I ask her ‘how’d it go at school.’ She wasn’t going to tell me about the nasty remarks.
“It doesn’t make any difference to me,” she says between handfuls of popcorn. She is making a mess. I try not to notice. We are, after all, having a serious conversation.

“What do you mean it doesn’t make any difference?” How can she be so blasé when I am ready to go door-to-door ripping people’s throats out with my bare hands? This kind of rage makes me bulletproof.

“They’re not going to make me feel bad about myself, or make me get bad grades or make me lose my confidence if that’s what you’re worried about,” she says. She’s so on to me! My New Age mom attempt at preserving innocence and self-esteem and authenticity. I make a face.

“I can’t change who I am. They choose to be who they are,” she says. I wish she’d close her mouth while she chews. “I feel bad for them. I’m the one making a future for myself. Who gives a shit what a bunch of rednecks think about me?”

She’s made her point. I walk away, dumbfounded at her clear vision. Ruthless, but clear.

I make myself a cup of coffee and listen to her and her brother fight about what to watch for movie night Friday.

“How about Nemo,” I say from the kitchen, gripping my coffee, waiting for a fight.

“Good idea,” she says. I hear the DVD case pop open.

I made the right decision. For once, I made the right decision.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Lean the other way

Last night my friend 'A' sent me a link to an article, this article to be exact. She was understandably enraged. These kinds of articles and news bring out a primal anger in most women I know. It’s similar, I think, to something James Baldwin wrote about in his potent essay, “Notes of a Native Son.” In that essay he remembers his dead father as an embittered man, stuck, by force, in a free-radical world of blatant racism and zero opportunity. Baldwin was headed that way himself, until an eye-opening experience in a night club shattered a tumbler full of whiskey, a mirror, and Baldwin’s growing hate. This was no way to live.

And he’s right, this is no way to live. But, as it stands right now, the doors seem permanently locked. The glass ceiling of equal pay is out of reach, and all I can do is sign petitions, rail vocally and verbally against this bullshit lack of balance, and cross my fingers that legislation will eventually pass that will bring my people, women, closer to equality.

It is 2014. Women make less than men. Period. And we wait. And women like me wonder what the scenario will be for our daughters (and our sons) in 10 years. My girl is weeks away from turning 13. A year away from signing her work papers and then delving off into the working world. One that sits atop a slick ramp. It’s not even ground. How do I prepare her for that? Or do I say nothing at all and let her figure it out.

“Screw this lean in shit,” 'A' said to me after reading the article. “We need to floor it!”

We do. We really do. I’ve been doing a little research for a project far afield of my usual writing life and the numbers for our humble county loom large and irreversible for women. And, being a writer and longtime observer of timelines and such, I know that these numbers, when projected onto the wall of the future, can produce some serious problems. Generations will be affected by this. Whole communities will fall, if we don’t reverse the tide.

Statistics only have meaning if you see yourself, or someone you love somewhere amidst the mathematical equation of human existence. When the equation reads: Women in Massachusetts earn on average, 22% less than men for full time work, women in Berkshire County earn roughly 24% less than their male counterparts. Additionally, Berkshire County reports a significantly higher percentage of female households (no husband present) with children under the age of 6 than the other three Western MA counties and the state average. Aaaanddd Berkshire County girls under the age of 5 have a poverty rate twice the state average (16%), at 34.8%.

The language is clean, practically medical, but the image is of flesh and blood and losing ground. A majority of women are raising kids on their own as the sole breadwinner of the house, yet they are paid significantly less than their male cohorts AND they and their children live in poverty.

Poverty, by the way, sucks. Ask me how I know. As any one of us women how we know. My friend 'B' gave a chilling explanation of how she stayed so thin raising her kids. It was the same story in my house, and in thousands of others across the county.

"Oh my god, who could afford food? The kids ate dinner and basically I ate what was left on their plate."

Can you imagine surviving on the leftovers of a toddler? I can. So many mornings, I'd lap up the last three bites of Cheerios, suck back the milk at the bottom of the bowl, then off to school we went. We kept the apartment at 55 degrees, sometimes cooler, in the coldest winter on record. And have to be thankful that we had a roof over our heads and that we hadn't run out of coffee or eggs or, god forbid, oil.

And none of us, were looking for handouts. Me and 'B' and 'A' reminisce with shame about the WIC checks, the angry people in line behind us at the grocery store, the stupid blue SNAP card that you could see from outer space, the judgment on the faces of the cashiers. Once, someone made a comment about my WIC purchases, and how they were taking too long. (By the way, WIC covers baby formula, peanut butter, cereal, milk, the basics so to speak.) I whipped around in a red rage, not prepared to ignore the comment.

"Would you rather we starve," I asked. "Are there no workhouses, no prisons?"

I finished up my transaction, my blood boiling. I was about to leave, then came back.

"I work," I hissed at the fella in the polyester khakis. "Full time. All the time. I went to friggin' Yale. Maybe if I made what you were making you wouldn't have to wait in line so goddamn long."

Not a proud moment. And not the last time.

Women don't want handouts. We are proud folk, the many that I know, and for all of that pride this system funnels us into prideless measures. The kids have to be fed. The rent has to be paid. We do what we can, knowing that if we made 25% more our lives would be totally different. What we wouldn't do with even $5,000 "extra" a year.

The myth of the alimony-sucking, child-support chasing freeloader is part of the problem. The other part, is simple. Pay us what you pay them. Why is that such a difficult move to make in the legislature? Pay us what you pay them. Free up the healthcare system, save millions on food stamps and subsidies and emergency assistance.

And watch as the next generation thrives because their mothers finally got a decent, fair wage.

Because we've fucking earned it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A lived life

About a year ago, I was asked to provide a list of ten things that have inspired me in my life; things that caught me off guard, buoyed me up, or brought me low. The pitch was that these vignettes would then, by some miracle, be turned into performance pieces that would run for a whole week to warm up the frigid mid-winter night. So, without much thought that these little vignettes would be performed for the public, I wrote them, sent them out, and then invited my mother and my boyfriend (now fiancée, he proposed on Christmas night, story to follow soon) to the performance. These little scenes of MY LIFE, my actual life, were laid before us all. Complete with music, actors, action, and some tears. So here it is, in no particular order of importance, my unofficial year in review. A life lived, and more scenes yet to unfold...

The admiration of a younger man
I had always admired his thick black hair from afar. He struggled a lot, and that struggle was made more romantic by his Spanish accent and his sad brown eyes. My heart always flipped a little when we would go to the restaurant and he would be at our table immediately, and the way he knew my name, and said it like he meant it. He and I talked a lot about love. His broken heart, my broken heart, of course, he was too young. Like six years is that big of a leap, but I have morals, you know. The divorce was awful, I never told him about the divorce, I didn't want him to think I was hinting at some impropriety.

Of course, at my age, what is improper? Truly?

I felt my eyes on his face a little too long. I didn't want to be one of those pathetic “older women” drowning in lust and loneliness. I stayed away from the restaurant to avoid even the possibility of feeling my own patheticness. Two years later, I was with my appropriately-aged, balding boyfriend when I saw my non-lover. It was my 35th birthday, he was drunk and he stopped us both in the street.

“This might make you both very uncomfortable,” he slurred, “but I asked for her number when I heard that she was single. I was very serious.” He turned to the boyfriend and shook his hand. “You are a lucky man,” he said with that adorable accent. “I should have asked for her number sooner.”

Upon realizing that everyone is transfixed by my stunning daughter
The auditorium is thick with breath and body heat. It seems like the whole town and their spawn have turned up for this 6th grade holiday music concert. Babies cry, elderly grandparents squirm and sweat in the self-contained humidity of the place. Suddenly, the whole room goes dark as pitch and the choristers file one-by-one onto the shabby risers.

They are all shades of pink and white dresses and black dress slacks; all heights and various stages of awkward gawkiness and obesity. It's a tough age. On the top riser, in the very back, shining under the lights, is a tall girl in a plum dress. Her hair, a barely contained Afro, holds a purple flower. She smiles and sings and giggles a little in between songs. No one can take their eyes off of her. No one. The audience is transfixed by her. I am transfixed by her. Such a beauty. Later, after the concert, people comment. “She's so grown up,” they say. “She's such a darling. What a beauty. I couldn't stop watching her.”

I see the girl in the foyer after the excitement dies down. A head taller than her peers, light years away, it seems, from their round faces and awkward smiles. I catch her eye. In the light, she is even more beautiful, like something in a museum, some ancient tablet filled with an inexplicable energy. I want to be nearer to the girl. She smiles broadly at me and waves. The sun comes up even though it's dark outside.

“Hey, Mom,” she says, “Could you hear me singing?”

The true origin of pleasure
The blonde crying in the corner is starting to irritate me. So is the young hipster/cyclist who claims he has “nothing better to do on a Friday night.” I regret leaving my socks out in the hallway, outside of the supposed sacred space where we have just finished an hour and a half of qi-gong and meditation. My face hurts from crying all afternoon. Twenty children are dead in a town I have never heard of until today. The people surrounding me are childless, sad, but relatively unconcerned, it seems, with the tragedy. One has just come out of a 7-day silent retreat somewhere in the mountains. A tanned, long-legged beauty came back from her trip to paradise early. I guess the beach wasn't doing it for her. She says she missed her mother. The meditation instructor looks familiar, I've met him before, he was living in a housing project, high as a kite, talking to me about struggling as a single father. Now he is here, he is clean. I am ready to bolt and not come back. The candles are burning low, the roses in the middle of the room are dying, my eyes are closed. Then a voice, his voice, low and a little too chill, slips through the silence.

“Remember, pleasure grows on the tree of sorrow.”

I breath hard and sigh. That explains everything.

The right to love
I went to my first lesbian wedding in D.C. It was beautiful, the brides were stunning, the flowers, the turquoise and orange cake...everything made me smile, and I got to wear a big ol' southern hat and wasn't in the least put off that I missed the Kentucky Derby because we were in the middle of the ceremony. A few months later, the country is exploding with weddings. New York, Washington, men and women who have spent a lifetime loving each other beyond the limits of culture, suddenly they are married and the world knows. I scrolled through at least 100 pictures of weddings that were a long time coming. I've always been a softie for true love.

The tie that binds
It always happens in the deepest, muddiest hours of the early morning. Just after midnight. I guess that's when he decides that he's too drunk to do anything but drive himself to the hospital. Of course, I will go, even though I have vowed a thousand times not to, to “leave his ass there” for all eternity. What has he ever done for me these last 10 years besides borrow money and ask for favors? But I go, of course I go, and I will most likely go every time, because I do not see a drunk with dirt under his fingernails, red-rimmed eyes and in sore need of a toothbrush. I still see a little boy with hair so blonde it shone gold in the sun, bare-chested and thin, and grinning from ear to ear because his big sister fixed his cap gun.

The perfect man
Soon, my son's voice will transform from the sweet, barely audible bird song to the thug-like drone of an adolescent pre-man. That is why, every day when he jumps off of the bus and comes bounding across the driveway to give me a hug, every day when I lean down and notice that he is smelling my hair, as he has done since he was a struggling infant, I remember what it is like to have the unconditional love of a good man. And I forgive him for dismantling nearly all of the kitchen appliances before 6 a.m.

Young farmers
The blazing heat rises off the fields before 8 a.m. Today, this is not New England but a Georgia plantation. But work must be done. The veggies need watering, the chickens need feeding, the coop needs cleaning, and the water needs to be changed. Oh, and then there's the weeds. All of those straggly soldiers that popped up during last night's rain. Out in the field, just behind the July haze, three young farmers, each with a college degree and a somewhat privileged past, are bent over a shriveled spinach row, heads adorned with bandanas and straw hats and sweat. From the road, it looks like a resurrected ritual.

A good cup of coffee
“Mom, you really need coffee in the morning, don't you?”
He has set up about 80 feet of plastic Matchbox racing track across the kitchen floor, and a make-shift bridge above connects the two counter tops.

“Yes, I really do.” I duck under the bridge, my knees creak and the shoddy structure shakes. I can smell the rich brew and taste it's nourishment. Thankfully, it is after my first sip that he lands the remote-controlled helicopter directly into the brimming bowl of cereal.

My third baby
The foal is standing out in the field alone, his head low to shield his eyes from the driving rain. I see him every day, motherless, his lean legs carrying him to grass and water where he can find it.

“How old is he,” I ask, admiring his stout shoulders. He could be on Roman battlefield. He is so noble.

“Three months. They wanted him weaned right away. I'm surprised he is still alive. My guess, he won't make it much longer.”

His name is Thor, and I sneak out to him every night at dusk to feed him, to lead him around with the makeshift rope bridle, to escape my life in the house of expectations. Sometimes, I've had a bit too much brandy, but Thor doesn't seem to mind. He runs to me when I call him. He nips at my shoulder, I bite his neck to teach him boundaries, just as any mother would do. He is mine.

“How much do you want for him?” I ask the woman, the same woman who demanded that he be torn from his own mother, the big lady who eats organic food, believes in Montessori schooling and teaches yoga and compassion out of her living room.

“Well, he is a good dressage prospect, I'm thinking at least $1,200.”
I hang up the phone. Less than a minute later her husband calls.

“I'm sorry about that,” he says. “My wife has no idea what she's talking about. We'll take the $300. And thank you for taking care of him. I feel so bad about...”

“You should stick to dogs,” I say and hang up again.
He is mine. And I am his. It's a simple story for once.

Hooking the big one
At 4:30 a.m. the boat slowly backs out of the dock, and the lights of the town fade as we head out into the Sound. The water is a black glass under a purple sky. The handsome skipper gestures to the swivel chair welded to the boat.

“Ladies first,” he says. I put out my cigarette on the bottom of my shoe and take a seat, gently easing the pole into my hands.
“I'm left handed,” I tell him. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Not today, you're not.”

The line is hissing in less than a minute, and I pull and reel and pull and reel, sweat gathering at the small of my back. My arms burn, there is already a crude pattern of scrapes on the inside of my wrists. I see the silver belly getting closer to the boat. I have him. I have him all to myself.

“It's a big one,” the skipper smiles.

For once, I have no interest in talking to a good-looking man. My focus is on the bass. He is the one I want. The last five feet of the line is the hardest fight. But, he is up, and in the bucket wriggling, defeated but beautiful.

“That's at least 25 pounds or more,” the skipper says, clapping me on the shoulder and handing me my smokes. “It's gonna be a good day for you.”

“What'd I tell ya,” the captain yells from his perch above us. “The women always catch the monsters.”