Sunday, January 8, 2017

Nothing and everything

Owen, age 9

Recently, my son gave me a scare.

I was getting breakfast ready when he slunk into the kitchen, obviously trying to stay out of my line of sight. “Good morning, buddy,” I said. No response from the normally chatty Owen, who was covering his face with his shirt.

“Why are you hiding behind your shirt?” I asked. “Come on out and have something to eat.”

“I can’t,” he mumbled through the fabric. “Something is wrong with my face.”

“Something is wrong with your face?” I shouted. Breakfast is too early in the day to lose my grip (yet, pathetically, it happens all the time).

“There are dots all over it,” he said, at which point I demanded he let me see. He sighed and pulled his shirt down into place. His face was covered with garish purple spots. Nearly 10 of them, in fact. My jaw dropped as the word PESTILENCE flew into my brain (followed, irrationally, by MEASLES, MUMPS, RUBELLA, and SCARLET FEVER).

“What is wrong with you?” I shrieked. I didn’t know if I should touch him or place him in quarantine, but I went ahead and made sure he didn’t feel feverish. I also took a soapy rag to his cheeks, chin and forehead to see if this was some sort of joke. It was not.

At this point, my husband had entered the kitchen and was surveying the scene with his usual mix of mild concern and amusement. “I’d call the pediatrician, Laura,” he graciously offered up.

Right.

As I was reaching for my phone, Owen’s eyes grew large and he gave me a look. You know that look, don’t you? It’s a blend of fear and guilt, and I can recognize it on my son’s face a mile away. I set down the phone. “Buddy, before I call the doctor, please tell me if there’s something I should know about your face. Did you do anything to it? Anything at all?”

And with that, Owen nodded slowly while he slipped his hand into his pocket. He brought out a little rubber pencil-topper, similar to an eraser but just for decoration. The tiny alligator head sat in the palm of his hand. “Owen, what did you do with the alligator head?” I asked. None of this was making sense. Then, he mimed using the alligator head as a suction cup on his face, and everything was suddenly, absurdly, clear.

Oh, my GOD, Owen used the ALLIGATOR HEAD to give himself hick—,” my husband started yelling with glee, but I cut him off with a look of death before he could finish. As far as I’m concerned, “hickey” does not need to be the newest addition to my son’s vocabulary.

“Owen, did you really use the pencil-topper as a suction cup all over your face?” I asked. He nodded. “Did you do it just now, after waking up?”

He shook his head. “I did it last night in bed when I was trying to fall asleep.”

Twelve hours out and his hickeys looked as good as new; I supposed they weren't going to fade anytime soon. An executive decision needed to be made.

“Well, I’m so relieved you aren’t sick. You are going to school and you’ll have to hold your head high,” I said briskly. “I’m going to call your teacher and the school nurse and tell them about your bruises”— I glowered at my husband here – “and let them know you’re not contagious.”

To his credit, Owen went to school and survived his classmates’ stares and curiosity. I, on the other hand, didn’t make peace with his hickey situation as easily: it was just another piece of evidence that I’m woefully unprepared to handle the ludicrous things my children choose to do.

***

I met some girlfriends for coffee after Owen had gone off to school. Our conversation began like every conversation does – “What’s going on?” etc. etc. My customary response to this question is “Nothing” because, mercifully, we are healthy and fine and life is trucking along mostly uneventfully.

But I’m starting to think “Nothing and everything, both at the same time” is a reply that’s much closer to the truth. Because like everybody else, I’ve got my ordinary stuff going on that no one wants to hear about (like how I need to clean the toilets and stop at the grocery store to buy spaghetti for dinner), but if I scratch at the surface there is so much simmering underneath (like the gargantuan concerns I have about my kids, my work, the world). These things have the power to take my breath away if I dwell on them, so I avoid it. But they’re always there.

Back to coffee: when my friends started in with their usual questions that particular morning, “Nothing and everything” was the only way for me to respond to them. Because, really, how else does one begin to explain that her son has given himself a face-full of hickeys with a pencil-topper?


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Peace is not every red light

Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh. Have you read it?

I read it in college, but back then it was lost on me.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, world-renowned speaker, and author of more than 100 books on things like spirituality and meditation. Clearly he’s a one-in-a-million type of guy, but I didn’t much appreciate this when I was a 21-year-old.

Thich wrote Peace is Every Step to encourage people to heed the “bells of mindfulness.” He isn’t talking about actual bells, rather he is pointing out areas in our lives where we can slow down and pay better attention. I remember thinking that his bells of mindfulness were kind of crazy. As I recall, for instance, he suggests that instead of looking at washing dishes as a monotonous task, we should treasure every minute of the suds on our hands while “breathing in and smiling out.” I also remember a chapter devoted to an orange and how we should try to “see the whole world in that orange.”

Twenty years later, the concept of mindfulness has become much more prevalent. I recognize the significance (and try to practice it, too, if sometimes grudgingly) of being present in the moment. In fact, I've been thinking there might be some value in revisiting Peace is Every Step, so I've tracked down Thich on my bookshelf where he has sat unopened since 1995.

A quick flip through the book confirms that yes, Thich has written about doing dishes, and yes, he has written about a tangerine (not an orange, but close enough). I’m glad my memory is intact. But there are a lot of things I don’t remember, like conscious breathing and eating with awareness. There’s some good stuff here.

Then I stumble upon a chapter called “Driving Meditation.” Ah, driving! I’m in my car all the time, so this ought to be helpful. Thich begins with a few easy lines for us to recite:

"Before starting the car,
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one."

Why, yes, he's gotten that right: the car and I are certainly one! Next, he suggests we “drive consciously” instead of “thinking only about arriving.” I feel like he wrote this line just for me. I think only about arriving because I am always running at least 10 minutes late to my destination. So, how exactly do I drive more consciously? He offers some guidance:
   
“The red light is a kind of enemy that prevents us from attaining our goal. But we can also see the red light as a bell of mindfulness, reminding us to return to the present moment. The next time you see a red light, please smile at it and go back to your breathing… It is easy to transform a feeling of irritation into a pleasant feeling. Although it is the same red light, it becomes different. It becomes a friend, helping us remember that it is only in the present moment that we can live our lives.”

Well, Thich. This might be a stretch for me. I’m guessing you’ve never sat through five red lights at the torn-up intersection of Verona Road and the Beltline during rush hour with three kids in the backseat, am I right? But I’m trying to be open to your wisdom, so I read on:  

“Sit back and smile to yourself, a smile of compassion and loving kindness. Enjoy the present moment, breathing and smiling, and make the other people in your car happy. Happiness is there if you know how to breathe and smile.”

With all due respect, Thich, this is where I draw the line. Not only do you not have three kids in your backseat, but you also aren’t responsible for carting them to and from their extracurricular activities every bloody afternoon. Let me put it this way: how is it really possible to sit back and smile when my weekly carpooling schedule has come to resemble an algebraic formula?

c = Caroline
j = Jane
o = Owen
s = soccer
d = dance
m = martial arts
t = weekly travel time in car
i = my irritation and fatigue  

4cd + 5jd + 3os + 2om = t

And t = i

Therefore, 4cd + 5jd + 3os + 2om = i

Solve for i.

Let’s be honest, I will never be able to figure out the correct answer to this equation because, crazy enough, i seems to fluctuate, even if the number of hours I drive remains similar each week. (I can guarantee i ˃ 0, though. Always.)

Furthermore, I know that I will never be able to hear the bells of mindfulness (b) when I drive. And I’m really trying. (So b t and b i.)

These failures, along with my dislike of algebra, are starting to make me feel like a very lousy person, until I realize that maybe I just need to give it another 20 years.

So back on the shelf you go, Peace is Every Step. Back on the shelf you go.

 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Future spouse

Last night, I found my 12-year-old daughter clipping her toenails in bed.

I REPEAT: LAST NIGHT, I FOUND MY 12-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER CLIPPING HER TOENAILS IN BED.

Does anyone else out there think this is disgusting?

I imagine my daughter sleeping upon tiny crescent moons of dried-up toenails and I begin to gag a little. We have hashed the topic of personal hygiene to death (and by “hashing to death” I mean her eyes glazing over as I convey the necessity of things like, oh, trimming one’s toenails over a garbage can in the bathroom), but she doesn’t seem to get it.

In general, I try to stay calm when my children baffle me, because they are at the age where they just look at me witheringly and say things like, “Chill out, Mom.” I was sort of composed when I found my daughter clipping her toenails in bed, but then I became not-composed:

Composed: “Could you please relocate that particular activity to the bathroom, like immediately?” [No exclamation points, no judgment. But then...I started to envision my daughter clipping her toenails in bed as a 20-year-old, and a switch was flipped.]

Not-composed: “But seriously, don’t you care that you’re going to have toenails in your sheets?” [Voice rising, becoming shrill.] “What are you going to do when you go to college someday? You can’t clip your toenails in bed in your dorm room! Your roommate will think you are gross! Moreover, what are you going to do when you are married? Your future spouse is going to wonder why your mom never taught you about hygiene!”

My daughter responded with a shrug. “I don’t want to get married, anyway,” she said.

Regardless. This concept of a future spouse has hijacked my brain. Suddenly, all I’m thinking about is the innocent people who one day, after the honeymoon ends, will be required to suffer through my kids’ indifference to personal cleanliness. My son, for example, refuses to wear socks with his tennis shoes these days, leading to feet that smell like parmesan cheese gone bad. “His poor future spouse,” I say, with a sympathetic shake of my head. Then there’s the fact that neither of my daughters will shower or brush their teeth unless reminded (read: implored) by me no less than five times. “Run while you can, future spouses,” I grimace. “Run while you can.”

Yes, I know all about “natural consequences” and the importance of letting my children face the logical and often unpleasant results that come from, say, not changing one’s underwear for a few days. But for me, this is much easier said than done. Because it’s admitting that I can’t stick them in the bathtub and soap them up like I used to when they were babies. Now, I just hold my breath (literally and figuratively) and hope that they will figure it out. But if they don’t, I stand in solidarity with you, future spouses: I will be the best mother-in-law ever, because if you find anything nasty in your bed, you can come crash in my guest bedroom. I swear it will be toenail-free.  


Monday, May 2, 2016

Safe

Me, age 42
Owen, age 9

I should’ve known we had a problem when I caught my son dabbling in illegal activity last summer.

It all had to do with the Snack Shack. The Snack Shack is the snack bar at our neighborhood swimming pool. Tickets for the Snack Shack are 25 cents each, and to Owen they represent all that is mind-bogglingly glorious about summer, like Laffy Taffys, Bomb Pops, and nachos with neon-orange cheese sauce.

You will not be surprised to learn that I enforce a strict limit on the number of Snack Shack tickets my kids are able to use every day. Nor will you be surprised to learn that Owen repeatedly revolts against this limit, which he somehow perceives to be a personal insult.

One afternoon in late July, I noticed Owen busy at work in a dim corner of our basement with scissors, markers and poster board. When I pressed him for details about his mystery art project, he carefully maneuvered his body to block my view. “I’m not making anything, Mom,” he said, evading eye contact. “Really.”

Right.

There’s a reason kids go to bed before their parents. It’s so moms can snoop through clandestine art projects. Poking around the basement, I was surprised to find that Owen had cleaned up the mess on his own (!), without me having to nag (!), so 99% of the evidence was gone. However, he was not flawless in his execution because, on my hands and knees behind a chair, I cheerfully unearthed two clues: a real Snack Shack ticket AND A COUNTERFEIT SNACK SHACK TICKET, MADE BY OWEN.

“Oh, my God,” I said to the empty basement. “My son is a criminal.”

The following morning, Owen, my husband and I had a sit-down discussion about how making counterfeit Snack Shack tickets is wrong, etc. etc. There were apologies, there was a no-Snack Shack-for-a-week punishment doled out, there were tears. All in all, I thought it was a positive learning experience for my burgeoning lawbreaker.

I didn’t give the counterfeit Snack Shack ticket sting another thought until last week, nine months later. Owen had just walked home from school. He came through the backdoor with great fanfare, brandishing a $20 bill. “Buddy, where did you get that?” I asked, and a creeping sense of doom rose in my throat: the look on his face told me that he instantly regretted waving the money in my face and should have left it concealed in his pocket.

“Buddy, where did you get that?” I asked again, trying to remain composed.

“Nowhere,” he said, cornered. “Nothing. No one.”

It was time for another sit-down discussion, whereupon I was uncomfortably reminded of Owen’s creativity, boldness, and enterprising spirit. He confessed that he had sold some of his better Pokémon cards to a classmate in some sort of “deal”, but he was sketchy about how the sale went down.

He and his friends have been trading Pokémon cards all year, but buying and selling them is another thing entirely. Last I checked, buying and selling anything on the school playground is not a super idea. I made this very clear to Owen. There were admonishments, there were consequences, there were tears. I thought it was a positive learning experience for him, but I found myself worrying anew: first it’s counterfeit Snack Shack tickets, now it’s a Pokémon-card laundering scheme. What next?

In the midst of my mini-crisis, I had lunch with a close friend. It was a perfect chance for me to vent about my concerns about Owen. He might have a brazen entrepreneurial spirit, but he pushes boundaries like crazy and it makes me nervous. My friend told me that I wasn’t alone, referencing her own mom and brother, who had a good deal of similar challenges when he was a kid. “My mom spent 18 years with a pit in her stomach, wondering when the next call about my brother was going to come,” she said. “She felt like she could never relax. On the days when the school didn’t call her, it was his coach or the church instead. She said she never felt safe. She was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

That is exactly how I feel: I don’t feel safe. I love my friend’s mom for putting it that way. I always have a snarky little voice in the back of my head that whispers things like, “So, you think you had a good day today, Laura? Just wait until tomorrow. You can't remain unscathed for long.” In light of Owen’s questionable decision-making, the voice is getting even worse: “Your kid is sneaky and he’s only in third grade! What will he try to get away with when he’s in high school?!”

In fact, I have no clue what he will try to get away with when he’s in high school, nor do I want to dwell on that right now. Because I’m too consumed with trying to raise up three law-abiding citizens while making sure I don’t lose my sanity. – Although, really, why do I think I should be immune from this? Isn’t being a mother inherently stressful and unsafe and insane? There is a quote I’ve heard that touches on this idea:


“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

– Elizabeth Stone

If I were a better, more crafty person, I would cross-stitch this phrase on canvas and hang it on my wall. It would look pretty, and it would remind me I’m not alone in my madness. But I know nothing about cross-stitch, and I don’t have any free time: my heart is too busy out there in the world making sham tickets for the snack bar and getting the better end of the deal on illicit Pokémon transactions.    


    

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Batsh*t crazy

“Mothers are all slightly insane.”
From The Catcher in the Rye,
by J.D. Salinger

Me, age 41
Jane, age 12
Owen, age 9

Every year, I give up swearing up for Lent.

When I’m not knee-deep in these 40 days of solemn religious observance, I’ve been known to have a mouth like a sailor. (Never in front of my kids – but get me behind a closed door and I will let an f-bomb fly.) I’d like to think that Lent is a chance for me to purify myself, much like Jesus’s fasting in the wilderness, but I can only conclude that Jesus was a much better person than I. Because, oh Lord, I’m struggling without those razor-sharp words in my verbal arsenal.  

A few years ago, researchers from The Journal of Pain and a British university conducted studies on swearing and found that it can provide effective, natural, short-term pain relief. Participants in the studies were able to withstand an ice-cold water challenge for a longer length of time if they repeatedly uttered swear-words than if they repeated a neutral word. The researchers figured out that swearing helped the participants withstand the pain because of the emotional response (anger, aggression, etc.) the swearing produced. This emotional response actually led to a surge in adrenaline much like the body’s natural fight or flight response. The researchers called it “stress-induced analgesia.” I call it magnificent.

I never wholly appreciate this stress-induced analgesia until I am forced to live without it. Which, of course, is the case right now. It’s a real challenge for me, because there have already been multiple times today where a swear-word has begun to form on my lips. I’ve been able to choke all of them back, but I acutely miss the blissful sense of liberation that comes from hurling those plump, ripe curses into the atmosphere.    

My day started at the crack of dawn with my son, Owen. His desire to play Pokémon cards with his friends on the playground is so godda** intense that he sometimes wants to go to school a full hour before it begins. Today was one of those days. I had to physically block his way so he couldn’t walk out the door. Glowering, I held him by the shoulders and firmly reminded him that: 1. No one else would be hanging out on the school playground an hour before school. 2. It is technically against the rules to hang out on the playground (sans adult) until 15 minutes before school starts. My son holds little regard for rules or common sense, so I found myself in one of our oil-and-water arguments that always makes me want to bang my head against the wall.

Midway through this quarrel, it dawned on me that I needed to switch gears entirely and run upstairs to rouse my daughter. Unlike Owen, Jane does not like getting up. I know she’s at the age where she should be more responsible for herself, but these days I have to be a total bit** for her to even attain consciousness: I shout at her for a little while, pull back her covers, turn on all the lights in the bedroom, etc. This particular morning, moving at a glacial speed, Jane was not anywhere close to being ready (no breakfast, no teeth-brushing, homework scattered about, etc.) when her ride pulled into our driveway. The swear-words were knocking around in my brain, and I had to do some deep yoga breathing to stay in control. 

Being a mom is hard enough. Factor in a couple wacko kids and a morning from he**, and it makes me want to lose my sh*t.

I’m not sure why I torture myself every year by giving up effective, natural, short-term pain relief that is proven by researchers. I’d like to imagine that it somehow makes me a better person. But who am I kidding? Only 30 more fu**ing days until Easter. 




“There had been a Tupperware container of bad language sitting off to the side in her head, and now she’d opened it and all those crisp, crunchy words were lovely and fresh, ready to be used."

From The Husband’s Secret,
by Liane Moriarty  


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Oldies

Me, age 41
Caroline, age 12
Jane, age 12

One of the more distressing aspects of my daughters growing up is that they now take turns sitting in the front seat of the car while I drive. Sometimes it’s nice having them next to me – except when it comes to the radio.

It is almost comical how they flip through station after station – repeatedly, relentlessly – until they find an acceptable song to listen to. I try to pick my battles with them; this is one I have given up, but it drives me crazy. 

I wish they would land on a decent station and just stick with it, but they press that evil little “seek” button with all their might, hurtling their way through a jumble of static and commercials and obnoxious DJs, assaulting me with an annoying amount of noise pollution. But I’m even more bothered by the fact that I cannot seem to figure out what, to them, constitutes a suitable song. Based on their past preferences, I’ve tried to come up with some sort of algorithm to help me determine what they like/don’t like so I can anticipate their next move (Will they keep the station on Adele’s “Hello” or should I gear up for a switch?), but the only data I’ve collected consists of the following:
  • They used to like Justin Bieber, but now he is intolerable. (Which is a shame because I think his new song, “Sorry,” is super catchy.)
  • Taylor Swift is a huge no.
  • Selena Gomez is a maybe.
  • Thumbs up to Ellie Goulding, Sia, The Weeknd, and Demi Lovato.
  • All of the above statements are subject to change without notice.   
As if this isn’t maddening enough, there’s more: depending on the day, my daughters aren’t always in agreement with each other about what is cool/not cool to listen to. For example, this is a typical exchange between Daughter in Front Seat and Daughter in Back Seat:

Daughter in Back Seat (clearly frustrated by inability to hover over the “seek” button as evidenced by indignant sighing): “Can you turn the station? I hate this song.”    

Daughter in Front Seat (clearly relishing having control of the radio as evidenced by smug look on face): “I like this song. Wait until you’re in the front seat and then you can listen to whatever you want.”

And so on. All while I long to be alone in my car, listening to the soothing voices of NPR.

Notably, there is one thing that my girls remain in complete solidarity about. It’s their abhorrence of what they call “the oldies.” To me, the oldies are the Stones, the Beatles, the Eagles and Zeppelin. Classic rock that has stood the test of time with its enduring awesomeness. Right?

Nope. My girls consider the oldies to be anything circa 2000, give or take. This means they pretty much despise every song from the 80s and 90s that defined my childhood and adolescence. As they sail up and down the FM dial, I’ll hear a scrap of a melody that conjures up memories so rich I can taste them, and they will flip the station without a second thought. Modern English’s “I Melt With You”, REM’s “Shiny Happy People”, Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round”, ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”, Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, Indigo Girls’ “Galieo.” All of them, scorned. My heart, crushed.

Now and then I try to pipe in with a subtle suggestion – “Hey, girls, why don’t you keep this song on for just a minute or two?” – but they look at me with disdain. “That’s an oldie, Mom,” they say. “We don’t listen to oldies.”

***

I always hear people say that age is relative. To their point, most of the time I don’t feel old. Usually, I still feel like my younger self, just masquerading as a mom and wife with responsibilities, a job, and laundry to do. Even though my daughters would argue that I am ancient (their word), it seems like only yesterday I was cruising around with my best friends from high school, singing BoDeans’ “Good Things” at the top of our lungs.

I suppose I should enjoy these days of carting around my girls and being the target of their banter. Because before I know it, they will be old enough to drive themselves.




Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Speech bubble

Me, age 41
Jane, age 12

I am sad to report that my daughter’s head resembles an oil slick.

I love her to bits, but I am totally grossed out by the greasy sheen of her hair, which was once – before the dawn of these rocky tween years – soft and clean-looking.

I attribute most of her greasiness to hormones, but I’ve certainly wondered if she’s doing a sufficient job of shampooing/conditioning/rinsing/etc. As a result, I have not only asked her to provide me with specific details of what goes on behind the shower curtain, but I’ve actually given her a hands-on tutorial of how things should shake down. (You can imagine the vigorous eye-rolling on her part during this particular conversation.) Regrettably, nothing makes a difference. So, as a mom, I guess I have no choice but to embrace the stage she’s at, greasy hair and all.  

What I can’t seem to get over, though, is what other people are thinking when they look at her: That girl really needs to wash her hair. What kind of mom lets her daughter out of the house looking like that? Take a shower, kid. And so on and so forth.

I have the potential to drive myself crazy dwelling on this, so I stop and think of my good friend Shannon. The mom of three boys, Shannon believes our lives would be infinitely easier if we could just employ speech bubbles above our heads. These speech bubbles would follow us around and communicate key information to the general public that we wish to convey but don’t have the time or energy or guts to say on our own. Shannon is smart.

If I could magically have a speech bubble right now, it would say:

Yes, I know my daughter’s hair is greasy. She takes showers, but her hormones are on overdrive. Please remember how awkward it is to exist in a pre-teen body. I’m sure you were no beauty queen at this age. 

Just imagining these words bobbing above my head brings me a degree of tranquility and composure as I spend each day with my daughter and her enthusiastic sebaceous glands.

I’ve talked to other friends about Shannon’s splendid idea and they all love the idea of having speech bubbles – because really, what mom hasn’t been stuck in a situation where the spoken word is difficult, inaccessible, or not entirely appropriate?

The friends I chatted with were quick to offer creative and painfully spot-on examples of the speech bubbles they wish they could utilize during their more uncomfortable and frustrating moments. Here is a sampling:  

Nothing to look at here, people. Keep moving.

I appear less sensitive than I am.

I really love my baby, but today he is really annoying me.

Please be kind. My life is hard.

I could use a kind word.

I look more capable of life than I actually am.

I want MY mommy.

Could a giant hole please open up, NOW?

One friend went a little deeper with her speech bubble:

Boys have emotions, too. People say, ‘You’re lucky to have boys. They’re so much easier. Girls are so emotional.’ But trust me, my boys are emotional too. They are just taught by society that they have to hide it.  

And finally, another of my friends (with a particularly great sense of humor) told me about the speech bubble she often relies on when interacting with her own children:

I know I’m supposed to care about what you’re saying right now, but I don’t.

***

I love having a speech bubble. Even if no one is reading it, I’m more mentally balanced knowing that I can toss my words up into it and they’ll stick there. Just like they would in my sweet daughter’s hair.