Friday, September 14, 2018

Letterboard

I am so not a millennial.

On Instagram, I follow a bunch of millennials—to wit, they refer to themselves as “influencers” or “lifestyle bloggers”—but let’s be clear that I am firmly entrenched in my Gen X view of the world.

These tech-savvy and on-point young women who pop up in my Instagram feed baffle as much as they impress me. They post dazzling photographs of their hairstyles, outfits, living rooms and children—and they link to the companies and products that make everything look so shiny and beautiful. Essentially, their lives are one big sponsorship opportunity.

Although I follow these ladies to get practical ideas on things like what shoes to wear with skinny jeans, I figure half the stuff they post must be staged or fabricated because I personally don’t anyone who moves through the world with such sustained magnificence. Frankly, I prefer a grittier approach: give me the gray hairs you haven’t had time to color, the dog eating scraps of food from your dirty dishwasher, or the acerbic teenagers who don’t want to be touched. These vignettes are my version of reality, although they aren’t nearly as pretty to look at. Which is why I follow the godforsaken millennials in the first place.   

It’s a mixed-bag, for sure—but it’s just Instagram. I have a good head on my shoulders, and I don’t get emotionally caught up in any of this nonsense.

Well, that’s kind of a lie. There is one thing I’ve been struggling with.

Since mid-August, moms have been posting photo after photo of their cute kids all lined up in a row on the first day of school. They smile broadly while sporting fresh haircuts and new backpacks, and one of them is always holding a letterboard. What is a letterboard? you ask. Ah, Instagram rookie, this is a letterboard: 


Letterboards are the trend du jour. They allow moms to assemble elaborate “flatlays” (like the one above) or place their children against scenic backdrops—all while asserting basic details about their lives in a crisp and tidy sans-serif font. 


This is when I start feeling like a failure. 

Not only do I not own a letterboard, I can't even get my kids to pose for a decent photo. Last week on our first day of school, my sixth-grade son refused to let me take his picture. I had to physically maneuver his body onto our front step, where he grimaced until I threatened to ground him from Fortnite if he didn't cooperate. To compound matters, later I realized that my twin freshman girls had actually snuck out of the house in order to avoid me and my camera. I dashed outside and followed them down the driveway like paparazzi as they rode off on their bikes. I was able to get a few wonky side shots, but their faces were overshadowed by their helmets and you couldn't even see their (clean) hair. 

After they were gone, I took a few moments to appreciate my house, which was dead silent for the first time since June. Then I texted my good friend Liz to tell her about my morning, comparing myself to the Instagram moms who, unlike me, appear to have their sh** together. She made me feel instantly better when she responded, "I can't wait to watch the teenage years unfold for all these millennial Instagrammers and bloggers who pose their preschoolers all day long. There will be a reckoning."

***

There’s a dad I follow on Instagram who is a world apart from the letterboard generation. He is clever and witty and doesn’t care about making himself look flawless. The wackier the better, I suspect. From his posts, I have gathered that he lives somewhere in Utah and has four or five kids and a spouse with a terrific sense of humor. This is one of his recent photos:


Oh, did I Like this. This nerdy dad, this middle-aged guy in baggy blue slacks, he gets it. To express my relief and gratitude, I sent him a message through Instagram and wrote something to the effect of, “Thank you for being a bright jewel sparkling in an endless line of otherwise predictable posts.” But maybe I came on too strong because he didn’t really get back to me?

Anyhow. From my time spent staring at photographs taken by people I don’t know, I’ve concluded that you must have super-thick skin while dabbling in social media. And continue to rail against the pervasive letterboard standard of perfection. And not let your self-esteem take a massive beating just because you don’t get one good picture of any of your kids on their first day of school. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Pothole

Raising teenage daughters is no walk in the park.

I wish my twin 14-year-old girls and I weren’t so cliché in this way, but we are. We’re playing our stereotypical roles flawlessly

I try to impart wisdom on them – insightful, profound stuff like “it’s a nice idea to take a shower every day” and “being on your phone so much isn’t good for your brain.” They roll their eyes at me, we bicker, we repeat. They dodge my kisses and prefer I maintain a distance of at least six feet when we are out in public. 

And me? I just want them to pretend to enjoy my company for an hour. And maybe say "thanks" now and then. You know, for all the stuff I do to make their lives as safe and healthy and enjoyable as possible.  

I realize that their behavior is developmentally appropriate: they need to pull away from me as they transition from childhood into their own blossoming sense of self. But understanding the mechanics of adolescence doesn’t make it easier to bear. Some days, my discontent feels as leaden as an anvil strapped to my heart.

Occasionally my daughters will surprise me with a grateful smile or even a side-hug. One of them might tease me about a new gray hair that’s taken up residence along my temple, and I’ll joke back, “I’ve got you to thank for it.” I have become really talented at appreciating these moments of camaraderie. They are fleeting; they are my fuel.

Recently, I was so close to hitting the jackpot with one of my girls, whom I will refer to as “J.”

We had just suffered through a doctor’s appointment together. Visiting this doctor is a necessary evil, but I’m always freshly surprised by how much I dislike him. J won’t ever say that she agrees with me about anything, but I’m certain she feels the same way. As we left his office, we whispered to each other about his ridiculous mannerisms and laughed in a conspiratorial hush, hiding our mouths behind our hands. 

For once, we were on the same team. 

Heading toward our car, I was struck by the dizzying notion that my daughter might actually like me – for five minutes anyway. But my bliss was short-lived. As I reached into my purse for my keys, I failed to observe the yawning pothole at my feet. In a sickening tailspin, I found myself sprawled on the pavement, my knees covered with gravel and my left ankle twisted behind me. 

There are so many words that leapt to my tongue in that split second, most of them wildly inappropriate. So I swallowed them whole. I took a ragged breath, picked myself up, and hobbled to the car door. J had already gotten inside. 

“That’s where you say, Mom, are you all right?” I yelled in her direction. My chest was thudding. “That’s where you say, Mom, can I help you?!”

I tumbled into the driver’s seat and glared at my child. J turned to me and shrugged, offering her flimsy imitation of an apology. 

“Have a nice trip,” she said under her breath, trying to keep the corners of her mouth from curving into a smile.

My jaw dropped.

“See you next fall,” she added. 

***

I tell you this story not to suggest that my daughter is cruel-hearted or downright rude. She is neither of these things. Instead, she likes to fancy herself a budding comedian, and she has a hard time extending care or concern toward me in front of other people. This painful combination sometimes threatens to break me in two.     

Thankfully, my friend Lisa understands. Call it a love language or whatever you will; it’s tough when a mother and her kid are on dissimilar wavelengths. “I will never get used to the way my daughter shows her love for me. It’s so different from the way I show my love for her,” Lisa says. “Thirty years from now, and I think I’ll still be struggling with it.”  

***

As I said, raising teenage daughters isn’t a walk in the park.

Apparently, it’s not a walk in the parking lot either.

Get knee pads. Tuck a few band-aids in your pocket. Have your best friends on speed-dial.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll need them all. 



Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cake mix

My friend Liz is a professional organizer.

She works for a company that overhauls ratty old closets and cabinets, grouping things in clear plastic containers and ingenious storage devices I never knew existed. She arranges items – Legos, folders, shoes, boxes of cereal – in ROYGBIV order and labels everything with dainty placards so there’s never any doubt as to what belongs where.

When photographs of Liz’s work projects pop up in my Instagram feed, I literally cannot believe my eyes. She and her colleagues are miracle workers, taking something nasty – say, a filthy garage – and transforming it into a bright, clean space where, inexplicably, I find myself longing to sit and drink a cup of tea.

I’m not even kidding.

If you walked into my house, it wouldn’t immediately be apparent that Liz and I are opposites on the organizational spectrum: this is because I like my rooms tidy and clutter-free. But the reason my rooms are tidy and clutter-free is because I shove everything into my closets. They are my veritable dumping ground. They are my dirty little secret.

A couple years ago I asked Liz about hiring her to help me with my kitchen pantry. But (ahem) I wasn’t organized enough to follow through and actually book her. So it continues to languish, characterized by expired jars of pickles and a distressing amount of cream of mushroom soup. I’ve gotten good at overlooking the chaos. After all, we have to let some things go.

(Right?)

But recently, something alarming occurred in my kitchen pantry that’s caused me to question my approach.

One afternoon, I was looking in vain for almonds, riffling through various tins and packages on the upper shelf. I am short and the upper shelf is tall, which made my search trickier. “A stepstool is always handy in situations like this,” I chided myself, but it was too late. Having shoved a can of diced tomatoes too far to the side, I inadvertently created a domino effect, sending a box of cake mix tumbling off the shelf and onto my face.

An item falling from the pantry onto my body is not surprising; it’s happened more times than I care to count. I was far more distressed by the fact that the box of cake mix was open. The sweet-smelling powder dusted my hair and chest and feet like snow.  

My kids, who were sitting at the kitchen table doing their homework, thought this was funny. And it was. I am quick to laugh at myself when the situation warrants, but something wasn’t adding up. 

"You guys, why was this box of cake mix open?” I asked. “I mean, don’t you use a box of cake mix all at once? Why would we have leftover cake mix in the pantry?” Genuinely puzzled, I was posing my questions rhetorically, but I noticed that my 11-year-old son was avoiding eye contact.

“Owen,” I said, “Why was this box of cake mix open?”

He didn’t answer. He appeared to be weighing his options.

“Just tell me the truth. It’s not a big deal,” I said.

Only, it was sort of a bigger deal than I anticipated, because Owen admitted that he had been eating the cake mix.

“Hold on a second,” I said. “You’re telling me that you opened the box of cake mix and have been eating it?”

He nodded.

How have you been eating it?”

“With a spoon,” he answered. As if this should be obvious.  

“So, you’ve been nipping into the cake mix every now and then, whenever you fancy a hit of Betty Crocker?”

He nodded again.

Why?”  

“I like sugar,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.  

“I see,” I said. I didn’t really see – not at all – but I wasn’t sure where to go from here. How does a good mom resolve a situation like this? I enlisted his help in cleaning up the cake mix, but I had no idea how to address the problem long-term.  

“Buddy, please don’t eat cake mix anymore,” I finally beseeched. “It’s not good for you, and it’s weird.”

“OK,” he said, shrugging his shoulders again.

“It also indicates that you have a major sugar addiction,” I added. “And it makes me feel like a bad mom. I am terrible at keeping this pantry clean. I didn’t even notice you had opened the box of cake mix. Why don’t I organize more? Why don’t I bake more? If I organized or baked more, this wouldn't have happened…”

“I get the idea, Mom,” he said. 

As I dusted the cake mix from my body and Owen swept it off the floor, I resolved to make a change. I would call Liz, and I would ask for her help.

But I am realistic, if nothing else. Liz might be awesome at helping me get organized, but she certainly isn’t trained in preventing 11-year-old boys from making ludicrous dietary choices.

Can someone please find me a consultant for that?





Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Venn diagram

One of my favorite things to eat in winter is tater tot casserole.

It’s the epitome of comfort food, and it serves a necessary purpose: in lieu of sunlight (because there isn’t any in Wisconsin in January), we need to get our Vitamin D through other channels. And what better channels are there than ground beef and mushrooms?

This is my recipe. You will note that it is unfussy and economical, well-suited for the overextended parent who has difficulties getting dinner on the table. Swap out or switch up ingredients as needed. 
  • 1 lb. ground beef, cooked and drained
  • 2 cans of cream of mushroom soup
  • 1-2 jars of button or sliced mushrooms
  • 1-2 cans of Veg-All, or if you are in a situation akin to mine (read on for details), you might want to deconstruct and use separate cans of carrots, corn, and/or green beans
  • Bag of frozen tater tots
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Mix everything (except for the tots) in a big bowl. You may be tempted to sneak a bite of the casserole mixture; this is normal and appropriate. Spray a 9x13-inch baking dish with Pam and spread the casserole mixture in it. Top with the bag of frozen tater tots. Bake for an hour or until the casserole is piping hot and the tots are crispy and golden brown. Ketchup or hot sauce slathered on top is a nice touch.

You’re welcome.       

***

When my kids were little, I made tater tot casserole all the time and never fielded a complaint. They ate it without protest, until (perplexingly, alarmingly) their taste buds started to morph. As they’ve gotten older, each of them has declared moratoria on certain foods they used to shove in their mouth holes as toddlers.

I understand that things change and evolve, so I try to honor their new and emerging demands – but only when I’m feeling generous in time and spirit. (Which is to say, most days I tell them to just pick out whatever ingredient they hate from whatever meal I’ve made.) The problem is this: no matter what I do, I can’t make all three of them happy at the same time. Someone always gets pissed off.

Take my tater tot casserole, for example. As I was preparing it for dinner last week, I stared into my baking dish and realized it was no longer my friend. It had become, of all insane things, a mathematical dilemma. I could almost hear it taunting me.

“Do you remember what a Venn diagram is?” it hissed.

“I think so?” I answered.

“I’ve become one,” it said. “Solve me.”

Indeed, my baking dish was correct: to make the casserole edible for each member of my family, I needed to construct it in overlapping sections not unlike a Venn diagram. Of course, my Venn diagram was warped from the start because I was working with rectangles instead of circles. And they were sloppy, imprecise rectangles, because, really, how can one keep uncooked casserole sections from spreading into others?

This was my predicament: 
  • Child #1 and #2 like mushrooms, but child #3 doesn’t.
  • Child #1 and #3 like beef, but child #2 is a vegetarian.
  • Child #2 and #3 eat canned corn, but child #1 won’t touch it. 
Therefore, I assembled my baking dish using a design like this:  

A = set containing mushrooms
B = set containing ground beef
C = set containing canned corn


Are you feeling a little rattled by now? Yes, me too, because this approach to cooking screws with your mind. Case in point: when my tater tot casserole was finished in the oven, I could barely remember which set was which, let alone which kid was eating which set. Who was assigned to AC, AB, and BC? Was anyone a pure A, B, or C? Why had I felt compelled to do this in the first place?

The easy part was ABC, which was just for my husband and me. We ate our set and were satisfied. Everyone else grumbled because, according to them, nothing came out right. Child #3 said his set smelled like mushrooms, #2 found a trace of ground beef in her set, and, worst of all, #1 announced she no longer liked tater tots.

In their eyes, my casserole was a big fat fail. But instead of mentally snapping – as one would rightly expect me to do – I partook in some emergency meditation breathing, which helped me calmly consider my casserole in a different light.

Instead of a meal I had taken the time to prepare and that zero of my children had appreciated, I chose to look at my casserole as a symbol of motherhood. We try to do our best, no? We know that a 100% success rate is impossible if we’ve got more than one kid. What is worth a headache one day might not be worth it another. We mourn the lost taste buds of babyhood and celebrate the discerning individuals our children have become. We devise Venn diagrams to be creative in our parenting and then acknowledge that mathematical reasoning doesn’t apply when it comes to picky eaters.

And sometimes we decide to shelve a favorite recipe until #1, #2, and #3 go off to college.

  

Monday, July 24, 2017

Blocked meridians

Last week I had a deep-tissue massage with Natasha, my Russian massage therapist.

For those of you who have heard me talk about Natasha, you already know that she is equipped with hands of steel and a baffling ability to kick-start my digestive system. (If you have no idea who Natasha is, read THIS. Then you’ll understand what she means to me.)

Even though I adore Natasha and entrust my body to her, I do not look forward to our sessions. I equate getting a massage from her to running a 10K: I sort of dread it, but I know I’ll feel euphoric and resilient once it’s over. It will somehow make me a better human being.

Every time I have an appointment with Natasha, she flattens me into a pancake with her Eastern-medicine techniques, but I accept her poundings without a whimper. In fact, it’s become a point of pride that I manage to avoid crying out in agony when I’m with her. I have learned to rely on deep breathing and other mental trickery to stay calm and contain the wailing inside my own head.

But last week, my visit to Natasha was different. My muscles seemed tighter than usual; I felt edgy. She noticed too, and was thus “going easy” on me. (Which, let’s be frank, means nothing.) When she got to my foot – the back of my left ankle – I almost jumped out of my skin. It hurt so bad. (Later, after my massage, I checked out the big anatomy chart hanging on her wall and wondered if my Calcaneal Tendon or Flexor Retinaculum was perhaps the culprit.)

How could the back of my ankle be sore? It hadn’t bothered me before, but that is precisely Natasha’s forte: she locates tender, raw, uncomfortable places on your body that you didn’t even know existed and makes them feel like spaghetti. I found myself groaning out loud, “Natasha, I can’t do it! I can’t.”

She relented – a little. She kept her magical man hands on the back of my ankle but released some of the pressure.

“What is wrong with me?” I moaned.

“It’s your heart,” she said.

“What is wrong with my heart?” I cried. Natasha has a track record of diagnosing health problems through massage, so my first thought was that I was maybe having angina or the rumblings of a heart attack.

“No, not your heart,” said Natasha. “Your emotional heart. You have pent-up feelings. You have tension. Your meridian is blocked at the back of your ankle. Your foot and heart are connected. Energy cannot get through.”

I really didn’t know what this meant, nor was I able to engage in intelligent conversation while sprawled on the massage table, so I shut my mouth and let her proceed. The discomfort in the back of my foot was a tangible thing.

“Yes, yes, you definitely have a blocked meridian,” she whispered. My eyes were closed, but I could imagine her shaking her head in doleful solidarity. “I will unblock it.” Which she did by kneading her fingers into the molten core of my blocked meridian and sending a hot thread of pain up my leg and into the upper half of my body. I felt something burning; I felt something begin to give. And then, as I was practically panting, she stopped.  

Before I could catch my breath, Natasha moved swiftly from my left ankle to my right. Which – no surprise here! – likewise needed unblocking. She repeated the entire procedure, while my palms grew damp and I licked the sweat from my upper lip. Just when I thought I might physically break, Natasha began to murmur, “It is hard, being a mother. It is hard, being a woman. You feel love for others and you take care of them, and it is not always easy. There is stress.”  

Oh yes, Natasha, there is stress.

“There is worry, there is frustration, there is anger,” she continued. “And it goes into your foot and stops your energy from flowing.”

Her voice, a thick Russian-y intonation, made my eyes leak. How does she always reduce me to weeping? And how does she so beautifully unblock my meridians when I’m pretty sure that her own meridians must be suffering? After all, this is someone who’s gone through a nasty divorce and has a son with a brain tumor. If anyone is dealing with more than her share of sorrows and burdens, it’s her.      

But, now that I’ve given it more thought, I believe all of us women are carrying more than we ever thought we could handle, whether as moms or wives or friends or just as people. There’s hardly time for tears or woe; we forge on, even if our loads are heavy. Maybe our blocked meridians are the glue that prevents us from completely falling apart. Maybe they are the small price we pay for being alive and being needed by others. Maybe blocked meridians aren’t so bad after all?

But I will say this: it feels freaking amazing to have them cleared out, even if it’s only for an hour or two.

Thanks, Natasha. I love you.




Monday, April 3, 2017

Keep calm and (try really hard without much success to) meditate on.

What do you say to someone who is prone to worrying and doesn’t do a terrific job of managing her stress?

You tell her, “Get the Calm app.” Right?

Only, I suppose, if you are my clever friend Liz, who suggested this exact thing to me a couple months ago when I was losing my sh** over one of life’s latest crises.

Liz tends to be ahead of the curve on things like meditation apps, so I listened up. “Calm is better than Xanax,” she told me. “I do it fifteen minutes each day. Taking this time for my mind and body has been transforming.”

Liz and I are similarly wired, so I asked for more details. She said, “In the past, I hadn’t noticed how wound up I was doing simple things like grocery shopping. I’d be irritated and in such a rush, literally feeling my muscles tight and stressed. Now, I’m more relaxed. After meditation in the morning, which is often in a random parking lot after I drop off the kids at school, I feel like a Zen surfer dude gliding through the day.”

I can describe myself using many different adjectives, but Zen is not one of them. I could see the benefit of having a tool right on my phone to help me glide through the day. So I hopped over to the App Store and purchased Calm without a second thought.

When you open Calm, the simple words “take a deep breath” greet you. Beyond that, Calm offers a treasure trove of resources for the habitually anxious, including guided and unguided meditations, sleep stories, and programs for managing stress and promoting gratitude. Best of all, there is a daily exercise that fosters mindfulness and concentration.

Calm encourages you to find a quiet, comfortable spot where you can close your eyes, maintain a wakeful posture (as if a string is pulling you up from the top of your head), and disregard the rest of the world for a while. The lulling voice of Tamara, the narrator – plus the background noise of chirping birds and lapping water – is reassuringly Xanax-like.

Since downloading Calm I’ve been doing it almost every night in bed before going to sleep, but I confess that meditation does not come easy for me. “Return to the breath” is Tamara’s mantra, but it is so hard. I try to concentrate on the air as it moves in and out of my body, but my mind begins to wander like a hyper puppy off-leash. Tamara, ever merciful, instructs me not to fret: “There is no judgment. Let go of your thoughts and imagine them floating away like leaves on a stream.”

As if it’s not challenging enough to follow Tamara’s basic directions, I am plagued with a host of other disruptions that make meditation even more difficult. I’m sitting in my bed, for instance, legs crossed and hands resting lightly in my lap, when I hear my son padding down the hallway toward my bedroom. “Owen is supposed to be sleeping!” I hiss to Tamara. He opens the door. Although my eyes are closed, I can sense him staring at me. He closes the door and races back to his room while shrieking with laughter. I silently appeal to Tamara for support. “Return to the breath,” she says.

A similar incident happens the following night. I’m trying to do Calm, but this time my daughter Caroline barges in. “She should be doing her homework!” I think helplessly. Caroline watches me in what I can only assume is fascination (I’ve never seen my mom so still and quiet before!) and then she asks, “What’s up with the hippie hobby, Mom?” I cannot answer because my brain is mush and I’m getting pissed, so I keep my eyes shut and ignore her. All while – yes, you got it – attempting to return to the breath.  

But the worst interruption to Calm comes from my husband. It’s another evening and I’m just getting into my groove, working on “softening my forehead,” when I hear him hollering for me downstairs. The string holding my spine straight snaps in half. The direction of the stream turns and every messy thought comes crashing on top of me like a tsunami. “What does he want?” I ask Tamara in sheer desperation. I climb out of bed and find my husband in the kitchen, checking his email.

“There’s a message here from Apple indicating that somebody in our family bought an app called Calm,” he says.

“That was me. I bought Calm,” I say.

“But Calm is freaking expensive!” he says. “It was $63.29!”

I’ve only purchased one or two apps in my life, so I have no context for this discussion. He goes on, “Every app I buy is only a couple bucks. I’ve never spent $63.29 on an app!”

“But Calm is different,” I say. “It’s got all these tools and activities. It offers something new every single day. It’s like a meditation curriculum.” I know I sound lame, but I’ve come to believe in Calm, even if can’t achieve it myself. 

“Well you better be doing a lot of Calm to make it worth the price!” he says.

Let me tell you: there is nothing more buzz-killing to Calm than being told by your spouse that you need to do a lot of it to justify the cost. My inner surfer dude wilts a little bit. 

***

I keep thinking of Liz, who, as you’ll recall, mediates in her car in random parking lots. “I’m concerned that someday someone will knock on my car window thinking I’m asleep or dead,” she says. “But so far I haven’t been interrupted.”

Perhaps I need to take my meditation on the road.

***

In my bed, in a car, wherever I can find that sense of peace that continually eludes me, I’m holding out hope that Calm is going to help. My husband and kids can complain and laugh all they want, but the truth is this: if I can be more serene and composed in my daily life, they will directly benefit. All for $63.29.

It's a complete steal, if you ask me. And much less than a yearly Xanax prescription.




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?