Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back to School with the Stooges


He plunked himself down in the middle of the aisle, and, sitting criss-cross-applesauce, scowled at his choices.

I considered going boneless myself, flopping down alongside him, and complaining bitterly about how boring this is for me. But I don't think my son would catch the irony.

After all, back-to-school shopping is FUN for him. It's a treasure hunt.

For me, it's just a puzzle wrapped in chains and buried in a box under sand and rotting fish.

I'm not sure how long we've been in this store, but the school supply list seems as long (and as complicated) as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Just holding it in my hand gives me The Chills.

In fact, I think I might hyperventilate.

“How many stores WILL I have to go through before I find a sling-style backpack and rainbow pocket folders with prongs?”

Don't answer that! I prefer to live in denial.

“This is not a 'FINE LINE MARKER',” he pouts as I pulled a package of felt-tipped pens off the display hook and tossed it into our cart. It says: 'M-E-D-I-U-M.' Medium is not fine.”

He picks the offending item out of the cart and puts in back on the display rack.

“Medium is fine,” I say, retrieving it and throwing it back into the cart.

“No. Medium is not fine. Medium is medium. Fine is fine.”

Back to the display.

“Well, since they only have Medium and Bold, Medium, in this instance, is Fine.”

Back to the cart.

“Medium is definitely not Fine,” he mutters.

Display.

“Well, you may be right,” I hiss, taking the package from the display and holding it over the cart. “Medium may not be Fine, but I'm not going to another store, so Medium will have to be Good Enough.”

He tears the package from my hand and flops it into the cart.

Fine!

Stubborn. Just like his mother.

“What's next?” He asks cheerily. “Oh … folders!”

“Thissssssss,” I said out loud, “is going to take forrrrrrrrrrrrrrevah.”

I envy people who say they can't take their kids to the store because they want everything they see. My children can never decide on a single thing.

Two aisles over, I can hear my daughter pawing through a box of rulers. She's looking for one that is metric.

“Nope,” I hear her say, and then a clatter of hard plastic cascading upon more hard plastic. “Ugh … they are all in 'ins and cms'. Whatever cms are … I think they must mean outs … ins and outs.”

I want to slap my forehead as I dash over to her.

I am Abbot …

And my kids are Costello.

I clear my throat and stage whisper.

“Ins is short for INCHES and CMs are CENTIMETERS -- a metric measurement.”

“Ohhhhhh, riiiiiight!” she says with false embarrassment, and in a false English accent she picked up from watching Minecraft videos on the internet all summer instead or reading books or practicing mathematics. “How silly of me.”

“Can we hurry this up? I have to go home at hit myself in the head with a mallet.”

“I thought you said we were like Abbott and Costello,” she said with a grin.

“Nope … pretty sure we're all just Stooges.”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Old married couple


I can't get to sleep.

I just watch the clock as its glowing, lime green numbers mark the passing of another minute. The minutes compound every sixty seconds and amass accordingly, but time moves slowly as I lay awake.

I hate the clock.

I want to unplug it. But I don't.

The clock taunts me in ways I think are uncanny.

There is a terrifying marvel in its patterns.

Sometimes I get to sleep alright – I just drift off with an effortlessness that usually comes as the result of exerting myself some point during the day – only to wake up just as the clock strikes 2:22.
Always 2:22. Never 2:23 or 2:24.

It's not the clock's fault, I tell myself as I continue this battle with Sopor.

I close my eyes and shift from one side to the other, pulling the covers as I go.

This irritates my husband, who would tell you that this periodic predicament is my own fault, seeing as how I have been known to drink black coffee long into the evening.

But I disagree.

It's the ruminating that does it.

The chewing of ideas into something that should be nutritious, but usually turns out to be just a thick paste of anxiety.

2:25.

Do I get up? Watch TV? Read?

I consult my iPhone. Run my fingers through Facebook. Check my email. Play “Words With Friends.”
No sense in just tossing and turning. I swing my legs to the floor and feel the rust in my joints scrub off as I walk across the room to retrieve my robe.

Cold from the floor shoots up my legs from the soles of my feet, reminding me that summer is already over. I wish I could take the warmth of the bedclothes with me, but I settle for the wrapper and slippers.

2:26.

I have woken the dog.

She is displeased, though she follows me downstairs and into the living room, where she flops onto the couch across from me. Her head propped up on throw pillow, she keeps her eye on me. I am putting her out. She'd much prefer I sleep on the same level as the rest of the house-dwellers ... and soon … so she can relax.

I am turning nocturnal.

She is fully diurnal.

2:27.

I have a headache. I think.

This happens, too. Imagined pain.

2:28.

For a while, I pinch the web between my thumb and index finger with the thumb and index finger of the opposite hand. The layperson's acupressure.

My husband once recommended it.

“I feel something,” I told him. “I'm just not sure what.”

I'll give it 10 minutes … then I'll take ibuprofen.

2:29.

Who am I kidding? I rattle the bottle of greenish-colored gel-caps and turn on the kitchen tap. I can't wait nine more minutes. I fill a coffee mug, pop a pill and wash it straight down.

The water will probably do more to alleviate my pain than the drug. At least, that's another thing my husband has told me he believes.

2:30.

The cat scratches at the door. I let her in.

She roars at me for food. She's already been fed so I ignore her demand.

She curls up with the dog, who shifts but doesn't protest. Before long they are both snoring contentedly, like an old married couple.

2:31.

I envy them.

2:32.

I stop watching the clock.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Silently, stalwartly, doggedly there


Every fall, for the last few years of her life, my father took the dog of my childhood on a solemn walk.

Together they'd trudge westward on Route 20 to the veterinary clinic a half mile from home.

Ordinarily he would have driven the short distance, wrestled our fluffy, St. Bernard mix from under the front passenger seat and carried her into the office. He is a slight man but wiry and could handle the sixty-five pounds of canine resistance.

These trips, however, weren't ordinary. On these occasions, my dad would set his jaw and hold his breath, bracing for the possibility that he might return alone. He didn't want to struggle with this faithful friend on the day she wouldn't be coming home.

When the day finally arrived – when the vet listened to her chest and nodded slowly that it was time – the news took him by surprise.

She'd always come home.

This thankless, depressing job had been left to him. It never even occurred to us, or him that it should have been a shared task.

“It was awful,” he told me later. He'd stroked her fur as she lay on the cold, stainless table. He described how they swabbed her forearm and administered the final medication. She never made a sound, he said, she just closed her eyes and went to sleep.

He walked the half mile home with just her collar and leash.

And then there was silence.

His limbs still braced for the onslaught of escaping dog as he slowly opened the garage door. But no flash of fur or scramble came from beneath it. Thirteen years of muscle memory would now begin to atrophy.

A few days later a small cream-colored envelope arrived in the mail with the vet clinic's embossed lettering on the return address.

No one ever opened that card.

He just held it and cried.

I had never seen my father cry before that day.

Truth be told, I thought his tears were really for his own mother, my grandmother, who had died at least a decade earlier.

He had mourned her, of course, but in a stoic, tearless way.

A perfectly understandable transference in my mind, I try and reason. This love we have for animals seems perfectly uncomplicated, unlike the love we have for people.

It pains me to think when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer last spring, the demise of our old dog was the first thought that jumped into my mind.

It's horrible to think of my father this way. That, when he dies -- as we all must do – the hardest moment will bear my witness. And then the silence afterward …

I will look for him in the grocery store. I will see him in every man with a puff of curly white hair. I will miss his perfectly imperfect grin and his “fancy meeting you here.”

I know it's not the same, but I can't help but feel my love for him is perfectly uncomplicated.
We didn't fight. I never feel judged. He was just a supportive, loving presence. A person who was capable and fallible, but honest and loyal, too.

He never seems disappointed in me even when I felt I was nothing but disappointing.

But he is always there.

Silently, stalwartly, doggedly there.

My dad is.

Period.

Full Stop.

He IS.

Any thought to the contrary is too unbearable to think.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Growth season


The tomatoes have already started to redden, something that hasn't happened by late-July in the whole history of my pretending to garden. I'd like to think it's the beginning of a trend. But I know it's just an anomaly. These tomatoes are just alive enough to be embarrassed they are among the other so-called “plants” in the raised beds that border our house.

When I cupped my hand around the firm fruit and extracted it from the tangle of ugly leaves, I squinted, still holding it at arm's length, expecting the tomato to explode.

I'm not what one would call a green thumb. Not that it stops me from trying.

After all, last year we did manage to wrestle four pears and six strawberries away from the squirrels.
I've just accepted the fact that I grow food for the blight … and for the critters who visit late at night, vexing the dog. The perennial flowers that appear haphazardly among the berries and the lettuces, grace us with their presence for a few seasons before they disappear.

Their bulbs carried off by squirrels or killed in winter by my forgetfulness.

I didn't really expect anything glorious this year, though I fertilized the soil once and weeded a few times.

I tried to contain my delight at the little nub of green pepper that grew after the delicate blossom faded. I cultivated the same poker face when a curling tendril of cucumber reached its way up the trellis.
I knew what was coming.

Yellow leaves. Black dots. Munched leaves.

I frowned but wasn't surprised a little while later, when I noticed the tiny pickling cucumbers attached to the now dry and lifeless vines were petrified … in the rock-hard sense. The leaves had all withered and were crumbling when touched.

Broccoli-colored worms had feasted on the broccoli plants. Again, not a huge surprise. Last year's attempt had cultivated only a single, four-inch floret. Not exactly enough to count as a single serving.

The tomato vines, gangly and overgrown, turned spotted and dry in places but still produced healthy fruit. Last year, the vaguely green orbs, attached to healthy-looking plants, split or turned black before they ripened. Hundreds of the cherry-variety rotted on the ground.

A hundred times I've asked myself why I try to grow food.

I don't know what the true answer is …

Maybe it's because I fear a post-apocalyptic world, where our only source of food will be a dog … or the neighbors … if I can't manage to squeeze a squash from my garden.

Maybe it's just because I can't seem to do it.

Instead of giving up, I just try new things.

I pick plants I think are pretty.

Artichokes … Beans … Broccoli … Peppers ... Zucchini …

I also see it as a bit of a dare. The unwanted are the only specimens that have a chance to flourish in my garden.

Will anyone in this house eat an artichoke? Of course not. So, I'll probably get a bushel of them.

How many zucchini do you think we'll have to put on neighbors' front porches come late-August? 

Let's watch those suckers grow.


Sunday, August 03, 2014

Community theater


This theater has seen better days. It's also seen worse ones.

The stage is small. There is barely a backstage, let alone dressing rooms. The walls are peeling. The ceiling looks like it has weathered a thousand storms, each one trying to come inside and seek shelter from its own rain. The ancient leather-covered seats squeal in protest when a person pries them from their upright positions. They are comfortable enough once you finally sit down. Of course, comfort is relative once you notice moisture gathering above your top lip.

Air conditioning is overrated, anyway.

And despite all the cracks, there is a moment, maybe you're sitting in the audience waiting for the curtain to rise on your kid's first-ever scripted performance, that you realize this is community theater at its finest. How is it possible not to love a place where your mailman, a neighborhood kid, and the friendly woman, whom you don't know but whose face you recognize from waiting in line behind her at the grocery-store meat counter, are stars?

That's how this “Hey, Lets Put On A Show,” stuff goes.

For me, it's hard not to love it.

I know because I've tried.

First it starts with the aforementioned “Hey, Lets Put On A Show,” and then it devolves into chaos and crying.

In our house, “Theater” has always gone hand-in-hand with “Drama.” And usually, after a bumpy ride, the pair tend to drive off a cliff like Thelma and Louise.

Shows need stories and props and costumes. They also need directors and sets and actors. You know, things my daughter, from an early age, had decided she could manage expertly.

But, no matter how talented I'd like to think my children are, the homemade versions of their endeavors tend to be long acting but nothing short of painful.

For me ...

Anyone lucky enough to be visiting during showtime.

Not to mention the poor soul who falls off the bed during the performance, which is how we know the curtain must close.

At least, that's usually how it goes.

For the price of admission – 10 imaginary dollars, which will be held up to the sunlight and pretendedly scrutinized for authenticity anyway -- audience members will receive an overly handled ticket to a never-ending performance featuring one actor, too many directors and something children shouldn't be playing with – you know … like fire.

It's breathtaking. Or at least breath-holding. … And that's why I banned the practice several years ago, though, admittedly, to little effect.

The show, as they say, must go on.

That's why, when I found out that our community theater willingly does this kind of thing – wrangle a few dozen teacup Thespians through the whole process – and for free – I signed her up.

Now, I know some people like community theater as much as they'd like to have a root canal. And the prospect of children's theater sounds like as much fun as having a mouthful of teeth pulled, but I can't tell you how amazed I was the first time we got through our first play without “drama.”

It called for a standing ovation. But more than putting our hands together, it also needs us to put our hands into our pockets.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Speaking the language


I never thought of myself as bilingual until recently.

Ok, perhaps “bilingual” is pushing it a bit.

It's more as if I have acquired a comfortable fluency in certain variants of a branch of American English that pertains to certain visual representations and other manifestations of an always evolving platform of digital information, which is specifically contained in the electronic game, Minecraft.

I'm not sure what I said just now, but it sounded impressive. Kinda like when I sing a Mexican song my mother used to sing to me … and my children think I understand Spanish.

Honestly, Minecraft has been something of an immersion experience, and I still don't know what any of it means.

In a nutshell, players in this blocky realm can build, farm, experiment, battle and coexist in a variety of modes along the ether.

As my kids -- elbowing each other and seeding copious amounts of cracker crumbs into my laptop keyboard -- take turns creating intricate, imaginary worlds out of this deceptively simple game of breaking and placing pixilated blocks into a virtual landscape, I pickup little bits of what it is they're doing.

I know there is a Survival mode in which monsters attack.
I know there is a Creative mode where you can fly.
I know the difference between a Creeper and a Griefer.
I know that a Mob doesn't adhere to the same definition as Websters.
I know what mob spawners do. In theory.
I know that the nether is a texture, not unlike cobblestone and that Zombie-pigman are an abomination.

You probably know more about this than I do.

After all, more than 16 million folks have already purchased this game and are playing it morning, noon, and night.

A pair of them live in my house. And when they aren't herding dogs or training horses or making pumpkin snow creatures they are watching videos on YouTube of other people building in their own worlds.

“It's a phase,” said one of my friends. “They go down the rabbit hole for a while, but they'll come back.”

I must admit, I'm a bit skeptical.

Perhaps that was true when they were playing the game. Fighting Creepers, shearing sheep, and building impossible skyscrapers that require switches, circuits as well as and ladders to enter, but something has changed.

They discovered other worlds out there and have become virtual tourists.

Lately, when I come downstairs in the morning, a bright chipper voice with an English accent greets me over the rapt silence of the kids, who are hunkered down in front of my computer shoveling yogurt into their mouths as they watch a character called “Stampy Cat” show them around his world.

“What's this on the floor? … Oh, it's cake …. everywhere the eye can see. Cake!!! Woooooooo!!!”

Turns out this cat – a 23-year-old former bartender named Joseph Garrett – started playing Minecraft about 20 months ago, recording his play and uploading it to YouTube under the name Stampylonghead. When his channel started to become wildly popular (in part for its clean, good-natured humor as well as his playing tips) he quit his job to manage the channel full-time.

Now he's got nearly more than 3 million subscribers. Two of them live here and tune in daily to see his latest video and backtrack through the hundreds they've missed.

Their own Minecraft worlds have been laying fallow.

I'm not sure that's such a good thing.

Especially if my kids start using English accents.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

An epic in a fraction of a second


It always happens in a fraction of a second, or so they say. The bad things more than the good, or so it seems. A fraction of a second. No more.

I'm always holding my breath in those moments. Waiting. Seconds last longer than minutes as you wait, your mind playing out scenarios you hope aren't written in ink in this as yet unwritten script of life.

My husband is always telling me a person can't live in those moments. There's no room for anything else but worry. You have to move forward.

But he's not here. Directing.

It's just me … and my 10-year-old daughter. Ambling slowly, on our way to the park, behind a seven-year-old on a kick-scooter.

Anxiety hosts this particular party along our morning commute as I trudge along behind my son on the way to camp. I suppose I could drive the three blocks, but I don't want this specific fear to win.
The bridge between what my eyes see and what my mind imagines is always clogged with phantom traffic. But this traffic isn't invisible. A bottleneck of two-ton cars makes their way to the playground at the same time.

Inside every other one, a driver presses a cell phone against their ears, getting a jump on all the things they have to do in fewer than three hours their kids are in someone else's care. I have nowhere to be.
Tires screech somewhere in the distance. Not here, though. Not where I am slowly making my way back on this tree-lined, neighborhood street.

Traffic, that in my most panicked moments, always seems too fast for the road we are on.
My mind replays old moments, too. Like one from last summer, when the garbage truck took a swinging wide turn, clipping leaves of trees that would have been shading us only moments later.
It reminds me that anything could happen.

It didn't help that my son was kicking his scooter at least 200 yards past the break-nothing speed of my jog. Weaving like a drunken little imp on the sidewalk-less road between our house and camp.
I close my eyes. Washing away an image I don't want to see.

Only my voice – loud and panicked, and harshened by immediacy -- travels quickly through the space between us.

He stops to look at me but quickly swerves back to the sandy strip he was told to inhabit, between the lawns and the solid white line on asphalt.

I drew in enough breath to steady my swimming head.

Admonishments, now fully oxygenated, bubble up to my throat and catch there.
My daughter is faster than me, though.

“Don't do it,”  she whispers. “Don't yell at him now. People are watching.”

I close my mouth and touch her head. How is she so smart? How is she not the mother?
She is right.

The only control I have at this moment is over myself. Ranting about the dangers of the road, the limits of visibility and the risk of losing the privilege to scooter altogether is a close-range prospect. It is a rant that is best served calm and in person.

“Can I go now?” he hollers.

Silence.

He stays where he is until I catch up.

It's only a fraction of a second.