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Friday, December 24, 2010

Yellow Bus

Anyone in elementary education knows what "children are not making good choices" means, but if you're not in elementary education, nor close to people undergoing or perpetrating it, let me be clear. "Not making good choices" means misbehaving. So naturally, when a letter containing this phrase in relation to riding the school bus came home, I perked up my ears. The letter came from no less a personage than the principal, who doesn't write memos often.

Last year, the district undertook a program, the Peaceable Bus program, which involved a couple of school-wide assemblies with the bus drivers and perhaps some community-building skills that involved children forming their bus groups and meeting with their individual drivers. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, since, well, since I have to rely on my 3rd grader (then 2nd grader) to provide them, and she was much more interested in how many times Zach chased her at recess than in the assembly.

The principal was sorry to state that the program was not producing the hoped-for results, and that some children were, you know, euphemism supplied. As a result, after the winter vacation children would be assigned seats on the bus for three months, after which the policy would be reviewed.

Curious, I asked my daughter what was happening on the bus. Just some screaming and yelling and jumping over the seats. Really? I said. Jumping over the seats? Well, not on my bus, the 3rd grader said. On her bus, the only thing besides the screaming and yelling was climbing under the seats.

I rode a yellow school bus for eight years, through 7th grade. One year, my nemesis, Catharina, developed a new idee fix for my humiliation. Unable to separate myself from her, I sat by her on the bus, day by day. Day by day she worked on me, goading me to scream at the top of my lungs. Go on, do it, she said, just do it. Just once, scream, really loud, just once, do it do it do it do it. Eventually, her persistence wore me down. One afternoon, just as Thomas the driver turned onto my street, I let out a blood-curdling scream that hurt my throat and surprised me. The bus lurched to a stop and my humiliation began the minute my volume muted. As I remember it, Thomas was prepared to yell himself, but when he saw that it was I who had done this, he relented. He told me I better never do that again or else he'd tell my parents. I wouldn't, I promised in a mumble, as I got off the bus.

As I write this, I am remembering that my 7th grader, who also rides the school bus, was once very late home and confessed to me that the reason they were late was that some of the people on the bus, herself included, were being loud and changing seats over and over again until the driver pulled over.

Now I have told my children to wear their seat belts on the bus. I even went so far as to read the District's rules regarding seat belts. They were a little lax, in my opinion, only suggesting that children wear them, not saying it's a law. My children were resistant to the idea, and I knew I was helpless to enforce it. According to them, no one else wears seat belts.  So I pulled out the fear-based motivator, and assured them that the single most important factor in preventing death and serious injury in an automobile accident has been proven to be the wearing of seat belts. I gave them my most evil eye and spoke in my most solemn tone, and hoped they carried.

Both children were home, at the kitchen counter, having snack, when I read this missive from the principal. So, are you still wearing your seat belts? I asked. Yes, said my 7th grader in a dull voice. People have stopped bothering me about it, she added. Good for you, I thought but did not say. She seems to have friends, many friends, despite her instinct for self-preservation.

What about you? I said to my 3rd grader. You're not climbing under the seats are you?

No! She said. I wear my seat belt.

Good, that's good, I said.

Just today, this boy asked my why I was wearing my seat belt, she continued.


So I told him I wear it because my mother told me to, she said. He said, Well, your mom isn't here...

So what did you say to that? I said.

I told him I wear it anyway, because I'm a good girl.

I am telling you this with only a small amount of pride, fully aware that the evil eye and the solemn tone probably won't hold out much longer under peer pressure. I am also marveling a bit at the extent of my power. And I am also a little sorry that what my 3rd grader said wasn't, Well, the reason I'm wearing my seat belt is that I value my life, or something equally pungent. She wants to be a good girl now, but I know that effort is doomed: eventually she will fall short of whatever standards she has applied to herself in her understanding of mine, and then, oh my God, and then. Then I'll be wishing she'd just given in and crawled under the seat herself.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Mortal Enemies: The Jews, II

In this blog I thought I would tie up some loose threads by letting you know that I did get those pants cuffs redone by Mr. Delmar Tailor. It took another visit to the defensive tailor in which he insisted that he would never sew anything as badly as the hem on those pants, and several phone calls from him in which he repeated that he could find no receipt to prove my story, but he did finally offer to redo the pants for free. When I brought them in to him, he told me that although he hadn't found the receipt, that I had bothered to come back a second time had made him think maybe I was telling the truth. Good thing I'm an Aries and don't shy away from confrontation, huh?

The other loose thread was crazy Joe the anti-Semite in 3rd grade. So there was crazy Joe, and my 3rd grader, and me (see Wed., Oct. 27th post). After sleeping on it, I decided I ought to talk to their teacher about this incident. Not wanting to make a big deal out of it, I caught up with Mrs. M at dismissal and we sat down on a bench outside the school.  Without naming Joe, I described what my child had described to me, while my daughter squirmed in embarrassment.

Mrs.M was horrified, actual hand-over-mouth horrified, and apologized, which was interesting and unnecessary. She wanted to know how we wanted her to handle the situation and offered to speak to the boy. I told her not to single him out that way, but that since the whole school had been addressing the ever-popular topic of bullying, it might be an opportunity to discuss tolerance in other areas of life. If anything further happened, I said, we could consider direct action, but since I inferred that this child might not know the power of what he was saying, maybe he had learned a lesson just by saying it and getting the reaction that he did.

Then Mrs. M asked me who the child was. I was reluctant to say, but I did, and Mrs. M had a double-take reaction. Joe, she said, is from Yemen. "Ah," I said. "Yemen." Maybe the family is Muslim, I said. We nodded at one another on the bench.

This all happened early in the week before Halloween, and on the Friday, the papers were full of reports of packages containing explosive devices intercepted on several planes. Packages addressed, in some cases, to synagogues in Chicago. Planes flying out of Yemen.

Well, the mind does love a story, doesn't it? Suddenly Joe the Yemeni's family became the center of a terrorist cell, or if not the center, then a peripheral member of it; or if not peripheral member of it, then acquaintances of members or peripheral members of it. I live in a fairly conservative town. It's just the sort of suburban place, near a small airport, where terrorists might choose to lurk and form cellular structures.

I began to wonder if I should inform the principal, if not the superintendent -- or the governor. Visions of calling the police (not 911, have to call the non-emergency number) or Homeland Security, and the extravaganza of media attention and general goverment harrassment that would follow (I've seen a lot of movies) jostled for predominance in my imagination. Soon enough, I would become the subject of their inquiries, and my sordid past (I once watched two people shoot up heroin) would land me in jail. Alternatively, I could remain quiet, and suffer burning crosses on my lawn (perhaps that would get rid of the moss), and other subtler forms of harrassment, and eventually be arrested for NOT bringing to the attention of the authorities my suspicions about the family of this young boy in my daughter's class. A dilemma.

The husband was basically unmoved by the intrigue-terror-cell angle, so I made calls around to various family and friends. They were fairly split, but the friends who work in education felt pretty certain that the teacher would have already informed the principal. I let it rest, took the 3rd grader to the Halloween extravaganza at her school, and watched her play tag with a bunch of kids, one of them an exuberant gorilla. Joe.

Weeks went by. I heard from my 3rd grader that the guidance counselor had come in and talked about different religions, and that the teacher read them a story about how kind words fill your bucket and unkind words empty it, and that we should all try to fill each other's buckets. Finally, December conferences rolled around, and we went for ours.

After chatting and going over the report card, Mrs. M asked us if we remembered "our conversation on the bench" a couple of months ago. I said yes. Well, she said, Joe's mother had called her shortly after our talk, extremely upset. Joe had gone home the same day my daughter did, and told his mother what he had said to her. Mrs.Joe, horrified, had called up Mrs. M in a state, wanting to apologize to us and telling her that she had given Joe a big piece of her mind for what he had said, because they weren't like that. They do, however, have Arabic television on in their home, she said, so maybe he had gotten some ideas from it.

I'm not sure what Mrs. M told Mrs. Joe, but Mrs. M, my husband, and I discussed how we thought maybe Joe was just trying out a conversation topic. Mrs. M said that Joe is kind of shy, and also likes to be funny, so perhaps his offering about the Jews being his mortal enemies, was an unfortunate conversational gambit for a laugh from a girl he felt a little shy around and wanted to impress. Oops.

I left the conference one conspiracy short of righteous indignation, but glad that Joe knew he'd done something not right. I felt a bit better about my town, which had grown somewhat dark undertones in the last couple of months. I was able to congratulate myself for my (outer) restraint and posit that perhaps I had the start of a novel. When God snips a thread somewhere, sheheshe unravels a seam somewhere else? Something like that.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Not actually my lawn
My front yard has been overtaken by moss. I ignored this encroachment all summer and fall, noting and immediately forgetting the husband's reluctance to mow, which seemed to be linked to an  uncharacteristic (for him) existential despair over the state of the lawn. It was a little easier to forget than it might have been, because our across-the-street neighbor Steve moved out in July.

Steve, you may recall, was a living reproach to me about proper home maintenance. Stay-at-home Steve was tireless, thoroughly capable, and extremely visible. The person who moved in, let's call him Anti-Steve because I haven't met him and have hardly seen him, doesn't mow, weed or rake, or touch up trim, or find any excuse at all to be outside most of the day in most any weather. Instead of a visible reproach to me, this new guy is reproachable himself. He moved in, plopped a yard sculpture of a monkish robed fellow, presumably St. Francis, in my line of sight, and disappeared. Little tree-weeds left to grow in Steve's shrub bed! Leaves thick across the lawn. House lights on day and night and day and night. No sign of life. Give me Steve and his family and his boundless energy for home repair any day! Anti-Steve's next door neighbor has even mowed the lawn and blown the leaves off Steve's old lawn.

The neglect across the way, as well as a peculiar, pale, light frosty hue of green in our yard caused me to actually look at our lawn again. An aquatic-looking spongiform moss had sprung up everywhere. The husband was right: there was practically nothing left to mow. The only unmossy places were the areas with dead crabgrass, and the area along the driveway that we did rip out and reseed in early October, which is looking good. So gratifying: sprinkle seeds in dirt, add water, things grow. We did that after my neighbor who shares the lawn on that side, pigeon-toed, retired Betty, mentioned in passing that she was despairing of the lawn service she'd hired, because crab grass was encroaching anyway. I thought that might be a gentle hint that we weren't poisoning our lawn sufficiently, and that it might be time for me to get off the fence about whether I'm okay with reverting to what nature intended, or if I want to try to keep some grass, if it only requires improving the soil. Along that side, it only required two miserable hours of boring weed-pulling followed by seed sprinkling and then regular watering. No poisons.

Buoyed by the success on the side of the driveway, and by the sight of Pigeon-toed Betty and Tom next door trundling little carts of something across their lawns periodically, I told myself this isn't brain science, I can figure it out. And since the husband actually is a brain doctor, I think we just might succeed.

I checked GardenWeb ( Mossy lawn could very likely be cured by adding lime. As I read this, I remembered that last June I had gone to the effort of having the soil analyzed by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and their recommendation had been to add lime. I immediately failed to follow up on that, to which I attribute the broken a.c. and the long miserable summer.

After a consultative phone conversation with Laura at the local garden center, I sent off the husband to purchase a lawn product. Said lawn product, while not exactly lime, is ten time more expensive than lime, and three times better, according to Laura. Tom next door, who by the way manages to keep an impeccable yard and work full time, lent us his spreader cart, and we got to work. Too soon to tell if it's working. What it has done is leave little white splotches that look like bird poop on the driveway and little white granules on the lawn. We'll see. Some of the moss is very pretty. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Double Rainbow

Boring topic, huh? Sorry. It's been over a month since I last wrote, which I can hardly believe. They, They Who Know, say bloggers should post regularly, no less than once a week. I've fallen down on the job, apparently, so I might as well take advantage of the built-in theme offered by Thanksgiving and say a few words about what I am grateful for.

Aside from the dog keeping to himself whatever nastiness he ate on his afternoon walk and allowing us to sleep through the night, first and most, I am grateful for my improved state of mind, which has a ripple effect on my family. Now my children are no longer studying my face's every change of expression. While I have a newfound awareness of how acute my 3rd grader's observation of my moods is ("Mommy, why did you make that sound with your breath?"), I'm relieved I can offer her information on a broader spectrum of the emotional rainbow than I was accessing for a while. The change has been gradual, and I observed things must be lightening up when my kids started commenting on how stressed out Mommy was. If they felt safe enough to speak up, then things were improving.

There's a certain amount of grin-and-bear-it to adult life that I've lately come to appreciate. I can't really attribute the improvement in my mood to anything other than just enduring the rough transition from city to suburbs. My father-in-law, whom I am remembering today, used to say with a laugh, This too shall pass. Relative to the phases of my elder daughter's infancy I was dealing with at the time, I found the phrase extremely comforting. I am grateful to him for that, and I'm missing him now, on the ninth anniversary season of his death.

The other day, my 3rd grader and I saw a double rainbow. I've now seen a real rainbow twice in my life, and both times have been in my new hometown. However much I've begrudged my existence here, I recognize that where I am has a good view of sky. I am grateful for that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Mortal Enemies: The Jews

My 3rd grader reported to me today that one of the boys in her class, said, "You know who my mortal enemies are? The Jews."

Hmmm, I said. He's probably repeating something he heard some older people around him say. Why do you think he said that? I asked.

She shrugged.

Does he know any other jewish kids? I asked.

More shrugs. Ethan's Jewish, she said.

Well, did that bother you, I asked?

A little, she said.

What did you say when he said that?

I told him I'm Jewish, she said.

Okay, good. And did anything else happen?

She said, He went like this (she pantomimed someone drawing away in exaggerated fear). And he said, Cc's Jewish, and I hate Jews.

Well, look, I said.  You could tell him, if it happens again, that you don't choose who your friends are based on what religion they are. You could say that doing that is acting prejudiced.

Yeah, she said.

So how did Ethan take this conversation? I asked.

Well, he heard it, but he ran off and joined some other people, said my 3rd grader. It probably bothered him a little, too, but he didn't want to think about it. Anyway, Joe (who said it) is a little crazy, she said, sounding as if that would take care of the matter.

Yeah, well, now's your chance to let him know a little bit about what he's saying. It's crazy kids who grow up to become crazy adults. Hitler was crazy, I said.

True, she said, although she doesn't know much about Hitler beyond the name. We're not exactly browbeating Holocaust history into our kids here in this household. We don't even belong to a synagogue. We don't even believe in God, at least the adults in the house don't. Still, we're marked as Jews, and that marking still matters. There are plenty of scary people around these days. Sipping Tea, for example.

Being Jewish isn't something I think about often. At the High Holidays, sure, at Hanukkah, and at Passover. I'm poorly educated about Judaism. What I know, I've gleaned for myself. I had only one year of religious school as a kid, and my children don't go to Hebrew school. This lack of education has only bothered me at times like these, when I realize that my being Jewish marks me in others' opinions, and I feel ill-equipped to re-educate them. Take Israel. I can't stand the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's got to end, and it's got to end with two states. The hardliners are disgusting. As disgusting there as they are here in the US, although their religions differ. But I hardly know a thing about it, and I can't bear to pay attention.

About twenty years ago, I had a housemate who asked me, in all seriousness, why the Jews didn't just buy an island somewhere and go live there. This was an extremely well-educated woman, and the question was honest, an honest reflection of pure ignorance. She had a crazy father, the kind of crazy that led to building an underground bunker on his property to escape the Communists, the kind of crazy who believed in the Illuminati, the kind of crazy that saw all Jews as rich and evil power-mongers. Somehow, miraculously, he raised a child who was willing to ask an honest question born of ignorance. The kind of ignorance that crazy Joe exhibited today.

Refill, anyone?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sartorial Blues

At the beginning of October, I took a pair of chinos to the tailor to shorten them. This was my first time at this tailor, as I've not needed one since I left NYC and Leung's tailor shop on Lexington and 92nd (they make shirts there, by the way). The guy was very nice, the shop was full of work, so I left the pants. When I picked them up, I made my first mistake. I failed to check the hem. I was in a rush, we were going away for the weekend, and I had to go. When I pulled the pants out of the plastic to pack them, I noticed the stitching was very obvious. The pants are blue, and the stitching was contrasting, whereas all the other stitching on the pants was matching blue. Well, I threw them in the suitcase because I needed pants, and trundled off for the weekend.

The stitching really bothered me. I tried ignoring it, but when you're as "low to the ground" as I am, you don't want any contrasting stitching attracting the eye downward. The tailor had told me he was going away on vacation for a couple of weeks, so I waited until today to take in the pants. Needless to say, I had no receipt--my second and third mistakes were throwing that away, when I tried to convince myself the stitching was fine--but all of my information was in the cash register/computer, so I knew he could look me up.

There was a customer in the shop when I arrived, so I waited for her to leave before approaching the guy. I showed him the hem and told him I was not so happy with it. He took my name and number on a new receipt and said he would look up the invoice. Then he told me to leave the pants with him and he would get back to me in a week whether he found my information. Whether, that is, if, he found my information.

This was not going to be one of the "the customer is always right exchanges." And if he didn't find the receipt, he said, he would have to charge me to redo the hem. I told him I'd like him to call me before he did any work, and at that moment, I believe, the transaction changed. As I saw how the wind was blowing, he began fingering the stitching and told me he would never do work like that. He got out a spool of thread that matched the pants and said that would be what he would use. I said, yes, that would be the right color to use. Then he suggested that some people do their own hem and then they don't like it and then they come in and ask him to redo this work. For free, was the implication.

Okay, he said, leave the pants. I said I'd rather not leave the pants (fantasies of returning for the pants and the pants having mysteriously vanished), but that I'd be happy to bring them back in once he'd looked up my information. I asked him couldn't he do that right now, and he shook his head and said he couldn't.

Another customer arrived. I had been trying to avoid embarrassing him, but now I said that when he located my receipt, he could just give me a refund. He said, fine, and I left. At the car, I realized I had left without my copy of the new receipt of this transaction, which would be proof that this conversation had occurred, something I was now sure I would need. I returned to the shop. The customer and the tailer were smiling and talking and the customer looked away, suggesting that naturally I, the disgruntled self-hemmer was trying to take advantage of the reputable tailor. I asked for my receipt. The tailor refused. No pants, no receipt, he said. He could look up my information and let me know, but he wouldn't do work like that. Not in his shop.

I left the shop adrenelated. I know that's not a word, but it should be.  He was never going to look up my receipt, and even if he did, he would pretend he hadn't found it. The cost was minimal, maybe twelve dollars, but I'm on a tight budget. Besides, there was a principle at stake, maybe more than one. My integrity had been impugned, and there was nothing I could do. It would take this guy a matter of seconds to look up my name and phone number, but he wouldn't do it. Short of creating an ugly stink of a scene, it was unlikely I'd ever get either satisfaction or a refund. It was only twelve dollars, but twelve dollars is clearly worth the fight to Mr. Delmar Tailor. I thought about going back in. I'm still thinking of it. I thought of walking back in and asking if he's had the chance to look up my information yet. When he said either no, or that yes, he had, but that I wasn't in his records, then I would say, politely, that I was sorry to end on this note, and that my blog readers would be very interested in this transaction. In my fantasy, I neglected to mention that I have, to my knowledge, maybe two or three readers within 50 miles of here, but that would be my secret.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Le Shopping

I went to Macy’s the other day and bought some things for my kids. I really dislike shopping around here, where it's all malls, and nothing is interesting, and there isn't even the option of strolling into a fantastique boutique and finding some cool French kids' clothes way on sale.  Nevertheless, children do grow, and so, I went to Macy's. I collected a few items, and went to pay.

Although there were several salespeople visible on the floor, there was just one open register, at which a line had formed. As soon as I joined it, holding my items, I realized I needed a restroom. Well, I figured I would wait. I was holding a bunch of hard-sought children's clothing that I didn't want to lose.

It quickly became apparent that the transaction underway at the desk wasn't your basic cash-and-carry. It could be a price check, or a return, or God help me, an account opening.  I listened and observed. The salesclerk, who avoided looking at the line in front of her, was entering data into the register -- and apologizing. Not a good sign. She was entering this customer's vital stats -- and making typos, and apologizing.

I began looking around. An army of salesclerks and managers seemed to be standing around the children's section, gabbing. I nabbed a passing name tagged person and asked if there was another register open. Not in the children's section, I was told; but I was welcome to try another register in a different department.  Why would I do that, when I would have to search through the minipods of goods in Bedding or Housewares to find the one lone register that would be open there? By the time I located someone to ring me up, it would probably be my turn in the children's department.

At this point, someone ahead of me in line left, probably setting out for the register in crockery. A relaxed, casual atmosphere now descended upon the salesclerk and the customer up front. I overheard more than I needed to know about this customer's son, so busy playing sports he had no time to shop for a blazer. Imagine, he was going to a bar mitzvah, and he needed to wear a jacket and tie. Well, he didn't own a jacket, and she didn't realize how dressy a bar mitzvah is. Oh, it's like a wedding. And on and on. I was beginning to question if I was on Planet Earth. Imagine being in any place called New York and not knowing about bar mitzvahs, at least enough to know they call for fancy dress. And what was with this whole chatty thing? I felt very far away from NYC.

Perhaps I was exuding molecules of impatience. I'm not the most patient person. I'm an Aries, for God's sake. But I was being as patient as I knew how. I asked politely about the registers, and only maybe mumbled something to myself about how when someone is not conducting a routine sale, that might be a plausible time to deploy another register to reduce the wait for those who just wanted to pay and pee and flee. I'm sure it was barely audible. Anyway, it was only an idle comment to the ether, as I listened to the customer signing up for one of those point-accruing cards where after about five thousand points they give you a ten dollar credit, and in exchange, you’ve given Macy’s marketing division all your personal info, as well as a lot of info about what you buy, how often, and when, which they can then use to enrich themselves further. I suppose if you're buying every navy blue blazer in three sizes for your son who's too busy with after school sports to shop with you, so he can attend a bar mitzvah in proper attire, you might want to collect all the points you could before you return all but one of those blazers, but still.

I started practicing mindfulness of my impatience as a way to survive it.

In time, the salesclerk placed each blazer in its plastic covering and this painful transaction ended. After that, the lady in front of me, who was next up at the register, actually turned to me and said she wasn’t in a hurry, and I could go ahead. People, it was one of those moments when your character speaks. When you say to yourself, I could take advantage of this woman who is more patient and certainly more charitable than me, but I shouldn’t, so I won’t. Or you could say to yourself, this woman has more time than me, and she probably doesn’t need to pee, and I hate Macy’s, and I hate shopping because every time I shop I have to wait forever to pay and then I have to return stuff later, and I will take advantage of her kindness – whether ironic and therefore hostile and meant to induce guilt and remorse, or genuine.  So, which was it, people? Well, I really had to pee.

All items but one were too small, too see-through, or too big. I would have to return them.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

City Gal Takes A Walk

I always feel a little dirty after publishing a blog post. You know, because I've revealed something, probably something unflattering, about myself. Something usually negative. I don't actually hate my life. Today. After all, the leaves are turning, and there are a lot of trees around here. Tourists come here to see the scenery I see everyday as I grudgingly drive hither and thither pursuing my suburban aims.  I often appreciate the open sky and the treeline, I'll have you know. Just yesterday I lived through a semi-glorious, semi-harrowing exploration of the natural beauty of Upstate New York.

Emboldened by an encounter with a woman at the dog park who told me about a great walk not too far from town, I decided to take advantage of the gorgeous day (trying to forget that it felt like spring, not fall, and to just enjoy the sun, clear sky, and weirdness of fallen leaves in the 70 degree weather). Of course I checked out the map on the interwebs before venturing out, saw the Bennett Hill Preserve of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy ( quite simple and -- most important -- basically a closed loop with only one entrance and therefore impossible, I repeat, impossible to get lost. I don't have the greatest sense of direction. In early days in Central Park,  I am compelled to admit that I started out more than once, with a child in a stroller, at 79th and Central Park West, aiming for 84th and Madison on the Upper East Side, and ended up at say, 106th and Central Park West, after crossing to within viewing distance of my intended destination. The Bennett HIll Preserve is no Central Park. One easy path, one hard path up a largish hill to a loop, all color-coded. All I needed was green to yellow, avoiding red, zip-zoop. The woman had told me it took about an hour to go up, walk the loop and return.

I found the place very easily, just alongside a charming (smelly) dairy farm (cows are louder than one might think). I believe this is the dairy farm from which our milk comes.  Anyhoo, there was one of those little sign-in boxes, which was cute, but gave me pause, as I recall some serious hikes in New Hampshire with my rock climbing friends where you have to sign in. Implication being if your body is discovered, they can identify you by your name in the log.....I signed in. I also considered calling the husband to tell him where I was since I was walking alone (!) except for one very fluffy, large dog no one takes seriously.

I brought water for myself and for the dog. Since the walk would only be about an hour, I left it in the car. (!) Then Milo and I set out along the one and only path leading to the two paths up the hill to the loop. It was a really lovely path, the first part following the edge of the meadow where the noisy cows grazed. We had to really bend under a fallen tree at one point, but that was fine. Then the path turned up the hill and wound along. I didn't see any trail markings or anything, but it was a path. Kind of steep at one point. I thought I saw a red marking on a tree and thought that was peculiar, as I had intended to take the easy path and wasn't sure now where I was. Eventually, we met up with the yellow path around the top. The intersection was marked with a pretty stile. There were two painted yellow spots on a tree right at the jointure.

Milo and I followed the yellow path, which was clearly marked, my pounding heart noted with relief. I remembered this path made the loop at the top and figured if I followed it around, we'd either get back to the stile or find the green path. So we walked. It was a narrow path, up and down, full of leaves and pine needles, and through a forest of pines and other finer limbed trees. Thoughts of how big a no-no it is to go off by yourself, especially for a woman, started intruding. I hoped the dog counted as a companion, although I doubted his, shall we say, efficacy in an emergency. Now rattled, I saw no sign of the green path, and then, indeed, saw the marks for the red path, which seemed to be taking over for the yellow path. Now I was confused and rattled. I had been on the red path on the way up, right? So I decided to retrace my steps. It had been about 35 minutes. Suddenly I thought of all the idiotic hikers who perish on seemingly benign hikes because they haven't compasses or water or even a granola bar, not to mention the seasoned travelers who get stuck in a sudden attack of bad weather on Mount Washington every summer.  Here I was, in upstate New York, serious country, and I had left my water in my car. Furthermore, I was alone, and anyone who survives childhood knows you're never supposed to go off into the woods alone. Even if you do have a large dog with you - especially since he's fluffy and people don't take him seriously.

Sweaty, panicky, but neither hungry nor thirsty, I started back. The yellow marks were on both sides of the trees, so I had no trouble, until I came to a sort of openish area amongst the pines and found myself going down. This path didn't look right. There were blue and red ties around the trees here, which I hadn't seen before - and they weren't the right colors. I couldn't see the yellow path. The markers were pretty far apart. I debated whether I should continue, since down was at least the right direction, and so maybe this was actually the easy path and I had been mistaken about the green markers. Then I flashed back to one of those hikes with my rock climbing friends (my beautiful lost young men, Steve and Phil), when Phil's girlfriend and I hiked to the rock face with them, and then the girlfriend and I tried to hike down to the car, since we weren't climbing. Tried to hike down, I say, but couldn't find the path. Blundered around in the mountains of New Hampshire and ended up climbing down through treetops and scrabbling through underbrush for two hours until we found a road and managed to eventually find the car. Scared half to death. I decided not to just wing it down this time. Providence provided an exit once, but probably wouldn't reward such stupidity twice.

I started back up to where the yellow path was supposed to be. Milo had hesitated before going down this way, after all. He probably remembered the smell. With a careful look around, I found the yellow path again, found the wonderful yellow markers again, and after another little bit, I came upon the convenient, blessed, trail-marking stile. We started down the path, which was definitely the right path, and after a few yards I saw a marker - green - painted on a tree. I had been on the right path the whole way up. I found a few more markers - green- going down. I checked the reverse side of the trees. There were no green markers visible on the way up. Vindication of a sort.

I relaxed and we walked down. Milo got to run off-leash, which was a thrill for him, and we made it to the sign-in box, where I mentioned the poor trail markers in the comments section, to our water, and to our home. Milo needed a serious grooming to remove about a million burrs, and that was my foray into the great outdoors. There will likely be a blog post about Lyme Disease one of these days.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Divorce Saturday

Thank God It's Monday.

My adored cousin L, who is about my age (once you're over a certain age, a year or so doesn't matter, now does it?), but who had kids way before I did, used to complain that she hated the weekends. At that time I spent every weekend going to bookstores and cafes, going out to dinner and movies with friends, maybe having a date here and there, sleeping late, lounging around in sweats - doing, you know, whateverthehellIwanted. Well, now my kids are the age hers were when she started saying this, and now I own a home, and now I know what she meant.

Friday night rolls around. We manage to coordinate dance drop-offs and pick-ups, get everyone home, and have a decent dinner (which I make). The husband and I, because we have such a spectacular social life, usually end up watching old Masterpiece Theater episodes and going to bed early. Saturday morning looms, after all, and I need my rest.

Saturday rolls around. It's cleaning day. It's laundry day. It's yard work day. It's grocery shopping day.  But before cleaning and shopping; there's walking the dog, buying oranges and slicing them for soccer for the 3rd grader's game; there's a photo shoot for overpriced photos of the 3rd grader's soccer team; there's the farmers' market, which I have to get to early enough that the egg lady and the bread man haven't run out.  Farmer's Market overlaps with soccer games, so the husband and I tag-team that. We reconvene at the house and start cleaning. At some point in this morass of human filth (around the toilet bowl usually), I am overcome with a rush of heated despair: while I am cleaning this- this- this object, the grass is growing, the crabgrass is dying and offering a brief interlude when we could easily pull it out and plant seed and improve the lawn before all the leaves fall down (glory of fall) and need raking; the spiders are spinning webs in the corners of all the vestibules of my house; the acorns are taking the morning to embed themselves further into the yard pursuant to their goal of turning it into a forest; the laundry needs shifting and folding; we have nothing to eat; we have to remember to get the 7th grader to her rehearsal; the lawn needs mowing, the shrubs need trimming; and there is a nature fair/river festival/craft fair/state park where I would much rather be.

Instead, I am cleaning this- this- this toilet, and I have two more, and the tiles need extra care, and really all the floors should be washed by hand; and I hate the trim on the shower door; and why are the knobs on all my kitchen cabinets gold colored? And while I'm cleaning and the yard is growing and tangling like some stop-action example of entropy, I'm unable to paint the family room a better color because I'm cleaning the ding-dong toilet and the floors and the shower (who picked these ugly bronze-like and very ornate fixtures? I would pick something very simple that wipes clean easily) and I'm just becoming hotter and hotter and hotter and it's time for a divorce now, because this is definitely not my fault that all this stuff has to be done and it has to be done on Saturday. Isn't Saturday the Sabbath somewhere?

Around noon the children, who have been pressed into various chores, are now hiding. The dog wants to play. The husband and I take off our ipods. I'm sweaty and smelly and hungry, and I want someone to give me lunch. Now. The husband may have similar feelings, but I don't want to know. Furthermore, he's not allowed to. He needs to give me lunch. NOW. Besides, there is still laundry and meal-planning, and the desire to go to the gym and the dog needs his long afternoon exercise and there is just this constant awareness that my whole life is like, well, like my backyard - plug up one chipmunk hole and and a chipmunk runs out of another one. Don't even get me started on the wildlife in the yard. Don't even get me started on the wildlife in the house. Who knew there could be so many spiders? The 3rd grader does. She tracks 'em like a zealot. We are wearing out the stair treads removing them (sometimes in a cup, with humane intent, to the outside, where they apparently immediately pitch their webs in the vestibule; sometimes crushed in a tissue, with murderous intent, right down the drain). And then there are those lovely little things I brought home from the Coop that require removing from the ceiling.

Thing is, I would much rather do yard work than clean the house. But I would much rather have a clean house than not. So while we exhaust ourselves cleaning, I am aware most unpleasantly of all the other projects not happening. The basic maintenance, and then the so-called fun stuff about owning a home: painting it to your own liking, or whatever. Some consider this sort of work fun. And don't even get me started on what I really thought I'd be doing when I owned a home (back in the 20th Century, when I even gave a thought to any of this): hiring a maid to clean the house, and consulting with a designer about the interior of it. That is so far away from me now that I'm not even exactly sure where I learned of those possibilities. Oh yeah, wait, I remember. I was raised in that kind of home. Sigh. My freelance writing career is going to have to really take off before any of that becomes possible. Divorce Saturday.

Lest you condemn me as a big fat whiner (or a short, plump one - whatever), I have to admit that my attitude might have something to do with my world view. Is that a tautology? I believe it is. I will check my dictionary later. I do understand that 'smile until you feel happy' philosophy. It just doesn't work for me. Enjoying a clean house is definitely not the same thing as enjoying cleaning it, and let me assure you, that enjoying cleaning depends a lot on whether you can afford not to.

Nevertheless, there are pleasant things about this list of chores. For example, the Farmers' Market, once I've stalked the eggs and bread, provides a pleasant outdoor interlude. I usually run into my friend Annie there, and Annie is always so much busier than I am, and so cheerful about it, that I am biting my lip even daring to complain. We take a moment to appreciate the Mushroom Guy - who has  a very charming girlfriend who is missing half of her left pinkie - but only a moment, because that is all either Annie or I can spare with such a long list of to-dos. Then we're off, our baggy housework clothes flapping around us.

And at the end of the day, there is the occasional dinner that the husband and I have been invited to, or that we have invited friends to; if not, there is a clean house. Sometimes we've bucked the Saturday trend and spent the day at a festival/fair/nature preserve/state park/with friends, and we come home exhausted. We always turn in early then, because we are freakin' tired, and Sunday looms. Divorce Sunday. Hahahahahahahahahahaha.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I Know This Kid

Lolita, I'll call her. Big, brown, almond-shaped eyes with dark lashes, hair falling in a messy Rita Hayworth wave across her face, perfect olive skin, willowy, if an 8 year old can be willowy-- she's a beauty. She's publicly polite, but privately, she's, well, she's an instigator. She's my daughter's friend, and she makes me uncomfortable. All her visits follow a pattern, so I'll use the last one as an example.

She comes over and they want to go on the computer. I give them a time limit (15 minutes each). Timer set, timer dings. A private, whispered conference commences, and my daughter asks if Lolita can have more time. Not wanting to seem too strict, I allow 5 more minutes. Timer set, timer dings, and Lolita remains at the desk. My child gets up and is ready for snack. Lolita lingers. Even when I say time to stop, Lolita lingers, tapping on the keys until I put out snack.

Snack done, there's more whispering. Then my child wants to know if they can call up Zack. My child never calls up Zack. My child almost never calls anyone. She never, for example, calls Lolita. Every time Lolita comes over, this is what happens. Zack lives a couple of blocks away and he was last year's heartthrob in Cc's clatch of friends. I confess I've even suspected Lolita's interest in Cc is vested in Zack. Last year they called Zack, to no avail. He wasn't home, or didn't answer, or whatever. The boy has no interest in playing with them after school, although chasing them at recess was last year's big time game. So this time, I say, "Why?" Lolita says they want to see if he can play. It was nearing 5 p.m. I just say, "No." "Can we see if we can go over there?" Lolita says. At least she's speaking directly to me, but certainly not taking No as an answer. I shake my head. "Not today." My child says, "Come on, Lolita, when my mom says 'No' in that tone, she means it." (Victory!) "Go on, go play. Find something to do," I say.

They went into the basement and commenced thumping around. I knew they were playing with some old crutches, using them to swing off the steps. Moderately dangerous, but whatever. After a while, though, there was silence. Silence is almost always trouble. So I went over to the basement door and peeked through the crack. My child was sitting on the floor playing with some old dolls. Lolita was still on the crutches. I listened. Cc held up one of the dolls, a My Little Pony, and explained what she liked about it. Lolita was saying she stopped playing with those dolls when she was like four. Swinging around, one of her legs crooked, pretending she had a broken leg.  Cc said, "Well, I don't play with them that often, but I like them."" Dolls are boring," said Lolita. "Well I'm waiting for you to give me a turn on those crutches," said Cc. "I can't, I have a broken leg," said Lolita. "Oh, come on Lolita," said Cc. "It's my turn now". "OK,"said Lolita with a heavy sigh. "Let me sit down on this chair." (She was still pretending her leg was broken, even though she's way too mature to pretend with dolls.)

I left them alone. Cc was sticking up for herself. But I  wondered if there was a cost. For me, that kind of disapproval from a friend like Lolita would have cost me a lot. Instead of just avoiding her, or choosing other friends, I would have been hurling myself at her, trying to get her approval. It didn't seem that way for my child, I told myself. My child is totally different from me. I'm just projecting my inner child's insecurities onto my outer child. I'm thinking of years ahead, middle school, when Lolita is still boy-crazy and is ready to get physical/sexual.

Later on, I peeked again, and the disapproving, above-it-all Lolita was playing house with Cc. Blankets spread all over the floor, doctor's kit in use, imagination turned on full strength.

Lolita stayed for dinner, and she and Cc kept up the energy for the whole time. As soon as Lolita's mother picked her up, though, Cc's face sagged. "What's wrong?" I said. "I'm tired," she said. "Too long an afternoon for a school day?" I asked, offering a coded excuse for the future. I don't know if she understood it, but she nodded. "Okay," I said, "We'll keep that in mind."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Step Too Far

So last year the bus stop was at our house, but this year, to save time and money on gas, the Dept. of Ed changed some regulations to consolidate stops. Regulations stipulate no child may walk more than one tenth of a mile to a stop. Good, good, all good. I'm behind it 100%. Fine. So this year, the bus stop is around the U of our street in front of somebody else's house. Okay, fine. Do I really care? Not so much, except when the weather is snowy and 3rd grader will have to tromp along in the slush on the sidewalk-free suburban streets. Okay, so we'll suck it up. After all, didn't we tromp along in the slush of New York City's streets day in day out for six years to get to and from school and every other activity we schlepped to, carrying snacks, violins, leotards, bookbags, lunchboxes, purses, and often strollers on our backs? Yes we did. We never lived far enough from school (one mile) to qualify for a bus. Furthermore, riding a bus of any kind in New York is exquisite torture. I'd rather walk in any weather any distance under three miles (by myself, not with a child under age 12) in NYC than ride a bus, particularly a crosstown bus. And I did.

Today was the first day of school, so we walked around the U to the new bus stop, chatted with the neighbors, took photos, let the dogs sniff one another. One of the mothers said the distance from her house to ours was over one tenth of a mile, she wouldn't want to have her child walk it in bad weather. Fine, fine, whatever, little seeds of doubt planted, but whatever. Then the bus came along the street. Came along the U my 3rd grader and I had just walked, sailed around the U, right past our house, and stopped at the designated bus stop. Fine, whatever, fine.

I'm sure my clever readers know where this is going. Seeds of doubt sprouting, bus sailing right past our house, disapproving mothers who know more than I. On the way home from running errands, I clocked the distance on my odometer. By gum, if it wasn't more than one tenth of a mile. Not a lot more, but more. Google Maps put it at one tenth exactamundo. Fine, whatevs. At dismissal time, the 7th grader, the dog, and I went outside to weed, or dig up chipmunk holes with our noses, and wait for the 3rd grader. I figured the morning's bus sailing was possibly just one of those things, the driver would work it out more efficiently; but no, it was no fluke. When the bus finally arrived, late of course, having those first-day kinks, it sailed right past our house again. I waved, the driver waved back. A few moments later, the child came walking around the U.

Reports of first day followed. Nice teacher (thank God), happy child, a new friend or two already, a cool planner provided by the school, complete with translucent cover. Lunch, relax, gossip: Still on the bus, last year's nemesis, M. M lives on the next street over, with another child my child likes. This other child, Olivia, according to my child, said that this year, she and M were supposed to wait together at M's house for the bus. They live diagonally from one another on the same street. But M and Olivia "are feuding" according to my child. So somebody's mother called the bus company, and now M and Olivia are waiting at their respective homes for the bus, as they used to do, on the same street, diagonally across from one another.

Is this not petty? Still, if the bus company will reverse itself over this silly 3rd grade enmity, how about over sailing past my house on the way to the designated bus stop?

Well, they wouldn't change the stop just because the bus went right past the house. The bus goes right past lots of people's houses. The orders had come from on high at the Department of Ed, and the Superintendant had to enforce them.  The woman on the phone was adamant, and a little peeved. Considering how long the phone was busy before I got through, I judged they'd been fielding a lot of calls like mine. But they would come and measure to make sure the new stop wasn't more than one tenth of a mile from the driveway. Okay, I said. Why not? I think it is, by a little.

So about ten minutes later -- I kid you not. This is a small town -- when I left to walk the dog, I met a man with a rolling ruler disk on a stick. (Somebody knows what those are called, but I don't). Looks like a giant pizza cutter. We walked the distance together, chatting about the very handsome dog lunging for acorns every step. My credibility on the line, I worried as he cut the corner to cross over to the bus stop. At the designated stop, he looked at his pizza cutter. 585 he said and turned back towards his yellow minibus. Huh, I said. Presumably one tenth of a mile is what, 500 feet? So I was right. I jogged after him and said, so what does this mean? He said, Means they're gonna have to change the stop back.

Now I'd done it. Now I remembered my child's reaction when I said she'd be picked up and dropped off at the neighbor's house: "Cool. You mean I can walk?"  I said to the pizza cutter, Can we just make it casual, that when the weather's bad, the bus can let her off at our house? No, they can't do that, he said, because that would confuse the driver, especially if there was a substitute driver one day. Have to follow the regulations said the guy. Guess you've been getting a lot of these calls, I said. He rolled his eyes and said, You wouldn't believe.

I went on a long walk with the dog. Shortly after we returned home, the bus company called. Same lady. You were right, she said, apologetic. The stop is too far. By just a little, I said. I mean, I really don't mind the walking, except in crummy weather. We're adding your address to the list, said the lady. Number 38 will be your stop from now on.

I hung up. Victory. Now I'd done it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Another Sunday has rolled around and I find myself thinking about religion. Sunday being the sabbath and all. Except that I'm Jewish, at least genetically and culturally, so therefore Saturday ought to bring this question to mind. Sunday does, though, which I attribute to the dominant religion in American culture, to my lack of religious education, and to my attendance at an Episcopal prep school. Faith? Let's see. What can I say? Considering my secular philosophical underpinnings, I have a pretty high percentage of observant, religious friends. Most of them are Christian. Not surprising, I guess, considering the percentage of purported Christians populating the USA, but somewhat surprising to me. More than one friend has a divinity degree of some sort.

Where do I stand on religion? Perhaps a little discussion of my dog will illuminate you -- and me. See, we (the nuclear family) thought about, yearned for, planned for, anticipated getting a dog for several years. Much study of breed types and the pluses and minuses karmawise of adopting versus purchasing a puppy, of temperament, of training techniques ensued, along with much watching of Animal Planet and National Geographic TV shows about dogs. Anyone who has a dog knows about Cesar Milan the Dog Whisperer, and if you are reading my blog (thank you!) and don't have one, here is all you need to know about Cesar Milan: he whispers, dogs obey.

So full-up on information, and happily projecting all our hopes and fears for our future in suburbia onto owning this still mythical dog, we (the nuclear family) began listing names. Okay, I have a history with Eastern religions, yoga, and meditation, that started back in high school when I took yoga for PE. I was not a team sports kind of girl. Thank you Mrs.Wing and your stretch houndstooth slacks. Anyway, back to the future. There I was, coming up with all kinds of names like Roshi (teacher), Satori (flash of enlightenment), Metta (lovingkindness), and Beacon (you know what that is). I was really into the whole Cesar Milan philosophy of the dog living in the moment and teaching me how to live in the moment. Yes, the dog was going to be my guide to equanimity and mindfulness, my compadre on the Eightfold Path. I'm only a very short way along that path. Many incarnations to go.

We chose the name Milo.

And good thing, too, because Milo, cute as he is, at 9 weeks led me right smack into something awfully similar to post-partum depression. Once more, I was excrutiatingly aware of anxiety and entrapment, as I spent day after day locked in the kitchen with him, taking him outside every hour to house train him. Have I mentioned that it rained all day every day for about 6 months after we moved here to Delmar last summer? So, in the rain. Brought me right into mindful awareness of drudge and slog and mud on the floor, of self-pity and aversion, and I certainly had no time to meditate.

Milo. Very cute. Fuzzy, fluffy. Some might consider him a silly dog, more of a muppet. Certainly not DOG=GOD. Lesson learned? No, simply this: life is rainy, damp, muddy, sloggy, something to endure rather than enjoy sometimes, and dog is dog.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Borderline Hypochondriac

It's been a long time since I posted and what has happened that I can write about? I had a scare at the doctor - a pseudo-scare, sufficient for a hypochondriac. As usual, when the nurse took my blood pressure, I asked for the numbers. I'm always low. Have low blood pressure. I fainted on my 11th birthday. This time she said it was 138 over 78 or something.

"That's high, isn't it?" I said, alarmed.

"High normal," she said.

High normal? Wha? Pounding heart, sweating palms, shrill voice for the doctor who asked if I was under any stress this year. Besides the job search, the tense homelife, and handling being a parent, did she mean?

Please note that the nurse did not even tell me my numbers -- I asked for them. Nor did the doctor mention them. Okay, I might not have given her time to mention them, since as soon as she shook my hand, I brought them up.  Furthermore, no one described them as other than on the high side of normal. Nevertheless, I spiraled into heart disease, diabetes, and of course, because I'm married to a neurologist, stroke. Did I mention C is a stroke specialist?

If you have high blood pressure or any of the above mentioned terrible conditions, I am truly sorry. I know how you felt when you received the diagnosis. And you might be pretty pissed at my reaction to NOT having any of those diseases.

Nevertheless, the positive thing that came out of the visit was my realization that I have given up all of the stress-relievers that I have used at one time or another in my life. Exercise of any kind except walking the dog; yoga; deep breathing and finding my "special safe place"; and meditation. Okay, hold on. This is actually untrue. I was at the doctor due to a leg pain that began after I started using the weight machines at the Y, so I had already begun to relieve stress through exercise once again. I'm honest. To a fault. Usually my own. But anyway, any of the more groovy types of stress release I had abandoned.

That afternoon, terrified by my brush with coming close to the borderline of a chronic condition, I came back to the house and loaded up my ipodtouch with Zencasts on mindfulness meditation and started sitting. And except for a day or two, I've sat for twenty minutes every day, observing how difficult it is to concentrate on my breath and labeling my thoughts, feelings and sensations.

And you know what I've found? Absolutely everything in my life is exactly the same as it was before I went to the doctor and almost had high blood pressure. All the stressors are there, all the little pleasures that I may or may not succeed in noticing. However, I can tell that my heart rate slows down just a little bit when I sit still for a few minutes every day, and sitting still for a few minutes is a relief.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


It was a perfectly innocent suggestion by our groovy piano teacher. Let's call him Alan. He lives just down the street from where my younger daughter goes to camp. So, why not let her walk over to his house for her lesson?

She loved the idea. He assured me he had other kids who did it. Kids who went to school there. "8 year olds?" I said. I love the guy, but he has no kids (and very silky white chin-length hair and came of age in the late 1960s, early 1970s.) "Sure!" He said. Naturally, the daughter loved the idea. Frankly, I didn't mind it, either. Camp and piano lessons are on the same side of the quasi-major road. Only one side street would need to be crossed. The distance: one and a half blocks. Still, I hesitated. When I've got a parenting question, I head for the books. If the books don't answer me, I ask around. Parenting by committee, the recourse of the insecure.

I asked around. Most parents were dubious, some outright against it. One said, ask the camp director. One and only one said she and her husband have stopped asking what other people do and have decided to make their own decisions. This was novel. I put it aside for further research, as I do all untested theories.

I asked the camp director. Her wrinkled-up nose and shaking head told me much more than her polite words: wouldn't recommend it, were the words. You're crazy, was the implication.

Still, the bee was in the bonnet, thanks to Alan. And there I was, knowing my daughter could certainly handle it, thinking of all the freedom I had as a kid, thinking of all the recent articles about this question of how much freedom kids used to have versus how scheduled and escorted they are now. Just yesterday, I read an excellent chapter in Michael Chabon's non-fiction book Manhood for Amateurs in which he examines exactly this point. In fact, I felt as if I were reading my own thoughts -- as they would be written if I were a Pulitzer-Prize winning male writer. It's not really surprising that I share similar thoughts with Michael Chabon. Judith Warner discussed this question in her column a couple of years ago. All of us are about the same age, and share similar socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. It's not a wonder that we compare our childhoods of benign neglect to the way kids' childhoods are run these days and come up scratching our heads. How did we let this happen?

The question has been answered pretty well. The next step is the solution. One of the major problems with deciding to let the kids go "free range," is that not too many others are doing the same. The big difference between now and then, is that back then, when I was climbing through the dining room window of my friend Kelly's house because she'd lost her latch key, there were lots of kids all around doing similar things. Safety in numbers and all that.

One of the daughter's qualities is perseverance. The subject did not drop. I'm sure her ability to nag incessantly means only good things about her personality. I believe I read not too long ago that perseverance is one of the hallmarks of the successful person. So, the first week's piano lesson rolled around and I skirted the decision. I parked out front of Alan's house, walked over to camp, signed her out, and let her walk ahead of me to his house. She spent a very long time at that corner before crossing, turning her head side to side to check and recheck and recheck. I kept mum.

Week two came around. This kid is capable. Honestly, when we lived in the city, she used to like to tell me all the different routes we could take from our apartment to school, to the 92nd Street Y, to her sister's ballet school. She has a better sense of direction than her older sister. When I allowed them to take the elevator downstairs and go around the corner to buy me a coffee from Gourmet Garage, I felt secure knowing that big sister would have little sister beside her.  I wished I'd never said anything to the camp director. But I had. The husband said forget it, the camp probably wouldn't dismiss her without a parent present. I considered writing a note, but decided I couldn't take the censure if I insisted on this extreme decision. So this time, I drove to camp, parked at the end of the driveway, picked up the daughter, signed her out, walked with her to the car, traded her backpack for her piano books, and got in the car without her. It took me a couple of minutes to make my way around the circular driveway with the other pick-up cars, so she had a head start.

I passed her on the street. She was striding with purpose and pride, and I felt it was a reasonable compromise. Although I was aware that my presence down the block, while freedom for her, was nothing like the freedom I experienced as a kid growing up in Northwest Washington, DC. By 10, definitely by 10, I was walking about half a mile along Connecticut Avenue, crossing major intersections-- to my shrink. At 8, I was definitely walking (running, racing, hurling myself across the neighborhood streets) alone or with friends to blow my allowance on candy at Broad Branch Market, and to play unsupervised at Lafayette Elementary School's playground, three blocks from home. On wrought iron monkey bars and cement tunnels and ramps. Unthinkable these days.

I considered honking as I passed, but opted against it. She was concentrating. I could see how much the journey meant to her. I parked and crossed over to Alan's house. Trees blocked my view of her and I denied myself the satisfaction of planting myself in the middle of the sidewalk and watching her walk toward me. Covered by the trees, I sat on Alan's front steps, pulled out my book, and waited a little anxiously for her to arrive.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Mystery of Mysteries

I've been reading a lot of Scandinavian mystery writers for the past year or so. Most of my life, I've been pretty uninterested in mysteries. Sure, I read bunches of Agatha Christie as a teenager, mostly because they were on my parents' basement bookshelves, but those were it. Later, pregnant with my first child, and afraid I'd never be able to read again, I got hooked on Elizabeth George. For the next ten years, I read a P.D. James now and then, tried a Patricia Cornwall (meh), but stuck to my major interests, contemporary realistic fiction and 18th and 19th Century British lit. Then my MIL introduced me to Tana French, and suddenly, mysteries were it. Tana French, Kate Atkinson. Thinky mysteries. Literary, thinky mysteries.

And then appeared Stieg Larsson. Neither thinky nor literary. More like out-of-control train rides. Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser, Henning Menkell. All different, all the same. Lots of burned out, jaded detectives with health problems due to poor diet, lack of sleep, smoking, and drinking. Why, I ask you, do I read them? Why?

Why? Maybe in part because I'm amazed by the human body's endurance. Considering how I've reacted to the stress of uprooting myself and family from a place I was enmeshed, to a job search, and to an adjustment to a life I'm still unsure I want, I see, feel, and know the physical and mental ravages of stress. Maybe I like to read about these burned out messes of detectives because they reassure me by enduring so much more than I have.

There is more to it, though. Yes, the stories are compelling, and plot-driven narratives are a lot like movie thrillers: pure escapism. But there are so many forms of escapism -- somatic illnesses, chic-lit, leafing through home decor magazines -- that I wonder why I choose this form now. Especially since I really dislike descriptions of violence, and these books seem to ratchet-up the horrific manner of death with each publication. Nary a one contains a single homicide. They're all double, triple, serial murders.

Shall I tell you my theory? It's because of the value placed therein on human life. I'm stating a paradox, considering how easily and emotionlessly these authors dispose of their victims. Furthermore, their protagonists are hardly models of emotional health. Therefore the general world-view promulgated by these authors is fairly grim. Nevertheless, their detectives (or as in Larrson, their de-facto detectives),  will do anything to solve these mysteries, at the risk of destroying themselves. As I read these narratives, I am filled with reassurance that people still place that much value on a single life.

I think at this time in my life, filled with massive evidence of the general ineffectiveness of one individual against the blind forces of nature and humanity, I am reassured to find that the individual does matter. So I read.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Slipping Through My Fingers

Yes, this title is an allusion to Abba. Yes, the movie was schlock. Yes, I saw it ("MamaMia") and I saw the Broadway Show. And you know what? It really touched a nerve, that movie did, anyway. I know I'm not the only one who thought so. One of my friends described the movie as a secret pleasure, her grown-up "Dirty Dancing."

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with an ineffable sadness, thinking of my 6th grader growing up for almost a whole summer without me. Thinking of how she might have changed when we see her, thinking of how I'm still allowed to hug her now -- quick hugs, not too many kisses, always on her terms -- and wondering if I'll still be allowed to when I see her again. Thinking of how fast time is going by. None of this is unmapped country for any parent, I know, but sometimes the universality of an emotion really manifests in a moment. A moment of insomnia, usually.

As I struggle with myself these days, I have an added pressure that this little girl's awareness is becoming more profound, and that she is becoming aware of my struggles, too. Until now it's been pretty easy to present a reasonable facsimile of a well-adjusted parent to my children; but now the struggles are a bit more personal, and I am loathe to show them my humanness, because with it comes awareness of a lot of things about me and the world I would rather they not know.

I'm not speaking about Death, at least I don't think so. We've had many a late night conversation about it when she was supposed to be in bed, and I've felt for her, remembering those moments when I used to feel so terrified at the thought of no longer existing. C and I usually try to talk her down from her anxiety and then make jokes, and that works. I always remember, although I have yet to say this to her, what Victor Tolkein, a boy at St.Albans said to me (this was high school, probably senior year) when we were talking about death. He said he didn't worry about death anymore because when he was dead he wouldn't care.

Okay, maybe that's not so profound, but it struck me at the time. Sometimes the root of a cliche is profound. Still, I'm not sure my 6th grader is ready for that piece of existentialism. Unfortunately, I can't comfort her with God talk, because I just don't buy it and she knows.

I really wasn't thinking of death, although it occupied a whole paragraph, didn't it? And probably was what caused me to become wide awake this morning, thinking of time slipping away, of daughters slipping away, and therefore, of course, of myself slipping away. Before I've really got a grip on myself, is what I was thinking. Before I can demonstrate for her and her sister that grown up life is good. It's funny to me that until this last year, I have always maintained being grown up is much better than being a child. This year, though, while looking for a job and trying to manage a house, my teenage years are looking pretty good. I lived in a lovely house that other people took care of, without a care in the world about money, and with a sense that if life was hard now, it was going to improve once I got out of that house.

Sigh. It did, overall. But right now, sending out job apps, on a very tight budget, overwhelmed by responsibilities, I find life challenging. I wish I could show it to my daughters in a better way, but that's my route right now. I just hope it doesn't defeat me. That's the most important thing I want to show my children: that if I can meet a challenge, they can, too.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Gardens II

I was derailed by the wasp incident reported in my previous post from my original garden topic. Friday evening I was weeding my enormous garden, full of resentment that I was weeding my enormous garden, and thinking unhelpful thoughts. Let me just try to make myself look a tiny bit better by saying that I had spent the day looking up jobs, sending out resumes, and bagging groceries at the Coop, not writing, and therefore feeling put-upon. As I was saying, I was thinking unhelpful things like, "I never said I liked to garden. What I said was that I like gardens." I spent many a lovely evening strolling in the Central Park Conservatory Garden at 105th and Fifth Ave., which was across the street from our apartment, and came to feel almost like a back yard - a back yard in which I could sit on a bench and watch my children dangle sticks and leaves into a lovely fountain and read little signs identifying all the flowers and herbs I did nothing to promote. I highly recommend visiting that garden. It's always beautiful, in every season.

I did enjoy gardening in our little backyard in Somerville, MA. The yard was all paved over by my landlords, retired Marine Jerry and his invisible wife Joanne. We lived in the downstairs apartment their daughter used to occupy. There was a dishwasher in the kitchen and a dryer outside on the enclosed porch. There was also a shag carpet in mottled pink. The backyard was cement, except for a nice 5' X 8'  plot up against the house. Shades of Barenaked Ladies' "The Old Apartment" ("Why did you pave the yard? Why did you plaster over the hole I punched in the wall?") Without even checking for lead in the dirt (pre-kids), I planted six tomato plants and they flourished in a most astonishing manner. Someone told me marigolds protected tomato plants from something-or-other, so I planted a line of those around the perimeter. There were no weeds to speak of. Boom. Bazillions of tomatoes. And I wrote a poem about them, which was later published in Salvage magazine. I don't think Salvage exists anymore, but here's the poem:

Embarrassed By Plenty

My six tomato plants
stand over five feet tall.
They were one tenth that size
when I wheeled them to my car.

At the nursery they said
just plant them and let them grow.
I piled on compost and set
each inside a white wire fence of its own.

Now they've overgrown their cones.
Branches poke through the wires,
loll and droop with fruit,
slatterns careless of their loads.

That plot's an obstetrician's waiting room,
full of wildly fertile ladies
clumped and waiting to birth
dozens of green babies,

A nursery of hatchlings,
jostling like children clambering at fences,
hair wild and unbrushed,
feet stuck in the crumbly earth.

Next door, two refined tomatoes
grow up sedately staked,
pruned and decorous;
mine are riotous green,

spangled with copious yellow florets,
melodramatic and garish like bad poetry,
saying, "Look at us, look at us,"

Anyway, that was a manageable garden, mostly cement. The next garden was at the little house we rented for four years in Albany. I tilled, turned, weeded, dug out, and planted a perennial bed along one side of the driveway. After a year, I became pregnant with my second child, and it was hard to bend and weed. And then some sort of wasp that burrows in the ground invaded, and I was put off. I called the Cornell Extension Service and described these creatures, and the gardener there said with reasonable certainty, but still leaving wiggle-room, that these wasps would not sting. Nevertheless, I was fat and having hives and generally tired out from taking care of a toddler and so I let that garden go. 

Now I have this gigantic garden, and well, that brings me back full circle. Ungrateful? You bet!  I have this feeling we jumped up a couple of levels too many in our homeownership phase of life. We skipped the starter home, and now we have the home you move to when you can afford a little outside help with the yard, or you have enough time and interest to spend your entire life taking care of it. I feel a burden to carry on what Mrs.W, who raised 5 kids here, put in place, because I've met Mrs.W, and she's a formidable woman, as well as a retiree who lives not far from her long-time home. 

Retired Marine Jerry had no regrets about paving. He once told me he didn't want to garden no more. So he enjoyed his days in a folding chair on his front stoop. Joanne his invisible wife might once have enjoyed digging in the dirt, but she was consigned upstairs by some mysterious illness. She was a frail, skinny lady. I saw her every once in a while, going from the house to the car, but otherwise she stayed inside. Apparently by the window, because when we went upstairs in our fourth year there to tell them I was pregnant, she said, "I thought so! I says to Jerry, 'Either she's getting fat or she's pregnant.'" 

We had our first baby there, and we didn't garden there no more. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gardens & Wasp

What I'm thinking about is gardens. This morning the 2nd grader took her Tuppertainer of soapy water around front to search for Japanese beetles. Each one she scoops into the container nets her a quarter - terms set by my MIL last summer when swarms of them overran the roses, and my MIL, much cleverer than I at setting children to work, recalled that her parents paid her 5 cents per beetle back in the 1940s. Anyway, 2nd grader went around front and I forgot about her in a frenzy of sweeping cobwebs away from the doors and trying to sweep off the deck. Wouldn't you know the grooves of the deck planks run the wrong way, so you can't just sweep stuff over the side onto the patio, you have to actually use a dustpan? Well, I don't have a dustpan. And my broom has a tendency to pirouette around its base, sometimes unscrewing itself all the way from the stick. So you can see I was busy.

After an unknown number of minutes, I'm guessing maybe ten, my daughter was back, standing in front of me, with her arms at her sides, in that way some kids have of quietly presenting themselves as upset and waiting for you to notice. At least this one does. Her sister wouldn't be so quiet. And I did notice. When I asked what was wrong, she told me, chin quivering, that a wasp had landed on her eye. I looked and there was a tiny pinprick drop of blood just in the corner of her eye, over her tear duct. "Did it sting you?" Head shook no. "Are you sure?" Head shook no. I wiped away the blood with no comment and gave called-for hugs.

"It was there for a really long time. Like ten minutes," she said, now sobbing, and now I was tuned in, because I understood the whole of what happened. While I was tussling with the pirouetting broom, she was frozen in fear with a wasp on her eyelid, too afraid to move or scream, absolutely trapped. I felt guilty - of course - as if I should have known somehow that my child was in trouble; and sad, thinking of all the traumas we have to suffer alone, even when surrounded by loved ones. Some things you just have to get through yourself, and you do, but doing it alone makes the world seem a little bigger and more impersonal.

"It was on my head for awhile first," she continued, pointing to her crown. "It started here and traveled slowly down." I suggested she could have brushed it away at that point, hoping to help her avoid future incidents. "It was prickly."

I thought it was time to wrap up the subject, as visions of phobias developing crept into my brain. I told her the wasp was checking her out to see if she was a flower, and that luckily it was smart enough to figure out she wasn't. Then the weed-whacker that C bought last night broke, and I sent her off with him to the store to return it - and to get a better broom and a dustpan for outside.

Monday, June 28, 2010


I'm calling this day an aquarium day. It's so humid I feel the water in the air. I stick my arm outside, I bring it back inside, there's no difference in the temperature. Not only is the atmosphere so thick it's permeated me, so that my internal body temperature and fluid levels have reached homeostasis with it, but also I'm feeling a bit pescine - or is it piscine? pescatory? pissy? - I'm feeling like one of them fishies in the pet shop: trapped in my glass box, swimming around and not making much sense of what's outside that boundary.

It's not just that the big girl is off at camp, a drop-off that went without a hitch. "It's a Dodge," she said Sunday as we watched the big purple van bouncing down 48th street, right on schedule. (She's become an expert at identifying vehicles, since we spent a year discussing the cars we were going buy when we left NYC.) After several hugs and a couple of tears, and many reassuring comments from one of the other parents there, she left. Her sister cried all the way up the West Side Highway, until we stopped for bagels....

But I digress. Back to the aquarium. Now that all those errands for camp have been run, and now that the 2nd grader has started camp as well, I am left, I am tempted to say, bereft. Not exactly, of course. It's really that loose-ends feeling that happens when you suddenly have six hours of unstructured time. Six hours unstructured sounds great, right? But when you start to think about the zillions of things you ought to do and the three or four things you want to do, and the one or two things you absolutely have to do, then you start to feel like you're swimming around and around in a rather claustrophobic space.

I took care of the must-dos, early - mailed off the forgotten items to camp, saw off our houseguests. But then the oughts and the wants and the humidity all mixed together and it was like, how do I get out of here? So I looked up some job possibilities (oughts, musts), took care of some volunteer work I'm doing,  and I sent off one story to a contest and another story to a literary magazine and had to call it a day, as far as personal accomplishments go. Time to walk the dog through the soup, and pick up the 2nd grader from camp, and do the mom thing.

I figure days like these are like those rare periods of childhood boredom. I am a big believer in the possibilities of boredom. When my kids complain they're bored, I give them an, "Oh, um, hmmm," and after a few minutes, they invent a new project. For me, some swimming around is necessary, as frustrating as it is, before I can settle down on something new. I am in a creative transition anyway. Now that I have completed two stories, and have two more to finish revising, I'm starting to contemplate the next project. Some treading in place is not the worst thing. After all, I did send out two things today. Flung 'em out into the void.

At dinner, observing my soggy posture, CFA (husband) said he wants me to make sure I spend two hours every day writing during this month.

"Daddy, stop controlling Mommy," said my child, which amused me greatly. He wasn't controlling me, he was trying to give me the permission he knows I have trouble giving myself, he explained. Job hunting is the main task now, and anything that isn't that is hard to contemplate, and the job hunting is its own mini aquarium, the one you stick the fish in when you're cleaning the big one, as I go around and around trying to find new leads and beef up my resume for re-contacting old leads.

The 2nd grader took my hand and said, "Mommy, go upstairs right now and start typing." Her little fingertips were very soft, but also very firm. 

"That would be difficult," I said, "because my computer is in the dining room." I joked, but I appreciated the permission all around. And here I am now, in the dining room. And thank goodness, the temperature has dropped a little and I feel the suggestion of a new front coming in.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Little Bit of Freedom

The trunk is open but packed, the duffel bag is in the same state. There are books and journals and stationery and stamps, too. We're all packing up our togs, preparing to take our 6th grader down to the city for the weekend and then put her on the bus to overnight camp Sunday morning. Gulp.

She has the good sense to tell me that she's not exactly excited about it, because she doesn't know what it's going to be like, but that she is looking forward to the experience. Trusting her father and me that because we loved sleepover camp, she will, too. She certainly believed me when I told her that I wanted her to have the chance to do all those fun camp things like campfires and swamping canoes, horseback riding and buying candy at the canteen.

Honestly, sleepover camp was heaven for me, but I had reasons to get away, and my parents were glad to see me go. Honestly, I hope she loves it, but I also don't want my girl to want to fly too far away from me. From us. I know it's good -- independence, I mean. I also know it's a very American thing, this assumption that independence is good. I also think closeness is good, too. I will admit to pre-emptive strategic thinking about the optimal place to live once my children are grown so that they will at least want to visit frequently, if not to settle there themselves.

There have been troubling reminders of immortality and impermanence in the news lately. I am thinking of that poor girl who drowned last week on a class trip on Long Island. It cuts a little close to home, because one of our family friends was in the same class with her and was on the beach when it happened. Makes me a little more aware of my fears for my children, especially when they are out of my sight.

But. It is good to let her go off on this adventure. It was wonderful for me, and at the very least, it will teach her that she has some capabilities of which she might not have been aware. And I am a little bit proud of myself, that despite my anxieties, despite any helicoptering I may have been guilty of over the years, my child is ready and happy to try all kinds of new things. She told me one skill she wanted to learn this summer was archery. Camp has archery. I try to believe that the targets are well-placed where stray arrows will do no harm. "Do you want to try horseback riding?" I asked. "Sure, why not?" she said, blowing me away with her insouciance. So she's got boots and a nice, sturdy helmet in her trunk, and I am trying to forget the horseshoe-shaped bruise in the thigh that my old friend Laurie got one summer when she was at camp.

Horseback riding? What was I thinking?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


My college magazine just sent out an email asking for stories about people's failures, or perceived failures. They've focused so much on success, they said, that they thought it would be helpful to examine the stories of other people who've not attained measurable success. Well, aside from taking offense at my inclusion in this email, I thought, I have a lot to say on this subject. Success, my lack of it, failure, my perception of it, have been the continuing story of my life for several years.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking this has to be a post about how my failures really aren't failures, it's really my definition of success that needs adjusting. Well, maybe you're not thinking that, but I am. And I only part-way agree. By some outward measures that I value, I have failed. I haven't published anything other than a couple of poems in Salvage Magazine, which seems to only exist in Chinese now.  After getting an "I-Almost-Took-This-But-Decided-Not-To" personal rejection from a very famous agent for my first novel, I sent my second novel to 39 (Three-Nine; Thirty-Nine) agents without being signed. Only two of those thirty-nine actually asked to see more of the manuscript before declining.

Furthermore, at my ripe old age, which I will not state, but I will say I would never make The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 list, I have only just purchased a home. I've been living on nothing, scrimping and not saving, without new clothes or vacations or the laser treatments I so desperately want for the sunspots on my face and chest, married to someone who has been in medical training for the entire 13 years of our marriage. I have no hope of new clothes or vacations for years, as I have debts and college educations for our two girls to pay, and now a home to maintain. Thank God my hair doesn't need coloring. And now that my husband has finally completed his grueling training, now that our children are well into school age, when I was to have the opportunity to focus on my writing, now that the economy has tanked, I need to get a job.

This was to be my time to work on my professional goal. This was to be my reward for the years I stayed home and worked part time at menial education jobs, some more rewarding than others. We both agreed having me home as a full time mom was a good thing, and we both agreed that even if I did work full time, that because I was a teacher my salary would have just gone to the nanny so it made sense for me to stay home; and we both agreed that spending the money my father had put aside for me was a good investment because it was an investment in our children, and I certainly don't regret staying home. But. But. Because I've been a mom, and have only worked part time, and when I worked full time, I worked as a teacher in a private school, I am trying to break into the workforce with basically nothing. Meanwhile, everyone I grew up with, and went to school with, is entering the prime of her profession, and has the clothes and the home renovations to prove it. To me, this is failure.

This is where I'm supposed to turn this piece around. I know what Wellesley magazine wants, and what I want, too. I want to see it all in a positive light. And in one way I do. That has to do with how I define success. If success means having lots of money and an important job, I do not have that. However, if success is performing well at tasks important to me, then I start looking a little better. I wanted to be a mom and to raise my children, and so far, so good. I wanted to be a writer, and I am one. Three novels and a few short stories, as well as some scattered poems is not bad for a busy mother and wife of a medical student, resident, fellow and now, finally, gainfully employed doctor. And I am newly focused on sending out stories, an option I haven't pursued intensively yet. I've got that persistence that keeps me flinging out the manuscripts as soon as they get rejected, and I am fairly sure that eventually, one of these stories will stick out there. When it does, I'll have a credit to state on my queries to agents for my novel. So, viewed that way, I am pursuing what I want to do, and I have done so all along. I may have sacrificed material gain along the way; but then, I guess I believed people when they told me that money and things don't buy happiness, a sense of fulfillment is most important.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

One Year In

The one year anniversary of our move from New York City to suburbia  has arrived. It was raining when we left the city and it continued to rain for the next six weeks. Or was it six months? The pathetic fallacy was operative in my case. I probably don't need to say more, at least not to the English majors out there. It was raining when I left NYC. It was raining when I arrived upstate. The movers left a house full of muddy footprints and IKEA furniture. Their parting gift to us, as they headed back to the city, was a snow shovel somebody else had left behind on the truck. "You're gonna need this," the foreman chortled. Then he drove away, back to the city, leaving a flotilla of plastic water bottles in the garage. He was right. We did need it. But I digress. The rain. It summed up my state of mind, the state of my internal waterworks. It rained.

I had so many ideals about my first house. After a lifetime of renting, the previous six years of renting two-bedroom apartments in NY with my husband and our two girls, we were finally buying a home. I'd been reading about homes for years and had the idea of what I wanted: A Not So Big House, a Susannka house ( A house that was just right sized, without extra waste, a weatherized, energy-efficient, big enough but not too big house, with a screened porch, and maybe with a front porch, too. The neighborhood would be pedestrian-friendly, close to local shopping, full of older homes with lovely old-growth trees. I also needed a good school district.

The housing market collapsed just as we began our long-distance house-hunt. Then my ideals ran up against one another. The residential, town-like place with good schools that we picked had almost zero lovely old homes, and none on the market. Having moved four times in the previous six years, and another three times in the prior four years, we were eager to settle in one spot.  So we moved to a 1969 center hall colonial, a big blue box, a 3000 square foot cedar-sided house. A lovely house, people always say.  It is after all, a small community. Everyone knows our street, and many people say they love our house.  This reaction always confuses me, as I spent the first six months raining inside, as I mentioned, and the next six months gradually accepting that this house is definitely not a Not So Big House but it is a nice house anyway.  A slightly too big house. A house without a porch, front or screened. A house with a very lovely landscaped yard on a curvy street without sidewalks.

A house not that well insulated, it turns out, and a house with a long, long to-do list. It scares me. I am just now feeling a little bit better about it, as I notice that all houses come with long to-do lists. Really, a lot better, if you consider how well I'm handing the newly broken central a.c., the potentially broken dishwasher - we're checking now to see if a vinegar wash did the trick - and the large black ant that my 2nd grader and I observed yesterday. The ant was purposefully crossing our front stoop, so I flicked it away. It returned in surprisingly short order, just as purposeful, so this time we watched it navigate the pressed-concrete cracks in the stoop and disappear into a tiny hole in the wood at the bottom of the vestibule. Into. A. Hole. In. My. House.

So. I am taking a breath, trying not to feel overwhelmed, and trying not to look too far ahead to when I might be able to retire, sell this gigantic blue chore box and move back to a too-small apartment somewhere.  It's a year in, and I've learned to mulch, weed, spray ant killer, pick up dog poop, budget. And to look for a job. At least it has stopped raining.