Dec 14, 2007

The House without a Christmas


It's hard to believe that it's almost Christmas. You'd never know it in our house. No nativity scene on the mantel, no Christmas Tree, no ornaments, no wreath on the door, no tacky white deer turning his head blandly this way then that in our front yard, no oversized nylon Santa-shell waiting to be plumped up with wrapping paper, no stockings, no nothing. We completely blew it. The only sign that anything out of the ordinary is going on is the smattering of Christmas cards taped to our parlour doors-but without all the other accoutrements of the holidays-to-be they just look like the doors usually do in January, when we've taken everything else away but haven't yet had the heart to remove these pictures of the children of far-flung family and friends.

Pitiful, I know.

Growing up you could spot the holidays coming from weeks away. Easter was a house-full of hard-boiled eggs and vinegar smells, or sticky turkey skewers lying around from the blown-eggs we were going to decorate and hang from an egg tree. Little vignettes of bunnies hauling eggs or of chicks in easter bonnets nestled in plastic grass covered our end tables. And my mom didn't have to run out to Duane Reade to buy new Easter Baskets every year, since they had their own shelf in her holiday closet.

You knew the fourth of July was coming when the red, white, and blue crepe paper arrived, so we could start to decorate our bikes for the local parade, and when the sugary smell of my mom's flag cake (a long rectangle of artfully dyed cake arranged so that every single slice contained a complete American flag-yes, really) filled the kitchen.

Even Thanksgiving, which is usually a day-of kind of holiday, meant a wicker cornucopia of gourds and Indian corn as a centerpiece for our kitchen table and a smattering of pilgrim figurines on the fireplace.

Of course I grew up in Who-ville, a town with a three-story high Christmas Tree, full of colored lights that could be seen from miles away, caroling parties, and elementary schools that basically turned us kids into holiday-decoration-generating machines. The homework one year was finding as many words as we could from the phrase Merry Christmas. Just try that one in a public school in Brooklyn-one that doesn't even make a big deal out of birthdays lest they offend any of the Jehovah's Witnesses in the building.

True, it was a simpler time. My parents weren't crawling into bed at 9:15 exhausted from hour-long commutes. And getting to the Holiday decorations in the basement didn't require tiptoeing through a tenant's apartment.

But I'm feeling pretty bad about it.

Of course, there's a 'reason' for all of this Christmaslessness (full disclosure: finding 'reasons' for my bad behavior is a talent of mine). Way back in March it seemed like a great idea to plan a Hawaii vacation. I got caught up in thinking that Hawaii is so far away it would only make sense to go if we could go for two whole weeks, and since no one joneses for tropical weather in the summertime, I had to figure out which week of school butting up against a school-break is the most disposable. So I cashed in all of my membership rewards points and bought tickets to Hawaii-the kids'll miss the low-academic week of school before winter break, we'll stay with a friend in Maui for a week, see cousins in Honolulu. Mele Kalikimaka. A no brainer.

So we planned it back in March, and rested on it all year long, anticipating our new improved Christmas-on-the-go. What a great way to do Christmas. We were going to take it on the road, have a free-wheeling time with friends. Perfect.

And then came the details. To haul all the gifts over there or not? To only give small disposable things or to go whole-hog? To load up on 99c store items for stockings HERE in Brooklyn-99c store mecca-OR see if they have them over there? To bring gifts for all of the people we'll see over there? Or not to busy ourselves worrying about gifting cousins we never acknowledge at holiday time? To cart along an extra empty bag for bringing stuff home? Or to deal with shipping things from Hawaii? To have Amazon do free-super saver shipping and mail stuff there? Or pay more for two day shipping and send everything here? To bring real New York-city style foods with us to the islanders out there? Or to just bring our own New-Yorky selves?

Untangling 50 yards of Christmas lights would seem a bit like fiddling while Rome burns, given the scope of all these other preparations. Digging out the North Pole sign instead of digging out the bathing suits? Hauling home a wreath instead of running out for snorkel gear? Urging the kids along with their advent calendars instead of encouraging them to sort through what to bring in their carry-ons?

I had hoped that this trip would simplify Christmas, instead of erasing it. We wouldn't be tempted to go overboard with gifts since one of the major gifts would be the trip itself (sounded really convincing in March, but doesn't seem so sound in the face of all the commercials being forcefed to my kids courtesy of Nickelodeon and Disney). At this point though the only big day I'm fretting over is the travel day (a 5:30 am flight from Philly connecting through Dallas also seemed like a good idea back in March).

The friend we're staying with assures us that her halls are decked and I'm certain that Maui will be merry. But I worry that I'll always look back at this month and wonder why we didn't see fit to do any decorating at home.

And while I know the experience will be magical in many ways, it's hard to forgive the fact that we didn't put an ounce of magic into the every-day part leading up to the trip. I'm only realizing now that all those weeks of pine-scented twinkling-tree blinking-yard anticipation just might be the most exciting part of Christmas day.

Nov 20, 2007

Turkey Practice




Last year I hosted my first Thanksgiving. A local place catered the
meal. We had 24 people so much of our focus was on fitting everyone
in our house and finding enough chairs. I didn't realize that I'd be
reheating everything and it was sort of a disaster--the stuffing took
forever to heat up, as did the potatoes, and the once-piping-hot
gravy was cold by the time the sides were hot enough to reach the
table. It occurred to me then that if I'd cooked everything I'd have
a better chance at getting the timing right. I'm not much of a cook
but my mother and sister are spectacular and I've always felt that I
had it in my genes and the ability to move effortlessly around my own
kitchen would reveal itself to me when I was ready for it. In
general I know how to make my favorite things--big batches of creamy
mashed potatoes, vichyssoise, chili, egg salad, brownies, and apple
custard pie. That's it though. Nonetheless I decided to cook the
meal this year. I set my tivo to record everything the Food
Network was offering about Thanksgiving. I saved a page from the
Times, and bought a little magazine that had a turkey on the cover.

My sister suggested that I use the Sunday before Thanksgiving to
prepare a practice turkey. She added that I could make the gravy
from its drippings, and stock from its bones to use on the real day.
At 4 in the afternoon today (Sunday) I remembered this plan and ran
to the grocery store to fetch the bird.

Once in the supermarket, I didn't even know where to look. I saw
things that looked like whole turkeys at the deli counter...I tried
to get the counter person's attention but she was busy. Thankfully I
realized--before embarrassing myself in front of all the cold-
cutters--that it was just the mushed together deli meat shaped to
look like a whole turkey. Phew! I wonder how far it would have
gotten--would they have sold me a whole turkey shaped thing? Would I
have hauled it to the cashier? Would I have gotten it home and
attempted to stuff it?

Several steps away I found the real-meat shelf and a sea of whole
turkeys. I had the choice between the butterball, which was
shrinkwrapped in pretty plastic, or the purplish turkey that had
lived a lovelier life--probably one with a beak, and some free-
roami ng. It was organic and had no antibiotics but the plastic
was see-through and it totally grossed me out. I inspected it
closely and noticed that it had real wings. The kind that splay out
like it's flying. Not the kind you see on a platter of 'wings' next
to the blue cheese and celery. I made myself buy the ugly one. The
butterball would have been prettier until getting into the sink, so I
figured I should just grow up and buy the one I felt better about
even though it was a more obviously really dead bird.

I got it home and put it on the counter and called my sister who
talked me through it. My not yet two-year-old daughter was running
around naked and kept requiring my assistance with various ventures
to consider using the toilet so the advice from my sister was mostly
theoretical (being that I was hardly even in the kitchen during
certain points of instruction). "Don't think about what you're
doing," "double bag the stuff inside and freeze it until you can
throw it away," "don't even think about what's in those bags,"
"remember there's another *ahem* cavity at the top end of the bird
too, make sure you clean that one out also," "people say you don't
have to tie the legs shut anymore so only do that if you want." I
could begin to visualize the process. My confidence was building.

By the time I got the baby down for her nap (or bedtime?--we're never
sure when she crashes at 5:15), I was ready to take the thing out of
its plastic. I put it in the sink and set about inspecting it
without touching it. Sure enough there was a little bag in the
cavity--I pulled it out and plopped it in a double bag and stuck it
in the freezer. The cavity was smaller than I'd expected. I ran
water into it and dumped it out several times. I even had the nerve
to peer under a wing and remove a bloody thing. I was doing well. I
moved the bird over to the roasting pan and began to stuff the cavity
full of onions and celery. There was only room for half the stuff
I'd chopped...but I filled it to the brim. Then I considered putting
the rest of the onions and celery into the bottom of the pan.
Surely that would flavor the drippings? Or maybe they'd burn and
smoke or something. I decided against it. I was carrying the bird
to the oven, remembering that I had already ruled out tying the legs
shut, when it occurred to me that I hadn't noticed any legs. It was
with great creepiness that I realized that the double bone thing
sticking out of the neck wasn't a double-boned neck but was the tips
of the two drumsticks, with some loop of skin holding them closed. I
dug my fingernails into the loop of skin and freed the tips of the
drumsticks and discovered the cavity I was supposed to be filling--
the cavity I had thought I was filling when I was apparently stuffing
the neck full of celery and onions.

I didn't see a bag in there, so I reached in and my fingers curled
around two little frozen things, I tugged until they came out. Two
raw, red frosty lumps. I tossed them into the sink. Then I
reached in again and found something else that wasn't a bag but felt
more like a bone--I wiggled it loose from its moorings and pulled it
out and tossed it into the sink. The spine? The neck? I wasn't
prepared for this hard pinkish penis thing--tossed it into the sink
too. Now this was a cavity. There was tons of room. A studio
apartment. I stuffed it full of the leftover onions and celery.

Now it looked like a turkey. This practice run was turning out to be
a great idea.

Following the NYTimes instructions (fast roasting not slow, no
basting) I tented the bird after half an hour. Then an hour later I
remove dthe tent and, again following instructions, used my new meat
thermometer to test the bird. I'm supposed to put the thermometer in
perpendicular to the pan, in the thigh near where the drumstick meets
the body. Nothing looks like a thigh to me but I aim for a place
near a joint an d get a low reading--about 120. I pop the whole
thing back in the oven for another 20 minutes, then I test it again.
I realize my earlier poke was near the wing, so now I put the
thermometer down into a thicker spot. The temperature shoots up to
about 180. I'm aiming for 165. I'm supposed to get a few readings
of 165 so I put the bird back in for another 20 minutes and then get
all those good high (too high) readings again. I pull the bird out
and while it sits there I watch a food network special on making
perfect gravy.

Then I call my sister who makes perfect gravy for some on-the-spot
assistance, since her method isn't at all like Alton Brown's method.
Her kids had been at a dessert party so they aren't in bed yet but
she agreed to walk me through the steps anyway. Without any turkey
stock we realize I shouldn't make it at that moment, but rather
should save all the drippings and make it later, but still before
Thanksgiving. By that time I should have a better sense of the
whole process and might even feel comfortable whipping up gravy with
my Thanksgiving drippings (and a kitchen full of chattering
relatives). Who knows? I think I'm starting to get the hang of this.

We figured out a strategy for my gravy. I use my new fat/strainer/
separator thing and only get about a half a cup of drippings. She
was surprised that this was such a low amount, but again, she was
advising me from two hundred miles away and with a houseful of
sugared toddlers so we didn't focus on it for long. We decide I
should keep the whole lot of it rather than strain it. My next
assignment is to pull the meat off the bones and save the bones to
make stock. It sounds reasonable until I realize that I've never cut
into a turkey before. I beg my sister to stay on the phone to walk
me through this (several years ago I called her to walk me through
disposing of a dead mouse--it's a moral support thing mostly, but
necessary to many tasks, especially those, like this, that sorta
gross me out). She tells me to just start tugging at the white meat
with a fork but I don't see any white meat.

The more I st ab and pull the more bones I bump up against and
it's all dark meat, and sort of slimy. A little surprised that I'm
having such a difficult time locating any meat, my sister explains
that it's true that a clean-livin' turkey like this one probably ran
around a lot and won't have that nice plump genetically engineered
breast lump. I'm in a flat panic, unable to imagine how two of these
birds would ever yield enough meat for 5 people, let alone the 15
we're expecting. I start to talk about buying a butterball turkey.
If I get it tomorrow and start to thaw it out, I can do the two
organic birds I'd preordered for political reasons, and the
butterball for gastronomical ones. As I tug and pull with a fork and
a knife my sister asks me if I've roasted the turkey upside-down. I
highly doubt it, it looks sort of like the birds in the
pictures...the knees tucked under, the elbows propped up. It's the
way I'd be if someone asked me to crawl into an oven. She asks me to
take a photo and email it to her so she can see what's wrong.

I resist this suggestion for a moment, and then it occurs to me to
just prop the bird up and peek underneath. Lo and behold, there was
the enormous beautiful white breast, swollen against the roasting
rack, pinkish and plumpish with waxy drips hanging down through the
grooves of the rack. My sister and I gasp with astonishment at my
stupidness. I let her go, since I've now figured out where the meat
is, and her kids really need to get to bed. I flip the bird and
another cup-full of beautiful drippings and juices pours out all over
my kitchen table. I make a weak attempt to gather it into my
original half-cup. But the cat beats me to most of it.

I spend the next half hour tearing all t he meat off of the bones
(well most of it, and hardly any of it in some cases). I bag the
meat, probably woefully undercooked--where was I taking the
temperature anyway? The back of the bird? Between the ribs? The
meat's pink in the way that some fancy cooks like, but I'll never
touch it. I bag all of the meat for the cat to enjoy for many weeks
to come.

I'd like to think that it's the best $16.98 I'll ever spend, since I
made all of the mistakes on a day that just doesn't matter.

I shower to get the turkey meat from under my fingernails, and to get
the smell off of me. I watch a clip on the news about the avian flu
pandemic but the talk of bird to man and so on freaks me out...and
then I switch over to Wolfgang Puck's turkey school. I think I've
learned how NOT to cook a turkey. About sixteen of us will find out
on Thursday.

Nov 9, 2007

Alternate Sides


Her smiling face was perfectly framed in my side view mirror. Our eyes met and she said something cheerful like ‘I think it’s time’ as she adjusted the bottom of her sweater down over her hips. She kept looking in my mirror, eyes locked on mine.
This was quite an invitation--I stuck my head out the window.
‘Wow this was really something,’ I said. ‘My first time.’
‘You never done this?’ she smiled, hefting a suede patchwork purse over her shoulder and then flipping her heavy curls out from under the strap.
‘I only discovered this block a few days ago, but I’ve never been here when the sweeper comes through.’
‘Oh yeah, that’s really crazy, right?’

The signs on this street say ‘No Parking 8:30am to 10am’ but we’ve all been here since before 9:30, most def initely ‘parked’. It was an odd sight to see all of these cars lined up here at 9:30 looking like sitting ducks under the ‘no parkingtil 10’ signs above them. But it was a welcome sight as I circled in this direction looking for parking and found an available space behind a blue Jetta.
People sit behind the wheels of most of the cars, doing crosswords, talking on cell phones, meaning technically--?--that their car hasn’t really been parked (does parked mean abandoned? left alone?). Some of the cars are only loosely guarded. One of the ‘drivers’ smokes cigarettes on the sidewalk next to his dented brown sedan. A collegiate guy sits on a stoop near his Passat with the paper and a
coffee. A woman ahead of me entertains her dog at the curb by her Volvo station wagon. A guy in a plaid shirt seems to be responsible for two different cars--he sits in one for awhile then hops out and sits in the other. It has a Goldilocks kind of flavor--I imagine him thinking this one’s tooo hard and this one’s tooo soft.
These 90th street people all seem to know each other, nodding hellos and mutterings about the weather I can hear from my own open window (it’s a gorgeous crisp May morning). This small cluster of neighbors must go through this together several times a week (with a reprieve on Wednesday and the weekends when *gasp* it’s all legal). Here today, like on a few previous days, I slotted my car in guiltily,
almost worried that someone more regular might show up and demand his spot.

In a decade of having a car in the city I’ve never gotten used to all of this legal law-breaking.
Double parking is gently overlooked on some blocks, including my own in Brooklyn, during the alternate side parking times posted on the signs. But keep your car double parked for one minute past the time when it’s ok to be back on the opposite curb and you could get a hundred dollar ticket. You could get towed.
Double park to pack your car up for a weekend getaway and you could get a ticket, even with your intentions advertised by a popped-up trunk and blinking hazards. But double park for a full hour and a half, trapping strangers’ cars against the curb, while watching soaps a block away in a living room (waiting for the beep of the oven timer to announce it’s time to move the car back) and traffic cops look the other way.
It’s overlooked to a fault. Once years ago (pre-cell phone) I dropped my boyfriend off for some minor out-patient surgery and went across town to make an appearance at work before returning later that morning to pick him up. When I came out of work at 10:30 to get my car to fetch him I discovered that I was completely walled in by a presumptuous row of double parked cars. I called the police to complain. I really really needed access to my own legally parked
car. They said there was nothing they could or would do. The owner of the car that proved the biggest obstacle had neglected to leave a phone number on his dashboard. For his crime he received an angry note from me under his windshield wiper, not an expensive orange ticket. I was livid. I was screwed. I was one of the only drivers that morning who had obeyed the law, and I was the one whose day was
most ruined (unless you count my pitiful drugged up boyfriend, waiting with a crutch, a cast, and a portable urinal across town).
This whole world took a bit of getting used to (the do-gooder in me just can’t believe I’m actually disobeying something) and now that I’d discovered this new block that worked with my current schedule of classes, I was aware that I didn’t know the particular quirks. Do we have to sit here til the moment parking’s legal or can
we leave our cars a few minutes early? I watched the people around me, in a when-in-Rome kind of way. Perhaps some day I’d be a regular here too, like the happy curly-haired Pinto-driver who keeps smiling at me now.

I eyed the clock. 9:54. Parking would be officially legal at 10, but my clock was a few minutes fast, or was it slow? All I can remember is that sometimes it works in my favor that it’s off a few minutes, but I rarely remember which end of on-time the favor is. I hadn’t sat in the car for half an hour to risk getting a ticket by cutting it too close in the final minute.
I laid out my belongings on the passenger seat next to me. I gathered them up slowly. I went to check the side view mirror again for the woman but she was standing at my window now. Beaming. Was she waiting for me? Is this something the regulars do?

“How about that guy with the two cars?” I asked, sticking to the safe subject of our shared experience. She was, after all, a perfect stranger. And I was sitting here with my window already open. I wanted to keep it light.
“Oh yeah they get paid to do that, you know. Not fair to the rest of us out here.”
I nodded knowingly, enjoying that I was considered one of the honest, hard-working law-breakers--my third time on 90th street and already a member of ‘the rest of us.’
“Well I don’t know how he does it, I had a hard enough time managing with my own car.”
It really had been quite a feat. In my dabblings with the double-parking I’d never been a part of such a scramble.

Fifteen minutes earlier I had been immersed in my New Yorker because Howard Stern was on a commercial break, when I realized that the Jeep a few cars up was pulling out suddenly into a double-parked position across the street. The cars between me and the Jeep followed frantically. Like in the movies when the coffee cup starts to dance around in its saucer before the townsfolk realize the earthquake is happening, this sudden and jerky disruption of our orderly curbside line-up confused me--until the rumbling of the street-sweeper sunk in.
I caught site of it swishing and lurking ominously about seven car-lengths behind me, and jammed my car into gear (whoops the engine was off, restarted it, switched it into gear...) and nudged the front of my van across the street in what became more of a show of my intent to move than a successful getting out of the way. The problem was that I was as interested in how the guy with the plaid shirt was
going to move his two back-to-back vehicles across the street as I was in getting my own car clear of the sweeper’s path. I was simulataneously checking him out in my side-view mirror and checking out my own clearance. Was I pissing off the woman in the Jetta? I couldn’t understand if the look on her face was anger towards me or
comradic anger about the guy with the two cars. I shrugged noncommittally back at her--a carefully designed shrug meant to indicate either ‘yikes! sorry’ or ‘that guy’s some kind of nutjob.'

By the time the sweeper groped its way up the curb, we had managed to turn this narrow side street into a four lane road. One lane of traffic remained parked on the left, our line of cars ooched over to create a double parked lane next to that, the street sweeper did its business along the right curb, and there was still room for the occasional poor sob to inch his way through. It must have been a
bizarre thing to witness from any of the thirty-floor high rises that lined the block. Enormously ungraceful. Not very satisfying--not like the slow choreography of two opposing lanes following their own left-turn signals down on Houston and Bowery, or at the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge--which always feels like water ballet to me. Somehow we all reshuffled ourselves back along the curb on the
right. I ended up leapfrogging over three vehicles and was now ahead of the Jeep. I’m not sure how that happened. The more I try to figure it out the more confused I get.

The lady was firmly planted next to my door now, looking down the block, sighing like I was holding her up or something--like we’d been assigned to each other and I wasn’t keeping up well enough.
‘Do you work up here?’ I asked--still interested in driving this conversation, worried that she might lead us somewhere religious and awkward if I let her have the keys. She was middle-aged and hispanic and had the kind of overly happy face that makes you wonder what sortof touchy feely corner you might find yourself roped in to, what sort of pamphlets she might be carrying in the outside pocket of her
purse.
“No I live in that building.” She indicated one of the highrises cheerfully. “You?”
“I teach a few blocks away--my first class isn’t until ten fifteen--if it were any sooner I wouldn’t be able to wait in the car like this.”
I checked the time--10:00 (but did that mean 9:58 or 10:02--not knowing could be costly)
“I’m always too nervous to leave the car too early” I explained, nodding at my dashboard.
“I know,” she laughed. “I always try to figure out how long it would take the traffic cop to get from the end of the block to the middle.”
“Me too!” and I really used the exclamation mark--I love it when other people confess to the weird inner math that I live with. “I always wonder how long it takes to write a ticket, and I try to figure out when I can go...’
“Me too!” she said, with her own exclamation mark.

Together we looked up and down the block, nodding in agreement that enough people were leaving their cars that it would take an honest ticket-writer more than a couple of minutes to discover our own vacant cars and by that time we’d be parked legally.

She stood by while I grabbed my bag and locked my car. We ambled down the block slowly, in the middle of the road.
“I’m an art teacher” I offered.
“Oh! my son’s a tattoo artist” she said.
“Wow that sounds really neat!” I said, suddenly thinking that being the mom of a tattoo artist must be really neat.
We introduced ourselves, still using exclamation marks, and parted friends. Excited to see each other for the next installment of ‘break the law before breakfast.’
For the next few days I aimed for that block at 9:30, only to find it full up with cars. Each time I’ve found a spot several blocks away. I park on these other blocks willingly but begrudgingly. 90th street remains my first choice. Because one day, thanks to this woman (whose name I’ve already forgotten) I was one of the regulars.

Nov 6, 2007

Mean People Suck


“You’re not still mad that I yelled at you," the tall studious redhead said to the sweet butch gal behind the counter.

“Nah”...the shorter one said with a dismissive wave of the hand. And then she added something but I didn’t hear what it was. From her casual tone I could tell it was either “Nah...I like to be corrected...” or “Nah...I don’t mind it...” or “Nah...I’m used to it.”

I didn’t hear this part of her response partly because I was in disbelief that I was overhearing any of this conversation given the fact that I was only in this coffee shop because someone had just been mean to me, and partly because I was busy gathering my stuff--a small pot of rosy earl grey tea and a giant oatmeal cookie that cost $2--and scurrying off to my table because I both needed the sugary warm therapy and because I didn’t want the tall studious redhead to yell at me for eavesdropping.

Forty-five minutes earlier I fought back tears when a woman I only know by sight scolded me for not bringing my own paper to the copy machine on the fifth floor of my kids’ school. It’s a prewar building and so five flights is really ten flights. The second floor copy machine was either broken or just acting broken. It claimed it couldn’t do a thing until I put more staples in it--regardless of whether or not the small job I was begging it to do required staples (it didn’t). And even though the science teacher, whose copying mission was also thwarted by the staple-obsessed monstrosity, told me the whereabouts of three other machines scattered about the sprawling city block of building, my first peek into the first of these alternate locations yielded a gruff “you need to go up to the 5th floor and use theirs” from a tightly-wound beet-red male teacher. He thrust a ropy arm into the air and pointed sharply towards the heavens. He didn’t make contact with me but rather glared in the direction of his bagel, which meant the conversation was over.

I tromped upstairs past the other floors that, according to the science teacher, had copy machines that, according to the angry man-teacher, were off-limits to a parent like me, and got to the fifth floor.

At one point I passed a chipmunky lady I recognized from the lower floors where my kids’ elementary classrooms are. I smiled at her and added a flash of knowing brightness that was meant to signal “I don’t know you that well but I do know you well enogh to know that it’s funny to see you somewhere other than where I”m used to seeing you.” She didn’t flash anything back.

I found the copy room and entered. Two women looked at me and sighed like they’d already been through the encounter we were about to have.

“It’ll be awhile” one of them said, probably for the seventh time in five minutes, given her tone and the conspiratorial way she glanced at the other woman--a quiet Asian woman with the presence of a student teacher and a ream of paper clutched to her chest.

“I’ll come back in a few minutes,” I said and decided to go find a bathroom even though I didn’t have to pee. I just needed a quick change of scenery.

When I returned to the cramped toner-fumed room the chipmunky lady was in there too. As I cleared off a folding chair so I could sit to wait for my turn, chipmunk lady turned to me and said “you brought your own paper?”

I didn’t understand...I couldn’t tell if she was helping me or not--like maybe she was about to offer me paper, or maybe she was filling me in on some paper shortage that had occurred when I was in the bathroom. She repeated--”you brought your own paper, right? Because up here you can’t use theirs.” She smiled and winked at the other women in the room in a ‘get a load of this one’ kind of gum-cracking way.

When I realized that she was scolding me in a sideways ‘betcha weren’t thinking, huh?--betcha thought you could bring your elementary business up to the high school copier, eh?’ kind of way, I didn’t let her know I was catching on.

Rather, I kept the furrowed brow “I don’t get it” look because if I let go of that disguise I’d have cried. There had to be a way around this, I thought...I was here on class-parent business. Class parent business, for God’s sake! For the school’s sake! Wasn’t this a good deed? Plus, this is a school. Aren’t we all here for the kids? The seeds of the future? Tomorrow’s leaders? Tomorrow’s class-parents? Tomorrow’s xerox-copiers?

Chipmunk lady then launched into a soliloquy about how when strangers use the copy machines they break them, and that strangers shouldn’t be allowed to use the copy machines. She went right up to the edge of suggesting that I was the one who had confused the machine on the first floor but didn’t go over it.

I kept acting like I didn’t know what she meant and shook my head in bland-mock-disbelief at the lecture (like ‘damn all those strangers trying to use the machines), until the lady who had seemed in charge of the mood in the room when I arrived handed me a stack of extra- long powder-blue paper and said ‘if you don’t mind blue, you can use this.’

I took the blue paper. I made my copies. I left the room. I burst into tears. And then I went to the coffee-shop to warm my soul and cool off.

Chipmunk lady had just joined my list of mean people. Along with the Fairway manager who indicated that my dropping of a glass jar of wheat germ hadn’t been an accident, the old man at the outdoor bus- stop who scolded me for talking on a cell phone, and the Polish consignment shop lady who laid into me for bringing two bags of Flax
and Eileen Fisher cast-offs to her store (even though I called ahead to make sure she’d accept them and she’d said yes), because she was ‘trying to run a business here’ and she didn’t think my presentation was appropriate.

I have never understood why some people just choose meanness. It is a choice, isn’t it? It’s been the most major shock of growing up for me--even more shocking than the fact that I never stopped being me on the inside of my body.

As a kid I didn’t realize that grown-ups could be mean. I’d always assumed that all the stuff we were learning about being patient and kind we were learning because we had to be those things to be grown-up. In my own house I saw no badly-behaving grown-ups. In my little town I saw very very few badly-behaving grown-ups. (I
should clarify here that it turns out grown-ups *were* behaving badly...but it is of no small significance to me and to my developing self that it was all tucked behind closed doors, in bedrooms, or in the basement where the alcohol was kept).

Mine was an intimate college town and, until I was a teenager and my dad was on the vestry that felt forced to fire our minister-friend who lived next door, and I learned that a man who preached things like humility and turning the other cheek was super-good at maintaining a three year long silent treatment, I’d only ever encountered one mean grown-up.

I was having a sleepover at Kit Farm’s house and we were brushing our teeth with our mouths open and her dad walked by the bathroom in time to see teensy dots of pepsodent spray out of Kit’s mouth and land on the mirror. He completely lost it. He yelled at her in a mean booming voice, grabbed her wrist, and then humiliated her by showing her (and me, by association) how to brush correctly. I remember his sharp features and floppy bangs every time I brush my teeth. Mean Mr. Farm’s demo is my own madeleine...the smell of wintergreen and rough cedar panelling brings it all back, the sight of a dot of toothpaste on a bathroom mirror can send chills up my spine... I think he might have spank ed her, I’m not sure, because we were
separated for the next few hours. I do remember being sent down to the rec-room to watch ‘Walking Tall’ in silence with her exotic and remote much older brother and sister.

Except for these two up-close examples of adults-behaving-badly, and except for the occasional dinner-table story about a mean lady in line at the bank, or an opinionated co-worker, I had no reason to NOT assume that graduating into adulthood would mean entering a world of well-meaning, well-behaved men and women.

And even though I’m forty and I have three kids, when someone’s unnecessarily and unexpectedly mean to me I cry. And it only happens a handful of times a year. But it doesn’t seem to be stopping. And I didn't think forty would feel this way.

Oct 20, 2007

2 Much



In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance there's a section, early on, that suggests that we can never know what our life would have been like *if*.

If only I'd taken that high school teaching job upstate then... Then--nothing. Enormous gratification and success? Killed by drunk driving teenager on back country road? Impossible to know.

If only I'd kept dating that millionaire then... Then--nothing. Spa treatments and expensive clothing that fits me well? Lost at sea on the family yacht? Again, not worth imagining, because I didn't.

The image we've all grown up with is that of standing at a crossroads--looking ahead at all the possible paths. Our lives as the Game of Life, with all the colored squares laid out ahead. A stack of baby-pegs wait to be plugged into our cars. And will it be college and debt or shall we skip college and have lower paying jobs but get out there more quickly?

But imagine our backs are to that crossroads, and we can't peek over our shoulder. We're falling backwards through life--NOT walking forwards. We can only *know* what's already happened. We don't know anything else.

I liked that concept so much that I stopped reading the book.

If we hadn't had a third child--maybe we'd have been on a safari by now. Maybe we'd have been captured by rebel forces, stampeded by elephants.

If we hadn't had a third child, maybe I'd have gotten a Masters degree (in anything!). Maybe I'd have had a series of successful art shows. A retrospective at the Whitney? Maybe I'd have been slammed by reviewers.

Maybe I'd have written a book. Maybe Oprah would have had me on her show to tell me in person how offended she was by it. Maybe I'd be in a padded cell right now.

There is no way of knowing what our life would be like if we didn't have Piper. But motorcycles be damned, I have a few hunches.

Bedtime might run like clockwork, and involve long luxurious story time. Maybe we'd have read all of the Harry Potter books.

Maybe we'd have family game nights every night and protecting our scrabble tiles wouldn't be a crucial part of the experience.

I'd have won volunteer-of-the-year awards at the elementary school, the halls of which would be filled with imaginative and important murals overseen--of course--by me, Mom of the Year.

We'd pop over to London for long weekends several times a year.

Car trips wouldn't involve repeated playings of the Wonderpets soundtrack.

We could sit wherever we want in the minivan--and at the dinner table.

We wouldn't run out of ketchup every few weeks.

I'd enroll my daughter in as many after school programs as she wanted. Her friends could come over and play and they wouldn't have to find ways to include a grabby three year old at every turn.

We'd sleep in til eight, at least, on the weekends.

We'd have forgotten the numbers for the PBS channels, and we'd never have to hear the Barney song again.

When I was pregnant with her another mom stood in the playground and told me, while her own number 3 clutched her leg and sucked his thumb, that she often wondered what life would be like without him and that sometimes she thought it would have been a lot nicer.

I shuddered at her insensitivity then (judged her, told the story to other disapproving moms, all that bad mom stuff). And I think about her all the time now.

I could end this rant with a list of touching 'of courses'--(of course we love her ferociously, of course we wouldn't be a family without her, of course...of course of course--) but that would be so predictable and wouldn't really match the mood I was in when the first few sentences of this popped into my head as I brushed my teeth before going to bed a few moments ago.

We can't know what it would have been like without her.

There may have been no NOW for us. There may have been MORE now for us.

She's here. Now there are three. And sometimes it's too much.

Oct 15, 2007

A Two Year Old's View of the World



I wake up begging for Barney but you say you need to check the weather. You say Barney's not on anyway now but I don't understand because I can't tell time. You turn on the news but it isn't the weather and you say to wait because we all need to know if it's going to rain and that reminds me of the Dora umbrella that I like to open in the car but I get in trouble because it's Etta's umbrella and Amos complains that we're all going to have bad luck and you remind Amos that only the one opening the umbrella will have bad luck and the one opening the umbrella is me and I don't know what bad luck is. But it doesn't sound good.

I slide off the bed and run to the other rooms to yell "it's eight o'clock!" They laugh at me because something like it's not really eight o'clock but eight o'clock is the only clock I know and it wakes them up anyway so what's the big deal.

It matters what everyone wears except me. It matters what everyone wants for breakfast except me. It matters what everyone wants to bring for lunch except for me. But I take a pudding and a juice box and some Doritoes and put them in a plastic bag and put it somewhere just in case. Sometimes I bring two of everything one for me one for Chloe but whether or not I see Chloe is never up to me. But I pack them just in case.

I give a big kiss and a big hug and sometimes a high five to Daddy and Amos and Etta when it's time for them to go. Sometimes they're gone when I remember to do this, or they slip away when I'm taking care of my lunch and Chloe's lunch and if I cry and scream loudly enough and if they're still on the block they run back.

I'll spend half the afternoon in the car when it's time to get them. And it really matters what seat I sit in because I don't want to be next to the door that used to have the gum stuck to it even though you finally cleaned it up, and I don't want to sit in the other seat because a piece of plastic is missing from the handle on the back of it and sometimes this is important to me and sometimes I forget. And sometimes I want to buckle myself and sometimes I want you to buckle me in and sometimes it takes me a long time to decide and sometimes you get mad and say you'll take something away but I don't really understand because I'm two and a half and I usually get what I want when I really want it.

Oct 7, 2007

These Moments


Washes of pure joy flutter over me. Sometimes. They feel like the pretend egg we used to crack on each other’s heads when we were young, minus the startling knock with the knuckle part. It feels like the good part--flat palms oozing down the sides of my head, soothing, tingling, and finishing somewhere below the shoulders.

These moments of elation shiver through me like the wet heavy warmth of a dry head of hair leaning back into the rush of a hot morning shower. Or the shudder and swell of heat that warms my insides when I take that first sip of hot tea on a cold morning when I’ve had to get up too early.

These moments are not the result of loads of happy thoughts--the happy math I always think should work but that I’ve learned I can’t count on. My kids are great+I have a nice house=I’m on cloud nine. My husband adores me+I’m satisfied creatively=consistent solid happiness. It’s not that way. It's never that way.

These moments find me. I don’t find them. And they show up in the weirdest places.

Turning left onto the service road down by the Eagle Warehouse on the way to pick up the kids from school? Peaceful loving happiness floods into my heart. Glancing at the jumbled contents of my underwear drawer as I push it shut in the morning? Sparkly sunshine lights up inside. The one last look at my living room before I turn the light off and head up to bed? A cozy rosy glow envelopes me. Granted, that particular left turn happens when I’m facing the East River and Lower Manhattan--the grand sweep of the Brooklyn Bridge and all sorts of busy adorable-seeming watercraft jaunting by, and some of my underwear is pretty, and my living room always looks so peaceful once the kids have gone to bed. But that’s not the point.

The point is that these moments find me not only when I’m not paying attention but when I’m doing the kinds of routine or boring things I’ve spent thirty-nine years avoiding doing.

I’d always thought that I needed adventure to be happy--new experiences, new places, new flavors...excitement. It seemed obvious. Anything but repetition, routine, sameness. Chores weren’t a part of my childhood, and I’ve always resisted standard procedures and tasks--just ask my husband who balances the checkbooks, eats peanut butter and crackers every day for lunch, and remembers to change the bedsheets. Doing the dishes, folding the laundry, even walking the same route to work every day are the kinds of things that used to slay me. I thought I’d die if I had to do them. Surely life wasn’t about these boring tasks--surely I should be striving for more. If only someone could just take care of all of that mind-numbing tedium! I can’t be bothered with it! I should be travelling the world! I should be out chasing happiness.

Every job I tried bored me to tears, once I had the basic systems down. Going into an office building in the first summery days of spring killed me. For years I quit my jobs in the spring--it just didn’t seem natural to ignore the nice weather. I aimed for an academic calendar, so I could be released into summer happiness every June, and ended up being an art teacher who could never teach the same lesson from one year to the next. Who cares if eighth graders learn a lot from drawing their own sneakers? I oversaw that project last year, I can’t get excited about doing it again.

Before I discovered the dubious bliss of academia, I spent one happy summer camping all over America with a friend from college. She approached me with the idea and I quit my job (it was springtime!) and went along--for the adventure--of course. A new campsite every night! Creepy Lonely Lake, Kentucky. Armadillos are Roadkill, Mississippi. Watch out for Alligators, New Orleans. Oh No We Have New York Plates, Idaho...Every night we’d arrive and pitch our tent--lay down tarp, thread long snappy poles through holes in smooth laid out tent...and every morning we’d get up and break it all down. Pull up stakes, unthread long snappy poles, pick up shake off fold up tent, pick up shake off fold up tarp--origami it all into little nylon pouches. Pack up, drive off. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

One morning in a pine-grove outside of Aspen, I got really really sick of the routine. If I’d been a teenager and my friend had been my mom I so totally would have pouted on a log instead of helping out. But I did help. Because we couldn’t just drive off without the tent--and we couldn’t get the tent without breaking it down. And in that moment--that chilly-breathed sharp-piney frosted-toes pre-breakfast moment, I was overwhelmed by the fact that you just do it because you do.

I was years away from having kids then--but I figured that that’s what parenting must be mostly about, besides the love part anyway. The stuff you do because you do. Not because you want to, not because it’s your turn, not because it’s fun, not because it feels good, not because someone might call Child Services, but because you do.

And I didn’t get flooded with joy one time during the three thousand diapers I’ve changed as a mom, and sorting through handmedowns and putting away laundry has never done a damned thing for me (full disclosure: I always wait too long to do those things because part of me is still just a teenager pouting on a cold log on the edge of the campsite)--but something incredible has started to creep in--and it finds me when I’m doing these systematic does-life-get-any-more-regular-than-this?! kinds of tasks.

So I’m less inclined to feel like I should be varying my route when I drive to pick the kids up, and I’m less inclined to resist the inevitable routines of a life with a mortgage, a budget, and three kids in school. Because in the moments when my body and my brain are locked into something ordinary, a window I never knew I had might open. And more of these moments might come streaming in.

And I’m grateful, and I’m noticing--and I’m grateful to be noticing. And I’m trying to capture the feel of it now. Here. Because if I don’t, and if routines become nothing but routines again, I’d never believe any of this could be true.

Sep 19, 2007

Tale of a Tree-lined Block


I told my 3 year old that the neighbors probably think it's Halloween, even though it's still just the middle of September. "Silly neighbors," I said. She shook her head and put her palms face up in an exaggerated gesture of surprise. It's not Halloween. But how else do I explain the candles and roses and empty bottles of liquor decorating every step of the stoop across the way?

My 7 year old seems content with our vague responses to her questions--I heard her explain to her friend Clem yesterday--"well some man went into that house and we're not really sure what happened but Mommy heard loud noises but Laura and Isadore and I were making loud noises upstairs so I think that's what she heard, right Mommy?' Right sweetheart.

My 8 year old son is the one who knows. He was the only one who wasn't home when it happened, came walking down the street a few hours later--carrying a plastic fairway bag with his pajamas and toothbrush in it, and hugging the blue shoebox that held his baseball card collection to his chest. He'd slept over at a friend's house the night before and so his return to home was more of a tour of the reality of what had gone down than anything those of us who'd been trapped inside had experienced. Slanted police cruisers blocked both entrances to the block (even though we're a one way street), police helicopters buzzed just overhead--searching backyards and other blocks, yellow and black crime scene tape roped off a square, like a boxing ring, kind of, that included the house where the shooting occurred and the houses on either side of it, as well as OUR HOUSE and the houses on either side of us, because we're right across the street. I'd tried to get a hold of the mom whose house he'd stayed in, to warn her about the situation on our block, but she didn't have her cell phone with her. She knocked on the door and came in, announced that she'd left him on the corner with a policeman while she checked to see if I was here to receive him. Once she found me here she left to fetch him. I watched from the top of the stoop as she escorted him back down the block to me--as the crime scene tape was lifted so he could duck under it, clutching the shoebox of baseball cards. My son returned to his house, to me, smiling awkwardly at the attention he was receiving, walking bravely.

This block has almost always seemed so ideal for young children, if a city block could ever be ideal. The postman really walks by and delivers the mail, our lemonade stands do well, people hang out on their stoops and look after each other, dragging garbage cans in for neighbors, sweeping leaves off each other's sidewalks. It's a vibe I didn't get on my dead-end street in Ohio, even though it was a very friendly town and we all had magical grassy lawns. This place felt like Sesame Street to me. I don't remember crime scene tape on Sesame Street.

It was Thursday, and the public schools were closed for Rosh Hoshanna. My daughter had had two friends spend the night the night before, a belated granting of her only birthday wish. And in the morning we walked Piper to (her Catholic-affiliated non-Rosh-Hoshanna-observing) preschool. We had a great eggy breakfast at a diner and then made our way home here slowly, laughingly, up the sidewalk. The girls had learned some funny hand-gesture-style game at school the day before and were doing it, almost conga style, as they walked. Hello, hello, hellohellohello! they giggled and then twirled and pointed and found a 'new partner' and found a new way to face, wiggle, and continue. I was taking pictures, it was so cute. Such a magical morning. At 11:15 we piled in the car to pick Piper up from school, since we were also in charge of Piper's friend Fifi. At 11:30 I was herding the 5 of them to the van, and then heading home.

Our departure from the van was typical--I tossed the keys to Etta, told them to get out of the car on the sidewalk side, and then stayed behind grabbing up lunchboxes and stuff. We were a slow parade in--there was probably a moment where I was leaving the car, the two three year olds were swinging on the front gate, and the three 7 year olds were dribbling up the steps. Once in, I had everyone take their shoes off and wash their hands. The two little girls aimed for the tv-which had been promised to them. They were in the phase-in period for school and an hour had just been added to their day--this being their first week of school and all. Fifi's mom and I agreed that some tv downtime would be perfect for them, as they'd been together after school the day before and had been tired and cranky with each other. They sat in the front of the living room (little heads visible from the street through the big front windows--curtains open--only flimsy cat-screens between them and the street out front) and watched The Backyardigans. The three 7 year olds tromped upstairs to introduce their tamagotchis to each other or to play with the karaoke machine or something...I headed for the computer.

As I typed an email to a friend I heard two loud cracks. Those loud cracks always sound like guns I thought as I typed but I didn't even look up. I'm not easily spooked and have often felt safer living in a city than I ever did in a tiny town where a dark forest filled the windows at night. Piper appeared next to me a second later and said she needed a bandaid; she held up her mosquito-bite-riddled arm and showed me the one she'd scratched open. I scooted my chair back and stood up to get a paper towel to staunch the bleeding (amazing how those scratched-off mosquito bites bleed!)--as I reached for a paper towel I heard it again--crack crack crack. This time a feeling of dread swept over me and I stepped back to look out the front of the house--all I could see was the stoop across the street--directly across the street from me. A black man in a blue tee shirt and jeans was lumbering quickly up the steps holding a gun out with his right hand, shooting crack crack crack. It was electric--sharp, urgent, desperate, sloppy. Like the moment in a movie theater when the film turns brown, crackles and burns, and melts before your eyes, and everyone in the theater is kind of jolted out of their suspended belief and back into reality. A minute ago we were swept away by a story, and now we're just a bunch of strangers sitting in the dark together. My heart-raced.

"Fifi go to the kitchen sweetheart, right now, Fifi right now, go over to Piper in the kitchen" I said, gliding past her to lock the front door.

"But I want to watch Backyardigans" she murmured looking over her shoulder at the tv as she obeyed me anyway.

"Girls!" I called upstairs--in a sing-sing voice that was sharp, but not alarmed (kind of like if there was a big colorful bug I wanted them to come see, quick, before it crawled away)--"Girls come down here right now, right away girls, Right now I need you to come down!"

Someone leaned a head over the banister, I was already in the back with the little ones holding a paper towel on Piper's bloody arm.

"But we.." someone began to protest.

"No girls, I need you down here right now, all of you right now. Just come."

They galumphed giddily down the stairs and came into the bathroom on the back of the house.

"What Mommy" Etta said--

"Umm Piper's arm is bleeding, can you help her get a bandaid?" I said, not having thought this far ahead, but still needing Piper's bloody arm to be tended to.

"But why did we..." she asked as she headed to the purple cabinet that holds the bandaids. Her friends leaned in to check out Piper's arm.

"There were loud noises sweetheart, I just need you to help with the bandaids." I shut the door to the bathroom and dialled 911. Dead silence, static, clicking. My home phone had been losing its dial tone every now and then. After a minute I realized this was the case so I called it from my cell phone.

"911 what's your emergency?"

"A man's shooting a gun on the street" I said.

"You heard it?"

" I saw it, right now, he's there with a gun, shooting into the house across the street" I said.

"Maam we'll get a car over there right now, what's the address?" She asked. I didn't know. I gave her my address, my name and phone number even though those last two bits were optional. She asked if it was #22--"I don't know" I said. She asked if the man was still in the house. "I don't know" I said. I got off the phone and put on a pot of water to boil, as if some lady on Little House on the Prairie had just gone into labor.

Within minutes the nose of a police cruiser nudged into view. The seven year olds disappeared back upstairs, never questioning the urgency of that stupid bandaid and why it required all three of them plus Fifi to help put it on. By then I was able to take little steps to the front of the house. I could see some neighbors milling about, almost everyone on phones. I thought back to the other shooting I witnessed here, from this house, nine years earlier. I was pregnant with my first, and I had some neighbor kids over for a kind of dance party--they were 3 and 4 and enjoyed coming over to paint and stuff and it suited my maternal nesting urgings just fine. A man ran up the street firing a gun crack crack crack and we all ducked, I called 911 and the lady said "wow your block is really involved-you're like the 30th call we've gotten about this in the last few minutes." Good block. Nice block. No one had been injured in that last one, it didn't make the news, and that's kind of what I assumed this time around too.

The most noteworthy part of the next hour or so is that I was alone in the house with 5 little girls--60% of whom weren't my own. They needed to eat lunch (ramen noodles that I kept messing up--if that's possible--served with ketchup, and cranberry juice that my daughter called 'cherry whatever you call it' which cracked us all up). They needed to watch television (Dora, Diego). They needed to play dress-up. They needed me to get the dominoes. What I needed was grown-ups to talk to, and a home phone that was working (my cell phone was perilously close to our minutes-limit for the month and the penalty for going over is enormous). So I made a huge pot of tea and kept looking out the window, hoping to catch the eye of someone who'd think to come tell me what was going on.

I watched the police knock on the door across the way, I watched them run sideways up the stoop with guns drawn, I watched one neighbor in a tan shirt being led down the block in handcuffs, saw another woman crying. Eventually the handcuffed guy was released (silly policemen, the shooter was wearing blue), more neighbors were crying. An ambulance pulled up quietly and EMTs went in. I called my husband to share the story with him and he offered to leave work. I told him there was no need to come home, that it would probably blow over by the time he could get here anyway. When I was on the phone with him I heard more shots down the block, and watched the police race away. It was a dramatic street-emptying, like someone had tilted our block that way and all the blue and white marbles just rolled off. Detectives still milled about, Police helicopters hovered. The EMTs brought a man out on a stretcher, a few yards away from where Piper and Fifi watched Blues Clues. I pulled the curtains closed.

"That's silly so many people outside," Piper said, peeking out the window--she and Fifi liked to hide behind the long curtains so drawing them closed really only served to attract the girls to the windows. "I gonna go tell those people what they doing out here," she said, walking purposefully to the front door and flinging it open. I nudged her back into the house, blaming all the mosquitos. "Too buggy out there, Piper. Let's just stay inside."

And stay inside we did. I was in email touch with a friend who owns a store down the block and she was able to fill me in on what she was hearing. Another friend had been in that store, saw all the commotion, and called to see if I was okay. Eventually I learned from people who weren't on the block that the guy on the stretcher had died. I was shocked, because, of course, my only other experience with a shooting on the block had been just that, shooting. And once a year my friend's neighbors on Clermont shoot guns into the air at midnight on New Year's Eve. Somewhere in all of that victimless shooting, I'd kind of lost the connection between bullets and dying. Shooting just came to mean shooting to me.

My son came home from his sleepover (the little limbo with the crime scene tape), and then another friend offered to stop by, with her three children. I was eager for the grown-up company so I encouraged her to come. Now we had nine children in the house, and 66% weren't mine, and when Fifi's mom and brother came to pick her up there were ten kids in the house, and 70% weren't mine--but the adult to kid ratio had improved dramatically, so I was feeling fine. Plus the block felt ultra-safe now, swarming as it was with police and anchormen, and undercover cops wearing Mets jerseys-which was fun for my son to see.

Eventually the kids fell apart--too much togetherness, too much being inside, too hard to continue to negotiate. The moms who were here drank up their tea and shuffled off with most of the extra children, leaving me over-caffeinated and in a house where only 25% of the kids weren’t mine. Isadore’s grandma was in the hospital being tended to by her mom, and wasn’t going to be returned until ten that night.

A friend called me from a nail salon to report she'd just recognized my minivan on the news. Our tenant called from work to see if I was okay. And googling 'shooting in Fort Greene' started to yield more than the film-related events whose version of shooting (the Hollywood kind) has come to be more common in these newly gentrified but still Pratt-influenced artsy parts. The articles that were popping up described our block as being 'tree-lined' which sent pride surging through my body. Ten years ago this block would not have been considered 'tree-lined'--you had to live in Park Slope or the Cosby's Brooklyn Heights to earn that pastoral description. Fifteen years ago you would not have walked down this block unless you had to (or so I've been told). We're tree-lined now, woo-hoo. It's official. It took a murder to make me realize that we’ve finally arrived.

By the time I headed outside to drive Isadore home, the stoop across the way blazed with candlelight in memorial of the victim. The news people had left, but the cops were still in their car, which was facing the wrong way on the street, which continued to be eternally amusing to my 3 year old. A parent emailed concern about the event on the neighborhood list-serve. I looked at the email's first sentence 'does anyone know anything about the shooting?' and didn't even consider responding. I respond to things like 'help! can anyone recommend a roofer?' and 'we're expecting a son in a month and would love to hear thoughts about circumcising.' all the time. But this one didn't interest me at all.

Sep 12, 2007

September Born


There were so many wonderful things about having a baby in September. Amos and the new television season came kicking in at roughly the same time, and so there was ample opportunity for me to laze around in bed nursing and napping and getting hooked on all the new shows (Will and Grace, Sex and the City). Fall is a great time for beginnings, that crisp snap in the air, cooler air whipping everyone into better moods, no more mosquitoes. The shift in local characters as fresh art students hit our part of Brooklyn, bound for Pratt. The desire to hunker down and snuggle, or to wear a baby close in a sling, fully supported by those chillier months. There was all that wintry bonding, and then he was crawling on Mother's Day, taking his first steps on the sand in the summer. Very cute, all very wonderful. No complaints.

Even those first few years of birthday parties were perfect. We could count on lovely outdoor celebrations with apples and rustling leaves--a final outdoor bash before we'd all be retreating into indoor heated spaces. There seemed no better time to have a baby, to celebrate a birthday. Until he hit school and September proved to be a real puzzle.

Hmmm. Even a really early September birthday would be less crowded with complications. But a birthday firmly rooted at the end of the month means several things. A guest list comprised of LAST YEARs friends--some of whom, three weeks into the next year, might have already begun to drop off the radar (sometime after the invitations were sent out). There's the promise of all those new friendships, but of course the dust hasn't settled enough by the third week of school (or the second, when the invitations really should have been mailed), to know which friendships to invest in.

In his kindergarten year, Amos began a new school and, crippled by shyness, wanted me to make sure that in his classroom on his actual birthday--though I'd have sent in cookies or cupcakes or something lowkey--nobody would sing the birthday song to him. His was the first birthday of the year and he didn't want to do be the kid who did it first, didn't want to do it at all, really. Didn't want the attention. Didn't want any attention. I was the one who insisted on sending in some kind of treat (peanut butter and chocolate buckeyes, a delicious risk in this day and age of nut allergies, even though I was assured there weren't any in the room that year). And, determined that his birthday could be a chance to reach out to some people in this new school community, I asked him every day at pick-up if he'd met anyone he'd like to invite to his party. Lee was who he talked about after the first week, so we sought out his address, and added him to the list. Seb started to be mentioned at the beginning of week two, and Joey was added right at the last minute. All three families came. Well, really Seb and Joey's families came and were lovely additions to the festivities. Lee was dropped off (at a 5 year old's birthday party, which seemed kind of drastic since we'd never met his parents) and was a whirligig kind of nightmare--cheating in games, stealing from goody-bags. Gentle almost comical 'bad seed' stuff, but still, a nuisance and one, it turns out, we never really should have had to endure. Five years later Amos and Lee have a nodding relationship, but nothing more. In so many ways it feels weird that we'd thought Lee was Amos's first big new buddy at his new school. That's what you get for having to figure it all out when you're 3/185ths of the way into the school year.

The following year, in first grade, we repeated the process, asking Amos to make the same sort of strange determination at the start of the year. Anyone new you'd like to invite? We'd ask, hovering at pick-up to get a gander at the new faces in the room behind him (or more importantly, of the parents of those new faces--why not nudge him to befriend someone with a mom I think I'd like, right?). Aldo, his top pick, couldn't come on account of Rosh Hoshanna (the existence of which has come to make Amos curse the timing of this birthday, since that same holiday trumps his birthday every year), Cane came and was cute and then swiftly faded into the background for the rest of the year and then moved to Pakistan before the summer. We didn't kept in touch. By that spring though Amos had bonded with Ned, Luka, and Ashland and went to all of their parties. And by then it was weird that they hadn't been to his.

Then there was second grade. Amos was assigned to a table with a group of boys--two of whom he already knew and planned to invite to his party. One of whom was brand new to the school. I suggested to Amos that he invite Giannini, and he said no. He had no interest in this new kid. I let the subject drop, for a bit. Until one day in the car on the way home Amos said that the two other boys had mentioned the birthday party and Giannini turned to him and asked straight out 'am I invited?' When he told me this in the car, he beamed, proud of his truthful but still non-answering answer--"well, we haven't exactly sent the invitations out." But then I made Amos invite him. It just seemed so cruel not to. He railed against this, but I insisted. I taught him about karma-told him that this was just 'the right thing to do,' and that if he did this good deed, the universe would send something in return. He grudgingly agreed, adding that I'd better be right about the karma thing.

Giannini arrived--another unexpected drop-off kid. Turns out his family had as much interest in bonding with us as Amos did in bonding with their son. He was such a nuisance. He ate every single petite-quiche--the spinach and cheese ones, that is--his being a vegetarian and all, and then hounded me to heat up more (hanging out in the kitchen heating petite-quiches had not been my party plan--144 quiches should have been sufficiently ignored by the hordes of children, leaving plenty for the adults--I never intended to have to break out the other box). He kind of niggled his way around the edges of the party, mostly just annoying grownups. And then his parents got lost on their way to pick him up (new to the nabe and all) and we had to entertain him for an extra 90 minutes once the last cherished party guest had left. A week later he was pulled out of school to be homeschooled--his mother deeming our colorful little progressive place unable to meet his high academic needs. (I have to point out here that, after months of whining when remembering about Giannini and the karma that never happened...Amos finally spent the $10 comic-book-shop gift certificate Giannini had given him on a pack of Yu-gi-oh cards that ended up containing a much-sought-after rare-ish card--score one for Mommy and the karma...even if it did come a little late). But every birthday since, when I'm making my gentle suggestions about how to spice up his last year friends with a few from the new class he gives me a certain look and mouths the word 'Giannini' and I back down.

As if the trauma of the early in the year party isn't enough, the rest of the school year then shakes things up even more. He ends up being invited to a slew of birthday parties hosted by other kids who've moved into his life at some point that year. While I'm sure no one's measuring this stuff, it does seem perverse by the end of the school year to see which of Amos's best friends he hadn't invited to his too-early-to-tell September party. To think that last year's Mets game hadn't included Chandler and Roy is strange, given the intense baseball bond that grew between them by springtime, when they were having birthday parties that would never have NOT included their new pal.

This may not be high-stakes stuff, but it is bizarre-o land timing in a terrain that, even in the best of circumstances, can be really awkward. Who's invited, who isn't. Last September six-year old Etta was given a last minute invitation to an old pal's party--talk about tense. Understandably, Norene had NOT BEEN INTERESTED in inviting Etta to her early-September party, when she and her mom made the guest list in the summer. Great. No problem. Big deal. But then Norene verbally invited her (tell your mom to call my mom so you can come) the day before her party, when they reconnected at recess in the first week of school. It was a clear last minute addition, that no one seemed to mind, once the two moms got over the awkwardness of the 'my daughter claims to be invited to your daughter's party that we've otherwise heard nothing about, is that true?'/'my daughter didn't want to invite your daughter when we made the list, but must have changed her mind yesterday' conversation. But the whole thing could have been avoided had Norene been born a month earlier. Parenting is like high school all over again, but the conversations have to be had, not ignored...since the social lives of helpless little powerless hostage-like children are at stake.

So now it's Etta's no-strings summer birthday that seems really wonderful (and makes the morning sickness at Christmas and the ready-to-pop-in-the-hundred-degree-playground pregnancy worth it). Any kind of party can happen, any kind of grouping, any amount of including, any crass omission...it's all fair game. Time isn't measured in 5-day non-party days and two party-possible afternoons, like it is in the school year. It's just a big blob of time that no one else has to know anything about. Even my toddler's otherwise formidable (born in a negative windchill week) winter birthday falls nicely within the school year's bookends. It can just be about who she's friends with now, and doesn't have to reach too far into the past, or make ridiculous predictions about the future. And it lacks the pressure of the 'should we have it outside?' question.

But it's September now, and the party's planning is well underway. I have an idea of what the invitation will look like, and my husband's working out some activities. We know where we'll be and what we'll be doing, we just don't know who will be invited, even at this point, 16 days away. He's lucky to have friends, we're lucky to be able to create these lovely little celebrations for him to share with them. And everything's fine. But September birthday's still can make me feel this way.

Sep 6, 2007

Empty Next


Probably, nothing will change.

A year from now I might look the same as I do now, I might be forced to wear the same soft clothes, my brain might be wired the same way as it is today.

But maybe, jusssssssst maybe, I'll have completely transformed.

Maybe people will ask me what my 'aha' moment was and I'll look back on the time the regular sized towel the masseusse laid out for me (on my first real massage in over a year) didn't quite cover my whole body. Or the time the pants bought in haste at a Wal-mart (yes, a Wal-mart) that were meant to be a bit on the big side (so I didn't even try them
on--too big? who cares!) turned out to not even be able to creep up past my thighs.

All year I've been doing the countdown. This is my last October 18th home with my youngest...my last November 11th, March 31st, you get the point. In a matter of weeks (don't even get me started on the two weeks of phasing in: two hours today, two tomorrow, two hours and oop! fifteen minutes today, three hours tomorrow...)I'll be an empty nester. And not a pregnant one like the last time. A true, omigod, what am I going to do with myself empty nester.

Amos will be in 4th grade, Etta in second--both in the bigtime (and maybe even on the schoolbus to boot), and Piper, dear Piper, will be in a special long day--5 hours a day/five days a week--reserved for older threes at our local little preschool--the handful of January and February children who missed the cutoff by mere weeks, and who have to wait until the next year to join the masses in real school.

Like the Monday morning diet, the preparation for which involves all sorts of binge-eating on Saturday and Sunday, I have been completely indulgent in all ways but the healthy ones all summer long--hell, all YEAR long. Why start an exercise program now, when I'm home with the little one? Why start trying to eat healthy with all these carb-swilling kids swirling about? Why even get any momentum going? Why not just eat another brownie from the bakery on the corner and muse about how toned I'll be a year from now? When everything just snaps into place.

When I might find out I have reserves of energy I never knew I had.

When I might find out I'm really good at long-distance running?

When I might discover how good it feels to NOT have a heavy full feeling in my tummy after every meal?

When I might discover that days are lovely and endless when NOT measured out in television increments of hours and half hours.

When I might unleash the joys of routinely walking over the Brooklyn Bridge to a yoga class five miles away, or maybe I'll be the lady who bikes everywhere! They'll interview me on NPR. "When did you make the commitment to begin biking all over Brooklyn and Manhattan?" "When did you discover you really liked biking?" "When did the seat stop hurting?"

When I might build a little art studio in a corner of the kitchen and churn out amazing artwork?

So much might happen!

Maybe, just maybe, Regis and Kelly won't have any interesting people on their show; Whoopi Goldberg might suck on the View and my interest in the Hot Topics portion will disappear. Maybe I won't peek in at Days of our Lives just for a minute one afternoon and recognize enough of the characters or their names at least, to get hooked on it all over again. Maybe Oprah will bum me out because all I'll do when I look at her is remind myself that 'she' has a personal trainer AND a personal chef and wouldn't we all be fit and healthy if we had those things.

Maybe I'll do all of the grocery shopping and odds-and-ends-errands and our weekends will be totally free...

Maybe I'll discover how satisfying it is to have a really clean kitchen sink, to fold laundry and lay it lovingly in my children's
drawers...to roll back all the rugs and mop, to throw away piles of mildly interesting completely unfile-away-able things.

Maybe I'll read all those novels I ordered on Amazon just to tack on enough money to qualify for super saver shipping!

Or maybe I'll turn back into who I was before any of this domestic/kid stuff happened...

The fun thing is no one knows.

No one can tell me I won't drop four sizes in clothing, and get a jazzy new haircut to show off my newly uncovered cheekbones. If such a thing *could* be, then surely it would be?

Of course I might have to celebrate my first few days of empty-nest-hood by actually lolling lazily about the empty-nest. We
wouldn't want me to NOT come face to face with its true emptiness, would we? Probably I should be forced to wander from room to room, talking on the phone about my feelings, thumbing through magazines, trying out different beds like Goldilocks. Just to get a sense of it all. Like viewing the body at the funeral--we wouldn't want me to be in denial, out there in a downward-facing dog in Chelsea--would we?

And then it might be silly to get all ambitious before the holidays.

I've always heard it's easier to lose the first twenty or thirty pounds than the last five. Why not give myself a few more of those delicious gravy-smothered easy-to-lose pounds?

Why not see what little murmurs happen in my head in the emptiness of my house, on those soft pillows, near those
glossy magazines. Maybe there's a little bit of genius there I wouldn't get to hear if I'm out biking all over the borough.

Maybe I should just take it easy a bit longer.

I wouldn't want to set the bar too high, come out of the starting gates too fast.

Come to think of it, January might be a better time to start.

Jul 16, 2007

Sleeping Beauty


There's something about the moment that Piper falls asleep. It's one of the best feelings in the world. And not just because I spend the entire day being so challenged by her. I think I even said I hate her out loud today, to my friend Rana while we sunbathed on the deck.

Piper had come up to me with a tiny plastic jug of coffee milk--something she shouldn't have been able to get by herself--and something that she probably shouldn't even be drinking--two things I was willing to overlook since her rummaging around for it had bought me the fifteen minutes of uninterrupted peace outside in the first place. She asked if she could drink some and I said sure!--happily forgiving the fact that she was going to drink straight from the jug. I aimed my face back up at the sun and closed my eyes, smiling into the warmth. Glug glug...pause...Glug glug...pause. Then, shake-a shake-a shake-a

SPLOOSH!

Cold sticky milk dropped all over my left side--soaking, sticking. I was furious. I hate her I seethed (under my breath, but still...) in the direction of Rana. I glared at Piper-got up--and stormed away to clean up.

Later in the car time stood still while we awaited Piper's decision on where to sit-which meant that anyone of the other children might have to be reshuffled to her satisfaction. Three year old Sudoku. Has to be next to her sister, has to be in the booster seat, has to be on the same side as the llama we'll drive by has to be...and so on and so forth.

Then she had a complete meltdown in the lakeside restaurant we'd chosen for dinner. Happy families dined peacefully at picnic tables overlooking a marina of sorts. Seagulls held court atop big posts and sloped tin rooftops, cars ootched up at angles on the gravel lot. Butter-colored sunset beyond the trees.

When her brother wasn't done with the blue marker at the exact moment she needed him to hand it to her Piper began to fuss and cry.

I will take you straight to the car and wait there with you if you don't stop fussing this instant, I hissed at her. She reached over and yanked the marker from her brother's hand. I grabbed it and gave it back, scooped up the now wailing child--new to the world of actual consequences.

It was a teensy bit of a scene--me gripping her in a sloppy hug-like hold--her legs dangling, her wailing--but I felt proud with every ground-up crunched-shell step--I whisked her through the maze of outdoor diners (happy families all--did I mention?) and into the unlocked minivan. I tossed her in through the sliding door and then shut it even as she attempted to body block it from closing all the way, like trying to reload a particularly stubborn jack-in-the-box--minus the tinny-creepy music. Then I hopped into the driver's seat and pushed the automatic lock button and closed my own door. Not in time--she was pulling her door open--the lock hadn't caught. I got out and shut her door again and locked it, and shut myself in the driver's seat. She tried to get a grip on the little peg lock--pulling it up--difficult to do now that it's a gripless nub, not the shiny golf-tee shaped locks I grew up with. I kept an eye on her progress and a finger on my own auto-lock button, ready to override her first smidge of success, all the while reminding her, calmly and patiently, that if she could stop the crying and fussing and promise to stop fighting over the markers we could rejoin the crowed.

Eventually she cleared--the cloud passed--and she nodded in compliance. Just as I confirmed the agreement-she pulled the lock back up-and I opened my own door and the car must have just had enough because it started doing the most obnoxious security alarm--Meep Meep Mep Meep Meep Meep!--blaring directly at all the peaeful eaters (some of whom were sitting at picnic tables inches away from the front of my car). I reached for my keys so I could press the little red security button and realized that I didn't have them--they were back at the table in my bag. Meep Meep Meep! we blared away--I caught the eye of Rana, back at the table with the other kids.

My keys are in the bag! I yelled, and she began to grapple for it. Meep Meep Meep! Everyone stared. I was stuck--there was nothing to do. My own minivan thought I was breaking into it, from the inside I guess. And no button I could press would convince the car otherwise. Just as my keys were being delivered to me, seagulls flying away, diners clearly pissed, the honking stopped. On its own.

Phew.

I opened my door to get out, smiling with relief at everyone who was frowning at me. And then Meep Meep Meep! all over again. I could stop it now by pressing the red button on the keys, but my car was still confused. It happened twice more in the time it took us to exit the car. I'm sorry, I couldn't stop it. I'm sorry, I said in the direction of all the people who hated me and who might have preferred one tantrumming toddler to all the Meep Meeping. But it was clear that my attempts at eye contact and grovelling was just making them hate me even more.

Two hours later, after some ice cream and some tv, and after a naked toothbrushing session where I discovered lazy trails of pee on the insides of her legs (!!)--she and I were in bed reading a book. After the book (Two Crazy Pigs) she requested a round of Baby Beluga-then she nestled her head on my shoulder and just...let...go.

I always know she's asleep before I can see that she's asleep. It's like a little light goes out. It's like 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.' It's like the Wicked Witch's sister's red and white socks have shrivelled to empty and pulled themselves out of the ruby red shoes.

We all look at Piper when she sleeps and we wonder where she's gone. What's going on in her head? Do little pings of what's important fire off in there? Chocolate Milk, Phoebe, Lukas, Dora, Blue Marker, Llama...? Or is it all quiet in there. An empty shell. The squishy turtle just walked away.

It's a beautiful thing when she drifts off--when she lets go. Mostly because she holds on so tightly--with such ferocity--all day long.

She sleeps, sweaty, breathing deeply. Her body doing what it needs to do--what it knows how to do. Gearing up for tomorrow--a day when everything might go her way.

Jun 27, 2007

What's Important Changes


On the first day of camp last week I slapped Amos’s camouflage baseball hat on his head as he walked out the door. He’s not that much of a hat kid but we didn’t know the system yet---weren’t sure how much outside time/sun time they’d be having, so I tossed the hat on him just in case he’d be needing a bit of shade for the day. When I picked him up I was surprised to find him frolicking in the enormous bouncey-ball pond with the other kids, with his hat still on. All the kids' shoes and various accessories were in a pile outside of the pit, and the kids were tumbling and rolling around like puppies, leaping off of things, laughing. And Amos was in the midst of it all, fussing to make sure the hat was still on his head.

It was clear to me in that moment that the hat had become an important part of his identity. He was the kid from Brooklyn with the hat in this Soho mishmash of kids. The giggly little Asian kid, the buttoned-up geeky kid, the 8 year old with the mohawk and the rock ‘n roll shirts, the scraggly Belushi-like kid, the freckled tomboy girl...

Every morning we’d find the hat on his way out the door to camp. Sometimes we’d forget (him not being a hat kid, after all) and seconds after he and Joe said their goodbyes and left we’d hear the metal gate slam and a jangle/fumble at the door --he’d point out that he needed his hat, and we’d always manage to find it.

It reminded us of the lego table. When he was three and went to preschool, he spent the first few minutes on the very first day of school sitting at the green lego table silently stacking plastic pieces. And we all just assumed it was his favorite thing. Boy, he sure loves legos! Midway through the year when he’d gained lots of confidence and loads of friends we arrived to drop him off and he stood frozen in the doorway. The lego table wasn’t there.

‘Oh we thought the kids might want a little water play this morning’ his teacher said, gesturing at the water table that stood in the center of the room.

Amos glared at her, and at the spot where the lego table used to be.

We all made chipper noises about how cool the water table was and, as if to illustrate this, several kids ran into the room past Amos and splashed gleefully. Until that moment we didn’t realize that the lego table was really his only way to enter the classroom. We didn’t know he couldn’t walk into the room if he wasn’t walking towards the green lego table.

Of course he was at a very sweet school with lovely teachers, and while I was prepared for this to be a major big new experience for him--one for the record books--one of the teaching assistants knelt down in front of him and invited him to come help her drag the hunk of plastic out of the store-room. He went with her, hand-in-hand to retrieve it. Needless to say, it remained in the room for the rest of the year.

So now here we were five years later with a new security blanket in the form of a camouflage hat from a restaurant we’d visited in Austin Texas a month earlier. It got him through the week and then was forgotten again over the weekend (did I mention he’s not really a hat-wearer?), and no one was paying much attention to the camp departure yesterday morning--Monday. He and my husband scooted off; a seemingly uneventful return to the routine.

Today, Tuesday, I was responsible for camp drop-off. As we neared the industrial block where his camp was located, I looked in the rearview mirror at his blond moppish head and asked if he had his hat.

‘No,’ he shrugged light-heartedly. ‘I forgot it.’

‘Is that ok? ‘ I asked, bracing myself for a cloud of worry to pass over his bright eyes (and foreseeing the same horrified doorway-stall I so vividly remembered from five years earlier).

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I forgot it yesterday, too.’ Then he added. ‘Since I already made it through a day without it, it doesn’t seem so important anymore.’

‘Funny how that happens,’ I mused, realizing that this moment--alone in the car with my kid--could be the kind of teachable moment the anti-drug commercials tell us about. I should comment on it in a way that might help this moment become mom-wisdom that he’ll always remember. I could remind him about the lego table. I should sound cheerful and matter-of-fact. If I sound too preachy he'll catch on...

But before I could scrape something together he continued...’it’s like when we’re playing Rummy and I’m collecting Aces and Aces are like the most important thing to me and then you put down, like, Ace two three four and then someone else puts down, like Queen, King, Ace..and all of a sudden the two Aces in my hand aren’t as important to me anymore. Sometimes things that are important just aren’t that important anymore. That’s how it is with my hat,’ he said.

He had beaten me to the greater wisdom of the situation, and he explained it better than I ever could have.

Jun 19, 2007

Like Friends Should Be


">I love you, you love me, we're best friends like friends should be. Barney sings that every morning. My children watch, and I cringe. Not the usual stuffed-purple-Barney-hating cringe. Its the like friends should be clause that gets to me. Why is a best friend something that friends should be? What's wrong with being good friends? What's wrong with being likeable, having lots of friendly acquaintances, and several solid confidantes? What's the big deal about a best friend? What's the agenda here?

From what I can tell a best friendship is a contract--an agreed upon commitment of sorts, like marriage. Two regular friends agree that they are best friends. Someone must have to take that first chance, like lean in for the first kiss, or say the first I love you. And then, if the other agrees, you have a best friendship.

Until college I'd never had a best friend. I was great at being friends with lots of people. I wasn't bothered by those strange couplings that were the best friends in my high school; I enjoyed my free-agent status. I could be flattered and pleasantly surprised by invitations and attentions, and I seldom felt left out or jealous since I wasn't in an official committed friendship with anyone. Of course the concept of one best friend wasn't new to me, the opportunity had just never presented itself. I knew it was an important bond, but without having ever had the comfort, support, and knowing safety of a best friend, I didn't know what I was missing. I enjoyed dipping in and out of different sorts of intimacies with different sorts of people. I was good at that.

You're my best friend! declared my freshman roommate within a few weeks of moving in to our college dormitory room. I was flattered and surprised. She already had a best friend whom she spoke of all the time. Dianna (two ns) wrote weekly letters and mailed them in best friend-ish decorated envelopes: hearts, squiggles, happy faces, little bluebirds like the kind that circle Cinderella's head. We went to visit Dianna, she came to visit us. I honored their best friendship.

So there I was in my dorm room, seventeen years old, and all of a sudden I was someone's best friend. Someone wanted to hitch their wagon to me. It felt good; could I be that special to someone? What a rush! Dianna's flowery envelopes started to look pitiful, hopeful--so did the pictures of the two of them gripping each other drunkenly. Dianna had been dethroned and I was never sure she had been properly notified. Surely she would have cared, this best friendship being so big and important and strong and powerful.

The college roommate and I were best friends for seven years. People mistook us for one another when we answered the phone, and lumped us together in all situations. We served as seals of approval for each other; like having a your own personal notary public sign off on and/or vouch for every intimacy or transaction. Our public claim to each other must have served as insight into deeper parts of our personalities--(hmmm, she seems kinda crunchy, but her best friend is so stylish,--or the reverse--she seems so materialistic but look her best friend's sooo laid back!). We told each other everything, finished each other's sentences--we were formidable when paired together in games like charades.

And then it was over, almost as quickly as it had happened--taken away as effortlessly as it had been bestowed. Her move away from me was emotional as well as physical; she left the friendship and the city in a hurry, and without satisfactory explanation. A lot of people were shaken up by the break up (think Simon and Garfunkel, think Laverne and Shirley, think Paris and Nicole--); ours had been the ideal friendship in the eyes of others. Everyone became a Monday morning quarterback: maybe she was jealous of you? maybe she thought people only liked her because she was best friends with you? maybe some psychiatrist told her she was too dependent on you?

No one knew what happened, and no one knows to this day. Eventually, mutual friends stopped pressuring her for reasons. I could write a novel about the wheres and the whys and the hows of the end of our friendship, but in a nutshell, that was that.

There was some relief. She was a social worker who instigated long monotonous TALKS in order to smooth over small jealousies. I could certainly live without those. But there was also devastation. How could the person who knew me so well want to stop knowing me at all? Weren't best friends supposed to stick together no matter what? I felt insignificant.

I've gotten married, had children, and made many new friends since then and there's still a part of me that remains vulnerable and wounded when it comes to the subject of best friends.

No man is alone (or is it poor?) who has friends, right? Isn't that the moral of Its a Wonderful Life? That's the kind of moral I found myself bumping into all the time back when the break-up was still fresh. Curiously, it still seems to be the pot of gold at the end of every moral rainbow. I know now that my one best friend wasn't the healthiest introduction to what a best friend could be (it occurs to me that she was sort of a 'you're my best friend' junkie). But our connection was real. And it's part of my story now. There hasn't been anyone else.

From what I can tell best friends come easily to young children and a lucky few are able to preserve that best friendship forever. The first days of Elementary School, Middle School, High School and College all seem to be good times to claim a new best friend. People don't tend to come to those phases of life saddled with other responsibilities, and a great sense of importance and meaning permeates everything in these typically cloistered academic environments. But what's a twenty-five year old to do to find a best friend? How about a thirty year old? Do I still have a chance at finding a best friend at forty? Do I want one? (Barney thinks I should have one)

I picture a nursing-home-widows, bridge-partner kind of best-friendship as a possibility for my final years. But what about the thirty years between now and then? What happens if you don't have a best friend because your all-consuming best friend just up and left you? What if there was no obvious friend to be a bridesmaid so you just finagled something tasteful with your sister and sister-in-law-to-be and walked, best-friendless, up the aisle. What then?

Sure there's the husband as best friend idea, but come on. My sweet husband doesn't want to hear the fifteen minute emotional version of the two second stubbed-toe story. He doesn't enjoy looking for deeper meaning in the words of sales clerks and co-workers. He can't fill in the gaps of a hilarious remember-when story by naming what earrings, whose shirt, and which shorts I was wearing. My husband's a good friend. We do a great job of balancing roles, kids, ideas, conversations, and we also know when to just let things go. But if we stayed up all night sharing notes with the fervor and fever of best friends no one would be paying the bills.

Of course I have lots of friends. Women I adore and feel close to. Intellectually, I know it doesn't matter that I don't have one best friend, but sometimes I wish the world would just shut up about how great it is (that means you too, Oprah).

Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other's gold! Give me a break. Why doesn't anyone talk about the pain of a long friendship ending? Am I really alone in this experience? Why did I have to feel freakishly like I had gone through a divorce in a world that doesn't understand because it's so busy worshipping the almighty best-friend? I already feel like enough of a loser without a best friend. Am I really supposed to be feeling this way?

My son has already had a best friend come and go--he seems fine with it but I watch from the sidelines holding my breath. At four, he seems to be able to handle hearing 'you're not my friend anymore'. He shrugs and moves on. I feel the pain he doesn't.

And I cringe every time my daughter's friend's babysitter chides the two of them for squabbling. 'You're best friends!' she shouts, repeatedly handing the three year olds this potent phrase. During a recent tug-of-war over some small toy, the pal screamed 'you're not my best friend anymore!' Egad. It's the best friend version of the 'maybe they'll get married when they grow up,' thing heard commonly by ecstatic parents as they look on while two infants of different sexes tumble around together. And it's just as annoying.

Given my history with the whole best friend thing, it's understandable that I worry about the trouble this may cause down the road. But I remind myself that my kids might be ok in the long run because they'll get to experience friend-difficulties when they're young--before these best friends get all tangled up in emerging adult identities. Maybe I wouldn't have been so burned if I'd learned the painful lessons as a kid on a playground and not when I was in my nervous twenties in a big city wondering what kind of impact I might have on the world and learning that, in truth, I wasn't even having a positive impact on the person who knew me best.

So at this point it looks like there will be no BFF to deliver a tearful and knowing eulogy for me. There won't be that one unrelated 'aunt' who can see, in my children, all that she loved about me at that age, and embarrass me in front of them. I'm told that time heals all wounds, but fifteen years after being dumped, I'm still baffled by the whole best friend gig. I can't protect my children from being hurt by friendships, and it looks as though I won't be able to protect myself from reliving my own loss and confusion as I send them out into the dangerous world of friend-making and friend-keeping. Sadly, the only advice I could give them--to run the other direction from anyone promising a best friendship--seems futile in this la-la land of buddy movies, happy endings, and sappy lies like 'lovers come and go but friendship lasts 4 ever!' Maybe in the meantime, I should just turn off Barney.