I saw the above passage in my Facebook feed yesterday and promptly copied and saved it because I love it when other people write my feelings succinctly and turn it into an inspirational post so I don’t have to.
Before having children, I heard myriad dark tales of the harrowing experience of raising teenagers. Having eons ago been a teenager myself, I recalled the endless battles with parents, the scramble to balance friends and boyfriends and homework and extracurriculars and part-time work and social activities, and the confusion surrounding figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to do in life. I remember that time as exhausting and exhilarating, a period of self-development precariously balanced with self-loathing.
When my sons, now 18 and 16, were toddlers, I could not wait for them to get older. I longed for a time when I could understand what they wanted and discover who they were. And, through the infinite magic of time that speeds up as we age, I arrived here more quickly than I ever imagined.
While my parents struggled with their teenagers, I’ve found mine to be 10% terror-inducing and 90% delightful. Letting my son drive off at 6 am with his brand-spanking new driver’s license to head to the mountains for a hike, well…that’s terror-inducing. But waking up the next day, pulling up Google Translate on my iPhone to start brushing up on my French for an upcoming trip and finding my sons have been doing the same, well…that’s delightful.
My sons have brought out both the best and the worst in me over the years since they arrived and made us a family. Fortunately, as I have aged, I have relaxed a bit, which has made experiencing my sons’ teenage years more filled with laughter than fraught with frustration. If you get out of your kids what you put into them, I must have given my all.
My husband is a geek. And he is becoming more of a geek with each passing year. In the past, I would never have complained about this because, well, he’s my personal tech support. He’s the geek I go to when I’ve already rebooted and don’t know what the hell to do next. He is the one who talks me off the ledge when my phone is doing that thing again. He totally understands what an HDMI cable is. I simply understand that an HDMI cable is. He’s all about embracing new technology. And, despite the fact that our house contains several plastic bins filled with antiquated tech (my kids tell me that is the correct term) that he still hasn’t taken to the electronics graveyard, much to my chagrin, I have struggled to make my peace with his curious addiction to the latest and greatest invention meant to make life better. At least, I thought I had made my peace with it. That was until the Amazon Echo arrived in our home early in 2016.
It seemed innocuous enough. One day he came home with this curious new speaker thing. I vaguely recall being a little peeved because, as I pointed out at the time, we didn’t need another speaker thing. Because of his tech addiction, we already had four wireless music players. That’s right. Four. This one, he told me, this one was different. You could talk to this one, like you do with Siri. He prattled on for a bit about how this was not just a speaker because this could also turn our lights off and on remotely. While he spoke, I went to my happy place because when something like this catches his eye the only way to get him to stop talking about it usually is to let him have it. So I did. I rolled my eyes, sighed and, like a parent accepting the stray dog her son brought home, told him Echo could stay as long as he took care of it.
Since that night, Steve has been working with Echo to transform our house into what I assume is supposed to be a much more convenient, high-tech haven. He started by adding the special light bulbs necessary and then programming it to operate our lights, at least in the living room and hallway. Then, against my wishes, he persisted in teaching me the commands so I too could turn off our lights by barking orders across the house.
“Alexa (for that is the damned thing’s name), turn off the LIVING ROOM light.”
Emboldened by the success of having this electronic entity controlling our interior illumination, he added more bulbs in our bedroom so we could yell across the room at the thing on the dresser to turn off the lights on our nightstands, a process that takes longer than simply reaching over and turning off the lights by hand. Undaunted, he persevered with his toy. I told him that the technology creeped me out because occasionally, for no apparent reason, Alexa will start speaking, telling me about the weather or giving me some random definition for a word about which I had not inquired. It all feels a bit Big Brotherish to me. He shrugged off my negativity. This is the future. He expects me to assimilate.
Last Christmas, Steve decided our son might be an ally in the ongoing Alexa battle. So he bought a $30 Hue light strip Joe could attach to his bunkbed, presumably so he could read in bed (ha), and he bought him the smaller Echo Dot which doesn’t have its own speaker. Joe seemed semi-interested in the technology aspect until he realized that the light strip made his bed feel like the tunnel between Concourses B and C at O’Hare Airport. Then he too noticed that sometimes Alexa would start speaking out of the blue. Unbeknownst to his father, Joe unplugged the Dot and tossed it into his closet where he found it creeped him out much less.
Undeterred by his family’s lack of enthusiasm for his home automation, Steve continued in his quest. He added more light bulbs to control in his office. He added another Dot downstairs so we could use it as an “intercom” to beckon the boys upstairs when we wanted them. (Side note: It turns out we never do this because we prefer to yield to the more organic and primal habit of screaming at them from the stairs as parents have done for generations.) He programmed Echo to interact with our smart Nest thermostat so we can shriek at her to turn our heat up or down. He set Echo so now if we bellow at her she will play Sirius XM radio on our Sonos system. Most recently, he’s connected Alexa to our home security system so we can clamor for her to turn on our home alarm. Never mind that, aside from the lighting, we are able to do all these things via our iPhones without caterwauling through the house.
Last night, I caught Steve asking to Alexa to do his bidding again.
“Alexa…turn off the Living Room light,” he called out.
“Living Room doesn’t support that,” came Alexa’s reply.
Steve repeated the command more slowly and firmly, as if Alexa were a disobedient child who simply needed to be told twice.
“Alexa…turn off the Living Room light.”
“Living Room doesn’t support that,” Alexa replied again, rolling her eyes.
It occurred to me that perhaps Echo’s name is quite intentional.
“Alexa…turn off Living,” I said, remembering Steve had recently changed the command so it included both smart bulbs in the living room lamp.
“Okay,” she said, and the damn living room light finally went off.
“Sometimes you have to wonder just who is controlling whom,” I said and strolled smugly off to bed for the night.
Steve might have an overactive case of Jetsons envy. He longs for flying cars and homes equipped with every possible automation. And I get it. We Gen Xers are experiencing an amazing shift from our childhoods when we tuned in on one of a few channels on a cumbersome television box with a rabbit-ear antenna on top to watch George, Jane, Judy, Elroy, and Astro living in their sky home with their robot maid, Rosie, attending to their every need, to a time when home automation, or some semblance of it, is reality. It is exciting and fascinating, and it’s easy to get caught up in the Jetson fantasy in 2018. Still, my hope for the future is that the speed of advancing tech becomes so rapid that Steve is at last unable to keep up or technology becomes more efficient so I can stop commanding the black cylinder on my kitchen counter to turn off the lights that all three men in my house seem incapable of operating either on their own or with Alexa’s brilliant assistance. I am not surprised Echo was given a female name. If you want something done, you ask a woman.
Full disclosure: My husband advised me against writing this post. He did this because he is embarrassed for me by what I am about to disclose. He suggested I might not want to share this particular story. Second full disclosure: Listening well has never been in my wheelhouse. So I am going to tell my story anyway.
Steve and I started road cycling in 2009. When we brought my new bike home, a shiny, blue-and-silver $1300 aluminum frame contraption with mid-level components, Steve had to explain to me how the dang thing worked. I could ride a bike, but this was the most high-tech cycle I had ever owned. Steve began by telling me about the brakes and reminded me squeezing the front brake too hard too quickly would cause me to somersault head-over-heels off the bike. That seemed like an important point, so I memorized that. He showed me how to take the wheels off in case of a flat. I sort of paid attention to that detail. Then he continued explaining how to make the bike work for me. About two seconds after he mentioned mechanical advantage, I checked out. Mechanical advantage sounded a lot like physics. Yawn.
I am a bottom line person. Where some people like the fine details and want to understand the minutiae of a topic, I want to know only what I need to know. Call it impatience. Call it short sighted. Call it crazy. I call it being married to a man who tosses me a 300-page camera manual and tells me to read it when all I want to know is which button on the auto-focus monster snaps the photos.
So as he was describing how the gears up front work in conjunction with the gears in the back to help you increase your speed or climb hills or whatever (like I said, physics), I interrupted him to posit when we might get to that ever important bottom line.
“Which gear do I want to be in to make it easier?” I asked.
He started in again about mechanical advantage, yadda yadda yadda, and I went on another mental vacation. I vaguely heard something about “big gear,” “small gear,” “front,” and “back.” I would figure it out. How hard could it be? It was a bicycle. All I needed to know was how to get going and how to stop. I could do that already.
Steve and I participated in the Tour of the Moon ride into Colorado National Monument on Saturday. We first discussed this ride as we were coming off the high of completing the Bike MS ride in June. I registered us and then I forgot about it. Two months went by during which we got on our bikes only twice for short, easy rides. A couple days ago, we started considering our options for the weekend and chose to go ahead with the ride without training. We figured we might be sore afterward, but we could handle it. At the hotel the night before, I glanced for the first time at the ride’s elevation profile. Big mistake. In roughly 16 miles we would climb about 3500 feet. Did not sleep well with that knowledge.
The next morning as we approached the monument and the dreaded climb was looming, Steve asked me what gear I was in.
“I’m on the middle ring,” I told him, referring to my front gears.
The middle is where I most often stay when riding because, well, I don’t understand my gears because, well, I didn’t pay attention during my lesson. In the past, I have tried to switch gears on a hill, lost momentum, stalled out, and simply flopped over sideways still clipped into my bike pedals. I haven’t enjoyed that, so the middle gear has remained my crutch and faithful companion. It gets me where I am going, and I don’t fall over while switching gears. Win-win.
We pulled off into a church parking lot so Steve could investigate. He told me to switch into the easiest gear. I did.
“What gear is your chain on?”
“The big one,” I replied.
“The big one up front?” he asked.
“Yes. Granny gear.”
“Umm…that is not granny gear,” came the reply.
“Yes it is. You told me the big gear up front was granny gear.”
“You want the small gear up front and the big gear in the back,” he told me.
“This is how I have always done it,” I told him.
“Always? Not always,” he asked doubtfully.
“As long as I can remember,” I said.
“Then you have been climbing in the wrong gear,” he replied.
Well, shit. No wonder I’ve hated hills.
With my bike finally figured out (nine years later), we began our ascent. The new gear knowledge worked like a charm. The ride wasn’t exactly easy (rain, hail, and cold weather temps ensured that), but I had no problem riding. My legs weren’t tired. I pedaled up the hills slower than molasses in January, but I never felt like quitting. And you know why? Because for the past nine years I have been training for this one ride by cruising along in middle gear. And that is an oddly perfect metaphor for my life to this point. From the beginning, I’ve made things more difficult for myself than they needed to be. I checked out too soon or checked in too late or somehow managed to do both. There isn’t much to gain from an easy path, so I’ve grown through my hard (and occasionally not necessary) work.
Perhaps you now understand why Steve was reluctant about my relaying this story. It’s embarrassing. This blonde moment lasted nine years. It’s practically a blonde decade. And, at a point in my not too distant past, I would have been too mortified to share this information. But I am older now and working to accept my flaws and appreciate my gifts. I am learning to look on the bright side. I could take this whole bike-gear lunacy and go to a dark place about what a dolt I am and how naive I was not to figure out my bike properly in the first place. Instead, I’ve chosen to be positive. For something between the 3000-5000 miles I have ridden over the years, I have worked at my cycling. Every ride I undertook, I rode with more effort than I needed to give. All the times I felt weak because the hill climbs seemed much harder for me than for others, it was because they were most likely harder. And the times I passed other riders cruising up a hill in a harder gear than necessary, it was because I was strong, stronger than I had any idea I was. That is not embarrassing. It is an awesome discovery of my power and resiliency.
I’m not saying I will eschew the easiest gear going forward. That would be silly. Sometimes the path of least resistance is a good idea. I might, however, keep riding in middle gear a bit longer and see what else I can do.
Sometimes the universe offers me creative opportunities to quench my introvert’s need for solitude.
After a late night at the Depeche Mode concert followed by an early run this morning, I found myself sleep deprived and in need of some down time today. To assuage this need, I grabbed my laptop, surreptitiously exited the sliding door, and settled myself at the table under our covered patio to chill, away from the three men in my house. This turned out to be a short-lived solution as, about fifteen minutes later, hubby discovered me and came out, armed with chips and guacamole, oblivious to my urgent need for peace. He joined me at the table and chomped away while I tried not to lose my mind (because I still haven’t figured out a polite way to tell someone their chewing may drive to me murder them). Eventually, my one-word, choppy answers sunk in, and he wisely vacated. He took our sons to Best Buy, and I took a deep breath and started to unwind.
Everything was perfection until I ran out of La Croix, walked to the slider, and pulled the handle. The door didn’t slide. Curious. I tried it again in case, weak from hunger, I somehow hadn’t tugged hard enough to open it. My original suspicions were confirmed. My husband, with his usual fervor for security, had locked the back door before he left. I would like to think this was inadvertent, but this is not the first time he has locked me out of the house.
Maybe eight years ago, when the kids were younger and exhausting, I escaped for an evening coffee with my friend, Lisa. I returned home a few minutes past ten and found the door from the garage into the house locked. I hadn’t brought a house key with me because my family was home. So, I banged on the door, slightly annoyed, and waited for hubby to open it.
I continued banging for 3 minutes, alternating between kicking it and pounding it with my reddening fist. No answer. With a rising level of annoyance, I got in my car and laid on the horn. That should get him. Nope. I opened the garage door again, walked around to the front door, and rang the doorbell about seventy times. No luck. I called the home phone repeatedly. I called hubby’s cell phone even more. No answer. It set in that my family had gone to sleep. With a noisy, whole-house fan running and ocean sounds on too, my three boys would be dead to the world.
I suppose I might have found the entire thing amusing if I hadn’t just consumed a grande latte and a bottled water, which had left me highly caffeinated and rapidly approaching saturation. It was ten thirty. What the actual hell? I walked through the side gate into the backyard and began to lob small river rocks from our landscaping up towards the second story windows in the rooms I knew might be occupied. The rocks were hitting both the siding and the glass panes before landing like golf-ball size hail on the flagstone patio and wrought-iron patio furniture below, yet not a creature stirred. In addition to my husband, I began cursing my dog. Some border collie. Here I was, violating her borders and storming her castle, and she was a non starter.
Options to awaken my sleeping family exhausted, I ducked back into the garage and closed the door resigned to my circumstances. The need to relieve myself of liquids was becoming urgent. I debated ringing a neighbor’s doorbell, but decided that ringing a doorbell at 11 pm on a Tuesday night might not be very neighborly. I toyed with the idea of checking into a nearby hotel because I thought I deserved it after this bullshit, but knew once hubby discovered I was missing he would be calling the police and hospitals desperate to find me. While the devil on my left shoulder urged me to do it anyway, the angel on my right shoulder convinced me that punishment didn’t fit the crime. Still, I needed a bathroom and wasn’t sure I was going to make it ten minutes to the nearest gas station. I considered urinating in the backyard (why not? the boys had) but knew the minute I bared my privates to the world a neighbor would open their sliding door to let out their dog and witness a full moon they hadn’t expected. So, I peed into a Solo cup from Costco in the privacy of our garage. Yes. Yes I did. And I’ve never looked at red cups the same way since.
Hubby did eventually wake up when our oldest got up to pee and, upon not finding me in bed to awaken so I could tuck him back into bed, notified his father of my missing person status. The garage light flickered on around 3:30 a.m. I had been sitting in my car, reclined in the driver’s seat, trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep for hours. Steve opened the door, saw my SUV, and began to close the door again, assuming I must be somewhere inside. I yelled out pathetically.
“I’m here! I’m here! Wait!!!!”
The look on his face registered somewhere between relief and terror.
His apologies flew like rapid fire from a semi-automatic as I entered the door. I was too exhausted to bitch and went directly to sleep. The next day, when I was in a better mental space, I recounted my story. I told him I needed to blog about it. Feeling horrible and embarrassed about the whole mishap, he begged me not to. And so I didn’t. For eight years. But, I figure the statute of limitations on that deal ran out the minute he locked me in the backyard today.
I do crave my time alone, but I am starting to wonder if my family is trying to tell me something. I’m wondering if I shouldn’t get a lanyard to hold my house key around my neck. Just in case.
When you become a mom, everything changes. Your life is no longer wholly your own, a fact both awe-inspiring and terrifying. Little eyes are making mental notes of your example right at the moment when you are most exhausted, stressed out, and unsure. It’s not fair. Still, we try to do our best, especially when our children are young. For example, when our sons were small and learning to speak, I gave up swearing. Well, at least I tucked my offensive wagging tongue back in my mouth for about eight years when they attended Christian school and I didn’t want my words to come back to haunt me with their teachers. (On a side note, my youngest did go to the principal’s office in kindergarten for exclaiming a hearty son-of-a-bitch when he didn’t get to be the first kid in the reading teepee, but he overheard Sawyer say that while we were watching LOST. That one’s on you, ABC.)
As my sons aged and we moved away from the Christian school, I eased back into my potty mouth persona. First, I stopped substituting cheese and rice for Jesus Christ and crud for crap. But each swear word is a gateway drug for another, more foul word. Soon, shoot became shit and dang it became dammit. From there I went to the hard shit, right to the mother effing F-bomb when the occasion warranted. I mean, when the Costco rotisserie chicken you planned to serve for dinner slips out of your hand like a soapy kid in the bathtub, you have every reason to cut your tongue loose right before you look around for witnesses, invoke the 5-second rule, and toss that puppy onto the cutting board where it was headed in the first place. Who could blame you? Sometimes the situation deserves a meatier expletive.
Today, my friend (and fellow potty-mouth mom) Lynne sent me this article with a link to the new ad from Kraft released in time for Mother’s Day. In the ad, Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, covers creative substitutions for swear words because, well, moms are expected to set a good example for their kids. In the midst of raucous children interrupting her video and the all-too-common experience of stepping on rogue Legos, Melissa offers examples of ways to curb your swearing with more colorful expressions that aren’t verboten expletives. The ad is funny and honest. It hit close to home for me, as I imagine it will for millions of mothers everywhere.
My husband is not a fan of my swearing. He came from a home where his parents rarely, if ever, swore. In twenty four years, the only curse I have heard from either of my in-laws is an occasional good grief from my father-in-law which, let’s face it, is more of a charming interjection than a curse. Steve would like me to stop swearing altogether. My potty mouth bothers him, and I get it. But, dammit, after years of curbing my own behaviors and words for everyone else, from my parents to my sons to my teachers to my sons’ teachers to pretty much anyone who is not me, I am sick of pretending that you are only a good woman, a lady, when you eschew foul language. While I appreciate other’s reasons for not swearing and I honor their choices, I can’t get behind it in my own life. I am clever enough to cease use of inappropriate words in inappropriate situations. I often avoid swearing in my blog posts to prove that I have good judgment occasionally. But, our boys are about to turn fourteen and sixteen. If they aren’t hearing these words from me, they sure as hell are hearing them from their teenage friends or the television. No point in worrying about what language they might pick up. There are so few perks to getting older, but one of them should be the ability to say whatever you want under your own roof without censure. Steve, if you’re reading this, I understand your concerns, but I gotta be me.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I would like to give a shout out to the moms I know whose foul mouths make me smile, from my friend, Colleen, who runs Personal Paper Hugs, an online store filled with cheeky cards she creates (add it to your Etsy favorites here) to my Queen Bitch, Leanna, whose daily language so closely mirrors my own that sometimes it’s hard to tell which comments are from her mind and which are from mine. I owe a lot to the fearless, mouthy women who raise me up with their honesty, the women who make me feel normal. There is too much unsolicited advice about what defines a “good” mother constantly weighing us down. We spend far more time berating ourselves over what we perceive as parenting foibles than we do acknowledging and appreciating the dedication, resolve, and sacrifice we make daily for our families. Sometimes we even beat ourselves up for letting a couple choice words slip in front of our children. We’re human. It’s about time give ourselves a little leeway to act human, even if we are also mothers. To all you moms out there who curse (on occasion or perpetually), remember that even with the naughty words you are amazing, vital, and, above all, doing a fucking great job. Your kids aren’t going to be derelicts simply because you pepper your life with a few not-so-creative word choices. Sometimes a well-placed curse is the only thing keeping you from losing your proverbial shit. Motherhood is hard. Expletives may be required.
Parenting is sticky business. There are days when I am acutely aware that I may not be cut out for this gig. Those are the days when I blow my parental gasket and slam doors and caterwaul with unbridled enthusiasm at my children over socks left on the floor right next to the laundry bin or half-empty cartons of yogurt stuffed behind a couch cushion. Those are the days when I am the very definition of insanity, once again doing the same thing that has failed before to achieve the desired result. Then there are the days when, through the grace of some unforeseen divine intervention, I pull it together long enough to do something that is nearly the right thing in the right situation. Like, for example, on the day when my fourteen-year-old son came to me fresh off watching a PG-13 comedy video on You Tube where he learned a new word, a word describing a sexual act that makes many grown adults shudder (or tilt their heads not unlike a cocker spaniel after hearing a word unfamiliar to their floppy ears). On that day I managed to swallow my shock long enough to offer a generic explanation of said act hoping to delay for him what would be an eye-opening if not wholly disturbing Google search on the NC-17 subject matter. On the days like that one, when I manage to keep my wits about me, I celebrate the alignment of the stars and enjoy it because I know moments of parenting clarity have, in the past, been few and far between, and my next ill-conceived, epic, parental meltdown could be right around the corner if I get too cocky.
A couple of days ago, my youngest son presented me with an opportunity to rise to the occasion again. After doing some more unboxing and cleaning in the basement family room the boys have designated The Teen Zone, I turned on one of those flameless, scented candle warmers to try to defunkify the place in their absence. (Teenage boys are smelly.) Not long after they had returned from a friend’s house, a panicked cry emanated from their space. Through a pained whimper I managed to make out phrases like “this is bad” and “oh no.” You know those moments when you think your child might be bleeding profusely and there is a fear of what you might find when you come face-to-face with them? That’s where my brain was. My son was about to present me with a mostly severed appendage or a head wound so deep I would be viewing his bony skull. When he made it to me, though, I could see no visible signs of trauma. Simultaneously relieved that he was okay and terrified at what that meant with regard to his cries, I asked him what was going on. The words came through breathless cries…spill, wax, accident, sorry, mistake, carpet, bad.
Now, this house is new to us and we have been working to make it our comfortable home for months. And, to that end, we had the worn basement carpet torn out in mid-January and replaced with fresh, super plush carpeting that is a bit like walking on heaven when your stocking feet touch it. As Luke and I hit the threshold of the family room, I could see why he was panic-stricken. Directly in front of the bookshelf where the candle warmer sat, still glowing innocently and without any sign of guilt or remorse, there was a sizable splattering of eggplant-colored, cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented wax. A flurry of words escaped my mouth, most of which were interrogatives and none of which (surprisingly enough) were screamed, but I never listened for the answers because I knew none of them would help. I knew I needed a minute to get my mind in order before I said or did something I would regret. I turned and walked up the stairs, Luke trailing on my heels. He kept talking and explaining while my mind reeled and I muttered my disappointment quietly. I got to the door of my room.
“You stay out here. I need to be alone for a minute,” I told him as I began to close the bedroom door behind me. “Don’t touch the wax. It will only make it worse,” I added as an afterthought as the door clicked solidly shut.
I paced for a minute trying to get my bearings. I whipped off a quick text to a good friend to get my feelings off my chest silently. Luke just spilled purple candle wax on a big spot of our basement carpet. Huge stain. Heartbroken. I took a deep breath. The one thing I knew for sure was that the mess would set with time, and I didn’t have the luxury of a full-scale devolution into parental disgust. Through the door, I could hear Luke talking to himself under his breath. I knew it was an accident. I knew he was simultaneously horrified, frightened, and wondering if the $100 he had earned at the craft fair would get him very far in his soon-to-be life as a hobo. I stood for a moment registering his feelings. Suddenly, I wasn’t an angry parent freaking out about a stain on recently installed carpeting. I was in Luke’s soul, scared and sad and feeling worthless. How many times had I been in his shoes, wondering what punishment would be meted out after my colossal error in judgment? My heart ached for him. I opened the door.
“Come on, Luke. Let’s see what we can do.”
A text came through from Heather. Try ironing it out? Put a rag or old t-shirt down and then iron over that. Medium heat. Then try rubbing alcohol to get the color out.
It sounded like a plausible solution. A quick Google search yielded the same advice. Luke, desperate to make amends, asked how he could help. I had him fetch items for me while I labored to free the new carpet of its unwelcome waxy coating. As I worked, I talked to Luke and reminded him that we all do things like this. Accidents happen. Most of them matter very little. I could see him begin to relax, his hobo life fading into the background for the time being. Little by little, after some icing, scraping, ironing, and blotting, the wax seemed to be coming out. I began to exhale too. This might be fixable after all. After about thirty minutes of triage, the carpet looked only slightly stained. I was hoping that some form of chemical solution could ameliorate that condition. Sure enough. An hour after the tragic incident, the carpet looked nearly uniform or at least good enough that someone might not even notice if they weren’t directed to search for a stain in that area. The carpet, Luke, and I had all survived, only slightly worse for the wear.
In the past, I’ve been too quick to anger in situations that warranted no anger at all. I’ve cried over spilled milk. I’ve fussed over holes in new jeans. And I’ve had full-fledged tantrums over doors left open while the heat was on inside. But as time with my sons living under our roof dwindles, I’ve become more aware of how big my “little” meltdowns can feel to my sons and how little even the “big” things in life are in the grand scheme. If our carpet had been permanently stained, would that have sucked? Absolutely. But I’ve been thinking about how much worse things would be in my life if I had created a situation in which my son no longer felt comfortable coming to me when things went wrong. I know I was that kid…the one who was afraid to be honest about accidents and mistakes. The one who would rather hide things and lie to escape censure. The one who spent far too long avoiding challenges, afraid to make a move lest it make me appear foolish or, heaven forbid, human. As an adult, I continue to work to overcome these fears and embrace my humanity. I’m not sure what grace intervened Sunday when Luke came to me, but all week long I have been hearing the phrase “wax on, wax off” from The Karate Kid in my head. Mr. Miyagi has been speaking to me, reminding me that patience, presence of mind, and repetition are the keys to success. My ability to go more slowly, tread more lightly, and think more carefully in difficult situations with our sons is improving. I have hope that these skills will someday transfer to other situations in my life as well. I’m not quite skillful or patient enough to catch a fly with chopsticks yet, but I’m feeling a bit more Miyagish with each small parental success.
Most people I know can quickly point to a creature in the animal kingdom that creeps them out. Some people are freaked out by rodents, but I will happily rescue a vole or mouse that tumbles into our window wells. My mother and sisters cannot stand moths while I operate a catch and release program for them in my home. Some may bristle at bats or shrivel over scorpions or cringe at centipedes. Like most people, the members of our household are not immune to animal phobias. Channeling their inner Indiana Jones, both Steve and Luke are terrified of snakes. Joe and I come unhinged over spiders. I once asked Luke why he despised snakes and he replied with great exasperation, “Mom…they have NO legs.” He then asked me why I hate spiders. I told him it’s because they have EIGHT legs. I’ve always thought the four of us became a family for a good reason. When a wolf spider the size of my palm waltzes onto our porch, Steve saves the day. When a snake appears in our basement, I collect it in a plastic bin and toss it back outside. Luke kills the spiders Joe finds, and Joe walks ahead on hikes to make sure there are no snakes in Luke’s path. It just works out.
Tonight as I was making dinner, Steve was in the basement crawling over and rifling through various tubs in the storage room looking for the boys’ ski boots. After a while he appeared in the kitchen with the good news that he had found them. He then came a bit closer, and I could tell something was not quite right. He leaned in and spoke in a hushed voice.
“I found a snakeskin on the floor in the storage room.”
I looked at him. The news didn’t surprise or frighten me, but I know Steve well enough to know that this was not an easy discovery for him.
“Are you sure?” I asked cautiously, eyeing him for signs of an impending freak out. There were none.
“Where did you find it?”
“I moved the tub, and it was on the floor.”
“Don’t tell Luke,” I warned before continuing. “Do you think it was a newer shed? Could it have been there for a while?” I scanned my brain trying to think of the last time I had been in that room. Could it have been there then?
“Maybe,” he replied.
“I will go check it out after dinner.”
I started laughing to myself. It just figured. Steve would be the one to make that discovery, just as it was completely natural that I was the one who came within inches of the the biggest wolf spider EVER in our window well a month ago. (Oh my holy hell that thing was creepy. I took a photo of it once I was safely inside and it was so big that its eyes glowed red in the camera flash. No lie. But, I digress.)
After dinner, I led the way downstairs to find the offending object. Sure enough. There on the floor of the storage room was a shriveled snakeskin from a snake approximately eighteen inches in length (twenty four inches if you have Steve’s eyes) resting on the remnant carpet. We stood there staring at it before surveying the room, trying to imagine where the damn thing was now. I took a photo of the crinkled skin and started laughing again. The whole idea that there is a snake in my house is ludicrous. I’m not living in southeast Asia. Holy crap on a cracker. This is suburbia! I picked up the skin, gave it a once over, and as surreptitiously as possible carted it out to the garage trash can. I told Steve it was from a garter snake. He, of course, required proof. When I produced a photo of a garter snake on my iPhone, he agreed with my assertion with visible relief. As scary as it is for him to imagine there might be a snake slinking around our house, there must be some comfort in knowing it’s not venomous. I imagine right about now Steve is wishing he wasn’t allergic to cats because this would be a perfect time to unleash one in the basement.
On Halloween, we will have lived in this home on the open space for thirteen years. In that time, we’ve only encountered one snake inside our home (the rattlesnake in the garage doesn’t count) and that was the one I deftly removed. Still, this snakeskin in the storage room advances so many questions. Could the skin have arrived (as Steve hopes) pre-shed and attached to the bottom of one of our camping bins? If not, where did the snake come from? When did it shed its skin? Is it still alive and gliding silently around our basement somewhere? If so, where does it hang out and where does it get its water? How creepy is it going to be when we’re moving out and we find it or its carcass somewhere in that room? How much therapy is Luke going to need if he’s downstairs building Legos and it slithers by? Can a child sue a parent for non disclosure of a reptile?
This morning, as I was sitting in rush hour traffic on my way to the new house to begin Day Three of what will undoubtedly become a biblical, forty days and forty nights of painting, I was thinking about how dull my days have become. Tonight, there is a snake in the basement. Apparently I have got to stop thinking so much. The universe is listening.
Tomorrow is our youngest son’s birthday. Don’t ask me how it’s possible, but the little guy will turn 12 at 11:18 tomorrow night. When I was pregnant with him, Denver was hit with a massive, March snowstorm. We were trapped indoors with a toddler for three days with 54″ of snow in our yard. Thirty-one weeks pregnant, dying to get out, and stubborn as a mule, I refused to let my husband do all the shoveling and my fat, reflux-tortured, pregnant self landed a sentence of five weeks on bed rest. While I was reclined on the sofa, I would rub my belly and tell the little being in there that he (I was determined he was a he) could not be born before May 21st because I had been promised another Gemini son and this Gemini mother was determined to get what she was promised. I repeated to him over and over the date of May 21st and told him I did not want to meet him before that date. Luke, being a natural-born pleaser with minimal patience, arrived as ordered on May 21st just before midnight. Since then, I’ve spent my days ensuring I am as good to him as he has been to me.
Yesterday, Luke requested birthday cupcakes for his classmates. Noting that one classmate is allergic to gluten, Luke asked that I provide gluten-free cupcakes so George could participate in the party too. I thought about heading to the bakery to purchase cupcakes, but decided that today was a perfect day for baking. It was cold and rainy yet again, and our house would benefit from a hot oven and the smell of baked goods on such a gloomy day. So this morning I headed to Target and swiped up gluten-free yellow and devil’s food cake mixes, butter, and powdered sugar and headed home to commence baking.
I ended up with 48 cupcakes and, while they cooled, I whipped up some homemade, vanilla buttercream icing. I pulled out the natural food coloring and tinted the frosting Luke’s favorite color. Using my pastry bag, I lovingly piped beautiful swirls of orange. I stood back to survey my work. For someone who bakes as infrequently as I do these days, I thought I’d done quite well. As I was getting ready to pack them into cupcake tins so I could haul them to school in the morning, an unwanted thought began knocking on my brain. I tried to barricade the door so it could not get in, but it was powerful and the door came down under its weight. Due to food allergies, no homemade baked goods will be permitted in the classrooms anymore. Son of a bitch.
That was the first of a plethora of expletives that escaped my mouth as I stood there facing 48 cupcakes that could neither go to school nor in my mouth. I had spent three hours mixing, baking, transferring, cooling, measuring, monitoring, beating, coloring, and decorating this confections. Three hours I could never get back. Three hours I could have used wisely on other necessary pursuits. My chagrin escaped in a semi-controlled, adult tantrum, witnessed only by my dog who decided it would be in her best interest to vacate the vicinity post haste.
The meltdown moved on like a fast-moving thunderstorm on a hot summer’s day, and I took a deep breath. I remembered the Tibetan monks who create and destroy sand mandalas as part of their symbolic meditation on the transitory nature of material life. The monks use colored sand to create intricate works of art. For days and sometimes weeks, they work tirelessly as a group on these stunning creations, chanting and meditating over them to bring out the healing energies of the deities represented within the mandala. Once the mandala is finished, in an equally ordered and painstaking manner, they dismantle their work of art, pour it into a jar, and release the sand into a river so the healing powers held within each grain of sand can flow toward the ocean and disperse their positivity.
This afternoon, the cupcakes were my mandala. I diligently created them. And during their birth, I had been fully present in the moment, incorporating all my love for my son into my task. The cupcakes were not about me, and they were not for me. They were an act of love, positive energy, and goodwill. I chanted a mental Om, scraped the superfluous icing into the disposal, washed the dishes, and wiped down the counters. I packed up 24 cupcakes and launched the rest into the trash lest they end up in my belly. We will share the spoils with friends tomorrow. But today I will recognize this experience for what it is, a sticky-note reminder that life is full of discomfort, disappointment, suffering, and change. To find peace, I’ve got to learn to let go and let my inner Tibetan monk guide my thoughts. I wonder how I can get him to the surface more often? Maybe he likes cupcakes?
And from the Sometimes Things Just Work Out file….
A couple of years ago, someone released a few goldfish into a small lake near Boulder, Colorado. Over time, those few fish turned into a population of approximately four thousand goldfish. These goldfish, harmless though they may seem, could as a non-native species potentially damage the local ecosystem for the native fish and birds, so the people at Colorado Parks and Wildlife began working on fixes to the growing quandary. They had narrowed the possible solutions down to either shocking the fish with electric currents and then feeding them to birds of prey at a local raptor rehabilitation facility or draining the entire lake. As of last Friday, the story, which had been picked up and shared by news agencies around the globe, was still being reported on while officials determined the best way to proceed. Today, however, when folks from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division showed up with trap nets to get a sample of the fish population in the lake, they found 26 green sunfish, two largemouth bass, 10 painted turtles, 18 tiger salamanders, and only four goldfish.
While they were trying to figure out where the goldfish had gone, wildlife biologists observed some American white pelicans feeding on the lake. The pelicans, which migrate to the area for the summer, presumably spied a lake full of bright orange fish calling to them like a neon sign for an all-night cafe on a deserted highway. After the long, migratory trip up north, I imagine they couldn’t believe their luck to find an all-you-can-eat buffet stocked and spread out for them upon their arrival. Ka-ching.
Without fuss or taxpayer expense, the fishy problem was solved. And now the folks at Colorado Parks and Wildlife can take eradicating the goldfish at Teller Lake Number 5 off their list of things to do. The pelicans, simply doing what pelicans do, unexpectedly made their jobs a little easier. You have to love it when you have a problem and, while you’re racking your brain trying to figure out exactly how to solve that problem, the universe intervenes and takes care of it for you. That, my friends, is kismet.
Still, I can’t help but think how much trouble we humans create for ourselves. Sometimes we carelessly act without thinking how our choice might play out further on down the road. And when we’re not mucking things up for ourselves that way, we’re tangled in the act of solving the problems we unintentionally caused in the first place. I swear sometimes that we’re really not that far off the ape brains we started with.
I am a firm believer that everything we need as a species, everything we have ever needed, is here for us on this planet and we need only look for it. Sometimes, just sometimes, we get a little nudge to remind us of this fact. Today, it was pelicans from heaven.
The craziest thing happened to me last weekend. I got mistaken for an old person. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, honestly, because I only feel 25. But there I was having drinks at a bar with some friends when our server made a seemingly innocuous remark that sucked the air out of my midlife bubble. As she was taking our order for a second round of drinks, she chose to strike up a conversation.
“It’s getting pretty busy in here tonight,” she noticed. “There must be a show. Who’s playing?”
We told her we were going to see The Replacements. I could see her wracking her young, fresh brain for any recognition of the name The Replacements and coming up blank. My friends filled her in on who The Replacements were while she explained her ignorance of them by commenting that she grew up listening to KISS because that’s what her parents listened to.
Whoa! Her parents? Was she comparing us to her parents? Just how old did this child think we were? Certainly I do not look old enough to be her mother because I’m not old enough to be her mother.
“How old are you?” one of my friends inquired.
“I’m 24,” she replied.
Well, crap. I am definitely old enough to be her mother. I reeled at that thought for a few moments before seizing the opportunity to feel smug that I might be the same age as her parents but at least I’ve got better music taste. KISS? I openly admit that showing my face at a Replacements show dated me (since they officially broke up in 1991 before getting back together in 2006), but I have moved beyond 80s music. I listen to Sirius XMU, dammit. I have at least a modicum of knowledge about the current indie rock of college youth. So there. I’m not dead yet. Truth was, though, that I was a little shocked that she was so young and we were apparently so not young any longer. Then, apropos of nothing, she added this lovely comment.
“Well..I think it’s great that you’re all still getting out.”
There goes her tip.
Oh. My. God. I’m 46, not 86. Holy crap. Are people my age not getting out? Are my friends and I freaks because we can drag our aged carcasses from our homes, have some drinks, see a concert, and stay out until midnight? Am I an anomaly? Out on a Sunday night? I’ve never thought of my concert-going behavior as odd for my age (ugh…that phrase), but now I had to wonder.
We deflected her comment with a torrent of sarcasm. I gestured to extract the arrow from my heart. All the while, my head was spinning and my heart was gushing the last of my life’s blood. Had I really reached that point? Is that how 20 year olds see me? I’m the old lady they spy from across the room and condescendingly think, “Well…good for her”? When the hell did this happen? When did I cross that imaginary line from youth into old age? I’m not quite 50. I’m not yet eligible for AARP. Oh god. Does this mean I look over 50? The horror.
As if to punctuate the fact that I was absolutely not an old lady, I troubled her for a third glass of wine. The beauty of being older is that you can afford more wine, right? And if I’m too old to be out on Sunday night, I must certainly be too old to get drunk anyway. I’d show her. Old. Who was she calling old? I sucked down my wine like I was Ponce de Leon drinking from the Fountain of Youth.
When it was nearly time to go, I tossed a couple twenties to my friend and headed for the bathroom where I stood for a long time having a little come-to-Jesus meeting with my reflection in the mirror. I told myself that I’d rather be the old lady at the show than the old lady asleep at home. I am still at least sort of cool, even if my 24-year-old server doesn’t see it. I recall being a naive twit at 24. Someday, if she’s lucky, this girl will be 46 and some 24-year-old twit will inform her much to her chagrin that she’s now officially old.
In the meantime, I’m disappointedly starting to grasp the saying that inside every older person is a younger person wondering what the hell happened.