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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Take a look at me now

On most days, my office is my bedroom, my desk is my bed, and my knees serve as my table. The dress code is stretchy slacks and a cotton top. It has to double as a hiking outfit and it needs to hide dirt from young hands and camouflage dog fur.

Failed selfie attempt
Monday was different. It was a rare dress-up day. I found some slacks and a top that when worn together qualified me as a certified professional. A professional what, I’m not entirely sure. At the very least, I didn't look like a slob. All the fuss was because I took a meeting with a woman from my undergraduate alma mater. Our talk took me on a walk through the years I lived in Boston, the Stetson West dorm, my radio show at WRBB, and lounging on the Quad. I thought of my semester abroad in London. I reminisced about my senior year co-op in Boulder, CO.

Almost full-length selfie
I'll admit that I was worried about the meeting. I was worried what she might think of the life I’ve made for myself since leaving Northeastern 18 years ago. Yes, I was a reporter for a handful of years, but for most of those years I have been raising kids full-time—aside from my stint as the official mom blogger for Oxygen Media, getting my MFA, and writing a book. As I recounted all of those things to her, I realized I have accomplished so much since leaving the workforce (in addition to raising lovely young humans). My accomplishments haven’t been along a traditional job path, but they are not insignificant. Not to mention a chunk of these were accomplished while I was going through a divorce and single parenting

Got it! Cute, right?
Sure, the meeting had undertones of wanting me to donate with more regularity to the university that launched me into a writing career. I should be doing that more often. There were many terms that I needed extra grants, scholarships, and loans to pay tuition. Talking about my college years gave me a renewed appreciation for young people who are facing more competition to get into school and higher price tags. The percentage of kids going to college has risen by 48 percent since 1990 while the cost has tripled. It’s scares me to imagine what it be like 10 years from now when I might have four kids in college. But that's a side point...

In the meantime, my stylish outfit and my motivational chat have prompted me to revisit goals and amend deadlines now that the kids are back in school. Along the way I just might get a little more dressed up every now and again--even if I'm just headed to my four-legged office. Or perhaps I'll relocate my office to a cafe.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My first friend

(Yes, this is a Google Maps screenshot)
In 1980, when my family moved to a different house on the same street, it may as well have been to a different state. You see, Walnut Street divided those two blocks of Pound Street like an impassable highway to my six-year-old self. In that simple move just a block away, I lost touch with my first best friend. Walnut Street was the boundary that separated one school from another. The north side went to Washington Hunt Elementary and the south side went to Roy B. Kelley Elementary. I ended up at the latter school after the move.

I’ve always felt bad about that lost connection. At six, I was allowed to cross the street, and so I could have done a better job trekking that extra block back to Juniper Street where she lived—I just didn’t. All these years, I've wanted to apologize to her about that.

I have the best memories of from when we played together. I remember eating snap peas off the plants in her yard in the summertime, having white rice with butter at her family's dinner table (something that never appeared on my family’s table), and getting pulled home by her dad on a sled in what felt like the middle of the night on our first sleepover attempt when I ended up being too nervous to stay the whole night. She remembers other things—running away from home to my house and the time when I fell on my way home from school and a stranger gave me candy. I didn’t eat it, but instead gave it to my mother. Apparently my brother ended up eating it anyway. I wonder what he and my mother remember about that day?

I connected with her a few days ago via Facebook, and connecting with her (and finally apologizing for losing touch) is one of the things that makes Facebook actually worthwhile. But ultimately, all of these stirred up memories from decades long ago make me wonder what things have already been solidified in my children's memories, things that they will carry with them for the next 35-plus years.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What's under your shirt?

Mandatory touristy photo :)
Warm is not an adjective often used to describe a San Francisco summer day. But when I took the kids to Alcatraz last Tuesday, it was delightfully warm. We had braced for swift breezes and furious fog by wrapping our limbs in jeans and long sleeves. When we realized we’d over-packed, jackets were stuffed into backpacks but we were stuck with jeans wrapped around our legs.

Once we were on the ferry, the orientation video gave us an overview of the island’s notorious history as a maximum security prison, about the returning ferry schedule, about the steep hill we’d have to climb—equivalent to a thirteen story building—to reach the location where we’d pick up our audio tour. “Ugg,” was the response from R when he heard this. “I’ll never be able to make it.”

But there was an option for people with disabilities. A little electric shuttle runs from the wharf to the prison building. Since seating is limited, I told R that he may have to ride it alone and C and I would walk up and meet him at the top. While he didn’t like the idea of being alone on at the top while he waited for us, he liked the idea of waiting alone much better than the prospect of hoofing it up the steep road together.

SEAT on Alcatraz
When we got off the ferry, we were welcomed by an mucky ocean smell and a docent who gave us an overview of our visit, including the really important stuff like where the bathrooms and drinking fountains were located. As he spoke, I spotted the shuttle to our left. It looked like a little train from the zoo with its open sides and flat roof. Since R doesn’t have a wheelchair or crutches or some visible disability, I anticipated that the attendant would probably ask why we needed a lift. “Do you think you’re old enough to answer her questions on your own?” I asked R. He said yes. He is eleven and a half after all.

“I have a chronic heart condition and I’ve had five heart surgeries,” he told her. She waved us through. “Can they come, too?” he asked pointing to his brother and me. She said sure. Oldies and people with wheelchairs filled in around us. Just before the shuttle began to putter up the road, I heard the attendant say: “It’s the child,” and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her gesture toward us. I can only imagine that someone wanted a ride, she declined their request, and then they pointed indignantly towards us with a snarky comment along the lines of: “What’s wrong with them?”

I felt angry, wishing they had asked me directly in their self-righteous tone of voice because they thought we were taking advantage of a service we didn’t need. I felt embarrassed because we look normal. I avoided eye contact with everyone we passed, but felt accusatory stares as we rolled towards the top.

R looks like a regular kid. His big blue eyes are like his dad’s. The arc of his eyebrows match mine. He likes the San Francisco Giants and reading. He likes garlic toast and Tabasco. He plays little league and wants to be a professional pitcher someday. He has a crush on a girl at school and goofy teeth that an orthodontist is ready to crank into neat rows. He also gets tired very easily, but no one can see his heart defect.

Don't we all have stuff hidden from view--stuff we don't like, stuff we don't talk about, stuff we conceal under clothing or hats or makeup? Our scars make us who we are and sometimes they are visible and sometimes they're not. A shirt hides R's scars. But on days like that, his healthy appearance made us stand out. I only wish that I hadn't been so bothered by other people's reactions.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A perfect first date

I think I went on a first date yesterday. And it was a fabulous first date! I picked her up in my hot minivan and drove to the coast. Sunlight drizzled gold on the ocean water. Whales breached just off the coast, their bus-sized bodies pushing through the surface, spraying blasts of water towards the sky. It was all very romantic (although I could have done without topless young women in thongs dancing in the surf).

The kids were there, too. They shared toys, teases the waves, and spied on hermit crabs and regular crabs at low tide. They played fetch with the dog and brushed sand off of their granola bars (and didn't seem to notice the mostly-naked women in thongs).

The thing is, I didn’t mean for the day to be a date. It was a genuine invitation to hang out with the kids as summer winds down. But it sort of felt like a date anyway. There were lots of questions about family and the husband and what she used to do before kids and whether she plans go back to work as a patent attorney or a mechanical engineer when her kids are a little bit older. I asked her all about her writing—she’s an aspiring author too—which is probably what prompted my invitation in the first place. 

For kids, making friends is as simple as saying: “Hi My name is R, what’s yours?” But as grown-ups, we look for commonality and a line of thinking goes something like this…Oh, our kids are friends. We’re both volunteer art teachers. You’re a writer, too? I probably asked too many questions, but that’s how this former journalist manages curiosity and deals with silence.

You see, my best friend in San Carlos up and moved to the mountains a couple of weeks ago. Her move shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but I’m still surprised. And now I feel a little wobbly as we were raising our kids together. For three years, we took the kids on “Adventure Wednesdays” and occasionally bolted for San Francisco when the kids were at school and had a few hours between the other projects in our lives.

Now that she’s gone, I’m just having lots of feelings. She was my dance companion on Monday nights, my hiking buddy, my go-for-coffee companion, my sous chef on Wednesday nights when our families had dinner together. I am truly happy for her family’s adventure to the mountains (really, honestly, truly). I’m just feeling a little sorry for myself. A little off…

So I guess you could say that I'm out there dating again, trying to make friends. No, it wasn't meant to be a date, although she did pick up the check after dinner. So now the question becomes, will we go on a second date?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

That's real life, baby

The carpeting was basically new when I decided to pull it up. We’d only lived in the house a few months and I’m pretty sure it was one of the things the previous owners replaced to spruce up the place—along with a lick of fresh paint—before putting it on the market. As I nudged the corner away from the baseboard, I found hardwood. It didn’t look too shabby. And that was all it took. I yanked and fought the staples and tore the beige piles into long strips before working them into carpet versions of Swiss roll cake.

Once the carpet was stacked on the front porch, I stepped back and looked at my handiwork. Yes, rows of hardwood planks lined the room, but they were much rougher than I originally thought. There were large dark spots, gouged spots, entire sections that would need replacing. Paint blobs were splattered everywhere. In the span of a morning, the living room became a construction zone. It still is six months later. And it probably will be six months from now.

We’re about to meet with a structural engineer to see if some walls can come down. If so, the floors will need some work which means they’ll have to wait until after that other little project. Yet my husband recently thanked me. And he was serious. No, he does not enjoy that the soft living room groundcover is gone and that the dilapidated floors are now blatantly obvious. But he saw my actions as a reminder of how I approach our relationship. “You’re not afraid to see what’s under stuff,” he said. It was the highest of compliments.

We both learned in our previous marriages that not talking about stuff doesn’t make it go away. Not dealing with stuff doesn’t make it go away. And the only way to find out if you have wood floors under that beige wall-to-wall stuff is to yank it out. Even if it means there will be a mess of stuff to deal with as a result. I guess you could just say that I pulled up the carpet a year too soon. And that’s okay. I didn’t shy away from the prospect because there would be ramifications. I went into it knowing it would be messy. That’s real life, baby.

For now, my husband is reminded of my awesomeness every time he walks in the front door.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Chores are the new Play-Doh

When my ex and I split, I often filled my kid-free days with the never-ending chore list that seemed even grander when there was just one parent doing everything. I wanted to spare the kids the rush of errands from Trader Joe’s to Costco and Walgreens so that when we were together for those condensed hours each week, it was quality time. We'd read and wander to the park to play baseball. We'd blow bubbles and squish Play-Doh between our fingers.

To be fair, I'm sure I also enjoyed that those trips were easier when the kids weren't there. No one to buckle, no one to push in a cart, no one asking for this and that. It was quicker, stealthier shopping.

My kids are much bigger now. They can open car doors and buckle themselves into their seats and wander off to find capellini and edamame and cereal, if need be. But those opportunities for them to help with shopping and cooking didn’t happen very often for a few years as I navigated the hectic life of single parenting with graduate school. And I think my attempts to spare them the minutia of life did them a disservice.

When they arrived at my house on transition days, the refrigerator was full, the shower had shampoo, their clothes were washed. Sure, they have had chores for years, so it wasn't as if they didn’t contribute—they put their clean clothes away, they tidy up their toys and their rooms, they load and unload the dishwasher and sort darks from lights. But removing them from the household shopping equation created kids who didn't appreciate the efforts involved in keeping a house stocked with necessities and supplies.

And on days when I needed them to accompany me to the shops, they'd complain: “Why do we have to go with you??!!” I accidentally created kids who believed that everything happened while they were off at school or with their dad. They erroneously believed that their time shouldn't be wasted on shopping or picking up prescriptions. They erroneously believed that their time was exclusively for themselves. My response to their complaints: “This is part of being in a family.”

My internal voice said the antidote for those complaints was to make them go on more errands. So I started saving the trips to the grocery store and the drug store until after I picked them up from school. That gave me more time during those precious few childfree hours to work and to study. It also got them more involved (again) in helping out.

It was a slippery slope, though, because middle-schoolers actually have a bunch of homework. And between homework and extracurricular sports, they don't actually have much time left in their day for just being at home, together, relaxing. So this summer, we are doing more family tasks. They are bringing their dirty clothes to the garage, learning to use the washing machine, planning meals, writing the shopping list, chopping tomatoes, making bruschetta, cleaning up. We are going on more errands together.

It’s not Play-Doh, but we talk about meals they want to learn how to cook. And when we're at the store, I'm teaching them how to pick produce and to look for expiration dates on milk. There’s still family movie night, cards, and reading, but this is a new way for us to have quality time together. It’s all part of slow process of helping them become self-sufficient, independent young adults.