Twelve Days of Summer Wee Niblet

Twelve Moments of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY TWELVE


On the twelfth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: twelve plushies thrumming


We can trace it through the generations: the impulse towards creative expression.

Paco’s paternal grandmother is an artist, a painter.


Paco’s paternal grandfather is an architect, a photographer.


Paco’s maternal grandmother is a hand quilter, a stitcher.



Paco’s maternal grandfather was an opera singer, a tenor.



Hit the play arrow to hear my dad singing in–I’m guessing–the early 1960s, when he was still in his twenties. He started good. He got better.

Paco’s mother exalts in a forceful verb, in a fucking syntactically satisfying expletive. She also posts conversation-provoking images on Instagram. Below, for example, is a commentary on pop culture in which mockable-yet-sympathetic celebrity Khloe Kardashian’s love life is mirrored by a bored Minnesotan in her basement. From this photo, viewers glean how fragile the line is between fame and life below stairs.

All we tryin' to do is get out of the club with our new boyfriends. #KhloeandJames #JocelynandNutcracker
All we tryin’ to do is get out the club with our new boyfriends. #KhloeandJames #JocelynandNutcracker

Paco’s father takes black & white, pen & ink, floss & grid, and conjures magic.
Telephone Wires


Fourth Grade
Hell if he didn’t cross-stitch his fourth grade school photo.
Another self-portrait.

All praise to the skies: Paco channels his forebears.

The kid loves him some art. Perks up around some crafts.

It takes a visionary to twitch out The Cabbage Patch at the Louvre.

As the years pass, and the boy moves from molding Playdough to pounding nails into boards to inking hieroglyphs to drawing monsters to weaving bags, he is wading his way through the possibilities, testing out each form of expression.

Currently, at age twelve, he exhibits a penchant for textiles. Always a tactile person, he falls into the feels of soft, scratchy, raised, fluffy, mesh, hard, ridged. Beyond his love of touch, Paco’s affinity for working with wool and fleece dovetails nicely with his love of video games; this intersection of interests has made him cognizant of art as saleable.

In other words: he has realized that if he makes stuff and sells stuff, he can buy other stuff. Such as video games.

Perhaps this consumeristic attitude coarsens the “art.” On the other hand, the developing sense that “If I create something good, people might buy it” gives us hope that he may one day be able to establish independence. Feed himself. Buy a new pair of Crocs. Purchase a bike, a car, a bus pass. Knit the world’s largest Raggedy Ann doll, sell it to Elon Musk, and take his parents to Fiji.

I mean, seriously. For thousands of years, art has thrived under patronage. If a piece of factory-vomited plastic crap is worth paying for, why not a hand-made, potentially culture-transforming specialty? As I’m sure you ask yourself each night while scrubbing the pots and pans: should not the Countess of Champagne have sponsored the efforts of Chrétien de Troyes?

Much like the bubbly countess, whose coins helped fast-forward the development of the modern novel, I strongly, fervently believe in the financial backing of art.

Indeed, I strongly, fervently believe people should throw five-dollar bills with all the force in their arms at painters, photographers, quilters, singers, hashtagically gifted Instagrammers, and steady-handed pen-and-inkers. More specifically, I strongly, fervently believe people should throw money at my kid if they like the stuff he makes and not only because of Fiji.

This business of patronage is one of the few subjects I can get shouty about, in fact. My Shortlist of Shouty, best read in the voice of my inner Crabby Guy, hollers about a variety of topics:

1) Use the spell and grammar checks provided in your word processing program, but also realize that no computer can replace the human eye–that venerable and vulnerable are not interchangeable;

2) Do not take a sip from my beer when I’m not looking, you greedy snitch;

3) Quit applying nostalgia to the framing of your life story. Of course things were better when you were a kid. YOU WERE A KID;

4) Neighbor, stop unwinding your hose from that creaky rack thing outside the window next to my bed when I’m sleeping;

5) Just say goodbye and walk out the door already instead of dragging out farewells while hairs turn grey. I beseech you: grab your half-empty casserole pan and buzz a straight line to the Subaru while waving over your shoulder;

6) Your nose is not smaller now because you had a deviated septum;

7) Hey, Walmart shoppers, howzabout supporting the arts instead of buying that $7.00 “Hakuna Some Vodka” t-shirt?

To counter the shouty, I have some happy:

Twice a year, our neighbors who run a stained glass studio out of their house hold an art sale. They invite a host of fellow artists to set up tables and displays to sell their wares, as well–so their entire house is populated with pottery, jewelry, paintings, and, yes, my husband’s pen-and-ink drawings

A year and a half ago, Paco asked if he could sit with Byron during the sale to try to move some of his own work. He had his eyes on the new Mario SmashBros game, you see. His parents make him financially responsible for supporting his habit, you see.

As is the way with artistic types, everyone cooed at the notion of a fluffy-headed ten-year-old bringing his products to the sale. At that point, the kid was into felting, both wet and needle. He’d made a bunch of felted balls and tubes, much to the delight of the textile artist ladies at the show. By 5 p.m., they’d informally apprenticed him into their guild.

As the texty-ladies approached him, hoping to clutch him unto their softly clad bosoms, the poor lad was compelled to back away, seeking a corner safe from embrace. He nearly backed into a six-foot custom-ordered stained-glass piece featuring a black bear snagging a fish from a river.

Art gets wildly dangerous when soft bosoms threaten.

It’s possible Paco’s mother helped him with some of this. She was all about his earning enough $$ to buy that new video game. Er, “supporting the arts.”
Balls felted in colorful layers are like geodes when split open.

That day, hanging out with Dad, eluding the loving ladies, Paco made almost $60. Even better, he’d had a grand time explaining his process to every kind customer who stopped by the table.

That day whet his appetite for the life-improving benefits of the arts.

That day, he went to Target and bought Mario SmashBros.

Thusly, an artist was born.

Currently, driven by a desire to purchase a few old-school Nintendo 64 games, Paco is eyeballing this summer’s upcoming art sale and honing this year’s craft of choice: the rainbow plushie. For months, our dining room table has supported the plushie factory, from fleece to felt to sewing machine to thread.


For long stretches since its inception, the plushie factory has gone unstaffed, perhaps anticipating a boatload of nimble-fingered refugee children washing upon Duluth’s shores, looking for work.

But then, other times, Paco gets in the rainbow mood. It helps when Dad is home and has time to sew, too. It helps when he’s allowed to listen to his Nintendo-related podcasts as he sews. It helps when he wears his fluffy bathrobe when he sews. It helps if he has a comforting latte served in his special New Mexico mug as he sews.

I could not have a better life.

It helps when my mom, the stitcher, comes to visit for a week and is happy to act as a refugee child in his sweatshop.

Now, a week before the art show, Paco is the overseer of a solid rainbow plushie inventory.


It is this mother’s prayer that heaps of crunchy progressive types, preferably towing small children in possession of whiny voices, decide to attend the art show ‘CAUSE PACO’S GOT AN OLD-SCHOOL NINTENDO 64 CONSOLE FOR WHICH HE ONLY OWNS TWO GAMES.

It will be all the better if his customers stop to chat for a minute as they make a purchase, for they will be immediately disarmed by the artist’s disclosure of “I just really like to whipstitch. And at first I hated doing the three layers of the eyes and asked my mom and dad and grandma to do those, but then, on occasion, I really got into it. To be honest, though, I was usually tired before I got to adding the top eye tier, so sometimes I would take off a day or two just for jumping on the trampoline or hanging out on my swing before I felt restored enough to once again face the pupils.”

So maybe he’ll sell some stuff. For sure, he’ll provide gentle, detailed explanations to satisfy every customer’s queries.

More importantly, whenever he sits down to face the dreaded pupils, whenever he lays out fabric in a pleasing design, whenever he talks to interested faces about the decisions he made during the process, he’s further establishing a fundamental relationship in his life: with art–that hobby, that vocation, that passion, that outlet. Whatever role they end up playing in his days, Paco’s expressions of creativity will provide him with companionship.

That’s what art does for the artist. It fills an empty room with promise, staving off loneliness, providing a framework wherein the empty room is the best kind of room. In an empty room, the artist has the space to focus, to take the necessary hours to dab, wipe, type, delete.

Art provides the artist with a singular intimacy, one that cannot be replicated anywhere else in life. What happens between me and an empty page, between my husband and Aida cloth, between my father-in-law and his camera, between my mother-in-law and a blank canvas, between my mom and a stack of cotton squares, between my dad and a score–this thing is unique. I have no human friendship or conversation that approximates the experience of lining up words, hating them, lining up new words, rearranging them, lining up more words, squinting at them, reading them aloud, worrying they make no sense, editing the rhythm, lining up a few more commas, mining my memory, fabricating some details, and finally deciding that if I like it, then someone else might, too, while also acknowledging that if no one else likes it, it’s still good because it did something for me.

Me, alone, energized by my great companion–the stories–is also me having a delightful wrestle with one of my best friends.

The artist takes an idea, goes deep with it, surfaces for gulps of air. All around him, the world carries on, oblivious, paying bills and sweeping the kitchen floor. Committed, propelled by desire to see the full realization of the idea, the artist descends again, sometimes feeling his way, sometimes borne by bliss, sometimes hammering his head. There is no one who understands that something huge is going on except the artist, spinning around inside his idea.

I want this relationship, this intimacy, this companionship for Paco. For the rest of his life, no matter where he lives or what challenges he faces, I want art to be there for him so that he is never alone.

Every sign has it that this will happen. He has the wiring. He has the noise inside of him that craves external shape.

For now, all that is certain is that he likes to whipstitch. He’s thinking he might like to try cross-stitching, like Dad, except instead of gridding out self-portraits, he’ll make some “sprites” from his favorite video games. Also, he really enjoys crumpling tinfoil. And blacksmithing. And toasting almonds.

The impulses are there; the myriad possibilities bash about like choppy waves on a windy Lake Superior. Fortunately, art allows for everything. He can come to it when he needs it. He can forge a toasted almond into a sheath of tinfoil. He can set the terms of that relationship.

He has the rest of his life for art, not merely this one summer when he is twelve, the summer that is fading into a puff of exhaled air.

Indeed, at the end of the summer art sale–at the end of the summer–our leisurely days of together time will draw to a close. We’ll get back on the school-year schedule, and our hours together will be more fragmented. I will be with him every day, yet I will miss him.

However, in the depths of winter, when ice coats the sidewalks and the holidays approach, I will hum a familiar tune to myself and remember that

on the first day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: help at the library

on the second day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: commentary on two purple gloves

on the third day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: three hikes through glens

on the fourth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: four flaming worksheets containing words

on the fifth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: fiiiiive bike bell dings

0n the sixth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: respite from my complaining

0n the seventh day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: seven(teen) birdies a-falling

0n the eighth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: eight dropped balls a’rolling

on the ninth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: nine sheep a’leaping

on the tenth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: ten meringues a’melting

on the eleventh day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: eleven piped positives


on the twelfth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: twelve plushies thrumming

Here’s the thing, though:

Despite all his the delight he brings and the mythology I can create around him, he is, at the end of it all, just a boy–just a kid in the midst of becoming who he’ll be.

He’s simply a kid, like any other, special only to those of us who adore him: his grandmother, the painter; his grandfather, the photographer; his other grandmother, the quilter; his mother, who rubs his scalp as they watch Iron Chef America and writes about it later; his father, the master of black-and-white. My father, who will never sing to him.

At the end of it all, he’s just a kid.

I was reminded of this when he provided me with a myth-deflating yelp of laughter one afternoon after he’d been working on a plushie at the dining room table. During his romp in the pile of fabric, he had co-opted a long, skinny remnant of fleece and decided, from that point on, to wear it as a ninja/martial artist headband.

Every time he would tie that long strip of red fabric around his head, he looked, to me, like an extra in

** FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES ** The cast of "Xanadu" performs the closing number on roller skates during a dress rehearsal of the musical in New York, Tuesday, May 22, 2007. The new Broadway show is based on the 1980 Olivia Newton-John film. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
…except he can’t skate.

Because Paco’s twelve, because he’s about to start seventh grade, because hormones that haven’t yet landed are still swirling around him, he cultivates reflections of himself, but in odd moments.

Like with a ninja/martial artist headband.

One day after he latched onto that hunk of fleece, he stood in the kitchen, monologuing about throwing stars and nunchucks as he tied the fabric around his head.

Then, wanting to check it out, he wandered into the bathroom and took a look in the mirror. When he came out, his smile spanned the softness of his cheeks. He couldn’t help himself.

Happily, like the unencumbered innocent he still is, he announced:

“Mom, whenever I wear this, my hair looks amazing.”

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY ELEVEN


On the eleventh day of summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: eleven piped positives


From the start, Allegra was crazy about her little brother.


Excited from her soon-to-be-shorn scalp* right down to her slow-healing umbilical hernia, she gloried in having a buddy for life. For “Brudder,” she had endless hugs, tickles, adventures, and concern. In return, he worshiped her, gazing upon her with awe and appreciation, certain she’d hung the moon.

During Paco’s first two years of life, she was the dominant force that shaped him.



All of this happened in his first two years of life. It compounded thereafter, with sister teaching brother about independence, courage, and the pride of achievement.

And now, a decade has passed since those early years. She, the devoted sister, is less obviously so. Developmentally appropriate, she no longer hangs the moon for her brother; instead, she focuses on the axis around which she, herself, spins. However, he, the adoring brother, the little boy in him still resonating, has not changed.

Quietly, he orbits her. If she’s in the mood to be silly, he is the first to laugh. If she’s in the mood to tease him, he takes it with unfailing good humor. If she needs an assist, his hands are ready to pitch in. She thinks she’s great. He thinks she’s great.

From early days, Allegra was his Sun. By throwing her arm around him and officially dubbing him “one of the animals when I teach animal school,” she created in him the confidence that there was a place for him, that he was wanted, that he belonged. Even more, they established a trust that sustains them. Always, she has shown him what’s to come–has served as the example of his near future.

All of this was evident when Allegra got behind the wheel of a an actual, not plastic, car. She completed the driver’s education course during the first two weeks of summer break, and then she was ready to start putting in some road hours. In my mind, it was essential that her first time behind the wheel be both focused and isolated–just her and a parent.

That’s not how it played out.

With both Byron and Allegra working, the schedules didn’t mesh to have just one of us in the car with her with the other handled Paco-based amusements. Of course, Paco could have stayed home alone, but here’s the rub: he’s had a lifetime of being included. If Allegra was going to try driving, and he either had to be home alone or in the car with us,

he wanted to be an animal in her animal school.

So I asked the new driver how she felt about having “Brudder” in the backseat. It surprised her that I thought she might be bothered. “It’s just Paco! Sure, he should come.”

I should have known that the teacher who used to seat Brudder between two poorly behaved stuffed animals named Crabby Duck and Blabbermouth wouldn’t be fazed by one well-behaved Paco sitting in the back row of her driving debut. She’d long known that the strategic placement of Paco results in peace.

Despite her willingness to take his presence for granted, I also knew the twelve-year-old was enough of an adolescent that he might toss out a few wisecracks as his sister nervously tried to keep a vehicle within the confines of a high school parking lot. Thus, when we headed out that day, I took a quick moment to pull him aside and give him a murmured caution: “The best thing you can do is stay quiet. Allegra’s anxious about the prospect of being in charge of a car while also applying all the book learning she got from the classes, so we don’t want to wind her up. We’re going to stay calm and positive and not react with any dramatic gasps or comments, okay?”

He looked at me like I was crazy. Why would he do anything but support his sister?

Honest to holy, my friends, I sometimes think I can’t write about my kids because they set me up to be one of those smug asshole parents. If it helps at all, I, myself, am profoundly flawed and annoying, so please forgive my children their perfection. In my person, I more than make up for it.

For half an hour, the three of us turned small circles around the high school parking lot near our home. The driver was not, *ahem*, naturally mechanically inclined. Simply turning left at the end of the parking lot entailed fifty words of questioning about how far to crank the wheel and fifty more words to explain the concept of uncranking the wheel to STRAIGHTEN OUT BEFORE GOING OVER THE CURB.

She did just fine. Half an hour was enough to make both mother and driver a little tired. Half an hour was plenty.

When we got home–with me driving, as the fledgling was not yet ready to face actual traffic, I asked her to hop behind the wheel again and pose, so I could take a picture. While she grinned for the camera, an adolescent voice, unstrapping from the backseat, piped up: “You did a really good job, Allegra!

His compliment warmed me but hung in the air, unacknowledged. Seems my kids aren’t perfect after all. I chastened her: “Allegra! What do you say?”

“Thanks, Paco. I’m glad you were along.”

Then, being cool, tossing me the keys, she smiled, pleased with her efforts, and headed towards the house.


Despite her casual demeanor, something in the air had shifted.

She tossed her long hair over her shoulder, thwacked her flip-flops against her feet as she walked up the path to the house, swung her hips with a womanly stride,

but at the same time, responding to some deep internal programming, she leaned in to his words.


There, then, was a moment for the sister–with the little bugger who was always around–dancing, snuggling, companioning, playing, imagining, listening, loving. That little bugger.

Half an hour earlier, she hadn’t known she’d needed him when she asked, flummoxed, “Where do I put the keys to start this thing?”

–and hadn’t known she’d needed him when she broke into flop sweat and shouted, “I don’t want to go over five miles an hour!”

–and hadn’t known she’d needed him when she squealed, “Am I about to hit that pole?”

–and hadn’t known she’d needed him when she spluttered, “Wait, which one is the brake?”

–and hadn’t known she’d needed him when she mused, ruefully, “I totally missed that parking space, right?”

yet he’d been there the whole time, strapped into the backseat–




thinking she was amazing.

And when he told her so, he taught her:

it’s one thing to be a good driver, but it’s an entirely different gift

to be a good passenger.




*When Allegra was three, she would throw a fit whenever I’d brush her hair, fighting against my efforts. As a result, I told her, “Either you be nice and let me brush your hair without fuss, or we’re going to cut it really short.”

With nary a beat of pause, she responded, “Then I think you’re going to need to cut it short.”

So we did. Once the shearing–during which she sat happily and quietly–was over, I fancied she looked like a 1970s Romanian gymnast.

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY TEN


On the tenth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: ten meringues a’melting


When he was born, he was a big baby, fully 50% larger than his sister had been. That made sense: I’d carried him 41 days longer than I’d carried her. He’d had bonus snack time inside the sac.

In the minutes after the nice doctor scooped him out of me with a melon baller, Paco suffered through the wiping of vernix and the recording of his APGAR score (a 22). But then, quickly reaching the end of his three-minute-old patience, he squawked to the assembled crowd, “Anyone got a nosh? Some croutons? Maybe a pickle? In a pinch, yea, I’ll tuck in to some of that colostrum, but can you do me a solid, Ma, and make it extra rich?”

Thus, Paco’s eating career was launched.

By the end of his first day of life, my nipples were raw; by the end of the second day, the nurses ventured the dreaded question: “Can we give him a bottle of sugar water? You’ve been nursing for hours, but he’s still so hungry.”

Bless him for being Child #2 so that I didn’t have to freak out and blather about “My child shall never have a bottle” and “I can’t meet his needs. I’m such a failure.” Instead, despite the intensely decimating fatigue that rushed in after a day-long induced labor followed by an emergency C-section capped by hella long time in recovery, and despite the hormones that washed away all hope of logic, I greeted the nurses’ question with relative calm.

I only cried a little bit as I clutched a pillow to my incision and sighed, “Yes. You can give him a bottle of sugar water. That traumatized little posterior-facing chunk is ravenous. Please, while I weep quietly into the edge of my sheet and avert my gaze, feel free to take the edge off his hunger.”

Fortunately, some steely maternal resolve governed my milk supply and his attitude, for that was both the last bottle he was ever offered and the last bottle he ever agreed to take. As the days carried on, my nipples toughened, my milk rushed to fill his stomach, and he grew a pound a week for the first eight weeks of life.

So there I was, all the time, every day, plus all night, every night, nursing my 18-pound two-month old, dandling him on my lap, rolling with him around the mattress, kneading his soft, sweet pudge, asking him as he sucked, “Would you maybe like to learn how to drive? Or start an accounting firm? I think you’re ready for keys and a necktie.”

Eventually, we started him on solids–at which point he spoke his first words, a shouted “IT’S ABOUT TIME”–and, from his first sneer at a spoonful of pureed apricots, we also started him on a cascade of preference expression that often sent us to the basement to scream into the dryer (setting: “fluff”).

“Baby want green beans?” was followed by an awe-inspiring hail of vegetable missiles arcing through the air, landing scattershot from bathroom to back door.

“Paco, how about some noodles with sauce?” had all of us gazing at the ceiling, marveling at the tenacity with which a piece of spaghetti can maintain its grip.

“Buddyboy, you finical little monster, want to suck on this wedge of lemon?” revealed a toddler who couldn’t stuff enough sour into his otherwise crabbing maw.

Over the years, until very recently, we’ve often despaired at the strictness of his palate. Then again, the despair has been laced with bemusement, for our rabid lemon eater, he who disdained a hot dog, also clambered aboard my lap in a Vietnamese restaurant when he was three and proceeded to slurp down a significant portion of my massive bowl of pho.

As it turns out, while he came late to lasagna, Paco’s mouth loves pesto, curry, edamame, soy, carne adobada. He sucks down blueberries like a bear cub, a cup of coffee as though his pulse needs a jump start, black pepper popcorn like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are thundering down the alley.

But, sweet rack of lamb, do not offer him a slice of cheesecake, a handful of trail mix, or suggest that his bowl of granola, being delicately lifted to his soft lips with a tiny spoon, might profit from milk or yogurt. Five years ago, I coerced him into trying a bite of cucumber, and I still hear about the anguished torture of swallowing vomit generated by the resultant gag reflex.

I consider it one of my life’s greatest achievements that my son eats hamburgers. It took more than a decade of diplomatic cajoling to win him to that cause.

If I splice his tastes very finely, though, it becomes apparent that his palate is, in fact, admirably refined. He likes anise and basil; screw the ketchup. As well, he has always been crazy for a cooking show and a new cookbook. Recently, I was able to tell him, in the course of a single day, “…so if you have to read a non-fiction book for school this year, you might enjoy the biography of Julia Child called Dearie, and also, yes, we can make the Yorkshire Pudding in Alton Brown’s Good Eats book for dinner. It’ll will, indeed, be the perfect foil for our meat juices.”

Despite years of despair over his refusal to eat “easy” food, I now glory in his quirky requests for pan-fried noodles with a side bowl of spinach leaves–which will be dipped, one by one, into yet another side bowl, this one holding ginger dressing. I also rejoice that his interest in food allowed him to agree to a World Cooking class a few months ago when I was hectoring him to please, please, please, for-the-love-of-your-parents-who-need-you-to-go-away-for-three-hours-a-day-for-just-one-week-of-the-summer, consider a camp or two.

Oh, there were caveats. He did not want to enroll in both the sweet and the savory World Cooking classes even though one was offered in the morning and the other in the afternoon. A full day would be too much. Also, he would vastly prefer the savory section but would perhaps be amenable to the sweet-based sessions so long as we understood they would be spiced with a dash of grumbling. Moreover, he would only attend this camp if a friend would attend along with him.

Here’s what I didn’t see coming when the nice doctor melon balled a 10 pound, 2 ounce baby out of me after a day of three epidurals and a Pitocin-fueled labor that resulted in fetal decelerations: the moment twelve years later when I would look that former baby directly the eyes and think, “Although part of me wants to accommodate your attitude because I understand anxiety and the need to be very particular in what feels comfortable, I also suspect you’re at least 10% butthead. However, because an honest parent needs to take ownership of a fair portion of her child’s buttheadishness, I agree to your conditions and will now buoy your butthead ways by writing out a cheque for $120–which, after taxes, is pretty much a day’s work for your father. In return, you will of course excuse me for jotting ‘Ingrate’ on the memo line, yes?”

So we lined up a friend–a cousin!–and took a look at schedules; to my delight for a variety of reasons (read: Butthead Had to Suck It Up and Mommy Loves Napoleons), the kids enrolled in the Sweets section.

As it turned out, the camp ran during the week when I was in New Mexico, so I didn’t even get to enjoy hours in my house without my kid, a phenomenon I call “I do believe in God, for there is a heaven.” I also didn’t get to enjoy all the treats Paco brought home each day. His World Cooking teacher was a French woman, and therefore it must have killed her to be teaching zee mysteries of zee kitchen to callous kids in a rube town in Northern Minnesota. Not only had her subjects been raised on lutefisk as “good food,” she also was limited enough in time and facilities that she had to–comment est-ce que vous dites?cut corners.

At the end of the week of World Cooking camp, which dovetailed with the end of my time in New Mexico, I returned home at midnight and was met in the kitchen by a few Paco Products that he’d saved for me. There were a couple of meringues, wonderfully chewy from the day’s humidity. There was a small wedge of apple strudel. And there was a wee, bite-sized tartlet.

Paco Meringues

To a mother returning home from a week away, foraging in the kitchen at midnight, always hoping for a surprise tidbit of sweetness, Paco’s offerings were fantastic. Alone in the dark, I applauded each bite appreciatively.

Paco World Cooking

The next morning, however, as he explained them, he was apologetic. He was sorry that corners had been cut. He would have liked all the ingredients and processes to be authentic. I talked down his protests: “But, kid, you used a torch on crème brûlée! That’s super authentic.” Holding up my hand, I continued, “I will not hear a word against you or your cooking. Cease.”

Happily, he was excited enough about the camp and his new recipes that he wanted to make something for Byron on Father’s Day. “I’m going to make you a big tart, Dad, one that we all can eat. You like berries, right?”

So we took Paco’s World Cooking class recipe to the store. We bought what it told us to. Then Paco hit the kitchen and, while I was out for a run, he cranked out a tart for his pappy. When I returned home, I took a peek in the fridge and ooohed loudly.

Modestly, Paco corrected my reaction, saying, “It’s not really cooking because it’s pretty much pre-made stuff, and Dad helped me roll out the crust because I got frustrated with it. I was hungry. I did better after I ate. But, even if it’s not totally real, and I had help, it’s still good. I had my piece already, and it was really good.”

After a moment of thinking “…and a happy Father’s Day to you, Byron, stuck dealing with a stomach-growling butthead while I’m out running in the sunshine,” I realized something. All his life, Paco has wrestled with hunger. From the first night he breathed air, he has craved satiation. For twelve years, whenever his stomach has called, it’s been a challenge to find the correct answer. Even worse, his mood is intimately tied to hunger; few things have sent Byron and me skittering to the cupboard faster than our boy in a foul temper. Because Paco, despite his love of croutons and pickles, is fundamentally sweet, not savory, we have long known that if the kid is crabby, he’s hungry. In many ways, his appetite has ruled us all.


He wanted to make the food.

He struggled to make the food.

He realized he was hungry.

He fed himself.

He felt better.

This tart, no matter how “fake” the ingredients, was a masterpiece, a turning point.

This tart was a revelation.

As my brain raced to catch up with new realities, I affirmed his words. “I’m so glad you had something to eat and then were able to finish making this beautiful tart for Dad. It’s cool that he helped you with it, too, since he’s always been The Cook in your life, and the two of you are a well-established crackerjack team. But most of all, Pup, excellent work eating when you realized your mood was crashing. There’s no question: this tart is pastry rock and roll. I can’t wait to dig in!”

Smiling happily, letting my words fill him, he advised–in the fashion of Julia Child, Thomas Keller, and Jacques Pepin–“When you eat your piece, Mom, don’t take a bite that slices a raspberry in two. What you have to do is get the whole raspberry in your mouth and then let it explode with juiciness that washes all over the French Vanilla pudding and crust. That will be important to your eating experience.”

A few hours later, as I stood alone in the kitchen at midnight, taking the first bite of my big baby’s masterpiece, I contemplated a raspberry and laughed. It looked just like a raw nipple.

Chuckling, I lifted the fork.

As promised, the raspberry, taken whole into the mouth, exploded with a juiciness that washed over the pudding, the crust, and my heart.

It tasted exactly like love.


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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY NINE


On the ninth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: nine sheep a’leaping


The past couple of years, I’ve been the faculty advisor for our campus’ chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, which is the honor society for two-year colleges. It’s been a fascinating experience–something that’s foreign to my ways of functioning in the world–and therefore I’m grateful to have had it. PTK is very much about awarding official accolades in clappy-clappy ceremonies. As a rule, I don’t crave accolades, I’m not one for clappy-clappy, and ceremonies create in me a strong desire to bolt for the Exit sign. It’s been good for me to see how important such stuff can be for students, though, and how the programming of PTK can truly impact their lives. And if students are into it, and it’s helping them develop skills and earn scholarship monies, I can play nice. Because students plump my shriveled heart and make it grow wings, I can bundle into some Spanx and do clappy-clappy.

On a personal level, the best part of PTK has been the opportunity to travel to the various conferences, whether they are regional or national. The college has provided PTK with a budget that covers such trips; moreover, because PTK headquarters has resources (*coughmoneycough*), the speakers at the national conventions are terrific. Between trips to Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, I’ve sat rapt and listened to Alison Levine, who led the first team of American women up Mt. Everest; listened to Robert Ballard, who discovered the remains of the Titanic; listened to Malcolm Gladwell, the charismatic author of several bestsellers (such as Blink and Outliers); and listened to John Legend, the R & B singer and man intelligent enough to marry hilarious model Chrissy Teigen. These are only a few of the speakers who reminded me that I thrill, from my toenails to my scalp, when I hear smart people spew words.

Beyond the national conventions, I also was fortunate to win a free registration this summer to something called The Honors Institute. Held this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Institute offered six days of sessions and speakers at the University of New Mexico. Attendees stayed in the dorms, ate in the cafeteria, and, at least for the students involved, had their first-ever experience on a four-year college campus.

Beyond the allure of a week of excellent speakers (notably Reza Aslan, PhD, author of books on religious topics, an Iranian-American who experienced a bit of fame when he appeared on the Dunce Network–excuse me, the Fox Network–in an interview that subsequently went viral; the interviewer couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that he’s Muslim but wrote a book about Jesus, despite his continued explanations in response to her questioning of his credentials: “Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” Completely, entirely, radically, the interviewer was unable to grasp that a person’s private beliefs are separate from his area of academic inquiry. Not unrelatedly: I see students all the time in college classes who suffer from the same syndrome. They refuse to read assigned novels, making claims of faith, lacking the nuanced thinking to see that a book is one thing, yet their faith is another. If their faith is firm, no book will shake it. Refusing to read a book is an indication of unacknowledged fear. We avoid what bothers us, and if a student makes a case for avoidance, then that topic is exactly what we should be addressing. It’s sort of like why I don’t want to talk about Twizzlers. Also, should I maybe start a new blog post and deposit this rant there? Anyhow, as I was saying: Reza Aslan was phenomenally articulate and able to parse out subtleties that too often elude the mainstream. Certainly, I had an objection or two during his talk, but the reason I liked him is this: he’d welcome my objections. Thus, an hour in the presence of his voice buoyed me immeasurably), there was the social aspect of attending the Honors Institute.

First, I flew to the Institute with one of my students and spent the bulk of my time that week with her. She is more friend than student–a 52-year-old full-time clinical data analyst who’s been the student mentor in my online classes the past few years–and I enjoy her hugely, but still: we have a lot to say to each other. There is talking when we are together. There is a lot of talking when we are together.

Then, there’s the fact that my brother lives in Albuquerque and was kind enough to pick us up at the airport, take us out for a hike and dinner with his younger daughter, and let me stay at his place the first night, along with taking a day off from work later in the week when we conference attendees had a free day. I enjoy my brother and niece hugely, but still: we have a lot to say to each other. There is talking when we are together. There is a lot of talking when we are together.

Once the actual Institute happened, there was an overwrought registration process that took hours of standing in a winding line while waiting with 500 others as we made our way to our keys and room assignments. Even though I took out a book and slammed my face into its pages as my student and I loitered in line, packed hundreds deep in a dorm hallway, shuffling forward six inches every four minutes, there still were a lot of people around me with things to say to each other. There was talking as they muddled forward together. There was a lot of talking as everyone shambled together.

At long last, I received my key and room assignment. My student received hers. Since no one at the registration table had a map or gave us directions, we then wandered in large circles around the UNM campus, dragging our suitcases behind us, looking for signs on buildings that matched the words on our envelopes. Eventually, after entirely too much time, we found our rooms (in separate dorms). As I entered my room for the first time, I held my breath. Would my roommate–whoever she was–be there already? Sweaty and tired, needing a quiet break, I pushed the door open. That the room was empty was a colossal clemency. Gratefully, I wheeled myself in and stripped off my backpack. Staring at the two beds, I tried to triangulate the set-up to see if one would afford more privacy. Quickly, I decided to take the one towards the back of the room, leaving open the bed in the half of the room with the fridge, microwave, mirrors, and access to the bathroom. At the very least, once I got settled in my bed, I wouldn’t have to smile and play nice each time my roommate wandered through. As that thought floated through my mind, I heard a rattle at the door. My roommate. When the door swung open, it wasn’t a stranger. It was a woman from my region, a faculty member from the college where I used to teach. I’d first met her in 1996. We had a lot to say to teach other. There was talking, for six days, when we were together. There was a lot of talking when we were together.

Additionally, we were to share a bathroom with the adjacent suite. That meant four women shared a toilet, shower, and sink space. That meant there was no escape, even in the most private moments. That meant I had to reach deep into my history and channel my 18-year-old self, a girl who found dorm living as exciting as it was enervating–a girl who didn’t chafe when she wanted to wash her hair or hit the toilet but first had to wade through a gauntlet of friendly talk. Little-known fact: ladies in the bathroom have a lot to say to each other. There was talking when we all were brushing our teeth together. There was a lot of talking into mirrors together.

Three times a day, as well, there were meals in the cafeteria. Each conference attendee was given a pre-loaded meal card that provided entrance to the dining hall for free meals. Trust me: once or twice, I was more than happy to wave off the crew heading to the cafeteria and hike to a cluster of local shops. There I, or my student and I, gladly paid for food. What a blessing it is to be able to pay for a meal, even when a free one presents itself, simply because the purchased meal feeds the parched spirit. For the most part, though, it was quicker and easier to wade into the cafeteria and load up on carbohydrates and three steamed carrots. Speaking of scenarios that really burn my tits: it’s been years since I held a tray of crappy food while scanning a vast sea of tables, looking for a friendly face and an open seat. Once we found a place at a table, there was lots of talking. There was talking as we all ate Rice Krispies bars together. There was a lot of talking when we loaded our empty trays onto conveyor belts together.

Before and after each meal were the sessions. For each session, there would be a speaker followed by a seminar break-out discussion (the presentations were awesome, one and all–beyond Reza Aslan, we also saw New Mexican dancers, watched a play written by a female playwright who illuminates Latina lives, and enjoyed hearing stories from National Geographic‘s “big cat” photographer, among others). All week, we met in our assigned seminar groups with the same small group of people. Put another way, my usual tactics of skittering off into the darkness were thwarted since I was in a group of 12, and all my seminar mates were fellow advisors. As in, they, too, were teachers. Like, used to keeping track of bodies and noticing when someone was missing. Teachers are also really good at discussing. I hate teachers. During every seminar session–and there were two each day, the last one ending at 10:15 p.m.–there was lots of talking. There was talking as we probed the true meaning of the angry outbursts expressed by the teenage daughter in the play we’d watched. In our seminar group, there was a lot of talking about angry fictional outbursts.

In summary: the week was a highly programmed, tightly scheduled bit of unrelenting socializing. I suspect the overarching purpose of the 14-hours-a-day approach was to keep the underage students from finding the time and energy it would take to score booze, get tanked, and vomit into the cactus-based landscaping. For those of us who require alone time to remain functional, the week was challenging. I did, in fact, skip out on the “optional” afternoon sessions when I could, hoping to score a retreat back in the dorm room. Two things sabotaged those efforts: 1. ROOMMATE; 2. MARCHING BAGPIPE TROUPE PRACTICING OUTSIDE MY WINDOW EVERY AFTERNOON FOR TWO HOURS.

My sanity was saved that week by the same things that keep my nut in a jar in regular life: exercise, beer, and staying up later than everyone else so that I can be alone. Every day, I used stolen afternoon hours to run, and every night, despite the “absolutely no alcohol or you will be expelled” policy, somehow alcohol found its way into my water bottle, and it was the only water bottle I had, so I had to empty the thing otherwisetherewouldhavebeennoplaceforwater. Capping off each day was late-night time perched on my dorm bed–where I would hunch over my laptop and grade that day’s work in my online summer classes. By 3 a.m., I’d feel in control, both of my need for solitude and the heaps of discussion posts and paraphrasing activities.

By 3:20 a.m., I’d turn off my book light, fluff my pillow, and catch a cool three hours of sleep before my roommate would leap out of bed to make coffee and curl her hair.

I find I am a devoted fan of straight hair.

By midweek during the Honors Institute, I was a wild mixture of elated, overwhelmed, satisfied, emotionally sweaty, and exhausted. I’d been away from home for four days. I hadn’t yet called to check in. It was time to call home for some talking. There would be talking about all we’d done without each other. However, given who my family members are, bless Odin, there would be not much talking about all we’d done without each other.

The call was so mercifully brief as to feel like an icy shot of aquavit pouring down a dry throat.

Byron and I had kept in touch through Facebook messages, but still, hearing him on the line restored me. Then he passed the phone to Allegra–ever her mother’s daughter in her dislike of the telephone. She was glad to tell me, in forty-two words, about her job, her running group, some babysitting. Then she grabbed Paco.

“Hi, Mom.” His voice is ineffably sweet when heard in isolation from his face.

“Hey, Punky. How you doin’?”

“I’m okay,” he assured me, wanly.

“How was the sleepover birthday party at Isaac’s last night? I’m guessing you guys slept in his back yard in the tent?”

“Yea,” he yawned. “I decided it would be okay to do that. It was.”

“So how many other boys were there?”

“Ummm, I didn’t count. But it seemed like at least six. A few of them weren’t so much about the sleeping. They talked all night.” I could almost hear him rubbing his eyes.

“Oh, man, I know that feeling, kiddo. It just makes you feel wiped out, doesn’t it, to feel like you’re done with your day, but it still continues?”

“Yea. I was ready to be done,” he confessed.

There are moments when I want to swaddle my twelve-year-old, just one last time, and tuck him into my armpit.

“Aww, pup. I can hear the fatigue in your voice. You sound raspy and tired when you talk. I’m glad you’re relaxing tonight. After you’re done watching your show, go to bed, and sleep really well, okay?” I mothered.

He perked up at this idea. “I’m just going to finish out this Mythbusters, and then I’m going to sleep for a long time. I know I’ll feel better tomorrow. Hey, so how’s your conference? Have you done anything fun?”

Quickly, I gave him a rundown of the good stuff, trying to convey how events that are wonderful can also be too much.

When I was done, Paco asked, “So two more days ’til you’re home? I’ll be in bed before you get home that night, right?”

Correct, Pumpkin. But you’ll feel my breeze as I wheel my suitcase into the house, below your sleeping head.

We wound down our conversation with me telling him to have a good night and him telling me to have fun. Then, just as I was about to say one last good-bye and disconnect, he added, “Mom?”

“Yea, Bubs?”

“I hope you sleep well tonight. I can hear in your voice that you’re really tired. Be sure you get some good sleep tonight.”

The child became the parent, and my heart expanded to match the size of his.

Assuring him I would take good care, we hung up.

The dorm room, barring a hum from the mini-fridge, was completely silent.

Balancing on the edge of the bed, I wiped tears from my eyes, inhaled a bracing breath, and grabbed my meal card.

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY EIGHT


On the eighth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: eight dropped balls a’rolling


My summer teaching takes place online, allowing me the mercy of not driving to campus but, rather, typing at my students from a variety of places within my house. Always, always, I’m a better teacher when I’m not wearing a bra, so this summer set-up is ideal for everyone involved.

The downside to teaching from home during the summer is the tension that exists between the work I need to do and everything else in my life being a mere two feet away. Some days, I have 70 discussion posts to read and 22 activities to grade, yet all my hours are devoted to laundry, dishwasher, groceries, chauffeuring, pots & pans, sweeping, phone calls, and kids. With every hour that passes, the weight of the unaddressed teaching pushes my mood into a darker, harder nugget of resentment. Inside, I feel frantic and antsy, itching to turn my attention to student concerns. Then, once I do, I’m fine. It’s all good: my mood rebounds, and I’m ready to deal with the household again. This is the downside of not being a procrastinator: if I know there is something that needs to be done, such as grading, it killlllls me not to be able to sit down and deal with it. Repeatedly, I have explained this to my family, and while they hear my words and understand my logic, the reality is that my work is invisible, making it difficult for onlookers to understand how very much there is. There are no students sitting in the living room with plaintive eyes, no stack of essays on the dining room table. My work is inside the computer, and I am the only one who sees it and truly understands its scope. What’s more, and I won’t do the “oh, pshaw” modesty thing here, my family cannot fathom the intricacies and vexations of my job because I am extremely efficient at putting my head down and punching my way through massive amounts of material. I read fast. I type fast. I process fast. (On the flip side, ask me to change a flat tire, and you’ll have time to bake a Bundt cake using the remnant warmth of the engine before I’m ready to put the car into Drive.)

As an adult, and as someone who has worked from home, Byron is best able to empathize. He hears my need; he sees my frustration. If he is able, he intercedes between Life and Jocelyn’s Work, throwing his body over the laundry, dishwasher, groceries, chauffeuring, pots & pans, sweeping, phone calls, and kids and telling me to grab my laptop and run to a quiet room. He beseeches me to slam the door. However, in recent months, he has been working a job in an office, away from the laundry, dishwasher, groceries, chauffeuring, pots & pans, sweeping, phone calls, and kids. At that office, his work remains invisible to us back at home, but at least he has the time and space to complete it. And so we teeter on an an all-too-familiar wire: the family’s primary breadwinner struggles to find time to win the bread.

We could address this issue head-on, of course, and schedule hours each day when I leave the house with my computer and go somewhere else, say, a coffee shop or the library. In many ways, this would be the easiest solution. However, the realities of summer have me on driving duty at least three times throughout the day. As well, I’m only teaching two classes during the summer, so the hours I need to put in fluctuate; I can’t predict how much there will be to do on any given day, at any given hour. It’s student-dependent. This means I could potentially drive twenty minutes, get to a coffee shop, unpack my laptop, boot it up, finally manage to get onto the wi-fi, and find that I have three short discussion messages to review. Even more: it’s summer, and I like the free-flowing days, where we sleep as much as we like, eat when we want to, hang out as we see fit, and soak up the all-too-rare sunshine. Put another way: I can’t be bothered to put myself on a schedule. The cicadas are buzzing, and I want to feel their hum in my heart.

All things considered, it works best for me to do my teaching when I can and, when I can’t, to remind myself to relax, that it all works out.

As is true with most platitudinal thinking, this sounds easy in the abstract but is prickly in reality. When the Dropbox holds ten research papers, each requiring a half hour of marking, but there are seven loads of laundry tumbling across the bed, I have to talk to myself, out loud but inside my brain, and counsel, “The papers will wait. You will get to them when everyone goes to bed tonight. It’s okay. You will get everything done. Take a deep breath, fill up your D-cups, and put your worry on the shelf, Ms. Friend.”

And then, because I’m still skeptical of the voice inside my head–that annoying drone–I try shifting into woo-woo mode: “Listen, girl, at the end of your life, what will have been most important? Work? Clearly not. Time with your family? YES. So shut off your work brain for a few hours and get the fuck into the moment with the people around you.”

Any time I use “fuck,” I’m a little impressed and intimidated by myself, so I listen. Consequently, the woo-woo approach does the trick. I relax. I let go of the nagging voices of students whose faces I’ve never seen. I tell myself it’s a blessing to enjoy a few more hours unencumbered by their writing, which regularly interchanges “venerable” and “vulnerable” and patently refuses to acknowledge the existence of apostrophes. If they can’t be bothered to apply their human eyes and judgment to their own writing, why am I in such a hurry to get there?

So that’s my burden during the summer: asking a droning inner voice to refine a passive-aggressive mood with a well-placed “fuck.”

I was particularly grateful for this foul-mouthed voice one day when I’d crept away from Paco as he lay on the couch, reading, and settled myself at the computer (“Just ten minutes, to check in and throw a blanket over any fires…”).

It was as though the kid had a radar that detected the sound of my rump hitting a desk chair.

Three minutes after I put my hands on the keyboard, I heard his footfalls on the stairs. Quickly scanning a discussion post, I prayed he was heading for the bathroom. Tarnation if he didn’t have an iron bladder and a loving heart. He was heading for the mother.

Sidling up, spying me at the computer, he asked, waving his hand towards the open window, “Are you maybe wanting to do something? I was wondering if you’d like to go outside and play volleyball.”

After our previous attempts to play badminton were distinctly and literally a miss, we ignored the net in the yard for a few days. Every now and then, I’d tell Paco, “We need to make sure we use the net for something else so that we didn’t go to all that effort for nothing. I mean, really: there was duct tape involved in getting that thing vertical. So let’s try volleyball sometime.” My suggestion was greeted with indifference.

Naturally, the moment I started to read discussion posts, volleyball gained appeal.

As Paco’s invitation sank in, my hands hovered over the keyboard, frozen from purchase. My initial impulse was annoyance. REALLY? You see me with the dust buster in hand, and volleyball sucks. You watch me take a knife and scrape congealed cheese off a plate before putting it in the dishwasher, and volleyball is dead to you. But the second I ghost my way up the stairs to scroll through a few Multicultural Literature posts, you can think of nothing more exciting than volleyball? Young knothead, you are an evil genius.

Fortunately, my annoyance was countered by the droning internal voice that likes to swear when it reminds me of priorities. In this instance, the voice went squawky: “JOC-E-LYN. Mother of an adolescent who has just requested to spend time with her, on purpose. Shape the fuck up, and play some ball with your boy who hates to get off the couch. Look into his intelligent blue eyes and remember you have no idea what color your students’ dull globular orbs are.”

I had no choice. The voice had commanded me with the imperious “f—” word.

“Sure, pup. I’d love to play volleyball. Give me five minutes to wrap up here, and then let’s head out. While I finish this bit of feedback, why don’t you go down and put some sunscreen on.” His answering put-upon sigh and trudge down the stairs brought to mind Ethel Barrymore’s performance as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1905).

A few minutes later, we converged on the side yard, he on the upside of the net, me on the downside. Balancing the ball on his open palm, Paco swung his other hand under it, aiming for a serve.

Based on previous experiences, I took the opportunity to peer up into the trees, looking for quarrelsome squirrels.

“OWWWW,” came a voice, not that of a squirrel.

My dudes, Paco had made contact with the ball. With his hand. On purpose. The thing even flew somewhat upwards.

See how I’m increasingly awesome as a mom as this series of twelve posts carries on? Like, I took him out and let him figure out how to serve with a badminton racket, and then a few days later he hit a ball? All donations should be addressed to Jocelyn As Mother of the Year, c/o Long-Suffering Martyr City, Minnesota. I will be accepting through the end of the next fiscal year.

There was, of course, the part where he said “OWWWW.” So maybe don’t make a huge donation.

Turns out the puss couldn’t handle a fully inflated volleyball. Remind me never to hand him a 3-carat diamond, lest his hand hit the floor.

In addition to the pain caused by the big, hard ball, there also was the issue of space. Basically, two human bodies cannot possibly cover an expanse the size of our yard. The kid would hit it, and it would bounce on my side as I scrambled over twenty feet of grass, and then it would bounce on his side as he stood relatively still and watched it hit the ground. Clearly, we needed a new tactic.

Calling over to him, all of four feet away, I shouted, unnecessarily loudly because doing that makes me laugh, “Let’s just stand close to the net and hit it back and forth with our fingertips. Step forward, Lad.”

It worked. We volleyed. Back and forth, we tipped the ball with our fingers. You might want to consider upping your donation to my fund, before you sign that cheque.

Eventually, after a miss, Paco watched me grab the ball out of the hosta garden and, as I squatted amongst the greenery, he wondered, “Are there any critters that use the little Hobbit hut I made at Camp Grandma a few years ago?”

This did not suck as a craft project.

Because nothing gets by this groundskeeper, I was able to report that last summer I had seen our obnoxious chipmunk-striped-rat-thingie setting up shop inside the hut. ‘Round these parts, we call the little dude “Chippie,” and he is the bane of my existence. When he’s not digging up the flowers I’ve planted, he’s zipping by my feet as I lounge by the fire pit, scaring the holy motherfuck out of this rodent-phobic volleyball mom.

Inhaling a quick breath to hearten myself after having used a daunting “motherfuck” inside my own head, I threw myself back into the game. If I could wind things up and keep the fun a’flowin’, Paco might want to stay outside and play volleyball even longer, and if he wanted to play volleyball even longer, it just might feel like I hadn’t shut down my grading for naught.

So I ran with it, this concept of a chipmunk “setting up shop.”

“Actually, Paco, last summer I saw Chippie drive a moving truck up to the Hobbit hut. He was literally setting up a shop. I wasn’t sure what kind of shop it was going to be, but the first thing he did was hang up a sign outside the hut. It said General Mercantile.”

Because my kid is my kid, he chimed in, “Yea, then he unloaded a bunch of stuff from the truck and, before you know it, he had shelves full of nuts and seeds, all displayed for his customers.”

We were tickling ourselves with this scenario. “He had the odd piece of dog food, maybe a few dandelions, too, just so he could satisfy all his customers’ needs. But here’s the thing, Paco, since he was running an Olde Fashioned mercantile, Chippie needed to look the part. There he was, racing up and down the expanse of counters, grabbing a wee baggie of sugar for the squirrels–like they need any more energy?–and putting together a packet of nails for a snail, and do you know what he was wearing?”

No, Paco did not know what Chippie wore when he worked at his general store. Laughing expectantly, Paco clutched the ball to his stomach.

Lowering my voice confidentially, I revealed, “Chippie wore a little green visor, and on his sleeves, he wore those garter bands around the upper arms. There he’d be, standing on his hind legs behind the counter, and when a customer would come in with a big order, he’d grab a wee notepad and pencil from his breast pocket. That way, he could scratch out numbers, tally the seed sales, and present the customer with an accurate bill.”

Paco’s brain was in this scenario. As he pictured Chippie with a visor, writing up receipts, the whole thing struck him as ludicrous, in the best possible way. Shaking with giggles, he collapsed to the grass, boneless. Lying under the net, his body curled like a shrimp on ice, he gasped out, “I couldn’t stand up right now for anything.”

A tiny peep of his soft, still-childlike tummy gleamed between his t-shirt and shorts as he laughed and laughed, completely out of control. Eventually, he caught his breath long enough to muse, “But what did Chippy’s customers use to pay him?”

“Well, they had to use the currency of the yard, right? Maybe they used smaller seeds to buy larger seeds?”

Copping to my thinking, Paco exclaimed, “Oh, a barter!”

Yes, a barter: exchanging one thing for another, to the benefit of both parties.

A barter: like me giving my son time and attention, and, in return, him giving me a complete bodily collapse brought on by giggles.

I liked this barter.

Since that afternoon, the net in the side yard has been well used. Volleyball has evolved into a game we call Wackyball; whenever visitors come to our house, they are invited to play. In Wackyball, the only object is to keep the ball in play. It can bounce ten times before it’s returned. It can be kicked under the net. It can be hit seven times before it goes over the net. It can be caught and held, indefinitely.

In fact, there is only one rule to Wackyball: the game isn’t over until players fall to the ground, convulsed by giggles.

Wait, there’s actually one more rule: when my child falls to the ground, convulsed by giggles, the very last thing on my mind should be work.

Wacky Ball

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY SEVEN


On the seventh day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: seven(teen) birdies a-falling


If I were a more protective mother, I might consider having tracking devices implanted in my children. Nothing ostentatious–just a tasteful computer chip inserted into the scalp behind the ear, a quick out-patient procedure with a “good job not screaming or fainting when the nurse used that long needle to numb your skull” celebratory stop at Dairy Queen on the way home.

Nothing says I Didn’t Faint like a cookie dough Blizzard.

However, since I can hardly be bothered to keep track of myself, and I am so far from controlling that it takes the light from Controlling (moving at 299,792,458 meters/second) twenty-two years to reach me, I haven’t bothered with the chip implantation.

Thus, wherever the kids are, that’s where they are, and eventually I’ll find them, or they’ll find me AND WHAT A HAPPY REUNION IT IS WHEN THAT HAPPENS, WITH HUGS AND JIGS AND TEARS AND STORIES EXCHANGED EVEN IF THEY WERE JUST IN THE BASEMENT LOOKING FOR CLEAN PAJAMAS IN THE DRYER! It also helps that their natural tendency is to stay close, shoulder-to-shoulder with me. Until this minute, I always felt like this was a posture of intimacy, but suddenly I’m thinking it’s because they want to be near in case my car swings through the Dairy Queen drive-thru. Hmmmm. I’m going to have to sit with this for awhile.

In the case of Allegra, even if she were a far-ranging kid, we wouldn’t need an implanted chip in order to track her. Instead, all we’d have to do is listen.

The Wild Allegra is not hard to track. The Wild Allegra is not exactly in control of her body at all times. The Wild Allegra crashes through the canopy, bashes through the jungle, mows down the forest, thunks her way across the savanna. The Wild Allegra cannot stand up from a table without dropping her fork with a loud clatter onto the floor.

She is not, to phrase it precisely, coordinated. She is her father’s daughter. She is her brother’s sister. In short, we have a long-standing agreement in our family that if one of us is ever pulled out of the crowd, up onto the stage, while Bruce Springsteen is singing “Dancing in the Dark,” and there’s a music video being shot, Bruce would do well to select me (Good luck hoisting me up to the stage, Bruce). But once I’m up there, I be rocking. Like, in actual time with your beats, My Dear The Boss. If you’re lucky, I might pull out some finger guns, and if I do, DUCK, for I shall shoot invisible bullets at your beefy pecs!

It would not be so with the others in my group. Cher Monsieur Springsteen, if you make the mistake of grabbing Byron or Allegra or Paco’s hand and pulling one of them to the stage, you will have to trash all your video footage and try again the next night, when you’re playing in Kansas City.

It won’t be pretty. If you stick with the Minnesota footage, your video will tank on MTV, and I think we know how all the kids today turn to MTV to meet their music-watching needs. One poor “crowd work” decision, Brucie, and your career could screech to a standstill. If that happens, how will you keep Patty in denim and conditioner, The Boss? HOW?

Indeed, my people are lucky they have other gifts in life–skills like organization, logistics planning, being on time, making food, keeping us alive on the island in case of airplane crash and stranding–for moving their bodies in purposeful ways is not in their wiring.

In Paco’s defense, I do think he might have bodily rhythm inside his softie bones, but he is doggedly uninterested in demonstrating it by dancing around the living room with me whenever The Pixies’ “Debaser” comes on the radio.

He definitely confounds the thinking that says playing video games improves hand-eye coordination, though. Despite myriad hours spent in front of the screen, chasing, shooting, whacking, and clicking, the kid can hardly catch a ball when it’s thrown at him. He is not alone in this. If you toss a ball Allegra’s direction, she’ll end up with dented glasses frames. Truly, it’s a sorry state of affairs if I’m the family’s H-O-R-S-E champion whenever we go out and huck the orange ball towards the net thingie.

We’ve tried to work on this business–the part of life where you see something and then make your hands move so that you connect with that thing. At the very least, I’d like to equip my kids with the ability to block a flying plate, should they ever marry a fiery Greek. To wit: we started summer vacation by stringing a volleyball net across the side yard. Then, liberally applying my patented “lying charm,” I told Paco it would be fun and convinced him to step to the net and face me with a racket in his hands. He also held a birdie.

We were to engage in a sporting game of badminton.

Initially, he deflected his nerves with chatter. “I’m not really very good at this. When we do this in gym class, I don’t get how to serve. I might not be very good at this. This is harder than it looks, so this might not be something I’m very good at.”

Kiddo. Honey. Mommy doesn’t care. Take your time.

Tossing the birdie into the air, he swung his racket. And missed the birdie by a foot.

Self-conscious–because what if the neighbors had seen that?–he picked up the birdie from the grass, noting, “See, I told you I’m not very good at this.”

“Bubs, this ain’t no thing,” I assured him. “You’re only ever going to get better at things if you do them, a lot, over and over again. You haven’t done this much, so you need to work up to it.”

With helpful parental restraint, I did not point out that a couple of his pals could’ve whacked that birdie blindfolded, two hours after they’d been delivered, remnant vernix still coating their armpits.

Paco tossed the birdie again. This time it fell to the ground before he raised his racket.

Again, he picked it up, tossed it into the air, and as it fell, it was followed by the whiff of a racket slicing through the air.

Relaxed, happy to have a still minute in my day, I encouraged him: “You’re getting closer each time, buddy. It’s hard to know you’re improving when you’re in the midst of something, but from over here, I can see it: your racket is getting closer every time.”

As the intricate process of reality clashing with self-esteem played out on the other side of the net, I absently wondered how hard it would be to start an online dating business for the athletic equipment of uncoordinated people: “Badminton racket desperately seeks connection…”

Exasperated with himself, Paco tossed the birdie up again. Missed it.

Half stressed, half full of humor, he crowed, “UGGGGGGHHHH. I’m never going to be able to serve this thing. I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter a bit to me. I’m serious. Would you like a few tips, maybe?”

“Naw. I know what to do. I just can’t do it.” With that, he tossed the birdie one more time. We watched it hit the ground.

Torn between wanting to make suggestions and wanting to stay the hell out of it, I ventured, “You know, you could just hold your racket horizontally, place the birdie on it, and then sort of swoop the birdie up and over the net that way.”

“I don’t want to do that. I know how I’m supposed to do it. They taught us in gym class. I’m just terrible at it,” he panted as he bent down, grabbed the birdie, threw it up into the air, and watched his racket follow it–six inches to the left–to the ground.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that you’re an excellent reader, my friend. Also, when you make fried eggs, they are absolutely the best.”

As he squatted down again, retrieving the fallen birdie, Paco grinned. “I see what you’re doing, Mom. You don’t need to. It’s okay.” He tossed the birdie into the air. Waved his racket towards it. Watched it hit the grass.

Swatting a mosquito with perfect aim, I continued, “Let’s not forget that you’re a very kind friend. Plus, when I want to buy you new stuff, you’re really good at saying, ‘Mom, I don’t need anything. I have enough shorts. I have enough shirts. I have enough stuff. We don’t need to spend any money.'”

The twelve-year-old squinted at me through the net, letting my words float by him like a rogue badminton birdie. He tossed. He missed. He retrieved.

Five more times he attempted a serve. I attempted silence.

After the sixth miss, I couldn’t help myself: “And when my back is sore from grading papers, you give me the most delicious massages. Remember, too, how good you’re getting at whipstitching the appliqued eyes for the plushies you’re sewing?”

“But, Mom?”

“Yea, Poodle?”

“I can’t hit a birdie.”

I may not need to implant tracking chips in my kids, but I most certainly cannot stop myself from bolstering their spirits. “Well, in this minute, you aren’t hitting the birdie. That’s true.” I watched as the birdie smacked into the grass at his feet. “This is the first time we’ve had the net up, though, in a few years. So you haven’t been getting any practice at this, outside of a few days at school. Seriously, if you keep working at this, you will get better. You’re being really diligent right now about trying and then trying again. More important than hitting the birdie is this: you’re working at it. So just keep at it. For everything in life, that’s the big thing: even if it’s hard, keep at it.”

Bending at the waist and grabbing the birdie from the ground, he lobbed a look through the net that said, “You are teetering on the edge of Blowhard, Mother of Mine.”

Acknowledging his point, I said, “Yea, I know: ‘Hesh up, Mom.’ Okay, I’ll stop. Just know that I think you’re kicking badminton butt over there.”

He rolled his eyes, flung the birdie into the air, swung the racket forcefully, and looked at the birdie on the ground.

Part of me wished I’d brought a nail file out with me. Part of me would have killed for an iced coffee. But the biggest part of me–everything not fingernails or stomach, which is a non insubstantial mass of head, torso, and legs–was realizing that the sweaty, uncoordinated kid across from me was having a breakthrough. These four minutes of failure were huge.

A profoundly sensitive kid, a gifted kid, an easily discomfited kid, a boy who flushes bright red if he is packing his backpack for school and, looking in his binder, realizes he forgot to finish his Spanish homework and only has five minutes before the bus comes,

Paco does not enjoy a challenge. Throughout his life, if something is difficult, he not only gives up–he often refuses to try at all. As a rule, if he isn’t going to be good at something, he will not engage. For us, his parents, this has been crazy making, as we attempt to negotiate the fine line between “C’mon, just give it a try” and “That’s fine. It’s your choice.” In most cases, I try to be empathetic; I try to remember how shy and self-conscious I felt when I was young; I try to remember that “grit” can develop over a lifetime; I try to remember that my parents served me best when they were my allies and trusted me to trust my instincts. An oppositional, “you must do this” authoritarian attitude has never moved my needle.

Thus, by and large, we’ve let our boy figure himself out–even though that has sometimes meant I’m screaming into a folded dish towel in the kitchen.

There was no dish towel needed that day in the yard, though. Seventeen times, the kid tried to hit the birdie. Seventeen times, he failed. Seventeen times, he felt like an idiot. Seventeen times, he kept at it.

The eighteenth time, he pitched the birdie up and, whether through repetitive practice or trusting his instincts, the racket connected. The wooden edge of the racket cuffed the birdie, and it sailed–in slow motion!–into the air, coasting towards me. Readying my racket for the return, as any person with even a smidgen of hand-eye coordination would, I bent my knees slightly and clapped my eyes on the target.

It arced. It cut through the thick air. Gracefully, propelled by Paco, the birdie took flight.

It hit the net and hung there.

We stood for a beat, staring at the white plastic snagged in the netting. Paco whispered, “Are you kidding?” Slowly, we pulled our eyes from the dangling birdie, looked at each other through an open square, and shared a chortle. Then, with a shrug, my boy took a big step back, squared his shoulders, lifted his racket, and said,

“Your serve.”

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY SIX


On the sixth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: respite from my complaining


It’s a crappy irony, this business of having “been on a journey” with my body and spending four decades figuring out a kind of acceptance, and then, once I get to a point of feeling like I can lift a car and leap a small playhouse in a single bound–admittedly with fluctuating success because there were those couple of times I caught my toe on a shingle–I’m old.

And everything I’ve processed and cried over and moaned about and rejoiced in suddenly starts to break down. I hate contributing to the validity of that cliche.

Woefully, though: it’s seeming that my hard-won triceps and long-enduring quadriceps are a house of cards where the cards are crafted from those Sardinia parchment crackers you can get at Trader Joe’s, andIdareyoutomixametaphorharderthanthatmydude. The slightest crunch, and they crumble.

Triceps brown up nicely at 350 degrees.

With all the hubris of the relative youth known as middle age, I’ve been telling myself that if I’m careful and diligent, I can hold my body together for a few more decades–through devoted physical effort, taking it slow, and a few rolls of artfully applied duct tape, especially a two-inch strip running down my back-melon crack just for sheer laughs.

Put another way: I have been trying.

If I told you how much I exercise, it would put you in a diplomatically difficult spot. I’ve watched good friends struggle for kind words when they hear how much I work out as they simultaneously behold my physique; their best attempts end up along the lines of “Wow. It’s kind of reassuring to know that you can be super fit and still be, you know, how you are. Like, not thin.”

Encouragingly, I offer up, “Like, lumpy?”

Relieved, they quickly agree: “Yea, like, lumpy. It’s so great that you’re all that at once. It’s inspirational.”

As much as I’m about to whine about encroaching decrepitude, I can say this: being 48 means I can take the compliment my friends struggle to find instead of going fetal under my bed, as I might have 25 years ago. That’s right, Bitches. I’m fit as fuck and lumpy for bonus.

Mostly, all my slow-and-steady-with-high-intensity-intervals-too-plus-weights-plus-walking-plus-running has made me feel strong. Truly, emotionally, that’s been the win. Nearing fifty, the mother of a teenage daughter and therefore highly conscious of the language I use about my body, I have only loosely corralled the Lumpy Demons, but I have wholly harnessed Strong. One time, my Strong knocked down two Clydesdales and pulled that beer wagon for them. Straight to my house.

And now this unfortunate thing is happening.

In recent months, stuff hurts.

I even tried two inches of duct tape down my back-melon crack. For distraction.

Stuff still hurts. But at least I am stunningly free of fine back-melon crack hairs. Hell if that wasn’t a painful riiiiip when the tape came off.

Anyhow, first there was some business of a varicose vein and a deep ache in my leg that would wake me up at night.

Initially, I wasn’t completely sure what was causing the ache in my right thigh. Then, one day, in the bathroom before the hardcore jump-roping followed by kick boxing followed by jumping jacks followed by lunging squats class I like to do, I met up with the muscle-bound fitness instructor as we both reached for the soap dispenser at the same time.

In case you’re wondering, I pulled my hand back at the last second, yielding to her superior yoke-age. If she’d taken a territorial notion for that handful of foamy lather, she could’ve snapped me in half. And I’m strong like a Clydesdale.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to speak with this specimen of maximal oxygen consumption, I ventured, veering into upspeak because her veiny forearms always intimidate the assurance right out of me, “Hey, so can I ask you? About compression sleeves? Like, do they actually help with recovery time? I’ve noticed you wear them a lot; do they help your legs rebound between workouts?”

Turns out she wears compression sleeves because she suffers from varicose veins that ache so much in the night they wake her up.

Turns out intimidating specimens of maximal oxygen consumption are, like, just regular people? Like us massive Clydesdales?

So I got some compression sleeves that I wore on my calves during classes where we do a zillion burpees alternating with high kicks. After a few compression sessions, the ache in my thigh went away. It’s a temporary reprieve, I realize, but at least I now can have these unused compression sleeves that, instead of wearing on my legs, I can jam into my mouth and bite down on during the zillion burpees alternating with high kicks.

Then my heels started up–not kicking up, which would be very giddy and leprechaun-like of me. ‘La, but this Clydesdale does love a whizzy jig.

Nae, my heels started up with the deep ache business, too. On the back, outside of them, not the underneath. It took me a few weeks of complaining and late-night googling to self-diagnose plantar fasciitis, which then resulted in late-night ordering of compression socks and a few inconsistent rounds of icing. Since the pain changes hourly, some days disappearing entirely, I am happy to repay the ailment in kind and pay it erratic attention. It’s just another child, really: out of sight, out of mind, amiright?

So I got the thigh. I got the heels. I got a funky toenail that I will not tell you about because you be barfing. And now, the past few months, I got this shoulder.

It’s a whole new kind of ache, like burning splinters plus fire ants in the bone marrow plus arthritis. It’s not only the shoulder, either; the pain also runs down the upper half of my arm, never going below the elbow. It wakes me up, keeps me up, has me only sleeping on one side. It has me unhinged more than usual during the daytime hours. You’d like to know what late-night googling tells me, don’t you? Rotator cuff tendinitis.*

You know what my husband tells me? “Go to the doctor.”

You know what I tell him? “I did. Mr. Web has an MD.”

He’s right, of course. My husband. Not Mr. Web, MD. I need to go see a real person. It’s just that I’ve been in to see our doctor a few times in recent weeks when the kids were getting physicals. It’s also–and prepare yourself for a revelation of Crazy here–

that I’d like to lose five pounds before the weigh-in at any appointment I’d schedule.


I exhaust myself, too.

Remember my opening, though? I’m “on a journey,” Gentle Reader. I’m IN PROCESS.

Here’s what I know: I will call the doctor. I hate seeing my Clydesdale dejectedly nibbling on hay in her stall when she’s got wagons to pull. For now, as I motivate myself to schedule that appointment, I’m icing, trying to switch up how I sit at the computer, not going to fitness classes that tax the upper body, and drinking away the pain. At one point, I even booked an expensive deep tissue massage (no weigh-in!), an experience that resulted in the worst pain yet a day later as my shoulder recoiled in shock.

I’m also being careful not to carry bags on the feeble shoulder. My current doctor, Mr. Web, MD, also tells me I shouldn’t push or carry weight in front of my body.

That’s the hardest recommendation, in fact.

See, we have this going on outside, and it all needs to be mowed:

This part hurts me.
And then there’s still this part.
The flipping boulevard, which, technically, the city owns, but do they come mow it? NOOOOOOOOO.
And just when you’re ready to go have a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats, there’s still this bit.

Byron’s working full-time away from home now, so he’s useless.

Let me rephrase that: he’s doing good work, but he’s of no use to me.

Trying again: he’s very busy, and he still makes dinner every night, and he does pitch in with the mowing when he can, but he’s got 12 minutes a day to feed his soul lately, and I’d hate to guilt him into putting those precious minutes into mowing.

Allegra’s home, hmmm, less than her dad even. She’s got a job as a dishwasher, and she’s babysitting–on a mission to earn the money she needs for a school trip to Europe next summer. Additionally, she meets with a daily training group (Clydesdales-to-be) and, what’s more, she responded to our challenge of, “You want your room painted, girl? So do it” by, um, doing it. Like her pa, she has very little sit-down time.

That leaves me.

Oh, plus the other guy.

The one all these posts are about.


To say that Paco is low energy is a kindness. I like to think he just hasn’t found his energy yet, and maybe he’ll stumble across it on the closet floor when he’s thirty. There is also a suspicion I harbor that the bizarre genetic blip that runs through some of my family members, Thalassemia, is in his blood. The biggest consequence of this disorder is lack of energy and a tendency towards fatigue. I like to think both Paco and I have Thalassemia; this thinking works best if we never actually have the blood test for it. Thalassemia primarily affects persons of Mediterranean origin and, to a lesser extent, Chinese, other Asians, and African Americans. We fit all those categories except none of them. However, when I think of our Viking ancestors and their penchant for violent exploration, it seems very possible that somewhere, an unwilling great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma was Greek.

So the kid doesn’t exactly greet sweat-inducing activity with joyful clapping.


One day last month when I was moaning about the grass and my shoulder, walking around the house with a bag of frozen peas balanced on my collarbone, working up a good head of steam about my tragic lot of being an old lady with a stupid lawn, a quiet voice interrupted me.



“I just wanted to tell you that I can help you mow. I can do it.”

I stopped pacing. Suddenly, my ears worked.

“Wait. That’s right. You can help me. I keep forgetting: you’re big now. You’re able to push the mower. Oh, gad, this makes me feel so much better. Punky, my shoulder hurts so much, but if the grass gets much longer, it’ll be impossible to cut.”

“So let’s go cut it, Mom. I can do the big side yard, okay?”

And he did. A few weeks later, when I had randomly grabbed one of our mowers and was attacking the front yard, I looked up and saw his pajama-clad body walking down the stairs, heading into the walk-out. A minute later, he appeared, pushing the other mower. Giving him a quick thumbs-up, I kept at my task. He set himself to his. As I shoved the grass eater under the apple tree, I remembered something my pal Justine said to me when I was pregnant the second time and had been worrying about it being a boy–because boys jump off stuff and break stuff and hit stuff and as it turns out I knew nothing at all–and she told me, in response to my litany of concerns, “Joce. Look at any eighteen-year-old boy and his relationship with his mother, and tell me you don’t want that.”

She was right. And I didn’t have to wait eighteen years. My boy, age twelve, takes care of me. It’s not chivalry exactly; it’s more that he likes to be there for me. When we pull up after an afternoon of shopping, he gets out of the car and asks, “What can I carry?” Then he chastises his sister–who has grabbed her own bag and raced for the house–“Allegra, how can you not help with all this? You need to come back and help.”

In truth, his actions have nothing to do with gender. They are part of the individual.

Thus, when he grabs the mower and does the hated business of moving his body, I can’t look at him, over there in the side yard wearing his Sesame Street pajama pants, frustratedly trying to pry a jammed stick out of the mower blades.

This kid, this young man, will be with me as I age, as my body continues to fail me. He will notice my need, register my pain. When my knees ache, he will give me his hand. When I fall, he will pull me up. When I am short of breath, he will stop and wait with me.

Indeed. I can’t look at him over there mowing even though Cookie Monster is grinning at me from his pants.

I can’t look at my bubby over there, for the gift of his kind thoughtfulness makes me cry.

And it hurts my shoulder to raise my hand and wipe my eyes.


*Tendinitis and tendonitis are both accepted spellings, in case you’re of a mind to correct my usage.

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY FIVE


On the fifth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: five bike bell dings


Byron stood in the lobby of the YMCA, trying to get members to sign up as volunteers for a community-outreach event.

He does such things frequently.

I am certain his noble works compensate for my tendency to stay home, speak to no one, and dig through a jumbled kitchen drawer, looking for the corkscrew. The good karma he’s earning extends to the whole family. Of this I am sure.

In fact, it was in our wedding vows: “I, Byron, promise to go into the world and do good things, so you don’t have to.”

Still proving up on his vows some fifteen years later, he stood there in the lobby, an “Approach Me, Please” expression plastered to his face, fielding questions about the upcoming event: cleaning up an abandoned lot in the “tougher” part of the city and then celebrating with a game of kickball.

His duty-bound Saturday morning brightened when an interested woman in her mid-fifties stopped. However, she didn’t put her name on the clipboard; all she volunteered was support: “Oh, I really believe in community service. Everyone should do more. I do my part with the little plastic baggies that are attached to my dog’s leash. I clean it up whenever she makes a Winnie the Poo!”






Using precious language for something gen-u-ine and fearsome is a stock Midwestern trait. When an eighteen-year-old is spotted vomiting into a nice Iowa lady’s hostas, she’s likely to announce apologetically, “Aw, he’s schnookered!” When an idiot licks a pump handle in January and has to rip off a chunk of his tongue to break free, leaving splotches of blood in the snow between the pump and the house–INCIDENTALLY ALL MIDWESTERNERS HAVE PUMPS AND YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE THE LICKING–the standard assessment of such lunatic carnage goes, “Well, bless his heart.” When Grandpa has a heart attack and, on his way to the floor, grabs at the stove and inadvertently turns on the gas burner, and then an hour later his grandson, Thor, walks into the house and lights a cigarette, and the entire house explodes, scattering limbs and scrapbooks all the way from the wood pile to Lake Wobegon, a Midwestern mother will later park her four-wheel-drive in the garage out back, grab her shopping out of the trunk (new liners for her Sorels), and then, on her way up the walk to what used to be the house, realize that she’s staring only at air and a chaotic scattering of moose tchotchkes made out of birch bark. Surveying the empty expanse where her home used to stand, this Midwestern mother, Pauline, will simply squeak a limp, “Uff da!”

By now, after almost half a lifetime in the Midwest, I should be inured to these linguistic habits. Yet. Whenever I’m watching the local nightly news, I still wince as the meteorologist forecasts high winds, heavy rains, and severe weather while using the term “thunderboomers.”

That’s what a toddler does in his Pull-Ups while screwing up his face and turning red, right? He makes thunderboomers?

Oh, but wait. I’m a slow student. He’s making Winnie the Poos.

Thunderboomers can only be thunderstorms, no feces about it.

We’ve had a lot of thunderboomers this summer; the skies have been unstable, unleashing pounding rain every couple of days, soaking the earth, muddying the trails, overworking the sump pump in the basement. On the positive side, this means fire danger is low. Surrounded by lush greenery, our only hint of dry crackles is the haze that has hung over the region, floating down from wild fires in Saskatchewan. On the negative side, these summer storms, alternating with sunny days, have resulted in a thriving lawn.

Also thriving is my hatred of lawns. While I particularly object to them in places where green grass isn’t natural (HELLO, THE WESTERN HALF OF MY COUNTRY!), I pretty much dislike them everywhere. The basis of my gripe is this: lawns want my attention. I want to read books. And the twain shall never meet.

Due to the consistent rain, every few days I look out the window or walk to the car and cast my gaze towards the yard, at which point my name changes, and something straight out of Thomas Hardy happens: “Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.”

I stare at that shaggy lawn I mowed a mere four days before, and every (*parson’s damn*) blade of grass waggles at me, mockingly. Really? Again with the mowing?

Does Grass not realize that if it would agree to stop growing, I would have time to read more Thomas Hardy? Or, to put a finer point on it, any Thomas Hardy at all, beyond what a quick web search yields when I’m writing a blog post? Does Grass not realize that we here in the house not only hate lawns–we also hate gas, and therefore we use Ye Olde Fashioned push mowers, powered only by our rounded biceps and smoldering rage?

Cagey Grass realizes all and cares exactly zero; deaf to our grumbling–almost as though it has no ears–Grass sucks up the moisture, applies its chlorophyll to the mission, and channels some badass Jack and the Beanstalk mojo. Ten million green buggers reach for the clouds and a goose’s golden egg. Every four days, Lawn is so tall it can no longer hear my wails of protest, even when I take out a megaphone and use my best teacher’s voice to command “Stop it the frick right now.”

(Note to self: maybe, come fall semester, try out that command with the yahoos who populate the back row of the classroom whenever they wander in late, ask loudly if they missed anything, and then spend the next 42 minutes texting under their desks.)

(Follow-up note to self: No. Do not use that command. If you do, the yahoos–those students who struggle to get their bodies to a classroom–will buzz a startlingly quick straight line to the dean’s office so as to lodge a complaint about their hurty feelings. Rather, tamp down your desire to tell them to “Stop it the frick right now” and, instead, let them hang themselves with their own behaviors. Also: begin giving pop quizzes that last exactly two minutes, from the tick on the clock when class begins and lasting precisely 120 seconds. When Tweedles Dee and Dum mosey in eight minutes later, those quizzes will already be collected and registered in the grade book. Sample question from one of Jocelyn’s First Two Minutes of Class Pop Quizzes: “What did you have for dinner last night?” True story.)

So all these thunderstorms are raining on my reading parade.

They don’t do Paco any favors, either.

Loaded with sensitivity, the lad dreads a storm. So many frightful flashes piercing even closed curtains. Too many loud BOOMS rattling the window frames. As it happens, most of the storms blast across the big lake during the nighttime hours, when sleep-disrupting cracks and rumbles stop the heart, spur the nightmares, cause the somnolent to sit up straight and yell, “Whozzitnowbumblebee?

Thus, just before bedtime every night, Paco asks, in his endearingly respectful way, “Could I go online and check the forecast?” Yes, honey, of course. And while you’re clicking around, could you swing through Zappos and order Mommy a pair of Danskos?

If foul weather threatens, Paco sleeps in the basement. As he readies for bed, he turns into Steve Martin in The Jerk:

Feeling nervous, a bit anxious about the storms heading our way, wearing his new bathrobe, he gathers unto him Many Important Items of Comfort before hunkering down for the duration. There’s a book. Or two. A book light. Ear plugs. His complete diva of a stuffed cat, Star (pronounced “Stawww”). Maybe a special pillow. Possibly a pair of minion glasses. Potentially a little gewgaw found in a geocache box.


Then, well equipped to ride out the loud noises in the sky, Paco heads downstairs to bed.

After reading for awhile, he falls asleep. When, some hours later, I descend the stairs to join him–carrying my own pillows, a glass of water, a book, and earplugs–I stop mid-way down. Standing there on the stairs, clutching my Many Important Items of Comfort, I gaze at my sleeping kid.

Sleep softens him, removes all traces of his deepening voice, his legs that ache with growth, the worry about his hair. Sleep makes him three again. His stuffed kitty has fallen onto the floor. His arm above the covers is plump, the elbow dimpled. His cheeks, whisker free, look like cream; I know if I stroked them, they’d feel like velvet.

I don’t stroke them, though, lest he wake and lurch upright with a fearful “Whozzitnowbumblebee?

Instead, I continue down the stairs, grab Star from the floor, and set him on top of my three-year-old-who-will-be-twelve-again at sunrise.

The next morning, Paco wakes, refreshed, and creeps out of the basement so as to not disturb his sleeping mother. He makes himself some breakfast, dons his beloved bathrobe despite the July heat, and settles in front of the computer he made at “Build Your Own Computer” camp. There, completely oblivious to the mess that is his room, he will play, fight, maraud, troubleshoot, contemplate, and become lost in imagination. Although daylight makes Paco twelve again, the three-year-old lives inside.

Bathrobe Boy II Bathrobe Boy

Eventually, perhaps at 3 p.m., he gets dressed. We go for a bike ride together. At the end of our ride, after we park our bikes in the garage, I moan, “Dang. I don’t have the clicker to close the garage door. I need to run inside and get my keys, so I can unlock the side door and then push the button to close this thing.”

Holding up a hand, Paco says, “No need, Mom. I can handle this. I have a plan.”

With that, he dashes into the garage, pushes the button to close the garage door, and races towards me, hurling his 5′ 5″ out and under the closing garage door. As soon as he gets to the door, though, it stops. The magic eye, which detects blockages at the front of the garage, has detected him. The door won’t close if he breaks the beam of the magic eye.

“Aha!” he exclaims. “I get it. Give me another shot. I’ve got this.”

Disappearing again into the garage, I hear him whimsically ding the little bell on my bike’s handlebars. Then he pushes the button again, and this time, when he gets to the magic eye, he’s not only crouching due to the lowering door, but he’s also hurdling. He leaps out, undetected.

Grinning hugely, he declares, “That was so much fun! It’s like doing an obstacle course!”

Admiring his ingenuity, I pat his back as we walk towards the house, discussing whether our afternoon coffees will be served hot or iced. We’re in agreement about one thing: we need the caffeine boost.

We’re yawning.

It had been a tough night, what with all the thunderboomers coming through.

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY FOUR


On the fourth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: four flaming worksheets containing words


I will not bitch about teachers.

Governors and legislators like to rationalize budget cutting by asserting that teachers have it easy. I will bitch about governors and legislators. My rant to them begins with this: “Howzabout you become a classroom teacher for five years–just five years, so not an entire career, but long enough for you to get a real taste of the job? I dare you. Try to be good at what these people do. At the end of those five years, I’mma check in with you on how overpaid you feel, ‘k?”

Teachers do Allah’s work. God’s work. The work of the Universe. You choose. No matter the words you put on it: they do heroic work, compartmentalizing their own lives and values so that they can walk into smelly, leaky, asbestos-ridden buildings and spend their days under florescent lights throwing themselves as bridges across the gaping chasms between their students’ deficits (ability, preparation, and home lives) and potential (ignited brains and excited eyes, harnessed creativity, a love of thinking).

A kid walks in wearing only one shoe? Teacher says: “Let’s scrounge through the Lost and Found. I’m sure we can find you something to balance out those feet, Jessie.”

A preschooler looks at a pencil like she’s never seen one before–because she hasn’t? Teacher says: “Okay, Sequoia, the first step is to pick it up, and aim the pointy part away from your eye. Now, see your two biggest fingers here? They’re going to be grippers for the thing. In a few minutes, you’re going to be drawing cats and snowmen!”

A sullen high schooler stares defiantly into the teacher’s eyes, a shouted “Fuck you” lurking inside the glare. Teacher says, “Are you having a tough week, Moses? You know, if we can figure out a time for you to make up that one missing quiz, you can get through this class. And if you can get through this class, you can graduate. And if you can graduate, you can walk out of your dad’s house, ready for everything beautiful that exists outside those sagging walls. You never have to look back.”

Teachers take the world’s mess and do their damn best to mop it up–even when People Who Aren’t Teachers decide the mess will be best handled if they replace all the mops with maple leaves. Or shoelaces. Or rolling pins. Or anything else that in no way will ever be helpful to cleaning up a mess. Staring at the maple leaves, shoelaces, and rolling pins she’s been given, the teacher shrugs, rolls her eyes, and sighs, “Okay, then, you dumbass political types. Apparently I have no choice but to grab a handful of leaves and start wiping. Or, if I wad together enough of those shoelaces, I can probably contain the edges of the spill. And if all else fails, I can clonk myself on the head with that rolling pin and enjoy the temporary respite of a good black-out.” Then, after a few years of toiling with the nonsensical tools they have been given, teachers can expect the People Who Aren’t Teachers to announce, “This mess has just gotten bigger. You don’t actually expect us to continue funding your leaves, shoelaces, and rolling pins, do you? We’ve decided we need to keep a closer eye on you; what you’re doing there isn’t working at all. Thus, you’ll be expected to turn in your leaves, shoelaces and rolling pins by August, at which point we’ll tie your arms to your sides and hand you an octopus. There’s no way even you can screw that up. I mean, with limited range of motion and a sea creature heading the charge, how can you possibly fail to get five-year-olds to grade level by June? It’s a good task for you people who only work nine months a year to deal with a real challenge for once: mold those kids who have seen bullets entering flesh but who have never seen a book, kids who are developmentally ready for play but not text-on-the-page, kids who don’t eat or sleep on regular schedules–take them and boost their test scores. If you can’t do that one small thing, it would hardly be reasonable for us to let you keep your octupus, now would it? ”

I will not bitch about teachers.

To my children, specifically, teachers have brought many gifts: laughter, confidence, an awareness of why they might want to hit a mark or why they might willfully decide not to. Teachers have helped my children feel seen. Teachers have articulated appreciation of my kids’ talents, which is a remarkable way of clueing a child into the fact that he/she has talents. Teachers have challenged my kids to exist beyond their comfortable boundaries, have asked them to work with peers who aren’t an easy fit, have taught them that even the smallest minutiae–periods at the end of the sentence–have significant impacts.

And, well, all right: teachers have taught my kids that sometimes they need show up, shut up, and do work that bores them silly. For whatever reason, be it state-mandated outcomes, the worry of children being left behind, or even a lack of vision in curriculum planning, boring assignments do exist. If nothing else, they teach the kids a decent work ethic. Not everything in life is going to be fun. You still have to do it.

Put another way: there are a whole lot of worksheets goin’ on in my kids’ lives. It’s gotten better for Allegra now that she’s in high school, but Paco’s still in those middle years when filling in the blank is a daily requirement. In his long-suffering way, he completes the work. In his vaguely subversive way, he writes his perfect answers in the crummiest handwriting he can muster. I support this strategy of protest.

Even better, at the end of each school year, my boy–he who loves hands-on education above all else–is allowed a capstone experiential event.

We urge him to burn everything in his binder, all five pounds of worksheets.

The kid does love to set a fire.

(*Go ahead, Predictable Reader: insert the arsonist joke here; you know you want to*)

This summer, Paco was able to begin the conflagration by using left-over fire starters from his Science Fair project. GOOOOO, SCIENCE FAIR!

Quickly, he started the first few worksheets on fire. We added in sticks and worksheets for the next forty-five minutes. As is the case with worksheet-based activities, the simple fire quickly became boring.

Fortunately, Paco was hungry. Over the heat of twenty Spanish verb conjugation worksheets, he roasted The Best Hot Dog Ever:

Muy bien, Paco!

Then, his belly full, his brain racing ahead of the worksheets’ limitations, he figured out something else to do: collect sap on a stick.

Sap scrounging. All the kids are doing it.

His stick well loaded with a new kind of flammable material, it was time to make a torch.

If you steal his hot dog, he will burn down your castle.

Happily, watching his school year go up in flames, holding his torch comfortingly near, the middle schooler burped gently before summing up his state of mind,

“I love summer because every day is a pajama day, and I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I will miss Ms. Fitz, though. Her art assignments are the best. And I’m bummed that Ms. Nordskog is switching grades next year. Science was so fun with her. But mostly, I’m excited not to wear socks for awhile. Plus: no worksheets.”

Then he stuck his torch into the fire pit, stirred up some sparks, and watched the ashes of sixth grade float into the sky.

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY THREE


On the third day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: three hikes through glens


We tried.

By age four, we had Paco gliding on skis, running kids’ races, trailing the herd on a soccer team.

We laid the groundwork for a life wherein his body moved.

Then he reached an age where he could assert something called Free Will. For a kid who lives inside his head, who perhaps feels a bit clunky in his body, who is–to put it gently–“low energy,” who hates being timed, who recoils from competition, who considers few things more exciting than a thick book,

sports are hell.

The United States has a hard time processing that concept. It looks at kids like Paco, uses Florida to scratch North Dakota in a gesture of confusion while it scrunches Maine and Washington together into a frown, and then it asks (its mouth somewhere in Kansas), “I get that you don’t like soccer, kid. But you play baseball, right? NO? Tennis? Why not? Oh, you must run, like your sister? NO? Well, you must have some teams you like, at least. Right? How about the Vikings? No? So, what, you’re a Packers fan? NO? I don’t get it. Like, how do you pass the time, then?”

When the answer is given–“I like reading. Crafts. Cooking. Blacksmithing. Making a fort inside the sprawling dogwood. Building fires. Medieval weaponry. Dreaming about fantasy worlds. Observing people’s true characters.”–all of Nebraska crinkles in perplexed dismay. Whaddya mean, Boy? You like cooking? You think the Cornhuskers cook?

Fortunately, Paco’s parents are willing to run hardcore interference between their son and their country’s rabidly sports-minded values. I’ve been known to slap Kentucky for throwing shade at my kid’s interests, and one time I grounded Texas for Inappropriate Attitude. In a semi-mortifying incident, I once hollered at Maryland outside its own capitol building when, fueled by passion, I created a loud defense of baking biscotti as preferable to sacking.


Naturally, even though we uphold our child’s right not to participate in sports, we also want him to be healthy and aware that putting one’s body out into nature can be a source of joy throughout a lifetime. Moreover, if he learns how to exist in nature, he could one day become a contestant on Survivor and use his monocle to reflect the sun and start sparks in some kindling, thus giving his tribe the early advantage of drinkable water, thereby making himself highly alliance-worthy, ultimately winning the million dollars, at which point he could offer to take his Ma and Pa to Fiji for a week as thanks for that time they put Mississippi in a Time Out when it mocked his lack of interest in shoulder pads.

It is for exactly that reason we recently bought the kid an iPod.

I’ve always wanted to sit on a beach in Fiji.

Indeed, in an effort to balance Paco’s unwillingness to participate in sports with our desire to see him healthy and aware that he feels better when he sits up sometimes, we struck a deal: Kid, we will buy you an iPod, but the only time you can use it is when your body is in motion.

When I first laid out these terms, one of Paco’s ears perked. The other did not. Although he has a lovely voice and thrums to both classical and pop, he doesn’t crave it in as isolated, earbud-driven music experience. So what would an iPod offer him, outside of the cachet of having an iPod?

I worked on upping the appeal: “I’m sure there are podcasts you’d really enjoy, if we do a bit of searching. Both Dad and I really love having smart voices piped into our skulls, and it seems like you’re the kind of person who could get lost inside the word of voices, too, because sound without a visual asks your brain fill in the blanks, and, Buddy, your brain is a mighty blank filler-inner. I’m betting there’s a bunch of gaming podcasts, for instance. And maybe Nova has some episodes, you know, about real Vikings and not the football ones.”

His other ear twitched. “Can I go search podcasts now, to see if there’s anything I might like?”

Ten minutes later, his footsteps thundered down the stairs. “Okay, I want an iPod. I’m in. There’s a Nintendo podcast called Power Pros. And Alton Brown has a podcast, too.”

Spitting on our palms, we shook hands. It was a deal.

In the weeks since purchasing his Nano, it’s transformed our Dreamer into a Walker. While he still spends many hours on the couch, horizontal, he also often asks, “Can we go on a walk today?” Or if we suggest a hike, he responds with an easy, “Just let me go download the latest episodes!”

Now, three or four times a week, Paco and I can be spotted on local trails, side-by-side, completely ignoring each other. Some folks would find this troubling, wanting to blame devices and technology for diminishing “real” interactions. I reject that thesis. We have very clear rules about devices and technology in our family, rules that keep things clear and clean. Video gaming has brought fantastic skills into our son’s life; when he and his friends are all online together, wandering through a made-up world as a pack, they are coordinating, cooperating, sharing, negotiating, and looking out for each other. It’s not uncommon to hear my middle schooler say to a neighbor boy, over a microphone, “Max: I just noticed you don’t have a helmet, and I have two, so I put one into your inventory.” Even more, the television screen has fostered our son’s love of food and its preparation. It’s because of tv that he knows of Alton Brown, that he sees Julia Child as a most-welcome Crazy Aunt, that he understands it’s never a good idea to forego salt or butter. And thanks to our having a WiiU, he and his cousin Elijah, miles and miles away from each other, broadcast each other’s faces onto their respective screens and use the chat feature to engage in “pencil-driven” games. Writing on their WiiU controller pads, the boys spend hours playing Hangman and creating drawings. As they do this, they use alien voices, sing songs, and discuss the matters of their days. Through technology, they connect.

For Paco and me, as we walk together, each listening to our chosen stories, it’s more like parallel play. Mentally, he’s in his world; I’m in mine.

But then he’ll stop, put a finger to his lips, and point at a bird in the nearby grass. Five minutes later, we’ll stop, unspeaking as we continue to listen to our podcasts, and each pick up a handful of pebbles that we throw into the creek. At times, he sees an obstacle and decides parkour is in order:

Paco Parkour

Always, no matter how little we speak, how infrequently we look at each other, I feel, deeply, how much we are with each other. The voices in our ears create a silence between us, a silence that allows for a unique kindred connection.

Of course, I always welcome his return to speech when it happens.

A few weeks ago, as his Power Pros podcast finished, he pulled out an earbud and asked, “How much farther to the parking lot?”

“About ten minutes. You have time to start a new podcast, if you want.”

Shaking his head, he said, “Naw. It’s too short a time.”

“Well, then, let’s just turn these things off and talk,” I offered.

He countered, “I actually want to listen to some music for a few minutes. I added a few songs from our iTunes library.”

“All righty, then,” I agreed, sticking the bud back into my ear. “Rock on, Sonny.”

We continued to walk down the hill, absorbed in our worlds. After a few minutes, I noticed he was smiling.

Raising my voice, I asked, “What are you listening to? It’s giving you a very good time!”

A little too loudly, unable to gauge his volume, Paco beamed: “I’m listening to ‘Push It’ by Salt-N-Pepa. I love it so much, Mom. I’m on my second time through it!”

“Push It.” Salt-N-Pepa. Just when I thought our hike couldn’t get any better.

Even though he’s twelve, and even though we were in public, I had to grab his hand. Swinging our arms between us, pushin’ it real good, we continued down the hill to the car.

Paco Walko

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