Bappy Hirfday to Me

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I turn 48 today, and, oh, the joy of it! Behind me are the days of wishing, hoping, longing, wondering. Here now are the days of loving, laughing, appreciating, and clarity. I’m in the thick of it, this business of a happy life, wanting to hug it all to me, hard, while it’s happening. There are things I still want to do, places I would love to explore, adventures I’m eager to have. And, of course, there are people I can do without, too many hours spent in windowless rooms, the agendas of dissatisfied minds.

But still. Even when I get a leg cramp at three in the morning that is like no Charley horse I’ve ever had, and I have to stomp around the bedroom, then the bathroom, jamming my thumb into it, eventually grabbing the side of the sink, bending over it, and lowing like a cow in labor–as happened the other night–I can’t fathom my fortune. Then it happens again three minutes later, and I can’t fathom my pain.

My leg cramped like a mother-plucking chicken de-featherizer because I had exercised so much, so hard, so well.

At least I have legs to battle.

I have a sink to grapple with.

I have water to regret not drinking.

I have fluffy covers to crawl beneath when I’m shivering.

And even when my ancient car suddenly starts doing a scary shuddering thing whenever I push on the gas–as it did a couple days ago when I was driving to pick up Paco from Pokemon Club–making me whisper under my breath, “Please, let me just get to the school so that my sensitive lad isn’t the last one there, waiting in uncomfortable silence with the recess monitor who agreed to stay past six p.m.” as I simultaneously plan how I’ll push the car to the shoulder of the road if it does break down, I can’t help but turn my face to the sun at a stoplight. Then the shuddering gains a companion in the form of a loud clanking noise, and I’m back to whispering “Please…”

I get to worry about my car breaking down because my life has been felicitous.

At least I have a car to make me anxious.

I have a son, and he gets to go to school.

I have a boy who is a boon companion, who has good ideas about where the closest auto shop is and who counsels me into doing an after-hours key drop.

I have a cell phone, friends to call.

I have neighbors who launch themselves away from the dinner table, saying “No problem. Be right there” when I send out an SOS about my deadbeat car and hungry son.

I have lungs and quadriceps that power me five miles uphill the next day when the repair shop informs me my car is fixed, that they close in an hour.

I have a credit card to hand over when the car repair shop presents me with a staggering bill.

I have a husband who got a new job, a darling of a guy who is proud that his income will help pay that bill.

I have a daughter who, as I start to grouse internally about the cost of “labor and parts,” asks, “Why don’t you join Instagram, Mom? You have that tablet now. If you join, you can follow me and see all my pictures!”

Indeed, it’s the stressful moments that slap me in the face and remind me of my good fortune. How can I think anything’s going wrong, when so very much has gone gloriously right?

Our first years are about developing.

Our next years are about figuring things out.

Past that, we have a time of learning nuance and gauging our course.

Then comes a period of growing, moving, settling.

And now: the season of gratitude.

I’ll take 48 for the win.

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Grit

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It was a glorious spring day, the hard edges of the air softening into mildness, the sun reflecting in puddles, spirits sitting up and stretching their arms to the sky. Awaking from the freeze of winter, everyone was out running, walking, looking faintly stunned by the exposed squares of sidewalk.

In the free-flowing hour before dinnertime, Allegra was just home from track practice, still in her shorts—shorts in March!—her long hair pulled back into a sweep of ponytail. She sat at the kitchen counter in relaxed hang-out mode, her body sprawling over two chairs, decompressing from her day with goofiness and random commentary about the broken zipper on her brother’s winter coat and how much she hates reading The Odyssey, a book that’s got her staying up late each night, slogging through the mandatory chapters.

Even though I’d agreed to go outside and play H-O-R-S-E with Paco and Byron, I was reluctant to walk away from her expansive mood. Sending the boys out to pump some air into the basketball, promising to join them momentarily, I dipped a biscotti into my latte and tried to convince Allegra that of course she had found it easy to run up a long hill during practice because she’s incredibly fit from her winter on the ski team. In return, she shucked off my reasoning, refusing to believe ski workouts translate into running fitness. Her light-hearted mood enjoyed my mock incredulous “In what bizarre land of teenage rationale does cross-country skiing—one of the best cardio workouts possible—not also prepare you for running?”

Then, somehow, within the space of two sentences, the subject changed. In the giggly lightness of the air was a feeling: at this minute, I could expound to my daughter about anything, and she’d hear me. Even though I’d had no intention of “having a talk,” suddenly it seemed like exactly what we should do.

So. Inhaling deeply, I mentioned the email we’d received a few days before from her godmother, a message that asked parents to talk to their kids about the realities of racism and what it’s like for children of color to move through their days in our country. Her plea was born out of sadness at a local hate crime coupled with love for the beautiful skin of her black and Native American children.

Truly, when the message came through, I felt supportive and hopeful that individual voices could rise up and come together to erode entrenched ignorance, but, at the same time, I also was certain: “I don’t need to do a formal sit-down with our kids. From the first day of their lives, they have been cradled in a house that not only espouses tolerance but one that requires it. We have dragged them all over, put them in uncomfortable situations where they are the minority, demonstrated in every hour of every day that all human beings have equal rights to acceptance and love. They’ve helped set up chairs at gay weddings, and they saw me bat away tears as we stood in The Smithsonian reading the plaque on the Woolworth’s counter where four African-American college students staged a policy-changing sit-in.”

Yet, as I watched my healthy, happy blonde daughter, her blue eyes gleaming as she cracked jokes, I was struck by her openness and confidence—and how those traits had come unthinkingly to her as a member of our country’s dominant race. We’d never had to teach her not to raise the hood on her jacket, lest she look suspicious. We’d never had to talk to her about putting on a positive face in public even when she was having a crummy day, simply so she didn’t intimidate the people around her. We’d never had to counsel her about treating people with more respect than they might deserve so as to avoid the designation of “uppity.” We’d never had to explain to her that the culture of her ancestors had been systematically dismantled to the point of eradication. We’d never had to warn her that she’d have to achieve twice as much in life to get half as far.

We’d never directed her attention to the advantages she enjoys due to the color of her skin.

Realizing that the conversation in our house didn’t need to be about tolerance and acceptance but, rather, about the nuances of white privilege, I leapt.

“Hey, Allegra, can we have a serious minute here?”

Teenagers want adult conversation. They are ready to be talked to where they’re at, not where their parents remember them being…when they were ten, seven, four, one. Her face told me: this girl was ready for a serious minute.

“So did you hear about how some kids at Denfeld doctored a picture of one of their classmates—a black kid—by drawing a noose around his neck and writing ‘Gotta hang ‘em all’ and then sharing it on social media?”

The gasp that came out of her mouth originated in her gut. No, she hadn’t known that. She had heard something had happened at Denfeld that people were talking about, but she knew no particulars. “You mean, like, they were saying he should be lynched?”

“Exactly—and not just him. They were saying all black people should be hung. On some level, these kids might have thought they were being funny. On no level were they being funny. You get that, right? And do you know about the history of lynching in this country?”

Something like a strangled gargle came out of her mouth as she tried to respond. “Yea, I’ve read about it in some books. I know it mostly happened in the South, but didn’t it happen here in Duluth, too, a long time ago?”

Confirming the reality of that sad event, I added, “And Jenna and Anne are really upset by what these kids at Denfeld did because it’s just another ‘thing’ that shows how alive racism is in the city where they’re raising Robbie and Sadie. Because she was so upset, Jenna sent out a message to some folks, asking us to be sure we talk to our children about how different daily existence is for Robbie and Sadie than it is for white kids like you—to be honest, especially for Robbie since he’s male and black. So I’m talking to you now. I will talk to Paco, too, when the time is right.”

As Allegra’s eyes became shiny with unshed emotion, I told her about the conversations they have had with Robbie as they help him find ways to move through the world and cope with the reality of being black and male in the United States and, more specifically, in our very-white city.

“Wait, why can’t he put his hood up?” she interjected at one point.

Referencing the story of Treyvon Martin, I asked, “Do you know what happened to him?”

“Well, I know he died, and I saw his name online a lot, but I never read the stories. I have a lot of homework, you know!”

So I explained how Treyvon Martin decided to walk to the gas station to get a snack. I explained how he was gunned down by an over-zealous member of the neighborhood watch. I explained how that teenage boy, a mere seven years older than Robbie, had been killed for wanting some juice and having his hood up. And I asked her: “Can you imagine such a thing ever happening to Paco?”

Continuing to reel, she almost shouted, “It would never.”

“That’s right. Although all of life is uncertain, we can feel fairly secure that Paco could put up his hood and walk to the gas station for a snack—and that he would come home fit and fine. It’s not like that for black boys. They have to move through their days defensively. Even when they’re having fun and just joshing around, some part of them still has to be on alert.”

As we continued to talk, I discovered that although my daughter’s homepage when she goes online is MSNBC, she does a cursory scan of the headlines but generally doesn’t read the articles. Thinking of myself at age 14, I understood. Each morning, racing to read Ann Landers and the funnies, I would hustle past headlines about Israel annexing the Golan Heights—boring—or the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat—who?

Lecturing my teen, I was learning a great deal.

I continued, “Imagine how Robbie feels when he goes to Target. Odds are, he’s the only black person in the store. People stare at him. Now, you and I would stare at him because he’s so striking. That kid is beautiful, right? But a lot of Duluthians would stare at him because they think he’s up to no good. They might think he’s going to steal something, or if he’s just being an excited ten-year-old in the toy aisle, playing around with a Nerf dart gun, you can almost be sure someone will walk past and think, nastily, ‘Yea, another black kid with a gun.’”

Allegra made a noise of protest. “He’s just a kid with a toy. Are people really like that? People wouldn’t really think that, would they?”

Just then, Paco popped his head in through the door, “The ball’s inflated. We’re just waiting for you out here.” I waved him away, promising I’d be out in a few minutes, as my brain processed Allegra’s reaction. When we raise our children with values of tolerance, with a feeling that there is nothing more desirable than diversity, we are simultaneously raising our children to be ignorant of the subtle, wearing, enduring awfulness of racism. My daughter knew only the ideal, not the reality.

“People are like that, hon. And Robbie knows it. He’s a sensitive kid; he totally knows it, and it affects him. Then think about what it’s like for black kids to go to school here. Often, they are the only black face in the classroom. Imagine if a helicopter dropped you into an entirely black area, and you had to walk into the school the next day and make a go of it. Even if everyone were super friendly, still, the main thing on your mind would be, ‘I’m the only white person here.’ Even if you wanted to raise your hand or try to make a new friend, some part of you would feel inhibited.”

Allegra agreed, “Oh, I’ve noticed in all my classes. Usually there are only white kids, and if there is anyone who’s not white, there are only one, maybe two, non-white faces in the room.”

I added, “I really noticed it at your holiday concert. During that amazing finale, there were 400, 500, maybe even 600 kids on the stage. Out of that, there were probably five black kids. Those young people, in every hour of every day, know that they are different from what’s considered the ‘norm.’ On top of that, they have to worry that if they’re walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, they could get shot, possibly killed. Every week, the news covers more stories of young black men, along the lines of Treyvon Martin, getting stopped by police, and during those interactions with the law, they are shot and killed.”

Confused, Allegra asked, “Who kills them?”

“The police do, sweetie. The police do. It’s a huge problem in this country. I really thought you knew about this…”

“WAIT, WHAT?” her eyes almost spun in her head, and her tone escalated. “WHAT? THE POLICE SHOOT THEM? THE POLICE KILL PEOPLE? I THOUGHT THE POLICE HELPED PEOPLE.”

Hell if we haven’t raised her in the frothiest of bubbles. She continued to splutter; I continued to explain—extraordinarily glad to have been the pin popping the bubble I had blown.

Eventually, seeing Byron’s head out the window as he started towards the house, on his way inside to see what was taking me so long, I shifted into high gear. “Here’s the important thing, my dear duckling: the next step, after awareness, is to know that you can never be a silent witness to racism or homophobia or any kind of discrimination. No matter how much it makes you nervous or nauseous, no matter how much it feels like conflict, you have to stand up in the toughest moments. If someone is being treated with injustice, if unfair attitudes are present, if hateful words are being used, Allegra, you have to stand up against that. It might be figuratively that you’re standing up, but it might be literally—where you walk to someone who is being persecuted and put your body by and with them. But it’s essential that you don’t just try to make yourself flat and disappear while hoping that the moment passes. You are part of it, so stand up. There was one time someone came into our house and used racist and homophobic language, and the situation was so sticky that I let it go. I didn’t stand up. I will never be that person again, though. No matter the consequences, I will never be that person again.”

As I recounted that day, the details of which were complicated but with which Allegra had some passing familiarity, I burst into tears and stood up. Leaning my head out the back door to slow Byron’s progress, I wiped my eyes while calling, “Allegra and I are having a talk about Jenna’s message. I was just telling her about that day when we didn’t know what to do with the bigotry that sauntered into our house. We’ll be done soon. Why don’t you and Paco start a game without me?” Letting screen door slam shut, my eyes welled up again.

I was crying. Allegra was crying. Clearly, my work was done.

Fluffing the long blonde sweep of her hair with my fingers, I reminded her that there are movies, videos, books that can teach her more. I suggested that if she has another research assignment at school, she might consider a topic like the boarding schools Native American children were sent to or even the broader concept of “assimilation.” I reminded her that her godmothers will always be happy to talk to her. I reminded her that part of her purpose in the world is to care for all the Robbies and the Sadies as much as she cares for the Pacos.

Then, with a final squeeze of her shoulders, I headed out into the sunshine, where my healthy, happy, blonde, blue-eyed fellows waited patiently, largely unaware of the tectonic shifts that had just occurred in the kitchen.

Openly, confidently, sure of our place in the world, we played H-O-R-S-E, our only challenge the muddy ball that coated our palms with thawed dirt and pebbles.

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Twenty minutes later, after washing the grit off my hands, I checked on Allegra. She stared vacantly at the computer, attempting to complete a Current Events assignment that asked her to write a summary of a news article. She’d chosen one that had Turkey in the title because, ever since we lived there for a year, she is always interested in Turkey. Yet when it came time to condense what the article was reporting, she was stumped.

“I’ve looked it up and read the words, but I still don’t get what ISIS is. Mom, what is ISIS? What country is it in? How many people are in ISIS? What is this Charlie Hebdo? Also, what are border smugglers? And why would Turkey just let people flow back and forth through its borders?”

Filling my lungs with air, I licked my lips, summoned some saliva, and started explaining a few more of the world’s complexities.

Just another Wednesday night, really.

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A Message for the White People

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Photo: “Clayton-Jackson-McGhie-memorial-Duluth-Minnesota” by Carol M. Highsmith – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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The teens found a photo of their classmate and made some changes to it.

The classmate is a young black man.

They drew a noose around his neck and added the words “Gotta hang ‘em all” and shared the edited photo on social media.

When this story hit the news in Duluth, Minnesota, last week, our city of 86,000 reeled. The act itself was hateful—but for it to happen in a city that is still coming to terms with the day in 1920 when six black circus workers were wrongly accused of raping a white girl, a day when a mob lynched three of those innocent men on a corner downtown, well, it made people wince. In an effort to acknowledge that terrible day, to publicly commemorate the city’s darkest moment, a memorial was erected on that corner in 2003. Since then, citizens have been able to point to the memorial with a feeling of “That’s how it was. But never again. We aren’t like that now.”

Heartbreakingly, as the altered photo of a high school boy demonstrates, that’s not how it was. From fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma using a racist chant to the police shootings of unarmed black men, we are like that now.

In response to the photo circulating on social media, the school district issued a statement that it was “taking appropriate action.”

Is there such a thing? Can any action in response to this bald, awful hatred be considered appropriate? Shock, maybe. Tears. Nausea. Anger. But those are reactions, not actions. Those are emotional responses to something horrible; in contrast, action implies intent, reason, forward movement.

So the school district will take action by applying policy. Consequences are one way to effect change. However, because what happened in our small city last week grew out of matters of the heart and mind—because racism is an infinitely human problem—we also need to engage in grassroots, person-to-person education. Particularly with our children, we need to convey our values not just through policy and not simply through parental example. We need to talk to them, explicitly and clearly.

To be honest, I hadn’t fully realized how necessary such talks are before last week when our good friends, Anne and Jenna*, sent out a plea from their family to their larger community. Anne and Jenna have been together for more than fifteen years, having moved from dating to falling in love to a commitment ceremony to a legal marriage a few years ago, when the state of Minnesota changed its laws. During the course of their relationship, they have bought houses, taken trips, become godmothers to my kids, changed careers, and adopted two children of their own. While Anne and Jenna are white, their ten-year-old son, Robbie, is black. The birth mother of their daughter, four-year-old Sadie, is Native-American.

Due to the realities of their family, these beloved friends have to wade through the world very deliberately. While all parents want to raise their children to greet life with open hearts, Robbie and Sadie—and all children of color in the United States—also have to learn to live defensively.

That is wrong.

Spurred on by the altered photo of the boy (at the high school where Anne teaches), Jenna sent out the following message—a call for action:

I am sending this email to you because we care about you and your family, and we hope that feeling is mutual on some level. Know that as I write this, I don’t mean to offend or presume (tho’ to be honest I am getting beyond caring about that because this is too too important.). My request: please teach or talk to your kids about what it’s like for kids like ours to grow up in this world–what it’s like for kids of color to grow up in this world. In the United States, skin color does matter. You may feel or say that “I don’t see color.” But much of American society does.

Please teach them that we walk around stores now with Robbie and watch OTHER people stare at him and wonder if they are thinking he will do something wrong. Teach them that Robbie, at 10 years old, feels these stares too, and that shakes a person’s confidence and sense of self. Please talk to your kids about the fact that we teach Robbie he has to be MORE polite and MORE respectful than any of his white peers because he could get hurt, badly, if he’s not. Teach them that we talk to Robbie every few weeks about the police. Right now, Robbie doesn’t like police and he says “Police shoot black people.” At age 10, he knows this is unfair and unjust. Ten-year-old white kids don’t have to carry this burden; no child should. Please tell your kids that we teach Robbie not to wear his hoody and to act polite and happy even if he doesn’t feel that way.

Please talk to your kids about Native American history and the stereotypes of Indians. Teach your kids what white people in this country did with the boarding schools, almost destroying a culture and how those stereotypes are so prevalent still today.

Please teach your kids or help them recognize that while they don’t HAVE to think about any of this, many other kids have to deal with it every single day. What a privilege for white kids not to have to carry this burden.

Please know I am not being overly sensitive or trying to be overly dramatic. You may already have these conversations in your household and if so, thank you. If not, please do or call us or talk to us. We are doing our damnedest to make this world feel less difficult for our kiddos, but gosh would it be great to know there are other white kids, peers, friends that will stand by their sides and have our kids’ and other kids’ backs.

Thank you for caring about our family. Thank you for reading this. Thank your for being part of our community.

Suggested Resources:

Beverly Tatum “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
Anton Treuer “Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were
Afraid to Ask”
Peggy Macintosh https://www.isr.umich.edu/home/diversity/resources/white-privilege.pdf

Get Home Safely: Video: https://vimeo.com/116706870

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*Names have been changed

**I did have a conversation with my fourteen-year-old about all of this last night. That’ll be in my next blog post.

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The Fitting Room

Fitting Room

I’m leaning against the clearance rack when Justin Timberlake’s voice fills the store. He’s singing about his suit and tie, which seems appropriate since my daughter is in the fitting room trying on semi-formal dresses.

As I lean, I look at the space below the fitting room door and see her feet—bandaids on the heels thanks to the chafing of those darn flats—standing on an island of discarded yoga pants and t-shirt. Timberlake croons “…can I show you a few things?” and my girl’s feet move and turn. The choreography that’s happening inside the fitting room tells a story. First, her toes face the mirror. She’s staring at herself, full-on, for a long time. Then her feet change directions; she’s looking at the back of the dress, craning her neck over her shoulder. Back and forth, her feet move, as she assesses the dress. A minute later, she stands still, and then her hand appears in the space above the door as it takes the hanger off a hook.

Because she took a heap of dresses into the fitting room, this dance continues for some time.

My daughter is fourteen, and the upcoming “ball” is the first major dress-up event of her high school career. Always a reserved, low-key kid, she teemed with excitement when she told me about the dance, asking first if it we had anything planned for that night, and if not, could she please go? Beyond that, she wondered if we could go shopping for a dress—nothing too fancy but something kind of fancy? She didn’t think she’d need new shoes or jewelry or anything. Maybe just a comfortable dress, perhaps a little sparkly?

This is the girl who fell into a lake when she was four, getting stuck between a pontoon boat and the dock. Never uttering a peep, she just stood silently in water up to her chest as the pontoon buffeted her against the wood and metal of the dock. When, later, I learned about this event, I felt sick to my stomach at the possibilities of that scenario and told her, “Oh, sweetie, you have to make noise. I know you’re a quiet person, but sometimes in life, when it really matters, you have to push beyond your natural tendencies, and you have to raise your voice. You have to make people notice you. Please, please, please, if there is any hint of danger, for the rest of your life, shout, yell, scream, thump—but make some noise.”

Her response was a placid, “I knew eventually someone would see me.”

She is unflappable, this girl—the rock around which the water flows. Thus, when she talks about a high school dance with excitement flickering in her eyes, I listen.

Yes, of course we could go dress shopping. It would, in fact, be a pleasure. Partially, the pleasure would come from watching my daughter transform into someone she has longed to be: a high school girl who gets to go to a big-time dance with a group of her friends. For years, she’s seen this scenario in movies, television shows, and books; now, finally, it would be her turn to take a twirl as the starring character.

On another level, watching my daughter try on dresses would help repair some lingering wounds from my own years in high school, a time when I never felt pretty or wanted or popular. Even though I did attend formal dances, and even though I enjoyed stuffing myself into a fancy dress and putting baby’s breath in my hair, the result was never what I hoped for. Photographs prove this: I didn’t look “gorgeous.” I looked like someone who had tried too hard to become a swan, in the process highlighting all things duckling.

It’s not that I’m a mother who lives through her daughter. When my daughter looks beautiful, it doesn’t convince me that I, too, am beautiful. I don’t take her reflection and apply it to myself. Rather, as I stand there, leaning against discounted halter tops while my strong, healthy, pragmatic daughter tries on fancy dresses, I’m considering how different her teen experience is from mine. Quite easily, she likes herself. She likes her body. She likes her hair. She cracks herself up. When I poke around the edges of her plans for the ball and ask, “So, are any of your friends going to the dance with a date? I mean, is that something that seems fun to you?” she scrunches up her face and declares, “No. I actually want to enjoy myself! I look at the girls who are worried about boys, and it seems so exhausting. I don’t have that kind of energy.” Ultimately, as I watch her delight in her own image, watch her like what she sees, watch her feel confident within herself—all of that easy acceptance of Self shows me a whole new way to be a teenager.

When I was 14, I was malleable and suggestible, looking to others for confirmation of my worth. My emotions ran high, and every day saw me clinging to a façade of good cheer to counteract myriad tiny devastations. Certainly, I had friends; I did well in school; I had a good enough time. On the other hand, I cried a lot and carried a lump of despair in my softest parts.

My daughter, however, isn’t a crier. In her bedroom, she has a whiteboard that lists short-term and long-term to-do lists. Every Sunday, she plans her outfits for the week and sets them in neatly wadded piles in front of her dresser. As soon as she gets home from cross-country practice, she takes out her clarinet and practices because once it’s done, she doesn’t have to think about it any more. Then she does her homework while eating dinner and watching episodes of Pretty Little Liars. She and her good girlfriends are drama free. Pals since elementary school, they have never had a falling out.

When I ask her if anyone is ever mean to her, she says, “Nope. Everyone’s always really nice to me. I think it’s because I don’t bother anyone.”

When I ask her if she wishes she had even more friends, she says, “Nope. I like my friends. Also, Mom? I have lots of friends.”

When I ask her if anything at school is feeling tough, she says, “Nope. Well, actually, you could ask anyone about doing proofs in geometry, and they’d say it’s tough, but that’s about it. Oh, and I really don’t want to wear that gross band uniform in public.”

When I ask her if there’s anything she needs or wants, she says, “Nope. I’m good. I mean, if you wanted to take me a on a trip to Norway or Italy or Fiji, I wouldn’t complain. Oh, and I could use some grey socks for Spirit Week.”

Naturally, there is a lot that a mother doesn’t see. In a few decades, I may discover that my daughter was full of agony or that someone hurt her. There could be disclosures and revelations that make my brain spin back in time and re-frame my perceptions. All I know for sure now is that I’m paying close attention, and every indication tells me she’s radically and dramatically fine—in a way that inspires me. I respect my fourteen-year-old more than I respect most people, in fact, and I want to embrace that feeling with the most open of hearts.

To that end, I rein myself in. Yes, my teen years were emotionally fraught. That doesn’t mean I have to try to trigger those same feelings in my daughter. If she says everything’s good, I don’t need to treat her report with suspicion, as though it’s something that needs to be debunked.

That’s why, when the door to the fitting room opens, and she walks out holding all the dresses in one big pile, my question is studiedly neutral. “Did you find anything you like?”

Matter-of-factly, she says, “There are a couple that are okay. I don’t love them, though. I’d rather just wear a regular dress with a really pretty necklace than have us spend money on something I don’t love.”

That becomes the back-up plan as we walk toward the next store.

Yet.

I keep thinking about her excitement when she told me about the dance. I keep thinking about how sweetly she’d asked for a fancy dress, maybe “something sparkly.” I keep thinking about how that request had been an instance of my daughter raising her voice.

She needs to know I heard her.

We get to the next store, and as she heads off to the bathroom, she sighs, “We probably aren’t going to find anything. When I’m done, we can just go home.”

During the next few minutes, waiting for her return, I grab four dresses from the racks. As she walks up to me—so tall these days!—I say, casually, “You might not have chosen some of these, but look at the cut and the color. You know you always look great in blue. Plus, this one is both sparkly and comfortable. Want to try any of these?”

Ah, there it is. The light in her eyes is back. Sure, she’ll try them.

This time, when the door of the fitting room opens, she wants to show me how she looks.

Striking, vibrant, liking what she sees, eyes shining, she smiles at me tentatively. Carefully, I take in her loveliness, from the bandaids on her heels to the rubber bands on her braces to the smudges on her glasses, and I become a teenager again:

I burst into tears.

Her tentative smile, her shining eyes. They are making a noise.

And, because life is full of grace, I am there to hear it.

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The Ultimate Splinter

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Zowie, but the kid was a screamer.

First, she had colic, a condition that also made me cry a lot. Poor Byron would desperately knead my hand, pleading, “What can I do? Just tell me what I can do.” That’s what it looked like as I read his lips, anyhow. For all I could hear, he might actually have been saying, “Do you have a hoe? Joe has a nice rainbow.”

Some months later, half-deaf and -dead from the colic, we attempted sleep training.

After an exhausting week, our ears blistered by her all-night crying, having followed all instructions to the letter, we roasted marshmallows over the sleep training books as they disintegrated into ashes. Then we pulled our girl into the bed with us. Instead of teaching her to say prayers before we flipped off the light, we taught her to flip off Dr. Ferber and leave the lights aglow.

Then, a year beyond that, Allegra got her first splinter.

I’m sorry, did you say something? My left ear isn’t back to full functioning yet because of the part where our two-year-old got a splinter. I also have this one knee that has a hitch in it–maybe a floating bone chip–since one of us had to pin her down bodily while the other one dug around for the offending bit of wood. To be frank, our toddler put up such a fuss that we were fine with leaving the thing in and allowing an accrual of pus to work it out, but Sweet Louis Pasteur I can’t tell you the screaming when we announced that option. So, really, I’m sorry if you’ve been talking to me, but you’re going to need to speak up.

Then, when she was four, after an evening of playing with a ball in some tall grasses while we clapped for Daddy Doing a Trail Race, she came home hosting four ticks looking to set up their sleeping bags in her warm, moist crevices. Once I laid my body over top of hers, and Byron started plucking them out with a tweezers, plaster fell from the ceiling. One report had it that the tide in the Bay of Biscay reversed direction for a short time.

When she was seven, something called The Shark Game was being played on loose gravel. She slipped. The skin on her knee was torn open, and the wound filled with dirt and gravel. The clean-up, which I can still tell you occurred on Sunday, April 22nd, 2007, at 1:34 p.m., involved a modicum of drama.

A few years later, her Girl Scout troop took a field trip to the hospital to look at the babies in the newborn unit, and Allegra fainted.

By the time the girl finished elementary school, we were tired, bruised, deeeeeef, and more than a little afraid of her. She possesses immense charms, most certainly, but when it comes to anything “of the body,” the kid has always been a Tasmanian Devil. Or unconscious on the floor.

Thus, although I’d like to think that all possibilities are still open to our now-14-year-old, I can confidently state she’ll never be a doctor, nurse, phlebotomist, EMT, or maintenance worker in a health care facility. If we discuss someone else’s illness in the abstract, her knees get weak. On occasion, she’s half-joked that she’d like to have children but isn’t sure she could ever deal with pregnancy and delivery. We’ve done some initial counseling on the merits of adoption.

Mostly, I accept that “freak out at matters of the flesh” is part of her wiring. She’s so steady and laid back about all other things that this shrieking hand-flapper of a mother can’t begrudge her daughter the right to run a little hot when it comes to skinned knees and blood.

This trait has been such a part of her since birth that my brain struggled to catch up the other night when she walked in to the room carrying a whiteboard upon which she’d written:

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For those not parenting kids with braces, the concept of “blue floss threader” might be opaque. Here. This is a “blue floss threader.”

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To get a sense of scale, compare the blue floss threader to the whiteboard:

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With the same intensity that she’s recoiled from bodily issues, our girl as always loved a whiteboard. So fun! So multi-functional! So capable of sending out an S.O.S when one is unable to speak BECAUSE A BLUE FLOSS THREADER IS JAMMED THROUGH ONE’S TONGUE!

The explanation for how that happened entails one of Jocelyn’s Patented Random Rambles. Bear with me. Okay, so some of you must have watched The Dick Van Dyke Show at some point, right? In one episode, Mary Tyler Moore’s character of Laura Petrie takes a bath; while in the tub, Laura notices that the faucet has a drip hanging from it, so she puts her toe to the faucet to “play” with the drip. Her toe becomes caught in the faucet opening, and classic comedy ensues.

In Allegra’s version of this scenario, the drip was a wily chunk of orange pith, and the toe was a blue floss threader. The faucet opening should have been the space between her teeth but had become, in a huge moment of “whoops,” her tongue.

You follow?

Adjust this picture so that the nose is a tongue and the bone is a blue floss threader. Yea, like that.

bone through nose

Byron and I read her whiteboard message, but it took a minute to figure out the meaning. Even when we sat, agape, and stared at the end of her tongue where the flosser threaded through her taste buds, it still didn’t quite sink in.

The tears in her eyes helped convey the message, though.

Well, hell.

Fortunately, the flosser wasn’t too deeply embedded–more sewn into the tip–so pulling it out could be done at home, by us. I immediately went into Splinter Mode with her, suggesting she sit between my legs and let me hug her while Byron worked the thing out.

NO.

I suggested she sit or lie down, and I would work on it, so gently it would be like a unicorn’s sigh floating by on a cloud.

NO.

Tears on cheeks. Frantic eyes.

It’s not wrong of me to have had a flash of gratitude that she was virtually unable to speak, is it? ‘Cause by extension: no screaming.

As I tried to get my eyes into her mouth, to see how much flesh would have to be broken, should we have to pull it out forwards instead of easing it out sideways, she stridently waved me off. NO. NO. NO.

Teetering somewhere between hysteria and control, she let me accompany her into the bathroom.

There, I unleashed another one of my patents, something called “Soothy Voice While Imperceptibly Rubbing Lower Back,” as she stared into the mirror and considered the options.

[Full disclosure: patent is still pending. Do not steal my idea, you effers, before it gets approved. We need the money.]

She put her hands into her mouth, withdrew them hastily, and, as a hail of tears fell and bounced off her cheeks, she started working at the thing. Then she stopped, produced some Novacain-sounding speech, looked wild-eyed, and put her hands back in.

This went on for several minutes. The tears were perfect beads, almost plinking as they landed in the sink over which she was leaning. Mixed into the tears were a few moments of laughter. How could we not laugh? Could anything be more ridiculous? Several times, I offered to help. At one point, I noted that we might have to cut a very thin layer of the top flesh off–softly, not aggressively–to free the flosser.

NO.

So I rubbed and talked, much the same way I snared my first boyfriend.

Eventually, slowly and painfully, she did something. And it worked. The flosser came out.

No one fainted. No one screamed.

As is always the case when I witness my kids being more than they knew they could be, I fought back emotion. Instead of bawling at how damn proud she should be of herself, because in so many ways she’d just defeated more than a piece of plastic embedded into her soft tissues, I went light.

“Good Lord, my girlie girl. I just had a moment here, watching you cry and laugh and get down to business, all at once. You better believe it: I just had a moment where I realized that if you ever decide you want to, you’ll absolutely be able to deliver a baby. If you can pull a needle out of your tongue, I’m pretty sure you can handle childbirth. You have grit, chicabell.”

Later, Allegra gave me her analysis of why she’s always been such a screamer yet was able to handle this latest. The way she sees it, all the other injuries of her life weren’t actually painful, so her brain was able to go wild and ramp up the drama. But when something genuinely hurt, as did the flosser, she needed to deal with it, all nonsense aside. The pain kept her brain grounded.

Ultimately, after watching her lurch her way through that crisis, I was full of admiration: not only will this young woman one day be able to deliver a baby, should she so desire, she’ll also make one hell of a mother. And if she never has a child, never becomes a mother, that’s great, too–

because she’ll be there for herself.

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Perhaps a Late Paper Isn’t the Worst of Her Problems. She Also Thinks It’s a Heron That Drops Off Babies.

Her eyes filled with tears as I spoke.

“Yup, you will lose twenty points on your essay if you submit it today. The policy is that you lose ten points for each day that it’s late, and since today is Wednesday, and the paper was due Monday, that’s what you’re dealing with.” I stood in front of her, having fielded her question as I made my way around the classroom during a group activity. Moments before, I had been checking in on everyone’s progress; when I reached her and her partner’s corner of the room, the student had stopped working to ask if she truly had to lose points for turning in her essay past the deadline.

Upon hearing my answer, she slumped down in her chair and leaned her head onto her bent arm, propping her upper body against the wall. Blinking rapidly, trying to get a hold of herself, her speech was agitated. “But I don’t want to lose twenty points. That means I might as well just take a zero–”

“NOOOO, don’t think of it that way,” interrupted her partner, a thirty-six-year-old mother of three. “You have to turn in your paper today. Do it today, right after class, when you go home. You can email it to Jocelyn or put it in the Dropbox online, and you can still get most of the points!”

I agreed with the partner’s advice and emphasized the logical option: “At this point in time, losing twenty points is the best possible deal you can get, so please, please, please salvage what you can, and submit the thing today–tonight, before midnight. Use the Dropbox as soon as you get home, and turn that paper in. Twenty points does some damage, but you can still get a passing grade.”

“But I don’t want a grade that’s twenty points lower than what the paper should get. It’s a really good paper. I don’t want a lower score on it.” Her face was flushing with emotion as she teetered between tears and anger.

When I responded to her, it felt–as it all too often does with teaching adults–like I was counseling one of my children. Actually, I was counseling this adult in a way my children wouldn’t require, for they would have turned their work in on time. But I tried to help her understand I wasn’t going to make an exception to the policy simply because she wanted me to. Trying to inject a supportive tone into my voice, I told her, “The thing is, you can’t go back in time and change your behaviors from two days ago, when you didn’t turn in your paper. All you have is the chance to make the best possible decision you can today, right now, with the reality that’s in front of you.”

To her credit, she was frustrated with the situation, not with me. Reaching her limit, she threw her hands up and announced, “Screw it. I’ll just take a zero.”

“Wait a minute,” I challenged her. “What’s that attitude about? Do you realize you literally just threw your hands up in the air as you dismissed something that’s bothering you? You have to know that if you don’t turn in this paper, even for meager points, you literally cannot pass this class, as all four out-of-class essays have to be submitted, no matter how poor their scores. Submitting them all is a baseline requirement. So why are you rolling over on this? What’s the benefit to having an attitude of all-or-nothing?”

Even more to her credit, she gave a giggle of self-acknowledgment as she confessed, “Because that’s how I’ve always dealt with everything in my life. If I can’t have it all, my way, then screw it; I’m done.” As her memory flicked back through various life events–becoming pregnant in high school, drug addiction, getting kicked out of her dad’s house–she drew in a huge breath. “I was so sure things were going to change now. I just got a new job, so I’m not unemployed any more, and I was going to prove that I could do my new job and not have it hurt my schoolwork…this was going to be the time I didn’t mess up.”

Her helpful partner chimed in again, “So don’t let it. If you take a zero, then you lose. Turn in your paper today, take the hit, and then you’ll prove something to yourself.”

The partner was a qualified counselor. She had been through Stuff. When she was pregnant with her third child, it was her male OB/GYN who told her she had to leave her husband since the husband was a tyrannical addict. Not only did this advice wake her up to the grimness of her life, it also provided her a life-altering epiphany as she realized, “There’s actually only one man I’ve ever known who’s listened to me and asked me questions. It’s probably not a great sign about the state of my existence that the only caring male I’ve ever known–my doctor–is in my life because he’s paid to be here.” After issuing an ultimatum, she ended up kicking her husband out.

Since making that change, life has not been easy. Divorced, she lost the nice house and comfortable lifestyle she’d enjoyed during her marriage and, as a single mother of three, working as a hairdresser at Great Clips, she has raised her children in poverty. On the day that this hard-working student advised her classmate not to give up, her sixteen-year-old daughter had just received yet another ten-day suspension from school; apparently the ten-day suspension the teenager had received a few months before hadn’t had any effect. In explaining the situation with her daughter, my student provided important perspective: “Do those people at the school not know how hard it is to get her there in the first place? And then they keep kicking her out? I mean, it’s killing me, but at least she’s there.”

As I stood and listened, my wander around the classroom paused at these female students’ table, a handful of thoughts zipped through my mind. Long ago, I learned that judgment is never constructive–yet, naturally, it still tried to nudge its way in. I also battled against frustration. Fatigued by 160 students, all of whom were in the middle of something, my most authentic self wanted to shout, “No matter what’s going on in your world, do your work already, and if you don’t do your work, own the consequences.” Simultaneous to pushing back against judgment and frustration, I was also holding defensiveness at bay. Being a policy enforcer requires an emotional separation from the pleading eyes and tragic words; holding the line made me the bad guy, and it’s difficult not to jut the chin self-righteously in that role. And then there was appreciation–affection!–for the single mother of three who used her voice as Peer more effectively than I could use mine as Teacher. When it came to weathering challenging experiences, trusting that education might transform her existence from one of not enough to one of plenty enough, understanding how exhausting it can be to fight to an upright posture after being ground under life’s heel, she provided her stressed-out table mate with an emotional fist bump. Because my life has been very fortunate, I wasn’t speaking to the late-paper student from a place of “Hey, honey, I’ve been there” empathy–nor, it could be argued, should I have been. However, what I knew in the moment was this: we needed the voice of that poverty-stricken hairdresser in the room. Her energetic and informed point of view, dovetailing with my inflexible standard bearing, created something unexpectedly powerful.

Woefully, easy happy endings are the stuff of Disney and the citizens of Jan Karon’s Mitford.

They are much more rare in the community college classroom.

The agitated student whose essay was doomed to lose twenty points was not magically reformed by the words of Teacher and Peer. She did not race home and submit her “really good paper” to the Dropbox before midnight. Possibly, she had to work. Or she had to pick up her two-year-old from the daycare since they had given her notice that leaving her son with them 16 hours per day was too much. Or she smoked a few outside a brick building while laughing with friends. Or she called up her mother and had a fight. Or she lay down on the couch, wanting to put her feet up for a minute, unable to turn in her paper electronically because she couldn’t afford Internet service in her subsidized apartment.

Another day ticked by. No essay.

Then another. Still no essay.

Four days past due, a semi-good paper slammed into the Dropbox, submitted just late enough to convey an attitude of “Here. Take it. And what-EVER about your lateness policy. But give me points. Or don’t. I don’t care. Except please do.”

And so it goes.

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In the Bag

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I had quite a tussle in the kitchen the other day, and Mario Batali wasn’t even trying to abscond with the dark chocolate. 

(Good thing, too, for I am not above take-down by pony tail).

Rather, I was attempting to demonstrate my General Maturity by making dinner.

Planning began at 10 a.m., moved through a stop at the grocery store at noon, and transitioned into pre-meal preparation at 2 p.m., at which time I measured out and stirred up something called “steak spice” before dissolving it in balsamic vinegar. Dramatically, I hefted two pounds of pork loin and anointed it in

a marinade.

In the moment, it seemed practical that the recipe recommended plunging the meat into a plastic bag full of the marinade. The bag would be malleable, letting the juices work around the hunk of protein for several hours, permeating every pore of the pig. Throughout the afternoon, whenever I stopped by the kitchen, I would be able to squeeze and adjust the pounds of meat–much like my strategy for packing breastual tissues into a bra–and swirl the marinade around a bit.

There was just one itsy problem.

Once I poured the marinade over the meat and sealed the Ziploc bag, the thing became Mount Etna: several holes in the bottom of the bag created channels for the marinade to ooze out, bubbling over the counter top. Yelping a loud %&*@#!, I grabbed the sponge and a handful of paper towels before scrabbling into the drawer for a spoon: so much marinade had seeped out in thirty seconds that I was able to scoop it up and, illogically, dump it back into the holey bag. Gathering my wits–both of ’em–I changed the order of attack.

With my less-sticky hand, I pulled open the drawer where we keep plastic bags and riffled around for another big one. As quickly as possible, I transferred the loin and remaining marinade into the new bag. Cussing one more time at the holey bag, I threw it into the garbage and set about scooping and mopping the gunk off the counter, musing that the recipe hadn’t listed “sweat of your brow” on the ingredient list.

Daunted, I considered slurping the liquid off the counter but, instead of getting licky, bolstered my spirits with a personal affirmation: “It took the great Oscar Wilde an entire cast of characters to construct a comedy of errors, yet you have always manged to achieve states of nonsensery without a single assist!”

Finally, I deposited ten more paper towels into the trash and gave the sponge a thorough rinsing. There.

Now I could toss the loin into the fridge, ignore it for a few hours, and get down to grading some student work.

…or, as it turned out, I could spend another ten minutes wiping up marinade off the counter. Because holes. In the replacement bag. That invisibly damaged mo#^erfu@@er.

By the time I was done prepping the first stage of our “quick and easy dinner,” I was tired, sticky, and fed the hell up with plastic bags. Flippin’ stupid micro-punctured Ziplocs.

But then I sat down and started working through students’ paraphrasing activities, and because their work failed to hold my attention (Who assigns this stuff?), my brain took a meander down a path of memory, to the year we lived in Turkey.

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After an evening of dinner and movies at a friend’s, we were putting on our shoes before walking back up the hill to our 400-year-old Greek house. As I zipped my jacket, our hostess came out of the kitchen waving a plastic bag we’d forgotten on the counter after unpacking our dessert offering.

“You don’t want to leave this behind; this thing is like gold. Not only is it a Ziploc, but I’ve never seen one this big before. It’s a treasure.”

The bag was a treasure. It had slipped into our sweaty clutches a few months earlier, when friends from the United States had come to visit during our year in Turkey. Before their departure, my friend Pamm–true to form in both generosity of heart and desire to shed random tangle of Stuff–had gone through her bag and sculpted a clump of unwanted items that she thought we might find useful. Among other things, there was a comb she’d picked up in a hotel somewhere between Istanbul and Cappadocia; multiple bottles of shampoo; a few note pads; a nail clipper; a specialized implement for starting the peeling of an orange; hotel slippers; a pair of Crocs. All of her discards were handed to us in an enormous Ziploc bag.

Like a preschooler who spends Christmas day playing with the cardboard box his new scooter came in, we were most excited about the packaging.

A ZIPLOC BAG? IN TURKEY?

Golden. Treasure.

It speaks to the fine character of our hostess that she didn’t let us leave it behind. A lesser woman would have shoved the thing into her silverware drawer while calling out a hasty, “Don’t trip on the uneven stones on your way out! Keep the kids close because, you know: feral village dogs!”

Gratefully, I took the big bag from her and hugged it to my chest. In a pinch, I could slip it over the head of an aggressive dog and zip it shut.

Fortunately, the return home was uneventful (only one near miss as a sixteen-year-old with Flock of Seagulls hair on a motorcycle came within half a foot of our second grader). Tenderly, we tucked Baggie in that evening, assuring it of our love, its value, and a long future together.

The next day, as I started to make cookies, I pulled Baggie out and set him on the counter. He was always more accepting of inserts if he knew their origins, so I let him witness the baking and ready himself for action during the cookie cool-down period.

Naturally, because this was Turkey, and because dumb situations crop up wherever I set my feet, shortly after I got the first pan of cookies into the little oven (essentially a toaster oven the size of a microwave), the power went out. Since the cookies only needed a few more minutes of baking, I decided to let the remnant heat in the oven finish them off.

As I waited in the dark, walking tentatively since the door frames in Cappadocian stone homes top out at five feet, I decided to call a friend and have a chat. After all, she was on her third Turkish husband, and if we missed a day of catching up, I feared the announcement of a fourth might slip by. Thus, when it was time to remove the pan of cookies from the oven, I was laughing, hunching, and stumbling (just another Thursday, really). Stabbing around in the darkness, holding the phone to one ear, feeling around for a dish towel to wrap around my free hand, I located the door of the oven and pulled out the baking sheet. Sweet Martha Stewart in menopause, but was hot!

I slammed it onto the marble counter top, grateful that the stone surface could handle heat.

What couldn’t handle heat was the enormous Ziploc bag I’d just set the pan onto, there in the darkness.

Immediately, huge holes melted into Baggie, rendering him unusable, fit only for the huge trash heap outside the village–where the feral dogs gathered before pack hunting my husband when he went out for a run. RIP, Baggie. Choke not a doggie.

Standing there blindly, unable to see the melted bag, I ran my fingers over the holes and felt a genuine sense of loss. That bag had come all the way from the United States before joining our family. That bag had once held a specialized implement for starting the peeling of an orange. It had gone to movie night. It had held bread, leftovers, cookies, and little crumbles of our hearts. A true treasure, admired by others, Baggie had come to us as a glamorous piece of “home,” one that made our year abroad feel the eensiest bit less foreign.

That Ziploc bag had been a great deal more than a Ziploc bag.

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Although it could be argued that the world would be better off if plastic bags didn’t exist at all, that’s not the point. I realized, as I sat not grading paraphrases while recalling Adventures in Ziplocs, that the point was gratitude. If I was lucky enough to have something, and if I was happy to have that thing because it was useful, then I should forgive its failings and appreciate that it had tried to help.

My attitude thusly adjusted, I stood up, cracked my back, and walked into the kitchen. There, I stuck my head into the garbage can and yelled, “Thank you for your service, you holey bastards. You make me crazy, but what a privilege it’s been to have you.”

With that, I took a quiet moment to massage my loin.

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XO

Every month, Mamalode announces a new theme and puts out a call for essays.

When they announced that February’s theme would be XO, my immediate thought was “This is a toughie–’cause what don’t I love? I could write 3,000 words about the boots in my closet, the woman at the gym who complimented my calves, or the jigsaw puzzle I’m working on.”

Pretty much, I have hugs and kisses for a million little things.

So I decided to go big.

Even though February is “the month of love,” and even though I deeply dislike Valentine’s Day (hey, there’s something I don’t love!), I saw no need to wrestle my brain into a quirky, off-the-wall story about love.

I have a big love, and he lives with me, warms my feet in the bed at night, and counsels me through the trickiest sections of my jigsaw.

There was no question: I would submit an essay about Byron.

Of course, because I also love to be ornery, I started out with this sentence:

Despite substantial evidence that the romantic ideal of meeting The One and living happily ever after is a crock, we are trained from birth to believe in it.

Please, click on the following title and read the whole thing over at Mamalode: “The One That Didn’t Fail”

I’d love it if you did.

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Why I Can’t Return the Sour Milk

Step into my mukluks for seventeen minutes.

Minute One: Park car in lot outside “fancy” grocery store in town. As door slams, congratulate self on not locking keys inside. Simultaneously marvel at surprising deliciousness of cotton candy gum.

Minute Two: Walk across parking lot to store. Remember time you ran into cousin there, in middle of asphalt. He wore long wool coat. When he was young, you’d never have pegged him as wearer of long wool coat. Wonder about intersection of coat and his recent “vice president” title at work. Related?

Minute Three: Enter store. Notice college student ordering latte at the coffee stand. Quash urge to yell, “Get the Turtle Mocha. They cut up a Snickers bar and put it on top of the whipped cream, and you’ll never have a better boyfriend than that!” Reject notion of getting cart, as you have short list. Pick up basket and congratulate self for traveling light. You are restraint on tiny cat feet compared to conspicuously consuming shoppers hacking around dairy section. Gad. Watch lady in North Face puffer coat loading yogurts into her cart like twelve-day blizzard, or prolonged course of antibiotics, is imminent. Thorstein Veblen would clutch cravat in choked dismay.

Minute Four: Look at shopping list. First item: 10x yogurts.

Minute Five: Even though not on list, toss bag of pita chips into basket. Midnight snackies favor hummus and get shrill if not coddled.

Minute Six: Recall kids have been wanting little Jell-O cups. Green ones. As occur in nature.

Minute Seven: Bananas! On list! Virtue Restored!

Minute Eight: Self-righteously march past bulk nuts. Crack nonsensical joke to self about “bulk nuts.” Slip by woman near cans of beans who needs new stylist. Hard black hair against 63-year-old face highlights, rather than masks, age. Tangentially wonder if Oprah dyes hair. Ruminate about how girls who have graduated from Oprah’s school in South Africa are doing and if they have seen Selma. Imagine what girls would wear to Oscars, had Selma been nominated and Oprah brought them as special guests. Predict strapless with sweetheart necklines. Hot orange.

Minute Nine: ORANGES! Head back to produce. Fruit supply at home is low. Mercifully, so is population of fruit flies. Pull out mental gratitude journal, noting unnecessarily that Oprah Is Ubiquitous, and jot “No fruit flies means don’t have to cover wine glass with coaster” as today’s entry. Watch as mental script fades away in middle of “coaster” because mental pen is running out of ink. Stupidly, toss oranges on top of pita chips. Cringe at ensuing crunch. Congratulate self for tricep workouts that enable you to carry light-footprint basket even when loaded with fifteen pounds of items not on list. Wonder if Thorstein Veblen was any fun at parties.

Minute Ten: Feel underwear tag scratching heiny. Complete sly mental scan of five-foot radius. Clear. Casually slide hand down pants and adjust offender.

Minute Eleven: As long as scratching crack, time for cracker aisle. Rue that Triscuits aren’t negative calorie food. Wonder if science fiction writer could ever create world where oil-rich food saps body. Wonder if, should this book be written, you would read it. Decide not. Send out mental signal to fictional science fiction writer not to bother. Wonder what his name would have been. Derek?

Minute Twelve: Get mired down in front of protein bars. Check calories and shake fist at sky. Note sugar grams and drop forehead into hands. Spiral, in under three seconds, into black void of hunger, exercise, intake, output, and ceaselessly soft mid-section. Jar brain out of unreasonable rut with observation that protein bars are processed food. Also observe that husband and son aren’t bar-oriented while daughter and mother are. Feel exasperated by gender politics of food. Load eight bars into suddenly-heavy-feeling basket. Give triceps pep talk and remind them how hard they worked at gym while lady wearing microphone yelled motivationally about sixteen more reps.

Minute Thirteen: Walking past plexiglass case, get distracted by prospect of muffins. Realize, in complicated emotional bargaining that is parenthood, you “owe” son muffin since you bought several for daughter two weeks ago when she went on extra-curricular event for three days and stayed in hotel. Store had no chocolate chip muffins then. Store has no chocolate chip muffins now. Get philosophical and ask self, “What is a muffin without chocolate chips, really?” Deliberate merits of massive pumpkin muffin instead. Decide no. As you walk away from pumpkin, bid him “Adieu, Derek.”

Minute Fourteen: Realize you’re supposed to be picking up daughter and friend not named Derek from ski practice in one minute. Hope they find enriching conversational topics to temper waiting. Consider texting daughter quick message: “Beyoncé. Pregnant again? Discuss.” Concede Beyoncé topic not enriching. Revise unsent text to: “Are corporations people? Answer is NO. Discuss Romney’s failed bids for presidency.” Speculate about product Romney uses in hair to make it look like shellacked guitar strings. Smile at image of guitar strings because Taylor Swift plays guitar and daughter loaded your iPod running playlist with Taylor Swift songs. Oops, DAUGHTER. Should go get her. Do driving math of “four miles that direction before six miles another direction,” push gently on spongy internal organ to test its mass, and decide bathroom stop is essential.

Minute Fifteen: Enter bathroom, sliding gaze to floor so as to avoid verbal exchange with hair-fluffer obsessed with volume of noggin’s silhouette. Skulk into stall. Set down bag of groceries while simultaneously setting rear onto ring. As soon as relief begins, realize there is no toilet paper. Unzip jacket pockets. Frisk self. Peer into amazing lime green purse that could easily hold Kleenex were they stocked. Check for feet under next stall so you can query, suddenly friendly, “Can you spare a square?” On every front: out. of. luck.

Minute Sixteen: Contemplate brown paper grocery bag at feet. Ripping off some inches would be admirably pragmatic. Consider thickness of paper. Stiff stuff. Not absorbent. Entertain possibility of “tanning” brown paper as traditional hunters did deer hides: with urine. Realize, damn it, you just wasted that most precious resource. How can someone tan brown paper bag with urine when she’s just released all of hers into five gallons of water? Let brain drift to one of its favorite vacation spots: life of Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear. When not domesticating animals or inventing needle and thread, assuredly that woman harnessed potential of urine.

Minute Seventeen: Spot nine-inch receipt inside brown paper grocery bag. Push through nano-second of worry about vaginal ink poisoning. Grab receipt, blot cooch with it, and watch paper swirl and swirl again–so full of drama with swirls–before disappearing down porcelain chute. Take moment, bowing head like traditional hunter standing over elk with arrow in its side, to thank water, sky, earth for always providing.

————-

And that’s why, when I got home and discovered the milk I’d bought was sour,

I couldn’t return it.

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A Forge and a Purse. That’s All We Need. Oh, and Cake. Plus This Candle. And a Bow Staff. A Unicorn.

The baritone saxophone doesn’t so much toot as blare. Rattle. Shake the house. When the boy is practicing, blowing all his lung air into the mouthpiece, conversation in another room is impossible. The floors vibrate; then he finishes a scale and calls out, “Playing this thing is loosening my ear wax!”

Recently, Paco turned twelve.

I want always to remember who he was at this stage of life:  sweet, sensitive, musical, bull-headed, mellow, clever, rules-minded, funny, soft, self-conscious, smart, observant, intuitive, sometimes anxious.

In other words, he’s exactly who he’s always been–only with every passing year, he’s less of a Creature Who Needs Tending and more of a Comfortable Conversation Companion. He just gets better.

All of the traits that were in him when he was two are magnified a decade later. The only difference now is that he accessorizes less when he sings his happy little songs.

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In the week before his birthday, Paco took part in two activities that illustrate the breadth of his abilities. First, he completed a day-long blacksmithing class, the foundational course in a series; six days later, he went purse shopping with his mother.

He could have handled either of these as a two-year-old, as well, but the parent in me was grateful he’d outgrown his clown wig phase before standing over the fire in a forge. Too much risk of a stray spark igniting a purple patch of whizzy curls before leaping cheek to smolder on the red nose. I’m also fairly certain the two-year-old Paco, had he been drafted into helping select a new purse, would have been more interested in choosing a shiny gold one with rivets, leopard spots, and a dangling whistle for himself than counseling his mother into the best choice of bag.

True confession: part of me wishes my twelve-year-old were still interested in choosing a shiny gold purse with rivets, leopard spots, and a dangling whistle for himself. We would use it to tote scones and bottles of mineral water when shoe shopping–and to signal each other when stumbling across a noteworthy find (Trumpet that whistle: Dansk clogs are on clearance!).

Alas. His interest these days is weaponry. That’s what led him to the forge: he wants to make a sword.  Of course, the road to a sword starts with a single step, in this case Blacksmithing 101, during which he learned to build and tend the fire before whacking at rods of rebar with a hammer for six hours.

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The day after the class, our almost-twelve-year-old was whupped. This was not surprising; one of the descriptors listed above with regards to this lad should also have been “low energy” or, phrased more gently, “easily sapped by activity.” He gets that from his mother. After a day of significant exertion, he feels run over; there is no quick rebound or shout of “Where’s the unicycle? I need a balance challenge!” Nae. This kid will need to lie on the couch for a good ten hours the day after effort, persistently promoting the nuances of his sore neck. He will sleep with a heating pad for two nights. He will accept ibuprofen and massages. He will nestle his brain stem on only the softest of fleecy fabrics. When the bathroom calls, he will walk gingerly, guarding his person against offending walls.

I feel this child. I am this child.

Seriously. One time I had a C-section, and from the way I still go on about it, you’d think the surgeon used nothing but a dull butter knife and her left incisor to cut me open.

Interestingly, the ball of blood and tears the surgeon gnawed out of me that day was this very kid, the one who’s just turned twelve.

When he forgets to moan, there is no one better. He works diligently at learning to spin his new bow staff, acting out Daffy Duck and Porky Pig’s famous “Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Thrust!” scene as he twirls.

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He loves his softie buddies in the bed and invites them to read in the dark with him, using a head lamp to illuminate a Nate the Great or Rick Riordan book.

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And he goes purse shopping with his mother.

It was a spontaneous outing. I’d noticed that my year-old purse’s straps had worn through and were on the verge of giving way entirely. I figured that at some point I’d dash into my favorite store and seek out a new one.

That opportunity presented itself the night before Paco’s birthday. He and I–teeming with vitality and non-sore necks when I suggested an expedition to check out the newest series of Lego mini-figures–had driven to the shopping area in town and done some focused groping of various bags of mini-figs, attempting to discern which figures might be held within the mystery packets. More than anything, we were hoping to detect a unicorn horn; to turn twelve the next day while clutching a Lego unicorn would be, well, like being the forty-seven-year-old mother of a twelve-year-old clutching a Lego unicorn: THE APEX OF AWESOME.

Once we selected our bags of figures and made our way out to the car (“I’m going to open one now and one tomorrow on my birthday; since I’m not having a party this year, that gives me something to look forward to”), I noted that we were conveniently near my favorite store.

“Paco, I feel The Mothership calling. The computer chip in my brain that’s linked to the main hive is pinging and pinging. Can we answer its call? Do you mind doing a little more dinkin’ around before we head home?”

The immediate response confirmed his status as Best Playmate. “What are you asking? I LOVE dinkin’ around.”

When we got to The Mothership, he had no interest in wandering off and looking at things that might interest him. He never does. Always and forever, he would rather stick close. Better conversation that way.

Hip to hip, we entered the square footage of Purse.

“So, what kind of purse are you looking for, exactly, Mom?”

He posed a hard question–for the criteria are variable, so long as the purse speaks. It’s a love thing.

“Hmmm. Well, you know the colors I like. Actually, even though I don’t usually like oranges and reds, I could do them in a purse. I just would need to be careful never to hold the purse next to my face, and the only time I can imagine my face ever nearing my purse would be when I’m digging for a quarter, Kleenex, lip balm, bandaid, dental floss, car keys, phone, or wallet, so what I mean to say is no reds or oranges. Also, I really hate blingy stuff, and all the random hardware they like to attach these days feels painfully Try Hard to me. Let’s just say we’re looking for a classic purse without a lot of crap jammed onto it. Oh, and also: always remember that fringe is the devil’s work.”

Having processed my words, Paco wandered over to a luscious navy blue dreamboat and gave it a heft. “How about this one? Nope, wait: it’s open across the top, and you need a zipper so all your stuff doesn’t spill out.”

Carry on, small man.

Moving to the next navy blue bag, he noted, “I like the shape of this one, and it’s so soft. Do you need a long strap, or do you just want to wear the handles over your shoulder?”

Negotiable, kid. I won’t know ’til I see it. It’s a love thing.

Then he looked at the price tag. “Oh, no. I’m worried about the cost of this one. It’s pretty high. That’s why it’s so nice.”

Teachable moment: you get what you pay for, buddy. Sometimes, when a purse has nice shape and is soft, that’s because it’s well made.

“Okay, then,” he continued. “You should carry that one around for a little bit to test it out. Also, it’s the last one, and you don’t want anyone else to take it until you’ve decided.”

I clutched it to my chest and petted the softness, just as I had this boy when he was a baby.

We wandered to the next display. “Yuck,” Paco noted. “Beiges and whites won’t be practical. They’ll get dirty so fast. Plus, they’re boring, and you like fun. Keep walking.”

Moving to the clearance rack, our eyes were drawn to a bright blue bag, smallish, zippered-but-not-too-much. “Ooh, I like that one,” I got squealy.

“But isn’t it too small, Mom? Your wallet won’t even fit in it.”

“Yea, but I could use it when I travel and only want to take the essentials–some cash, a credit card, a Burt’s Bees lip balm, ibuprofen, and a unicorn mini-figure. Those things would all fit easily!”

I grabbed the bright blue purse and smashed it against the navy blue one. Cuddling two babies, I followed my young man.

“Hey, Paco, wait! Isn’t this one kind of funky? The flap is asymmetrical, and it has two different chains for each shoulder strap. That’s fun, right?”

I’d gotten so off track, my counselor had to turn and give me a dead-on corrective stink eye. His gaze burned into mine, laser-like, as he countered my whimsy. “Mom. No. This purse is red. Would you say it’s ‘classic’? Can you undo that button on the flap easily every time you get in and out of your purse? No, Mom. No.”

He was right. In fact, rack after rack, every time I tried to derail my original intentions (Jocelyn Superpower #47) and get excited about impractical, silly, or ridiculous, the last-night-as-an-eleven-year-old’s voice brought me back from the edge.

“When you put that one on, it juts out really far. You’ll always be knocking things over with it. Since I’m always one step behind you, I could lose an eye.”

“I don’t think you should get two purses. That gets too expensive, and how many purses do you take out with you each day? ONE.”

“You think that’s cute right now, but when you look at it next week, you’ll realize it’s ugly.”

“That looks like a dead lizard on a string. You can’t.”

“I don’t want to know someone who would carry that heap of sequins on her shoulder.”

“Look at the lining inside that one. It will rip by Tuesday. And it looks like barf.”

Then.

We turned a corner.

And saw.

The racks of green purses.

Green and I have a history. Green might actually be Paco’s father.

Exhibit A:

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Our steps slowed; our fingertips grazed. Green was promising.

While I soaked in the big picture, Paco went specific and started digging to a barely visible hook in the back. “Mom! Look at this one! Lime green! And you know how we feel about lime green!”

I helped him extract it from the tangle of purses. It was lime green all right.

“And it doesn’t have dangly junk or bling, either. It’s like a real purse. Would it hold all your stuff? ‘Cause, Mom? I think this is the one. This is the best one, right? Let’s look at the price. Hey, not so bad! You have to get this one, don’t you? No question about it! LOOK AT THE GREEN! Mom, we love it; don’t we love it?”

Fortunately, I’m open to lime green. Fortunately, it was a good size. Fortunately, it was a good price. Fortunately, it was well made. Fortunately,

even if I’d been on the fence, unsure if it spoke to me, not completely sold,

I realized that–on the cusp of my son’s twelfth birthday–this was a moment to tuck into my heart. The next few years will see him moving further away from me, separating healthily and painfully; he will always be my boy, but he’s about to become less and less my boy, more and more the world’s man. He will always be part of my pulse, yet I will miss him forever.

Rather than yielding to the wash of melancholy that threatened, I focused on what he was right then, in that moment, in The Mothership, standing next to the green purses, enthusiastically holding up his choice.

Almost as tall as I, this young man was sweet, sensitive, musical, bull-headed, mellow, clever, rules-minded, funny, soft, self-conscious, smart, observant, intuitive, sometimes anxious. And he was applying all of his everything to helping me with my cause.

There was no question. Even if he’d been holding up a red purse dripping with sequins and fringe gilded with seven gold chains, I would have bought it.

It’s a love thing.

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