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Life

She’s Off


I want to tell you what love looks like.

She is 18, about 5′ 7″ with dark blonde hair to her shoulders.

Love looks like her, fresh sweetness driven by curiosity.

I want to tell you what else love looks like.

She is 46, about 5′ 10″, a brunette with tints of red.

Love looks like her, powerful directness fueled by loyalty.

I want to tell you what else love looks like.

She’s a horizontal 5′ 3″, maybe 80 pounds, but it’s hard to say since she hasn’t eaten in days.

Love looks skeletal and radiant in her hospital bed positioned next to the living room window, so she can live in the light as the veil between Here and There thins.

I want to tell you how blinding love is when these three versions of her are supported by the same laminate wood floors at the same time, one over by the living room window, her breathing shallow, her eyes half-open as she drifts in and out of medicated sleep, the other two facing each other near the dining room table. 

The brunette by the table has enough vigor for everyone, despite the exhaustion of walking slowly, over years, then days, now hours, shoulder-to-shoulder with her shallow-breathing wife as she eases to the next phase. The brunette by the table not only has vigor. She has a plan. 

The 18-year-old who has just been given a firm hug by the brunette does not know of a plan. All she knows is that she’s come for one last visit with the shallow-breathing love in the hospital bed. All she knows is that the first person to see the top of her head as it crowned its way into this world is now leaving it. All she knows is that she will be one of the last people to see the first person who saw her. All she knows is that something about this business of first and last smacks at the heart. All she knows is that being there for each other at the beginning and at the end feels like a rare magic.

“So,” says the brunette Kirsten to the teen who is on the cusp of three months of travels. “Here’s a deal I have for you. I’m going to slip a big swaaaaak of Euros into your pocket from Ginnie and me, okay?”

Not sure what is happening, the blonde Allegra nods uncertainly.

“And at some point while you’re in some far-off country, you’re going to see something that looks really fun — like something you’d love to do, if only you had the money. Like, it would be a great adventure, but it costs a lot, so you’ll just have to imagine how cool it would be. Except, see, you’re going to have this stack of Euros with you, and you’ve been told you can only use them to do something you otherwise would never be able to. So the whole point of these…” she trails off as she turns towards the dining room table and grabs a stack of colorful notes, “…is that you use them in memory of Gin…” — she tips her head towards the form in the hospital bed, the same form that was bitten by a lemur in Madagascar, that carried pails of ashes up and down staircases in a crumbling French chateau, that hugged a baby sloth in the Amazon — “…so you need to find an amazing thing to do, and when you throw this money at it, you will be taking Virginia on one last adventure, this time with you.”

Having explained the terms of the deal, the generous friend, auntie, wife, soon-widow pushes the money into the 18-year-old’s hands. The girl’s eyebrows lift as she nods. The terms are accepted.

I want to tell you what love looks like.

It looks like a stack of Euros with strings attached.

It looks like a blonde teen and a brunette chosen-auntie locking eyes for a brief moment as they acknowledge the lasting imprint the slight form in the hospital bed will leave on them both, with the lessons of generosity and gusto she modeled for them.

It looks like the tears in the eyes of a melancholy mother lurking two feet behind her teenage daughter who holds a stack of Euros in her hands; like the tears in the eyes of a grateful friend watching a pal make things possible for her girl; like the tears in the eyes of a grieving intimate who knows her beloved chum is days from death.

I want to tell you what love looks like.

It looks like four unsteady women united on a laminate wood floor, four women whose lives have intersected in profound and unpredictable ways, four women finding balance by leaning on each other.

I want to show you what love looks like.

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Five in Five

Grad Present: Monday, February 26

And so today was lovely, a day full of hours with my daughter, a day when we laughed and were in sync, and it was all so much of everything good. There was no question I would write tonight about this day, even in limited fashion, because I want to remember it.

But to write about today fully and as it deserves, I need 10-15 hours of typing and deleting and thinking. From past experience, I know that.

If I want to dig in and hold it all up to the light, that takes time.

The threat of time being taken would keep me from the keyboard.

I will write what I can now, and maybe it will serve as an incubator for One Day. For when there are hours.

And so the thing about today is that it’s a great story of loving a teenager who is about to launch herself, and it’s a great story of pipping through various environments in tandem and with happiness, and it’s a great story of seeing the ways that my daughter and I may find our way in the world together even after we no longer share a house.

If we can always remember the ease, the joy, the boondoggle of driving around and hitting destinations together, then maybe in twenty years, it can still be this good.

Right now, as I envision a future where she’s grown and gone, being her own self, gaining perspectives that give her permission to chafe against who we’ve been to her, as I look at the detritus of some relationships in my own life that have pummeled deep into my gut the reality that the center does not necessarily hold, I can’t be so naive as to trust that we all will always be okay.

We should be okay.

But I will never trust it.

Then, now, as you’re reading and wondering about relationships in my life and either identifying with my fears or wanting to assure me it will all be okay, there is the fact that this is more than a story of a great day with my dear, dear, dear daughter.

I need another 10-15 hours to write the story of the first time I bought a backpack, a good chunk of time to unpack the weight of that experience — at the time merely a lovely day in a store with a boyfriend with whom I planned travels. It was important to get professionally fit for our packs; we would camp in Ireland, roughing it to prove to ourselves how real we were.

We went to Ireland. We took our packs. We never camped. 

I would always say to him, “I love you,” so he could reply, “I don’t think I love you.”

See, these stories take time.

I’m trying to write fast, daily, out of impulse, in the hopes of capturing moments that might otherwise fade into grey, the foggy horizon of disputed recounting.

And so today’s fast story is about backpacks. And my daughter. Not about the man I loved who didn’t love me for 12% of my life.

Allegra is 17, and perhaps it is boring for you to read again about her glories, but I will tell you again: she graduated high school early, after last semester of doing all college work at the local university, and she works two jobs to save money for three months of travel before she starts college in the fall. She handles her own business, loves color-coding, and, at the same time, doesn’t know how to answer questions about a potential college major because everything is still too unknown. She makes me laugh; she has questions; she will spot your weakness in under an hour.

To celebrate her graduation, we told her we’d buy her a bag.

She wants a backpack — something we can bring to her, already packed, when we meet up with her during her travels. Alone, to Turkey and Montenegro, she will carry a different bag. For Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia, we will be with her. When we see her, we will hand her a prepared backpack —

a bag for when we fly home and she takes off to hike in Scotland with friends, then to Iceland to meet another friend.

And so we are gifting her with a backpack, which feels so right for who she is and where she’s going.

Today was backpack day. Byron had to work, but Allegra and I had some rare open hours together. Naturally, she had done her research, knew what she wanted, and realized it would be best to actually try packs on rather than ordering blindly online. It’s also nice to hand money to a real person in the place where you live. 

We went to the store. Talked to the guy. His name was Pat. He grew up in western Wisconsin. His street hasn’t been plowed yet since the latest 8″ fell. He likes trekking poles. 

With great competence, Pat outfitted Allegra in several Osprey packs (I have an Osprey backpack. I bought it during the 12% of my life when I wasn’t loved but wanted to camp to prove how real we were.). He weighted them, adjusted them, helped her tighten the straps, explained the trampoline mesh against her back.  

And so, patiently, and with an acceptance I never experienced during six years with that man in my twenties, Pat allowed — urged — Allegra to try, consider, step back, re-try, walk around, read her own reactions. Refusing apology for taking so much of his time, he exclaimed, “This is the fun part!”

I’m shifting verb tenses now. I’m not putting 10 hours into this thing, but I am taking time to make that choice.

The store is hot. I’m just standing there, leaning on a counter, asking questions, but I’m sweating. With a counter between us, I can see what’s going on with Allegra better. So we have space, and I am sweating. Is this a harbinger of the rest of life for us?

Is maybe all of life about sweating and space? Is that how it will always be for us, whoever the “us” in question is?

And so I’m leaning onto my elbows on a glass counter that creaks like it’s splintering every time I shift, and Pat is in it with us for the long haul, and Allegra’s trying on her fourth pack. We’ve moved away from the initial idea of Osprey packs, which are the best-selling brand in the U.S., and now she’s trying Deuter packs, which are the best-selling backpacks in the rest of the world. Yup, fit is good. Yup, feels good. But.

She puts on the previous pack again, walks around for a bit. Switches again to the other. Walks some more. This one? That one? Hmmmm. How to know which one is best?

Eventually, it becomes clear: THIS one feels the most right. This is the right one.

So we buy a Deuter, the newest model, and I don’t cry even though this purchase feels like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that starts “I got unexpectedly pregnant after I’d camped in Iceland — because my body had been exposed to around-the-clock light, and even though it seemed impossible for me to get pregnant because my period had ended two days before, I did get pregnant the night your dad, the right one, proposed, and when we found out you were coming, we changed the date of our wedding, and then right before the wedding, I had a miscarriage, and we cried for days, and then we went to the hospital and found out there was still a YOU in there even though your twin was gone, and then my water broke during a Creation vs. Evolution debate, and bam you came, and I cried in the garage when we brought you home from the hospital — my mom, standing by us out there next to the car, wondered why I was crying — and then you had colic, and I held your dad’s hand in the living room and cried some more and wailed ‘I don’t know how I can make it six more weeks,’ and ten months later I shoveled the driveway with you strapped into a pack on my back, and the whole time I sweated and threw snow to create space, I could feel your tiny, gentle hands pulling at strands of my hair as we sang ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ together, and now today I was shoveling by myself, trying to get my car in from the alley after the snowplow went through, and you looked out the bathroom window and saw me, and then I heard your voice calling ‘Do you need some help?’, and suddenly you were next to me, halving the task, humming happily even when we had to take off our coats because carving space is sweaty work…”

I’m shifting person now. It takes time to keep “you” as the audience when I’ve decided I want “you” to be my daughter.

And so we checked out today after Pat helped us for so long, buying you a backpack as a graduation gift to help launch you into the world. You went with a Deuter pack, so now you are the Deuter Daughter.

This summer, I will bring this backpack to you before you fly to Scotland to meet friends, and I won’t cry because I am so happy for who you are.

But when we part, after hugging you at the airport, as I watch you head one direction while I head another, I will reach for your dad’s hand — he’s not the man I bought an Osprey pack with during 12% of my life when I wasn’t loved; no, he’s the right one — and we will hang onto each other as we watch you walk away from us, down a long corridor, all on your own.

And really, honestly, I promise you: I’ll try not to cry.

But there will never be a day for the rest of my life when I don’t feel the shadow memory of your tiny hands pulling at the strands of my hair.

——————————————-

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Five in Five

Five in Five: Wednesday, February 21

Five Things about Countries Beginning with “E” that Allegra Told Us During a Car Ride to a Race in Wisconsin:
She Was Reading from One of Her Beloved Travel Books, Both of Which She Bought with a Barnes & Noble Gift Card from Byron’s Great-Uncle


1. One of Egypt’s trademarks is incessant honking
2. Egypt is the driest country in Africa
3. In El Salvador, there’s a town named Alegria
4. In Estonia, there’s a sport called “kiiking” which has people standing on a swing and attempting to make a full 360-degree loop
5. Ethiopia sounds interesting (her personal opinion) because it has churches and crocodiles

Now, what travel fun fact can you tell our girl who is thirsty to know it all and who is, not incidentally, as cute as a baby Adélie penguin (which breed from October to February on shores around the Antarctic continent and build rough nests of stones)?

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Survey

Tell Me Something: What I Told Her

Thank you to everyone who responded to my last post and completed a survey for our rising senior in high school, Miss Allegra. She’s at the point where she has around 60 surveys from folks, with new ones still trickling in. Eventually, when it feels like “time,” she and a good friend of ours who has a Ph.D. in public health and teaches at the U here in town will sit down together so that Allegra can get a primer in qualitative data analysis — how to make sense out of and find meaning in the variety of responses she has received. If you haven’t yet completed a survey but would like to be part of our burgeoning social scientist’s learning experience, please feel free to write up your responses and email them to allegrapihlaja@gmail.com!

As I’ve posted pleas for survey responses on social media, a few people have mentioned that they’d be interested to see responses other than their own. I get that. Whenever a survey has come to me rather than Allegra, you better bet I click on it and read the thing. FASCINATING STUFF.

Anyhow, I’m happy to start the sharing of answers with my own. If any of you reading this have written answers and wouldn’t mind me sharing them on this blog, give me a shout, and I’ll put them in a future post.

So. Here:

  1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?

After first reading this question, I started thinking of things in the world I’d like to get rid of — violence, famine, ham-fisted toddlerian blusterers — but then I reread the question and saw that you are asking very specifically about what I would remove from my own life, not how I’d change the world. So, after way too much mulling, I’ve come up with this: I’d get rid of complicated relationships. The best relationships for me run clean and clear and are free of grey layers and unspoken tensions that simmer without acknowledgment. In fact, few things are more destructive to my day-to-day, hour-to-hour functioning than having had interactions with people where the dynamic isn’t clean and clear. That’s why I prefer you and Paco and dad over all others; it’s so easy with you guys: I like you, I love you, I respect you, I enjoy your company, and I feel safe with all of you. Similarly, this is the way I feel about my best friends in life, like Colleen. It’s clean. It’s clear. It ain’t complicated.

  1. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?

The whole year in Turkey can’t count as a trip, I presume. More specifically, our family trip down to the southern coast when we stayed in Çirali was my favorite vacation EVER. In a year full of constant negotiations and trying to find our way, we all just relaxed on that trip. The scenery was stunning; the swimming was perfect; the lazy, laid-back single street village was all we needed. I loved eating lemon/sugar gozleme, riding bikes into town, swimming two or three times a day, doing the day-trip boat tour where we jumped off the deck and into the water, and walking out of the Mediterranean and right into the ruins of Olympus. We had no idea it would be perfect, and that lack of expectation is exactly why it could be perfect.

  1. What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?

Breaking up with a man I still loved was probably the hardest decision I’ve made, emotionally. And, to be honest, it wasn’t really a clear-cut decision at the time; it was more me trying to finagle ways for us to step back from each other — while still assuring him we were a couple, to avoid straight-on heartbreak — because my gut was thrumming with an unformed thought: “This needs to be over.” It was only once we were done that I realized I had been wanting the relationship to end. My brain was slow to catch up to my intuition. And, yes, it was the right decision. Absolutely. My relief was immediate and palpable. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I needed liberty — so I could regroup and get on with the rest of my life.

  1. What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?

There are seventeen ways I could answer this; I could flick the spinner and just write down whatever it lands on, so…flick. I am still engaged in the work of overcoming childhood conditioning that taught me to be judgmental. Part of why this is hard work is that I enjoy being judgmental — it feels like part of my nature, so deeply ingrained is it. But in recent years I am consciously working at acceptance and empathy and an attitude of “What the hell do I know about any single person on Earth except myself?” Currently, the reality is that I judge, but I’m quicker to spot that tendency in myself and to consider if it’s fair, if it’s necessary, and if there is anything constructive that can come out of it. Usually, I’m being judgmental for my own amusement, so it’s best to keep it inside and let it roll around in my own head. Or, well, y’know, to express it to a limited few. This ongoing process is definitely worth it, as it’s teaching me, as Kendrick Lamar would advise, “Bitch, be humble.”

  1. What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?

First answer: The Peggy Guggenheim in Venice — the setting of it right there on a canal, the fact that it was her house, the unbelievable collection of art on the premises…I didn’t even care that it was packed as hell when we visited.

Second answer: The Hatay Mosaic Museum in Antakya, Turkey. Mosaics thrill me to the core, as does the feeling of standing in front of something made so many thousands of years ago. There is texture, and there is amazement, like, “People actually walked on these things. This stuff hung on people’s walls.” Plus, I bought earrings in the gift shop that have a “meander” around the border, and that’s always a plus.

  1. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?

I would wake up in a foreign country, and I would have no classes I was teaching online (so no need to check in and fight for workable internet and spend hours of my “vacation” grading stuff). A tray of food and good coffee would be awaiting my readiness, so I could stay in bed while I got up to speed. You and Dad and Paco would be there, and once we were all ready, we would head out to explore some new city. There would be pastries, cold drinks when we got hot, and excellent people watching. Later in the day, I would go for a run in a shady park. We’d all eat dinner out at a restaurant with crazy good food. There would be drinks. There would be buskers on the streets. There would be a bag of sweet treats bought on the way back to the hotel, ready for eating at midnight.

  1. What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?

It’s taken me fifty years (so far) to get to a point where I don’t need everyone to like me. People-pleasing is full-time work, and it requires a person to sacrifice a whole lot of “self” so that others don’t feel uncomfortable. The first decades of my life were spent working at making those around me feel easy, at the expense of what I, myself, often wanted. But as I’ve aged, life experiences have burned away the noise so that I have reached a point where I’m better at valuing the way I feel and making choices based on my own feelings, rather than on what others want and expect. Still, of course, I do capitulate on some occasions, as life is also made of compromises, but I’m getting there, closer and closer, to the clarity of “I know how I feel, and I’m going to go ahead and act that way.” And people who find that difficult? Can make their own choices about how to respond. In current common parlance, all of this is known as “giving no fucks.” I wish I’d learned at a younger age how to release all the fucks to the sky, so they could flap off into the clouds, squawking as they ascend.

  1. What is your favorite word?

You know me — that I’d like to respond “all of them!” But, to narrow down: there are words that I like because they are the symbolic representation of things I enjoy, like “beer,” “sleep,” “backrub.” I suspect, however, that most people will answer this question with a word that they like the sound of (or the sound + the meaning), so to follow that, I’ll say that I have always liked the rhythm and slither of “verisimilitude.”

  1. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?

Okay, since my brain is a warehouse of nonsense, the swim I’ve done the most in my life is simply a replay of a scene I saw at an impressionable age when I watched a movie called The Poseidon Adventure. In it, a ship is hit by a tidal wave, most everyone is killed, and a scrappy band of survivors tries to stay alive long enough to be rescued. Anyhow, at one point, an actress named Shelly Winters — playing an old, past-her-prime matron — does this amazing swim through flooded corridors to save a guy who’s stuck, and I’ve never gotten over it. So I’ve done that swim with her, mentally, about a thousand times. Except the Shelley Winters character, at the end of her swim, has a heart attack and dies. I don’t.

Please, you will watch it now:

 

Now for a real one: A good swimming memory is from when I flew into Mexico to meet Auntie Kirsten when she was doing the Peace Corps in Belize; we spent some time in Mexico before bussing into Belize, including a jaunt down to Cozumel. I remember really liking the swimming there, in particular because it was the first time I ever snorkeled, and there was a statue of Jesus down in the water, amongst the coral and fish. Now that I’ve had Lasik, I’d like to snorkel again, as I’d actually be able to SEE the stuff now. So maybe let’s take a trip?

  1. If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?

DID I FORGET TO MENTION I WENT TO COLLEGE? I SHOULD HAVE TOLD YOU.

Allegra, I went to a small private liberal arts college called Carleton. It’s located in a town of, hmm, 23,000 people called Northfield, Minnesota. I definitely had a good experience there, although I cried a lot during my four years and even considered taking time off after freshman year. But college was such a feeling of release after high school (which I had enjoyed a great deal, btw) — I was so glad to be free from the clique hierarchies of “popular people” and “geeks” and “freaks,” so happy to be just myself and not someone who was trying to be someone. And college is where I found my tribe of lifelong friends; they taught me so much and made me feel perfectly enveloped.

So the very best part was and still is the people. But in addition to that, there were the classes and the chance to learn about so many new disciplines and the freedom to monkey around with different ideas and areas of knowledge. My junior and senior years are when I was able to focus on English classes and, even more importantly, to take a bunch of film and media studies classes. Those film classes brought me a kind of intellectual joy that I had never experienced in high school. I still remember visiting professor Dana Benelli giving an overview of “the conventions of cinema” — one of which I still remember writing down in my notebook: “transparency” — and there was a dizzying sensation inside my skull that went something like, “THERE ARE CONVENTIONS OF CINEMA? AND THE BEST FILMS MANAGE TO BE TRANSPARENT? WHUUUUUUUUUUT?” Sure, learning to look at the ways that we, the audience, don’t “see” the work of making the movie — so that the medium of conveyance doesn’t interfere with the storytelling — was a hyper-specific skill set. However, the beauty of the liberal arts, of learning to think about things, is that I have applied the lessons of “learning to note transparency,” along with seventy-eleven others from those college classes, throughout my life.

My advice to you, beloved daughter, for college is this:

  1. Avail yourself of every opportunity you can. Go to the free movies; go to concerts and plays; do those semesters abroad; actually attend class regularly (unlike your mother); try new languages, new sports, friendships with people who seem bizarre.
  2. Don’t get freaked out when it’s hard. I was so lonely the first few weeks of freshman year; after the long-standing friendships that populated my first 18 years, it was so much work to make myself get out of the dorm room and go to painful-sounding things like “mixers.” So force yourself to go to the painful-sounding things. There will be others there who are lonely and feeling at odds, too. Eventually, you’ll knock elbows with one of them, and one of you will say, “Sorry. I’m so awkward at stuff like this. I kind of hate it but feel like I need to try.” And then your fellow elbow-knocker will confide, excitedly, “Oh my God, me, too! I’m go glad it’s not just me.” Thirty years later, that person just might be on your “Will Donate Kidney To:” list.
  3. Be aware of the dangers. There is rape on college campuses. There is assault. There is drinking. There are drugs. There is sexual exploration. So even though we’ve talked about this stuff some, I want you to know more about how to be aware and how to live defensively while living openly. I want you to figure out if you like to drink (and/or take drugs) without dying from it. I want you to enjoy an entire life of sexual satisfaction — but know how to protect yourself against STDs. I want you to say “yes” to invitations without ending up hurt and broken. So I would recommend you do some of your famous internet research about how to live smart on a college campus. And I want you to know you can ask your mother anything and know that I will mail you condoms and check in on you at 4 a.m., if you just want someone to be sure you got home safely.
  4. Finally, take notes by hand, on paper. I mean, typing notes is okay, too, but there truly is no better way to get information to stick in your brain than to funnel it through the physical act of writing it down. If you have never used the Cornell Note-taking System, I would recommend it.

Now that you’ve seen my answers, gentle reader, don’t you want to write your own? YOU KNOW YOU DO

Also, now that you’ve seen my answers, I imagine you are left thinking two things:

1) Can “noise” be “burned away”? (See my answer to #7. I think it might be terrible writing, but I also had no desire to change it after I wrote it because, somehow, it conveys what I meant, so if it’s bothering you, go have a shot of Jagermeister and chill the hell out, Peachie);

2) Would Jocelyn send me condoms if I asked her? (YES, I WILL ALWAYS SEND YOU CONDOMS, PEACHIE; I AM YOUR ‘RIDE OR DIE’ WHEN IT COMES TO SEXUAL HEALTH, SO JUST LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU NEED A BOX OF TROJANS DON’T BE SHY).


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Daughter

The Word “Gullible” Doesn’t Actually Appear in the Dictionary

Teddy said it was a hat, So I put it on. Now dad is saying, ‘where the heck’s the toilet plunger gone?’

–Shel Silverstein

In Northern Minnesota, winter is long and spring capricious. By April, residents’ moods correlate to the thermometer. 

That’s why, on a rare, glorious, sun-drenched Saturday when I was out for a run, I decided to pull off at the beach and sit for a spell on a driftwood log. 

And by “sit for a spell” I mean “people watch,” and by “on a driftwood log,” I mean “and eavesdrop.”

To my right was a mother with her two young sons. Languidly lying on the warm sand, the mother kept one eye open, watching her boys make ruts in the sand with the tires of their big plastic truck. As is the way with preschoolers, their chatter and energy were ceaseless; Mom had more than earned a few horizontal minutes. 

Increasing my delight with this family scene was the fact that the younger boy had a dream, a fervent wish expressed when he ran to the edge of the lake and yelled, ten times in succession, “I weally want to go potty in da wake! Mom, I weally want to go potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake, Mom! Mom, I weally want to go potty in da wake! I WEALLY WANT TO GO POTTY IN DA WAKE! Mom. Maaaawm. I weally want to to potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake! Mom, Mom, Mom: I weally want to go potty in da wake! Hey, wake, I weally want to go potty in you!”

As he yelled, amused because he wasn’t my problem, I snapped a quick photo of his earnest posture and posted it online, using his words as the text.

Later, when I got home, Allegra asked me, smiling but not completely certain, “Did that really happen? Did that little boy actually yell ‘I weally want to go potty in da wake’ like you posted?”

Heck, yeah, he did. Why would you need to ask, daughter o’ mine?

“Well, I never know with you. Sometimes stuff seems like it could be real, and then it isn’t. Sometimes stuff isn’t real, but then it seems like it is.”

Fair enough. I’m nothing if not a steadily spewing font of bunk. However, I would have thought by now the 17-year-old would have learned an attitude of healthy skepticism. Ah, but life has given us a great gift: she’s still beautifully gullible.

Years ago in a quiet seaside town, my younger brother and I were paddling in the sea, and a thing that looked like a giant plug floated past us, so my brother took it to my mom and dad. My dad proceeded to shout “Quick, put the plug back in; the water will drain away!” I’d never seen my brother run so fast — to get this ‘plug’ back in to nothing.

I have a wicked big sister. Who told me that vermicelli (sprinkles) on top of fairy cakes was actually vermin jelly and was really disgusting and made of rolled up rat jelly and since she was my kind big sister she would eat it for me. So for years I scraped off the topping off fairy cakes (cupcakes) and gave it to her.

My mom convinced me that if you don’t leap off the end of the escalator, you get sucked in and have to go round again.

My sister used to work with a really gullible girl in a kitchen. There was a block of ice in the sink one day from where they’d been cleaning out the freezers. When she asked what it was there for, the head chef told her he needed it cleaning. Poor girl scrubbed it for ages and kept getting upset that it was getting smaller.

We took our South African friends to watch Greyhound racing at the famous “Walthamstow Dogs” (or “to the digs” as we all fondly called it, thereafter). I told my friend that greyhounds ran, but that if you were lucky you might get to see a “freestyle” race, where any breed of dog can run, where they have poodles and chihuahuas racing against corgis and Alsatians and Labradors and everything. She was disappointed that in the several visits we had there, not one of the races was the Freestyle one.

My two older brothers and I convinced our younger brother that tornadoes happened spontaneously anywhere, anytime. So every time we wanted to distract him, we’d just point and shout, “Tornado!” He’d drop whatever he was holding and fall into the crash position. It was really handy, actually. Also, I may or may not have convinced him that speed bumps were where they buried dead policemen.

When my oldest was riding in the back seat of the car on a long trip, he started bothering one of his siblings. I told him to stop bugging them. He couldn’t figure out how I knew what he was doing behind me. I told him that I had “eyes in the back of my head.” Later I found him searching my head, trying to find them. I told him that they were very small so that they could be covered by my hair, but still see. He believed it for a while. The backseat was much calmer for the rest of the trip.

On holiday with my Other Half, walking along in my flip flops, I stumble, and he says, “Well what do you expect, as you’ve got one of those defective pairs.” So I ask what he means, and he says, “Well obviously, they’re called flip flops, as that’s the sound they make when you walk in them, but the defective pairs aren’t made properly, and they are the flip flips or flop flops, depending on the sound. And they trip you up.” So, I spend the next hour or so telling him to be quiet so I can figure out which ones I’ve got.

Last summer I convinced my brother (whom I hadn’t seen in a long time and was quite lit from moonshine) that my friend Kristine — who had traveled with me to visit — was my sister. We called her Ophelia. We look similar in appearance. My cousin and other brother took it up with, “Your dad was a player.” We kept it up the entire visit and never told him the truth. He still thinks he has a half sister and wonders if there are more.

My all-time favorite story of Allegra’s gullibility involved, fittingly for the girl who adores office supplies and organizational tools, a whiteboard.

For years, we’ve kept an easel in our bathroom, one side of which is a whiteboard. The presence of that equipment in the bathroom has been an ongoing source of familial fun — we pose questions, draw pictures, send good-luck wishes, make to-do lists, always using the space as a place for play and interaction.

One time, Allegra wrote a prompt at the top of the board:

“Illustrate your favorite song.”

In response, I drew:

Next to my drawing, I wrote:

No, it’s not ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ Yeah, maybe that rain there is purple. But, actually, my favorite song, as illustrated here, is a little-known ditty called ‘I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up.’ It was a huge hit in 1948 when Bing Crosby first crooned it.

In my mind, that song title was so nonsensical that no one could mistake it for real.

No one has never met Allegra.

That night, she accused, “Your song on the whiteboard isn’t real.”

Well of course not, silly. Who could possibly have thought it was?

She continued, her eyes lit with humor as she shook her head, “Well, I wasn’t sure. I mean, at first, I just though it was ‘Purple Rain’ because PRINCE, but then you threw me with the part about Bing Crosby; I felt like I’d heard of him, so it seemed possible.”

There is a kind of laughter I occasionally fall into. It’s deep and barking, and I can’t control it — a sort of joyful hysteria — the kind of hooting that would get someone sent to the principal’s office for disrupting history class. When this laughter sets in, I can’t stop it until I’m crying, wiping away tears as my belly continues to pip with giggles. As Allegra continued her confession, that laughter started, and I had to grab at the desk for support.

“Anyhow, I googled Bing Crosby + 1948 + umbrella + song. And it was really confusing because he did have an umbrella song recorded in 1948, but it was called ‘A Fella with an Umbrella,’ so then I thought ‘Oh, so that’s the song Mom likes. She just got the title wrong.’ But it still didn’t seem right. I mean, you drew a woman, not a guy. And there was nothing about a dead horse in it when I listened to it. So then I decided you might have made it up. Your favorite song isn’t really ‘I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up,’ right?”

No, sweetheart. You dear, open-hearted love bug. My favorite song is not “I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up.”

My oldest brother made me swear off Chinese food for years by telling me that the slimy bean sprouts in Chun King’s canned chow mein were actually tiny penises taken from Chinese boys.

My dad convinced me that a small bump on the side of his face was actually where a spider had crawled up his face really, really slowly, and his skin had grown over it.

When my older brother and I told my little brother his head was too fat to fit in between the bars on the teeter-totter-swing-thingy, he plunged in. And got stuck. Totally stuck. Screaming his head almost off stuck. Almost. Our parents arrived. All the situation did was enrage my father, who tried pulling the bars apart, getting angrier every minute. Our little brother was hysterical. Mom, enabler of father’s rage, rubbed a stick of margarine on the side of my brother’s face so he might be slippery enough to be yanked out. A few feet away, my older brother and I were almost dying of laughter, so glad it wasn’t us there in the chaos.

I believed for years elbow grease was something you brought from shops and looked for it in stores everywhere until I finally asked a woman in Woolworth’s where I’d find it. Everyone laughed for hours. I felt so dumb as I was 24.

When I was eight and my middle brother was almost three, I told him if he put Red Hots up his nose he’d be able to fly. He believed me, at least long enough to try it. Fortunately we did not have to go to the emergency room to get the Red Hots out, but I still got in big trouble.

I convinced my children when they were small that McDonald’s was ONLY for travelers. You could only eat at McDonald’s if you were away from home. They didn’t ever even ask if we could go there, they were so convinced. Until my oldest was about 8 and spotted some friends pulling out of the drive-thru. “Wait, Mom! How can they be at McDonald’s? They just live down the street! They’re not allowed to go there!” That ruse lasted so much longer than I ever dreamed it could, and I laughed so hard at her outrage, I shot coffee out my nose. I had to pull over. I was weeping. The children were, remarkably, not amused.

My husband convinced my best friend that the castle was in ruins because it was the place the first elephant was kept, and it got angry and knocked down the walls. He then went on to say that that is how the pub called the Elephant & Castle was named. She was so convinced it was the truth that she went and asked in the gift shop if they had any books about the elephant that destroyed the castle!

I would tell my best friend’s daughter that I determined her sex by tapping her mother’s stomach over and over again while saying the word “girl.” Somehow she believed this long after she knew about sex.

Later on the same day when I had seen the boy who weally wanted to go potty in da wake, Allegra and Paco and I were laughing about how Allegra is so smart and such a practical person, yet she has this charming purity that allows her to believe whatever people tell her.

As we reviewed her best moments, Paco and I were in the kitchen while she sat on the couch on the back porch — communicating through a screen, with me the priest and her the sinner. At one point, laughter and body converged in Paco, and he emitted a long string of bubbles from his nethers. 

“Oh, crap!” I said, mock-despair in my voice. “There’s a gas leak in the kitchen.” Paco and I smirked at each other. When are fart jokes not funny?

On the porch, immediately alarmed, Allegra fretted, “WHAT? We have a gas leak?”

A tribal elder was telling me about the kinds of animals they trapped and ate when he was a kid. I asked him if they trapped and ate muskrat. “Yup,” he grunted, as he was a man of few words. I asked him if they trapped and ate beaver. “Yup.” After a long silence – several minutes – he asked me, “Did you ever eat crow?” I said, “No, I’ve never eaten crow.” Two days later, I got the joke.

My husband used to tell his sister she was adopted. She’s nearly 40 years old and can to this day recount the way he’d take her by the shoulders, point her toward the mirror and say “Look at you.. You don’t look like EITHER of them.” She entertained nagging doubts for years.

I have a scar on my forehead from my first chicken pock. I used to tell my new friends that my brother tried to pierce me with a one hole punch.

My brother convinced me that I had the sled (our trusty Flexible Flyer) twice as long as he did because I got it on the way up, and he got it on the way down.

My mum had this pretty necklace and convinced me that it was filled with sleeping gas, so I had to be very careful not to touch it, or I might release the sleeping gas. She also had me convinced that she used it to rob banks on occasion. And that she was an alien and had been born from an egg. And that all the people and images in magazines and commercials weren’t actually real, just computer generated representations of something that miiiight be made someday.

Whilst on holiday, we went on a boat trip past this giant rock that mountain goats live on. My boyfriend told me that the goat’s legs are shorter on one side to make it easier for them to walk round the mountain, so they don’t fall off slopes. About a year later we were randomly having a conversation about goats at work – I thought I was being super-intelligent telling everyone my ‘fact’ about mountain goats…..but they all burst out laughing, and someone said how do they go the other way round the mountain?! I was like “Well, I guess they just walk in one direction.”

I believed it when my older brothers told me that you MUST wave hello to a police officer whenever you see one or that they can arrest you on the spot. For years I’d panic if I forgot to wave, so I’d turn around and wave frantically so that they knew I was a law-abiding good boy.

My sister and I fought pretty much every day of our life. No one really liked being around us. We had a beach house about five hours away, and all parents can attest to long car rides with kids saying, “She touched me,” “She’s looking at me,” etc. They put a cooler and other stuff between us. When we were young, maybe about 8-9, my father nonchalantly said he needed us to count the telephone poles silently, so we spent a majority of the ride counting telephone poles.

A few weeks ago on my way down to the Twin Cities, I stopped at some outlet stores, thinking I’d take a wander around The Gap. One can never stay too much on top of cargo-pocket-based fashion, after all.

45 minutes later, a heap of clothes in my arm, I headed towards the check-out. Ever the magpie, I noticed a bottle of lovely purple nail polish on a shelf by the cash registers. Whispering, it told me it would wike to come home wif me.

Back at home a few days later, I put the bottle onto the shelf of polishes that Allegra and I share. Not too long after that, I noticed she had pulled that new polish and set it on her dresser in the spot where she stages her “soon-to-use” bottles. 

Semi-predictably, because some teenagers lead with awkward coltishness, gangling their way through their days, it didn’t take long before a CRASH followed by an “Uh-oh” emerged from her room.

I didn’t need to ask. I knew exactly what had just happened. “So I’m guessing that sound was the new nail polish breaking?” I called as I skittered down the hall.

Wow. Nice. It looked as though a steam-roller had done gear-shifting practice all over Barney the Dinosaur. 

Allegra was already on the floor, picking up pieces of glass. “I’ll grab tissues ’cause that stuff is going to dry quickly,” I offered. 

“Yeah, it’s already drying,” she added. Within minutes, we were wiping her floor and our hands with nail polish remover. Soon, the crisis was over, and the ribbing could begin.

For the next few days, I’d periodically drop some guilt on her — “We hadn’t even used that new polish yet. It was so pretty. I drove two hours to find exactly that shade, and now we’ll never get to enjoy it.”

Eventually, I realized that Allegra and her team had an upcoming track meet in the town where the outlet stores are located, so I was able to add to the teasing: “That’s going to be so awesome on Friday when you ask the bus driver to pull over at The Gap for a quick minute so you can dash in and buy a replacement bottle. I’m sure your teammates won’t protest.”

The day of the track meet came. On such days, Byron and I usually text her to check in on how her races went, to see what they’re having for dinner, to find out if there is an ETA and if she’d like someone to head to the high school to meet the bus and walk home with her.

That Friday, I also texted:

It seemed clear to me I was joking.

Yet.

The next afternoon, the guileless girl checked. “Did you really think I asked the bus driver to go to the outlet stores? I feel like you actually thought I was bringing home a new bottle of nail polish — I mean, you were so serious with what you wrote in that text.”

No, sweetpea. Yer old ma was just joshing you.

“Oh. Well, I couldn’t tell. I thought you were going to be disappointed.”

Staff at camp convinced me that fish don’t have babies but, rather, they divide in half down the middle and grow their respective missing parts. They convinced another that the first thing you do when building a fire is make sure their aren’t any rocks in the fire that could explode from the heat.

Our little sister was making chocolate-covered raisins one evening. Lib convinced her to make some chocolate-covered dog food and took it to school the next day to feed to her friends. To this day she swears some of them loved it.

When he sprained his thumb, I told my son they may have to amputate it and give him a hook. Later, when concerned mothers from the PTA were calling about his “upcoming surgery,” I realized it’d gone too far.

My brother’s father-in-law convinced my now-wife at Thanksgiving that John Madden’s six-legged turkey was a real turkey that they created with a mix of breeding and nuclear mutation. She believed us for half a football game.

I bought Catholicism hook, line and sinker. Eating and drinking blood and body of Christ. Devil potentially inhabiting every person I met, just trying to trip me up. Saying prayers in succession would earn me forgiveness for pouting when my mom made me brush my teeth. Brimstone and fire for those who didn’t attend church.

My kids (probably until they were 12 or so) thought that time ran wonky on New Year’s Eve. I think they assumed that because it was the end of the year the flow of time was unpredictable, or something like that. In reality, hubby and I were setting all the house clocks back by two hours so the kids could celebrate at midnight but we could still go to bed at a decent hour.

From Santa Cruz, California, it’s possible to see Monterey across the bay, and when the fog is in it looks like an island. The family joke is to tell people new to the view that it’s Hawaii and then try to keep a straight face while they ooh over how close it looks. My husband fell for it (years ago), and we’re still teasing him…

My roommates put raisins in my toothpaste, and I thought it was bat shit (which they encouraged). They egged me on to call the Crest hotline. Then they sat in the other room laughing while I was on the phone freaking out asking if the people who stirred the batch were eating Oreos.

I love Allegra’s innocence so much, and while I want her to develop a nose for hogwash, I also hope, in the soft corners of my heart, that she is allowed a life so fortunate her defenses never have to be raised higher than an arched eyebrow.

Fervently, I wish for her continued artlessness — mostly so I can tell her:

“That means you are a person with an appreciation for art but who doesn’t own any pieces of significance.”

I can’t wait to watch her face as she nods, absorbing a new word into her vocabulary.


Tip of the hat to contributors on Facebook and from the Netmums.com forum who shared tales of gullibility.

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Categories
School

Twenty-Eight First Graders, the Lone Teacher, a Slew of Specialists, and One Shy Girl

 Anne Lamott once wrote of a type of situation so taxing it could “…make Jesus drink gin from the dog dish.” This is how I often feel, as the parent of a school-aged child. It’s surprisingly hard to let my kid go off all day to be manhandled by the world. It makes me want to go hit six-year-olds who might say even one mean thing to my Wee Nibben of a girl. It makes me want to creep down corridors wearing a locker costume as camouflage, just in case she needs a pencil sharpened and can’t do it herself. It makes me want to hop in the mini-van and follow the school bus all the way into the parking lot (sheepish confession: I’ve actually done at least one of these. I could probably hook you up with a really novel costume for Halloween next year, by the way).

Frankly, though, when I first had kids and sussed how intense the early years are–from quirky newbornhood to colicky infanthood to irrational toddlerhood to no-separation-at-all-costs preschoolerhood to how-can-you-be-an-adolescent-already kindergartenhood–I couldn’t wait for them to start going to school full time. Yea, that’s right: I was counting the years until my kids would go away for a large part of the day. This is not an uncommon sentiment among parents, either, I’m here to tell you. Anything that can reap huge, awe-inspiring amazement has to suck in equal measure. It just does. Ask the guy who carved out Mount Rushmore. Giving birth to, and raising, those heads pretty much killed him. But they were worth every minute of his sweat. He created a masterpiece, but he was probably pretty flippin’ happy on those days he didn’t even see or think about whether Roosevelt’s mustache was overshadowing Lincoln’s nose. It was okay for the heads to go away from his head for awhile.

Such is the case with kids. Hence, when our first kid headed off to full-time school this year, I was astonished that it actually, gulp, hurt. All those hours of freedom we’d been anticipating in a state of mental high-kickery (sing the song “One” from A CHORUS LINE here)–you know, time to sit down while drinking coffee instead of slurping from the mug while trudging back upstairs to find size 5T pants that were “softier, like fleecier, for my tenderyish leg skin, not scratchy like these“–well, they also meant that we’d just lost the best hours of the day with our girl.

Now, she gets off the bus at 4:30 p.m., when it’s already getting dark, and she’s ravenous and needy and wired. And some days, when our attempts to sit down communally at the kitchen table and help out with her homework have degenerated into her sobbing and yelling because she doesn’t understand contractions or what an apostrophe looks like, we end up in retreat, in the basement, cowering behind the dryer. Around nine p.m. we then stick out a tentative ear, listening for any rustling sounds up at the table in the kitchen. If we hear only muffled snores, then the coast is clear–we can stop snacking on the Bounce sheets sprinkled with Tide crystals and creep back upstairs, careful not to wake the Exhausted Scholar.

In short, having a kid go off to school for eight hours each day hasn’t delivered the anticipated bliss. Even worse, we’re now wracked with the concerns and questions about her education that mark us definitively as middle-class-white-overly-educated-liberals: “What curriculum are they using? How many times will she be pulled from class for assessments during the year? What’s the average class size?”

This last question has created the most discussion for us, as we hover behind the dryer, night after night (on the plus side, we’ve figured we can accept pizza deliveries through the dryer vent; the delivery dude just shoves the pie down through the bendy tube). The dilemma is that we have not sent the Wee Gel to our neighborhood school but instead, she attends a public “magnet” school further from home, one that offers intensified music opportunities. And, because I was raised in a musical household, with a father who was a voice professor and a mother who was the Executive Director of the city’s symphony, I value what music education can do for any kid, whether or not she is gifted in that area. Cripes, I just want a child who can read music and who stands a chance at identifying Mozart when it plays on public radio. Modest goals, right?

Because this school is considered a “good” one, I actually had to scramble around like a Manhattan parent four years ago, when our daughter was not yet two, and call the school to get her on a waiting list. At that time, when she was 18 months old, she was twelfth on the waiting list. Thus, we were jubilant when she reached kindergarten age, and we received the call from The School, saying they had an opening for her. It was, as those youngsters these days say, the bomb diggity.

Kindergarten passed without a hitch; she painted and cut and counted in her class of 17 kids. The fact that she is a very reserved child (often mistaken as shy…but she’s more, as my friend from Texas put it some years back, “a no bullshit baby.” She’s quite confident and actually sees no reason to open up to someone who’s never invested in her–it’s the old “you get what you pay for” with our lass, which I quite respect) made no difference; it simply meant that our parent/teacher conferences would open with an exclaimed, “I would like to have twelve of your daughter in this class!”

And first grade now is going swimmingly for her, except that we worry. We do. You see, her class has twenty-eight students in it. That’s a lot. Especially when we have a kid who doesn’t really ask for help. This is the kid who fell off a dock into a lake two summers ago, caught in the chest-high water, buffeted between a pontoon boat and the dock itself, and she just stood there, no peep made, until someone looked down a few minutes later and saw her holding silent court there with the lily pads. So trust me, I was not a whit surprised this year, in school, when her homework–diligently completed within two hours of it being assigned and carefully put into her special folder in her backpack, ready to return to the classroom the next day–accumulated because she didn’t know where she was supposed to turn it in. So the completed homework kept coming back home with her, day after day, until it had worn a groove into that special folder. “Did you take it out and show it to Mrs. A and ask her where you should turn it in?” The answer was no, a woeful no, because “Mrs. A is always so busy with the other kids around her desk, and I didn’t know how to get in there.”

This reality of too-many-kids-on-one-teacher stands in stark contrast to the pretend classroom that this same daughter has been overseeing in our living room for the last three years–she has 26 dolls as students, and every one gets her individual attention, from Astrid, who made the Principal’s List for being able to sit upright unassisted, to Kobe, whose mom sometimes drops him off late because she had to go to a meeting at a factory in China.

(The “art specialist” demonstrates the dolls’ weekly project. The kid in the front row wearing yellow, Kiki, is a bully and a troublemaker and can’t follow directions for anything.)

The difference between our living room and the real-life classroom, however, is that the unengaged dolls remain benign and passive, but in the real world, the unengaged kids either clamor around the teacher even harder, looking for attention, or else they start sticking washable markers in the pencil sharpener, or else they, like our girl, sit quietly at their desks, clutching a homework folder.

Once I realized that homework–in the first month of first grade–was becoming an emotional issue, and once my husband and I remembered the frozen feeling of being painfully shy in elementary school, I chose to hop into this particular issue. Even though I want my child to learn to cope, to be self-sufficient, to figure things out in the world, I stopped by the classroom, casually, one day (“I was just, er, here in the school because, em, I needed to get fitted for my new camouflage locker costume…and so I thought I’d pop in”), and mentioned to the teacher that at least one of her students was feeling confused about the process of submitting homework. This was news to the teacher, and she easily and gratefully handled the problem. Girl’s homework is now handed in where it’s supposed to be, when it’s due.

But the behind-the-dryer discussion about “do we keep Girl in the class of 28 at this good school with a fine teacher, or do we pull her and enroll her in the neighborhood school that has 18 students in the first grade classes?” took on steam. I ended up emailing my sister, a kindergarten/first grade/second grade teacher herself (and who isn’t a fan of the Shift key on her keyboard), someone who has handled anywhere from 18 to 31 students in a class, and her pragmatic reply calmed my gut:

“and honestly, with a class over 25, no, you really don’t get to spend individualized time with every kid or really get to know them. especially the quiet ones. you’re just thankful they’re not being a pain and can stay on-task by themselves while you deal with the “big” personalities…which is why i’ve loved looping, by spending more than a year with the same kids i feel like i do get to really get to know the kids better, personalities and strengths and weaknesses…so i think you have to weigh what you want for Girl’s education. if she’s making the academic and social progress you want for her, then she might be fine or more than fine where she is. plus being exposed to the variety of cultures available at her present school prepares her for the real world… if you want the opportunity for her to receive more individualized attention so that she can move faster in all areas, then maybe the smaller class school…BUT i’d strongly recommend visiting all the classes for a min. of 30 miutes each at the new school to see how the teachers are…you might end up swapping a big class, good teacher, for a smaller class, not as good teacher…i think it’s great great that the teacher realizes she needs parent involvement AND help with a large class. i know many teachers who do not like to have parents in the room for extended lengths of time, so plough through everything on their own…with that many kids,you do need regular help. i’ve had classes with 27+kids and no aide and it can be killer at times…depending on the day, the kids, you, the activity…oh, and here’s something i realized in denver, the kids in my smaller classes had a harder time learning to work independently and where to find information if it wasn’t available cuz i was always available. i really noticed that the kids in my larger classes HAD to learn to work on their own and wait their turn and learn to ask friends who were experts for help if i was busy, where with the smaller classes, i was always available to help them…which is not a bad thing, but when i needed them to work independently, they seriously couldn’t cuz i hadn’t had to train them from day one how to…weird, huh?”

Yea. Weird. Huh.

The issue is settled for us for this year: good teacher, large class, Girl who copes. She luuurrrves her school and teacher and hordes of classmates and computer time and the Christmas and Spring concerts and Boost-Up gym time and art and choir and music and field trips to the Children’s Museum and class visits to the school’s cultural center and…………

So the cost may be her never having a teacher who has the time or energy to sit one-on-one with her and unlock her talents, character, personality. I guess that’s up to everybody else in her life, starting and ending with her parents, who currently find themselves on their knees, crouching behind the dryer, eating “stuffed” pizza, drinking gin out of the dog dish.

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