Dec 14 2009

Pride without Prejudice

In the spring of 1990 when I had been married about six weeks, my husband graduated from medical school. The group of about 100 students recited the Hippocratic Oath and thus became physicians. The dean, on the stage in the hospital’s auditorium, then called the graduates by name in order to bestow upon them a heartfelt handshake and an acetate enveloped diploma — knighting them with the suffix “M.D.”, and releasing them into a world of internships, residencies, fellowships and if they stayed the course, Wednesdays for golf.

I left my seat. No one was sitting anyway. I wiggled my way between other graduates, our friends whose names were farther along in the alphabet than my new one. As my husband approached the stairs to the stage I started to shake. My mouth was open and my breathing was deep. I exhaled hard and shook my hands at my sides without stopping. Large hands lay solid on my shoulders and a soft, deep voice in my ear said “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.” I turned only enough to see the robe and to know it was a friend, another graduate. When the dean called my husband’s name I stretched to see and tears streamed down my face. My body rocked. The friends’ hands squeezed and then held both my arms with a kind strength that steadied me.

Outward from my core, to my head, hands and feet I surged with energy. I personified a cliché as I burst with pride.

It is the first time I remember ever having that feeling.

To this day it remains an untarnished memory.

As a parent, I have felt that swell many times, in varying degrees over the past almost-eighteen years. Even when I know I’m witnessing, or participating in, something extraordinary, the grip of genuine, unfettered pride is startling. But that big-time pride? The kind that almost knocks you off your feet? That does not come around every other Tuesday.

I felt it at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah where she commanded a congregation for over two hours with personality, authority and grace — and where I was told I mouthed every word she said – both Hebrew and English.

The most recent string of crazy-proud moments began when I was grocery shopping in Target. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. I answered the call from my son and he said, “I got into Iowa.”

I could have used those hands on my shoulder in the bread aisle that day.

No matter what real life circumstances surround them, proud moments are unmarred by time and circumstance in my memory. The emotions retain their original shape in my heart.

And when I’m lucky – it all reaches out and steadies me.


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Dec 07 2009

First snow

Although I live in a Midwestern tundra, my affection for cold weather is limited to the fact that I can build fires in the fireplace and put marshmallows in hot chocolate.  So when I walked down the hall at just after six this morning to let out the dogs, and noticed, through an unforgiving bay window, that the ground and roofs behind my house were covered in snow, a familiar feeling washed over me.

It’s the same feeling I get until each year’s first snowfall — a combination of dread, hopefulness and gratitude.

Dread because I do not like the cold and snow means it’s really winter.  Hopefulness that the snow means we’re one day closer to spring (which in Chicago, meanders in around mid-May).  Gratitude because for the one minute between bed and sliding door there are no footprints or other dog accoutrements in the back yard scenery.  I do love snow — when I’m in the house.

But when I opened the door and the dogs had a look-see, their ears went up and their tails wagged.

“What did you get us?” they seemed to say?. “Let us go see!”

It happens every year – they run around in the first snow like we’d just moved here from Tahiti.  Their tails wag and stick their noses in it and then shake their heads to get it off like they can’t believe the stuff actually comes off the ground.

I don’t know if they don’t remember snow or if it’s the memory of snow that makes them so happy.  It doesn’t really matter and I know that.

So even before coffee that started me thinking about books.  And how even though you’ve read a zillion books in your lifetime, THAT is what you want when you read a book.

That dog-in-the-first-snow kind of feeling.

The feeling is familiar because you’ve read books before, ones you’ve liked and ones you’ve loved, but the feeling is full of anticipation because the book is new.   When you read a book (or write one), those opening pages should evoke the same excitement as when Mitzi sticks her nose into the snow and then turns around and looks at me with a ‘this so cool’ kind of dog stare and tail wag.

It’s the cold wash of newness and the warmth of familiarity — at the same time.

OK, all niceness aside, now I have to go find my boots.


Aug 17 2009

School schedules

School starts Wednesday.

We have notebooks, textbooks, folders, pens and pencils stacked in the dining room ready to be loaded into backpacks and hoisted onto the backs of my pack mules teenagers for them to lug around a campus that has some classrooms 1/3 of a mile apart.

That being said, I’m ready.  I like the routine of everyone getting up and out, knowing exactly where they are for seven hours and that someone — an adult — will call me if there is a problem.   I have had no schedule this summer, despite my best efforts.  My kids don’t impede my work, I do.   It’s just not the same when I can’t set the clock.

My son will be in school from 7:30 to 3:00 every day.  My daughter will be at the same school from 8:30 to 3:00.  This year they’ll have the same days off.  They’re even scheduled for the same school trip one weekend in November.

Their schedule allows me to set my own.  Last September I determined a timeline that worked until May and I’m going back to that, tweaking as need be considering I have more things going on.

Back to school for me means the writing gets back on track.  And that’s really why it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Although when I saw this Staples commercial I laughed out loud.


Aug 14 2009

Ode to a good dog

I walked around the house, picking up the bowls full and half full of water that we’d put every where Tucker liked to lay, so it was easy to give him a drink when he looked thirsty.  Some of the water was still cold.

I took down all the bones from the top of the fridge, the bones Tuck wasn’t allowed to have because they might irritate his stomach.  Those bones also  forbidden from the other dogs since May.  Giving one dog a bone and not the other is like giving one kid an ice cream cone and telling the other to watch him eat it.  I dropped the bones around the house in the used-to-be-usual spots for chewing  — under the dining room table, on the expensive living room rug, in the middle of the long hall leading to the bedroom where it’s easy to step on it if you’re not looking.

The rugs Tucker laid on the past few weeks, because it was easier for him to get up from a rug than the slick  floor, stayed.  They’re our bath mats really, because bath mats don’t slip, and by tonight they’ll be washed and back with their mates in the appropriate bathrooms.

Tucker loved the bathroom – it was a one-stop shop.  A bowl perfect for drinking that was always full (and in a house with three dogs, always flushed), a cold floor and a comfy rug, and visitors.  So many amenities!  As a puppy it was the place he’d grab the end of the toilet paper roll to begin his romp around the house – the canine caper that ensued was not unlike that of high schoolers and trees.   His antics got him a permanent place in the bathroom when I showered, because I never knew, as a pup, what he’d do alone for those few minutes.  It remained his routine always, the shower started by anyone here and Tucker knew it was time to lie on the bathroom floor and wait.  If you didn’t wait for Tucker, he barked outside the bathroom door to get in.  So we always waited.  The other dogs followed suit and many times there were three dogs in the bathroom at shower time, which was so sweet and very much like an obstacle course when wanting to dry off.

Tucker was 100 lbs of Golden Retriever sweetness.  A Retriever who never retrieved, he liked to be chased around the table on the patio in the backyard, changing directions every time he thought you were about to catch him.  He loved to roll in the mud out there too, and when we replaced it with mulch, he loved to roll in the mulch.  It was then we learned he simply loved to roll around.

He would never hurt anyone but was a good defensive strategy for a house with one mom and two kids, because to everyone but us, he was really big.  He was the dog, who when he got out of the backyard, came to the front door because he was no dummy – his bathroom was in there.  He wasn’t going anywhere.  Tucker was a dog who listened because he wanted to but could never quite get over his need to jump on people who came in the front door.  He loved company and any food they might happen to have under aluminum foil.  He was fiercely protective of us and loyal to us – and anyone hoarding treats.   Tuck was the dog who was in-touch with our feelings, lying still and quiet if we were sick; wagging his tail at our happiness.   He barked loud and deep at the doorbell but forgave you silently if you stepped on his tail or said no.  He hung his head before getting yelled at when he scavenged in the trash – and only threw up when he was sick – not when he ate sticks, grass, chicken parts, coffee grinds or apple cores.   Even with those escapades we knew he was very smart.  But more than that, he was gentle.  I called him Prince Charming.  And Tootles.  Once, I mentioned Tupperware and he came running.    He also had a sense of humor.

There were a few years — the two-dog years — when all of us slept in my bed.  Me, my much younger kids and two dogs.  Then, with kids preferring their own rooms , and the adoption of dog #3 almost five years ago, Tucker took to his spot in the hall most nights, where he could see every bedroom.  And keep his eye on the bathroom too, I’m sure.

I looked at the doggie place mat and Tucker’s food bowl.  I’d have put them away but Zachary said it was OK to use them for the other dogs.  The little dog bowl stand meant our biggest pooch didn’t have to bend all the way down to the floor for his food.  Frankly, he’d have eaten anywhere — and anything.  But why should such a good dog bend so far for his meals?

I let out the dogs – one and then the other – and tapped on the sliding glass door when I wanted them back inside – which was very soon after they’d gone out.   Fed and filled they chewed, pawed, snuggled, annoyed and asked for belly scratches in the way dogs do.  They walked off to their own favorite spots – one on my bed, head on the pillow (where else) and the other in the middle of the hall where she could see me, lest I go to bathroom, fridge, laundry room or basement without her.

Tucker never made a lot of noise, but Zachary and I agreed it was really quiet.

It’s morning.  It’s time to feed the dogs again –  and then shower.

Where, from now on, I’ll have just a little too much space to dry off.



Posted under Mothering | 12 Comments »
Jun 30 2009

Giving away books? You bet.

I’m taking my daughter and a friend to The Taste of Chicago today…which requires a train ride, tickets, lots of treats, crowds and porta-potties.

But with this view and some amazing Chicago fare, who can resist a day away from a computer?  Not me!

While I’m gone for the day…try to win some books here.


Jun 05 2009

It’s officially summer

My daughter is there, sort of in the middle, in the blue.  See her?

The season of schedules has ended, and while my daughter can sleep late, polish her nails, call friends and hopefully find some things to do before she heads to camp in mid-July — I’m pressed with the challenge to stay on track when there is no track at all.  My son will participate in a summer school program (as a high school senior!) which has him gone from 8 to 1 — when he’ll come home (sometimes) and want lunch — and the laptop.

So that the next 10 weeks don’t go by without queries made or pages written, I have to come up with a new plan — and that’s harder than sticking to one.


May 23 2009

Always take your Gameboy to Belize

Since I’m not heading out on vacation any time soon (sigh) I thought I’d repost a vacation tale as seen on The Imperfect Parent.

We dropped anchor six miles off the coast of Belize without land in sight and I thought, “What the hell am I doing?”

It wasn’t my first cruise, or the kids’ either, but it was our first cruise after the divorce as a family of three, not four, which left me sole purveyor of fun and official minister of cruise ship excursions. It’s a wonder that the weight of that alone did not pull me under.

From the vantage point of our Deck 10 balcony I stared, bewildered, as the matchbox sized boats pulled up along side our mega-liner, and I watched the ants formerly known as passengers marched on board what seemed like a vessel hardly large enough to hold a picnic basket without tipping over. I’m not sure what I was expecting, another cruise ship perhaps, to pull up along side us to transport us to Belize City, our third port of call in five days? I certainly wasn’t expecting boats to be zooming in and out of sight like someone wound them up and placed then down and gave them a finger flick. The tenders, as I heard them being called, barely touched the water as far as I could tell, and went high-tailing it over swells in the way I never liked to imagine the cruise ship doing. What I didn’t see didn’t hurt me, I figured, and although it was not true that you couldn’t feel the boat moving — you certainly could — the sheer size of the ship gave me a sense of comfort, and I would take that any way I could get it. But there was no comfort in watching these boats. I fancied myself a seasoned cruiser, but I was waylaid by this predicament. We’d always pulled right into port before, walked down the gangplank and onto a pier or a sandy beach, or in Alaska, a mountainside town or glacier. Now my bravery would not only be tested in the waters of traveling alone with my kids, but in simply boarding the boat to our destination.

I’d chosen the exotic Western Caribbean cruise to help sear the memories of adventure into my children’s brains and to label myself as taker of fabulous vacations, which was in direct contrast to my scared-y cat nature. I didn’t want something run-of-the-mill; there would be no Bahamas on our itinerary. But in order to meet our Belizean tour guide on time and ride thirty minutes on a bumpy road to walk a mile in the mud to cave tube in the dark in cold and possibly snake-ridden water, to fulfill my destiny of going beyond my actual comfort zone and afford my children the luxury of an unparalleled experience in the Central American wilderness, they were going to have to wake up. After pizza at midnight this was not something I wanted to do at 7 a.m., but we needed to be off the ship by 7:30.

They were belligerent, hiding their heads under the blankets and grunting at me. “No,” they said in unison from separate beds. I had no one else to delegate this chore to. My son at age 12 was resolute “I’m not getting up,” he said. My daughter was nine and just didn’t move. She was clearly in REM sleep, like a baby who needs medicine but cannot be roused. I sat down on the side of the bed I shared with my daughter, knees against the table in our tight quarters. With my head in my hands I had to decide if I forced them to get up and risk spending the morning with cranky kids. I’d be cranky too if I had to scream to get them out of bed. If I let them sleep I’d have happier children and a different excursion, just later in the day. I was disappointed, but a little relieved. It was their vacation too, I reasoned.
It was a lesson I learned only two days before in Costa Maya. That day didn’t quite go as planned either, and I was starting to sense a theme. Zachary flat-out refused to get on a horse and indulge my fantasy of riding through the shallow blue Caribbean waters with him on one valiant steed – or broken-down village mount — me on another and Chloe on yet another. With his arms crossed he asked me “What ever made you think I’d get on a horse?” “I didn’t think, I hoped,” I said. I shrugged my shoulders in defeat as Maria, the round Mexican woman who owned the beach front bistro, offered us jet ski’s in exchange for horses. I couldn’t help wondering what her ancestors would have thought of such a trade. But my son declined. He didn’t want to ride horses or the waves.

My bid for mother-of-the-year clearly diminished, I left my son in the care of Maria, instructed him not to move from the plastic beach chair under the faux-thatched roof tent and wangled a shorter horse excursion for me and my daughter than originally planned, for the same price of course. All I cared about was keeping my promise to Chloe to ride horses in Mexico and that we arrived back at our point of departure without Zachary having been whisked off to weave blankets or bead hair. We climbed upon our horses by stepping on tree trunks. Cowgirls we weren’t, but the Spanish speaking guide and Spanish understanding horse seemed to take it in stride.

I thought I could probably learn a lesson from my Mexican horse – and from Maria who inadvertently advised me to go with the flow, so I left them a note and locked the door. I headed straight for the Lido deck where I enjoyed coffee by a window and alone, reveled in a vacation from my vacation. Since my kids did not want to partake of the kids programs on board, we were together all the time. Breakfast, swimming, lunch, limbo, shopping, snacking, playing cards, watching shows, dinner, watching more shows, listening to music, midnight snacking. And in theory, it was fabulous. On a 110,000 ton cruise ship, it was claustrophobic. I realized as I sat there that changing gears and tackle another adventure in Belize would be ok. I put up my feet on the bench next to me and enjoyed the respite from the limbo contests and sunscreen application.

“Get up,” I said an hour later all revved up from caffeine, throwing off everyone’s blankets and opening up the curtains. “We’re in Belize and you’re not going to sleep all day. We’re going to the Belize Zoo.”

My kids had tenuous looks in their eyes when they peeked over the railing to see the kind of transportation that was in store. “We’re going on that?” they asked. “You bet,” I said hoping I was convincing. I watched families with toddlers and seniors in orthopedic shoes hobble across the metal walkway without hesitation. No one seemed to think it was a questionable way to get from one place to another, except me. But knowing that my kids took their cues from me and only me, I counted to ten in my head and went onboard with a solid gait. They followed as I held my breath. The water was calm and I assumed that if Belizean boat guys could walk around on the outside ledge of this little boat with benches that squeezed eighty well-fed tourists into its hull, then we were secure, but I muttered the fail-safe Hebrew prayer, the Shema, as I smiled through my teeth at both kids, who were not phased.

We met our newly appointed guide and boarded the bus for the Belize Zoo, in the heart of the rainforest. “A rainforest”, I assured myself, “is a real adventure, even if it is a zoo”. My kids were going to be able to say that I took them to a rain forest in Belize, and that alone would be worth the cost of passage.

On the bus I sat up straight and peered out the window and listened intently to every word of our tour guide. My kids reached into their backpacks and took out their Game Boys. “Don’t you want to look out the window?” I said. Didn’t they know that part of the experience is the anticipation of getting there? After we left Belize City there really was not much to look at on the stark Belizean road into the rain forest. The other passengers regaled their own kids with games and snacks, but I wanted mine to be different. “We’re listening,” they assured me. I remembered again that this was their vacation too, and just like I wanted to look out the window, they wanted to have fun, and fun for them was the thrill of the electronic chase. At least the Game Boys would go back into the backpack at the Zoo, I thought.

As we were walking along the paths at the zoo, looking at the animals birds and reptiles native to Belize, that looked strangely like the animals we’d seen in zoos in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Arizona and Ohio – we stopped on in front of the howler monkeys. They were hiding in the trees and amusing to watch. Then the skies opened up, and it started raining.

My kids looked at me like the munchkins in the Wizard of Oz upon seeing Dorothy for the first time. “It’s raining!” they moaned. And it was. It was pouring and I couldn’t have been more pleased. “We’re in the rainforest,” I replied, primed with the enthusiasm as if I’d ordered up the rain on purpose, for effect. They rolled their eyes and stomped their feet splashing away down the path not in play but in protest. I couldn’t help but laugh, and followed them, “We’re in the rainforest and it’s raining, go figure,” I said. They were not amused. I was.

We ended up sporting Belize Zoo tee shirts for our bus ride back to port and buying Pringles and ice cream sandwiches as a snack. The kids and I were rained on in the rainforest and no souvenir or stacked chip could take that away. We got back on the bus with all the other drenched travelers. With forty-five minutes until we reached the ship, a shower and dry clothes, I succumbed to the unspoken pressure. “Take out your Game Boys,” I said.

My daughter then climbed onto my lap and fell asleep. My son, tall and tired, slid down in his seat and leaned his head on my arm, though still intent with his game.


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May 13 2009

Surprise endings

Twists and turns throughout a book, movie or tv show keep it interesting for me.  I’m not into suspense or mystery (with the exception of Castle) but I like something unexpected.  If I didn’t see it coming but it makes sense, it works for me.  The ending of Godmother left my jaw open wide.  There’s a stunner in Jennifer Weiner’s (that’s *whiner*) Good in Bed that changes the book from that page on.

Surprises keep things interesting, that’s for sure.

Last night my daughter came into the kitchen while I was loading the dishwasher.  She hopped onto a stool at the counter and asked if I could help her with her homework.  We went through her assignment — and then she told me about something else she had to do.

“I have to interview a role model,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.  I smiled and smoothed my hair.

“The only rule is that it has to be someone over 17.”

“OK,” I said. Last time I checked, 45 was over 17.

“So,” she said, “I’m going to interview [my brother].”

That works too.


May 02 2009

Seek and find

I sat at my desk to find undeniable proof I was not the last person at this computer. I guess I should be glad it was on top and not underneath.

The sun is shining today…so, over and out!


Posted under Mothering | 3 Comments »
Apr 08 2009

Praise Moses and pass the matzah: A Passover primer

The Easter Bunny and his entourage are back at the mall, and that means one thing to me.

Passover is here.

Passover, the eight day celebration of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt, is my favorite Jewish holiday, although I’m not sure why. It entails cleaning and more cleaning and then cleaning some more, and that is my least favorite thing to do. It also involves macaroons, so perhaps that explains it.

In Hebrew, Passover is Pesach — PAY-SACH. The end of the word is that Jewish guttural throat roll that sounds like you are about to hock a loogey. It does not sound like the “k” in Saks or the “ch” in, chosen, as in — people. But I digress.

The first order of business in my household when I’m getting ready for Passover is to plan a Seder (SAY-der). A Seder is the holiday meal that revolves around the retelling of the Passover story through symbol, prayer, song and food.  Think Thanksgiving on steroids but without the stuffing. I invite friends who are like family and we sit around the table and squeeze an otherwise four hour long ordeal into a modified fifteen minute yet comprehensive poetic version of the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston without any love affairs or Technicolor. It goes something like this…they tried to annihilate us, we whipped ‘em, let’s eat.

During the planning process, I am also faced with the quandary of how to best observe the entire holiday, not just the Seder part. While I don’t change dishes or buy all foods that are “Kosher for Passover”, many Jewish families do. But, during the eight days we do not eat bread or anything that has obviously “risen” and in my house that’s basically just bread, cake or anything we deem to be fluffed up.  My own internal debate as to whether Oreos without the middle are flat enough to be eaten on Passover is as of yet, unresolved.

To make room for Passover foods in the house and for the holiday, in our heads, we begin by eating all the chametz (it’s the “ch” sound again), or leavened products in the house. Certainly we could sell it all for a dollar, as is customary, to a non-Jew, but eating it is more fun. We then perform the ritual dusting with the feather to ensure that all the chametz crumbs are gone from the house. The problem is, in my cabinets we need a full feather duster. In Passover as in life, every family has their own rules.

With the cabinets cleaned, the shopping ensues. I arrive home from the grocery store with boxes of matzah, matzah meal, matzah farfel, matzah flour, matzah cake mix and a case of macaroons. I store it all on top of our spare refrigerator in the laundry room right in front of the leftover matzah from 2006, 2005 and 2004. Matzah lasts forever.

And while some of that (new) matzah packed in my kids’ lunches might spark comments among their classmates, I always include extra, because it seems to be the hit of the cafeteria every year.

It’s a time when my kids wear their religion on their sleeve, so to speak. They share a bit of Jewish culture at the lunch table where their friends can taste it, for real. That’s the reminder in one full swoop that they’re different and the same, at the very same time. They’re sharing bland and binding crackers, but part of a rich and colorful heritage of which they are both educated, and proud – and then they go off math class.

Even when I make light of it, it’s pretty heavy duty.

The fact that my kids know what to expect, and therefore, expect it, is very reassuring. They remind me about everything from making homemade matzah to the Passover mac ‘n cheese to our aversion to gefilte fish to who gets to search for the Afikomen (a hidden piece of matzah) during the Seder to the silly props on the holiday table to a debate on why or why not beans or pasta or rice are eaten on Passover.

So I guess the best part of Passover, aside from the macaroons, is the unfailing recurrence of every part of it every year, making it a week filled with our own family traditions.

And for me, that’s enough, or as we say at the Seder — Dayenu!

*Originally published on The Imperfect Parent.