Doomsday Doctor

Oliver broke both wrists skiing.

He handled it pretty well. We went from splints to casts and he exclaimed over how strong and supported he felt. He might have been the first child ever to tell his parent that he REALLY couldn’t stick things into his casts to help the itching. I tried to tell him that his FINGER was not the same as a sharpened pencil but he wouldn’t have it. He knocked on the casts to help with itching as the med tech had instructed. Even she knew this was futile as she met my eyes over his downtilted head. She shrugged and rolled her eyes. This was a part of her spiel even if she was not a believer.

Every evening he would knock on his casts and the dog would run to the door barking his little head off and I would feel affection towards one of them.

At the doctor’s office things went pretty smoothly. While we were waiting he had me take a photo of the color swatches and send in to family to see if they could guess the two colors he had in mind. “Yellow and Green, orange and blue (never- he assured me, I would never pick Broncos colors) our favorite answer from uncle Chris: black and blue.”

Finally the orthopedist came in. He was all smiles. And full of stories. The compound fracture that ruined the middle school QBs career (career?) , the multiple surgeries needed for messy breaks. Then he started to stray beyond his expertise.

“You are lucky it was your wrists.” He told Oliver. Oliver did not feel lucky. Skiing in the trees like you did can often lead to impalement. Often? Impalements? “Those are difficult to treat” Particularly for an orthopedist I think, beginning to feel less fondly towards this cheerful man.

“If it had been your head you could be dead. Or have a concussion. Those can be life long problems.” He knew one kid, he told us with a big grin, whose concussion brought so much depression that he committed suicide. He knew another who had gone from a straight A student to failing and it took his parents three years to figure out the relationship between the head injury and his slipping grades. In the mean time he wasn’t able to get into a good college.

Oliver is wide eyed. Somehow the public schools have already scared the shit out of my son about getting into college. I figure this is what he picked up on. But no. He is pointing to his chin which has inches of red scabbing. “I DID hit my head.” “Don’t worry sweetie, the ski patrol and the Breckenridge clinic both cleared you. You don’t have a concussion.”

“Oh no, the doctor told us, concussions can come up ANYTIME.” Anytime? I think. Finally he leaves with a smile turning his head through the crack to tell Oliver. “You might still have a Traumatic brain injury.” Keep a look out.

The woman who rolls in the casting cart has a totally different attitude. Oliver is less chatty than usual and manages only to ask her one question. “Which is your favorite color combination for casts.” I’m not sure he sees her quickly check the bottom shelf where she had arranged to materials for his cast before answering. Orange and Yellow.

At home he decides to write his own messages on his cast in case people didn’t sign them. Every mistake is art he has me write in cursive silver sharpie. He checks my work on paper before allowing it to be committed to the cast.  His favorite:

Roses are Red

Violets are blue

I broke my arm.

Times two.

That night I am woken by Oliver, wrapped in a blanket, whispering at my bedside. “I’m not sure I should sleep. Sometimes people with concussions don’t wake up.” I squint at the clock 12:15. “I am so tired.” He tells me. “I don’t think I can stay awake much longer.”

Three weeks later it is time for the casts to come off.

Too cocky I entered the orthopedist office thinking Oliver would be a disappointing case of break, heal, go on to live…perhaps even have an incredible middle school career of carrying laundry baskets.

No. No. No. Evidently there is no such thing as a simple case.

The orthopedist brings in the x rays BEAMING. “See here- he points at a spot that looks, to our eyes, exactly like the rest of the image, you have broken it so badly that you have indented the bone forever. You will have arthritis at 45 instead of 70.”

“At least its your left hand.”

“But I’m a lefty Oliver tells him with misery on his face. “Too bad” the MD says matching Oliver misery with a maniac grin.

“But 45 is so young” Oliver continues to protest. For a moment I am bathed in the warmth of his statement. I am newly 44. If 45 is young 44 is Quickly though I realize what I am in for. Sitting shotgun on the car ride home his eyes almost disappear under the fringe of his bangs he is frowning so high. “Do we know anyone with arthritis?” He asks. “How do they live with it?” “Is there anything to do to prepare?” My mind flashes to years of trying to wrestle enormous glucosamine chondroitin pills into the dog. Old enough to ride shot gun this boy still can not swallow pills. Months earlier his younger brother tortured him by swallowing one, then two, then three m & ms without even a drop of water to go down. A gallon of water and dozens of melting puddles of candy bodies later Oliver had not manages a single time. He still takes his medicine in applesauce.

There will be no premature arthritis prevention in our house.

Late that night I hear the door to my room slide open and see Oliver, once again wrapped in his blanket. “Does arthritis hurt?” He asks me. I reach for his hand, newly accessible to me. “It is a long, long time before you have to worry about it babe. I actually think that doctor might have been a bit of an alarmist.”  In the darkness Oliver laughs. “Yeah, it did seem like he was a little too interested in impalements.” “And concussions.” I answer. “And compound fractures” he adds. “And arthirtis.” I giggle, our conversation made funny by the 2:00 hours. “No.” “No.” “Arthritis is something to really be worried about.” He tells me, and my laugh fades. 2:00 might be the time to find things unusually funny but it is also a time of swirling worries.

Steve is in San Diego so I ask Oliver if he wants to sleep in our bed. He hesitates, he is getting older, but after a minute he climbs in and buries his face in Steve’s pillow. We go to sleep holding each other’s non arthritic hands.

Holiday season flame out

It is the time of year that my inbox is full of emails titled “tax receipts.” There is nothing that brings on holiday cheer more than sifting through dusty boxes of paperwork. I try to set aside the looming taxes and focus on festivities. I am not super successful. In the weeks leading up to the holiday season, I flip through aspirational magazines peering at magnificent mantles and imagine dry needles in my Turkish rug.

Instead of immersing myself in the gorgeous garland, I picture myself on hands and knees trying to pick the pine bits out of the pile. It is not pretty.

I set a row of pillar candles on the sideboard to bring seasonal warmth into our dining room. As I look at the pillar candles balanced on gilded plates I see the pool of wax gathering beside and beneath them. I remember the time I lit my living room on fire with a similar set up for a holiday party and realize I never learn.

I wrap Hanukkah gifts in environmentally friendly brown paper and tie the burlap bows tight. I personalize each package and line them up under the tree. I know what will happen over the next eight days. Despite my careful labeling the boys will barrel into the bunch and jumble the packages as they tumble over each other.

As they open their gifts I will concentrate on smoothing out the brown paper for future art projects. I know by the end of the evening I will pitch the whole wrinkled ripped wrapping making my efforts moot. It is likely that whatever they unwrap will end up in the bathtub. Even the booklights.

When the festival of lights ends the celebration continues.

It is time move from the menorah to the tree. We turn on the Christmas music and mull cider on the stove. The fire crackles. We tilt the tree left and right, right and left and spin it around in search of its good side. One boy thinks every side is best. The other wonders if a conical prism can have a side. Steve wonders if the tree is a conical prism. I conjure up a conical prison.

As I unfold protective tissue I remember the time the dog knocked over the tree trying to drink from the dish that held half water and half his own pee. That was a particularly un-merry morning, slicing my finger on shards of vintage ornaments. I see their absence in the empty slots in the divided cardboard box. I appreciate that I have a few less pieces to place.

My younger son’s face turns to mine. The lights from the tree cast him in gold. He holds a foam ornament from pre-school, one I always try to get to the back of the tree in one hand. He points with his other hand to the same empty spots that I celebrated moments before. “What happened to these?”

In a wave I remember him as a tiny toddler, crying over a broken crayon as if the world was about to end. I saw his face exactly at the moment that he learned that life was not perfect, that not everything could be repaired. The reality of mortality was clutched in his plump hand. I remember his tear streaked face as he thrust the crayon bits at me with one fisted hand and the tape with another. It was a sad moment for both of us.

I realized there was one thing I could repair…my attitude. This was not a broken crayon moment. The world was not about to end. So I pushed aside the inevitable problems of the prickly pine and focused on my family.

I told my son the story of the dog and the pee tree as we laughed at, rather than lamented our loss. Engulfed in the sound of his enjoyment I realized that things did not have to be perfect to be precious. After we finished the tree with the foam ornament front and center, we took on the rest of the decorating together.

We filled birch buckets with evergreen boughs and he told me tales of holidays past. He remembered the fire at the holiday party and shared his version of the story. He had been the one to discover the fire and alert me. He had gotten guests out of the room safely and opened the french doors to the porch to allow the smoke to exit. I hadn’t realized what a hero he had been.

He talked about the time we had collected pine cones from our lakeside lot and spray painted them gold. He remembered the sticky sap on his fingers that held the color and made him look like he had golden freckles for the entire winter. We giggled over the time our fluffy cat stormed past the menorah and caught his tail on fire. He ran from us as we tried to put him out. After the original scare it was ridiculous to look at his charred hair, which the cat licked and licked with wounded pride probably wishing that damn oil had only lasted one night.

In classic kid fashion there were times when the box was better than the gift inside. He reminded me of the giant box of packing peanuts that fit both boys. I had only remembered the clean up…but looking at his smile I set that aside.

Looking further back at holiday hi jinx he finally admitted to sneaking downstairs and opening every single gift while we slept upstairs the Christmas he was four. For many years he had blamed the dog. He figured this conversation was a good time to come clean. He seemed to know I would enjoy his antics.

His last story was about the January night that we burned our tree in our outdoor fire pit. I remembered the race to undecorate its branches before ornaments were scorched. As the three guys in the family marched the tree to its final glorious blaze I frantically pulled the last golden pine cones from its branches. He remembered the flames leaping as high as the sky, the sound of the popping pine needles, and how he had run to the house to fetch me to see the spectacle. He found me miserably vacuuming up leftover shreds of paper and bits of tree.

He dragged me outside, taking the vacuum hose with us. He tossed his brother one end of the hose and they stood together aiming their imaginary firefighting gear. It had been years since they had pretended to be firefighters, but this epic sight had brought them back to the age of magic.

Not me. I had wondered why so many of our memories included flames and inched back inside to return to the work of undecorating.

This year was different. I could see it as he did. The golden glow of the seasons was reflected in his reflections. Mishaps and ripped gifts, broken ornaments, and the dog in the figurative dog house were the stories that made up our holidays. The work and the play were woven together. The fact that the decorating and undecorating were never done was exactly the point. The mess of it was the best.

There will be time for taxes later. Right now we will put out enjoy the fires


I must have done something terribly wrong.

This year we decided not to have Thanksgiving with family. Although our relatives forgave us the gathering gods did not.

After a lovely time on Anna Maria Island we headed to Universal and Harry Potter World on turkey day. Leo celebrated appropriately with a giant turkey leg but the rest of us clearly did not give the holiday its proper due because things quickly went downhill from there.

See the enthusiasm?

In an effort to sound like less of an asshole I will just say that Harry Potter world and the Palmers are not the best partners. My claustrophobia kicked into high gear. Our dog kept us from family dinners. Oliver’s motion sickness kept him from rides. Leo made it to the top of several rides only to walk back down disappointed in his lack of bravery. Steve was once again reminded that his family members are decidedly less fun than he is. Instead of enjoying Universal we trudged through crowds spending money on strange bouncy balls and expensive wands. The one ride all four of us completed was the Suess “roller coaster” which I rode with my eyes closed. It was not a triumphant moment.

See my smile?

The next day we went to the water park…ignoring the fact that it was 62 degrees and raining. My boys were troopers, I managed to grin and bear it, but the life guards were total wimps. After climbing up and backing down from several slides Oliver and Leo found one that they liked. Splashing down with grins and giggles I sent them right back up to the top trying to squeeze in some fun before we had to squeegee off. Right before they were going to slide I caught Leo’s laugh and thumbs up at the top of the tower and felt a bit of Universal redemption. I celebrated too soon. The woman in front of them splashed into the 3 foot pool screaming “I can’t swim.” The life guard heaved a sigh and begrudgingly jumped into the water in his bathing suit and sweatshirt. After his fearless rescue he stayed in the heated water. My boys stayed in their wet suits atop the windy tower. We waited. They waited. He shivered. “What’s up?” I asked him after ten minutes. “I am NOT going to lifeguard while wet in this weather.” I looked down at my soaked suit, over at Steve’s wet hair and up at Leo who was still offering me the thumbs up sign. Ten more minutes went by and the head lifeguard arrived and wrapped our hero in a tiny towel. The lifeguard shook more than our dog. He was probably a soccer player. At least when he was dry.

On the flight home we sat in front of a cougher. This tin can full of farts was doing double duty as a petri dish. Arriving at the airport at 1am (3 am EST) we hailed an Uber. While shredding my fingers trying to dig the seatbelt out from under the seats our 8 lb scardey dog BIT (we think) the Uber driver. As Oliver and I struggled the Uber driver reached into the back seat to help. There was a yelp and he quickly pulled his hand away. I asked if the dog had bitten him. I asked to see his hand and he snapped off the overhead light. He didn’t say a word the rest of the ride. The next day we got an email that Steve’s Uber account was suspended. Hopefully this is not the beginning of a horrible law suit. Oliver and Steve both assure me that there was no mark at all on the driver’s hand, but with the way the rest of the week went I am not convinced that all would be well.

The picture does not do it dustice.

Returning home a bit shaken by the possible bite we arrived in modern day Pompeii. While we were away we had arranged to have a crew trowel plaster over a wall in our living room. Before we had departed we moved every single thing out of the room and both adjoining rooms. Halfway through our trip we saw through our Ring video camera wheelbarrows full of lumber being rolled out of our house. I didn’t quite understand why there was so much STUFF leaving our house so I texted the contractor. It turns out they had torn out the entire wall, reframed, and sheetrocked. Without asking us. Without putting plastic up. Without covering the heat ducts.

So there it was. 1:45 in the morning. Dog shaking, us shaken, house covered in sheetrock shake. Toothbrushes, computers, bedding, food inside cabinets this dust had no boundaries. That night I coughed as much as the airplane lady. In the morning we trudged through the house taking pictures and leaving footprints. What is a great credo for camping is a crappy way to finish a vacation.

I hit the phones. Which is not my favorite thing. Locksmiths, window cleaners, duct cleaners, house cleaners, furniture cleaners. We needed everything. Quickly.

In addition to the dust the actual work on the wall was garbage. The trim was the wrong size. The corner bead was cracked. The paint spray went onto furniture and beams. The paint color didn’t match necessitating a full ceiling and two adjacent walls to be re-done. That was a problem for later. Now we needed to get the dust out of our ducts before the heat blew another layer onto our life.

Sergei came to clean one of our furnaces (our heating system is half from 1913 and half from 1977- neither banner years for duct work) and full system. Because of Sergei’s giant hose (absolutely no pun intended)  Steve and I decided to bring the dog with us as we went food shopping and to Home Depot for furnace filters (x1000). Steve and I split up. He returned to the car first and texted me. “The dog shit in the car. Take your time. I am headed back for cleaning supplies.” Sadly I didn’t take his warning seriously. I opened the back hatch of the car manually because it has been having electrical problems. As I did I staggered backwards from the stench. The dog leapt over the back, poop covered paws scrabbling at my sweater. Walking around to the side door I realized that imaging a small turd was not realistic.

It was so much shittier than this looks

This was a shit show. Apollo had clearly had stomach issues (maybe from the bag of treats he ate through that morning.) The poop was everywhere. On the radio knobs, the floor mats, the seats, the console, the steering wheel, the windows. I could continue but you might as well just imagine every part of the car and then imagine it smeared with shit.

In addition to heated seats our car had what I had always considered the best feature of all…cooled seats. Cool air flowed through perforations in the seat back. At least it would have if the tiny holes weren’t each clogged with excrement.

That night I woke at 3am with the worst headache of my life. Whether it was dust or stress barely mattered. It even trumped that time sex made my head explode. In a bad way. The next morning I headed to the chiropractor. I had left the car windows open to air out the poop stink and it had rained overnight for the first time in 65 weeks. I was patting myself on the back for remembering to bring towels to the car BEFORE I sat in water when I pulled the towel hook out of the wall. It fell down with a crumble of plaster adding a small pile of dust to the freshly mopped floor. I stepped over it.

That time I thought I pulled the mini van halen all the way into its spot.

In the parking lot of the chiropractor my normal spot was taken so I pulled into a different row. Halfway in I realized that the row was marked “for compact cars only”. As my parking is not stellar and my car is not compact I decided to reverse and try somewhere else. During that thought process the car seemed to have moved into a terrible angle and I heard myself scrape against the car next to me. Returning to the scene of the crime I couldn’t quite tell if the chip on the driver door of the victim car was from me or not. I left a note anyways. If Uber was going to sue us I might as well bring on an insurance claim for damage that I might not have done.

Perhaps taking responsibility for something that was probably not my fault would start to balance my karmic bank account. It seemed worth a try.

Safer than my computer in these times of trouble. And marginally less dusty.

Returning home I told Steve the story of the side swipe and he, along with Oliver the moral compass of the family, asked me why I left a note.

“It seemed like the right thing to do.” I told him hanging up my coat. Stepping away I realized the hook was still secure in the wall, my feet weren’t leaving footprints in the dust, and I hadn’t coughed in almost 2 hours.

Even still, as I type this post, I made sure to keep my tea far far away from my computer.


Since I don’t seem to trust myself with much these days I’ll leave it to you. Should I title this post:

  1. Greetings from Pompeii
  2. Shitty carma
  3. I had another idea but the health office just called to tell me that Leo vomited at school so I need to go. Right now. And clean up my puke-y kid.

Eleven- alone and together

Oliver is red as he sprints to the finish line at his cross country meet. I recognize this red. It was what I felt back in fifth grade when I played soccer. One year they took our team picture after a game and my face was as red as our uniform. At home that evening I took out a red magic marker and colored in the faces of the other girls on my team. I would not be the reddest.

Oliver is the reddest and it doesn’t bother him. He looks up at me and I notice once again that it won’t be much longer that he has to tilt his head to meet my eye. “I came in second on the Hill B team.” He is grinning so widely that his third dimple is showing. “I mean, there are only two kids on the B team but second sounds so much better than last.”

He holds my hand as we walk towards the car. He is pleased with his time. He thinks by the end of the season he will be able to shave 19% off of it. “Then I will be slow, but not so so slow.” He tells me, mouth moving as quickly as his feet were minutes before at the finish line. “We had to pass through the creek three times. The first time I went slowly. I was worried there were going to be slippery rocks but instead it was sand. So the other three times I jumped in full force. It was my favorite part of the course.” He finds his poem funny and repeats it as we cross the street to our car.

At home our second (not last, but, you know, actually last) child is planning for his birthday party. He has chosen not to come to the cross country meet to cheer on his brother. I wonder about this. He used to come to all of the games. Even if he was digging worms out of the dirt rather than watching the field he was there. This was the time when it was just the two of them. It is changing. Leo has friends at the house more often than not. Where once he and Oliver sat together in a single chair it is now another 11 year old draped over the wide arm.

What’s that? Why its dirt covered rice crispie treats with sour gummy worms obviously.

Leo’s is a low impact party that doesn’t require much planning. We will be celebrating at Jumpoline or Tramplace or whatever it is called. As a weird anathema who doesn’t like cake we will have rice crispies treats.  As excited as he is with the party he is disappointed in his new age. This week he will be eleven. He claims that 11 offers no real milestones. He is already double digits. Twelve allows him shotgun in the car. Eleven is just…11. When I tell him it is the number of players on the football field he looks at me with disdain. It was weak. We both know it.

In between reading Steve and I corny jokes (“I have 21 of these and I am not afraid to use them.” Oliver declares with a mixture of threat and humor) Oliver tells me he will be willing to skip Leo’s party. I wonder about the word willing. It is not the same as a cross country meet. It is a birthday party. I would never have expected this. ‘Is there a reason you don’t want to go?” I ask. “Oh I WANT to go”, he insists,” I just want it to be as fun as possible for Leo, and he might not want me there.” My heart breaks a little. A few minutes later I ask Leo what he thinks of my conversation with Oliver. Listening, his almond eyes widen. “What?” “OF COURSE I want him to come.” It seems impossible that there was any doubt.

Piled in the car on the way to the party the five kids are chattering. They are talking about sports cars. Lamborghini Centenario, Le Farrari le ferrari. They are saying words in other languages I don’t know. They love the cars. From the back a lilting voice pipes in. “I love Suburus.” Says the one girl in the car. “I love her” I say to Steve. The boys say nothing at all. After sports cars they take on soccer. Elite teams, relative skill of players in their class. Oliver is quiet. He doesn’t play soccer. His brother has his back though. “Oliver came in second in his cross country meet.” The lone girl congratulates him. He looks at her. “There are only two kids on the team. So really I came in last.” “But” he repeats the truth he spoke earlier this weekend. “Second sounds better than last.” There is a moment of silence and then all the voices murmur their consent. They don’t agree on cars or relative soccer rankings, but second is a lot better than last.

Rice Crispies treats, friends, AND brother

Arriving at Tramplace Steve and I notice all of the things that are out of order. Some of them relieve us (make your own cotton candy) but some are a bit disappointing. The bumper cars and 3D rides are both “down for maintenance.” I wonder if this is the same euphemism they use for pools when they need to drain floating turds. It doesn’t seem impossible. Where I hear ruckus and see disrepair the kids see only thrills. They are jumping and diving and dodging balls. They are sticking together. Two “big kids” (clearly not 11) begin cheating and dodge ball and swearing at them. The group comes together. Where they might have criticized each other instead they are staunch defenders against a common enemy.

That evening Leo opens his presents. They are more touching and personal than ever before. There are meaningful notes and framed photos and matching soccer jerseys to ones he has complimented in the past. After years of saving every stick, rock and package he has finally gotten to the point where he has something to really treasure. Amongst the gifts there is a card about the number 11. It has facts about what makes the number special. We have a collective eye roll as the card too cites the number of football players on the field. Eleven may not be the very best number. There is one fact that excites my boys though. Eleven, it turns out, is the smallest double digit that is prime. “Nerds unite!” Oliver celebrates. I see Leo thinking. It is pretty cool to be a prime number. This is the fact he will hold close to him in his eleventh year. He is a prime, if not in his prime. He is surrounded by friends and supported by his brother. Just last night they sat together at the computer working on 9th grade math. Oliver was teaching Leo formulas and telling him he could do it. It was a real life example of nerds uniting. If I blurred my eyes I could almost imagine the locks of their hair falling together like when they were little.

The same brown chair that is filled with friends

Perhaps this is the story of 11. You are a little apart. You are tuned into your friends as much as your family. You stand as someone who is no longer second to your brother. You might not cheer him on but you still defend him, even in front of your friends. You two are not the brothers you once were. You used to spend life with limbs entangled, sharing a blanket, each of you wearing one of a pair of shoes.

It may be different, but different can be better. You are two boys, you are one set of brothers, you are 23 years of life between you. You are ready to be alone and together. First and last and first and second.

Nerds united.

Does driving make you anxious?

She would never erase her brown spots

She is tall and willowy. To talk to her I look up towards the Colorado sun. She has a small dog and a small-ish kid with very blue eyes and I am asking her about my face. Generously she overlooks the enormous bloody scab that I have created trying to solve the problem of a clogged pore. Instead she looks as I trace my finger over the splotchy brown areas that caused Leo to ask if I were turning into a giraffe. “No” I told him “I would have to be a whole lot taller.” Today I am feeling part optimist and part hypocrite as she describes the way she, as a medical aesthetician, will use the “good stuff” on my melasma. She has just finished a seminar on melasma. I am in good hands. This is the optimistic bit. Erasing the marks of life on my face is where the hyprocritical part comes in. I have written articles and posts against botox, urging women to fill up on their laugh lines rather than fill them in. Now I am seeking a medical eraser, one to subtract the years of teenage birth control pills and decades of sunshine. It is not very different. I could have had it wrong. I don’t feel as though I am turning back time, but rather turning a fresh face to the next few decades. I stand taller. Then she tells me where her office is. And I sink down into myself. It is out of my two mile bubble. I am anxious to drive.

I will never get there.

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash
This make me anxious. You?

Some of it I come by honestly, I have terrible night vision. So bad in fact that I suspect I am legally blind. I have not had this theory confirmed by an optometrist. There are probably no eye doctors in my approved area of travel anyways. I also have a rotten sense of direction. This is a bit of a chicken and the egg issue. I don’t know where to drive because I don’t drive. I rely so heavily on GPS that after three years in Denver I am still using it to navigate the two turns to the boys’ dentist. Which is in the same building as my doctor. And my pharmacy. The car navigation system is such a part of our life that the boys have named her Pam (map backwards). One evening we drove to the beer garden for dinner which has a pretty good landmark, a full sized jet parked in front,  and is one parking lot away from the dentist. Steve drove us (of course) and from the back seat I heard a small amazed voice. “You can get there without Pam dada?” It was a miracle. Even more surprising than the 8 nights of Hannukah, or that one time Oliver found his shoes on the first try.

Not anxious to drive or fly.

Last night we had a dinner party to say goodbye to my cousin and his new bride. There were ten of us and we sat on our small patio and made paper airplanes and toasted the couple who would be heading off the next morning at 6 am. Despite an actual tearful goodbye there were some nice parts of the evening. (Boy did I want to use the word literal in that last sentence.) We got to talk about our next big gathering, an engagement party for my other cousin. With my love of cheese and cloth napkins I have been tapped to help with the party planning. My aunt and uncle will be hosting in their house in Boulder. Boulder is 45 minutes away and I have been there dozens of times. My aunt asked me to drive up to figure out the flow and layout of the party. I froze at her reasonable request. I couldn’t get there. I mean, I could, but I wouldn’t. I wanted Steve to drive me. I spun it as a foothills hike for he and the boys and just incidentally I would plan a party. This was a strong idea, I wouldn’t have to drive AND I wouldn’t have to hike. But with his work and work travel there was no time to make the trip together before the party. I had no solution. Except the obvious one. I would have to take myself. OR. I looked over to my cousin. It was his party after all. Maybe he could drive me.

“Sure” he told me shrugging his linen clad shoulders. “No problem.” It was like someone told me I could skip my root canal. I would not have to drive to Boulder over overpasses, or past substations, through parts unknown.

I stand at the counter picking at the gluten free cheesecake thinking about my mental map. The places I love, the places I know, are lit with a glow as bright as the sun but easier to look at. There is Vermont and Truro, Anna Maria and Denver, a super small portion of Istanbul, Summit County and that one block in Florence.  I have always thought about my map in terms of these happy bubbles. But now I focus on the space between. Those spaces are darker than the circles were bright. The darkness is as thick and endless as the edge of the barrier reef that I snorkeled in Roatan. It was as if a piece of the world was ending and if I swam just one more stroke, took one more step, drove on more block, I would end too.

This, I realize, is unreasonable.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Like this but without the connecting threads. And with fewer bright spots.

I have written about gender bias in driving before, and my research showed that women are in fact not worse drivers than men. But perhaps they are more scared. My sample size of one confirmed this theory. I looked up from my cheescake and asked the woman who was about to drive from Denver to Monterey tomorrow morning “are you afraid of driving.” She paused, her dark curls falling forward. “Not really.” “But I don’t like to drive with anyone else in the car with me.” “Because you might kill them?”  I asked, as full of tact as possible. She crossed her slim brown arms in an unconscious gesture of protection. “No. Of course not. I’m just anxious they will notice my driving and judge me.” That was different. She didn’t imagine herself just driving off the road the way I did. She wasn’t afraid of rolling into some abyss. Then she continued slowly. “Maybe I am afraid. I think maybe I am. I would rather not drive.”

Photo by michael podger on Unsplash
On the web is better than on my shoulder

My aunt nodded. “Of course I don’t like to drive.” She is soft spoken, gentle, but about this she was firm. There was one other woman there. The one who had just reached across the counter to pull a large spider off of my shoulder without a break in her conversation. My cousin looked at me and said “she is more of a man than I ever will be.” I wanted to chastise him about his perpetuation of gender stereotypes but since I was working through one of my own I kept my mouth shut. She seemed fearless. Was she afraid? But the conversation she had not interrupted to protect me from a painful venomous death was serious. They were talking about their work, about life changes, about those late twenty years where you are getting married and moving and switching landscape architecture firms. About dentist board exams. About their own versions of the abyss, and how they will navigate them.

I noticed that none of them were staying in place. None of them were protecting the comfort of their bubbles. Instead they were driving forward, taking a bit of the light of this life into the darkness next place.

I have something to learn from them.

What about you? Are you afraid to drive? Is your life smaller than it might be?


Living with a bad case of nostalgia

We have returned to Vermont and I have caught a bad case of nostalgia.

My symptoms are obvious. I walk around sighing deeply my phone at the ready to capture images of things I remember. Something is wrong with my vision because I only see in sepia tones. As my son eats his creemee I see him in triplicate. He is a toddler and a young child and here his is now, on the same bench under the same tree with the same country store behind him. He is even giving the same sigh of pleasure as he makes the maple mustache that he never seems to see.

As I type these words I feel that I have written them before. Perhaps even at this table in the corner. Likely at this coffee shop. Certainly in this town.

After dropping Leo off at the field house for soccer camp just as I did four years ago I walk the few blocks to the village center. As I go I want to head down the lane to the carriage house that used to be my office but I pass by, worried about trespassing. It is part of a larger sense of no longer belonging. The sign in the town green says “you are here” but I read it “you were here.” I am a visitor in my own life.

Finally I reach the worn stairs and see the same lovely young mom that I passed each morning many years ago. Now she has three kids but the young ones are echoes of the first born I knew when I lived here. I ask her what she has planned for the day and she tells me “play group and nap.” Her present is my past. There is no more playgroup. There are too few naps. I wonder if the nostalgia I feel is for this place or for the family we were when we live here year-round.

A few weeks ago we were eating lunch in Burlington at Flatbread continuing our tradition of Flatbread Fridays. We are friends of this restaurant, Steve has brewed beer here and the boys know the menu (or their small slice of it) by heart. They sit, like always, in a table in the closed section of the bar with a backdrop of City Hall Park through the picture windows. They are silhouettes in the sun my sons. I see the lemonades in tall glasses that they are now old enough to order from the bar and say please and thank you without prompting. They carry them with confidence to the table and I wouldn’t give it a thought except that I remember the times when this would not have been possible. I am not the only one remembering. Leo asks if they can slide down the stair rail at City Hall “for old times sake” and I wonder if he has caught my case of nostalgia.

When I pick up Leo up from soccer camp I ask him how it went. His eyes are bright “I rescued a frog” he trills. “I knew just how to save him. I put him back in the pond that we went to in Kindergarten.” He goes on “I wonder if it is the same frog?” “Was he sort of brownish, faded around the edges, and did the theme from Wonder Years play when you held him?” I asked. Leo writes off my wistful description with ab arched eyebrow and we drove away, stuck at the same traffic light as always, thinking about frogs and photo filters.

The next day I know Oliver is also suffering. We are at the playground at their old school and the stories are coming quickly. “This is where I fell and hurt my knee, this is where I ran the jog-a-thon, this is where my friends knew how to push me just high enough on the tire swing.” But this last one is not true. The playground is new. There is no tire swing. I try to read his face but it is neutral. Leo has bumped into friends and they are off playing soccer in the field, everyone exclaiming over his short hair. Oliver, now 12, is climbing around the playground alone. He has almost outgrown it. His body is broad and strong. He is in a new setting and for now I see him just as he is. A boy who holds my hand and still also offers the advice of a much older soul.

He walks towards me slowly where I sit on the picnic table which dates back to our years here.

“I am not sure if it is nostalgia” he tells me. “But I don’t like this playground as much as the old one.”

“Yes” I tell him. I open my arms and he leans against me. Too big to play, old enough to know what he has lost, but no matter where we are, still and always, my little boy.




The best thing I have ever done with 40 dollars

Our family lives amply. We have a summer house, tennis lessons, and someone to scrub our toilet every other week. Or more specifically our four toilets because why would we ever want to wait to pee. We can pay for braces times 4 because now kids get braces twice. We grumble, we track, we wish it weren’t so, but we still have the money to buy organic berries to get their seeds stuck in those expensive metal brackets.

I have spent 40 dollars treating a friend to sushi lunch, getting a pedicure, and adding a new chime to my video doorbell. In fact most things we buy are MORE than $40. The electric battery for my fancier than necessary lawnmower costs $150. The replacement cushions for my outdoor furniture somehow add up to $800. We spend 3 times $40 on annuals to put in expensive pots to make the entry to our house more cheerful.  I could go on. And on. And on and on and on.

The staff led us in the same cheer that they offer each other every morning.
Last week my son’s middle school had its “big” fundraiser. Big of course is a relative term as this school with its 65% free and reduced lunch raised one quarter of what the elementary school raised despite having 3 times the students. If you can work through that run on sentence and that math you could attend the honors portion of his middle school. Instead of vacation packages and other opulent offerings we sold kid’s art and $5 raffle tickets. Luckily we sold a lot of both of these items. Despite living on teacher’s salaries the staff showed up in large numbers. They bought gift cards, signed up for each other’s pie making classes and even donated in the paddle raise.

We also featured choir, Shakespeare and chamber performances by students. I had worried that the kids would distract from the drinking and spending and realized quickly how wrong I had been. They arrived in gowns, straightened each other’s ties and trailed committed family members behind them. Ahead of time we had arranged to waive the $15 admission for families of performers and any other family who needed it. This was an inelegant effort. As you can imagine in a school with 750 students speaking a dozen languages there were some families who didn’t receive the full information.

One of these women arrived on the arm of her seventh grader. The girl’s eyes were bright as she scanned the room for the music stand she had painted. The mother’s eyes were cast downward. I had told the City Year volunteers working the door that all of the comped tickets were on their list. By the time the mom realized that her name was missing her daughter had found her music stand and was gesturing with excitement. The mother wouldn’t take a step into the room.

I had drifted over and asked the mom how I could help. She told me she didn’t need help she just needed to take her daughter and go…they didn’t have a ticket.

Setting up her stand. 
When I told her that every family whose kid had contributed to the benefit got free tickets she was suddenly as bright as her daughter. She hustled across the room and they looked together at the colorful music stand, their eyes as large as the ones her daughter had painted. The eyes on the stand cried tears of music notes. In a moment of life imitating art the girl’s eyes also welled with tears as she noticed that her stand was one of three featured in the prime corner of the room.

The price on the music stand? $40.

There was no way they could take it home. I suggested that they pose for pictures with it. They must have taken 25 shots. After digging into the buffet I saw the mother and daughter leaving arm and arm as they had arrived.

A half an hour later I went to put my name on the music stand that Oliver had painted, as instructed, in the colors of our living room. When I told him to do it I felt a bit guilty…this was certainly curtailing his creativity…but I wanted it to look good with our red leather couch. A few stands over the large eyes cried their musical tears.  As I added my name to this piece as well, I was pretty sure her mother would not care if it complimented their decor.

Such a little thing. One missed pedicure. One fewer sushi lunch. And yet it wasn’t a little thing at all.

The art teacher reported that the student had tears in her eyes once again when she realized she could bring her piece home. The next day Oliver thrust the following note into my hand:

I think about our bounty a lot. We give back in many ways. Even when we write big checks it never feels like enough. Yet somehow this forty dollar gift left me feeling more effective than many of my larger scale efforts. 

This student wanted me to have seen her mom’s face. But I already had. I saw the beauty in her mother’s facial expression as she marveled at the beauty in her daughter’s artistic expression.

I can imagine what she looked like when her daughter presented her with the stand to keep. And I can imagine it again and again as she watches her daughter create art supported by the music stand, and in some small way, me.

Do you have a small gift that moved you in a big way? I would love to hear your story…

Houston there is no problem- how to be ground control AND the astronaut

Space launchBeneath the noise of the coffee shop David Bowie sings.

He thinks his spaceship knows which way to go.

As I stand in line for my English Breakfast tea the barista admits that he front loads the playlist with his own choices and I see him in silent song daring Major Tom to leave the capsule.  I think about the amount of faith that is required for bravery. Major Tom needs to step outside his tin can to see the difference in the stars. He needs to trust ground control, himself and the entire universe.

Back at my sticky table I try to imagine 100,000 miles. It is unfathomable. And at the same time it is absolutely within reach. When I stop focusing on the literal fear of heights and vast space I thing about traveling to figurative heights. On any given day we are all both the ground control and the astronaut. Ground control focuses on protein pills, ignition, and circuits.  But it is the astronaut who floats in the most peculiar way.

When I read my boys “A Wrinkle in Time” I watch this transition happening. For the first few minutes they are ground control. Oliver stops my reading to try to make sense of the multi dimensions.  Leo offers his predications about what will come next. Eventually they give themselves over to the story. Instead of tracking facts and trends they are unmoored, left to fly away into the story.

This weekend we finally got them bikes that fit. As they check their helmets and practice their handsignals before they leave our driveway they are focused on safety. I hope that careful riding remains their focus, but somehow when they return I see the flush in their faces and I know that they achieved launch. I have mixed feelings about their mixed ride. I want them safe. I want them alive. Yet I also want them to live.

Despite the name ground control is never actually in control. Just look far above the moon at Major Tom floating in his tin can. Yet somehow, with nothing left to do, we can feel very still. Watching the barista turn dials and push buttons on his fancy coffee machine I see that at the same time he is lost in his music. He is both in control and floating above it all.Sometimes it is good be the astronaut. Sometimes it is good to be ground control. It is wonderful for us that we don’t need to choose.

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Ground Control to Major Tom (ten, nine, eight, seven, six)
Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (two, one, liftoff)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much she knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you “Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do”

-David Bowie


Getting off.

For the last decade of my father’s life he was a virtual shut it. He shuffled down the glass hallway between our house and studio in his slippers sloshing coffee as he went. By the end of each week it were as though our tiles were cow patterned with each brown splash on the white ceramic background. Each Thursday they were mopped clean leaving him a fresh palate for the upcoming days.

He wore a stretched grey sweatsuit and his sculpting assistant who camped in the loft above his gymnasium sized studio emerged each morning to do his bidding. Jaimie would take the crappy truck to the fancy store to buy soda and snacks and at the very end of my father’s life the cigarettes that probably played a part in killing him. On Tuesdays Jaimie would wake particularly early and roll our garbage cans down our long driveway so they could sit by the lake next to the tree that my father tried to kill to improve our water view.

My father’s few responsibilities were farmed out. The garbage was one of the last things remaining on his list so it was one of the first on Jaimie’s. Even as the margins of my dad’s physical life were shrinking his interior landscape grew.  He got off the treadmill of daily tasks while he got off on art.

A totally different kind of getting off. An early bronze of my father’s at our cape house.

As a child  I  attributed my father’s limited repertoire of foods and experiences to a great satisfaction that he got from his life of creation. He didn’t need outside input to inspire him. When he insisted I open and recycle the mail I celebrated my father’s ability to keep minutiae from distracting him from his calling. As I age I wonder about my interpretation of my father’s choices. My own life is shrinking. And not because of creative pursuits.

Now when Steve travels the mail accumulates in our hall closet.  When he retrieves it in a large stack my heart begins to race. Each envelope contains a possible task, a cost both literal and figurative. I imagine the envelopes flying towards us, debris to be dodged. I would rather they stay away.

When it is time to bring the garbage down our short driveway I wait for someone in our house with a Y chromosome to take it on its ride.

Steve drives. I ride.

I don’t love to drive. I don’t like to drive. I rarely drive. My father had three cars in the last 20 years of his life and he gave two of them away and died owning the third. Together he probably drove them once every two weeks. I still drive more than that, but it is not too much. I have a 2 mile radius in which I choose to spend 98% percent of my time. It includes both boy’s schools a coffee shop, doctor and dentist offices, the JCC, a trader Joe’s, a Target,  five restaurants, a strip club, and a pot shop. The last two are technically true but I don’t actually use them. They help me maintain the myth that my life is large enough. I mean, I can go to the chiropractor and see a woman’s bare back from the same parking spot. That is something.

I feel dizzy when I look at large spaces. The same vistas that I hiked towards as a 20 year old I now shy away from. Both then and now they remind me of my place in the world. Then I got off on an existential experience that left me swirling as one set of molecules in an unending sea of life and possibility. Now that same swirling feeling makes me feel sick,  a vertigo that leaves me unsteady on my feet. So I want to get off of them and onto the love seat in our living room where I am safe and still.

When I was a kid I raced down our wide staircase jumping the last 2 or 3 or 5 steps for a moment of flight. Walking down the gentle curved staircase this morning  I have to trail my hand against the wall. I still feel like I am flying, but off this earth. Ahead of me the dog runs with his curved tail and I am spiraling in the spiral of the stairs on the spiraling orbit of our planet. Sometimes I need to stop halfway down to keep upright. Then the dog twists to look back at me urging me forward so he can pee. He is more practical than me.

Today I feel two kinds of movement. The earth as it rotates and arcs through the galaxy and the responsibilities of life that move forward like a conveyor belt. Right now they both seem too much for me. I wonder about my father. Did he get off the moving walkway to make space for his own pursuits, or was he simply afraid the way I am. Did he stop seeing his place in the world as endlessly possible and instead see it as endlessly impossible?

Maybe he made his circle smaller and smaller until it was the dot of our house so the movement all around him was harder and harder to perceive and finally it was stilled. Perhaps he was looking for a way to get off.

Maybe I am doing the same thing. Fewer tasks, fewer places, less looking out and up and around.

Last night I dreamt that I was driving on an elevated road. My car was moving quickly around bends and up and down slippery tracks covered with moss and bordered with branches. I came to a clearing and the Taj Mahal glistened under the sun. It was a crisp contrast to the dripping green on my path. I had made it there. To the other side of the earth. And I had driven myself. Then I turned around and the road seemed treacherous. How had I possibly ridden this raised highway at full speed. I wanted to get off. I looked back at the Taj Mahal and then forward at the track which now seemed impossibly narrow. Then I was moving again and the earth was moving too. Surprisingly for some moments our motion worked in perfect offset and I felt still. Suddenly Steve was beside me, reaching his hand through my car window for me to grab. So I got moving again to the top of the mossy hill. I looked down at the world below, the arc of the earth and I felt afraid.

But I also felt ready to go.

So I let go of his hand.

And sped down with my stomach in my throat, the wind in my hair and my house in sight. For just a moment I was not looking to get off.



Parenting middle aged boys, stinky sneakers and wacky weed

The eyes I know. They are the same royal blue with dark grey flecks that I have admired for 11 years. Beneath them the cheekbones seem new.  The smattering of freckles that made him seem young and cute now make the strength of his face look open and friendly. It is not just his face that is made of more sturdy stuff. I grab onto his shoulders for emphasis and they are more mountain than bird wing. As a new mother I always felt it was possible he would fly off and leave but now I see that he his attached to this earth.

Logical and level Oliver is a rock mentally as well as physically.  Right now that rock seems rather dense. “No” he answers when I ask if he took a survey on drugs at school yesterday. He is sitting in the blue chair in the corner of my bedroom holding a bowl of oatmeal. It is 6:30 am and he has none of the early morning fog around him. Even though his answer is not truthful it doesn’t occur to me that he is lying. He looks at me. I look back. “You didn’t take a survey during a drug presentation?” I ask. “No.” He repeats. Now I am confused. “Did you have a presentation?” “Well we had a marijuana presentation.” He answers. “And there was a survey.” “Did you take it?” “Yes. I took it.” I am confused now. “Why did you tell me you hadn’t taken a survey the first two times I asked?” “Well Marijuana is not a drug.” He states. I wonder about the efficacy of the presentation, and whether in Colorado we have a new designation for legal weed. It is probably worth following up on but I am not too interested now.

Yesterday he chose not to take the trip to buy new sneakers. “Why get new sneakers when these are just fine?” Part of me wants him to understand the joy of choosing something new, something unnecessary but I know that it is a thin line between that pleasure and the pain of believing that particular material goods can make a good life. He stays home. Leo of course wants to come, in fact needs to come as the soles of his shoes are pulling away and the traction is totally gone. It isn’t their lack of function that has him excited to shop, it is that he wants the shoes his friends have. “This is going to be a great outing” he trills from the back seat. “I think we should bring Ollie home a chocolate milkshake” he suggests from no where. His voice is high and lilting. When he finds the shoes he wants and we select the mixed sports pack of (probably chemical laden) shoe de-oderizers we check out. He is excited to point out the Patriots fan in line behind us. He is joyfully giving me a backrub with the ribbit battery operated back massager. He is noticing that his socks are going to look great with his new kicks. He wants to share the shoe balls with his friends. It isn’t until we leave the store that the reality of new shoes hits him. “Do you want to throw them out?” I ask, gesturing at the garbage can at the exit. “But these have been with me through so many great times” Leo replies, brow furrowed. He doesn’t want to let them go. “The soles are pretty shot” I remind him. “I want to keep them to look at.” He tells me. His head his uplifted. I have my hand on his shoulder and can feel the knob and collar bone gently curving away from me. “I want to look at them and remember how happy they made me.” “It’s your choice babe.” I say, thinking of his long blue dresser crowded with rocks and sticks and baseball cards. The surface where a giant card stock pelican squeezes out a collection of spy gear and cheap plastic soldiers. I imagine these filthy sneakers in the mix. “We have lots of pictures of them.” I remind him.

He looks down at the shoes in his hand. “One last picture.” He asks. He sets it up with the sun shining in the right directions and poses as he throws his shoes into the bin. His face is sad, but it is easy to see it is put on for the photo op. He is already excited about the chocolate milk shakes.

This morning Oliver is looking at me to see if we are finished talking about drugs. Or marijuana. Or whichever. He wants to be helpful. Just yesterday he spent an hour giving a tour of his school to a potential corporate sponsor. He talked about building windmills in STEM class and how it connected with their electricity unit in science. He likes these connections. But somehow the mislabel of marijuana as drug has kept him from making the connection between my question and probably the only survey they have had all month.

It used to be like this. He used to require the exact input to offer the output I was looking for. Between that and having to teach him that a kiss wasn’t just a dry pressure of lips to another person I wondered about whether I should evaluate him for being on the autism spectrum. As he grew I realized that this was a style. He was a toddler version of the absent minded professor who had temporary blindness for his sneakers in front of him while being able to see his way through algebra before the topic was introduced. It was clear though that he was able to form attachments and understand emotion. He was passionate about Pokemon and breakfast  and socks. He loved and expressed emotion to his family, friends and pets. He sang songs about kindness and love being the key to unlock the best person within each of us.

After confirming that the survey was anonymous I explain that I had gotten a question about it from another parent and wanted to know more before I answered. He did not take this as a cue to offer more. So I left it there and he left the room with a kiss (complete with sound) and a cheerful wave as he passed through the glass barn door.

A few minutes later I make it downstairs where his brother is writing out his spelling words three times each. I watch him pause to shake out his cramped fingers. He is gripping the pencil tightly and rushing to finish. “These are long words” he tells me. “It is so annoying to write them all out three times.” “Every once in a while I just write the word twice and try to space it out.” I look at his page and see that he has done that on one of the 30 words. “Maybe pick another word” I suggest pointing at his paper. The word that is stretched out to fill the space is “truthful.” He laughs. “Ironic” he says. As I step away to fill my mug I see him stretching out his leg at the same time he rubs his fingers. He looks down at his new shoes and a small smile plays at the corner of his lips. “I love these.” He says. “I love these even more than my old ones.”

I bought them matching blue years ago so large that they went almost to their 20 toes. Now they almost fit. Oliver snuggles in his so much that they both live in his room and at two different times he has brought them downstairs. Leo is pretty much done with his. His friends don’t wear things with pom-poms but he has it on probably just because it was convenient. I haven’t bought them the same clothes in years, images of them in matching yellow slickers and striped terry cloth hoodies are for slideshows and memories. But today they sit in front of me in their baby blue shirts eating bacon.  It is this feeling loving what was last while nearing what is next that makes me take the picture of the boys. Like Leo and his sneakers I want to hold them here.

And I don’t.