Thursday, December 27, 2012

Music to whose ears?

Now that my children are on their own, to a large extent, I have reclaimed my car and regained total control over the radio. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but I will admit to really enjoying listening to the all-news station for an entire hour if I like, despite the claim that it only takes 10 minutes to give me the world on a particular station. I do not have to pretend to enjoy the latest, whiny pop singers or suffer through Howard Stern. I can also turn off the darned thing and simply drive in silence for a few minutes. True bliss.

I was reminded of this recently as I was unable to drive a car for more than 8 weeks due to a foot injury and was thus subject to the driver’s radio tastes. Again, the pretending and silent misery. At one point, I was driven to desperation and leaned over to punch the small button to “off”, enveloping the car in total quiet. The voices singing along (each with different lyrics) trailed off and they looked at me questioningly. “I just can’t take it anymore,” I said, grumpily crossing my arms with finality. This lead to an interesting conversation about the definition of music and what makes good music good. Oh how these subjective, philosophical arguments make me crazy! It was enlightening, however, to discover that we all seem to have different definitions of music, so I set out to explore this idea a bit more.

Pandora, that miraculous invention of the internet that allows our idea of good music to keep on playing, has certainly saved my sanity at home. Like every other technological advance, I was hesitant and simply did not bother to learn anything about this. My husband decided that I needed to join this century, so he set about creating a Pandora channel for me on my laptop. The basic idea is that you tell this program what band you like, then it chooses other groups that are similar, so you effectively have your own, personalized radio station. When he asked me what group I would like to begin with, I chose Van Halen. He had his back to me and turned with a smile, as if I had told a good joke. “Really?” he asked. Yup. Really. After that I would add Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Pat Metheny and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, along with Maroon Five, Mary J. Blije, James Taylor, Lennie Kravitz and Gwen Stephanie. We would have lost this question on a game show. Can you predict what your own spouse would choose for Pandora channels? Try this experiment, you will likely be surprised.

Intrigued, I did an informal survey, asking how one defines music? The answers were not what I expected. My own view allows that music is a collection of sounds, usually created with instruments and voices, that come together in a pleasing way. Others feel that music is something that moves you, puts you in a good mood or helps you think. Some say music is a reflection of the times, a reflection of your personality, and a way to escape from daily worries. The best answer, however, came via Facebook from someone I have not seen in years. He warned me that I probably would not like his answer. It was three words, “Olivia Newton John” which he underlined with a triumphant, “there, I said it!”

I think about my childhood where I learned torch songs with my grandfather as he played his beloved piano, my father loved jazz and Pink Floyd (making him the coolest dad when I was in high school). With my mom I sang all of the great songs of the 1950s and thanks to other friends with diverse tastes, I know most of the lyrics to the Beatles incredible oeuvre and much of the poetry of Jim Morrison and his Doors. I can name a Nat King Cole tune in less than 10 notes and enjoy all manner of Broadway musical scores. American history is often defined by wars, but it can also be very clearly delineated by changing musical styles. I mock the current pop music as vacuous, monotonous and whiny. I adored the pop music of the 80s when we were in them, but I wonder if I would like it so much now, listening with a mother’s ears? My own mother, was known for her ability to belt out anything produced by the Knack or the Cars, while driving a car full of teenagers here and there. She also sang (and still does sing) along with anything she hears in elevators, grocery stores and shopping malls. This is no longer embarrassing to me, it is simply endearing. Sometimes I find myself doing it too.

I used to be able to count on my oldest to join me in recognizing Led Zepplin, the Allman Brothers and AC/DC on the radio. The youngest had no ear for this classic rock. She enjoyed pop music. They both adore classical music and can even sing very nicely and play instruments. They did not receive these genetic gifts from either of their parents.

I have been surprised recently that their tastes have changed. He is now adding techno and contemporary rap to his playlist. She is reducing the number of whiny songs coming from her earbuds and enjoying what I would call “better” music. When I think of parents who would not allow their kids to listen to Elvis Presley because he was too suggestive, I wonder what they would make of our popular music today. Thanks to singers like Michael Buble and the successful “Jersey Boys” on Broadway, the old-time music is as popular as Flo-Rida and Justin Beiber.  I’m not sure if our aging ears alter our ability to withstand newer forms of music driving us to say to our own offspring, the exasperated words that have been heard by teenagers through the ages: “would you please turn off that noise?”

A few dictionary definitions of the word music include: “Collections of sounds either occurring naturally or deliberately structured in order to invoke some kind of feeling in the listener (who may or may not be the creator of said structure); and a combination of instruments and vocals that creates a melodic rhythm that is generally catchy and fun to sing or dance along with.” This seems like a perfectly reasonable way to define music. However, these descriptions beg us to further define “catchy”, “fun”, and the “feeling” that is invoked. I am certain that Rihanna does not intend to set my teeth on edge and make me desperate to get out of the car, though I’m sure there are some “artists” who desire to do just that.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Paper towels. I have been keenly aware of paper towels in the past week and I suspect I may be very much alone in this observation.  Have you ever noticed that the paper towel dispenser in any public restroom is rarely near the sink? I never did. Well, occasionally I get annoyed when one must go from empty dispenser to empty dispenser then finally resort to pants or toilet paper. Imagine how difficult it must be for someone, say in a wheelchair, to go from the sink to the other side of the room (with wet hands) to snag a paper towel after washing hands?

I have been on crutches for the past week and can look forward to several months in this situation as I have a destroyed Achilles tendon and cannot put any weight on my right leg. As I waited for my surgery date, I decided not to miss out on long-awaited theatre tickets and a visit to my beloved US Open tennis tournament in New York City. Using a rented transport chair (similar to a wheelchair but I cannot push the wheels myself), my intrepid husband managed to get me into the theatre, into the stadium, into taxis, restaurants, elevators and up and down ramps. This wheeled solution saved our sanity as my crutch speed has only improved from snail’s pace to tortoise with a week of practice behind me.

The one place my driver cannot take me is the ladies’ room. I’m sure we all appreciate the importance of having handicapped accessibility for the necessary room. There is even a government law for the Americans with Disabilities Act detailing very specific requirements for the width of doors, height of sinks, toilets and handrails, and yes, even paper towel dispensers. The one thing that is not prescribed is the actual distance of the towels from the sink. As a crutch user, I have the strong feeling that most of these guidelines were designed for wheelchair users.

I first noticed this paper towel frustration in the doctor’s office, only moments into my crutch career, when I navigated the hallway, doorway and finally restroom. The dimensions of the space appeared to be totally ADA compliant. However, after using the sink, I turned to find the paper towels at the opposite end of the room, near the door. This is about 8 feet away from me. Wet hands are not the best way to hobble on crutches. This scene repeated in the hospital, the stadium and even a restaurant.
Of course, the paper towels led me to consider other obstacles and believe me, there are so many that we don’t even notice as we ambulate on two good legs.

How about sidewalks, roadways and parking lots? Their uneven surfaces and general need for repair or replacement poses a special challenge to wheelchair navigators or those on crutches. A bump in the cement higher than an inch or two requires a complete stop, arduous lift and shove, then more effort to regain momentum. That’s using the chair. On “sticks” as we say, the main goal is to concentrate on the ground ahead while calculating the uneven terrain and adjusting accordingly. Of course all of this is not impossible, but it poses challenges that I had never considered before. An overturned wheelchair or splayed body with crutches thrown wide is a scenario I would dearly love to avoid at all costs. People walking around you cannot see the chair or crutches so it is up to you to be noticed and avoid collisions. I’m thinking of getting one of those airhorns that fans use at football games. So, we proceed with caution and care.

Stairs – no matter how long, wide or what surface they are made of, are a particularly tricky challenge. There is a video on YouTube showing proper technique for using crutches. The presenter goes into excruciating detail about placement of armpit cushions and how to get into and out of a chair. She does not mention the complete feeling of vertigo and loss of control when you stand at the top of a staircase. The only advice she offers is to “take your time” and perhaps use a spotter the first time. Well thank you Mrs. Obvious. If the stairs number more than three, I use the age-old keister method. It is inelegant but gets the job done with no nausea and fear of falling. When I do navigate a few stairs, I go in slow-motion and consider the varying heights, carpet or smooth surface, wind speed and other distractions. Arduous, yes, but so far so good.

I will admit that this is not the first time I have been on crutches. In 6th grade I broke my ankle trying to teach my brother how to skateboard. Too bad I didn’t know how to do it myself. I recall going to the middle school dance on crutches and trying to do the Hustle, but the most vivid memory is the stairwell at the public library. Since I couldn’t do much while in the cast, I read a lot of books. My mother would take me to the library once each week and we would emerge with the maximum number of books allowed. There were no rules for ADA compliance back then, so no elevator to get me to the stacks. It was an all-day event but we managed for a few weeks that summer and I’m sure my mother is grateful this was my only broken bone.

Aside from the humorous mental images of me hobbling around on these things, I have also noticed the use of the words “handicapped” and “disabled” as completely interchangeable and that is not true. The definitions are quite different but negative connotations make the term disabled preferable to handicapped for those dealing with such things every day. I don’t know why being disabled (a state in which one is not able to do something) is seen as better than being handicapped (a disadvantage that makes success more difficult). Difficult is not impossible. This is proven as we see the inability to walk made possible by any number of wheeled contraptions or the humble crutches. I feel fortunate to face my situation in a temporary way. While I thought I had respected those in wheelchairs, on crutches and depending on others to ambulate, I truly did not appreciate their constant challenges until I rolled a mile in their tracks.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Now we are empty nesters

I didn’t sleep very well last night. In fact, I found it very difficult to get comfortable. I was on the bed for awhile, on the sofa for a bit, in the closet and finally ended up stretching out on the bathroom floor. I should have known something big was happening when I saw all of the suitcases and boxes piled up by the front door. Usually, I can tell when a family trip is planned or if Dad is going away on business without us. This time, the mountain of stuff was a strange collection of things including an ironing board, pillows, laundry soap and boxes of Pop Tarts. Then we all got in the car for a very long drive.

There was anxiety in the car for sure. My girl was quiet, then she got pretty emotional, then quiet again. I was very unhappy having to stay in one small space in the back seat because there was so much stuff packed in around us. We did stop a few times but my family did not give me a drink until we finally got to Baltimore. Jeez.

Here we found ourselves on yet another college campus. Last year I enjoyed visiting many colleges where the students were simply delighted to see me. They made funny noises and came running to give me a pat. At first I found this alarming, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed being treated like visiting royalty.

This time was no exception and I received a princely welcome. The difference, however, was when we started unloading the car into a small room in a large building that did not smell familiar to me at all. My girl was getting very excited and I watched Mom and Dad carefully for signs of distress. Mom held it together pretty well, and I expect that Dad was keeping his feelings hidden. I didn’t realize that when we got back in the car, leaving my girl behind, that she was staying at the college for a long time and we had now become “empty nesters.”

I remember when my boy left for college a few years ago. I was not invited to join that trip and it took me weeks to understand what had happened. He was not coming back anytime soon. I had to make a few adjustments, but generally this change was not too difficult for me. I started to sleep in my girl’s bed instead of his and found myself adapting to her schedule and actually enjoyed going to bed early. Now I do not know where to sleep since she is not in her bed and Mom and Dad refuse to let me onto their bed. Dad says I snore too loudly. Hah, look who’s talking.

I know that my girl will come back eventually. The boy has been here many times, going away again to school, work and whatever they do in Arizona. These homecomings are usually wonderful with everyone hugging and crying with happiness. I am extremely happy too because there are usually lots of great snacks around for the kids and their friends. Often, they leave all kinds of pizza crusts and cake crumbs on the low table where they watch TV. I love it.

I do not like being an empty nester. The house is very quiet. I’m pretty bored during the day because it is just Mom and me hanging out. She doesn’t do anything interesting really. She just spends a lot of time in the kitchen and on the computer. When my girl was home we enjoyed watching Chopped and Cupcake Wars on the Food Network and snuggling on the sofa. Of course when Dad came home from work every day, we pretended that I had been sleeping on the floor the whole time, but I wasn’t.

There are very few crumbs on the floor in the kitchen these days, and when I do find some, they are not the yummy kind of things my girl dropped for me. Now we are eating healthy which means far less crumby food and more crunchy, green stuff. Yuck. I think I may be depressed since I just don’t feel like gnawing on my rawhide or prowling the yard on the lookout for squirrels and cats. Don’t be alarmed: I don’t chase them, I simply observe them. The deer drive Mom to distraction with their constant munching of her flowers. I think they are scary because they are so big. She is not afraid of them and runs around yelling and waving her arms trying to get them to go away. They are not scared of her either.

Instinctively, I know that Mom and Dad will remain at this house with me. I suppose I will get used to the slow pace of our days here. I know I will have to be creative to find interesting tidbits to supplement the usually dull food offerings I get each day. I may have to go back to sneaking gum out of Mom’s purse. This is not the same as an Oreo or potato chip, but I think this is just one of the many adjustments I will be forced to make. My biggest problem however remains: where should I sleep?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

School agony in 4-year increments

Our family is experiencing a monumental confluence of firsts as we march into this new school year. My niece is going to kindergarten, my nephew is starting middle school, my daughter and another niece begin their high school careers and my son and another nephew are one week into freshman year of college. Whew! So many departures into the great, wide, unknown for our young folks. I’m not sure who is more nervous, as we all peer into the future, the children or their parents.
            As a mom, I have now experienced all of these “first days” of school. Kindergarten, of course, is poignant in its adorableness. I did not cry when my oldest got on the bus, nor did he. I saved this embarrassing tradition for his first day of college. When my youngest finally got to go to “real” school, she was so ready that she forgot to say goodbye to me. Elementary years are marked by new lunch boxes and endless packages of band-aids. Homework was serious business but really didn’t get in the way of playground activities and riding bikes in the neighborhood.
            Middle school is another thing entirely. At this important crossroads, the young child is just dipping his toes into the teen pool. There is so much confusion that I wonder how any of us survive these tumultuous years. Changing bodies, changing attitudes, changing school schedules and increasing demands on brains and muscles are only the tip of the iceberg. Awkward social skills begin developing, premature ideas of independence manifest in shows of attitude that actually belie the childish need for parental hugs and support. A keen eye and open ears are important tools in the parental arsenal at this time. Such skills will be honed and used (overused?) as we move with mounting momentum into the most important four years of a young adult’s life: high school.
            It’s funny how the interpretation of passing time is relative to one’s age. When you are young, an hour is an eternity. As we advance into our 20s, weeks and months spin by. Well into your 40s, the years begin to accelerate and a fond recollection of high school is actually (gasp) three decades past.
            A friend has a theory that time passes faster as we get older because we have so many experiences stacking onto each other. Maybe this accounts for the maddening deterioration of our memory as we age. Personally, I like to blame my children for this phenomenon. If they didn’t distract me so much, I would know exactly where I left the car keys or why I phoned a particular number.
            Looking back, it seems as though some of life’s most important early chapters happen in four-year increments. The first four years are spent learning the most elemental things like feeding oneself, walking, talking and social skills. After that, reading begins and school is not far off. From there, every few years offers a new school environment, with high school, of course being the pinnacle of four-year experiences. That is, unless you go on to college or grad school.
            When one is actually in high school, four years can pass at a glacial pace. All of the agony of algebra, dissecting frogs, rope climbing in gym and getting to know the opposite sex converge to make every day interesting, memorable and sometimes awful. From my decades-long vantage point, those four years went by quickly. Why, I wonder, do they stand out so distinctly in one’s memory? The four years between 22 and 26, for example are not as clear as my days in high school. Sadly for the teenagers in my house, I remember a lot more than they would like.
            From the first day of 9th grade to the final strains of Pomp and Circumstance four years later, the change can only be described as stratospheric. Most freshmen look like kids; most graduates look like men and women. The trick is, to get their brains, hearts and moral compasses to match the exterior trappings of emerging adulthood. It is hard to believe that I was so impatient to get them out of diapers and on to the good stuff. Wish I knew then what I know now!
            My theory on why high school is so memorable hinges on the deluge of new experiences facing this age group. The learning curve is steep as our youngsters take on physics, calculus, iambic pentameter, passé compose, playing the trumpet, trying out for the basketball team, learning to drive, learning to navigate parties where alcohol is available, discovering the true meaning of friendship, failing chemistry, not getting a part in the fall play, being left behind my last year’s best friend, facing parents’ divorce, death of a grandparent, the break up of the first romance – all at the same time. These experiences carry with them such forceful emotions that they are firmly implanted into our brains. By design, these momentous moments serve to shape us and help us become our adult selves, but it sure can be an arduous process at times. It seems to me that no other chunk of life offers such a diversity of new, interesting and terrifying events, therefore, we can remember this time with clarity and even fondness.
            I clearly recall the huge lump in my stomach on the first day of high school. I was simply frozen with fear. Would I get lost? Would I be abused by upperclassmen? Would I know what to do in my classes? Would I ever feel comfortable in that huge building with so many other students? The answer to all of these would be “yes.” Despite the agonizing first days, I survived high school and even enjoyed a large part of those years. I did not think much about my life beyond the coming weekend at that time of my life. Our kids of today, however, live very differently indeed.
            Today’s high school freshman has already looked out over her four year schedule with an eye toward how many advanced placement tests she can take (and pass) before graduation. She is thinking of co-curricular activities based on her interests in addition to how they will look on her college applications. He already knows how to type much faster than I ever dreamed possible as I failed Typing I on the brand new IBM Selectric typewriters in the business department at my high school. He takes extra courses online to extend his academic skills and help him compete with the thousands of others who will vie for that opening at his first choice college.
            It is a different world for my kids than the one I faced hundreds of years ago. They remind me frequently of my naivete, stupidity and general lack of knowledge regarding the modern world and its demands. Thank goodness I have my husband to lean on. At least we will be able to take care of each other when we are overwhelmed by our inability to deal with the real world as it exists today.
            And what of the future? My own mother, herself a reformed stupid parent, assures me that the globe will continue to spin, my freshmen will become seniors will become functional and happy adults, and that I will likely survive all of it and come out with a smile of satisfaction, no worse for wear.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Middle of nowhere

We spent the weekend in the middle of nowhere and we had a really great time. It took us nearly three hours to get there by car. Even the GPS got lost a few times. Despite a driving rain, we arrived, unsure of what to expect.

Our trip took us through some breathtaking countryside. The rolling hills, green and dotted with farms, stretched out as far as we could see. Many of the roads we took were unnervingly unpaved, but we were reassured by the presence of many, many cows, the barns they live in and other buildings indicative of a lively dairy operation. As far as we could tell, there was electricity in this neck of the woods. All along these bucolic country roads, people at their mailboxes, on lawn tractors, or simply near the road, would pause and give a friendly wave. It was lovely.

We found our friends’ house, which address they usually give as the “middle of nowhere”, but is sometimes known as Thompson, Pennsylvania, and saw lots more landscape but also a modern home. Indoor plumbing, cold beer in the fridge and burgers smoking on the grill gave lie to their descriptions of their annual summer retreat. We were pleased to note that others lived near this lake in the middle of nowhere and we knew we would survive the weekend with ease.

I suppose it must have been really weird for their neighbors to overhear our dockside conversation in Japanese. Our entire group is blue-eyed and not Asian in any way. And if those eavesdroppers listened carefully, they would have noticed that some of the accents were better than others. These friends are one of our greatest souvenirs of our time spent living in Tokyo. They are Americans, by way of Texas, living as expats in Japan and alternately visiting their college-age offspring scattered across the United States. It was a grand reunion indeed.

One of the highlights of our time in nowhere, was a visit to Arlo’s. We traveled there on four-wheel contraptions, also known as quads, across those unpaved roads, through waist high grassy fields, and on the occasional paved road. All the while, I was enjoying the lovely forested scenery and keeping a sharp eye out for bears. I’m certain the sound of these engines would have scared off the average bear, but one can never be too careful in such situations.

From a distance, Arlo’s looks like a gas station with a tilting, wooden convenience store attached to it. Upon closer inspection, you will find a tavern, miniature golf, a country store, deli, ice cream counter, rooms for rent, ATM, diesel and regular gas, a fire pit and a covered outdoor stage where live music draws a crowd on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.
“You can get anything you want” is their motto and you will believe it for sure when you wander through the country store. The shelves are filled with a variety of useful items including realistic, fish-head beer cozies, carved, life-size wooden bears, several varieties of jerky, wall décor, and t-shirts and sweatshirts sporting one of two Arlo’s logos. You can even order an Arlo’s do-rag from their website. They also stock the more mundane necessities of life and truly live up to their promise. I even saw diapers and strawberry jam among the fishing lures, hunting gear and vinyl rain suits for sale.

The tavern room is quite charming with wide, pine paneling on the walls. A fireplace at the end of the room must be really nice in the wintertime. The bar stretches across the length of the opposite end, complete with huge, long-horn skull resplendent above the mirror and rows of bottles. About a dozen stools were occupied by men focused on the task at hand. There was very little talk, only a deep-voiced murmur similar to the sound of bees in a hive. No one looked up when we entered and ordered gin and tonics. Our host was tempted to ask for an umbrella in his glass but we convinced him that it would be unseemly to get into a real bar fight in the middle of the day. I can imagine that the energy level in this room bumps up several notches once the sun goes down.

Our time in nowhere was brief but we saw a lot and enjoyed every minute. Happily, we will meet up with these friends again before they return to Tokyo. This time, we will rendez-vous in New York City, which to me, is the center of the universe. Luckily, it is only about three hours by car from the middle of nowhere to center of everything.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Dog's Life

In some cultures, they are viewed as important fashion accessories. In others, they perform working roles, often the unsung heroes of their wooly charges. In our country, they are regarded as an important member of the family. They are spoiled, loved and revered for their devotion and warmth. Of course, I am talking about dogs.
            In Paris, you see many little Yorkshires and Shitzus peeking from Gucci totes as mademoiselle makes her way across the street in her impossibly high-heeled boots. It seems to me that French dogs are mostly of the handful size and almost never walk under their own power. You often find them sitting very demurely next to their owner (rarely a man) in a restaurant, delicately taking small bits of food, discreetly offered. They don’t make much noise, but it is certainly disconcerting to see those beady eyes following you in the most surprising places – restrooms, grocery store lines, airplanes.
            My little beagle suffers from cultural and racial confusion. He stands only 15 inches high and is, unmistakably, a pure-bred beagle. In his mind, however, he views himself as a Labrador and wants to be treated like a more diminutive Pekinese, his demeanor is often cat-like. Unlike his brethren, he is a dog of few words. He lacks the interminable beagle bay (much to the happiness of my neighbors). Don’t be mistaken about this. He can do it, usually when there is a delivery man wearing a hat and sporting a beard at my front door. His indignation is expressed from a safe distance as he scowls down from the stairway landing.
            I love to see dogs riding in cars. I know one black lab who sits in the passenger seat while in transit and immediately moves to the driver seat when his owner gets out of the car. There he sits, patiently waiting in the Food Center parking lot, dolefully gazing through the windshield as if she is holding up his schedule. He always has the good grace to look guilty as he slides back to his seat when she returns. He accepts his carrots with dignity and keeps careful watch out the window as they return home. He is a good boy after all.
            Whenever we are getting ready to leave the house, my little friend makes it very clear that he wants desperately to get into the car with us. Once inside, he realizes that he doesn’t like it very much. He begins to look a bit green by the time we get out of the neighborhood. I think he simply does not want to be left behind. He acts the same way when the kids prepare for a cruise in their kayak. He willingly dons a bright yellow doggy life vest, in accordance with house rules that all must wear one when paddling. He perches stiffly between his favorite people in the world, and I’m certain that he is willing himself to smile, despite the terror in his little, furry heart.
Every summer he travels with us on our annual pilgrimage to France. He rides in the plane in a duffel-bag type carrier. He gets half of a Dramamine, I take the other half, and when we wake up, we have arrived! Of course it is necessary to book a ticket for him, and there are only two such spaces available on each flight, so that means we are making plans months ahead, on account of the dog.
            Because he is so quiet, most of the time, the other passengers don’t even realize there is a dog among them. The bag sits perfectly still between my feet with most of it tucked under the seat in front of me. One particularly ornery airline hostess was thoroughly aggravated with the slight protrusion of the bag and reached down, with huffy annoyance, to grab the handles. This must go in the overhead compartment, she admonished me. As she lifted, and didn’t gain any ground, I told her that there was a beagle inside and he couldn’t possibly fit in the bin. Shock, disbelief, then pleasure, transformed her nasty countenance and she cooed at the duffle bag. Since it still didn’t fit the way she wanted, though she was now charmed by the unseen contents. We found that some neighboring passengers had some space on the floor in front of an empty seat next to them. My dog-in-a-bag rode with our new German friends and now he also thinks himself a “hund.”
            My globetrotting pal has enjoyed more business class flights than I have. Because the seats have much more leg room in this section, it is often whoever got the upgrade is also the traveler who gets charge of the dog in his carrier. This is much more comfortable for everyone concerned and the airline folks seem to be much more relaxed closer to the front of the plane.
            Our beagle buddy is also bi-lingual, having picked up quite a bit of French on his annual excursions. Though he wouldn’t tell you, I am convinced he prefers French to English. When my husband shouts “come” to the stubborn canine standing in the middle of the driveway, he looks the other way. But ask him to “viennes ici” and he’ll happily trot back to the house. His favorite treat is the end of a baguette and like all good French dogs, he sits placidly at our feet in a restaurant. His good European manners keep him from sticking his head into loaded shopping bags at the market and he enjoys going pretty much anyplace his kids go. It is a dog’s life indeed.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bored Games

At age 13, my daughter developed the same summer-time disease that I encountered at her age: backgammon. What began for me as an idle, rainy-day activity turned into a summer long marathon of games played with a very patient neighbor.  I continued to enjoy playing with my friends in college and after more than 20 years, I still lose consistently to my ruthless, darling husband. Yet, like so many things, I go back for more. And now I have a very willing (sometimes too willing) opponent in my youngest child.
            My own mother had no interest in board games of any kind and managed to dodge my pleas to play.  I can only recall a handful of times when my brother and I could entice my parents to play cards or Monopoly with us. My dad called it “monotony” and only when I became an adult, could I truly understand this perspective.
            Summer is prime game-playing time, especially if it is raining or if the midday sun is just too strong for outdoor activities. I remember many hours in the cool, dim dining room of our neighbors’ beach house. They had an enormous old table surrounded by even older, beat up chairs. There could be up to a dozen kids, of varying ages, sitting around that table playing the game of choice for that particular time. One summer, we played Yahtzee almost exclusively. This game, created in the 1950s by a Canadian family while sailing on their yacht, is simple and addictive. You roll five dice and keep score, something along the lines of poker, including three-of-a-kind, open house, and aces. This may very well be my favorite game.
            I could not wait for my first-born to be old enough to play Yahtzee with me. It was simply impossible to convince my husband to join me in the game, so I looked to the infant for help. Finally, when he was about 4, I was able to teach him to play. Thank goodness he loved it too, and I had a captive partner. Generally speaking, he’s a pretty good sport and even today can be talked into playing a game or two with me. The bad news, however, is that he quickly developed a taste and skill for more sophisticated games, such as chess, and I simply could not muster the patience to play such things. My thrill comes from a game that is quick, simple and can be played while having a conversation.
            For awhile I was part of a group of women who held monthly game nights. We would get together and enjoy some snacks and drinks and play whatever game anyone brought. Pictionary was the big favorite and sometimes things got so loud that the kids had to call down from their beds for us to be quiet. Another group of pals taught me a card game called scat. Here, the idea is to pass around a deck of playing cards, adding and subtracting to your own hand until you get 31 points of the same suit. This was my first experience with betting and it was a blast. We could only lose the nine singles that each player brought to the game, so it was no worse a financial loss than buying a movie ticket.  Of course, the ubiquitous eating and drinking and gabbing enhanced the entire event.
            It must seem that I like to play games only with my female compadres. That is partly true. I don’t know why, but it is really tough to talk my husband and other menfolk into playing any group games. He is a killer scrabble player, but only reluctantly plays Monopoly or Pictionary. The guys prefer to hang out in the basement around the pool table. I guess women prefer brighter lighting and a more convivial atmosphere.
            One particularly telling episode in my game playing life happened a few years ago. We decided to play pinochle with another couple on a regular basis. This was pre-children, so we had lots of time to enjoy a leisurely dinner then the card game afterwards. We decided to switch partners and soon it became apparent that no one wanted me on their team (including my own spouse!). This is probably because pinochle is a game of strategy, patience and perhaps, common sense. Since I possess none of these traits, my pinochle playing skills soon proved to be too frustrating for the rest of the players. We moved on to Monopoly, then had babies and started playing Candyland instead.
            Other family games that we have embraced over the years include Uno, dominoes and Scrabble. Uno is the kind of card game that transcends age and language barriers. My kids learned to play the game while we were on vacation in Spain. They were at the kids’ club with children from Germany, England and of course, Spain. Lots of languages were skittering around that pool, yet when the Uno cards came out, everyone came together and played with a seriousness of purpose that I can only hope follows them into their adult years as they pilot our globe into the coming decades.
            Scrabble is a frustrating game for me. My husband was surprised to discover that I, a former spelling bee champion, did not know how to play the game when we first met. He set out to teach me and though my vocabulary and spelling skills surpassed his, his strategic skills outstripped mine, and it is the same today. For example, I can use all of my tiles for a single word and receive 10 lousy points for my cleverness. He, on the other hand, deftly drops one tile in exactly the right place and gathers 31 points for himself. With more than 20 years of experience with this game, he still manages to win handily, every single time we play.
            If given the choice on any Friday night between watching a video on TV and playing a good, lively game of Yahtzee, I would choose the game. I know one of the big game manufacturers was trying to market Friday night as family game night and I like the idea. Sadly, as my kids become deeply embedded in their teen years, it is more difficult to entice them to stay at home and play with their mom. I guess I just love the way a game gets us to face each other, communicate and laugh a bit, and dedicate some serious time to an activity that includes the whole family at once. I sincerely hope that I don’t have to wait for grandchildren to play games with me. Maybe if I offer to skip the Brussels sprouts on Friday, in trade for a family game and a pizza, I might just get their attention – and cooperation.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Letter from London

Letter from London

Greetings from the home of Wimbledon, clotted cream and police officers in very tall hats. The streets are festooned with Union Jacks as the Queen only just celebrated her jubilee and the city catches a quick breath before the Olympics come to town. It is an exciting time to be in England though I wonder if many of the athletes or visitors will actually meet any real English people when they come to witness great feats of physical prowess.

Every taxi driver, waitress, hotel clerk and random people in elevators, have told us that they will get out of London as the spectators, athletes and other folks related to the Olymics begin to arrive. One taxi driver says that he really believes the city is not yet ready for the influx and predicts that he will make far more money from the steady business people than he will fighting the voluminous traffic predicted for those weeks.

Which makes me wonder: why would you want to hold such a gargantuan event in a relatively compact city on an island? It can’t possibly be that lucrative. According to the OutLoudLondon website, the city can expect to haul in 10 billion pounds or about $1.5 billion. But they have spent about 490 million pounds or upwards of $768 million on the 80,000 seat Olympic stadium alone. This does not include the vast preparations and other infrastructure needed to host the expected 500,000 spectators. The place is already pretty crowded. Where will they put all the extras?

I had the great good fortune to go to Wimbledon and see Novak Djokovich emerge victorious and I can attest that the strawberries they serve there are truly the most delicious anywhere on the planet. Seems a bit odd to have fruit as a specialty at a sporting event, but I guess it is a nod to a long-standing tradition.

It felt strange to me to be in a foreign country and already know the language and be able to read all of the signs. I will confess that I sometimes wondered if the words coming out of some people’s mouths were actually English as I found them incomprehensible. There are so many dialects of our mother tongue and so many interesting idiomatic expressions. For example, we searched high and low for a tube to take us across town only to discover that this is another word for subway. How about telly? It is not a telephone but a television that people watch in the evening while munching on crisps and drinking a cuppa. (Cup of tea, that is.) They wear jumpers instead of sweatshirts, bird-watching does not pertain to feathered creatures but young ladies, and a lorry cannot travel in the cars only lane. In a hotel lobby a hundred people can be speaking English but if they come from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, south London, Buckingham Palace or even the colonies, the sound is not harmonious.

London is an extremely lively city and despite the relatively dismal weather, it is fun to wander around and watch the people. We nicked into a pub for a pint and some bubble and squeak. My friend enjoyed bangers and mash.  We sat at the windows facing Oxford Street and enjoyed a parade of outfits, and the struggles of bag laden fashionistas tottering along from store to store. Shopping apprears to be a national pass time. I observed the driving habits of Londoners and suspect that driving school must not be mandatory to obtain a license. Thoughtfully, however, there are signs painted on the ground at the crosswalks directing you to look right or look left for oncoming traffic. This can be downright confusing as the English drive on the left side of the road. How in the world do they navigate round abouts?

The taxis are called black cabs though most of them are no longer black. They are decorated with bright advertising for everything from cell phones to beer. They are squarish and have a very practical design. You step into what feels like a room with bench seating along the back and pull down seats behind the driver. Four adults can sit very comfortably, along with a bunch of luggage. There is no awkward sliding and scrunching to fit only three New Yorkers into the back of a yellow cab. The drivers have a similar technique, however, with lots of zipping and quick turns.

I will depart this lovely city by Eurostar train, heading to Paris. Compared to taking a flight, this mode of transport will be faster, cheaper and far less complicated. That said, my claustrophobic self will try to ignore the fact that the train travels via Channel Tunnel or Chunnel, for more than a half hour. Under the water. In a dark tube. When I see the glorious countryside of northern France I will breathe more easily. That part of the letter, my friends, will wait for another day.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

School is out!

No more pencils, no more books…no more getting up at 5:45 a.m. to harass my reluctant high schooler whose alarm clock never accomplishes its task.  I’m probably happier than my kids are that today is the last day of school.
            I know there are lots of working parents out there who face weeks of nightmarish juggling to keep their offspring happy, occupied and out of trouble while school is out. I respect this struggle and do not wish to make light of it. Putting this reality aside, let’s just admit right here that summer vacation is fun for all of us. The rules change, the days last forever and the weather is so much nicer than, say, November to March.
            When my kids were really small, I relished my afternoons at the town beach while they splashed about, took swimming lessons and built sand cities for their matchbox cars. My daughter was especially adept at creating elaborate meals of twigs, rocks, assorted wet sand piles and popsicle sticks. This gourmet feast was often delivered on a battered Frisbee. We would enjoy ice cream pops from the concession stand, way too close to dinner time. Sometimes we would have pancakes for dinner or just a smorgasbord of leftovers from the fridge.
            Now that I have only teenagers to contend with, the morning is my own because they like to sleep until lunch. I do my very best to stay in bed until at least 7:30. The dog does not understand about summer break, so he still wants to go out at the crack of dawn. My darling husband cannot deny his nature and is usually up with the sun. Still, I do my best to guard a little daily “vacation” for myself. Year-long habits are hard to break.
            I didn’t realize how much I depend on the family schedule to keep me on track until one day last summer when I realized that I simply forgot to make dinner. Since the days have very little structure, meals are taken at a leisurely pace (read: any time anyone gets up and wants to eat something). As the lazy summer days blend together, I begin to Iose my grip on regularly scheduled things like garbage pick up, dry cleaning and grocery shopping. While this is not terrible, it can be inconvenient when someone is scavenging for lunch and can only find a few wilted lettuce leaves and one slice of American cheese. Sometimes we improvise and have fudgesicles.
            I know that the kids really savor that first week after school is finished. They watch movies until all hours, they sleep late, they swim and snack and sleep some more. They spend a lot of time shuttling back and forth to their friends’ houses. Then, things like summer camp, family vacations and jobs begin to creep into the mix. By the time the euphoria of July 4th has passed, my kids are beginning to miss school, just a little bit. Perhaps it is the opportunity it affords them to have very regular social interaction and the general entertainment they get from their activities and scholarly pursuits.
            My youngsters grumble about the homework packets they must complete each summer. I have many friends who get into serious combat with their children over these packets. Most of the time, these particular children have decided to wait until the night before school begins to complete this work. I appreciate the defense of this tactic: all of the work will be fresh in their minds and it will be easier to hit the ground running on the first day of the new school year. Their decision has absolutely nothing to do with procrastination.
            On the other hand, there is the group that believes it is better to get the work done immediately after school lets out, therefore allowing for maximum leisure in the following weeks. This crowd fears they might lose some intellectual ability over the summer and therefore are best prepared for success by doing the work as if it were an extension of the waning school year.
            I’m not sure either strategy is a great one. I suppose it depends on the student, the family and the gullibility of those in charge. One thing we all agree on in this house is the summer reading list. Each year we stomp off to a large bookseller, lists in hand, to do some serious shopping. One year we tried to use books from the library, but they were short a few copies and we feared for the health of one of these loaners if it went to the beach or on a plane. So, we invest in paperbacks and treat ourselves to enough reading material to last the whole summer. We do verbal book reports, and as the kids get older, we can get into some very lively discussions. For me, this is one of the very high points of summer vacation.
            Since the school-year schedule is usually complete chaos, we savor the ability to enjoy dinner outdoors in the summer, often the whole family is together.  Most of the time we have a few extra faces at the table, but this simply enhances the pleasure of hanging around until the fireflies show up. We play dominoes and Monopoly and I do my darndest to keep that TV dark for as long as I can.
            I have such marvelous childhood memories of running around outside after dinner. We played kick the can and flashlight tag. We played kickball in the street, long after the streetlights came on and the traffic dwindled. We trapped fireflies and eavesdropped on the grown-ups sitting on the porch. We did elaborate plays and performances for our parents, hoping for a trip to the ice cream shop as our payment for a great show. Back then, there were no seatbelt laws, heck, there weren’t seatbelts in many cars. We could fit 10 kids into a VW Beetle (the original!) and manage to bring home frozen slushy drinks for those who could not squeeze in to make the five-block trip to the 7-11.
            I wonder what kind of summer memories my own children are gathering. I’ll be very interested to know these things when they are old enough to look back and really appreciate the subtle pleasures along with the big pictures of family reunions and vacation trips.
Happy Summer Everyone!!!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SEEing the Future

SEE-ing The Future

I watched her come up from the subway, wait at the light and cross the street. She was looking in the windows and swinging her bag, happy, as she peered ahead to see me at the end of the block. This is my “baby” coming from her SEE project internship in New York City. This child, (who am I kidding? young adult) who doesn’t like being alone and prefers trees and rolling landscapes to the cement jungle of a city, appeared to be totally comfortable. I smiled to myself and to her – this navigation of the city is just one of the many lessons she has learned in the few short weeks of her end-of-the-year adventure.

The Senior Enrichment Experience was introduced about four years ago when my oldest was a high school senior, and I must admit, I had my doubts. The whole program is based on the premise that the senior students find or create an internship or project for themselves to complete during the final three weeks of the school year. Technically, their academic year is over before the project begins. Though there is no grade given, the students are held to a rigorous set of rules and its completion is a requirement for graduation.

I thought this was a lot to ask of kids who were in the final stages of senioritis and in the full throes of spring fever. How in the world did those teachers think they could motivate these seniors to do so much independent work? Those adults saw an opportunity to help their students get a little real-life experience that includes selling their idea to the committee and the potential internship folks, networking, managing the demands of work and personal life, reporting to a boss or supervisor, commuting, and keeping weekly progress meetings with their mentors along with daily journals. The students are trying on a career or experience for size, and learning so much about themselves in the process. I have never been happier to be so very wrong in my initial skepticism.

Right now, there are New Fairfield High School seniors helping to reorganize the Dorothy Day soup kitchen in Danbury, writing cookbooks and presenting classes to elementary school children, shadowing nurses and teachers, creating teaching tools for the English and History departments in the middle and high school, acting as guy Friday at the United Nations, assisting the assistants of a Broadway costume designer and building a website for the music department. Past endeavors have included full theatrical productions, environmental studies centered on area wetlands, technical support to local non-profit agencies, and a variety of experiments based on physical therapy and aquatic plant growth. Some of the ideas can seem far-fetched and whacky, but the key goal of the SEE mandate is to find something to do that comes from a personal passion. If counting tadpoles in a vernal pool is your thing, it can qualify for your proposed project.

That this project will become mandatory is a good thing. The early stages of the process, beginning in January, required the seniors to begin thinking about what they wanted to do in June. This is no easy task when you are focused on AP tests, college applications, weekend jobs and sports practices. A little creativity and a lot of introspection are necessary to come up with a proposal. This is presented formally to a committee of faculty who approve the idea. Next comes the difficult lesson of “finding a job” where the students are applying themselves to selling their skills and the project itself to possible sponsors. All internships are unpaid and only a few charitable projects are accepted. For those creating the cookbooks, for example, fundraising was necessary to purchase supplies. Another useful skill for later in life indeed.

As the actual internship or project is happening, students keep a journal of their experiences and collect data for their final presentation. The SEE Fair is held at the school, open to the public in the evening, and showcases all of the energy and creativity culminating from six months of toil. In light of the current dismal job climate, the kids are not just learning to do a little work, they are learning the very important skills of creative networking and truly thinking outside of the box. I know it is the hope of the school, and mine too, that such wonderful opportunities as the SEE project will help this class of 2012 navigate the rough seas ahead. They will go out into the world already having experienced a few things, met a few folks, and sweated a few deadlines. They will not be surprised by traffic slowing their way to a meeting at a specified time and they will know how to behave in a business meeting. They will have confidence when asking for an opportunity, a sale, a favor. They will know to wear a tie or sneakers, as the situation demands. They will have respect for their supervisors, co-workers and themselves. Most of all, I think these kids will emerge from their Senior Enrichment Experiences with a terrific sense of accomplishment.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fox Tale

We were amazed to discover, a few weeks ago, that Jesus has a wife and kids.
            It wasn’t so long ago that we finally figured out that Jesus is a fox. We noticed a huge hole on an embankment in our backyard when we first moved into the house. Lacking knowledge of the habits of any particular wildlife, my husband decided to place a large rock in front of the opening so as to encourage who ever was living there to find another home. The next day, we found the rock moved aside, so my husband replaced it with a much larger rock. Again, we found the rock moved aside. We named the mystery animal Jesus. For a few years, we found evidence of something living in that hole, but never laid eyes on the inhabitant. Since it wasn’t bothering us, we weren’t going to pursue this mysterious creature and we soon forgot about it.
            That is until early this month. I heard some funny little noises coming from that part of the yard and upon further investigation, discovered a den of foxes. How charming to find that Jesus is a fox, not a skunk as I had originally feared. To add to our pleasure, Jesus also had a mate and a half dozen offspring gamboling around the grassy area in front of the hole. I took pictures and video of the little family. They were not afraid of me, though I saw them watching me, and I certainly kept my distance. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure if I was afraid of them, so I did a little research.
            According to the state of Connecticut’s department of wildlife conservation, red foxes (like the ones living in my yard) are making a comeback in our area. They live in all corners of the globe and they are territorial. The females are called vixens and the babies are kits. The males, I guess, are simply called Dad. They are part of the dog family, including coyotes and my beagle. Happily, coyotes and foxes do not like to live in the same territory. I certainly don’t like the idea of a coyote sharing terrain with my timid beagle, so this is fine with me. Foxes eat small rodents, fish, fruits, vegetables, frogs and even garbage. We have seen the mama fox running through the yard with a squirrel in her mouth, returning to the den to feed her babies. As if that weren’t enough, we found evidence of their meal on our deck. Yuck. I am hoping, however, that the fox’s habit of marking his territory will be a deterrent for my arch enemies, the deer.
            Our neighborhood is host to a variety of wildlife and this spring it feels like we are living in a zoo. Along with our fox family and others nearby, there have been many birds looping crazily through the air in what must be some sort of mating ritual. You would think that the local squirrels had gotten into a large cache of coffee grounds as they seem to have lost their minds, zipping up and down trees and acting suicidal at the roadside. Baby deer with spots on their backs placidly follow their mothers and calmly nibble the tender shoots of my lovely garden. They continue chewing as I run at them waving my arms and yelling. Slowly, they amble away, never taking their eyes off me. They probably think I’ve got the human form of spring craziness. At night, even the frogs add their folly to the mix as they peep incessantly. It is a sweet sound and certainly heralds the return of warmer weather and blooming trees.
            In their very early days, the baby foxes looked like puppies rolling around on the still-brown lawn. According to my research, they must have been about five weeks old. Foxes mate in the winter and typically have their litters in early March in these parts. The sightless young stay deep in the den until they are about five weeks old. At that time, they come out with their parents and begin to play. They even found an old soccer ball under the shed and were batting it between them. Jesus and his wife are always watchful and they take turns trotting off into the woods to find food. The stay-at-home parent often chases the babies and breaks up fights between them. You can almost hear them whining, “Mom, she took my squirrel!”
            I like that our foxes are such responsible parents. When I took a closer look at their living quarters, I found a second entrance to their den, higher up on the hill. This is smart thinking. When we were blocking up the lower entrance, they had no problem going out the back door. Once the foliage fills in, you can’t see either hole and they restrict their activities to times when we don’t see them. They are not strictly nocturnal, as some people mistakenly think. And foxes don’t carry rabies any more than any other wild animals. It is just a little disconcerting that they are not spooked by human presence. They watch me with as much interest as I watch them.
            It is fitting that Jesus and his family are looking so healthy and happy as we celebrate the lengthening days and arrival of spring. With all of the talk about going green and being responsible stewards of our planet, we can take comfort and pleasure from the robust springtime rituals of our wild neighbors.  

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