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Collected Columns of Joan Herlong
June 11, 1999 – August 23, 2002
We would like to gratefully acknowledge the Community Journal newspapers including the Greenville Journal where these columns were originally printed from 1999-2002. The Journal has always been a pleasure to work with. Individual columns copyrighted as printed, 1999-2002, Joan E. Herlong, All Rights Reserved. Collection copyright, 2009, Joan E. Herlong, All Rights Reserved.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17.
Two Kinds of Parents ..................................................... 1 A Dad Keeps in Touch Tone .......................................... 4 Men With a Gift For Giving .......................................... 7 Mom Rags On Teen Mags............................................ 10 There’s No Beating Around the Bush When It Comes to Southern Expressions.............................. 13 “Baby, Let’s Just Stay At Home Tonight” .................. 16 As A Rule ... ................................................................... 19 Semantics Is Everything When It Comes to Understanding Kids ..................................................... 22 Wise Prescription - Running to South Avenue and Back ......................................................................... 25 Chores Can Be a Chore for Parents ............................ 28 Ding Dong! Back-to-School Means Back to Some All-too-familiar Student Fundraisers ......................... 31 Fascinating Feedback Gives Writer More Credit Than Is Due ....................................................... 35 ‘Get the Message?’ Word to the Wise: When Calling Our Home, Leave a Voice Mail ................................... 38 Babysitter Blues............................................................. 41 Dad’s Rx -- Get Outta Town!! ...................................... 44 Ladies Tennis Not For Ladies ..................................... 47 No Free Speech in Our House .................................... 50 iii
18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45.
Braving a Youthful Bra-Shopping Experience .......... 53 Halloween Brings Out the Best in Kids ..................... 57 Give Me a Man Who Knows How to Hug ................ 61 Clueless Friend Drifting Through Life Without Sisterly Love .................................................. 64 With Halloween Over, We Thankfully Turn Attention to Holidays ......................................... 68 “I Would Like to Know . . .” ........................................ 71 The Family That Emails Together . . . ........................ 74 Christmas Brings Out the Child in Me ...................... 78 This Labeling Thing Is Getting Out of Hand ............ 82 Some Resolutions Do Come True ............................... 86 A Word About Church ................................................. 89 Trip Leads to Popular, But Alarming, Trends ........... 93 Unsolicited Advice for Mothers-in-Law ................... 97 “I Love You Anyway, If Not Because” ..................... 102 Revisiting Complicated MIL/DIL Relationships .... 105 Chaperoning 101: Discovering Your Inner Brat ..... 111 Hormones: You Gotta Love ‘em ............................... 115 The Real Skinny On Real Moms ............................... 119 Don’t Call It Love ........................................................ 124 Fighting Chance .......................................................... 128 Alone For The Weekend With Six Million People . 133 Eavesdropping ............................................................ 138 Camp Memories and Realities .................................. 142 How Do You Do It All? .............................................. 145 Home Cooking Best Away From Home .................. 149 Book’em Daddy .......................................................... 152 Helpful Hints From Herlong .................................... 155 Saying Goodbye for the First Time Again............... 159
46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74. 75. 76. 77.
‘I Don’t Care What The Sign Says, This Is Augusta Road’ ................................................ 162 Life in the Carpool Lane ............................................ 165 Leaving Kids at Home With Dad Cooks Up Fun ... 168 I Know Your Mother . . . ............................................ 171 Designated Dumb Idea .............................................. 174 Oral Arguments About the Tooth Fairy .................. 177 Of Pas de Deux, Parents, and Pancake .................... 181 Good Night, Sweet Daisy .......................................... 184 ‘Tis The Season ............................................................ 187 Three Magic Words .................................................... 190 The Practical Art of Humor ....................................... 193 Wedding Daze ............................................................. 196 Mixed Up Experiments in the Classroom ............... 199 Missing the Real Thing .............................................. 202 Room To Grow ............................................................ 205 Many Happy Returns................................................. 208 Thanks for the Mammaries ....................................... 211 That Was Then, This Is Now ..................................... 214 Still Cool After All These Years ................................. 217 Woulda, Coulda ... ...................................................... 220 Swiss Miss Summer .................................................... 223 Just Fined, Thanks ...................................................... 226 Hey 19........................................................................... 230 Better Late Than ... ...................................................... 233 In Praise of the Day Off ............................................. 236 On Our Way................................................................. 239 YOU Was There........................................................... 242 Not Steve ...................................................................... 245 When Spanking Policy Calls ..................................... 248 Noogies in Church ...................................................... 251 Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell .................................................. 254 Merry Mary? ................................................................ 257 v
78. 79. 80. 81. 82. 83. 84. 85. 86. 87. 88. 89. 90. 91. 92. 93. 94. 95. 96. 97.
Oh Yes There Is ... ....................................................... 260 RSVP By The Rules ..................................................... 263 Interviews 101 ............................................................. 266 Parking in the Ladies Room ...................................... 269 First Fight ..................................................................... 272 Getting It ...................................................................... 274 Hair Hussies ................................................................ 277 The Long, Wee Ones .................................................. 280 Girls Rule(s) ................................................................. 283 Nice Backhand ............................................................ 286 Person(s) To Call ......................................................... 289 Snapshots of Mom ...................................................... 292 Countdown To ... ........................................................ 294 Summer Reading ........................................................ 297 Congraduations .......................................................... 300 On The Road Again .................................................... 303 Can’t See The Forest ................................................... 306 Spam, Thank You, Ma’am.......................................... 309 Helpful Hints From Herlong II................................. 312 Oh Dear Lord .............................................................. 315
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. I) 1
Two Kinds of Parents
June 11, 1999 I have learned that there are two kinds of parents in this world. There are parents you can call, and parents you can’t. I am not talking about my parents or yours. (I can always call my mother -except collect.) I am talking about my fellow parents, parents out of diapers, as it were. I am not talking about calling for favors, either. Some of the parents you just can’t call are they very easiest parents to call when it comes to asking them for a favor. They will leap at the chance to bring 22 cupcakes within the next 12 hours to the second grade end of the year party (a fete which leaves NO time in a half day for ANYTHING academic -- but that’s another column). I am talking about making THE CALL to parents to tell them something no parent WANTS to hear: that little Johnny or Janie is not only less than perfect, but aggressively so. That’s when parenthood is squarely divided into two camps. The parents you can call instinctively know how hard it is to make THE CALL, because they, too, would agonize before making it. It’s a tough thing, and you really should not make THE CALL until you know how you would take THE CALL. It lays the caller open to all kinds of charges of bias and erstwhile blind eyes about their own progeny. But the parents you can call will listen to you, ask questions to prove that they are listening, and then they will thank you and hang up. More importantly, they will call you back. (I once exchanged two or three calls with especially zealous parents-you-can-definitely-call who wanted more detail in order to make their kid understand that they were parents to be
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reckoned with -- parents who don’t just always find out -- they find out EVERY detail if the kid stalls). These parents will make it right, make it a valuable albeit painful learning experience -- not just for their kid, but for the sake of their kid AND yours. Their kid will apologize (sincerely), make good, do whatever it takes to make it right again. Life will go on, perhaps even more pleasantly than it did before THE CALL. Then there are the other parents. The ones you just can’t call. They will listen only long enough to figure out that this is THE CALL. The polite ones almost blend in with parents you can call. The polite ones also ask a couple of questions (like “Can I give you my attorney’s number?), and they will also thank you and then hang up. That’s it. You will never hear from them about THE CALL ever again. Ever. Even when you run into them as you are both delivering the darned cupcakes. For all you know ( and you pretty much know all in this case), they never even mention THE CALL to their kid either. The not so polite ones do a fantastic job of explaining, in so many words, that you have the wrong number. You have to understand that THEIR child is different, their kid NEVER lies, and is terribly misunderstood. They always believe their kid; it’s a family policy. (I don’t know what statesman coined the policy of “Trust, but verify,” but it’s a must for us whether we are dealing with someone who is six years or six feet...) Furthermore, even if their kid DID do something less than perfect to your kid, it’s perfectly understandable since their kid has the DT’s or PMS or is a Sagittarian, which excuses everything from spitballs to animal sacrifice. You have got your nerve calling parents you can’t call, but you won’t have many left when it’s over. Now, before you pick up the phone to lay THE CALL on me for fun, spite or legitimate catharsis, let me assure you I have been on both ends of the line. I have been the recipient of THE CALL, on more than one occasion. (I am NOT just talking business on the
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phone all day.) It’s humbling. I can give chapter & verse on my kids’ imperfections, but it is painful to have a fellow parent provide excruciatingly accurate footnotes and a full bibliography on the subject. I have also found that, delivered well, THE CALL can also cement friendships among families. (I know one CALL will probably be re-enacted some day at our son’s rehearsal dinner!) Now you, I am certain, are a parent you can call. If you can remember receiving THE CALL and meting out a memorable punishment, then you are indeed a parent you can call. If you are debating the merits of clipping this column and sending it (anonymously, you coward!) to someone else, then you are also a parent you can call -- but don’t actually mail it. (It won’t help.) If you are reading this because someone actually sent it to you, just gimme a call -- I dare you.
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A Dad Keeps in Touch Tone
June 18, 1999 Dads play many roles: the Provider, the Disciplinarian, the Omniscient One, the quiet peruser of newspapers, the animated reader of bedtime stories, the resident mechanic (irrespective of skill...) and the bear-hugging, whisker-rubbing, in-house pro wrestler. The dad is also an intrepid, one-man Spanish Inquisition, asking tough questions that no one dares to answer, such as “Who touched my stuff?!” or “How many times have I told you NOT to do that?!” Some inquisitive dads even mistake these probing questions for meaningful conversation with their off-spring. But once in a while, a dad comes along and breaks the mold, helps us reshape our thinking about what dads are supposed to do or not do. I know a dad whom I shall call “Jim” (everyone else does). Jim is the proud father of four: two now-grown girls, and youngsters Eleanor and Sam in elementary school. When his girls were at home, and then in college, Jim NEVER complained about the whopping phone bills his two older girls ran up month after month. He paid up cheerfully. Jim is a truly unique and admirable dad in that he actually ENCOURAGES his older girls to talk on the phone. That is, as long as they are talking TO JIM. In an age when many dads can’t seem to find the time to really talk with their children, Jim made the time to talk with his daughters, Caroline and Alice, EVERY DAY for more than ten years. Although Jim’s first marriage broke up when the girls were just six and nine years old, he made sure they could never fear
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that he had somehow broken off from them. Although Jim did not have custody of his girls, he maintained a long distance guardianship of his cherished role as The Dad through the girls’ favorite medium (the telephone). What is really ironic about this is that Jim, like a lot of men, was not blessed with the gift of gab. When I call to chat up his wife Donna, Jim does not give particularly good phone. He’s VERY comfortable with silence. But when coaxed into talking about those daily phone chats, he makes it sound so simple, so pleasant, so IMPORTANT, it’s a wonder more dads aren’t dialing daily. Says Jim, “It wasn’t a ‘conscious’ decision on my part to call them every day. I just started doing it when I was separated, and then it became second nature. Because of all the traveling I do, I have missed a few times over the years, but they always let me know about it. If I ever missed them for some reason, I always called them the next morning before they went to school.” “We mostly just chit-chatted,” Jim continues. “I mean, when you talk with your kids every day, every conversation is not going to be earth-shattering. But, because we did talk every day, I can tell what’s on their minds pretty quickly, pretty easily.” “I did the calling about 80 percent of the time,” he explains, “but they called me if they knew I was home and not on the road. Either way, I always paid the phone bill. They had their own phone line at their mother’s house, with call-waiting, so I could always get through to them. Sometimes we would only talk for a minute or two, some-times longer.” The important thing was that they TALKED. “It’s hard,” allows Jim, “especially when I couldn’t physically be with them all the time, I wanted to give them the same feeling, even though I wasn’t there with them, that I am always there FOR them.” It sounds like his daughters got the message loud and clear. Now his older “girls” are young women, out on their own, paying their own bills -- even their own phone bills. And they still
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talk with their dad, a LOT. If Jim talks to his older daughters less than once a WEEK now, he senses something’s wrong -- and he picks up the phone. This Sunday is Father’s Day. A good day to call The Dad. But you know Monday is a good day, too. A good day for The Dad to call the kids -- whether they’re across town or down the hall. As Jim’s kids know, the conversation doesn’t have to be earthshattering, because they know they’re going to talk AGAIN tomorrow!
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Men With a Gift For Giving
June 25, 1999 Why do some men give thoughtful gifts when courting, only to lose the ability to even remember gift-giving occasions after the wedding? I understand why a mother wants her son to marry. With a daughter-in-law on board, she stands half a chance of receiving birthday and Mother’s Day gifts. Then she can send her son effusive thank you notes. Advertisers waste tons of money urging men to shop for the holidays, Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. My husband never goes Christmas shopping before Christmas Eve. Even then, it only occurs to him to shop because his office is unexpectedly closed. When such men do manage to remember gift-giving occasions, they come up with presents that show off their innate “gift” for giving. A friend laments the Mother’s Day a few years back when her thoughtful husband and five sons honored her big day by wolfing down breakfast and then lunch, both meals prepared by the honoree. As she hurled the dirty lunch dishes into the sink like so many Frisbees, the sound of shattering china jarred her husband’s memory. He dashed outside to retrieve her almost-forgotten yet unforgettable gift: a shiny, new, red fire extinguisher. Other friends happily share tales of receiving creative gifts. One received a rolling pin for her birthday (price tag still attached). Another friend’s husband gave her a pair of fake diamond earrings when she first became a mother (she was told the awful truth by a jeweler years later when she lost one and panicked). The first thing another friend’s fiancé gave her the day
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after they became engaged was a LIST: of things to do for him that day! (They married anyway.) I have yet another friend whose boyfriend gave her an expensive pair of running shoes for her birthday. Only, she doesn’t run (hint-hint). In my case, I did have some warning -- but like so many warning signals of really serious problems -- I recognized them only in hindsight. I met my reason-for-living in college. During our courtship years, my birthday fell during summer vacation time -- but only just. My then-beau would always come through with a nice gift somewhere in the vicinity of my birthday, but because it was always mailed I could not nail him for missing the exact date. Only after we married did I discover that this man who had MEMORIZED all 50 state capitols did NOT know my exact birthdate. I discovered this when my birthday popped up during a complicated move to another city and there was no way for me to remind him with sticky notes here and there for two weeks prior. On that particular day, he was busy getting the utilities and new phone hooked up. After some productive pouting on my part, he ultimately remembered and I received a phone for my birthday. There is one notable gift that he would rather I leave out of this, but the truth will out. After our first baby was born, I looked rather prosperous compared to my normal “Olive Oyl” physique. OK, my thighs were thunderous; I was deafening in corduroys. Every time I whined, “Oh honey, I am so fat -- do you think I look fat?” He would then reply (correctly) “No, you look FINE, great. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Perhaps he feared that I would believe him. And the Love, with his very first paycheck, he bought me a gift. It was not even my birthday or Mother’s Day. In fact, there was no occasion other than that he loved me, the dear. It was a rowing machine.
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Baffled by my tears and recriminations, he stooped to the ol’ LOGIC defense: “But YOU’RE the one who’s always saying you’re too heavy, Sweetie.” He would like me to point out that this gift was presented (and promptly returned) 15 years ago, during his “pre-enlightenment” period. So noted. He would also like to point out that he has also received some pretty “creative” gifts of his own over the years, such as a hockey set (but the ingrate can get his own darn column to talk about that). Is it possible that men such as these accidentally-on-purpose bestow bloopers in order to make their women actually feel grateful for the times they forget special occasions altogether? Nahhhh... even that would require forethought.
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Mom Rags On Teen Mags
July 2, 1999 My younger sister still bears grudges over the way I treated her when we were growing up. I know this because she bought a gift subscription to Teen People for my eldest daughter, her goddaughter. She knew it would amuse my daughter and that it would BUG me, thus achieving two objectives simultaneously. If you can’t fathom why it would bug me, you have either not read one of these teen rags lately, or you think Pamela Anderson is a truly talented actress. Teen People would be more accurately named Pre-teen Girls, because those are the people reading and believing it. I have not found a written editorial mission statement between its covers yet, but my guess is that it aims to “help girls think more about, pursue, and be readily available to boys.” However, annotated and corrected editions of this publication have allowed me to foil my sister’s plot while still allowing my daughter to enjoy her subscription without fear of politicallycorrect brainwashing. Where does one find annotated/corrected editions? All it takes is being first to the mailbox, a keen eye, about 20 minutes, and an indelible black marker. For example, one of the recent issues of this tripe touted an important cover story: “Your Top Ten Questions About Sex Answered!” Naturally, I grabbed my laundry pen and flipped to the cover story well before daughter was even off the school bus. Question 1: How will I know when I am ready to be sexually active? The so-called “answer” went into this namby-pamby drivel about “feeling committed . . . being in love . . . feeling
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comfortable with discussing SDTs, birth control, and AIDS.” It made no mention of age, ability to obtain a marriage license, prequalification for rent or mortgage payments, or certification from a Red Cross babysitting course. It only took a second to cross out the WRONG answer and provide the annotated, corrected version in the handy margin space, which read: “You will know you are ready to be sexually active when you look down at your left hand and it has a wedding band on it, you hussy.” Question 6: “I am 15 and have already decided to become sexually active. Where can I find information on birth control methods that are right for me?” The so-called “answer” incorrectly addressed the reader as “Dear Reader” instead of “Dear Unwed Mother-to-be.” It also forgot to question how many brain cells Dear Reader had, or whether this “decision” should be discussed with someone other than a boyfriend in full rut or a ditsy magazine writer who is probably on Monica Lewinsky’s holiday greeting card list. Again, laundry pen to the rescue and with a few sharp stripes the wrong answer became illegible. The annotated/corrected answer in the margin read: “If you are 15 and thinking about becoming sexually active, you have another think coming to you. If you can’t talk about this with your mother then you shouldn’t be thinking about it. Tell the boy in your life that you would like to delay your decision for a month. He will probably dump you. That would be a good thing. The only better thing would be dumping the little toad FIRST. He may whine and plead otherwise, but ALL he wants to do is bury the sword. Dump him.” There are other less harmful but equally vapid features in this publication, such as “Ten Hot Summer Tips on Getting Guys to Groove on YOU!!” Most of these “hot tips” urge the young reader to use copious amounts of gels, perfumes, colors, bleaches, bangles, baubles, bras, and bathing suits that also happen to be
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advertised in that particular issue as implements of attraction to the opposite sex. ALL WRONG. My annotated/corrected version was a LOT shorter than this multi-page feature, but it was pithy and accurate. It reads: Two Hot Tips on How to Get Boys to Want YOU!! 1. Breathe 2. Bathe (Option 2 is unfortunately still optional in many circles). Her protestations to the contrary, I know my daughter really appreciates her annotated/corrected editions. I know that when she rolls her eyes and calls it “annoying . . . queer . . . and embarrassing” that is just her age-appropriate way of saying “Thanks for caring enough to annotate, Mom.” She claims she does not BELIEVE everything she reads in those magazines, but as long as it has been cleaned up by my laundry pen first, she can!
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There’s No Beating Around the Bush When It Comes to Southern Expressions
July 9, 1999 Shortly before we moved to Greenville ten years ago, I told my mom we were about to do so. I had learned not to ASK her about such things, but rather to TELL her what we were doing so as to avoid unsolicited advice. Sharp as she is, however, Mom took a little longer to catch on to this neat arrangement. “Well,” she advised, “if you’re going to make friends with those nice Southern women, you’d better NOT be yourself for the first six months or so.” No, I am not exaggerating; yes, I am convinced she loves me. I believe Mother was trying, in her back-handed way, to pay tribute to our shared ability to cut to the chase, in contrast to the Southern art of beating around the bush. But since then, I have learned that beating a path around the bush is often the best and kindest way to get to the same point. (I just don’t know the way very often.) For example, my daughter says the biggest difference between me and her best friend’s mama is the way we say “No.” See, the friend’s mama NEVER says it! When the girls come to me whining about going to the mall for the 15th time that weekend, my answer is always a terse “NO!” On the other hand, her friend’s wily, Southern mama beats around the bush, wearing the girls down with positive, homespun alternatives. Don’t get me wrong -this girl’s mama is NO push-over. The outcome is the same (NO MALL), but the difference is that THEY think she’s NICE! I have learned that true Southerners have developed an artful economy of expression, a verbal social lubricant that I have
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genuinely come to appreciate, if not emulate. For example, when someone’s volunteered tale of woe goes on ad nauseum, the appropriate Southern response is “Gee, I just hate it for ya.” It has the same effect of the pithy, northern response of “Tough ----” but it’s a far more upbeat and polite version. If you HAVE to say something untoward, the preamble is key. Whereas I would toss out something catty like “Honestly, I wonder how she can squeeze out of the shower once the soap is rinsed off,” the artful Southerner would offer the all-important prelude of, “I LOVE HER TO DEATH, but honestly, I wonder...” Suddenly the remark can be easily misconstrued as an expression of earnest concern! “Bless your/his/her heart” requires practice, and a practiced ear. In some rare instances, “Bless your heart” can actually mean just that, a sincere desire for increased blessings to come your dear little way. When uttered about infants and the elderly, it is usually genuine. But when “Bless his heart” is offered as a prelude or a grace note, it is especially damning. For example, if a Southerner were to recommend a blind date by saying, “She is going to make a deaf man very happy someday, bless her heart,” that is code for “The woman does NOT shut up.” Northerners should not to try “bless your heart” at home. It is far too prone to blunders in the wrong hands. One simply cannot get away with “That’s an impressive mustache, bless her heart.” Note: Anyone who has the misfortune to merit the “I love her to death” prelude AND the “bless her heart” postlude should be avoided at all costs. I don’t pretend to be a Southerner nor to understand them. My children must address me as “Ma’am” but I won’t answer to “Mama;” I use “y’all” and “you guys” interchangeably; I will always drive (not carry) my kids to school; I have my picture taken (not made); and I push buttons -- I don’t mash them. Most significantly, I am not even vaguely interested in my own family’s genealogy, let alone my in-laws’ far flung kin, so nobody will be nominating me as an honorary Southerner.
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But my mom was wrong (for once). Try as I might, I was unable to be anyone but myself. Yet I have managed to make many friends, dear friends, even with “those nice Southern women.” And I know the feeling is mutual. Why, just the other day, I overheard one of them saying she “loved me to death.” Bless her heart.
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“Baby, Let’s Just Stay At Home Tonight”
July 16, 1999 Now that summer is in full swing, my husband and I must constantly adjust to the ebb and flow of our family size at home. One week we had the usual four, going in fourteen different directions. Another week we had three at home, which left us asking “where is So&So?” every few hours. (We do have more imaginative names than So&So for our children, but they have all threatened to NEVER move out if I mention their actual names in print . . .) Then there was also one, very brief week, the first in 15 years, when we had NO children at home at all. That week was, well, this is a family newspaper, so suffice to say that was a very nice week. For three weeks running, however, we are down to just two children. This is fine, relatively quiet, except that they are the WRONG two. They cannot take care of themselves. The two older children have spoiled us in that we have not had to hire an outside babysitter in about three years. We have become so accustomed to this cushy arrangement that it does not occur to us that we need a sitter until about 7:12 p.m. when we are thinking about catching a 7:30 flick. So we are rediscovering the joys of NOT going out, of staying home with the little ones, or of occasionally going out WITH the little ones for a round of putt-putt or a Disney movie. Which brings me, finally, to my point. On the few occasions this summer when we have had the opportunity to enjoy an evening out without an entourage, we have been stunned to see how many parents don’t know when to STAY HOME or GO SOMEPLACE APPROPRIATE. We attended
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an R rated movie (without kids, of course) and were shocked to see several parents in the theater with LITTLE kids in tow -elementary school aged children. There was even a mother who came with an infant and a preschooler! Now this movie was scary even to me, so I was not at all surprised when the infant began squalling. The mother tried in vain to quiet the infant (duh!) and then headed for the lobby. That left her preschooler ALONE in this scary movie. So he behaved like a preschooler and yelled “Mama!” as he chased after her. She then scolded him for acting like a preschooler. This scene inside the theater was re-enacted several times before the mother finally wised up (relatively speaking) and left for good, this time with the preschooler. I really can’t tell you what the movie was about, only that it was pretty scary, on and off the screen. But here’s what the helpful movie theater management did: NOTHING. When I spoke to the manager over the phone the next morning, she informed me that they CANNOT prevent parents from bringing very young children, even infants, to an R rated movie. Furthermore, if a dufus parent does take a child in who becomes disruptive, it is up to the other paying customers to report it and THEN the management will ask the parent and child to leave. The management will NOT pay the paying customer to do their job, however. The manager told me it was AGAINST THE LAW to prevent parents from attending R rated movies with youngsters and babies. You can post a sign that says “NO SHOES, NO SHIRT, NO SERVICE” but you apparently cannot post one that says “NO LITTLE KIDS OR BABIES ALLOWED OR WELCOME.” The manager could not or would not quote me this LAW, nor any of the laws of common sense, but she assured me it was written somewhere. I felt like I was talking in circles, just like trying to have a rational conversation with So&So. I think her parents must have taken her to a LOT of really scary R rated movies when she was a child.
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After the R rated movie, my Reason-For-Living and I went to a nice restaurant where we could enjoy a quiet dinner, see a real table cloth, and he could tell me what the movie was about. This was a restaurant where the waiters wear monkey suits, and no cellophane shower caps or gloves. Just as we had ordered from the fancy menu in the big book with the pretty gold tassel on it, some nicely dressed waiters began arranging tables around us. It wasn’t so quiet anymore. They were making a big table for a family that had not one but TWO high-chair aged BABIES with them. I know babies like that. They are cute, but they are loud and they THROW FOOD. (You can still find a few petrified Cheerios on our breakfast room wall.) They are also an excellent reason to hire a babysitter or just stay home. I helped out the manager with a potentially very sticky situation. I let him know that if he seated that group next to us that he would have at least THREE people who were screeching, throwing food, and pulling out their hair, only no one tells me I’m cute when I do it. The manager actually thanked me. He informed the people with the TWO babies that they would have to wait for a table elsewhere in the restaurant, so they left in a huff. I hope they went somewhere where the word “FAMILY” is included in the restaurant sign, where they would be welcome with open arms and cellophane gloves.
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As A Rule ...
July 23, 1999 By the time I came along, my parents had been at the parenting thing for more than 18 years. My ten predecessors were all about two years apart, or less. So one would think my parents had become seasoned pros by then. Not so. They were obviously still learning the parenting game. I know this because they were both constantly making up new rules as they went along. One might then assume that all those rules, accumulated over all those years of raising all those children, resulted in a highly regimented family life. Not so. You see, each NEW RULE lasted about 15 minutes, or at least as long as it took one of us to provoke another, BETTER rule, whichever came first. My mother would always lay her new rules down in a fit of pique, usually prefaced by, “Alright, from NOW ON . . .” The madder she was, the more ridiculous and unenforceable the rule. For example, back in my early driving days, she had a favorite rule she invoked whenever I stepped out of line (both times). “Alright,” she fumed, “from NOW ON you will ride your bike or walk to school!” High school was a mere 15 miles away, but I never pointed this out (lest I incite yet another rule). I knew that the rule would be lifted “for now” as soon as Mom needed something from the grocery store that day or needed me to pick up my younger sister. This new rule rarely lasted beyond, oh, 5:00 p.m. My father’s less frequent forays into family legislation were also more formidable. When our shenanigans went far enough to arouse his temper, he did not just install a new rule, but
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supposedly a whole new way of life. “We’re going to have a NEW REGIME around here!” he’d intone. To give him credit, the new regimes did last a lot longer than most of Mom’s new rules -- way past 5:00 p.m. When one son too many (that would be one, to be precise) came to the dinner table wearing no shirt at all one evening we instantly had a NEW REGIME. I remember the announcement of this new regime probably could have peeled the wallpaper from the dining room walls. ALL the boys, not just the one offender, had to come to the dinner table wearing a COAT &TIE -- FROM NOW ON! This new regime actually lasted a couple of weeks or more, and took on legendary proportions for the impression it left on us all, let alone the wallpaper. I used to snicker along with my big sister’s kids as they openly sensed their dad “felt a new rule coming on.” But now that I am in to this parenting thing myself, I cannot recall just what was so funny about an extremely important new rule that will surely be enforced FROM NOW ON. Family therapists advise against having too many rules, especially more rules than parents can enforce. So, as a rule, I try not to make too many rules. To wit, I have listed in chronological order, the very few but very important new rules I have laid down in the past week: NO LOUD RADIO IN THE CAR NO SINGING LOUDLY TO RADIO IN THE CAR NO RADIO IN THE CAR, PERIOD NO RADIO, PERIOD, UNLESS MOM IS ON THE CAR PHONE NO JUNK FOOD FOR SNACKS NO JUNK FOOD UNTIL AFTER YOU’VE HAD A HEALTHY SNACK NO FOOD ALLOWED OUT OF THE KITCHEN, PERIOD NO TALKING TO MOM WHILE SHE IS ON THE PHONE NO WRITING NOTES TO MOM WHILE SHE’S ON THE
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PHONE NO CALLING MOM FROM THE OTHER LINE WHEN SHE’S ALREADY ON THE PHONE NO FOOD OUT OF THE KITCHEN, PERIOD, UNLESS MOM IS ON THE PHONE NO FOOD ON MOM AND DAD’S BED NO TV THIS SUMMER, PERIOD NO TV, PERIOD, UNLESS IT’S A MOVIE/PROGRAM MOM APPROVES NO TV, PERIOD, UNLESS MOM IS ON THE PHONE Now, I realize this may constitute a few more rules than family therapists advise. But you must also realize those therapists obviously have no children. Even if these rules don’t exactly last FROM NOW ON, they often help me get from moment to moment. Besides, I have been at this parenting thing for only 15 years, so, as a rule, I am still learning as I go along.
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Semantics Is Everything When It Comes to Understanding Kids
July 30, 1999 “Personal Responsibility” buzzes around a lot these days, in and out of political ads, talk shows and campaign platforms. Fine. I realized a long time ago that parents have a personal responsibility to teach and demand personal responsibility, I just never knew how hard it is! From the cradle, our instinct is to pass the buck, avoid punishment. It starts very early and innocently enough, with routine announcements like “Mom, the milk spilled.” Translation: “Mom, I spilled the milk but I want you to clean it up.” Children would have you believe the spill occurred spontaneously. If you’ll buy into it, they will too. After all, you weren’t there, all you have is circumstantial evidence. All you REALLY know is “it spilled.” So why make a big stink? Now you may be thinking that saying “the milk spilled” versus “I spilled the milk” is merely a question of semantics. With children, however, semantics is EVERYTHING. Children’s word choices are not about shades and nuances in meaning, though, it is about one thing and one thing only: “It’s not my fault.” It is an exhausting task, but if I don’t explain these important differences to them, they could grow up to be adults who duck behind semantics saying awful things like “Mistakes were made” or, God forbid, “It depends what ‘is’ is...” When I ask for detail about spilled milk, for example, they will elaborate with “it tipped over.” I remind them that if they were the only person who witnessed this spontaneous phenomenon
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they have to clean it up anyway, so they might as well ‘fess up because I am not as dumb as I look. They rarely budge so I must look REALLY DUMB. . Not long ago enough, I found myself heading to Atlanta with four children in a not big enough van. They are all would-be scientists, developing a new adhesive made of sweat, used BandAids, crumbs, and masticated gummy bears. Since it at least kept them firmly in their seats, I tolerated it, even when shoes and socks entered the mix. Then the first grader child asked me to fix her sock which had “got a knot in it.” This knot defied all human strength. HOW the sock was knotted defied logic. “HOW did this happen?” I screeched. “I don’t know,” she marveled, “it just did!” “Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but it looks like SOMEONE tied this sock in a knot, pulled it tight, and then sucked on it with gummy bears in her mouth for the last two hours so that it would stay knotted FOREVER. What do YOU think really happened?” I asked. She had her story and she was sticking to it, bless her little heart: “I don’t know, Mom, it JUST DID.” “Honey, did YOU tie this sock in a knot? Is that how we treat socks? Are socks FOOD?” “I don’t know, Mom. It just got a knot in it.” Real progress. I then lost it, delivering a fire and brimstone version of my normal sermon about the importance of word choice, of owning up, of not driving your mother nuts on the hope that she MIGHT buy “it got wet” this . . . one . . . time. “Repeat after me,” I raged, “Mother would you please untie this sock that I have knotted and chewed on?” She recited the words and then even ad-libbed that she was sorry. SUCCESS!!!
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I lavished her with praise for taking responsibility and pointed out to her and the three other gawkers how HAPPY Mommy is when they own up. When we arrived at my sister’s house, their aunt prepared to pressure wash the car’s interior for me. She asked, “What happened to your sock, honey?” “Oh, it got a knot in it.” I handled the child’s relapse pretty well, actually. My bald patches only took a few weeks to grow in.
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Wise Prescription - Running to South Avenue and Back
August 6, 1999 Having a teenage son requires one to dip deep into the wells of creativity, especially when it comes to effective AND efficient punishments. My Reason for Living prefers the old standard: grounding. It sounds good to say, “OK, pal, you are on restriction for the rest of your natural life!” However, it’s a little open-ended as punishments go, and since it requires ME to be on restriction in order to make sure that the boy is on restriction it is highly unenforceable. We have tried other measures in order to keep me off perpetual restriction. We who giveth can also taketh away. But when everything has been takethed away -- freedom of association, TV, stereo, computer, phone -- it leaves the offender in a curiously untouchable, almost invulnerable position. The most obnoxious teenager in the household, I’ve found, is the one who has nothing left to lose. As he once pointed out to me, “You’ve already taken everything away AND I can’t go anywhere -- so it’s not like you can make me any more miserable.” It’s awful when they’re right. Just when I was at my wit’s end, I remembered my father’s wise prescription for overly cheeky teens. Running to South Avenue and back. South Avenue was about a two mile round trip from the house I grew up in. Running there did not require crossing any busy streets, and it was a safe journey day and night. Assuming an average jogging pace, Dad was able to time the completion of the route within a couple of minutes. (Woe unto him who tried to fake the circuit.) Running to South Avenue was brilliant in its simplicity. Taking a quick run is often the perfect
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coolant for heated tempers; it immediately removes the offensive teenager from the premises; running is healthy; when the teenager returns the punishment is finished -- the point made; and perhaps best of all, teenagers HATE running when it is not their idea! Running to South Avenue was not only an effective/efficient punishment -- it was also an effective deterrent against garden variety teenaged violations, leaving grounding or restriction in reserve for anything more serious than a quick run could fix. My only regret was not remembering South Avenue sooner. I could not wait to try it out. I regaled my firstborn with the maternal family lore, and assured him he would meet the same fate the next time he stepped out of line. As usual, he shrugged it off, assuring me that he would never be stepping out of line again anyway, so there was no need to resurrect a local version of South Avenue. Two days later, he set off my internal alarm again. I was almost glad, so anxious was I to chart my own course to our own “South Avenue.” Unfortunately for him, I discovered this particular infraction at about 10:30 on a school night. (I don’t always find out right away, but I always find out, and that’s when it hits the fan...) I simply told him to lace up his running shoes, that we about to trek to McDaniel Avenue and back. He did not actually balk -until he realized that he was not going unaccompanied. I explained that I could not allow him to run there and back alone, at any hour, because these are different times and the streets aren’t as safe as when I made the trip to South Avenue (once). More importantly, there was no way I could trust him to actually run there and back unless I witnessed it. So there we were, my precious firstborn jogging up the street, in an early spring rain (I just hated that for him), at 10:45 p.m., with me driving alongside with the windows down, tunes cranked up on his favorite radio station. One would think that he would appreciate the maternal concern and devotion going on, not to mention having some peppy music to keep up the pace, but
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no. I discovered an added bonus to my Dad’s brilliant plan: teenagers DETEST running when their embarrassing mother is driving alongside, especially moms who are loudly boogying down the road to their KIDS’ music. I would love to tell you that Running to South Avenue is a cure-all, and that I have only had to chaperone one trip and everything since that rainy March night has been perfect. Well, it is a well traveled route for us. Like my dad, I could forego the chaperoning by now, and estimate his round trip within a few seconds, lest he be tempted to foolishly take a short cut. I could, but without the excuse of following my kid safely there and back, boogying down the road with the tunes cranked up and the windows down could be embarrassing.
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Chores Can Be a Chore for Parents
August 13, 1999 My children often threaten to move out, to share their affections with a “nice” family and a “better” mother. There are reportedly scores of “better” moms in the area who freely hand out junk food, consistently offer a la carte menus for every meal, and never make their kids bathe or shower. So far, not one of these better, nicer moms has called to ask if any of my children can please move in with her grimy brood, so I am fairly certain that even these moms occasionally emerge from their stupor to run an occasional bath. While they may admit to slight exaggeration on the food and cleanliness bit, my children INSIST that I am the ONLY mother they know who makes their kids do chores around the house. They tell me this is not only a drag, but “NO FAIR” because ALL their friends are treated like so many little princesses and little Lord Fauntleroys. (Their friends who are required to babysit for younger siblings, pressure wash the driveway, walk and wash and feed the puppy, take out the garbage, vacuum the playroom -well, uh, those friends don’t count.) I tell them that they, and their friends-who-don’t-count, are lucky to have routine chores of their own. (I know they are making a mental note to tell their therapist about this in about 20 years, but I press on.) They are lucky because the friends of “better” moms who never have to do chores will take much longer to grow up and become self-sufficient -- only to have to support their exhausted parents who aged prematurely by doing all those chores themselves.
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Our chores range in complexity and difficulty according to age and ability, from the relatively simple task of feeding the dogs, to the considerable struggle of mowing the grass. To see just how much maturity they have gained so far from having regular chores, I recently gave my children the opportunity to choose two chores each from a written list of eight household tasks. They had to keep their respective ages and abilities in mind, and balance that against their desired privileges. I was hoping that they would maturely choose the chores that they knew they could do, but that a younger sibling could not yet do well. I was hoping that everything would fall neatly into place. Hope didn’t help. The results show that, if left to their own devices, the children’s chores would work out so that the plants would drown, the dogs would starve, we would not be able to see the street for the grass, we would only use paper plates and cups, but -- the table would be set beautifully every night in four different ways. So, we remain on a schedule of assigned chores, and probably always will, but it was worth a try. I don’t imagine that giving them routine chores will delegate me out of a job. It’s not like I sit around reading magazines and reading bon bons while they slave away. My chore is to make sure theirs are not only done, but done right, and often RE-done right. I am not a clean freak (one peek through the front windows will confirm that), but I am a fanatic about the difference between rights and privileges around here, and chores are the best way to teach the difference. Food, clothing and shelter is on the house, but chores earn those nice extras, like driving alone or loitering with your cronies. I know my kids’ routine chores won’t guarantee that they will grow up “on time,” but it will be a little sooner than the idle children of “better mom.” By the time mine each turns 21, they will be so embarrassed by still having chores around here that they might make good on their repeated threats to move out, which will be OK by us. In the meantime, I’ll keep helping them with their chores by lifting my feet so they can vacuum under the
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couch, and even pointing out my candy wrappers that they’ve missed.
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Ding Dong! Back-to-School Means Back to Some All-too-familiar Student Fundraisers
August 20, 1999 Summer is not over, but school’s back. There have been signs of it for weeks now. I am not talking about the hints we know from days of yore, such as swirling leaves, shorter days, or a sudden chill in the evening that sends you rummaging for a sweater. It’s 102 degrees for crying out loud. I am talking about the doorbell. It started ringing a few weeks ago. I mentioned to My Reason for Living that a couple of cheerleaders had already rung the doorbell asking for donations to boost something at the their high school. He informed me that I must have been mistaken, because there is a district policy which specifically prohibits students, even those wearing cheerleading uniforms, from going door to door to raise funds for their schools or to boost anything about their schools. I told him I was not mistaken, I know a cheerleader when I see one. These cute girls in very short skirts had a lot to say about boosting something at their school and they were very perky. They never even mentioned Jehovah or subscribing to The Lighthouse, so I am certain they were cheerleaders. My Reason for Living is right in one respect however. There is a policy against students going door to door to sell or beg for anything that would raise money for the schools that they are not getting from the district people. That is why parents have to sign something saying that they know about the policy, and they won’t let their children go door to door. And nothing makes children want to SELL, SELL, SELL door to door more than telling them they cannot. on top of this strict prohibition is an enticing
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incentive program. Fabulous pizza parties, limousine rides with the principal, and other goodies are dangled like so many confectionery carrots in front of the kids who manage to SELL, SELL, SELL the most. That is how I know that all this talk about preparing our children for future paths into the professions of science, medicine, law, technology, education and so forth is just a ruse. What the schools are really preparing our children for is a career in sales. Now, obviously, I don’t think a career in sales is all bad. But if you’re going to ask kids to sell, at least give them some decent training. A lot people, my children included, think that selling is just that: selling. My kids have the selling part down just fine. They bug us until we cave in and buy 18 subscriptions to mustread publications we can all read in our spare time, and then they flout district policy and bug the neighbors -- which they inform me is NOT the same as going door to door because they KNOW our neighbors. At the neighbors, I think they use the tactic of looking cute, pesky and pitiful all at the same time. This must work because the neighbors have always given them money, most likely so that the kids will please just go be cute and pitiful someplace else. But as anybody who actually makes a living in sales will tell you, there is way more to it than just selling. There are records to keep, money to be collected and disbursed. There is a lot of follow-up, which is where the system breaks down and drives parents nuts. A couple of years ago my third grader went door to door selling chocolate candy (something we all need more of around the house) with her conjoined-twin-separated-at-birth. I cannot remember what cause this chocolate sale was supposed to support -- probably because chocolate is so closely associated with SO MANY important causes. She informed me that she and her henchman were NOT going “door to door,” but just to the neighbors. I had no idea that she felt so neighborly towards people who lived four blocks away. The chocolate arrived in the
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mail several weeks later, at least half of which was immediately consumed by her brother who must have been a locust in a previous life. She managed to deliver the remaining stock, but she had of course lost the list of who paid how much for what. So she winged it, relying on her incredible third grade memory, while I waited for the other shoe to drop. A guilt-ridden neighbor called to tell me that my child had delivered the wrong candy, something far more expensive than what this woman had ordered. She informed my child of the mistake and learned just how fast on her feet a third grader can be. Her little salesperson assured her that she could go ahead and eat that candy anyway because the one she had ordered was probably the part that “got eaten” and that this was probably much better than the actual order because it was more expensive. Besides, the little salesperson was the only one to know, so they could just keep this small bookkeeping error between them. I have no idea how many other “neighbors” are still waiting in vain for their chocolates. All I know is that we had a chocolate mess that I had to clean up with my checkbook. So I guess I raised a couple of eyebrows on back to school night. We were all asked to sign a brightly colored form giving our children permission to sell wrapping paper and acknowledging that they CANNOT sell it door to door, but that they really need to sell A LOT. I politely declined and signed the paper with a big NO written on it. In PTA circles, this can be like belching in public. Do not mistake me for a Scrooge. I am all for giving money and time to my kids’ schools. I just much prefer the up-front, honest approach. For example, I recently got a very nice letter from the elementary PTA which basically said, we need money, we need way more than we get from the powers that be, so please send us some to help out. You can even designate exactly how your contribution is spent. I whipped out the checkbook and rewarded them for their forthright honesty as generously as I could.
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The only thing that nice letter was lacking was a carrot-on-astick post script. If they had added a P.S. acknowledging that the Sunday comics are ideal for use as wrapping paper, admitting that if our kids never get another T-Shirt it will be too soon, and swearing that there truly is no conspiracy to draft my children into the ranks of Fuller Brush salesmen, I would easily have doubled my contribution. I could go on, but someone is at the door . . .
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Fascinating Feedback Gives Writer More Credit Than Is Due
September 3, 1999 While it is gratifying to know people are reading the Greenville Journal, and by extension this column, I’m afraid some readers give me far more credit than is due. While most of the feedback I have received is positive and encouraging (my continued apologies to “Louise” aside), I’m afraid that some of it is benignly misdirected. I shall share a few examples of questions I have received which are clearly meant for someone else who has at least an iota of expertise in something. QUESTION: We read your column about kids and family life. How did you decide to have four children? ANSWER: Um, could you be a little more personal? During the 15 minutes before we had kids of our own, we borrowed children every chance we got by babysitting for free. We found ourselves our VERY happiest when we had the wonderful opportunity to look after four children for a WHOLE WEEK. If you like, you are more than welcome to look after ours for a whole week as well -and of course we wouldn’t think of charging you for it! I assure you that you will know exactly how many children you want by the end of that unforgettable week. QUESTION: I have a gardening question for you. My new vibernum davidii bushes are struggling in this heat. What do you suggest? ANSWER: Huh? I have the best luck growing things in my refrigerator. I suggest you put your new bushes in an opaque plastic container, label it if you like (for show) and stick it in a
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corner with a consistent temperature of about 45 degrees. In my experience, if you don’t even think about them for a few months, they are likely to thrive. QUESTION: I have a follow-up question for your column about southern expressions. Please settle an on-going family argument for us and explain the proper usage and difference between him/her and he/she. ANSWER: I don’t think the proper usage of various pronouns is a southern expression thing. As for your family dispute, if no one plans to move out of state I wouldn’t spend any more time worrying about it, let alone arguing. QUESTION: MY car makes a funny noise when I first start it in the morning, especially in cold or wet weather. What is the cause of this? ANSWER: Beats me. Mine does that too sometimes. I find that if you turn up the radio the funny noise is not an issue. QUESTION: I have been invited to a potluck supper and have been asked to bring a main dish. I am a newcomer and want to make a good impression -- what shall I prepare? ANSWER: Boy have you got the wrong address. I am never invited to potluck suppers, except at my church where they HAVE to invite me or they’d jeopardize their eleemosynary status. I do not have a clue on this one, but never underestimate the versatility of SPAM. QUESTION: I have been invited to a dinner party where the dress code on the invitation says “Snappy Casual.” I am new to this area and have never seen this dress code before. I want to “dress to impress” so what shall I wear? ANSWER: Nice to hear from you, too, but WRONG column. I too find “snappy casual” baffling. I would infer that “snappy” indicates you should wear something with a LOT of spandex in it, which is sure to make an impression. But, it could also mean you’re supposed to wear something with a snap crotch. I would think twice about accepting an invitation from people who would
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try to dictate your undergarments. You could find yourself running with the thong crowd. QUESTION: Dear Advisor, I have a question about my stereo system. Should I enhance my existing CD system or invest in a whole new mini-disc system? ANSWER: Advisor??!! I always thought these letters were fake - but again, WRONG column. By the way, why would you take the time to write to ANYBODY about a stereo system? I do appreciate hearing from readers, by phone, by email firstname.lastname@example.org) by mail or in person, but please keep in mind that I am an expert in nothing, especially in raising a family. It may seem like I am an expert in complaining about the various issues related to family life, but I really can’t complain. It’s just a habit. Good to hear from you!
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‘Get the Message?’ Word to the Wise: When Calling Our Home, Leave a Voice Mail
September 10, 1999 The other day I received a voice mail message from one of my sisters. I detected some pique in her voice as this was her third attempt at leaving me a message. Since I am fairly compulsive about checking messages and returning calls, I was a little miffed at her tone. You know where this is going. After interrogating the offspring, I learned that she had in fact spoken to two of my children on two separate occasions, which is why she believed that she had left two messages. The girl child actually wrote her message down somewhere and then promptly forgot about it. The boy not only “took a message,” but had a lengthy chat with his aunt. Because he now SOUNDS like a man, my sister had the impression that her second message would be swiftly delivered. When I cross examined him, he insisted that he HAD delivered the message to me, JUST THEN, and well within a week, mind you. This same sister has four bigger children of her own, but they are very odd in that they take and give messages accurately and quickly. My family is more normal. They seem to think that delivering messages falls into the same category as returning videos -- if it’s within a week, no problem. You may have noticed I said “family” and not just “children.” My Reason For Living does not appreciate being lumped into this
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group, but the fact is he is no square peg. Unless he immediately picks up the phone to call our own voice mail, a message left with him may as well be left with the boy-who-sounds-like-a-man. The man is not chatty, does not enjoy taking messages, and in general does not give good phone. There is one exception in this household, and that is my ten year old clone. Like her mother, she has the innate ability to deliver a message verbatim. This is an invaluable talent which is rapidly changing her position in our family pecking order. When I was a college co-ed dating my future Reason For Living, we spent the long summers apart. I worked in an office in Chicago while he plucked peaches here in South Carolina. Long distance was our life line. Unfortunately, was a matter of principal in my large family not to answer the phone for a sibling, let alone take a decent message. If you did, you might be expected to do it AGAIN. If two of us answered the phone and the caller wanted neither of us, it was a race to see which of us could hang up first so the other one had to talk to the caller. This was hell on those of us waiting for a boyfriend to call. My younger sister embodied this unspoken rule. If my future Reason For Living called, and she answered, his message basically fluttered into the abyss. As I walked in she would announce in a steady monotone, “Your boyfriend called.” As if that was enough! I needed to know WHEN he called, WHAT he said, HOW he sounded, HOW LONG they talked, whether I should call back or wait for him to call back -EVERYTHING. She was hopeless. “I don’t know,” she grumped. “He called. Be quiet.” Her dismissive attitude was completely unacceptable. I would beg her to role play with me in an effort to help her remember every single word of what was surely a fascinating conversation. “I’ll be him,” I’d cajole, “OK? Good, let’s start -- ‘Hello, is Joan there?’“
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She either did not find his conversation as scintillating as I did (unlikely) or she was an unconfident actress. In any event, she was NOT game. “No!,” she wailed. “Your stupid boyfriend called! That’s it -- you’re lucky I even gave you the message.” And so it would end until the next time he would leave a message with her and I’d beg her to role play all over again. My ten year old shares her mother’s passion for a well-taken message. She astonished us the other night by not only telling us that a female had called her brother-who-sounds-like-a-man, but recounted the entire conversation verbatim -- nuances, intonations and all. She used one voice for her half of the conversation, and expertly mimicked when playing the role of the caller. When her brother came home later, we informed him that his sister had taken an elaborate message for him. He woke her up to hear the re-play, and she sleepily complied at no charge. At least that once. Next time she’ll set a price (if she’s really mom’s clone), and the message for him will come more dearly. So, a word to the wise. When calling our home, you are welcome to chat at length with anyone who answers the phone. But if you speak to a girl, a man, or someone who sounds like a man, do not presume that your message will be remembered, let alone delivered. Even if you speak to our little exception-whoproves-the-rule, calling back and talking to the voice mail is the only reliable method. That way I’ll get the exact message without having to role play, and without paying her inflated prices.
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September 24, 1999 The highlight of this week has been my search for a new babysitter. I know you are thinking this will be a very short column because there must be scads of people just lining up for the opportunity to take care of my children. Well, I would have thought so, too, but no. I did run an ad, which garnered about 20-something replies because I did offer fairly handsome compensation for the position. Four callers hung up when I said we have four children. For a day or so there I thought something might be wrong the phone. They did not even stay on long enough to learn that none of the kids are in diapers anymore and that they would not be required to even enter my son’s room. Two callers heard me out as far as the job description went, only to hang up when I mentioned that I have a SLED background search done on any serious prospects. (Yes, you too, can and should do this, too.) Four callers led me down the primrose path, said all the right things, enthusiastically scheduled an interview, and then did not show up. Two callers chatted me up, scheduled an interview, and then called to cancel the interview. One of them cancelled because “four kids is (sic) just a lot of kids.” The other cancelled because she could not commit to something for a whole year, which is understandably difficult when your horizon has been heretofore limited to Saturday night.
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One applicant seemed perfect until she mentioned that she her childcare experience stemmed from helping care for her live-in boyfriend’s progeny. How charmingly domestic. You may think that I was asking too much of the applicants and offering too little, this being a time of miserably low unemployment for seekers like me. During this past week, the ACTUAL job description has evolved to be: a mere 20 hours per week of ferrying kids home from school, driving to and from the kids’ ballet lessons, tennis lessons, church activities, and a quick weekly run to the grocery store for seven gallons of milk and about 50 other odd and ends. At home, the duties would include presiding over after school snacks and homework, cracking the whip to see rooms cleaned, keeping the kitchen clean, processing mountains of laundry and ironing, and of course doing the lion’s share of dinner preparation about three nights a week. I did not have a clear view of the job description until I had struggled through an entire week of no help at all. During this time the laundry burst out of the laundry room like “The Blob” and swallowed the breakfast table whole, we ran out of milk daily, my son consumed an entire box of granola bars in one sitting “because he was hungry,” the kitchen floor stopped us in our tracks like a giant sheet of fly paper (which probably explains all the shoes left all over the place), and kids got to and from ballet and tennis more or less dressed and more or less on time. Emphasis on less. Because I ran the ad before I had gone a week cold turkey without help, the job description in the ad was mercifully vague. Something about after school help. An accurate job description in the ad would have attracted few calls, and anyone who would answer a completely candid ad would have to be abusing antipsychotic medications, which would probably render her chemically unsuitable. Yes, I did say “her.” I guess that means I discriminate in this case, which is necessary and appropriate. The perfect applicant
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would have to be a woman, because women are more accustomed to being miserable without even thinking about it. Furthermore, any man who would want to spend that much time with my children was probably immortalized on Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” album. But I digress. I realized after several underwhelming phone interviews and no-show personal interviews that I had to be more honest with myself and with the applicants. I was not looking for “after school help.” I was looking for someone just like me, only better. Someone who would never chat on the phone instead of keeping his whites their very whitest. Someone who would never idly page through a catalogue of unaffordable tschokys when she knows darn well that the refrigerator needs excavating again. Someone who would never be too tired to listen to a ten year old’s latest episode of “As the Playground Turns.” Someone who has the endless patience required to STILL say “who’s there?” for the tenth consecutive knock-knock joke with no point and no punchline, and laugh on cue. Someone who is willing to do the boy’s laundry without a tetanus shot. I was looking for a decent wife. Lord knows there hasn’t been one around here for more than a week now. Dr. Laura would say that this is a sign that I should not be looking for or expecting help at all. That I should just quit and do it all myself. Easy for her to say. She just has one, perfect kid. I have four perfect examples of typical children. No matter what , if I didn’t have daily help I’d need the professional kind. So if you know someone interested in becoming the perfect wife for a perfect mess overnight, have her call me. If I am not too busy Keeping His Whites Their Very Whitest, I’ll be happy to chat with her on the phone about this marvelous opportunity.
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Dad’s Rx -- Get Outta Town!!
October 1, 1999 Wouldn’t it be nice if we were required to bring our marriages in for a check-up? It seems that people have regular checkups on other things that are relatively unimportant in the greater scheme of things. We take the car in every 3000 miles (OK, I don’t, but I know I’m supposed to), we go to the dentist twice a year if we’re good, and to the doctor once a year if we’re really good. Actually, it would be far catchier to think of it in terms of taking your marriage OUT for a check-up. My dad was really a smart guy. He gave me a prescription years ago that has served as a wonderful prophylactic measure. When I was “staying at home,” chasing two preschoolers, and carrying a babe in arms, Dad called me to announce what he was giving us for Christmas that year. He was going to make sure that My Reason For Living and I were going to go away for a weekend, preferably a long weekend, once a quarter, every quarter, like clockwork, during the coming year -- at Dad’s expense. He was not about to send me a check, he warned, because he was not interested in underwriting groceries or tap shoes, he was only interested in helping us stoke the feelings and stirrings that got us married in the first place. I told him that was a very nice offer, but we could not consider it. He was a little out of touch with my reality. No, he was nuts. He clearly did not realize that I was “staying at home,” that the kids came first, that I was indispensable, that they were too little, that I was too tired to even think about trips like that, let alone plan one.
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I was probably too tired to even enjoy a trip like that even if we did take one. He would have none of it. “You are out-numbered now. But you two were there first,” he advised,” and you need to put that first for you -- and for the kids -- on a regular basis.” I told him that we couldn’t accept money for that kind of frivolity. He said it was his damn money and he could spend it any way he saw fit, but that I could not. I was to charge accommodations and sitter expenses directly to him and that was that. I told him that I didn’t know if my mother-in-law could or would keep the children that often. He said he’d pay for a sitter. At the time, we had not taken a weekend off alone since . . . since, well it had been a long time. We were actually slipping into calling each other “Mommy” and “Daddy” since that’s what everybody else in the world seemed to be calling us, and everybody else in our world was also very short when we really thought about it. As tempting as it is to talk about things like living wills or guardians for your offspring while you are doing laundry, it is often difficult to hear each other over the spin cycle. And while we are often inspired to speak candidly about our hopes and dreams while we are scraping Cheerios off the kitchen walls, it is certainly easier to explore all these issues when you are far from the madding crowd that usually clings to your knees. So we accepted Dad’s gift. We did not venture very far. Three hours drive, max. The scenery is secondary when you are simply trying to focus on each other for a change. A wrapped mint on the pillow in a bed that somebody else made up for you is plenty exotic. These trips were a study in the joys of eating, sleeping, walking, reading, and talking, talking, talking. Sometimes My Reason For Living talked too. One weekend away, I actually
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developed laryngitis and completely lost my voice. For some reason he remembers that as a particularly splendid weekend. Although we were somewhat timid about accepting my dad’s largesse the first couple of trips, I must admit by the fourth and final trip in the fourth quarter of that year we were hoping he would be equally generous the next Christmas. But a year was a year, and he had made his point quite nicely. He knew that if he MADE us make time for each other and get in the habit of it, it would be a tough habit to break. His has truly been the gift that keeps on giving. If it weren’t for those wonderful weekends, we might still be lonesome for that fourth child. I cannot say that we have continued to go away once a quarter, every quarter, like clockwork, but I can say that we have certainly tried. Lately things like new jobs and added responsibilities, not to mention ballet practices and soccer tournaments, have overtaken our weekends, but we at least keep SAYING, “we’ve got to set a date and really get away for a weekend.” Like I said, Dad was a smart guy. That first year of four getaway weekends gave us a taste of togetherness we won’t give up without a fight. His prescription convinced us that taking ourselves away for the weekend is probably even more important that taking the car in for servicing. Come to think of it, we haven’t gone away for a weekend since . . . since . . . Well, Honey, if you’re reading this, I promise I’ll drop my car off next Friday for servicing -- if you can promise that we only need one car for the weekend anyway!
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Ladies Tennis Not For Ladies
October 8, 1999 Those of you who think that ladies tennis is an idle diversion for otherwise idle ladies are sadly mistaken. Since returning to tennis two years ago, I have yet to encounter any idle games, and very few ladies indeed. Is it ladylike to give someone a solid beating? I love tennis because it’s the only quick-fix stress reduction method I know of that offers the potential of thrashing others at the same time. I used to like to walk around the indoor track at the Life Center, but lapping octogenarians did nothing to quell my competitive yearnings. Tennis not only quelled them, it almost extinguished them. For a while there, if I started feeling just a little too good about myself, all I had to do was schedule a tennis game and my self-esteem would be yanked right back into proper balance. Tennis also provides ample practice in losing one’s temper without resorting to profanity (although some might argue that one could use even more practice in this area). It’s also the one sport I know of that is an excuse for shopping for cute new outfits. If your game is not so good you can at least LOOK good. Because it is rude to just show up and play, ladies tennis is a marvelous social lubricant, whereby players regularly swap some great gab in addition to great shots. Some extremely avid players have even sharpened their skill in the gab department to such an edge that one can often learn about the topspin on one’s own life long after THAT ball has been bounced around the courts.
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In 90 minutes or less of decent tennis, you can exorcise your demons, work up a cathartic sweat, and if you are really having a good day, play so well that you ruin someone else’s day. If you are having a truly excellent day, you can even beat your Reason For Living. The consequential thrill it provides is well worth all the moaning and excuses he can come up with about lousy backs and shoddy equipment. If you are beginning to resent the way work or volunteer activities are cutting in to time that could be spent playing tennis, then you are finally showing an appropriate commitment to the sport. Ladies tennis allows one to see the red hot competitive edge smoldering just beneath the skin. Twenty two hours a day, these women are doting wives and mothers. But on the court, they easily leave all that emotional baggage at the gate. They are there to play. No, to WIN. I learned this up close and personally when I had the poor judgment to hit my own knee during a first serve in ladies doubles the other day. Although I clearly need more practice in losing my temper and my cool without resorting to profanity, my cohorts were very solicitous. At first. They were all over me with the Fireman’s carry, lots of ice, lots of supportive murmuring, and lots of ibuprofen. But even with my head down to ward off fainting, I knew they were glancing at their watches and at one another over my head. As I mentioned, these erstwhile loving wives and mothers had already checked those roles at the sidelines. It is a very jarring thing to become nursemaid to someone you were trying to thrash just moments before. If I had been really lucky, Sherri would have been there. She is by popular acclaim the best Team Nurse. Instead, I was playing with team members much more like me. My own boss (for lack of a better word) has even called me a “Closet Nice Person.” I do not like to name names in this column, but their initials are Sallie,
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Cathy and Carline. It could have been worse. At least Harriet was not there. I knew the clock was turning back to “tennis time” when Sallie pointed out that BOTH my knees looked pretty bad when you considered my shaving job. Cathy went to get a pro from the tennis center -- not to carry me off the court, but to give them a lesson during the time they had left!! When he arrived, his only question was whether my serve had gone IN!! I really don’t mean to seem unappreciative. I know this is Ladies Tennis -- the Big Leagues. They actually saved me a trip to the doctor because I hobbled off with no significant swelling or hideous discoloration. They were as nice as they could be for as long as they could stand it, which was probably longer than I would have stood in their shoes. When I am 100% again, we will take up our match where we left off. And while I love you for all that soothing ice, the score WAS ad-in, Carline. Cathy and I will make our big comeback on strong, clean-shaven knees as we bring you and Sallie to yours!! And afterwards we’ll all swap some more gab. :)
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No Free Speech in Our House
October 15, 1999 There is no free speech in our house. We have 50 cent fines in our family, often levied, never collected, for speech infractions. Speech infractions can and do include grammar, diction, intonation, mumbling, and of course vulgarity. Grammar is a popular infraction. Every time someone says “me and my friend” instead of “my friend and I” someone else yells “Fifty cents!” Every time one of them slips into the colloquial, saying something like “also too” instead of simply “also” it’s another fifty cents. Intonation is a tough one, fined more often than anything else, but it’s a pet peeve around here that fining will hopefully one day stamp out. As we go around the dinner table, inquiring as to the quality of the children’s respective school days, it is not unusual for one of them to launch into an interesting narrative about something notable from their day. It is also not at all unusual for their father or me to interrupt this narrative by inquiring, “Are you ASKING us or TELLING us?” For some reason, our children have developed the odd habit of phrasing every statement as though it were a question. “Today at school? We were playing four-square on the play ground during recess? And this other girl got bopped in the face by the ball?” Because this happens about every other sentence, our children HATE it when we point this out and levy a fine. They argue and
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whine, insisting that EVERYBODY talks that way and that we are weird to insist otherwise. We tell them that they are mistaken, that NOT everybody talks that way. By turning a statement into a question they are projecting a lack of conviction, and undermining their own statement. In fact it’s been quite some time since we heard a captain of industry, a community leader, or a general in the army inspire people into action by saying “I have this idea for improving things? And I’d really like you to listen to it?” They are right in that it does seem like most KIDS do talk that way, but we do not point out this foible or levy fines against their friends. But we tell them that if we don’t point this out now it will be only tougher for them to learn not to do it later, if at all. They could be bona fide adults walking around turning statements into questions all the time. Then they would be mistaken for kids! Then where would they be? Back under our roof perhaps? We can’t have that, so we nag, and we fine. So far, the kids have become very adept at recognizing this intonation -- but only in others. They are now just as apt as their parents to interrupt a fellow scofflaw by inquiring “Are you ASKING us or TELLING us?” But they are just as quick to insist that we are collectively wrong if one of them falls under the spotlight. At a recent gathering of parents and students, a college student addressed the assembled group. Later on, one of my girls ironically noted, “That guy at the picnic? Was he ASKING us or TELLING us, Mom?” Mumbling is also a fined offense. This includes mumbling under one’s breath when one knows that one’s mother is right and that the correct response is NOT rude mumbling but a politely sincere “Yes ma’am.” This mumbling problem is a particularly stubborn nit to pick with the ten year old contingent here. The other form of mumbling is just that: sheer, incoherent mumbling that 15 year olds often mistake for intelligible speech. After the
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third “Pardon me?” from a parent, we levy a fine of 50 cents out of sheer exasperation, and STILL don’t understand what is being said. Vulgarity is naturally a fined offense. This includes bad words, but also discussions about underwear, and anything else that falls under the general purview of “bathroom talk.” Vulgarity is also the principal reason that our fines are often levied, never collected. If I collected fines for every infraction against grammar, diction, intonation and mumbling, I could comfortably quit my day job and live off their surrendered allowance and lunch money. If the kids could collect fines for every time their father or I said “damn” (or occasionally worse) around here, it would probably be a wash, so we keep working at cleaning up our act and they get to eat lunch every day. Does fining work? Well, it is a lousy source of revenue. But just as our constant reminders taught them to say “please” and “thank you” fairly automatically since toddlerhood, it is our fervent hope that they will speak as adults when they reach adulthood, and nagging, coaching, and fining is our best way to nudge them there. During one car trip to Grandma’s house with all of us packed into the van, we did glimpse some light at the end of the tunnel. It was one of those moments when the general chatter toward the front of the van fell momentarily silent, allowing us all to overhear the heated argument going on between the little girls’ Barbies in the wayback seat. Their game was coming to a screeching halt. “That’s IT!!,” screamed our nine year old’s Barbie. “We’re leaving! Me and Heimlich are getting married and we are NOT playing with you anymore!” We all waited in silence for our six year old to burst into tears. Instead, she avenged her shunned Barbie by calming correcting her older sister, saying, “That would be, ‘Heimlich and I.’“
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Braving a Youthful Bra-Shopping Experience
October 22, 1999 I was recently forced to go bra shopping lately. When no amount of bleach can get the gray out and all the elasticity is shot, it is time to give in and re-stock. Contrary to male fantasy, this is the one kind of shopping women do NOT enjoy. Even by catalogue. Catalogue shopping provokes less anxiety at the point of purchase, HOWEVER, when the garment arrives it was obviously developed ONLY for the models in the catalogue. It looks great balled up in the back of my dresser drawer. There is no male analogue to bra shopping. When men go shopping for underwear (as if they EVER do), they grab a threepack of briefs or boxers, whip out the wallet, and that’s it. They do not try things on or ask the nice salesperson if this underwear smooshes them too much, shows too much cleavage, or makes them look too obviously padded. Bra shopping is quite the opposite. Regardless of size, buying a bra is nerve-wracking. That is because, regardless of size, just about every woman in the world is convinced she wound up with the wrong size. It would be easier if the foundations department had separate sections for shoppers just as in other departments. They don’t mix “Women’s” dressed with “Petite” dresses -- so why do they mix up all the underthings? They could at least offer separate dressing rooms marked: “A Cups,” “B Cups,” and “Truly Blessed” for all the rest.
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During my most recent shopping expedition, a fellow Olive Oyl look-alike exchanged eye-rolling glances with me as a frustrated Rubensesque shopper loudly “complained” that she couldn’t find a decent underwire to help her lug around her baggage comfortably. We recognize disingenuous bragging when we hear it. Women like that should find out how comfortably that big ol’ underwire job fits in their mouths. But I digress. My personal aversion to bra shopping is deep-seated. As bad as it is, it will never be worse than my maiden voyage almost 30 years ago. Before shopping, I first had to get a moment alone with my mother to ask if we could go shopping. Getting her alone took about three days. She was sorting through the mail when I everso-casually asked her if we could go shopping for “underwear” before school started. Without even looking up, she said no, we were practically drowning in underwear. I was unprepared for how utterly clueless she was. Mind you, I had FOUR older sisters. This could not have been new to her. Each of them must have approached my mother in a similar fashion about wanting to go shopping for “underwear.” Even so, my entreaty did not even register with her. “Mom,” I whispered conspiratorially, “I don’t mean THAT kind of underwear. I mean . . . a . . . bra.” “Whatever for?” she chuckled. The cynic in me was wondering whether this woman was just plain stupid or possibly sadistic. “BECAUSE,” I hissed, “all the OTHER girls got one a long time ago and I want one too.” That reason, and that reason alone, seemed to make sense to her. She then offered to take me shopping, but I’d already decided to go through this delicate procedure ALONE rather than be accompanied by Nurse Ratchet. So I rode my bike up to the local department store. I couldn’t bear to approach the counter when any other customer was there, lest I meet the same “whatever for” look I’d endured with my mother. I must have looked like a shoplifter in training because
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every time the nice saleslady would ask if she could help me, I would chirp “Just browsing!” as I thumbed nervously through size 18 negligees, and long-line girdles. After a couple of hours, the exasperated sales lady was the only other person in the whole department so I quickly slapped a Playtex Junior Miss Size 28AAA training bra on the counter and asked her to please bag it after ringing it up. Quickly. She smiled a knowing smile and asked if I wanted to try it on first. “No, thanks,” I lied, “I already have a few of these at home.” Besides, the garment was little more than two conjoined coasters made of white stretchy lace. Stretchy because hope springs eternal. “May I have your charge plate please?” she asked. I explained I had forgotten to get it out of my mom’s purse, but that she could call my mom and she would give the card number and permission. I breezily assured her that we did this all the time, and it would be NO PROBLEM. I almost believed it myself. The nice saleslady dialed my number and explained that she was a nice sales lady calling to verify that a young lady named Joan had permission to use her mother’s charge card to make a purchase. “What for?” she said, “Well, she would like to purchase a BRASSIERE.” Standing all the way across the counter from her, I could hear the maniacal laughter blasting out of the telephone. She had not been talking to my mother at all -- but to my 15 YEAR OLD BROTHER FRANK!! Until that point, I had not imagined that this shopping trip could get any worse. Frank of course granted permission to use the charge account because without it he knew there would be nothing to yank out of my hands and dangle out of my reach when I got home, and no reason to hastily compose a song called “Trainers” that he STILL serenades me with at every homecoming 30 years later.
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So while I did not ENJOY my recent venture to the foundations department, I reveled in how far I’ve come. I was able to browse, not as a ruse, but as a right; I felt comfortable trying on several different varieties of doilies without help from any nice saleslady; and I gave myself permission to buy as many as I liked. Figuratively speaking, my cups runneth over.
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Halloween Brings Out the Best in Kids
October 29, 1999 Well, it’s that special holiday time of year again. The store displays have been up for a while, and the children have been planning in great anticipation for months. Christmas? It’s not even on the radar yet. It’s finally almost HALLOWEEN. It is, bar none, our kids’ favorite holiday. It’s easy to see why. They do not have to ride forever in the car to eat an unpalatable meal. They do not have to suffer the attentions of vaguely familiar relatives with too many wrinkles and too many questions. They do not have to go to church. They do not have to dress up in nice clothes, or stay clean, let alone bathe. They do not have to sit still, be quiet, or go to bed early. They can trick or treat long after they’ve eschewed Santa’s lap. They do not have to suffer kill-joy reminders about being grateful or giving gifts to others. They get to dress up as just about anything they want and -- at least for a short while -- become unrecognizable as anyone even remotely related to their parents. They don’t have to spend a dime on themselves or others to have fun. They don’t have to worry about being approached by strangers because they approach them first. Being naughty or nice has no impact on their net take.
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The worst thing that can happen is that someone will occasionally remind you to say “thank you.” This original pagan harvest celebration is now about harvesting free candy and lots of it. Period. Hard to top. It really does bring out the best in children. All Hallows Eve lost its luster for me several years ago when I mistakenly treated it as a bona fide holiday. This left our two younger children with the short end of the Halloween stick. I give it about three hours of my attention, they have fun, then it’s over. I had once sworn never to allow that to happen, but if that’s the worst I ever do as a parent I’m sure they’ll turn out OK. I was the second youngest in my family, and I cannot remember going trick or treating with either of my parents. Ever. I did go, just not with them. (They weren’t BAD parents, just exhausted.) I shook down the neighbors for candy with an appointed older sibling who always charged extortionist candy percentages in exchange for protection from ghosts and goblins. When I complained about how much candy was taken, he said, “It’s only fair. If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t get to go at all.” Neither can I recall wearing any costume or accessory that was actually purchased for the occasion. It was strictly 11th hour improvisation. I realize this in no way qualifies mine as a deprived childhood. But I digress. Because of my not-quite-deprived childhood Halloween experience, I was initially determined to be the Martha Stewart of Halloween. When our older two children were mere toddlers -barely cognizant of the concept of “today” let alone a “holiday” -I was completely gung ho about Halloween. I was so excited I bought enormous pumpkins in early October. Contrary to counsel offered by My Reason for Living, I insisted on carving these behemoths into jack o lanterns in mid-October. I wound up enjoying all the fun alone because toddlers eat or fling pumpkin guts and their exasperated father bathed them rather
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than provide the Halloween martyr with an audience as she wiped orange slime off the walls. Long before Halloween, of course, the jack o lanterns were concave, having succumbed to some ghastly, furry, fungus. I was undaunted. I bought similar replacement pumpkins, only bigger. But even with all these trips to the pumpkin patch and back, my little ones were about as aware of the impending special holiday as they were of the Dow Jones index. On the Big Day, I insisted that Daddy come home early from the salt mine to appropriately honor this wonderful holiday. Things initially began to unravel when the little darlings refused to wear the adorable expensive costumes or suffocate under a sweaty mask strapped to their chubby little cheeks. So, as any Martha Stewart would, I gracefully improvised. They went out happily enough in their sleeper suits with whiskers and/or fangs drawn on their faces. At first, the kids seemed to catch on fine. Ring the doorbell. Say “trick or treat,” and you get candy in the bag. Say “thank you,” then leave. LEAVE? Tears. Screaming. These strange people were cooing nice things and GIVING THEM FREE CANDY -- AND LOTS OF IT. Why would their idiot parents want to LEAVE a place like this? After lots of cajoling, muttered threats, and apologies to the terrified neighbors, we repeated the process at the next neighbor’s house -- and so did our kids. Again, we cajoled, threatened, apologized. We worried. I’d seen ducks learn patterns faster than these two. We only had the strength to repeat this monstrous process a few more times before taking the little monster home to bed. I was disgusted and embarrassed that I had put us all through such a wringer in the name of getting some free candy. I assuaged my guilt with a few pieces of their candy. I felt better. I assuaged the rest of my guilt with a few more pieces.
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My Reason For Living was horrified -- I had snarfed just about ALL of my own children’s candy. But Martha Stewart was but a ghost in our house by then; I had come to my senses about this holiday nonsense. “It’s only fair,” I replied. “If it weren’t for me, they wouldn’t get to go at all.” I am not THAT bad today. Now my percentage is only half.
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Give Me a Man Who Knows How to Hug
November 5, 1999 There are two kinds of men: men who hug and men who don’t. Men who hug are generally “hail fellows well met.” They make great politicians, hosts, dads, grandfathers, brothers, coaches, televangelists, and real estate icons. Men who hug might make people nervous if they also happen to be a professor, barber, obstetrician, mortician, or tailor. I love men who hug -- as long as I already know them. They immediately make you feel welcome, put you at ease, and break the ice in a social situation. However, men who hug women right off the bat, without the benefit of a proper introduction or knowing them at least through mutually huggy friends, should kiss something else instead. But generally speaking, men who hug are great. I imagine men who hug also make great husbands, but I wouldn’t know. While it may be possible to prevent a man who hugs from hugging, it is impossible to teach a man who does not hug to embrace the practice. I know. My Reason For Living is not a man who hugs. If it were up to him, men would exchange firm handshakes and the rest of us would pretty much wave to each other. He does have a few exceptions. He will of course hug his mama enthusiastically. He will hug and kiss our four children to pieces. He has hugged me about four times. Given the chance, he will also hug Linda or Gena, but I think I amply covered those topics in an earlier column.
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There was a time when I regarded hugging as a social grace, one that I could introduce to him as easily as, say, finger bowls. After all, there are people out there who EXPECT to be hugged regardless of whether he’s a hugger, such as mothers-in-law and close friends, especially close female friends. I still lovingly hiss “Don’t forget to HUG!” into his ear every time we greet my mother. He obliges as gamely as possible, but I’ve seen the Tin Man give warmer hugs. Eons ago, our friend Lauren invited us over for dinner for the first time. My Reason For Living and I felt like we really hit it off well with her and her Greek God. We gabbed for hours, blew them away with guileless tales of most embarrassing moments, and ate and drank them out of house and home. As we retrieved our coats at the end of the evening, I quietly but firmly admonished My Reason For Living to get over himself and give our hostess a REALLY BIG HUG. This was not just a good-byehug, I explained, but important body-language that would show them how much we enjoyed ourselves and demonstrate to them that we looked forward to getting to know them better. We said our good-byes and thank yous. Her Greek God clasped me in a brief but warm embrace and thanked us for coming. The two men exchanged firm, manly handshakes. Then My Reason For Living did as I had hissed. He overcame his innate revulsion and took her in his arms. Big mistake. He later said it was like hugging someone in a full body cast. But being the consummate hostess, Lauren did suppress the urge to scream. Besides, it was immediately clear to her that this weird man disliked hugging her even more than she detested being hugged. Ever since that first evening, they both take great pains to lavish each other with nauseating displays of overacting as they pretend to hug -- and to enjoy it -- at every opportunity. This reenactment is a regular reminder which has cured my nagging about hugging, and corrected my sexist assumption that all
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women love men who hug. But I remain a lover of hugging men even if I’ve only gotten four lasting hugs from the man I love. Besides, if it weren’t for my nagging, they would not have found such a soul mates in each other’s excruciatingly stiff arms.
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Clueless Friend Drifting Through Life Without Sisterly Love
November 12, 1999 One of my sisters and I were gabbing on the phone recently, and in the course of analyzing a hapless mutual friend, we agreed that the root of this woman’s problems stem from growing up without even one sister. She is unaware of the natural pecking order in life that leaves little sisters forever trying to measure up and big sisters forever convincing them they never will. She is naively unaware of all her faults and limitations. There is no one in her life honest (or jealous) enough to tell her that the latest haircut is truly hideous and, yes, oh yes, her butt does look huge in that skirt -- but it’s not the skirt. She does not know that the proper way to play horsey as a child is to make the younger sister be the horse and eat raw oatmeal while you sit on her back. She can only imagine the thrill of discovering a cache of an older sister’s love letters and reading them aloud, with feeling, to her fellow pubescents. She cannot comprehend the disappointment of being told “NO, you can NEVER borrow my sweater!” when there is no good reason to say no. Nor does she know the supreme satisfaction of waiting the offender out and wearing it anyway as soon as she’s out the door. She does not understand that “going shopping with” an older sister does not mean even browsing for anything in your own size, but does mean holding all the clothes that will be tried on,
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fetching different sizes to the dressing room, and still feeling grateful just for being taken along. She actually thinks it would be neat to be dressed in matching outfits, even when you’re twelve. She will never know the importance of boundaries in shared rooms, not just figurative lines drawn in the sand, but masking tape run across the carpet, or in the case of war, jump ropes strung across the room and draped with sheets -- all to establish MY SIDE and YOUR SIDE. She will never know what it’s like to have your hair bleached blonde at the age of eight by a 13 year old. She will never the feel the power inherent in convincing a baby sister to step in dog poo on command -- and then tell on her for doing so. She will never know how easily popularity comes in the fifth grade when you can prove that an older sister’s sanitary supplies really do “explode” when held under water. She probably thinks she inherited only her parents’ BEST features. She grew up thinking there’s no place else to crawl in during thunderstorms once you’ve become too big to talk your way into mom’s side of the bed. It never occurred to her to place “KEEP OUT” notes not just on her bedroom door but in each of her dresser drawers before she left for camp. How could she learn the true value of money without having to pay a dollar for gas money for every ride that an older sister deigned to provide? She probably believes that her acne cream really does conceal the latest blemish that not only features acreage but a view. She has no built-in ally who truly understands just how awful her mom can be.
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She is probably a terrible negotiator, never having to calibrate the fine balance between threats and bribery when it comes to tattling and being tattled on. She does not know how to have fun, such as performing “kissus interruptus” by opening the front door JUST as an older sister is getting a kiss at the end of a big date. She has no one she knows she can always call when she needs to bounce an idea, ask a quick favor, or simply vent -- even about another sister. She probably has unasked/unanswered questions about a lot of important things that no girl in her right mind would ask their mother. She does not know how to say “NO” without guilt, let alone scream it. She has no diaries to page through, full of fake entries written by nosey older sisters, saying things like “Dear Diary, Today, as usual, I was a total brat. I have nothing to report because nobody likes me and nobody ever calls me.” She does not know how to idly prolong bathroom time by examining cuticles and searching the mirror for her best photo pose -- just to bug a sister who keeps banging on the door and insisting it’s her turn. Nor does can she enjoy the sheer mischief of banging on the bathroom door for no better reason than to bug the sister who has finally gotten her turn in there. She has nobody to name her daughters after. She has to think a while before she can comfortably name a guardian in her will. She has nobody to want to be when she grows up. She is ignorant of the sad fact that yes, oh yes, her behind does look huge in that skirt -- but it’s not the skirt. Yes, we concurred, a girl growing up without even one sister grows up terribly disadvantaged. We felt genuinely sorry for our clueless friend. Unless she winds up being especially close to her
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sister-in-law someday, she could drift through her entire life thinking she’s perfectly fine.
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With Halloween Over, We Thankfully Turn Attention to Holidays
November 19, 1999 The Halloween candy is almost gone. It has been categorized, traded, hoarded, but mostly eaten. We are down to the dregs now: a few boxes of stale candy corn and loathsome healthy items like boxed raisins. I think the children hoard the candy in a vain attempt to extend Halloween clear into Christmas. Indian costumes and pilgrim dramas aside, they could pretty much skip Thanksgiving, my personal favorite among the holidays. There is always SO MUCH that they WANT, and so many wants they confuse with NEEDS, that I am grateful for an entire holiday devoted to being appreciative, taking stock of all that we do have, and remembering to share with those who want nothing more than to meet needs. The day itself is chock full of things for which I give thanks. I am thankful that I do not have to host or cook the meal. I am thankful that no one would even consider asking me to cook something. I am thankful that we will consume a lovely meal in a lovely setting where no one cringes because our family of six just came in the door looking hungry and loud. I am thankful that there is NO SHOPPING involved beyond a nice hostess gift for my sister, the hostess. I am thankful for sharing the dinner with family and friends who know us all through and through -- and yet they welcome and love us all anyway,
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I am thankful for our Thanksgiving traditions, such as wearing our Sunday best to the table, taking turns taking each family’s Christmas card pictures, setting the table with the good stuff on a nice linen table cloth, and of course Sardines. After the Thanksgiving dinner is done and the last dish is dried, when normal American families are napping and digesting in front of a football game on TV, or stoking long-held family grudges into full-blown arguments, we are playing Sardines. Not to be confused with delectable canned fish, this tradition involves the game called Sardines. Cousins, nephews, nieces, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents divide into cross-section teams for a game that requires us -- no, let’s be honest, it ALLOWS us -- to all be about 9 years old again for about two hours. For the uninitiated, Sardines is the opposite of hide-and- seek. One team has five minutes to hide someplace inside my sister’s cavernous house. We turn off all the lights for full, spooky effect. Then the other teams scurry around looking for the hidden team. When another team finds you, they don’t yell, they quickly and quietly join you until another team finds and joins the growing, sweaty group. Finally, there is one lone team left looking all over a disturbingly dark and quiet house for the rest of the family. Aided only by flashlights and a paranoid sense of hearing, they bump around the house calling for their goofy relatives who are crammed together in a closet, or a shower, or under a bed while trying to not to breathe or giggle too loudly. When the losers finally find the group, everyone yells “SARDINES!!” and then the fun starts . . . AGAIN with a different team hiding first. The game usually ends with the very youngest pleading to do it AGAIN and the exhausted elders wondering what happened to their normal Thanksgivings of yore and how they were talked into playing this ridiculous game yet another year. Even I must agree that, after spending a couple of hours in various dark closets with
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my relatives, a good old fashioned family argument in front of the TV can seem downright refreshing. Everyone believes they have nutty in-laws, but our Thanksgiving tradition is My Reason For Living’s proof that he married into a flock of turkeys. Nevertheless, I am thankful for Sardines, for my sister’s big ol’ house replete with inviting hiding places, and for a family that is so thankful for the wonderful childhood we shared together that we are just nutty enough to relive it without own children, even if only for a couple of hours each November.
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“I Would Like to Know . . .”
December 3, 1999 I would like to know where my scissors are. The nice Fiskar scissors that NOBODY smeared all over with “White Out” a few years ago. They are still my only functional, i.e. favorite, scissors. I need to ask because NOBODY here seems to know a thing about it. I would also like to know where my scotch tape is. The tape marked “DON’T TOUCH” in bold, menacing strokes of magic marker. I only have a mountain of Christmas presents to wrap, but it appears some Barbie Doll somewhere needed a new translucent body cast or some note to some scruffy boy had to be supersealed. SOMEBODY has obviously lifted my tape, but NOBODY around here will confess, so I am resorting to this APB. Whoever absconded with my scissors and scotch tape also has sticky fingers for any pen in the house that still works, any hair brush that is not tied down, any stapler that is not already jammed, any TV clicker with working batteries in it, and for My Reason For Living’s undershirts, socks, and “cool” shirts. This person also appears to have a shoe fetish, because every time any of these other items disappear, a pair of my clogs or heels materializes in weird places around the house, like the playroom, the porch, or my daughters’ closet. While you’re looking, please let me know if you can figure out who drank the LAST Coke in the refrigerator. It couldn’t be anybody around here, because my children are not allowed to even think about Cokes without my permission, and My Reason For Living would never fetch one for himself. (He says they only
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taste good if someone else gets it for him.) NOBODY around here would be so dumb, so naughty as to take the LAST darned one. Speaking of dumb and naughty, the person who drank the last Coke might also know something about the Coors bottle caps I stepped on in the family room. It was an unusually CLEAN family room, so stepping on anything, let alone beer bottle caps, came as quite a shock. Naturally, no one here has any idea how the bottle caps got in the house. We have no Coors beer, and no bottle cap collectors. There were no scratch-n-win things under the caps, so I cannot imagine what value they have -- unless it was to keep beer fresh at one time. But since there were no bottles, people here who seem to know these things insist “no bottles, means no beer.” Which brings me back to the those baffling, bottle-less caps. While you’re trying to solve the bottle caps and last-Coke mystery, please give some thought to my pantry. A quick inspection might lead you to believe that the Harris Teeter has been running a special on empty and half-empty boxes of EVERYTHING. But I am the family shopper, and even my kids could not sneak THAT many boxes under my nose while I chat away with someone at the next check out. So, SOMEBODY has been stocking our shelves with empty boxes, and opening new boxes when other boxes are merely halfeaten, or in other words, suddenly unpalatable. Not surprisingly, NOBODY here knows anything about this phenomenon EITHER, so it must be an intruder. If you have a chance to cross-examine any likely intruders, be sure to see if this criminal has also been in my refrigerator or freezer. I have hard evidence -- empty milk jugs, empty egg cartons -- that this person did not stop at leaving bottle caps, drinking the last Coke, or violating my pantry. Whoever it is must be fast, because NOBODY here has seen him or her, nor do they know anything about the mayhem in the
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kitchen, but everyone is SURE it has to be someone else, some . . . stranger. Don’t point the finger at my children. I have interrogated them individually and as a group. They know nothing, they see nothing. They are one, skinny, steely, united front. If you could see their innocent little faces, you would have to agree with them -they have nothing to do with any of these bizarre annoyances or outrageous pilferings. And they know better than to lie -- I am certain they would never lie. Besides, they know that I know when they tell me less than the truth. They know that transgressions plus untruths add up to double trouble. They have seen how mad, how insanely angry I get when I even think about all these things that I NEED that are missing and all these things that I DON’T need that just APPEAR. They know that if I could prove that any one of them have been fibbing about NOBODY being responsible for ANYTHING, well -- I probably wouldn’t be safe with scissors in a situation like that. Which reminds me, I would like to know where my scissors are.
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The Family That Emails Together . . .
December 10, 1999 About three years ago, My Reason For Living set me up with an email account. Ironically enough, I must admit I was emailphobic at first, so my first session at in front of the computer was a somewhat forced tutorial. Unlike him, I am not a certified technocomputer-nerd. To me, a DOS manual will never and should never qualify as recreational reading. So I had a visceral aversion to anything that fostered his never-ending craving for anything and everything computer-related, including getting my own email address. For example, I still have a handy, perfectly serviceable basically paper “daytimer” to keep myself organized. He has a “cool” Palm Pilot -- that plugs in and talks with his computer -- to keep his life humming. I have to whine for several months before we can agree that the current couch could be mistaken for a Petri dish and we need a new one -- but if I so much as THINK about purchasing some new software or a new gadget, it arrives at our doorstep the next morning by FedEx -- he bought it through the internet, of course. But I digress. He explained to me how great email was: a cool communication tool that I could check as often or as seldom as I liked that could put me in regular touch with anyone in the world (anyone who has an email address anyway) at a fraction of the former time and cost of maintaining such ties. “Nothing is quiet so pithy,” he instructed, “you send your message and that’s it.” No unnecessary chit-chat, no busy signals, no voice mail. Better yet, you go to your email when you have the time to do so -- not when
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it rings and calls you to it like the relatively archaic telephone. And it is a built-in written record. He had converted me. So I was all hooked up and pretty much nothing happened. He sent me a message or two a day just to give something to open in my email box, but beyond that all I got was “spam.” Not the actually-not-bad-canned-meat that all my food-snob friends would like if they would just give it a chance, spam is the email version of junk mail -- total strangers sending me insipid offers for discounts on things I don’t want or need or stupid get-rich-quick schemes that make Ponzi look like a Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year. But soon enough, I started hearing from people near and far, and it has changed the way we communicate, at least in our house, forever. I get emails from my children regularly. Never mind that I am in the next room when they write and send it, or that they are in the next room when I read it. Never mind that I will personally play “Twenty Questions” with each of them about their day when I have them cornered in the car with me. Having a real conversation, making eye contact, and reading body language are rapidly becoming passé. They would much rather send me an email about it, and then tell me “go check your email Mom.” So be it, as long as they’re telling me SOMETHING. When they get home, there is no longer a mad dash to the phone -- but to the computer. There is also a permanent reminder draped over the monitor which reads “NO computer unless Mom is home. Don’t even ask unless your homework is done, your room is clean, and you can prove it.” (This reminder, like a lot of really important rules in this household, is too often honored in the breach, but that’s another column.) I understand that email has been the medium for entire middle school romances, from the first cyber-date to the emailed “Dear John” dump letter. Hanging on the phone is no longer de rigueur, but chatting away by email with your “buddy list” is a must. Kids
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also seem to love email chain letters or friendship circles that amount to the cyber version of Lambchop’s “Song That Never Ends...” There is also a website -- VERY popular with the kids -- that shall remain nameless that enables one to send animated greeting cards via email at no charge. There is apparently no occasion required or limit. (I have never SENT one of these things, but I know.) The first one or two I received were pretty cute. But I guess I have a low tolerance for certain kinds of cute. If it is a sin to hate animated greeting cards, even those sent AT LEAST DAILY by your little darlings, then color me guilty. Now I check my email at least twice daily. When I have to go a day or two without checking in, I get downright fussy. It’s an important and incredibly useful business tool whereby I can communicate the same agreements/information to the all the involved parties at the same time, so very little gets lost in translation. I send in my columns by email. I regularly “talk” with high school and college friends all over the country, as well as a sorority sister in Hong Kong and a dear friend in Moscow -friends who might otherwise be relegated to the ranks of tepid exchanges in annual Christmas cards. But far more importantly, thanks to email, I enjoy an everexpanding repertoire of useless but interesting facts, inane (and worse) short videos, and of course, JOKES. Nine out of ten jokes on email are either not funny or so old they can’t be funny anymore (seasoned email snobs will graciously reply to a tired joke with something like “Funnier last year”). But, that tenth joke - is often funny enough to knock you off your keyboard. You can always tell when you get an email from someone new on the net. The words “cut & paste” have not dawned on them yet, so every blessed email they send (bless their hearts) has about 18 forwarded attached envelopes. When you FINALLY get to the meat of the message, it’s usually a chain letter or a friendship circle or an old joke. This kind of email becomes quickly
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recognizable as the “delete without opening” variety -- unless it’s from one of my kids. Even I am not that heartless -- my kids’ emails always earn quick replies. Critics of email argue that it is ephemeral, here today, deleted today, nothing akin to the magic of receiving a handwritten letter. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t have time to reply to 30 letters a day -- but I can with email. While I reply to every email my kids send, I admit that, unlike camp letters, not every email they’ve ever sent is a “keeper.” But there have been a few, not just saved, but printed out as a moment in time that ought to last longer. My youngest, then six, sent me an email simply to tell me she loves me, something I can never hear too often in any medium. I immediately replied, “You are so cute. I eat you up and love you every day.” To which she replied, “i no that mom you telled me evry day!” My Reason for Living was right in my very first forced tutorial -- nothing is quite so pithy.
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Christmas Brings Out the Child in Me
December 17, 1999 If you are a woman and you’ve noticed you are more exhausted than usual, so exhausted that you have not had time to look up and figure out WHY it is you are so tired, you might consult your calendar. It’s too chilly to be May -- the other most exhausting month of the year when you end up applauding for every child in every class in the county for every little thing -- so it must be December. It’s Christmas time. That explains it. I have learned that if it weren’t for grown women and gay men, Christmas time as we know it would not happen. Every year I vow to JUST SAY NO -- to resist the inevitable peer pressure to “do” Christmas RIGHT, to try to make it all perfect RIGHT NOW, but like an insecure child, I cave. I have Christmas dyslexia -- I know it is supposed to be about THE CHILD, and we are supposed to be making it merry FOR our children, but I -- a grown woman-- inevitably end up acting like a child myself. I too often let peripheral Christmas stress be “the boss of me.” It all starts with the Christmas cards, which too often means the Christmas “newsletters.” We have already received several newsletters from faraway friends from whom we hear but once a year. I know it goes against the Christmas grain to be cynical at this time of year, but for the life of us, we cannot recall ANY of these out of town friends being as FABULOUS as they claim to be in their newsletters. They go on AD NAUSEUM about brilliant kids whom we remember as decidedly average (or worse) and some of these letters are very thinly disguised personal promotional brochures.
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You cannot beat these newsletters out of existence. The mature response would be to simply appreciate still being included on the sender’s list after all these years. But I confess we joined ‘em. I send one more-or-less accurate version of our newsletter to a few locals, and another, somewhat embroidered version to our farflung friends. The latter friends are too much in awe of us to actually visit (and detect any exaggeration). They know from our Christmas newsletter that we are much too busy for visitors, what with the two younger children attending the new, exclusive Summa Cum Laude school and the older two being National Merit Finalists without even having to take those SAT things, and with me having won the Mrs. Greenville Beauty Pageant for the third year in a row, and My Reason For Living being President of Greenville and all. Then there is the tree. Ours has been up since Thanksgiving weekend. My Reason For Living grumbles that I seem to be pushing the tree thing earlier and earlier every year. We used to wait until the weekend before Christmas, but I am blessed with the patience of a child in these matters, so Thanksgiving weekend it is. Even the children were not focusing on Christmas yet (which is why I insist -- to get us in the Christmas mood) so I schlep all of us there, I select the tree, and the rest is a father/son bonding opportunity. Soon, I must quickly usher the younger set out of the living room lest their vocabulary expand in the wrong direction as their daddy lovingly wrestles the fir inside and upright. It rarely turns out like the Norman Rockwell tableau I have in mind, but my childlike hope (stubbornness?) springs eternal. Christmas pageants and programs are another test of my maturity that I ultimately fail. I muster all my energies to get to church a good half hour ahead of time in order to watch my little darlings perform in the Christmas play, only to win the Bad Mommy award once again by still being just a little too late to get
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a seat that proves to the kids I CAN SEE YOU -- I EVEN CAME WAY EARLY TO MAKE SURE. So I maturely stick my head out in the aisle to make sure they see me seeing them. Meanwhile, I am poorly suppressing my own inner grumblings about how the “Christmas & Easter” crowd always manages to arrive at an ungodly early hour and snag the best seats to see THEIR kids -- no doubt earning many points with God for harboring childish and especially un-Christmassy thoughts at the same time. So much for the giving spirit. When I DO manage to get to their school Christmas play early enough to stake out the best possible seats that leave NO DOUBT that my kids can see me seeing them, I still lose almost all my Good Mommy points. I do this by fidgeting in my seat, and by repeatedly checking my watch when my internal clock decides I’ve seen enough cuteness for one evening. My attention wanders to all the laundry I have to fold, the dinner I have to cook (OK, microwave, but I’m still the only one who does anything), and the ever-growing Christmas to-do list I must check twice every hour. I look up to see my seven year old on stage shaking her head at me, a silent warning to PAY ATTENTION MOMMY because she’s never going to be so seven, so unbearably cute, at Christmas again and if I don’t grow up fast myself I might just miss the show she and her three siblings put on for us every day as they grow up all too fast. So, childish as it may seem, I am hereby thumbing my nose at all the Christmas time mania I have been steeping us in for the past 15 years. I might send out those Christmas cards, and then again I might not. I might get around to stringing up those outside lights I spent a fortune on, and then again I might not. If the kids want me to sit down and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with them for the third time this Christmastime, I will not whine and beg off, I will snuggle up and watch it with them. And YOU may not get a Christmas card because of it, SO THERE. This Christmas, if I can
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just stop fidgeting long enough to enjoy them, my kids will be the boss of me.
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This Labeling Thing Is Getting Out of Hand
December 31, 1999 I was not surprised when my children became label conscious. It started when they were very little and they noticed that we were eating yucky house-brand Krispy Rice instead of REAL Rice Krispies boxed under the snazzy, more expensive label. Then it started with the clothes. It’s bad enough that it’s cool to dress like vagrants, (even the little one), but I can’t figure out how they can even tell the difference between reasonably priced wrinkled, droopy olive drab and expensive apparently-recycled clothing with the “right” label, but somehow they can. And they are willing to pay the price difference for the more expensive label, which is awfully convenient since I am not. But this label thing is getting out of hand. Lately they seem to need labels for everything we say, think and do around here. My youngest recently interrupted her stream of consciousness monologue that she delivers from the back seat of the car (where she has spent most of her formative years) to inquire as to our socio-economic label. “Mom, are we rich?” Without hesitation, I replied “Absolutely!” “Then how come whenever I ask you for something I want you always ask me if it’s my birthday or Christmas and it’s usually never my birthday or Christmas?” I told her because it’s only appropriate to tell me about wanting a gift when it’s her birthday or Christmas, and even then, about ten days notice is far more appropriate than the customary ten months.
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She pressed on. “But if we’re rich I should be able to get what I want all the time because you have lots of money.” “I never said we had lots of money,” I demurred. “We have our health, so we have everything, and THAT makes us rich.” She gave me a look that indicated THAT makes me annoying, and returned to her soliloquy for a while. Then she branched into the religious. “Mom, what are those fish things on people’s cars?” I explained that the fish is a symbol of Christianity and that the people in those cars are probably Christians. “Are we Christians?” “Absolutely.” “Then why don’t WE have a fish on our car?” I recently graduated from a vehicle that had a holy host of bumper stickers on it, and now I drive sans ornamentation. So, I explained to her that I don’t have one on my car because I don’t have anything on my car, but she would have none of it. If we are Christians, then why don’t we have the Christian LABEL on our car? So, I explained that because of the way I drive and mutter at other drivers I would be giving other people with fish on their cars a bad name if I had one on mine too. So, we are all better off with me driving around anonymously. She actually agreed with that. Another time, my ten year old need to know our political label. “Mom, are we Republicans or Democrats?” “Absolutely.” “Moommmm! I’m serious!” “So am I.” She needed to know if we wear a Democrat or Republican label. (The Reform Party is mercifully not on her radar yet.) Other kids at school had been talking about their families’ political labels. She wasn’t sure which label was the RIGHT label. She just
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needed to know which one we wear, sure that whatever that was would be the right one. I tried to explain that “we” are not one thing or another because her daddy and I enjoy disagreeing with each other on so many things. We try to look at individuals instead of party labels, but even if her daddy and I vote for one party more than another, it does not mean our FAMILY wears a specific label. She will have to decide that for herself, and not just once, but every time she votes. She was not satisfied. I could tell by her look that it was pretty awful to have to swallow the political version of house brand Krispy Rice. The one label that continuously crops up like weeds with kids is “Best Friend.” Although the child wearing the “best friend” label can change as rapidly as hormone levels, kids doggedly cling to this particular label. When my youngest was three, she announced (from the back seat of the car again) “Mommy, I love my best friend!” “That’s nice,” I replied. To which she added, “Mommy, what’s my best friend’s name again?” Whenever my children ask me who my best friend is, they always throw in the caveat “And DON’T just say it’s Daddy!” In which case, I can’t say much else. My friend Donna was cornered in a restaurant by her two children, Sam and Eleanor, aged three and six, a while ago on this very subject. “Mommy,” her Eleanor asked. “Who is your best friend?” “Daddy.” “No,” she pressed, “I mean BESIDES Daddy!” Like the good mom that she is, Donna gently explained that their daddy is her best friend because mommies and daddies ARE each other’s very best friends. Other friends -- as wonderful as they are -- can come and go, wax and wane, in life, but you always have your family and so you should treat your family just as well as you do your best friends. But little Eleanor was undaunted. “Then who’s your best friend BESIDES Daddy in our family?” What could Donna possibly say? There was literally no choice between the two cherubic faces staring at her from across the table, but Eleanor was not to be sidetracked on this one. Just as
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Donna was about to reiterate her little sermon, Sam climbed down from his chair and toddled over to his mother . . . perhaps to secure his rightful place in her lap? “Mommy,” he whispered into her ear, “Choose Eleanor!” He is going to make someone a wonderful best friend some day.
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Some Resolutions Do Come True
January 7, 2000 It’s that New time of year when we make resolutions and predictions for the year ahead. The predictions rarely come true, unless you are predicting the longevity of most resolutions, but we are mostly resolved to go through the rituals anyway. Most of my resolutions have had a half-life of about a week, but I think I may have found an antidote to this problem. When we make resolutions to do things that are good for us but unpleasant in the short term, short term always wins. For example, My Reason for Living resolved last night to start running again, but the only time he has left to carve out is in the wee hours of the morning. We’re talking ridiculously EARLY, like 6:30 a.m. Problem is, that’s when only certifiable nuts are out running around, and he does not suffer fools much at all, let alone gladly. The second problem with that is that the hardest part of his day is over once his feet hit the floor. The earlier it is, the tougher that moment becomes. The third problem is that he tries to rely on me for support and encouragement of this new resolution. I actually told him I would get up with him this morning and take a brisk healthy walk while he ran. I must have been hallucinating at the time. The alarm snapped me out of it and right back into REM sleep. I predict his running resolution will last a good day or two before it runs out. The antidote for me is to resolve to do things that I enjoy that are good for me and not at all unpleasant, even in the short run. So first and foremost, I resolve this year to have lunch once a week with an immediate family member on a rotating basis. Having
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lunch is good for the body; having lunch together is good for the soul. And it gives each of mine own my undivided attention. It also means I will get a more decent lunch than a Coke and a candy bar at least once a week -- but only if the kids are buying. Secondly, I resolve to talk on the phone less and listen to my kids more. This is an important one because my last car phone bill says I racked up 75 hours on it last month alone -- and My Reason for Living still won’t give me anything but his voice mail number. Lastly, I resolve to watch TV less and read more (except on Tuesday nights when “Once and Again” is on and on Thursday nights when “ER” is on. Let’s be realistic here.). Which brings me to the predictions aspect of the New Year. There were all kinds of predictions about Y2K disasters that ultimately petered out, but nobody has brought any of the emptyhanded doomsayers to task. There’s a long list in the newspaper predicting “What’s In” and “What’s Out” -- but I missed the “Who Says” part. I rarely tune in to daytime TV talk shows (I always make that disclaimer whenever I notice a talk show worthy of mention). But whenever I do watch, it seems like all the advertisers are “certified psychic advisers” urging me to call their 900 number and dial up my future for a mere $2 a minute. Now who certifies these psychics? I have never heard of any psychic certification board or school, not even your basic spoonbending entrance exam. And if they are so certified, why do most psychics reside in portable abodes instead of penthouses? It seems to me that just about anyone is qualified to be a certified psychic these days, and I have just about resolved to join their ranks. (My Reason for Living questions how I can leap from resolutions to predictions to certified psychics, but he is sadly lacking in prescience in these matters.) Here are just SOME of my mesmerizing qualifications: I have an uncanny ability to predict the end of any made-for-TV-movie, or any big screen movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger or
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Sylvester Stallone. I can always find my daughter’s “lost” shoe just as she starts insisting she needs a new pair anyway. I can divine whether one of my offspring is telling less than the truth without even LOOKING at them. On countless occasions, I have handed my Reason for Living his glasses JUST as he was about to ask where they were. I have even been known to successfully WILL a crying baby to GO BACK TO SLEEP while lying in my own bed SEVERAL YARDS AWAY. Why, just a few weeks ago, when I experienced a minor fender bender, the children heard their father exclaim, “Joan you AMAZE me sometimes!” I know The Greenville Journal enjoys a loyal following across all spectra of our community, which of course includes our certified psychic community, and more importantly the psychics’ managers. I would predict that the phone will start ringing momentarily, offering me the chance to become a “certified” psychic. I could start charging talk show audiences $2 a minute to be dazzled by my eerie capabilities. But psychics and their managers don’t just have vision for the future, they have good memories too. And if they can remember a few paragraphs back, they know that anyone who is trying to wean themselves from 75 hours of cell phone time per month has got to get more than just two bucks a minute to revert. There is no future in that proposition, in the New Year or any year, so for now I don’t see any future in joining the ranks of certified psychics. I am resolved to enjoy my amateur status, however, over lunch.
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A Word About Church
January 14, 2000 My friend Sallie has been urging me to write a word about church. I’m not sure what she means, but here goes. Not to worry -- this is NOT an evangelical exhortation to go to MY church, or to be a church-goer like ME. God knows I do not qualify as the church-going poster child -- unless they come up with a “do and don’t” theme. This is simply a nudge for all you fence sitters out there, who may have gone back for a few Sundays around Christmas (and hogged the good pews for the Christmas play -- but that’s another column) and suddenly sleeping in on Sunday is looking like an extremely attractive option again. To be honest, I do not even know what “my church” means (which may or may not come as a surprise to my minister and friend). I grew up in the “one true Church,” which requires no translation for all you Catholic readers. My Reason For Living grew up sitting in a Methodist pew every Sunday. (The EXACT SAME pew every Sunday. Must be a Methodist thing. It has always tempted me to pay some stranger to sit in THEIR pew just once to see what kind of Christian reaction it would provoke, but then again, I also want to stay married.) Oddly enough, I grew up believing that Irish Catholics were the only people in the world who HAD to go to church every Sunday (I can remember the family missing it ONCE, during the famous Chicago blizzard of 1967). He grew up believing that only Methodists in tiny South Carolina towns HAD to go to church every Sunday. Now our own children, who are basically mutts
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(spiritually and genealogically speaking) are growing up arguing against basically the same thing. Our family’s church-going career has been a checkered one. As young marrieds without children, (a phase which lasted approximately 27 minutes), we were devout hedonists. Sunday mornings were reserved for sleeping until the crack of noon, leisurely reading the Sunday New York Times, and enjoying coffee, juice and crumbs in bed. Churches are very savvy now -- the one true church I was steeped in provided an immensely attractive and aptly named “Cry Room” for young families when we had our babies. We could enjoy the service sitting in a sound-proofed room (from the outside anyway) surrounded by screaming progeny. One glance at the faces of the parents stuck on the other side of the glass window into the Cry Room during mass was all it took to reassure those Catholics who harbored lingering doubts about whether the council of Vatican II could really just do away with Purgatory. Anyway, the Cry Room didn’t cut it for us, nor did yanking our toddlers around in the pew. We eventually developed a system that worked for a very short while -- Daddy would stay home with the baby while I attended with one of the bigger two on a rotating basis. This worked until our only son balked one Sunday when I reminded him it was his turn to go to church with me. He said he would gladly give up being the chosen one that Sunday and stay home with Daddy because -- and I quote here -- “Boys don’t go to church.” Oops. Wrong message. So, we regrouped. We church-shopped. (This was very foreign to my Catholic upbringing, whereby we attended the parish we were assigned to geographically.) A catty one might say we regrouped merely because of child care issues, but I would rather attend a church for initially shallow reasons than NOT attend one for equally vapid excuses. We meant to church shop, but never budged beyond the Presbyterian church we wandered into at the behest of friends several years ago.
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This is where the “my church” issue crops up for me. One never gets quite shed of the “one true church” thing. I happily attend mass with my mother without hesitation when I go “home” to visit. My mother eventually learned through family gossip that I was actually attending a Protestant church. “Yes,” I confessed on the phone, “I am attending a Presbyterian church, to be exact.” I might as well have said that I’d also changed my name to “Joan X” and joined a mosque. After a seemingly endless silence, she sighed, “WELL... how do you feel about DEMOCRACY?” Although I assured her that there are very few known communists in the Presbyterian church, I knew I had shaken her faith in a lot of things, most of all me. Ironically enough, part of my willingness to question the church thing at all comes from my reverend mother herself. As I stipulated earlier, I am not holding myself up to be holy at all, let alone holier than thou. She and I have share some mild qualms with some aspects of the Bible, especially Ephesians 5:22. (My husband is My Reason for Living, to be sure, but he is not the boss of me.) Anyway, when Mom was the reader of this passage at mass one Sunday, the priest raised his eyebrows a couple of feet when my mother editorialized through inflection. She read in closing the usual “This is the word of the Lord,” but what she SAID was, “THIS is the WORD of the LORD??” God love her. PLEASE don’t misunderstand. This is NOT about going to one church or another, or a debate about one church being BETTER than another. I have not “left” any church. I can’t make myself sing every blessed verse of every hymn -- especially the ones with MORE than four verses, and I still start shaking my watch to see if it’s working when the sermon passes the normal, Catholic 15 minute mark. Some things are ingrained. Eons ago when we lived “up north,” nobody ever talked about church. One of the things I love about living here is that people
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openly talk about it, invite you to theirs, make you feel a part of theirs. If it weren’t for church, Allison would not have shown up at my door, unannounced, to whisk my preschoolers off to her home for dinner, a bath, and a bedtime story when I could not budge from my bed with a troubled pregnancy. If it weren’t for church, I would not have perfected my silent technique of settling disputes and punishing the little sinners sinning right under my nose in the pew. If it weren’t for church, my kids would not know the Bible better than I do (which is not saying much.) If we did not go to church, then my friend Sallie’s family would not look NEARLY as good sitting behind some other well behaved family in the pew. And if it’s a sin to want to go to church partly to see whether the sermon includes one of the jokes I’ve emailed to my minister, then color my guilty. This has been more than a few words about church, but if I had to condense it to just a word, I guess I could. Go.
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Trip Leads to Popular, But Alarming, Trends
January 21, 2000 I spotted a lot of new trends on a recent trip to the frozen tundra of Chicagoland, a place I refer to as “home” for lack of a better word. Many of these trends were brought to my attention during a long, exhaustive but fascinating seminar on “Emerging Social and Cultural Issues of Midwest Suburbia,” otherwise known as a leisurely lunch with my high school cronies. These trends may or may not edge south as their spring thaw begins (sometime in June), but I thought I would alert you all the same. One positive trend is ADORABLE jackets cut in the “jeanjacket” pattern but using faux Holstein hide fabric. This particular animal print is also seen on skirts and pants but they did not look good on me so only the adorable jacket will be seen south of the Mason Dixon any time soon. However, there are some dangerous and alarming trends that we must all guard against, which unfortunately go hand in hand. One trend is the absurdly extended boundaries of “nontraveling” teams for soccer. “Traveling” teams in that area are the bread and butter of travel agencies specializing in bus and motel packages, and they lay down some serious mileage. Ten year old boys in a traveling basketball league TRAVEL all the way to Florida for a tournament. This is not the alarming trend part, though, because anyone who has spent a winter in Chicago knows that ANY excuse to travel to warm weather during winter is a valid excuse, but when you are doing it for your kid’s sake it almost sounds noble.
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It’s the NON-TRAVELLING teams that are really pushing the envelope on what it means NOT to travel. Non-traveling teams are essentially “rec league,” primarily for fun, to learn the game and enjoy friendly competition. There are no college soccer talent scouts at these games (there aren’t any at a 10 year old’s basketball tournament in Florida either, but it’s warm there so who cares). Non-traveling teams do not go out of the area for regular season games, although they might attend a regional soccer tournament in a neighboring state. I think they schedule their games to occur within the boundaries of the horizon. The problem is that those states up there are HUGE and FLAT. They must do all their scheduling on a hazy day when there IS NO horizon. If Lake Michigan were to consistently freeze over in winter these kids would be playing regular season Saturday games in Detroit. As it is, it is routine for non-traveling teams to “not travel” a couple of hours for a regular season game in Peoria (and I imagine regular season games scheduled in suburban Chicago do not play well in Peoria either). One might ask, as this one did, why the parents of the kids on these non-traveling teams put up with this non-traveling to games in the Styx. Well . . . the things parents will do to make sure their kids “fit in,” to make sure they are . . . Which segues to another truly alarming trend up there: the baffling and inordinate use of the word “popular” by certified adults. They want to make sure their kids are “popular,” even if it means putting 10,000 extra miles on the Suburban each soccer or hockey or field hockey or basketball season. This word and the concept of popularity itself is a mainstay in the lexicon of pre, post and incessantly pubescent types. Sometimes the parents of these adolescents around here will also use the word, but they do so appropriately by merely QUOTING their child’s use of the word and of course rolling their eyes a bit. “Popular” is not a bad word, it’s just not a grown up word. During my annual prayer meeting with my “boss” David, he
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routinely quizzes me as to my personal and professional goals. Never once have I openly or even privately expressed the desire to be popular, or even more popular. Popularity never even comes up. I don’t forbid my kids to use the word, but I don’t encourage it either. Just as they find it ridiculous for me to exclaim “Oh Mah Gah!!” the way they do every other minute, they would also roll their eyes if I asked them who is the most popular mom in their ballet carpool. But I am telling you that there is a growing use of the word in that region among otherwise perfectly normal people -- mostly women -- and it is fueling another disturbing trend up there: co-ed slumber parties. I kid you not. Co-ed slumber parties are not really a new thing, they are just a new name for an old thing. In my day (I can’t believe I’m old enough to say that), we used unvarnished terms like “orgy,” or the more polite “rehearsal dinner for a shotgun wedding.” This is where the popular thing comes in. Because if you want your kid to “fit in,” to be “popular” you will find yourself agreeing that co-ed slumber parties are really not all that bad. These parties ARE chaperoned (but the parents don’t actually SLEEP down in the rec room with the kids -- THAT would be weird). And, for the most part the kids don’t even sleep. (DUH! That’s what I’d be panicked about.) Furthermore, the parents of all the teenaged guests can rest assured that the kids are not out there drinking and driving because they have to turn in their keys and they are ONLY served beer and wine under the watchful gaze of the parent/chaperones (otherwise known as defendants). So count yourself warned. These trends are real, but with the exception of the Holstein jacket, they are not real cute. And if I am WAY behind the times and these things are already alive and well down here, please don’t burst my bubble. And please don’t bother inviting any of my kids to your kid’s co-ed slumber party --- I am
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so unpopular around here anyway I may not have the self esteem I’d need to tell them they can’t go.
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Unsolicited Advice for Mothers-in-Law
February 4, 2000 The bond between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law is perhaps the most complicated familial relationship there is. The complication is inherent in the bonding material, otherwise known as the son/husband -- a species well known for its amazing, pro-active, succinct, and highly effective communication skills. Although much of the communication between mother-inlaw (MIL) and daughter-in-law (DIL) is about or through this phenomenal conduit of information, some things can still, unbelievably, get lost in translation, whereby complications arise. I could not personally offer any thoughts or material for this particular column because, as you can imagine, I already have the perfect MIL, and it should come as no surprise to you that I am also the perfect DIL. But enumerating all the facets of our mutual perfection makes for a pretty boring result, so I solicited contributions via email, asking friends and family members who are DILs and/or MILs law to offer helpful advice on how to be the best of both breeds. The replies were fast and formidable. I may need to upgrade the space on my hard drive. Because of the volume of response, what WAS going to be a light touch on the overall topic will be at least a two-part series, the first of which is dedicated to all the MILs out there. It goes without saying that none of YOU need any improvement, but you may want to pass this on to a friend whose son is married, getting married soon, or ... whatever. What follows is a somewhat empirical, highly unscientific compilation of friendly suggestions from various DILs who
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interestingly came up with very similar suggestions for improving the archetype for the model MIL. So, in order of frequency and importance, here goes: 1. DROPPING IN. As in “don’t.” This fell unanimously in the “NEVER” category. There is apparently NEVER a good time to drop in on your son and DIL, whether you are “in the neighborhood” or not. Dropping in, also known as arriving uninvited and unexpected, is a huge no-no. If this surprises you, do NOT ask your son for confirmation. He will probably tell you his home is the exception to the rule and he will probably NOT tell you about the hell he has to pay after each time you do. My friend Diane, who has an unusually nameless husband, relates a pattern of “dropping in” she has enjoyed with her MIL for years now. Here’s but one example of many she gladly shared . . . to honor her husband’s birthday once, she took special care to bathe and bed the little ones early, set a romantic table for two in front of the fire in the living room, and prepare his favorite meal: crab meat au gratin baked in individual dishes just for the two of them. “The candles were lit, the wine was poured, the mood was in full swing when... DING DONG! There were my wonderful inlaws who had driven 45 minutes from their home to SURPRISE their son for his birthday!” They had thoughtfully brought dinner too -- BBQ packaged in frugal, recycled Cool Whip containers. Buns, too. Her MIL noticed the romantic setting they had stumbled upon in the living room and did what any decent MIL would do -- she set up the barbecue in the kitchen and split up the au gratin stuff among the four of them for an appetizer. Needless to say, the birthday boy did NOT get any “dessert” that night. 2. VISITS. This is quite distinct from the “dropping in” category, because it involves an actual invitation. This invitation should emanate from the son & DIL. If the invitation emanates from the MIL it does not count and amounts to dropping in -even if, especially if, this invitation is confirmed by the
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son/husband. If the DIL has not also confirmed things in person or in writing, you will probably be dropping in on her. The visit should also have a predetermined beginning, middle, and end. This predetermination should also emanate from the son & DIL. If it emanates from the MIL it again amounts to dropping in. My friend Cathy confesses that, as much as she loves her dear sweet MIL, she is loathe to invite her for any more visits because the dear won’t LEAVE. Says Cathy, “Everyone else we know visits us for just two days at the most. Her last visit was four days. The time before that was ELEVEN AND A HALF days. She is so nice I feel badly for wanting her to leave. Maybe the problem is that I am being too nice. No, that CAN’T be.” My sister Blanche disagrees about the beginning, middle, and end thing. “No, the visit should just have an END. We issue invitations IN WRITING, asking her to come from a specific date to a specific date. She ignores that. She calls to tell us what her non-refundable flight arrangements are from California. One visit lasted SEVENTEEN days.” There is a silver lining to that particular visit, however. My sister, a fellow realtor, spent so LITTLE time at home during that 17 day period that she actually sold a record $5 million worth of real estate. 3. ADVICE. This is a biggy. MILs would be well-advised to give advice ONLY when asked, and NEVER give unsolicited advice under any circumstance, regardless of how well-meaning it is. “Why do you wear eyeliner, Diane?” “Why don’t you lose some weight, Debbie?” “Why don’t you call your sister-in-law for some decorating advice?” “But I LIKE doing dishes, Elizabeth! It’s no bother! What harm could I be doing since you obviously don’t like doing dishes?” “Have I told you I never gained more than 15 pounds with either of my pregnancies, Helen?” (Only every chance you get...)
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“When are you going to call the doctor about that child’s fever?” MILs may think these are examples of innocent questions and statements expressing genuine interest, help, or concern, but your DILs see it differently. These were all offered as classic examples of thinly disguised unsolicited advice. Questions and remarks like that DO count. 4. CHILDCARE HELP. This is pretty much an emotional quagmire. Helping with the grandchildren should be a positive, from all angles. Problems seem to arise when assumptions are made. My own MIL has always regarded it as a privilege to take care of our children when we ask her and when her schedule allows (go figure!). My own mother has always regarded it as MY privilege to have such a helpful MIL -- Mom has no interest in it, and we therefore we have no expectation. Everyone’s happy. When there are misunderstandings in this area, friction can result. One extremely anonymous young mother laments, “I really love my MIL, and I love that she is so eager to help with the baby. I feel guilty for even saying this, but it seems like just when she was cured of ‘dropping in’ on us, the baby came and now she ‘drops in’ to SEE THE BABY all the time. It wouldn’t be so bad if she asked when she could drop in to see the baby so I can get some things done or run a few errands, but she drops in WHENEVER and if the baby is asleep she just STAYS until he wakes up.” Another equally anonymous mother of youngsters advises the MILs to just “Lay your cards on the table!! If you really DON’T want to babysit, don’t make yourself miserable and us guilty by babysitting and then complaining about it to my siblings-in-law. I would feel so much better if my MIL knew that we appreciate her help, but we really don’t EXPECT it. I feel guilty if I ask her, but then I feel guilty if I DON’T ask her.” If a MIL does agree to babysit for the weekend, it’s often best to go through with it. My friend Eunice (not her real name, thank
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goodness) relates the time she and her husband left their little firstborn baby with her MIL for the weekend. They could not stand to be away from their little darling for so long so they returned a half day early. They were greeted by a very nice lady who had taken very good care of their precious firstborn for the entire weekend. Her MIL had gotten a better invitation to visit some friends out of state for the weekend. It would have been inappropriate to bring a baby along UNINVITED so she hired a sitter from a service in the Yellow Pages instead. She still doesn’t understand why this little anecdote still bugs Eunice. I could go on (and will at another time) but this paper only pays me so much per column. To all the dear MILs out there, please remember this is NOT meant as an improvement guide for MILs only. I also have received LOTS of helpful advice for improving the archetype for the model DIL, which will be featured in another column soon. If you have anything to help defuse this minefield of familial ties, I look forward to hearing from you too! LETTING GO. MILs, your son is now a man. He married a woman. Rejoice in that. It means that you no longer have to wait on him (something we should all stop doing by the time the boy becomes taller than the mother, but that’s another column . . . )
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“I Love You Anyway, If Not Because”
February 11, 2000 In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would honor my first love: my mom. It’s only fitting since my penchant for writing was inherited from her. And, I think my siblings would all agree, she and Dad passed on to each of us some ability for choosing the right mate for life. Together, she and my dad lived a great example for us of choosing each other every day. What follows is a reprint of a letter Mom wrote to my younger sister almost twenty years ago, when my sister was assigned to write a paper on the topic of marriage and finding “Mr. or Ms. Right” for a college class in adult psychology. If you are expecting the usual Valentine’s Day schmaltz and drivel about “romance,” or “falling in (or out) of love” you might want to skip this. Mom is not big on that kind of nonsense. She never made the mistake of looking for, or thinking she found “Prince Charming.” She found my dad; they found each other; and she loved him every day -- even though he never did learn to open or close a door quietly or pick his own socks up off the floor. He loved her every day, too, and not just despite her own faults. As Dad often said to her, and to each of us, “I love you anyway, if not because.” So without further adieu, here are some of Mom’s pearls on finding the right person. Perhaps you’ll see YOUR own “Reason For Living” in it.
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Thanks again, Mom, for all your love and guidance, and for helping me get away with doing very little actual writing in this column! “Dearest Bridget, Maybe your paper is already written, but for whatever help it may be: 1. Look for KINDNESS. This is a quality that is BUILT-IN, can’t be feigned for very long. If someone gets pleasure out of others’ discomfort -- beware. 2. Look for STABILITY. Sure, there are some wonderful people who have to go out in the desert and eat locusts and honey while ‘finding themselves,’ but there are more of them for whom the search for SELF becomes the main occupation of life. 3. Look for one who likes to take RESPONSIBILITY. Being responsible for getting work done, for meeting obligations is NECESSARY, not optional. 4. Look for one who has JOIE DE VIVRE, who loves being alive and who can appreciate the beauty and fun of the natural things in the world, who doesn’t need material trappings (e.g. stereo, loud music, flashy cars, etc.) to fulfill his longings. 5. Look for one whose COMPANY gives you JOY, whose next meeting you anticipate with pleasure, whose last meeting you remember with happiness. NEVER get involved with one who makes you feel uneasy or miserable. Your instincts are there to warn you. 6. Be open to knowing the less flamboyant, the shy reserved boy. Take time to draw him out. He may be all the things you want and need -- or he may not -- but don’t prejudge. Don’t just overlook him because it’s easy. The aggressive boy may make aggression a way of life -- not too comfortable to live with. 7. Listen to what he says or doesn’t say about his family, his professors, people who have authority over him. If his statements betray bitterness or rebellion, beware. He may be looking for someone to dominate rather than someone to cherish.
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8. Look for someone who accomplishes. It is all well and good to think you may be someone’s inspiration, but unless he demonstrates DESIRE (to DO something, to BE something) your inspiration won’t be enough. 9. Look at his family. If possible, meet them. If you think this might be the man you want to marry, visit in his home. See if you feel comfortable among his people. Especially look at his father. In him you will see the likelihood of what the son will be -- not that sons cannot or do not develop differently from their fathers, but the father’s influence is both genetic and environmental, and therefore has more impact than all other influences. 10. Remember that you have expectations too, that are formed from your impressions of your own father and siblings. You have a wealth of observation to draw upon (one of the advantages of being one of twelve children). Bring whomever it is home. See how he fits. Your siblings will want to welcome your choice, but you know if they think there’s a serious deficiency they’ll gently make you aware of it. I must stop now -- it’s 6:45 a.m. Love, Mother”
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Revisiting Complicated MIL/DIL Relationships
March 10, 2000 Now that the shockwaves have sufficiently abated since my foray into the uncharted waters of frank communication between and about mothers-in-law (MILs) and their daughters-in-law (DILs), I think it’s safe to wade back in, as promised, to take a peek -- or a poke as it were -- at the soft white underbelly of the younger counterpart in this most complicated of familial relationships: the daughter-in-law (DIL). To recap my previous, anecdotal, entirely unempirical column based on DILs offering helpful pointers to improve the archetype for the ideal MIL, the greatest hits fell under four main categories: 1. Dropping in (as in DON’T) 2. All visits need a predetermined END 3. Unsolicited advice should be an oxymoron instead of the status quo 4. Helping with grandchildren -- communication both ways appears to need a lot of improvement. Although the DIL valiantly suffers the indignities of unannounced and open-ended visits from her MIL, coupled with unwelcome advice and insinuations, it appears that the archetypical DIL could use some improvement herself. (As pointed out earlier, I am unable to offer any personal observations on this topic either because, as you can imagine, I am the perfect DIL of the perfect MIL, and blathering on about how perfect we both are will not advance the ball or sell many newspapers.) I must say that MILs were a bit more reluctant than the DILs who contributed to this opus, but they are just as doggedly
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anonymous. Their commentary, too, falls into neat but decidedly different categories. 1. WHOSE NAME IS IT ANYWAY? Our names belong to us, and MILs are no exception. If you are unsure what to call her: ASK HER. As one MIL observes, “When my first son married, my DIL did the courtesy of ASKING me what she should call me. I told her she could call me by my first name, or ‘Mom,’ whatever she was comfortable with. She calls me Mom, which is nice. My second DIL seemed to take her cue from the first, and she calls me Mom too. My third DIL was apparently not comfortable with calling me Mom, which is fine, EXCEPT that she calls my husband “Daddy,” which frankly bothers me. She should call us BOTH by our first names or BOTH Mom and Dad. The difference is a little . . . awkward.” Another MIL welcomed the idea of becoming a grandmother, but not being CALLED one: “My DIL never seemed comfortable with my name. It took her YEARS to stop calling me ‘Mrs. So & So’ and she would usually call me YOU or MA’AM to get around the whole name thing. I asked her many times to call me by my first name, but she never could. Then when our granddaughter was born, my DIL started calling me “Gaga” and LONG before the baby was even talking! Heaven forbid anyone in the family should call any of the grandchildren by an unapproved nickname -- but she called me that ever since she became a mother. I never had a choice.” 2. MY HOUSE, MY RULES. While one MIL dubbed the DILs’ exhortation against MILs dropping in as “unrealistic,” other MILs kindly pointed out that the MILs’ home is her castle too, and sometimes she may want crank up her own drawbridge. “We pretty much have an open door policy around here,” says one MIL, “we want the grown kids to feel comfortable coming over with their families, but they think we have an open REFRIGERATOR DOOR policy. My son and my DIL and all their kids think nothing of helping themselves to what’s in the frig. My
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son knows better, and I have told him so, but I would never say anything directly to my DIL. I think it’s rude to help yourself like that, but it would be far worse manners for me to risk embarrassing her about it.” Another MIL laments that her house is treated like a gymnasium. “When my children were young, I lectured them about their manners BEFORE EVERY VISIT to either set of grandparents. Children don’t naturally know the boundaries unless you lay them out for them, over and over again. One of my DILs lets her children run WILD in her home -- which is certainly her right -- but they also run wild in MY home. It makes me nervous that they’ll break something or hurt themselves, but if I tell them to behave she gets her back up about someone else “disciplining” HER children.” 3. THIS IS NOT A PACKAGE DEAL. MILs are people, too. Before their son married, MILs did not ALWAYS hang out with their son AND their husbands AND their other children. Families group in subsets, too. As one happy MIL relates, “My DIL calls me once in a blue moon to have a quick lunch. Nothing fancy. Most times it’s just the two of us, sometimes she brings one of the grandchildren as a special treat. Sometimes I can go, sometimes I can’t, but I always appreciate being asked.” Edith (not her real name, but it’s better than Mrs. So & So) recounts a time when she realized she was always a “package deal” to her DIL. “My DIL called and asked us if we wanted to come to supper one Sunday. I told her my husband was playing golf that afternoon, but before I could say that I’d love to come myself, she had already said ‘Oh well, we’ll miss you,’ and that was that. I guess she either thinks it would be rude to have just one of us, or she doesn’t want just one of us.” One MIL and DIL have achieved a happy arrangement by sharing schedules. Says the MIL, “We live close enough that it doesn’t have to be a ‘state visit’ every time we see our son’s family.
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I asked my DIL to send me a copy of the kids’ activities and game schedules. When I can, or when I feel like it, I’ll show up for a basketball game or watch an occasional soccer game. I remember what it was like having Grandma and Grandpa come to visit, even for the day, and normal life simply came to a halt while they were here. I secretly dreaded those visits, even with my own mother, and I did not want that tradition to continue. I want my grandchildren, and my DIL, to know me as someone who is interested in their interests, not some old lady they have to be perfect around.” “We are all grownups now,” points out one MIL, “yet we all revert to our old roles when it’s convenient. We always host every holiday because we are the Mother and the Father, and that’s a tradition I suppose, but it seems that the family never gets together unless it’s at our house and I’m doing all the cooking! We don’t want or expect anything fancy, but we love being invited to our children’s homes. My sons ALL knew the basics of cooking before they were married, so we don’t expect our DIL to be the perfect hostess who does all the work. Now I know why people move out of big houses -- it’s so they can be a guest in their kids’ big houses for a change!” 4. MILs ARE NOT JUST BABYSITTERS. This is a biggy, because it shows up on the radar for MILs and DILs. The key here appears to be COMMUNICATION because the interest in caring for grandchildren varies as widely as MILs themselves. We experience the full spectrum in our own household. My MIL mails US a thank you note for allowing her to take care of the children even before we can find our box of stationary. My own mother, on the other hand, delights in the “Been There, Done That” status she achieved by virtue of raising twelve without ANY help from either grandmother, thank you very much. Both viewpoints are just fine with us. Says one MIL, “I know my DIL and her mother are very close, but she always asks her own mother for help with the children
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first. I hardly ever get to spend real time with the children alone. You don’t really get to know your grandchildren unless you spend real time with them, away from their mama and daddy, and I really do miss out on that.” (I know four children who would give her ample opportunity for surrogate grandparenting...) And then there is a word from the opposite point of the pendulum: “I have raised my own children, so I guess I am a ‘retired mother,’“ explains one MIL, “and I LIKE my empty nest. I learned pretty quick that when one of my DILs would call to say ‘Are you busy this weekend?’ she was NOT calling to ask us to dinner but to take care of the kids so they could head out of town for the weekend. Otherwise she pretty much does not call. I don’t mind helping out when it’s convenient for us, but I am not here just to facilitate her social life. Just because I am not raising little ones or bringing home a paycheck does not mean I have NOTHING better to do.” One MIL remembers a dog as being the last straw. “My DIL asked me to keep the children far more often than my own daughter asked me for help with her children. Come to think of it, my DIL had out of town trips planned a whole lot more often than WE did, and we didn’t even have little ones anymore. The last time I took them, the very last time, she dropped off two toddlers AND their ancient dog! I hadn’t bargained for the dog, and said so, but she promised the dog would be no trouble. My brand new carpet was never the same after that weekend with the kids and that decrepit animal, so that was the end of being treated like a babysitting service. I decided I would not and could not help with one set of grandchildren more often than any other set.” It’s just not as simple as it seems for MILs and DILs to have more in common with each other than just the same man and the same last name. Maybe the solution lies in greater focus on that very human man who tries to be a good husband AND a good son, an effort that shouldn’t have to be a balancing act. If the son does not call as often as his mother would like, it just might be
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because of HIM, not his dear wife. If the husband goes on vacation alone with his mom, it just may be because he WANTS to, not because his dear mother made him feel guilty about not visiting enough. As my friend Diane says, “I guess it’s a generational thing that women of my MIL’s age think, or have to pretend, that their son is perfect because she feels responsible for how he turned out. I KNOW my sons are not perfect and I am going to make sure their brides know it too!”
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Chaperoning 101: Discovering Your Inner Brat
March 24, 2000 My eldest daughter just returned from several days in Florida on an extended field trip. I think the purpose of the trip was the middle school students’ continuing search for intelligent life at Disney World and its parasitic sprawl of fun. I am not sure whether they found it (or contributed to it) because she was so tired upon her return that she immediately tumbled into bed for 14 hours. I can only imagine how tired the lucky chaperones were. Before hitting the quilts, my daughter did mumble something about her friends suggesting she ask me to chaperone their next field trip, a search for intelligent life in NYC and other educational hotspots. This prompted a mutual guffaw between us girls. This is not just because I gave up cussing for Lent. My daughter is keenly aware of my conviction that EVERY parent should have the privilege of chaperoning an extended overnight field trip at least once, but no parent should get a second shot at it UNTIL every other parent has taken their turn. I think parents who successfully chaperone an extended overnight trip should earn a special spot in heaven. They take care of and clean up after other people’s sick kids, they turn the other cheek when they would rather spank it, and all they get is a free bus trip to Florida. As for me, I now believe that if I do not lead a good life, I will wind up chaperoning a loud group of middle schoolers on a big sticky bus for all eternity.
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The definition of “successfully chaperoning” means shepherding the kids in a safe, orderly and consistently cheerful manner AND returning from the trip with a consistently cheerful attitude toward children in general. Although I have chaperoned once, I do not claim to have done it successfully. My experience involved a five day junket with about 15 would be ballerinas a couple of years ago, all straddling the captivating and charming age of about 12 or 13. They were all exceedingly good girls, all happily indulging in “age appropriate” behavior, such as hair tossing, gum snapping, nail chewing, eye-rolling, near-constant facial massage, frequent split-end checks, a startling indifference to Western standards of body space, and an inability to go to the restroom alone (Oh Mah Gah! Y’ALL! Come to the bathroom with me!!). For some girls of this age, it is impossible to have a really good time unless they have made sure that someone else is not. I am not sure who said it, could have been a veteran chaperone, but someone once noticed, “There’s nothing meaner than a 13 year old princess.” If you doubt it, try chaperoning a few and you will see the light. Most girls this age are not certain they are having a fabulous time unless they are also SHRIEKING. Problem is, if they are having an exceedingly bad time (and the fabulous-to-bad pendulum swings mighty fast), they often express it the same way. To deal with this appropriately, the adroit chaperone must either give these volatile young ladies constant attention or stuff in a pair of industrial strength ear plugs and grab a gripping novel. (Have I mentioned how much I read that week?) My friend Jim suffered a lapse in judgment once that resulted in his chaperoning about eight boys, aged 14 and 15, for “First Week” at the beach. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this ridiculous ritual, First Week occurs the first week after school gets out (hence the original, catchy name) whereby able bodied teens, who could otherwise be earning a buck in a decent summer job, put that tedious reality off by at least a week by heading to the
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beach, chaperoned by a parent or two (otherwise known in addiction circles as “co-dependents” or “enablers”)to hang out, make out, stay out, and even pass out (if they can possibly manage it). This trip phenomenon, known in our house as “Don’t Even Ask” week, was originally meant for just-graduated seniors only, who would celebrate their graduation and their 18-ness (which used to mean something) by hanging out, etc., UNchaperoned. Somehow, the ritual has trickled down to even the middle school level, but that’s another column. Anyway, although Jim’s trip took place a good eight years ago, he still practically breaks out in hives just thinking about it. Let’s just say that Jim was steeped in the essence of young teenaged boyhood and came out exhilarated, reeking like a pair of rancid tube socks. “It was horrible,” Jim smiles in reminiscence, “just awful. They all begged to go to the beach, but then they get there and the beach is the last thing on their minds. They sleep until two in the afternoon because they stay up ALL NIGHT just being loud. They buy cases and cases of Cokes. I thought they’d never drink all that Coke, and they didn’t. They’d open a can, take a couple of sips, then put it down beside another can that had a couple of sips off it. ‘Course they can’t drink from a can that they’re not SURE is theirs, so they leave it, open another, take a couple of sips, put it down, and so on!” “They see nothing; they do nothing,” Jim rhapsodizes. “They are slobs. They never pick up a thing. It was like I was their maid. They don’t even think to hang up a wet towel. They make themselves sandwiches and then leave all the bread out till it’s stale and the mayo out long enough for the rest of them to get salmonella or something. And that was only the DAYS. At NIGHT it was like herding cats -- keeping them corralled, keeping them from trying to sneak beer, doing breath checks. I get mad all over again just thinking about it.” Perhaps we should not limit the joys of chaperoning only to parents. Discrimination in all forms is bad. I think chaperoning an
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extended overnight field trip should be a prerequisite to running for School Board, Secretary of Education, and for serving as School Superintendent. That way, we voters would have objective proof that the Trustees and the head of the school district would really KNOW children, yet their willingness to serve the interests of those noisy children would prove their mettle as true public servants. Chaperoning also helps us all be better grownups. Just as I never fully appreciated the immense awe, joy, and incredible weight of parenting until the doctor plopped my wriggling firstborn on my suddenly incredibly flat tummy (ha!), the act of chaperoning deepens the respect, admiration and thanks we all owe our parents. While I was staring at the sweep second hand during “Day Four: Ballet Moms Under Siege” with my daughter and the GRAND PLIE GANG a couple of years ago, I instinctively grabbed the phone, not to make sure I still had an outside line (again), but to call my mom. “Mom...?” “Yes, Joan. What’s the matter? You don’t sound too well.” “I’m in a motel room in near Memphis, and this is a dry county, but that’s not important right now.” “What’s all that noise? It sounds like you’re at the pound shopping for stray cats.” “I’m with several seventh and eighth grade girls.” “Oh, I see.” (Muffled laughter) “Mom? Do you remember what I was like when I was that age, in junior high, when I got together with all my friends?” “HOW could I forget?!” “Well, Mom, I just want you to know . . . I am so, so sorry.”
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Hormones: You Gotta Love ‘em
April 7, 2000 You’ve probably already read it, but in case you missed last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, it had an interesting article about hormones, mostly male hormones that is, or I guess that would be the singular, male hormone. Testosterone. For various reasons, the author has a way below normal level of testosterone in his system and so he takes injections of the synthetic variety every two weeks. He reported that every shot gives him a renewed surge of energy, coupled with a heightened sense of impulsiveness, a touchy temper, and increased aggressive tendencies. His findings were not interesting or newsy to me. Anyone who has spent any length of time with a two year old boy with normal hormone levels would file his findings under “Duh!” Now, if he had candidly confessed that his surge into normal levels created an irresistible need to scurry from one room to the next while making loud airplane noise sound effects with his tongue, I would have found THAT refreshingly honest and interesting. What I DID find amazing, however, was that he made the SAME whiney complaints about his disposition that you hear members of the opposite sex make -- and yet these complaints are attributed to the lack, the surplus, the fluctuation, the whateversounds-plausible level of entirely different “female” hormones! He reported that on some days he was unnecessarily edgy, easily offended, and almost itching for a fight. I don’t understand why he recorded that in his diary as having something to do with his hormone levels. It would have been so much more honest and
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productive to simply record, “Dear Diary, Today I was a total jerk.” It has become trendy, popular, even for men now, to lay all our foibles at the feet of our hormones. This really gives hormones a bad rap, and consequently shoves our brains and free will way down on the totem pole. Hormones are not the enemy, they can be your friend, especially if you work with them rather than just blame them. Women have the benefit of experiencing more hormones than their male counterparts. Men might argue that they get to/have to experience all our hormones by proxy, but that’s just because they like to argue so much (blame the testosterone). Estrogen is getting a lot of press. According to a doctor friend who would prefer not to be named (again) in this column, estrogen is the female hormone produced by the ovaries that is responsible for breast development and other secondary sexual characteristics of the female, and once all that is in place, it pretty much confines itself to the cyclical effort to build up the uterine lining. That’s about it. It does not make you gain weight, lose weight, lose a tennis match, make the cheerleading squad, take too much offense at a friendly joke, or chew out your children over a lost shoe. (See lower end of totem pole.) Progesterone is not as much a part of the popular lexicon as its estrogen partner, but this is a biggie among female hormones. Progesterone should be a favorite among men, because it peaks just after ovulation to sustain the aforementioned lining. Progesterone is also chemically similar to testosterone. If you can’t read between the lines, that means that it’s the hormone that can make the female most “interested.” However, if the female also already has a relatively high level of testosterone in her system AND a determination to procreate, this can become an overwhelming hormone cocktail even for some normal men to appreciate. A friend of ours, Mr. Anonymous for the purposes of this column, confesses to burying his head under a pillow and
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begging to be left alone when his spouse was “over served” this particular cocktail. But I digress. My personal favorite hormone is oxytocin. This one squirts around your body to induce labor -- not one of my favorite sensations -- but it does bring a conclusion to my even less favorite and longer term sensation: pregnancy. But oxytocin also induces lactation, otherwise known as breastfeeding. Now I am not a granola-eating breast-feeding nazi, and I do shave my legs, but instead of railing against the side effects of this particular hormone, I reveled in them. You see, oxytocin turned me into an emotional pig. Under normal circumstances, I am one of those annoying people who really doesn’t give a rip about food, cooking, recipes, or eating in general. But oxytocin gave me a glimpse into another world. It started with those delicious, chewy “almost homemade” chocolate chip cookies that you could suddenly buy without the hassle of baking them. (It’s not like I completely lost my mind -- I have never liked cooking.) My Reason for Living called one day to inquire after my health and that of our newborn, but I skipped over that to tell him far more important news. “Ya know those chewy cookies I found at the store? Ya know how they taste so good?” “Yes . . .” (He had no clue why I was prattling on about food, let alone cookies.) “Well, I figured out that if you take three cookies and layer them with soft butter in between they taste THREE times as good as just one cookie!” Stunned silence. Years later, it does kind of turn my stomach, too, but he has always maintained that is the most awful thing I have ever said to him (but I know he’d feel differently if he had just TRIED ONE at the time). The cookies thing was just the porcine part. The emotional part was just as overwhelming, but I successfully managed that. One morning, My Reason for Living emerged from the shower to find
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me sobbing uncontrollably on the bed with our third newborn cradled in my arms. He rushed to my side, frantic with concern, as I pointed wordlessly at the TV. It was the cotton commercial. Remember that commercial? “The touch, the feel, of COTTON, the fabric of our lives . . .” It was full of images of fluffy, huggy, people running and hugging and loving up each other in slow motion in soft, fluffy cotton towels and blankets. It . . . was . . . so . . . beautiful. What could any oxytocin-crazed mother do but fall apart at the seams? That commercial aired at 8:17 a.m. daily on the Today Show. Because I knew oxytocin would result in inexplicable tears at SOME point in the day, I used my head and made a point of watching that cotton commercial every day just to get it over with. On weekends, my family had to take their chances as their weeping-time-bomb mother wandered through the day. It would be nice, some days, to still have oxytocin to blame for my irrationalities. There’s always that awful estrogen -- I’m sure it explains all my failings. But if I did that, I would be giving my kids explicit permission to use their currently over-active pituitary glands as scapegoats for all their shenanigans. Even so, I confess that there are some days when I do just abdicate all sense, sensibility and responsibility and I just LOSE IT. On those days even My Reason for Living thinks about running for cover. Then I thank goodness for things like testosterone, because it has some beneficial side effects that actually make him want to catch just about any emotional curve ball I can throw.
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The Real Skinny On Real Moms
April 21, 2000 There’s this annoying “tribute” to real moms everywhere floating around the internet. Several well-meaning people have forwarded it to me because I guess they think I’ll feel saluted. (Several other people, like Linda, keep sending it to me BECAUSE they know I hate it, but that’s another column.) It grates on me because I happen to be a real live mom, but I do not resemble the mom in this tribute whatsoever. The mom in this recurring nightmare on my PC screen is described in heroic terms. To wit, she and her husband are watching the late news. She yawns and announces that she is tired and heading to bed. Then it details how she gathers up all the empty cans and wrappers as she exits the den, and then notices the mountain of laundry needing to be done as she carries the trash to the kitchen. So, she starts a load of laundry, and so on. Without complaint or a string of curses muttered under her breath, she valiantly finds enough things to clean, prepare, rearrange, and put away to keep her occupied until she falls, now thoroughly exhausted, into bed at 1:30 a.m. Her husband has been snoring there since 11:32, two minutes after the late news ended and he announced that he, too, was tired and heading to bed. Only he goes straight to bed, guilt-free. My problem with this scenario is that it implies that this is what ALL “real moms” do. I must have been a man in a former life or something, because my life shares little in common with this “good mom” story that keeps haunting my email inbox (and I will hurt anybody inclined to send it to me again, Linda). When I
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get tired, I go to bed, straight to bed, period. I can turn a blind eye to all the assorted empties, wrappers, unwashed laundry just as well as any “good dad,” and happily so. Does that exclude me from the “real mom” or “good mom” clubs? I don’t think so. For most of us, mothering is largely a repetition of what our own mothers taught us, with a few of our own variations thrown in. My mother does resemble the heroine in that smarmy tribute, except that she did not hum happily through all those chores, she loudly and openly grumbled about picking up after us, often snarling something about somebody being raised in a barn. We all largely ignored her and turned up the TV volume until she was out of earshot. She taught me by example that the more you wait on somebody who can and ought to wait on themselves, the more you will be expected to do so, and the less you will be appreciated for it. Motherhood is unfortunately no exception. Growing up in a family with eleven siblings also helped sear that aphorism into my brain. As a consequence, mothering for me is less a soft-focus picture of selfless servitude than it is one of loving, but very planned obsolescence. When my 13 year old announced that she was doing her own laundry from now on because I never “get it back right, or quickly enough,” I suffered no feelings of inadequacy or rejection. My reaction was “Yes!! It’s working!” I then informed my eldest that I would no longer be doing laundry for ANY able bodied child over 13, and added that this new ruling had a firm precedent. When it came to self-suffiency and serving others, I learned to play my cards very close to my vest about as early as I could walk and talk. For example, when my siblings were all draped over the couches and one another enjoying a TV-induced stupor together, anyone who left the room for a moment steadfastly INSISTED that it was ONLY to go to the bathroom -- not anywhere NEAR the kitchen. If you were to leave and return with anything edible, it was only because of a sudden whim after flushing. You NEVER
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admitted that your original goal was food or drink. In my family, this was a principle of Darwinian proportions. Anyone who openly admitted to heading anywhere near the kitchen was begged, bribed and/or threatened if he did not agree to bring back something for everyone else, too. Giving in to this kind of “group whine” could mean missing the TV program altogether because it took several trips back and forth to bring something for everyone. As a child, I also enjoyed the “benefit” of never having a paid babysitter take care of me. When my parents went out, it was understood that the oldest one at home was left in charge of the rest of us. The older siblings were not paid for babysitting us because my parents did not believe in it -- it was simply part of towing your own weight in a large family. Utopian, but impractical from my viewpoint. I can remember thanking my lucky stars that my older sisters were NOT my mother, just cantankerous interruptions in my otherwise idyllic existence. I can remember paying my unpaid caretakers in the form of brushing and braiding my sisters’ long hair, rubbing my older brothers’ backs, and making them all Coke floats, etc., while they watched TV and complained about having to watch us too. (As one of the two babies of the family, when I became old enough to babysit, I was actually paid by neighborhood families, but it didn’t stop me from expecting my little charges to brush my hair and fetch me goodies anyway. As a consequence, I did not generate a whole lot of repeat business, but I digress...). Having spent a day or two around my family before our nuptials, my Reason for Living had lots of advance notice about the difference between me and his role model for mothering (a person who is SO nice she confuses waiting on others with being deliriously happy). Yet I have to give him an A for effort in hoping I might eventually cave in and become a “real mom” like the ones they write about in Hallmark cards. When we were first married, he too had radar for whenever I would veer anywhere near our kitchen: “How ‘bout a Coke?” he would ask. “No, thanks, I’m not
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thirsty!” I would cheerfully chirp in reply. Today, I use the same, effective shtick on any of my progeny who are old enough to pour without spilling, but their hopes spring eternal, too. I don’t want to give the impression that we never wait on each other at all -- we do, happily, but there really is something about whether it’s your own idea or not. In fact, I have a bad habit of OFFERING to bring My Reason for Living a beverage or snack of his choice, but then I wander off and get distracted by something else (not laundry) to the point of forgetting I even made my generous offer. It’s really so rude and irksome to him that it’s probably better not to mention it in the first place. This “real mom” valiant suffering is not limited to late night toils, either. A friend of mine was recently clucking about another mom who DOES NOT EVEN GET UP with her children before school. Translation: real moms do, those who don’t are not only NOT real moms, but probably also a member of the Not Very Good Moms Club, to boot. Well, give me a membership card. As my children will tell you, if I even APPEAR in the kitchen during breakfast, it must be Christmas. Ever since they were ALL big enough to make their own bowls of cereal and prepare their own bag lunches, they have. You might be wondering how my job description as mother reads at all, since it obviously does not include preparing breakfast, making lunches, or doing laundry for people over 14 whom I did not marry. There’s plenty left in there, but it boils down to loving them unconditionally, teaching them selfsufficiency, and stressing that being good is more important than anything, including being smart, but being smart runs a very close second. I am also trying to teach them that if they are good and smart, they will not erect statues of me, give me a medal, or give me a hug every time they see me clean up after them, ferry them somewhere, or do something for them that they are plenty big enough to do for themselves. No, if they are good and smart, they will give me hand instead.
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Mind you, I am not saying that the moms who do identify with that “real mom” tribute are not “real moms” or “good moms” they are just not the ONLY kind of real, good moms there is. I am not trying to start an argument (that I could not win) about what makes a good mom. Even if I were, I would not have the energy to finish such an argument, because it’s late, I’m tired and I’m going to bed. Straight to bed, guilt-free.
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Don’t Call It Love
May 5, 2000 Not too long ago, a fellow car pool mother confided that I was “so lucky” because one of the boys in the carpool clearly had “a thing” for my eldest daughter. “They make such a darling couple!” she cooed. She was baffled by my polite indifference to the situation (indifferent was as polite as I could be) since she would be “thrilled” if her daughter could manage to catch the attention of this carpool boy. Oddly enough, my daughter was not just indifferent to this boy’s apparent affection for her, she was oblivious. She was unimpressed by his versatile wardrobe (a sleeve often doubled as a handkerchief) and his ability to mimic flatulence by rapidly squeezing his hand under his armpit. In short, this boy was doomed as a suitor because he so preciously resembled her own brother’s amazing talents. Have I mentioned that she was five years old at the time? Almost ten years later, there are still adults (still MORE of them now) who think they are paying my daughter a compliment when they ask me, “Has she been in love yet?” I want to tell them that the boys in her universe have not progressed much beyond her K5 carpool, that she is far too busy for such nonsense, and that it is IMPOSSIBLE for someone who does not have all their permanent molars to actually be “in love.” But I rarely have time to deliver that sermon, nor a captive-enough audience. So, I simply smile gratefully at their well-meaning question and confide, “No, she’s too busy to be fornicating just yet.”
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I know that at her age, at her brother’s slightly older age, the protective coating against boyfriends/girlfriends I have tried to slather all over them could begin to wear off in dangerous patches at any moment. If there were a boyfriend/girlfriend BLOCK in a bottle, I would insist on the SPF 45 strength, the sweat-proof kind that goes on purple and is supposed to turn clear after a few minutes but doesn’t quite manage. Like a broken record, I have reminded them that at their age it is MUCH more important and beneficial to have friends who are girls and boys than it is to have a boyfriend or girlfriend. By and large, they have agreed, with a few exceptions here and there. Mercifully, these liaisons appear to last somewhere between 10 minutes and 10 days, which is just fine with me. But, IF and when they bring someone home beyond the tenth day and they actually want to see if this person could withstand the strain of meeting their “weird” mother, I will be polite, but indifferent. I will not swoon with vicarious delight if one of mine dares to call their feelings “love.” In fact, they already know darn well that if they ever use the word “love” around me in reference to someone of the opposite sex, it had better be because they are trying to persuade me to co-sign on a mortgage. The worst thing I could ever do to my kids as they begin to date is let them believe that what they feel for a boyfriend/girlfriend before they can legally order a martini is “love.” It is many things that SEEM like love sometimes, but if I let them call it love and echo it myself, I’d be mining their emotional landscape. If you are not sure whether your son or daughter is really “in love” with someone, consider some of the habits of people who are truly in love with each other and then decide: People in love file their own tax returns. People in love do not grow out of their shoes. People in love speak “closing costs” almost fluently.
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People in love do not have a curfew. People in love debate important issues like thermostat settings. People in love do not break up every other week. People in love pay their own bills out of joint checking accounts. People in love do not ask their best friend to call their beloved for them. People in love spend an ungodly portion of vacation time with their beloved’s family. People in love do not play with their gum. People in love buy their own cars and car insurance. People in love do not believe that half the fun is tellin’ the guys. People in love do not say, “I think we should see other people.” People in love do not ask for an advance on their allowance. People in love marry each other. People in love do not plumb their beloved’s soul with a “Cosmopolitan” quiz. People in love HAVE SEX. In fact, a lot of people who are NOT in love have sex, too, poor slobs. Sometimes, both parties even come up with the idea at the same time. However, those who are fence-sitting about sex will too easily fall off on the side that really hurts if someone ELSE convinces them that it’s really OK since “we are in love.” Too often, “ELSE” is a mere boy between the ages of 14 and 21. I have dated a few members of that set in my time, and they are nothing if not persistent little buggers. I have seen crabgrass and cockroaches that are less tenacious. Now I know perfectly well that NOT calling it “love” is NOT a guarantee against things that we parents prefer not to believe our kids capable of. But words are powerful things (you’re still reading these words, after all, agreeing or not). If I start referring to my kids’ limited forays into courtship as “love” or “being in love” then I am effectively agreeing with an adolescent male
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whose single-minded zealotry mocks the tepid passion of Shiite Muslims on their first pilgrimage to Mecca. If your own teenage daughter is deeply “in love” and you are feeling a bit queasy right now, fear not. I am certain that she is the living exception to the rule, with a good head on her shoulders, and you have nothing to worry about. On the other hand, if you have a teenage son, too, I don’t know if it’s a good idea for him to meet my daughter for another seven years or so. Unless of course he enjoys entertaining girls by making funny noises with his armpit -- at least I’ll always know where his hands are.
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May 19, 2000 For the life of me I cannot remember the last time I even heard about two people I know, friends, acquaintances, what-have-you, being in a fight, let alone witnessing such a disaster. I wish my kids could say the same thing. I am not talking about a misunderstanding, a heated discussion, a war of words, or a mere argument. I hear about plenty of those, and given my loose tongue and quick temper, too many people hear plenty from me. A sharp tongue is damaging enough, but this goes way beyond words. I am talking about a bona fide fight. I mean fisticuffs, knuckle sandwiches, kicking, punching, hair-pulling -- you know, “sticks and stones” behavior. I teach seventh grade Sunday school every third Sunday. (I know this does not mean I am a good person; it just means I would not agree to teach it every Sunday, or even every other Sunday.) While I used to feel sorriest for teachers, especially substitute teachers, when I was in seventh grade, this is a genuinely great bunch of kids. I learn at least as much from them as I try to teach -- and some of the stuff they are telling me indicates that our schools are failing in discipline. According to my personal, highly anecdotal, and wholly nonempirical evidence, every family I know of that has made the difficult choice to switch from public school to a private school recently has done so largely because of discipline, or the lack thereof. Other factors such as class size, curriculum, and religious focus certainly come into play, but the discipline thing is often the last straw. As my friend Jeff once put it, he was tired of the
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“simple lack of civility” that was demonstrated, expected, and tolerated, especially at the squirrelly middle school level. I know what he means. Middle school is not charm school, but as I enter my children’s middle school, expecting and getting a student to hold open a door for a mother with her arms loaded with “between-testing snacks” is a sheer test of wills. When I am dealing with my own back-sliding children, an exasperated glare is all it takes to remind them that they are falling down on the job when I stand in front of a closed door waiting for them to hold the darn thing open for their sainted mother. When dealing with random students at their school, I must either ask very specifically and very loudly to PLEASE OPEN THE DOOR for me or simply do it myself as they successfully practice their sullen deafness approach. Walking down the hall during class changes can be even more daunting. Slightly built adults like myself back down and step aside in shock as big brazen preteens saunter by with a gait that states plainly that they do not step aside for ANYONE. My older kids roll their eyes when I splutter on about this “I dare you” attitude I see so often in middle school. They are veterans. Jaded. They learned a long time ago, way back in the sixth grade, about choosing your battles carefully. Standing your ground in the hallway during class changes is not a battle worth choosing. When my son was a little bitty sixth grader, he chose to lug around a 40 pound (I weighed it!) book bag all year long instead of challenge a much bigger kid to have access to his locker a second time. And he was not the only sixth grader doing an extended Quasi Moto impression that year. Middle school has always been the “red-headed step child” of just about every school system, public or private. It is a tough age, fraught with drastic physical and emotional changes from grade to grade, from month to month, from student to student. It is not unusual to have a fully grown sixth grader seated next to a classmate that won’t buy his first razor until 12th grade. One would think that this age group, challenged with so many
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changes so densely packed, would require and get specialized attention. One would think. Instead, it appears that the inmates are running the asylum and the inmates are pushing the envelope so hard that it looks more like a potato sack. When my oldest was in middle school, overdue library fines or an in-school suspension (ISS) were enough to bar an unruly student from a school dance or a field trip across town. The envelope has been pushed quite a bit since then. Four years later at the same school, several students were caught doing things they should not be doing during school time using school video equipment. Consequences were neither swift nor apparent. The offenders went basically unpunished. They were not suspended. They were not dropped from the Beta Club rolls. Their popularity soared. They went on the class trip to Florida along with all the well-behaved kids. Just what kind of behavior is the school training in our kids? Before you set your Bible and rod down long enough to start cheering me on, hold on a minute because I am NOT calling for a return to good old corporal punishment. Call me a softy, call me a flaming liberal if you want, but if you want to see one helluva fight (in court) you can start by just trying to lay a finger on one of my kids. Hitting a child does not teach him a thing about self control except that you have lost your own, and along with it your credibility. I am calling for a return to good old fashioned discipline. The dictionary defines it as “training expected to produce a specific character or behavior; controlled behavior resulting from such training.” So far, it seems the kids are being trained that fighting is OK, even routine. Just last Friday a “scheduled” fight occurred between two seventh grade boys. It took place after school at a local grade school’s playground. Word got out, even several high school students showed up. TO WATCH. My seventh graders tell me it lasted a good half hour or more. It was reportedly a “really cool fight.” The police finally arrived on the scene and broke it up,
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but unfortunately no arrests were made. Mike Tyson would be proud. Which brings me back to the fighting at school. My Sunday school seventh graders (who attend at least three different middle schools among them) inform me, and my own kids confirm it, that they HEAR about fights almost every day, and they WITNESS a fight about twice a week or so. These fights reportedly cut across race, gender, and economic lines, but they do very little to eradicate the very stereotypes that public school advocates struggle against. The kids tell me that the offending pugilists get suspended over and over. They explain that some routine offenders are allowed to just walk home suspended, alone, without waiting for a parent to retrieve them. Actual expulsions are rare, at least in the kids’ minds. Some of the kids volunteered that they think the teachers are scared themselves, which is why they don’t even bother with minutia like holding doors open for adults. I hope I am wrong. This cannot be gospel. And I have considered my sources; 12 and 13 year olds’ testimonials can be easily filleted under cross examination, but their PERCEPTION IS THE REALITY. There are efforts afoot to counter the attack. Programs like “Second Step,” a conflict resolution training program has been used in some middle schools, funded by the PTA. It has had moderate success at preventing fights from ever beginning. But what about when they bust out anyway? I don’t want or expect teachers to be policemen. Discipline is not just a matter of consequence, but of expectations. But when school administrators start excusing bad behavior through lack of punishment, they invite students to push the envelope, which makes very good teachers into very frustrated policemen, and teaches students the wrong lessons. I am hopeful about new leadership setting a strict example, a new tone. I may be frustrated with a lot of things about the public
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schools, but I am not breaking ranks yet. I still believe we have a better than fighting chance to dramatically improve here. So Mr. Harner, I welcome you, and salute your background in military discipline for our schools. Just one suggestion, though: as you fine tune the architectural plans for all the new and renovated school facilities we hope to be building in the next five years, especially in the middle schools, PLEASE, PLEASE -- don’t forget the woodsheds!
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Alone For The Weekend With Six Million People
June 2, 2000 If you can possibly manage it, I recommend getting away from it all for a quiet weekend with your beloved and about six million other people. If you’re at a loss for destinations that fill the criteria, I recommend The Big Apple. If you’re a regular reader, you may recall that my dad once gave us a Christmas gift one year which underwrote all the costs of four weekends away, alone, together for roughly one weekend per quarter during the coming year. He was trying to teach us the importance of carving out time for ourselves, and while we REALLY appreciated that gift, our own track record since then has been spotty. (It is SO much easier to devote time exclusively to your sweetie when someone else insists on it and pays for it.) We had not attempted a weekend alone together since November, a jaunt to Atlanta which was abruptly cut short after less than 24 hours due to an impromptu soiree hosted at our home without our knowledge or permission. But that’s another column. At this rate, we have gone to New York together about every twenty years, whether we need to or not. Our first trip there was the result of my winning a Delta Delta Delta sorority suitcase party, which entitled me and my date to an all expense paid trip to New York for that weekend. At the time, my Reason for Living was still just my Reason for Shaving My Legs. I will not go any further into the details of this trip because my mother reads this column faithfully and she still gets mad
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about it. Suffice to say that had my dear mother not pointed it out, my sorority might have unknowingly neglected to include a chaperone’s ticket in the package. Although we do not get away (unchaperoned) as often as we ought or would like, we have the ritual of getting away down pat. First, we work like dogs until the wee hours the day and night before departure in order to “get everything done,” from loose ends at work, to groceries for the kids, to writing out their schedules, to making sure they have clean laundry, to making sure the house is reasonably clean enough for my mother-in-law to consider coming back again sometime -- everything except of course for packing because we are too tired to even think about it as we flop into bed. Next, it’s very important that we set the alarm so that we can ignore it the next morning and oversleep because of working like dogs the night before. That gives us a good 17 minutes to jump out of bed, run through the shower, throw some clothes in a suitcase, kiss the kids, and lay a patch on the driveway as we scream off to the airport holding room temperature Cokes in our hands (AKA breakfast). As we zoom toward the airport cursing ourselves for not being more organized, we begin to switch into get away mode, telling each other how wonderful it is going to be to have 48 hours with no alarm clocks to ignore, no laundry to do, no meals to prepare (OK -- defrost), nobody to chauffeur, no teenagers to embarrass by simply breathing in public, no short people eating crackers in our bed while they watch videos, nobody to wait up for at night, and best of all no phones to answer. We say this as we both compulsively check voice mail for one last time on our respective cell phones and then we ceremoniously switch our phones OFF. Although we get away fairly seldom compared to how much we’d like to, we have recognized some hard and fast rules that apply to us whenever we do get away.
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First of all, no matter how empty or full a plane will be, people like us (who are attempting time-travel back to the brief interlude between the time when we were picking out our wedding cake and our first pediatrician) are ALWAYS seated next to a squirmy baby. This baby always cries. And no matter how often we tell ourselves that it really doesn’t bother us because it is not our baby, it really does. It is also some kind of rule that the minute we move over to another seat, the baby and his parent will move TOO. Escape is impossible. We remind each other, again, that next time we will allot ourselves a good twenty minutes to pack some Benadryl -- if not for the ubiquitous squauller, then for us. Secondly, we’ve noted that most airline passengers cannot count to 2 with much accuracy. There are signs all over the place in about ten different languages telling people that they are limited to 2 carry-on bags each, and they have all these handy boxes around demonstrating just how large these bags cannot be. Most people seem to confuse 2 with other nearby numbers, such as 3 and 4, which while close, are still definitely not 2. Most of these scofflaws go unpunished, which really disturbs people like me who have been able to count to 2 with great accuracy since I was about 3 or 4. If the airline would tell these people that the penalty for lugging on extra bags is sitting next to the screaming baby normally reserved for MY listening pleasure, the problem would clear right up. Twenty years later, we found that Southerners have no corner on hospitality. New Yorkers are still very friendly, especially if you tip correctly. I learned that if you tip a bellman a measly quarter for merely opening the door to a cab that you whistled for and nailed down your own self, he will very pointedly, but very politely, fold it back into your hand and thank you with a big smile once you are settled comfortably in the back seat. Aside from tipping issues, I really appreciate the bellmen. Bellmen, or doormen, or bellhops, or whatever you call them have changed quite a bit in twenty years, for the better. I was expecting
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the usual uniform, a cross between a Beefeater and a ringmaster. But the young guys who gallantly grabbed our bags (just 2 each) sported a lot of black, a little bit of spandex, some bundled dread locks, and a biceps & pec’s package that could cause severe cardiac arrhythmia in most women and a few men. Whether we are in New York or someplace closer to home, others would be well served NOT to follow us if you are in search for all the right hot spots. We have a curious knack for choosing the WRONG line. We like choosing an invitingly short line, which often indicates that the excursion is so unpopular that day or that time that the proprietor tells us to come back another day rather than take just us. Or, we choose the incredibly long line (OK, I did it) full of other people dancing in place with me, like a conga line going nowhere fast, until my fellow cretins and I figure out that this public restroom is CLOSED. We were pleased to learn some other universal rules that actually apply to all kids everywhere, not just ours. For example, if you are standing on a very crowded street corner facing a very large puddle, SOME kid MUST jump in it for the sheer joy of the big splash. SOME kid’s mother or father is going to threaten life or limb if some kid actually goes through with it, which gives some OTHER kid the idea to just DO IT before some OTHER parent can’t shout, “Don’t!” Fortunately, everyone else, most of them former kids themselves, will laugh good naturedly even as their shoes are soaked, if only for the sheer joy of the offender not being THEIR kid for once. We have also found, time after time, that even though the purpose behind these getaway weekends is to re-discover the relatively carefree life we enjoyed together “before kids,” the Topic A for the weekend is not murmured sweet nothings, but those very same kids. I am not complaining. This is a very good thing. And once we get accustomed to speaking to each other without being interrupted ten times by one of the kids or the
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telephone, we actually have some genuinely wonderful conversations. While I like the Statue of Liberty and Chelsea Piers and Times Square and all that, some of the best scenery in New York is all the other tourists. By and large, they are so goofy looking and so often so lost that we wanted to believe that we were a breed apart. But I also know that no matter how briskly we walked, no matter how I pretended NOT to recognize famous people on the street, no matter how much black I wore, no matter how careful I was to wear cool sunglasses and look blasé, no matter how furtively I consulted a map, no matter how assiduously I avoided looking UP (“at all them skah-scapers”), no matter how often we opted for the subway instead of taking a cab, I know we could never pass for locals. All in all, I really don’t care. As far as I could tell, the natives didn’t each have four great kids to coo about all weekend, nor did they appear to pause as often as the local Greenville contingent did for spontaneous smooches on street corners while other people’s kids blissfully splashed their feet in puddles.
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June 16, 2000 Young children have a penchant for doing an amazing imitation of an organ grinder’s monkey the minute their mother gets on the phone. If I am doing laundry, unloading groceries, or slogging upstream against the constant current of sheer entropy that washes over our home, they are nowhere to be found. But the phone rings and they instantly appear, crawling all over me, loudly dying of thirst or hunger, or under the thrall of some other emergency like needing to tell me what they really want for their birthday which is just six months away. When they were all little crumb crunchers, I longed for the day when they would reach the age of reason, and I would be able to explain to them, in a serene voice, that I was busy on the phone for the moment (or for the hour, as the case may be) and that I would be delighted to assist them as soon as I could give them my undivided attention (which is technically never, but you get my drift). In the meantime, they needed to simply understand that they could not interrupt my phone calls unless, as a friend of mine succinctly puts it, their hair is on fire. For phone aficionados, the age of reason unfortunately accompanies the age of writing. Instead of crawling all over me, the phone’s ring turns those above five into little scribes. They pelt me with notes. Small sticky notes are too easily mistaken for trash by a distracted mother who is wandering around the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, and eating crumbs as she converses on the cordless. Undaunted, they grab their giant fruit-scented markers and scrawl urgent notes on sheets of newspaper paper.
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These bulletins are then pressed into my face with easy-response YES and NO boxes that I am required to check for a quick response. Under these circumstances, I have been known to carry on a conversation and settle dire issues simultaneously such as: “Can we please get another dog? Please check YES or NO.” Although these notes were progress compared to the days when I was physically pummeled for attention whenever the phone rang, I wished for the day when they could simply be quiet for a moment while I was on the phone, or develop a desire to leave the room in search of something more interesting and less challenging than a mother who keeps shushing them and pantomiming threats while she is trying to conduct business on the kitchen phone. Whoever said it was right, I really must be careful about what I wish for. Now that they are all getting older and spreading out into distinct developmental stages instead of the original preschool hoard, I have discovered that leaving the room and being quiet while Mom is on the phone is not necessarily a good thing. It’s called eavesdropping. I know eavesdropping is a normal part of growing up because I did it constantly as a child. As an adult, I have been certified as “normal” by a neurologist, an obstetrician and a chiropractor, so there you go. Eavesdropping provided a valuable lesson in learning the fine art of conversation. My mother has her masters in conversation, by phone or in person. During my formative years, she also had a host of friends who counted her among their closest confidantes who all seemed to call her daily to share their fascinating tales of woe. The attentive eavesdropper was privy to some stuff that was considerably more interesting than the routine conversational fare among my peers. Whenever the conversation began to take a truly enticing turn, my mother would snap her fingers sharply and mouth the word “SCRAM” to us as she pointed frantically toward
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the door. This was my cue to leave the room and plant myself just out of sight, but firmly within earshot. From this vantage point, my vocabulary broadened considerably. To guard against the possibility that one or more of us might be still hanging around, Mom would use words that were at first effectively confusing. I was not to be thrown off the scent that easily, however, so a trip or two to the dictionary was all it took so that I wouldn’t be puzzled the next time it came up. Unlike other kids, I was fully conversant with otherwise mystifying words such as HYSTERECTOMY, INEBRIATION, VARICOSITIES, SCHIZOPHRENIA, EMBEZZLEMENT, WEDLOCK and EN FLAGRANTE. I also learned other valuable information such as that no self respecting parent would allow any boy to grow their hair over their ears (a length that was amended several times later), that all that most of her friends’ kids really needed to straighten up was a good talking to, and that if her friend’s latest problem was a little too mundane to warrant a lengthy conversation, then “it too, shall pass,” and that my older sister did not get engaged a moment too soon because, at 24, she was not getting any younger, you know. For the most part, I was smart enough to keep the information obtained through furtive listening to myself. My mother, an avid reader of this column, will be shocked to learn that I was ever listening that closely. My own children are less cagey about their own eavesdropping, and often inadvertently turn themselves in. One of my daughters recently peppered me with questions about a boat for days on end. Do we have one? No. Was I sure? Yes. Have we ever had one that sank? No. Were we in the process of buying one? No. Did I want to buy a boat any time soon? No. I could not understand her line of questioning, and she would not accept my denials. “Then WHY,” she demanded, “did you ask Daddy on the phone if our ship had come in? Why did you ask him if we still have a boat floating out there beyond the horizon?”
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I was torn between giving her a lecture on the evils of eavesdropping on conversations that she had no business listening to and explaining what was meant by the expression of having one’s ship come in, but I was interrupted by the ring of the phone yet again. So I gave her some smelly magic markers and a sheet of newspaper and pantomimed to her that she could figure it out by writing me a series of questions that I could easily check YES or NO.
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Camp Memories and Realities
June 30, 2000 For the first time in eight years, we cannot even muster a quorum around here. More than a week ago, all three of our girls scampered off to the same camp at the same time for two weeks. I was surprisingly misty-eyed as they piled into the car and waved good-bye, as this was the culmination of weeks of packing, planning and last-minute unpacking and re-organizing that left us all breathless with anticipation for the first day. Perhaps I was just exhausted. At 4:20 a.m. on the first day, our middle daughter appeared at our bedside and announced that she could not sleep because she was too excited about camp. Without even opening my eyes, I informed her that she would have much better luck lying on her bed quietly than she would standing upright on the bare floor. That was apparently not the right response (although hardly the unexpected one, had she given it any forethought) because she did not tip toe back to bed, but stomped the whole way, leaving no doubt about my chances at the Good Mommy award that day. At least that gave me something to ponder as I lay in my bed quietly, waiting for sleep, which was just behind Godot. Camp is a coming of age experience that every kid should be able to enjoy, whether they want to or not. My parents saw to it that all of us except one were shipped off to camp at least once during our youths. (My sister Patsy was the only one who was never a camper. Even my parents only had so much energy, and some battles are not worth fighting. Patsy was a loyal letter writer to those of us who were campers, though. I kept them all. “Dear
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Joan, We miss you, especially at dinner when you are supposed to set the table. We are keeping careful track of the days you have missed so you can make them up later.”) My brother Frank was shipped off to camp for the first time at the age of nine, under extreme protest on his part. (That may seem mean, but then you did not grow up with him.) The first letter he wrote to my parents provided lurid, graphic detail about how all the campers were seasick in Technicolor during the entire six-hour ferry ride across Lake Michigan over to the camp in Michigan. Their weak stomachs were further assaulted by the vile camp food they were all forced to eat once they arrived and EVERYONE wanted to come right home, including Frank, of course. My mother laughed aloud when she read the letter, and passed it around the dinner table for us all to enjoy. She had found it in his room, written shortly before his departure. My first summer at camp, the letters to and from my parents read like a study in burgeoning self-reliance. It is obvious to the reader (and these letters are REAL) that my mother thought that camper packing lists were for OTHER people who had not already sent nine other children off to camp several times over. Thus, I learned early that I had to pack for myself if was going to be done anywhere near right. “Dear Joan, I’m sure I must have packed some soap for you. If not, borrow some. It’s a great way to make new friends. I don’t know if I can send you some brownies or cookies, but I’ll think about it. Love, Mother” “Dear Joan, You don’t need a bathrobe. Besides, by the time it would get there you would be plenty used to walking [the half mile through the woods!] back to your cabin in a towel, and it will have warmed up enough so that you don’t need one anymore. In the meantime, why don’t you borrow one? It’s a great way to make new friends. I’ll try to remember to send some cookies, but you’ll be home soon anyway. Love, Mother”
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I knew in my heart of hearts that my mother would never bake brownies or cookies and mail them to me, because she never baked them, period. But, since all the other kids begged and received, I felt it was worth asking, anyway. Her equivocation on this issue was well meaning, I’m sure, but did little to enhance her credibility or my grasp on reality. My own children, on the other hand, have a firm grasp on the reality that I learned all my baking skills from their maternal grandmother. Being a millennium mom, I get to fax my missives to them on a daily basis instead of using snail mail. Their initial letters are full of plaintive appeals for care packages of “good food” like Cheetos, Oreos, and other similar “goodies” that are so bad for you they really should have warning labels on them. However, even though I am not a runner up for Good Mommy at 4:20 a.m., I can feel almost like a runner up when I write back virtuously and gently reminding them that as much as I would LOVE to bake them some cookies and mail them, the camp RULES strictly prohibit mailing campers ANY food or candy, and they know me too well to expect that I could openly challenge the status quo like that. Moms are softies, though, and even I had a weak moment where I tried to send my girls some difficult-to-detect small pieces of candy. It was all for naught, however. As I wrote to the girls, “All the pieces got crunched up in the fax machine. Oh well, borrow some candy. It’s a great way to make new friends. Love, Mother.”
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How Do You Do It All?
July 14, 2000 A dear friend of mine since childhood was recently profiled in the prestigious Wall Street Journal for reaching a pinnacle in the publishing industry by taking the helm of several Fairchild Publications. She is no newcomer; she has already been the publisher of TV Guide and Glamour, but those were individual magazines, not a conglomerate, so it was news. The profile should have provided detail about how she earned every one of her stripes in the business, starting out almost 20 years ago as a very green but very bright ad sales person with a limited ability to read and understand her own rate card, but unlimited determination. Instead, the author seemed more interested in the fact that this extremely talented woman (and her incidental husband) also has four children under eight, to whom she reportedly takes pains to kiss and say “good night!” during her brief appearances at home between her long work day and her frequent evening engagements (sheer balderdash, by the way). Before I even reached the question in the profile, I saw it coming: “How do you do it all?” I know the editors of Teen People and Cosmopolitan tend to paint girls and women as something less brainy than the average bear (and their readership does kind of confirm that), but the Wall Street Journal? Now “How do you do it all?” may seem like a pretty harmless, routine question for anyone to have a cow over, but it makes me crazy. I peruse profiles like these often and I have YET to find a journalist who gives a rip about how many children (or wives) a successful male executive has, how often he sees any of them, or
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whether he does a THING relating to his family, let alone “how.” I have yet to see a feature or profile about how any man “juggles” his family and career. This is a pity, because if you look around you’ll see that all the really good ones are remarkably deft jugglers in their own right. I have lived on both sides of the fence, and so far I don’t see how a mom can win for losing if she pays attention to politically correct monikers. I was a “stay-at-home” mom (or an “in the house mom” as my daughter says) for seven delightful years. During that time, if anyone in business (man or woman) asked me what I “did,” telling them that I was at home with three or four little ones created an immediate need on their part to extricate themselves as quickly as possible in order to find someone interesting to talk to (I’m CERTAIN it was the stay at home thing that did it...). Or, they hit me up to do some volunteer work for their organization since I wasn’t “doing anything.” If I had a dollar for every time someone patronizingly responded, “Gee, I guess you got YOUR hands full!” I would never have to work at all. On the other hand, when I did venture back into the full time working world, it was politically incorrect enough to some people that they reminded me of it every chance they got. One woman who used to work at my company asked me on a routine basis just who was taking care of my children while I was at work (her kids were appropriately grown). Although the answer was none of her darn business, I am NOTHING if not friendly when it comes to people asking me personal questions. So, I cheerfully told her about our wonderful babysitter. The truth did not set me free; it was apparently the wrong answer, because she quizzed me the same way almost daily. I soon figured out that “wicked witch,” “ax murderer,” and “new dog kennel” were equally wrong -albeit friendly -- answers, so I developed a bad case of deafness in one ear and that finally took care of it.
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It makes me feel aged to even say it, but there were no “stay-athome moms” or “working moms” when I was growing up. I guess my mom was technically a “stay at home” mom, but to apply that title to her is to laugh. She did not have a paying job until I was 17 and there were just two of us 12 left at home, but she was NEVER just “at home” before or after that point. I have never seen her bake a batch of cookies, trade recipes, sew clothing, or tend to the garden, but she mowed the grass and processed more dirty clothes than a Chinese laundry. When she went to bridge club or lunch club or played tennis, nobody looked down their nose and asked her who was taking care of her children. My Reason For Living’s mother taught for 47 years. You can’t do that AND be a “stay at home mom,” but he never thought about it in those terms either. She was simply “Mama,” and his mama taught just about everyone in town, or at least the smart kids. When she was a runner up for national Teacher of the Year in 1968, the interviewer from Life magazine did not ask her “how she did it all” or who was taking care of her children while she taught others’. Oddly enough, he was interested in her work and teaching philosophy. My good friends all work full time at what they do, and they don’t worry about their titles in or out of the house. Some have little ones tugging at their hems all day; some have grown adult clients doing virtually the same thing; some are men; some are women; some have grown children; some have children growing up too fast; they are all good parents who are trying to raise good people, future taxpayers. We never ask one another who is taking care of one another’s children, because we all know there is an implicit, standing offer to help out if needed. We all drive carpools, we all change diapers, we all know our kids’ friends’ names. We all do it all. And being good parents, we NEVER let publications in the house that undermine our can-do, do-it-all family values, such as Teen People, Cosmo, or that insidious Wall Street Journal.
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Home Cooking Best Away From Home
July 28, 2000 As we all sat happily down to dinner together the other night, one of the children pointed out that this was the first time we were ALL sitting down to a home cooked meal together in weeks. This was a happy occasion indeed, not just because we managed to gather all six of us in the middle of a busy summer, but because we had all managed to avoid home cooking for weeks. I managed to dodge the cooking, and they were able to avoid eating it without making a lot of lame and rude excuses. I learned a long time ago that those who can cook, do. I can read, therefore I can prepare a fairly square meal safely anyway. It’s not like my kids have to take Dramamine before meals, but I will admit that if the Papa John’s guy does not end up delivering our Thanksgiving meal to us this year, we have grown close enough to him that he will probably be included at our table. My Reason for Living is (obviously) not a picky eater, a grateful diner if ever there was one. He knows the alternative would be a lot more labor intensive for him. He is so tolerant he has only uttered two editorial remarks about my cooking skills in the past 18 years. The first time was when I prepared some ham sandwiches with lovely fresh tomato slices on them. He did thank me for the sandwich, but helpfully pointed out that he was accustomed to having his tomatoes PEELED. I found that a very odd, roundabout way of telling me that he did not care for any tomatoes in his sandwiches at all. The second time was a bit more serious, and led to the one and only food ban in our household. When I was pregnant with our
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second child, I found I could not tolerate the aroma of food. I could not even risk sitting with him at the table while he dined, unless he was willing to wear a DHEC hazardous waste jumpsuit. But, being the good wife that I am, I did not use this condition as an excuse to get out of preparing dinner for him and our toddler altogether. Instead, I discovered hotdogs. I could wrap up a couple of hotdogs in their buns, toss them in the microwave, and then hold my breath long enough to serve one to each of them before sprinting from the room. To avoid a monotonous menu of hotdogs, I took pains to spice it up a little bit. Monday night was cheese dogs, Tuesday night was chili dogs, Wednesday night was hotdogs smothered in sauer kraut -- I don’t remember making it to Thursday. This system was working just fine for me, but by Thursday even our toddler preferred flinging hotdogs to eating them. As nicely and patiently as he could, my Reason for Living explained that while he appreciated my condition and my efforts, he could not stay under the same roof with me if I expected him to eat a hotdog of any sort EVER AGAIN. I have never appealed that injunction to date, but the kids still get to enjoy them as a staple of their diet. Most of my friends are real cooks. (The others, like Beth, were smart enough to marry one.) Some actually read cookbooks like I read novels, some eschew cookbooks entirely and cook by intuition. They grow their own basil and rosemary, they make pesto. I’ll often find myself in a group where they are all chirping away about different recipes, ingredients, and preparation techniques. It’s kind of like being in an elevator with a bunch of chatty Japanese tourists who speak no English. The fact is “real” cooks suffer tremendous peer pressure and snobbery about food. My cook friends will talk down about people who actually buy and serve spaghetti sauce from a jar --
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but not behind their backs. I mean, I’m sitting right there with them and all. My real cook friends are limited to the creativity sanctioned by the great chefs -- and to me prescribed creativity is an oxymoron. They do not allow themselves the culinary freedoms that my children and I enjoy occasionally, such as Sugar Pops for dinner, smoked oysters with ketchup for breakfast, and even SPAM can be seen as a treat (if the kids are young enough and you’ve got enough brown sugar in the house). I love having friends who can really cook. Cindy & Jim’s place will always be the best restaurant in town according to MY dining guide. The best home cooking we’ve ever had was during the weeks after our fourth child was born when generous (sympathetic?) friends kept us delightfully fed with a series of dinners for six whole weeks. After we enjoyed our very last new baby meal, my Reason for Living remarked how wonderful it was to have friends who brought such terrific meals, and didn’t I find it interesting that they routinely included things like rolls, salad, and desserts in their meals? (I informed him that was just because it was a special occasion.) He then inquired who was delivering dinner the following night (leftovers were NOT an issue at the time). Alas, THAT WAS IT. We were lucky to have been fed for THAT long. He frowned, brooding over his disappointment, but suddenly brightened with a brand new idea: “I know! Let’s have ANOTHER baby!” The dinners were SO good, that it almost sounded like a sane idea at the time; but I would sooner start peeling tomatoes AND grapes for him than jump through that hoop again for the sake of a few weeks worth of wanting to stay home for home cooking.
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August 11, 2000 I recently opened an email that my friend Diane sent me (she is a great source) called “Thoughts on Love,” which was a collection of such thoughts by kids. One of the kids must have been following the story of our romance because it said: “You have to fall in love before you get married, because when you get married you just sit around and read books together.” We just emerged from a wonderful family vacation, a term which was pretty much oxymoronic for us until this year. This is not because my Reason For Living actually attended our vacation instead of business meetings, it was not even because we are beyond diapers and take-along babysitters, it’s because our kids have finally figured out the symbiotic relationship between reading and mutual happiness in our family unit. It used to be that the kids equated our love of reading with child neglect. The more we wanted to read, the less we were catering to their every vacation whim, whether it was hourly hunger pangs or mere boredom. They have finally developed beyond the parental catering mentality to “self-serve.” The kids have actually figured out that the more WE read, the happier they are. If their father and I each have a comfy beach chair, our toes caressed by an inch or two of warm surf, a full cooler of cold beverages, a properly positioned sun umbrella, and a fabulously engrossing book, we are exponentially more likely to nod or grunt assent to just about any request the kids pelt us with -- as long as it does not involve straying even momentarily from our serious
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vacationing positions. Under these dreamy circumstances, I was able read and digest three whole books, and he completed one big fat one. Wedded bliss. Our shared passion for books and reading stops abruptly at the book jacket. My beloved maintains that there is a finite number of books he will be able to read in this life, and he is not about to waste any of that precious time reading or discussing any of the books I like. It’s not like I read bodice rippers or grocery store books, either. I mean, I am one of those readers who is fiercely proud of how much I hated The Bridges of Madison County. (Can we talk?) His book shelf reads like college course syllabi for history, political science, economics, religion, and government. In a word, boring. For me, reading a book is only half the fun. If I can’t TALK about it with someone else who read it (or hated it for that matter) then there’s no point in it. Because my Reason For Living will not even read my book jackets, I have found solace in the embrace of other like-minded readers. My friend Cindy and I might go for months without running into each other, but we will invariably compare current or recent books read, and we also have a pleasantly odd, ad hoc mailbox book club for two. Likewise, I always look forward to running into Emily because she is so well read that I can always get great titles out of her and occasionally impress her by having already perused one of her recommendations. When my friend Marion invited me to join her book club last year I was giddy with gratitude. (These women are serious readers -- one of them, Allison, even spent a summer at Stratford Upon Avon reading and watching all of you-know-who’s plays.) Although the other members are probably sorely tempted at this point to give me the wrong title so they can get a word in edgewise at our meetings, it’s wonderful to be a part of a group that smiles on reading AND talking. We even get around to the book title most meetings.
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My dream vacation would be all six of us lined up in our beach chairs with shared coolers and umbrellas, enjoying the sun and surf while we each get lost in books that are so enthralling that we vy for our turn to discuss our books at dinner each night. We have even resorted to brazen bribery to instill a proper love of reading among the kids over the otherwise brain-dead summer months ($5 per book read, cash). We are enjoying limited success. Our eldest avoids being seen with us in public these days, so he scoffs at the notion of lining up with us like a bunch of nerdy bookworms in matching beach chairs. He does read a good bit, but quite frankly, even if he were willing to enjoy the outdoors while reading with us, I don’t think I could politely participate in a dinner table discussion of the latest articles in MAD or CRACKED magazines. Our eldest daughter is occasionally loathe to share the same gene pool with us, so the ocean front is entirely too small a venue for a reading ensemble. She is immune to bribes, claiming she would happily read beyond the required summer reading list if there were anything interesting in print. Unfortunately, there is no “Like, Pretty Cool to 14 Year Olds” section at the book store. Undaunted, I delved through all the racks at the book store before vacation, but even with that nice Mr. Bruce’s help, I could not find a single book for her on tanning. Our younger girls grabbed the bribe and are getting rich. Harry Potter is keeping them entertained and quite flush. They have already learned a lot. Such as: never lend any of your reading money to a spendthrift older brother, and such as, if you really want a triple decker ice cream cone just a half hour after a perfectly filling lunch, be sure to ask Mom or Dad for it while they are reading on the beach. They have also found that while their parents can seemingly ignore them for hours on end because of their darn books, they are WAY nicer parents than the Dursleys anyway.
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Helpful Hints From Herlong
August 25, 2000 There are several columns out there with helpful hints from everything from household cleaning to dressing appropriately. Sometimes I wish there were one with helpful hints about just getting through the day a little bit more competently than the day before. While I don’t have enough experience to devote my column to that goal from here on out, I have accumulated a few nuggets for one column anyway. To wit, I have decided to share some of these bits of wisdom so that you can avoid these same pitfalls and feel the wiser, if not more experienced, for it. When making brownies from a mix which calls for the use of vegetable oil, do NOT substitute olive oil for vegetable oil. You are probably technically right if you tell yourself that olives are members of the vegetable family, and that all the best cooks seem to sprinkle their conversation and their dishes with “extra virgin” this and that, but trust me, olive oil is not the kind of vegetable oil the box is talking about. Borrow from a neighbor, get in the car and buy some Mazola, or put off making the brownies until next week if you have to, because even a baby in a high chair will gag on olive oil brownies. I know. When making reservations for a week at the beach for a condo with an “ocean view,” make certain that the view is plainly visible to the naked eye, without the assistance of binoculars or a telescope. Also make certain that the ocean that one will be viewing does not completely cover the beach at high tide and is truly within “walking distance.” Be sure to define “walking
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distance” as something significantly less than one mile over splintered planks tossed helter skelter over a marsh. If you do not define all these terms carefully, you could find yourself vacationing about as close to the beach as I-95. I know. When your wife asks you to pick up a couple of gallons of milk on the way home, pay attention to her advice as to where NOT to purchase it because earlier purchases have proved to be sour. If you do not pay attention to her advice, the milk will not be the only sour thing you have to stomach. I know. When you have found that your Reason for Living has purchased milk at the one place that you advised him not to because it tends to carry sour milk, do not allow yourself a fit of pique so overwhelming that you insist on returning the sour milk yourself and giving the proprietor a piece of your mind to boot. Calm yourself. Simply pour the sour milk down the drain, and buy more milk elsewhere. If you do give in to anger and insist on returning the milk, be VERY careful to make sure that the cap is snapped onto the jug tightly and that the milk is placed in the van securely. Failure to do this could easily and understandably result in sour milk spilling ALL over the floor of your van. You will probably not even know this until you slide open the door of your van and it all splashes out on your pants. This will lead only to incoherent, enraged babbling on your part, which will undermine the self-righteous indignation you intended to convey to the proprietor. I know. When briskly walking through a flock of pigeons, do not assume that the pigeons, will magically part and beautifully fly out of your way en masse like they do in the movies. Be very careful because pigeons are stupid, dirty birds. They are so stupid that they have been known to fly not off but UP the dress of a young woman briskly walking across a square en route to work. If this happens to you, do not assume that other commuters will come to your aid or at least kindly ignore your plight. Some sick
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commuters will fall to their knees, weak with laughter because they somehow find this horrible scene amusing. I know. When looking at a house with a prospective buyer/friend, do not assume that a plate of freshly baked peanut butter cookies is meant for you. It’s true, some sellers do leave the house smelling like fresh baked cookies or bread as a way to make their home seem more inviting. If you feel like the cookies are left out as a hospitality gesture, it is probably OK to take one each. Do not take five or six, even if you are there during the lunch hour and understandably feeling hungrier than usual due to the aroma of warm cookies. You could be eating cookies meant for a child’s class or Girl Scout group, and this could annoy the seller somewhat. I know. When deciding that you are so bugged at your Reason for Living about something that you make a very dramatic statement by sleeping on an incredibly uncomfortable Ninja Turtles sleeping bag on the floor in your toddler’s room, be SURE to leave the light on in your room. If you do not, your Reason for Living will tiptoe carefully around in the dark so as not to wake you. He will just go right to sleep assuming you are in your usual spot in the bed. This will only make you madder and rob you of much needed sleep. I know. When selling a used car for the first time, do not agree to hold the title and maintain insurance on the car for two weeks simply because the buyer seems nice and asks you to. If you are tempted to agree to such a request, you MUST confer with your Reason for Living first. If you forget to confer with him, at least tell him right away about your decision. It may not seem like a very big deal to you at the time, but it is. Failure to do these things could make your Reason for Living so mad that it will become one of those things, even 18 years later, that makes him mad all over again just thinking about it. I know. I will share more nuggets with you as they accumulate. Sometimes daily.
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Saying Goodbye for the First Time Again
September 8, 2000 Almost exactly 16 years ago, I left our firstborn in the care of someone else for the first time, for an extended period of time. It was a three day weekend. My Reason For Living felt it was time for us to have some time to ourselves, without the baby. I did not. For the previous three and half months, I had pretty much been held hostage by this baby. I could not eat, drink, sleep, use the bathroom, shower, or talk on the phone without his say-so. He relentlessly tortured me with sleep deprivation techniques. One would think that I would relish the opportunity for a brief respite from this tiny taskmaster. But I suffered from the Stockholm Syndrome on Steroids. I not only sympathized with my captor, I adored him. When he exhaled, I inhaled. I knew him through and through. I could predict within a five minute margin when he would eat and how much, when he would sleep and for how long, and why he would cry if that rarity actually occurred. He was a GREAT baby, and I knew I deserved all the credit for it. I did not want to be ransomed for a weekend, I was not even interested in hostage negotiations. I was not rational, but it was my job NOT to be, and I took my job very seriously. I was a new mom. A weekend away seemed like a betrayal to my firstborn, and an affront to my sacred duty as keeper of the babe. The love we were supposed to be rekindling sans bebe also seemed like a tawdry version of the TRUE love that had wonderfully consumed me ever since I kissed that little wet, pointy, bruised head in the delivery room.
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I knew he would be in my mother-in-law’s loving, careful hands, but they could not be as good as MY hands. I knew that she would follow my encyclopedic written instructions to the letter, and that we would be just three hours away for just three days, but that was going to be a poor substitute for Super Mom. Leaving him was one of the toughest partings I’ve ever had to endure. My Reason For Living will vouch for the fact that I cried for three solid hours, all the way to Hilton Head. As soon as we got there, I picked up the phone and ascertained that our son was asleep, just as he was supposed to be, and he pretty much stayed on schedule as I ran up the phone bill about every three hours for the first day. By the second day, I remembered that My Reason For Living was really not such a bad guy for taking me away after all. In fact, sleeping for eight hours straight made him look downright attractive again. We both managed to enjoy the first of many, lovely, just-us weekends we have had together since becoming parents. All the same, he was smart enough not to ask “Do you want to turn around and go back?” on the way there. And it’s a good thing, too, or we would never have made it to the beach. All too fast forward 16 years. My Reason For Living and I find ourselves leaving our firstborn in the care of someone else for the first time for an entire school year. This time it is not our choice, but his. He is going to boarding school. I know that he will be in caring hands. I know that he will gain an encyclopedic knowledge of the art of taking care of oneself. I know that he will thrive there in every way. It was so good to see him so happy about school. Someone else will have to worry about whether you can even see the floor in his “clean” room, about whether all his homework is done and done well, about whether his laundry is clean, and
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folded and put away right. I have been relieved of those duties that made me into a shrew, and I can just be his mom again. But somebody else will be his sounding board, somebody else will listen for him at night, and somebody else is probably figuring out right now what great company he is and how hard he can make you laugh, even when you are really aggravated with him. He and his father are apparently graduates of the “Stiff Upper Lip” school of saying good-bye. While they exchanged a manly embrace and handshake, I could not even hold it together. It was not an easy parting when I hugged his tall, skinny frame and then watched him lope off to finish growing up, out from under my thumb. His first act on his own was probably to change his shirt so as not to display his mother’s smeared mascara on his shoulder all day. I did not cry the whole way away from him, as I did 16 years ago, but that’s only because I found it’s physically impossible for me to cry for nine hours straight. All the same, his father was smart enough not to ask, “Do you want to turn around?” once we hit the road. And it’s a good thing, too, or I would still be standing in his dorm room insisting that you have to be able to see the floor to call it “clean.”
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‘I Don’t Care What The Sign Says, This Is Augusta Road’
September 22, 2000 When we moved here eleven years ago, I was determined to live in the Augusta Road Area. I did not even know it was called the Augusta Road Area at the time. All I knew what that if we were going to raise our children in a small Southern city, I wanted to live in the part of town where I would be the one who talked funny, and where my children would learn to say “sir” and ma’am” by osmosis, if not by parental example. I wanted old, cracked sidewalks, a canopy of old-oak shade during the extended heat wave that Old Greenvillians insist is just “summah.” I wanted a place where my kids could grow up on bikes, as their daddy and I did, riding up town to get a Popsicle and a taste of growing independence with each trip. When we moved here from Washington, D.C., a neighborhood friend hosted a going away luncheon for me. It was rather awkward because I was the only person who knew every person there. I had friends whom I knew through my neighborhood, through church, through our pre-school, and of course my old college cronies, but none of them knew one another. That bon voyage luncheon was downright odd, to tell the truth. It was very light on food and very heavy on moisturizers. Once everyone had arrived, our hostess cheerfully announced to the motley group that she had just embarked on a new career selling cosmetics at home parties. As I sat there praying for an out-ofbody experience, my friends were basically forced to bid me
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farewell with brand new lipsticks smeared on their kissers. But I digress. While my friends in D.C. had nothing in common except complimentary kohl sharpeners, the Augusta Road Area is a wonderful study in overlapping circles. My Reason for Living rolls his eyes whenever I attempt a “quick” trip to the grocery store. More often than not, I come home hours later with a warm gallon of milk and the latest installment on a friend’s life story. Here, it is not unusual to run into your child’s teacher at the drug store. You can easily find yourself being seated in the pew on Sunday by your son’s soccer coach. The same local barber who cut my son’s hair when he was just a little boy also cuts our ophthalmologist’s hair to this day (and it shows). If you find yourself fresh out of checks, armed only with a rejected credit card, you’ll more than likely know the person behind you in line and she will rescue you (just ask my friend Becky). If it isn’t for sale on Augusta Road, I can get along without it. I only go to the mall because my teenage daughter can beg and whine about “needing” to go longer than I can tune her out. But before she started buying clothes instead of pilfering mine, I could happily go for a year or more without darkening the door of a mall. My Reason for Living knows how to get to work and to Lowe’s. (What else is there?) If he has to leave the boundaries of the Augusta Road Area for anything else, he will actually break ranks with his gender and consult me for directions. The Augusta Road Area is the small town within the everexpanding Greenville metro area. Opie, Goober, Floyd, Andy and Barney would all live on this side of town (if they were real people and lived in Greenville). The neighborhoods within the Augusta Road Area don’t have fancy names or custom-made signs. You can drive around in circles all day and never find the entrance to Alta Vista because it does not exist. The Augusta Road Area is not so small that the locals, otherwise known as “Old Greenville,” feel like all the friends they
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really need were born here. I mean, if newcomers like me can make friends with the natives, then you know people are friendly and open-minded. My mother warned me a long time ago that if I went to college in Virginia I would end up marrying some Protestant boy and living the South for the rest of my life. On the flip side, my friend Carol fretted a few years back that if her daughter went off to college in Virginia she could too easily wind up meeting and marrying some Yankee. “Someone like me?” I clarified. She blushed and said, “Oh, no, not like you. You blend so well I almost forget!” After eleven years dancing to the rhythms of life here in the Augusta Road Area, I have finally come to recognize that as a compliment, bless her heart.
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Life in the Carpool Lane
October 6, 2000 It’s 7:48 a.m. and I am almost ready to roll. I consider second-guessing my 14 year old’s insistence that her micro-mini cheerleading skirt is not a flagrant violation of the school’s dress code, but I notice my own ensemble in the mirror as we run around in ceremonial circles, so discretion wins out for once. I went to bed with wet hair the night before, as is my wont, so my “do” is an off-center, slightly matted Buckwheat look. It’s already a bit chilly these fall mornings, so I zip a dirty tennis jacket over an ancient t-shirt that doubles as a nightshirt (but only when my fancy silk peignoir is at the cleaners). My tattered t-shirt pairs up nicely with some old gray bike shorts that my Reason For Living thinks are his just because there is a fly in front; he’s got them so stretched out that whenever I sport them total strangers often invite me to repair their refrigerators. Sweat socks, to warm my toes, are de rigueur, and I stuff my bundled feet into whatever is handy as we tear out the front door -- some funky platform slides, or my 11 year old’s teeny clogs, or my son’s huge soccer slippers. Hairbrushing, toothbrushing, or showering is not on the horizon yet. I am vertical, legally clothed, with keys and hot tea in hand. I am ready to carpool. My daughters often beg me to emerge just a few minutes earlier each day so that I can wear something “normal” while I indulge in the privilege of chauffeuring them to school in the morning. They confuse this ten minute round trip with a catwalk, assuring me that NONE of the other parents look so . . . recently
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released, but I am an old dog when it comes to carpooling. Given their druthers, the kids have consistently chosen (relative) promptness over a primped driver, and this day will be no exception. I am not awake enough to notice whether the kids are right about the other drivers’ outfits, but I bet my carpooling fashions are about as close to a uniform as most moms get. My friend Cindy can look normal from the window up, but she’s probably wearing a favorite pair of old boxers and a pair of mules as she inches along in the carpool line. My sister Helen “has a friend” who suddenly became manic about dressing perfectly for carpool following a winter morning fender-bender where she had to step out of the car and attempt to act respectable dressed in a short nightgown, a ratty sweater, and a pair of bright red high heels. There are plenty of other similarly clad moms closeted inside their Excursions and Suburbans, they just haven’t been flushed out yet. Carpooling is not for everyone. You won’t often see my friend La in carpool line, and not just because she is always dressed and coiffed perfectly, right down to the accessories. Although she is a morning person, her hubby usually draws the short straw when it comes to carpooling. He simply knows how to get there. He’s one of those funny people who finds the shortest, quickest route to a place and then sticks with it. La has the uncanny ability to develop creative, scenic routes to just about any destination, such as Asheville to Greenville by way of Clinton, or Augusta Road to Downtown by way of City View. But I digress. Carpooling with kids is not only about what you wear, or how you get there, it’s about what you hear. My children prefer their dad as the carpool driver to practice, rehearsals, birthday parties, or shopping forays to the mall (oh mah gah) because he is comparatively silent. He makes it so easy for the passengers to mistake him for leather upholstery that they chatter freely about whatever is on their minds. As a result, he comes home knowing a whole lot about a whole lot. If he would ever pay attention long
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enough to remember it all and relate it to me in appropriate, staggering detail, I would not have to play “20 Questions” with the kids every time I ferry them somewhere. I, on the other hand, consistently flout the kids’ rule that the driver is NOT supposed to TALK to their friends, which is why I am often the driver of last resort, and probably why I score poorly in “20 Questions.” The kids have a very Edwardian approach to carpooling in that the drivers are to be seen, not heard. Merely breathing is embarrassing enough, but to actually speak, to ask a direct question, to thoughtfully remind someone to buckle up, or heaven forbid, to offer an opinion in the midst of their conversation is to completely humiliate your child. The passengers could become roused enough to notice a strong family resemblance and the poor kid could suffer permanent guilt by association. I recently spoke with Ms. D. Carmo, the oldest living carpool driver in Greenville. She has been driving carpools for her younger siblings, then for her own children, for a cumulative total of about 173 years, and counting. She fears that just as her youngest reaches driving age in about five years, the state will jack up the minimum driving age by another year or two. I share her suspicion. And while Ms. Carmo and I agree that it might be a good thing overall to raise the minimum driving age, it would be a very bad thing for us, personally. A teenage driver is happy to drive anywhere, anytime, even morning carpool, so why deny a 16 year old that pleasure? When my teen is around to help with carpools, I am so grateful not to have to do it myself that I do not remark if he wears droopy pants or yesterday’s sweatshirt for the occasion. For once we agree on appropriate attire.
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Leaving Kids at Home With Dad Cooks Up Fun
October 20, 2000 I came home the other Saturday after toiling for several hours in the salt mines. My Reason For Living had been at home watching over the children. The children were nowhere to be seen or heard. I asked him the same questions I always ask when I get home in that situation: “How are the kids? Where are the kids? What have you all been doing all day?” When he looked up from his newspaper with that dear, blank stare, it hit me. I had thought I was asking probing, responsible questions, but in fact they were merely rhetorical. The answers are “Fine, I guess. I don’t know. I’ve been reading the paper, but quite honestly I’m have no idea what they’ve been up to all day.” In other words, the children had been enjoying their father’s custodial care for the past few hours. They were safe, they were happy, they were fed, and if their father was going to be expected to look after them cheerfully again their mother was not going to ask too many further questions. Parenting books will gently point out the salient differences between the way that mothers and fathers parent. To paraphrase, the moms are generally pro-active; they anticipate and prepare for every conceivable action, mishap, or every day event. That is why moms compulsively buy things like wet wipes (so that even the stroller has its own special cache); ten times more socks and underwear than any normal child or man could possibly wear
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(because moms know that two thirds of the original supply will either be lost or walk out in protest over abuse), and animal crackers in bulk for the inevitable temper tantrum that only happens in bumper to bumper traffic. Fathers, on the other hand, are more reactive in their parenting approach. They prefer not to change their pre-kid behavior until they absolutely have to, and then only momentarily. This is why some dads are sincerely miffed when a child commits a foul while they are the referee. (“I don’t know how she did it. I was just sitting here watching the ballgame when I looked over and she had buttered the entire chair.”) And that is also why when you may find yourself reaching for a very empty box of animal crackers when your toddler loses her last shred of patience in the midst of a traffic jam. (“I was hungry and I found this box under the seat. How was I supposed to know that animal crackers were only for the kids?”) To see custodial care in its purest form, the mom must go out of town without the husband and kids. My neighbor in Virginia prepared for an entire week so that she could go away with her girlfriends for the weekend. Her husband never asked her to, but she prepared elaborate meals - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - then froze and labeled them for husband, complete with easy heating instructions. She washed every item of clothing in the house and then carefully organized her three children’s every outfit need in ziplock bags, each clearly labeled for every event or weather change, such as “BIRTHDAY PARTY,” “CHURCH,” and “SOCCER.” When she returned, the vacuum sealed meals were all still in the freezer where she’d carefully placed them in chronological order, but there was a tall tower of empty pizza boxes that her children were happily knocking down with their new Happy Meal characters. The soccer bag of clothing was empty, but the rest of the outfits were still spanking clean in their little ziplock vaults.
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She called me, horrified, demanding to know what her children had worn during her brief absence. I assured her that her son had his complete soccer uniform for soccer, but left out the fact that the same uniform was also a winner at church. Her daughter had evidently chosen her own birthday party outfit, a fashion ensemble best described as “Caribbean Baroque.” As the dad deposited his little girl at the party, I noticed the baby perched on his dad’s hip wearing a pajama top under his sister’s hand me down pink overalls and blue sandals (in February). The baby was beaming as he smeared the last vestiges of what appeared to be an animal cracker on his chubby cheeks. I wanted her to feel comfortable about going away on her own again whenever she wanted to, and so I told her the truth: the children all looked adorable, their dad got them everywhere they needed to be safely and on time, and they all seemed to be having a great weekend together. I realized as I glossed over the details my friend thought she needed that I was being a classic “enabler.” I was aiding and abetting the kind of custodial care that sometimes pushes me over the edge when I ask too many questions about basically trivial things such as how often the kids actually bathed while I was away for a weekend. She needed to learn, as I did a while ago, that the choice between never going away and always having things done my way is very simple choice. Just remember not to ask too many questions when you return, and always keep two boxes of animal crackers in the car.
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I Know Your Mother . . .
November 3, 2000 When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend’s mother accosted me in front of a group of my cronies to force feed me a full course in manners. She accused me of calling her son on the telephone. Nice girl that I was, I had been strictly admonished not to call boys, ever, because nice girls did not call boys. So, when I did, I was careful to make calls from the privacy of the linen closet, well out of my parents’ earshot. This was in the days before Caller ID so this method was fairly full-proof. That is, until I encountered that nice boy, Pat, and his formidable mother, Mrs. Dwyer. She pretty much had me on this one. When I called and Pat was not home, I had even brazenly left my name and a message instead of the age-appropriate hang up reflex. I did not attempt to deny anything. I relied instead on my standard slack-jawed, doeeyed look of dumbstruck innocence (that my own children have inherited), but she would have none of it. “Don’t give me that look,” she intoned, “I know you’ve been calling the house at all hours, and it’s going to stop, now. Don’t forget, young lady, I know your mother.” That reminder was the clincher. I could deal with Mrs. Dwyer for the sixty seconds I had to squirm before her in person, but I could not risk the chance that she would call my mother. If Mom had to hear about my transgressions from another mother I would have to deal with her humiliation on top of my own -- a potent preventative.
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Mothers have used this effective reminder for ages. Sometimes mothers don’t even have to say it. A simple “I know your mother” look can make would-be naughty boys suddenly drop dirt balls aimed at passing cars, or would-be catty girls abruptly cease whispering in the back seat. My Reason For Living grew up in a small town where his mother had taught everyone, so everyone knew his mama, and still does. He could not even jaywalk without knowing that news of his crime would get home before he did. A good friend of ours grew up in a small Virginia town. By the time he was in college, however, suburban sprawl had hit the town and begun to spread like vinyl kudzu. He went to the local store but found a new faceless franchise in its place. His personal check was not welcome without an ID, but he had never carried an ID. Luckily, a nice lady who used to work in the same spot under the former roof used her own, official ID system and waived the “no checks” policy. “This young man has his mother’s eyes,” she twinkled, “I’m sure his check is good.” You can tell almost instantly when a kid knows that you know his mother, or thinks there’s a better than even chance that you might know her. For example, when I work a shift at my daughter’s high school store selling a smorgasbord of chewy, crunchy, sticky, artery-clogging junk with ironic brand names such as “Runts, Nerds, and Airheads,” counter service is usually a case study in rapid retail sales devoid of eye contact or conversation. But if I know their mothers, students remember to remember my name, to say hello, to say please and thank you, and to speak in polite, mostly polysyllabic sentences. Mothers knowing other mothers is a powerful network. Years ago, as her daughter entered those benign pre-teen years, my friend Phyllis made me, and probably 200 other mothers, promise to inform her immediately if her daughter ever did or said anything even remotely mean or snobby. This is probably why I have never had cause to rat out dear Little Phyllis. My children are
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often amazed at how fast the mother switchboard lights up with news of the latest youth infraction. Like a broken record, I have often warned my children that I don’t always find out right away, but I always find out, and woe unto the child whose antics come to my attention from another mom instead of a good, clean confession. There is a flip side to this, of course. It’s useless if your kids are confident that the other moms won’t tell. So, sometimes you learn things you would rather not, but thank goodness you do. If it weren’t for vigilant moms, I might not know that my child suddenly felt a LOT better when a friend kindly picked her up from the nurse’s office for me; I might not know that another child, along with her partner in crime, “decorated” an entire playroom with a bottle of White Out; I might not have been able to thwart a “scheduled after school fight” between my son and a friend years ago. Thank goodness for the Mrs. Dwyers of the world, or mothers might stumble about blindly assuming their little darlings are rude or unruly only at home, and never out in the real world where they make a name for themselves and their families. As for me, Mrs. Dwyer sure jerked me straight. I was instantly cured of calling her son at all hours and shamelessly leaving my own name. After that, I always left a message to call “Margaret Murphy” or I just used age-appropriate behavior and hung up whenever an annoyed female voice answered.
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Designated Dumb Idea
November 17, 2000 I’m not for teenage drinking. Who is? Besides teenagers, I don’t know, but we could be unknowingly creating that canard in some teenaged psyches. If there is an easy answer to the real problem of underage drinking, I don’t presume to know it. But the “designated driver” answer is SO not the answer. And before you geniuses from West Palm Beach throw down your papers and race to your computer to thrash me for my blasphemy, read carefully before voting on my point: I am talking about UNDERAGE drinking. Appointing a “designated driver” among adults who are consuming alcoholic beverages is a GOOD THING. However, telling your teen it’s OK to “designate a driver” (unless they are ALL designated drivers alone in their own cars) is basically saying that you condone drinking when your kid is not driving, and that you condone drinking among their friends. It also makes the designated driver responsible for their friends’ behavior. That’s unfair to all kids. I have vast, nerve wracking experience driving carloads of little boys and girls. Little girls often equate shrill giggling and shrieking for having fun. I have seen neighborhood dogs dive for cover when a carload of little girls starts rolling down the windows. Driving a carload of young boys is often like chauffeuring a traveling WWF match going on right there in your own back seat, replete with simulated crowd noises and color commentary. Yelling over the din does very little to referee the match, so I have been known to simply pull over and quietly idle
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in park until the wrestlers figure out that they can’t generate enough momentum to move the vehicle. Then they settle down enough to put their seat belts back on and head home, limited to exchanging surreptitious shoulder jabs instead. If driving a car full of stone cold sober ten year olds is distracting to an adult in broad daylight, imagine how impossible it is for a teenager to safely drive a car full of drunk teens at night. I don’t know of any adults who routinely sign up for the chance to drive a bunch of inebriated, nauseated, and rowdy teens every weekend. If I were to routinely drive my drunk children and their drunk friends around like that (calm down… this is hypothetical), I would be setting a perilous precedent and strapping some serious liability issues in with the whole gang. I worry that we set that same precedent by proxy when we tell teens it’s OK to have a “designated driver.” What adult in his right mind would designate a teenager as a proxy for anything? Why should driving drunks around be any different? Before you give in to the temptation to tell me just how normal and imperfect my kids are, or may be, when it comes to drinking, I already have an answer for you. DUH!! I don’t pretend that my progeny have never or will never exercise poor judgment when it comes to peer pressure and underage drinking. Their father and I are not even runners up as poster child for The Perfect Past. But our kids have heard and will hear ad nauseum that the world is a world of choices and if they choose to do something that stupid and hazardous they will be found out and their cushy lifestyle will end. My eldest can attest to what a bonding opportunity it is to lose the privilege of even touching the car and to become my boon companion for weeks on end. I find it is a rare boy who prefers the company of his sainted mother to that of his friends, even if it means his friends have to be sober. We prefer “No Questions Asked” to the designated driver shibboleth. If our kids find themselves in a fix, it makes one of us
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the designated driver, the only one we can trust. We always make a car available to our teen driver on several conditions, such as keeping it clean, paying for one’s own gas out of one’s own pocket, and driving siblings here and there cheerfully as a convenience to the cool parents who pay for the car and insurance. The most important condition of using the car is that drinking and/or carrying passengers who have been drinking are strictly verboten. So, car or no car, if our teen calls us to come pick him/her up from a sticky situation, we will truly do it happily -No Questions Asked -- and everyone gets home safely. Yes, it’s a pain to hear the phone ring when you should be hearing the car pull in the driveway. Yes, it’s terribly inconvenient to play fireman and jump into clothing to drive across town to pick up your kid or someone else’s, but so what? There is yet to be a “convenient” child born, and parenting teens is even less convenient. I hope I am belaboring the obvious here. My good friends are itching to see me stumble into a nasty controversy again, and teenaged drinking is sorely disappointing to the peanut gallery. But I tell you, I am hearing talk about designated teenaged drivers being OK, or that it’s OK to hire a limo driver so kids can “drink safely” (yes, I’ve actually heard that oxymoronic term). But the only part the kids hear is that underage drinking is sometimes OK, and it’s just…not. In addition to the underage drinking non-controversy, perhaps next time I will touch on the other fun but unfortunately illegal activities we have consciously decided not to teach our kids to perpetrate including, but not limited to, running stop signs, evading taxes, shoplifting, perjury, and of course the ever popular vote fraud.
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Oral Arguments About the Tooth Fairy
December 1, 2000 My youngest recently asked me whether we have our “own” mail man. If so, she wondered, then why does she see him going to other houses on our street? I explained about postal routes, whereby all our neighbors share the same postman. She clearly understood, shouting, “Oh! You mean just like the Tooth Fairy!” I agreed, but she pointed out an important difference: the postman is never late. I don’t know why, but first and second born children always get the cream of the fairy crop, even though they have no basis for comparison (and disappointment). My first two had personal Tooth Fairies, who were humbly and aptly named “Tooth Fairy.” The Tooth Fairy left them adorable, tiny, tooth shaped notes written in itsy bitsy gossamer fairy handwriting. We had to use a magnifying glass to read them properly. She faithfully left a whole dollar under the pillow with her precious note, leaving the baby tooth behind as a keepsake. She also threw in a little extra change when the kids had to have a couple of teeth yanked to make room for their burgeoning rabbit teeth. Our third child’s tooth fairy started out OK. The kids were initially impressed that their little sister’s fairy had a jazzy name, “Petunia.” But they soon found that a snazzy label is a poor substitute for unpretentious punctuality. Petunia was so chronically late that she introduced my children to the concept of late fines. By the time our fourth child’s gums began raining baby teeth, her cynical siblings had already prepared her for the harsh reality
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ahead. Her personal tooth fairy also had a cute name, but “Violet’s” fiduciary relationship to our kid was hardly inviolate. Violet started out badly, and got worse. (In Violet’s defense, this child lost so many teeth so fast that we suspected scurvy. During most of her first grade career, she looked much like those local extras in “Deliverance.”) Despite her unctuous, mewling missives pleading for “another” second chance, Violet was canned after only a few teeth. Our youngest became a six year old authority on recidivism and tooth fairy turnover. She is also the only child we know of to have endured serial tooth fairies. Enter “Ginger Vitis.” By this time, the cute name indicated that this fairy was probably another sluggard or recreant. Her very first note came days late, rife with feeble, self-serving excuses about how difficult it was to fly with her new dental implants. At that point, all our little cynic wanted to know was whether this fairy had tabulated the dollar-a-day late fee correctly. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. Ginger went a WHOLE WEEK without so much as a lousy, itty bitty I.O.U. My eldest daughter cast cold stares at me each morning, as if this worst lapse was somehow my fault. Years earlier, I had refuted this rumor when my third child surmised that I was a Tooth Fairy. “Do I have wings?” I countered. “Do I look like I’m made out of money? Do I have one shred of tulle in my wardrobe? Where am I going to find the time to fly around at night flinging loose change and fairy dust under kids’ pillows?” Cleared that hunch right up - but I have wandered off message… My Reason for Living emerged from his usual cloud of Tooth Fairy apathy, saying that a whole week was unprecedented and unacceptable. He urged me to somehow light a fire under Ginger Vitis or put yet another new fairy on the case. I reminded him that I have no more pull than he does when it comes to teeth and tooth
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fairies, so perhaps he should fire off an appeal on our daughter’s behalf. To his credit, he did, and it worked. Sort of. On the morning after the tenth night, our little gummy bear handed me a crumpled tooth shaped note with $11 attached from a new Tooth Fairy. The note fairly whined about the vagaries of an unfortunate spate of teeter-totter accidents that had created a massive backlog for Tooth Fairies. Our youngest was inured to hackneyed excuses, but the name was the limit. Her new Tooth Fairy signed her note . . . “Tinkle.” To put it modestly, “tinkle” is a verb that falls under the lexicon of “bathroom talk.” Engaging in bathroom talk is a felony in our court. The older kids could not stifle their snickering, but our littlest was not amused - nor was her daddy. My Reason for Living was so defensive, one would think he was the Tooth Fairy’s attorney. He demanded to know how a miniscule tooth fairy was supposed to know that her toothsome name was “bathroom talk.” He berated us for giving her no credit for finally showing up and for paying a whopping late fee. He summed up his argument to his four grimy jurors by emphasizing that if the mother in this case (that would be me…) had gotten involved sooner, a different and better fairy would surely have been assigned and none of this would have happened! The moral to this story somehow got lost during the tortuous EEOC complaint process following Violet’s entirely justified termination. But I do think that assigning rank amateurs to clueless first and second born children would cut the Tooth Fairy’s attrition rate. The Tooth Fairy might also consider sub-contracting to the highly reliable postal service. Problem is, even a rotten tooth fairy will beat the khakis off any mail man in a beauty contest. Since we are years away from the last 12 year old molars, I may have to take a more active role in assisting the Tooth Fairy, perhaps even putting my name on a substitute list. I may not look
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so bad in chiffon and tulle after all, and heaven knows I have plenty of dust to sprinkle.
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Of Pas de Deux, Parents, and Pancake
December 13, 2000 ‘Tis the season once again, when you can’t shake that Tchaikovsky waltz from your head, there is no such thing as too much Dippity-Doo, the people grazing around your kitchen constantly pirouette from the pop tart box over to the toaster, and your Reason For Living starts grumbling to himself as to who talked whom into being involved in something that involves several varieties of pancake that you can’t eat. This weekend will mark the annual culmination of months of anticipation, work, rehearsals, fittings, fussing, and flouncing that the public knows as “The Nutcracker.” While we are not quite so legion as to have our own voting block a la “soccer moms,” there is a small army of devoted ballet moms (and dads) who have shown no less dedication to schlepping their kids to the studio every Saturday and so on since September. For us it is truly a family affair. This is our fifth year, and all three girls and their highly evolved dad are dancing in the production together again. I am especially proud of their dad’s participation. This is my Reason for Living’s fourth year reprising his role as Clara’s father, Herr Silberhaus, in the opening party scene. He was happily roped into it the first time because the kid playing Clara was one of our own. Since then, he has agreed to do it again and again, but like a woman in the early stages of her second or third labor and delivery, he cannot remember exactly why he agreed.
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Spending a little time on stage with his dancing darlings is as good a way as any to even the score in their minds between them and their brother’s countless soccer games, which their dad rarely missed. He takes on the role despite the annual barrage of callous (but notably humorous) remarks he must endure about men in tights, men wearing makeup, and so on, but I knock off with the jokes after a week or two. “The Nutcracker” is a family event for others, too. Our friend Mel finally gets to fulfill a secret longing to wear mascara in public by playing the role of one of the party guests alongside his little girl. And then there is Dr. D’s much heralded stage debut. “The Nutcracker” is not just about a little girl named Clara’s dream of toy soldiers battling mice and Dew Drop dancing with the flowers, it is also about our own dreams coming true. Our dear friend Dr. D’s dream of dancing in a Nutcracker is finally coming to fruition. Although she danced ballet all the way through medical school (not on scholarship, but still - way cool), Dr. D. never got to dance in a Nutcracker production. Growing up as an army brat, I guess she moved around so much that she was never in the right ballet school at the right time to be in a Nutcracker. She grew up, but the brat part came in handy because years of whining about wanting to at least be the grandmother in the party scene have ultimately paid off. (However, she did miss a key rehearsal recently. Something about delivering babies the previous night -- so we’re all beginning to question her priorities…) She also continues to confuse her purely cameo role with some sort of improvised pas de deux with the character of Herr Silberhaus involving a rather unbecoming “fish dive” lift for a grandmother character. Sadly, we see how “The Nutcracker” can also be part of one’s delusions as well as one’s dreams. My role in all this is basically back stage serf. After five years, I have yet to be promoted to any kind of managerial role because I am just not very good at it. They let me do the make up for my
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Reason for Living every year but that’s mostly because he bites and everyone else is afraid. For his very first performance, I went a little heavy on the poor man’s pancake, which ignited a rumor that Michael Jackson was actually playing Clara’s father. It goosed our ticket sales a bit, but didn’t do much for his demeanor. The other reason I’ll never make it to major domo back stage is make up itself. One look at me tells you that I do not speak cosmetics fluently. If you try to draw me into debate about whether a six year old soldier’s lipstick has “too much plum in it” my narcolepsy flares up. My blasé attitude embarrasses my girls. They wish I were more aware of the important distinctions between Lancôme and Maybelline, and that I would get the right brands in the right bags delivered to the studio at the right time -instead of the usual nick of time. But back stage serfs enjoy fabulous job security. The people at the ballet are so grateful for any parental help that they even accept people like me who can’t appreciate the need for an eyebrow brush. When I remind my impatient, brand conscious girls, “What are they gonna do? Fire me?” they roll their eyes and whisper a little prayer for their iconoclastic mom. When the rehearsals go late, and the girls get Grinchy, I have dreamed of being one of those people who simply glance at their watch and head over to “the Nutcracker” on time. But then I would miss out on the back stage drama; I would not be able to blot my Reason for Living’s lipstick with my cheek; and I would not be able to watch from the wings as these mere girls transform weeks of work into a work of art. I wouldn’t dream of it.
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Good Night, Sweet Daisy
December 27, 2000 We are “dog people.” That is not to say we “hate” cats (although my Reason for Living purports to loathe them). I like kittens a lot, and might actually get one if you could safely remove its pituitary gland and prevent it from becoming a cat, but our eldest daughter is highly allergic to cats, so we just don’t go there. There are several levels of “dog people,” however, and we fall into the lowest substratum. I once had to fill out a form at a vet’s office that clarified what my dog was to me. I skipped right over the choices that likened my dog to a child, to a cherished member of my family, or to my best friend, and landed right on the last option which stated that my dog was simply a dog, our pet, nothing more. The lady behind the desk read my form and sniffed with disdain. As far as she was concerned I might as well have written, “I beat my dog daily, whether she needs it or not.” Still, I did not waiver from “my dog is a dog” philosophy, but I had no idea that even that is saying a lot. We have two dogs, both Golden Retrievers (“golden treevners” as my youngest is wont to say). We got Daisy, the older one, from my sister about seven years ago when Daisy was still puppyish. Daisy had been sort of an inside, sort of an outside dog before us, so we had to decide what kind of dog people we were (beyond the “our dog is a dog and not a child” decision, that is). I grew up with a super dog, an Irish Setter named Kelly. To me, if your dog cannot be like Kelly and double as a floor pillow as you watch TV, you might as well not have a dog. My Reason for
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Living grew up in a small town where “nobody” had an “inside” dog. He had a series of dogs with cute, cuddly names like “Dan” or “Steve.” His family dogs successively succumbed to speeding cars and surly cattle farmers with itchy trigger fingers. We had to agree about what kind of dog we would have before we could adopt Daisy, so we “compromised” and Daisy was an outside dog. A few years later, we got a puppy, Hogie, from our friends Phil and Phyllis, to keep Daisy company. They were quickly dubbed the canine version of “Dumb and Dumber,” but two sweeter dogs have never shared a yard. When our toddler decided to stagger out of our yard, across the street, and into two neighbors’ yards during an eternity in my frantic mind, I was thankful and relieved to find that Daisy had faithfully braved the consequences of our invisible fence to escort our little sojourner every stomp of the way. Sometimes guardian angels don’t fuss with gossamer wings so much as the occasional tick and a bad case of dog breath. Having a dog is a wonderful way for children to learn the joy of unconditional love that a good dog exudes, as well as the importance of taking responsibility at a young age for something that is completely dependent. A dog is also a constant reminder that kids will always be kids. You can invent every dog rule in the book, you can rattle off dire threats, but the fact is that you do feed, water, clean, and minister to the dog when your kids forget simply because they are kids. What’s even worse is that you find yourself loving the stupid dog - even at 6:00 in the miserable morning -- in spite of it all. The dog will also eventually teach a hard lesson about aging and loss as a natural part of life. Daisy lost the spring in her step and more than half of her weight over the past six months. Our vet, Dr. Wilkerson, helped me reach the conclusion that Daisy’s happiest, healthy days were behind her. It was harder to help our children reach the same conclusion, but we all eventually did. Daisy’s last day this week was one of
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her best ever. She had her fill of dog biscuits and more loving and petting than she’d probably enjoyed in months. The folks at Cleveland Park Animal hospital truly answer a calling as they care for ailing pets and grieving people. Daisy breathed her last easily, cradled and petted by the children, and their parents, who had played with her, fed her, fussed at her, searched for her, shushed her, and loved her. There’s a reason they call it “putting to sleep.” Daisy had a happy life and a peaceful death. We will always miss her. Night, night Daisy. Good dog.
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‘Tis The Season
January 11, 2001 Christmas is long over. People have finally stopped greeting one other at work with “Happy New Year.” Yet our emaciated Christmas tree is still here. Surrounded by a deep, protective moat of fallen pine needles, it droops under the weight of 18 years worth of ornaments. To graze against a brittle branch is to suffer a serious flesh wound. It’s high time to feed the tree, and its desiccated, decorative garland accomplices, into the wood chipper. This is not about waiting for the Epiphany. And we do not observe the Eastern Orthodox Christmas calendar. ‘Tis the season to be flu-y around here. I may worry as much as the next person about keeping up decent appearances, but I do have my priorities straight when it comes to the flu. I have been brewing so many cups of tea, doing so much laundry, and fetching so many bottles of pills, throat lozenges and prescription-strength Gatorade that the ghastly tree will just have to wait. However, I did stop turning on the lights at night so the neighbors will stop talking (at least about our tree). It all started during our once in a lifetime family Christmas trip when our eight year old lunged out of bed and defiled several pieces of luggage. Because she is the youngest and “the baby,” we immediately decided the whole mess was adorable and took turns spoiling her further until the bug soon wore off. The germ incubated for a good week, rearing its ugly head just as I’d bundled them all back to school.
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Now four out of us six are down with a cocktail of various germs and symptoms, including me. Because of the potential cootie exchange involved, kissing and hugging have become archaic, unhygienic expressions of affection or greeting around here. My Reason for Living and I have built up an impregnable bundling board out of cast off Kleenex. We’ve all adopted a rather British, stiff-upper-lip manner, greeting one another with a distant, royal wave. As I added the 2000 calendar to our stack of old calendars and put up 2001 (I have observed a few, normal, seasonal rituals) I noted most of our Januarys were plastered with notes about sick days and doctor visits. Time was, a visitor many Januarys ago might have assumed a pet slug was loose in the house, but the fact was some toddler merely had a January germ. When the cough syrup from 1997 ran out at 9:30 p.m. the other night, I rediscovered an old recipe for homemade cough syrup: Canadian whiskey, honey and lemon. I could not recall how many parts of each were required, but the concoction I improvised quieted my 11 year old’s cough quite effectively, and the left-overs really took the edge off my nerves. You don’t really know someone until you have nursed them through a bug that knocks them into bed for a few days. In fact, betrothed people who have never seen their beloved through a bout of the flu or a rotten cold might want to try a bottle of Ipecac in the interest of preparedness and full disclosure. One of my children is so unusually, pleasantly quiet and docile in the throes of a fever, that I am almost reluctant to dole out fever medicine. I gladly recite the pediatrician’s mantra not to treat a fever itself as something bad - only the aches and pains that may come with one, (but fear not, I do treat the aches and pains). One of my other children is commonly known as “the perfect child,” until a germ gets her in a headlock. When sick, we all succumb to the other end of her personality spectrum. She delivers an incessant play-by-play on all aspects of the flu’s
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progression through her system and psyche, which enables us to fully empathize with her ailments. Her misery loves company, and there is no lack for company. Even my poor Reason for Living has been bitten by the flu bug. Countless wives at the drug store throw knowing glances my way, or murmur sympathetically about how it must be to have a “fifth child” on my hands. I honestly cannot relate. He is the model, easy, sick husband. I found out long before we were married (no Ipecac involved) that all he needs is a bed, a quiet, dark room and lots of sleep. He accepts all tea, toast and pills offered, but he never moans or whines or gives unsolicited news bulletins about how he is feeling from moment to moment. He is completely on autopilot, but all the same, I much prefer him well. As day five dawns on the giant Petri dish we call home, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. My Reason for Living is still asleep in his cave, but one child seems to be feeling better because she has resumed the sport of arguing with me over . . . oh, anything. Meanwhile, “the perfect child” is still weak as a kitten so her ornery spirits are clashing with her sister’s improving ones. We are once again out of everything (the well ones selfishly continue to eat) but I notice the tree as I scramble for car keys. Suddenly, plucking ornaments and wrestling with tangled lights seems far more important (and interesting) than playing Florence Nightingale, even if the remaining pine needles draw blood. Maybe my priorities are coming full circle, or maybe I’m coming down with something else. People may say I don’t stock enough tea & sympathy, but they won’t be able to say I can’t even get rid of a Christmas tree before February.
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Three Magic Words
January 25, 2001 My friend Lindo relished calling me on the carpet the other day regarding 30 minutes that could have been “a good half hour” had it not been wasted correcting my careless mistakes on a crucial form. I fell over myself apologizing for my slapdash approach. But, I had to argue that just ONE teensy-weensy socalled mistake was not my mistake at all, but hers. We squandered another ten minutes on this so-called non-mistake when I realized that it really was a mistake, and mine, all mine. Of course I apologized, again. Lindo graciously accepted my apology, again, but seemed curiously in no real hurry to get off the phone, even after the acres and acres of her time I had wasted by then. Perhaps an apology was not enough…? Then I remembered that, being a happily married woman like myself, Lindo needed to hear those three magic words that often make married life so heavenly: “You are right.” That’s all it took to make her happy - and it was so easy to say, too. To her, anyway. I don’t know why it is so difficult for some spouses to say those three magic words, especially since they are so wonderful to hear. The one or two times I have had to say them over the past 18 years were really not that hard, but you would think they would just roll off my Reason for Living’s tongue, what with all the practice he’s had. If husbands would routinely practice saying this key phrase, it would not be such a federal case to utter it when the need arises. I helpfully suggested that my Reason for Living could use his
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evening greeting as a handy time to practice. Instead of walking in the door and inquiring about my day or professing undying love for me, he could simply walk in the door every evening saying, “Hi Honey! You are right!” This would not only get him in a healthy habit, it would also put me in fine spirits no matter what kind of day I’ve had. True, it would simply confirm something we both already know, kind of like those other three words couples often recite for no particular reason, but it would be such a refreshing change from the comparatively hackneyed alternative. He naturally thought my new greeting was a fabulous idea, but suggested that I demonstrate it for him for a few evenings first so he would know exactly how to say it. Despite my dramatic demonstrations for three nights running, the man just didn’t get it. He is an astonishingly good listener, but never can learn his lines correctly. (It’s a good thing I find him so attractive, because he is alarmingly dim in this area.) I now know that one of the main reasons people (otherwise known as men) get married is so that they will always know whose fault it is, whether it is a lost pair of sun glasses that don’t belong to the person who has to look for them or finding the water has been shut off due to an unpaid bill that the wife forgot to nag about. I should have promised to “love, cherish, and gratefully accept all blame,” except that we’d agreed to recite identical vows, so that dog would not hunt. My Reason for Living survived a near-catastrophe at work several years ago, narrowly meeting a midnight court deadline that came to his attention at about 6:00 p.m. that day The worst part about the whole thing was that I did not work there; I was miles away with an airtight alibi involving breastfeeding and/or carpooling (he checked), which forced him to look a bit further than the other side of the bed for the culprit. Our inexpertise in saying these three magic words has escalated to a second, perhaps more dangerous level. It is not enough to have the right idea; we
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often argue over WHOSE right idea it was, because, well, it matters when you specialize in onerous, petty disputes. A mutual friend recently sent an email commending my Reason for Living for a “brilliant idea.” He blind copied me on his courteous reply, which was a simple, but grossly misleading “Thank you.” When I fired off a reminder that the praise-worthy idea was in fact MINE, he replied, “No, it is such a good idea that I’ve decided it was probably mine.” It doesn’t matter that I have said the same thing many times before, because those times I’m sure I was right. This need to be right all the time has unfortunately spilled over into the next generation. Our family motto is basically, “Often wrong, never in doubt.” (My Reason for Living would argue that this really only applies to me, but in that case, I rest my case.) Our middle schooler is auditioning to be the new poster child for this credo. For the talent portion of the contest, she has openly corrected our good friend Dr. D. on several different diagnoses, coolly undaunted by her own lack of a medical degree. Should be a shoe-in. I have not given up on my greeting-as-practice idea. I guarantee that any husband who habitually greets his wife with, “Hi Honey, you’re right!” will find that he is right, at least once a day. I have yet to hear it myself, but I am hopeful that once he masters the three magic words he will rapidly graduate to the four, “You are SO right!” Yeah, right.
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The Practical Art of Humor
February 8, 2001 One of my favorite holidays is just around the corner. No, not Valentine’s; I married a man who reached the altar without committing my birthday to memory, so Valentine’s is not even on the radar. I mean April 1st. As anyone within earshot of me will tell you, I enjoy a good joke just as much as the next person, perhaps more. As any of the people who are forced to share office or living space with me, no one enjoys my own jokes more than I, particularly the practical variety. There is an art to creating the perfect prank. The best ones are actually opportunities offered to the prankster on a silver platter by the victim. My friend Lindo, for example, thought she was placing an anonymous ad for a part-time nanny “who loves children and animals” in the December issue of the Junior League News, but she included her phone number. She had not counted on the fact that I might have nothing better to do than peruse the classifieds on a Christmas Eve; that I would instantly recognize her phone number; and that I would feel compelled to answer the ad. I posed as a multi-addicted woman with extremely poor diction, but a sincere desire to develop a love for children and animals despite my arrest record. Alas, there was no one home that Christmas Eve, so I had to leave my application on the answering machine. Although her mother-in-law recognized my inspiration immediately, I did not get the job.
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My own sweet children have also provided innocent, irresistible little targets. Just after our youngest was born, we spent an idyllic summer week at the lake, just the six of us. One of the main attractions was a scrumptious black lab puppy that patrolled the docks and the shore, fetching balls for the kids to their mutual exhaustion. One sunset as we sat on the dock, the “older” kids (8 & 6) wished aloud that they knew the puppy’s name so that they could call him over from the distant docks to play. My own children . . . and yet I could not resist. “His name is Arf,” I helpfully asserted. My sides still ache whenever I think of those two skinny silhouettes barking “ARF! ARF! ARF! ARF!” until my son happened to turn around to see me stifling my guffaws with a wadded up beach towel. To his credit, he looked at me, and then to his sister, and then let his little sister “ARF!” a little while longer before he clued her in on the joke. It was a true mother-son bonding moment. I shall not bore you (or tempt you) by relating only my masterpieces, mostly because this is a “family” publication and I would like to be welcomed back next week. There are other local masters of the art, who are constantly attuned to the opportunities dished up by poor, trusting friends. My friends L.Z. and K.T. are not to be trifled with. Their individual senses of humor are pathetically twisted, but their combined forces are so immature that twelve year old boys solemnly doff their ball caps out of pure respect whenever these two grown women pass. Their dear friend Marion knows this only too well, and yet she chose to share a pet peeve with them. Marion made the classic error of confiding in these two friends about how much she detests having anyone eat anything in her car. So, when L.Z. and K.T. successfully “borrowed” her precious station wagon (with the help of a friendly City Councilman), drove through several fast food establishments, and ate the greasy
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food in Marion’s car, Marion deliciously only had herself to blame as she looked over the numerous photographs recording their progressive dinner taken by innocent, but unusually cooperative, bystanders. Which brings me to another fine point in these practical matters: credit. It was so important to L.Z. and K.T. to have credit that they provided photographic evidence so no one else could take the credit for their brilliant plot. The worst thing a victim can do to the perpetrator of a practical joke is NOT to acknowledge it at all. I unwittingly tortured my friend Rory last year when I failed to even accuse him of masterminding a long, mostly unintelligible voice mail. It was tantalizingly close enough to a legitimate client call that it did cost me a few hours sleep. I threatened the usual suspects (an alarmingly long list, come to think of it…), but had mistaken Rory for a normal person and therefore overlooked him. He finally had to COMPLAIN about my lack or response (the ultimate humiliation), so I’d wreaked excellent vengeance without even trying. Which brings me to my one, unsolved mystery. Whoever is responsible for plastering that annoying, albeit amusing, breastfeeding bumper sticker on my car should come forward. April Fools is just around the corner, the perfect day to come clean about it. Besides, I doubt I could come up with anything to top it, so you have nothing to fear by ‘fessing up. Or just tell my fellow April Fools, L.Z. and K.T. I assure you your secret is safe with them.
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February 22, 2001 According to my calendar’s kitschy blurbs, “June is for Brides” (grooms don’t exist). Looks like February, March, and so on, are close runners up. Being a bride has become a part-time career lasting several months, most of which has nothing to do with being married beyond that one, big day. When my Reason for Living and I married happily ever after, all the pre-wedding machinery now in high gear somehow escaped us. Perhaps we were gazing at each other too fervently to notice. More likely, we lacked the necessary cash to buy into the wedding industry. As I loitered in an auto repair waiting room recently, I had a tough choice between perusing the October 1997 issue of “Field & Stream” and a current “Wedding Guide.” Because I will not reread anything except To Kill a Mockingbird, I opted for the news on nuptials. There are thousands of crucial wedding check list details that we overlooked. For example, I failed to have my hair trimmed and coiffed two weeks before the wedding so that I would “look naturally beautiful” by the big day. Instead, my mother made an appointment for me at her regular hair haunt for the day before. I managed to dodge the blue rinse they wanted to give me out of pure habit, but not the teasing comb and an entire can of Aqua Net. Gladys Kravitz on “Bewitched” sported a more attractive hairdo than I did that day. Luckily, it was July (nope, not June) so the bubble-that-was-my-hair instantly deflated out on the sidewalk.
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My hands missed the check list, too. “Ideally, a bride should have regular manicures, or at least one manicure the week before.” Manicures are wonderful little luxuries that I could not afford and knew better than to put the touch on my parents for one. It may seem hard to believe 18-plus years later, but I can’t picture my fingernails at all except for being clean. I scanned the check list for something we did right. There it was: pre-marital counseling. Couples are encouraged to attend at least two sessions of pre-marital counseling with their attending clergy person “a few weeks” before the wedding. We attended pre-marital counseling several months before our wedding. It was an all day affair called “Pre-Cana Counseling.” We did not cover budgeting, whether/when to have children and how many, or how to fight fair. The entire day was mysteriously dedicated to “Natural Family Planning,” otherwise known as “parenthood.” The keys to marital bliss were apparently discount coupons on PH test strips and a knack for reading underwear like tea leaves. Marriage is like parenthood in that nothing can truly prepare you for the daily reality of it, but couples should spend at least as much time in premarital counseling as they do huffing, puffing, and massaging away in Lamaze classes. If they did, they’d probably remember a lot more useful information after the wedding than the average pregnant person does once labor kicks into overdrive. If I could press the rewind button on our pre-Cana marathon, I’d delete that bizarre preoccupation with “safe and unsafe connubial days.” Then I’d copy and paste a session on how to divvy up Thanksgiving and Christmas among the in-laws until you are old enough to torture your own grown children about the holidays. I’d also toss in a role playing workshop teaching both parties to politely say “No” to his or her own mother in a tone that she will actually hear and appreciate. But I digress…
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With so many Wedding Guide details to remember before the wedding, it’d be tough for today’s brides to remember much after the fact. I remember our vows, not just because I constantly live them, of course, but because we wrote them ourselves, and because my Reason for Living kept trying to insert useless terms into mine such as “listen,” “obey,” and “heel.” I can’t forget our trumpet accompanist. I might have except for the fit Mom threw when she opened the bill. “THIRTY DOLLARS for a few bars on a horn?!! What does that compute to on an hourly basis? I should quit my day job and take up the trumpet! I hope this was worth it, young lady . . .” It wasn’t. Most importantly, I remember all the people who went to a lot of effort to be there with us, and for us (some of our keenest regrets are the weddings we’ve had to miss). I asked my Reason for Living what detail he remembers best about our wedding. (He adores questions like this.) “Um, your dress?” he asserted. What color was it? “White.” (Good guess). Did it have long sleeves or short sleeves? “Um, elbow length?” It was sleeveless. Which reminds me of the final Wedding Guide detail: preserving the dress (right beside a dry cleaner’s ad). I didn’t. I haven’t the slightest idea or care about where my dress is today. But I do know exactly where my Reason for Living is: he’s still in excellent condition, with no noticeable fading or creases.
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Mixed Up Experiments in the Classroom
March 8, 2001 It’s becoming a seasonal ritual here, because this marks the second year in a row that the parental grapevine is ripe with rumors of scrapping homogeneous classes for heterogeneous groupings in middle school. Last year, this issue reared its ugly head on two fronts: combining various math levels in middle school regardless of ability, and, in high school, condensing the previous four levels into just three: tech/college prep classes, honors classes, and AP level classes (not offered until the 11th and 12th grade). Despite the major cow that most parents had about the whole thing, the high school tracks were condensed and there were some mixed math classes engineered that are now limping along in middle school. Plain English, (the kind successfully taught on various levels), suits this debate far better than using two terms that are too easily confused. “Homogeneous” classes group students together according to similar academic ability within a certain subject. “Heterogeneous” classes group students of varying, or mixed, abilities together within the same subject. It’s much easier for me to think of this in terms of “similar abilities” and “mixed abilities.” I know what my gut-level, parental, position is. However, there are a lot of people, inside and outside the education establishment, whom I like and respect greatly, who passionately disagree with my position. So I decided to follow my kids’
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example and do a little homework instead of just shooting from the hip. I read two non-partisan studies: the first was a review of two major studies on ability grouping, the second was a comprehensive study on the same topic by Tom Loveless, a professor at Harvard. (Note: Loveless is an education expert who teaches at a notorious bastion of liberalism in higher education horrors!) Good news. My gut checks out just fine. I have learned on both sides of this debate. In high school, the nuns plunked me in honors math because I was humming along just fine in honors English and History. Their wimples served as blinders to the fact that there is very little computation in reading and writing, but they had faith, so there I sat among the math whizzes. Nobody said “panic attacks” 25 years ago, but I fought them in math. I experienced a holy host of unseemly symptoms that sent me to the safe harbor of the school nurse. Math offered me two variables: sit silently and pretend I was not lost, or, endure the ridicule of my peers if I dared to raise my hand, ask a question, and become the living lowest common denominator. I failed the nuns’ mixed ability math experiment. My grades suffered, my stomach suffered, and although “self esteem” was also an unborn phrase at the time, that suffered, too. I have also thrived on the other side of the grouping fence, placed in a class with other students of similar ability in a subject, where the spirit of competition pushed us ALL ahead, instead of pushing a few around. It was “cool” to do well and inspire others in the class to do well. No one had to “act out” because it’s cooler than admitting you don’t understand. ALL classes, regardless of the level involved, should be educational incubators. Grouping by ability should not be synonymous with “warehousing” any students. Any teacher worth his/her salt who is allowed to TEACH will identify students
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who will do better if they are moved up - or back -- within a subject. I also cannot imagine a teacher who wouldn’t be THRILLED to work with any parent who wants something MORE challenging for their child, any child. The professional research bears out my own anecdotal version. The math whizzes will NOT helpfully tutor the struggling kids because they are KIDS, for crying out loud, not volunteers from Junior Achievement. Mixing kids by ability does not bridge social chasms, it just creates additional ones. As that Harvard guy sums it up, “State and district policies that condemn tracking [or ability grouping] cannot be reconciled with the research.” If ability grouping is such an evil, why do we permit try-outs for sports? Why not just make ALL middle and high school sports teams a reflection of the community at large by selecting team members by lottery? Sure, our teams would all STINK, we would have to unplug the scoreboard so it would not harm the players’ self esteem, but we could eliminate that agonizing, competitive process of first, second, and final cuts. I don’t get why it’s politically incorrect to oppose mixed ability grouping in school, but it is politically stupid to keep provoking the vast majority of parents who give a rip. There are so many REAL problems that need parental energy, and this misguided effort by the school district actually undermines that critical support. We need MORE academic grouping by ability across MORE subjects, not less. You are welcome to enlighten me to the contrary, but first you have to promise my short kid a spot on the varsity basketball team.
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Missing the Real Thing
March 22, 2001 It has been 10 days, 11 hours and 25 minutes since I had my last Coke. But who’s counting? This is not a Lenten observance. I really don’t believe God would want me to be this unhappy, and so giving up Coke has never even appeared on my Top Ten list of possible things to give up for Lent. TV, absolutely. Gossip, an annual favorite. Iffy line calls in tennis, of course. Swearing, yes, but well, but I’ve learned to be realistic about the half-life of that one. But Coca Cola? That would be too much like giving up bathing or clean laundry. Lent is supposed to be an exercise in wholesome self-sacrifice, not masochism. The dentist made me do it. The dentist claims this all started about 30 years ago when I savored my first Coke. This was a rite of passage in my family because my parents, who also had a taste for “The Pause that Refreshes,” issued a decree long before I was born that no one under 12 could even touch it. While other kids had to sneak cigarettes to feel grown up, all I had to do was raid my mom’s latest stash of those adorable little six ounce bottles. By the time I was 14, a Coke float was a staple of my diet, every day after school. I also became a connoisseur, not only passing every blind folded “Pepsi challenge,” but eschewing all other would-be Cokes altogether. Given a choice between going thirsty and settling for a Pepsi or a diet-anything, I would go thirsty.
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With only four annoying, nine-month interruptions, I have been enjoying Coke on at least a daily basis. (And if giving it up during pregnancy is not proof of perfect, maternal devotion, then I don’t know what is.) I claim this all started about two weeks ago when my regular dentist’s hygienist struck a nerve during a routine cleaning and interrupted my attempt to count the pores above her mask. “Don’t do that,” I politely warned her, and added a friendly little shove for emphasis. Instead of backing off, she fetched her gang leader and then they were both on top of me with their matching masks and gloves, poking me with tools, and doing the very thing, together, that I had JUST told her NOT to do. (I had to squint under the glare of the light to make sure my own, insubordinate kids were not behind those masks and scrubs…) “You have an exposed roots that are very tender to the touch,” they deadpanned. “You know what causes this pain, don’t you?” I didn’t have a prayer of getting into dental school (since I didn’t even apply) but I am not stupid. I had no doubt about the cause. Ten minutes earlier, when I was sitting in the chair, minding my own business, and mulling over what combination of cut, color, and curl I should pursue this spring, I was perfectly content and pain-free. Then the dentist’s henchman came after me with her miniature Sears Craftsman pressure washer and suddenly I was Dustin Hoffman in that terrible Mengele scene in “The Marathon Man.” “I know all about ‘cause and effect,’“ I assured him. “I lecture my kids about it all the time. My teeth felt FINE until I came here, so there’s your obvious cause and effect.” He pulled down his mask, exposing his brilliant, white perfectly straight, and ever-so-flossed teeth, and spoke to me very slowly and carefully, in simple monosyllabic words, just like I do when I have to repeat my order in the drive-thru for the third blessed time (and I am only ordering a Coke at that). I knew I was in trouble.
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Perhaps you have seen that Jeremiad about the evils of Coke floating around the Internet. It rants about how Coke will remove rust stains, clean your carburetor, dissolve raw meat - it’s all very one sided and paranoid, really. It conveniently leaves out the part about how Coke is a quick, refreshing Breakfast of Champions. It does not mention that a Coke and a candy bar (preferably a Milky Way) makes a handy lunch that you can easily eat on the go and that does not make you the least bit drowsy the way a tummy full of a hamburger or chicken salad will. It also overlooks the fact that when you are feeling a bit peckish and low-energy at around 4:00 p.m., that third Coke of the day helps you round that last base and slide into home around 6:00 with ease. But now I am waxing nostalgic. I actually held a kind of ceremony for enjoying my final Coke. As I rolled through the drive-thru after scheduling gum graft surgery at the periodontist’s office, I yelled, “And Supersize that, please!” Since quitting, I’ve learned several important things. It takes a good week, (my kids might say a good month) to rebuild the sunny disposition that I had propped up with sugary Cokes all day. Cold, bottled water is a far more healthful and wholesome alternative to Cokes, or any carbonated beverages for that matter. And finally, I’ve found it IS possible to acquire a taste for Diet Coke.
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Room To Grow
April 5, 2001 In my so-called professional travails, I have found that people usually equate the number of kids they intend to have with the number of bedrooms they need, plus one. If they have three kids, they believe they need a total of four bedrooms, plus a guest room. Harry, father of three little ones, is the only client I’ve ever had who values the concept of roommates, but since he likes new houses his poor kids will probably wind up with their own bedrooms AND bathrooms. There are exceptions to this rule. People with four or more children do not subscribe to the plusone-room-as-guest-room formula. They know that nobody in their right mind ever stays overnight with people with four or more children unless they are being paid. This one kid to a room thing is a decidedly modern phenomenon, and a rather unfortunate one. As I keep telling my kids, having a roommate teaches all kinds of valuable life lessons about body-space, sharing, creativity, and compromise. My parents were my first roommates. They always parked the bassinette in their bathroom. Perhaps that is why I still do my best crying in the tub or shower and why I find vent fans so soothing. Then I moved into the same crib that was bought for my eldest brother, 18 years my senior. My sister Blanche, five years older than I, was my roommate. This crib was more like a box. It had movable slats that older siblings preferred to slam closed. I could
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not see out of the crib while supine, so I developed a keen sense of hearing. I did not like to go to sleep alone (still don’t). It’s not like my parents were going to rock me, so Blanche was forced to go to bed the same time as I - at least until I fell asleep. She could be a ventriloquist today because she became so adept at crawling toward the door and throwing her voice. “Blaaaanche? Are you still in bed?” I’d whine. “Uh, yeah,” she’d yell from the door, “and I was almost asleep, so BE QUIET.” Then she would zip over, ruffle her covers for emphasis, start creeping toward the door again, and the cycle would continue. By the time I actually fell asleep, my mother would find Blanche tip toeing toward the warm glow of the TV and order her back to bed. We grew so close through our roommate years that Blanche feels really comfortable, to this very day, recounting this story every chance she gets to anyone who will listen. It was a watershed, maturing experience for us both. My next roommate was my younger sister Bridget. First we shared my mother’s dressing room as a bedroom. It was not big enough for two cribs, so I slept on an old, velvet chaise lounge which afforded an excellent view of Bridget, the 12th and last child, slumbering away in her brand new, white canopied crib (not that I’m bitter). Bridget and I eventually graduated to a share a bedroom for the next eleven years. We developed loads of character, and learned all kinds of important life lessons within those four walls. We could be developers today, because we divided and subdivided that room with ropes and blankets many times over into MY SIDE and YOUR SIDE. On good days, it was a creative tent city. On most days, we dared each other to even think about crossing into enemy territory. When we had to share a bed, I made up a really fun game called
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The Arm Game. This involved flopping my arm onto her, and she had to throw it back over to my side, and then the cycle would repeat. When Bridget grew tired of this really fun game, or if she wanted a turn at flopping her arm onto me, it often evolved into The Fist Game. She could be a mediator today because she came up with the candid, if not healthy, credo of, “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is ours.” When we could not work out our quarrels (daily, like clockwork), our parents taught us the fine art of compromise, and very loudly, too. For example, I preferred to sleep in complete darkness. Still do. Even a sliver of light creates shadows, and shadows beget monsters that may eat naughty big sisters. Bridget, on the other hand, feared the dark, and preferred to have the door all the way open, the hall light on. Our parents intervened and struck an eminently fair compromise: every night, we had the door all the way open and the hall light on. At first I was blind to any compromise, let alone fairness, but Mom assured me that I would soon see the light, or that I’d darn well better. And I did. As it turned out, the door compromise provided the perfect lighting for a nightly round of The Arm Game.
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Many Happy Returns
April 19, 2001 My friend Leigh-Leigh’s birthday is tomorrow as I write this. What is truly extraordinary, besides Leigh-Leigh herself, is that I have remembered her birthday before it occurs. If I manage to keep it in mind for the day, I might manage to honor her birthday on time, too. Birthdays are not my strong suit. My friends and family know this and accept it. Every year I resolve to remember and honor ALL my friends’ and family members’ birthdays, on time. In a good year, a very good year, that means sister Marcy and brother George might each get a late card because they were smart enough to have January birthdays, but it’s all downhill after that. I lunched with my friends Annie and Lauren in March to fete Annie’s birthday, which falls in early December. It was not until mid-January that I suddenly remembered that I’d forgotten her birthday, again. I almost picked up the phone right then and there but Annie has this weird thing about not talking on the phone after 2:00 a.m. I was, however, the only one who brought a gift to the table for our little luncheon. This was because, as Lauren smugly noted about two or three times, she had ALREADY given Annie a present ON her birthday. I used to be part of a birthday dinner club that evolved, flourished and then became extinct over the course of a few years. (It must be extinct - I have not been notified of a meeting in years.) The others went to great lengths to think about and shop for the perfect gift AND card and then wrap it all up like a work of art.
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They went through a fierce raffia-as-ribbon stage for a while, as well as heavy flirtations with messy but charming confetti. They liked to sit there and ADMIRE the wrappings through the whole damn dinner instead of opening them as soon as possible. They fostered odd priorities. I, on the other hand, would go to great lengths to find a decent store close to the restaurant that was still open after 6:00 pm and then sit in the restaurant parking lot wrapping it in last Sunday’s comics (my small gesture for a greener earth). With luck, I held it all together with clear scotch tape instead of brown packaging tape or band aids. Having the store gift-wrap the item was out of the question because, while pretty, it is a little impersonal, it often costs extra, and Eckerd’s does not gift wrap. My birthday club cronies began to “help” me by calling me a day or two in advance of the designated birthday evening. They never criticized the GIFTS that I brought (one cannot have too much bubble bath or three-ring notebook paper after all), but they sure did put a lot of stock in the trappings of it all. One year, one of the birthday presents I received was an assortment of wrapping items, including tissue, bags, stickers, and the crucial raffia. I used it faithfully (on their gifts of course) but then it ran out as things do and I reverted to creative recycling with the funnies. Being in a birthday club did little to jog my bad memory. We coordinated meetings around our various schedules on an ad hoc basis, so unless our dinner fell right on the day of the honoree’s birthday, I remained oblivious. I once stood in my pal Lauren’s driveway, prattling on about Lord-knows-what for about 30 minutes. She stood there grinning away, thinking to herself, “She has no clue that today is my birthday.” It did not upset her in the least, because she knew this latest lapse was not a reflection on our friendship. More importantly, she knew that the pangs of guilt that would inevitably hit me would produce a MUCH better gift. My friend Donna and I gave each other one of the best, most lasting birthday gifts of all a few years ago. It was one October
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that she came up with the idea, just after she’d found my belated gift on her front porch (her birthday is in August - I think). I’d also left a note, two paragraphs worth of mea culpas, that prompted her fantastic gift idea: no more birthday presents! We have not given each other a birthday gift since, and our friendship has reached new heights of love and understanding through this mutual lack of attention. We still slip up around Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and of course Veterans’ Day, but our birthdays remain sacrosanct non-events. My mom has THE best approach to birthdays. She has 22 living sons and daughters and in-laws, 39 grandchildren (and counting) and one great grandchild. Rather than attempt to remember all these birthdays, she remembers us all on HER birthday, by sending each of us a gift and a wonderful letter. That way, she never overlooks any of our birthdays, regardless of the dates (and of course we would be crazy to forget hers). I think I might follow in her footsteps in this regard. After all, my friends’ and family members’ birthdays are FAR more important than my own, and once you turn 40 you’d just as soon people not make a fuss over your birthday. So, if I can just remember to get my act together in time, I will try to honor all their birthdays at once, ON MAY 20th!!!! -- just in case you’re wondering when to check the mailbox.
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Thanks for the Mammaries
May 3, 2001 Believe it or not, My Reason for Living gets veto power over my published musings. However, he is a big fan of the First Amendment (and obviously a good sport), so he uses his power sparingly. Over a year ago, he initially put the kibosh on a memoir-type column I wrote about bra shopping. It was “inappropriate.” Using our domestic system of checks and balances, I ran the column by Katy and Leigh-Leigh who deemed the piece completely appropriate and definitely contributing to the public good. The veto was over-ridden, the column published, and many people who have shopped for or just looked at bras seemed to like it. Especially men. That was apparently the problem. My Reason for Living felt it was inappropriate for me to write anything that might prompt my male readers to think about mammary glands, er … breasts. The flaw in that logic is that I could write a column about cold fusion or cat food, and many of my male readers would peruse it, sip their coffee, and then enjoy a passing thought about breasts, the first such thought of many that day. Today’s topic is in fact breasts, as in their function: breastfeeding. For the unschooled, this does not involve feeding anything TO the breast. The only thing breasts need to be fed is a steady diet of routine exams, a yearly mammogram for those over 40, lots of support (underwire or emotional for those that do not require underwire), and of course the benefit of the doubt.
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Women do not think or talk about breasts, let alone breastfeeding, as often as men do. I just spent a weekend with six other women and if they debated breasts or breastfeeding, I must have been out of the room. In fact, I have spent numerous weekends with groups of women over the years and I cannot remember ever discussing it. Too volatile. If you thought women were touchy about whether mothers should or should not work outside the home, that issue is bush league compared to breastfeeding. There are few choices more personal to a woman as to whether to breastfeed, but it is the only personal choice I know of that other women feel compelled to openly second-guess, no matter what. I have never heard another woman opine about how often I should bathe or what kind of underwear I should wear, but it’s open season on breastfeeding. I wish I had a dime for every time I heard some version of the following two sermonettes: “You’re not going to breastfeed that baby are you? It will just tie you down and ruin your breasts.” “Can you believe it? She is not even considering breastfeeding her baby. How selfish is that?” Both schools of thought are equally STUPID, to use a technical term. I admit it, I breast fed all four of my babies, but I brazenly cheated on all them, feeding them not only bottled breast milk but bottled formula, even in the hospital. I am not now nor have I ever been a member of La Leche League, nor have I ever been a cardcarrying member of La Baby Bottle League, if such a thing exists. I nursed three of my babies a few months, and one just a few weeks, and I still wear a hair shirt over “quitting” on her “too early” because she has allergies now. (Her breast fed siblings also have allergies - but guilt does not thrive on rationality or logic.)
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Ironically enough, I nursed my youngest the longest, almost six months. Part of the reason was because my sister’s wedding was coming up and I knew I’d look MUCH better in the dress if I were still nursing. But mostly I kept it up out of more guilt. The poor child was growing up in a car seat as I schlepped her predecessors around, so it was the only legitimate excuse I had to unstrap her a few times a day. My child who was breast fed the longest is doing just great, but no better than her deprived, neglected elder siblings. In fact, if you line up 100 adults, you cannot tell which of them were breast-fed exclusively and which ones were bottle fed exclusively, even if you have access to their arrest records. But if you line up 100 mothers and ask them which ones breast fed ALL of their babies EXCLUSIVELY for at LEAST six months by the book, you’d better take cover. 98 of them will probably form a scrum and then come after you for asking such a nosey, condescending question. The other two will stand there, serenely waiting for their medals to be pinned on (arriving courtesy of Godot). Men, to their credit, may THINK about breasts in staggering proportions, but they never ask you about them unless they have an M.D. monogrammed on their lab coat. I, for one, have learned not to even ask, even as an expression of interest or concern. I know only too well how new moms flog themselves over this issue. So think what you want, but follow the male example in this case and don’t SAY a word about breastfeeding. If you do, you could unknowingly ruin a young mother’s day and give her an excuse to routinely plaster your car with “breastfeeding.com” bumperstickers.
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That Was Then, This Is Now
May 17, 2001 I hate paying taxes. I really do. Being self-employed, I pay my taxes quarterly, so I am reminded of it more often than most. It’s only natural for me to hate the very idea of a tax INCREASE even more than most, too. Just on principle, without a thought, I would vote NO on May 19th. Problem is, the grownups in my hometown community paid property taxes for strong schools that taught kids like me to THINK. Now I can’t vote without a thought about anything, for any one person, or party. Much as certain groups would like to do my thinking for me on May 19th, I think I’ll manage on my own once again, thank you. I do find their efforts to sway me rather thought-provoking if not downright entertaining. I almost want to laugh at some of the Letters to the Editor or various Op Ed pieces except that the stakes are so serious. The Constitution Party opposes the May 19th referendum, because they pretty much oppose all taxes (including those we all pay to defend their right to have such a thoughtful position, but I digress). As the saying goes, numbers don’t lie but you can use them to tell just about any story you want. The Constitution Party guy’s “solution” to our schools crisis (at least he admits there is a crisis) is to FIRE 765 teachers! That’s right. Don’t pay our teachers any better, just DUMP a whole lot of them. To support his modest proposal, he notes that Greenville County’s current student/teacher ratio is 14.3 to 1 in
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grades K through 12, while the U.S Department of Education’s goal is a ratio of 18 to 1. The ratio he calculated is an AVERAGE. Great education is not measured out in average doses. Many special education classes require a far lower ratio than 14.3 to 1 (and 15% of students attend special education classes). Some profoundly disabled children have a one to one ratio. Advanced Placement classes also tend to have a lower student/teacher ratio. I wonder if he forgot to take those students’ hardly AVERAGE needs into account or if their numbers just don’t register with his party’s agenda. For many referendum opponents, the facts are not on their side, so they obfuscate with abandon. Take the Taxpayers Association, for example, a feisty group quoted by the media way out of proportion to its actual numbers. This vociferous group is nothing if not consistent. It opposes ANY kind of tax EVER, and this referendum really gets their dander up. Their total membership - as yet undisclosed - could probably fit into your average tree house. Last Sunday morning, just as most people do as they search for clean socks and yell at their children before church, I switched on the local public access channel for a dose of civic enlightenment. There was the Taxpayers Association guy right there on TV performing feats of political alchemy. He was making new, unfounded, charges that the school district was guilty of persistent, wasteful mismanagement of tax dollars, therefore undeserving of any additional funding. He claimed the district “could save $10 million if they just turned off the lights in the schools at night.” (Well, if you’re going to tell one, you might as well make it a whopper.) There are other equally cogent arguments against the referendum. A recurring whine is that “people who send their kids to private school should not have to pay any taxes to support public schools. We don’t use them, we don’t benefit from them, and we should not have to pay for them.” Au contraire. Since the
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majority of educated Americans are products of public education, I am willing to bet that public education (not to mention a lot of federal, taxpayer-funded student loans) produced most of the people who design, build, administer, and teach in private schools, even in Sunday schools, including the ones right here in Greenville. The medium is also the message. I have seen a couple of “SAVE OUR HOMES, VOTE NO” bumper stickers driving around town. Ironically, I keep seeing it on a brand spanking new Ford Excursion, a behemoth dwarfed only by the amount of gas it guzzles (I know because we used to drive a Suburban). That driver worries about losing his home when he pays $50 a WEEK just to fill er up?? Very convincing message. The most compelling argument against the referendum, truly, is accountability. There has been mind-boggling waste with very little accountability -- in the past. That was then. The time is now. This board, this administration, and a legion of school volunteers are digging us out of years of neglect, but they can’t do it all without every citizens’ support. The school board unanimously gave us Dr. Harner. He in turn gave us an equally strong CFO in Morales. Then the board fought tooth and nail for two years to give us a cutting edge building plan that SOLVES our chronic overcrowding crisis WITHOUT raising taxes!!! Given their most recent track record, why would the trustees suddenly do an about-face and act capriciously with our tax dollars? Let’s not waste this important opportunity. This is a special moment. We can make our schools terrific; it can be done. Only when we demonstrate real, measurable support, can we expect real, measurable results. I hate paying taxes, but I hate mediocre schools even worse. I can hardly wait to say YES to our kids, our schools, and to Greenville’s future at the polls this Saturday.
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Still Cool After All These Years
June 14, 2001 My Reason for Living and I just returned from a jaunt to New York City with our two eldest, both teens. Traveling with teens is delightfully easy (compared to traveling with toddlers) because they can speak intelligibly, appreciate more or less the same sightseeing spots that adults do, and they no longer require cumbersome strollers or diapers. Because we were with teens, and because the teens were stuck with their hopelessly adult parents, nobody has referred to this family outing as a “vacation,” but you could call it a very successful family field trip. To wit, we learned a few things, such as . . . When traveling long distances with teens, everything - the car, the shared hotel room -- begins to smell like sneakers. Used sneakers. Teens are oblivious to this phenomenon, and site it as further evidence that parents are often delusional. Within a day or so, sneakers don’t smell half bad. Do not buy any more guidebooks than you are willing to peruse yourself. Teens do not need guidebooks. They already know everything. If you feel the need to consult your guidebook during the course of your trip, do NOT do it in public. This will agitate your teen because other dorky tourists may correctly mistake you for fellow dorky tourists (as if the Kate Spade knock-off purse you bought first thing in China Town does not tip everyone off). Traveling with teens is very similar to traveling with infants. Like babies, they crave sleep. Do not bother to chock more than
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one or two of New York’s greatest hits into a day. If you roust them out before the crack of noon, they cannot appreciate the sights and they’ll seize every opportunity to slump over you as if the family were seated on a church pew instead of a subway seat. Like infants, teens also NEED to eat. If you lose your watch, just keep a 17 year old male handy, because the timer in his stomach goes off about every two hours. As a consequence, I know where you can get some grub on short notice at Ellis Island, at the Guggenheim, at the U.N., at the World Trade Towers, at the NBC Studios, and at the Met (tucked away on the rooftop garden). Do not argue with your teen about who is right or who is wrong or who lost something trivial -- like a subway pass. It is not a profitable use of time. It just makes teens more intractable and parents more irascible. It does not matter how often one teaches by example that is it is not only OK but IMPORTANT to admit when one is wrong. They know this, it just goes latent around the 12th birthday. Do not argue with your teen about subway lines or directions in NYC. It does not matter that they have never been there before, it does not matter that they won’t even crack open a guidebook they will actually be right every time. It is almost impossible to be at all cool once you have teens almost. I get by with a little help from my friends. My friend Linda is a producer at NBC, and so for the hour that my son and I shared as audience members of the Conan O’Brien show, I achieved cool status. For the past 10 years, I’ve also told anyone who’d listen that Katie Couric and I are not only fellow alumnae of UVa, we were sorority sisters. I even threw it in my resume when I thought it would help. Being 15 and all, my daughter was skeptical of this true fact of my bond with Katie. (Ever since she figured out that Michelle Pfeifer and I are not really twins separated at birth, she takes everything I say with a grain of salt.) So when I hauled her out at
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7:00 a.m. to meet my friend Donna and her daughter Eleanor in the Today Show crowd, I knew I had to deliver. Katie exceeded even my expectations. First of all, she actually recognized me. (Cool.) Then she said, “You haven’t changed a bit!” (After 20 years -- even cooler.) But then came the kicker: “I’m working right now, but if you’ve got some time I’d love to have you come INSIDE.” We definitely had some time. She’d made our day - no, our TRIP. If Donna had any doubts about the benefits of being my friend, they evaporated. Suddenly, she relished the prospect of lunching with me monthly for the rest of eternity while I blather on over salad. Forty minutes later, we left the Today Show studio after a personal Katie-guided tour of the studio, the control room, the makeup room, and Katie’s office (shoes galore to die for), topped off with a dorky tourist photo of the four of us with Katie on the Today Show set! I sought confirmation that I’d produced a WAY cool experience, therefore I was cool, too. After a pregnant pause, my daughter agreed it was cool, and I was “kind of” cool by association. I hugged her and advised her that when she becomes that successful and famous she should follow Katie Couric’s gracious example by always being willing to recognize me and take me on tours of her office. She rolled her eyes. I was just a dorky tourist mom again, but it was cool while it lasted.
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Woulda, Coulda ...
June 28, 2001 Unlike most children, there were times when I did not want to be a realtor when I grew up. I was an unusual little girl who aspired to be a ballerina. (I still contend that this could have worked out if every would-be ballerina’s mother required her dancer to wear a sensible, short-sleeved undershirt bunched under a tight, seamless leotard with tired elastic, but my dancing ensemble was too far ahead of the times for me to fit in with the group.) When my children worry about NOT knowing what they want to be when they’re off the dole, I remind them of my tortuous career path (which is probably still twisted). In college, I worked in radio a lot (they had not invented TV at school yet) and openly professed the desire to go into broadcasting and be the next “Baba Wawa,” who was then hosting The Today Show. But if you are a regular reader here, you know I graciously ceded that goal to a friend rather than get all catty, and competitive about it. There was also a time when I was pre-med, and despite my passion for schlepping people through countless houses, there are still days when I wistfully muse that a white, monogrammed lab coat would look a lot more flattering on my frame than the standard Armani Real Estate Collection. I would have loved being a doctor. If you want to talk about abscesses, carbuncles or wens, I am all ears. If you don’t have anything to talk about except the last prolapse you had to repair or how physically exhausting it is to perform liposuction, then
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come sit by me. I’m a very good audience when it comes to medical stuff (unless you are putting stitches in one of my kids have smelling salts handy). My Reason for Living was pre-med all through college. After dating each other for about a year, the stars in my eyes dimmed enough for me to realize that I was JUST as smart as he was, so I should be pre-med too. Furthermore, he could not even sit through the extra credit film for his biology course entitled “Evisceration of the Human Corpse,” whereas I found it completely engrossing. He was, as always, very supportive of my endeavors, and so he helped me put together a pre-med curriculum that would work in all the necessary credits and still graduate within the four year allotment my parents gave me for college. He majored in biochemistry - a truly fascinating subject; in the 20 some-odd years we have been together, biochemistry has insured us against ever running out of something to talk about. However, there is such a thing as TOO much biochemistry in a relationship, so I opted for biology. That was fine. Dissection is divine. But there was one thing that amounts to a blockade against otherwise perfectly qualified would-be doctors: calculus. There was no way around it. Apparently no M.D. is safe without a semester of calculus on the ol’ resume, regardless of specialty. I was and am extremely math-phobic. As a young would-be ballerina, I was assured by lots of well-meaning but sexist adults that I would not “need” math, and I gratefully believed them. My Reason for Living assured me he would tutor me through calculus. I could not let a few months of (useless) math stand between me and my dream of chatting at cocktail parties about all the lives I’ve saved. So I signed up. To kick off the first class, Professor Calculus handed out a 15minute “Trig Refresher” quiz. It had been almost four, blissful years since I had gotten through trigonometry by the skin of my
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teeth, so I found myself mentally self-diagnosing all kinds of nervous disorders. I felt like I’d been given 15 minutes to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet, but I knew my Reason for Living could explain the questions (and the answers) to me later. But it got worse. Professor Calculus said, “We’ll be exchanging our papers and grading each other’s quizzes when we’re finished.” It was one thing to admit my ignorance to someone who had developed numerous incentives to overlook this one flaw, it was another thing to let some stranger know that he was seated next to a math cretin. I raised my shaking, sweaty hand and exposed a dire need for dress guards. Professor Calculus looked at me over his bifocals and said, “Yeess?” “Is this Calculus One . . . ?” I squeaked. “Yeess.” “Oh, silly me! I’m registered for Calculus TWO - my mistake!” I casually sauntered out the door so that I could go hyperventilate in the privacy of the stairwell -- my brilliant medical career in ruins. Oh sure, I could and did take remedial math to prime me for calculus, but I never did work up the same enthusiasm for divining numbers as I did for playing with a microphone and writing copy. AND I have yet to hear a doctor thank her lucky stars that she’d taken CALCULUS or her patient surely would have been a goner. Not that I am bitter - I am perfectly happy researching the cure for buyer’s remorse.
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Swiss Miss Summer
July 12, 2001 According to recent news reports, teen summer employment rates have plunged to new lows. Oddly enough, the number of teens shopping at the mall, taking in a movie, chillin’ to the beach two and three times over the summer, “chatting” on instant messenger, tying up the phone lines, driving around aimlessly with their cronies, or channel surfing while they feed their larval appetites has remained steady, or even climbed. That means that more teenagers than ever before have successfully duped their parents into PAYING them to be teenagers for the summer. Our teens happily perform all those age-appropriate functions for free during the school year, so we decided against compensating them during the summer. (Ours are so generous they even throw in premiums such as eye-rolling, loud sighing, episodic deafness, and sleeping past noon at no extra charge.) Our kids feel weird enough as it is having us as parents, but we make it even harder on them by offering a healthy choice among summer activities. First and foremost, we encourage them to get a job. A real, paying job teaches kids the value of money, labor, and time. (It also teaches them that Dad meant it when he cut off the allowance spigot for the summer.) Our eldest learned those values last summer bagging groceries, yet he bagged that option for this summer in favor of summer school. The second option, surprisingly enough, is some kind of summer school. If it is something legit in the arts, athletics, or academics, we will underwrite the endeavor, including extra
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pocket money for soap, soda crackers, gas, and the occasional movie ticket. The third option we offer is in honor of my own parents’ wonderful example. Option three involves staying with a European host family, preferably Swiss, to soak up some culture. None of our kids finds this option tempting. Perhaps I’ve been too forthcoming about my own teen European vacation. You can imagine what a charming 15 year old I was. My parents were marrying off two of my sisters that summer. They lacked time and energy needed to argue with me, not to mention the cash needed to support my goofing off. Choking on the silver spoon I assumed I was born with, I refused to get a job when my parents informed me that my cushy summer camp days were history. I likewise scoffed at summer school because it was so uncool to pick up a book between May and September. A summer abroad seemed way cooler than my other options. I thought, “I’ll take Swiss Family Vacations for $500, Alex!” and naturally assumed I’d hit the Daily Double. I learned a lot during my seven weeks in Switzerland the summer I was 15, such as . . . You don’t sleep UNDER a feather bed, you sleep ON it. (At 15, this revelation can take a few suffocating weeks.) Swiss-German dogs are so stupid they do not understand a word of English. In my experience, the Swiss favor crotch-sniffing, yappy, mop dogs with no eyes, a perpetually slimy muzzle, and an obscene interest in visitors’ legs. Even stupid Swiss dogs eventually understand a swift kick when no one else is looking. It is possible to buy your teen a round trip plane ticket to Switzerland with NO FIRM RETURN DATE. It is ironically easy to slide into physical homesickness for the very same incredibly mean parents who shipped you off in the first place.
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Swiss teens are so dumb they mistake mountain climbing for hiking. Their summer camps are set in beautiful but VERTICAL mountain pastures mined with steaming cow pies. The only thing worse than climbing up to an alpine campsite is hobbling down from it a few sore days later. The Swiss-German dialect is so obscure that self-absorbed American teens need not even feign interest in conversing with their unintelligible but incessantly friendly host families. After a few weeks, even the obscure, gutteral Swiss-German dialect becomes intelligible to even the surliest, homesick teenager. If you really listen, 90 % of idle chit-chat (Swiss-German or otherwise) has something to do with food. Food does not go well with homesickness. Callous parents are unmoved by a constant flow of letters begging to set a return date on a plane ticket. Loyal friends who desperately accost these parents at mass every Sunday as if negotiating me out of a Swiss hostage crisis only strain parentteen tensions. Annoyed parents mistake these daily missives and the intercession of devoted friends for teen ingratitude at worst or “character building” at best. When you cannot/will not communicate with anyone around you, the Bronte sisters, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens make captivating summer companions and lifelong friends. I learned the only way to get your parents to set a return date on your plane ticket is to write detailed fictions about LOVING everything about Swiss summer camps, Swiss teens, and arcane Swiss dialects. Most importantly, my summer as a Swiss Miss taught me that there are few things more satisfying than a rewarding, challenging JOB - except perhaps an occasional furtive sidekick to a mop with misplaced affections.
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Just Fined, Thanks
July 26, 2001 I used to think there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be negotiated. I haggled out one of my very best purchases in a snooty store where the head sales lady wore those half-glasses to look down her nose as she sized me up. When I asked if she’d take half price for two leather chairs I’d been ogling for months, she reminded me, sotto voce, that this was a retail establishment and that they never “haggled.” I stepped out of character for a moment, and persisted. “I’d like to ask the DECISION MAKER, please. Just ask. The worst he can say is ‘no.’ Tell him I’ll pay cash right now if he’ll knock off 50 percent.” She returned shortly, casting furtive glances right and left. She whispered, “OK - cash deal at 50 percent off - plus tax.” I could have kissed her, but those glasses are really a turn off. To this day, I get 100% more satisfaction from sitting in or just looking at those chairs than any other piece we own. While you can always attempt it at retail, there are some hardball establishments that will haggle nothing. The state cannot negotiate their own instructions or computer system, let alone your piddly fine. If you were to get a speeding ticket, there is no point in trying to whine, wheedle, or cry your way out of it (especially if you’ve earned more than your fair share lately), so don’t lower yourself to trying.
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The ticket’s fine print instructs to pay your fine BY a certain date. If that date is June 3rd, for example, you might think to pay up BY June 3rd, but you would be wrong. I paid a fine ON June 3rd, very similar to the hypothetical one just described (and you have to pay in CASH, in EXACT CHANGE). The clerk stamped my receipt PAID, then LATE, and ordered me to pay a LATE FEE. I pointed out that it WAS June 3rd -- not late. She said, “The ticket says BY June 3rd.” Right, and it was June 3rd and therefore ON TIME. She said, “BY June 3rd means BEFORE June 3rd so you really had to pay this yesterday.” I said, “If the state meant BEFORE June 3rd they should PRINT it that way! There’s a big difference between BY and BEFORE and this kind of misunderstanding must happen all the time. You can’t fine me when I’m not late!” “I just did, ma’am.” “Can I please speak to the DECISION MAKER around here?” I really need to work this out with someone in charge!” She yawned. The 16,000 people behind me threatened to turn our orderly line into a mosh pit if I did not just pay and leave. So, I cheerfully paid the stupid late fine, in cash, exactly. Then this human dial tone got downright friendly: “You need to take this receipt over to DMV to prove that you’ve paid the late fine.” “No, ma’am, our computers don’t ‘talk’ to DMV computers.” “No, ma’am, you can’t mail your receipt. You must go stand in another line, AGAIN, with Flotsam and Jetsam and their extended family for at least two hours that you don’t have to spare and you HAVE to do it BY next week or your license will be revoked.” (OK, she did not actually say the flotsam and jetsam stuff, but that’s what she MEANT.)
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“And please stop yelling, ma’am.” So I did what any busy, irked person would do. I told myself I would stand in line at DMV later, and then promptly forgot about it. A few weeks later, I got a nasty, official letter offering me a choice between paying a late fee (that I’d already paid!) or surrendering my license. If I could not decide, a state trooper would help out by arresting me. All this, because the state cannot see or negotiate the difference between BY and BEFORE and clerks cannot cut you a break on the BY date. The one place that I could always count on to haggle out a deal (such as complete amnesty) was the local video store. They were always nice, knew us by name, and were openly planning a new “Herlong Hall” based on forecasts of the late fees they occasionally required us to pay. It was not unusual for us to face a $15.00 late fee, which was quietly knocked down to $8 or $10 as long as we were renting something else (and generating more late fees). We had a friendly barter thing going for years. Then they changed hands and we racked up a whopping $92.00 fine. I knew we were bad, but we weren’t THAT bad. I stopped by when I knew I would be the only customer in the store and the manager - the DECISION MAKER - was the only employee. I could not believe the fine was that high, but even so, how about knocking off 50 percent since we are among their most loyal, if not most punctual, customers? She said, “You’re right. It’s not $92.00. It has since compounded to $129.29, but we’re happy to negotiate something. You can either pay in two easy installments, 50 percent each, or one big payment. But if you don’t pay it off by July 12th I’m turning your account over to a collection agency.”
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I know when my negotiation skills have been matched, and I had to respect her stance (and my credit rating). To this day, I get 100% satisfaction from watching those free movies on TBS with lots of commercials and no late fees.
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August 9, 2001 Steely Dan recorded a hit, “Hey 19” a couple of years before I was 19. It was still getting a lot of play on the AM radio when I met my Reason for Living just shy of his 19th. I used to think it was about a 19 year old girl who was too young for the songwriter to get serious about. Now the song just reminds me how fast 19 years zip by. Wedding anniversaries are not exactly national holidays around here. I can’t even berate our kids for not remembering to honor us on that day because it’s not scrawled on the calendar to prompt them. We give each other anniversary gifts only sporadically, mostly because the gifts we have chosen over the years have not gone over so well. One year, when I was still paying attention to “what kind” of anniversary it was (Paper? Glass? Animal by-products?), he unwrapped an exquisite all-eiderdown pillow I’d specially ordered. He appreciatively deadpanned, “It’s a pillow.” (Frugal, he does not believe in replacing things that don’t need replacing, even if the pillow in question is a revolting sack leaking dust mite offal and crusted with a rust colored map of the myriad nose bleeds he suffered as a boy.) The luxurious nature of this new, squishy pillow was lost in the wreckage of his glorious past. He felt like I was replacing a sacred relic from his childhood. He was right, but relics, like dead saints, do not make pleasant bedfellows. That same year, I unwrapped . . . um, NOTHING, which also did not go over so well, but gift
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giving is another column, and I have wandered too far off point as it is. After that year, we (that would be “I”) stopped making such a big deal about anniversary presents and our anniversaries have paraded by with quiet fanfare. I didn’t even worry about whether we felt particularly itchy during our seventh year together, so it came and went with only a few, minor scratches. They say that the best anniversary gift you can give is a “happy marriage” for your kids to witness and model after. “Happy” is a tall, unrealistic order on a daily basis. No one confuses us with Ward and June Cleaver. I think the best anniversary gift you can give your children is allowing them to take their parents, and their parents’ marriage, for granted. Happy is the kid who can be typically self-absorbed and does not have to consider whether there will be another anniversary. That is not to say that our children confuse a “happy marriage” with the one they see at work under their roof every day. It all depends upon how one defines “happy.” Our kids know that one of our favorite past times is debating or discussing the fine points of well . . . anything, including the last word. When they were little, the kids often confused our lively exchange of ideas for argument or impending violent conflict. Our second child once wailed from the back seat, “Stop fighting!!” We barked back in unison that we were NOT fighting, we were DISCUSSING something very important (most likely the fine points of caving in and asking for directions, but I digress…). “Then STOP DISGUSTING!!!” Today, this directive enjoys the same dousing effect on the current “discussion” we are beating to a pulp as it did when first uttered by our two year old. Our children have learned firsthand that at least one version of a marriage they can take for granted involves regular, sometimes heated debate, genuine contrition, generous forgiveness, open reconciliation, a sense of humor, and (perhaps too often) an
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acceptance of having one’s erstwhile personal foibles shared with the community at large about every two weeks. So do not mistake this as being ABOUT my Reason for Living; I am trying to give the poor guy a break. My broker says he hopes to kick the bucket right after my Reason for Living does because, “The guy has put up with you for so long he HAS to have an ‘in,’ so I’ll be hanging on to his coat tails.” Hardly. When one ACCEPTS perfectly innocuous (if not charming) habits of leaving one’s shoes around, writing illegible checks, and talking for hours on the phone, then one is not “putting up” with anything. When we leave a party, even an especially good party, and we are conducting post-mortems on the way home, I often tell him, “It was fun, but I still liked you best.” I am not just kissing up, either (though there is much to be said for it). Our kids may have the luxury for now of taking 19 years for granted, but I don’t. I don’t want to worry him -- there is NO GIFT attached to this lengthy card, so no thank you note necessary. A simple “you’re welcome” will do, for at least another year.
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Better Late Than ...
August 23, 2001 When I returned from summer camp the first time, there was a hoard of parents waiting for our bus. Many of them waved huge homemade Welcome Home signs. The number of parents was not surprising, but the fact that they were WAITING knocked me speechless. Until that moment, I had assumed that all the kids would get off the bus and sit around waiting, with me, for their moms to arrive . . . whenever. Since I was the only child to do so, I chalked up the waiting throng to yet another odd but not unattractive idiosyncrasy I’d noticed since transferring from our parochial school to the local public school and making friends new, WASPy friends there. (These new friends also inhabited smaller, tidier, quieter houses, where the playroom smelled like potpourri instead of diapers. They had 1.5 siblings or fewer; they had their own rooms; they were often named for the lesser known but decidedly more glamorously named among the communion of saints, such as Saint Stacy, Saint Jennifer and Saint Vicky.) Anyway, I perched on my trunk gaping at the tearful (!) reunions and lingering hugs. Fathers grumbled as they hauled off my friends’ “brick collections” packed in their trunks, and mothers swayed arm in arm with their prodigal campers over to the parked station wagons and drove off. Then I was the lone camper, still waiting on my trunk. A nice man came out from the community center and asked if my parents knew that I was coming home today. I guessed so, and started to feel a little embarrassed, if not exactly worried, that my
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mom was not there (I could not know it at the time, but I was growing WASPier by the minute.) He gave me a dime for the pay phone, but it didn’t do much good. The phone rang about eight times and finally two siblings picked up two phone extensions simultaneously. HELLO!!! “Is Mom there?” Silence. I had a sick feeling; I knew what was coming. There was an unwritten rule among us kids that if you answered the phone the same time as someone else and the caller did not ask for either one of you, the trick was to hang up immediately so that the other sibling left holding the phone would have to go yelling all over the house for the intended recipient, or at least (pretend to) take a message from the caller. (We were smart enough not to do this if the call was for either parent, but calls for siblings were fair game.) The problem was, both kids may be so fast on the draw that the caller would suddenly get a dial tone. The caller would have to call right back again, but the two kids who answered it the moment before KNEW the call would not be for them and so the caller might have to wait about 16 rings for someone ELSE to answer. If two new people answered, the cycle could easily continue, and I had only the one, donated dime. “DON’T HANG UP! I’m home from camp!!” I managed to keep at least one - Frank -- from hanging up. “Oh yeah? Who’s this?” “Very funny. Where’s Mom?” “Dunno. Out.” Very plausible answer. “When is she coming home?” “Dunno.” Even more plausible. “Did she say she was going to pick me up from the camp bus?” “No, nobody’s even noticed you were gone yet. If I see her when she gets home, I’ll tell her you’re waiting.” Implausible. “Can’t YOU come get me?”
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“No car.” Entirely plausible, he certainly wouldn’t be hanging around answering the phone if he had wheels and gas money. So I hung up and waited some more, long enough to worry that maybe she DIDN’T know today was the day, when Mom finally pulled up. “Am I early? I thought there’d be lots of kids on the bus with you!” (She wasn’t even being ironic, just clueless.) “You’re LATE. Everybody else left a long time ago! There were tons and tons of parents WAITING here.” I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something dismissive about the bus being early, (an interesting observation for someone who never wore a watch or consulted clocks). She insisted the other parents had TIME to make signs and wait for buses because those poor, AVERAGE people had ONLY 2.3 children so they HAD to make a fuss to compensate for the emptiness they must feel. Being Number 11 instead of Number 3 made me SPECIAL (even if the price of being so special was becoming one with my trunk while my pitiful, WASPy friends retreated to their lonely, private bedrooms). I vowed to myself on the way home that I would NEVER be late picking up MY kids when I became a mom. I didn’t vow not to have 11 or 12 kids, but it sure helps in the late department. I’m sure if I had had only two kids I would be early for everything. There have been a FEW times I have run a LITTLE late picking up my progeny who too often forget how special they are to each be one of four. But like my mother, I just tell them, “Better late than average.”
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In Praise of the Day Off
September 6, 2001 After thoughtful deliberation (between impromptu catnaps on the couch) I have concluded that Labor Day is my very favorite holiday of the year. Would that ALL of our holidays were so easy to honor. Unlike the relative trauma (no pun intended) that the fourth quarter holidays lay away for us every year, Labor Day is the one, low-impact holiday that remains pure to its purpose. Stores do not put up premature Labor Day decorations. In fact, I’m not sure I know what a Labor Day decoration would even look like. (A hammer and sickle? No, that’s been done, not too well, either.) The official Labor Day decors vacuum gives me the day off from the inadequacy I always feel during other holidays, such as when I finally dig up our home-spun front yard cemetery just before we drag home the fir tree that inevitably expands the children’s vocabulary in the wrong direction. We somehow stuff the turkey theme decorations that festoon other homes for a solid month between the other two holidays for a good ten minutes. Although there are plenty of Labor Day sales, there are no Labor Day gifts for which to make lists, shop, wrap, hide, expect, pretend to like or recycle on the following Labor Day. We have yet to suffer a Labor Day argument, let alone an annual one, that is catalyzed by, “But we spent LAST Labor Day with YOUR family!” In fact, we have managed to skip Labor Day arguments altogether. There is precious little Labor Day traditions to argue about, except perhaps who gets to control the TV remote,
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but since my virility is not tied to the “clicker” I can’t get worked up over that. Labor Day simply and elegantly celebrates the American laborer by giving us all The Day Off. As a working mother (that is, a mother who works outside the home) I feel ever so deserving of The Day Off, but not any more so than moms who stay at home. As a mother who has done both, I can honestly say that both types are equally deserving of The Day Off. (This may raise the hackles of some stay at home moms because they probably didn’t FEEL like they got The Day Off any more than I did when I got up off the couch to defrost some dinner. While the 24-hour constancy of the work of stay at home moms surpasses any work that I know of outside the home, one cannot underestimate the guilt that working moms like me are required to feel and how exhausting that is over time, too. But I digress…) I was going to include a brief history of Labor Day and publicly congratulate whatever President or Labor boss who pushed our official Day Off through Congress, but that would’ve required getting off the couch which is far too much trouble and hardly in keeping with the spirit of the day. Some people mistake Labor Day for a day of labor. Retailers are especially misguided. Like an orthodox Christian who refuses to eat anything but a HOMECOOKED brunch after church to encourage restaurateurs to keep the Sabbath too, I steadfastly refused to go anywhere (except the frig during commercials) or buy anything on Labor Day in order to encourage retailers to give the staff The Day Off too. When the weather rained out a much-anticipated game of tennis, I feared my friend Harriett might be dishonoring The Day Off by working around the house during the time she would have been trying to beat me like a yard dog. Sure enough, she was fairly breathless when she answered the phone - from the bathroom cleaner’s fumes! I’d caught her just in the nick of time. She had
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only gotten as far as the sink. I managed to talk her, slowly and calmly, away from the toilet, then away from the shower, and then finally out into the safety of the hall outside. When I heard her snap those Playtex gloves off, I sighed with relief. The crisis was over. I had to give her a quick tough-love lecture about NEVER cleaning even so much as your fingernails on Labor Day, but she promised to prop her feet up and do absolutely nada the rest of the day. My work was done. Any other day, including any of the other holidays, spent the way The Day Off is properly honored would be completely worthless, utter sloth. One cannot celebrate other holidays by doing nothing when there are costumes to sew (OK, staple), parades to attend, turkeys to baste, gifts to wrap, relatives to offend, and trees to trim -- all the while making a huge effort not to commercialize these annual rituals. But The Day Off spent napping on the couch, snacking on junk food, dragging shrieking daughters around the lake on an inner tube, nattering on the phone about nothing much, laughing at Monty Python videos, or marveling at tennis mavens while my Reason for Living bravely defends the remote -- THAT -- is a good Labor Day’s work.
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On Our Way
September 20, 2001 We were all on our way somewhere that Tuesday morning. None of us will ever forget where we were when we heard. We were on our way to work, to a meeting, out the door, to carpool, to class, to Kindermusik, to Bible study, to get something done. It could not have been a more normal, more beautiful September morning, perhaps the last morning life will answer to our old definition of normal for a long time. And then the world violently heaved upside down. Impregnable skyscrapers became vulnerable, shifting mountains of shredded steel. Ambulances and fire engines became coffins. Employees became victims. Americans and our friends became mourners. As atrocities mounted, each one unthinkable in its own right, almost incomprehensible to take in as a whole, we all stared, mesmerized, feeling as useless as sock garters as shock gave way to the desire to help someone, somehow. Many people have wondered aloud, on TV, on email, over a garden fence, where God was on Tuesday and how He could allow this to happen, but I felt God’s presence throughout that day, and every day since. God was there when people who “don’t usually even pray” uttered prayers for the victims and their families, transforming thousands of personal foxholes into chapels with open doors; when, like awed parents taking inventory of a newborn’s fingers, toes, cowlicks, and features for the first time, we all called down the list of our loved ones, finding reassurance that they were
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where they belonged, gaining relief from the mere sound of their voices; when school children delivered handmade pb&j sandwiches (what else?) to rescue workers, enclosing eloquent, crayoned notes that read “Be O.K.” ; when allegedly “self absorbed” teens lined up for hours to give blood, passing the time singing songs Joan Baez penned for a different struggle a generation ago; when my nine year old and her friend Reid emptied their piggy banks because they thought they weren’t selling enough Gatorade on our curb to impress the Red Cross Relief fund, and yet friends and neighbors miraculously worked up $87.77 worth of thirst for these little girls to donate. So many people lost some one that Tuesday, but we all lost something. Not our innocence, we sacrificed our innocence, and our children’s, a long time ago on the altar of moral relativism. We certainly lost our complacency. It exploded our myth that we somehow deserve the relatively cushy life of freedoms we have been enjoying without having to work for it beyond a weekly paycheck. We’ve stopped worrying about body sculpting because we’re haunted by images of body bags. We don’t care what we’re “supposed” to be wearing this fall because we can’t find enough red, white and blue to wear, to wave, to show we hurt for those who were hurt. We see how macabre it is for “reality TV” producers to orchestrate some kind of “real life” version of Lord of the Flies when so many real, living people did not survive a scene they did not sign up for. And now we talk of war. The talking heads have already raised the specter of the draft, hardly small talk to anyone who has raised a son or loves a young man. But for the moment, anyway, this is a different war, where our soldiers wear hard hats and firemen’s uniforms, their weapons are shovels, bare hands, and faith against all odds. Our heroes are guys in ties, who made sure others either made it to safety, or made sure others did not die alone or left behind, or bravest of all, regular guys -- sons,
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brothers, and husbands -- who made sure their own certain deaths were not in vain, taking care that other innocents were not torn from life’s frame along with them. It is too bad that it takes war to unite us, but thank goodness it does. We are singing the national anthem every chance we get. We not only manage to know all the words but we hit all the tough notes together - some of them even musical. But the most evocative battle hymn of our republic is the voices united in prayer, joined in the chorus of cheers for truck loads of weary relief workers, or murmuring the sweet nothings of plain old loving as we reach out to make sense of a horror, a grief that defy words. The prayer that inspired the fallen Father Judge every day that he ministered to New York’s firemen inspires us today, and in the tougher days ahead. I can’t remember it exactly, but it goes something like, “Lord, show me where to go, show me what to say, and show me how to stay out of your way.” We could all use that reminder as we are all now on our way, to war.
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YOU Was There
October 4, 2001 My Reason for Living recently squired me to a black tie charity event. We love few things more than dancing the night away together, and I relish any excuse to shop for a new dress, so I was really looking forward to the whole thing - except for the part involving You. I knew in advance that You would be in every room, around every corner, and if I had more than my one, rationed glass of wine, I might feel surrounded by You. Names escape me. I am GREAT with phone numbers, a regular walking phone book (just ask anyone in my office), but unless someone has their phone number tattooed on their forehead they have to endure several minutes of my frenetic babbling before I can conjure their name. If I can’t remember someone’s name or can’t figure out a polite way to address a person, I greet them with a glassy stare and lamely call them “You.” My friend Cathy’s husband Brad nailed me on this very issue a couple of black ties ago. He warmly greeted us and called us both by name, which really impressed me (and panicked me!) because we had only been introduced one time before and I need seven or eight introductions before a name will stick. However, being me and all, I frantically scanned my brain for his name and came up with, “How good to see You!” and shot My Reason for Living a desperate, over the shoulder “I-have-no-ideawho-I-am-hugging” look. Moments later, Brad busted me by whispering, “You have no idea what my name is, do You?”
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I was mortified, but he did me a great service because I have NEVER forgotten his name since. You is there even when I know exactly who someone is. Years ago, I did not feel comfortable calling my mother-in-law-to-be “Mother” because I already have one. Besides, I only call my own mother “Mother” when I am annoyed with her, which is far too often, but rather tangential just now. The term “Mama” will never roll off my tongue easily (my own children don’t even speak that southern). I felt it was cheeky to call her by her first name, and too formal to address her as “Mrs. Herlong.” So I just called her You. She evidently got tired of it and kindly encouraged me to call her Bela (everyone else does) and I’ve never forgotten her name since, either. I rely on You because the few times that I have tried to guess someone’s name have been disastrous. When I first went into real estate, I tried too hard to make a good impression on a fellow agent named Katy by giving her extensive, detailed “showing feedback” when I ran into her at the theater. I went on ad nauseum about a listing of hers that I had shown. Katy listened politely enough, but seemed less than interested in whether I liked this house or not. I must say for those five minutes when I was I impressing her with my feedback, I was less than impressed with her interest in her business. This was probably because her name was Ramona, not Katy, and Ramona is smart enough not to have ever tangled with real estate. Katy and Ramona were equally pleased to have been mistaken for each other (much as I am similarly pleased whenever Sharon Stone is in town and the confusion begins) but the damage was done. If I had simply called her You I would have gotten away with just one (more) person suspecting that I was a half-wit, instead of two people confirming that I was a complete cretin. My Reason for Living and I have developed a code over the years because, unlike me, he is uncomfortable engaging in long conversations with people whose names may or may not come to
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him . . . later. If I do not introduce him to someone within 60 seconds of my animated prattling, he aptly infers that I lack even the slightest notion as to the person’s name, so he rescues me by introducing himself. Nine times out of ten this method works beautifully, but I seem to attract that tenth You quite a bit. Last summer at the pool, I happened upon my pal Lindo who was engaged idle chit chat about existentialism with a fellow mom who was new to me. As I approached, Lindo flashed me that clenched “I-have-no-idea-who-I’m-talking-to” smile that I assumed only I had perfected, and I was delighted to discover a fellow, clueless traveler in her. As I sat down to butt in to their tete a tete, I used My Reason for Living’s technique by suavely introducing myself. I think she was toying with us. Instead of reciprocating with her own name, the other mom exclaimed, “Oh, I know You!” She never did give us her name, so I HAD to name her You. I’ve never forgotten it since, either, which is good, since she gets around a lot.
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October 18, 2001 Choosing a name for our new puppy was almost as daunting as naming our children. We wanted to find the one name that truly says it all, preferably one that the dog could pronounce, too. But just as when we were considering names for our progeny, several well-meaning butt-inskys weighed in. I nearly had the quorum needed to push the name I liked best when one backbencher sniped, “Steve? Why would anyone name a puppy Steve?” The appropriate response is, “Why wouldn’t anyone name a puppy ‘Steve’?” But, sometimes the equally appropriate response is also the equally rude one. So, our puppy does not answer to Steve, which is fine because she doesn’t answer to anything. We endured lots of help from a self-appointed name review committee when naming our first three children. My family often confuses unsolicited advice for welcome counsel. After we had named our firstborn, my eldest sister kindly remarked that his moniker qualified me for lucrative, part-time work naming Mattel’s then-popular Cabbage Patch dolls. (To this day, she believes I named her as legal guardian out of respect rather than revenge.) Because our baby boy lacked a “proper Christian” name, my mother seriously suggested that three weeks old was not too far gone to have his name legally changed. This is a woman whose best friends were Kreibel, Cut, Ibby, and Tinker. (Tinker’s parents had difficulty pronouncing the “s” sound.) I have yet to find even one of these women’s names cited in The Lives of the Saints.
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With the next two, the complaints were relatively mild. The same sister complained that our first daughter’s named rhymed too much with her own name. However, we knew the two of them would be 40-plus years apart and spend about ten-plus minutes together per annum. We have spent more time worrying about whether to order an appetizer than we did about that name objection. Our second daughter’s name, a nice traditional one, won rave reviews, except from her namesake, my own mother. When she learned that the “Martha” part of her name would be tantamount to a seldom uttered middle name, she informed us that, “It doesn’t count.” Our baby was just as scrumptious to us, whether it counted or not. And if the name the child goes by somehow bugs Mom, well, some days that may amount to a bonus. I thought that naming our fourth and youngest would actually be easiest, for several reasons. For one, fourth pregnancies don’t generate much interest one way or another, especially once you’ve satisfied all the raised eyebrows that the fourth mouth will not push the family over the edge and onto the public dole. More importantly, geography was on our side. This is a free country; you can name your kid anything you want. But, as my brother-in-law Jim notes, in the South you can name your kid everything you want, such as Joe Pat, Caroline Keith, Ruby Euela, or Bobby Joe -- and those are just first names. I knew I could name our last daughter whatever we pleased, free from editorial commentary, because this is a particularly wonderful place where people don’t even blink when addressing grown women as Bunny, Kat, Hutch, Chicken, Popie, or Gregorie. My Reason for Living refused to consider our youngest’s name until about ten minutes before she crowned. First, he vetoed the beautiful name I had chosen, Claire, mostly because I picked it without him. (When I objected, he reminded me that Claire was also the name of a real babe he had once dated in high school. I agreed it was a fulsome name indeed.)
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We then delved into the kind of name we wanted. We knew she would grow up in Greenville, so we wanted a name that was truly Southern. We also liked naming her after people we love (and who would remember her birthday better than we do). And, a name with no obvious nickname seemed best since we tend to concoct our own goofy in-house nicknames for our poor kids And so Blanche Helen was born to us. We are still awaiting the applause. Our dear friend Dr. La is immortalized on the birth video deadpanning, “What ever happened to the name Claire? I liked Claire.” (My Reason for Living’s response was edited out to maintain a G rating.) People openly resisted this perfect name. Two of my sisters refused to be duped into believing that anyone would give one precious little baby both of their names at once. So many people ladled out so many unsolicited remarks about how the only Blanche they knew was in a nursing home or in the glossary for The Joy of Cooking that if I didn’t know better, I would have guessed they were all relatives. The name suits her perfectly and it’s making a big comeback (though still not quite as popular as “Steve” is in the puppy set). Like Cher and Madonna before her, there is a lot to be said for being a kid who never has to sign her last name. The first one says it all.
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When Spanking Policy Calls
November 1, 2001 Eons ago, when elementary school flickered like a distant lighthouse on the horizon and my days were measured in terms of how many hours were left until nap time (mine) or bed time (mine again), my friend Eunice delayed a much needed nap when she called, bellowing, demanding to know whether she was a “bad mommy.” She spilled her guts about taking her two year old boy to KMart where he did what two year olds often do: threw a ripsnortin’ tantrum. She tried to reason with him but . . . he was TWO. People were staring. She threatened to actually spank him if he did not stop at the count of three, but she had never said that before, so that was useless. So, she hoisted all of his wriggling 45 pounds out to the car where she SPANKED him but good. The tantrum abruptly ended, her toddler sulked the whole way home while she sobbed, convinced she was officially a bad mommy, because Eunice NEVER spanked. (Did I mention that her kid was notorious in the neighborhood for being an insufferable brat…?) Then she asked me a tough question: What was my “policy” on spanking? I didn’t know I had one. She assumed I did because she had heard me warn my own toddlers, “I’ll give you to the count of three…” so many times that she, like they, assumed that a major spank punctuated three if they were stubborn enough to make me count that high. I had to call her back about the policy thing.
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I conferred with an expert: my dad. I couldn’t remember ever being spanked at all, but my parents counted to three an awful lot. The tales of my predecessors’ spankings loomed legendary. I ran Eunice’s scenario by him in search of a spanking policy. Dad sagely opined that he only spanked if his child were about to harm himself or someone else after being warned to stop right away. This was all well and good, but this was a man who spanked one of his toddler boys for refusing to get into a bathtub full of water that the child deemed “too hot.” This was also the man who spanked another nine year old son for throwing up in the back seat of the Buick. (How Dad could have had 12 kids without knowing what “barf” meant when a kid moaned several warnings about it from the back seat is almost worthy of a spanking in its own right.) My Reason for Living recalls only two spankings from his childhood, both unjust in his view. His first infraction was failing to swallow an aspirin after downing several glasses of milk when he was about six. (Can’t argue with a waste of good milk.) You would think that together we would unite in a “no spanks” front, but we haven’t. Before I go on, let me define my terms. The spank that follows “three” is an emphatic pop on the fanny. It tells the child that Mommy or Daddy mean business; we won’t tolerate bratty behavior for another minute (unless it’s someone else’s kid). The spanking you get when you entice your five year old sister to “bungee jump” off the top of the swing set involves banishment to your room until Daddy comes home (because Mom is too mad to do the spanking right then), a ceremonial bending over his knee, and then your rump gets several swats from Daddy’s open hand. We employ no belts, switches, spatulas, or other distinctly southern tools. These formal spanks are very few and far between. Before lights out, we take even greater pains to make sure the
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child knows the punishment is over, and we still love him/her no matter what. If I had been honest with Eunice back then about my spanking policy, I would have said, “Only if the child has harmed, or is about to harm, him/herself or someone else -- or if they step anywhere out of line after 5:00 p.m.” But spanking is serious business, deserving more than a flippant answer. I assured her she was still a great mommy for not caving in to her two year old, and for worrying so much about it later. She couldn’t expect to reason with an unreasonable two year old anymore than she could later expect to simply spank a stubborn but potentially reasonable teenager. My four year old interrupted my follow up “policy call” to Eunice. He had been “watching” his little sister while I chatted on the phone and put away groceries. Her reported that his partner in crime had absconded with four sticks of margarine and “buttered” the chair in the den. I was apoplectic. My daughter vaguely remembers the legendary buttered chair now, but she does not remember any spanking about it. There was none. She did what a two year old does when Mommy expects a four year old brother to watch over her. And he did watch her do it. Perhaps if someone wiser had counted to three on me before I left her under a four year old’s “watchful eye,” I would’ve endured only a bracing pop instead of a ruined, rancid chair, but it has been my policy to learn these parenting truths the hard way. And as my friend Allen says, “You can’t woodshed stupidity.”
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Noogies in Church
November 15, 2001 One would think that church would bring out the best behavior in us all. But even in church, I have noticed that certain people can be extremely distracting without any special effort. Sometimes it gets so bad that ostensibly proper mothers who are supposed to set a good example break out of their contemplative, pious mode and soak up the distractions instead of minding their own business. Just last Sunday, I noted that certain persons’ “Sunday best” included huge, floppy sneakers, pants hanging off the buhunkus at a perilous angle, wrinkled, untucked shirts, no tie whatsoever, and a wicked case of bed head. Very distracting. Juicy gum chomping invaded my ears. Certain other attendees absent mindedly scratched themselves here and there, as if wiping away the last cobwebs of sleep. Certain other people, when leaving the sanctuary, did not walk out at a dignified pace but zoomed out, like so many human projectiles. I detected inappropriate snickering here and there. There were also people there, who normally tower over other adults, slumping low in the pew or folding themselves over in a rather fetal position, waiting out the service as if it were a nuclear drill back in the ‘50s. Two other members of the faithful, sitting almost directly in front of us, did not even consult their programs for the numerous uplifting, upcoming family events. No, they twisted their programs into clubs to beat fellow pew mates over the head, or
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they pressed the programs between their lips to facilitate and amplify obscene noises. When these people were sharply admonished to stop by a fellow parishioner, they cackled without remorse and brazenly bopped the fellow parishioner over the head. Then they proceeded to “silently” spit, hiss, and pantomime every bodily function they could think of. Evidently, they could think of only one special function, but that one provided yards of material. Another parishioner approached the pew, and sternly demanded that these people desist or leave. These loonies fairly beamed about being reprimanded a second time, and opted to stay! Moments later, these Marcel Marceaus of the bathroom humor set had nestled up against the very same parishioner who had just threatened them with banishment and settled in for their weekly sermon-nap. It was all I could do to contain myself. These certain people, these BOYS, were stationed all over the church, all getting away with various crimes, from untied shoe misdemeanors to simulated flatulence felonies. I did not have to deal with my own son’s inevitable infractions because he was away at boarding school under someone else’s watchful eye. And there I sat in church, attempting to recharge my spiritual battery, and instead I seethed with the sin of envy. I had nothing more challenging to admonish than too much girlish whispering in the pew, noisy crayon coloring, or furtive knuckle cracking. I ached for a puerile ear to tweak, to scrape some breakfast crumbs from a clip-on tie. I longed for the days when I could fix a stare on the back of my boy’s noggin so intensely that it could stop him from even thinking about giving his sister (another) noogie in church. My son used to race to be the very first one to greet new church members after the last hymn ended. He harbored no burning desire to meet people or make friends with insufferably strict
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grownups; the first one to zip down the receiving line was also the first one to dive into the powdered donuts. I looked around at my son’s peers. They were no longer the little boys he used to fidget with at Christmas time, a rag tied around each head and a bathrobe cinched around each waist. Those adorable, elementary shepherds who shuffled up to the altar to elbow one another, wave to Mom and Dad, and pay homage to God’s newborn son are now young men with broad shoulders, big necks, and combed hair. When he comes to church with us now, we do not have to drag him. He now knows how to tie his shoes -- and he does. He tucks his shirt in. He sits still. He does not mind being seen with us. He no longer sighs like a lowing cow when the sermon exceeds five minutes. I do not have to position myself between him and his sisters to thwart wrestling impulses. He does not paw at my watch and whine, “How much looonger?” He walks upright. He shakes hands with the minister. He speaks in full sentences. He looks adults in the eye and calls them by name. He breaks my heart. I wanted to tell the other parents, the ones who seemed exasperated with the boyish behavior thrumming all around them, that they could take a break next Sunday and send their boys over to our pew. I would be delighted to referee for an hour. But I knew not to even offer. Those other parents are too much like me. They may appear to be irritated and distracted, but they are loving every minute of it. They know that boys will be boys, but never quite long enough.
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Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell
November 29, 2001 It’s that time of year again, except this time is a first. No, it’s not Santa. In fact, this is the first year since we terrified our firstborn by plopping him in the lap of a bearded stranger in a sweaty red suit that we have no plans to revisit that pilgrimage. I’m talking college application time. It’s that time of year when we usually greet seniors in high school with friendly inquiries as to where they are thinking of going to school next year. For most of us, these inquiries are purely benign, a genuine expression of interest in your almost-grown child and his or her plans for the future. But for a small percentage of parents, and students, the whole process provides yet another opportunity to underscore a pecking order that only they can truly appreciate. The accompanying sound track sounds a lot like “nanny-nannyboo-boo.” Remember those parents back in preschool who casually inquired whether your little Susie was reading yet (“Gee, no, but she’s only four . . .”) and then just as casually mentioned the tutor they had hired for their little Janie so that she would not find kindergarten so boring? Remember those soccer parents who asked, in front of your kid, whether your kid had made the elite, traveling soccer team this year (“Well, no, but it looks like we’re going to have a great team this season…”) and then happened to mention that their kid had been named captain of that same elite, traveling team?
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Well, those parents’ kids grow up, take the SAT’s, and apply to college. Fortunately, they do all those things at exactly the same time your kid does. Your kid’s first choice will turn out to be their kid’s “safety school.” If you don’t know it, don’t worry, they’ll tell you. I wish there were a “Don’t ask; Don’t tell” policy about the SAT’s in particular. Maybe it’s just me, but my estimation of a person has NEVER ratcheted up a few notches because of their SAT scores. In fact, I find that the subject rarely comes up at all. When it does, the effect is almost always inverse to the intent. (I didn’t even know my Reason for Living’s scores until after I had fallen so hard for him that it was too late to dump him for being dumber than me.) It’s even worse when it comes to people and their progeny. There are a lot of unsuspecting, perfectly nice kids out there -who know better -- whose parents are quietly undermining their social lives by engaging in chit chat that allows them to casually mention their son’s or daughter’s “fabulous” SAT score. Sometimes parents commit heinous offenses through wellmeaning ineptitude. When one of my nieces mentioned a certain college on her “wish list,” I kicked into obnoxious, auto-recall mode, reciting my dad’s quote about how he’d turned down a scholarship there in his day because it was located in the fetid epicenter of the world’s armpit. My brother put a cork in it before I could finish my charming tale and do real damage. Did I know whether this school was his daughter’s first choice? No . . . Neither did he. But what if it were? It was her choice - not mine to shoot down with a thoughtless remark. Only a precious, few parents will actually ask about your child’s exact SAT score. Don’t worry about answering the question, because they aren’t really interested in your answer. They would not ask unless they were reasonably certain that you’ll have the wrong (i.e., the lower) answer. They are counting on you to exercise the polite ritual of answering, and then asking
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the same question in return. (Sort of like: “How are you? Fine, and you?” only somewhat more insidious.) This provides the perfect mechanism for revealing their child’s fabulous score. If you are unschooled in this ritual, they will happily cut right to the chase and volunteer the number whether you need to know it or not. I’d like to know why these inquiring parents limit conversation to such a meaningless number as an SAT score? (Some of you are correctly inferring that I would only call an SAT score “meaningless” if my scores were nothing to write home, or columns, about. Can’t get anything past you, you fabulous thinkers, you.) Please feel free to ask me about any of our scores, but don’t stop there. We have even more interesting figures to share, such as our BMI’s, our good and bad cholesterol, our hat sizes, our drivers license points, the years remaining in my suspended sentence, and of course our all important APGAR scores. I infer this phenomenon occurs because some parents fret that if they don’t tell the rest of us just how fabulously their kid measures up - especially compared to yours - then we might not otherwise know. Fear not. We all know who the “fabulous” kids are, and we all know just how hard it can be not to crow about our kids’ triumphs when they earn them. We all know exactly who the nice, the naughty, the skinny, the chubby, the tall, the short, the brave, the bullying, the athletic, the artistic, the klutzy, the genius, the funny, the serious, the above-average and the average kids are. Problem is, no matter how often we stand corrected, no matter what the “score” is, we keep mistaking the absolutely fabulous kids for our own.
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December 13, 2001 As we contemplate the first Christmas, we often overlook the first Advent. Only two people knew about it, and unlike us, they were not the beneficiaries of a daily shopping day count-down that starts as the Halloween candy slides into the clearance bins. Those two souls were Joseph (the original Good Sport) and Mary, a betrothed but technically unwed pregnant teen who would be held up today as the poster child for everything that’s wrong with everything. Since that first Advent was basically the last four weeks of a very awkward pregnancy, it’s a wonder that we do not view the Christmas season as a time to celebrate the wonder of all new life, all pregnant people, instead of mostly, well . . . shopping. As this goes to press, my baby sister is in the final throes of incubating a new baby sister for her family’s four year old (who does not recall ordering a new sibling since he has been occupying the Only Child Throne comfortably for over four years). Her new baby is “a miracle baby,” i.e. conceived the old fashioned way, although she was told it could not be done without the aid of a Petri dish, various syringes, and periodicals. There are no accounts of Mary’s pregnancy beyond the Annunciation and of course the birth of Jesus, not even any accounts in the Apocrypha about snide remarks or prying questions that Mary must have endured in her community. While it is shocking today to even imagine the rude inquiries she had to endure during her unorthodox pregnancy, less celebrated
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pregnant people than Mary endure slights every day that we should all avoid. To wit, my sister has (unknowingly) assisted me in compiling a list of helpful suggestions that will help us all celebrate pregnancy and the gift of life all year round. Do not ask whether a pregnant person is carrying twins (or more) unless you are certain sure the answer is yes. If the pregnant person assures you that she is carrying just one child, it’s best not to argue. “Are you sure? Check again!!” Pregnant people are so hormonal that little things like licking an envelope or mulching the entire back yard can dissolve them in inexplicable tears, so even “joking” remarks like that are ill-advised. People who would never dream of asking a person how much weight he or she has gained lately believe that a pregnant woman is somehow exempt from this polite convention. I have never heard a pregnant woman say, “Guess how much weight I’ve gained!!!” Unless she does, or unless you wear a lab coat and can speak speculum fluently, DON’T ASK. Conversely, pregnant people have ZERO interest in knowing how LITTLE weight you gained during your pregnancies, especially if you are the pregnant person’s mother-in-law. “Have I told you how much, or rather how little, weight I gained when I was carrying your husband?” “Only 18 times so far.” “I only gained TEN pounds, and he weighed eight pounds at birth. It seems like it took forever to shed those two extra pounds.” It is also best not to touch a pregnant woman’s abdomen unless you are a member of the lab coat brigade. If a person had a melonsized lump growing on their forehead, most people would politely ignore it, but I doubt anyone would actually palpate it while asking about it. Why are pregnant abdomens treated with less respect?
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When I was in the final stretch of my second pregnancy, I worked across the hall from a man I hardly knew. He felt it was his duty to manually measure my girth by attempting to “palm” my belly with one, eventually two hands, every blessed time I squeezed by him. When I finally suggested he shift his hands upward so that we might both get something out of this procedure, he withdrew in horror and never touched me again. (Oh darn.) Once a pregnant person has exceeded her due date, do not call her several times a day (as I do my sister) to see if her womb is busy. Also avoid suggesting home remedies to induce labor. At this point, my sister is so desperate to have this baby that she is considering combining everything she has been told, which entails wearing a burlap brassiere while eating Mexican food marinated in balsamic vinaigrette with a side of raw oysters while her husband rubs her soles (it’s not like she can reach them). The meal should of course be served in their room in case dessert occurs to them. It is unhelpful to suggest ANYTHING to a pregnant woman who is beyond her due date. She has been nesting for months as it is, and has EVERYTHING already organized. If it has not been done yet, it NEVER needs to be done. “So you think we should finish that caulking around the kitchen sink before the baby comes?” “Absolutely. Come to think of it, our first child didn’t get over that colic until we caulked the front door together.” Since my sister exceeded her due date about, oh, three or four months ago now, she says imagining the Advent season through Mary’s eyes helps her feel less besieged, more grateful. If Mary could be merry back then, who is she to complain now? As hard as it is to be pregnant at any time of year, at least she does not have to go anywhere near a donkey this Christmas, let alone saddle up one once she finally goes into labor.
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Oh Yes There Is ...
December 27, 2001 A man of the cloth recently maligned the man of the red velvet as a public service to a group of 5th through 8th graders. He suffered the little children to come unto him, and then selflessly took it upon himself to disabuse the children (and their younger siblings through the trickledown effect) of any credence they had in Sir Claus. This well-meaning but misguided effort to improve on the yuletide traditions and teachings of these kids’ parents has created what theologians and educators technically refer to as “a huge stink.” While this made Christmas Eve into a white-knuckler for some of the faithful, more or less fallen Catholics like myself (you can never really turn in your membership card) nestled snug in their beds, secure in their conviction that Santa would come once again during the night and leave gifts to our children’s delight just as he has done every Christmas since memory serves us. Irony is often soothing to me as well, so I snoozed undisturbed by the notion that a representative of one great institution that has withstood criticism from all corners for centuries would needlessly make iconoclastic remarks about another venerated institution that is also under increasing attack. I am not talking about Santa Claus; Santa can take care of himself, and if he ever falters, he has a host of elves at his elbow to prop him up, not to mention eight (nine, counting Rudolph) tiny reindeer that can whisk him anywhere he wants in the wink of an eye.
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I am talking about the sanctity of the family. It is hard enough to hang together as a family as it is today. The last thing any family needs is someone in a position of “authority” telling us not to our faces, but through our very own children - how we can and cannot foster the warmth of joy within our families that spreads like a warm blanket of comfort to our incomplete friends and complete strangers alike. The giving spirit that surges among all of us at this time of year, which we have anthropomorphized and clothed in fur trimmed red velvet lo’ these many years, will not quit just because some childless guy whom we all call Father says Santa ain’t so. What I would like to know is not whether Santa Claus is credible, (my position remains unshaken) but why just pick on him? We all have our myths, some less harmless than others, that we cherish as a way to make daily life a little less daunting, a little more cheerful. If we must cross examine Santa Claus, then there is a whole list of uncomfortable truths that we must also confront, including but not limited to: Ordering a Diet Coke “cancels out” ordering the Big Mac. Everybody else is doing it. Making more money will make you happy, or happier. Wearing black is thinning. Cats care. You can never be too rich or too thin. Forwarding that email to 50 of your (former) friends will make you rich. The Bible never contradicts itself. My kid would never behave like that. You really were a great athlete in high school. Life is not fair, but it should be. Pro wrestling is real. Your parents will never find out. Dogs prefer dog food to homework. It depends upon what the meaning of “is” is.
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It’s not gossip if you only tell one person. Bigger is better. I’ve done more than my fair share. Your resume is rather understated. GI Joe is not a doll. A cassock is not a dress. Standing up for yourself means losing your friends. You are an excellent driver. It will all be over when we catch Bin Laden. It was not Santa Claus who taught us to forgive even wise men who stumble and fall back upon these truths now and then, as well as an otherwise wise man who foolishly took on Santa. Our families did not go to church Christmas Eve because of Santa Claus; we went there to celebrate the birthday of the Son of God who was born to teach us the way to treat everyone as our brothers and sisters in Him, and who died to atone for our inability to follow His example. We are all children of God, and one of our human failings is also one of our special charms - we cherish the simpler times of childhood and cling to anything that extends that blessed but all too brief time we see in our own children. Santa is part of that failing, that charm. We are not celebrating or worshipping Santa. But listening to NORAD sleigh sightings as our four year old scans the night sky is part of the magic we try to conjure to protect and preserve childhood, and our family memories in the making. I will continue to believe in Santa, and I also believe the cherubim, the seraphim, and the Holy Ghost Himself are all smiling with us on Christmas morning.
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RSVP By The Rules
January 10, 2002 An editorial in a daily paper celebrated the increase in letters to the editor and exhorted readers to keep writing. It also laid some ground rules such as avoiding slanderous remarks, minding one’s Ps and Qs, and of course, making a good faith effort to make a modicum of sense. I love letters to the editor. Never miss them. It is the truest way to take a community’s pulse. Nothing tells you more about the locals than reading about the things that provoke such ire (and occasionally even joy) that the only way readers can achieve catharsis is to put pen to paper and send it in. If it were not for the letters to the editor in various publications here, I would remain ignorant of important facts shared by peeved readers, such as that dinosaurs are a hoax; public school teachers who write letters criticizing their employer can think of themselves as heroines (while regular people who might do so can think of themselves as fired); anything new is basically suspect; the lofty concept of “heritage” can be misused as a euphemism for some lowly notions; quality public schools only matter to people with kids in public school; and there is still one thing certainly worse than death (i.e. taxes). The editorial ended with a caveat: all letters to the editor are subject to editing. This prompts the need for personal catharsis. Editing other people’s letters is a dicey business. It’s too easy to change a writer’s very meaning in the name of brevity (I know, because it happened to me, and there was no retraction or
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correction the next day, or any day after that, and it’s been several years now - not that I’m bitter). When I become king, my first act will be to abolish any editing of any letters to the editor anywhere. Letters to the editor will be printed verbatim. As any parent who has ever had a six year old can tell you, some of the most moving and eloquent missives ever penned flout almost every maxim in the King’s English. It is elitism at its worst to assume that a person can’t convey a powerful point without someone else “improving” a personal message with a red pencil. Conversely, it speaks volumes when the signatures carries impressive letters behind it, such as Ph.D. or Esq., and yet the writer scratches the chalkboard as she wantonly interchanges “me” and “I,” losing points in the wreckage of mangled prepositional phrases. “The Greenville Journal” has yet to fully develop what will surely be a robust Letters to the Editor section. I have done my part to foster reader response by tickling and ticking off various readers, but I realize now that I have also enabled readers to circumvent the appropriate RSVP route by printing my email address. My standard closing blurb used to invite readers to send me NICE emails. However, a few irked readers surprisingly equate “nice” with snide, offensive, and almost uniformly anonymous. It is only fair that if I have to sign my name to my column, then readers - happy and especially the unhappy - should RSVP in kind with an official Letter to the Editor. If life were fair, letter writers would also attach a not-very-flattering photo of themselves, just as I am forced to do in my column by the Marquis d’Editor. (Then they, too, could endure the embarrassment of being recognized on the basis of a not-at-all-flattering photo.) You will notice there is NO photo of my editor ANYWHERE in this paper, but I digress . . . This is not about being onion-skinned. In fact, when a disgruntled (former) reader once compared me to Judas Iscariot, I
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swelled with pride that my measly column could reach biblical proportions. It’s about playing by the rules. If you have a beef with something anyone has published, then by golly, be a grown-up: write a letter to the editor and sign it. You’ll feel better, and you may generate healthy debate, too. Not all the drive-by criticism I’ve received has been anonymous. My cell phone rang a while back, but the LCD read “Caller ID Blocked.” I took a chance and pressed TALK. “I’ve finally decided what I REALLY DON’T like about your column.” “Oh, hi Mom.” “I don’t like the way you refer to him as your ‘Reason for Living.’ You never call him that around us.” “Mom, it’s called irony. Sarcasm.” “Well, I don’t like it, and I doubt your readers are bright enough to understand that you’re not being serious.” “Apparently not.” I urged her to write an official letter to the editor about it, and to send her picture along with the letter so we’d be even. She didn’t have time to write a decent letter, and she never did see a photo of herself fit for publication. So as you can see, I come by my tact, my passion for opinion, and my photogenics honestly.
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January 24, 2002 I have been coaching our eldest in the art of the interview. I want him to come across as the typical 17 year old, but not so typical that he receives a thin envelope instead of a nice, hefty one from the college of his choice. The challenge is stressing the importance of the interview without stressing him out. We have been grooming him ever since we first poked his five year old ribs and hissed, “Offer a firm handshake! Say, ‘Yes Sir” and ‘No Sir.’ Look adults in the eye! Don’t mumble! Stand up straight! Tie your shoes! Answer in full sentences!” We figured if he could impress his Peewee church basketball coach, then meeting a college admissions counselor would be a piece of cake. Personal interviews were not a big deal when I applied to college; I was admitted to the school of my choice without any interviews at all (some might say because I never met a soul there beforehand, but this not their column). I had my first crucial interview a year before college graduation, which yielded invaluable insight into the art of interviewing when I later sought a job to support my eating habit. I majored in English. English majors at my alma mater enjoy the prestigious fourth year thesis option. After a formal interview, a student is assigned to a professor who acts as personal mentor. During the fall “reading” semester, the professor guides the student’s research on his/her topic through readings and weekly discussions. During the second “writing” semester, the professor
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oversees the student as he/she develops, writes, and edits the thesis as close to perfection as the student can manage. This reading and writing thing sounded pretty good to me. I sat outside the office of the Dean, moving from one rumpshaped warm spot on the long, polished pine to the next as the space between me and the end of the bench shortened at 15 minute intervals. When it was my turn, I tried to look the Dean in the eye and offer him a feminine yet firm handshake, but he was too busy pawing through mounds of dusty books and papers on his desk. No handshake, no eye contact. He did not make a positive impression. “Well, Miss Egan (I let the entire English faculty call me that), what would you like to study in depth during your final year with us in English literature?” “What have you got left?” I chirped. He finally glanced up and looked me in the eye. He even plucked off his half-glasses. “I beg your pardon, Miss . . . Egan, is it?” “Yes, that’s me. Sir. What’ve you got left? I know I’m about the 20th person in line, so I imagine most of the good topics are taken.” “Miss Egan, this is YOUR thesis. This is to come from YOU. For example, Mr. Bracken, the young man who was just in here, has chosen the poetry of John Donne. He has a deep interest in Donne. Do you understand me, Miss Egan?” “Uh, I never have been too big on poetry. What else have you got?” The Dean began massaging the deep red marks his glasses left on his nose and temples. (Not exactly an appropriate time for personal grooming…) He seemed really tired, too - not a very alert interviewer. “Misssssss Egan . . . what, beyond poetry, DOES interest you enough to study for an entire year?”
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“Well, I can’t think of anything right off, but I’m very task oriented. I can take on any topic you assign, even if you only have poets left.” He was blatantly staring at me at this point, and breathing with his mouth wide open in the exact, same way I scold my children against doing today. “Miss Egan, if you have no particular interest in any author, poet, or genre, would you mind explaining why you chose English as your major?” “Oh, that’s easy. I came in with some extra English credits so I didn’t have to take as many courses as I would if I majored in something else.” I can’t remember exactly how it ended, but I didn’t get my 15 minutes. I was back in the hallway before the last spot on the bench had cooled. We did each other a favor. If the Dean had just assigned me a topic, I might have written a brilliant thesis. I might be sorting through my own piles of papers now, marveling at undergrads. As it is, I am content to write copy, contracts, columns, and grocery lists. The towers of half-read books beside my bed are monuments to my stunted appreciation of literature. If not for me, the Dean would not have insisted on his own interview with the Dean of Admissions. Admissions interviews there are not mandatory now, but strongly encouraged. (I’m proud of my small part in improving their student body.) I’ve related this incident to my children to guide them through the maze of the interview, but they are poor listeners. As I was telling my eldest, he began kneading his temples. He thanked me and closed his bedroom door. I was back in the hallway again, our interview abruptly ended.
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Parking in the Ladies Room
February 7, 2002 I was recently fortunate enough to play hooky with dear friends to play “ladies who lunch” in Atlanta for the day. All went deliciously well until I excused myself and ran into a gaggle in the ladies room who had been regularly lunching together for centuries. They were not in line, just performing their final washing, blotting, primping, and patting rituals before parting. So I headed for the only open stall. The lady closest to me said, “That’s the handicap stall, dear.” I wanted to say, “Thank you, Madam Obvious,” but she was old enough to be my mother (my real mother, mind you, whose age has been none of your business for at least the past 40 years), so I just smiled. She must have thought I was deaf (understandable, considering her company), because she gave my forearm just the slightest squeeze and insisted, “That’s the HANDICAP stall; you can’t go in there.” Now, I had a basic, philosophical difference with this charming-I’m-sure lady, but I also had to GO, so I grimaced and replied, “I know. I’m handicapped!” I backed into the stall, locked it, and held my breath. A lively debate as to my morals, or lack thereof, ensued. (I thought I was about to burst, but there is no cork better than the fear of being dragged out by a bunch of outraged dowagers wielding huge handbags.)
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“Did you see what that girl just did?! I told her that was the handicap stall, and she looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I AM handicapped!’ and then she just waltzed right in there. See? She’s in there right now.” She left out the “brazen hussy” part, but her tone of voice would have made saying it an act of overkill. My friend La later opined this was my cue to stand on my hands in the stall. It was a very nice bathroom, but NO bathroom is nice enough for that kind of dramatic gesture, and I obviously cannot think on my feet - or hands - that fast. More importantly, I was not about to feign a handicap because I did not think one was required. I felt guilty about lying about being handicapped. It was the verbal equivalent of sticking my tongue out, just slightly less childish. But my conscience is clear about using the handicap stall when there is no one else, disabled or otherwise, waiting. In fact, even if there is a line, if the handicap stall opens next, it’s fair game. It’s roomier in there. I don’t have to wonder where to balance my purse. When you have children in tow too young to manage on their own, or too young not to wander off while you manage on your own, the handicap stall is the OK corral. Most of the bridge club clucking by the sinks seemed to disagree with me, but the handicap stall is not the same as the disabled parking space. I had stoked these ladies up for at least another good hour of chat, but the debate team finally left in a fresh cloud of Obsession and left me to my own devices. I am a staunch defender of handicap parking spaces. I even carry a pad of sticky notes so I can leave friendly smiley face reminders plastered to the windshields of selfish scofflaws. I started this helpful practice when I had my own, temporary handicap sticker during my last pregnancy and noticed how many spaces were being taken by people who believed their quick trip was more important than someone else’s wheelchair or walker.
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This was in the days before grocers and other stores proactively greeted the fact that pregnancy is not a handicap per se, but it does carry its own special burdens. When you consider the amount of food that pregnant people forage for on a daily basis, it only makes sense that grocery stores provide special parking for shoppers large with child. But that’s now, this was then. Back then, if you suffered a late-trimester pulled groin muscle that made it extremely painful to walk anywhere, you had to apply for a temporary handicap parking sticker. I had the misfortune to apply with a stoic doctor who lectured me about how she managed to be on her feet, on call, for 24 hours straight, delivering hefty babies with a catcher’s mitt or by C-section right into her own 40th week of pregnancy WITHOUT COMPLAINT, so I could certainly tough out a merely pulled groin muscle for a few more weeks. Head hung low, I began the waddle of shame down the hall, and then ducked into her partner’s office. He was conveniently male, happy to sign the form that my doctor had “overlooked.” My pregnancy-related disability was legit, however temporary, which is why I can talk about it openly to this day, no matter how many 20 pound babies my doctor delivered at midnight when she was three weeks overdue. We all have our limitations, and my doctor unfortunately gave up lecturing me to help me reduce mine. Perhaps if she had kept after me, nice old ladies who lunch could mind their own menus and forego policing people like me from brazenly parking in the handicap stall on perfectly healthy groin muscles.
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February 14, 2002 My Reason for Living just surprised me with a DVD of our wedding. At the time, professionally videotaped weddings were just coming in to vogue, but our nuptials were not exactly cutting edge. I think we were the last couple on earth to have their wedding recorded on a Super8 movie camera, courtesy of one of my brothers-in-law. I had lost reel 2 by the time he preserved reels 1, 3 & 4 almost 20 years later. Our kids were unimpressed when they watched it with us. They said we both looked really young, too skinny, and no sound made it boring. They weren’t mesmerized the way we were (OK, the way I was, anyway). They did want to know what we were talking about so intently on the altar. I explained we were not talking, we were arguing. We married in a traditional Catholic wedding ceremony. My Reason for Living was raised Methodist and had never attended a Catholic wedding, nor any wedding that lasted longer than 12 minutes. After we did the readings, the homily, exchanged vows, rings, and sealed it with a kiss, he was ready to go, but the wedding mass had only just begun and we’d been there about half an hour already. “What’s going on? Why do we have to kneel now? We didn’t rehearse this!” inquired my beloved. “It’s the mass. You don’t rehearse the mass part.” “When is the PARTY?” “Shh . . . after the mass is over.” “Don’t shush me! How long does the mass part take?”
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“Mmm, with Uncle Mark on the altar, it could be another half hour.” “HALF AN HOUR??? That’s ridiculous. This is going on forever! I didn’t agree to this. Why wasn’t I consulted about this?” “Because YOU’RE not PAYING for it! When YOU write the checks YOU get to decide how long everything lasts. Now look happy, be grateful, and savor this beautiful moment we’re sharing!!” The Super8 lack of sound no longer seems like a defect. We can’t hear any of our “first fight” up there on the altar, we just look like a couple of those boingy bride and groom dolls featured in the rear window of older cars, heads bobbing over every bump. Nor can we detect my audible “Ouch!” when my mother appropriately squeezed my knuckles during the ten-minute “kiss of peace” and told me through a clenched smile to knock it off up there and be still. It may sound awful to have your first marital argument even before the deal is consummated, but we were anxious to get past that milestone, and of course, we’ve never argued since.
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February 21, 2002 Clip one: She approaches the foul line, swiveling her feet into position just so. She drills the ball one, two, three times in a tight, fast dribble, focusing on her shot. As she begins her slow motion wind up, the opposing team’s fans erupt in a deafening cacophony of jeers, whoops, whistles, catcalls, and epithets about her mother in a near-successful attempt to rattle her. As one of her team-mates heads onto the court to relieve another, an opposing team member accidentallyon-purpose trips the sub. This is not the WNBA. These players are young moms with husbands and pre-school aged fans enthralled by the high drama being played out on the court. Clip two: An angry fan stalks up and down the sidelines, calling the ref’s eyesight, IQ, allegiances, and paternity into question. The fan whams his hat on the floor every time his son is called for walking. He abuses his hat in an equally frothy fit every time his son misses a shot or a pass. In a full display of bad form, the man applauds every time the opposing team misses a shot. He then announces for all to hear that his son can walk home from the game because he is playing so poorly. The bewildered boy is torn between listening to what his coach is coaching and what his own father is yelling. This is not the play offs in high stakes high school basketball. The players are all seven years old. Clip three: A nine year old girl bursts through the kitchen door, aglow from a victorious hour on the court. She boasts that she
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played HER BEST EVER. “Did you make a basket?” her mother inquires with astonishment. “No,” replies the daughter, “I didn’t actually TOUCH the ball, Mom, but if I had I would not have been afraid this time.” These are all highlights from church basketball, by God, and I am a huge fan. There are some really great things about church basketball. If you have a regular pulse, a pair of serviceable sneakers, the willingness to show up for weeknight or weekend practices and for Saturday games, you’re in. Each game is preceded by prayer, not for one team to beat the tar out of the other, but for everyone to play their best, behave their best, and have fun. (Perhaps they should pray for us poor slobs in the stands, too.) Church-league teaches us the great game of basketball, fellowship on the court, and fun. Presbyterians are not necessarily pre-destined to win; Baptists do not have to be fully immersed in the fine points to play well; and making the sign of the cross before a foul shot does not a guarantee a satisfying all-net swisher, but it never hurts either. In our church anyway, no one has to try out. There are no first, second, or white-knuckling final cuts. If there are eight players on a team, the idea is that each player plays one-eighth of the game. If this philosophy were taken to its logical extent, one could argue that the only numbers allowed on the scoreboard should be the time clock, but winning is not a bad thing. As the saying goes, winning builds confidence, losing builds character, so the score board lights up with everyone’s blessing. The not-so-great thing about church basketball is that some people just don’t get the great things. (See clips one and two.) There are some games where so many players, fans, and coaches don’t get it that it is tempting to throw in the towel. But then there’s Coach Tom. Every church is blessed with at least one. We’ve also got Coach Tommy; the Catholics are blessed to have Coach Kathy and Coach Jim, the Baptists have Coach
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Marvin, the Episcopalians have Coach Jimmy and Coach Chip the list goes on and on. Coach Tom shepherds my daughter’s team of middle school aged girls. He shows up for every practice (even when only one or two of the girls do). He patiently coaches them, even when they pay little or no age-appropriate-attention to his steady encouragement, and even when only four players show up. (On a good day all six players make it to the game.) He never raises his voice, except in joy. He does not play anyone on the team more than anyone else. He does not play his own kid one nano-second more than any other kid. This is mostly because his own kid does not play on this team. Three boys and two girls call Coach Tom “Dad,” but they play on other courts for other coaches. Tom is here for the love of the game. This season has helped my daughter’s team build lots and lots and LOTS of character. They don’t mind. They’re confident they have a great coach if not a great team -- yet. They may not quite get basketball, but they get Coach Tom, and Coach Tom gets it.
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March 8, 2002 When I rolled into my hairdresser’s salon the other day for my 3,000 mile tune up, there was another customer ahead of me, but she looked more like she was sitting in the “no fun” chair than basking under a salon dryer. Since hair salons are hardly the place to discuss things that are none of one’s business, I immediately asked Donna, my hair guru, what was eating the other woman. Donna is unfortunately the soul of discretion, replying that she had no idea what I was talking about. It became apparent that the other woman was being “worked in” to the interstitial spaces of my own appointment, which was fine with me as long as I didn’t turn out as an Annie Lennox lookalike. The other woman, Robin, thanked me profusely for allowing Donna to work her in alongside me, (of course I graciously took credit for a decision I didn’t make). She then spilled her guts about her “emergency” appointment. She had cheated on Donna (so referring to her as “the other woman” was more appropriate than I had imagined). Robin had strayed, been with someone else for a quick, furtive color job, and had come away from it . . . ruined. Of course I would never do it, but I understand the worst part about cheating on your hairdresser is that it is impossible to keep it a secret. If you come out looking great, you are bound to run into your real hairdresser within 24 hours of your new look,
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forced into confessing or coming up with an innocuous explanation. When confronted with this awkward situation, a lot of women compound the sin of straying by lying about it. “I was out of town and got my hair cut, colored and permed on a whim!” Of course, if you get burned by your impulse to cheat, the only person who can make you whole again, who can give you absolution, and most importantly, who can make your hair look normal again, is your original hairdresser. A good hairdresser, like Donna, will always take back the prodigal customer. She smoothes fried ends, soothes frayed nerves, and never flies into a wounded rage, throwing combs, and wailing, “How could you!” Doug is also willing to forgive a prodigal head of hair seventy times seven times, if necessary, as it will always be with Debi. Debi doesn’t just cheat on Doug, especially when she goes out of town. She also indulges in disastrous attempts at selfgratification, AND seduces others to cheat with her. “Doug threatens me every time I see him,” says Debi. “Last week he said he was coming to take all my scissors. I am sure he would rather I cheat on him than do myself. He knows if I get snowed in or just plain bored I am going to take a scissors to my hair and then he has to do the repairs.” One time Debi lured her daughter Ali into her kitchen chair. She accidentally bleached Ali’s hair “paper white,” then begged Doug to come in on his day off to correct the albino look and make Ali stop screaming. As Debi recalls, “He had to cut all her hair off. He was so flustered he lost his expensive belt of scissors and had to call the police.” Ali’s look is now approaching normal (she stopped screaming months ago). But Debi is a blatant recidivist, guilty of hacking at and coloring her own hair within just the last month, which also means she will always need Doug, dysfunctional as their relationship may be.
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Some women proudly cheat. My friend Annie sees someone on the side when she needs a little off the side. She explains, “My hairdresser always guesses that I’ve been with someone else, but what she doesn’t know is that I cheat on her with my own husband.” Some women, like Leigh Leigh or Nikki, would never be guilty of cheating. Nikki has been with John longer than her own husband - over ten years. Leigh Leigh has been seeing Patti every four weeks for the past 29 years!! Then there are other women . . . women like my friend Nancy. Nancy is loose with her hair. She is a chronic walk-in, does not even bother with appointments. Hairdressers are merely a means to satisfy a passing style whim. She leads on unsuspecting stylists, trying out this one and that one with less guilt than the average woman feels when she plucks a chocolate from a Whitman Sampler. When confronted about her reckless attitude, Nancy brazenly admits, “I’ve never been to the same hairdresser more than twice!” When she gets a hankering for a different look, she takes off for Columbia, Atlanta, Charlotte, even the beach - just to see how good the hairdo is at the local haunts. But even if the hairdo is the best she’s ever had, she never makes a follow up appointment. Nancy is a confirmed hair hussy. Even though she’s never suffered a bad hair day, she enables the rest of us, who may stray into another hair salon now and then, to feel morally superior.
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The Long, Wee Ones
March 22, 2002 It could be anything. A distant siren, a yowling cat outside, someone snoring in your ear, a bad dream, a wrong number from someone obviously in need of some strong coffee, suddenly remembering the name of that person in the grocery store that escaped you during your entire ten minute conversation, or a barking neighborhood dog - any one of those things, and more, often jerks me awake during the long, wee hours of the morning and leaves me blinking in the dark, searching for sleep. Ten years ago, when my oldest was eight, I never dreamt of sleeping through the night. It was routine to be jolted awake by a crying baby, a toddler’s foot in my ear, a thirsty child, a sick child, a petrified child sleeping above a monster under the mattress, or a child in utero jabbing me in the ribs. With one eye closed, I was able to deliver a cup of water, replace a lost pacifier, turn a pillow over to the cool side where only good dreams await, nurse an infant, and/or throw a soiled blankie into the washing machine, then dive back under the quilts, fast asleep again in mere seconds. I longed for the days when a child waking in the night was the exception and not the rule, even though one of my older sisters cautioned me that it does not get easier, it just “gets differenter.” This same big sister also told me that if she awoke before 5:00 a.m., she would try to make herself go back to sleep, but if it was after 5:00 a.m. she would call it a night and start her day. And now I not only walk in my sister’s shoes, I lie awake in them more often than not.
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That’s not true, but it feels true at 2:13 a.m. I take cold comfort in knowing that women in their 40’s often have trouble sleeping through the night. As I wait for sleep to come back to bed, I try to use the time productively. I have written long to-do lists in my head, only to draw a complete blank the next groggy morning as I attempt to recreate it on paper. I’ve tried Tylenol PM too. It knocks me out cold, but if I take it after 2:00 a.m. I cannot wake up the next morning until about 4:00 p.m., even though I am propped up vertically, navigating carpool at 7:30 a.m. I also tried My Reason for Living. I nudged him awake -- once - to let him know I’d been awake for hours, unable to get back to sleep. Face still firmly planted in his pillow, he advised me to “Watch closely, and see how it’s done.” He sleeps SO soundly he did not know where the bruise on his ribs came from. I worry a lot, about things that I’m sure keep a lot of people awake at night. Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? Did I put the milk away? Will my backhand ever improve? Would it kill the kids if they pour room temperature milk on their cereal in the morning? I have also tried prayer. Extemporaneous prayer has never been my strong suit, and I come off as whiney and off-putting when I think, “Dear God why won’t you let me sleep!!! “ Instead, I rely on comforting prayers I can recite beautifully in church, but at 4:10 a.m. I often wander off point and undermine the point: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . . Give us this day our daily . . . our daily . . . Dog. I am going to kill that dog if it does not stop barking. Forgive me for contemplating that dog’s death, I like dogs, but if that dog does not stop barking I am going to shoot it DEAD. No, no . . . forgive me for even thinking about shooting a poor dog. Lord, you
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know I was just venting, I don’t even own a gun. No, no, I will feed that dog some tasty anti-freeze instead. Oh, forgive me Lord for wanting to rub out one of your innocent creatures. It is not the dog’s fault he has been left out all night, barking and barking and barking . . . It’s the owner’s fault. Oh Lord, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who let their stupid dogs bark all night and wake up every one in the neighborhood, at least every woman in their 40s who needs all the sleep she can get in the first place. And lead us not into the temptation to leave out a pan of antifreeze... My prayers are finally answered at about 5:14 a.m., just before the alarm goes off and My Reason for Living awakes to walk with his all-male coffee-klatch. Their topic of the day could be anything - politics, that neighborhood dog that barked all night, or those funny bruises on their ribs that none of them can explain.
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April 5, 2002 We’re in the thick of raising our three girls (that is, unless you ask the oldest, who insists that she’s actually raising the younger two, while I just make brief appearances). I used to think having two boys in a row would be more like having four kids, mostly because of the higher decibel levels. When our eldest, a boy, was little he did everything with sound effects. He vrooomed in and out of the house, he demolished Lego cities with great fanfare, and any sport featured his own constant play-by-play and color commentary, including the roar of the crowd. When his friends went home, it always seemed so . . . quiet, for a minute anyway. I relish boys, especially my own, but his little sisters seemed so sweet, so docile, so easy, by comparison. The problem is that the last thing I wish for my girls is to be docile, heaven forbid easy. (Sweet would be nice, but the genetic cards are stacked against them.) Girls rule. I don’t understand why some couples produce one or even two more children than originally planned just to “go for that boy,” as if having girls were a necessary penance to be done before the ultimate reward. Girls would like to rule the roost around here, which is good when you’re trying to eradicate the dated feminine “virtue” of docility. It’s also draining when it’s your roost and you’re also trying to teach girls by example never to equate being a woman, especially being a mother, with being a doormat, sweet or otherwise.
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It is especially exhausting to instill by example that I am here not just to joyfully serve their every girlish need, but to lovingly show them how to take pride in serving their own needs, or better yet, in serving mine. To wit, there is a constant tension between their “rules,” versus the rules of polite society, reality, and/or simply being in my good graces. Rule 1: There is no difference between NEED and WANT. Oh yes there is, but they’ve divined that WANT sounds whiney, so when they whine they use politically correct NEED instead, as in “I NEED to hang out at the mall.” Fine, but I NEED not to let them do so. Rule 2: Delegate everything. As in, when I tell one to take out the garbage, fold some clothes, or whatever, that one immediately delegates that chore to another, younger one, who automatically delegates it to the youngest one - unless of course the mother one is within earshot and adds, “And don’t you dare delegate that to your younger sister!” Rule 3: Girls who are younger than high school age should not look at, address, or otherwise try to engage girls who are in high school under any circumstances. High school girls are offended by the very idea that their primping routine could be an object of fascination to little girls. Girls in high school reward little girls with icy stares if they dare to attempt conversation. Girls in their 40s who warn girls in their teens that being rude to anyone, including people under 14, is just plain rude, are also treated to icy stares. (That is why girls in their 40s also control the car keys until the ice melts.) Rule 4: Younger sisters can NEVER call “shot gun” in the car. I thank the airbag companies every day for their no-under-12-yearolds in the front seat rule. Unfortunately, 12 year old girls believe taking turns is fair, and they’re just uppity enough to insist on this “fairness” issue with their older sister, who is certain that fair means oldest-one-sits-in-front. They revisit this Sisyphean debate
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at every opportunity, until they realize the ignition is off and the mother/driver is ominously rubbing her temples. Rule 5: Phone calls and messages are only important when they are for you. Before Caller ID, the phone’s bleating pushed all three girls into a dead run for the phone. Now, Caller ID tells them the phone isn’t really ringing if it’s not for them. When asked, “Did anybody call?” they are telling the truth when they say NO, because in their mind, nobody did. Rule 6: Mom is the ultimate fashion cop, but girls are dedicated deputies. They may vigorously disagree with the items and outfits I confiscate, but they all nail fellow offenders with amazing acuity. “Mom will NEVER let you wear that” has yet to be countermanded. I must SEE each girl before they leave the house to make sure that there is no unlicensed make up, no sandals in cold weather, no outfits pulled from the hamper instead of the dresser drawer, and nothing whatsoever that would lead anyone to believe that my girls read “Cosmopolitan.” Rule 7: Sisters stick together. They would never say this one aloud (too corny), but they don’t have to, and it’s the one rule I have not had to attempt to re-write. They may have their differences, but they’ve all learned that girls can be just plain mean sometimes. So, when one comes home on her shield instead of carrying it, it is a comforting sight to see them comfort one another. I have no fear that they will turn out to be docile doormats anymore; the constant negotiations around here attest to that. But it is heartening to see that delegating most of their raising to my eldest daughter will work out nicely, if not sweetly.
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April 19, 2002 We all need stroking now and then. Some of us need it every day. Some of us need to work on our strokes, too. In tennis, I struggle to bring my backhand up to speed with my forehand, which is a lot like pushing rope up hill, with less satisfying results. In life, I struggle to lose my backhand altogether - a real challenge when the temptation is to come back with a nice backhand slice of my own, or ram a “winner” right down their . . . alley. Some backhand artists have refined their technique to the point that others brace themselves to just get it over with. My mother still cringes at the memory of a “friend” from way back in the ‘50s. Mom did not enjoy an extensive wardrobe (not counting maternity jumpers) when most of her 12 kids were little, and this “friend” of hers never missed an opportunity to remind her - and everyone else within earshot - of this fact. “Why, Maaaaaartha,” she would gush, “I believe I like that dress more and more every time I see it on yoooooooou! I always think of navy with white polka dots in the spring, but yoooou’re so clever you make it look wonderful aaaallllll year round!!” Webster’s acknowledges the backhand as something far more lethal than a mere tennis stoke or method of handwriting. However, it ignores the art involved. The practiced backhand is always coated in sugar, initially disguised as a compliment, drawing the recipient in with one hand before delivering the back of the other. (Southern aficionados often add the grace note of “Bless your heart” but that really is another column.)
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Another anonymous friend recalls being ALMOST drawn in as a new client for an “image consultant” -- except for that backhand. “You have a wonderful face,” the consultant purred. “It gives me SO much to work with! If I could have an hour or two with your face, I could give you back five years!” I infer that some people are sucked in by this sideways sales pitch, but this potential client suddenly didn’t have a spare minute on her calendar, let alone an hour or two. Some folks are just plain clueless, and have no idea that they have just knocked someone flat with a swift backhand. Another friend (who won’t even let me use an alias) relates a reaction she enjoyed after letting her hair go back to its natural gray color. An acquaintance of hers commented on the new look by saying, “I could never stop coloring my gray - it would look even worse than yours!” A dear friend of mine, who is looking quite buff lately, but who shall also remain nameless (funny how most backhand victims share everything about the experience except their name…) recently celebrated her birthday with her not-at-all-nameless husband, Scott. She was modeling a new outfit Scott had gifted her for the occasion, when he remarked, “You know, your bum looks about 200 times smaller than it did a year ago!!” To her credit, she did give him several opportunities to rephrase the compliment, to no avail. He was so genuinely, delightfully obtuse in this particular instance, so totally without malicious intent, that he stood firm. “No,” he insisted, “that does NOT mean your bum was 200 times bigger a year ago, it just means that it looks 200 times smaller NOW!” In his defense, Scott has since recognized the error of his phrase, even so far as to plead that it not appear in print. I reminded him that publication is a decision for the victim to make, not the perp.
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Graciously accepting a compliment is perhaps the best option. As my mom says, “You can’t push it when you get a half-decent compliment, because it can so easily backfire.” My friend Sue discovered this truth back when she was LARGE with her LARGE unborn son who made his debut weighing over ten pounds. (When not-pregnant, Sue is often mistaken for the prototype for Popeye’s goil, Olive Oyl.) But at this point in this pregnancy, people often wondered to themselves how Sue would look with GOODYEAR painted across her abdomen. She did not feel her most attractive, and she sniveled about it to her husband. He earned a zillion brownie points by looking her in the eye and assuring her, “I think you are BEAUTIFUL!” She should have just said THANK YOU, and quit while she was way ahead. Instead, she stopped sniffling long enough to say, “Really…? You think I’m beautiful?” “Well, yes . . . in the face.” Some backhanded stroking is delivered so repeatedly, that they cease to be backhands at all. For example, my older sisters (have I mentioned I am the second to YOUNGEST of the 12?) never miss an opportunity to recall what a cute BABY I was -- but they miss almost every opportunity to comment on my appearance SINCE then. I know they’re only kidding, and besides, their eyesight is already going, so I smile and just say THANK YOU.
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Person(s) To Call
May 3, 2002 Our first post-partum date filled me with worry. Our baby was only six weeks old, we were living in Washington, D.C., for the summer. We did not know a soul, let alone someone worthy of caring for our firstborn. At my Reason for Living’s insistence, we called a babysitting service so that we could enjoy a hamburger and a movie, sans bebe, for a few hours. I could not understand why holding the baby for me, taking the baby for a walk, or watching TV while I nursed the baby had somehow grown stale for him, but I am never one to question him at all. So without any emotional discussion, weeping, or gnashing of teeth, I arranged it. At the last minute, I realized I had no “person(s) to call in case of emergency.” I had a ten-foot long list of person(s) back home, but a 14 hour drive is impractical at best. This was back in the dark ages, before cell phones. There was no way for this lady to reach us either. I recognized this as a sign that the whole goingout-again-thing was about two years premature. My Reason for Living recognized this as a sign to look up the darn numbers for the restaurant and the movie theater. Again, I did so cheerfully. I can’t remember the meal, but I do recall the pay phone outside the ladies room and that the babysitter did pick up after the first ring - every time I called. The baby was still sleeping, just as he had been ten minutes previously. The movie was intense, very evocative. Most people think “Ghost Busters” is a comedy, but I wept through the first half. Then a car hit a light pole, knocked out the power for blocks, and further darkened the
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theater. I interpreted this as a sign that we needed to go right home; my Reason for Living (cheerfully) agreed. I realized that without person(s) to call, we would not get very far. I had always thought that person(s) to call meant immediate family. But when you don’t have immediate family nearby and your needs are immediate, you find person(s) to call become your family. When we first moved here, we only knew two couples, so they became our person(s) to call whether they knew it, agreed to it, or not. Donna cheerfully showed up when I was in a no-one-else-tocall babysitter bind. I was smart enough to ask that favor only once (and it has nothing to do with the fact that my three year old drew a circle around herself in pen on the carpet during my absence). Once someone is on your person(s) to call list, I find they are there pretty much there forever. When you call a dated name from the list, you know you have the right number because they never say, “And so you’re calling me because . . .?” Instead they say something like, “Hold on while I switch phones, I have a feeling this is going to take a while, and I’m so glad you called.” When my dad was dying years ago, I thought nothing of picking up the phone to hear my friend Marion’s good counsel, picking up where we had left off on a similar conversation about 15 years before. Although my friend Phyllis had lost daily or even weekly touch with a local friend, they had a lot of history, so when Phyllis’ grandmama died, that friend was the natural, obvious, and first person(s) to call. Carson and Annie have the dual misfortune of having ancient history with us and medical expertise. They have been person(s) to call for things large and small, whether the problem is a sick puppy, a frantic babysitter dealing with our youngest and a stomach bug, or calming desperate worries in the face of frightening unknowns involving hospitals and family.
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Person(s) to call don’t keep score. They never say, “You never call unless you need something from me” (even if it’s true). It’s impossible to keep even with them all, because no one ever asks us for medical advice, or any guidance involving cooking, fashion, home decorating, landscaping, or stain removal, but they know they will find a friendly if not helpful ear if they want to commiserate about obstreperous teens, or a home remedy for toddler constipation (Karo syrup). We have come a long way from that summer in D.C. We enjoy burgers out, we watch entire movies, and we are blessed with a long list of person(s) to call to join us for an evening, not just in a crisis. Life’s setbacks reveal otherwise hidden treasures. We’ve learned that when friends say, “If there is anything I can do for you, please call,” the highest compliment you can pay them is to pick up the phone and let them. They really do mean it. We really love them all for it, and we really mean it.
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Snapshots of Mom
May 10, 2002 My editor asked me to share a cherished picture of my mother and me from my infancy and use it as basis of a flowery contribution in honor of Mother’s Day. Problem is, I have no such photo. I have a lovely mother, and I’m sure we owned a camera back then. There are lots of pictures of my oldest brother. There are a couple of my second oldest brother, and several pictures of my oldest sister because she was the first girl. The rest of us got hand-me-down pictures. Whenever I had to take a baby picture to school for some project, I’m sure the teacher must have thought “Gee, she sure looks a lot like her oldest brother!” By the time I came along (number 11) Mom was more interested in getting through the day, half-way through the laundry, and sleeping through the night than she was in dolling us both up and having someone take our picture together. Come to think of it, she was not much interested in getting just ME dolled up for a special photo op, either. But I am not bitter. Really. From the moment we are born, our instinctive attitude toward Mom is, “What have you done for me lately?” Mother is expected to attend AND to anticipate our every whim. Like most moms, my mom did such a great job that I grew up thinking that she knew everything. Then I became a charming teen who discovered she knew NOTHING (nothing cool, anyway), and then finally a bewildered young mom myself who found a lot of wisdom in her
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again (as long as we did not discuss weighty issues such as fashion). I regularly ask my kids if they are having a nice childhood. So far, they always answer “yes.” Even my teenagers are willing to admit they are enjoying relatively nice teen years. I ask so that I can remind them later if I need to, in case the current fashion among adult-children-of-mothers persists. The therapist lobby won’t like this, but I honestly cannot find a way to blame Mom for any of the mistakes and unwise choices I’ve made in my adult life. She did make the huge mistake of teaching me and my siblings to think, and that means the burden is on us to sort “the way Mom always did it” from the way we may need to do things now. Not better or worse, just differently. And so I try to pass on the useful things she poured into my head, such as that the first five years in your child’s life are the most critical, and of that the first year, and of that year the first month, and of that month, the first week; that there is a great difference between talking TO a baby and not just AT him; that it’s always important to write a thank you note (even if the person tells you not to); that no self-respecting laundress ever uses only cold water; and that “nice girls” do not call boys, chew gum, crack their knuckles, or comb their hair in public. On the same token, I have done a few things differently, too. I admit to calling a few boys in my time; I close the door so no one can see whether I’m running a load of COLD/COLD laundry, and I made sure someone took a picture of me with each of my kids when they were tiny. But every time I can stop and think “How did Mom do this?” she has indeed done a lot for me lately.
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Countdown To ...
May 17, 2002 Summer is just around the corner, 12 days and counting according to my children. They are so excited they can hardly stand it. We are regaled with a nightly countdown at the dinner hour celebrating no more homework, no more “no-TV-on-schoolnights” weeks, no more waking up early, no more going to bed at a decent hour, no more forgotten lunches, no more dress code checks/arguments (the school’s and Mom’s), no more late buses, no more chorus practice, no more seeing all your cronies in one structured, stimulating, safe environment for a good seven hours every day. Let us all synchronize our calendars. About four to seven days after the glow of “no more . . .” fades a bit, mothers everywhere will be hit with the same news bulletin from their newly paroled darlings. “Mom, I’m bored…” I remember timing this announcement at regular intervals for my mom when I was a kid. It usually occurred to me just as she would put her feet up, lay her head down, and try to “catch 40 winks” in the heat of a summer afternoon. Too old for an official nap, and too young to recognize a good nap for the slice of heaven that it is, I only saw Mom’s 40 winks as undivided attention she would not be giving to me. Sometimes I got close enough to whine my news flash while leaning against the side of her bed. Other times I was not quick enough and had to deliver the message in a dramatic stage whisper through the shiny brass key hole on her bedroom door.
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She never took the news too well. Never worked up the sense of alarm I sought to incite. She has never struck me as much of a fatalist, but she sure sighed a lot at the time. Her answer was always the same. Sometimes she did not even open her eyes, it was like a mantra to her by then. “Go jump rope. Ride a bike. Play hopscotch. Play ball. Read a book . . .” My role was to shoot down every option she offered by explaining, in my whiniest voice, that I had either already done that, or I had nobody to do it with, or that I could not do it because it was . . . boring. My little sister and I grew up in a cute neighborhood gang (this was back in the days before gang members had to shoot somebody to join). We were a tight, grimy bunch - three pairs of sisters in all, oldest and youngest only three years apart, and as the oldest, I was their fearless leader. When I dragged my little sister along or rounded up the entire gang to stand by Mom’s bed with me to inform her that we were ALL bored, her answer remained the same, but then it was in a really, loud, sharp voice. (A quick study, I did not organize that aborted group effort more than once, per summer.) Her kicker was always to suggest that we do something really helpful to her that would be hours of fun for us. “Then go down to the beach and carry up some nice, big rocks and line them up along the edge of the driveway for me. Run along, now, and have a good time.” We lived in a house overlooking Lake Michigan. You had to walk down 116 steps made out of railroad ties set into the steep bluff to get to the beach. You had to walk UP those same 116 steps to get back. The sandy beach also enjoyed an infinite assortment of big, smooth rocks that easily weighed at least ten pounds each. Mom had a thing about lining the driveway with these boulders in order to keep cars from smushing the grass that we smushed with our bikes. She had evidently convinced some bored
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children before my time to haul up enough rocks to give the driveway an edgy sort of snaggle-toothed border, but there was no such thing as too many rocks in her mind or along her driveway. We never did haul any rocks for her, but we always vanished when she suggested the rocks thing. She got at least 20 winks, and we miraculously found something better to do. My kids are not fortunate enough to live on Lake Michigan. But like me, they live with a mere mom, not a cruise director. They only have a pool they can go to at any time, more toys and games than you can shake a stick at, a raft of friends they can swim and play with, and scads of younger kids they could be babysitting. If they whine to me that all those options are boring, they know I will simply suggest they ride their bikes to the library, to the park, or up to the pharmacy to read the list of prescriptions people have bought and signed for that day. If none of those options amuse them, they can always visit their grandmother in Chicago. Naps are not as vital to her now, she always loves to see the kids, and her driveway could still use a few more rocks.
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May 31, 2002 Now that the kids are paroled from school for the summer, conscientious parents everywhere are posting summer reading lists on the frig so that the kids forget only half of what they learned during the school year. I have resorted to a form of bribery in order see any titles crossed off the list. My kids do reap modest financial rewards for reading each book, proving that they have read it, and enduring a conversation with me about the book. They seem more interested in discussing whether the book is “skinny” or “thick,” and they mistakenly rely on the mere number of pages to determine this. I insist on discussing the author, the theme(s), and the book’s contemporary context before I grease their palm with a five buck reward for a “skinny book” or ten bucks for a “thick book.” If we had official summer reading lists when I was growing up, my mother never posted them. She encouraged us to read, and often gave us books as birthday gifts, but for me the greatest motivator of all was reading books she felt were “too grown up” for me. While other kids were sneaking cigarettes in a fruitless attempt to seem older, I was reading about Katherine and Heathcliffe, delighting in making my mother say, “Who said you were allowed to read a book like that?” It all started with To Kill a Mockingbird. It is probably the best book I will ever read, and the only book I have ever read more than once. The first time I read it was during the summer before fourth grade, and I have been revisiting the forbidden pleasures of summer reading ever since.
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My mother gave me a copy of the book for my birthday that spring, and I started reading it down at the beach that summer (on the days I decided against hauling rocks up to line the driveway for her). Although I was the same age as Scout, the novel’s protagonist, Harper Lee did not write it for children. There were some words in there that were new to me. Luckily, I was reading beside my older and far more worldly sister, Blanche, who was 14 that summer. “What’s this word?” I asked. She glanced over and said, “That’s rape.” She knew I wanted meaning, not phonics, and added in an ominous voice that only Mom could tell me what such a word meant. Her voice was so thick with portent that I scampered up all 116 steps up the bluff to the yard, then up three flights of stairs where I found Mom vacuuming the boys’ rooms. I had to yell my question three times over the roar of the vacuum before she snapped it off and slowly intoned, “Where on earth did you hear that word?” In a book. What book? To Kill a Mockingbird. Where did I get my hands on a book like that? I got it for my birthday. Who gave me that book? You did, Mom. That last answer kind of tripped up her anger momentum, so she flipped the vacuum back on. But what does it MEAN?! The vacuum dozed off again while Mom got quiet. My mother parses her words very carefully in these situations. She is a big believer in not giving children more adult information than they can handle. She is also an even bigger believer in not giving children any adult information at all if she can avoid it. (When my then-12 year old sister once asked her to define the word “prostitute,” Mother informed her it was “a woman who goes from bad to worse and eventually dies.”)
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She finally answered my question. “It’s when a man beats up a woman very, very badly, AND it’s a word you must never, ever use.” I could not wait to get back to that book. That evening, my 13 year old brother Frank routinely tackled me as I ran down our long front hallway. He was always pretending he was Dick Butkus and I was some hapless running back. (In hindsight, I doubt Dick Butkus ever experimented with the viscosity and/or elasticity of saliva as he sat above a pinned little girl, but I digress…) Anyway, after I finally escaped from Frank’s clutches, I went to find my dad to tattle . . . and to use my new, forbidden vocabulary word while I was at it. Dad hit the roof. Frank was a menace, but hardly a felon. Where did I learn that word? In a book. What book? (You get the drift.) Did I know what that word meant? Yes. Who told me? Mom. Dad breathed heavily through his nose and rubbed his eyes for a long time. He told us to skedaddle and never rough-house again. We skedaddled anyway. I learned so much from that book on so many different levels. It introduced me to the pleasure of summer reading, and to the importance of open, honest parent-child communication. As each of my three older children have read it, I’ve waited with bated breath for my opportunity to answer their questions about the difficult issues the novel deals with so deftly, as well as the new vocabulary words they might also stumble over. But opportunity has yet to knock. They have not tested my parenting skills with difficult vocabulary questions. Perhaps they have sensed what my answer would be, so they saved time by asking their father first.
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June 14, 2002 We watched our firstborn stride confidently across an amphitheater last weekend to trade a handshake for a diploma and wave good bye to his high school years. It was just as exciting as watching his very first steps 17 years ago when he lurched across the room, into our arms. About ten minutes later, rapture turned to panic as he discovered that walking AWAY from us is far more interesting, and he has yet to change his mind about that. As my mom would say, “That is as it should be.” The endless baccalaureate speeches achieved their goal if the idea was to make everyone desperate to get out of there. We learned a lot about the speakers’ resumes, and their youthful angst, but the graduates did not receive much practical advice about their immediate or long term future. There were a few things that I wish they had told my kid and his peers, so here’s what they left out. THE BUCKS STOP HERE. You’re 18 now. On the one hand, you like to tell everyone you’re an adult, but your other palm is still out. Keep in mind that, legally, your parents now have the right to ask where they should forward your mail. Lucky kids like you don’t have to worry about that, your parents are willing to support your developing adulthood at college. Every dime they give you actually undermines the very independence you are so determined to assert. All they ask is that you show them that you remember that, respect their largesse. THE IRONIES OF 18. You’re old enough to vote, to serve your country, to even die for your country. Yet you’re not old enough to
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drink alcohol. If that kind of irony bugs you, don’t just flout the law, GET INVOLVED, do something about it. Learn how change is made. You may not change the law for yourself before you’re 21, but you will learn HOW to change SOMETHING in the future that will be even more important to you (if that seems possible). GET OUT OF YOUR OWN GHETTO. As my sister-in-law Mike once noted, we’re all from some kind of ghetto, we just don’t know it until we venture outside. Get to know people who don’t look like you, think like you, who are more than ten years older AND younger than you are. They will give you a glimpse of the world outside the one you know so well, and most likely a better appreciation for your own world, as well as theirs. BE A CHEAP DATE. If you are determined to flout the law, don’t waste your life doing so. The same 18 year olds who think it’s cool to regale others with tales of how wasted they got last night unfortunately become 28, 38, 48 year olds telling the same tales years later, only their audience is more likely to be a counselor, a support group, or a divorce lawyer. If you insist on consuming alcohol, don’t let it consume your life. SEX IS DA BOMB. I have yet to hear a baccalaureate address this explosive topic. It’s perfectly OK to be casual or mindless about sex, as long as it does not involve someone else. Ah, there’s the rub. You want to believe it’s OK as long as you’re “in love.” If your loved one is not interested in talking about baby names, qualifying for a mortgage, or spending every blessed Christmas with her mother, you’re confusing another L-word. Sex is OK as long as you respect it as the incendiary device that it is. Otherwise, it can explode your plans for the future, shred your blueprints for the children you’d like to have one day, and demolish your good name. As my wise older sister Blanche once said, at your age, sex really hurts. Mostly your feelings. DO THE IMPORTANT THINGS FIRST. Life and health are precious. Both seem limitless at 18, but look how fast your high school years just flew by. Don’t waste a second waiting for
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interesting or important things in life to just happen to you. Decide what’s important to you and GO FOR IT. A lot of things on that list, such as choosing the right course of study or choosing and marrying the right person, are NOT ends in themselves, but decisions that enable you to make your list even longer, cross off more things on it, and get more out of life. If you find yourself veering away from this and the even better advice that your own parents have given you, head home. Your mom and dad are showing you how much they love you by letting you go. But if you should ever lose your way out there, you’ll find their embrace just as warm and steadying as it was when you took your first steps into their arms, and then walked away again. They want you to go as far as you can on your own, but they’re still there in case you trip and fall.
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On The Road Again
June 28, 2002 Ah, summer, that time of year when families crowd together in vehicles chocked with vacation paraphernalia and hope to “make good time” getting wherever. We got our family car trip out of the way early this summer. For years now, we have divided and conquered, taking two cars to the beach, guaranteeing good moods from origination to destination, and a good time once there. But this year, traveling nine hours each way, all six of us rode together in one car to save gas, to stay together at all times, and to remind ourselves that we should never, ever travel all in one car again. We had such a good time, that I took notes in order to accurately remember and fully cherish the bonding time we shared on the road, and the amazing things we learned about one another after cramming 33 linear feet of people and 13 suitcases and boxes into 25 cubic feet of car for 18 hours. There is no age limit on “ARE WE THERE YET?” Younger parents, fear not, your adorable little four year old will not stop asking that precious question six or even ten years down the road. There are other scrumptious variations they come up if you refuse to answer any more, such as “WHAT TIME IS IT?” and “HOW MANY MORE MILES?” If a child is under 12, it is important to ask THREE times if she washed her hands in the ladies room. There is something biblical about this, because the child will deny the need to re-wash up to three times, but after the third time she will go and wash her hands (for the first time).
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I don’t care how “cute” a child is, if he is more than four years old and has not bathed in the last ten minutes, then that child’s feet reek and all feet belong inside sneakers at all times when everyone’s feet are enclosed in a small space, such as an SUV, a plane, or an ocean liner. You can spend a wad of money on a fancy satellite radio system with 170 channels and no commercials. Still, there is literally no single channel in this solar system that six people with a 33 year age span can agree to listen to for even one minute. It does not matter how many Raffi tapes you listened to on the road when your kids were tiny. Your children will not appreciate your previous sacrifices to their listening and traveling pleasure any more than they can now appreciate the Beatles, the Stones, or Van Morrison (“that’s OLD people music!!”) Yet they insist that you will grow to love everything from Run-DMC to NSYNC if you just give them a chance. I would sooner listen to “Baby Beluga in the Deep Blue Sea” again since I still know it by heart anyway. It is impossible to make someone STOP cracking their knuckles in 18 easy hours. But, it IS possible for a 16 year old to TEACH a 9 year old the annoying habit. I’ve had to decide to face facts and stop nagging about it. Our good friend and orthopod, Doctor Mike, set me straight when he told me that cracking one’s knuckles does NOT cause arthritis. HOWEVER, he says it does create big knuckles over time. I am now encouraging the practice because I am still sensitive about the fact that I was born with embarrassingly small knuckles. Watch what you say. You may think you’re actually cleaning up your language about bad drivers in the presence of children. No matter how many times you assure your children otherwise, they will believe you hate all old people if you blurt, “OUTTA MY WAY, GRANDPA!” even once, even if the other driver could not possibly hear you (with their windows up OR down…) If you have already forbidden your children to inquire about the time or distance left in the trip (meaning you’ve been on the
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road more than 15 minutes), they will continuously revisit the topic of your alleged animosity toward the AARP throughout the rest of the trip. Don’t mistake this as real concern for senior citizens. They are just trying to provoke you into turning the music back on, preferably to the Ricky Martin channel. No matter how strong your pulse is, no matter how many times you remind the older kids that you have a pulse and that you are fully conscious, older children believe you need human training wheels when it comes to raising, especially disciplining, their younger siblings. Older children really believe they are doing you a favor by imposing creative, completely unenforceable rules on their younger siblings, such as NO TALKING FOR THE NEXT TEN MINUTES. Under the worst of circumstances, the younger child will only whine a reminder that the older kids are “NOT THE BOSS OF ME,” which quickens the maternal pulse and shortens the paternal temper. Under the best of circumstances, the guilty party will only ask “HOW MANY MORE MINUTES?” about three minutes into their silent treatment, which is enough to make EVERYONE want to turn the radio back on - if only we could find a channel we all like.
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Can’t See The Forest
July 12, 2002 Our County Council has gone out on a limb or two in recent memory to put Greenville on the map for us. It drew national attention a few years back, just as the Olympic Torch was to run through here. The Council was all for less government, except when it came to people’s private lives. So they officially resolved, on behalf of ALL Greenvillians, that gay folks have no families of value here -- or something like that. So, the Olympic torch types bypassed the County and proudly ran the torch only through the City of Greenville, where officials still lack the courage to arbitrarily ridicule whole chunks of law-abiding citizens on everyone’s behalf. And let’s not forget the bus thing. County Council equated reducing government with removing public bus routes from the map a few years back. They argued that there was not enough funding, and besides, poor people were the only people (voters) riding the buses. Poor people vote, but not apparently not often enough with their pocketbooks. The poor did not elect the that voting majority, so the majority only reacted naturally when it voted against the interests of the poor in that mess. Just this year, County Council made news again. Someone (no one on the Council has stepped forward to claim responsibility) “forgot” to make sure that Greenville County got its rightful share of the millions that the state received in its tobacco lawsuit settlement. They must have enough money. And now trees have stumped them.
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County Council’s vast majority has voted against the will of the people, not once, but twice, by sending back this trees-in-parkinglots issue for more study. They sought the will of the people a while back by putting together a committee of citizens composed of urban planners, developers, mere citizens, and environmentalists. This group came up with a recommendation for the County to require a minimum number of trees in all future parking lots - not pseudo-trees like Bradford Pears or the ubiquitous Leland Cypress - but bona fide shade trees. I’m talking about the kind of trees that shade County Council members’ reserved parking spaces at County Square. Oaks, maples, beeches, and pecans, trees that spread a green canopy over many County Council members’ own homes. Those shade trees are also holding their yards’ soil in place, reducing rain water runoff, cooling their homes, lowering their power bills, and raising their property values. The entire group was happy with its recommendation to County Council, even the developer types. County Council does not have to plant or maintain all said trees, it only has to set the requirements. Developers have to plant and maintain the trees, so having LOTS of trees does not mean LOTS of government, it would actually mean GOOD government for a change. And while change is always difficult, Greenville is ready for that one. Cherrydale Point, Greenville’s newest and homeliest mall, is a monument to the existing (that is, non-existing) County requirements for trees in parking lots, much as varicose Woodruff Road is the east-west “artery” that best illustrates our brain-dead county government in action. The Cherrydale developer had a whole bunch of trees and landscaping budgeted UNTIL he learned that County Council felt like ZERO was a nice round number for trees, so he went along with that. It was 97 degrees today. But my car thermometer read 106 degrees at Cherrydale’s steaming black asphalt lot, cranking up my air conditioning, eating up my gas, wearing my tires, and
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running up the energy bills at all the stores there, too. If Cherrydale’s nearby homes suddenly experience flooding when this drought finally ends, the complete absence of nice big shade trees with deep, thirsty root systems in that vast parking lot just might have something to do with it. Problem is, trees don’t vote. A huge majority of County Council seems to assume that only liberals care about trees. They should attend school board meetings where parents and other taxpayers (many of them right-wing cranks like myself) rallied against the wholesale bulldozing of mature shade trees around the former Blythe elementary school which is being rebuilt. The trustees did not stop to ponder whether they were caving in to liberal tree huggers, they immediately acted to SAVE THE DAMNED TREES if at all possible, and EVERYONE was happy. Ironically, Phyllis Henderson is the sole Council member with the cojones to break party ranks with the majority on this one. She supports the committee’s recommendation and does not regard trees as partisan tinder, let alone political firewood. She is one of only four Council members who does not suffer from a log in the eye about trees. How does FURTHER STUDY of trees reduce government? Councilman Bob Taylor fretted that trees in parking lots may pose a hazard to children - warranting further study of this burning issue. I’ve warned my kids about speeding cars in parking lots, but killer trees have yet to migrate from the ski slopes to the rolling hills of Greenville. How much does further study COST? How many more hot, bald parking lots will get under the wire before ANY tree planting requirement is passed? I think that I shall never see an issue as stupid as the trees.
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Spam, Thank You, Ma’am
July 26, 2002 My 18 year old son recently enjoyed being the audience with me for an impromptu (and endless…) fashion show in our living room, hosted by my youngest daughter and one of her cronies. Perhaps “enjoyed” is too strong, but at least he refrained from complaining audibly when they were voguing on the catwalk. I insisted that he take in the show for a couple of reasons. For one, there’s sheer fairness. While he never did put on a fashion show for us (oh darn…) we all had to sit through countless action sequences he’s staged for us over the years in the living room, the back yard, and even on the diving board. (If a child jumps off a diving board, and his mother DOESN’T see it -- did it really happen?) While the characters he played evolved from Donatello and the other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the more challenging role of Hulk Hogan, the plot and theme of these productions were generally the same, and the sound effects were very . . . consistent. The other reason he needed to sit still and applaud his little sister’s fashion show is because we’re lucky she still wants to produce one. As the youngest, she’s been forced to grow up just a little faster than her predecessors. “The Baby” racked up incredible mileage on her car seat at a time when her pampered predecessors were listening to Beethoven to stimulate their little brains, drinking formula out of sterilized bottles, and wearing brand new hand-smocked outfits. The baby of the family may “get” to watch PG13 movies sooner than the older kids did, but
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the older kids spoil “G” rated fare for her when they sneer at the likes of Bambi and Mary Poppins as passé. The youngest one may get to do things that the older kids had to wait for, but the trade off is having a little less time to savor just being a kid. So if she still wants to torture us with ad hoc fashion shows that never end or with unscripted neighborhood-kid plays that involve more whispered drama off-stage than on, we all need to sit up and appreciate the fact that there are fewer and fewer of these events coming our way. My youngest is growing up so fast that she does not even know what SPAM is. When I explained it to her, she was already too jaded to appreciate it as the treat it once was around here. I’m not talking about the unsolicited stuff that routinely appears on my email screen, usually urging me to try some new cream or vitamin supplement to enlarge an appendage that I fortunately lack anyway. (But I am too smart for those spammongers. Even if I were a man, I’d know that if I agreed to try a free sample of those things, I would immediately wind up on another spam email list bombarding me with specials on compensatory sports cars or speed boats.) I am talking about the original, wholesome Spam - “the one in good taste” -- that my children used to love, before they were clued in by my clueless friend, La. Years ago, when my children were delightfully little (and clueless in their own right…) La concluded a summer evening bike ride with her toddler by stopping by our house. La is one of those foodie people who believes that everything tastes better wrapped in grape leaves. She even knows how to pronounce “phyllo.” She is also one of those people who tend to speak -blurt - her mind when it comes to exotic dishes she is unfamiliar with. I tried to usher her through the kitchen (and far away from my children’s dinner table) as quickly as possible. But not fast enough. “What is that smell? What on EARTH are they eating?” she asked.
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My four year old explained, “We were REALLY GOOD today so Mommy is letting us have Spam for dinner - as a treat!” La claimed - for all to hear - that she had never seen Spam up close and personal, did not know anybody who had actually eaten the stuff, and could not believe her eyes on either count. (And she fancies herself a gourmet…) My kids were preschoolers, unschooled in resisting negative peer pressure. Little did I know that my own friend would offer them their first taste of it. Until that moment in their unsullied little lives, they had relished this nutritious canned ham and pork shoulder luncheon meat (with secret spices), especially when I drowned it in a tasty mixture of soy sauce thickened with brown sugar or delicious table syrup. They were innocents, but not stupid. Thanks to La’s unsolicited epicurean review, they suddenly regarded Spam the way my thirteen year old now views PG13 movies. And I suddenly had one less easy treat up my sleeve for when they were really good. Since then I’ve had to rely on other incentive tools to shape and reward kids’ behavior, like fancier foods such as Spam-kabobs, or taking them to live shows and concerts in town. I hear there’s a double feature playing in the living room.
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Helpful Hints From Herlong II
August 9, 2002 It is unbelievably that time of year again. The kids feel like the days inch toward school vacation and Christmas Day at an agonizing crawl, while parents and other Santa’s helpers scurry around in fast forward, vowing to slow down and really savor the true spirit of the holidays - next year anyway. Over the years, we have perfected the art of gathering with family and celebrating Christmas, but of course we have learned it the hard way. (As my oldest once asked, “What IS the easy way, Mom?”) To wit, some shared hints to help your holidays be a little merrier: When traveling over the river and through the woods, be sure you know exactly who is also going to be waiting with gift-laden arms when you arrive at Grandma’s house. It is awkward, and often impossible, to run out after six on Christmas Eve to buy a thoughtful, beautifully wrapped gift for a relative you neither expected nor planned for. I know. On the Christmas occasions that you manage to make a list, and check it twice to make sure that every person, naughty or nice, blood relation or shirt-tail relative, will receive a thoughtful, beautifully wrapped gift, be sure the list includes putting all the gifts into the car before you all head out. Realizing that “someone else” forgot to load the gifts when you’re only halfway over the river (but definitely in the woods) can pack an additional hour of quality travel time into your trip as you double back for the loot. I know.
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If on the way to Grandmother’s house, you realize that you have forgotten something important at home, such as ALL THE PRESENTS, try to keep in mind that pointing the guilty finger at your Reason for Living, or your adored wife, or your precious, ever-helpful children can potentially cast a dreadful pall over the buoyant Christmas Spirit you would all be otherwise enjoying when you are crammed into the car with umpteen boxes and the family dog. Turning up the volume on the Christmas music wafting from the radio is a joyous way to drown out the chorus of recriminations. I know. When trying to determine which wonderful confection to prepare as a homemade gift from the hearth and heart to share among friends, it is probably best to avoid attempting Petite Rum Babas or Brandied Snow Balls, no matter how fervently your sister insists the recipe is simple to follow. It is actually perilously easy to mis-measure some ingredients. When this happens, the cook’s natural tendency to lick the batter can have disastrous, sloppy consequences, including a far lower cookie yield than the recipe promises, followed by a splitting headache. I know. When cuddling by the fire with your spouse to assemble 200 12”x4” stiff, brightly colored, almost indestructible cardboard blocks for your toddlers to play with for years to come, try to plan time for this fun activity sometime before 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Eve. By this time, many adored wives are just too tired to be any help. If that is the only time left available for the two of you to enjoy literally building the blocks of your children’s future play, avoid opening any stocking stuffers such as small bottles of Bailey’s Irish Crème. It can make even adored wives even more tired at that hour, almost useless when it comes to assembling ridiculously stiff pieces of cardboard into blocks. If you expect your adored wife to help you assemble these blocks the same day she has lovingly produced homemade Petite Rum Babas, you need to have your head examined. I know.
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When decorating your home for Christmas, it is important to clean everything first, including the family dog, so everything looks and smells fresh. If you delegate the responsibility of washing the family dog to one of your children, do remind them that simply spraying the dog’s hind quarters with “Febreze” is an inappropriate substitute for a bath (and will probably give the animal indigestion…). I know. When frantically assembling concrete-like blocks, confusing bicycles, or race car sets with missing pieces into the wee hours, remember that Santa, then dawn, then your children, are all arriving sooner than you think, or may be fully equipped to welcome. Depending upon your children’s ages and awareness of the abstract concept of “time,” it is possible to be better prepared for the boisterous activity of Christmas Day by allowing the whole family to enjoy an additional hour of sugar-plum-visions by adjusting the clock back a wee bit, just for day. I know. When encouraging your children to decorate the tree, it is important to bite your tongue and remember the reason for the season is NOT to make a big deal about the so-called tradition that lights go on the tree before the ornaments, or that ornaments should be evenly distributed instead of draping the lower branches. While older siblings may make remarks contrary to the Christmas spirit about the “dorky looking tree,” it is far more rewarding, and in keeping with Christmas joy, to take some more time, turn up the volume on the Christmas carols, and do, or redo the tree WITH your child, for fun. It is kind of like doubling back to retrieve the presents on the way to Grandma’s, but we all eventually get to Christmas happily together anyway. I know.
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Oh Dear Lord
August 23, 2002 I believe prayer works, especially if I accept that the answer is not always going to be “yes.” Mostly I pray for help in achieving patience and acceptance for things and purposes beyond my control or ken, but I almost never do it out loud. One of the things I have grown to love about living in the South is that you cannot even attend a sewer dedication without someone kicking it off with a prayer. When we lived in Washington, D.C., nobody ever talked about religion or church, so prayer was not on the radar. It took me a while to get used to people here routinely asking not just IF I go to church, but where. If I babbled at all in my reply, they immediately and sincerely invited me to visit their church, which is really kind of nice when you get beyond the shock of it. But one of the things I’ve come to dread about public gatherings here is the possibility of being called on to lead others in prayer. I have no training for it. I was raised Catholic, so I know a lot of rote prayers, but they mostly tend to come in handy in private. I repeat the second half of the “Hail Mary” during takeoff and landing every time I fly - “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.” I hear that most protestants equate prayers to Mary with idolatry, but to me there is no harm or sacrilege in asking well-connected friends in high places to put in a good word for me, and she has better connections than anyone else I can think of. Back in parochial school, we attended confession every Friday, to rid ourselves of the sins we’d committed during the previous
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week and to cleanse our souls for the upcoming weekend. Depending upon the gravity of your confession (later renamed the sacrament of reconciliation), the priest would assign the penance of saying a certain number of prayers - but you said them SILENTLY. (Come to think of it, equating prayers with penance or punishment was not the smartest way to make prayer a daily joy in life, but hindsight is always 20/20. They meant well, anyway.) The three prayers I remember best were The Hail Mary, the Our Father (better known as The Lord’s Prayer) and the Oh My God. That last one went, “Oh My God, I am sorry for these and all my many sins, but especially because I have offended you who are so good. With your help, I will try not to sin.” If I was assigned the penance of saying five Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, and one Oh My God, I would kneel at the altar and short-hand my task by simply repeating “Hail Mary” five times, and “Our Father” five times, and cap it off with an “Oh My God.” This way, I piously flounced back to my pew long before most of the other penitents who said the entire prayer they were assigned as many times as they were assigned it, making me look like my transgressions were bush league compared to their heinous crimes. Consequently, the sin of pride was and is a recurrent theme for me when I am trying to reconcile my actions with my aims. I thought that Catholics were the only ones who relied on rote prayers to guide them through communing with God when their own words might fail them. But the fact is most of us prefer to rely on a prayer we can easily recite, or most especially a designated hitter, when it comes to praying in any kind of a public setting, including blessing the meal. When we gather with My Reason for Living’s side of the family, his daddy always blesses the meal. As best I can make it out, his standard blessing goes something like, “Our heavenly Fatherrrrrwibbooedabadabamibblefrummany gifts, Amen.” I don’t think anyone else finds anything strange in this blessing
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(since I am the only naughty one to raise my head or peek during this ritual to find out), nor should they. He gets the point across, and more importantly, no one ELSE is has to come up with something more eloquent. One of the great things about having children is that they vie for the chance to say the blessing. They always say something cute and sincere, and do a much better job than their parents could. My mom or dad always “said grace” before meals, so when they came for Thanksgiving several years ago, Mom inadvertently put My Reason for Living on the spot by asking him to “say grace” for us. He couldn’t exactly say his daddy’s version, (no one knows the words), and he relishes praying extemporaneously in front of others about as much as a good root canal. So, like me, he instinctively relied on a rote prayer in his moment of crisis. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be this really good bread . . .” Amen.
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End – VOLUME I
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