Bugging Out

One of us had to go. I want to be clear about that because compromise was not an option in this situation. He obviously believed we could live together in peace. Years of experience had taught me otherwise. We could not under any circumstances stay under the same roof. It wasn’t good for me and it certainly wasn’t healthy for the children. Yes, one of us had to go. And it was going to be that cockroach.

         I’m not sure how the term “love bug” got coined, but in our house insects are uninvited, unwanted, and unwelcome guests. I come by this insect-a-phobia honestly, as most of my immediate family members share my malevolence towards multi-legged creatures. When my sister was younger she was so afraid of bugs that when she saw one in the house she would simply put a Dixie cup over it and let our father deal with it later. To this day I also have an irrational fear of overturned Dixie cups thanks to her. My mother has suffered from arachnophobia for years. She once had a nightmare about spiders so vivid that she asked my father to buy her a gun the next morning. He wisely talked her out of it.

         For those enthusiastic entomologists reading this, please note that I am not a total barbarian. I do have a deep respect for all living things, big and small, albeit a slight intolerance for some of the tinier ones that gross me out. In fact, I have been exceedingly kind to a mother and child pair of raccoons in our neighborhood who have been wreaking havoc lately. These deceptively cute varmints have rummaged through our garbage cans and ransacked the mulch in our backyard on multiple occasions. Several people have offered to trap them for me and relocate them, but I have declined, worried that the mother and child duo might be unduly separated and traumatized in the process. The point being, I really am a kind-hearted, empathetic person.    

         Which brings me back to that disgusting cockroach with a death wish.

         I noticed it on the bathmat as I was getting into the shower the other day. It was humongous and presumably dead, lying motionless on its back. I calmly walked to the kitchen, grabbed a plastic cup and a sturdy piece of mail from the recycling bin, and headed back to the bathroom, only to find that the cockroach had been playing possum. It was now on all sixes ready to make his move. I knew I had to be swift and stealth. I quickly put the cup over it, slid the recycled mail underneath and then carefully walked to the toilet where I dropped, flushed, and sent him on his merry way. Or so I thought.

         The relief I felt as I flushed was quickly replaced with panic as I watched this resilient roach literally swim for its life and reappear on the side of the bowl, seemingly unscathed. He was like the Michael Phelps of cockroaches. I immediately slammed the lid shut only to see his ominous antennae poking out a few seconds later.

         Luckily, I had been duly prepared for such a crisis situation during the infestation of 2008, when an entire colony of ants invaded my closet because of a cough drop that had been inadvertently left in a rarely used handbag. In that instance, it took me hours to thoroughly clear out and clean my closet. In this case, I knew there would be no level of clearing or cleaning good enough if that cockroach managed to escape.

         I grabbed the plastic cup, pushed the cockroach back into the bowl and flushed again. But, as you may have predicted, the re-flush was too soon. The bowl water did not go down and the cockroach was heading for dry land once again. I was left with no other choice. I started to pound the poor fella with my plastic cup until he was headless and left with only a single leg. But even that did not bring down this mighty giant. His one remaining leg continued to twitch, so I pounded faster and harder yelling, “Take that Michael Phelps!” I flushed once more and this time he was no match for the toilet bowl tidal wave that swept him away.

         I do not regret my actions that day, although I cannot fully explain this deep-seated animosity I obviously have towards cockroaches. And Michael Phelps. What I do know is that thankfully that cockroach is out of this house for good, along with that plastic cup, which I immediately tossed in the recycling bin. I just hope those raccoons are putting it to good use. 

Groundhog Day

The movie, Groundhog Day, was recently on television. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, finds himself in a time loop, doomed to live the same day over and over again until he gets it right. Ironically, as I sat there watching for at least the tenth time, I realized I could watch it over and over again and be quite happy. Our sons watched it once and made it about half way through before declaring it the worst movie ever. I now realize the predictability that I find so pleasing is painfully boring to our boys. And not just when it comes to movies.

         It’s not that I want to relive the same day over and over again, but I do find comfort in consistency and reassurance in repetition. (You might have guessed that already from the absurd amount of alliteration I always apply.) Our kids, on the other hand, are insatiable adventure seekers always looking for the new and challenging. To be fair, when you’re young, almost everything is new and somewhat challenging. Every day brings the possibility of a notable achievement or a memorable first in your life, like taking your first steps or pooping on the potty. Sadly, no one is following me around the house with an iPhone expecting me to do something quite that astounding. But our children look for and celebrate those small triumphs every day.

         Our boys often say, “This is the hardest thing I have ever done.” And they are usually referring to something like riding a unicycle, or attempting to make ten free throws in a row. They intentionally seek out the biggest challenges in their lives. In contrast, when an adult utters those same words, “This is the hardest thing I have ever done,” we are usually referring to a challenge we wish we could avoid, like illness or divorce. As adults, we don’t often choose the hardest things in our lives; they tend to choose us.

         While there isn’t an exact cut off age, there seems to be a point in our lives when we go from anxiously acquiring new talents to being content with the handful of talents we already have; from being restless in approach to resting on our laurels. There are always exceptions, of course, like my sister who quit her job a few years ago to become a stand up comedian. And my husband, Alan, who is constantly challenging himself and simultaneously encouraging me to avoid the temptations of a life grounded in Groundhog Day predictability. In the twenty years we have been together, I have attempted all sorts of things because of him – like learning to water ski, snow ski, slalom, wakeboard, play tennis, and even play “competitive” ping pong in our basement. I have run a handful of 5ks (and I cannot stand running) and I even completed a Mud Run (and I cannot stand mud). And while my feats are nothing compared to his athletic accomplishments (he is a two-time Ironman finisher, among other things) I don’t imagine I would have even tried any of those things without his support and encouragement. Or if I wasn’t so stubborn and competitive.

         In fact, this past summer I tackled a brand new challenge – wakesurfing. While our three boys were at sleep away camp, I was determined to master the sport, often going out at 6:30 a.m. to practice so I could be as good as they are. I was pretty impressed with myself and knew they would be, too. What I didn't expect was after spending a month perfecting my surfing skills, our boys would both acknowledge and dismiss my efforts in the same breath with, “Good job, Mom, but can you do this?” and then immediately one-up me by doing 360s and other crazy tricks.  

There is something exhilarating about encountering the unexpected and something magical about mastering a new skill. I also know that raising three boys means my days are anything but predictable, repetitive, or the same. In a way, I am like Phil Connors, because as a parent I feel like every day I am doing this work over and over again trying to get it right. Indeed, this is the hardest thing I have ever done.

The Rest of the Story

The late Paul Harvey is one of my father’s all-time favorite radio personalities. He especially loved his program, The Rest of the Story. These popular segments contained little known or forgotten facts on a variety of subjects and always left out some key element of the story until the very end. That’s when Harvey would conclude with his signature tagline, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Although I never actually listened to this program myself, I started thinking about it on a recent family trip to Disney World. While at the Magic Kingdom a few months ago, I insisted that our family go on the It’s a Small World ride. And yes, now that I am an adult I do realize how utterly creepy and culturally insensitive those animatronic dolls are and how annoying that theme song can be. As I was about to get off the ride, this twenty-something young woman sitting behind us abruptly leapt over my seat, stepped on the bench next to me and exited the ride before we even had a chance to move, leaving her wet and dirty footprint behind. I was so shocked and annoyed by this that I was rendered speechless. I could only think to myself, “Are you kidding me?”

If I was more adept at social media, I probably would have posted a picture of the muddy footprint on Instagram with #itsarudeworldafterall. Instead, I began scripting in my head how I would dramatically retell this episode on the way to Splash Mountain and use it as a teaching moment for our boys and a fitting reminder of how important common courtesy is. And then I saw the same woman coming back to the boat just as quickly as she had exited. Except this time she was pushing a wheelchair. When I finally turned around in my seat I noticed another young woman sitting behind us. It was obvious that she had cerebral palsy or something that similarly affected her body movement and balance. As her friend or caretaker, as I now surmised, approached the boat, a few of the Disney cast members followed and helped her carefully guide the young woman out of the ride and into the wheelchair. And then they were gone.

         I sat in the boat dumbstruck by this unexpected turn of events. I felt like such a heel. I had relegated the full story into a mere, incomplete headline – “Girl rushes off water ride, rudely leaving dirty footprint in her wake.” What was supposed to be a learning opportunity for my children was instead a life lesson for me. I immediately considered how rashly I had jumped to conclusions, how quickly I summed up the situation in my head, how completely justified I felt being annoyed, and, ultimately, how utterly wrong I had been. And the difference between being ignorantly misguided and keenly aware was only a matter of seconds. I could have easily gotten off that ride and never seen that wheelchair or the young woman sitting behind me. I would have gone about my day feeling holier than thou as I preached over and over again the importance of common decency to our boys and guffawed at that dirty footprint until the fireworks show that night. Oh, the irony.

The problem is, headlines are easy to construct, and the truth is often more complicated to understand. So we tend to stick with what’s simple, knowing that the world is complex. Indeed, it’s a world of laughter, and a world of tears. It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears. There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware, it’s a small world after all.

Yes, that experience still haunts me, but obviously not nearly as much as the It’s a Small World theme song, which I cannot seem to get out of my head. I am pretty sure you will be humming it to yourself the rest of the day, too. That theme song is currently played approximately 1,200 times a day at five different Disney theme parks around the world. Amazingly, it is one of the only Disney entities without a copyright so the song can remain a true gift to the world. Of course, that doesn't make those dolls any less creepy, but it does make that song a little less annoying.

And now you know the rest of the story. 

Bittersweet 16

Every time our kids turn a year older, I find myself going through the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I tell him there is no way he is really that old. Denial. More importantly, there is no way I am old enough to have a child that old! Anger. I agree to buy him everything on his birthday list if he will just admit he is lying about his age. Bargaining. I cry while going through old photos on my computer realizing it would take me forever to turn these into photo albums. Depression. I finally realize that cookie cake is not going to eat itself. Acceptance.

         This past month, as we celebrated our oldest son’s birthday I went through all five universal stages plus an unexpected sixth one – exhilaration. That’s because my boy turned 16.

         I’ve always thought of this as a turning point in a young person’s life; gaining this newfound responsibility coupled with a subtle loss of innocence. The morning I turned 16, my dad woke me up and said, “Sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” I abruptly turned away from him and said, “Sorry, Dad, too late.” I am pretty sure he has been scarred ever since.

         I preferred to think of Arthur’s sixteenth birthday less about him bidding farewell to his youth, and more about our family saying hello to a third driver.

         Anyone will tell you that the driving process, and believe me, it is a process, is an emotionally taxing and time-consuming ritual. And it’s pretty hard on the teenagers, too. What you cannot predict about your own children is whether they will be one of those kids who is just dying to drive, or one of those kids who couldn’t care less about getting behind the wheel. My husband and I both fit into the first category. Arthur was a mixture. He started out as the kid who couldn’t care less. He has a May birthday and didn’t take the test for his learner’s permit until August. And he failed that the first time around. He barely drove six hours in those first six months. Right after the first of the year, with just five months until his birthday, the real panic set in. He realized whatever freedom and independence he hoped to gain was utterly contingent on his learning to drive. And that’s when he threw it into high gear.

         We signed him up for Haman’s driving school, he did the driving sessions with an instructor, and he drove with one of us every chance he got.  Fortunately, he was actually pretty good. With just days leading up to his birthday, I tried to give him as much advice as I could.

         The day before his driver’s test it was I who started to panic. There was so much he still didn't know. Trying to cram 30 years of driving experience into 30-minute ride-alongs was no easy task. I started rattling off timely tips at every turn. “Always pause after the light turns green before you go.” “Be careful driving past parked cars because people never look when they open their doors.” “These tracks might look outdated but you never know, a train may come one day.” It was just like the day I drove him to his kindergarten assessment when he was 5. I started to panic on the way to school, worried that he wouldn’t pass. “Do you know your numbers from 1-10?” “Say the alphabet for me.” “You forgot K!” “If they ask you to tie your shoes just explain that your mother only buys you shoes with Velcro, because she has three boys and very little time.”

         He passed with flying colors – both his driver’s test and kindergarten assessment, thank you very much. The day after his birthday he drove his brothers to school. I secretly filmed their maiden voyage without their mama. Over the next week he drove everywhere – to the gas station, the grocery store, back and forth to school. He even took his brothers out to dinner one night. I overheard him telling his best friend that he was basically the family chauffeur. I corrected him and said, “That’s not true. You’re more like a personal Uber driver. You’re pre-paid and always on call.” Now that Arthur and I are both celebrating this newfound freedom and independence, I finally have time to tackle some of those things I have been meaning to do for years, like making those photo albums. I plan to get to that as soon as I teach the boys how to tie their shoes.

 

Just Say No

A few months ago, the Junior League asked if I would speak at one of their monthly membership meetings. The topic was, “The art of saying no.” So, of course I replied with a resounding, “Yes!” I did sense the irony in that exchange. I wasn't sure what I was going to say, or what life lessons I would be able to impart, but I knew I had to put away my Jewish guilt and put on my best Nancy Reagan impersonation if I was going to teach these women to just say no.

         In preparation for this speech I started to reflect on my personal experiences over the past few decades. What pearls of wisdom had I to share? What nuggets of advice had I to offer? In others words, how could these young people learn from my old mistakes? I needed to convey that an effective leader knows how and when to say no. Yes is easy. No takes discipline. And when you say no more often it allows for the possibility of saying yes to things that really matter. Like saying no to the hamburger bun so you can say yes to the tater tots.

         When I am asked to help or volunteer my time, my natural impulse is to say yes. I partially blame my Southern upbringing for that. We Southerners are often too polite for our own good, and feel obligated to please others even at our own peril or discomfort. We don’t always say what we mean or mean what we say for fear of offending someone. And we would never want to offend someone. At least not in public.

         My Southern compulsion for courtesy is often exacerbated by my deep-seated Jewish guilt. Those of you who are Southern-raised Catholics can feel my pain. This means I not only feel obligated to say yes, but I also feel extreme remorse when I turn someone down. In order to help combat these two forces of nature, I have started using the “Let me think about it and get back to you” stall tactic. That way no matter what my response is, the other person knows that I gave it thoughtful consideration. It also gives me time to consult with my non-Jewish or non-practicing Catholic friends who live north of the Mason-Dixon Line for added support. (Sorry, no offense.)

         The reality is, I have never been very good at conveying a meaningful no. Just ask Oprah. There was a time in the early 1990’s when I was living in Chicago and dreamed of working for Oprah Winfrey. After sending my resume to a P.O. Box in response to a writer position posted on the Northwestern job board, I nearly got that chance. The P.O. Box ended up being HARPO Productions in disguise, and a few weeks later they called me to come in for an interview. I couldn’t believe it. It was everything I had imagined and more. They even had free Starbucks coffee in the employee lounge. After three weeks of consecutive interviews, I knew the fourth one would be the real test – a writing exercise. The job I was applying for was to respond to all of the requests that Oprah had to deny. And there were thousands of them. I was basically applying to be Oprah’s “Dear Jane” gal.

         They put me in an office for an hour with a computer, a stack of letters, and the following instructions, “You need to write responses to all of these people as if you are Oprah and tell them she can’t help them. Be direct, but be nice.” As I started perusing the letters my heart sank. What I thought would be a pile of crazy fan requests was instead a mound of desperate cries for help and last ditch efforts to solicit support. An orphanage in South Africa that needed funds to stay open. A woman whose family had lost their home and all of their worldly possessions in a house fire. A nun who was caring for the homeless. Channeling a sympathetic Oprah, I typed over and over again how sorry I was that I couldn’t offer assistance and how inspired I was by their acts of generosity, courage, and resilience. But I wasn’t inspired at all. This had to be the worst job in the world, and one that I was ready and willing to sell my soul for. I could not say no to this opportunity. But apparently they had no problem saying no to me. I did not get the job.

         Even though I never officially worked for Oprah, I did learn two valuable lessons from her that year. First, in order for a yes to mean something, you have to be willing say no more often. And second, Starbucks coffee is really not that great. Sorry, no offense. 

Speechless

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am rarely, if ever ever, at a loss for words. I have been told that I have the gift of gab, a talent for talking, and a skill for schmoozing. In other words, I have a big mouth. Even professionally, as a speaker and television host, I depend on my ability to be articulate. So you can imagine the panic that ensues when once a year, as winter turns to spring and those darn Bradford pear trees start to bloom, I feel my allergies coming on and the very essence of my being starting to fade. No matter what I do or how hard I try to deny it or attempt to deter it, it inevitably happens. I lose my voice.

            This, in fact, happened just a few weeks ago, and as always, the timing couldn't have been worse. I started to feel hoarse over the weekend and then lost my voice completely by Monday morning. Since I was scheduled to emcee an event on Tuesday evening, I immediately went into laryngitis lock down - total voice rest and a super secret voice restoration diet. Our son asked, "What's in your secret diet, booze?" It was actually chicken soup laced with cayenne pepper, roasted garlic on pita chips, and tea with honey. Luckily, my husband was out of town since this particular remedy comes with some very smelly side effects.

            I cancelled all of my meetings for the day and responded to any phone calls with an automated text message that read, "I cannot return your call today. I have lost my voice and am on voice rest. Please enjoy this rare, unexpected holiday and talk to you soon. I hope."

            Since I work out of a home office, I can be fairly isolated when I want or need to be, so a day without talking to anyone was not such a big deal. However, when our boys came home from school that day, it was a different story.

            As soon as they walked in the door I heard them yelling for me. And while I would normally respond to their, "Moooooooom," with the usual, "Whaaaaaaat?" I couldn't respond at all. Instead, I just patiently sat in my office while I listened to a very sad and unrequited game of Marco Polo. "Mom!" No answer. "Mom!" No answer. "Mooooooooooom!" Still no answer. Eventually one of them found me in my office and asked, "Didn't you hear us calling you?" I just smiled and nodded. It was then that I realized how often we experience this call and response on a given day. And why so many of my friends had intercom systems in the 80's when you couldn't text someone to see where they were or tell them something without walking upstairs or all the way across the house. 

            When I was growing up I served as our family's official intercom system. My mom would ask me to call everyone to dinner every night and I would dutifully yell from the kitchen, "Come eeeeeeeeeat!" She would then say, "Well, I could have done that." To which I would promptly respond, "Then why'd you ask me to do it?"

            Through a series of hand gestures and written notes I eventually conveyed to our boys that I was on voice rest and couldn't talk. Ironically, the same boys who never seem to listen to a word I say couldn't stand the thought of my not saying a single word. For them it was unsettling. For me it was plain torture and the entire evening was an exercise in restraint and self-control as I was tempted to talk at every turn.

            Without my husband at home to co-communicate, I had to enlist our 15-year-old to help with voice preservation. He immediately became my voice Minion and took the job very seriously. He hounded his brothers to make sure they ate their dinners, cleared their dishes, and got their homework done. After I dropped my phone on the kitchen floor, he called the Apple store to find out what options I had to fix my shattered screen. (And yes, I was thankful that none of the boys could hear my silent tantrum after dropping it.) He even called his dad for me so I could hear about his day and wish him good night, at least by proxy.

            Within 24 hours I had most of my voice back, was able to emcee the event, resume life as normal, and give full credit to our son and my super secret voice restoration diet. Good thing I added the booze.

           

 

Taking the Fifth

My husband and I have always encouraged our boys to ask questions. When they were younger, this seemed like a pretty good idea. That’s because back then, their questions were relatively simple. And even when they weren't, our kids didn't realize when our answers were simply made up. As far as they were concerned, we were the smartest people on earth. Unfortunately, the older our boys get, the dumber we seem to become. Our house is basically a real life version of that TV show, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? And the resounding verdict is always a definitive no.

            I am sure when I was a teenager I probably assumed my parents didn’t know what they were talking about half the time either. The difference is, our children have proof that we don’t. That's because we have armed them with the ability to instantaneously double check any fact, figure, or fabricated response at the push of a button. Like the time I was trying to be cool and bond with our oldest son by sharing trivia about The Beatles. I might have suggested that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is really a song about drugs and that the title is actually an acronym for LSD. Within seconds he said, "Actually, John Lennon wrote that song because he was inspired by the Alice in Wonderland books. It has nothing to do with drugs, Mom. That's just a rumor." Darn that Internet.

            Some of us remember that well before the World Wide Web we had World Book Encyclopedias. As the title suggested, anything you needed to know about anything that mattered in the world was neatly contained in twenty-two volumes that sat on the bookshelf of nearly every house across America. Back then, there weren't even enough important places, people or events that started with the letters J or K to merit their own volumes. They had to share one. My dad's favorite mantra used to be, "Go look it up." No matter what we asked, sometimes before the words even passed through our lips, he would order, "Don't ask me, go look it up." If I would dare suggest that he was only saying that because he didn't know the answer himself, he would quickly retort, "Of course I know the answer, but if I tell you you'll never learn how to figure it out for yourself." It was a brilliant ploy.

            These days conversations with our children are more like mini inquisitions. The natural curiosity we used to encourage in our boys when they were toddlers is now something we fear from them now that they’re teenagers. And even though I stopped even pretending to help our kids with homework by the time they got to third grade, every so often I am tempted to break this rule and prove my academic worth. Luckily, our older two boys have figured out that we are not actually the gifted geniuses we pretended to be in their youth, and that I could not actually compete on Jeopardy if I really wanted to.

            Our youngest son, Levi, however, is just twelve and therefore still thinks we are the next best thing to Wikipedia. The other day he looked up from his homework and asked, "Do you think child labor was a natural byproduct of the Industrial Revolution?" I confidently responded, "Yes, for sure it was." And as he nodded his head in agreement, I quickly added, "Wait, is this for a grade? You might want to double check that.”

            A few months ago, we encouraged him to start reading some John Grisham novels. I don't know what we were thinking, since the majority of his books are legal thrillers and therefore assume a pretty extensive knowledge of legal terms and jargon. It was fine when Levi asked the simple stuff like, “What’s a grand jury?” or “What does subpoenaed mean?” But when he started asking us about things we knew that we knew, but couldn’t really explain (that actually happens more often than not), we found ourselves in real trouble. While my husband would hem and haw his way through a response to a question like, “What exactly is a circuit court?” I would pretend to be texting while secretly Googling the term. The more this happened the more I realized that I had to come clean. I had to learn to say that I just didn't know something when I really didn't know it. 

            So the next time Levi asked us about a term we didn't know, I finally gave him an honest answer. "Go look it up," I said. "If we tell you, you'll never learn how to figure it out for yourself."

Band Mom

This was not the plan. The plan was to play basketball. He'd always played basketball. And sure, his interest had slightly waned over the years as his peers seemed to grow exponentially taller than he was and the game got increasingly more competitive. But we strongly encouraged him to stick with it. We wanted him to be part of a team. To demonstrate commitment. To show some fortitude. To prove he had perseverance. That is, until three months ago, when our 15-year-old son broke the news to us and his coach that he was quitting basketball. So he could start a band.

            It's not that we were disappointed by his declaration as much as surprised. And confused. Primarily because most people who start a band actually play an instrument. Arthur did not. Unless you count the recorder that he learned to play in third grade. Or that week he decided to take up the harmonica. But teenagers don't always think in practical terms. They often leap before they look. They act before they think. So, I decided to play along. "Starting a band sounds awesome," I said, "Are you going to play the tambourine? Perhaps the triangle?" Arthur excitedly responded with, "Nope, I'm going to be the drummer. So can you find me an instructor by next Monday? And can I get a set of drums as an early Chanukah present? And you're right, it's gonna be so awesome." He seemed to have it all worked out.

            Within the week, he and his three buddies from the tennis team (so glad he got something out of tennis) had gotten permission to conduct band practice as an official after-school activity. The next thing I knew, we had four teenage boys in our basement four afternoons a week declaring themselves as Chattanooga's hottest new garage band - The Wheels.

            The first day, I could hear the beginning stages of "Blitzkrieg Bop" coming through my office floorboards, so I decided to bop downstairs and pay them a visit. Their collective lack of enthusiasm for my presence was nothing compared to Arthur's utter embarrassment when I took out my iPhone to record their first practice. Their urging that I wait a few weeks until they got better was trumped by my insistence that all great bands had to start somewhere and as they improved they would appreciate being able to see where they came from. "Just think," I added. "This will make great b-roll for your documentary one day." That did the trick.

            Much to my surprise, they actually sounded pretty decent. The foursome included two fairly seasoned guitarists, a lead singer who had only recently taken up the bass, and then Arthur, who had one drum lesson under his belt and had cobbled together a few sad remnants of an old drum set that belonged to his younger brother. They still managed to pull off a not-so-terrible sounding tribute to The Ramones. As they got to the well-known chorus of "Hey ho, let's go," I couldn't help thinking what a fitting anthem it was for them.

            Within a few weeks, Arthur was thrilled to inherit his first cousin's slightly-used drum set, which my sister-in-law was more than thrilled to part with, and I simultaneously inherited the much-coveted position of official band videographer. When the boys summoned me downstairs to record them playing "Proud Mary" during the third week, I was one proud mama. "You guys sound amazing," I said, attempting to mask any hint of surprise in my voice. I really couldn't believe how much they had improved in such a short time.

            By week six, they had decided to try out for the school-wide talent show. It was a huge deal, made even bigger by their song choice - "Free Bird." It was a lofty goal by any band's measure, and for them it was a real stretch. But they were determined, and it paid off. They were one of only 16 student acts to make the cut.

          The night of the show I was a nervous wreck, but the boys were calm and confident. They were the opening act and definitely one of the most memorable as they took a respectable and remarkable second place that evening. Even Lynyrd Skynyrd would have been proud.

          Of course, I had told them weeks before that just by being in the talent show they had already won. That's because in three short months they had accomplished more than anyone could have imagined. They demonstrated commitment. They showed fortitude. They had proven their perseverance. And most of all, they had become a team.

            I guess this was actually the plan all along.

            

New Year's Evolution

Everyone looks forward to a new year. In golf terms, it's our annual collective mulligan. It's a do over. That's why New Year's Eve is such a big deal. We aren't just bidding farewell to the past year; in a sense we are also bidding farewell to our past selves. Should old acquaintance be forgot? Darn right they should. So in an attempt to seek absolution from our past, we craft resolutions for our future - lists of things we hope to accomplish, ways we plan to change, and even old habits we intend to break. But good intentions in January often become broken promises come May. So, I've decided to abandon the traditional pledges for a more practical approach. I am calling it my New Year's evolution.

It started when I asked our three boys if they had any resolutions for the new year. Our fifteen-year-old quickly retorted that resolutions were ridiculous. "What's the point of making a resolution to do something? If you know you should do something, then you should just do it, not promise to do it later." I couldn't agree more. As Yoda once said, "Do or do not. There is no try."

For years I have been approaching the start of every year with a sense of dread and resentment from this customary obligation to pledge that I curtail certain lifestyle choices or change certain behaviors, as if committing to being a different kind of person will make be a better one. But, the older I get the wiser I am about my own expectations and limitations. I have finally resigned myself to the fact that I will not miraculously become a morning person who loves to work out, I will not procrastinate any less or go to sleep any earlier, and I will not suddenly realize a deep-seated desire to do the dishes or fold laundry just because I make a resolution to do so.

So, this year, I am pulling a Costanza. Specifically, I am taking inspiration from the episode of Seinfeld when George Costanza decides that every decision he has ever made has been wrong, and that his life is the exact opposite of what it should be. Then Jerry convinces him that "if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right."

Instead of setting myself up for a predictable pattern of defaults, defuncts, and disappointments, I've decided to ensure long-term success by resolving to only make resolutions I can realistically keep. Since I am a goal-oriented person, I figure I should start orienting my goals to the person I am and not the person I likely will never be.

In that vain, here are a few of my resolutions for the coming year:

   I will binge watch shows on Netflix and eat ice cream in bed with my husband as often as possible.

   I will stalk our children and their friends on social media, and will stop following people who clearly lack both social and media skills.

   I will refrain from purchasing new workout DVDs, joining any CrossFit gyms, or trying anything that ends with the word "barre," but will remain committed to my all-women tennis clinic since it is still cheaper than therapy.

   I will make home-cooked meals for my family when inspired by those two-minute food videos posted on Facebook, and will close my kitchen during the months of June, July, and August.

   I will nag our boys to make their beds, brush their teeth, put on deodorant, and pick up their clothes on a daily basis, and will watch them do push ups every time they get punished for not doing these things.

   I will buy whatever black items I deem essential for my wardrobe, and will avoid bathing suit shopping unless the suits I currently own are somehow destroyed in a flood, fire, or natural disaster.

Should old acquaintance really be forgot? Maybe not. But old resolutions should. Which reminds me, I'm starting a new season of The West Wing tonight as soon as my husband brings up our ice cream. I just hope he finishes folding the laundry soon. 

Eat. Sleep. Shop. Repeat.

I always look forward to Thanksgiving. And not just because of the food, the family, the friends, and the Black Friday sales. I love it because it is so positively predictable.

 Every year, over the fourth Thursday in November, we become a country of laboratory mice running on our proverbial wheels. We sequester ourselves with generations of relatives in our childhood homes with sketchy cable and iffy Wi-Fi, and amuse ourselves with old board games, Cornhole, and even charades. We go to malls and outlets and online to buy things we do not need and will never use because they happen to be on sale; and because one can only play Cornhole for so long. We declare pumpkin a national spice and insist on putting it in foods and drinks that have no business being called pumpkin anything. We watch football for hours upon end and scream at our television sets like couch-bound lunatics. And, we ingest more calories in a few days than most third world countries consume in a year and pray those Spanx leggings we like will be on sale come Cyber Monday.

            If this sounds all too familiar, then you must be one of the many Americans who not only cherish this holiday, but also love the idea of tradition. Or, you are one of my parents reading this out loud to one of your friends for the umpteenth time while saying, “Isn't she hilarious?” Thanks, Dad.

Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” I guess Einstein would consider my family the epitome of normality, because we do the same thing over and over again every November hoping nothing changes. Our family Thanksgiving is like that movie, Groundhog Day. Except, while our spouses attempt to wake up from this repetitive nightmare by regularly asking if we can do something different or suggesting we consider a tropical destination for Thanksgiving, my siblings and I dream of recreating this annual Alabama tradition for the rest of our lives. As if The Bahamas has anything on Birmingham.

This past November, my husband and I celebrated a milestone anniversary. It wasn’t our wedding anniversary, but rather the twentieth anniversary of spending Thanksgiving together with my family. Over the past two decades he got to know three of my four grandparents, hundreds of relatives, dozens of friends, and some of the best barbeque restaurants in the Southeast. He can attest that while certain elements of our celebration have inevitably changed, the general framework has been remarkably consistent. In fact, every year we bet how many times a day my father will go to the grocery for milk and eggs, how many chocolate chip banana breads my mother will bake, how many times the grandkids will tattle on each other, and how often my sister will promote it all on social media. It has become a predictable pattern of people, places, and posting.

Some might find the repetition boring, but I find it quite comforting. In a world where change seems to be the only constant, these simple rituals and traditions offer much-needed structure and stability. Admittedly, sometimes I take this idea a little far and often turn a common custom into a steadfast superstition. Or as my husband would say, a “stupid-stition.” For instance, every time I go through a yellow light I instinctively kiss my hand, touch the roof of my car, and hit the dashboard as many times as there are people in the car. When I do this, my husband thinks I’m nuts, but I think about my friend, Rebecca Tax, who passed this ritual on to me when we were 19 years old. It’s our continued connection with each other and proof that what some see as silly, others view as sacred.

             So this year, at our usual post-Thanksgiving family lunch at California Pizza Kitchen (yes, we really are that regimented), instead of asking our children what they are thankful for, I asked what traditions they cherish most. Their list ranged from family vacations and summer camp, to Nini’s banana bread and spending time on the lake. We all agreed, however, that the week of Thanksgiving was by far our favorite, fun-filled, family-oriented tradition of all.

At least, that’s what it says on my sister’s Facebook page.

Exit Strategy

I received quite an honor recently and I can hardly contain my excitement. While I’m not one to normally brag about my accomplishments, this was a pretty huge deal that I feel compelled to share. Last month, on a flight from Charlotte to Detroit, I was one of a very select group of passengers deemed willing and able to assist in the unlikely event of an emergency. That’s right. I was seated in the exit row.

            I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.

            Okay, I know what you’re probably thinking right now: “Alison, I am so proud of you and should I ever be on a plane with you I would totally elect you to be one of the people in charge of getting me safely off the airplane in the event of an emergency.” Thank you. That means a lot.

            Sadly, there are no actual elections for this honor, but I do think the FAA should consider this in the future. Every day, thousands of passengers select exit row seats for little more than extra legroom without considering the magnitude of that decision or being vetted for this serious undertaking. I might have been an exit row rookie, but I wasn’t here to rest or recline. I was ready for action.  

            As I boarded the plane, I could already tell this flight was going to be different. The series of beeps that alerted the gate agent of my “special status” was the first sign. She quickly asked, “Are you okay sitting in the exit row?” We both knew what she really meant – that while the pilot would be responsible for safely flying the plane, I would be ultimately responsibility for safely ushering my fellow passengers off that plane should anything happen. I was basically agreeing to serve as one of the flight’s first responders. I looked her in the eye and said, “Of course.”

            Walking to my seat, I was obviously emitting a certain confidence and air of authority that the flight attendants could detect. One even gave me a knowing wink, as if to say, “Yep, we’re all counting on you.” As I took my seat I immediately surveyed the others in our exit row to size up their potentials. It was not a promising sight. These people looked hardly willing or able to do much of anything. One guy was playing a game of virtual pool on his smartphone, while another was already asleep on the job. Never mind that most of these people could barely get their suitcases in the overhead compartment, much less remove a 60-pound window on demand. I, of course, was the only one carefully reading through the safety information card found in my seat back pocket. Luckily, I am a frequent flyer, a first-born rule follower, and quite superstitious, so I read this placard before every flight and always look around the plane to locate the nearest exit, since it might be behind me.

I knew the likelihood of encountering an emergency was remote, but not impossible. I couldn’t help thinking about the US Airways flight that made an unpowered emergency water landing in the Hudson River in 2009, and Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, the now famous pilot who is credited for getting all 155 passengers and crew to safety. But what about those men and women who sat in the over-wing exit row and whose longing for extra legroom became their legacies that day? Where are their Wikipedia pages?

            When the flight attendant came by to reiterate our exit row responsibilities, I thought about those unsung heroes and offered a firm, “Yes,” as my verbal contract and commitment to the job. For the next 80 minutes, I was on high alert.

I heard a baby crying behind me and made a mental note to let women and children through the window first. I tried to estimate the number of steps it would take to get to the window, since I was seated on the aisle, and pictured myself leaping over my fellow passengers with the speed and agility of a gazelle, if and when necessary. When we ultimately landed safely in Detroit, I exhaled a sigh of relief and wondered why no one else was clapping. As I exited the plane, the captain actually came out of the cockpit to thank me personally for flying with him. I choked back the tears and told him it was an honor and a privilege.

I am sure Wikipedia will be calling me any day.

 

Name That Tune

When I was growing up, my parents forced me to do a lot of things that I didn't want to do. I had to clean my room, make my bed, go to Sunday School, and worst of all, take piano lessons. Whenever I tried to negotiate my way out of these tasks my father would say, Alison, there are a lot of decisions you are going to make in your life, but this isn't one of them. It was a line I heard quite often. And now that I am a parent, it is a line that I find myself using quite often with our three boys. Especially when it comes to playing an instrument.

            Everyone knows that forcing your child to play an instrument is a parental rite of passage. We do unto them as our parents did unto us. I am reminded of this every night when I hear our thirteen-year-old, Abe, playing his classical guitar in the living room. While my husband and I find the music both soothing and impressive, we know that each practice session will inevitably end with a tirade of anger and frustration as Abe reminds us that we are the meanest parents in the whole world for making him take guitar. To be fair, we didnt force him to take guitar; we just didn't give him a choice. Although he was initially resistant, he did agree to start playing in seventh grade once I told him that guys who play guitar get the girls. This might have been a convincing argument for a seventh grader, but as an eighth grader he has changed his tune. And it's one that I know all too well.

            When I was his age, I was forced to play the piano. After eight years of lessons I had little to show for my efforts except a bad habit of biting my nails and the ability to play either hand of Heart and Soul, which I actually learned from my Nana, and not from Mrs. Englebert, my piano teacher.   

            I was never good at reading music, and even years of supplemental theory classes didn't help. Sadly, the acronyms I learned when I was in first grade are still the only way I can read the notes on a treble or bass clef today. Every Good Boy Does Fine. FACE. Great Big Dogs Fight Animals. All Cows Eat Grass. At least I know where middle C is. I think. My mother would constantly nag me to practice and would justify her nagging by saying, Barry Manilow's mother used to force him to practice piano every day, and look how he turned out! I didn't care. I hated that piano. And Barry Manilow.

            In eighth grade I convinced my parents to let me switch to the acoustic guitar. I traded in Mrs. Englebert for Marc Morrison, who was a senior and one of the coolest guys in my high school. Instead of reading sheet music and playing songs like Für Elise, I got to play by ear and learn songs like Blackbird. It was bye-bye Beethoven, and hello Beatles. Instead of sitting on a floral covered couch, I got to hang out on a giant bean bag in his basement and jam on his electric guitar at the end of every lesson. But after nine short months of playing the guitar I realized that the piano wasn't the problem after all. I was. I was musically challenged. I couldn't stand the necessary calluses forming on my fingertips, and never got the feel for holding the guitar or got past the awkward finger placement. I noticed that Marc would slightly cringe at every note I tried to play, so when he graduated my guitar lessons came to an abrupt end, without so much as a single song under my belt. That blackbird never did learn to fly. 

            Even though Abe and I have a shared resentment toward our parents for making us play an instrument we cannot stand, the difference is that Abe is actually good. In fact, he's a natural. And Im jealous. He holds the guitar and places his fingers like a pro. He connects the notes like they are old friends. When he's learned a piece, he plays with a quiet confidence and determination that I never had. So every time he asks if he can quit, I just smile and say, Abe, there are a lot of decisions you are going to make in your life, but this isn't one of them.

            I guess Barry Manilow's mom knew what she was doing after all. 

Sleeping Like a Baby

 

            No matter how old our children might be, any parent will tell you that there is one thing we hope they always do - sleep. Indeed, at any age and any stage it is a precious commodity. My friend Jeff has a one and a three year old and admitted recently that if sleep were traded on the stock market, he would buy as many shares as possible. If only it were that easy.

            Our boys have always been great sleepers, but now that they are practically all teenagers and not toddlers, the more common challenge is not getting them to sleep, but getting them to wake up. Our oldest would gladly stay up well past midnight in exchange for sleeping well past noon every Saturday and Sunday. This seems like a good idea, until Monday morning comes and he is suffering from self-induced jet lag. It takes him all week to recover, only to start the process all over again come Friday. It's a vicious cycle.

            Of course, no sleep can compare to a post summer camp slumber. A month of sleep away camp inevitably requires a solid twenty four hours of recovery sleep upon return. So, when I picked up our boys from camp this past summer, it was no surprise that our youngest son, Levi, asked if he could take a nap in the car when we stopped for our traditional post-camp lunch with friends. We were eating outside, and the car was parked where I could see it, so I let him. About fifteen minutes later, I decided to wake him up so he could eat and, as expected, I found him totally passed out in the passenger's seat. What I didn't expect was to find that he had locked himself in the car with the keys.

            I started gently tapping on the window to wake him up, but he didn't respond. I then started banging on the window and calling out his name. He didn't even stir. I then asked the woman in the parked car next to mine if she would honk her horn to see if that would wake him. It didn't. This went on for nearly half an hour. Each passerby who learned of my dilemma seemed determined to be the one with the magic touch. Eventually we had a small mob banging on the car and screaming, "Levi, wake up!" to no avail. It was noon in July, so the car was quickly turning into a makeshift sauna. Luckily, I could see that he was sweating and breathing in equal measure. But as the temperature outside continued to rise, so did my blood pressure.

            Just then, two young boys walked by and I overheard one ask the other, "What's going on?" To which the second responded, "Oh, that lady over there locked her baby in the car." That's when I finally lost it. I yelled after them, "He is not a baby! Well, I mean he is technically my baby, but he is an 11-year-old, five foot four, 130-pound boy child and he actually locked himself in the car!" That didn't seem to redeem me as much as I thought it would.

            So, that's when I did what any rational mother would do. I called the police. Within five minutes two police cars showed up and surrounded my minivan. I breathed a sigh of relief as they started to jimmy open the door. After multiple attempts, however, the officer said, "It's not working, I can't get the door unlocked." I immediately countered, "Then you better jimmy him awake instead!" So he did. He came around to the passenger's side, snaked the stick through the top of the window, and started jabbing Levi like it was a cattle prod. The poor guy finally woke up and the crowd let out a collective cheer. The look of horror and confusion on his face was almost too much to bear. He was soaked in sweat, with a long yellow stick at his knee, and a dozen strange faces pressed against the car windows. And just in case there was anyone left in the small town of Clayton, Georgia, who wasn't aware of the commotion, when Levi finally managed to unlock the door, the car alarm went off. Now I was exhausted.

            True to form, as soon as the cops left, Levi climbed back into the car and fell right back asleep. This time I rolled down all the windows and held onto my keys. He slept for the next 18 hours straight. Luckily, Levi has no memory of the trauma, and I now carry a spare set of car keys wherever I go. I never want to jimmy awake a sleeping baby again. 

#ChattanoogaStrong

It was a Thursday. It was a hot summer day in July. It was my sister's birthday. It was just a typical day. Until it wasn't. It turned into one of those days that people remember. The one where you can recount exactly where you were and what you were doing and whom you were with when you heard the news. It was July 16, 2015. It was the day that tragedy struck Chattanooga.

         The Internet, social media, and cable news informed the world within minutes what would change us forever that a gunman had brutally taken the lives of four Marines after shooting at two military centers in Chattanooga. Two days later, a fifth victim, a Navy sailor, would be added to the list of casualties.

         Our 15-year-old asked why this shooting was different. Why so much national media attention was being focused on our town. Why his friends were texting him about this. Arent there shootings all the time? Arent people killed almost every day? I told him he was right, and how those incidents were no less tragic than the one that happened that morning. I went on to explain that the heightened attention was because this man had specifically targeted and killed members of our armed forces people who had dedicated their lives to serving this country and to protecting us and our freedom. To protecting him.

         The most chilling realization was finding out that the man who did this wasnt an outsider. He was a neighbor and a community member. He lived in Hixson, went to Red Bank High School, and graduated from UTC. He worked at the mall. And he murdered those five men not just in cold blood, but in plain sight along roads we travel every day and at places we used to regularly pass without pause or consideration, now serving as memorials and sacred gathering spots for the community.

          Eight days after the tragedy, my family and I were headed to New York City for a day before going to Israel for our son's bar mitzvah. It was just a typical trip. Until it wasn't. Our flight from Atlanta to New York was cancelled and I had to beg the Delta agent to book us on a flight that would arrive before Midnight. She finally got us on a flight to Bradley Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. It was 110 miles from New York City, but it was good enough.

            After boarding, we were told our plane would have the honor of transporting a Marine. We soon learned it was one of the Marines shot in Chattanooga the week before - Thomas Sullivan. We couldn't believe it. When we landed, the pilot requested that no one get up from their seats. We sat and waited as his fellow Marines unloaded the casket with care and dignity, and gently placed it into the waiting hearse. We watched with sorrow and sympathy as the family gathered to mourn their loss. We then reminded ourselves that cancelled flights and the minor inconveniences of our lives are blessings compared to the despair that others must be feeling.

            Sadly, we are a nation that is too often immune to the news of tragedy. It has become more commonplace than exception. It used to be something that happened only in other counties. And then only in big cities. Never in a place like Chattanooga. Until now. States across the country are now increasing security at their military centers in response to the July 16 shooting. Some officials have even been quoted as saying, "We don't want to be another Chattanooga." To them I say, you would be lucky to boast a fraction of Chattanooga's strength, spirit, and sense of faith. Our community is brokenhearted, but we are not broken. In the wake of tragedy we came together without hesitation, because thats how real neighbors treat each other. Thats how true community members choose to live.

         We will never make sense of the events of July 16, but we will always remember our five fallen heroes who sacrificed their own lives to protect so many others: Thomas Sullivan. Squire "Skip" Wells. David Wyatt. Carson Holmquist. Randall Smith. They were beloved husbands, sons, and fathers. They were cherished friends. They were decorated veterans. They were patriots. They were just five typical men who served our country. Until they weren't.

Mixed Emotions

When our 15-year-old offered to create a playlist for his younger brother's birthday party, I was thrilled. When he announced two days later that he couldn't possibly create the perfect party playlist and that it was all my fault, I was confused. Apparently, since he wasn't allowed to include all of the best songs, which, incidentally, had some of the worst language, there weren't enough "clean" songs to make an appropriate mix, so he decided to give up. That's when I decided he needed a good mix tape mentor.

            As a teenager, I was quite the mix tape mixologist. My stereo was a state-of-the-art turntable complete with AM/FM radio and tape to tape functionality. I didn't own a ton of albums, aside from U2 and The Police, but I loved music and became a certified, and sometimes certifiable, radio junkie. My favorite station was I-95 and my favorite DJs were, of course, Mark & Brian, who later moved to L.A. (You may remember their cameos in the ever-popular made-for-TV movie, A Very Brady Christmas.) I spent many a morning before school feverishly calling into the station in the hopes of being the fourth or tenth or first caller so I could win the prize du jour. I once won a spring cleaning kit. Another time I won two tickets to see Adam Ant in concert. I ended up giving them both away. I didn't really care about the prize as much as hearing Mark & Brian announce my name over the airwaves.

            After school I would often sit in my room for hours listening to the radio, waiting for a certain song to come on, with my fingers hovering over the play and record buttons on the cassette recorder ready for action. If and when the song eventually came on, I had to hit the play and record buttons simultaneously and as fast as I could, although I inevitably missed recording the very beginning of any song. I would then wait with focused anticipation for the right moment to pause the recording in order to maximize the song length and minimize the DJ chatter at the end. It wasn't an exact science as much as a feeling. And while it now seems like a long and tedious process, it was worth it.

            Waiting for songs to come on the radio was just part of the larger waiting game of my life. Unlike the immediate gratification that cell phones, texting, Instagram, YouTube and Pandora provide our children, my generation had to wait for everything. We had to wait until we got home or found a pay phone to make a phone call. We had to wait for certain days of the week and specific hours of that day to watch our television shows and then we had to wait for all those commercials in between. We had to wait for movies to come out, for tapes to rewind, for mail to arrive, for pictures to get developed, for albums to be released, and for anything that was ever worth waiting for. And we were happy to wait because we didn't know otherwise. We played games like Pong, for crying out loud. And we enjoyed it.

            In the end, this gave us the much-needed stamina and patience to make really awesome mix tapes. Instead of spending minutes downloading the top hits from iTunes, I would spend days or weeks coming up with a theme and then combing through my albums and bootlegged songs from the radio to compile the perfect combination of tunes for any occasion or person in my life. There were no such things as clean or explicit versions of songs, unless you counted Prince or the Violent Femmes. And once I determined the right songs, I spent just as much time putting them in the right order and giving it the right mix name to convey the right message. My ultimate goal was to piece together 90 minutes of music into a masterpiece. It wasn't just entertainment, it was an art form.

            After explaining all of this to our son, I figured he would be inspired to make a true mix tape of his own. Instead, he merely rolled his eyes, took out his iPad and said, "Never mind, we can just use Spotify for the party." I guess that means he doesn't want to play Pong with me either.

           

The Stay-At-Home Grandmother

 

            Last week, my mother did something I never thought she would do. After 32 years in the fashion industry she traded her style updates for social outings, her email for gmail, her professional must-have list for a personal must-do list, her expense account for an AARP card, and her business trips for a beach condo. It's hard to believe, but yes, my mother officially retired.

            My father has been semi-retired (or semi-working, depending on who you ask) for the past few years and apparently has been covertly, but not-so-subtly, prepping my mother for this move for some time now. My dad says he never has to officially retire because he doesn't officially work unless someone calls him. It's one of the many benefits of being In the insurance industry - pun intended. He's like the human version of the On Demand button on the cable remote. His services are supplied as needed. Otherwise, he's been enjoying life and counting down the days until he and my mom can fully enjoy it together.

            I rarely even heard my parents mention the "R" word until six months ago when my dad sent a group email to me and my siblings saying, "We did it!" with a photo of their new condo in Florida attached. My brother and I were in shock. My sister started booking her vacation dates. Four months later, my mother's announcement became public at work and, more importantly, official on Facebook, so the reality of the situation finally hit me. My mother was becoming a certified stay-at-home grandmother.

            As a kid, the only retired people I knew were old. Senior citizens, even. They must have been at least 60. And apparently that was the age when people were forced to quit their jobs, cut their hair, and move to South Florida so they could take up golf, play Mahjong, and eat dinner at 4 p.m. Retired people wore sweatsuits, went to the beauty parlor twice a week, and smelled like denture cream. They traveled the country in Winnebagos, went on cruises every few months and spent the remainder of their free time doting on their grandkids.

            My parents in no way fit this model, except for the grandkids part. They don't play cards, they have all of their teeth and they are still quite young. In fact, they both turned 70 this past year. And yes, the older I get, the younger older people seem to be. My parents are in good health, good spirits and good shape. To put it in perspective, my father is just two years younger than Harrison Ford. My mother is a year older than Cher and the same age as Diana Ross. These timeless icons set the bar for my parent's generation just as my parents are setting the bar for mine.

            I now see 70 as the new 40, social security as a cool social status and retirement planning as the modern version of playing house when I was a kid. Where will be live? What will we do? What time will we eat?

            While my dad is in heaven over this new chapter in their lives, my mother is showing tempered enthusiasm. She is the kind of person who would gladly die with her boots on, while my father is not. The compromise was her agreeing to take hers off for a while. My mother admits that she hopes retirement is the one thing in life she actually fails doing. While some people eagerly count down the days until retirement, she found herself instead making every last moment at work really count. She loved working, adored her job, and is now trying to "rewire her brain and body" to accommodate this new flexible lifestyle. She is excited to lose the hectic schedule and constant demands, but equally eager to find her new purpose. 

            The one thing my parents are both excited about is spending even more time with their nine grandchildren. In fact, I see them less as retired people and more like on-call sitters, ready to watch our kids at the drop of a text message. Just yesterday my mother called to say how happy she was that they could spontaneously drive to Atlanta to hear my nephew give a commencement speech. For his third grade class. "Just so you know, the high-low hem is still trending right now," my mother shared on her way home. "At least, that's what all the third grade girls were wearing at the moving up ceremony."

            Looks like those boots won't be off for long.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

With three active boys in the house, we have managed to become semi regulars at the local Center for Sports Medicine. A fractured wrist here, a broken toe there. We have accumulated enough orthopedic wraps and hardware to open our own clinic. So when I walked into the center a few weeks ago, it was no surprise that the doctor wasn't too surprised to see me. Until he realized that I was actually the patient.

            "What happened to you, young lady?" he asked. I usually appreciate the "young lady" line he uses on me and I assume every other woman over the age of 40. But as I hobbled towards him with my swollen foot, still wearing my heels, and in compete denial that it was anything more than a bad sprain, I felt neither young nor ladylike.

            He carefully reviewed my X-Rays and examined my ankle, while using words like "fracture" and "chipped bone." I just nodded my head, ignored the finer details and waited for him to give me two Advil and a pat on the back so I could go about my day. Instead, he sent me to the next room where I exchanged my beautiful leather wedge for a bulky gray boot that went to my knee. I told the nurse I'd prefer the smaller version and she told me that was for a broken toe, not a broken ankle. I asked if I could at least get one in black to help heal my broken ego, but she only offered me a cold smile and told me to come back in four weeks.

            Four weeks? I couldn't possibly wear this monstrosity for four weeks. As I was  checking out I started to think about all of the meetings I had planned and the upcoming international travel I had scheduled and then it dawned on me that the boot was on my right foot. How was I even going to drive home? "Oh, honey, the doctor didn't tell you?" the receptionist said. "You can't drive in that boot." Which I chose to interpret as, "When you get in the car just remove the boot to drive and then put it back on to walk." This seemed like a fair compromise to me.

            When our boys came home from school that day, their reactions ranged from shock and disbelief to polite indifference. Our oldest gave me an obligatory, "Sorry, that stinks." Our middle gave me an in-depth tutorial on proper boot care and how to run in the event of an emergency, like being late to class. Our youngest gave me his best Home Alone impersonation. At the sight of my injury he gasped, his eyes and mouth went wide open and he yelled, "Noooooooo!!! Mom, this is terrrrrrrible!" It was finally the response I was looking for, until he added, "How in the world are you going to do housework or cook dinner now?" Unfortunately for him those are the same things I wonder on a daily basis, even when I have two healthy legs.

            When people realize you're wearing a boot, they immediately want to know what happened to you. I am sure anyone reading this column is still wondering the same thing. But the truth is, no one wants to hear the truth. No one really cares what happened to me. Everyone just wants to hear a great story. Or they want an excuse to share their own harrowing boot tale as if commiserating will make me feel better. (By the way, it does not.) So, instead of telling people what really happened I have resorted to telling people what they want to hear. I never let the truth get in the way of a good story anyway. So I turn every casual inquiry it into an improv game by saying the first thing that comes to mind, no matter how ridiculous it might sound. It sort of goes like this:

Them: What happened?

Me: Hopscotch. That darn number ten. Don't ask.

Them: What happened?

Me: Punch buggy. No punch backs. Don't ask.

Them: What happened?

Me: Revolving door. Don't ask. Revolving door. Don't ask. Revolving...

Them: What happened?

Me: Hide and Seek. I'm very competitive. Don't ask.

             I have also realized when you add the words "don't ask" to the end of any story, it gives the tale an entirely new dimension and air of mystery. It lets people use their own imaginations to fill in the blanks, and their versions are always infinitely more interesting than my own. So what really happened to my ankle? I could say I was skiing a double black diamond in Colorado or training for the next Ironman in Chattanooga, but the truth is not quite as elaborate or entertaining. The truth is...

            Don't ask.

 

Smother-in-Law

I am not one of those people who usually cries at weddings. In fact, I am not one of those people who usually cries at all, unless I happen to be watching Beaches or an old episode of Little House on the Prairie. But while attending two weddings in the last two months, I started unexpectedly tearing up at the exact same moment in both ceremonies - when the groom walked down the aisle with his parents and then bid them a loving goodbye. As the mother of three boys I could only imagine one of our own sons in that role and that's when it hit me. Not the fear of losing a son one day, but the reality that one day I would become a mother-in-law.

            Everyone knows that while the mother of a daughter is affectionately referred to as the woman's mom, the mother of a son is forever called the mother-in-law. Apparently we even have to wear beige at the wedding to denote our lower stature. So I want to make sure that when our boys find their princesses, they don't forget their queen in the process.

            Our sons are only 14, 12 and 11, so I realize it's a bit early to start thinking about this right now. Nevertheless, the older they get the more often I find myself trying to picture and predict their future lives and future wives.

            We sometimes play that "What if?" game at the dinner table. You know, "What if you were stranded on a desert island and could only have five foods?" or "What if you could have dinner with any three people dead or alive?" Of course I always add in a trick question, like, "What if you started dating someone who didn't like your mother?" just to gauge their reactions.

            And the answer to your question is a resounding yes - it's not enough to hope that our sons marry people who adore them, I also expect them to wed people who adore me. Is that really too much to ask? And while I'm asking, I also would prefer they marry people with awesome parents, too. In our family, we refer to these as "machetunim," a Yiddish word that denotes members of one's extended family. It's not just a cultural phrase, it also sounds a lot better than using the term in-laws. In fact, if you Google the term you get examples such as, "I am delighted to have the machetunim joining us for dinner tonight." When you Google "in-laws" you get advice from Dr Phil on how to manage your mother-in-law.

            Whenever I picture one of our sons getting married I think about my friend, Wilson Green. He is an only child and when we were in high school I remember his mother once saying, "We just pray that Wilson will marry an orphan one day so we don't have to share him with another family." I laughed until I realized she was being serious. I now understand.

            There have already been many conversations with some of my best friends who have daughters centered around how great it would be if our children got hitched one day. It's not that I am in favor of arranged marriages as much as having final approval and ultimate veto power when it comes to our sons' future spouses. Again, too much to ask?

            When I first started dating my husband, Alan, my mother made sure I knew that she had known and been friends with his mother for years. She bugged me for three straight weeks asking when I was planning to see him and would always add, "You know that I know his mother and i just adore her." The third time this happened I finally retorted, "What do you want me to do, marry this guy just because you happen to like his mom?" She responded, "Yes that would be wonderful." That was the story she ended up telling at our rehearsal dinner.

            So now I watch episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, just so I can count how many brides actually invite their future mother-in laws to shop with them. I constantly ask the boys what kind of girl they hope to marry to see if they include, "Someone who likes our mother" on the list. And I imagine every "What if?" scenario that includes our boys finding their soul mates and realize as long as they're in love, I will love being a mother-in-law.

            Just don't make me wear beige.

Curls & Boys

My husband, Alan, is not very happy with me right now. And surprisingly it has nothing do with something that I did or said. Instead, it has everything to do with something I didn't do or say. About his hair.

            A few weeks ago, nearly two years after the event, we finally received the official photo album for our oldest son's bar mitzvah. While I excitedly flipped through the book, Alan was simultaneously flipping out about the way his hair looked. Upon closer inspection it seemed that in some of the photos Alan had an usual curl in his coif, which resulted in a single curl slightly dangling in the middle of his forehead. Imagine the animated version of Superman. Now imagine Superman getting super mad.

            Alan was beside himself. He was upset about the obviously misplaced curl, upset that no one had the decency to tell him about it that day and upset that I obviously didn't  notice it or ask to Photoshop it after spending months reviewing every photo for the album. The boys and I tried to comfort him by saying it wasn't so bad or even noticeable, but he wasn't buying it.

            "If your hair looked like that in a picture you would be upset, too!" he retorted. He was right. If that had happened to me I would be fixated on it. I still can't get over the time I spent fifteen minutes talking to some friends only to realize an hour later that I had a piece of spinach between by teeth and no one bothered to tell me. But this is different. My hair would never look like that in a photo because, frankly, I am way too vain for that to happen. While I am quite sure Alan never asked me or the photographer to check his hair that morning, I can also guarantee that I asked anyone within a mile radius if I looked okay. That's because men tend to primp once in the morning and then never bother to look at their appearances again the rest of the day. Most men adhere to the same tag line as that old Ronco rotisserie infomercial - just set it and forget it.

            I, on the other hand, probably check my reflection at least a dozen or so times throughout the day to make sure nothing is out of place. I often find myself quoting one of my college roommates who used to say, "I'm not vain, just curious." I am constantly curious if my hair looks good, if my lipstick is in place, if I have anything in my teeth, if my outfit works and, of course, if my butt looks okay.

            In contrast, Alan has never once, in the 19 years we have been together, asked me to consult on his appearance. He's never asked how he looks, he's never asked if his tie matches his shirt and he's certainly never asked if his hair is in place. He obviously doesn't have to because he always looks good. While I spend half my allotted grooming time putting on make up, he spends a few minutes shaving each morning. While I might spend months shopping for a single item of clothing, he can walk into any department store and buy clothes as easily as ordering off a Chinese takeout menu. "Yes, I'll have the number 32 in khaki, please." Most of all, while I have spent countless hours over the years taming the potential bird's nest on my head and beating my curls into submission, he can easily wet his hair in the sink, throw some gel in it, give it a comb through and he's good to go for a week.

            How ironic that my husband went almost his entire life without a single regret about his hair or appearance, while I have spent my entire life constantly worrying and often regretting my own. After this traumatic episode, I am sure he now realizes how fortunate he is and can fully appreciate my daily struggle and will be careful the next time he answers the age old question, "How do I look?" And while this might inspire him to consult me or a mirror more often, it has also encouraged me to look in the mirror a bit less. Luckily I can see my reflection perfectly well on my iPhone.

One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest

I am sick and tired of my family being sick and tired. Winter is gloomy enough without being stuck in the house for days upon end trying to nurse my children or myself back to health. I dread my children getting sick as much as I dread snow days. In both cases it's unpredictable, exhausting and totally inconvenient.

            So when our sons claims to be ill, my first instinct, after racking my brain to remember where a thermometer might be, is to have them rate their level of discomfort.

            "On a scale of one to ten, how bad does it hurt?" I figure unless they're puking or have a fever, they're going to school with anything less than a seven. If they pass the first litmus test, I then remind them that sick people have to sleep or read all day, and cannot play on the PS4. This seems to weed out any of the true fakers.

            If one of the boys happens to make it through both phases of the sick test, I will reluctantly grant him a sick day. It's not that I lack sympathy, as much as the patience for their endless interruptions when I am trying to get work done from my home office. I also figure the headache he may or may not have is nothing compared to the headache of sending a kid to school only to be called an hour after drop off to come back and get him and enduring that "I told you so" look on his face all the way home.

            A few weeks ago, our oldest son, Arthur, started complaining that he didn't feel well. Indeed, his high fever, lethargy and persistent cough told me all I need to know. I was certain he was coming down with the flu. I immediately sequestered him in the guest room and started him on a strict regiment of Advil, fluids and Jewish penicillin, also known as chicken noodle soup. I then started obsessively Lysoling the entire house (and yes, "Lysoling" is a verb, just as my mother) and disinfecting every surface within arm's reach. I told him he was forbidden to leave the room and instructed him to text me if he needed anything. If I could have hermetically sealed him in that guest room I would have. I wasn't taking any chances.

            One or two days of playing nursemaid to a teenager is hard work. Six days is pure torture. Our house quickly turned into a modern day Downton Abbey, with me playing the role of the lowly servant relegated to the kitchen while Lord Arthur repeatedly summoned me from the upper chambers. On the morning of day three Arthur sent me the usual, "I need you" text which is just vague enough to cover everything from, "I feel sick and might throw up," to "My iPad needs to be charged." This time he wanted to let me know that texting had grown cumbersome and suggested we start communicating via the walkie talkies we had somewhere in the kitchen. I reluctantly obliged.

            A few hours later he called me on the walkie talkie to say that he had been Googling his symptoms and was pretty sure he had walking pneumonia and not the flu. I thanked him for his diagnosis and suggested he sleep more and Google less.

            By day five the guest room smelled like a combination of Lysol and body odor and thankfully the walkie talkie batteries had finally died. When I brought him his lunch tray he admitted that no, he had not read and didn't really have the energy to do much homework, but he proudly informed me that he had just finished watching the first two seasons of Glee and was about to start the third.

            Nearly a week after his symptoms began the fever was still hanging on so I finally took Arthur to the doctor even though I knew what she would say. "He's negative for the flu," she reported. That is not what I thought she would say. She proceeded to write a prescription for antibiotics and suggested he rest a few more days before going back to school. Turns out, he had walking pneumonia after all. Yep, mother of the year.

            On the way home I bought new batteries for the walkie talkies, two new cans of Lysol and lunch for Lord Arthur. His "I told you so" look all the way home meant that he was feeling better, but that I had a long road of recovery ahead of me.