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Rolling With It

Yesterday morning I got up at 6:00AM to get cleaned up, pack two cars full of donated food, and drive to a local community center to help with their annual Thanksgiving meal.  I wanted to help because the Center has been a  beacon of light for as long as I can remember. It housed the free clinic where I sent indigent clients when I practiced law, and it was a place  my mother and her fellow teachers turned to when students had no warm clothes, no food in the house, or no house.

Notwithstanding my genuine concern for the Center and its mission, I did not help because I am the reincarnation of Mother Theresa. I helped because I could not face Thanksgiving dinner with my father, my husband, my son, and an empty chair where my mother should have been. I needed a diversion, a project, something to help make my first motherless Thanksgiving a bearable, if not a good day. As I begged for donations and hauled hams and turkeys around I was keenly aware that the rush was itself a numbing drug, healthier than Jameson’s or Xanax, but still an artificial removal from the inevitable and persistent pain of loss.

When I arrived at the Center, I had a bad moment. I had imagined that I would sweep in as a heroine, a white knight. They would throw flowers at my feet. I would take a brief bow, roll up my sleeves and begin the process of bending the kitchen volunteers to my will. I cook professionally. I had a $100.00 digital food thermometer in my apron pocket. I would lead the people to freedom from the oppression of being almost, but not quite as noble as I am.

Instead, it was suggested that I might just start making some stuffing. The kitchen had one counter, and every space was taken by a motley crew of men and women of all ages. In my kitchens, at home and at work, I am the boss. I use my own, very good knives. I have systems, rules, and mise en place. The Center’s kitchen represented to me an epic and disastrous brand of anarchy. Even if I had been the reincarnation of Mother Theresa coming in, my church, the church of Let Me Help You, I Know Best was in the process of imploding.

“I don’t think I can work this way” I said to Michael, the man running the whole thing. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me. I went outside to the parking lot and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it. “I’ve really done more than I needed to,” I rationalized, “they have lots of people in there cooking already. They don’t need me.” He listened. “Okay – I’ll give it twenty minutes. If I still hate it, I’ll leave.”

Two hours later, I was sweating, chopping onions, and directing my husband as he cooked stuffing ingredients on the other side of the counter. Next to me were my new friend “Poppa,” and his grandson Toby, who were both chopping celery. Further down the line was a beautiful young woman who I had just tried to fix up with a man who turned out to be her husband. The knives were dull, the floor was wet, but it was all coming together. We made stuffing, I picked turkeys and monitored ovens. I discovered that Michael was a truly amazing volunteer wrangler who saw my strengths and let me run with them.

Half an hour before service, I stood outside talking to Michael. My work was done, and the air felt wonderful after hours in the kitchen. Two women approached us from the parking lot, and he embraced them and introduced them as his mother and his sister. There was something familiar about his mother’s name. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.

“You probably read her name in the paper all the time,” Michael said, “she’s always ranting about something or other.” That wasn’t it.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“I worked for the State Department of Ed,” she said, “before that I was a teacher.”

“Did you know Leah Graham?” I asked. It was a reasonable question – at one time my mother knew everyone who had so much as walked past an educational facility in the state of Michigan.

The woman’s hand went to her heart, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh, Leah,” she said, “did you know she died?”

“I did” I said. “She was my mother.”

“You’re Annie!” she said, stepping forward to hug me, in that real way that makes you feel like there’s been a transfer of humanity. “I was her student teacher in 1972. Your mother was so brilliant – I got my job because, there were 175 candidates, but your mother wrote me such a good letter…and she was so proud of you and your brother. She used to talk about how you played the cello. Do you still play the cello?”

And she was with me. My mother was with me on that weird, hard day when I had done the right thing for the wrong reasons, and nearly missed doing that because of my ego. It was like a Hallmark movie that of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I picked the one where I would end up sitting down with Michael’s mother to eat a piece of her sublime pumpkin pie and talk about my mom.

Later, I took a long nap and dreamed about my mother for the first time since she died. I would love to tell you that they were dreams of love and light, but they were actually kind of awful dreams about needing to cry over her death and not being able to find a place to be alone. I woke up sad and shaken, and then, in the course of playing the voicemails left while I was sleeping, I accidentally played a message from my mother.

“Annie, this is your mother. I thought last night went really well, and your father was so pleased with everything. You were super yourself. I’m looking forward to brunch tomorrow morning.”

I had a place to cry, and I did. And she was still, again, with me. And I was still so very, very sad that I could not call her and tell her that I met her old student teacher, and that I hadn’t known that she had started a program to teach English to inmates at the County Jail, or that she had the power to get someone a job from a field of 100+ candidates. I never realized what she was, out in the world, outside our house.

Today I’m glad I got over myself and helped people with problems I can’t even fathom. In equal measure, I’m feeling lost and fragile because there is no holding back the inevitable grief that cannot be dammed permanently with the rush of doing good works. Life is good, and life is terrible, and the person to whom I would tell this story, who knew me forever and loved me no matter what, is not available to hear it, or to reassure me that I did well in spite of myself.

That is my job, now. To be “super myself,” and own it, and grieve and laugh and roll with it all. To be my own mother. To be proud of myself.

The Year of All Good Things

This was supposed to be a great year. According to me, anyway. It was the year I turned 50, the year my house turned 100…what appeared to be an auspicious, glorious year of celebrations and milestones observed with love and care. Those numbers seemed to mean something, to be a sign, as if I were an ancient parsing the phases of the moon or the turning of the tide. There was some cosmic order, and as far as I could see in January, that solid and reassuring order would stand as bulwark against disorder and pain.

From January through March my father fought cancer. There was surgery, radiation therapy, exhaustion and irreparable alteration. We adjusted as well as we could. In April, our old dog died. It was not a terrible death; she died at home, where she felt safe, in my arms. We were sad, though, and there was a hole where she had been. A month ago my mother died, again, not a terrible or shocking death, but leaving an even greater hole. The night before her memorial service yesterday, we learned that the wife of my parents’ best “couple friends” had a brain tumor. Before, and in between losses there were a million tiny paper cuts of failure, injustice, and unkindness. It was just life, really, it’s just what happens, but it began to feel like we were living in a country song.

“Gloom, despair and agony are me/Deep dark depression, excessive misery/If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all/Gloom, despair and agony are me…”

So the Year of All Good Things has fallen and shattered like a cheap, plaster statue and I’m sitting at my desk listening to the saddest songs I know, worrying about what I need to glue together in the next month and a half. Like Thanksgiving. Because really, I don’t care about Thanksgiving this year, but I feel obligated to carry on. Will my father want to celebrate his birthday at the end of this month? What about my mother’s birthday on December 14th, and Hanukah, and Christmas, and why do I have to be a fucking grownup and keep everything going and be sensitive to everybody’s assorted needs and be polite and good and do laundry and peel potatoes when all I want to do is take Xanax and lie in my bed in a sort of twilight sleep, letting someone else do all the heavy lifting?

What if what I really want is to have my mom back? Because frankly, if you knew her, and especially if she was your mother, you’d want her back, too.

And of course I do, and of course this is all Normal Grieving, in the clinical sense, and of course it happens to everybody and of course no two people grieve the same way, and unfortunately I live in a culture that is uncomfortable with grief. I can get all warped and bitter very quickly projecting this dour assessment onto everyone I see: he thinks I’m milking it. She was back at work three days after her husband died. Everyone else can just Get On With It and I am some kind of immature emotional cripple who fails to process in a timely and acceptable manner, crushed by waves of sadness when I should totally be peeling potatoes.

But then there are these things, call them grace, silver lining or cosmic alignment – they are good things. Because my father was so sick in a hospital 60 miles away, I spent hours in the car with my mother driving back and forth, listening to Pete Seeger, talking about Obama’s chances, people we knew, books we had read. Because Maisy died, we adopted Guinevere who is a magnificent addition to the family. Because my mother died, I have reconnected with my only two first cousins, who I really, really like and would choose to befriend without a single blood tie. Not just in a Facebook way, but with real hugs and laughter and the promise of more. And, because they are her brother’s children, and she adored them, I know that my mother would love that.

So as I sweep up those crumbling bits of plaster, wishing just a little that I had worn waterproof mascara, I can see some gleaming patches of hardwood beneath the mess. It looks solid, and seems more trustworthy than the beautiful illusion that was The Year of All Good Things. It even kind of reflects me as I am right now: a mess, a work in progress, a woman in need of some potato peeling vigor and some twilight Xanax sleep.

A human, just another human, caught up in the irrational maelstrom that makes a mockery of our firmest plans and still offers us much that is wonderful.

The Faulkner Inheritance

 Faulkner I

I’ve been okay all day, in that way that one is okay because it’s necessary. The illness and death of a parent are so banal, really – it happens to everyone, sooner or later. My mother has been sick for years, and I have been ready for her death more times than I can count. I have expected the phone call, rehearsed farewells, and tried to harden myself against the waves of grief and loss and confusion. She’s always been there, my whole life. She has been nurturer, antagonist, and, lately, friend. She’s been a good mother, part of an enviable set of parents. I have no complaints except for the fact that she seems to be leaving me when I’m not really quite ready.

So, as I said, I was okay until I moved the pile of books on the dining room table because the cat threw up. On the top of the pile was a Viking Portable Faulkner that belonged to my mother in college. I’ve been on a Faulkner kick this summer, and although I am actually reading The Sound and the Fury, I borrowed the book from her because it had a great map in the inside cover that showed where all of the stories took place. I bumped the book with my bottle of spray cleaner and it fell over, open to the inside front cover with her name written in her Palmer-perfect writing. “Leah Louis, ’57, Wellesley College.” I was lost.

Faulkner II 

I see her, with her shiny black hair, her Talbot’s skirt and her cardigan, sitting in the library reading Faulkner and taking the notes that fill the margins. She was pretty, feisty, sure of herself, dating Harvard boys on the weekend and having long conversations with her roommates. She had met her first, “starter” husband, but not my father, the love of her life. She went to hear the Boston Symphony when she could get rush tickets, and she had a crush on the poet Robert Lowell.

She is struggling with Faulkner’s stream of consciousness; I know this because we talked about it when I read him for the first time in high school. (My notes appear alongside hers in several places). At seventeen, struggling to separate myself from her bright, quick charisma I was horrible. It wasn’t hard to read, I said. I got it. She held her tongue because I needed, in that moment, to be my own bad self. It was hard to be the lumpy, insecure daughter of a woman who was good at her job, a fabulous cook, and a person capable of making things happen. It was hard to be me, and it seemed so easy to be her before I knew about the losses, the failures, and the humanity invisible to the children of conscientious parents.

I was ridiculously careful not to cry on the ink because it might smear. That smart, Midwestern Jewish girl reading Faulkner in the Wellesley library was someone I desperately wanted back, even for a minute. Well, not that girl, but the woman she had become. I needed to know that my last conversation with her, during which I talked and she didn’t seem to hear me, was not really the last one. I tried to remember what we talked about – was it about Sam’s scooter being fixed, or about meat for a Fourth of July dinner? Had I been short with her because she forgot that I don’t eat meat anymore and asked if my father should pick up a chicken breast for me?

I wept for her, and me, and because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t just buck up and understand that all of this happens to everyone. I’m ashamed that I considered sleeping with the book under my pillow tonight. Because that old, blue book belonged to that promising girl who became my mother, and who raised me to be another reader of Faulkner, another good cook, and another force to be reckoned with.

I’ll see her in the morning, and if she isn’t up to talking, I can read her a little Faulkner. Maybe it will turn some key in the parts of her mind that are closed to the rest of us these days. Maybe she’ll be doing better, and we’ll talk; I’ll have another chance at a memorable conversation, one I can look back on and say “I was a good daughter, I was kind and loving, and I said the right things.” Probably I’ll just sit in a plastic chair and listen to machines beep.

Whatever comes, I think I can handle it. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.

Friendship (Fail)

I am an introvert and a loner by nature, an extrovert and a pack animal by cultivation.  As a result of this mild and untreated social schizophrenia, I have always had a difficult time with the kind of friendship that I think women are supposed to have with each other. It looks easy in the movies, and in pictures of dressed up, duck-faced teenaged girls, but it’s not easy for me. There is something that stops me from closing my eyes and falling backwards into the arms of friendship, trusting that it will catch me. I think there’s supposed to be opening up, spilling, sharing and talking about everything from hot flashes to family secrets. I think I am supposed to be able to do that. In practice, not so much.

It is not for lack of example. My mother loved her childhood BFF, her college roommates, and her friend Joyce who she met for lunch and shopping every Saturday for more than twenty years. It isn’t because I like men better, because I don’t. I am automatically repelled and annoyed when I hear a woman say she “really gets along better with men.” I genuinely like women as a group, and I find them fascinating as individuals. It is something about me, something dark and closed off that has always made me uncomfortable and uncertain in the world of the close female friendship.  I am always sure that I’m doing it wrong, saying too much, saying too little, or otherwise violating some feminine equivalent of The Bro Code.

This is not to say that I have not had such friendships. I am still friend with my best friend from elementary school, and one of my best friends from high school. I have had intense friendships that ended unremarkably or became gossamer-thin at graduation, or the end of a job. I have a number of female friends who are entirely virtual, who I have met through blogging or on Facebook. I am friends with co-workers, my sisters-in-law, my niece and my stepdaughter.

There were, however, some spectacular failures. It is this record of social divorce and emotional mayhem that makes me think that no matter how skilled I am at seeming “social,” I am really a fraud. I am an inadvertent but brutal criminal, luring other women into my den of apparent normality with humor and good listening skills only to eviscerate them when they get too clingy or exhausting.  

There was one friend who was not at all like me. I believed, for a time, that her upbeat outgoing nature might rub off and make me a more cheerful and…normal person, an open person who could chat comfortably about sex, giving birth, and all of the other things that traditionally made me want to run away. I loved it that she wore jammie bottoms to the store, and when she bought a blonde, clip-on ponytail I bought one, too. For a time it seemed that I might become rather more Gidget than Margo Tennenbaum under her tutelage.  Then I began to change, and I could not seem to assert my increasing comfort with my genuine, cynical, snarky, un-cozy self. I got resentful, I communicated badly, we grew apart and it ended. The friendship burned bright only for a couple of years, and those years were nearly a decade ago, but it still feels like one of those unexplained romantic breakups where it’s like you imagined that you ever slept together or spent Christmas with his parents. I wonder if it was all my fault, if there even was “fault” involved, or if such things just happen.

There was the woman with whom I worked on a project, and who I admired tremendously for her intellect and energy. We worked together well, we shared many interests, and I believed her to be a kindred spirit. I detached myself from the project because I was exhausted, and then it ended between us. She, assertive and fiery, continued to fight while I believed that my very soul depended on pulling back into the safety and quiet of my shell. We are still cordial, there was nothing dramatic, but again, I wonder what happened, and whether it was my fault. I feel that I misrepresented myself as her equal in dynamism and charisma when I was actually a fairly reserved and low-energy person, more comfortable taking naps than taking on The Man.

I wonder if these things happen to other women, who I imagine to be sitting together over coffee at this very moment, exchanging deep feelings and, I don’t know, sharing. (And caring). Is it normal that I can engage so deeply with another person and that I then develop a panicky need to have my own space, far from the madding crowd and unpressured by the thoughts, ideas or auras of anyone else? Should I hand out a standard disclaimer?

“Warning: in the event that bearer enters into a standard female friendship (hereinafter “friendship”) with Ann Nichols (hereinafter “the party of the first part”), she agrees to hold harmless the party of the first part for any failure to answer texts, e-mails or phone calls during periods of “alone time.” Bearer further agrees not to take this personally, no matter how entirely human and reasonable it would be to do so.

Okay, maybe not. Why, though, are there a million books and articles telling us how to negotiate the complications of romantic relationships but not many guidelines for friendships? How does a person like me balance the ease and exhilaration of making friends against the difficulty of being a good friend for the long haul, even if it means showing up when I’d rather burrow inward?

I have a new-ish friend, a woman who is better at this stuff than I am, and who is able both to accept my quirks and to tell me when I am veering into the unfriendly. I can almost believe that if I close my eyes and let myself go, it will be okay. I think that if I keep myself honest, and present, I can get this right.

Wish me luck.

 

Stabby as Hell

I try to be a grownup, a big girl, a person present in every moment and accepting that life is not all puppies and rainbows. Because, truth be told, it’s not. It is, in fact, this complicated freaking rollercoaster which is best handled with calm, no expectations, and appreciation for everything that is good and beautiful instead of suspended breath pending the granting of some cosmic prize.

Sometimes, in the course of a day, in the course of an hour, in a matter of minutes it is possible to be both elated and crushed. It is possible even if one is not a sixteen-year-old in love with an Unattainable Other who sits across the classroom ignoring the silent, agonized pleas to think about me, look at me, love me. The drama swirls, the nail breaks, the unexpected flowers are delivered, the car dies, the  increase shows up in a paycheck. The trick, and I know this because I am old and wise, is to accept all of it, take it in, ride it out and stay the course. It’s not really objectively good or bad, it’s simply what happened next. It just is.

So I’ll tell you, today I had a phone call from the mother of one of my son’s friends, Brendan. She knew that there had been issues at school, and that we were worried about Sam’s future, his character, and whether we had failed him as parents. “I just wanted to tell you,” she said, “that I was talking with Brendan and he said that Sam was the kindest person he knew. I just thought you should know that.” Down the hill I flew, my hair flying behind me, happy, certain and validated. He is kind. Honestly, seriously, if I had a choice between a genuinely kind child who hated school and an unkind child in the NHS? I’d take the kind kid every time.

Within minutes, literally minutes, I checked again on the reasonably famous site where I believed that my piece was soon going to appear. (The piece that was requested recently, and for which I sweated over my Inadequate Bio. I also, for the record, had a fit about the requisite head shot because I hate being photographed, and I made my husband take approximately 500 pictures of me before I found one that, with some photo shopping, did not make me want to commit suicide with a pizza cutter). There it was: the piece I was asked to write, but it wasn’t my piece, it was by somebody else. Dear reader, I cried. Just a little. I wondered if my piece was so terrible that it could not even have been edited into righteousness. I wondered if my headshot was too awful. I wondered, of course, if it was the Inadequate Bio.

In that hot, sad, mental slime of disappointment and defeat my happiness about my good, kind son was lost. I was heading back up the track, gears grinding, oblivious to the forsythia blooming in the sun just outside the window, the dog snoring peacefully at my feet, or the fact that my hair color had turned out just right. Life, only minutes ago a veritable jubilee, was a shit sandwich.

So I texted a friend, a dear, good, loving person who consoled me and opined that I “had every right to feel stabby as hell.” Which led me to consider the fact that not everyone has such a friend. Which led me back to my actual, present situation, which was really not all that terrible. My hair looks pretty good, I enjoyed my lunch, I have more than one really great friend, my dog is adorable (but flatulent), the sun is lovely, and my son is lovely. I’m really okay, just disappointed about the loss of something intangible that I never really had.

I am still a little stabby, a little fragile, but beneath that slimy stuff on the edge of my consciousness is the smooth, bright part, the good stuff that is (also) always and eternally there. Everything is good and beautiful, and everything is not. I am angry about Trayvon Martin, worried about the Supreme Court, and delighted to see crocuses and lilacs. With a little ping of wretchedness about my lost opportunity, I will go look again into the bathroom mirror and fluff my shiny, de-greyed hair. I will think about being a person whose writing is rejected but whose child is accepted. I will think that life is a beautiful, tragic, exhausting, exhilarating ride in which I am not ever going to be the driver. And that’s just how it is.

The Road More Travelled

I am driving in the dark, through pouring rain.  There is a tornado watch in effect until 3:00 AM, and every flash of lightening illuminates a sky potentially filled with funnels and chaos. I’m following my brother, my eyes fixated on his tail lights, my hands gripping the wheel and my neck extended like a hen frozen in mid-peck, focusing on nothing but the solid line on the right, the dotted line on the left, terrified that if I blink, sneeze or wipe my sweaty forehead I will swerve into the rain-obscured guardrail and kill myself and my mother. I keep having those wierd thoughts, those “what if I can’t stop myself and I just step off the edge of this cliff?” thoughts.

We are driving home from Ann Arbor, a drive I have made thousands of times in my life as a passenger or a driver. We have just left my father in the recovery room of the University hospital there, where he has had a malignant tumor removed from his neck. He has a big, “Y” shaped incision that looks rather like the work of Dr. Frankenstein, but he’s okay, all things considered. I should, by all rights, be feeling sorry for myself – my family has long believed that if self-pity were an Olympic event or a talent usable by Miss America contestants, I could have been a contender. The funny thing is that I’m not feeling sorry for myself at all; through some strange alchemy involving exhaustion, relief, and caffeine, I am really just fine. I have a job to do, one last job in a long day, and I am doing it. That is all.

I am also thinking, of course, thinking absurd things. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” fills my head in time with the wipers. “I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee…”. Then I’m thinking about the road, and how many times I’ve traveled this way, or the opposite way. It’s the beginning (or the end) of the drive to Ohio, a trip we made often to see my maternal grandparents, and, later, to take me to and from college deep in the cornfields of Lorain County. The summer between my first and second years as a conservatory student I took a cello lesson once a week from a professor at The University of Michigan. He didn’t think much of my playing, I always knew that, and I drove weekly to Ann Arbor in a stew of anxiety and despair, returning deflated and diminished.

I remember the summer I clerked for a distant relative’s law firm in Warren, Ohio, driving home every weekend in an ancient Honda with no air conditioning. I was in the middle of a tragic, long-distance romance and I played loud music, sang, cried, and chain smoked out the open window for the four and a half hour trip. When I hit Ann Arbor it was my signal to stop smoking, dry my eyes and Febreze myself before seeing my parents in a scant hour.

I remember taking my brother to start college at The University of Michigan, marveling at the dorm that would have housed nearly all the students attending my own college. Same road, same exit, even, as the hospital. I remember a trip to rescue my brother, stranded on his way home for the weekend; I was housesitting, mourning another round of Bad Romance with the same guy,and  grumpy at losing sleep on a work night. My brother was embarrassed at having to be rescued by his older sister in front of a cool college friend, and he was rude to me. The incident is long forgiven, and I couldn’t ask for a better brother, but as the wipers beat, and the car eats the miles in the dark night, I remember it all.

My mother is silent as I drive. She has been married for fifty years to a man who likes silence in the car when the driving is difficult. We’ve fought a little, the past day or two, but as I drive I am conscious of her as an ally, and an essential part of every story this road evokes. They are all, really, the story of my life from swaddled baby en route to my grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio to fifty-year-old daughter driving through the night after making sure her father was comfortable in the recovery room.  If I felt like talking, I might mention my thoughts to her, reminisce a little and reveal my cliché but sincere “Life is a Highway” epiphany. I don’t feel like talking, though, and we remain silent except for her occasional remark about how it’s “almost over,” and we’re “almost there.”

My brother is still ahead of me, his tail lights always visible through the sheets of rain, my mother is beside me, and we have left my father safe. Soon, we will be home. 

The Mystery of Autocorrect

I understand how lots of things work in a practical, technological sense. I can bone a chicken, replace a faucet washer, and rig a device that will keep the dogs from opening the screen door. I was raised to be “handy,” and I’m proud of that.

 

I do not understand how computer-y, phone-y kinds of things work. I am as surprised and delighted as a child that my phone can figure out where I am and tell me how to find coffee, and that my computer makes it possible for me to write something like this, and then put it somewhere for universal reading. (Well, honestly, about 200 people will read it, but theoretically everyone could read it if they had access to a computer and the Internet). I’m not proud of my ignorance, and I try to understand the workings behind the magic; the thing is that life is short, and I tend to focus more on things that result in a paycheck or a calm, relatively happy family life.

 

The most baffling of all digital voodoo in my life is the Auto Correct on my iPhone. I know I can turn it off if it annoys me, but I have come to count on the ability to type “theres” and end up with “there’s” without a thought. It also capitalizes many of the things that require capitalization, and sometimes corrects my spelling…correctly. It is this last category, though (which I think is properly labeled “Auto Fill”) where the issues arise. For some reason, the brain in the phone makes changes so bizarre and sometimes so profane that I can’t imagine the rubric governing its operation. Is there a rubric? If there is, how did It determine that instead of the fairly common “mmkay” in response to a text message, I really meant to say “knish?!” Are there people more likely, statistically, to be texting about Jewish delicacies than writing “mmkay” as a slang-y form of assent? I think not.

 

My favorite, shocking as it was at the time, makes me think that Auto Correct/Auto Fill is not a program, but a group of adolescent male hackers in a bunker filled with Cheetos and Ripple.  It also made me a believer in the hilarious postings on “Damn You, Auto Correct.” Until it actually happened to me, I suspected that they were all invented by, well, a group of adolescent male hackers in a bunker filled with Cheetos and Ripple. I am now a believer.

 

A couple of weeks ago, my son texted me to say that he needed a ride home. I sent this response:

 

“Daddy on his way to fuck you up by ATM machine on Albert right now.”

 

I am grateful that my son is fourteen and not nine. I am also happy that we all happen to possess a fine sense of humor, and find the error hilarious. I can’t help wondering, though, in what universe “fuck” is the most likely word choice in this context? Why is it even an option for Auto Fill? Shouldn’t the default be that one is not swearing?

 

Maybe Auto Correct was designed by potty-mouthed Jewish deli cooks. I’m on the case.

White Coral Bells

The first day of kindergarten, I had to ride the bus. This was not that unusual at the time; fewer parents regarded the inaugural public school launch as an occasion to take the morning off, drive the maiden voyager to school, take 50 photographs and go into the classroom full of tiny chairs and naptime rugs for a tearful adieu. My parents worked, they went to work that day (as far as I know) and I got on the noisy yellow bus in front of our house on Hamilton Road, clutching my braided rug and wearing a corduroy jumper appliqued with a satin apple.

The bus was intimidating for a small person, but the driver knew a greenhorn when she saw one. “Good morning,” she said as I climbed up the high, black steps towards her seat. “Why don’t you sit right behind me, with Mary Sue. She’s new, too.” I regarded Mary Sue with no small amount of suspicion; she was also quite small, and had striped tights and red shoes. I wanted them immediately, and I was sure I had seen them at the Buster Brown store where I had been convinced that brown Mary Janes were my best option.

“Okay,” I said, sliding onto the dark green vinyl bench seat.

“Hi,” said Mary Sue.

“Hi” I said back. We lapsed into a philosophical silence, and the bus began to move again with an enormous cough.

“My name is Miss Eva,” said the driver. “Are you ladies starting kindergarten today?” We both nodded. “Would you like to sing a song while we pick up the other children?” This seemed reasonable to me; people were always singing songs in nursery school, and this bus trip seemed, logically, to be a part of School as a general principle.

“Okay” said Mary Sue.

“Good,” said Miss Eva, “we’ll start right after this next stop. We have a long time after that one.” As she braked to a stop in front of a small group of children standing in front of a farm house, Mary Sue slid towards me.

“My dad has a glass eye,” she said. Unsure of the proper response, I waited to see if there was more. There was. “Sometimes he takes it out and puts it in his mouth to clean it off.” She had my full attention. I pictured a dad, somebody big with glasses and a beard like my dad, reaching up to pull his eye out of the socket and popping it into his mouth like a gumball. “Do you want to come over to my house and play?” I did, but a terrible thought occurred to me.

“Will your dad be there?” I inquired as the group of older kids bumped and joggled each other past us and towards the back of the bus.

“Prolly not. He goes to work. Does your dad go to work?” As far as I knew, all dads went to work.

“Yes. He’s a professor.”

“A what?”

“A professor. It’s a kind of teacher. At his office he has a wood thing with tobacco for his pipe, and the ladies give me gum.” It was no glass eye, but I had to work with the material I’d been given.

“Alright, girls, let’s sing – do you know ‘White Coral Bells?’” I wasn’t going to be the first to say I didn’t.

“Uh uh” said Mary Sue.

“No” I allowed.

“Okay. I’ll sing it for you, then we’ll sing it together, then we can sing it as a round. Do you know what that is?” My heart sped up; I knew this one.

“It’s when you sing it at different times” I said proudly. Mary Sue looked skeptical.

“That’s right!” said Miss Eva. “You must be a musician, Miss Apple Dress. What’s your name?”

“Annie” I said, warm with pleasure at having been right. Mary Sue remained impassive. Miss Eva began to sing, then, in a thin, sweet soprano voice. It was an easy song, and after we heard it once we were able to sing most of it. By the time we picked up a lone boy in front of an apartment building, we were taking turns starting, and growing the simple melody into something richer and more complex.

We pulled up in front of the school, and my heart sped up again, but it was going to be okay. I knew Mary Sue now, although I wasn’t really sure I liked her yet, and I could go to her house but not have to see her one-eyed father. I knew what a round was, and I was only five. I was pretty sure Miss Eva liked me. “Have a good day!” she called as we slid off the seat and began our ascent down to the curb. I could see Mrs. McKinley, the kindergarten teacher, waiting for us with a group of kids. I had met her at something called Kindergarten Roundup, and that was how I knew who she was, and that I was going to learn, among other things, my left from my right and how to skip.

“That’s Mrs. McKinley,” Mary Sue told me as we walked towards her.

“I know,” I said. “But it’s okay that you told me.” She stuck out her hand, surprising me. I took it in my own, and we sailed, on small, Buster Brown shoes, into the unknown seas of elementary school.

 

 

 

Charity Begins at Home

When I was seven, I loved to go to Natalie Redmond’s house. Her parents weren’t getting along (there was rumor that Mrs. had hurled a salt shaker at Mr. during a particularly heated exchange) and they were vying for the loyalty of the children by buying one each of everything that might spark some fever of loyalty and attachment. Consequently, Natalie had a miniature riding stable with tiny, flocked horses and a stable of working tack, as well as several shelves of Breyer horses, a harem of Barbies and not one but two Easy Bake ovens. My parents’ taste ran more towards the restrained and educational, and while I was certainly not materially deprived, Natalie’s house was, then, what a day at Barney’s with an Amex Black card would be today.

One morning I returned from a sleepover at Natalie’s tired and cranky, only to be told that we were all going to rake leaves and clean up the yard. “I can’t,” I explained to my parents as they sat at the kitchen table “I told Natalie I’d help her clean up the toys in their basement after lunch.”

“Charity,” said my mother, looking over the rims of her glasses, “begins at home,”

It didn’t make much sense at the time, but then my father was also given to telling us that “England expects every man to do his duty.” It seemed like a trap, a way to deprive oneself of the opportunity to do anything exciting or deserving of public acclaim. I could clean someone else’s basement and be told what a good girl I was, what a wonderful helper, or I could spend hours raking our leaves, jumping in trash cans to pack them into their black, plastic bags, and get nothing for my labor. Where was the joy in doing the expected, the mundane, the unnoticed good?

I am not much more evolved at forty nine; seven times the age when I first decided that doing good tasted better when it was chased with the heady feeling of looking good. I am quick to work in the community, to comfort someone outside my family who is bedeviled by loss or loneliness, or to donate to those in need. If I am honest, I have to admit that every time I pick up neighborhood trash after a big football game, sit with a recent widow or take a bag of practically new clothes to Volunteers of America, I see myself from somewhere outside my body. I see myself glowing ethereally, bathed in the golden light of being good, doing good, making a difference in a troubled world. Ignoring the secondary gain, I can believe, for a time, that I could do anything if I set my mind to it – make school lunches healthy, make my workplace “green,” and possibly even free Tibet in my spare time. I am cleaning the Redmond’s basement all over again, a nice girl helping out and giving her time so that others might feel some relief from piles of naked Barbies, hungry hippos and miniscule bridles.

The curse of seven times seven years is that I know in my marrow that charity really does begin at home. The public displays of goodness make some things better, but I have a hard time getting that self-righteous tingle if I have not spent time listening to my own kid explain why he loves dub step music, or read the story my husband thoughtfully sent to me because he knew I’d love it. It’s my duty as a compassionate human being to help where I can, give what I have, be a listening ear when it’s needed, but that duty includes time and attention for those who I love most. If I can listen to an elderly volunteer at work tell the same story five times, I must extend the same courtesy to my own mother. It is less impressive, and sometimes I want to be able to say to those who live in my heart that they, of all people, should cut me some slack – I shouldn’t have to “do” for everyone at home, and they should understand that a beneficent soul such as mine needs a break from time to time. I could never say to my elderly volunteer that I have a migraine and that if she tells that story one more goddamned time I will fall wordlessly to the floor in paroxysms of boredom and frustration. I can, and do get short with my mother when she launches into a story I have heard many times before. I can do it because we love each other so much, which seems…wrong, and right and normal and terrible.

The people who love me when I am a raging bitch, yelling about the pile of dirty socks or sulking because baseball has been on in the living room for three straight nights, those are people who deserve my love, attention and charity. No one will ever know the things that I do for the people I love in the private, intimate theater of home, and there will be no awards, acclaim or credit. At most, there will be a “thank you,” unseen, and unregistered by anyone in the greater world. It is not glamorous, it is not tingly, and I cannot imagine myself an angel among mankind because I step up and give the dog a bath. It is those small charities, though, the quiet, unseen acts, that build a foundation for every gesture made towards the greater world.

My mother was always right, and tomorrow I’ll call her and tell her. It won’t free Tibet, but it will make her very happy. 

Control, Anxiety and Pork Fried Rice

I am a control freak of the highest order. Since birth, I have vibrated to some internal frequency that requires that questions are answered, clutter is removed, and lists are prepared against any wild card fancies of the universe. I don’t require that things go my way, necessarily – there is nothing I enjoy more than corralling and tranquilizing an irrational situation into submission. Or, more accurately, believing that I have done so. Since control is generally illusory, all of my lists, sub-lists, plans, recommendations, admonitions and resolutions are no more solid than a bridge of damp Kleenex across a pit of starving alligators.

Prevention is good, planning is beneficial, but in the end there simply things that can’t be controlled. In my life, those things include the health of my parents, the moods of my teenage son, changes at work, the national economy, and the changes in my body that come with age. I try to control what I can, but that’s a mixed bag; no one is terribly bothered if I resolve to take my daily pills, do some yoga, and try to get more sleep. On the other hand, my parents and son are notoriously unwilling to live under the glass cloche of my loving supervision. They will accept my help, all of them, but none of them sees it as a quid pro quo arrangement in which my support triggers a reciprocal obligation on their end to do what I say, when I say it. With the kid, there is the option of Consequences, but to date I have not been successful at sending my parents to their rooms, taking away their computers and cell phones or grounding them.

At the root of all of my planning, spinning, and attempts to weave the irrational into a tidy pattern is anxiety. I am a person who is often complimented on how “calm” I am, and how serene and accommodating is my demeanor. I am actually a tooth-grinding, tight-shouldered migraineur with a recurring tic and a tendency to break out in hives when the heat is turned up high enough. I know that the holistic solution to all of this is to give up the illusion of control and just be with whatever is going on. Sometimes I can get there. Other times, though, I slog through the mess closest to me and promise myself that if I can get everything under control, there is a valley of Peace and Completion just ahead. If I make the calls, make the lists, read the fine print, clear up the misunderstanding with the bank and turn my receipts in at work, I can…relax. I can sink deeply into some robin’s egg blue pouf of anxiety-free heaven with the faint scent of lavender in the air, a book in my hand and all phones disabled. It is the ultimate illusion: the end of my to-do list throws a vast, disparate universe into complete immobility until such time as I finish reading a really good novel and take a nap.

Lest you should think me a rigid martinet, there are times when I am singularly and spectacularly out of control. I lose control, and the ship begins to sink. I remain bravely at the wheel for as long as I can stand it, and then I flee. By the time the bow goes under the cresting waves, I am lost. I am eating all the waffles in the freezer, I am on my way to Walgreens to buy the 102d tube of undetectable beige lipstick, or posting some ridiculous status on Facebook to get confirmation that I am Fun and Interesting.

All of which leads me to pork fried rice.  Last week, as part of my compulsive one-woman ordering of the universe, I braised a pork loin in Hoisin sauce and served it with rice. The plan was to make pork fried rice later in the week. When Pork Fried Rice came up on my calendar, I balked. I didn’t feel like cooking that, or anything else. I was getting a cold. I was grumpy. The Menu List was clear and assertive, but I balked. I looked at my husband who is, most of the time, far saner than I can ever hope to be. “How would you like to learn to make pork fried rice?” I asked him, testing the waters.

“That would be great” he said. And so I outlined for him the mixing of the cold rice and leftover pork with a bit of egg for binding, the necessary additions of scallions, onions, peas, sesame oil and soy sauce, and the making of a flat egg pancake to cut into thin strips. I retreated to the bedroom to read my book, and felt as cosseted as a beloved child as I relaxed, smelling delicious smells, knowing that someone else was doing the doing. Cooking is my thing, at work and at home, and I have always been the planner, the cooker, and the supervisory hoverer when food was prepared. I let it go, and was rewarded with a hot bowl of perfect pork fried rice. The kitchen was not as clean as I would have left it, and the dish was spicier than mine, but everybody was happy.

As I maneuvered a last pea between my chopsticks, I had the kind of inspiration that comes only from a free and unclenched psyche. My son was sledding with two friends, and I texted him to ask if they might like to come over and share the remaining mountain of rice. “Delivery?” he texted back. I considered. I was un-showered and in my pajamas, and it was a frigid night with icy roads.

“Sure.” I replied. “10 mins.” I packed up three containers of rice, three forks and three napkins, shoved my feet into boots, threw my coat on and drove to the parking lot near the sledding hill. Three cold-pinked faces appeared outside my window; I rolled it down and handed out the bag. “Daddy made it” I told my son. “Be sure to tell him it’s awesome.” I invited them to sit in the warm car to eat, but they liked the idea of sitting at the top of the frigid sledding hill clutching hot food and sharing some Iron John bonding thing.

I would get no credit for the food. I would never see my Tupperware or my forks again. If my car spun off the icy road I would end up at the hospital unwashed and in unmatched pajamas and Ugg boots. I was off book, out of control, letting life unfold as it would.

It felt wonderful.

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