Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Kiss Is Just A Kiss

For the first few years I worked in Chicago I took the bus.  It picked me up at the end of the block and would make its way through the south suburbs where our family lived, picking up passengers along the way before eventually merging onto the expressway and then Michigan Avenue.  My friend got picked up before me and she would save me a seat next to her towards the back of the bus.  Three blocks past my stop was an older man who boarded the bus each morning - a man relatively unknown to me but friendly with both of my parents.  He would also sit near the back towards me and my friend and spent his bus ride reading the Chicago Tribune.

Riding the bus back and forth to Chicago was not the preferred method to get to work.  In perfect weather anything could make traffic back up, and if a little rain or a few flurries fell during rush hour it could easily double the length of the trip.  If there was an opportunity to get downtown fast a working guy/gal would always take advantage of the offer.

And that is how I found myself in the front seat of a gas guzzling Buick with the guy from the back of the bus who lived on Elm Street.  He had called my parents house and told my mom that he was driving to work later that week and would be happy to take me.  There was no question I would go to avoid another long bus ride and so at 6:45 a.m. he picked me up.  I can't remember what we talked about on the way down since he was my dad's age (late fifties) to my early twenties.  I don't, though, remember it being awkward or uncomfortable. 

We sailed through every usual bottleneck and in no time he was stopping in front of the Art Institute to let me out.  As I gathered my purse and my lunch he said, "Don't I even get a kiss for giving you a ride downtown?" And I thought, oh yeah, sure, geez where are my manners because I guess that's what you do when somebody does a favor for you.  Right?  You give a kiss to the guy who is as old as your father because he let you ride along to the same place he was going.  And so I leaned over to kiss him on the cheek (because that's what he meant, right?) and he maneuvered his head until his lips were on mine and he was putting his tongue in my mouth and in the front seat of that Buick I could not register what in the hell was happening to me. 

I pulled away from him and said "thank you" again because if I was anything it was polite when somebody did me a favor.  I got my things and got out and watched the car of a man who was friends with my parents pull away.  Under one of the lions that flanks the entrance to the Art Institute I stood on the sidewalk watching the "walk" sign change many times over before I remembered I had to cross the street to get to work.

My mom would ask that night how my ride was and I told her it was fine.  "He said he's going to start driving more and that you could go with him anytime," she would tell me and I never, not once, even considered it.  I would have inhaled toxic, choking bus fumes on a completely stopped Dan Ryan Expressway every day of the week rather than get in that Buick again.

A few years ago Mom called and told me she had gone to a wake for So-And So. "I don't know who that is," I said.  "Oh you know him, Kath.  That nice man from Elm Street that would drive you downtown sometimes."

Once, Mom.  He drove me once.

"He always asked about you when I would see him."

Everything from the moment the car stopped remains vivid in my memory but I never talked about it.  After hanging up the phone, though, the same question rolled over and over in my mind.

What kind of man makes a mother believe that her daughter is perfectly safe with him when she's anything but?

And over and over in my mind the same answer rolled back.  The kind that is better off dead.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


I fell a few weeks ago walking around the block.  It would be a much better story if I said I was training for a half-marathon and was running so fast I pitched forward over the finish line like the women's 4x400 team at the Olympics to win gold.

But, alas, I was leisurely walking and stepped in a gap between someone's driveway and the sidewalk and lurched forward onto the ground.  I remember watching my hand as it stretched in front of me to brace my fall. Next thing I knew I was oh-so-slowly pulling myself up off the ground using the same outstretched hand to feel the blood on my lip that had smacked the pavement - all while I gingerly moved my banged-up knees.  I slowly made my way home and when I walked in the door Mark appropriately said, "It looks like you've been in a fight."

I put an ice pack on my lip, checked my front teeth for any cracks, cleaned my knees, and though I felt like having a good cry, did not thanks to a mom and three brothers who taught me long ago that being overly dramatic when injured is not a positive attribute.  As the day went on, though, my elbow started throbbing and I moved the ice pack off my lip and onto my arm.

At Sunday dinner that night I related my tale of woe to the kids who come every week for a family meal.  They could see the fat lip and the bloodied knees and when I winced when I tried to put my elbow on the table they said all the right things, but I am the mom after all, and sucking it up is #1 on the job description.  Even as banged up as I had gotten that day I managed to make most of our dinner for six so just how bad off could I be?

Every movement of my arm that week hurt and Mark said, "You probably jammed it."  I wasn't getting enough sympathy for my jammed arm as far as I was concerned.  I still went to work, I still made dinner (but left grocery shopping to my husband), I still threw towels in the washing machine even if it was at a slower pace and with one hand firmly on the handrail every time I went up and down the stairs.  At the following Sunday dinner my left arm was old news replaced by something else and when I put my elbow on the table without wincing that must have meant I was getting better. But if I dared to reach or lift with that banged-up appendage it hurt like crazy.  I kept dosing with Ibuprofen and icing it but after ten days of it not getting much better I finally made an appointment with the doctor.

When you go to a teaching medical center for your care you are often seen first by medical students - little Doogie Howsers that look like they are a week out of middle school.  They can either be incredibly enthusiastic about your problem or terribly nervous basket cases.  I got the former this time.  In the family med office I am sure that anything outside of a cold, allergies, or stomachache on the last appointment of the day must be a thrill for the medically young and eager.  My Dr. Doogie did all kinds of exercises on my arm and concluded that it was "probably jammed" but, thankfully, it was not his call to make but the real doctor who would come in after him.  The Real Doctor pushed his thumb into a few spots until he hit the magic one that brought tears to my eyes and said, "I think you just jammed it but I'm going to send you for an xray anyways.  Go get it and come back here and we'll look at it."

Thirty minutes later the three of us were looking at a picture of a fracture in the bone above my elbow and to these men in the room and the one at home I wanted to shout, "YOU GUYS AND YOUR JAMMING?  WELL, LOOKIE HERE.  I'VE BEEN INJURED. INJURED BAD."  This kind of hairline crack requires no cast (thank you thank you thank you) but a convalescence of babying it while it heals.  No lifting, no pushing, no vacuuming, no pulling, no pressure on it at all and a recheck in two weeks.

After I left the office I called my husband to report the findings gloat.  To tell him that once in awhile the Mrs. around this place gets knocked flat (literally) and it should come with a week off work, meals delivered and some kind of "B" team prayer chain. The next day I told Mallie Bee who looked a little stunned when I said that my fall had caused a fracture.  "Really," she said. "Really," I answered.

And then she spoke these words of pure gold, "I kind of think this family owes you an apology."

"Because this family thought I was faking?"

"Maybe.  Yeah."

I already knew that but I took that consideration of an apology and hid it in a secret place like the jewel that it was, so that the next time I take a hit and jam-who-knows-what I've got something to fall back on.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Surrender Dorothy

I am not the kind of person who handles change very well.  More specifically, I go kicking and screaming into change like a toddler having a meltdown.

In the years we've been married we've moved to three states, a studio apartment, a basement apartment overrun with roaches, a townhouse with wall-to-wall apple green carpet, a better townhouse, another townhouse that had no natural light, and our current home.  I always put on my cheerful face, so excited to be partaking in another "adventure in moving."  That face never lasted very long as my resentful face was longing to show itself to the world.  After the newness wore off, the pictures had been hung and the path to the nearest grocery store figured out, I would get pissy and stay that way for a good long time.  I didn't like having to make new friends, and after a couple of moves I figured out that the first woman in the neighborhood who knocked on my door to introduce herself to me was probably the craziest person one the block. Two experiences with that made me keep my guard up and ready.

The same goes for starting new jobs. I observe for a good long while and keep my eye firmly trained on the red EXIT sign.  When I'm done observing I start to look for reasons to leave, and since most jobs come with a gold mine of crazy and dysfunctional it's not hard to come up with a solid five excuses to bolt on any given day. 

My husband can attest that when I am in one of these transition periods (that can go on for months and months) that I'm a delightful peach to live with.  You would think that since I know that about myself that I would avoid job hopping but it's just the opposite.  I start getting antsy and bored and think I need to find some greener grass and off I go again.  When I find myself in another new environment I look around for somebody, anybody to blame but the finger only points back to me.

When we made our last, big move to Kansas I literally thought I was going to die.  I couldn't believe I was nowhere near water.  We moved from a place that was thirty miles from the White House to Kansas of all places. Who does that?  Whenever we would take the subway and get off at the Smithsonian stop, go up the escalator and see the Capitol I would gasp.  I probably gasped fifty times over those five years.  I never got tired of seeing that.  On the weekends we would leave early in the morning to drive to the Delaware Beach, Chincoteague Island, Annapolis.  When I got off the train when I worked in Chicago I walked two blocks to my building which was across the street from the Art Institute and a short walk to Lake Shore Drive.  Every day from my office I saw the water of Lake Michigan. 

Kansas seemed like a hard, waterless fall from the grace of where I had come from and there was no water to cool off, no red EXIT sign to point the way out.

At some point I finally surrendered, likely from exhaustion of the battle I had created in my own head.  I stopped comparing it to my imagined life somewhere else and let it stand on its own sturdy feet.  It faltered often but then it showed off its Flint Hills and I thought "okay this might work."  Or the limestone buildings of Kansas State University, the funky college town of Lawrence with its impromptu parade on a Saturday afternoon of people who want the governor ousted. The hokey roadside attraction of The World's Largest Prairie Dog.  Or the farmer not far from where we live who started planting sunflowers years ago as an experiment in biofuel that never panned out.  He kept planting, though, thousands of sunflowers.  Forty acres of sunflowers.

It took twenty four years but I found the sea in Kansas when the winds on its plains whispered to me to look elsewhere to find what I was missing.  That's when the dream that I dreamed of really did come true.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


It was a dark and stormy night...

Actually it was an overcast Friday and I had no car and was stuck at home.  What to do? What to do?

I started with a coffee from the Keurig.  That was the intent but instead boxes of coffee pods came tumbling out onto the floor from a messy, disorganized cabinet that could barely close.  Pumpkin spice, chai tea latte, hot chocolate, espresso, mocha latte, mocha lessa.

Since I was grounded from going anywhere fun or spendy my agenda was set right then and there.  I looked at that pile of pods and decided that since we may move someday (or never) that the load around here needed to be lightened (personal weight issues excluded).  I strapped on an armor of use-it-or-get-rid-of-it that refused to look back, look over, or keep looking into the ever growing black bag that sat beside me as I sat on the floor.

Sitting amongst one's treasures useless crap can be revealing:

I have never met a candle I didn't think needed to come home with me.

I haven't used a tealight in at least five years but I have dozens of them.

At some point in my life I had grandiose plans of dinner parties with said candles, tablecloths and cloth napkins.

Every beat up pair of shoes I've ever owned got retired to the front closet to become garden shoes.

Anorak?  Now there's a jacket that can make any suburban mom look cool. I would know. I had four.

During my gap year when I was unemployed and searching for my passion I thought I needed to take fish oil, magnesium, iron, potassium and B-12.  Day after day my passion eluded me so I watched Dr. Oz instead.

I got into stamping and I don't really even know what stamping is.  Boo. Joy. Thank You So Much.  Texas.  Texas?   

Ink pads for stamping.  Black, black, black, black, black, red, red, red, red, gold, silver, distressed blue.  I could literally stamp Texas to look like a pair of blue jeans.

A collection of corrugated, cardboard sleeves from Starbucks cups that could be made into, made into, made into WTF?

Tub & tile caulk?  2

Latex caulk? 4 

Vacuum cleaner bags?  10 

Bottles of Ibuprofen? 3

Frontline for an 80# dog?  2 boxes  Years since we've had an 80# dog?  2.5

Gloves with no mate? 6

Whilst in Target (but not in the candle aisle) my neighbor called me to tell me about an ESTATE SALE I HAD TO GO TO NOW.  I hustled out with my cat food and toilet paper (since she said it all in caps) and headed over to the sale.  That's when I saw what accumulation looks like when it goes to the dark side.  Piles of stuff, thousands of books, three sheds in the backyard, a kitchen that barely had a path. 

It made me a little sick - this woman who bought and bought, and how did she even walk in this place?  Did anyone come and visit her?  Where did they sit?

There was no doubt that she was a hoarder, that she probably drove her family and neighbors nuts, that she bought dishes and glassware and garden pots and Christmas decorations by the dozens.  She saved decorating magazines from twenty years ago.  She saved ribbon and fabric, and calendars that were fifteen years old.  She saved toys and games that her kids must have played with decades ago. She saved hat boxes by the dozens.

She didn't know how to stop but if you saw her stuff you would know that despite some serious mental health issues she had damn good taste.

Nothing was priced.  Depending on who was working the money it was either a pile of stuff for $5.00 or $5.00 for each item.  I drifted to The Pile of Stuff guy with my garden urns.

Then I came home and opened every drawer and closet that I had already cleaned to see if I had missed anything else that could go, certain that I didn't want to be the lifelong caretaker of regret.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Minus One

A few days before the birth of our first baby, Mark and I took a walk around our apartment complex. Tired of being pregnant, we walked a lot in those last few weeks in order to move things along with my labor.  This time we walked to a creek with a little wooden bridge over it.  We were leaning over the railing trying to find signs of aquatic life when a group of boys came barreling up on their bikes. Jumping off their Huffys, they all crouched down along the muddy bank and Mark asked them what they were hoping to find. "Crawdads," they all said.  "There's crawdads in this creek." They spent a few minutes poking around until most of them got bored and rode away. Two boys stayed behind keeping up the persistent search until one screamed, "GOT ONE!!!!  GOT A DEAD CRAWDAD PINCHER!" It was a like a call to arms and from every direction the boys who had abandoned the search came pedaling back to the creek to see the dead crawdad pincher for themselves and roll it around in their hands..

"I don't know what this baby is," I said to Mark, "but I've gotta have a boy before my baby making days end."

That first baby was a beautiful girl and a few years would pass before a boy entered our life.  He was a lot like the boys that we saw that day.  He brought home every crawling, slithering, hopping, flying and creeping thing that crossed his path, and our basement and backyard was a temporary nature center for the kinds of living creatures that I would have preferred to have been left where they were found.


Two weeks ago we were eating Sunday dinner when Maggie told us about an accident that she had heard about a few hours earlier at the Schlitterbahn water park.  It happened on the Verrucht slide - the tallest water slide in the world and an ominous presence that all of us have seen dozens of times from the highway.  We read about it before it was built, saw it as it was being built and then the final product.  That final product made my stomach drop whenever I passed it.  There is another water park in town that we had taken our kids to a few times but by the time this one was built our kids were old enough to go on their own if they wanted to.  There were no takers for that kind of thrill seeking.

The initial details of the accident sounded horrific and I chose to believe that they couldn't possibly have been as bad as what people were saying.  The local news media reports were vague about the cause (and to date there are still ongoing investigations) but subsequent reports of the severity of the boy's injuries seem to be as awful as had been initially stated.

I can't stop thinking about this ten year old boy, his mom and dad who left their house that afternoon with four children and came home with three, the two women in the raft with this boy, the lifeguards at the top and bottom of the slide, the older brother who went down the slide first and was waiting for his younger brother to follow, the people in the park who saw too much on their way out, the police and fire department who responded to the accident.

A few days after it happened I was at work heating up my lunch when I said to one of the grad students in our office, "I can't believe what happened on Sunday to that little boy at the water park." And he said, "Geez, thank you.  It's all I can think about and nobody is talking about it around here. I can't even stop with the questions and the wondering and what the heck?  How did this happen?  How did they think that somebody wasn't going to get hurt on that thing?"  Every day that was the daily discussion between us until we exhausted ourselves on velcro straps, weight distribution, metal bars, nets, water slides vs. rollercoasters, a funeral, lawsuits.

Everywhere I have gone recently I keep seeing little boys.  At Target I overheard two boys talking about the pros and cons of a gaming system, on the drive home I passed some boys on their bikes headed to the public pool, at work a little boy came with his mom while she got her new school i.d., the boys up and down the street in my own neighborhood.

It was as if the Universe was saying you need to pay attention to our boys.

A few days after that accident happened two boys in Kansas City were shot and killed in their own home. They were cousins - one eight, the other nine and their grandmother said of the still unknown killers, "They have destroyed us." And then there is the heartbreaking photo of the shell-shocked and bloodied little boy in Syria whose picture will haunt most of us forever.


About a year ago I came across something on a walk along the creek near my house. I didn't know what it was but I stuck it in my pocket and brought it home.  When I showed it to Mark he smiled, handed it back to me and said, "It's a dead crawdad pincher."

We need to pay attention to our boys.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Innkeepers

Mark:  I'm going to take the extra soap and shampoo.

Me:  Why do you do that?  We don't need mini soaps and mini shampoo bottles.

Mark:  Yeah we do.


Mark has been going to Vermont for a bi-annual meeting since 1992 and every time he comes home he tells me that I need to go with him the next time. This summer was next time and he booked us at an inn in the town of Chester. Green, rolling hills and mountains, fresh air, peaceful lakes smooth as glass with not even the whisper of a boat motor or skidoo.  That state is a showstopper in the looks department.

We got into Boston, picked up our rental car and drove to Vermont via a few stops along the way including a fish and chips lunch on a coastal town in New Hampshire.  Land locked in Kansas, we are giddy as soon as we get a glimpse of water.  When we get out of the car and can smell the salty air we are ecstatic.  Things were off to a good start.  Our estimated time of arrival to the inn got delayed a bit by a driving rainstorm but I called to let them know we were on our way and would be there soon.  The inn is owned and operated by a husband and wife and the husband checked us in.  We walked up to the 2nd floor thumping our luggage behind us with each step and opened the door to Country Living circa 1980 and a full-size bed.  Decor wise there was plenty wrong with this room but the most glaring problem was the bed.  We weren't staying with relatives.  We paid for comfort.  "You didn't book a full-size bed, did you?" I asked Mark.  "I don't think so," he said in a manner that conveyed that he had no idea and didn't care.

The next morning we went downstairs to a breakfast buffet of bagels, fruit, waffles and scones.  Oh the scones!! They were fabulous.  We met Mrs. Innkeeper who was running the food show.  The Mr. showed up a bit later and told us that they take Sundays off and we wouldn't see them around after breakfast but that if we needed anything to ring the bell.

Mark had to make a trip to the conference center, register and pick up his packet.  He came back and picked me up and we went back to the opening night happy hour and dinner.  We let ourselves into the inn that night with our front door key and it was quiet.  Very quiet.

The next morning I drove Mark to his meeting and puttered around the small town we were in - going to all the shops and antique stores.  When I came back it was very quiet.  Mark had the afternoons off but he needed the first couple of days to get ready for his talk so we stayed around the inn and not once did I notice anyone else except Mr. Innkeeper who had decided that week to fix the roof that was outside our window. The following morning I drove Mark once again and came back to shower and head out for the day. It was eerily quiet again and when I ran into Mrs. Innkeeper I asked her if there were any other guests staying.  "Nope, you're the only ones.  There's usually not much going on the beginning of the week and then we start getting more guests closer to the weekend."  Oh, so that explains why it feels like we're squatters.

I picked Mark up and told him it was just us and Mr. and Mrs. Creepy Innkeeper.  "I don't like that guy," I said.  "He's not the least bit friendly.  He can't even make small talk.  Who owns an inn and doesn't even say good morning to his guests?"

The next day I overheard the innkeepers talking and he angrily said to his wife, "I'm never using that again. These people didn't even pay full price.  We got ripped off."  Was he talking about us?  I repeated to Mark what I heard and asked him how he booked our room.  ""  "Was the rate really discounted because I think it's you and me that that guy was talking about."  Mark couldn't remember as the room had been booked and charged to our credit card months ago.

Going out the following morning there was a breakthrough at the front desk.  Mr. Innkeeper talked to me!!!!  "I have to go up on the roof again today.  Do you  know how hot it is up there?"  I looked at him.  He looked at me.  "I can only imagine," I said but upstairs my head was having a different conversation. What is your problem?  I didn't cause your roof to leak, I didn't put a discounted rate on and if I were going to complain about somebody who paid to be in my EMPTY inn I'd do it where they couldn't hear me.  How about you tuck that attitude back into your sweaty, innkeeper pants and take an online charm school class. Buster.

After those initial, awkward days we kept busy (and away) from the inn until well after dark - the last day being an incredible drive to Maine.  Upon checking out of the Bates Hotel, Mr. Innkeeper said to us, "Come back again and next time call me direct to book your room."

We flashed him a smile - the kind we usually reserve for door-to-door solicitors and thanked him for his hospitality hostility. On the way to the car Mark said, "That son-of-a-bitch was talking about us."

I patted my purse with its pilfered mini shampoos and soap and the extra scones from breakfast I had taken and wrapped in a napkin to be eaten later.  If the toilet paper wasn't prison grade I would have heisted a couple of rolls of that too.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Essentials

Before my daughter gave birth in March to Mabel, I accompanied her to Buy Buy Baby. Out of the newborn business since 1994, it was like stepping off the plane into a foreign country where the language, customs, and terrain were something hinted at in a book I once read but which now only vaguely resembled what I recalled.

I wandered the aisles of that baby megastore in amazement.  A humidifier in the shape of an elephant that blew a cool mist from its trunk, strollers in every shape and size (with a price point equal to the down payment we put on our last car), a warmer for baby wipes, diaper bags with a built-in changing pad, a motorized hammock that played music to lull bambino to sleep, a breathing monitor to clip on to the baby's diaper, a camera that mounts to the crib to watch the baby sleep.

I found myself saying, "I don't think you need that" over and over.  Me, the expert on baby essentials - a product of the 50s before even the most basic car seat had been invented.  While this seems ludicrous and dangerous now (because it was), most homes only had one car that Dad drove to work.  When Mom was home with the kids, Mom was home with the kids.  On those rare occasions when she did finally get to go out she made sure to leave her offspring at home with their father, and while he stood at his workbench in the garage organizing screws and washers into baby food jars, his kids kept busy by shoving things into outlets until they shocked themselves.

Things had changed drastically by the time my firstborn came along which, like me, amazed my mother.  Disposable diapers?  A box of wipes just for cleaning the baby after a diaper change?  A listening device to put in the baby's room so you can hear her while in another room?  What was this? The Jetsons?

In the work of bringing up baby things change fast, and I bet my daughter will feel whip-sawed by the available new breed of baby products in a few short years.  Despite the pressure and heavy marketing, most of the extras - used for a few months over a few years - will be sold for pennies on the dollar at the neighborhood garage sale.  Just as thrilling as it was to unpack the newest gadget to try out on baby, it is just as thrilling to unload it from the basement or garage.

And while all of those things make raising a baby easier the essentials are -

  • A wildly optimistic sense of adventure and humor
  • The ability to roll with the unpredictable
  • A standing agreement with your spouse that being on time for anything ever again is a ridiculous endeavor
  • The steadfast belief that you and your baby (even on your most challenging days) will grow alongside of each other in every way

Everything else ~ like wisdom ~ will get passed on.


Me:  You need to take a long nap this afternoon because Grandma was up too late last night watching videos on YouTube.


Me:  We'll nap together, bambino!


Me:  Mabel, are you listening?


Me:  Listen, kiddo, I promise you that your activity chair will still be there when we wake up from our, you know, nap.

Mabel:  *big smile*

Me:  Oh geez, Mae, let's skip the nap.  That thing does look pretty fun so I'll just keep staring at you until your mom gets home and thank all the baby stars in the sky that I get to watch you grow.