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Collected Columns of Joan E. Herlong
September 6, 2002 – April 30, 2009
We would like to gratefully acknowledge the Community Journal newspapers including the Greenville Journal where these columns were originally printed from 2002-09. The Journal has always been a pleasure to work with. Individual columns copyrighted as printed, 2002-09, Joan E. Herlong, All Rights Reserved. Collection copyright, 2009, Joan E. Herlong, All Rights Reserved.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23.
My Dear Boy/Man .......................................................... 1 Differenter........................................................................ 4 Keeping A Dedicated Line ............................................. 7 Vote for Wifey ............................................................... 10 Things I Didn’t Know They Needed .......................... 13 Can’t Talk and ____ At the Same Time ...................... 16 Gimme A Break Today ................................................. 19 Vague Symptoms of Undetermined Cause ............... 22 REAL Life In The Slow Lane ....................................... 25 Full Calendar ................................................................. 28 Meanest Moms Unite ................................................... 31 Worser Mean Moms ..................................................... 35 What Happens Next ..................................................... 38 Who Was That Masked Mom? .................................... 41 Not Safe With Scissors ................................................. 44 No ‘I’ In Shop................................................................. 47 Odds On Moms ............................................................. 50 Pass It On ....................................................................... 54 Don’t Call It Love .......................................................... 57 One Of Those People .................................................... 61 A Few Tips ..................................................................... 64 Embedded Reporters At Camp Cake Eater .............. 68 Will You Hold For . . . ................................................... 72
24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57.
Doing The Math ............................................................ 75 How to Deal . . .Without It! ......................................... 78 Working Mom Seeks Employment ............................ 80 What’s Your Sign? ......................................................... 83 Shirt Tales....................................................................... 86 Barbie Boo ...................................................................... 89 Down In The Mouth? ................................................... 92 Last Minute Time Management ................................. 95 Longest Running Klatch .............................................. 98 Helpful Holiday Hints From Herlong ..................... 101 Thank You: Notes. ...................................................... 104 Weighty Questions ..................................................... 107 Popping The Questions ............................................. 111 Hip To HIPAA............................................................. 114 The Bus Stops Here .................................................... 117 Having A Good One ................................................... 120 Dancing Away ............................................................. 123 Hamming It Up For God ........................................... 126 Playing’s the Thing ..................................................... 129 The Art of the T.L. ....................................................... 132 Eternal Conundrum ................................................... 135 Expressly Oriented ..................................................... 138 Who You’re Talking To............................................... 141 Division of Labor ........................................................ 144 Tough Phone Love ...................................................... 147 Rush to Judgment ....................................................... 150 Dropping Shopping 101 ............................................ 153 No Reflection ............................................................... 156 What About Pro-Child? ............................................. 159 Know Your Own Mind .............................................. 162 A Little Help Wanted ................................................. 165 More Helpful Hints from Herlong ........................... 168 Where’s The Market Place? ....................................... 171 I Do’s and Don’ts ......................................................... 174
58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74. 75. 76. 77. 78. 79. 80. 81. 82. 83. 84. 85. 86. 87. 88. 89. 90. 91.
Trial by Apricots.......................................................... 177 Baptism by Swimming ............................................... 180 Weak at the Beach ....................................................... 183 Sweet Southernisms ................................................... 186 Other People ................................................................ 189 Kissing Rules ............................................................... 192 The Great Pretense ..................................................... 195 Just Wondering Why .................................................. 198 Fashion Inquisition Redux ........................................ 201 Merry Festival of Christ ............................................. 204 Resolution Remix ........................................................ 207 A Woman of Letters .................................................... 210 So . . . What’s News? ................................................... 213 As A Rule . . . ............................................................... 217 BRAVING BRA SHOPPING...................................... 220 Love in Reverse ........................................................... 224 Found Money .............................................................. 227 Busy Signals................................................................. 230 Weaning ....................................................................... 233 On Becoming a Mom.................................................. 236 Cleaning Down to the Herring Bone ....................... 239 Victory Lap in the Slow Lane .................................... 242 Do Over ........................................................................ 245 Remember Fun? .......................................................... 248 Joe M. ............................................................................ 251 Shopping for Beige ..................................................... 254 Doing the 180............................................................... 257 Tom Gower .................................................................. 260 The Secret of Santa...................................................... 264 LTAM, ETC. ................................................................. 267 The Worst? ................................................................... 271 House Video Showcase .............................................. 274 Good for You ............................................................... 277 In Your Face(book)...................................................... 280
92. 93. 94. 95. 96. 97. 98. 99. 100. 101. 102.
Letting Go .................................................................... 283 The Loneliest Number ............................................... 286 Hard Cell, Soft Cell..................................................... 289 Impersonal Training ................................................... 292 Precious Time With Ben ............................................ 295 I Object, Too ................................................................. 299 We Love You, Daughter ............................................. 302 Often Wrong, Never in Doubt .................................. 306 An Eye for Disaster .................................................... 309 Many Happy Returns of the Barbie ......................... 312 Getting Out of High School ...................................... 315
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 1
My Dear Boy/Man
September 6, 2002 Close friends are compiling a Handbook for Manhood as a surprise for their son’s upcoming 18th birthday. They’ve asked friends, family, former teachers, coaches, and obviously even wanna-be experts, to write their thoughts and suggestions to help their son pave his way toward manhood. In my case, they asked me, unwittingly, to write about 800 words on the topic. Although I know nothing about being a man, let alone achieving manhood, ignorance has never stopped me from forming a strong opinion on anything, so why treat manhood any differently? I shall call the recipient of my contribution “Thomas” (everyone else does). I’ve come up with a few important “musts” to remember on your way to manhood, Thomas, by distilling the things I appreciate about the men I know who make manhood look and feel so good. Have a sense of humor. This is not a tough one for you because there’s always a lot of laughter in your home, but everyone needs this, a man is no exception. I don’t know what men without a sense of humor are really like because I can’t stand to hang out with them. I imagine they’re lonely. But having a fully developed sense of humor means that you can, and do, laugh out loud at yourself, your own foibles, before you laugh at anything else. Fear not, achieving manhood does not mean leaving your childhood entirely. A good man often becomes a good dad, and a good dad sometimes revels in childhood with his kids. My Reason for Living is in the next room having a coronary, howling at some inane video he is enjoying with our son. This re-enactment of their
2 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) respective thirteenth year is a powerful, mystical bond they share. Watching riveting shows like South Park and The Man Show together serve as rituals to cement this baffling bond between them. You will never be this young again, but manhood means you can still enjoy being immature (occasionally…). Continue to use the good manners your parents have taught you so well. Manners are the social lubricant that smoothes your path in life, not just up the corporate or professional ladder, but down the hall and into the kitchen and family room. Besides, chicks dig guys who open doors for them, who put down BOTH toilet lids after flushing, (who flush in the first place), who stand up when a woman enters the room, who remove their hat indoors, who clear the dishes without regarding it as “women’s work,” and who always say and mean “please” and “thank you” for even the most daily, routine things. A man who can put a price on his integrity does not have any. The guy who stiffs a hardworking waiter sells himself out for less than 15%. Your integrity is your word, your reputation, your everything. If others can always take your word to the bank, regardless of the consequences of telling the truth, you’ll be richer than your balance sheet could ever indicate. You can use whatever euphemism you like (hooking up, being a player --whatever) but you cannot parse your way out of how you relate to others. It does NOT depend on what “IS” is. The way you treat girls and/or women in life is the way you treat people, period. You are never too young to start looking for your own Reason for Living (I met mine at 18), but never, ever settle. Marry for love only. Love is kind of like obscenity in that I can’t define it for you exactly, but you will know it when you see it. Find a girl just like the girl who married your dad - someone who shows you she loves you every day, who inspires you to do the same, who is her own person without being self-absorbed, who is a firm role model, but quick to laugh, to hug (and to the finish line). Bonus if
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 3 you can find an equally good chef, but you can’t have everything, even when you own the handbook on being a man. Choose your mate wisely, and you’ll never lack passion for getting into bed, but you won’t have a life worth sharing if you don’t have a passion for getting out of bed each day. If you are lucky enough to combine your passion with your work, it won’t even feel like work. But a man who does not discover and pursue his passion in life is just marking time. It’s almost impossible to perfect the art of achieving manhood without looking to your own dad. You are one of the lucky ones who can look to his dad as an example of the right way to do things. He is well traveled in every sense, learning his way around a rugby field, a wine list, a construction site, and a board room. He’s equally at home in a tavern back home or a fine restaurant, but most at home in his kitchen with family and friends. He’s always worked hard, but never at the expense of knowing what you and your siblings were doing or what you look like. He’s taught you that it’s unmanly to abandon a friend, to break a promise, or to hit anyone in anger, and that it’s never sissy to kiss your old man good night, even when you’re all grown up at 18. He is his own man, but he does not want you to try be him, or to be just like him, but to be your own man. And so you are. Happy 18th, you are well on your way.
4 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
September 20, 2002 I used to waste a lot of time looking forward to the time when life with children would become “easier.” One of my older sisters laughed when I told her I was looking forward to when the kids would be out of preschool, or at least out of diapers, because THEN life would be so much easier. She clued me in to a fact which gets truer with time: it does not get any “easier” with the advent of the next phase, it just gets differenter. There was a time when it was impossible to sit down and read the newspaper because some child was likely to lick a socket, trip down a stairwell, or bonk a head if I turned my head for a moment. Now I can read the entire paper, but I can’t hear a siren without wondering if one of my kids is driving the car anywhere within earshot. When they were tiny, the children instantly began yipping at my heels like so many pavlovian puppies every time the phone rang. They could have been napping, playing quietly, or riding their bike down the street, but if I answered the phone, I was suddenly surrounded and outnumbered by very short, loud, and demanding relatives. Today it’s no easier, just a bit different. I can reason with them, and they are old enough to understand the threats that I pantomime if they swarm me when I am on the phone, but that does not mean that their expectations have changed, only their tactics. When I turn my back and plug my free ear to demonstrate that someone ELSE is talking to me just now, they resort to hastily scribbled questionnaires, with handy YES and NO boxes for me to check. I check away to make them go away.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 5 I later discovered that I had given “written permission” to dole out a case of Sam’s Club drink pouches to an army of kids, to host six kids for an impromptu overnight, and to rummage through my purse for my credit card so someone could order an exceptionally hoochie outfit from Nubileteens.com. It was then the kids’ turn to plug their ears as I abandoned pantomiming in favor of an even more dramatic interpretive dance, accompanied by primal screeching, to get them to understand that I cannot communicate with two different parties at once. Interpretive dance is apparently difficult for them to grasp - I’ve performed many encores. If your children are little, it is an exhausting, constant stage as far as discipline goes, but their transgressions are easier to handle, and your choices are far simpler. I fondly recall the days when we agonized over the choice between a stern lecture and a time out versus a brief explosion and a quick pop on the bum. It may drive you crazy that your child almost literally plays in traffic, or cuts their own and their friend’s hair not once but three times. Take comfort in knowing that a merely menacing glare will shield your eight year old from any temptation he may have to throw a party while you are out of town. I have yet to find an antidote to that apparent compulsion ten years down the road. There was a time that I was so consistently sleep-deprived that I could nurse a baby, soothe a bad dream away, or do a final load of laundry with one eye open and the other in full REM sleep. Getting back to sleep after tending to children and/or chores was never a problem because I was never really awake in the first place. I dreamed of the day when life would be easier, when I could count on all four kids sleeping consistently through the night so that I could, too. Still dreaming. If they are not waking me up with their midnight phone calls from friends they JUST saw, they are keeping me up (teenagers curiously become most talkative just as you would otherwise be hitting the quilts and turning out the light). I think they choose that hour to open up because they know
6 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) I am too exhausted to speak. I’m forced to practice “active listening” instead of handing out the unsolicited advice they avoided by avoiding me before 11:00 p.m. I am no longer awake during the wee hours to change soggy sheets or to rock-a-bye, but those tasks now seem a whole lot more productive than worrying between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. about things I can’t even recall at 8:00 a.m. Once everyone was weaned, I used to buy six gallons of milk a week (shoppers have looked in my grocery cart and assumed a snow storm was coming - in March - because of all the milk in there). That was five gallons to drink, and one to spill all over the blessed kitchen. (Consequently, the children learned a little more … slang at my knee than perhaps was healthy, but I am confident milk’s benefits balanced that out.) I still buy six gallons of milk a week, but life is no simpler now that I’m not routinely mopping up a gallon a week. Oh, it’s still spilling all over the place, but the kids are old enough to clean it up themselves now. The fact that they don’t clean it up just points to my sister’s observation. Life hasn’t gotten any easier in that department, just differenter, and I’ve stopped wishing for anything different. If there are worse things than sticky floors, I can easily wait to find out about them, and besides, the smell of sour milk kind of grows on you after a while.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 7
Keeping A Dedicated Line
October 4, 2002 Raising girls means having to establish and maintain a dedicated line. We lack a dedicated fax line at home, so the occasional fax attempt here is often thwarted by a girl who is camped out on the phone dissecting who said what to whom, who likes somebody else, and who dumped whom first. But we do have a dedicated line of communication, regardless of my girls’ innate preference to talk with someone cooler than I (such as, oh, most anyone…). The problem with maintaining that line is that the girls often tap into it at inopportune times, such as when I am on the phone with someone else, on the computer, or hanging over the precipice of deep sleep. Their timing is an unwritten test. If I cannot make myself stop what I am doing (and really enjoying, especially if it involves sleep…) long enough to listen and respond to whatever is so important to them at that moment, then I cannot reasonably expect them to listen to me at times that could be annoying to them, such as, well, just about any time communicating is my idea. The discarded cotton balls around here attest to the attempts I keep making at effective, fruitful, instructive communication with our three girls, but I remain undaunted. While the older two have made sighs, shrugs, and monosyllabic replies into an art form, I can rely on our youngest to help keep the lines open. She not only answers my questions in full, cheerful sentences, she even engages me in conversation. When I have the three of them in the car with me (excellent forum for a captive audience) our youngest will sometimes ask,
8 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) “Mom, what does that word mean?” This prompts the two older ones to shout, “DON’T ASK HER THAT!! SHE WILL JUST SAY, ‘WELL, WHAT DO YOU THINK IT MEANS?” AND THAT IS SO DORKY WE CAN’T STAND IT. DON’T ENCOURAGE MOM!!!” Pouncing on their younger sister like this is merely the teenaged way of saying that they do not appreciate my Socratic methods so much anymore. Even if my response is drowned out by the older ones, I am happy there is active communication going on among them. Much as my girls wish I would only speak when spoken to, my insistence about initiating conversation has been validated and vindicated by social scientists. My Reason for Living recently sent me a study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health which found that mothers who are consistently talking with and listening to their teenage girls, and keeping consistent tabs on their whereabouts, are not just cementing their future relationships with their daughters in adulthood, but helping to prevent their own premature grandparenthood. Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, summarizes the study: “It’s all about TALKING, not ‘The Talk,’ - the dreaded talk about sex.” My girls would roll their eyes about this, but I honestly do not LIKE delving into any version of THE TALK with them - it’s just part of my job. (Besides, whenever I do they immediately cover their ears and say BLABLABLA really loud.) The good news is that you don’t HAVE to focus on THE TALK. Just a whole lot of talking about life in general is GOOD for you, and for your girls. Social science is on my side, encouraging me to babble incessantly at them about my tennis game, to craft questions so they cannot get away with a yes-or-no answer, and to use entertaining anecdotes that point out the important difference between being assertive (a good thing) and being aggressive (a negative thing among many middle school girls, which too often grows unchecked, resulting in bad line calls when they become adult women tennis players). But I digress.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 9 I have to maintain that dedicated line with them even though it is occasionally misused. One of my daughters (who shall remain nameless, but the other two want to point out that they did NOT make this mistake) once asked me to leave my incredibly comfortable cocoon to drive her to school when her dad was perfectly capable. I said, “No,” and rolled over. She played the trump card. “But Mom . . . I REALLY need to talk to you.” I sprinted out of bed, into My Reason for Living’s sweat suit, and revved up the car. We had gone two blocks, could almost see out the semi-defrosted windshield, yet I still had to coax her to talk. This had to be a biggy. “Well, honey . . . what did you need to talk about?” “Mom, did you read the paper yesterday?” “Not the whole thing - something bothering you?” “Well, did you see that there’s a shoe store having a buy one/get the next pair half off sale . . .?” I stomped on the breaks and ripped off a lengthy, extemporaneous lecture about NEVER dragging me from a warm bed into a cold car to have a heart-to-heart about SHOES, CLOTHING or ANY ACCESSORIES ever again. We then shared a heavy silence together. I knew I’d finally achieved a major communication breakthrough with her when she shrugged her shoulders, turned on MY radio, and muttered “OK, Mom, don’t have such a cow.” And it was uttered as a complete sentence, too.
10 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Vote for Wifey
October 25, 2002 With campaign season in full swing, the media is replete with candidate profiles arranged by consultants so that the voters can get to know the candidate as “a real person,” more than just a two-dimensional position statement on the issues. Voters apparently love family men, so every male candidate trots out the wife and kids as proof of their valued families. Fine. Occasionally, there are also articles written about the wives behind the candidates (not beside them, mind you), welcoming voters into their homes, so to speak. I would feel a real kinship to the wife (or husband) of a candidate who is interviewed in a kitchen which may have been recently redone (to stimulate the economy and all) but you cannot see the new countertops. They are piled high with back packs, junk mail, art projects, game pieces, fabric swatches, unsigned progress reports, expired invitations, assorted keys and two forgotten lunches which had moldered in the wife’s back seat after a couple of days on the road of good intentions (which has WAY too many exits). If we were to be afforded a realistic view inside the candidate’s family, the interview would have to be distilled over several hours of attempted conversation with the reporter, interrupted by the phone’s incessant ring, the doorbell, the dryer buzzer, the neighbor’s dog who wanders in the front door and children who charm their visitor by saying, “Mom, I forgot to tell you but you need to drive carpool to dance class today . . .” (After this child is banished for the remainder of the interview, the phone will only
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 11 ring more as she calls her mother from her cell phone in the other room.) Instead, we are made to feel inadequate (if not completely cynical) as the reporter would have us believe that the wife finds cookie baking more calming than a hot bath, that she has NO opinions about her husband’s work whatsoever, and that any work that she does outside of her serene, immaculate home on behalf of his campaign is only because he has asked her to. In other words, although she is educated, probably speaks polling data better than I speak English, runs their entire household and then some since her husband is campaigning full time, she is just as wifey and docile as she can be. Puh-lease. Too many candidates from both sides of the aisle would have us believe that they chose a wifey for life. But why, in 2002, are we to believe that “a family man,” is someone who has delegated the entire workings of the family to his wife? Furthermore, why would he delegate the incredibly difficult task of pretty much single handedly raising a family and running a household to someone who is so vacuous that she pays no mind to his work and only helps him out when asked? It’s a Hilary thing. Like her or not, she has made it nearimpossible to be a political wife with a brain, for fear of the inevitable comparison that would be drawn. First she inadvertently dissed stay-at-home moms with her “making tea and baking cookies” blooper. Then she lost brownie points when she showed more interest in getting herself appointed to fix health care than in being First Lady. After that bombed, she tried to be a traditional First Lady, but it was already too late for her critics. When she was publicly humiliated by her husband’s priapitic behavior, we all held our breath, wondering just how brutally she would punish him. (I would have personally lent her a rusty razor, if she had only asked.) Instead, she tore a page out Tammy Wynette’s songbook and stood by her man. She did the wifiest, most self-effacing thing a wife can do, putting family first, but she
12 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) was lambasted for not having any backbone. Bless her heart, she could not win for losing when it came to being a “politically correct” wife. What stuns me more than anything about this wifey phenomenon is that we are supposed to care at all. I have yet to see a profile about the husband behind any candidate this year, let alone a hubby who shares his favorite recipes, laundry tips, or makes a point of noting that he has no interest in or opinions about politics, he just happens to sleep with someone who lives, eats and breathes the stuff. Ironically, it’s the female politicians who offer voters meat and potatoes issues to digest. I don’t know whether Deb Sofield, Michelle Shain, Phyllis Henderson, or Tommie Reece bake cookies. I hope that if they do churn out a batch for their kid’s class, they expect a medal for it just like I did (a medal yet to be awarded - not that I’m bitter.) I don’t know or care whether their spouses manage their campaigns or drive all the carpools. I do know where they stand on neighborhoods, trees, economic development, and school construction, because these are the issues I think about when I am schlepping kids, digging through the pile on my countertops, or baling dirty laundry -- but not when baking cookies. I try to be a good wife, but I never bake cookies, and I rarely vote for anyone who does.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 13
Things I Didn’t Know They Needed
November 1, 2002 Been doing some baby shopping lately. No announcement pending (although I do enjoy threatening the kids with the possibility of another sibling every now and then), but our frig is so covered with baby announcements that I thought I would catch up on gifts before these babies get their drivers licenses. We’ve been out of the baby business for about ten years. There are so many new, indispensable, and completely USELESS inventions lining the shelves now that it’s hard to choose the gift that will best help these new parents get their baby into Harvard germ-free, stain-free, and hassle-free. I only wish I had thought of and patented one of these things so that we could afford that fifth child and feel complete, if not sane. For the OCD parent, there is now a handy, padded, adorable and of course washable gingham wrap with custom-fitting Velcro to protect your teething baby from slobbering all over the disgusting-when-you-really-think-about-it handle on the shopping cart. For the normal parent, this is just another thing that starts out as an OK idea, but ends up stuffed into a brimming diaper bag, falls out on the sticky floor of the car, never makes it into the laundry, and is ultimately tossed back to quiet the squalling baby in stalled traffic. For my part, I have always subscribed to the peck o’ dirt theory. Kids are going to eat a peck of dirt before they reach six anyway (OK, two . . .) which only boosts their little immune systems. What’s wrong with giving them a head start by letting them gum away on the shopping cart handle?
14 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) The shopping cart teether is obviously targeted to the tidy but oral shopper. There is a whole array of teething gems for specific occasions - silver teethers for formal wear, self-heating teethers for night time, teethers you freeze before use to help your baby chill out. There’s even a teething chaw held in place between the cheek and gums for the newest redneck in the family. I don’t remember owning official teething items. We had decidedly average babies who could not read labels to know which items were for teething anyway. Even if they could, babies are pretty maverick when it comes to teething. One of ours had a taste for books, especially Dr. Seuss. Chewed him spineless. Fed her the entire library that year. Another baby found bugs oddly soothing. When I thought about it, I did throw a wet wash cloth or two in the freezer for the baby to gnaw and thaw later. That was our only attempt at high-tech parenting. Two of ours were dedicated pacifier babies, which is pretty much like sucking on a Petri dish if you want to get microscopic about it. Despite all the “anti-bacterial” toys, clothing, soaps, books and sprays for babies out there, they still sell plain old “plugs.” Pacifiers help keep the peace, and boost moms’ immune systems, too. If babies use pacifiers, they drop pacifiers (sometimes accidentally). Whenever our baby got bored with hurling groceries on the floor, she’d fling the pacifier and I’d go wide for the pass. When I fumbled and “the plug” skidded across the floor, I just licked it clean myself before corking the baby’s shrieks with it (and we’ve both lived to tell the tale). Pacifiers have not improved much, though. They’ve got glow in the dark versions that I wished and cursed for under the crib 16 years ago, but they yet to perfect a semi-permanent model that the baby can’t eject. Then there is the diaper paraphernalia. There is now a musthave, very expensive, high tech, supposedly hermetically sealed diaper pail contraption. If a baby could wear this thing it might make sense, but this is designed for used diapers. The idea is to vacuum pack away soiled nappies in this thing so you only have
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 15 to empty it once a month or so. That’s the idea . . . but I have never suggested that a family - with or without a baby - buy and use one of these things while they are trying to sell their home. The conventional wisdom still prefers the aroma of freshly baked bread or cookies. Then there is the diapering stuff. Babies today apparently expect parents to use more lotions than a spa and to heat their baby wipes! Isn’t the idea to get the baby OUT of diapers as soon as possible? Correct me if I’m wrong, but odds are that even the most precocious toddler is going to fight graduating to “big boy pants” if his diaper changing rituals rival a Swedish massage. Whenever we had trouble conning our toddlers into self-serve training pants instead of the full service diaper routine, I snagged one of the frozen washcloths left over from their teething phase. Cured passive-aggressive toddler incontinence overnight. Since the baby gifts I need to find are even more overdue than the babies originally were, perhaps some colorful ice trays filled with soaked terry cubes will be just the thing to help these moms make room on the changing table for another baby. Not all of the must-have items for new parents are patented after all.
16 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Can’t Talk and ____ At the Same Time
November 15, 2002 Life has become so busy for so many that we attempt multitasking in order to cross off the greatest number of items on our to-do list in the least amount of time. Most multi-tasking involves doing something else while talking, usually on some kind of phone. My children constantly “talk” with several friends on the computer at the same time they are talking with another friend on the phone. My friend Susan makes/returns a few phone calls every time she gets in the car (and she has the insurance estimates to prove it). It is not unusual to see shoppers gliding up and down the aisles at the supermarket while talking on their cell phones. (I confess I have negotiated a really satisfying deal while navigating through the dairy and produce departments, but I somehow ended up with three times as much food as we needed when I hung up.) Jill says she feels less guilty about chatting on the phone if she irons a few pieces from the overflowing ironing basket at the same time. (Note: y’all need to call Jill more often, or at least talk longer…) Multi-tasking gets WAY out of hand when it involves a cell phone, a ballcock, and a flapper. And if you think you’re getting away with this, you are not (Phyllis). In fact, the quickest way to reduce your number of incoming calls is to install a wall phone in your water closet. Even your volume of telemarketing calls will dry up.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 17 My Reason for Living THINKS he is an expert multi-tasker, but he also is not. He believes he is so smart that he can practice “active listening” on the phone with me while tapping away on his computer. If he were as expert as he believes, our conversations would be a lot shorter, far more productive, and never wander off into contentious tangents debating whether he is paying more attention to his keyboard than he is to me. That new Curves place in town is built on masterful multitasking. Their exercise machines face inward along an oval-shaped perimeter. Peppy music (and a rather monotone Betty Boopvoiced announcer) move members from one machine to another, clockwise, at regular intervals. You complete a full exercise circuit in just 30 minutes. The concept enables women to combine two essential elements of healthy living and stress reduction: exercise and TALKING. Before Curves, I had almost given up on establishing any kind of exercise routine beyond the tennis courts. I’ve joined and quit the Life Center and the YMCA several times because I rarely made it out of the locker room. Someone would inevitably ask me a thought-provoking question (such as “How are you?”), and I’d start gabbing at a brisk pace. Thirty minutes later, it was time for me to hit the showers and get dressed for work. My jaw was always toned, but even if I stumbled into some really deep gossip it did not raise my heart rate or generate much of a sweat. Now when I leave Curves, I feel sweaty, sore, virtuous, and wellinformed all at the same time. If they wanted to, they could really take off with this multitasking concept combining sweating and yakking. As it is, the chat aspect is kind of hit or miss. If they coordinated different topics with different days or times, they would have to take reservations. Monday mornings could be dedicated to new moms -- topic of the day: “Breastfeeding or bottles? Discuss amongst yourselves.” It would be an ideal work out/support group environment. Wednesdays could be for the gourmet cook “foodie” types - they would work off all their menu ideas together in advance. Friday’s
18 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) topic: “What your teen is doing this weekend, and what you can do to prevent it.” Tuesdays could be set aside for members who need to vent about their hyper-critical mothers (OK - perhaps Tuesdays AND Thursdays for that one). But I digress. Exercising and chatting seems to be the only multi-tasking I can do even moderately well. The computer is a single-task medium. I fall into a kind of a trance in front of it. Conversation in front of the monitor became verboten when I realized (too late) that I’d mechanically agreed to let some child (can’t remember which) clean out my wallet to underwrite who knows what. As often as I talk on the phone and cell phone, I cannot do it and something else simultaneously. Not well, anyway. If Mom calls during “The West Wing,” I can’t manage to say “uh-huh” and “You don’t say!” at appropriately spaced intervals. If I fold laundry while on the phone, my Reason For Living fusses about peeling apart mismatched socks and flimsy nighties commingling with his manly boxers. If I talk on the phone while someone else in the car, I get confused, dropping off obstinate clients at piano lessons they insist they have not taken in 30 years, and suggesting that my 13 year old consider a nice condo instead of summer camp. The only way to avoid the phone and the multi-tasking it provokes is to take a leisurely walk alone, or better yet with My Reason for Living. We are about to set out now. But first, we’ll empty our pockets of cell phones, and I’m also going to spit out my gum, just to be on the safe side.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 19
Gimme A Break Today
November 29, 2002 Just when I thought there was nothing left to throw me into a full snit, some fathead lawyer in New York sues McDonald’s Corporation and two franchises in the Bronx on behalf of three behemoth teens. They claim that the McDonald’s Hamburglar put a gun to their heads, force fed them greasy fries and quarter pounders for years, and — gasp — made them obese. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Samuel Hirsch, says McDonald’s has targeted, “lured” children into their establishments by offering free toys with their Happy Meals (these teens eat Happy Meals…?) so they don’t notice they are cramming their faces with calories. Hirsch is the self-anointed champion for chubby children in his state because his attempts to sue McDonald’s on behalf of several, large adult clients hit the greasy skids faster than those new streamlined drive-thru lines. Out of four similar cases involving adults, three have been dismissed so far. Hirsch is hoping that having kids weigh in with similar slob stories will tip the scales in his favor and at least get him to trial, or better yet, a nice hefty settlement. The kids say they did not know that McDonald’s is not actually “good for you.” Fair enough. But what about their parents? If the concern were truly for these poor, misled children and not for McDonald’s Super-Sized pockets, there would be a class action suit against the parents for their negligence in feeding their kids a steady diet of drek. The father of one of the plaintiffs says he never saw any information posted about the nutritional value of McDonald’s
20 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) food and “always believed McDonald’s was healthy for my children.” (His 19 year old “child” is a 270 pound waif who routinely visits her local McDonald’s twice a day, and often opts to “Super Size” her order.) My research does not indicate that his daughter ever chose to order a McDonald’s salad, or that she ever worked off some of her meals in the free on-site playground, but her picture indicates that she exceeded the size limit for the playground a few Happy Meals ago. If this case gets to trial, parents like him will stampede to the microphones and into Hirsch’s office, joining the chorus of “I didn’t know either!” If it looks like it could actually PAY BIG BUCKS to be that incredibly stupid, then by God they’ll all become official cretins for The Cause. In the meantime, there is an easy way to help even illiterate parents recognize junk food if they can’t see it for themselves. A junk food tax. I’m serious. Add a penny — or even a nickel — to the tab every time every time we opt for a honey bun at the Spinx instead of an apple and it will call our attention to the fact that we are choosing to eat junk, but at least WE would be paying for that choice, instead of all the healthy apple-eaters out there. It would help us make wiser decisions about what we eat, what our kids eat, and it would also offset the growing cost society is bearing as a result of our collective passion for junk food. Former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher predicts obesity will soon displace smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. While fewer Americans are smoking each year, we are eating more and more and more. He describes obesity as a national epidemic. His recent report finds that 65% of American adults are classified as overweight, 33% of those are obese. And while the number of over-weight adults in U.S. has doubled in the past 20 years, the number of overweight adolescents has tripled. We’ve been taxing the hell out of tobacco and alcohol for years, so why NOT tax junk food, too? I recently asked a lawmaker-
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 21 friend why there was no tax on junk food. After furtively checking my shoulder blades for the grotesque second head he assumed must be growing there, he politely dismissed my brilliant idea as absurd “because junk food would be too hard to define.” (I know what you’re thinking, but no, this guy does not live in the Bronx with his little endomorph.) Unlike my lawmaker friend, My Reason for Living loves me, but he also thinks my idea is nutty — for different reasons. He has a weakness for Milk Duds that he believes should not be any of the government’s darn business. Furthermore, he says weirdoes like me, who are curiously immune to the urge to make a U-turn when the HOT NOW sign is illuminated, have no business suggesting a Twinkie tax as a way to call attention to the fact that we’re eating junk food. He says, “Any idiot knows when he’s eating junk food.” But if that were true, attorney Hirsch would not have any clients and McDonald’s would only be defending itself against valid claims about serving scalding hot coffee and alleged rat heads in their burgers. If this class action suit makes it to court, law-makers won’t need to levy a “Twinkie tax.” The cost of a settlement will be passed on to the rest of us, and we’ll be paying for the break we deserve today with our wallets along with our waistbands.
22 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Vague Symptoms of Undetermined Cause
December 13, 2002 I am driving down the road. The car phone rings. I do not recognize the number at first, so I do not answer (now that telemarketers have taken to dialing on MY dime to hawk their wares). The number seems vaguely familiar, though, so I rack my memory for some connection. The school nurse. Of course. We’ve only just recovered from three snow days with no snow, and therefore nothing to entertain and exhaust the kids, so it only stands to reason that at least one child feels the need to spend even MORE time at home with me. I check the nurse’s message. I keep driving. The phone rings again. This time it’s My Reason for Living who is just leaving the nurse’s office, driving home a child suffering from vague symptoms (mild nausea, lethargy, headache, muscle soreness, halitosis, bad hair, what-have-you) of undetermined causes. I praise him for being a great daddy, thank him profusely for collecting our child, and dodge the question he wanted to ask, which was, “Where were YOU when the school nurse called, anyway?” I keep driving. The phone rings again. This time the caller ID indicates HOME, so I answer. It is the child victim of vague symptoms of undetermined causes. She has been deposited at home, but her dad left without fixing her something to eat. I point out that nausea is not generally a symptom we feed, but that if her nausea has subsided enough to eat something, she might try some light broth. She is too weak to get up off the couch to fix something. Could I come home and fix something for her . . . please? I tell her I
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 23 cannot reach the kitchen from where I am driving just now. We share a long silence over the phone together. She offers a helpful suggestion. Since she might feel woozy by leaving the couch, how ‘bout if she just calls and ORDERS A PIZZA?? See paragraph three. I have been down this road so many times before I feel like I’ve paved it. When my eldest was in elementary school, I’m sure the school nurse considered nominating me for Bad Mommy of the Year — at first. That was the child who experienced so many vague symptoms of undetermined causes, and such miraculous cures on the way home from school, that he once asked if he could INVITE A FRIEND OVER when we reached our driveway. By the third grade, I did not have to post a sticky note reminding the nurse — and any hapless substitutes — that I was NOT to be called unless she had personally witnessed at least one vague symptom in 3-D and Technicolor. Another nurse at another school once called me for authorization to apply ice and an elastic bandage on my child’s barked shin. This was an injury that I had recklessly ignored the night before (just ask my child) by refusing to drive to the Eckerd for an expensive (but really cool) re-usable ice pack and an Ace bandage. I advised the nurse that she might be wasting her time since the patient had already refused a peck on the forehead and a frozen peas compress. Luckily, nursing was this woman’s calling, and she enjoyed treating the whole child when time allowed. “Honey,” she soothed, “all this child really needs is a camera and a director. She is starring in her own personal drama today and I’m happy to play a supporting role.” I don’t always keep driving. I deal with more than one nurse at one school. With two of our kids, I don’t even bother to ask what’s wrong, I drop everything and zip to school when called because faking could never be as attractive as being with friends at school. They would not dream of inventing symptoms just to see who was on Mom’s emergency backup list when Mom and Dad are out
24 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) of town just for the day. It would not occur to them to be a backseat driver when Mom’s emergency friend picks them up. They would never dare suggest that Mom’s emergency friend spring for lunch and a video since hanging out at Mom’s office is kind of . . . boring. Even my Oscar winners feel legitimately puny sometimes, and I never hesitate to take them home when a bug, or an overly aggressive swing on the jungle gym lays them low. The ironic thing about my budding actors is that they are so sweet when they’re under the weather, certainly more docile than usual. I am not one of those moms who sends sick kids to school, either. And we all know who “that mom” is, too. The one who habitually bundles off the kid who’s sporting a neon-green nose and a two-pack-a-day hack as she lays rubber leaving the carpool line. Then her kid sneezes on my kid. Then her kid high-fives my kid. Then her kid wrestles with my kid during recess. A few days later, I’m driving down the road. The car phone rings. I look at the Caller ID and experience vague symptoms of a pre-determined cause. I’ve been down this road before.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 25
REAL Life In The Slow Lane
December 27, 2002 Our four anonymous children and my Reason for Living have been threatening to write a rebuttal letter to the editor for years now. They know darn well that anything they say or do can, and probably will, be written about them, yet they consistently supply me with fodder. Then they caterwaul when they recognize themselves in print. I remain unrepentant. This column is cathartic for me (and cheaper than intensive therapy), and every time a reader says, “MY kids do that all the time, too!” I take comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one dealing with the drama du jour. So call it equal time, or if you’re like my family, call it victims’ rights, but this is their one-time chance to set the record straight about just how slow life in our lane really is, in their own words. Anonymous # Four I’m glad that my mom does this otherwise she’d be yelling at us all the time just to get her stress out. I never read it. I’ve only read it, like, twice because I don’t really like the newspaper unless it’s comics. I read the one about “Tooth Fairy Arguments.” I liked that one because it talked about me a lot. But I know she writes it because people always ask, “Did YOU do that?” Every Sunday night she bugs us for ideas for her column, unless she thought about it before time. Which is usually never. She usually writes about my brother and one of my sisters because they have done more things that need to be written about. I don’t know why Mom calls Dad her Reason for Living because she never calls him that at our house. She calls him different names, kind of like all the different names she calls me
26 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) all the time. She calls him Sweetie, Honey, My Boyfriend, and his regular name. That’s all for now! Anonymous # 2 My mother tends to stretch, well, embellish the truth. Even from a young age I re-member when I would hear her tell the same story to several different people at several different times, and each time, it would… grow. My siblings supply her with topics enough to stretch, but I on the other hand do not. Within our family, I am recognized as the perfect child. I do things without being told, I can wait much longer than 10 minutes between phone calls to my mother, and I know exactly how far I can push her before I hit “too far.” My perfect child status was hard to achieve, but once I reached the position, life has been easy going. I am the only child that can get away with using Mom’s computer; I am the only one that the others HAVE to obey. I rarely ever do anything to deserve punishment (although I am still not allowed to spend the night out, the ONLY one of my friends with such a rule… a rule that I do not understand). I am the only Herlong child who is blessed with the knack of handling Mom. Anon number won I didn’t reely go too boarding skool I been in da basement for too years. I just got out. The purson they rite about the most isn’t reely me it’s the dog. I red about it in won of my inglish books its called personefecashun. Anyway I am not the perfect child momma calls me the speshul child. Sumtimes I bite people. Sorry that was the dog again shes reel smart. Um lets see wel im good at drawring and I like to reed but im not very good. Momma is reel nice she takes me to the park sumtimes and we play fetch no sorry that was the darn dog again at the park we have picknicks. And then its back 2 the basement but its not so bad momma calls it my speshul place. Anonymous No. 3 Do not believe a single word that my mother ever says. Her stories start out innocent, but then she’ll get to the interesting part
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 27 and realize that it’s not as interesting as she thought. So she MAKES it interesting! It’s sometimes quite funny because something will have just happened, and then she’ll be on the phone chatting up one of her friends about it and I will notice something that DID NOT happen in the story. Not that I’m eavesdropping or anything… Don’t get me wrong, or any of us for that matter. We all love our mom. Just so you know, lately most of the stories are about my brother, or me. Because you’ve got the perfect child in one corner, the cute adorable child in another, THE BOY, and then . . . me, the moody teenager. Who do you think wins this one? Her RFL How strange we must look to anyone who reads Joan’s column. Well, please don’t believe a word of it, especially not any part that relates to me. It is all fiction, made-up, utterly false and fantastical. Starting with how she refers to me. How many times have I watched (and, with this column, read) with bemusement as she entertains and enlightens, always clever, always with good humor, and always (well, almost always) with something important to say. She is MY Reason for Living — my reason for drawing breath, for waking up in the morning, for putting one foot in front of the other, for laughing, for crying, for caring. She is my partner and she is my friend. With the four wonderful children she has given me, she is my life. In closing . . . We hope this finds you savoring memories of this Christmas, and we all wish you lots of love in the New Year, and that’s no exaggeration.
28 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
January 10, 2003 Just completed the annual ritual of buying a new calendar and new day timer for the New Year. Have also read a number of drippy musings lately about the wonders of a blank calendar, how it’s a literal “tabula rasa” laying out splendid possibilities for the future, and how sad it is to mar its pristine beauty with a catalogue of the merely mundane. Bla, bla, bla. That’s like buying a new refrigerator, mooning about all the delicious foods you could stash in it, and then moaning about the fact that you have to put boring things in there like milk, eggs, bread, and well, FOOD. DUH. If you don’t want to keep a calendar, and I mean keep it full, then why buy one at all? I don’t understand why the authors of these deep essays about blank calendars even buy calendars — after all, if they have the time to ponder that then they don’t exactly need to be budgeting their time. Let’s be honest. The best part about, and the only point OF, a new calendar is writing a lot of stuff in it. Otherwise all that blank space betrays the fact that your life is not quite so interesting or quite busy enough to warrant a calendar. We cannot function around here without my calendar. Even if the kids manage to jot something vital on their own calendars that involves ME and my car, they have learned the hard way to record it on my calendar too. If it’s not on MY calendar, the event may be happening, but only in some serene, parallel universe where children are never left waiting at the dentist office or where exasperated basketball coaches never wonder where that Herlong kid is this week. If we were really honest about ourselves through our calendars, we would record our actual daily schedule for all to see, such as:
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 29 6:15 a.m. to 6: 27 a.m. Stand in pouring rain, without hat, in Mexican standoff as puppy on other end of leash refuses to “one” or “two,” let alone “both.” 7:20 a.m. Cajole Reason for Living into driving carpool since still shivering from failed show down in the rain, therefore doubly daunted by busy day ahead. 7:31 a.m. Listen for car start, click on “The Today Show,” snuggle back under covers just for a few minutes. 9:14 a.m. Shake off Regis & Kelly-induced trance, crawl out of bed, turn on shower. 9:15 - 9:55 a.m. Glance over paper while feeding washing machine, return phone calls, check email, potty puppy again, mindlessly eat half a tin of “peppermint bark” for breakfast. 9:56 a.m. Discover shower left running. Learn that it only takes about 40 minutes to run out of hot water. 10:00 a.m. - 10:15 a.m. Dress without showering. Use extra cologne. Cure extreme case of bed-head with wet wash cloth. Apply new gob of sculpting gel. Redefine how “just fine” has to look on you for today. 10:16 a.m. -10:37 a.m. Lie to self, pretend to clean out pantry drawers, but actually search for that second tin of peppermint bark. 10: 38 a.m. Check calendar — note reminder for 11:00 appointment with client. 10: 40 a.m. Panic and bolt for the car. 11:10 a.m. - 12:10 p.m. Meet with client. Successfully ignore client’s sidelong glances and poorly suppressed smirks at today’s excuse for clean, well groomed coif in order to secure the business. And so on. But our conspicuous calendars only record events we want others to know about. I know all about all the really fun events going on in town: breakfasts, luncheons, black tie fundraisers, trunk shows, bible studies, Derby parties, Pampered Princess parties, you name it. They are all announced by clever, eyecatching invitations, and I see them on kitchen calendars in other
30 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) people’s homes, which is rather often in my line. I may not be invited to these events, I just like to know about them. Unlike my friend La, I’m at least coy about it. La squints at my kitchen calendar and editorializes. If my calendar sports an invitation hers does not, she comments. If my calendar lacks an invitation she has received, she comments. She is so into filling up her calendar that she always knows what she, and her family, are all doing six months from Tuesday. (So do I, but La says “nothing” doesn’t count.) She is so nosey about my calendar that I once crayoned a fake trip to Atlanta on it to throw her off the scent of a surprise baby shower for her that I’d planned with friends for that very weekend. It worked, sort of. She still ferreted out the surprise, but fumed for days in advance about how I could be so rotten as to plan a surprise shower and then plan a trip instead of attending it. At least she’s good looking. Because of blatantly nosey visitors like La (and tactfully nosey people like myself), my kitchen calendar is as full (looking) as possible. I write big events — things that legitimately take up the bulk of a day — in appropriately big letters, such as 1:00 p.m. MANICURE/PEDICURE!!! I make the nosey gawkers work a little harder by writing “filler” items on otherwise slow days in tiny, dainty script, such as: “School lunch menu: beanie-weenie, apple sauce & roll.” So I have been busy jotting down events big and small on my new calendar to make my life seem as interesting as I would like to think it is. I may not have it so planned out that I can tell you what we’re doing six months from Tuesday, but I’m pretty sure my ten year old will be lunching on fish sticks, green beans, and a fruit cup that day.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 31
Meanest Moms Unite
January 24, 2003 My children have crowned me “Meanest Mom in the World” countless times over the years, but lately I’ve been a winner, or first runner up, on at least a daily basis. The hype-meisters would have the winner believe she is not only THE meanest, but the ONLY mean mom on the planet. The nominating committee hopes I’ll become so lonely on my lofty perch that I’ll renounce my “mean and stupid rules” to become popular with the other “normal, nice moms.” These nice moms are allegedly tucking sawbucks into preschool lunchboxes, trafficking in furs and hot cars for surly teens, and shouting “Dip’n’Dots for Everyone!!” at every trip to the mall. I know better (one of the criteria for being Meanest Mom). I’m not alone, and I can prove it. I asked several of my otherwise-nicepeople-but-incredibly-mean-mom friends to share experiences that earned them the crown and title. The response has been so overwhelming this may be the first of two or more installments. For many of them, simply sticking to your guns, making sure a threat is no mere threat, has earned them a Lifetime Achievement Award among mean moms. My friend Venetia recently asked her six year old, “V8,” to clean up her toys. To put it mildly, the child went nuts: threw herself on the floor, kicked, screamed — truly an Oscar caliber performance. Venetia then CALMLY informed her darling daughter that since she would not do as asked (which would have taken all of five minutes), she would box up every toy on the floor herself, and donate it to Goodwill. Making good on this threat
32 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) took three large boxes (some favorite toys…) and an immediate car ride to Goodwill. Venetia says, “I unloaded all the toys, brought the kids home, and sent V8 to her room for the rest of the day. To say she was in a state of shock would be an understatement. Now when I ask her to clean up her playroom, it is spotless in a matter of minutes.” Grier is convinced that her mother, Ducky, was the Meanest Mother ever because when she was in the 8th grade at Hughes back in 1962, the cutest boy ever asked her to go on a hay ride to Hendersonville for a high school fraternity rush party. Ducky said NO. Grier might have an asthma attack (she never even mentioned, or objected to the real reason for the hayride – making out). Determined not to pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity, Grier spent the night with a friend and enjoyed a hayride in the back of a big enclosed truck to Hendersonville with the boy and 50 other people who had NICE parents. Making out was never an issue. Breathing is a prerequisite for swapping spit. As Grier recalls, “They called my parents at about 9 PM to retrieve me from Hendersonville because of an asthma attack. Mom thought I was down the street. So not only was she meanest and worst mother, she was RIGHT. I hated that more.” Leigh-Leigh was The Meanest because she insisted that First Week, originally celebrating graduating seniors’ first week after graduation, be limited to seniors – not freshmen, sophomores, or juniors. “That way they had something to look forward to.” Chelle agrees that her mom was the meanest mom ever. “She had ridiculous rules like a curfew (please), she wanted to know who, what, where, when, why, and how for EVERYTHING! I mean, really.” But the apple does not fall far. Now Chelle says she finds herself “saying the same damn things my mama said, and doing the same damn things my mama did! But that’s because I want to equip my kids with the same self-discipline, integrity, and the ability to make good, sound decisions and choices. My take is:
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 33 mean moms are the coolest moms on the planet. Look how cool I turned out!” San Dee was merely “The Witch of Waccamaw.” It’s hard to limit her title to just one incident, but she did insist on knowing where her daughter was and who she was with — long after other parents had given up asking. As San Dee fondly recalls, “This required me to host many functions so there could be a gathering, and it required me to sit through movies I abhorred, but at least I knew what was influencing her — for the most part. She frequently wished she had a multitude of siblings so I was not SO available.” Sarah’s kids, and some of their friends, called her “Safety Sarah” because she had a long list of rules that she was often told NO ONE ELSE ever had to follow, such as: she would not start the car until all seat belts were buckled. Sick kids are sick ALL day – no miraculous recoveries for after school activities. No dinner until homework and projects are DONE (food is a major motivator for teenage boys). You must at-tend a social event with the person who invited you first — no changing after the fact, even if THE GREATEST BOY asks you out later. Thank you notes must be written before you use the gift. If a teen party was at their house, all guests must be invited (no drop-ins by the hoards) and they had to follow the rules at their house, i.e. no drinking, smoking, drugs or sex, and Safety Sarah and her hubby were automatically invited to be on hand for the entire event. There is more, much more. I would be remiss if I did not tell you how mean Sandy and Diane are, too. And Betty was horribly mean to her seven children – it’s wonder ANY of them have friends today. As My friend Katherine tells her kids when they whine about hearing NO, “I’m not here to make you happy, but to help you develop into decent human beings.” Mean Moms unite! If YOU are The Meanest Mom you know, tell me about it. Misery loves company, I need more ammo, and our kids all need to know that
34 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) their friends really are the very FEW people with normal, nice moms.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 35
Worser Mean Moms
February 7, 2003 Despite our children’s rumor mongering to the contrary, Mean Moms are alive and well and legion. I’ve heard from most of them over the past two weeks. A few had begun to believe they were the last Mean Mom on earth, or at least in their neighbor-hoods, where other “cool” moms suggest their daughters wear MORE makeup, en-gage in pubescent pillow talk, laugh when their son has 70 of his closest friends drop by, shop as a competitive sport, and petition to have grades in “popularity” included on report cards from middle school on. Meanwhile, Mean Moms are daily enduring the slings and arrows of eye rolling, door slamming, foot stomping, whining, and crying as they lay down the law, and enforce it. They are called many things while walking their beat, such as Stupid, Big Dork, Idiot, Witch (and other rhymes…) but “popular” never comes up. I thought I was the Meanest Mom, with all the rules necessary to produce moral, educated tax payers and achieve my planned obsolescence, but I feel downright slack next to some other Mean Moms. There has been so much rule swapping among Mean Moms lately, that as one five year old moaned, “Now she’ll be even worser.” It’s never too late to be meaner, or to become mean in the first place, (but it does require that you and/or your child will have to find something more constructive to do than hang out at the mall on weekends). I was bolstered by fellow mean moms’ responses, and many of them have allowed me to share their inspirations with you, which conveniently fall into handy categories. School Days
36 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Sandy’s kids had NO music or TV while doing homework. Homework done at desk in their room — not on the floor, or in the kitchen, etc. Only nature shows on TV after homework done. One soda per week, and only on Friday after school. Mary’s family has NO TV on school nights, period. Jeanne’s kids will NEVER have their own TV, phone, or computer in their own rooms because, “It’s my responsibility to know what they are watching and when, and who they are ‘chatting’ with on the computer or phone, and when.”Lynn’s kids’ homework problems or oversights are their problems, not hers. “I did my own homework in school, with no help from my parents, which made sense since my parents were not around to help me study in college either. If they ‘forget’ to do their homework, I will not write a note, and they can’t ‘feel sick’ and stay home.” Weekends Kiss Mom and Dad goodnight when you come in, even if you have to wake them up, to make sure everyone is home on time and no one has been drinking. Mary Jane’s kids know that they cannot attend “field parties with kegs,” period. No “car dates” until age 16. No alcohol or drugs served or tolerated at our house. “Nothing good STILL ever happens after midnight. Midnight curfew as long as this is their address.” Diane’s boys were never allowed to just “hang out” at the mall. “That was HUGE. You’d think they’d be permanently scarred!” No spending the night out once you can drive. Betty’s seven children never spent the night out once they turned 12, but they could have as many friends spend the night at their house as they wanted — and they did! Melanie’s kids see NO R-rated movies . . . period Cokes on weekends only. Self Reliance Sandy’s kids have had to do their own laundry ever since they could toddle to the machine and reach the knobs. No exceptions. No clean underwear? Sorry, not her problem. Melanie cancels or reduces allowances if kids’ rooms/bathrooms look too much like a pig-sty. Sandy required her oldest son call to explain to his
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 37 grandfather why he chose to pierce his ear. (He removed the earring rather than share this news with his granddad.) Diane’s 9 year old son was yanked out of bed one night to put away the Slip’n’Slide that was murdering the lawn for the three weeks since he had used it. He is 26 now and STILL talks about it, but he never forgot to put something away again. Cars One Mean Mom reports that her kids all learn to drive on a stick shift because it re-quires two hands and a kid’s full attention. No radio on for the first six months of driving. No cell phone talking while driving, period. If you have to call, pull over. Lynn’s kids each drove their “own” car once they turned 17, but they also have to earn and pay for their own car insurance. Diane took away her son’s use of their car for six months in high school, “a well-deserved punishment for his one-too-many-times ‘misrepresenting the truth.’ That helped improve the problem, but put a lot more wear and tear on my car, and my nerves, for the six months I had to transport an indignant 16 year old everywhere.” Liz had the nerve to keep her eldest daughter’s car at home for at least the first semester of college. She did this despite the fact that this University is an endless 90 minutes away, and NOBODY else attends this school so bumming rides to and from school would be nearly impossible, even though EVERY other student there reportedly has wheels. No, mean Liz insisted that college students in her family only have wheels when their GPA is a 3.0 or above. Smart rule (and her smart kid now has wheels this semester). Many of the Mean Moms I’ve heard from are the grown children of formerly Mean Moms who now seem like living saints and nearby sages to them. Funny about that. Being a Mean Mom is far from glamorous now, but the glory can, and does, come later. As Uncle Doug always says, “Nobody ever brags on how lenient their mama was.”
38 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
What Happens Next
February 21, 2003 All teenagers are going to drink, i.e. abuse, alcohol at some time or another. You can file that nugget under “DUH.” All teenagers are also pre-disposed to lying about whether they drink or have drunk. And I don’t mean “even” the good kids, I mean “especially” the good kids. It’s the nature of the beast. I was a good kid and I lied to my parents during my teens. Once. If your teen is the exception to the rule — would never drink, and would never lie about it — you don’t need to read any further, and my hat is off to you. Most of us have exceptionally normal teens who will occasionally cave into temptations to drink, but that does not mean I accept that as the rule. The question for me is not whether teens will drink or lie about it, the only question is WHAT HAPPENS NEXT when they’re caught. There is swift justice at our house, and no court of appeals. I’d like to think we’re scarier than any cop or judge could be. But we’re not. I’ve become intensely curious lately about WHAT HAPPENS NEXT when the cops get to decide, and several nice people in law enforcement have helped me ace a crash correspondence course in the subject. It is sobering. If you’re 17, the law considers you an adult, regardless of whether your behavior is anything but. You go to magistrates court or general sessions court. You have a record. You could lose or become ineligible for a Life Scholarship. The law and consequences are less severe, more forgiving, for minors 16 and under (unless you’re talking to a terrified minor about it).
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 39 For a minor caught in a first time alcohol offense, there are three options: First, jail. But as one officer explained, this option is almost never exercised because it would be a bad waste of a good jail cell, and the cell is overcrowded as it is. Secondly, there is Summons/Release. Parents retrieve their child and then an officer from Youth Services is assigned the case. Youth Services uses an array of tools, any-thing from counseling to actual jail time, to make sure that young offenders learn the error of their ways and go on to become good citizens, educated people who not only avoid but accurately spell recidivism. Unlike the officers on the scene of a teenaged soiree gone bad, the folks at Youth Services have a 3-D picture of the youthful offender by the time they are introduced. If that child has any kind of history with the law, Youth Services knows about it, and deals with that first time alcohol offense like the troubling pattern it has become, not as a first-time-anything. The third option is a direct referral to Family Court. This is the case when it is truly the first time a juvenile has run crossways with the law. The case file for a first time offender — e.g., possession of alcohol by a minor — winds up in the Juvenile Diversion Services within the Solicitor’s office. Juvenile Diversion Services works to ensure that Youth Services never meets these first time offenders down the road. It doesn’t matter if the first time offender is a good kid, has a good head on his shoulders, or even if the parents have a really dap-per lawyer — all first time alcohol offenders under 17 get to go through the same three month program. Drinking on a Saturday night may seem like no big deal to kids, but submitting to a drug test, taking a tour of the Perry Correctional Institute, and per-forming 10 to 75 hours of service at “approved” community service venues (this is not like Beta Club service hours, kids) is a pretty big deal. If the minor successfully completes the program, nothing is filed with the clerk’s office (no “permanent record”) but it does
40 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) remain within law enforcement files in case the message does not sink in enough the first time. I’ve also gathered a few more pearls of wisdom to add to your strand: If you’re under 21 and get pulled over for drunk driving, you can refuse to take a breath, blood or urine test, but refusal means automatic suspension of your driver’s license. If you’re under 21 and register an alcohol concentration of just 0.02 or greater (that would be achieved by having a beer or two for most teens), your license is automatically suspended. Your kid is not immune from trouble as “the designated driver.” If a sober driver is pulled over while hauling home a carload of inebriated cronies and those pals have open containers of alcohol, it is the designated driver who is charged, and it is the designated driver’s parents’ insurance rates that skyrocket as a result. If you’re out of town and your kid throws a party, you can call the police to break up the party at your house (I know). Doing so will PROBABLY protect you from the terrifying liability to which said soiree exposes you. The cops welcome citizen involvement to stop and prevent teenaged alcohol abuse, and this involvement can be anonymous. If you call the police because the neighbors’ kid has turned the house into a throbbing mosh pit, the owners of the house will never know who blew the whistle (and you may prevent drunk kids from driving and hurting themselves or someone else). If you know of a so-called adult who routinely doles out alcohol to minors, the cops want to know who that is, too, but that sorry adult will never know who tipped off the police. Contrary to teen perceptions, the law enforcement folks playing a role in What Hap-pens Next are nice people who are not out to “get” anyone. They want first time offenders to avoid becoming repeat-offenders so badly that it isn’t even funny. And it isn’t.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 41
Who Was That Masked Mom?
March 21, 2003 I have no cape, mask, sword, or magnifying glass, but I am a crime fighter. It’s part of my expansive job description as “role model” for my impressionable children. My kids are so young they often mistake my bit for justice as embarrassing behavior, but crime fighters have to remain impervious to negative peer pressure (and whiney, mortified children). Crime fighters also need that “child lock” feature on their cars so that teens can’t make good on threats to jump out when the going gets tough. If someone is dangerously tailgating me because a stoplight turns green before I’m done writing a check for lunch money, I am the crime fighter who helpfully proceeds just UNDER the speed limit to teach him not to be such an aggressive, antsy driver. If some jerk runs a red light, I am the crime fighter who helpfully blasts my horn for 30 seconds in case a cop is within earshot to come in as back up. My child in the front seat slumps down to the floor out of sight every time I try to help out this way, giving me plenty of wing span to point out the perp. As we approach school drop off, there is almost always a crime just waiting to hap-pen, but I am ever ready. Here is the crime scene: there are two carpool lines for entering the drop off zone. One north bound line takes a right turn into the drop off circle. The other southbound line, my line, must take a left turn into the drop off circle. North bound traffic has two lanes, so drivers who are NOT taking kids to school can proceed in the left hand lane without delay. But almost EVERY day, someone in north bound traffic decides that carpool rules of safety and courtesy are only for other people.
42 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) These brazen scofflaws veer out of line into the left hand lane and THEN take a right turn into the traffic circle. This is a double whammy because they are not just taking an illegal right turn from the left lane, they are CUTTING IN LINE, which is far worse. This deserves an even longer and louder horn blast than a mere red light runner, and this crime fighter does not disappoint. My carpoolers can fuss and moan to “Just let it GO, Mom!” but I can’t hear them above the horn blast anyway. My friend Cindy should have a badge. Her crime fighting makes me look like the Barney Fife of car pooling. If you cut ahead of her in carpool line, she does not just lay down the horn. She will actually throw her car into park so she can step out, knock on the perp’s window, and inquire what makes the offender’s schedule so important that they feel like they can just butt in line ahead of everyone else? The offender almost always gives some lame Porky-Pig-rendition about being so busy, but it’s impossible to win a busy contest with other carpooling parents. (Cindy’s vehicle is easy to spot. It’s the one in carpool line filled with kids wearing paper bags over their heads because Cindy won’t let them unbuckle to slump down in the seat. It’s just not safe.) Cindy is such a vigilant crime fighter, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to outwit her. City Council says we must leash our dogs, but curbing our dogs is not a law on the books, it’s just the right thing to do. Cindy would raise her window to helpfully remind a neighbor lady about this law of common courtesy as she observed her standing at one end of a leash every morning around dawn while her little dog made a big deposit in Cindy’s yard from the other end of the leash. Cindy guessed the poor dear was deaf, because there was never any response, just more land mines. But crime fighting often requires creativity, so Cindy planted a nice note one day for the lady to read on her return route which politely read, “Please, clean me up!” It actually worked.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 43 Effective crime fighting requires no matching outfit. The most fearless moms I know aren’t skulking around calling in anonymous tips or sending unsigned emails. No, they blast their horns; they knock on windows; they are walking lie detectors; they sniff out a single beer molecule at fifty paces; they visit the schoolyard bully’s parents; they crack open a can of whup--- when their own kid turns out to be the bully; they wash out mouths with soap; they shout “I love you!” in carpool line, and they kiss their kids in public. They are so un-anonymous it’s embarrassing. I wouldn’t wear a cape or a mask for crime fighting even if I could. I’d look dorky in a cape, a mask would only make my nose look more crooked, and even my kids can only take so much mortification.
44 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Not Safe With Scissors
April 4, 2003 I would like to know where my scissors are. The nice Fiskar scissors that NOBODY smeared all over with “White Out” a few years ago. They are still my favorite, i.e. functional, scissors. I have to ask because NOBODY here seems to know a thing about it. I would also like to know where my scotch tape is. The tape marked “DON’T TOUCH” in bold Magic Marker strokes. I can’t fasten wrapping paper (OK, or comics pages…) with sticky notes. I’ve tried. And I can’t label a gift without a marker, but that has run off with the scotch tape. It appears some headless Barbie doll somewhere needed a new, translucent body suit and tattoos or a love-note to some scruffy boy had to be super-sealed with tape. SOMEBODY has obviously lifted my tape and my markers, but NOBODY around knows a thing about it. Whoever absconded with my scissors and scotch tape also has sticky fingers for any loose change on my sink, any hair brush that is not tied down, any stapler that is not already jammed, any TV clicker with working batteries in it, any cordless phone that is NOT TO LEAVE THIS ROOM, and for My Reason For Living’s undershirts, socks, and “cool” shirts. This person also appears to have a shoe fetish, because every time any of these other items disappears, a pair of my clogs or heels suddenly materializes in odd places around the house, such as the playroom, the porch, or the dress-ups closet. While you’re looking, please let me know if you can figure out who drank the LAST Diet Coke in the refrigerator. It couldn’t be anybody around here, because my children are not allowed to even think about Cokes without my permission, and My Rea-son
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 45 For Living would never take one. He says they only taste good if someone fetches one for him. (So he does not drink much Diet Coke…) NOBODY around here would be so dumb, so naughty as to take the LAST darned one and send me into orbit. Speaking of dumb and naughty, the person who drank the last Diet Coke might also know something about the beer bottle caps I tripped on in the family room. It was an unusually CLEAN family room, so stepping on anything, let alone bottle caps, came as quite a shock. Naturally, NO ONE has any idea how the bottle caps got in the house. We have no bottled beer, and no bottle cap collections. There were no scratch-n-win things under the caps, so I cannot imagine what value they have — unless it was to contain beer at one time. But since there were no bottles, people here who seem to know about these things insist that “no bottles, means no beer.” I have no leads on any suspects. While you’re trying to solve the bottle caps and last-Coke mystery, please give some thought to my pantry. A quick inspection might lead you to believe that Publix has been running a special on empty and half-empty boxes of EVERYTHING. But I am the family shopper, and even my kids could not sneak THAT many empty boxes under my nose while I chat away with someone in the checkout line. So, SOMEBODY has been stocking our shelves with empty boxes, and opening new boxes when other boxes are merely halfeaten (in other words, completely unpalatable). Not surprisingly, NOBODY here knows anything about this phenomenon EITHER, so it must be an intruder. If you have a chance to cross-examine any likely intruders, be sure to ask if this criminal has also been in my refrigerator or freezer. I have hard evidence — empty milk jugs, empty egg cartons — that this person did not stop at leaving bottle caps, drinking the last Diet Coke, or violating my pantry. He or she likes to keep a wide variety of empties nicely chilled, too. Whoever it is must be fast, because NOBODY here has seen him or her, nor do they know anything about the mayhem in the
46 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) kitchen, but everyone is SURE it has to be someone else, some . . . stranger. Don’t point the finger at my children. I have interrogated them individually and as a group. They know nothing, they see nothing. They are one, skinny, steely, united front. If you could see their innocent faces, you would believe them too — they have nothing to do with anything.. They know better than to lie. I am certain they would never lie. They know that I can JUST TELL when they tell me less than the truth. They know that transgressions plus untruths add up to double trouble. They have seen how mad, how wound up I get, when I find that all these things I NEED are just plain missing, and all the things that I DON’T need, such as forgotten reminder slips for 24 cupcakes due at school TODAY, just somehow APPEAR (taped onto my bathroom mirror with the missing tape, of course). They know that if I could prove that any one of them have been fibbing about NOBODY being responsible for ANYTHING, well — I probably wouldn’t be safe with scissors in a situation like that. Which reminds me, I would really like to know where my scissors are.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 47
No ‘I’ In Shop
April 18, 2003 Smarmy coaches will roast the team hotdog every now and then by reciting the helpful non-sequitur that, “There is no “i” in te-a-m.” Intrepid speller that I am, I’ve noticed there is no “i” in shop, either. I’m not an enthusiastic shopper, as my wardrobe attests, but I know how to get the job done efficiently, if not economically. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors set an example we can’t improve upon. Just as cave women combed an area more efficiently by working together as they gathered roots and berries for a primitive coffeeklatch, we shop much better if we don’t forage among the racks alone. Unfortunately, I don’t have large chunks of time to devote to shopping. (My Reason for Living doesn’t find that unfortunate because he equates shopping with spending.) If a spare half hour bobs up in my schedule, I might use the bonus time as a quick shop stop. If I can get a parking space close to a good store with a great sale, I’ll zip in, cruise the racks, toss about a dozen items over one arm, check out, and then start the car before the driver’s seat has begun to cool. I don’t bother to try on the clothes because I don’t have time and it’s just not safe without a trained spotter. A day or two later, in the privacy of my home, I’ll try on the garments. My Reason for Living is a reluctant, passive-aggressive shopping partner. He either glances up from the newspaper long enough to mumble that each item “looks fine, dear,” or he takes an annoying interest in and exception to what he thinks is a disturbing lack of spandex in my fashion choices. He is hopelessly
48 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) heterosexual, and absolutely useless in these quasi-homeshopping situations. So, I have to rely on my daughters’ hyper-critical eyes. At least they intrinsically enjoy shopping, and like perpetually ravenous puppies, ever hopeful for droppings they might pounce on, so they are willing enough spotters. But the daughters’ feedback is often less helpful than their dad’s. First I have to endure the ritual whining about, “Well why didn’t you get ME something while you were shopping?” Then we get down to the actual reviews. The closest my girls will ever get to saying “That is a very flattering outfit on you, Mother,” is something like, “Those are OK pants for a mom to wear, but the fabric is boring, the waist is WAY too high, the buns are baggy, the length is too short . . . “ or all of the above. Too often, I return the entire contents of the shopping bag and just make do until I have another spare moment to whip through another store and repeat the process. It is far more satisfying and productive to go shopping with a friend, especially if the friend is doing all the spending. You get to achieve spending catharsis without the guilt inherent to actually paying for it. My friend Janice allowed me the vicarious thrill of team shopping on her dime. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d shopped, only that she loathed it. But I told her that was surely because she’d gone solo. I don’t know whether it was me or the cobwebs in her closet that convinced her, but we shopped. We prowled separate paths through the racks. When we met up again, she had picked out two things to try on. I loaded her arms with a heap of possibilities and shoved her into the dressing room. In the dressing room, she modeled each item which was hastily sentenced to the “YES” rack, or the “NO” rack, with further culling of the YES rack reserved for later. When she tried on one of the little numbers she’d picked out, we regrouped a bit, creating a third, “HELL NO” rack as well.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 49 We got it down to a science. Forget euphemisms. Why limit yourself to simpering terms like “unflattering” or “just not you” when “ghastly” and “butt-ugly” leave no room for error? Besides, when you’ve been told that the previous outfit hangs on you like a blood clot, you willingly toss another in the YES pile when your team mate croons, “Now THAT is cuuuuuuuuute!” We were so happily insulting unworthy outfits that the lady in the next booth could not contain her jealousy. A voice from behind the curtain said, “I wish I had some-one to shop with like that. I have no idea whether these things I’m trying look good or . . . ugly-butt.” Shopping is a team sport, but not necessarily a competitive one. Our team expanded by one. We told her the pants worked, and the peasant blouse was not meant to be tucked in, so quit fidgeting with it. The cropped top was absurd, definitely not for women who have given birth, and warned her NEVER to even browse in the juniors department. By the time she asked us whether this skirt made her buhunkus look too big and we said, “It’s not the skirt . . .” she was just beaming with joy. Janice staggered out under a mountain of new outfits, drained her bank account, and had a couple of hours of fun that will literally wear for years. I get to take credit for the assist with every compliment each new outfit generates, without doing any damage to my own credit balance. And we felt like such do-gooders by drawing that third lady into our “team shop” game plan. To think of the unforced errors she would have bought and worn had we not pitched in and dressed her down. As we hauled her bounty out to the car, we noted there’s no “i” in smug, either.
50 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Odds On Moms
May 2, 2003 It’s prom season. Mothers and daughters are sweating out every delirious detail, or squaring off, or something in between, depending upon what kind of mother each daughter is stuck with. But I’ll get to that. As usual, my own daughter has no clue as to just how good she has it. When I at-tended prom I was lucky to get a new prom dress. The “after prom outfit” had not been invented (or debated) yet. Mom brought down several dresses for me to try on from our crowded cedar closet. We used to play sardines in there as children. If I’d known that Mom would someday expect me to wear the crunchy crinolines, heavy satins, and yellowed laces that upholstered that aromatic cavern, I would have suggested playing with matches instead. Mom ignored my best Quasimodo impression as I modeled. When body language wouldn’t translate, I did Emmet Kelly for her, but I was the fifth daughter she sent to prom, and she was immune to tears too. She was too distracted by the “lovely mint green satin bodice with tulle underskirt from Blum’s department store — it’s very ‘Jackie Kennedy.’” Never mind that Jackie’s name was Onassis by then and people were already throwing ‘60s costume parties. As our TV room became the catwalk of Mom’s fashion memory lane, each dress evoked the same review: “Why, that looks just MARVELOUS on you! That looks even better than when your sister first wore it in 1959.”
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 51 A couple of my older sisters luckily happened by, and negotiated a compromise. I wore a bridesmaid dress from one of my sister’s weddings. It was a cute dress, I still think so. Mom didn’t have to spend another dime, and I didn’t have to go to prom as Nora Desmond. I knew then and now that Mom wasn’t trying to control me or shape my body image or any of that stuff. She was simply trying to save a buck, as always. Negotiating with her built character, if not fashionable wardrobes. She lost all fashion credibility with me, of course, not that many mothers have much anyway. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to give your daughter honest feedback when it comes to what they wear. If you say something looks good, they don’t believe you because you’re the mother who has to say that. If you say something looks unflattering, you have no credibility because you are “old” and out of step with current fashion. It is such a minefield that I bought the book, “You have to say I’m pretty, you’re my mother” because the title is such a blast from the past — and speaks to the present — so clearly. Although the book is about helping daughters, I was in a “let’s talk about me” mood (much like my daughters…) so I found myself flipping to the chapter that requires mothers to take a hard look at themselves. According to the authors, “even the best mother has some element in common with one or more of these archetypes.” Despite our best efforts, the odds on moms are that we’re “doing something that gets in the way of open, trusting communication with our daughters.” That something falls into at least one of their following five types: The Competitive Mother says things like, “I bought these new jeans for you. I liked them so much I got a pair for me . . . in a smaller size.” (I’ve seen these moms — they shop in the juniors department for themselves, they talk about how their daughter’s bum is bigger than their own, and they battle their daughter’s burgeoning (threatening?) beauty with Botox.)
52 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) The Merged Mother would “lie to her husband about where their daughter was going because she couldn’t stand her missing a big rock concert or a hot party.” Merged Mom lives her daughter’s life so vicariously that she doesn’t have or want a life of her own. (But what does she do when “we” graduate and leave home…?) The Anxious Mother enjoys three subsets: Counterphobic, who has such a tough time trusting her own judgment that she gives up and lets her daughter set her own limits; Hover/Smother Mother, a catchy title, but over-protective, over-involved, and overwhelming to her daughter and everyone around her; and Critical Mother, who is so dying for her daughter to be popular and successful (yes, people, those are two separate and distinct things) that she offers constant, unsolicited critiques, just to “help.” The Super Mother is a type A on steroids, who can’t tolerate her own imperfections, let alone her daughter’s, so she obsesses about her daughter’s performance in all areas. Super Mom gets her daughter to open up by saying, “If you can’t talk to me, then I’ve failed as your mother.” I see Super Mom a lot at PTA things. I hate her for making such wonderful lasagna and brownies with two hours notice, but I take second helpings to mask my true feelings. The Not Enough Mother is Super Mom’s evil twin. She is underinvolved, missing in action and can’t give her daughter what she needs emotionally, but, the authors also note that is often because Not Enough suffers from depression. (So let’s all cut Not Enough some slack, stop clucking about her, and take her daughter under our wings while she gets back on her feet, shall we?) With great trepidation, I asked my teen daughters to read the chapter on What Kind of Mother Are You? I WANT to be a better mom (Mother’s Day being right around the corner, my timing couldn’t be better), and that starts with encouraging them to give it to me straight. The chapter generated some interesting discussion, but they said the categories fall short. They felt that Odd Mother was
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 53 missing. Odd Mother says mortifying things like, “So who is your next boyfriend?” in the presence of a current boyfriend. Odd Mother yells “It’s a BOY!!!” every time she answers the phone for a daughter, no matter who the caller is. But, Odd Mother also enjoys shopping for a NEW prom dress AND “after prom out-fit” for each daughter, so oddly enough, they are not complaining.
54 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Pass It On
May 9, 2003 A few weeks ago, my 13 year old called me in distress from a babysitting job for a two year old and a baby. The baby was advertised as a great sleeper who would be zonked the entire time. But, as babies will do, this baby woke up screaming the moment the parents careened out of the driveway. My daughter and the baby were both shrieking into the phone. The two year old, as two year olds will do, was yammering just as loudly in the background. I inferred that she was calling for backups, so I zoomed over there. It was a tossup as to who was crying the hardest. Teens can really pour it on, and she was at full tilt, but her charges could have been hired out as professional keeners for an Irish wake. This poor baby had awakened in a strange place (they were visiting at Grandma’s house), with a strange person who had a strange habit of crying right along with her. On top of all that, her two year old brother was helpfully trying to entertain and soothe his baby sister and his new babysitter by bonking them with various toy vehicles. Even though I was just as much a stranger to this baby, she bravely leaned into my open hands, opting for the new, taller stranger. Suddenly it was quiet (except for the constant bulldozer sound effects, as two year old boys will do). I had the exhausted baby snuggled into one shoulder, the frazzled teenager leaning on the other, while both struggled to return to normal breathing patterns. My teenager assumed I’d be mad because she couldn’t handle these two little ones and had ruined an erstwhile quiet evening for
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 55 me and her dad. She couldn’t have been more wrong. The baby smelled just like a baby (the good kind of smell . . .), the two year old was delighted to have my daughter’s undivided attention, and my 13 year old was actually grateful to have me around. I was in heaven. When I was 11, I was “allowed” to babysit for my nieces and nephews. My elder siblings were master manipulators: they billed babysitting as the opportunity of a lifetime. I felt so LUCKY to be old enough. As the eleventh of twelve, I didn’t grow up with babies around me — I was the baby. I became an aunt at seven, so babies were an interesting novelty. I never had to share my room with a sibling in a crib, never had to pat a baby back to sleep while grumbling “This isn’t MY stupid baby . . .” and was never pressed into babysitting for a younger sibling without pay. At 11, I couldn’t understand why my mom would launch into these long, Dr. Spockish lectures on baby and child care to me — about how babies are people who know and learn more when you are talking TO them instead of just around them, or God-forbid, for them. Long before “baby massage” came into vogue, she schooled me on the importance of caressing and holding a baby, and how if you JUST change a baby’s diapers or outfit, you and the baby both miss out on a wonderful opportunity for play, interaction, and loving. As 11 year olds will do, I listened in spite of myself. I thought the lectures were kind of weird, but just rolled my eyes and tucked it away in my psyche. Fourteen years later, I pulled out those lessons, using them almost instinctively on my own baby. I mentioned to my mom how weird I thought it was for her to be giving me baby and child care tips when I was all of 11, and she laughed. What I did not clue in on was that my sister-in-law (obviously not a reader of this column…) had always been present during those mini-lectures. She was an only child who had never been around babies — just dogs. Mom was appalled when she compared baby care to training a pup, but she did not want to
56 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) alienate her by bossing her around — far easier to lecture her own 11 year old and hope that her daughter-in-law would catch on by osmosis. Mom often had to rescue me from similar babysitting situations when the reality of my nieces and nephews crowded out the novelty. When I became a young mom, she often rescued me from that overwhelming reality, too. Just as my 13 year old viewed me with new respect when I rescued her, I often marveled at Mom’s ability to soothe an inconsolable grandbaby AND her own distraught daughter. I asked her HOW on earth she knew what to do. My mother’s mother passed on the art of mothering babies to my mother. My grandmother learned it from my great grandmother, whose name I carry, and passed on to my eldest daughter. I know something of these grandmothers I never met or knew because I learned what they passed on to Mom. Like her mother, Mom regarded caring for each of her babies as a privilege, and passing it on to her daughters as a privilege, too. And so it is. I have a grateful 13 year old to prove it. Pass it on.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 57
Don’t Call It Love
May 16, 2003 Eons ago, a fellow mom confided that I was “so lucky” because one of the boys in the carpool clearly had “a thing” for my eldest daughter. “They make such a darling couple!” she cooed. She was baffled by my polite indifference to the situation (indifferent was as polite as I could be) since she would be “thrilled” if her daughter could manage to catch the attention of such a darling boy. Oddly enough, my daughter was oblivious to this boy’s apparent affection for her. She was unimpressed by his versatile wardrobe (a sleeve often doubled as a handkerchief) and his ability to mimic flatulence by rapidly squeezing his hand under his armpit. In short, this boy was doomed as a suitor because he so preciously resembled her own brother’s amazing talents. Have I mentioned that she was five years old at the time? Years later, there are still adults (still MORE of them now) who think they are paying my daughters a compliment when they ask, “Has she been in love yet?” I want to tell them that the boys in their universe have not progressed much beyond the K-5 carpool, that they are far too busy for such nonsense, and that it is IMPOSSIBLE for someone who does not have all their permanent molars to actually be “in love.” But I rarely have time to deliver that sermon, so I simply smile gratefully at their well-meaning question and confide, “No, the girls are all still too busy to be fornicating just yet.” I know that they are at or reaching the age when the protective coating against boy-friends I have tried to slather all over them could begin to wear off in dangerous patches at any moment.
58 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) If there were a boyfriend/girlfriend BLOCK in a bottle, I would insist on the SPF 45 strength, the sweat-proof kind that goes on purple and is supposed to turn clear after a few minutes but doesn’t quite manage. Like a broken record, I have reminded them that it is MUCH more important and beneficial to have friends of the opposite sex than it is to have a boyfriend or girlfriend. By and large, they have agreed, with a few exceptions here and there. When they bring someone home to see if this person could withstand the strain of meeting their “weird” mother, I am polite and welcoming, but not “grateful” that someone has signed on as boyfriend or girlfriend. (My son has already delivered a stern lecture about acting “normal” around his girlfriend — and not just my version of normal either, I am supposed to really fake it and act “like someone else’s normal mother.”) But I digress. I don’t swoon with vicarious delight if one of mine calls their feelings “love,” and I never say that I “love” one of their boyfriends or girlfriends lest they infer that “loving” that person is OK by me. They know darn well that if they ever use the word “love” around me in reference to someone of the opposite sex, it had better be be-cause they are trying to persuade me to co-sign on a mortgage. The worst thing I could ever do as my kids begin dating is let them believe that what they feel for a boyfriend/girlfriend before they can legally order a martini is “love.” It is many things that SEEM like love sometimes, but if I let them call it love and echo it myself, I’d be mining their emotional landscape. If you’re not sure whether your son or daughter is really “in love” with someone, consider some of the habits of people who are truly in love with each other and then decide: People in love file their own tax returns. People in love do not grow out of their shoes. People in love speak “closing costs” almost fluently. People in love do not have a curfew. People in love debate important issues like thermostat settings. People in love do not break up every other week.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 59 People in love pay their own bills out of joint checking accounts. People in love do not ask their best friend to call their beloved for them. People in love spend an ungodly portion of vacation time with their beloved’s family. People in love do not play with their gum. People in love buy their own cars and car insurance. People in love do not believe that half the fun is tellin’ the guys. People in love do not say, “I think we should see other people.” People in love do not ask for an advance on their allowance. People in love marry each other. People in love do not plumb their beloved’s soul with a “Cosmopolitan” quiz. People in love HAVE SEX. In fact, a lot of people who are NOT in love have sex, too, poor slobs. Sometimes, both parties even come up with the idea at the same time. However, those who are fence-sitting about sex will too easily fall off on the side that really hurts if someone ELSE convinces them that it’s OK since “we’re in love.” Too often, “ELSE” is a mere boy between the ages of 14 and 21. I have dated a few members of that set in my time, and they are nothing if not persistent little buggers. I have seen crabgrass and cockroaches that are less tenacious. Now I know perfectly well that NOT calling it “love” is NOT a guarantee against things that we parents prefer not to believe our kids capable of. But words are powerful things (you’re still reading these words, after all, agreeing or not). If I start referring to my kids’ limited forays into courtship as “love” or “being in love” then I am effectively underwriting an adolescent male whose single-minded zealotry mocks the tepid passion of Shiite Muslims on their first pilgrimage to Mecca. If your own teenage daughter is deeply “in love” and you are feeling a bit queasy right now, fear not. I am certain that she is the
60 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) living exception to the rule, with a good head on her shoulders, and you have nothing to worry about. On the other hand, if you have a teenage son, too, I don’t know if it’s a good idea for him to meet my daughter for another seven years or so. Unless of course he enjoys entertaining girls by making funny noises with his armpit — at least I’ll always know where his hands are.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 61
One Of Those People
May 30, 2003 My sister in Atlanta invited me to the spring show house for her garden club for a “sneak peak.” I’m sure it was a lovely garden, but I can scarcely remember it for the “land mines” and the dogs. The hostess of the event and proud owner of the gardens was one of those people who think that dogs are far more interesting and pleasing to indulge than their own ungrateful, independent children ever were, especially when those children have grown and flown the nest. Her dogs were those shaggy things with unpronounceable names and gender-confusing hair bows. I had to resist the impulse to grab a pole, insert it just so, and mop the patio with the pups. This woman not only TALKED FOR her dogs (they were evidently not quite bright enough to speak for themselves) but believed that what her doggies wanted her to translate was a fascinating patois of baby talk and jabberwocky. She paid no attention whatsoever while her dogs — ignoring their hair bows — practiced safe sex on my calves, shredding my stockings in the process and making me wonder if I has spritzed myself with Endust instead of my usual perfume. My sister (the dog-worldwall-flower) was no help, she hung back, holding her sides, as I tried to politely shake off the amorous fur balls and repeat “Lhasa-mopso.” As we left the garden, I vowed I would NEVER mistake dogs for children, practice ventriloquism with my pets, or allow a dog to even think about cross breeding with anyone’s legs. A dog was a dog, for crying out loud, no more, no less. I was willing feign
62 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) endless interest and enthusiasm in someone’s furry little parasites as long as they were intent on buying a house, but expecting a complete stranger to share one’s devotion (and limbs) with their fresh dogs is beyond the limit. There is a parallel universe out there of those people who love their dogs and cats so much that mere human parenting pales by comparison. Ever wonder why you NEVER see support groups for dogs and cats that had unsatisfying childhoods? Coincidence? There are now almost as many specialists for dog and cat ailments as there are for human diseases. And veterinarians get to deliver compassionate care to patients that truly need their help, for concerned (often guilt-ridden…) owners, without having to hassle with the insurance issues that so often interfere with human medical care. I can understand (and deeply appreciate) veterinary surgical specialists, because, let’s face it, dogs and cats and cars don’t mix, and it’s nice to have someone uniquely qualified to put Rover back together again. (Dogs and beds don’t mix either, but I’ll get to that.) There are now veterinarian ophthalmologists (and since I have yet to see a pet wearing glasses, I can only logically infer that they prefer contacts). There are veterinary internists, radiologists, oncologists, and anesthesiologists. There are even a few veterinarians who specialize only in feline thyroid disorders. This makes perfect sense since there is such a drastic shortage of cats. Every now and then, people like me, people who know that dogs are dogs and not people, get yanked into this parallel universe of pet lovers because of fluky mistakes. Mistakes such as when your puppy bounds onto your bed (even though you have murmured NO about that at least once or twice in the past six months to prevent that kind of obnoxious behavior), wakes you up, and you reflexively NUDGE the dog away from you with your foot under the covers (KICK would definitely be too strong a term here) while saying, “Get off me, dog!” Then your adorable puppy gets stuck between the mattress and the footboard of the bed.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 63 When puppies get stuck, tender leg bones can snap right in two, which is especially painful to the pup and to the owners if their horrified REAL children witness this unfortunate but nothing-if-not-understandable event. I tell you, when you are thrust into that parallel universe, it can be a very comforting place. For one thing, the Upstate Veterinary Emergency Clinic doesn’t even smell like sick PEOPLE, let alone sick pets. The place is immaculate — you could eat off almost any surface (many of their patients do). There are no insurance forms to fill out and delay treatment, which also means that a wad of cash travels rapidly from your wallet through your nose, but I choose not to focus on that… Even on a Saturday night, there are no dogs or cats there with garden-variety colds and ear infections, clogging and slowing down a system that is designed to deliver strictly emergency care for truly needy pets that have been involved in bar fights or car crashes. Those authentic Irish brogues will soothe every hurting pup and even the guiltiest-feeling owner, even an owner who knows in her heart that a dog is just a dog and that spending more money on dog-surgery than you would ever consider paying for the darn dog in the first place is less than rational, but also beyond debate. Having stepped through the doggy looking glass and back, I can honestly say that no one appreciates that world more than I right now. Our dog never leaves my side now (my cynical Reason for Living says it’s the Stockholm Syndrome…) but she is not more dear to me than any of my real children, even though I will not spend nearly as much on any one of them this year. My dog, Penny, is still just a dog (with hideous staples embroidering her gimp leg), nothing more, nothing less. Penny says, “My owner will never become one of those people!”
64 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
A Few Tips
June13, 2003 It’s almost officially summer, and we’re all eating out even more often than we do during the rest of the year. But before dining out again, you may need a few tips on tipping so that the dining experience is a positive one for everyone, including your server. By way of disclaimer, I’m a former waitress. I no longer depend on tips, but I still accept them every now and then, hence the handy carafe glued onto my dashboard. I never minded the eat-what-you-kill work environment of my serving days. Still thrive on it. But it’s still hard to accept the waitstaff credo that “the customer is al-ways right,” even when he leaves without tipping, without warning or explanation. As a waitress, I learned the art of juggling several customers at once, shrugging off the constant barrage of leers and/or insults from the chain-gang of sweaty Slavic cooks, and feigning sweet smiles for really bad or just plain corny jokes from well-meaning customers. I also learned that a critical remark or complaint was a favor — not an insult — a chance for me to make something right before someone’s dining experience (and my tip) was spoiled. It was incredible work experience, because every job since, including motherhood (except the childbirth part), has been a piece of cake by comparison. I found that, for the most part, if you listen to your customers and deliver quick, solicitous service without hovering over their every bite, you are rewarded for your efforts. For the most part.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 65 Every now and then, but always too often, I got stiffed. There’s nothing worse than working your buhunkus off, knowing you’ve done a good job, and yet finding that a table of seemingly nice people will walk off without leaving you a cent, people who have no problem sleeping that night or looking themselves in the mirror. When I complained to my parents about the bitter unfairness of getting stiffed, they’d say perhaps the jerks weren’t really jerks after all, just uninformed. Allow me to inform you. As the mother of a waiter and a friend to waiters and waitresses past and present, I can tell you that big tippers are few and far between. Fair tippers are thankfully plentiful enough, but there are always too many poor tippers and downright stiffers. This is how it works. Your waiter or waitress is not paid even minimum wage. He DEPENDS on tips to make ends meet. If you are philosophically opposed to tipping, stick to restaurants with a drive-thru window. If you chew very slowly, it will not feel like fast food and you will still get into heaven without ever leaving a tip. This is also how it works. If your waiter does a decent job, you OWE him a 15% tip. That’s standard. If she does an excellent job, or if your party has more than six people in it (meaning you run the waitress ragged whether you mean to or not), then tip 20%, or more. If your waiter is screwing up somehow, give him a chance to correct it. Tell him what’s eating you — but remember that he didn’t prepare the food. If the food is poor, don’t punish the waiter, but tell him or the manager. If your waiter has disappeared, gets your orders mixed up, or any other items from the menu of typical mistakes — tell him. Nicely. Give him a chance to make it right. If you just leave without tipping or explanation, he’ll just think you’re a jerk. (And he’ll be right.) If your waiter does a yucky job, just tip 10%, but TIP him, and explain why.
66 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Everyone thinks they’re good tippers. A lot of you are wrong. I have solid empirical and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Perhaps you fall into one of these categories. (Check the mirror.) Women. I hate to admit it, but women, especially women in groups, are LOUSY tippers. (The only exception to this rule is former waitresses; we tip well and happily.) One of my dearest friends will never forget when she was stiffed years ago by a group of very proper ladies-who-lunch. As she cleared their table, she discovered they had left her 27 cents here, 36 cents there — but no bona fide tip. She grabbed the loose change and calmly approached one of the ladies who were still chatting outside by their Buicks. “Ma’am,” she explained, “I worked my rear end off for you and your friends. I did a good job and I depend on my tips. If this is all you can manage to give me, then you clearly need this money more than I do.” She folded the coins into the astonished lady’s hand and marched back inside. She took a real chance, because honesty like that will get you fired from most eating establishments. But to their credit, those biddies were true ladies. They became some of her most loyal customers and generous tippers to boot. Minority groups. Call me politically incorrect, but the fact is that minorities of all stripes are notoriously poor tippers. Coupon clippers. Diners who walk in with any kind of coupon generally expect to discount their tipping too. That math is just plain wrong. Europeans. Just awful. This is probably because a 15% gratuity is often part of the bill in most European restaurants. You are welcome visitors, but “when in Rome” you need to know it’s unAmerican to stiff your server. If you’re a female minority with a foreign accent who walks into a restaurant clutching coupons, the wait staff will probably huddle for a quick round of rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets stuck waiting on you.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 67 If you’re a grandparent taking the family out for a birthday dinner, the wait staff is back there wrestling one another for the chance to serve your family because you are the best tipper on earth. So next time you dine out, enjoy refuting the server’s unfair, politically incorrect tipping stereotypes. And next time you order a pizza, get your car washed, have your hair done, or hail a cab, take a quick look in the mirror before you think you need your tip money more than those folks do. I could give you another list of worst tippers known to those service providers, but that’s another tip of another iceberg.
68 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Embedded Reporters At Camp Cake Eater
June 27, 2003 I just dropped off kids at camp for the umpteenth time in my summer camp under-writing career. The girls had unusually strong separation anxiety. I’ve never seen them more anxious for me to LEAVE, quickly. They expressed no concern about the door hitting my backside on my way out. When it comes to camp, my kids have never experienced the more common, sniveling variety of separation anxiety. Why should they? They’re never bored, the food is way better than “home cooked,” and it’s served at predictable intervals instead of our hunter-gatherer summer motif. They learn relevant life skills such as riflery and archery, and their friends and relatives will never run out of lanyard key chains. Bathing is optional. The preteen ca-bins can happily shower once every three weeks whether they need to or not, while the teens shower at least three times a day, with no dads nearby bellowing about hot water. Our kids attend Camp Cake Eater, which appears to have franchise operations all over the country. Parents like me, who attended REAL sleep away camp “back in the day,” are a real pain to these ersatz camps because I checked NO beside the revenuegenerating email-your-kid option ($1.00 per email!!) and I refused to pay to access the Camp Cake Eater website for a chance to glimpse a picture of my kid making a camp fire with lighter fluid or communing with nature as she feeds the cute furry creatures in the camp’s mink farm. We also opted out of the pre-packaged pricey designer “care packages” the camp offers, because I don’t understand how a
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 69 pedicure kit can be useful to consistently filthy feet and scented bath oils have no place in a place with no bathtubs. I prefer the traditional care package approach. The most enduring part of the tradition is keeping them wondering whether they will receive one at all. If they do, it is chocked with creative things like rubberized vomit (great ice-breaker in the cabin), vitamins, temporary hair color (to put in your new friend’s hair), a handy product called Crack Cream (for your feet, obviously), and a book of horribly scary stories to read around the flashlight, guaranteed to win big points with the counselor as it keeps them all awake for the remainder of camp. Over the years, the quality and quantity of our kids’ camp letters have unfortunately deteriorated. They started out as adorable scrawls such as, “I just met a girl named Lizzie. She is 10. I’m in love! Please send tips.” When I tried to glean more information from my son by asking specific questions, I received details such as this keeper from my son, written in pencil and already fading with time: Dear Mom and Dad, Camp is fun. To answer your questions, Yes No Mostly the south east Jeff and Kevin Pretty good Sailing Soccer Disgusting Love. As veteran campers, our girls have seen firsthand how so many poor campers are pathetically spoiled, burdened with too much stuff in their trunks, too much mail, and way too many care packages stuffed with verboten comestibles. But last summer, the
70 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) girls’ letters indicated a disturbingly short attention span during Sunday devotionals and evening vespers, and a rapidly failing resistance to joining the ranks of conspicuous consumers. Dear Mom & Dad, Camp is fun but I’m the only one who does not get at least one letter a day and you still have not sent me a care package. All the other kids get candy in theirs, so that is obviously NOT a strict rule. Please send me a care package SOON. Love, p.s. Chewable vitamins do NOT count as candy! This year, I’ve extended the maternal hand of loving guidance through customized stationery, designed to maximize the information flow, and to remind them just how lucky they are to be campers at all. All they need do is fill in the blanks. UPDATE FROM THE EMBEDDED HERLONG REPORTER DATELINE: _________ 2003, @ CAMP CAKE EATER Dear Mom & Dad, First and always, thank you so much for spending your hardearned money to send me to this cushy camp. The thing I appreciate most today is __________. The funniest thing that happened today was ____________. The worst thing that happened today was ______________. The kid(s) I hang out most with so far are _____________ and they are from __________________________. There is/are only ___ kid(s) in my cabin who are homesick. I am helping her get over this by __________________________. My counselor’s name is ________. I feel like I make her happy she chose to be a counselor this summer b/c ________________. I have __ bug bites, but only __ are infected. I feel ___ and I have only been to the infirmary __ time(s), and that was just for _____.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 71 My favorite activity now is ______. I like it b/c _____________ ___________ and so far I’ve learned ____________________. I’m reading ________ and I have only ___ pages/chapters left. I have only argued with __ people today, but I have made up with __ of them. I will make up with the others by ___. I have only lost ___ item(s) so far, but I am sure it/they will turn up. I have remembered to wash my hair for __ day(s) in a row. Love, p.s. _____________________________________________ I have not yet received the first update from my embedded sources, but I will be sure to keep you posted. In the meantime, I have several meals I don’t have to fix, numerous rides I don’t have to provide, so I have ample time to pull together the perfect care package, and the really good ones tend to take a while.
72 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Will You Hold For . . .
July 11, 2003 One long college summer, I worked as a dialer. This was before telemarketing, but even so, I was no telemarketer. I became a dialer during the ten minute interval that I considered becoming a stockbroker, and for eleven more weeks after that. I was hired as a summer intern/brokerage trainee. My index finger was apparently the most memorable part of my interview because on day one I became a dialer. I had a desk, a WATTS line and an enormous tome listing thousands of names and telephone numbers in ever so faint dot matrix print. “Here. Dial the names on this list,” snipped the office manager. And then what? What if the person on the other end says something like, “Hello…?” “Oh, when you get someone on the line, you look at this other list of all the brokers in the office — and you ask the person on the line to hold. But be SURE you get the actual person on the line — not their secretary — and then you ask the person to hold for the next broker on your list, like, ‘Will you hold for Mr. Smith?’” Why not ask his secretary to hold? “Because a secretary never will. She’ll just hang up. You’ve got to get the actual name on the list on the phone, and then ask him to hold for . . . whoever’s on your list next.” Suppose I actually get the actual person on the line and he actually agrees to hold for . . . Mr. Smith. Then what do I do? “Put him on hold and run to where the brokers sit. If the market is busy, you may have to bug a few brokers before you’ll find one to take the call. If the market is slow, it’s a lot easier. Be
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 73 SURE to write down the name of the person on hold so the broker can be personal when he picks up.” I knew I was getting on her nerves, and her cuticles clearly needed pushing back, but I did have one… more… question. “What.” Does any actual person with an actual secretary ever actually pick up and then agree to sit on HOLD for a couple of minutes to talk with someone they don’t even know who is just trying to sell them some stocks? “Of course. The people who answer just assume somebody really important is on the line if they have to HOLD for them. It doesn’t work on everyone, but it really works on the few that it works on.” And so I dialed. And dialed. My tome mostly listed wealthy farmers in very flat places dimpled with grain elevators. I’m still not sure what a grain elevator is, but they don’t store secretaries. I loathed dialing, loathed the nine out of ten people who hung up on me, but not as much as I detested the tenth person who would take my call and prevent me from learning something meaningful, like filing or collating. I hated that I had a knack for getting that tenth person to hold when what I wanted to do was tell him to develop some self esteem, or at least a hobby — anything is better than HOLDING for a stranger for crying out loud. But enough people believed that it must be somebody really important on the line, and that they were important by extension (no pun intended) by agreeing to hold for Mr. Too Important to Dial for Myself, and so they DID. I created a monster that summer. Unfortunately, many of those farmers grew weary of watching corn grow and branched out into other fields (ahem . . .) where they naturally assumed that if they were going to be really important, they would have to have someone else dial their calls for them, too. I know, because some of them have had their dialer call me.
74 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Some of these farmers went into business or law, and had their secretary call me and say, “Will you hold for Mr. So-and-So?” Some of these farmers went into medicine, and had their clerk dial me to (scare the pants off me) and tell me I needed to return IMMEDIATELY for a follow up mammogram, but that if I wanted to talk to the doctor, I would have to HOLD. Some of these farmers fled the grain elevator for education administration. Their dialers have to recite a mouthful, an entire resume such as: “I am calling for DOCTOR Millicent Primpbottom, the Associate Superintendent for Superfluous Phone Calls for the Local County Public School System — will you HOLD for DOCTOR Primpbottom please?” These important calls were even to my cell phone, on MY dime. .. Much as I relish being in the tenth percentile of anything, my answer is always a polite, NO, thank you, I will not hold. I feel anything but important when a dialer asks me to hold for someone else, and the really important callers in my life never have their dialer call me (even Mom finally got the hint). The President is the one exception to the rule. I will hold for George W’s call. I con-cede he is too important and too busy to dial his own calls, but as a courtesy, he never calls me on my cell.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 75
Doing The Math
July 25, 2003 A few weeks ago, when I dropped my kids off at Camp Cake Eater, I had to pay the balance of camp fees due. As usual, My Reason for Living had uncannily estimated what we owed just about to the penny, including “extras” such as water skiing privileges, hot water, and window screens in the cabin. On my way home, I drove merrily down the mountain, belting out oldies tunes along with the radio. I was the Carol King of camp moms, taking bows for the passing traffic as I finished off each ‘70s tune. I sang and drove so merrily that I suddenly noticed that the heady combination of 98.9 and sheer downhill momentum had somehow gotten the best of my better judgment, and my speedometer. At the very same instant, a state trooper noticed too. There is no amount of wheedling, whining, cajoling or crying that will move these guys. I know. The consequences are especially severe when the officer has a quota to make and he’s heard you mangle “It’s Too Late, Baby” with the windows rolled down . . . Shortly after I was allowed back on the road and my breathing had returned to normal, my Reason for Living called. I was no math major, but I know a word problem when I see one, and I can come up with some creative answers when necessary. Yes, the girls got off to camp just fine. Yes, I wrote the check for the balance due. Yes, his estimate as to the check amount was very close, remarkably so, even with the extras. The total amount involved was only off by a little.
76 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) “Just how much is a little?” he asked. Only about $200. He thought that was a lot more than a little off, but I assured him that, overall, his estimate was pretty darn close, practically on the money. And the IMPORTANT thing was that the girls were happy at camp and we had some welcome time to ourselves as a result. He seemed to shrug it off, wasn’t a bit mad, just perplexed. Then I deftly changed the subject, but I swear he has a homing device. “I still don’t know how I could have been off by that much,” he pressed. “Why was it $200 more than I thought?” Well, the state got involved. Not a tax, exactly, more like a fee. Some people call it a fine. “YOU GOT ANOTHER SPEEDING TICKET?” He was not at all upset when this discrepancy was folded into the girls’ total camping experience (including transportation, and all), but for some reason, when viewed as a separate subset within the greater set of “camp,” the ticket made him really, really mad. He could not even appreciate the good news, which was that if I went to a magistrate in Marietta before my court date, then camp would only be $100 more expensive than he’d estimated, and I’d only get two points on my license. That’s a 50% discount — a SAVINGS of $100!! But he could not grasp the mathematical concept. Mind you, I had no intention of hiding the ticket from him. We share everything, including car insurance, so the truth will always out anyway. I’ve never even considered the “grocery store payment plan” some women use for buying fancy clothes they can’t afford. It’s an upscale version of layaway whereby ladies write 25 checks at the Publix, each for $25 over purchase price over 25 weeks in order to finance an outfit with a price tag big enough to choke a boa. But I digress. Anyway, I went to the magistrate, and my fine was reduced to just $78 — that’s a savings of OVER 50%, or $182!!
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 77 I had $22 in change in my pocket that we had not been counting on, so I decided to browse a bit in a charming little antique store on the way home by way of celebration. Now I know what they mean by “elegant math.” I found a scrumptious pair of little lamps that had been marked down to (you guessed it) just $22 a piece!! They had originally been priced at $60 a piece, so this was a 63% markdown, and a savings of $38! But since each lamp looked dumb on its own, but adorable as a pair, it was a true savings of $76!! In just one hour I had netted us a SAVINGS that EXCEEDED the cost of the original ticket! I had a brief, shining glimpse of what it feels like to have “A Beautiful Mind.” My Reason for Living still doesn’t “get it,” but then he was no math major either.
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How to Deal . . .Without It!
July 25, 2003 If you like Allison Janney as much as I do as the intrepid “CJ” the Press Secretary on “The West Wing,” don’t bother to learn what she did on her summer vacation. It’s hard to believe that an actress that talented with so many Emmy nominations under her belt would not have had more options than playing the mom in “How To Deal.” But if you are a fan of Mandy Moore, the teen pop idol who plays the lead, you have another reason NOT to see this flick. I’m told Mandy has a decent voice. If you truly care about her, you will not see this movie; you will only be encouraging her in the wrong direction. “How To Deal” is supposed to be a lighthearted, yet heartrending look at how a teenage girl deals with all the lessthan-perfect mutations of love (i.e. romantic love — this is basically a teen movie) swirling around her: her bereft best friend and her summer love, her parents’ bitter divorce, her disc-jockey dad’s scheduled elopement (oxymoronic, yes, but no one seemed to notice) with his former-other-woman-blonde-bimbo, and her big sister’s impending nuptials. The underpinning is her own quest for love, focused on a boy named Mason, played by the sulking Trent Ford, also of The West Wing, who is crafting a career out of playing annoying boyfriends. The Mason character has an unseemly affinity for Star Wars, but he makes up for it by sheer instinct on the couch. Light hearted? No laughs. Not even one, and that goes for my 14 year old companion, too. Heartrending? Puhlease. Formulaic, utterly, insipidly predictable plot. This movie threw all the
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 79 greatest hits of an After School Special and/or Days of Our Lives at us in less than two hours: teen sex, teen pregnancy (duh), teen drinking, drug abuse (by the grandmother, which was supposed to be cute, and just wasn’t), tragic death, tragic accidents, romantic weddings, and of course, birth. I chose this flick because I foolishly fell for its hype. Allison Janney has been schlepping around promoting it and I believed her when she dished about how much she enjoyed doing this movie because it was funny AND full of such great actors AND had a real message, too. I missed the funny part. Did not notice any memorable actors, let alone great ones. But the message is this: it pushes the margins on PG-13. More like an R. You hear the F-word, and the mom is the culprit. The rest of the message is that teen sex is OK, teen moms are wonderful, underage drinking is OK, sneaking out is OK, and it’s really, really important to have a boyfriend, even a dork who recites lines from Star Wars. If you let your teen see it, see it with him or her, so that it can at least become a springboard for Lecture #49, as it did for my teen.
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Working Mom Seeks Employment
August 8, 2003 Ever since the classified ads stopped categorizing available jobs by gender (teaching and nursing for women, everything else for men), women have enjoyed greater choice in what kind of work they pursue. Women prospered and were happier, the marketplace responded in kind. When you throw motherhood into the mix, things get complicated. If a woman can’t afford the luxury of staying home with her children, especially her preschoolers, it’s a pretty cut and dry situation where there are no “bad mommies,” and hopefully great child care and/or daycare in the mix. There is still plenty of guilt to go around for the mom, largely self-imposed. If a woman lives so deeply in the lap of luxury that she doesn’t even appreciate what a luxury it is to stay at home with her young children, especially her preschoolers, then there is no mommyguilt at all, because feeling guilt requires having a clue. (She will get to enjoy the guilt later, when her grown kids are emboldened by their therapist to tell Mom off for missing their 4th grade play because of her standing massage appointment.) Contrary to popular myth, the woman is who fortunate enough to afford the luxury of staying at home with her young children, especially her preschoolers, because she feels it’s the right and best thing for her family, does not enjoy a guilt-free-mom environment either. Every occasion for grumbling about dealing with more magic marker stains than “magic moments” with the little ones is marinated in guilt – shame on her for feeling over-qualified to sort laundry, or for wishing that her fellow PTA volunteers were as attentive as her former (paid) employees were.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 81 If a woman can afford the luxury of staying home with her children, especially her preschoolers, but chooses not to, there is guilt aplenty for mom, from every direction: herself, her employer, her children, and of course, from the moms who are staying home with their youngsters. After years of experiencing all flavors of guilt from the greener pasture on both sides of the fence, I recently discovered that I’d stumbled upon the key to a guiltfree work environment. My desk and my housekeeping may fool you, but I actually live a fairly organized existence. If it were not for voice mail, email, cell phones and portable phones, life would be impossible. The ying and yang of my business life and family life would hang in perfect harmony except that I am surrounded by saboteurs, also known as children. I’m a very reliable carpooler, far better than expected. (I actually have great carpool references: call Melanie anytime.) A couple of weeks ago, I was holding up my end of a shortterm carpool with Cynthia pretty well, until my youngest was invited to spend the night out. I left a message on Cynthia’s machine to pick up #4 at a different address that morning, and then schlepped off to an early meeting. I neglected to confirm that she GOT the message, just blithely assumed that everyone checks their answering machine messages every 10 minutes. Poor Cynthia arrived chez moi only to deal with a sleepy 14 year old who has trouble remembering having any siblings, let alone where one of them might be. So she carpooled sans #4. When I turned my cell phone on two hours later, there were several messages of distress from my youngest, each one a slight variation on a recurring theme: “Mom, you have left me/forgotten me/screwed up AGAIN. I’m late/missing my first class/having a generally miserable childhood. PLEASE call me/come pick me up/claim your Bad Mommy trophy.”
82 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) We ONLY have four drivers in our family, so I couldn’t understand why NO ONE had collected the overlooked-buthardly-forgotten young one in two hours time. Had she thought to call either of her licensed siblings?? “No, they’d get mad if I woke them up.” Do I seem HAPPY right now? No ma’am . . . Did you think to call your father? No . . .I didn’t want to bother him. How could that be bothering Daddy? Because he has a JOB. There you have it. I can and should (and do) feel guilty about screwing up a carpool, and making my child late for art camp. But I am completely, permanently absolved of any shadow of guilt about being a working mom. I’ve got it worked out so well that my kids aren’t even aware that I have a job. If I could find gainful employment that trumps that “mom” part of my title, I wouldn’t bother. Better to screw up the occasional carpool than a guilt-free work environment.
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What’s Your Sign?
September 5, 2003 I’d like to think I’m pretty special. But the state disagrees. Some people are way more special than others. They are most likely more special than you, too. I have no idea what these folks have done, but you and I are not in the same league as Don N. Holt, Clyde Moultrie Dangerfield, C. D Bishop, Otto Davis, Sr., Arnold S. Goodstein, Ben V. Sawyer, or John C. Temples. They’ve each got their very own road sign to prove it. I don’t usually pay much attention to road signs unless I’m lost or thinking about adding an “s” to The Exchange Club’s sign for grins, but these honorary signs seem to be multiplying like mushrooms all over the state lately. So I thought I would get me one. I called up the state Department of Transportation and asked what I would need to do to have a stretch of road or a bridge or an interchange named in my honor. Actually, I would prefer an interchange because I’m kind of phobic about bridges, and an interchange pretty much guarantees I get TWO signs, one for each side of the interchange. Plus, it is not uncommon to only get a few yards of road named in your honor. Once I started noting and counting, I’ve seen two different name signs within a quarter mile of each other on a highway. I would NOT want my sign to share turf with any other sign. They were very helpful at DOT. At first they confused me (over the phone of course) with a former Miss South Carolina with the same last name. I asked if I had to have been a contestant or winner to merit a sign. No, but it wouldn’t hurt, either.
84 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) I was advised that, typically, in order to get my sign, I would need to get my local legislative delegation to introduce a resolution to have a bridge or stretch of road or interchange named in my honor, and then the General Assembly would have to pass it as a concurrent resolution. But once I get my local delegation to introduce it, the rest is pretty easy. Once the resolution is passed, the DOT installs the sign as designated. About half the time, there is a dedication ceremony for the sign and the DOT manages that, too. I asked if my sign had some kind of time limit, or did the state mandate that DOT provide “perpetual care” as well? That kind of stumped them, but there is no statutory limit on my sign’s placement, so yes, if my sign gets damaged or destroyed, it would be replaced. I wanted to know how much my sign would cost me. Not a dime. (There is a tiny, but admirable, percentage of honorees who pay for their own sign so the General Assembly will pass it, but DOT still has to maintain those signs). The state has budgeted up to $500 per sign, and that often covers installation of two signs (if you merit an interchange or a bridge), one for each end or side. But the actual cost is really only around $400 right now. That $400 covers making and installing the sign, not replacing it down the road (so to speak) or DOT’s incidental costs for arranging and attending my dedication ceremony if I want one. This state has been honoring folks with road signs since 1941. Used to be with granite markers, but those got too expensive, so they switched to those big green signs a while back. How many signs are there now? Technically speaking, a LOT. One helpful person at DOT found a single spaced list of road sign honorees that was 13 pages long, but he was not sure if that was comprehensive. So far this year, DOT has put in 30 new signs at $400 a pop. That’s $12,000 so far, which means that we will have spent over $120,000 on signs in the next ten years, assuming that material and labor costs remain the same (as they always do).
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 85 The money does not come from DOT, though. It comes from each county’s local “C-funds.” Those are funds the state allocates to each county from gasoline tax revenues, divvied up according to population, size, etc. C-funds pay for our local road infrastructure, such as paving, resurfacing, filling pot holes, speed humps, other traffic calming measures, and redoing or installing new sidewalks. I recall a long, dragged out stink about getting sidewalks put in near Riverside High School. And neighborhoods such as Pleasant Valley are only just now getting some desperately needed sidewalks for kids to walk on along very busy streets. I have not heard anything about a vast surfeit of C Funds in Greenville County. And yet we’ve got these honorary signs everywhere you turn. I hope I’m not offending someone who’s friend or loved one enjoys a sign in their honor. There are many signs honoring fallen police officers, which is a nice tribute to their sacrifice. But doesn’t it dilute that tribute when a bunch of just regular people get honorary signs too? This county still refuses to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. with a holiday, yet it “honors” Dr. King with just a small stretch of road on 291 South? In fact, Dr. King holds the state record for signs: seven in all, while the late Senator Strom Thurmond has only three. I have to admit I am not in Thurmond’s or King’s league, and there is no greater sacrifice than that of police officers who die in the line of duty. So I have given up my hope of having my own interchange and wish the county would honor me by putting my $400 toward a new sidewalk somewhere instead.
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September 19, 2003 Believe it or not, my kids actually suggested this column topic. They’ve urged me to write about “this stupid new dress code” in the public schools. And since I had to interrupt my schedule today to deliver a longer skirt to one of my scofflaws at school, hemlines and such are weighing heavily on my mind. I predicted that she would be cuffed by the fashion police when she appeared in her nano-skirt. She shrugged off my objection, insisting that her skirt was not too short, she just has long legs. Thirty minutes later my fashionable stork called from school to hit me up for bail. I was tempted to bring her a – God forbid – nice church outfit to teach her a real lesson, but I opted for a denim skirt that would encourage her to continue speaking to me. Watching the “news” or reading that “other paper” might lead you to believe that most parents are up in sleeves about this dress code. One indignant mother of a 17 year old boy told the TV people that she was seriously considering home schooling her son rather than “force” him to tuck in his shirt for school. (I wonder whom will she turn to for help with discipline in her new home school? Zoloft?) There have been maybe six letters to the editor about it, and even a couple of squawks from the editors themselves about the heavy hand of the fabric of this code. About five percent of calls to the district hotline during the first week of school were questions or comments about the dress code. That’s tapered down to less than two percent now. There are over 60,000 kids in the school district. A few letters and calls do not a groundswell of opposition make.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 87 Could it be that most parents are actually SUPPORTIVE of the new dress code and actually CAPABLE of standing up to little Johnny when he whines about tucking in his shirt or to little Susie when she caterwauls about covering her cleavage? Speaking of cleavage, I’m thrilled this new code addresses both varieties. Tucking in one’s shirt instantly achieves a security absolute in these post-Columbine High days: as any SRO will attest, if a shirt is tucked in, whatever may be tucked into the waistband is fully visible. Are first graders likely to be “packing” at school? Probably not, but if they are tucking in their shirts from day one, they won’t be howling about on day 1800 either. But the beauteous side effect of this new aspect of the code is the hastened death of “prison chic” pants that MUST be worn as far below the buhunkus as possible, even if it means walking as though you are carrying a heavy load in back. The school district tried, and failed, by taking a soft line on this. The old policy required that underwear could not be seen above the trouser waistband. So students cleverly left their shirts untucked, naturally using longer and longer shirt tails and jerseys, that soon pushed the waistband too far. Boys’ shirt tails weren’t just covering up otherwise exposed boxers. It seemed like our schools were grooming legions of plumbers’ apprentices. Girls were swinging way out on the pendulum too, wearing deeply scooped and cropped tank tops that created a fashionable look that mimics Jell-O wrapped in cellophane. This was not at all distracting from their studies, especially to boys who never pay attention to that kind of thing anyway. (This look was especially attractive and not-at-all distracting on the pregnant teens who choose to gestate in their mainstream high school just as long they want because the Feds insist on it. But I digress.) I think my kids and yours complain about the dress code because it’s their job. They complain about every other rule that adults impose on them; this is no different. So far in our house, it has only been used as an excuse for more shopping. No complaints there.
88 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) They do rail against this tucking in shirt of shirts thing, but if that is their chief complaint in life, they need to be more thankful, really. And this shirt thing is NOT unreasonable. The code does not require straight-hemmed Hawaiian-type shirts to be tucked in. They’re not designing engineer-fashionclones here. But a straight hemmed shirt that merely flirts with a waist band and allows glimpses of boxers and/or belly buttons (and their blue-blooded piercings) is pushing that pendulum too far again. Dr. Harner is a pretty dapper guy himself. He made rolling up one’s sleeves instantly fashionable within the school administration, and his coat and tie attire conveys his intent to WORK every day. I doubt the man has EVER had a “casual Friday.” Some letter writers gripe that the new code wastes taxpayer money and parents’ time. How? You have to buy your kids clothes anyway, they might as well be decent. And 100% cotton wears a bit longer than 100% spandex. As for wasting parents’ time, I confess if I’d spent time insisting that my little stork lower her hemline (without lowering her waist line), then I wouldn’t have had to make time to redress her code violation. I love to bore my kids by telling and retelling the story about the petition I coauthored in 5th grade, demanding girls’ equal right to wear pants to public school. We compromised with the principal, and won the right to wear corduroys and slacks whenever we wanted, but girls AND boys had to pay 50 cents for the right to wear jeans on Fridays. It was an instantly successful fundraiser. Maybe our kids can do the same thing, and pay for the privilege of going sleeveless or wearing flip flops on Fridays, but I think we’ve all paid enough for their “right” to these shirt tails.
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October 3, 2003 Halloween costumes become a burning question among the under 13 set in our home around, oh, July. In the past, before my kids became highly trained perfect children, it was not unusual for at least one of them to interrupt my phone conversation by picking up another extension to announce a “final, final decision” about her Halloween costume. The news was always SO big it could not wait. Over the years, the mania has subsided to the point where these news bulletins blare out over the intercom instead of the phone, but there is still far more fretting over the perfect costume than there has ever been about choosing the perfect gift (for someone else anyway ) two months hence. I was pledging my weekly oath of fealty to my mother over the phone when my youngest ran through the room and yelled out something about “all being BARBIE” with her friends, a Barbie Gang, if you will, wearing their appropriate gang colors (pink) and sporting lots of “ice” on their ears, necks, wrists, and ankles. Mother was horrified. “You’re going to LET her be Barbie? That’s going to lead to all kinds of bad things.” Before I gave into my knee jerk reaction of telling Mom how wrong she was about a simple Barbie costume and for never letting me own a Barbie when I was a child (not that I’m bitter), I considered her point for a moment. My son HAD been Bat Man 14 years ago, and come to think of it, he HAS developed strange nocturnal hours and a love of fancy, fast cars. And my eldest daughter HAD dressed up as Miss America 12 years ago, and sure enough, now she DOES wash her
90 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) hair daily, wants to dress nicely, and wears make up – but fortunately not enough to qualify for a pageant, and she doesn’t much care for duct tape. My middle daughter was a ghost one year (my favorite costume ever – the eye holes I cut in the sheet never quite lined up with her eyes, and she couldn’t walk through the walls she bumped into). But despite being a ghost that year, she shows no desire to BE one, and eschews “Goth” fashions and accessories. So THEN I gave into my knee-jerk reaction and told Mom how wrong she was about a simple Barbie costume AND for never letting me own a Barbie as a child. This is an old saw between us. You see, Barbie is a tad better preserved than I (so far . . .) but we’re the same age, and Mom never approved of Barbie. All my friends had Barbies when I was a little girl, at least all my friends with cool Moms. But my Mom was immutable on the subject. “It will just make you want things you will never have,” she intoned. Now I realize that she meant things like impossibly long legs, bound feet, pouty lips, permanent make up, thick, blonde hair, and other things. At the time, it just made me REALLY want things I could never have. Like a Barbie doll. She was not opposed to “fashion dolls” per se. She gave me a Francie doll, who was Barbie’s 17 year old cousin (with normal, human proportions) and I also had an Allen doll and a Ken doll – Barbie’s eunuch boyfriends (talk about wanting things you will never have…). I also had a couple of Skipper dolls (Barbie’s 12 year old little sister, who looked comfortingly like I would look at 12. And 20. But I digress . . .) But when Mattel came out with a “Growing Skipper doll” (no kidding) that catapulted little Skipper through puberty with a simple flip of her arm, Mom took Skipper away, and took me to the pediatric orthopod to take a look at my sore rotator cuff. Our own parenting decisions are so often a psychobabble cocktail of imitation and rejection of our parents’ decisions, and Barbie is a prime example. I gave my first daughter her first Barbie
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 91 doll on her third birthday. I just assumed she would REALLY want one, so Barbie was a preemptive gift, to spare her my angst. Barbie was a bomb. My daughter tossed Malibu Barbie aside, favoring her new cuddly baby doll, but her five year old brother made the moms at the party rather uncomfortable by asking them to help him remove Barbie’s top. So I gave up on Barbie, which inspired my sisters to send my daughters every new fangled Barbie ever made, just to bug me. They still make wedding Barbie and Malibu Barbie, but now there is also Dentist Barbie and paraplegic Barbie (really). They even have a talking teacher-Barbie who speaks in English and Spanish who says things like, “This class is ridiculously overcrowded!” and “You can’t fire me, I’ve been a lousy teacher for MORE than three years!” (Unfortunately, she becomes deaf-mute Barbie after her first bath.) So my girls grew up with Barbies, and they’re turning out fine. Mom is still wrong (she and I share that knack). Barbies do not make little girls want to grow up too fast, or wear make up in middle school, not unless their Moms let them and encourage that kind of nonsense. In fact, if my daughter dresses up on Halloween to TRULY look like the Barbies I keep tripping over around here, she will have no shoes, a dress made out of an old bandana instead of one her prefab creations, Magic Marker all over her face, a broken leg, one amputated arm, and stiff washed hair that looks more like Don King than a fashion plate. I mentioned that to my would-be Barbie, who rolled her eyes, and said, “Oh, MOM, only a DORK would want to look like a REAL Barbie.” Her grandmother is sometimes right, too.
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Down In The Mouth?
October 17, 2003 Got a reminder about a routine dentist appointment recently. I did what everyone else does when they get their reminder. For almost three days, I cut way back on the verboten caramel crèmes (cold turkey is not so good), and I kept a pinch of floss between my teeth and gums so I could floss constantly between client meetings, suavely making up for the past six months. As much as I love my dentist, that reminder card feels like a summons to the principal’s office (so does any random call from my minister and/or my boss, but that’s another story). Our kids also love our dentist, but they experience the same vague trepidation. They have routine cleaning appointments year after year, but there is always the specter of something else that COULD be discovered that would involve needles and socially unacceptable drooling for hours. At this point, otherwise arcane terms such as root canal, crowns, gingivitis (see “caramel crèmes”), and gum grafts roll right off my tongue, so I can assure you that even if you have to develop a taste for these procedures, it’s not so bad. Back in my Chicago advertising days, I had the opportunity to represent the American Dental Association’s account. I noticed that every meeting with our clients started with someone’s unsolicited childhood anecdote about a horrific trip to the dentist involving painful lectures about flossing, mortar-flavored toothpaste, bitter fluoride treatments, and the Muzak version of Paul Anka’s greatest hits. The ADA folks always listened politely, because stories like that added up to their need for better P.R., hence their seats at our table.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 93 I could not relate. Despite my longstanding penchant for caramel crèmes and Coke, I’ve never had dentist-phobia. Our family dentist, Dr. Herald, was a nice guy with a soothing southern accent and fascinating tufts of hair protruding from his ears, both nostrils, and the deep pucker in the middle of his chin that no razor ever reached. I was a pretty boring patient for him, only two cavities in my whole life, but they are pleasant memories. He was so progressive (or degenerate…?) that he did not hesitate to introduce his little patient to the joys of nitrous oxide in order to dull the pain. I don’t even remember getting the fillings, but I do remember the funny smelling gas that made the boats on his wallpaper actually float, with me right alongside them. The ADA folks shared some sad facts that were unfortunately true 20 years ago: dentists did not enjoy good press, they were the profession most feared by their patients, and dentists experienced the highest rates of depression among all professionals. That is no longer the case (and it’s not just because everyone gets depressed these days). All the dentists I know are hail fellows well met, very perky indeed. One even insists on being called “Happy.” (Now Keith can have his moods, but that is widely attributed to survivor-guilt-syndrome stemming from his years as J.N.’s roommate.) Dr. Ben is so cute, such a poster child for going to the dentist regularly, that even when he is holding a syringe behind his back, his blinding smile distracts me so I barely feel the searing stab that precedes the numbness. He has such pretty teeth I could swear the man chews Clorox flavored Tic Tacs (sugar free). If I were not having my teeth cleaned, I could swear I was in a spa. The A/C a little chilly? They swaddle me in a blanket. The routine x-rays are done quickly. (To prepare your child for this procedure, gently insert the large end of a kite into his mouth, tell him to bite down firmly, and make him remain absolutely still until you return. Take a brisk walk around the block, then remove the kite. His first trip to the dentist will be a piece of cake.)
94 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) After the x-rays, they drape your face so that you won’t get acquainted with the hygienist’s nostrils, and she avoids nightmares about your enlarged pores. The tools don’t hurt a bit, the toothpaste tastes good, and they even smear a little balm so that your lips are not exfoliated. There are no humiliating rinse-nspit rituals anymore, just a discreet suction device that enables you to lie just back and enjoy (but follow instructions or your tongue will be an inch longer when you leave). The whole thing is so pleasant, that if it were not for having my mouth gaping open the whole time, I might catch a nap. After the cleaning, Dr. Ben hypnotizes with his smile while he reminds me to floss more and lay off the caramel crèmes. I smile back with my momentarily clean WHITE teeth and suppress the urge to unwrap one as soon as I get in the car. I look forward to our next appointment because it probably involves boats that float. Fear not, there is no reason to hesitate to keep that dentist appointment anymore. Even the dentist office music is good now, but I’m easy. “Havin’ My Baby” is in my top 100 songs collection.
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Last Minute Time Management
October 31, 2003 Gave a talk the other day to a bunch of far more professional women than I. Subject: Improving Time Management. It was not a “speech” because that requires organization, planning, time, and a lot of forethought. Had plenty of forethought, but ran a little short on the other factors. (I wrote it the night before, just as I am writing this a few minutes before deadline.) But my gracious host knew that if she gave me a topic, I would start talking, and if she pointed me toward the group I would probably keep talking, and that would approximate her goal of providing a speaker. When my Reason for Living heard I’d been asked to pontificate on time management, he snorted, “What the heck do YOU know about time management?” (That is a paraphrase, actually, but this is a family newspaper.) My cohorts at the office found great humor in the juxtaposition of speaker and topic. They asked if I was going to provide tips on how to do paperwork in one’s carpool outfit (i.e. glorified pajamas), or offer gift suggestions for buying off disgruntled children who are tired of Mommy showing up late. My boss laughed and asked what I was REALLY going to talk about. Nobody wanted to know, as I do, why women like myself, with three full time children at home, one part-time child at college, one full time husband, and umpteen full time clients, are often asked how they manage their time, when no one EVER asks people (i.e. men) who have the same family time card to punch in and out, and a full work/civic duty plate of their own, how THEY do it? I welcome the day when a politician is asked how he balances his family with his ambitions and he points to something
96 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) other than a picture of the wife. I know that sounds a bit whiney, but lucky for you, dear reader, I digress… The real answer to “How do you do it all?” is “Why would I try?” Fact is, I’m more motivated to remain happy and relatively sane than I am in “doing it all.” For example, there are desiccated flowers in the planters flanking my front door. Irritates me every time I pass them. I’ve found the side door works just fine. The secret to last minute time management, to getting ANYTHING done around here is being happy with “just fine.” My friend Bess once shared a great truism with me: “Better is the enemy of Good” (which is why Michael Jackson sports a prosthetic nose, but I’m veering off course again). Deadlines motivate me, so I meet real ones and create personal ones. Kitchen timers keep me in line. I don’t cook, I merely apply heat, but it ticks away while I do anything that I could otherwise “get lost in.” So my timer ticks away while I write this, while I check my email, and especially while I chat on the phone with my mother or any of my five sisters. (I’ve already weaned myself from the timer to keep me from doing too much laundry, vacuuming, leaf blowing, or menu planning.) It also ticks away in my closet, not that I “get lost” in the act of dressing. If I don’t set a limit, Parkinson’s Law rules, and I could waste acres of time sorting and discarding several outfits and/or putting on just one more blob of concealer, even though I’d reached my rate of marginal returns an hour ago. I can live with the fact that I’m never asked to be in fashion shows, am often asked to be the “before” subject in makeovers, and get applause for being “brave” enough to wear dated pleats on the tennis court. My watch keeps watch, too. By resetting it routinely, always four to seven minutes fast, I get the jump on myself. I know that I will know that my watch is fast anyway, but I am never SURE just how fast it is, so I let myself believe in it and get more places on time than less.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 97 At the very last minute, I can always get by with a little help from my friends. My co-workers never hesitate to help in a pinch, because we all feel the same pinches, retrieving one another’s puny kids from the nurse’s office, helping out in a fender bender, covering for vacations, and always offering helpful names for people to call who are good at things that we all wish we had time for, whether it’s decorating, or ironing, or sewing your kid’s costume. My Reason for Living is also highly evolved, and happily offers to help out with the stress du jour, whether it’s carpooling or picking up dinner. Last minute time management is NOT the path to being the “best” at anything, especially time management, but it keeps me solidly in Good’s corner, and on speaking terms with Better.
98 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Longest Running Klatch
November 14, 2003 If you think men don’t give good chat, you need to get up a little earlier in the morning. A lot earlier. At 5:45 every weekday morning, a group of very chatty guys has been gathering to run since about forever. I smile when they refer to it as “The Running Group.” (It reminds me of my sister’s bridge club in St. Louis which has been meeting for 20 + years; NONE of the members actually plays bridge.) To give credit where credit is due, a few of the guys do run when they show up, such as Billy, Bill, Fred, Roger, Steve, and Bob. But for the vast majority of this elite fitness group, running means walking, and talking, with or without your dog in tow. I have no idea what the average age of the group is, unless you’re talking about their sense of humor. That’s firmly entrenched in the teens. Makes sense, since Fred, Bill, Freddie, Billie, Mike, Randy, Ricky, and Roger all went to high school together. Despite their puerile groupthink, it’s an august group – they’ve got JDs, MBAs, CPAs, at least one MD, several BFDs, and even a USDA. It’s also a confusing group – they have three variations of Frederick, three variations of William, two Mikes, two forms of Richard, Grant is a first and last name, and Randy is a constant state of mind. It’s a tolerant bunch. Nobody gets too upset when the dogs’ leashes inevitably become braided together, around trees or one another’s legs. Attendance is not mandatory. Bob and Scott are the most faithful attendees, but to my knowledge, nobody has been
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 99 kicked out for truancy yet, not even the worst offenders: Grant, Ricky, and My Reason for Living. One of the criteria for longstanding membership is the ability to take give and unmitigated . . . er, grief, from your fellow walkers. For example, they love to kid Richard about being such a hugger. And they offer creative diagnoses for why Sims walks so fast. Not sure how My Reason for Living came to be a member a few years back. Sims first extended the invitation, even offered to pick him up several times, which is the ONLY way to get the man out of bed ungodly early. In his first wee hour with them, he was greeted as “fresh meat for Fred,” (the other Fred) because he is always a willing listener for Fred’s latest harangue. During the first few months that he “ran” with the group, I learned not to ask, “What’d y’all talk about this morning?” Instead, I asked, “So, what was Fred worked up about today?” I have no real idea what they talk about. I probably couldn’t print half of it anyway. The other spouses roll their eyes and assure me that I really don’t WANT to know. It is a reliable pipeline for the latest jokes. Politics is often featured. And I’m sure that if the subject of women ever comes up, they’re all for it. If they ever run out of something to talk about, they can always talk about Billy, whether he’s there or not. Every now and then, they gather during the daylight or evening hours and include spouses. Those occasions afford the opportunity to learn just how much these guys care for and help each other out. It was Mike, for example, who changed the course of Bill’s entire life back in the day, by gaining him admission into a fancy boarding school. (I’m certain some parcel of this tale is true…) Anyway, Bill realized – the night before it was due – that he’d completely forgotten to do a huge social studies project, and he made the mistake of accepting Mike’s kind offer to share the “extra” poster board he’d done. The poster boards were supposed to feature a diagram of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic
100 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) church. Bill was so grateful, so trusting, that he did not even glance at the poster board he turned in the next day. Neither the teacher, nor his mother, were impressed that Bill had posted the Grand Dragon as the head of the church. The fact that it was not exactly Bill’s handiwork did not help his case, but it apparently accelerated his application to boarding school. When Fred was suffering so terribly from chronic pain a few years back, it was Mike who helped Fred get an appointment with his chiropractor right away. It was also Mike who somehow convinced his chiropractor to immediately diagnose Fred’s condition as the result of compromising positions that would inevitably result in back pain for a man his age. Before Fred could sputter, “Sir?!” he heard Mike choking back laughter, and realized that his REAL pain was rolling on the floor outside in the hallway. If you’re sensing a Mike theme threading through the kind of “help” these guys can expect from one another, then you may be smart enough to run for coffee before dawn. Forget exercise, the best part is the last part. When they’re finished with their walking or running circuit, they gather at World Headquarters just off Augusta Road to sit among the caskets (don’t even ask), slurping hot coffee, and brewing up a big pot of chat. They may call it “The Running Group,” but it’s really the longest running coffee klatch in town.
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Helpful Holiday Hints From Herlong
December 12, 2003 It is unbelievably that time of year again. The kids feel like the days inch toward school vacation and Christmas Day at an agonizing crawl, while parents and other Santa’s helpers scurry around in fast forward, vowing to slow down and really savor the true spirit of the holidays – next year anyway. Over the years, we have perfected the art of gathering with family and celebrating Christmas, but of course we have learned it the hard way. (As my oldest once asked, “What IS the easy way, Mom?”) To wit, some shared hints to help your holidays be a little merrier: When traveling over the river and through the woods, be sure you know exactly who is also going to be waiting with gift-laden arms when you arrive at Grandma’s house. It is awkward, and often impossible, to run out after six on Christmas Eve to buy a thoughtful, beautifully wrapped gift for a relative you neither expected nor planned for. I know. On the Christmas occasions that you manage to make a list, and check it twice to make sure that every person, naughty or nice, blood relation or shirt-tail relative, will receive a thoughtful, beautifully wrapped gift, be sure the list includes putting all the gifts into the car before you all head out. Realizing that “someone else” forgot to load the gifts when you’re only halfway over the river (but definitely in the woods) can pack an additional hour of quality travel time into your trip as you double back for the loot. I know.
102 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) If on the way to Grandmother’s house, you realize that you have forgotten something important at home, such as ALL THE PRESENTS, try to keep in mind that pointing the guilty finger at your Reason for Living, or your adored wife, or your precious, ever-helpful children can potentially cast a dreadful pall over the buoyant Christmas Spirit you would all be otherwise enjoying when you are crammed into the car with umpteen boxes and the family dog. Turning up the volume on the Christmas music wafting from the radio is a joyous way to drown out the chorus of recriminations. I know. When trying to determine which wonderful confection to prepare as a homemade gift from the hearth and heart to share among friends, it is probably best to avoid attempting Petite Rum Babas or Brandied Snow Balls, no matter how fervently your sister insists the recipe is simple to follow. It is actually perilously easy to mis-measure some ingredients. When this happens, the cook’s natural tendency to lick the batter can have disastrous, sloppy consequences, including a far lower cookie yield than the recipe promises, followed by a splitting headache. I know. When cuddling by the fire with your spouse to assemble 200 12”x4” stiff, brightly colored, almost indestructible cardboard blocks for your toddlers to play with for years to come, try to plan time for this fun activity sometime before 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Eve. By this time, many adored wives are just too tired to be any help. If that is the only time left available for the two of you to enjoy literally building the blocks of your children’s future play, avoid opening any stocking stuffers such as small bottles of Bailey’s Irish Crème. It can make even adored wives even more tired at that hour, almost useless when it comes to assembling ridiculously stiff pieces of cardboard into blocks. If you expect your adored wife to help you assemble these blocks the same day she has lovingly produced homemade Petite Rum Babas, you need to have your head examined. I know. When decorating your home for Christmas, it is important to clean everything first, including the family dog, so everything
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 103 looks and smells fresh. If you delegate the responsibility of washing the family dog to one of your children, do remind them that simply spraying the dog’s hind quarters with “Febreze” is an inappropriate substitute for a bath (and will probably give the animal indigestion…). I know. When frantically assembling concrete-like blocks, confusing bicycles, or race car sets with missing pieces into the wee hours, remember that Santa, then dawn, then your children, are all arriving sooner than you think, or may be fully equipped to welcome. Depending upon your children’s ages and awareness of the abstract concept of “time,” it is possible to be better prepared for the boisterous activity of Christmas Day by allowing the whole family to enjoy an additional hour of sugar-plum-visions by adjusting the clock back a wee bit, just for day. I know. When encouraging your children to decorate the tree, it is important to bite your tongue and remember the reason for the season is NOT to make a big deal about the so-called tradition that lights go on the tree before the ornaments, or that ornaments should be evenly distributed instead of draping the lower branches. While older siblings may make remarks contrary to the Christmas spirit about the “dorky looking tree,” it is far more rewarding, and in keeping with Christmas joy, to take some more time, turn up the volume on the Christmas carols, and do, or redo the tree WITH your child, for fun. It is kind of like doubling back to retrieve the presents on the way to Grandma’s, but we all eventually get to Christmas happily together anyway. I know.
104 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Thank You: Notes
December 26, 2003 The last holiday notwithstanding, ‘tis truly the season to give thanks, preferably written thanks, for all those gifts we have just received, and not just the festively wrapped ones. It is an aspect of Christmas that is too often overlooked (even by myself), but really the most important aspect of all. In years past, each of my children’s Christmas loot has included a new package of notes on which to scribble their sincere thanks to grandparents and godparents for their lovely, thoughtful gifts. As an added insurance policy, a string comes attached to each package of freshly minted thank you notes stipulating that the child may not use any of the gifts they receive from grandmother et al. unless/until their thank you notes are written and stuffed into the matching envelopes. Now that they are older, the string attached is not quite so blatant, but four new packages of notes were still under the tree. My mother put the fear of God into me about thank you notes. She routinely performed public autopsies on substandard thank you notes she received from evidently ill-bred brides, nephews, nieces and godchildren over the years. I grew up assuming that everyone’s dinner table conversation often involved a poorly worded, grammatically incorrect, or overly-generic (i.e., “Thank you for the lovely gift…”) thank you note, which their mother read aloud and with feeling, as an example of what and how NOT to write one’s thanks. When I learned that My Reason for Dating’s mother is a Ph. D. in English, I never mailed a thank you note that had not been through three of four rough drafts. I was panicked that a stray
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 105 punctuation mark or a poorly spaced ellipsis would earn my note a public “outing” at their dinner table. I managed pretty well, all the way through the bridal notes, anyway. But by the time 20 pounds of toddler was consistently wrapped around my knee caps, I was lucky to write a legible first draft, luckier still to find stamps or an envelope to seal the deal. I fell down on the job so badly that she once wrote me a thank you note for letting her take care of our toddlers before I bothered to send one off in thanks for her keeping them. But I have strayed from the holiday at hand. One of the homemade gifts I have come to value more than any other is our annual, written exchange of thanks and appreciation, just the six of us, at our own dinner table. I call it “Compliments of Christmas.” Every year, for the past six years (and forever after), we each get five slips of paper to fill out before Christmas dinner. We then write one thing, one nice thing, for which we are thankful about each of the other five, one slip designated for each of us. All the slips go into the crystal bowl that Carson & Annie gave us for Christmas years ago, and then we read them aloud during dessert. The pile in the bowl gets bigger every year, because we read them all – this year’s, and all of the previous years. You can’t read a slip about yourself, only about others. Unlike the written bridal gaffes that provided dramatic readings at our table during my childhood, these are notes of thanks that are meant to be read aloud, and savored. I will not quote any (my poor kids live in a fishbowl as it is, compliments of this column), but I will tell you that few of us can pen a thank you note quite so eloquently as a five year old, and that even tangible teen tensions melt away when the opportunity is provided to voice – and hear – what makes each of us a gift to one another. As I read over our “Compliments of Christmas” each year, I treasure the content and the format – crayons, hieroglyphics, smudges, and all. Christmas is a gift given to us over 2000 years ago, a gift of grace we can never adequately appreciate, even if we write a
106 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) thank you note to God on water marked, engraved stationary. As my friend and mentor Jean says, if we accept the true gift of Christmas, we try to live our lives as a kind of thank you note – and all our punctuation peccadilloes, egregious grammar, and postage due are forgiven in advance. That is welcome news, because my life-as-thank-you-note too often reads like one of those awful notes that Mother did postmortems on as a warning to us all. I’m afraid the best I will be able to muster is perhaps a second or third draft quality, but I believe in the gift of Christmas, and that even I will hear God say, “You’re welcome.”
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January 9, 2004 It’s weight season. Not the kind you lift, but the kind you haul around behind you, around you, or slightly ahead of you if you go with your “gut feeling” since the holiday stuffing was a verb instead of a dish. The media is glutted with ads touting “the secret” to peeling away all those extra pounds. Diet companies line up behind their famous spokespersons — some royal, some just royally affordable — to cash in on our desire to shed it all NOW for the rest of our lives. Even Monica Lewinsky was hawking some diet plan until the manufacturer discovered she was contributing to the bulimia crisis. Slim Fast has gone out on a limb by hiring Whoopi Goldberg — but the branch could easily snap. Aren’t you supposed to hire someone who has already lost weight using your plan…? I can tell our national weight problem is reaching crisis proportions because the government is finally getting involved. Not by taxing junk food (although they are talk-ing about it), and not by ending corn subsidies that produce that cheap, ubiquitous corn-syrup-sweetener lacing everything — they’re taking real action. They are running Public Service Announcements and conducting surveys. Thank goodness for those Public Service Announcements. I just turn up the volume whenever they come on the TV so the kids won’t be illiterate, intolerant, drug-addicted, or morbidly obese. But the government is doing even more to fight the obesity epidemic — now it’s conducting a survey about how we FEEL about it.
108 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta and I have been chatting quarterly for the past couple of years. They called me one evening, insisted they were not trying to sell me anything, but truly just wanted to know if I would participate in an ongoing survey on obesity, and if I would allow one of my children to participate as well. I did not have to give my IQ or my BMI to participate. My kid gets $5, cash, for talking to them. I just get worked up. It works like this: First the guy on the phone asks me a long list of questions, but I am limited to one of the following six multiple choice answers: Strongly Agree Agree Agree Somewhat Disagree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree I’ve come to know my interviewer, Hal, fairly well under the circumstances. He is insufficiently trained (or indulgent) to explain the important difference between “agreeing somewhat” and “disagreeing somewhat” but he is pretty well trained at sticking to his script and not engaging me in semantic debate. After I answer Hal’s questions, I put my kid on, but I have the right to listen in just to make sure that this IS a legit CDC survey and not some shill for the King of Pop. The last time we chatted, I could not help but notice that Hal’s questions sounded a LOT like his previous questions. So I stopped grooming my cuticles and started paying attention. (And I am NOT making this up.) Question: What is your response to the following statement? “Children should en-gage in vigorous, physical activity at least once a week.” Strongly Agree, Agree . . . Answer: At least once a week? How about at least once a day? How about every waking hour, especially if we’re talking about a child under the age of 12?
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 109 (Hal): Ma’am, you cannot vary from the prescribed choices. Do you: Strongly Agree, Agree, Agree Somewhat . . .” Answer: OK, FINE, AGREE STRONGLY, but this is seriously stupid. Question: What is your response to the following statement? “It is my responsibility to make sure my child engages in vigorous, physical activity at least once a week.” Do you: Strongly Agree, Agree . . . Answer: Who ELSE’S responsibility would it be, Hal?!! My personal trainer? My parole officer? (Hal): Ma’am, I’m not at liberty to discuss the questions with you, only to record your answer from the prescribed list. Do you: . .. Answer: Hal, I mean it, who on earth would disagree even somewhat with that statement? (Hal): Off the record? You’d be surprised, but you’re a minority. Answer: Get out! (Hal): I’m not kidding. A minority of parents think it’s their responsibility to make sure that their kids are physically active. Answer: Do you ask follow up questions for those parents, such as “How deep is the impression at your end of the couch?” or “What is your favorite remedy for prickly heat?” (Hal): No, ma’am, we don’t have any sections for follow up questions. (Hal was killing me — he really should try stand up.) Answer: Hal, why are y’all doing this survey? (Hal): I told you, to find out how people feel about obesity. Answer: For the life of me, Hal, I can’t think of one person who would say they’re FOR it, but you’ve never asked that question. Question: I still need your answer to the earlier question. Is it “Strongly Agree”? Answer: What is your response to the following statement, Hal? “This survey is a big, fat waste of tax dollars.” Strongly Agree, Agree . . . (Hal): I get your point, ma’am, but I’m not about to agree myself out of a job.
110 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Answer: Not to worry, Hal, these are weighty questions and you do your job well. Besides, essential governmental services are never at risk. I think we can both Strongly Agree about how we feel about that.
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Popping The Questions
February 6, 2004 Valentine’s is hard upon us, when expectations are high for someone to “pop the question,” since he chose not to pop it over turkey dinner, or when the stockings were opened, or even when the champagne cork popped. Savor the time you have now, before the question is popped, before you get swept up in inane wedding plans that too often leave your intended questioning how you could ever develop strong feelings about gladiolas versus roses, let alone argue about them. If you are seriously considering popping the question, or expecting it to be popped soon, remember that there are other, serious questions you should be asking each other, before you answer “I do.” I am not talking about minor questions such as children (as in whether, when, how many, how far apart, and who will stay home to raise them for a while or forever). Nor am I referring to secondary marital issues such as where you will live, what church you will attend, who will balance the check book, how many years you will vacation with your in-laws, or how long is too long to talk long distance on the phone with your sisters already. I’m talking about questions you need to answer BEFORE you tie the knot, so as to avoid unnecessary, unfruitful arguments later. Such as questions of . . . Daily Rituals. One friend enjoys a running debate with her spouse: Does the same person replace the garbage bag, too, or must it be a team effort, with one taking the garbage out, and the other replacing the bag? As one anonymous friend shared, “I wish I had known there was a ‘right’ way to squeeze the toothpaste,
112 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) load the dishwasher, fold towels, and install the toilet paper roll (is it paper-over, or paper-under?). I guess it’s best that I didn’t ask because we’ve been married over 20 years and I STILL don’t know the ‘right way,’ which is why I let him do it.” Bedtime rituals. Does your intended have certain (at first endearing, but eventually annoying) bedtime rituals that he or she has to perform every blessed night before lights out? Friends report happily enduring a wide range of bedtime rituals: a barrage of nose blowing, arbitrary quilt adjusting, sinus spray squirting, fiddling with the alarm clock, and pillow fluffing. The person on the other side of my bed for the last 20 some-odd years has to have his squishy pillow smoothed out just . . . so. If I’m already asleep, no problem. If I’m still conscious, I cannot resist swatting a good lump into it, just for grins. (I guess I have a bedtime ritual, too.) Snoring. Does your intended snore? Is he or she tempted to take it up in the future? Do you have any contingency plans for future snoring behavior? This issue was often cited within my completely unscientific survey of friends as something they wished they had known about in advance. However, none of them reported that arguing about it proved any more effective than earplugs or uvular surgery. Christmas. New spouses, and certainly their in-laws, tend to do Christmas “wrong.” As my young friend Katy wishes she had asked, “Does he open presents (early) on Christmas Eve? Does his family open presents politely, in sequence, oohing and aah-ing over everything, or do they tear through all the presents in five minutes flat? He thinks it’s ridiculous to drag Christmas out, and I think his family looks like the ga-tors at the Everglades Wondergardens at feeding time.” Bathmats. They lie on the floor just outside the tub/shower. The mat is there for normal people to stand on without slipping when they step out of the shower, to dry off. Other people, like my Reason for Living, believe it’s something to stand on after toweling off in the shower. They think drying off on the bathmat is tantamount to drying other things off on the fuzzy commode
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 113 seat cover. People like my Reason for Living go nuts when their feet squish into wet footprints on the bathmat. If I’d known to ask about bathmats, we could’ve avoided a surly scene in a tiny, foggy bathroom shortly after the honeymoon. In hindsight, I should have asked if he prefers to be the first to shower in the morning, and so he has, happily ever after. I don’t know whether the bathmat is wet or dry when he’s done (I’m still one of those normal people who don’t give a rip), but I will counsel our children to pop all these important questions before they ever consider popping the question.
114 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Hip To HIPAA
February 20, 2004 There’s growing chatter lately about how HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is getting out of hand, too broadly defined. It was passed to protect a patient’s right to privacy. Insurance companies, physicians, and other medical care providers cannot give out information about your health history or current status without your say-so. The media bristles at HIPAA because a hospital is no longer allowed to confirm or deny that someone, even a “celebrity” or an elected official, is a patient in that hospital, nor can it offer status bulletins without that someone’s written consent. The media complains that HIPAA rights to privacy adversely clash with the public’s “right to know.” Well I’m a member of the public, and I know plenty, too much in fact, thank you. I wish that HIPAA’s rules were even broader. How about expanding it to protect someone’s right not to know, whether it’s about a celebrity or a friendly acquaintance? HIPAA should be expanded to prohibit answering “How are you?” with any-thing more than “Fine, thanks!” unless the person asking the question has a specific need for a detailed status report on one’s lumbago, corns, piles, acid reflux, PMS, and so on. I wish HIPAA had been around to protect me since I was a kid. There are certain things, like sex, that parents find difficult to talk about with their kids. Fortunately for uptight parents, kids rarely beg their parents to chat about it. There are other things that children of all ages find difficult to talk about with their parents, but their parents just won’t take the hint.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 115 The night before my younger sister Bridget left for college, she called to tell me that Mom had just dragged her in for “The Talk.” I howled as my sister told me it got so bad that she finally put her hands over her ears and said, “Bla bla bla — I can’t hear you!! . . .” Mom threw her hands up in frustration and my sister fled. Mom meant well, and camouflaged her intentions well enough that my sister thought she was in for a heart to heart. “You’re a young woman now, and you know almost everything there is to know,” Mom began, “but we need to talk before you go off on your own . . .” Bridget could have tolerated a birds & bees lecture that was several dimes short and a few years too late, but enduring a detailed discourse on regularity was beyond the pale. When Mom started in on the importance of “sweeping daily with nature’s broom,” Bridget clamped her hands over her ears and chanted her “bla bla bla” mantra. No matter what the ailment, my mother always saw a connection to the other end. If I had a headache, she immediately asked, “When was the last time you went to . . . the bathroom?” When I developed this weird cyst on my elbow, she inquired about my fiber intake. (To this day I have no idea what that connection could be.) If HIPAA had been in effect back then, I could have refused to discuss my elbow’s connections with anyone but my doctor, and then forbade him to talk about it with Mom. It’s not just mothers, either. When our first child was born, my Reason for Living and I stayed with my parents for the first 10 days. My Reason for Living studied for law school exams while I fended off Dad’s attempts to forge a new bond with me over stewed breakfast prunes. Every morning, Dad wanted to discuss the relative benefits of prunes versus cabbage or other cruciferous options. I just wanted four consecutive hours of sleep. I’d growl, “Dad, we are NOT having this conversation . . .” But he was so delighted to have something in common for once, that he would blithely ignore my
116 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) pleadings and suggest that I’d be a lot happier if I had three prunes instead of just two. I know I would have been a lot happier if HIPAA had been in force, and prohibited my parents from inquiring, or offering information, about anything that happens between the coccyx and the hamstrings. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about a healthy lifestyle, healthy people, even healthy plumbing. But you couldn’t pay me to talk about it unless I’m paying you to listen to me. If HIPAA made us all adhere to that rule, it would make me happier than a whole bowl full of stewed prunes.
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The Bus Stops Here
March 5, 2004 South Carolina State Representative Doug Smith has introduced a bill that will put public schools back in the education business and out of the parenting business. At first blush, the bill triggers alarm in the hearts of parents who jump to the conclusion that missing the last PTA Open House also means surrendering your shoe laces and wearing an orange jump suit. But a closer read underscores the sad fact that too many parents think that putting little Johnny on the school bus is the end of the line for their own responsibility Johnny’s success. If the proposal becomes law, it could mean stiff fines, even jail time, for parents who chronically ignore school requests for a conference about a student’s academic and/or behavioral problems. If a parent fails to show up for a conference three times in a row, the district could ask a magistrate to issue a subpoena requiring the parent to meet with school officials. If a parent also ignores the subpoena, he could be held in contempt, ordered to attend a parental responsibility program, shadow the student at school, pay a fine of up to $500, or go to jail for up to 30 days for each violation. Fines are fine, but if the parent has no money in the first place, fines are also moot. The parental responsibility program is a really good thing, but before this bill be-comes law, it should lose the punishments that only punish the child. I “shadowed” my own child years ago to find out for myself just what was so darn difficult about remembering to write down 8th grade algebra homework and to prove to him that there ARE worse things than not doing math homework. It nearly
118 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) embarrassed him to death, but he stopped “forgetting” his math work for the rest of the year. But when a child is already burdened by sorry parents who NEVER show up for anything, making that parent shadow their child at school punishes the wrong person — it would only embarrass the child among her peers. While jail sounds tough on pa-per, the child would really be doing the time. Junior won’t fare better in school if he thinks his actions sent Mom to jail. Kids of all ages could draw that conclusion, and lousy parents might actually encourage their child to shoulder the blame. Rep. Smith has said that the bill is not directed at 98 percent of the parents in this state, but there is growing evidence that a whole lot more than two percent of parents are just plain falling down on the job. Greenville County schools adopted a new policy three years ago whereby elementary students cannot be denied lunch even if they have no money with them or in their lunch account. (This does not include children who qualify for the free and reduced meals program.) Since then, it’s not unusual for the district to rack up $25,000 a year in unpaid elementary lunch bills. Schools with delinquent accounts send home notes and/or call parents, but some of these parents actually get “offended” when offered a form to apply for free or reduced meals. It’s a slippery slope. No one in their right mind would make a child go hungry at school, but sorry parents quickly figure out that they can forego their own lunch duty to their child and let the schools play mommy instead. Perhaps this bill should also require delinquent lunch parents to volunteer in the cafeteria making the “free” pb & j lunches that kids with no money are fed, and look each embarrassed and hungry child in the eye. It’s pathetic that we even need a kick-in-the-pants law like this, but it’s also a help-ing hand to teachers struggling to do the right thing even when parents won’t. In this era of teacher accountability, it’s unfair to judge a teacher solely by test scores when some of her students’ parents are uninvolved and unresponsive when their child inevitably runs into troubles.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 119 Champions of merit pay for teachers (count me among them) could get a boost from this law. Opponents of merit pay say it’s unrealistic to expect a teacher to turn sows’ ears into silk purses if her students have no support at home (and never any money for lunch). But under this law, a teacher whose students may not “test well” could be just as eligible for merit pay as a teacher who has all AP students because she would be able to document that she did everything in her power, including a subpoena, to get a parent to help her help a student having trouble in school. I don’t like this bill, don’t like that we have come to need it, but we do. But as it gets kneaded into law, let’s not just punish sorry parents, but help them learn that the bus stops here and there, but the buck stops with Mom & Dad.
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Having A Good One
March 19, 2004 Back in college, I stayed up into the wee hours, once, to study for some test. (I learned not to stay up past midnight for anything but fun, but that’s not the point.) The next morning I overslept and frantically skipped showering, breakfast and warm socks in order to snag a bus and make it to class on time. By the time I made it to lunch one test and two classes later, I was completely frazzled. It was peak lunch traffic and the cafeteria line oozed past the cashier into a dining hall that was already full. There were no familiar faces in the crowd, no empty tables where I could sit down and enjoy a small moment of peace and a large burger. Normally, standing there ALONE, looking for a place to sit, would not even register as a mild annoyance. But I was tired, hungry, stressed, grimy, and my feet were freezing. Instinct kicked in and I did what any other assertive woman would do when cornered by such hostile circumstances. I slammed my tray down at the nearest table and burst into tears. The hapless guy who was minding his own lunch and reading the paper suddenly looked a lot like Marty Feldman as I sat across from him, heaving and sobbing over my tray. I’m not sure whether his “Can I help you?” was sincere or code for “Why are you horning in on my table, you nut case?” I tried to explain, “I’m just . . . so . . . hungry . . .” but I gave up and waved him off. I was having a good cry, the first truly good thing I’d had that day, and I was not going to let polite conversation with some stranger ruin that.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 121 He fled. I sobbed over my sesame bun for several more minutes, and blew my nose. Then, refreshed, I enjoyed my long overdue “breakfast” and ignored the stares of those around me who didn’t understand or appreciate the benefits of a good cry. My friend Susan, who basically does stand up on her cell phone while she drives her two toddler boys around in her van, is a sage on the subject of the good cry. She says, “Women do not have the same pressure outlets as men. We can’t burp, break wind or scratch in public, so things build up within us to the point that only a good cry can get all that stress out!” She has the good cry down to an art form. “That’s why I own a copy of ‘Terms of Endearment’ and of course ‘Wit.’” If you need to exorcize some pent up stresses, I’m pretty sure both of those movies come with a written guarantee on the box. If you build up a tolerance, try “The Way We Were,” “Places in the Heart,” or “Sophie’s Choice.” These will not work on men, at least not straight ones. My Reason for Living actually LAUGHED out loud during “Terms of Endearment.” If there had been female bouncers at the Cineplex, he would have been toast. But I digress. A good cry can and should be planned. When I was shipped off to Switzerland during my 15th summer (with NO return date on my plane ticket . . .) I believed homesickness could be fatal. A good cry in the shower every morning (especially on the days when the host family tried to make me dress in identical outfits with their three daughters) was very cathartic and helped me get through the rest of the day. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer in 1988, I discovered that one of my sisters and I coped the same way. We both allotted time in the car after dropping the kids off at preschool every morning for a good long cry. (Wearing sunglasses helps tremendously at congested intersections.) Conversely, if you keep too stiff an upper lip and deny yourself, a good cry will erupt anyway. After my dad’s death years later, I thought routines and work would get me back to square
122 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) one faster, only to find myself pulling over on I-385 and bawling like a baby for no apparent reason. I blubbered to my Reason for Living on the cell, and he gently assured me that I was not “losing it,” I just needed to give myself more time to grieve and not try to do so much. I wondered how he could always be so reassuringly (annoyingly?) CALM, but then I could swear I heard him scratching something as he hung up the phone.
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April 2, 2004 Last summer as we were cruising colleges near and far, a song came on the radio that struck a chord in me. It was the same tune I’d played over and over like some love-sick teenager as I cruised the streets of Charlotte holding hands with my new baby girl. She didn’t care then that I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I was not required to be silent or to turn up the radio. She listened, rapt, as I crooned to her in the car and mangled every song. After a few weeks, she cooed on cue with me (and evidently inherited my less than perfect pitch). She enjoyed our first spring together as she settled into the schlepping life that is the lot of subsequent children, my cheerful companion as I ferried her big, two year old brother to pre-school and back. I hadn’t heard the song in almost 18 years, and I was pleasantly shocked when my former baby girl riding along beside me volunteered that she liked it, too. There was a time when liking the same things was something I just had to infer. For a teenage girl, openly admitting that your mom may have decent taste in anything is tantamount to saying, “I don’t want any friends.” Raising daughters is a complicated, wondrous thing. We mothers want so much for our daughters that it can seem like we want too much from them. While I was the last one picked for kickball, our girls have the chance to play and excel in sports that were not even offered. Ballet was something I quit by age 8 (to the relief of the instructor) but now it’s not just a fun and beautiful art form — it demands as much as any varsity sport, develops the same kind of self discipline, and offers the same scholarship opportunities.
124 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Girls have the same professional choices as boys, but we also want our girls to enjoy the same traditional life experiences we’ve enjoyed such as love, and marriage, and babies, and kids. Biology is the one thing we can’t change — so as much as we hope that our girls become doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs whom we can brag about (and take credit for), we hope that their professional aspirations don’t displace those traditional life experiences for so long that it seems too late. Our hopes for daughters heap so many expectations on their plates that before they’re even “done,” we’re wishing so much for them that they’re overwhelmed, undone by all those well-meaning expectations. If I’ve learned anything from my mom’s experience, or from my own, it’s that life comes in phases. Each phase is there to be enjoyed and savored, but there’s no specific order, and no law that says that those phases cannot or should not overlap. (If there is a law, then breaking it is half the fun.) My mom didn’t “go to work” until I was 17. Her “baby” was 15, her eldest 35. Be-fore that, she ran years’ worth of school raffles, mothers club luncheons, carpools, tennis teams, church volunteer groups — you name it, she was up to her elbows. If “stay at home mom” had been coined back then, she would not have qualified. At first I resented her work until I realized I didn’t want her pouring that kind of energy into MY business. She quickly became tops in real estate (yes, it can be hereditary), so waiting until one phase of life was WELL over did not impede her next phase one iota. She retired at 82 and is the only person I’ll ever know whose epitaph should read “I wish I spent more time at the office.” I’m grateful to the women who blazed a trail that enabled me to follow my own, even if mine is more traditional than they might have hoped for me. I didn’t go to law school, but I worked while my Reason for Living went. I couldn’t wait to have babies, so we didn’t, and we managed to juggle work and law school and diapers. I was lucky to be able to quit working when I couldn’t
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 125 stand not to be with our babies full time, and I was lucky to discover my current work when raising kids was some-how not enough and too much for me all at once. It’s hard to believe that the same little “tree frog” who used to bop around the den in her jammies and a tutu is a young woman headed off to college. She’s always been far more mature than I, and she’s made my “baby and kids phase” so wonderful that I’m a little envious of those she’ll meet and learn from in her “college phase.” I love that we’ve come full circle and that we openly like (some of) the same music now. But as she dances away on her own, my greatest hope and joy will be watching her dance to her own tune.
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Hamming It Up For God
April 16, 2004 It’s been years since we hosted Easter for family, and years longer since I allowed myself to enjoy an Easter ham for days on end, but we broke tradition by doing both this past Easter weekend. While ham is the traditional main course for the Easter meal, it’s a little known fact that families gather around the ham because it is such an enduring symbol of Easter’s promise of everlasting life. I believe Saint Paul introduced ham in Damascus as the mainstay of the traditional Easter dinner (AKA “brunch” for those Yankee transplants who still think one can’t eat “dinnah” before 6:00 p.m.). As everyone knows, ham just ain’t kosher, so serving ham as the main course on Easter left no confusion about early Christians, like Paul, who had left former Jewish rituals behind. It affirmatively set this important Christian feast apart from its ancestral Passover meal, and it offered an easy, non-violent transition because it rhymes so nicely with lamb. St. Paul and other early church leaders may have experimented with the honey-glazed, spiral-sliced variety, but it did not firmly catch on with Christians (and many agnostics) until the late 20th century. While it is somewhat difficult to stage a successful Easter ham hunt, ham lasts WAY longer than boiled Easter eggs, and it still smells good even if you haven’t found that last Easter ham until three days later. Although it doesn’t look nearly as cute posed next to a bunny, ham was designated by early church leaders as the Easter main course because it provides such lasting fodder, real
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 127 and symbolic, for eternal life. As Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “The definition of eternity is two people and a ham.” I experienced this truth firsthand about 25 years ago at the loving hands of my older, frugal sister Patsy. (When she was a penniless law student, she admonished me to “use just one square at a time” when I visited her powder room.) Instead of joining other college sophomores in warm climes for spring break, I was pressed into service in sunny New Jersey, where Patsy was preparing for her family’s imminent move to South America. My job was to help pack. (My reward is still pending, but at the time Mom said something about earning a greater reward in heaven. No hurry to cash in.) My first day there, we went to the grocery store. Patsy wondered aloud, “How can I feed you cheaply for a whole week?” She asked me if I liked ham, and at the time, I did. As a token of appreciation, she allowed me to choose my own cold cereal. I chose Life. For the next seven days and six nights, we enjoyed ham together. No, the first night, we enjoyed ham. The remaining seven days and five nights, I endured ham. Ham and eggs. Ham sandwiches. Cold ham. Room temperature ham. Microwaved ham. Ham and Life. Ham WAS life. We had no meals out. With PLENTY of ham, why dine out? I never sneaked something else; there WAS nothing else. I’m no “foodie.” My favorite dish is pretty much anything someone else prepares. But eternal ham tested my limits. I mentioned it to my mother when she called to see how I was “enjoying” the week with my sister. She chortled and then suggested, “Offer it up to God. He will appreciate your sacrifice.” It’s interesting to me that communion does not involve ham, nor anything beyond bread and wine (or grape juice if you subscribe to certain Protestant notions that Jesus did not drink wine in church). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I know of no religions that offer ham in sacrifice, literally or figuratively. It would
128 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) take too long. I don’t believe God is interested in ham, and after a week of nothing else but, I achieved omniscience as to why. The week slowly ended. Ham ensures each day takes its time passing. Patsy was packed for Peru, and I was packed with ham. It only took 20 some-odd years before I could think of serving it again. Shortly after I left, she called to tell me how awful the Life cereal was that I had not finished off. Patsy said it was so disgusting she had to hold her nose while eating it. Wastefully tossing it out would have literally turned her stomach. So I suggested she eat Life with ham and offer up her selfless sacrifice to God. With careful rationing, He might look with favor on her Life and ham combo . . . forever.
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Playing’s the Thing
April 30, 2004 We’ve held several ceremonies with our children over the years, formal rites of pas-sage that marked times in their lives where they gave up a treasured item or plaything so they could explore more enriching things. We attended several pacifier tossing ceremonies by the garbage can when our second child was two, and again years later for our fourth child. Although the pacifiers themselves were revolting, none of us questioned the comfort the girls took from their “plugs,” nor the guarantee of “sleeping through the night” that we ALL enjoyed. Painful as it was, they both had to chuck their treasured pacifier in order to free them up to speak intelligibly. Several ceremonies were required for both children. The first five tries were just dress rehearsals; they fished the pacifier out within minutes of the concluding hymn. After much weeping and gnashing of teeth (and the jaws of the disposal . . .), they moved beyond the pacifier. Now they both enjoy speaking in full sentences. We also attended a Nintendo trash ceremony. When our oldest was seven, he’d be-come even more attached to that thing than his sisters ever were to their pacifiers. Video games never provided us with a full night’s sleep, yet it was the source of many arguments among the kids, and even more between us and zombieNintendo-boy. It was truly tough making a seven year old go cold turkey after the garbage truck drove away with the Nintendo. We learned the hard way what our parents had warned us about long ago: the
130 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) more things you give your kids, the less they actually PLAY. Forget toys. Playing is the important thing. We never told our kids WHAT to play when they whined that they had nothing to do, we just told them to GO PLAY. But when we recently quizzed them about what they came up with over the years, the similarities to our childhood games are uncanny. I thought I invented “Hot Lava” with my siblings and cronies back in the day. But my kids insist that – DUH – everyone knows how to play that. Directions: Wait until you’re probably pregnant and exhausted mom is napping and thinks you are, too. Drag all cushions off the den couch. Distribute cushions around den. Leap from cushion to cushion. Shrieking helps. The floor is “Hot Lava;” if you touch it you’re at least scalded, but probably dead. Game ends when someone bonks something, cries, and wakes up the mom. Cave or Fort. Again, I thought my generation invented that, but my kids invented it on their own: Spread blankets over tables and chairs and across the chasm between two twin beds, and – voila — a cave or fort. The blankets are “secured” in place with big heavy books lugged from Dad’s bookshelves. The interior is furnished with more blankets, pillows, flashlights, comic books and action figures or Barbies (depending). The cave usually lasts until someone lets the dog in. Dogs are big cave-enders. Even kids can’t tolerate dog breath in tiny spaces for very long, and cave blankets walk away with the dog no matter how big the atlas that anchored it. The Arm Game is still one of my very favorite games, and my kids love their own version. This is best played with a sibling with whom you have to share a bed, preferably a younger sibling who is sleepier than you are. The older sibling flops her bigger, heavier arm across the younger sibling. The younger sibling wakes up just enough to throw the arm back. Repeat. The Arm Game is really fun for the older sibling. For the younger sibling, not so much, but that is part of the fun.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 131 It’s never too late (or too soon if you’re turning on that dreadful “Baby Einstein” instead of TALKING TO your baby…) to arrange some ceremonies of your own to force your kids away from the TV, the computer, and the Playstation, and back into just PLAYING for a change. They’ve already forgotten what you gave them for Christmas, but they’ll never forget Hot Lava or any other game they devise. My little sister HATED The Arm Game (she never was any good at it) but just mentioning it makes us cackle like little girls. Because of The Arm Game, we can’t forget what it was like to be six and eight, but we’re stumped on what our favorite toys were back then.
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The Art of the T.L.
May 14, 2004 “I’ve got a great T.L. for you.” That is music to the ears in our house. I did not invent the T.L., but I did import it from the Northshore of Chicago, my girl-hood stomping grounds. It’s a mild antidote to the culture of “mean girls” who go out of their way to repeat something unsavory that someone else has said about you. But they don’t just repeat it to others, but to you, too. The T.L. is just the opposite, sort of. In its original form, the T.L. banks on the innate desire to hear NICE things that others have said. In order to hear those nice things, the T.L. in turn encourages participants to remember complimentary things said about someone else and to repeat that compliment TO that person. Here’s an example of how a T.L. works (worked) in its original form. (It has improved over the years, but I’m getting to that.) Margaret tells Mary, “I’ve got a T.L. for you!” T.L. actually stands for “Tell Last.” Mary knows that Margaret has heard something really nice about Mary, but she is going to tell Mary LAST. But first, Mary has to tell Margaret something nice that she heard about Margaret. If Margaret is a strict adherent to the rules, she will not utter another word about it un-less and until Mary can remember something nice that someone said about Margaret. (But the fact is, if Margaret is really that much of a stickler, she may have to wait a week or two for Mary to cough something up . . .) Assuming that Mary and Margaret both just enjoy passing on nice utterances to each other, Mary suddenly remembers
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 133 something really nice that someone else said about Margaret, she tells Margaret, and then Margaret tells Mary the positive thing that she overheard or was told about Mary. She tells it LAST. Those were the original rules, honed over generations of girls who passed through the halls of a very nice all girls Catholic school run by the Sacred Heart order of nuns (nuns who, in their defense, had no idea that the girls had turned a simple compliment into some kind of Machiavellian ritual). To put the best spin on the T.L., I guess it was invented to put some brakes on the fawning that goes on among girls that turns some unfortunates into sycophants and the fortunate few into little princesses who think that all those compliments are merely their due. Under the original rules of the T.L., even the most blatant toady could tell the most popular girl in school that she had a T.L. for her – and that popular princess would have to relate something nice before she could feed her own fragile ego. My Reason for Living, boy scout that he is, was an unwilling participant in the T.L. exchange when I first introduced it to him in college. He liked the listening part all right, but he immediately recognized the unseemly, manipulative, self-serving angle to the T.L. ritual. He thought it was tacky, to say the least, for me to expect him to repeat something nice about me before I would repeat a compliment that I’d heard about him. (He would have made a LOUSY adolescent girl in my neck of the woods.) Instead, he would say he was “fresh out;” either nobody had mentioned me in his presence for quite some time, or what they had said was not something he felt he should repeat. Then he would casually say that he’d get back to me in a couple of weeks or so. That is, if he heard anything worth repeating to me, but not to hold my breath. But he DID like hearing those compliments, as we all do, and so I always caved in and gave him T.L.’s on credit. He ran up quite a tab. In turn, he always went out of his way to tell me when he’d heard something nice about me, but he just told me — no strings
134 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) attached. I called it a “free T.L.” and over time, it was shortened to T.L., and the self-serving rules have fallen away. Now we often relate TLs within our family, but the name is now a misnomer, the only vestige of the original, self-serving format. When we tell each other “I have a great TL for you!” it’s simply the precursor to some happy news about them, another version of catching one another in the act of being good. Funny thing is, it often naturally prompts one to remember something nice in turn, but it’s not expected or required. When I was 15, I couldn’t even imagine “telling first,” so it’s truly nice to see my own teenage girls embrace it as second nature.
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June 11, 2004 Remind me not to give in to pleadings to attend the opening night for any big movie again. Opening night attracts too many people who get their tickets early AND get to the theater way early (i.e., earlier than we do). It also lures thrill-seekers who believe that getting the last ticket at the last minute doesn’t mean that they can’t also have the best seat in the theater. This is a formula for what we have come to know as the Eternal Conundrum (and it has nothing to do with eggs or chickens). I always see it coming long before the rest of my family. That’s because I’m the suspicious type, always on the lookout for it, or because they are more willing than I to recognize it and surrender to it all the in the same moment. The latest conundrum unfolded like this: We arrived early, happily avoiding a long ticket line outside the theater, only to find a long ticket-holder line snaking inside. We found the end of the line and stood there. About a dozen people arriving after us did the same. Then the thrill-seekers arrived. They snagged the last ticket outside but they were unwilling to be last inside. Instead, they coyly positioned themselves within one of the bends of the line coiling around the lobby. The rest of us rule-abiding folks blinked at one another with raised eyebrows – but no one SAID anything (yet). That’s the eternal conundrum: somebody does something blatantly rude, often to and in front of a whole bunch of people,
136 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) but nobody is willing to call them out on it for fear of being perceived as rude, or worse, ruder than the original perpetrator. My Reason for Living and I exchanged a knowing look: another conundrum to deal with, or not. (But I have a hard time accepting the “or not” option.) So I emphasized the obvious for the people ahead of us in line: “Hey, those people just cut in line in front of you.” I helpfully said it so everyone – including the scofflaws — could hear. More blinking, more raised eyebrows. The scofflaws studiously avoided eye contact, maintaining their position. Then “Conundrum, The Sequel” began. The dozen or so people behind us, feeling wronged by the linecutters, did not say or do anything to make the line-cutters go to the end of the line. Instead, they averted their eyes and JOINED them. What had once been an orderly line was suddenly a big, unruly scrum of ticket holders inching forward, elbows out. I was itching to do SOMEthing – call the cops, write my Congressman, or yank someone out of line by the ear. Even our kids, who normally BEG us to act invisible, expected us to DO something – anything – rather than accept our new position at the very end. But we didn’t. Their dad reminded them our integrity is worth more than a $7 movie ticket, and we just let it go. And he was right. I think. The conundrum rears its ugly head in so many different places. Every now and then, this column reaps the conundrum. I welcome email from readers, positive and not-so. But it’s only polite to sign email, especially if the sender aims to “improve” me. My impulse is to reply by pointing out that it is rude to send anonymous, negative emails. But, my editor (who probably gets combat pay for dealing with me) has for the most part successfully encouraged me not to reply with anything more than “Thanks for reading” or “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 137 I’ve waited (impatiently) in countless interstate traffic jams, and every time some car has to pass on the shoulder. Then they cut in line a mile ahead. Then other drivers, feeling like dorks if they get passed, follow suit. So a long line turns into a hopeless snarl. It was VERY SATISFYING when all the other drivers once engaged in an unspoken pact not to let any of the illegal passers nose into line, but that kind of esprit de corps is all too rare. I’ve seen the conundrum in business, and even once is too often. One party will push and push and push. The other party does not want to seem as rude, until he just can’t take it anymore and says “Stop, no more.” The pushy guy then backs off so easily that it’s clear that it was almost a game – a cheap thrill to see just how far he could push someone. The eternal conundrum preys on and abuses the politeness of others. I’m not at all sure that it is as rude, or ruder, to openly reject blatantly offensive behavior, but I am sure that I won’t hesitate to tell the next bunch of boors who cross my path that . . . they’ve given me a lot to think about.
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July 9, 2004 Our most recent high school graduation was supposed to free me from the persistent cloud of guilt that shadows me for missing this or that ribbon cutting, award ceremony, fundraiser, pep rally or anything that “everyone else’s parents attended.” But no. I’ve learned that some colleges are cashing in as tour guides on the latest parental guilt trip: orientation. Last I checked, going to college was all about getting AWAY from your parents, learning to live independently, becoming fully educated, finding your own way in the world (and to the rest room) and demanding to be treated “like an adult.” If it weren’t for claiming them as a dependent on our taxes, our college aged kids would have roughly the same legal status as the proverbial unemployed-brother-in-law who sleeps on the couch and casually holds his palm out for cash he needs to put gas in your car that he’s borrowed without asking. Veteran parents assured me that orientation was not so bad. It’s good for you to take a day away from your work, your other children, and your other obligations to feel entirely superfluous — aside from your check book. I was amazed at how many (better) parents attended the entire two day orientation with their freshman TOGETHER. My Reason for Living and I love giving our eldest daughter our undivided attention so much that we divided the time between us and became oriented in shifts. He definitely got the short end of the stick, because he only got to spend three hours with her out of the two day event which covers everything that you figured out on your own in college (and it’s all on the website, too).
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 139 Housing orientation involves student/parent tours of dorm rooms and then student tours of your wallet’s interiors. When I toured my college’s dorms, the boys’ dorm rooms featured genuine college furnishings like a built-in bed and desk (and nothing more) and posters of Cheryl Tiegs or Farrah Fawcett. The rooms were inhabited by real college freshmen with actual books and papers stacked all over the place. There was mood music blaring a la Bruce Springsteen, and authentic sweaty socks moldering on the floor. The “model dorm rooms,” look like a page from the Pottery Barn catalogue. The sample boy’s dorm room is nothing like any boy’s room I’ve ever seen, especially if the boy is more than eight years old. It was so color coordinated and straight that it did not look straight (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The tour also included the “before look,” which looks exactly like my dorm room did before I slid my trunk through the door, unpacked it, and made up my bed (all by myself). Apparently, the “before look” is absolutely outré, because orientation offers all kinds of info on how you can PURCHASE the furnishings in the model room, including a “loft system” that maximizes the use of all that cubic space and allows the student to stuff her dorm room with “all the comforts of home,” including a futon for guests. If the dorm room includes all the comforts of home, what is the point of leaving home? The crucible of orientation is registration – not for housewarming gifts for dorm rooms (but don’t hold your breath), but for classes. My daughter loved this part because parents were required to be there, but they were also required to sit APART from the students and to remain QUIET. Don’t ask why; I still don’t know. The professor flicked on an overhead projector and proceeded to read the highlights of an instructional registration handout aloud. (I infer this was for the benefit of any illiterate incoming freshmen.) Parents were not even given a copy of the darn handout (see earlier paragraph). This led to extended, dramatic
140 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) sighing and fidgeting on my part, and steely sit-still-and-be-quiet glares on my daughter’s part. After story time, the students then chose their first courses under the watchful eye of their advisor (again, parents specifically invited NOT to participate in this process, merely to pay for it). They finalized their choices at a computer terminal. No one asked me to recite my daughter’s birth story. No one inquired as to what she was like as a little girl. I’ve played more important roles (with a lot less fidgeting) when I was a tree in 3rd grade summer school drama class. In 2005, they should offer an Orientation Express option that EXCLUDES parents and lasts only a day. Target gifted students who can find their way around campus without Mom’s help, or those who have at least memorized Dad’s MasterCard number. I sincerely hope they institute the change before our next graduate comes along, because I’m fully oriented, thanks.
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Who You’re Talking To
July 23, 2004 When our kids were little and I could not keep an eye on every one every minute, I often asked the older ones to check on what the little ones were doing. They soon developed an interesting short hand. “She’s just sitting here in her car seat, being a baby, Mom.” I could easily infer details about the baby sucking her toes, drooling, and generally soaking up the surroundings (and her diaper). When the babies were no longer babies, and therefore capable of doing less than benign things, the abbreviated reports from the older kids were just as informative. “She’s just sitting there being little, Mom.” Depending upon the reporter’s tone of voice, I knew that I still had a few minutes before I needed to be on the scene myself, or that I was already too late. When the youngest was four and had a friend over, her older sister once had to inform me that “They’ve been being four down in the play room, and you better come see this.” When I sped down the stairs and found the couch, the carpet, the table, and several toys outlined with a thick coating of “White Out,” I learned the hard way what “being four” can mean. It means that checking on quiet little four year old girls in 20 minute intervals is not enough, that two sweet little four year old girls are capable of mayhem that one little girl would never conjure on her own, and that regardless of what the bottle says, White Out is not just for copies.
142 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Demanding “How could you DO this?” is rhetorical at times like that. The answer, even if they’re not old enough to articulate it verbally, is “Because I’m four.” I was fuming, mostly at myself (but I wasn’t about to leave her out of my wrath). She was the fourth four year old, so I knew better than to expect her to know better. But it doesn’t stop at kindergarten graduation. I don’t think it ever does. As long as you remember you’re talking to, it tempers your expectations, and your temper, when things aren’t done your way. When one of my nieces came home from camp 20 some odd years ago, I happened to be there when my sister unpacked her trunk. This niece had the misfortune to be a first born, and this was probably her first time as a camper, so my sister did not yet know that if her child came home happy, and if the trunk contained half as much stuff as originally packed in it, that is a successful camp experience. But the kid had NO shoes. She had been flopping around in a too-big pair of her counselor’s extra sneakers, probably for weeks, every other pair of shoes gone. She stood there, mutely flinching under my sister’s inevitable barrage of how-could-you-do-this, why-didn’t-you-search-the-lost-and found and (the laughable) why-didn’t-you-tell-me-this-before? It would have been amazing if she had any answers for the questions, let alone good answers, but that would have been beyond her job description. The short hand answer was pretty much, “because I’m 10.” I’ve made the same mistakes with my oldest (OK, and with the second, third and fourth). If I can think of the right thing to do, why can’t they? Most of the time they were just “being little” or “being 14” or some other equally frustrating stage, and I always thought I was talking to someone else, someone who wouldn’t do those things in the first place. An adult maybe? It’s often just a question of remembering who you’re talking to.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 143 I often remind my clients who become frustrated when a contractor or a roofer or anyone shows up late, or does not return phone calls instantly, that they may have negotiated some great price, but the other guy sets the terms. A low price does not necessarily mean executive terms. But sometimes I can be so “Type A” that I need reminding myself. I deal regularly with an excellent chimney sweep in town. He’s even merry, as a sweep should be. He speaks chimneys and fireplaces like I speak English, but he definitely speaks it with a unique drawl. He had helped us solve problems with three different fireplaces in the house, and the next step was scheduling him to come back doing the work. If he had asked, yesterday was good for me, but he didn’t ask. So I did. “When can you come back to do the work?” “Sometime early next week.” I pressed. “Would that be Monday or Tuesday?” “Probably.” I grew impatient (no, I AM impatient). “Could you be a little more vague?” I guess I was expecting him to whip out a Palm Pilot and pinpoint an exact time that he would appear at my door, something I know not to promise even to my children. He shrugged amiably, smiled, and reminded me of a key fact, “Hey, I’m a sweep.” His card doesn’t say Chimney CEO, nor is he anyone’s employee, including mine. His gentle but effective reminder of who I was talking to has joined our lexicon of short hand reporting on one another’s doings. Our kids are now too big to “sit around being little.” But when we catch them doing their own thing, doing it on their own terms, and doing it well, they’re “being a sweep,” and we know exactly who we’re talking to.
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Division of Labor
August 6, 2004 We are given to making a lot of lists around here. It is part of our never-ending to goal to get things done, done well, and on time. We’ve even discovered a program out there called “Let’s Clean Up” which is just a way to make the to-do lists I scrawl out by hand look more official and efficient. I find that spending 30 minutes on the computer tinkering with a fancy list with boxes to check or highlight is even more gratifying than executing something on the list myself and scratching it off. The kids despise these computer generated to-do lists. The lists are reportedly “gay,” which is the latest blanket pejorative in their lexicon (and has nothing to do with one’s orientation). This only inspires me to make more lists for them, using the section of the program with even more detailed tasks. For example, the “Clean the Kitchen” task list allows me to go into excruciating detail such as “Soap down, rinse, and wipe out the sink itself,” something a 12 year old (or a 45 year old) would rarely think of on her own. It also permits me to editorialize as to the “finish” expected on the job, such as, “Don’t just get it done, do it so well that even Dad will think it’s done.” These lists are so helpful that if everyone in our family would just read the instructions and just DO their assigned tasks, our household would run like a well-oiled machine. I wish I could get them to understand that it would take them less time to actually DO all their tasks than it does for them to argue that resurfacing the driveway or scrubbing the grout in my shower with a
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 145 toothbrush is unreasonable, or that raising their younger sister is supposedly “the mom’s job.” I put up a pretty good front, but the division of labor between my Reason for Living and me is traditional to the extreme. I have not paid a bill since he was in school, and I have not balanced our check book since . . . well, I’m sure I knew how to do that at one time, anyway. He must have been a mechanic in a former life, because the man can fix anything (except dinner). When it comes to anything technical, electrical, financial, historical, or mathematical, I hit the Reason-for-Living speed dial on my phone. Though utterly lacking in talent, my division covers all the routine domestic things that I can’t coerce the kids into doing for me. But if something needs editing, I’m fairly handy with a red pen. When we fall down on our jobs, we know it, and everyone else does, too, because the kids are yelling “Seriously, Mom, we have NO FOOD!” or an irate daughter is calling me at work screaming that she has shampoo in her hair and the water just STOPPED during her shower. Somehow going to the Y to finish her shower is not an acceptable remedy. My Reason for Living and I do not make to-do lists for each other. Our division of labor is ingrained, an understanding that works, more or less. Besides, our to-do lists would be far too easy to write and way too difficult to read. If we did write such helpful lists for each other, his for me would read something like: 1. Do laundry. (PLEASE) 2. Do not leave laundry on floor of laundry room and hope some child will take a hint and help out during a commercial. 3. Put laundry and soap in machine. 4. Turn machine ON before running out the door. 5. Remove wet laundry from washing machine before mildew spores appear. (See item 2) 6. Put wet laundry in dryer. (See item 4)
146 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Remove laundry from dryer before permanent wrinkles set in (see item 2) 8. Fold laundry (see item 2) 9. Put laundry away (see item 2) 10. Do this at least weekly, because no matter how much underwear we buy, it will eventually run out. That would just be Section I. Section II would cover grocery shopping in much the same vein, and so on. My helpful reminder list for him would be simpler, shorter, and would read something like: 1. Fix anything the kids and I have broken lately. 2. Pay bills weekly so that you do not have to hibernate for days growling and catching up. 3. Be sure that quarterly bills, like water, are not overlooked. 4. Hide cash somewhere so kids can pay water bill in person in an emergency. 5. Buy more underwear. 7.
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Tough Phone Love
August 20, 2004 We’ve been schlepping our son back and forth to boarding school, and then college, for four years now. I’ve done enough weeping and gnashing of teeth through all that leaving and hugging to tide me over through at least two more kids, hopefully until the last one empties the nest in a mere six years. I thought that taking a second child to college would be a piece of cake. But leaving a daughter is just different. And this particular daughter is particular. As a little girl, she always fretted “you LEAVED me” because we’d walked out to the car a little faster than her own dawdling gait. She did not take to summer camp well at all, and we were grateful that her letters arrived three days after she’d written “Dear Mom and Dad, Thanks for leaving me in this awful place. I HATE it . . .” We assured each other (as we snickered) that surely she felt differently within moments of posting her Jeremiad. By the time we received the next missive, things were improving: “It’s still cold, my bug bites are getting infected, two of my cabin mates are kind of nice, but the rest are still dorks and I still hate camp. Love . . .” Luckily, camp did not come with a phone. If it had, I probably would have boarded a plane to rescue her from the pterodactylsized mosquitoes and glacial lakes of northern Wisconsin. As it was, she toughed it out, and so did we (but she never went back to Wisconsin with her cousin). We were not so lucky when she opted for the Governor’s School at Furman instead of camp, at 13. After lugging her brick collection up three flights of stairs and settling her in with more
148 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) provisions than I ever noticed she’d had at home, she noted that she had no phone. That was an easy “oversight” because she didn’t have a phone (never had one in her room at home before, or since). But her spoiled rotten roommate had one, plugged it in, and it worked only too well. “Hi Mom! Whatchya doing?” “Driving home. Where are you calling from?” “My dorm room. So how are you?” “Fine.” “Don’t you miss me?’ “I JUST dropped you off ten minutes ago! I’ll let you know how I feel after I’ve had a chance to notice you’re gone.” “You’re mean. I hate it here. Thanks for leaving me.” My meanness didn’t deter her from calling me every day, at least once a day, to give updates on the mean ballet instructors, her roommate’s poor hygiene, her lumpy mattress, the yucky food, and the general way that her surroundings assaulted her by not being home. “What’s everybody doing at home now?” “Pretty much the same thing they were doing when you called two hours ago. Your brother is still bagging groceries, the girls are still at their friends’ houses, and the dogs are still sitting outside being dogs.” “You’re so mean, Mom. I’m never going to call you again.” Yeah, right. “OK, talk to you soon, honey, loveyoubye.” When sarcasm failed, I had to use tough phone love. “Honey, you’re not going to enjoy your experience there or just being away from home until you stop calling here all the time. Having a phone in your room is not necessarily a good thing. We DO miss you, but do try not to call so often. It keeps you from enjoying your taste of independence. It doesn’t make you happy, and when we know you’re unhappy it makes it harder for us, too.” “So you DO miss me.”
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 149 “Yes, if you stop calling me so often and give me the chance, I’ll miss you desperately, if that makes you any happier.” “But I miss you NOW.” “I miss you, too, but I’d do better if I had more practice.” Fast forward to freshman year college. We’ve just transported her expanded concrete block collection up several flights in her dorm. In addition to the two beds and desks, we’ve managed to wedge a futon, a TV, a fridge, a computer, a printer, and more clothes than you can shake a stick at into her half of a shoe box. I notice about half her clothes are suspiciously identical to items that had been hanging in my own closet just the day before. When done, her dorm room looks like a cross between a lounge and a general store. It would make a survivalist weep. But cell phones are ubiquitous. The problem has become worse. No matter how well set she is, no matter how independent she has become, the instant gratification of cell phones makes it even harder to make these important transitions into a state of permanent independence. “Hi! So whatchya doing?” “The same thing I was doing when you called me two hours ago, Mom.” “So do you miss me?” “Mom! You just dropped me off two days ago. I’ll miss you when I’ve had a chance to notice that you’re gone. You really need to stop calling so often.” “You’re mean. Just for that, I’m never going to call again.” “OK, Mom. Talk to you soon. Loveyoubye.” I know just how she feels. I think I’ll call her in case she wants to talk about it.
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Rush to Judgment
October 8, 2004 Sorority rush was an unforgettable experience for me in college, four unforgettable experiences, actually. I went through it four different ways, and by the last time, I was glad I’d never have to go through all that again. But it’s kind of like childbirth – you forget how painful it is until you find yourself strapped to a bed by a labor monitor and your husband reading the newspaper beside you, again. And then it’s too late. Going through rush on my own, hard as it was, is a piece of cake compared to watching a daughter navigate the process. (One down, two to go.) This degree of difficulty is compounded by the fact that mine was not exactly a sorority success story. Shocking as it may seem (to everyone except people who know me . . .), I was a sorority reject. I went all the way through rush, got all the way through the very last two “pref’s parties” and then waited with bated breath in my dorm room the next day as herds of sorority girls stampeded down my dormitory hall, knocking on selected doors, hugging and squealing with their newly tapped pledges, and running off to the next dorm. No knock came on my door. Thank goodness I had “a single.” Without a roommate to try to cheer me up, I was able to turn off the lights, sit quietly, and pretend that I wasn’t home and didn’t care until the hall outside finally emptied out. This is the excuses part – everyone who goes through rush has a full arsenal of excuses – for being excluded, for excluding others; it’s written down somewhere. Anyway, I was the first and only
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 151 child in my family of 12 kids to attend a non-Catholic university, and Catholic schools don’t generally fool with sororities and fraternities (too eastern rite or something?) so the whole process was literally Greek to me. I offered no background, no context, no letters of reference to these girls who had to size me up. All they had to go on was me, and while I’m good at talking (and talking) I was not well-schooled in the fine are of small talk. Early rush parties lasted 30 minutes at each sorority house, and rush occurred in January, so at least ten minutes were taken up by taking off, stashing, retrieving, and donning coats. During the remaining 20 minutes, I needed to impress the socks off at least 20 girls by snacking and engaging in small talk for about 60 seconds a piece without getting food stuck in my teeth. On top of all that (I told you I had an arsenal of excuses) I was a Midwestern girl at a southern university and 25 years later I’m STILL not well-schooled in the special art of southern small talk. Small talk topics at the time ranged from moderately intelligent inquiries as to whether I enjoyed cooking (very short conversation) to the utterly random, such as, “Did you wear braces?” I could not resist deadpanning, “Yes, on my legs.” (It only took them three seconds to furtively glance at my legs and nervously guess that I was kidding, and no, I was not invited back to that house.) As the sororities rushed to judge me, I made it pretty easy for them. It was a small miracle that I made it all the way through pref’s at all. After that initial hideous, humiliating, scarring rejection experience (not that I’m bitter), I vowed that I did not need stupid sororities. So when Tri-Delta invited me to dinner to continue getting to one another via “informal rush,” I tossed all pride aside and small talked the hell out of them. Second rush ended happily with a bid. Third rush I had to evaluate clueless girls like me and I truly loathed the experience. I sat out my fourth rush and served as a rush counselor, with a
152 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) ready box of hankies and an empathetic ear for the girls in my group who only got bids from disappointment. Being the mother of a “rushee” is the worst rush of all. Learning that your own daughter has been cut, by ANYONE, can turn even a southern flower of femininity into a raging Mother Bear. My friend Sharon recalls “taking to her bed” because her daughter’s rush experience was so emotionally draining. It’s odd how the subject of rush throws up some permanent defenses. Another mom shared how awful her daughter’s rush experience was – NOT because HER daughter had been cut, mind you, but because her daughter’s FRIEND had been cut. It’s almost impossible for some to overcome even vicarious rejection. My first daughter’s rush story ended happily, but she had the important advantage of several helpful letters of reference from friends and a larger share of her father’s DNA than mine. Our next daughter has the misfortune of being most like her mother. I’m covering all the bases by taking her on a tour of the Catholic colleges, and we’re also boning up on our small talk skills together. She and I are not very good at cooking, but come to think of it, we’d just love to learn, thanks for asking.
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Dropping Shopping 101
January 21, 2005 One of the few things I remember from high school chemistry, other than just how slowly 50 minutes can crawl by, is the concept of titration, and the titer point. We dripped one liquid into another to see just exactly how many drops it took to cause a visible reaction. When the two liquids react, you have your exact titer point. I’ve got empirical data on all kinds of titer points. It takes exactly three bounces of a ball inside the house to make me yell, “Outside!” It takes exactly four unattended minutes for a toddler to disembowel a piñata purchased for a birthday party that afternoon. It takes one lone pair of socks left swishing around in the sock drawer to catalyze the “Oops, better do laundry” process. It took one observant remark from my son for me to reach my shopping titer. On Christmas Day, as we were stuffing shredded wrapping paper into giant trash bags, I apologized that my son’s “gift pile” was not as large as his siblings’. He said, “That’s OK. I have enough as it is. You did a good job on Christmas and all, but if you really look at all this stuff, it’s way more than you should have done, and none of us really NEED any of it.” That sentiment had been expressed many times before. It’s one of my favorite platitudes; I’ve always ignored it. My mom passed down her obsession of making sure that all the kids have equally huge Christmas gift piles, even if it means piling on useless, needless stuff to meet that goal. Maybe my son uttered it for the magic umpteenth time. Maybe he got lucky and I happened NOT to be talking (for once) while he
154 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) was talking. I can’t explain why it became a titer point, it just did. Since that day, (grocery shopping duly exempted) I have not indulged in one second of shopping for anything personal. I’m not a professional shopper by any means. I’ve never gotten beyond Shopping 101. It’s not like I’m the office fashion plate, and my tennis pals can give you chapter and verse about my dreadful tennis attire, pleats and all. I despise malls. In all my years, only one person has ever asked, “Where do you shop?” I’m not sure whether the question was a putdown, or a symptom of being so insipid she doesn’t know what the word means, but I had no answer. Still, dropping Shopping 101 has been startlingly difficult. I drooled over the initial wave of catalogues that inundate the mailbox every January. Now they go straight to recycling. Buying gifts brings much greater pleasure, but not out of thoughtfulness for the recipient. It just gives me an excuse to shop and maybe pick up a little something for myself, too. Instead, I avoid temptation by commissioning gifts from my talented friend Andrea, and hope that the recipient says, “This is too nice – you keep it!” (ahem, Katy….). As you can imagine, I suffer terrible soreness from patting myself on the back. But dropping shopping is important because of another titer point. It only took 756 whiney arguments with girls for me to finally ban shopping as past-time, let alone a competitive sport. It doesn’t matter whether they have their own money, or if they don’t need a ride, or if they’re just watching their friends shop (talk about enabling…), the answer is NO. There’s something really off kilter when kids can find Abercrombie & Fitch while blindfolded, but they can’t think of events more current than the presidential election or Paris Hilton’s latest faux pas. If I expect my no-shopping rule to stick, I have to stick to it myself. This is not a New Year’s resolution, but it has become a daily evaluation of wants versus needs. Things wear out, and other things go hopelessly out of fashion. And no matter how many
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 155 lunches I cut out or bricks I strap to their heads, the kids keep growing, and truly needing larger clothes. Some of the kids’ shopping arguments have merit. It’s not illegal, immoral, or fattening, but shopping for its own sake is junk food for the soul. I’ll eventually have to buy something for myself, and for the kids, but not tomorrow, and with any luck, I’ll make it to all the way to Ash Wednesday and give up shopping for Lent. Then I’ll start pining for a new Easter bonnet, but it should take at least six weeks to reach that titer point, and I’m almost content to wait for it.
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February 18, 2005 In recent months, random adults have felt compelled to regale me and/or my Reason for Living about some idiotic thing they did as a teenager. A car, usually someone else’s, played a major role in these sagas that largely involved poor decision making, hormones, crashes, tearing up people’s yards with tires, and lots of mud. One true confession that stands out involves two then-preteen boys who “borrowed” a brand new Jaguar that was being testdriven by their dad over the weekend. When they safely returned the vehicle to the garage with nary a scratch, they experienced such an adrenaline rush of relief that they took it out AGAIN. Then they smashed it up. They’re now successful parents, and at least one of them became a lifelong Jag aficionado, driving one (quite legally) to this day. The universal moral offered is: “Look how well I turned out – you don’t have to worry about a thing. Don’t be too hard on your kid; you’ll laugh about this someday.” We’re not surprised that these people are all now pillars of the community, because the two most common threads of these volunteered memoirs are getting caught AND getting their asses whooped in some form by their parents. We all do really dumb things all the time, but especially during our teen years. A counselor friend of mine once told me that many parents make the mistake of believing that their kids’ successes are a reflection of what great parents they are, therefore any bad mistakes a kid makes must be a reflection on them as “bad parents.” I find that hard to believe, but then again my Reason for Living and I hang out with people who certainly expect their kids
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 157 to do the right thing, but we’re never exactly shocked when they screw up. The question is how to prevent the kids from screwing up, that way, again. What our kids do, good or bad, is no reflection on us as parents. There is a smorgasbord of stupid decisions teens may choose from today: give a party (or two), violate curfew, sneak out after checking in, hang out with kids they have been forbidden to hang out with, drive recklessly, drink alcohol, even use drugs, and/or engage in sexual activity that we’d only heard vague rumors about when we were their age. My Reason or Living and I each did some really dumb things in high school, before we met each other and became the omniscient, omnipotent parents our kids see in us today (ha!). We got caught, and punished, for some violations, and our dear parents remain (thankfully) clueless about others to this day. I’m not going to share our own true confessions because it’s none of our kids’ beeswax, and our mothers actually read this, so why disappoint them now? Besides, our kids seem genetically programmed to repeat the sins of their parents, so at least we’ve been able to anticipate some varieties. What our kids do is one thing, what we do about it when we inevitably, eventually find out is the ultimate reflection of who we are. (I might add that the parents who meted out all the whoopings in those stories we’ve been told were and are loved and respected pillars of the community in their own right.) When we commiserate in our office about the latest chapter in the parenting handbook that we’d never imagined we’d have to write, we do feel sorry for the kids, usually our own, who are enduring some form of punishment for their latest antics. We also feel sorry for the mother who has to endure being grounded herself in order to make sure that her kid understands what being grounded is, on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. We feel sorriest, however, for parents who openly declare, “My child would NEVER ____!” We cringe for them because they’re more concerned about appearances than consequences, and that’s
158 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) basically an open invitation for their kid to fill in the blank the very next weekend. It’s also hard to resist feelings of “schadenfreude” as those erstwhile “perfect parents” get lumped in with the rest of us. Much as we like name-dropping fancy colleges or mentioning awards, we cannot take the credit for our kids’ successes. On the same token, even when we can’t see our reflection at all (because there’s no darn window left to see …) we can’t take the blame for their mistakes, but we have to help them take the responsibility. We will laugh about our kids’ mistakes someday, probably when they call us for advice about how to respond to their own kids’ bloopers. We’ll be happy to advise them as to which brand of whooping might be most appropriate, but until then we’ll manage our own trials and hope that we help them learn enough from their errors that they get to raise their own teens one day.
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What About Pro-Child?
March 18, 2005 Has the chasm between the pro-life and pro-choice camps in this state become so routine and mindless that it’s reduced to arguing about which state license plate can be displayed? I don’t stand firmly at either end of the spectrum. There’s a lot of troubling gray area between those two poles. Those who see things only in black and white may add a lot of heat to the debate, but they don’t shed any light. My guess is that I’m not unlike most people in that I don’t think I could ever personally choose abortion, but I cannot criminalize those who feel they have no other choice. I don’t even like to think about it, most people don’t, but does that mean we’re just turning a blind eye, or offering carte blanche? Neither group is without its flaws. There are “pro-lifers,” who see no incongruity between opposing abortion and supporting the death penalty. If you oppose ending human life in any form, it does not make sense to exempt anyone, including adult criminals. The “pro-choice” lobby is not immune from its own sad ironies. It all depends on who’s doing the choosing. About 20 years ago, I volunteered at “Hope of Northern Virginia.” It was a port in the storm for women who had been ostracized because of an unwanted pregnancy. “Hope” assigned a birth and child care coach to each client, assisted in finding housing, and provided a year’s supply of baby furnishings and formula for each client. I was assigned to a 16 year old Vietnamese-American girl. Her father barely spoke English, and was struggling alone to raise her and three little brothers. This girl terminated her first pregnancy
160 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) because her father had threatened to kick her out. She came to us after conceiving a second time “to make up for the first one.” It was not unusual for girls and women to come to “Hope” for a subsequent pregnancy because someone else – a boyfriend, a husband, or a parent – had made them “choose” between having a baby or having a roof over their head the first time. Kind of makes the “choice” in “pro-choice” ring hollow. This girl taught me a lot. Despite all the stuff she got, despite all the help I tried to give her, it was basically impossible for her to give her baby the physical and emotional care every baby should have a right to. She called constantly – mostly requests for money. She became angry when I came to her house to show her how to bathe her newborn in the sink – not to babysit for a few hours – and she didn’t understand or care why cleaning the sink was the first step. I became angry when the money she “needed” turned up as a ridiculous perm in her straight black hair. I became even angrier when Virginia’s version of DSS was not interested in an accident waiting to happen because they were already overwhelmed by very real events with other families. I was removed from the case when a fellow volunteer overheard me counseling my client to seek contraception. Contraception was a verboten topic; discussing it was tantamount to practicing medicine without a license (bridge club members everywhere – beware!) It didn’t seem to matter that the last thing this too-young, single mom – or her baby — needed was another baby. And so the question crystallized in my mind for the first time, and this endless debate has yet to answer it: What about THE BABY in all this? This debate is not pro-child. Pro-lifers put a lot of energy into making sure no baby goes unborn, but if someone is born poor (despite their right to abortion and to contraception) then it’s basically their fault, their problem. Listen to talk radio and you’ll
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 161 hear the right wing chorus chanting against abortion AND against free/reduced meals in schools, all in the same breath. Pro-choice pundits harp on the right to privacy. But what about all those pregnancies that are terminated because the timing or gender isn’t “right? The fact is that, because we don’t like to think about it, people can and do terminate pregnancies at almost any stage, for whatever reason, and so we want to think about that even less. Our state puts married adults through the paces if they apply to adopt a child, in order to protect the rights of the adopted child. But what about the rights of a child born to a minor who keeps the baby? Doesn’t that baby have the same rights to basic care and safety? If our legislators really believed that a 15 year old girl could provide that, then adoption would involve less paperwork than buying a car. Life itself has been cheapened by our choices now. There’s no longer any shame in choosing to terminate. Nor is there any shame in being single and pregnant. Too often, it means those babies are born into a gray area that leaves their rights in limbo . . . and that is the real shame.
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Know Your Own Mind
April 8, 2005 My Reason for Living recently asked me a simple question and was shocked when he didn’t get the negative he was expecting. The question itself is irrelevant (sorry to disappoint my prurient readers), but it’s amazing that this man, who has known me since we were both 18, can still be surprised by anything I have to say. It’s a perfect example of how we all think we know what someone would want or say, especially someone we love, but the only mind we truly know is our own. That’s the crux of the whole Terry Schiavo tragedy. Because she never explicitly made her thoughts known (explicitly as in writing them down), her loved ones were all certain about “what she would have wanted,” but all they truly knew was what they would want for her, or for themselves, in that awful situation. Our family talked about this over Easter dinner. It’s not your usual dinner table conversation, and the kids were not keen on it. It’s a subject many people feel they have an obligation to discuss with their spouses, but they shy away from it with their family. We all knew about Terry Schiavo, but we also told them about Karen Ann Quinlan. Remember her? She was the young single woman whose long lingering death inspired the “right to die” movement back in 1976. Her parents went to court for their right to remove her from a ventilator after she had been pronounced brain dead. They won, but the poor soul lingered in that shadowy limbo for almost another ten years because her parents also chose to maintain a feeding tube and antibiotics. I can’t begin to know whether their choice was right or
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 163 wrong, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was the right choice for them, and their sole right to make it. Our children had never heard of a “Living Will.” At first they thought it was morbid to draw up that kind of thing, so they were surprised to learn that their parents each have one. But they were also relieved to know that we had taken the time, the courtesy, to act on that terrible what-if for them, so they would not have to make impossible decisions for us. One of them asked why we had to talk about Living Wills since we already had them. The answer is twofold: because we have them and they should be aware of it in advance, and because a Living Will is only as strong as your designee’s willingness to honor it. My Reason for Living has already admitted he does not know whether he could execute my wishes, so it’s important for our children to know what I want and to back him up. Years ago, our good friend Jim went so far as to plan out his entire funeral, right down to the wake, the readings, and the pall bearers. (I’m not sure whether he’s written the eulogy, but it would have to be an on-going project. I wouldn’t be surprised, and frankly no one else could give him a better or more honest send off anyway.) He’s feeling just fine, thank you, and his actuarial tables indicate he’s got plenty of time to plan and re-plan things. You might wonder why he’s done it, but the real question is why haven’t the rest of us done so? We’ve got public service ads out the ying yang urging us to read to our kids, listen to our kids, exercise with our kids, and talk to our kids about sex and drugs, but we’re leaving out a defining part of life if we avoid talking to our kids about dying and death. We’re doing better at talking about it. I’m already booked to give the eulogy for a couple of friends when their times come, and my friend Beth and I have a standing agreement to decorate each others’ refrigerators with inspirational message magnets in the event that we meet an untimely demise, so that people will think better of us when they bring casseroles into our kitchens.
164 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) But we can do much better. We will too soon forget Terry Schiavo and the pain her family, all her family, went through, just as Karen Ann Quinlan became a fuzzy memory. If we can’t tell one another about what we want, we should at least be required to tell DMV. Our driver’s licenses could easily indicate not just whether we want to be an organ donor, but what kind of life-sustaining measures we want in the event of a persistent vegetative state. It would save our families a lot of pain, it could save someone else’s life, and most importantly, it would be a simple, official way for each of us to let everyone else know our own mind, before we lose it.
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A Little Help Wanted
April 22, 2005 The time has come yet again for me to find a new assistant. Things must be improving because the half-life on my assistants has grown from almost six months to almost two years. Mind you, my current assistant has not discovered grass growing any greener elsewhere. She let someone convince her that she could keep me happy on a part time basis, and another employer happy on a full time basis, which left her frazzled round the clock. Since real estate is all about full disclosure, I come to you with a little help wanted with complete candor as to my criteria. First of all, the position is very part time, strictly administrative. You don’t have to be licensed (but it helps) and you’ll never show property or attend a listing presentation. If you work 20 hours a week, that would be a whole lot. If you end up working less, I won’t know or care as long as the work gets done. Time off? No problem! You can take off just as much time as I do. You need to be organized, or at least more organized than I, which is to say, organized. It would help if you’re the type of person who enjoys keeping someone else organized, even if her life and office seem like chaos. It would really help if you’re the type of person who lies awake nights fretting about whether “anal retentive” should be hyphenated. Education. I don’t care how many degrees you have or don’t have as long as you understand that when a client needs something “now” or “at your earliest convenience,” the only difference is that one version sounds a lot nicer. An MSW would be nice, but not required (and it would give my poor friend Katy some needed time off). A license in massage therapy would be
166 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) even better, but you’d need to bring your own table, and never when my boss is around. Language skills are critical because you’ll be proofing reams of copy and deciphering a constant flow of voice mail requests that may sound a lot like Alvin and the Chipmunks until you get acclimated. Computer skills are an absolute, and they have to be way better than mine. I can say “PDF file,” but I have no idea how to create one and I don’t have the time or ability to learn, so I’m not a good project for an “each one teach one” type of assistant. I know the basics about my computer (it’s beige), and I have managed to manage my own website, but please don’t try to educate me about rams or bytes or pixels unless it’s really late and I’m afflicted with insomnia. Like most part time positions, this does not include benefits (aside from the inherent pleasure of getting to organize someone where others have failed miserably), and it does require your own transportation, computer, phone, and above all flexibility. Flexibility is important in terms of the kind of language and topics you can tolerate, driving destinations, and of course hours. Sunday is definitely a day of rest. However, just as ardent Biblethumping folk find Sunday brunch restful while the employees at their favorite restaurant slave away serving it, you will find holding open houses quite restful, about once a month, too. My children are at a point where I could never confuse “assistant” with “babysitter” or “housekeeper.” However, if I’m in a pinch, your duties might occasionally coincide with the dismissal bell at a certain middle or high school (see flexibility). And if you find folding laundry calming, meditative, or even cathartic, I have a quiet, windowless room in my home where you can find nirvana on a daily basis. The pay is quite good (especially if money is unimportant to you), and there are routine bonuses involved. If you’re thinking about going into real estate full time down the road because you just love people and their houses, then this is truly a great
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 167 opportunity. You’ll not only learn the business from the inside out, you’ll also shake those fantasies right quick. References: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Several of my former assistants are still speaking to me, and two are happily pursuing real estate careers despite what they learned from me. So if you have a need to be needed, but only just a little, apply within and maybe we can work something out.
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More Helpful Hints from Herlong
May 6, 2005 While this is not an advice column per se, I do accrue helpful hints for better, smarter living, or perhaps less embarrassing living, over time that would be selfish not to pass along. For example, if you talk on your cell phone at least 75 hours per month, it becomes one of your life lines, so it behooves you to protect and maintain it carefully. Never let adorable children of clients fondle or drool on it, or drop it. Never throw it as a dramatic punctuation during a fit of pique with your hopelessly stupid but cute family dog, a recalcitrant teen, or your sometimes clueless but also very cute Reason for Living. If you should forget these admonitions and need to replace your phone, do some homework and avoid going to the phone store during peak traffic hours, such as the lunch hour or late in the day. If that is the only time you can go, prepare yourself to wait patiently. Keep in mind that the lines in these stores are often casual; they are not orderly queues where everyone knows who is next, so deliberate and even inadvertent line-cutters might make your interminable wait even longer. Keep your cool, maybe even mutter a prayer for patience, because someone could easily wander into the “next” space sort of ahead of you and get assistance when you are the one who is supposed to be helped next and you have been waiting for 28 minutes and counting. If your voice should become a little strained, a little squeakier than usual when you kindly point out an irregularity in the line and that perhaps someone else, someone like yourself, is actually “next,” take a moment, clear your throat, regain your composure,
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 169 and then just tell the nice man what is wrong with your phone. He’s not interested in your life story, nor in how the phone was broken. And, if he had the power to change their line system he probably would have done it at least 32 minutes previously, so just don’t go there, either. Once you reach the top of the line, it is extremely important to know what kind of phone model you need. Above all, before you ever go near the store, it is of vital importance to know what brand you have. It does not matter how long you’ve waited in line, or what kind of day you’ve had, you cannot get a SunCom phone replaced at a Verizon store. I know. Secondly, I have written on the subject of brownies before, and the perils of using olive oil when the recipe calls for vegetable oil, so I will not belabor that helpful hint. However, when anyone in your family makes a batch of brownies, be very careful if they dress up the brownies by spreading a thick layer of frosting across the top. Some children like frosting even more than brownies, and have been known to take a swipe with a grimy finger as they walk by a pan of brownies, leaving a mess of exposed brownies and smeared frosting. Before you take action to restore the batch to its original attractive presentation by selflessly eating the smeared, unsightly, but otherwise quite tasty brownies, take a poll. Otherwise you could be facing a stony group of four children and one Reason for Living who resent your pious lecture about the grossness of licking frosting, and who all deny responsibility for making you have to eat six brownies. And then your dog might casually lick her chops and the real brownie licking culprit (the one who spends about eight hours a day licking her buhunkus) will become clear. I know. Friends often inadvertently contribute to this column, and “helpful hints” is no exception. When pulling a reverse “Green Acres” by moving downtown from an erstwhile bucolic setting, it is best to consider downsizing one’s pets as well. There’s a reason that city dwellers like Paris Hilton carry around a rat-like
170 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) miniature Chihuahua – they fit a lot better into a purse, than, say, a large, old, black lab could. Furthermore, the larger canine will often have to double as an ottoman if forced into chic but considerably smaller condo living. Most importantly, it is far easier to bathe a miniature Chihuahua downtown than it is to bathe a large black lab, especially if you lather up the poor animal in the Peace Center’s front fountain. E.N. knows. And finally, when hanging out with your so-called adult kid and an assortment of his companions, male and female, it is important to be perceived as cool at all times. You might ever so casually lean your arm up against a wall, and cross your legs while chatting. This is a stance that universally communicates that – hey — you’re hip, you’re down with it, and man, you are cool. However, it is vitally important to make sure there is a wall to actually lean against before assuming this position, or the consequences will be hip only in the orthopedic sense of the word. M.J. knows. More helpful hints from Herlong forthcoming as life, at least as my cool friends and I know it, ensues.
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Where’s The Market Place?
May 20, 2005 As the school year winds down to half days filled mostly with field days and parties (that somehow count as full days in the school calendar), it’s hard to think about school in terms of education in general. Finding the right teacher gift is about all most of us can muster, but we should all be doing summer reading and thinking about public education in our state, because we get to choose a new direction. That is, if one is even offered to us. First of all let me make it clear that this is about public education in South Carolina, not in any one county, or in my kid’s school around the corner. Although the vast majority of families in this county (about 90%) send their kids to public school (and my family is one of them), there are too many public school advocates who view any public debate about any aspect of it as airing out dirty laundry in front of our private school competitors. Puh-lease. The race for State Superintendent of Education has already begun. I don’t have any idea who I’m going to vote for, but so far I have not heard any new ideas out of any of those who have announced their intention to run, including the incumbent. Education is supposed to be the market place of ideas, but so far I have not heard anyone suggest that we introduce the free market, which works for every other profession in this state, in order to improve public education in South Carolina. I’m not talking about “Putting Parents in Charge.” There are so many versions of that milling around that it’s impossible to know what you’re for or against. I’m talking about our market-resistant
172 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) public education infrastructure that has prompted such legislation. How about truly putting teachers first (and consequently our students) by phasing out tenure and stratified pay structure? I don’t know of any other so-called “profession” that locks its professionals in to a lifelong sinecure after just three years. My God, most people are still dangerous after just three years of experience in whatever field they choose. Good teachers, and we all know who they are, would have nothing to fear from the end of tenure. Bad teachers would hopefully be history. One of the great, and largely unknown, benefits of the schools that became magnet schools in Greenville County was each principal’s unprecedented authority to keep only those teachers he or she felt were a good match for that school’s new magnet curriculum, and to bring in new teachers to replace the rest. The result was a faculty that was not just chosen by the principal, but who had all chosen to be there because they were excited about being part of that school’s particular curriculum and new direction. The long term effect was tremendous. For example, in our family’s combined experience of twelve student years at Blythe, I never had to schmooze, navigate, or haggle to make sure my kids didn’t get stuck with a yucky teacher – they were all good, they all wanted to be there and were hand chosen to be there. The unfortunate side effect of the magnet school principal’s (one-time) opportunity was that all those teachers who were not invited to remain were simply absorbed into other schools. Because of teacher tenure, other principals found them on their facul-ties, whether they wanted them or not. That’s state law. Teacher tenure’s tragic conjoined twin is stratified teacher pay. It does not matter whether a teacher is so great that he is the one students and parents vie for, he will be paid the same amount as the teacher who just puts in her time, or, as one of my kid’s teachers did years ago, brings in a substitute almost every Friday because she had a toddler at home “and they’re only young once.”
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 173 It doesn’t matter whether your kid’s AP English teacher has a Ph.D. from Harvard. She’s paid the same amount as another teacher or administrator with a Ph.D. from Nova University, which is slightly better than a mail order degree. It does not matter that we have a shortage of math or special ed teachers. They cannot be offered more than any other teachers. That’s state law, too. Don’t get me started – I wish I had the space to revisit the absurd policy of barring other professionals – engineers, lawyers, architects, MBAs – from teaching in this state without going through the tedious, absurd paces of this state’s PACE program. It creates a de facto teacher’s union in this otherwise right-to-work state. Heaped together with teacher tenure and stratified pay scales, it is reducing what was a noble profession into a state-wide jobs program. Our good teachers, and all our students, deserve better. Our local school boards and superintendent are powerless to change any of this. It’s all been decided at the state level, and it will either be re-cemented or possibly changed this fall if the market place of ideas opens up to the free market, but so far I haven’t found the market place on school grounds.
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I Do’s and Don’ts
June 10, 2005 Some people collect elephants, others roosters, and everyone collects dust bunnies. I collect wedding invitations and programs. With four kids, (three daughters), and all of them relentlessly fascinated by the opposite sex, one cannot help planning, budgeting, or worrying too soon. We’ve been enjoying a spate of family weddings stretching back and forth over several months. We can’t all attend all of them, but the most recent one, in Buffalo, was within an easy 12 hour drive, and so we all went. We had a wonderful time, and a memorable 24 hours en route together, but we will not all be attending any weddings together in the imaginable future that involve more than 15 minutes of travel time. But I digress. If they attend enough, even people who live deep within that foggy tunnel called adolescence can pay real attention to what goes on to make a happy wedding. In fact, there’s nothing like 12 hours worth of weddings rehash to make us all reigning experts on the various roles to be played for a successful nuptial event. To wit: The bride’s job is not to confuse her wedding day with LTAM Day (as in “Let’s Talk About Me”). A good bride keeps the limits of her parents’ patience and budget in mind. A good bride remembers she is the hostess, not the focus, of the event, and works the crowd with a welcoming hand, making sure that everyone else is having a good time, too. A good bride never inspires anyone, especially her parents or the groom, to roll their eyes after she leaves the room, before, during, or after the
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 175 wedding. A good bride knows that “I do” is not just the phrase of the day, but pretty much the m.o. for the rest of her life. A good groom is pretty quiet, limiting his opinions only to wedding things that he’s personally paying for. His job is to show up dressed, on time, and to make sure his bride doesn’t notice anyone rolling their eyes. A good groom works the crowd with his bride, and thanks and toasts his hosts, his parents, and his bride with gusto. A good groom remembers his “I do” vow every time he’d rather say “I don’t think so” for the rest of his life. The mother of the bride’s role is to plan the whole thing, and to be patient with the bride and groom, the wedding party, the caterer, the guests, the band, the delivery people, the relatives, the florist, and the father of the bride. On the big day, she should be the essence of calm and serenity (even if it means grinding her teeth down with her smile), and demurely insist “it was easy and fun.” The father of the bride’s job is to support the mother of the bride, be patient with the bride, walk the bride down the aisle (and then get out of the way quick), offer the first toast to the happy couple, and write the check with a flourish. The mother of the groom’s job is to wear beige and be quiet. The father of the groom’s job, even he is also the best man, is to repeatedly tell the mother of the groom how great she looks in beige. The minister/priest/rabbi/what-have-you should give a BRIEF sermon, but focus it on the happy couple, or marriage in general. Topics such as abortion, divorce, dissertations on eastern religions, or public pruning of their own dysfunctional family tree are best limited to other occasions. The bridesmaids’ role is to assure the bride they absolutely LOVE their dresses, that they will definitely wear them again, and to stand up STRAIGHT while they’re lined up with their backs to the assembled guests. The maid of honor’s role is to be supportive of the bride, and not to look prettier than the bride. If possible, the maid of honor
176 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) should coordinate lodging for the wedding party in guest rooms with local friends. Disposable dresses, matching shoes, and rented formal wear are just the tip of a pricey iceberg for young bridesmaids and ushers. The ushers’ job is to seat guests. Don’t wrestle with rude aislehuggers; they always win. Ushers should also refrain from tugging on tight rented collars or inseams while on alter display. Guests should show up on time, and sit where the usher seats you. There’s no law that says you HAVE to sit anywhere. Do not hug the aisle. Do NOT tell anyone – especially the grandmother of the bride – that “these seats are saved.” No matter how many sweaters, purses or shopping bags you have, you cannot save seats at a wedding, period. Don’t switch place cards. Don’t confuse the buffet with “all you can eat.” In fact, don’t eat more than the father of the bride, because he’s picking up the tab. Don’t forget to thank the bridal couple and the bride’s parents, but keep it short. No five-minute group hugs (a rule more easily followed if you don’t drink more than the guy picking up the tab, either). Give your gift to the happy couple before the wedding, not up to one year later. But the best gift we can give the couple is to happily play our respective roles on the big day, and to help them keep saying “I do” to each other every day happily ever after.
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Trial by Apricots
June 24, 2005 Sure, Father’s Day was last week, but there’s no such thing as being late for a made-up Hallmark holiday anyway. Since my Reason for Living is not my dad, it’s one “holiday” for which I don’t have to suffer guilt or anxiety about buying any presents at all, let alone late. But the kids do, which is why he doesn’t get any presents. To be fair, we have trained them not to give (or ever expect) cards or gifts for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, except perhaps to share the best gift of time spent just hanging out together. My own dad went to heaven seven years ago, but on Father’s Day I cannot help but indulge my lifelong craving for dried apricots in his honor. Dad always worked in his family’s food business, Sexton Foods, which provided boxed, canned, and frozen foods to schools, restaurants, hospitals and hotels. I was raised on the stuff (and therefore can’t understand why anyone MAKES spaghetti sauce when you can get it from a jar…). I still sometimes see the big red & white cans when I walk by a swinging kitchen door in a restaurant, and catch a glimpse of their stocked shelves. Growing up, we always had institutional-sized everything. We never had lemonade mix; we had huge jars of “lemon globules.” Our brownie mix came in a box the same size as Tide, and we scooped our laundry detergent out of a small vat. Nevertheless, Dad considered himself a “foodie” of sorts, and took pleasure in introducing us to different delicacies, such as hearts of palm, petite rum babas (don’t ask), various olives, smoked oysters, and dried apricots.
178 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) When he realized that he had a toddler who loved dried apricots, he schooled me in them. Like him, I eschewed the candied variety (but could eat them without much coercion) and I agreed that Del Monte was the best because they were dried, but still moist enough to deliver a pure tangy, sweet flavor. When I was five, my parents made a grave mistake by giving a whole box of dried apricots as a Christmas gift to my brother Billy. At least that’s the way I saw it. Never mind that Billy, too, loved dried apricots. And never mind that he was 19, rail thin, and dying of Hodgkin’s Disease. My parents were probably desperate to put some meat on his bones by tempting him with everything and everything he liked. But I was five, and an early bloomer as far as the LTAM (Let’s Talk About Me) philosophy goes. Sure, Billy was skinny, but we were a skinny bunch, and nobody had said anything out loud about anybody dying, not that it could have sunk in with me anyway. Besides, he was getting all the attention, even his own room, and ruining my Christmas by getting all the dried apricots. I tried to clue my parents in about the mistake, but they remained clueless. So I took matters into my own hands, behind one of the living room drapes. The box of apricots was only about half-full, but the scales of justice seemed even to me when I snarfed up the rest. I vividly remember Dad drilling me about whether I had stolen and eaten Billy’s box of apricots. I put on my sweetest face, widened my eyes, and lied through my teeth. For some reason, he kept asking me (even though I was the 11th five year old to lie to him with a straight face). I guess he thought he could break me. So Dad poured a tall glass of water. He asked me one last time if I had filched the apricots, and by this time I was not just sticking to my story, but indignantly. He never raised his voice or got mad, he just told me to drink up. I gulped it down, wiped my mouth, and returned to my Christmas loot thinking that I had not only gotten the apricots, I had actually gotten away with it.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 179 I was new to the physics of the effect of water on desiccated produce. I learned it firsthand that Christmas, painfully so, no spanking necessary. It did not alter my taste for dried apricots, but it evaporated any illusion I’d had that I could fool Dad or get away with anything that I shouldn’t have done in the first place. And to Dad’s credit, it strengthened a bond between us. Over the years, I opened many gifts of dried apricots. When I became a grown woman with kids of my own, Dad always made sure there was a new box of dried apricots in the pantry, just for me, every time I came to visit. I found a new box even when I visited him for the last time. There are few things as decadent as savoring a furtive dried apricot now and then, but especially on Father’s Day. I have to hide them and eat them on the sly because a couple of my kids love them too, but I never eat them behind the drapes, and never more than one or two. But they’re always the Del Monte kind, because Dad liked them best.
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Baptism by Swimming
July 8, 2005 Our youngest is the prodigal swimmer. It has been years since we enjoyed six or seven hours by the pool on a sweltering Thursday evening trying to figure out which skinny, little swimmer we were supposed to be watching in a sea of swimmers wearing identical suits, caps and goggles. We had almost forgotten (blocked out) those unforgettable evenings. But this summer, our youngest took the bait. We were unwilling to underwrite a full month at Camp Cake Eater preceded by a full month at Camp Couch Potato. The deal was that if she did something fun, wholesome, and active first, we’d be happy to ship her off next. Swim team was the obvious choice, so we had a deal. At first, she was loathe to return to swim team. Her carpool mates were uniformly encouraging and welcoming, but she was afraid that she had inherited all her buoyancy and speed from her mother. I missed out on swim team as a child. I grew up on Lake Michigan, so I was adept at dodging dead alewives and walking on slippery rocks with seaweed beards, but competitive water sports were limited to siblings dunking and pushing one another off the end of the pier. But I digress. Part of being on swim team, is getting in the swim of volunteering. These SAIL people run swim meets like a well-oiled water-proof machine. If SAIL were running the U.N., we would already enjoy world peace and we’d only see “hunger” in the dictionary.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 181 One of these SAIL people approached me in a friendly way, noted our return to the world of swimming, and also noted my absence on the roster of eager volunteers. I will call him Bob (since everyone else does). He is so friendly and persuasive that I immediately said YES to timing for the next meet, even though I have no training, and evidently even less sense. Bob was willing to overlook my shortcomings (by talking to me in the first place) and treated me to a mini-seminar in how to time a race without screwing up. (If you screw up, EVERYONE knows, and if you muck things up badly enough, it will be noted in your obituary years hence.) I knew that the officials wear white, and that swim meets inspire a veritable fashion show of white ensembles at some pools, and being a timer sounded pretty official to me, so I showed up wearing what I thought was an appropriate white outfit of shorts, t-shirt, and white sneakers. Any moron would know that standing right next to a pool where children repeatedly dive in and splash around is not well-suited to leather sneakers. However my fellow timers, good Samaritans all, quickly figured out that they were not dealing with just any moron, so they immediately advised me to lose the shoes and go barefoot. After a few practice rounds with our timers, we were off to the races. I managed not to screw anything up very badly. I was even able to deftly fake that I had watched every beautiful stroke my child swam three lanes over while I was trying not to screw up timing in my own lane. And then there were a few rain drops. I started looking around for my purse and my shoes, but noticed that my fellow timers were still looking for the light that flashes the start of the next race. Perhaps they didn’t notice a few drops, but soon the drops became sheets. I naturally assumed we would all go home, but instead my fellow timers snapped open umbrellas, donned ponchos, and slipped on waders, because when it’s just a little rain (or even a lot) the race goes on. And on.
182 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) In my effort to look “official” by wearing white and forgetting to bring a tent, I also found myself unofficially entered in a wet tshirt contest. But not to be shown up by my fellow timers, I kept timing right along with them. Our stop watches are conveniently water and shiver resistant. The rain and the race went on. I noticed birds, dogs, cats, chipmunks and worms lining up two by two, but the race went on. The swimmers waiting for their next heat kept busy piling up sandbags between their encampment and the rising creek bank, but the race went on. We did take a brief break so some of the more important officials, like Bob and Debbie, could slip on their scuba equipment (white trim, of course) and then the race went on some more. The veterans said that thunder and lightning would cancel or postpone the race, but if it’s just rain, the kids keep swimming. I tried to make thunder noises, but I’m afraid people mistook it for an affinity for cabbage. Finally, my prayers were answered. The sky rumbled, and there was a glimpse of lightning. I know I was not as disappointed as some others about sloshing home instead of finishing the meet, but my faith in swimming is still immature, having only just been baptized.
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Weak at the Beach
August 5, 2005 From the beginning of our torrid, 28 year love affair, the idea of going away in the summer for a week at the beach was never my strong suit. Growing up literally on the shore of Lake Michigan, it simply did not make sense to leave town during the few moments when the weather was nice. My childhood summers were spent dialing, and redialing, the public beach info recording for time and temperature, anxiously waiting for the moment that the robotic voice would confirm the water temperature had finally reached 68 degrees, or sometimes as high as 74, which for you laymen translates to WARM. The first time I went to the beach in South Carolina was in August of 1978. Although Chicago’s weather was just fine, thank you, I had not seen my then Reason for Shaving My Legs since that May, which is a LONG TIME, in torrid affair circles. So when he and his family invited me, I splurged on a new razor and a plane ticket and went. It was during that first week at the beach, southern style, that I learned a few of the many laws of vacationing at the beach. First, the air is hot, and the ocean is like a big bathtub. As I recall, the water temperature was about 102. Second, if a mother on a family beach vacation is lucky, the kitchen window in the rental house offers a view of the ocean, otherwise she might forget she is in fact vacationing at the beach. If she is delusional to the point of expecting the same vacation terms as everyone else in the house, she has two options: bring along a cook and a babysitter, or simply redefine “vacation” for yourself and don’t make everyone else miserable in the meantime.
184 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) After I became a mom, it only took about four abortive vacations for me to fully grasp this law. Corey the wonder-girl, now a grown woman and wife, came to the beach with us for several summers and made us ALL feel like we’d had a week at the beach. We treasure fond, vivid memories of Corey spending hours on end with our kids at the beach (while we didn’t), and if she would only let herself let go of those same memories, I know she’ll have a raft of kids of her own…. Third, someone in the house, at least one person, has to get sick, or stung, or miserably sunburned. That first week, it was my primary host who got horribly ill, enough so that his mama had to haul him to the emergency room. As the awkward guest left behind, all I could do was stop shaving my legs for a few days, develop a lifelong revulsion for “minnercheese” sandwiches, and read a lot of books. He must have a weak gene or something, because over the years each of our offspring has presented a wide variety of beach week maladies and injuries that are really better left at home. We’ve learned to acquaint ourselves with the nearest Doc in the Box before we ever arrive at the beach. We’ve stuck with the same beach for years now because the doc there is so convenient and accommodating. It would also be awkward to go elsewhere since they added that flattering Herlong Memorial Wing to their facilities. Fourth, if you’re expecting luxury sleeping accommodations, or even the same accommodations from night to night, sometimes from hour to hour, beach week is not for you. There is an ebb and flow to the guest list at a beach house, which means where you slept on Monday may not be where you sleep on Thursday, and if clean sheets are a big deal to you, well the laundry is right there. Snoring and thin beach house walls contribute to the musical beds phenomenon, which is why beach houses come equipped with couches, lawn chairs and hammocks. Fifth, unlike Lake Michigan, the ocean IS full of creepy things that mean you harm. One summer, after hours of alternating
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 185 between pleading with me to get over my phobias and berating me for having them in the first place, my Reason for Living finally persuaded me to enjoy the ocean with him. Within three minutes, in ankle deep water, a crab pinched a chunk out of my heel, forcing my Reason for Living to carry me back to shore, lest I chum the water and attract sharks. Oddly enough, surviving that deadly crab attack helped me conquer my fear. I’ll go in, but only a REALLY wavy day (because a heavy surf obviously spoils crab and shark appetites) and only if someone bigger than I agrees to hold my hand. Lastly, the advent of laptops and cell phones make beach week possible, and impossible. It’s great to have them if you need to stay in touch with the world (or send in a column), but it’s even greater to find the OFF button and walk out to the beach. There I find our kids, and their pals, probably lolling in a tide pool, perhaps even more happily than when they splashed in those same tide pools so many summers ago. It is there, away from the cell phone, and the kitchen, and the Doc in the Box, that I remember the reason that we schlep here summer after summer. These are my favorite people, the funniest people I know, and no one can make me happier, or laugh harder, until I am truly weak, at the beach.
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August 19, 2005 (Editor’s note: Joan Herlong is on vacation this week. This column on Sweet Southernisms was first published in the Journal six years ago. Enjoy!) Shortly before we moved to Greenville ten years ago, I told my mom we were about to do so. I had learned not to ASK her about such things, but rather to TELL her what we were doing so as to avoid unsolicited advice. Sharp as she is, however, Mom took a little longer to catch on to this neat arrangement. “Well,” she advised, “if you’re going to make friends with those nice Southern women, you’d better NOT be yourself for the first six months or so.” No, I am not exaggerating; yes, I am convinced she loves me. I believe Mother was trying, in her backhanded way, to pay tribute to our shared ability to cut to the chase, in contrast to the Southern art of beating around the bush. But since then, I have learned that beating a path around the bush is often the best and kindest way to get to the same point. (I just don’t know the way very often.) For example, my daughter says the biggest difference between me and her best friend’s mama is the way we say “No.” See, the friend’s mama NEVER says it! When the girls come to me whining about going to the mall for the 15th time that weekend, my answer is always a terse “NO!” On the other hand, her friend’s wily, Southern mama beats around the bush, wearing the girls down with positive, homespun alternatives, such as: “Why don’t you girls bake something
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 187 together today, and we’ll talk about going to the mall another time?” Don’t get me wrong — this girl’s mama is NO pushover. The outcome is the same (NO MALL), but the difference is that they think she’s NICE! I have learned that true Southerners have developed an artful economy of expression, a verbal social lubricant that I have genuinely come to appreciate, if not emulate. For example, when someone’s volunteered tale of woe goes on ad nauseum, the appropriate Southern response is “Gee, I just hate it for ya.” It has the same effect of the pithy, northern response of “Tough ----,” but it’s a far more upbeat and polite version. If you HAVE to say something untoward, the Southern preamble is key. Whereas someone north of the Mason Dixon might toss out something catty like “Honestly, I wonder how she can squeeze out of the shower once the soap is rinsed off,” the artful Southerner would offer the all-important prelude of, “I LOVE HER TO DEATH, but honestly, I wonder. . .” Suddenly the remark can be easily misconstrued as an expression of earnest concern! “Bless your/his/her heart” requires practice, and a practiced ear. In some rare instances, “Bless your heart” can actually mean just that, a sincere desire for increased blessings to come your dear little way. When uttered about infants and the elderly, it is usually genuine. But when “Bless his heart” is offered as a prelude or a grace note, it is especially damning. For example, if a Southerner were to recommend a blind date by saying, “She is going to make a deaf man very happy some day, bless her heart,” that is code for: “The woman does NOT shut up.” Non-Southerners should not try “bless your heart” at home. It is far too prone to blunders in the wrong hands. One simply cannot get away with: “That’s an impressive mustache, bless her heart.”
188 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Note: Anyone who has the misfortune to merit the “I love her to death” prelude AND the “bless her heart” postlude should be avoided at all costs. I don’t pretend to be a Southerner nor to understand them. My children address me as “Ma’am” because they’ve learned it at school, but I won’t answer to “Mama;” I use “y’all” and “you guys” interchangeably; I will always drive (not carry) my kids to school; I have my picture taken (not made); I got A’s in school, I did not “make” A’s; I have never been “fixin’” to do anything, I just do it; and I push buttons — I don’t mash them. Most significantly, I am not even vaguely interested in my own family’s genealogy, let alone my Reason for Living’s vast, far flung kin, so nobody is fixin’ to nominate me as an honorary Southerner any time soon. But my mom was wrong (for once). Try as I might, I was unable to be anyone but myself. Yet I have managed to make many friends, dear friends, especially with “those nice Southern women.” And I know the feeling is mutual. Why, just the other day, I overheard one of them saying she “loved me to death.” Bless her heart.
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October 14, 2005 Parents Weekend does not loom large among life’s hurdles. We attended two Parents Weekends when our oldest was away at boarding school. AS best I can recall, the organized activities planned for us involved shopping. Our son wanted so much food for his dorm room, that we suspected he was one of those nutty Y2K survivalists. By the time we were invited to his first college Parents Weekend, we felt like old hands, empty hands by then of course, but experienced in the fine art of being official parents for a weekend. In fact, our first college Parent Weekend went so well that he has not invited us back since. He obviously feels very secure there without us hovering. In the greater scheme of things, I would advise parents new to the college tuition thing that Parents Weekend is a “no brainer.” Just go, be yourself, be prepared to take your kid and 16 of his closest friends out for dinner, listen to riveting presentations about donating to the college ON TOP of your second mortgage tuition, and enjoy getting to know your kid’s new friends. That is, unless you’re dealing with a coed. Parents Weekend at college with a daughter comes with a whole list of do’s and don’ts, and in my particular case, mostly don’ts. First and foremost, I was instructed not to be myself. Instead, make her proud by “acting like other people’s moms,” just for one weekend. While neither she nor I knew what that meant exactly, she could tell me what it did not mean. She had been with us at our son’s first college weekend, and evidently taking notes.
190 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) I was to speak English, and English only. I was not to use or abuse youthful slang in any way. If I agreed with something that one of her friends said, I was under strict instructions to just say “How nice,” or “I agree.” She threatened me with physical harm if I were to attempt any hip lingo such as “Word” or “I’m pickin’ up what you’re layin’ down.” Topics of conversation were also strictly limited. Absolutely no jokes, (especially the kind that I might concoct on the spot), no embarrassing stories about her childhood or adolescence, and no inquiries into her friends’ love lives. I asked her what I could talk about, and got the same routine, “Just talk about things that other people’s moms talk about.” I think she meant other people’s normal moms, but she was smart enough to leave that between the lines. I turned to fellow moms in my office. They are certainly other people’s moms, and “normal” enough that they understood exactly what my daughter was worried about. But they were no help. They talk to me all the time, which obviously just encourages me in the wrong direction that I’ve been headed in for at least 19 years. I knew I could not chat with other people’s moms about how much I love real estate for two days straight, so I sought other benign material to help me fit in. I scanned the labels on our popcorn and cereal boxes for clever recipes to share. I surfed the internet for homeopathic cleaning suggestions. I went to Garden Ridge in search of seasonal decorations for the house, and failed miserably. My kids insisted that the rubber severed heads I bought were not a festive alternative to jack o’ lanterns and mums. I was not making good progress, so my daughter sent me an email suggesting to I try “active listening” for a change. Conversation topics were tough, but nothing compared to finding something appropriate to wear. Planning my wedding was easier. My daughter called several times that first evening to make sure we would not be late (as usual) and to cross examine
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 191 me on my outfit. After two vetoes, she finally approved my third attempt. “So you like this, it will look good?” She reassured me that she would never be caught dead in it, “But it looks fine on a mom.” On the way there, My Reason for Living reminded me that our previous Parents Weekends had been a piece of cake, fun even. But he agreed that our son could not care less what either of us said, let alone wore, so this was uncharted territory. I approached the dinner of sorority girls and their parents as if it were a latter day LSAT or GRE exam. I could handle current events (Katrina bad, FEMA worse) or the weather (unseasonably warm, even for Greenville). But this was a smart bunch, so I fretted that conversation might turn to unfamiliar topics such as antiques, art history, classical music, or travel beyond the Isle of Palms. My fears were completely unfounded. I found that other people’s moms were interested, interesting, and entertaining. I happily practiced “active listening” as they regaled us with stories of hiding fake rodents in their daughter’s dorm room, and visiting the annual Cooter Festival in Allendale, South Carolina (seriously). My daughter did not have to pull me aside or kick me under the table even once. I asked her later if we had passed muster. She doled out some mild praise, but insisted on taking the credit for the nice evening. “It wouldn’t have been nice if I hadn’t told you how to act or what to wear!” Word, that. I had indeed picked up what she’d been layin’ down.
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November 4, 2005 From the moment I met my Reason for Living, I wondered how long it was going to take him to stop talking already and kiss me. It took hours and hours, but it was well worth the wait. We’ve been doing a lot of kissing ever since. Since then, he has often, openly, wondered when I was going to stop talking already. He sometimes forgets to mention the kissing part, but I’m sure that’s what he means. So I will, sometimes, stop talking and give him a nice smack, on the lips. When our kids were babies, we kissed them all the time. But I still don’t think I kissed them enough, for two reasons: One, they shrug off or literally shrink from a lot of our kisses now (unless they want something or were just given something they wanted). Two, despite the faces they make, I still want to kiss them all the time so I obviously didn’t kiss them enough to sustain me through these kissing-resistant teen years. When our kids were babies and toddlers, they did not mind our constant kissing on them, or between each other for that matter. But when they became kids who had friends over and visited other friends’ homes, they discovered that maybe there wasn’t so much kissing going on in other households. Their kissing findings were quite telling. One friend even told one of our kids that she had NEVER seen her parents kiss. Different is weird, so that of course made us, not the un-kissy parents, officially weird. So our children tried to impose kissing rules on us. Rule #1: No kissing our kids in front of other kids.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 193 Rule #2: No unnecessary kissing between the parents in front of them. Simple pecks hello and goodbye could be deemed necessary, if necessary, but nothing more than that. Rule #3: No kissing between the parents in front of the kids’ friends, ever. Rule #4: No references to kissing in front of the kids’ friends, ever. Rule #5: Absolutely no references to kissing, let alone “making out” or “make out sessions” in front of the kids’ friends, and especially not in front of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Rule #6 – no kissing between the parents in public, ever. Our children have found that parents can be maddeningly rebellious in this regard. As they have been wont to tell us since they could talk, they are “not the boss of us” when it comes to telling about kissing. First of all, because they are our kids, and because they are all scrumptiously adorable, we will kiss them when we want to, even if one of their friends happens to be present for this horrific expression of affection. Secondly, there is no such thing as unnecessary kissing between parents. A hello or goodbye peck is only acceptable in cases of extreme hurry and lateness. To forgo even the harried hello or goodbye peck is to create a very dark cloud that only very involved kissing can later blow away. Even our kids’ friends will tell our kids that they need to choose their battles with us more carefully. The Emily’s and the Dovers of the world may have seen more than their fair share of kissing in our kitchen, but they don’t seem particularly scarred, and Lord knows it hasn’t stopped them from coming over time and again (and we’d kiss them hello if they’d let us). As far as referring to kissing in front of our kids’ friends, especially boyfriends or girlfriends, that rule was hopelessly invalid from its inception. It is healthy to acknowledge that kissing, perhaps even a furtive make out session, may occasionally occur, between boyfriends and girlfriends, even on our own
194 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) property. It is one of the facts of life, and our kids’ hapless boyfriends and girlfriends realize early that we’re not loathe to openly discuss it, or patrol it, when it comes to our kids kissing someone else. And as far as that last rule about never kissing in public goes, that’s just impossible. As I have explained to our children time and again, kissing is part of our job description as married people. If My Reason for Living looks particularly handsome or says something especially funny or endearing on a sidewalk or in a parking lot, I am not about to wait to kiss him for it later. If he takes me to a great concert, I am going to kiss him when the spirit moves me, even if my 9th grader and all her squeamish cronies can witness it from the nosebleed seats above. With occasional flare ups, our kids have almost given up on us. Their friends, and significant others, know that affection is openly expressed in our household, even in the kitchen. When it comes to babies, and kids, and Reasons for Living, kissing rules.
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The Great Pretense
November 18, 2005 October was a good month around here. Not because of the unusually warm, tennis-friendly weather, or because of Halloween. Our youngest finally graduated to strictly answering the door, so there is far less candy for me to “test” on their behalf of my children’s teeth, health and safety. October was especially good for us because we hosted two different house guests. My Reason for Living never groans about the prospect of house guests, even one of the legions of his inlaws. He’s always thrilled because it triggers the Great Pretense. The first phase is the days, hours and last few minutes before a guest arrives. That’s when I take a sudden, intense interest in housekeeping. When my parents first visited our first home, I spent a week polishing every blessed doorknob in the whole house. My mother never did notice how I’d sweated to make our house gleam for her, but as I was determined to be the consummate hostess, I was not bitter about it, then or now, but I’ve never polished a doorknob since. Doorknobs aside, I do dust off the vacuum, scrape the Cheerios off the walls, shove things under beds, and strategically place a few current-holiday items so that our guest will assume I always decorate according to the season. If it’s spring, I’ll stick a couple of stuffed bunnies in a nest of pink, plastic grass; if it’s fall, I’ll stack a couple of squashes and pumpkins outside the front door (and pray that I don’t forget about them before they take on a scary afterlife). The kids sometimes balk at coming home from school early to help me tidy, sweep, mop, change sheets, and even move furniture
196 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) to excavate last year’s Halloween candy, but they’ve learned that there’s something in it for them, too (not just stale candy). When I don’t have enough time to arrange the house properly for a guest (or if I get invited to play tennis instead) I’ve developed some camouflaging tips worth sharing. Changing out the light bulbs in the guest room with softer (i.e. very dim) light is a very effective cleaning agent. Also, if you don’t have time to clean the bathroom as thoroughly as you might if you had not opted for tennis, try pouring some Pine Sol into a spray bottle and just spritzing things a bit. It’s amazing how readily the aroma of clean can be mistaken for the reality, especially in a pleasing, soft light. Painters are ideal. I have learned to rely on painters who take long leisurely lunches and weekends, so that what would ordinarily be a one week ordeal of completely understandable disarray, drop cloths, and dust, ends up taking, well, almost a whole month, like say, October. Our friend Jill was the ideal guest. She stayed with us for a couple of days during peak painting, and she was so polite and accommodating I decided not to ask her to sign a confidentiality agreement. She made her bed every day, and she genuinely appreciated the dinner I prepared. Dinner is the other half of the Great Pretense, and the reason the kids are willing to help clean up for guests. I try to feign interest and ability in the kitchen for every hapless guest who stays with us, but Jill’s parents are “foodies.” They know the difference between a fennel and a funnel, and that a sauce comPLEments a dish, but comPLIments go only to the chef. We have bonded over food with Jill’s parents, but only the kind they prepare. We’re lucky they still speak to us after the homemade oyster log I once attempted, but could not peel the cellophane off. No way was I going to let Jill in on what normally passes for dinner around here, so I painstakingly created a dinner that included all four food groups (or are there five now?). There was nary a scorch mark. Our kids played along as if it was dinner as
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 197 usual, but there were no leftovers for once. My pretense worked so well that when Jill’s visit was cut short by a day, our girls begged her to stay on so they could have one more “real meal.” Our other October visitor was my sister Marcy. The kids always rejoice when Aunt Marcy comes to visit because she knows my culinary skills only too well, so they know we’ll spring for dining out. And since it’s Aunt Marcy, we’ll take them someplace nice. Making guests feel welcome in your home is of course its own reward, and the best thanks of all is knowing that your guest wants to return some day, even in bright light. The second best thanks is a carrot cake that gracious foodie friends insist on making for your family. One last tip: If you don’t have time to make a real dinner (or if someone invites you to play tennis), a really good homemade carrot cake includes all four (or is it five?) food groups, so you can serve that for dinner instead. There won’t be any leftovers, either.
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Just Wondering Why
December 9, 2005 South Carolina PTAs sponsor an annual Reflections arts contest, whereby students of all ages, K through 12, voluntarily enter one or more categories of the arts, such as visual arts, photography, music, and literature. I’ve been a literature judge three times now, at a different elementary or middle school each time. The glimpse I get into these students’ lives is mesmerizing and inspiring. There is a lot of nascent talent out there. But more importantly, I find that our children have so much to tell us, even in just a few words, if we just give them the chance to write down what’s on their minds. The entries are anonymous by the time they reach my desk, and completely voluntary, but some savvy teachers improve the applicant rate by making it an assignment. This year, I read through stacks of opii from students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Not to worry, grammar and punctuation matter not; in fact some of the most moving entries would put e.e. cummings to shame. Reflections provides a simple, open ended statement that the student finishes. Of course, that means there are no ‘wrong” answers, which makes the judging process a lot tougher than I originally assumed. One year it was, “I’m happy when . . .” This year, it was “I wonder why . . .” Let me tell you, there is a LOT of wondering going on out there. Local PTAs might want to offer parents a brief seminar some evening on just why grass is green, the sky is blue, and birds fly, because this appears to be a burning question in the minds of many elementary students.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 199 But I digress. It’s a little like diamond mining, but reading through these stacks inevitably produces so many gems that the hardest part is narrowing it down to first, second, third place and first and second honorable mention. But some parents do make the initial winnowing process all too easy. I wonder why some parents think judges won’t notice, and disqualify, their Little Johnny when Mom and Dad “help out” a bit on Reflections. A kindergartener’s poem is actually less powerful when entered as a PowerPoint presentation. A ten year old’s essay might be a winner, but it’s hard to look beyond its perfect binding, watermark paper, and four color center spread with full bleed. As I recall, my kids began adamantly insisting “I DO IT MYSELF” when they were about 18 months, and I have happily allowed them to do so, especially their school work. But back to content. There is a lot of wondrous wondering going on in young minds. I laughed out loud and knew exactly how one sage felt when writing, “I wonder why it always starts raining when I want to jump on the trampoline? I wonder why time goes by so fast during recess? I wonder why my favorite TV shows come on at bedtime?” Death and chronic illness is also a recurrent topic, but what is amazing about the essays our children are writing about these things is their tone. When they wonder why their dear Papa died, or why a sibling has diabetes, there is no whining, no complaining, no pat answers offered, just simple, perplexed wonder, with an incredibly moving underlayment of unabashed love for the person they’re writing about. Reading made me laugh out loud, chuckle, sniffle, and so of course my own kids wanted to know what could possibly be nudging me out of my usual evening stupor. I read some aloud, and that inspired some open wondering of our own, like: I wonder why Mean Moms try to raise “nice girls,” but mean girls generally have overly nice moms. I wonder why most people don’t vote.
200 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) I wonder why more people don’t just change their last name to Jones instead of trying to keep up with them all the time? I wonder why the exception proves the rule. I wonder why Santa doesn’t fire all those lazy elves who ship out boxes stamped “some assembly required”. I wonder why even milk tastes better when Mom pours it (but my children insist that is really does). I wonder why most people have so much trouble with the proper pronunciation of nuptial, nuclear, realtor, moot, and “I’m sorry.” I wonder why dog food does not come in cat, squirrel and bird flavors? I wonder why humans can’t take a pill that repels fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes, just like dogs. (I feel no side effects so far…) I wonder why can’t my kids remember what they got for last Christmas but know exactly what they want this year. I wonder why stores and some radio stations start playing Christmas music 24/7 in early NOVEMBER. If it’s supposed to make us shop more, why don’t stores start playing Souza 24/7 a month before the Fourth of July, or a recurrent loop of “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” all during Lent? Reading these essays provides a humbling glimpse into children’s lives and souls. There are so many “How To” books out there about how to raise a child, how to potty train them from birth (seriously!), and how to get your kid into Harvard. But I’m convinced after reading these students’ reflections, that the best book to give them is a blank journal. Encourage them to write in it, a lot. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you read it sometimes. But when it comes to learning what your children are really thinking, wondering, or worrying about, they can literally write the book on it.
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Fashion Inquisition Redux
December 16, 2005 There was a scene here the other day that played like something out of Disney’s “Cinderella.” It had nothing to do with housework (it was in my home after all) but I played the role of the hapless heroine. My three daughters should win Oscars for their interpretations of the three beastie stepsisters. You know that part where Cinderella, with the help of some vermin and birds, whips up a gown from scraps she found around the castle? Well, I don’t sew, and we have no rodents that I’ll admit to in print, but it was kind of like that. Remember when Cinderella models the dress for her heinous half-relatives and they literally and figuratively tear it apart? I wasn’t going to any ball, and my daughters didn’t peel much off me, but I certainly wasn’t going anywhere in THAT outfit. I told them they were just plain mean, but they claim their candor is an expression of affection. “We wouldn’t tell you how pathetic you look in that if we didn’t love you, Mom.” Gone are the days when I was the lone arbiter of the fashion inquisition in our home. The cases that came before me were at first blissfully simple: Yes, your little sister CAN wear a Clemson cheerleading dress to second grade, with green anklets, and topped off with a bad case of bed-head. First of all, it’s part of learning to be selfsufficient. Secondly, you will NOT be disowned by your friends. Thirdly, and most importantly, I’m not about to expend the energy to get that stubborn little soul to change her outfit. And lastly, she looks absolutely adorable, and I’ve already slicked down her bedhead nest twice; it’s just part of having fine fluff instead of hair.
202 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Then the plaintiffs’ cases became a little more complicated, a little sneakier, and a lot more constant. This is just a sampling from the docket over the years: What’s that on your eyes? Wash your face, you are not going to 6th grade with make up on, and sweetie, that’s actually rouge on your eyes. Boys don’t dig girls with conjunctivitis, and besides, I thought you thought boys were stinky? Go check out your brother’s room; they still are. Did you really shower? Did you use soap? Come here, let me smell your head. Yes, you will be late for school, but you’ll be the cleanest kid there. Since when do we expose our tummies at school? I don’t care how flat it is, the midriff does not need to see the light of day during school hours. No, you cannot pierce that. Or that. Or that either. When you grow up and have kids it’s going to get all stretched out in waysyou-don’t-wanna-think-about anyway. You can pierce anything you want when you’re off the dole, but for now you’ll have to wait to mutilate anything beyond each earlobe, once. That is not a “tank top,” that is an undershirt, which means it is worn UNDER something else. Put on a shirt, and make sure it covers your “abs.” But then the worm began to turn. Maybe my resolve was whittled down over the years, but one day they put my veto to a vote, overrode it, and the precedent was set. “OK, if either of my sisters agrees with you, I’ll change the shirt, but I know they’ll both agree with me because they were with me when I bought it. Besides, you don’t know anything because you wear MOM JEANS.” It had been years since I tossed out my acid-washed, highwaisted jeans with the front yoke and gathering. But I clung to my straight leg Levi’s like a security blanket. So when my daughters threatened to give a party so my jeans could meet my shoes, I agreed to let them take me shopping.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 203 Shopping with daughters is not a self esteem exercise. I’ve never been saddled with a big butt, but it’s now a fashion infraction to have one too small or too flat. If I select pants that reach my belly button, they snort as if I’m the guy on the beach wearing belted shorts up to his sternum and black socks with sandals. If they say, “That’s cute — for a mom anyway,” it’s code for hopelessly hideous and it stays at the store. If they say, “It’s like paying half price, Mom, because we can share this,” it really means that I will pay dearly for it and I will never see it again. If you have no daughters old enough to talk back to you and get away with it, no nearby sisters, and no blunt girlfriends who care about how you look, you’ve been a regular feature on Glamour’s “Don’t” page for years and you don’t even know it. (Daughters-in-law don’t count, they’ll always tell you that you look nice, and they’re absolutely right.) You need my daughters. Critical as they are, you can’t have them, but you can rent them out for a shopping trip. Their rates are cheap; all they really want is to “share” some items that you buy. But wear your thickest skin if you hire them. If you commit too many fashion infractions, you might mistake their loving observations for something else, and you still won’t have a thing to wear to the ball.
204 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II)
Merry Festival of Christ
December 30, 2005 Since it’s Christmas, it may be appropriate to touch on Christ. The word Christmas comes from the Old English “Cristes Moesse” which means “mass or festival of Christ.” September 29th may not ring a bell for you now, it has long since taken a back seat to Labor Day and Halloween, but that is “Michaelmas,” the feast day in honor of the archangel Michael. There used to be lots of feast days, but we have narrowed it down over the centuries to the one feast which is supposed to celebrate the reason we have saints and archangels in the first place. But it’s getting harder and harder to find Christ in this festival that sets us all scurrying in anxious circles. Some people who will try to look in the right places will find the doors closed, as news of “mega churches” are taking Christmas off this year because the festival of Christ inconveniently falls on a Sunday. Keep looking, though, most churches still have open doors and open arms. When my niece Meghan was little, the parish priest gave a homily in which he openly asked the question that went to the heart of things. “Whom do you know who is most like Jesus? Do you know someone in your life who always reminds you of the goodness of God, the love of Christ?” Meghan looked up at her mom and whispered, “Papa.” She was probably not the only in child in church that day who thought of a grandparent in response to the question. The indulgent winks and hugs (even when Mom or Dad are frowning), the occasional bonus of an ice cream or a 7-Up for no reason, the comforting alternative to the “time out chair,” the
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 205 unconditional love and guidance that we all associate with grandparents is one of earth’s closest approximations to God’s love. Later, at a family dinner, my sister related the story of the priest’s question, and Meghan’s answer. My dear mother, who taught us all well that nothing is exempt from the competitive arena, immediately rose to the bait. “Papa? Well that’s interesting. Your grandfather is a good man, but I doubt Jesus ever left his socks lying around, or forgot to hang up wet towels. I bet Jesus knew how to open and close a door quietly. And I’m sure Jesus never let guests know that it was time to go. You might want to rethink that, dear.” It was a good laugh for us all, and no one howled louder than Papa, which of course only underscored Meghan’s point. I don’t remember Dad (Papa to the grandkids) agonizing about Christmas, but I do remember him getting a lot of heat for giving Mom an electric frying pan as her big gift one year, and for giving her the identical brooch two years in a row. He had no gift for gift giving. But he would literally get down on our level, dodging a blinding barrage of ping pong balls, and reveling in the annual “bop gun” battle that was unwrapped Christmas mornings well into my teen years. I’m sure it drove Mom nuts after all the hard work and worry she put into “making Christmas” for us all, but Dad had a gift for truly enjoying the incredibly puerile, chaotic and bumptious environment that is inevitable when you have 12 kids; I have honored his respect for guileless immaturity ever since. Dad did occasionally wander over to the front door to hold it open, smiling, as a subtle hint that he was ready for a party to be over. He did leave his socks lying around, and he pulled them on to feet of clay every morning. He had more faults than I can catalogue here. It’s easy for me to name them, because he passed most of them down to me, in addition to the grand tradition of foibles that live on through me daily from Mom’s side of the family.
206 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) But that is not the point. The point of Christmas is that Christ came and lived among us, died for us. I believe he will come again. In the meantime, he left pretty detailed instructions on how to be his hands, and feet, on earth. I can’t find anything in those instructions about decorating the perfect tree, wrapping the perfect gift, or wearing this season’s hottest accessory. But I know so many people, even those who don’t celebrate Christmas, who are quick with a kind word, a good laugh, the map to the high road, an encouraging hug, and the unfailing ability to do the right thing even when no one is looking, or when no credit is given. They’re not even all grandparents, yet, but I look in their direction and I find Christ in this festival and every day.
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January 13, 2006 Judging from the ads on TV (of course I never watch TV, but this is based on what constant watchers tell me) it’s that time of year when people resolve to do healthy things for a change, forever, or at least until the Super Bowl (which is not a dip, but a pro football game), whichever comes first. I could help out all my insomniac readers with stultifying pledges of what I’ve resolved to do differently or better this year, but unfortunately my list is too short to put out the lights. Swearing off cussing and limiting myself to just one Diet Coke per diem just about covers it. The profanity thing should be self-explanatory. The Diet Coke thing is two-pronged: they say that more than one a day abbreviates short term memory (though I can’t recall why). More than one Diet Coke a day also pumps enough extra caffeine into my system that, as my pals Rob & Mike can attest, it makes me talk like Flipper. Just like sin, it is far more interesting, for me at least, to focus on appropriate resolutions that other bodies, individual and figurative, should be making this year. First, the diet companies. Every January, the airwaves bulge with ads on how to take it off and keep it off, using their new, special, empathetic, low impact, low carb, high protein, low fat, no hunger, no-whining, extremely unique diet plan. As long as their new plan translates to eating no junk food and exercising more, no problem. The problem is the target. They just pile it on women. What about fat guys? Haven’t these diet company execs scoped out the
208 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) mall lately? Fat guys abound, and they’re every bit as capable of feeling the gut-wrenching remorse about what they packed in over the holidays that women feel in large enough quantities to sign up. Excess weight is evenly distributed between the sexes. Next January diet companies should resolve to even things out and allow everyone to feel the guilt at large. The Greenville Drive. This dead horse is so badly beaten that it’s officially Alpo by now, but it’s never too late to resolve to right a wrong. It’s true, The Greenville Drive is proudly bearing the legacy of lame names first established by The Greenville Growl, but we can still veer The Drive toward the Dead End where it belongs. If The Greenville Drive people cannot admit that they paid a pile of money to come up with a profoundly retarded name, let us all resolve, collectively, to at least pronounce the name correctly. Bear with me, I’m making a really good point here. I am reminded of the tale of one of my Reason for Living’s elementary schoolmates. His last name was Bedenbaugh. He pronounced it “Bee-den-boe.” His inept but well-meaning teacher told Master Bedenbaugh that he was mispronouncing his own name, and that she would henceforth correctly address him as “Bee-den-baw.” The class appropriately rebelled. Their conviction was that Bedenbaugh could pronounce his name as “Smith” if he so chose, it was not up to the teacher to decide. And so can we. If The Drive is truly “our” team, let us all resolve to correctly pronounce our team’s name as “The Green Sox.” Let’s stop arguing about it; just wear green socks to every game, and cheer on our Green Sox until the owners and their well meaning but inept namemakers wise up and join the fans. And while we’re resolving to pronounce things correctly, Greenville County Council should consider some speech therapy for 2006. The term “discretionary accounts” is easier and more accurately pronounced as “slush funds,” and the term “surplus” rolls off the tongue nicely as “refund.” But that’s another column.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 209 And finally there’s TV. So many of us resolve to watch it less, but that somehow exempts those who “never” watch it. People who pretend that they never watch TV should resolve to do one of two things: either admit that they do in fact watch some TV (and the Weather Channel and ETV count), or better yet, resolve never to brag that they never watch TV at all. If you are one of those “I never watch TV” people, no one believes you anyway. If anyone does believe you, it makes them feel bad – either about you, or about themselves, or both, I’m not sure. It does not channel any positive feelings, so please resolve to lay off the “I never watch TV” nonsense. Besides, by watching enough TV, the rest of us are plugged in to what’s what. Without ever leaving our barcaloungers, we know what the best resolutions should be for 2006, especially for other people, and we should all raise a Diet Coke (just one darn one) in cheers to a big fat Happy New Year to that.
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A Woman of Letters
January 20, 2006 What is it that makes us need to believe and show that we are something more than we are? What compels us to search for origins that might prove that we sprang from something more exotic than our ever-so-predictable, boring parents? Is it the same impulse that drives people to add meaningless or confusing letters before or after their name? Is John Doe, Esq. really more impressive than John Doe? Is Dr. John Doe really more important than John Doe, even if Dr. John Doe graduated from chiropractic school? Are people impressed when realtors trail a bunch of letters after their names, such as CRB, CRS, GRI and DUH, when nobody knows what those letters mean? (And they don’t mean much, representing a certain number of hours when buttocks stayed in seats, no test, no grade, nothing more.) But I digress. Even Queen Elizabeth is prone to this human foible. Here she is, arguably the most important woman in England, the queen for crying out loud, a woman of letters, and yet she’s got to have “HRH” in front of her name, to make her sound really smart. I’ve been thinking about incorporating myself, forming my own professional association, or a limited liability corporation, or maybe all three, because that would create a virtual alphabet that could trail my name on business cards. Talk about important. I’d be a woman of a lot of letters compared to any queen. When people can’t distinguish themselves by way of added letters, they climb the family tree. Despite my influence, my children’s southern blood runs strong, because even they are showing signs of ancestor worship. They’ve often asked “What
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 211 are we, Mom? And don’t say ‘ingrates, recreants, or sluggards,’ either! What is our lineage? Are we pure anything? Aren’t we mostly something?” “You’re adorable mutts,” I purr. “Almost no one we know is “pure” anything anymore, unless they live in Arkansas, and that’s not genetically healthy or legal. Besides, ‘pure’ thinking went out with brown shirts about 60 years ago.” Still, they want to believe that they are descended from something way cool. On their dad’s side, a delightful WASPy mix of English and German genes, they can trace their origins way, way, way back – some claim to the king in Macbeth. That’s pretty neat, except it’s not a sure thing that the king in Macbeth was more than great fiction. But it explains a lot of drama queen tendencies we play audience to around here. However, my branch of the family tree, which is about oneeyeball worth of German and all the rest Irish, has finally produced something more than rotten potatoes and long yarns. In case you’ve missed it, it turns out that the one parent in this family who scoffs at the pursuit of genealogical celebrity is the one who actually delivers the goods. My kids have been shaking down the wrong family tree, because as it turns out, there’s royal Irish blood flowing in my veins. According to a new genetic survey in the January issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics (on newsstands now), at least 2% of Irishmen who claim to be descended from royalty are actually telling the truth (“The New York Times” 1/18/06). It’s also true that about 2% of Irishmen are telling the truth about anything at any given time, but that’s really beside the point. My maiden name is Egan. I was always told that Egan means “king” in Gaelic, and now it appears that may not be blarney. According to the survey, Egans, along with Quinns, Flynns, O’Connors, and O’Reillys, carry a genetic signature linked to an extraordinarily prolific 5th century Irish high king called Niall of the Nine Hostages.
212 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Like Macbeth’s king or King Arthur, ol’ Niall had long been regarded by historians as more legend than real, but I assure you none of those historians was Irish. Niall’s fecundity was linked to his penchant for taking hostages from opposing royal families, nine families to be exact. Knowing that bad guys just cannot get good help, he took the task of impregnating the female hostages upon himself. To be sure, Niall was a lout, but at least a royal one. ‘Tis also true that his distinctive genetic signature is carried on the Y chromosome, and I seem to be a bit short of those lately, but my brothers each have one, and that’s close enough for an Irish woman of letters. This bit of royal news has helped settle another burning question our children came up with: What should their children call us when we become grandparents? Until now, I had refused to answer such a ridiculously premature question. But “Your Majesty” is really growing on me, and it does not have too many confusing letters, either.
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So . . . What’s News?
February 10, 2006 Did you know that the sleepy scene on a late Sunday afternoon on Augusta Road set the stage for a terrible carjacking two weeks ago? The story has a good ending, but a lot of people – even the most prolific sources of scoop — still don’t know it happened. Perhaps you’re asking yourself why you’re learning about this in a column now. Good question, but I’ll get to that. Carter and his girl friend Sarah had a hankering for some kung pow chicken, and wound up victims of a felony. As they drove into the large parking lot at about dusk he had the most fleeting “that’s kinda weird” thought as they rode by two guys standing in the huge, mostly empty lot that serves stores like Appleby’s, Coplon’s, the Hallmark Shop and Happy China, among several others. One guy was white, the other black. But that’s not what prompted the fleeting thought. “They were both just standing there by the entrance of the parking lot, both wearing hooded sweatshirts, with the hoods up.” Think back, that Sunday was freakishly warm, a beautiful spring day in the middle of winter. The thought was fleeting, the kung pow steaming, so Carter parked. He left the motor of his 2005 Landrover running while Sarah and their Boston terrier pup, Pressley, waited for him to fetch their take-out. The radio was on, the window down. Suddenly one of the hooded sweatshirt guys, the black one, weighing in at about 180
214 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) pounds, opened the driver’s side door and started to get in. His name, according to arrest reports, is Daniel Bunch. Sarah, who is about 90 pounds dripping wet, reacted. She leaned over into the driver’s seat and smacked him in the face. He grabbed her, yanked her out of the car, and threw her on the ground. She hit her head, her bum, and her knee pretty badly. Bunch jumped in the car, threw it in reverse, and drove off, with Pressley barking away in back. Screaming, Sarah staggered toward the car. Her claw marks on the car show how she tried to stop him from taking Pressley. Carter says, “When he backed out, he very nearly ran her over, and his buddy too, who’d been standing behind the car, to the right.” This all happened literally behind Carter’s back while was inside, but Sarah’s screams turned his head. “I ran outside. Sarah’s screaming, trying to get up, my car is screeching out of the parking lot, and there’s this guy in a hooded sweatshirt running after my car, toward Augusta Road, just bookin’ it.” He made sure Sarah was OK. Then they called 911. Carter then turned to the half dozen people gathered in shock and asked for help, “So I could go after those guys, and get my dog.” Nicole, a good Samaritan from Greenville, said, “Jump in, I’ll take you.” But his car was nowhere in sight. They drove toward Church Street, and as they passed Como Pete’s, Carter had another thought, that stuck. “There was this guy, just standing there, doing nothing, just like the two guys we’d first seen.” Carter got out of the car, approached him, and asked, “What are you doin’?” “The guy, a white guy, immediately yells, ‘I didn’t do anything!!’”
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 215 He had a hooded sweatshirt tied around his waist, and he was winded, like someone who had just been running. He was the accomplice. The guy spilled his guts, giving the cops Daniel Bunch’s name and the probable whereabouts of Carter’s car. He told the cops he barely knew Bunch (who later turned out to be his roommate). By the way, when the police searched the accomplice, he was carrying two 16-inch knives. Less than 10 minutes after delivering the accomplice to the police, Sarah and Carter had the car and Pressley back. They have been reassured by great police work and follow up from the Solicitor’s office through all this. They wish they could say the same for the Fifth Estate here. That night, Carter contacted Fox News, and they covered the story. But he got the impression that Fox was the only one who would cover the story. Carter says, “I couldn’t believe it. We emailed the Greenville News and Channel 4, but nothing. I called Channel 4 after sending them an email. The lady said they had gotten my email and they were ‘taking it into consideration,’ but I never heard from them again. I never got any response at all from the newspaper.” That Sunday must have been an overly full news day. Perhaps there was a dog show or a cooking class that had reporters otherwise occupied. You can find tickertape bulletins on The Today Show about breaking news such as “Tuesday is Valentine’s Day” but nothing about this. Some cynics refer to the daily as “The Local Oxymoron,” but now we know they’re wrong. There is news out there; you just have to know where to find it, especially if you’re trying to keep safe. Problem is, you may have to find it on your email, or just by keeping your eyes and ears open in your neighborhood. The bad guys are going to do real time. Sarah has bad bruises, Pressley is a little freaked out, but it could have been drastically worse, and for that they are thankful.
216 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) But if this is the first you’ve heard about it, I think you’ll agree that a carjacking is a horrifying felony, but choosing not to inform the public about it is just plain criminal.
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As A Rule . . .
February 17, 2006 By the time I came along, my parents had been at the parenting thing for more than 18 years. My ten predecessors were all about two years apart, or less. So one would think my parents had become seasoned pros by then. Not so. They were obviously still learning the parenting game. I know this because they were both constantly making up new rules as they went along. One might then assume that all those rules, accumulated over all those years of raising all those children, resulted in a highly regimented family life. Not so. You see, each NEW RULE lasted about 15 minutes, or at least as long as it took one of us to provoke another, BETTER rule, whichever came first. My mother would always lay her new rules down in a fit of pique, usually prefaced by, “Alright, from NOW ON . . .” The madder she was, the more ridiculous and unenforceable the rule. For example, back in my early driving days, she had a favorite rule she invoked whenever I stepped out of line (both times). “Alright,” she fumed, “from NOW ON you will ride your bike or walk to school!” High school was a mere 15 miles away, but I never pointed this out (lest I incite yet another rule). I knew that the rule would be lifted “for now” as soon as Mom needed something from the grocery store that day or needed me to pick up my younger sister. This new rule rarely lasted beyond, oh, 5:00 p.m.
218 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) My father’s less frequent forays into family legislation were also more formidable. When our shenanigans went far enough to arouse his temper, he did not just install a new rule, but supposedly a whole new way of life. “We’re going to have a NEW REGIME around here!” he’d intone. To give him credit, the new regimes did last a lot longer than most of Mom’s new rules — way past 5:00 p.m. When one son too many (that would be one, to be precise) came to the dinner table wearing no shirt at all one evening we instantly had a NEW REGIME. I remember the announcement of this new regime probably could have peeled the wallpaper from the dining room walls. ALL the boys, not just the one offender, had to come to the dinner table wearing a COAT &TIE — FROM NOW ON! This new regime actually lasted a couple of weeks or more, and took on legendary proportions for the impression it left on us all, let alone the wallpaper. I used to snicker along with my big sister’s kids as they openly sensed that their dad “felt a new rule coming on.” But now that I am in to this parenting thing myself, I cannot recall just what was so funny about an extremely important new rule that will surely be enforced FROM NOW ON. Family therapists advise against having too many rules, especially more rules than parents can enforce. So, as a rule, I try not to make too many rules. To wit, I have listed in chronological order, the very few but very important new rules I have laid down in the past week: NO LOUD RADIO IN THE CAR NO SINGING LOUDLY TO RADIO IN THE CAR NO RADIO IN THE CAR, PERIOD NO RADIO, PERIOD, UNLESS MOM IS ON THE CAR PHONE NO JUNK FOOD FOR SNACKS NO JUNK FOOD UNTIL AFTER YOU’VE HAD A HEALTHY SNACK
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 219 NO FOOD ALLOWED OUT OF THE KITCHEN, PERIOD. NO TALKING TO MOM WHILE SHE IS ON THE PHONE NO WRITING NOTES TO MOM WHILE SHE’S ON THE PHONE NO CALLING MOM FROM THE OTHER LINE WHEN SHE’S ALREADY ON THE PHONE NO FOOD OUT OF THE KITCHEN, PERIOD, UNLESS MOM IS ON THE PHONE NO FOOD ON MOM AND DAD’S BED NO TV THIS SUMMER, PERIOD NO TV, PERIOD, UNLESS IT’S A MOVIE/PROGRAM MOM APPROVES NO TV, PERIOD, UNLESS MOM IS ON THE PHONE Now, I realize this may constitute a few more rules than family therapists advise. But you must also realize those therapists obviously have no children. Even if these rules don’t exactly last FROM NOW ON, they often help me get from moment to moment. Besides, I’ve been at this parenting thing for only 15 years, so, as a rule, I am still learning as I go along.
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Braving Bra Shopping
February 24, 2006 I was recently forced to go bra shopping lately. When no amount of bleach can get the gray out and all the elasticity is shot, it is time to give in and restock. Contrary to male fantasy, this is the one kind of shopping women do NOT enjoy. Even by catalogue. Catalogue shopping provokes less anxiety at the point of purchase; however, when the garment arrives it was obviously developed only for the models in the catalogue. It looks great balled up in the back of my dresser drawer. There is no male analogue to bra shopping. When men go shopping for underwear (as if they ever do), they grab a threepack of briefs or boxers, whip out the wallet, and that’s it. They do not try things on or ask the nice salesperson if this underwear smooshes them too much, shows too much cleavage, or makes them look too obviously padded. Bra shopping is quite the opposite. Regardless of size, buying a bra is nerve-wracking. That is because, regardless of size, just about every woman in the world is convinced she wound up with the wrong size. It would be easier if the foundations department had separate sections for shoppers just as in other departments. They don’t mix “Women’s” dresses with “Petite” dresses, so why do they mix up all the underthings? They could at least offer separate dressing rooms marked: “A Cups,” “B Cups,” and “Truly Blessed” for all the rest. During my most recent shopping expedition, a fellow Olive Oyle look-alike exchanged eye-rolling glances with me as a frustrated Rubensesque shopper loudly “complained” that she
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 221 couldn’t find a decent underwire to help her lug around her baggage comfortably. We recognize disingenuous bragging when we hear it. Women like that should find out how comfortably that big ol’ underwire job fits in their mouths. But I digress. My personal aversion to bra shopping is deep-seated. As bad as it is, it will never be worse than my maiden voyage almost 30 years ago. Before shopping, I first had to get a moment alone with my mother to ask if we could go shopping. Getting her alone took about three days. She was sorting through the mail when I everso-casually asked her if we could go shopping for “underwear” before school started. Without even looking up, She said no, we were practically drowning in underwear. I was unprepared for how utterly clueless she was. Mind you, I had four older sisters. This could not have been new to her. Each of them must have approached my mother in a similar fashion about wanting to go shopping for “underwear.” Even so, my entreaty did not even register with her. “Mom,” I whispered conspiratorially, “I don’t mean THAT kind of underwear. I mean . . . a . . . bra.” “Whatever for?” she chuckled. The cynic in me was wondering whether this woman was just plain stupid or possibly sadistic. “Because,” I hissed, “all the OTHER girls at school got one a long time ago and I want one too.” That reason, and that reason alone, seemed to make some sense to her. She then offered to take me shopping, but I’d already decided to go through this delicate procedure alone rather than be accompanied by Nurse Ratchet. So I rode my bike up to the local department store. I couldn’t bear to approach the counter when any other customer was there, lest I meet the same “whatever for?” look I’d endured with my mother. I must have looked like a shoplifter in training because every time the nice saleslady would ask if she could help me, I
222 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) chirped, “Just browsing!” as I thumbed nervously through size 18 negligees, and long-line girdles. After a couple of hours, the exasperated sales lady was the only other person in the whole department so I quickly slapped a Playtex Junior Miss Size 28AAA training bra on the counter and asked her to please bag it after ringing it up. Quickly. She smiled a knowing smile and asked if I wanted to try it on first. “No, thanks,” I lied, “I already have a few of these at home.” Besides, the garment was little more than two conjoined coasters made of white stretchy lace. Stretchy because hope springs eternal. “May I have your charge plate please?” she asked. I explained I had forgotten to get it out of my mom’s purse, but that she could call my mom and she would give the card number and permission. I breezily assured her that we did this all the time, and it would be NO PROBLEM. I almost believed it myself. The nice saleslady dialed my number and explained that she was a nice sales lady calling to verify that a young lady named Joan had permission to use her mother’s charge card to make a purchase. “What for?” she said, “Well, she would like to purchase a BRASSIERE.” Standing all the way across the counter from her, I could hear the maniacal laughter blasting out of the telephone. She had not been talking to my mother at all — but to my 15 YEAR OLD BROTHER FRANK!! Until that point, I had not imagined that this shopping trip could get any worse. Frank of course granted permission to use the charge account because without it he knew there would be nothing to yank out of my hands and dangle out of my reach when I got home, and no reason to hastily compose a song called “Trainers” that he STILL serenades me with at every homecoming 30 years later. So while I did not enjoy my recent venture to the foundations department, I reveled in how far I’ve come. I was able to browse,
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 223 not as a ruse, but as a right; I felt comfortable trying on several different varieties of doilies without help from any nice saleslady; and I gave myself permission to buy as many as I liked. Figuratively speaking, my cups runneth over.
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Love in Reverse
March 3, 2006 Perhaps you missed it, but there was an interesting article in the New York Times last week about Deborah Tannen’s new book, You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. It’s an interesting analysis of mother-daughter communication. As the mother of three daughters and the daughter of one mother of six daughters, I have often come to the exhausted, frustrated conclusion that mother-daughter communication is the Great Oxymoron. I won’t give it away, you need to read it for yourself, but it’s a good read in that it reassures all of us mothers and daughters that our failure to communicate effectively is really not our fault (unless of course we’ve already read her book, so we should be communicating just beautifully from now on). I am currently visiting my 86 year old mother in the Chicago area, where I am from. Our communication over the years has been strange and wonderful. I wish I could simply say that she’s strange and I’m wonderful, but that would be less than true. The fact is that we are often at odds with one another in terms of opinion and delivery thereof, but we continue to regard one another as wonderful nonetheless (I think) which is more than strangely comforting. She has never been one to let someone operate without the benefit of her opinion, and I am no exception (nor am I anything like her . . .). Every time I see Mom, we go through the same greeting ritual. She envelops me with a warm, lingering hug, tells me how cute I
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 225 look, then holds me at arm’s length and reminds me, “You’re too thin, though.” Never mind that, other than pregnancy and nursing, I have weighed the same since I was about 15 years old. Even when I was pregnant or nursing, she would pronounce that I was too thin, so at least she’s consistent. At times, such as when her own dimensions were expanding, this observation about my physique bordered on nagging, but I’m sure that’s merely a coincidence. The fact is, her observation has never changed my weight, what I eat or my activity levels, and it never will. Then, regardless of what I’ve done to my hair lately, she will say “What have you been doing to your hair lately?” It seems that she always “liked it better the last time I saw you,” but again, she is consistent. This visit, I noticed that the two finger towels I gave her for Christmas, imprinted with what I thought were amusing sayings, were opened, and untouched. I said, “I guess you didn’t like the finger towels I sent you.” “No, I don’t think they’re very cute, and they’re not funny either. I don’t understand what you think is funny most of the time. Besides, you gave me different finger towels last year, so I have enough finger towels.” I thought about asking her not to sugarcoat things, just give it to me straight, but then she’d just told me that she and I disagree on “funny” so I bit my lip for a change. I was starving, and she was so proud of herself for having gone to the store in anticipation of my arrival. This is the same woman who taught me by example that those who can cook, do, so my expectations were appropriately low, but this was a new record. She pulled out a tub of “pulled pork” and glopped some between two slices of raisinnut bread. Now, I have nothing against pulled pork. South Carolina is home of some of the best pulled pork ever. They should think about exporting some to Chicago. But I am pretty sure that if I check the label on this tub, it will simply say “Nasty.”
226 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) I did, politely, choke down a bite. I didn’t say anything else. But she noticed. “You’re not eating that perfectly wonderful sandwich I just made you. No wonder you’re so thin. You don’t EAT.” I told her I was sorry, I appreciated the effort, but I just did not care for it. She pressed, “Eat it, it’s wonderful.” She just did not, or would not, understand, and she thought I was being rude and ungrateful. “Mom, you’ve basically served me finger towels for lunch.” That she understood, and for once we agreed on funny. I am little better than my mother when it comes to communicating with my daughters. I have to keep reminding myself, too often too late, that their skin is not as thick as mine, and what may have been intended as a jest or a tease on my part is interpreted as something quite opposite. So I have lots of practice apologizing, but I need to learn to save the quips for someone who does not need my approval so much, whether they admit it or not. Communication and love are always two-way streets, but I’ve come to realize, surrounded by teens, that mother-daughter communication often drives in reverse. Sometimes loving your mother or daughter, is not a question of hearing them say “I love you,” but really listening when their blunt or difficult or sometimes outright obnoxious behavior is a version of “Do you really love me?” I hope they, especially my daughters, can decipher the answer better than I can decode their question. Sometimes I say it with restrictions, sometimes with a loud voice, sometimes with an exasperated sigh, and sometimes by eating a nasty sandwich after all. But the answer is yes, of course I love you, yes, always, yes.
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March 17, 2006 Have you heard about the sheriff department thing? The Greenville County Sheriff’s department can’t fill vacancies on the force. We can’t compete with our neighboring counties that offer more money and less crime. Right now, new recruits are offered a whopping $12.72 an hour. That is $2.72 per hour more than my daughter made babysitting full time one summer. While she was responsible for some mild discipline from 9 to 5, and always put her hand on top of her charges’ heads as she strapped them into the back seat of her cruiser, she never had to put them in a choke hold, use a stun gun, fire her weapon, or fear for her life. Hopefully, County Council is scratching its collective head, trying to figure out how to fill these vacancies without compromising the quality of the recruits hired. Or maybe, if this issue is as pressing as making developers happy about tree ordinances, they’re busy mulling over the possibility of appointing a committee to study the issue of filling deputy vacancies, and taking applications for membership of that committee. Here are a few options for them to mull, too. They could make $12.72 an hour, or $26,457 per year, more appealing by promising recruits fewer bad guys to chase. Unfortunately, the best way to do that is by putting more cops on the streets. To put more cops on the streets, they would have to offer better pay. But if they do that, they would also have to offer the existing deputies, who are no doubt over worked as a consequence of this shortage, a corresponding raise in pay, too.
228 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Without raising taxes, there are ways to dig through County Council’s cushions for more than just spare change to fund more cops. First, there is always the budget surplus. (And why is that, exactly? If County Council is so high on keeping taxes low, why are they so keen on keeping extra tax money that they didn’t apparently need?) They’ve whittled the surplus down to $30 million (after paying about $20 million in CASH to expand the jail before the recent influx of brains and reason was sworn in on Council). $30 million is 26% of the total annual budget. That about five times as great as the School District’s reserve fund, and five to eight percent is the gold standard for such reserves. Using that math would free up another $20 million from the surplus funds. That would be a LOT of cops, and not just any cops, either, but smart, donut-phobic, sharp shooters. Assuming County Council won’t touch the surplus (since it makes more sense to them to just have it), there are two other sources of ready money they should seriously consider. The state attorney general has already indicated (see Greenville Journal, 3/03/06 issue) his unease with the constitutionality of Council Members’ individual “District Accounts.” For the sake of accuracy, I will refer to these accounts as “Slush Funds.” Each member gets about $21,000 per annum. The vice chairman gets about $1500 more, and the chairman gets about $3000 more, largely because they’re expected to make more proclamations, such as “Joan Herlong Day.” If I ever get my day (don’t hold your breath), it would end up costing $100 or more to have my proclamation printed and tastefully framed and/or my handsome commemorative plaque made. Those kinds of things are covered by the Slush Funds. There’s a total of about $255,000 of slush to throw around almost willy nilly every year.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 229 That slush would fund nine new rookie cops (at current hourly starting rate), and about five to eight new cops if they raised the starting hourly rate in order to attract highly qualified recruits. Now let’s consider County Council’s hourly pay. Unlike sheriff’s deputies, council members do not serve the public full time (otherwise the majority of council members who work full time would not have the time). Because their roles are slightly more demanding, the vice chairman and chairman make a little more, but the average County Council member is paid about $18,600 per year. (It goes up every two years, too, just like every other county employee.) That’s LOT of money, and a BIG percentage of the $115 million annual budget. (Here’s another way to skin this cat: If the Greenville County School Trustees’ annual salaries were calculated as the same percentage of their total annual budget as Greenville County Council members’ salaries, the trustees would each make over $60,000 a year, instead of about $7000 per year.) Let’s give the majority of the Council a whopping benefit of the doubt, and assume that they work truly part-time, or 20 whole hours per week, on their County Council responsibilities. That translates to $17.88 per hour. Let’s be more realistic, and calculate the hourly rate assuming Council Members spend about 10 hours per week on Council business. That’s more than $35.00 per hour. Not bad for part time work. Especially when your life is never at risk. I would personally feel a lot safer, on several different levels, if County Council decided that they are at least as important to us as our sheriff’s deputies, and pay themselves the same, or less, as those who serve and protect us for $12.72 an hour. I’m no detective, nor am I an accountant, but it seems like if you look under the right cushions in County Council’s chambers, there’s a lot of found money to be found, and spent more wisely.
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March 24, 2006 I was sitting at a three-way stop sign, minding my own business (for a change), when one of those huge YukonExpansion-Hummer things barreled through the stop sign to my right. It was piloted by a young mom, blabbing away on a cell phone. As I laid on the horn (to wake her up as much as anything) I exchanged a wide-eyed stare with her two preschoolers strapped in the back seat. The tank on the fly never slowed down, the mom was too busy to notice our brush with disaster. I wondered how many times I must have been in her seat myself, and vowed to give my driving 100% of my attention from now on. Then my cell phone rang so of course I picked it up. My friend Robin once (and I’m sure it was only once) zoomed a car load of hungry kids through a McDonald’s drive-thru for some chicky nuggets because she was too busy to prepare a balanced meal of free range chicken, organic vegetables, wild rice and soy milk for her family. As if it was not bad enough to feed her brood Fat in a Box, she was three blocks away before she tuned into what her kids were clamoring about: she’d driven off without the food. Alas, I know EXACTLY how she felt, and I can tell you McDonald’s drops way below room temperature if you have to turn around at Talbot’s to pick it up before eating it. My friend Anne (not her real name, but then again neither is GaGa, yet she answers to that, too) confessed that she was in such a hurry to get through the grocery store, that after pausing to gab with two different friends and then taking two or three cell calls from her family pleading with her to buy different junk, she did not realize that she’d drifted away from her own cart and taken
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 231 over someone else’s until she began unloading some unfamiliar items in the check out. Too embarrassed to do anything else, Anne paid for everything and skulked out in an even bigger hurry. My friend Venetia (or is it Viveca?) was brimming with domestic good intentions when she paused one morning to enjoy her lovely koi pond before driving her children to school. She noticed it was a tad low, so she dragged out the garden hose to top it off. And then the phone rang, then someone lost a shoe, and suddenly it was time for zip off to school and work, so they did. Hours later, she arrived home with her little darlings only to find all 23 of their precious (expensive) koi doing the back stroke across the top of the overflowing pond. Angry, hurt children will sometimes lash out in frustration and call their poor parents all kinds of things in the heat of emotion. We can now add “Fish Murderer!” to the lexicon. I can’t possibly know exactly how she felt, but her experience helped me pinpoint another reason why I will never have a koi pond, or anything else that might require my undivided attention for more than ten minutes. I drive car pool in my pajamas in the morning because I’m too busy sleeping at 7:25 to get up and get dressed before turning on the seat warmers at 7:33. Every load of our laundry gets dried at least three times because we’re all too busy to take the clothes out when the dryer beeps “done.” It’s a lot easier to turn off the bleeping beeper and just run the dryer again to get the wrinkles out for another 15 minutes, and then maybe another 15 minutes a few hours later. Our home answering machine openly admits to callers that we don’t answer the phone, or check the messages very often, because we’re too busy. The message instructs callers to try our cell numbers, but we don’t give out the numbers (lest I get one call too many and run a stop sign, walk off with someone’s grocery cart, or drown some fish).
232 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Beleaguered moms of all stripes are giving off busy signals like this all the time. Maybe it’s time we recognize them as “too busy signals” and hang up our phones instead of getting so hung up on getting it all done, now. Fortunately, not every disaster has a disastrous ending. Always adaptable, when Anne arrived home with bags full of someone else’s grocery selections, her family got to enjoy new taste sensations for dinner that night, including pork rinds and canned Chop Suey (and they liked it). Even their dog relished his cat food. Venetia managed to turn her fish tale into a fable that will loom large in her family history forever. She turned off the phone, and rolled up her sleeves. She and her two kids worked through their shock and grief (and Mom’s guilt) by spending the rest of that afternoon performing 23 solemn fish funerals and burials together. Her son J.D. provided the moral for the story: “Mom, even though you murdered all our fish and everyone hates you, I still love you.” I hope he never gets too busy to keep us proper perspective.
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April 14, 2006 Our oldest turns 22 this week and I am pleased to say that he is almost completely weaned. I can still remember the first time I introduced him to something new and different: apple juice. He was about 2 months old when he got his first taste of one part juice, two parts water. For a moment there I worried that DSS might pay a call. He arched his back, screamed, and looked at me for the first time (but certainly not the last….) with abject terror. But after the initial shock, he decided it was really good. And so began a long love affair between him and apple juice. The other three kids followed suit, but without all the initial drama and trauma. At this point, my Reason for Living and I cannot stand to be in the same room with the stuff. We have each prepared one too many bottles, and have stepped into one too many sticky remnants of a spilled sippy cup of juice. But I digress. Most parents equate weaning with breasts and bottles, but that’s just the beginning. Some call it planned obsolescence, or self-reliance, but I like Big Feenie’s description of the process as lifelong weaning. Somehow it sounds a little gentler, but the ends are the same. Conversely, the results for parents who delay or completely resist the weaning process are just as repellent as the concept of breastfeeding a child until they wear braces. I’ve heard a grown woman brag that she helps her daughter write every one of her term papers – in COLLEGE. I have no doubt that she’ll also write her daughter’s resume and coach her out the ying yang about interviewing, but I wonder how much
234 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) she’ll be able to help that same daughter earn a living. Her best short term option is to get the girl into graduate school so she can continue writing papers for her there. I know it will earn me the “Bad Mommy” award or at least place as a runner-up, but so far I’ve never helped any of our children with their homework. That is (part of) the reason that they never won any prizes at science fairs or for “Odyssey of the Mind” projects. I did try to nag one of them, the first one, to DO his homework for a while, but I gave up on that, too, preferring the title of “Mom” to “Warden.” Part of that is luck, none of our kids has needed much help, but part of it is weaning. No one ever helped me with my homework, or reminded me to do it (not that I’m bitter), which was only appropriate since I was the one who had to face the consequences of doing it poorly or turning it in late. When our kids do need help, they know that the subject matter is so hopelessly over my head that they arrange for their own tutors, and I happily pay up. (I have noticed over the years that all of the tutors our kids have engaged have been members of the opposite sex, and easy on the eyes, but I’m sure that’s merely coincidence.) I don’t make school lunches either. (Now I know I have won “Bad Mommy.”) I provide what they say they will eat (within reason), but as soon as they hit elementary school, our kids either make their own lunch or shake us down for lunch money every day. It’s just one more thing that they can easily do for themselves, so they do. This has been a sore point with my son. He says everything tastes better when someone else prepares it, and he’s right, but so what. One Saturday about 10 years ago, I made tuna salad sandwiches for lunch. He came in and announced that he preferred a ham & cheese. I cheerfully told him that was fine, he would find the ingredients in the refrigerator and he was welcome to make himself one.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 235 He still says that is the “meanest” thing I’ve ever said to him. (I still say that, compared to all the other things he could have chosen, I’m way ahead.) That same son is about to graduate from college. He was recently filling me in on his future work and living arrangements. I’m OK with the job part, but I wish he wouldn’t continue living in a biergarten. He was polite, but he was also clearly not interested in, or asking for, my opinion or approval. So I had to bite my tongue and just listen for a change. He was weaning me. At first I didn’t like it, but after the initial shock, it is really good.
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On Becoming a Mom
May 12, 2006 So much is written, noted, and carded about being and appreciating mothers at this time of year, but almost nothing about becoming one. My mom says she did not feel like she had become a truly grown woman until she’d experienced the entire vortex of emotions swirling around pregnancy: what it feels like to be pregnant, to want to become pregnant, to not want to be pregnant, to lose a pregnancy, and what it feels like to have a baby and forget all the annoyances of pregnancy that produced that baby. I’ve bought too many pregnancy tests in my time to count. At one point, my Reason for Living sarcastically suggested that I stock up on them to save money, or at least buy stock in the company so my angst could make us some money. (I did neither.) I even returned one kit, unopened, as a hopeless gesture of proof to myself that I would never need to buy another one. The confused pharmacist examined the sealed carton and then, although he appeared to be schooled in these things, he asked me why I was returning it. I offered him three guesses, but the first two would not count. I did not stick around to determine whether he got it. It didn’t matter whether I was driven to confirm a YES or a NO; I was always driven to KNOW, as soon as possible. In my day, as soon as possible meant about six weeks. A donut in the bottom of the test tube said YES and a dark blob said NO, and it took about 45 minutes to say it. That was an eternity, especially when I’d been telling my Reason for Living for at least four weeks that we would soon be the three of us. He shrugged off my assurances saying
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 237 that I could not possibly “know” something that could not be scientifically confirmed (but science did confirm my intuition). Today, technology has moved so fast forward that you can confirm yes or no before you hear snoring. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, because I was also quite the aficionado of false positives and falser negatives. My guess is that women know what it feels like to hope they are not pregnant more often than they know what it feels like to hope that they are. Whenever I worried and hoped that I was not, low-level terror was my constant companion, but at least I felt sane. But every time I made the irrational decision to become pregnant, I became increasingly irrational until I became pregnant (and then I got even worse). I have never been so single-minded, so driven, about anything else, before or since. When I wanted to be pregnant (and yes, I wanted to be, every time), I pretty much wanted it to be a done deal, yesterday. When things didn’t go according to plan, it was a struggle to be happy for other pregnant people. This was especially true if they announced their happy news at a time when I thought by all rights I should be pregnant, but somehow wasn’t. After a very sad disappointment, I was once told to “wait a few months” before endeavoring to become pregnant again. That was code for “forever.” I cornered every relative, friend, or mere acquaintance who had anything remotely to do with medicine for a satisfactory answer as to WHY. When neither the dental hygienist nor the volunteer at the blood bank could give me a reasonable reason, I torched the calendar. I became a woman possessed, deftly dangling a thermometer on my lip like a chain smoker, and trashing all the tightie-whities. I called my Reason for Living at odd times, making even odder demands, and hearing the oddest answers, such as: “No, please stop calling me.” I’m telling you, if we put a group of female scientists who want to be pregnant in a laboratory, guarantee them they will become pregnant, BUT FIRST – require them to devise a
238 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) cheap, plentiful alternative to gasoline, we would have the energy crisis solved before their thermometers spike ever so slightly. I’m adding to my mom’s list. Becoming comes full circle when you know what it feels like to know you’ll never be pregnant again. Now that my baby is nearly 14, worrying and hoping about pregnancy is not exactly on my to-do list. And after all those bizarre yes or no feelings I’ve worked through, it’s a good feeling. I’m free, and fortunate, to focus on being a mom instead of becoming one again. Instead of yes or no, I ponder the answer to deeper questions such as: “Why can’t I have normal parents, like all my friends do?” Our teens often find my behavior un-becoming to a mother, but it’s still worth all the bizarre hoops I jumped through to become theirs.
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Cleaning Down to the Herring Bone
May 26, 2006 It’s nearly summer, so I’ve decided to hire some help for spring cleaning. I’m hoping this person will stay on through next spring, so I have to clean the house first. Regular visitors know that I subscribe to the “Peck’o’Dirt” theory; my whole family enjoys Teflon immune systems. But cleaning up for the cleaning lady creates the illusion that my house is always spotless and that I’m hardly the type who could tolerate anything less. Since it provides shelter, clothing, water, phone and computer, I pretty much live in my closet, so that’s where I started. I created three piles marked: Keep, Donate, and Move (as in someplace else). These piles supersede my other piles that, if properly marked, would be Shoes, Random, and Entropy. Organizing these piles requires an honest evaluation of clothing that has not been worn in at least a year, or should never be worn again if I want to have any friends. This would be all about the benefits of spring cleaning, except for that jacket. It derails spring cleaning every year, and now it’s taken over a whole column. There’s this one jacket, a finely tailored, wool, herring bone blazer with red suede trim, that I have not worn in years, but I cannot part with it in good conscience. I took out a small mortgage to pay for it, so it still makes me mad just to look at it. I was promised that it’s a classic that will never go out of style, so I hang on to it, while it hangs there, judging me, until it’s once again hip for women to sport shoulder pads that make them look like Barry Bonds.
240 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) If you’re wondering how a reasonably intelligent person could pay more for one blazer than she did for her first car, you’ve never been sucked in by a trunk show. If you think trunk shows are the greatest thing since sliced bread and it’s perfectly normal to max out a credit card in one shopping trip, it’s time for you to turn the page and read something else. But, if you’ve been worried that you’re the only person so insecure, so dumb, so susceptible to peer pressure that you would actually spend more money on clothes in one afternoon than you might spend to feed your family for a month, worry no longer. I’m the other one, or at least I was. First, a disclaimer – there are very nice women who host or have hosted trunk shows who do NOT use pressure tactics, extortion, or crow bars to get you to buy stuff. These are women like Sallie, Sherri, Kathie, and Tiffany. In fact, they graciously take no for an answer, and remain your friends even you buy nothing at all (I know). I wish I’d known these girls when I got wrapped up in that blazer. I’d have more real friends and less debt today. This is how some of those “other” trunk shows work. First, you get a seductively friendly phone call, inquiring about the usual – the kids, the Reason for Living, your goals in life, your credit score. A gracious invitation is offered for a private shopping interlude in their home — no pressure, all pleasure. At this point, savvy shoppers know they are “a customer.” Other less sophisticated types, especially those new in town and anxious to make new friends, think they are “a guest,” but they’re really “the mark.” You enter the home to find it transformed into a dress shop. Clothes hang from chandeliers, banisters, and pot racks. There’s not a price tag in sight. To inquire about price is to invite an awkward silence. Out of politeness, you try on a garment, say, a knit dress. On you, it resembles a full length tube sock. Your hostess and her accomplices purr about how FABULOUS this dress looks on you,
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 241 especially if you accessorize it with this AMAZING $400 belt. (If you think a $400 belt is just fine, why are you still reading this?) Despite the mountain of clothing that they have picked out for you, you manage to whittle it down to just one herring bone blazer. You still don’t know the price. When you finally hear it, you look for an emergency exit but you’re surrounded by smiling faces waiting for you to sign the credit slip. When you tell them you could not possibly justify paying this much for one article of clothing, they clue you in on their “grocery store payment plan.” (I’m not making this up.) Just charge whatever you want, and then pay off the balance by writing grocery checks for $25 extra each week, and make cash installments. Hubby will never know, and you can pay off that snappy blazer in less than ten years. I paid the whole thing and fled. I confessed my sin to my Reason for Living, who encouraged me to return the damn thing if it was going to make me miserable, but I couldn’t. I was secretly convinced that wearing that blazer would win friends, influence people, and basically make people want to BE ME. Ahem . . . still waiting . . . So if you see a woman walking down the street, sporting a herring bone jacket, and bearing a disturbing resemblance to Maake Kemoeatu, it’s not a clever housekeeper who bartered a day of spring cleaning for a nice blazer, it’s just me, amortizing a classic that will never go out of style.
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Victory Lap in the Slow Lane
June 9, 2006 Readers have veered into this subject with me in the past. It wasn’t pretty then, and, like every other aspect of my life, I’ve shown no improvement. We’re talking car pool. My baby grew up in her siblings’ car pools, so it’s only fitting that I was ferrying her and her cronies in my very last loop of car pooling. She’s grown out of it. High school looms. In case you didn’t get the memo, if you’re not old enough to drive to high school, it’s, like, so not “kewl” to car pool there with your mom. Freshmen pay upper classmen for gas money in exchange for the coolness of getting a ride sans parents. So I’ve been kicked to the curb, as it were. Never again will I have to roll out of bed at 7:33 a.m. in order to pull out of the driveway at 7:37 a.m., cold Diet Coke in hand, seat warmers on, and running, consistently, a little too late for everyone’s comfort, but close enough to avoid a tardy slip. Never again will my passengers get to see just how much I resemble Don King in the morning, long before a shower or a comb tames my locks. Never again will my female passengers get the positive self esteem reinforcement provided by my personal example: it IS possible for a woman to feel (unreasonably) good about herself even with yesterday’s mascara smeared beneath her eyes and even if she is wearing wrinkled clothing that looks suspiciously like men’s pajamas. They also know that, when the mascara thing gets so out of hand that it prompts my baby riding shotgun to deadpan, “Mother, you look especially awful this morning. Do something
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 243 about that black stuff under your eyes.” Well, all it takes is a quick swipe or two with a nice wet thumb, and voila . . . lookin’ good. Never again will my passengers worry that they might encounter another one of those depressing, vegan-recruiting chicken trucks on the way to school. I hear none of the other mothers pulled alongside and rolled down the windows so that everyone could get the full effect and aroma. I’m reasonably sure that none of the other mothers made up a song about it either. Most days, car pool was an exercise in parental silence interrupted by yawns while the kids chatted or quizzed one another on “stems.” On those days, I got high marks from the baby. On other days, when I encouraged the gang to sing along with me to Kanye West’s and Jamie Foxx’s “Gold Digger” duet, the baby would switch off the radio and shoot me one of her “be normal” glares. Every now and then, she would allow me to turn on the sound track to “Parent Trap” and mangle the happy tunes with my accompaniment because the passengers’ enthusiastic accompaniment drowned me out. One day, the baby got so fed up that she openly chided me for not engaging the passengers in normal conversation like the other moms. Always open to constructive criticism, I asked what topics I should pursue. She said, “Like what we’re studying in school.” So I turned to the silent group and inquired if there was anything special they were studying lately. At first, silence. Then one polite child said, “Well, um, this week is sex education.” The baby riding shot gun mumbled, “Oh no . . .” and put her head in her hands. I put on my sun glasses (to be cool) and gamely offered that that has always been one of my favorite topics, and that I knew a few things about a few things, so if anyone had any questions they could feel free to fire away. More silence.
244 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) The baby riding shotgun turned on the radio and advised me that was enough conversation. On our very last day, the stars aligned for the historic occasion. First, we pulled out of the driveway only four minutes late. Thanks to a new do, my hair was a dead ringer for Buckwheat’s. Second, we saw the chicken truck, and pulled alongside. Since it was a special occasion, I did not roll down the windows, so the kids sang the chicken song as a gesture of thanks. Finally, the baby riding shotgun plugged in “The Parent Trap” so by the time we were crawling through the drop off line, saying enthusiastic good byes and thank yous to the helpful traffic cop who’d directed us all year, my passengers and I were in full voice, belting out “L is for the way you look at me . . .” They all said, “Thank you for the ride” as they had said every other day (I loved that) and merged for the last time with their huge book bags into the throng of arriving students. It was all abruptly over. Suddenly “The Parent Trap” didn’t sound quite as good with just me singing along. I’d just been promoted to solo driver, could toss my chauffer’s license if I wanted. It was a great day for them, the last day of 8th grade, and a good start to a good day for me, too. My last day of car pool ever. I didn’t know how much fun driving a victory lap could be, or how handy those sunglasses can be when the victory lap unexpectedly moves the cool driver to tears.
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September 29, 2006 This past summer, a new acquaintance quizzed me about family. She assumed that having one college graduate, and one still in college, meant that I was “almost done.” She asked me what I would do differently if I “had it all to do all over again.” Meaning what? She meant those wonderful teen years, high school, all that. Assuring her that I would fail the fork test, I explained that I do have it all to do all over again, five more years total. As the kids used to say when a game did not go exactly their way, my Reason for Living and I get a “do over” at this. This is our chance to do it over, to finally get it right with the two kids left at home. Our first do-over will be to avoid repeating stupid mistakes. It’s only fair that we make new ones. As I review the 11 cumulative years we’ve enjoyed as parents of high school students, there are a few things that we’ve decided to serenely accept, a few others that we have summoned the courage to change, and by the time we are “almost done” we hope to have the wisdom to know difference. Some things will never change. We’ll remain friendly, but we still won’t be our kids’ friends. That doesn’t make us popular, and we still don’t care. They have their own friends to complain to about us, and vice versa. To wit, once they become licensed drivers, they can have friends spend the night, but sleep overs elsewhere are over. Contrary to the social death predicted by their predecessors, this standing rule has not cost them any friendships we know of. Once they have wheels, there’s no good reason for our kids to spend the
246 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) night out, and lots of reasons (I can name about six held together in a handy pack) not to. They still cannot watch TV on school nights (and I know they still turn it on the moment I walk out the door). TV is best served with fresh carrots, on a stick. We will still try (and fail) to make sure that at least one of us is home on school nights. Just because they’re old enough to babysit doesn’t mean they’re old enough to look after themselves (see NO TV rule above). They still have a curfew, even though “nobody else” has one. When they come home, they still have to wake us, kiss us, converse with us, and if we’re not convinced, yes, they get to make sure the personal breathalyzer works properly. (We’re on our third model, now, the first two having mysteriously disappeared…) With courage, a few things will change. I’m making an effort to be more of a morning person, appearing occasionally in the kitchen before school, vertical and coherent. That way I can make sure they eat a decent breakfast. This isn’t to be confused with making a decent breakfast; let’s not push it. I’m also greeting them personally every morning. The intercom is only used as a last resort (when I can’t reach them by cell phone). Email and IM is OK, but no more Facebook or MySpace. At its most benign, it’s pure narcissism. Unmonitored, it foments malignant narcissism, which is tougher than a nail fungus. Pulling the plug is not without drama, but I promise the dire social fallout is just as non-eventful as not spending the night out. Speaking of promises, no more of those either. I can’t tell you how many pacts I’ve made over the years with other wellmeaning parents where we beg each other to “Tell me if you hear about my kid doing anything wrong.” Making a pact is talking the talk, not walking the walk. Our hands are full enough looking after our own kids, we don’t need to bird dog anybody else’s. Besides, if I really wanted to know
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 247 about every move my child makes (truthfully, I don’t), but if I did want to know, I wouldn’t rely on other parents to clue me in. In this age of personal breathalyzers, GPS phones, and webcams (for the utterly paranoid and/or intrusive), parents know exactly as much as we want to know. The question is not whether our kids are capable of doing something plain stupid or truly dangerous; it’s whether we’re willing to make any effort to prevent or ferret out mistakes, and to mete out memorable consequences when we find “mistakes were made.” They say wisdom comes with age, but so does fatigue. As I look back, and then ahead, at these teen years, I feel more exhaustion than insight. When we recently went through the 49th reenactment of Detect & Confront vs. Deny & Deny & Deny, My Reason for Living asked the girls if we could please shorthand it next time. Instead of wasting 45 minutes on indignant denials, could they just cop to it, so we can move on quicker to the moving on part? But they can’t not deny. They don’t even know why they deny, they just do; it’s like it’s their job. Our job is to, like, not let up, especially when we’re tired. Our job descriptions may be the basic difference between us and them, I’m still not sure, but I have at least five more years to wise up about it.
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October 20, 2006 Remember when you could devote almost an entire weekend doing something that was not for some cause, not even remotely tax deductible, no boss or client to suck up to, no presents to buy, no relatives or in-laws to reunite with or endure, no speeches to hear, no refs to slander, no team colors to wear, no children to mind, no planes to catch, no dress code to wear, no renewal to aspire to, no workshops to attend, no shopping, no books to read, no vendors to avoid, no backs to slap or scratch, and no agenda, hidden or otherwise? Remember fun? If you’re having a hard time remembering what fun was before it was redefined for you by political parties, charities, reunion committees, athletic departments, churches, counselors, advertisers, employers, employees, clients, relatives, clubs, boards, PTA’s and alumni associations, you need to rally around this open secret: Fun is alive and well, cruising the back roads of Greenville County on Saturday November 11th, 2006. Fun has been wandering these roads every November for almost 40 years now, and still going strong. Regardless of whether you live in Greenville, Anderson, Spartanburg, or anywhere you might be reading these words, you’re officially invited to have fun spending the better part of a Saturday morning driving, snacking, strategizing, encouraging, debating, arguing, yelling, forgiving, plotting, regrouping, thinking, and perhaps even winning back the feeling of sheer joy
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 249 to be had when you do all those things a little better, a little smarter, and a little faster than those idiots in those other cars. I am talking about Rally 39. You are invited to come back, or if you are a Rally Virgin, rediscover fun. You’ll be hooked. My Reason for Living and I first escaped two kids, a baby, and a Saturday morning Peewee soccer game to rally 17 years ago. We were so bad at it we didn’t even qualify for last place (i.e. at least try to get all the clues). When the Rally masters (i.e. a corps of volunteer organizers on a petty power trip) get so exasperated that they tell you where the finish line is, LAST PLACE is a glorious reach exceeding your sweaty grasp. Even though I confused talking LOUDER with being MORE RIGHT than my team mates, we did have fun, and we’re still speaking, often, to our original Rally Virgin team mates. Long story short, we gave up on rallying and crossed over to the Dark Side years ago, and became Rally masters. (There’s no power trip quite so satisfying as a petty one on a crisp November day.) In 300 words or less, here’s the deal: A team can be just two people, often a married couple, but not necessarily married, and not necessarily “a couple.” (Note: the more people on a team, the more FUN you will have.) Each team picks up their clues the night before the Rally, on Nov 10th. It’s important to READ and ABSORB every word on every sheet. On Rally day, each team’s vehicle is assigned a number. Each team’s starting time is officially logged, and fun takes off. Then you follow and solve clues. An example might be, “After shoebill, turn right.” Some clues require leaving your vehicle in search of the answer. Other clues are questions to answer. This year’s theme is Game Shows. Given the demographics of your average Game Show audience, you should be able to solve clues without applying for a McArthur Grant. If you’re really good at it, you’re team will be done in 90 minutes or less. Then you’ll enjoy the tailgate picnic you packed
250 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) ahead of time, as you watch all the other rally teams drive across the finish line over the course of another hour or more. After the rally part is over, you head up to the Highland Lake Inn. There you will enjoy post-mortems and dinner with your teammates and all the other ralliers you know or just met. After dinner, everyone finds out who came in last, who came in 10th through 2nd place, and who will have bragging rights as winners for the next year. After that, you dance all night to a kickass band, do your best impression of an irresponsible adolescent, and then stroll to your room. The next morning offers a bountiful breakfast, and a drive back to the real world. If you’ve wandered away from the Rally in recent years, it’s time to drive back to the starting line. If you’re a Rally Virgin, in search of fun again, contact us, we’ll sign you up. There’s actually a website, www.TheRally.org, and maybe it’ll be updated for 2006 by the time you go there. (The Rally is your typical oxymoronic volunteer organization, after all.) If not, send me an email and I’ll get you signed up. If you can’t remember fun, then don’t forget to rally a team together and have some with about 150 of your new and old friends this November 11th. Just for fun, I’ll be the Rally master dressed at Vanna White. See you there.
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November 3, 2006 There is one in every group, regardless of the group name – a team, a corporation, a congregation, a volunteer organization, a party, even a family. There’s always one person who is a little too needy, a little too long winded, a little too boring, a little too dull, too smart, too quiet, too loud, too… different. There is always one person to avoid, because of all those reasons, and more. It’s just easier to avoid them and not have to think about them, or what avoiding them says about you. Joe M. (not his real name) was the poster child for that one person. When his wife Molly was alive, he was just another of my parents’ many friends, a tall, lanky, affable man, happy to quietly bask in Molly’s witty conversation. Ironically enough, Molly was a psychologist. Anyway, Molly died. Pretty soon, Joe became that odd person. We would spot him in church, and give one another the high sign about which door to escape through, to avoid getting stuck in Joe’s orbit. We often made it to the car, only to wonder where the heck Dad was. We’d wait an eternity because Dad had walked out the door we’d avoided. There he’d be, nodding outside church, while Joe M. chattered away. Once, to my horror, when Dad and I were taking my firstborn on a long walk in the pram, we stopped in at Joe M’s. Inside it was grim; every surface was stacked with garbage. Joe stank. Dad chatted with him as if nothing were amiss, and made a date to go for a walk with him the next day. Outside, I asked Dad why he dragged us in there, and he was genuinely surprised at me. He said, “Joe won’t go see anyone, so I
252 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) go see him. He needs to get out and walk; a walk always does a body good.” I know now that Joe was depressed. At the time, I could not, would not, put a name to it. Joe was just someone to be avoided, if only Dad would catch on to that unwritten rule. Joe would not go see anyone at all, not a priest, not a counselor, a therapist, or God-forbid, a shrink. His late wife’s profession made Joe’s untreated illness that much more tragic. But that was 25 years ago, and at the time, there was a huge stigma against counseling. The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil served as ominous reminders that you literally had to be crazy to seek help like that. The rest of us dealing with garden variety devastations like death, injury, separation, divorce, alcoholism, addiction, postpartum blues, family conflict, chronic illness, unwanted pregnancy, infertility, teenage rebellion, financial pressures, and more, were expected to keep a stiff upper lip and press on. There is something to the stiff upper lip mentality, but there’s still this notion out there that people who seek or obtain counseling or therapy are crazy. And that thinking is just plain nuts. I have come to believe that people fall into three groups: The first group has the courage to ask for and accept help from a professional when a problem gets bigger than a stiff upper lip, and they need help working their way through that problem. The second group of people refuses to seek or accept professional help because they think it means they’re crazy, but their family and friends probably wish they would seek help. (The second group is often responsible for the first appointments made by the first group.) The third group internalizes everything, tells no one of their problems, and can’t even reach their own bootstraps in order to pull up. Katie Couric once crowed on TV that she’d never need a therapist, because, “I have lots of girlfriends.” Her poor girlfriends. They probably don’t want to know half her personal
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 253 stuff, and at some point, she’ll worry she’s given them grist for their mill. I used to rely heavily, too heavily, on friends and family for emotional support when my stiff upper lip needed some extra scaffolding. (Some friends, like Katy, will read this and say, “USED TO?? When did she stop?”) Friends are essential, but telling friends about the intimate details of your life means those details are no longer intimate. When just listening doesn’t seem to be enough, a true friend will recommend a wonderful therapist they’ve heard about. There are still Joe M’s I avoid today, some closer than others. I’m still not proud of it; then again, I’m not equipped to really help them either. But I can always recommend some wonderful ministers and counselors that great friends have recommended over the years, probably so they could stop avoiding me.
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Shopping for Beige
November 24, 2006 Twenty five years ago, “that boy” I was dating popped the question, got a quick YES, and officially became My Reason for Living. My sainted mother did not catch on as quickly, and he remained “that boy” until just after our second child was born. He was “that boy” for reasons she often referred to on her checklist for why we should wait or reconsider altogether. One, he was too young, and I was six months younger. (We were older than my parents were when they married, but that was utterly irrelevant). Two, he was Protestant and she worried that was contagious. (It is.) Three, he was a southerner, which increased the chances that we would not live in Chicago forever (right again). Four, and perhaps most unseemly of all, he would be starting law school immediately after the wedding, and I would be the underwriter. I could not think of a better “investment,” nor could she, but a girl that age should have been thinking about dinner dates and having fun, not “investments” and lifelong commitments to southern iconoclasts. On the other hand, she and my dad also put on the best wedding I have ever attended, with genuine joy, generosity, and fun. My parents, and his, gave us a firm foundation to refer to and emulate, which is especially important when two crazy kids decide to get married and finish growing up together. Fast forward, way too fast, to the present day. Up until now, we’ve remained convinced that we are still those “crazy kids,” regardless of what we see in the mirror, or the fact that almost all of our kids are taller than I.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 255 For years, I identified with the bride at every wedding we attended. But in recent years, not so much — I can’t help but pay closer attention to what the parents of the couple are doing, saying (and paying). Our own children have been growing up, becoming crazy kids in their own right. Boyfriends and girl friends have come and gone, but one girlfriend has become much more than that. Suddenly our son has informed us that he’s a man, with a life, a plan, but no girlfriend. A wonderful, bright, and beautiful fiancée has taken her place. Now I have the opportunity to avoid blurting any of the things that I wish my own mother had kept to herself, such as, “But you’re too young.” (Don’t place any bets, you’re already too late.) Never mind that he is the exact same age that we were when we became engaged and married, that is irrelevant, utterly. They are clearly not marrying for money, because neither one has a red cent, and they may well be underwriting graduate studies for each other down the road. But I cannot think of a better investment for either of them. They are way ahead of our game in many ways. She has never been “that girl” around here, so she does not have to wait to be promoted to her first name, we’ve been using it for a while, and I won’t embarrass her (further) by using it here. I have happily assumed the mantle of mother of the groom. So far, I think I’ve correctly adhered to protocol. We called the bride’s parents, courteously let them know that we can easily keep our invitation list to under a thousand, and I have already told our daughter-law-to-be that I want her to feel completely comfortable calling me “Mrs. Herlong” or just plain “you.” (Anything more about my role as future mother-in-law is best devoted to another column, don’t you think?) Yes, I’m painfully aware that I’ve previously noted, and written in this space, that the mother of the groom’s role is to “wear beige, and keep her mouth shut.”
256 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Those words will undoubtedly haunt me in the months to come. I don’t own anything beige; I feel like I kind of disappear in that color (which I realize is the point, duh). But my girls, including my daughter-in-law to be, all love any excuse to shop, so I guess I’ll be shopping for beige soon. Keeping my mouth shut will not be as hard as you might think. It doesn’t matter what I think about something that I’m not paying for, so no one will be the wiser if I have any opinions about the wedding planning process in the months to come (unless they happen to be a loyal reader). If I slip up and begin to opine aloud, my Reason for Living, who has attentively listened to my opinions on every topic imaginable for 30 years now, says he has some extra heavy duty duct tape he can lend me. He uses it in every other pinch, so he’ll always have a roll handy over the next few months. I hear that duct tape comes in a variety of designer colors now, even beige.
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Doing the 180
December 15, 2006 Back in the 60’s when there were six or seven of us still at home, my car seat to and from church was someone’s boney knees. I don’t remember Dad making any threats on the way to church, mostly because we were running late. But after mass, after enduring an hour of our various shenanigans in the pew, and then after waiting and waiting in the car for Mom to stop yakking out in front of the church, he would be so anxious to get home that the smallest squabble would send him over the edge. “Do you kids want me to pull over right here? Wanna walk home? I’ve a good mind to turn right around, take the lot of you back to church, and you can take shank’s mare.” Sometimes he’d pull over, just for effect. It worked. The trip was two miles, but when it’s winter on Lake Michigan, walking one block can require sled dogs. We’d ride home, ribbing and pinching in silence. Came close, but I was never booted from the car. I think my sister Patsy once goaded Dad into making good on the threat. When he drove around the block to pick her up, she was gone, just to make him feel panic and guilt. But then again, my reference tool is the family apocrypha, so it’s hard to sort legitimate memory from legend. Anyway, the point is, we knew Dad’s threats to turn around, or to eject someone on the spot, were not the empty variety. When my Reason for Living and I became parents, we developed our own repertoire of threats, and then we learned to cull them down to a few effective ones. “You will be grounded for the next six months!” is easy to say, even easier to yell, but very
258 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) difficult to enforce, or remember, once your blood pressure returns to normal. So we kind of backed off from that one. Over the years, one erstwhile threat has evolved into a positive motto. “OK, we’re going home.” We’re big on getting away, periodically, for long weekends, short weekends, or just overnight. Often, all that’s required to recharge is just the two of us and a change of venue. The fun is worth the trouble. A lot of parents don’t allow themselves enough, or any, time away because of the risk involved. Something or some kid could go wrong. Someone could get sick, or hurt, and then you might have to go home. Nonsense. All of those things WILL happen from time to time, but that’s not a reason not to go away. It’s just a really good reason to go home. The first time we did a 180, was about a year or so into the scintillating life experience everyone looks forward to, relishes, and later remembers fondly: parenting teens. (We found there was nothing a good babysitter couldn’t handle for 48 hours while the kids were little and relatively sincere.) From the decadence of the Ritz in Atlanta, we made a routine call home at about 8:30 on a Saturday morning. To our dismay, our eldest answered. He had no soccer game, so nothing short of fire, flood, or some other disaster could cause him to be vertical and coherent before noon. When he insisted he was “just cleaning up a little bit” we knew it was some other disaster. Thank goodness for blabby little sisters who pick up other extensions and spill the beans about clueless babysitters, uninvited friends who stop by for a few hours, and their brother’s new bottle cap collection in the den. “OK, we’re going home.” That was the first time of many times we’ve done a 180. Over the years, we’ve learned to say it calmly. Yelling is superfluous,
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 259 because it’s not a threat, it’s a fact. When not being at home is allowing some kind of problem to fester, we go home, even when the kids beg us not to. No, especially then. The last time we did a 180 was on the way to the airport in Charlotte. We were leaving one sick kid in the care of two extremely normal teenagers. After a flurry of inane phone calls, we asked ourselves if we’d ever hire two teens to care for any sick person, especially someone we care about. Never knew it until I did it, but doing a 180 in the parking lot of an airport is actually cathartic. Going away was beginning to make us feel sick. “We’re going home,” felt better than a Bromoseltzer. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our kids have learned, sometimes personally, sometimes by their siblings’ dramatic examples, that we will always be there for them. Even if it means doing a 180. Even when they really do not want us to come home. And sometimes, no especially then, even when they do.
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December 22, 2006 Tom Gower of Greenville died last week at the age of 84. His life was celebrated and honored by people of all walks, people whose lives were touched through his public service, through his soft touch for books and book lovers, and through his love for family. Greenville knew him for his service to the community. He was first elected to City Council in 1949 and served two (two year) terms. This was when City Council was still a non-partisan political endeavor (which he strongly advocated for all local political offices). He served at a time when, on paper, he had no time. He and his wife Elizabeth (Ducky) were busy raising four young children, Tommy, Grier, Roger, and Margaret. Gower ran and served again in the 1974, when integration had become a reality, a goal he had worked toward personally as president of the Greenville Council on Human Relations. “He didn’t plan to run at the time,” Ducky explains, “but [former Mayor] Max Heller asked him to.” His proudest achievements on City Council were the creation of the City Manager form of government that Greenville still uses today, and getting rid of the parking meters on Main Street. “I know parking meters may not sound like much,” muses Ducky, “but it made Main Street more productive; it was a turning point for bringing people back downtown.” Despite his record of public service, every person who knew Tom Gower well will tell you the one thing he was most proud of was his family. He never missed anything, any game, that his kids
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 261 or grandchildren played in, and church basketball was one of his favorite spectator sports. The feeling is clearly mutual. All four of his children and their spouses, all three great grandchildren, and almost all eleven grandchildren have chosen to make their homes and raise their families not just in Greenville, but in the same zip code. His magnetism was grounded in example rather than material things. As Tommy says, “Dad was not a lecturer; it was all done by example. He knew he needed to be the kind of person that he was, and if he did what he believed was the right thing, we’d model after that. And it worked.” In 1971, Gower “walked the walk” and took a leap of faith. He was 49, and the one thing he was sure of was that he needed to do something different. Roger says, “After the war ended, and my parents were married right away, Dad had always felt pressure to do what he was expected to do. He never had a real opportunity to consider what he really wanted to do.” So, with three kids in private colleges, one teenager at home, Gower resigned from his company, and studied what he should do next, for six months. As Margaret recalls, “I was the only one left at home, and of course as a teenager, everything can be embarrassing, but I was really embarrassed to come home to my dad after school. Mom was working, and he was just there. You want your parents to be like everybody else’s, but mine just weren’t. Dad was deciding what he needed to do next, and it didn’t matter to him if it looked weird to anyone else.” What came next was a 30 year affair with the other great love of Tom Gower’s life: books. “When we’d go on trips,” says Ducky, “we didn’t shop, or go to museums, or shows. We went to book stores. We both loved books, reading, discussing what we’d read. So he did a lot of research about opening a book store, and it was just absolutely the right thing for Tom to do.”
262 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) After vetting a lot of different names, including “The Gower Shoppe,” Tom founded “The Open Book.” Margaret explains, “He really wanted it to be open to everyone and to all ideas. I think the very first newsletter said ‘Open Books, Open Minds.’” In the beginning, Gower practically lived at the book store, working from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., for the first two years or so. Ducky says, “As soon as he decided on the book store, then for the next 30 years, it was all he talked about. He loved it, loved reading books, talking about books, talking with others who loved books. It gave him a real identity. The Gower family had been around forever, but this gave Tom his own identity.” Grier, who put in a lot of hours of her own, remembers her dad “had a real gift of knowing how to talk with people about books. He wasn’t trying to sell them something; he was just interested in helping them find whatever they were interested in. A lot of times, people would come into the store, and we’d try to help them out, and they’d say ‘I just really need to talk to Tom.’” Tom did not discriminate; he’d talk to anybody who shared his love of books and learning. As one family friend said, “Tom Gower was the first adult who ever treated me like an adult.” It became a family endeavor, all the children (except Roger, who was away in medical school) worked there at one time or another, and some of the grandchildren have, too. It was also open in terms of hiring. Grier says “He had an interesting series of employees. He’d often find something interesting about an applicant. And if he did, he wouldn’t say ‘I’ll call you next week,’ he’d just hire him. Dad said he went on instinct, but he seemed to have an instinct to like EVERYBODY.” It was a while before any money came in, but that was not the point. “The store was tremendously successful, but not necessarily from a bottom line standpoint,” says Tommy. “Dad rapidly built a reputation for integrity and quality. A couple of years after he opened, Rhett Jackson opened The Happy Bookseller in Columbia. He came to Dad for advice, and Dad said, ‘I hope you’ve got a lot of money, Rhett, because you won’t have much
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 263 when you’re done. And this was all long before the super stores came along.” In 2002, Gower retired, and was delighted when Margaret and her husband Duff Bruce bought out The Open Book. “Dad was so careful to tell us, several times, that he wanted us to do it for us, not for him. If it didn’t work out, and we wanted to close or sell the store, that was fine by him, that we shouldn’t do anything because of him,” says Margaret. “But Duff and I love it just like Dad loved it.” To know of Tom Gower was to respect him and his contributions to Greenville’s community. I am told that a life welllived is like a thank you note to God. Tom Gower’s life was more like a love note. And when it came to how much he loved his family, you could say he was an open book.
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The Secret of Santa
December 29, 2006 Our youngest asked a few weeks ago if she could organize a “Secret Santa” among her cronies, culminating on the first day of the “winter holiday” that everyone calls “Christmas vacation.” My Reason for Living and I gasped. Her siblings wondered if she had lost her mind. We didn’t know if we could condone such a thing. I’m perfectly serious. We have not enjoyed a happy history with “Secret Santa.” My high school was Catholic, all girls. There, I learned the hard way that even in a place steeped in “the true reason for the season” on a daily basis, Secret Santa could be an instrument of torture. We drew names from a hat. The name each girl chose was supposed to receive a sweet, anonymous, gift from their Secret Santa each day of the last week before Christmas vacation. We could not spend more than about a dollar on the daily gift. The gift appeared magically on your desk, in your locker, your book bag, whatever. Or, a different courier would deliver it each day, to keep the recipient guessing. The whole idea was to be creative, furtive, and generous, just like Saint Nick, focusing on the act of giving. We revealed ourselves to one another on the last day. But because it was not sponsored by the school, but by the “popular” girls who made the rules, Secret Santa was more rigged than a team of reindeer. Some girls traded the name they picked for a name they liked better. Some girls immediately violated the dollar limit for the daily gift, making the rest of us who gave and received creative, small gifts, feel like the losers that were
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 265 apparently were. And best, or worst, of all, depending upon one’s perspective, some girls’ names were left out of the hat. If you’ve ever been or known a 14 year old girl, you know that half the fun for any event is leaving somebody out. Even the innkeeper at Bethlehem knew that. (Come to think of it, Mary was about 14. . .). That credo reaches its crescendo sometime in high school, but some people are never quite convinced otherwise. Anyway, the girl who chose my name was enticed to swap my name with someone else. That someone else was my best friend, Berner. I have since filed the whole incident in my ever-expanding file labeled: “Not as Smart as I Think I Am.” I should have known she was my Secret Santa, but Berner threw me off by being the courier who delivered a gift to me one day, and even more clever, she asked me to be her gift courier twice, so one lucky (and completely confused) girl received more than one daily gift to cement the ruse. The daily gift I opened ranged from a pair of new, enormous, Carter’s cotton underpants, to a half eaten jar of baby food plums, and used and rewrapped bar of Christmas soap. I felt used by the end of that week, convinced that my Secret Santa hated my guts. I complained to Berner, naturally. She said my Secret Santa was probably just a nerd, not mean, and chided me for not being more grateful because at least I was included. On the final day, I received something decent, Berner revealed herself as the culprit, and everyone enjoyed a big laugh. Years and years later, one of my own daughters felt the sting of Secret Santa. She didn’t have to endure a mean gift each day, or wonder whether the girl who picked her name liked her. Her role was to make sure that all the other girls within the hallowed circle of Secret Santa felt superior as they celebrated the spirit of Christmas, because she was the one, the only one, left out. So when our youngest daughter asked to organize a Secret Santa event with a couple of friends, we finally agreed, but we ruled out the ancient “half the fun” rule. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t negotiable either, and then she and her co-hosts really got
266 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) into it. Ultimately, the Secret Santa group included girls from three other schools. We were all proud of her right up to and even after the very last second when she informed me that I had 20 minutes to buy enough drinks and treats to feed about 50 shrieking 9th graders. We all wore ear plugs for two hours while they exchanged and reexchanged gifts. We felt surrounded by Santa. Every girl arrived happy, left happier. But the best gift was seeing them relish the real secret of Santa. All the fun is including everyone.
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January 26, 2007 We’ve parked the computer that our children still don’t realize they are lucky enough to share, let alone have, in the kitchen area so that we can be aware of when they’re on it, and for how long. We don’t have too much worry about where they are when on it, because we’ve lectured and sermonized about “stranger danger” on the internet. For the inevitable event that they decide to ignore our stirring sermons, we’ve also installed a “Safe Eyes” program that is so puritanical in its strictures against inappropriate sites or topics that they’ve had to give up IM’ng their friend Fanny. If you don’t know what IM’ng is, you are way behind on your hip acronyms. They’re de rigueur if you want to maintain your delusion of open communication with your kids. I think it stands for “Instant Messaging,” sort of an electronic version of the old party line, where news of break ups, new romances, ugly rumors, uglier truths, and even occasionally useful news about pop quizzes travels at exponential rates within the dependent set. The other day, I walked into the room while my youngest was tearing back and forth across the keyboard, dishing about sonnets and quatrains, no doubt. I’m sure it was academic in nature because she pushed a button and the screen went blank the moment I asked, “What’s new?” “Nothing.” “Oh . . . I get it,” I winked. “PIR so TTFN.” “What??” I like to remind my kids from time to time that I know a few things about a few things within their set. They always look a little
268 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) nauseous during these tete a tetes, but it reminds them that I’m a lot cooler than they’d like to think. “I get it – Parents In Room, so Ta Ta For Now.” She cut me a look that should take years off my life if not my look, and intoned, “OMG . . . you are so L-A-M-E!” OK, I did get that. LAME is not an acronym so much as an anthem. It actually stands for “lame” as in hopelessly queer, gross, ignorant, unfashionable, or some other chronic and embarrassing failure. OMG is an acronym for “OH…MAH…GAH.” It morphed from earlier, preteen days when all news, good or bad, was greeted among their set by repeating this mantra while frantically jumping and clutching one another’s arms. Now that they are 14 and so over that middle school brand hysteria, it has shortened to merely “OMG,” and always delivered with deadpan sarcasm. I get OMG a lot. Almost as often as TMI. TMI is not exclusive to teens, but almost. If you’re lucky enough to live with people who do not editorialize about every blessed thing you say, then perhaps you’re not hip to this acronym for “Too Much Information.” I hear TMI from them every time I mention anything having to do with my pre-married or pre-mom years when their dad was just someone I stalked, or anything having to do with their parents and even partial nudity. TMI is actually a very handy conversational rudder. My girls tell me it really tamps down unwanted info about friends’ lunar cycles, Sisyphean boyfriend dramas, and visits to the dermatologist. When my mother recently complained that she knew far more than she cared to know about her friends’ various procedures or the vagaries of peristalsis, I suggested she try smiling and saying “TMI.” Problem is, accurate hearing is so spotty within her set that TMI is too often mistaken for “Oh my!” which is, ironically enough, a rhetorical invitation to elaborate.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 269 We have a few acronyms developed within the bosom (TMI) of our own family that enhances economy of expression around here. DQ is for Drama Queen. It’s uttered, usually under one’s breath, when someone is perhaps exaggerating the impact of a recent event on the speaker’s emotional, financial, social and/or academic stability. Q is for Queen, as in Queen of Bathroom Talk. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to bark this acronym in the wake of giggling about any topic that is best confined to the bathroom. Luckily, this alimentary source of humor seems to ebb in kids about the same time that OH MAH GAH settles down to OMG. MFM means “More For Me.” This is rarely uttered when I’ve prepared some delicious dessert that one of the kids somehow doesn’t like (because I never make dessert). It usually means something like “more Brussels sprouts for me,” something healthy that the kids have not tuned into yet, so the servings for Brussels sprout aficionados are happily larger. LTAM has more mileage on it than any other. It stands for “Let’s Talk About Me.” I know a lot of you are thinking, “What’s wrong with that?” And you’re absolutely right, which is why I hear it more often that I’d like. This acronym was first served up at our dinner table, when conversation, if you could call it that, was full of non-sequitors focusing on the self. One memorable example is when one child’s response to a long tale of woe just shared by a sibling was, “Hey, that reminds me of something: ME!” And then she proceeded to chatter on about something that interested her, usually herself, leaving the sibling’s tale of woe in the conversational ash heap. It was the most blatant example of Let’s Talk About Me that it was instantly shorthanded to LTAM. Unfortunately, LTAM became our kids’ rejoinder to almost all conversational detours at the dinner table, that we’ve tried to steer away from it by discussing world events, the local economy, or
270 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) academics, but those topics have a hard time competing with “me” for most people. I could go on, and elaborate on other family acronyms, but my children insist that they would all fall too squarely, too embarrassingly under TMI and/or LTAM, so TTFN.
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March 2, 2007 What’s the worst thing your child could ever do? The answer varies according to age, but we start out answering it in terms of the worst things we’ve already seen. When it comes to toddlers, parents often answer with tales of public tantrums, temporary disappearances, and Pollock-quality artwork using indelible markers. It’s when kids get older, and the consequences of “the worst” can be life altering, or even life threatening, that the answers become mostly hypothetical. But sometimes a parent’s answer to the question “the worst” can be loaded with unintended meaning. When I was in college attending a family reunion, this topic somehow came up. A goofy bachelor uncle deigned to ask the question and then answer it, using me as a handy “Exhibit A.” In his opinion, “the worst thing” a “grown child” like me, a college coed, could ever do would be to get knocked up. This was hastily followed by rounds of “God forbid” murmurred among the assembled relatives. Then my sainted mother pronounced that, “Of course this would never happen.” None of this surprised me a bit, including the fact that the entire discussion took place as if Exhibit A were not sitting right there. What did surprise me was her follow up to “That would never happen.” They would ship me off to the boonies. Idaho, to be exact. I would live with her sister who married a doctor. There I would gestate, away from the public eye, while we (as in “they”) planned out my future.
272 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) She had apparently been hoping for the best, while planning against “the worst.” I know she meant well, but all that my 20 year old ears could interpret was that if I ever found myself in any “worst” or similarly unthinkable situation, I was pretty much on my own. Telling my parents would be admitting that my decision-making ability up to that point was so patently flawed that I should forfeit any future decision making capability and rot in Idaho. Without meaning to say so, she was basically telling me, “I don’t want to know” if, God forbid, I ever made any bad or sad mistakes. Luckily, I never had to test my interpretation. I’ve never been to Idaho, and I hope to have that noted in my epitaph. But it stuck with me, and so I’ve made a point, at different points in their lives, of asking each of my children, at different times, ages, and stages, over the years, “What is the worst thing you could ever do?” Sometimes they’ve reacted as if it were a trick question, or with great suspicion. “What do you mean ‘the worst thing,’ Mom? I haven’t done anything wrong . . . lately.” But I press on, reassuring that there’s no wrong answer, and I’m not on an entrapment expedition. I just want to know what they think would be the worst thing they could ever do, and more particularly, how do they think their dad and I would answer the question. Murder is a popular answer. “Killing someone, and not caring that I did it.” Good answer. First degree murder devoid of remorse is hard to beat on “the worst” list. At this point, the conversation I’m attempting to have often detours into eye rolling, heavy sighs, cuticle chewing, or frantic pantomimes to get the dogs to rescue them from my orbit. But I patiently wait for serious answers. “I dunno . . . crashing the car?”
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 273 No, that’s not even a runner up. At this point, the bizarre nature of the topic gets the best of them, so I have to answer a question in turn. “I don’t know, Mom! Why do we have to talk about this in the first place? Be NORMAL.” Which gives me a new tack to pursue. Can they imagine any topic that I’m unwilling to talk about? Good, bad, gross, contagious, or unthinkable? No, in fact, they often wish there were. And so, before I let them wriggle away, I give them my crib notes to the test, just in case they can’t read between the lines. For us, the worst thing they could ever do is not trust me or their dad enough to tell us when they’re in trouble, or if they’ve made a bad or sad mistake. We won’t tell them what to do, and there are lots of things we can’t or won’t “fix” for them, but we’ll always do our best to help them figure things out. There are too many kids, teens, and young adults who “would rather die” than tell their parents something they’re convinced their parents don’t want to hear, or deal with. Then they compound the problem by trying to solve it, or ignore it, without help when they most need it. You may have a different “worst case scenario” in mind, but there are worse things than posing probing questions your kids don’t want to answer. Even if your kids are like mine who really prefer not to talk about it now, they’ll be more likely to trust you down the road, if worse comes to worst.
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House Video Showcase
April 6, 2007 OK, first allow me to list all the required disclaimers: Abortion is terrible. I abhor it. I would never advise anyone to have one. But I would never advise someone that they are headed for hell because they had one. (If they had had two, or more, that would be a tough call, but still not mine to make.) I don’t advocate abortion. With very few and very rare exceptions, I don’t think it should be performed at all after 12 weeks. (South Carolina law allows abortion clinics to provide abortion on demand up to 18 weeks.) That being said, I also believe it has to remain legal. If it were made illegal again, it would not stop abortion, but a lot of women and girls would die as a result of unsafe abortions. (If you think females seeking abortion deserve to die anyway, it’s lucky I don’t get to advise you as to your hell bound chances, either.) Oddly enough, my beliefs on this subject make me downright average as an American. Given the constitutional right, confirmed by the Supreme Court, that a woman can determine whether to seek abortion, the states are left with the duty to ensure it is a medically safe procedure. I am all for safe. How does forcing a woman to view an ultrasound of her embryo or fetus enhance her safety? Henry McMaster, our Attorney General, has already opined that requiring or forcing a woman to look at anything would be unconstitutional. And yet, the state GOP leader has cracked his whip, “requiring” the Republican rank and file in the House to lobby state senators to oppose any compromise in the bill that would not
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 275 require (force) women to see an ultrasound image of their embryo or fetus. How can forcing anyone to view anything be legal? I get it. I get where these guys are coming from. Like me, they feel abortion is a terrible thing, so they want to enact laws that reduce the incidence of this elective, legal, medical procedure. But why single out abortion? All surgeries involve serious risk. Because a patient technically doesn’t need it, elective surgery is especially risky. So why hasn’t the legislature taken steps to protect the public health against the dangers of these unnecessary surgeries? Vasectomies and tubal ligations are almost entirely elective. Voluntary sterilization ranks a close second behind The Pill in terms of contraceptive use in the U.S. (but way more effective). If men were required to view even grainy, black and white ultrasound images of a vasectomy, the procedure would disappear altogether. There are all kinds of things that are perfectly legal that many of us find immoral. It’s perfectly legal for a 14 year old unwed mother in South Carolina to take her newborn home and try to care for that baby. It’s illegal to hire a 14 year old to be a full time nanny for your newborn, or to leave a 14 year old in charge of your kids while you go out of town for two weeks. It’s illegal for a 14 year old to adopt a baby in this state. But our law makers trust the safety of a newborn infant to his 14 year old child/mother. Before they leave the maternity ward, why don’t we force 14 year old mothers to watch a video of what infants look like in the ER when they are brought in as a result of neglect and abuse? It would be really hard to force a girl to watch a terrible video like that. Especially if she saw another video seven months previously, one that made her change her mind about terminating the pregnancy. But she was still too scared to tell anyone else that she was pregnant, let alone getting prenatal care or finding a support network that would help her and her baby find a positive alternative in adoption.
276 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Is it moral to harass, traumatize or shock anyone who chooses to do something we find immoral (yet legal)? I don’t need to watch a video of someone watching one of those videos to know that it’s just plain wrong. McMaster has already said “requiring” would be unconstitutional, so why is the GOP leadership opposing a compromise version of the bill? It’s clearly not designed to pass, just to pander. This way the majority in the House can placate the hardened core of their political base, without actually doing anything to reduce the number of abortions in the state. I applaud the impetus behind this bill, but the impetus has been orphaned by common sense and prevention. Starting in 5th grade, before most students reach puberty, lawmakers could empower kids in public and private schools with information about the right to say no to sex. But they must also arm kids with information about and access to birth control in case they say yes despite all our best efforts to keep them from having sex, even after the legislature says go for it. We may find it immoral as parents, but our South Carolina lawmakers have decided it’s OK for our daughters to start having sex in the 9th grade. The age of consent is JUST 14 YEARS OLD. Question: what videos in their showcase does the House suggest 14 year old girls view before they have perfectly legal sex? Before they start enacting new and unconstitutional laws to reduce the incidence of abortion, our legislators should force themselves to fix some of the laws already on the books. Before they vote, I’d like to require them to watch a video about a bunch of guys who have their heads stuck in the oddest places. Maybe then they would rethink the wisdom of forcing anyone to do anything.
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Good for You
May 4, 2007 Ever since my first shift at my teens’ high school “school store” nine years ago, I’ve had a hard time with selling. I don’t have a problem with sales, per se, but I can’t “sell ice cubes to Eskimos.” Eskimos don’t need ice cubes. It would be a crime to convince Eskimos that they need any frozen confections. Question: What if someone convinced Eskimos, a long, long time ago, that they wouldn’t be happy unless they buy ice cubes? Lots of them. Would it be OK then to sell ice cubes to Eskimos? What if selling marked up ice cubes to Eskimos was part of a fundraiser to improve Eskimo schools? Would it be OK then? The conventional wisdom says yeah, if the ice cubes fund a cool cause. I’m still not sold. The Eskimos are my kids and their fellow high school students. The ice cubes are myriad – more names, shapes, and flavors of nasty candy and junk food than I can keep up with. There’s a new brand every time I clock in at the school store. I work the breakfast shift once a month, mostly because I get to catch up on chat with my friend Donna. You would not believe the drek kids buy for, or in lieu of, breakfast. I remind kids wearing braces that they should not be eating Gummy Bears. They buy’ em anyway. I suggest bottled water as a healthy breakfast alternative to Starbursts or Rice Krispie Treats. The kids glance at me for a second, and then order a bag of chips as a chaser.
278 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) The only items that come close to being “breakfast food” are Pop Tarts and muffins. Pop Tarts are flat, frosted junk food. The muffins are not whole grain, but processed, loaded with fat and sugar. I worry that because kids are buying this junk from someone’s mother, the sale is stamped with an implicit seal of mother approval. I have been reminded, politely, that I’m a volunteer, not a nutritionist. I have also been reminded that the store is a fundraiser, and the “kids are going to buy it anyway, so it might as well be for a good cause.” I don’t buy that. WHERE, exactly, are students going to buy junk food at school unless the adults who run the place provide them with opportunities to buy it? Instead, we should take the opportunity to serve the best interests of our captive student audience by serving them an entirely new alternative: fresh, healthy food. Based on empirical evidence from my own kitchen, if you provide fresh fruits, cheese, yogurt, milk and 100% fruit juices for snacking (and nothing else) kids will actually eat it. We’re dealing with an obesity epidemic, and yet we’re selling fat and sugar to mostly overweight kids. There is something truly fat-headed about this picture. You know that funny TV ad where a guy orders a double chin, some love handles and a side of blubber at a fast food restaurant? How is school store junk food any different or better? We’re selling low self esteem on a stick, pastel colored premature puberty, heart shaped early heart disease, sprinkled cellulite, frosted future eating disorders, and marshmallow flavored man boobs. It’s not funny when we’re talking about our kids, and today we’re talking about so many overweight kids that it’s not even funny.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 279 My own kids are skinny, but they won’t be thin forever if I don’t teach them proper eating habits now. And skinny is not an antidote to high cholesterol. Skinny allowed me to think I didn’t need to pay attention. When I quizzed my 9th grader about what she bought for lunch every day, she insisted it was “something healthy” from the school store. “Healthy” was a pb & j, a bottle of Gatorade, and a bag of candy. GROSS. The bread resembles real whole grain bread in color only. The sandwich is really a smear of fat, sugar and salt between two squares of fat, sugar and starch. Gatorade is not “good for you” unless you’ve just run five miles and your electrolytes need recharging. It’s loaded with sugar and salt. The bag of candy was the only item on her menu not masquerading as something healthy. I broke with my longstanding tradition and MADE LUNCH FOR HER. (I wish John Wooden wrote parenting books – “The worst thing you can do to someone is to do something for them that they can do for themselves.” But I made lunch anyway.) Her cronies were stunned when she brought bagged lunch. It was healthy: two hard boiled eggs, a real bagel, a Clementine, and 100% apple juice to drink. They were aghast when she said her MOM made it. Worried, Mary Pat asked, “Is your mother . . . ill?” I’m perfectly healthy, thank you, but what my kids have been eating is anything but. Whether our own kids are skinny, fat, or something in between, it’s time for us all to wake up, smell the toffee, and throw it out. Giving junk food to our kids is bad parenting. Selling it to kids, even as a fundraiser, is bad policy. If you can raise a lot of money to support any school, I say good for you. But it’s high time we devise a fundraiser that’s good for school and good for you, too.
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In Your Face(book)
October 5, 2007 I am popular. I have, like, seven friends. And counting. By the time you read this, I’ll probably have, like, eight. I really enjoy being cool with my friends. My kids are just ill about it. In parental parlance, this is called a two-fer. Once the kids reach about 12, it becomes almost too easy for parents to embarrass them. Just breathing runs a close second to the Most Embarrassing Moment otherwise known as appearing in public together. (In this situation, many teens create the illusion that they’re not related to any nearby adults by walking with extremely poor posture, arms folded, or hands deep in pockets, about four paces ahead . . . or behind. Very effective diversion.) When just about everything you do is cause for complaint, lament, heavy sighing, or eye-rolling, it’s hard to apologize continuously with any genuine enthusiasm, especially when you don’t understand what’s so terrible about singing in the car, saying “I love you” in front of their friends, or wearing high-waisted jeans (which are coming back, by the way). So when the kids formed a Greek chorus keening about my new friends as if it were some kind of tragedy, it was hard at first for me to take much notice. It was just more of the same, if you will. But they are serious, and I am seriously elated to have found new and exciting common ground with them, even if that formerly hallowed ground is shifting beneath them. Many parents assume Facebook is a parallel universe, limited to college and high school students and their recent alumni. It’s
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 281 like a big tree house floating on the internet with a “NO PARENTS ALLOWED” sign nailed to the door. Within this private club, Facebook members create and update their personal profiles, and then update them some more, at least daily, allowing members to perfect their narcissistic and low self esteem skills simultaneously. Members who are not on Facebook for the moment can post an away message so that other members have up to the minute info about what their friends are doing when they’re not obsessing about Facebook. It might say something simple like “napping,” or something more specific like “On vacation with the fam, staying in Room 233 of the Hilton in Miami.” Members can write on their friends’ “walls,” or they can “poke” members who are not their friends yet, but could be. How do I know so much about it? Same way I became so popular. Wake up parents, Facebook is not just for your kids anymore. ANYone can join Facebook, so I did. Facebook is dope, and I am down with it. Funny thing is that after all these years of preaching to our kids that my Reason for Living and I are their parents, not their friends, now we want them to be our friends (on Facebook anyway). They write on my wall, but it’s not particularly friendly stuff. (It’s some kind of reverse Facebook jive; but I catch on fast.) Here’s a sampling from my “wall” so far: “You are so lame. You have no friends.” “I cannot believe we are related.” “YOU on Facebook? How did you get away with friending me without my permission? I am blown away.” “Stop poking people. I mean it.” “Change your profile, you are an old married woman, your relationship status is not ‘Complicated.’ Stop. You are so unbelievably queer.” I admit I misjudged the whole “profile” thing. I equated compulsive updating of one’s profile with electronic navel-gazing,
282 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) or worse, like writing in your diary several times a day and publishing it. And it really is just that. I’d almost forgotten how fascinating and creative my navel could be. Facebook wants to know about my activities (currently, that would be Wookin Pa Nub) and my interests (Nub). It wants to know how old or young I am, and so that also changes along with my mood. It’s interested in my relationship status (in a relationship, looking for friendship, or random play, among other options), and it wants to know just about any news about me that I feel like feeding to all my friends. Even better, every time I change anything on my profile, my friends receive a news bulletin alerting them to check out those important changes. Unfortunately, the bulletins prompt not-so-friendly graffiti on my wall. “Enough. You are not a professional body builder and you have no piercings. Clean up your profile. I mean it.” At 15, my youngest is definitely not my friend, not even the unfriendly type like her siblings. She says being on Facebook feels like her mom came to school to have lunch with her, uninvited of course. I told her I’d be happy to join her for lunch at school, but she just shook her head and mumbled something about lameness. She refuses to become my friend because that would give me access to her profile, or worse, to her friends. They could become my friends, too, and that is apparently unthinkable. I’ve advised her to friend me instead of fighting it. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Parents are tuning in to Facebook as a way to maintain even closer touch with their kids, and be popular too. The handwriting is literally on the wall.
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October 19, 2007 I learned to water ski in high school. I was never really that good at it, just competent enough “to be cool with my friends” and have fun. A few weeks or months after the birth of our second baby, I got the chance to go water skiing. I was a guest at my sister’s lake house for a few days. My Reason for Living could not get away from work, so I was there with my toddler and our new baby. It’s a good thing she was a cute baby, because for the first 18 months of her life, she never slept more than three consecutive hours. I’ve often said that if the second baby had been the first baby, she would have been an only child. So I got to go water skiing. To prove that I could still wear a two piece bathing suit, still drop a ski and slalom, could still spin around the lake “being cool with my friends.” I got to pretend to be someone other than a tired mommy sleepwalking through days that too often grew longer than my fuse. It’s kind of like riding a bike. It had probably been 10 years since I had bobbed behind a ski boat, but I popped out of the water on my first try. It felt really good at first. For about 30 seconds, I felt 18 again. The lake was a smooth canvass, and I was painting a pretty picture of myself on it. And then I realized, “I’m going to be SO sore tomorrow.” And since I knew I was not going to be allowed to sleep through the night, I was going to be tired AND sore. If I did not act fast, I was going for the trifecta of sleep-deprived, sore, and stupid. So I let go.
284 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) My sister drove back around and asked what went wrong. “Nothing, but who am I kidding? I don’t need to be water skiing right now. Holding on was going to make me sore, so letting go feels really good.” She smiled, cut the engine off, and I swam to the boat. Over the course of twenty years since, I’ve had to remind myself to recapture that feeling more than once. It’s only natural for your children to pull away, to do their own things, and sometimes to push you away in their unwitting way of helping you appreciate their absence when they finally do go. They can’t see it yet, but from the parental perspective, life seems to move too fast, too soon. We act on impulse, trying to hold on and protect them from going over the edge, outside the wake, or beyond our reach, just as we used to yank them back from a false step into a busy street. Girls wear makeup too soon. They like boys too soon. Boys become taller than their mothers way too soon. They all stop being little too soon, and discover their parents know nothing too soon. During the middle school years, when naïve parents find out how mean other kids can be, and when good parents learn how worthless other parents can be (and get away with it), we think it can’t get any harder than this. But then the high school years come along, and it does. And just when your teenager starts to resemble a young adult, someone whose company you begin to enjoy again, they leave. Just when your college student becomes a college graduate, a disturbingly close adult relative who looks a lot like your other kids but pays his own taxes and doesn’t ask you for money anymore (or as much, anyway), he graces others with his company and goes his own way. The initial temptation is to hold on. We offer helpful directions, but perhaps it’s just a guilt trip in disguise. They have to choose their own colleges, their own paths, their own jobs, and their own Reasons for Living some day. I’ve learned the hard way that the sooner we let them make their own choices, the better they will be
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 285 at it (and the less likely they will be to blame you when they make dumb choices). After a certain point (around your kid’s fifth birthday) the role of parent begins to ebb from team owner, to coach, to ref, and so on. Hopefully, by the time kids are making their most significant choices, their parents are just the loyal fans cheering from the sidelines, preferably with really good seats. It’s not that saying good bye over and over again is not sweet sorrow. It’s always hard. Every time I’ve dropped them off at camp, at boarding school, at a not-so-nice-friend’s house overnight, at the airport for a trip to Europe, at a new school, a new college, or at a new apartment in a new city, I find it hard to end that last hug. The temptation is strong to hold on a little longer and slow life down a notch or two. But if I hold on too long, it would just make them sore, and tired, and that would be stupid. So I let go, happy to see them off on their latest adventure, and that always feels really good.
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The Loneliest Number
November 2, 2007 Our family, like our house, expands and contracts with the seasons. This fall, we’re down to just one for the first time in 21 years. Unlike our first child, who seemed to revel in our undivided attention for 22 months, this last of the Mohicans loathes the spotlight her siblings happily hogged until now. After spending her preschool years in a car seat, our fourth child was pretty much raised by her oldest sister until that same sister left for college. At that time, the oldest sister and I did our best to continue raising “the baby,” mostly by cell phone, and by having the middle daughter drive the youngest one to and fro. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, the middle sister selfishly left for college on time, and has left the youngest one in our care, before she can even drive. Without any indentured teenagers around to leverage our schedules, we find ourselves rediscovering the day to day joys of parenting. We also know what it’s like to spend quantity time, if not quality, with a teenager who openly wonders, “Why are you so interested in what I’m doing? Can’t you call somebody or something?” We’ve always made it a priority to have real family dinners together on school nights. Dinner time can stretch beyond 9:00 p.m. if it takes that long to get everyone home for the day, and “real dinner” is sometimes loosely defined as “edible and reasonably good for you.” No one could ever say that water is not good for you. A nice tall glass of ice water is refreshing after a long day (especially when someone forgets to pick up a gallon of milk
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 287 when she drove by the grocery store six times that day). Even on busy days, I manage to whip up, zap, or order something decent to complement that ice water so we can enjoy it as a family. For some reason, the youngest assumed our family dinner tradition would end now that we are three. This was one of her first lines drawn in the sand, a test that would show us all who was boss from now on. On the first school night of the three of us, I called her to dinner (a dinner I actually prepared from scratch, involving no ice water or cold cereal, mind you). She abruptly informed us over the intercom, “No. I already ate.” I looked at my Reason for Living, who gave me his best “dunno” shrug. I pressed the talk button again. “What did you eat? I’ve been cooking for an hour.” “An egg, a while ago.” My Reason for Living and I gawked at each other. Do we make this “a thing,” risking making dinner a counterproductive trial? Or do we choose our battles and let her win this one, with a lousy egg. But then we remembered what we had recently learned. We’d heard that most high school valedictorians ate REAL FAMILY DINNERS with their families on school nights, and that those same valedictorians and would-be valedictorians were also far less likely to engage in premarital sex (especially during real family dinners). We were not about to let a hardboiled egg stand between our baby daughter and the brightest future we could provide. She was going to eat real family dinner with her new really small family, by God, whether she liked it, or us, or not. So I summoned her to dinner, where she slumped into her seat and announced that she would not touch the nice pasta dinner steaming before her. Fine.
288 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) She said the same blessing she has every night since she was three herself, and our first new really small family dinner commenced. I asked my Reason for Living how his day went. He answered in polite detail, and then inquired after the quality of my day. And then I wondered aloud how our daughter’s day at school went. “Oh no,” she warned. “I’m not doing the whole ‘How was your day’ thing. I already answered that question after school. You can tell Dad what I said. I’ll sit at the table, but I already ate. (This is why we did not comment on the half of her plate that she had already cleaned by that time.) Never one to argue with a teenager, I began to translate how our daughter’s day at school had been, but somehow got it wrong. She corrected me, several times. Exasperated, she finally took over and told her father herself. Since then, we’ve enjoyed many mini-family dinners together. We even inquire about one another’s day, all three of us. We’ve had to reestablish some other family traditions that the lonely one assumed would evaporate now that she is the only one. She still has to do the dishes, and there’s still no TV on school nights (unless it’s a show she can endure on the couch next to her mom). We three are not best friends. Even joking about that prospect induces nausea in the youngest one. But no one feels like a third wheel, either. When it comes to two lame parents and one reluctant teenaged only child, that is truly something to celebrate. So for tonight’s family dinner I’m breaking out the good stuff; ice water for everyone.
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Hard Cell, Soft Cell
November 16, 2007 Our Age of Electronics allows us all to stay in close, almost constant touch with far flung friends and relatives, and most importantly, with our immediate offspring (as opposed to our eventual offspring). I don’t know how my mother and grandmothers before me raised their kids by hand, without the aid of electronics. How did my mom hear my crying in the night, without the baby monitor that amplifies every breath? How many minutes or hours did I wail in my crib, before she awoke naturally, so she could run to me and spend the rest of the night soothing me? (Probably a long, long time, which explains a lot about me today, but she can write that column sometime.) How tired she must have been, from having to walk all the way down the hall, several times in the early morning, to wake me for school when I was a narcoleptic teenager. Today, I could wake my teen up by hand, but it’s more fun to beep her several times using the intercom. But cell phones have become so ubiquitous, that shuffling from the comfort of my toasty bed over to the intercom feels as old fashioned and onerous as the ten miles my dad claimed that he walked to school every day (where he obviously became an expert on tales from the Apocrypha). I have become so electronically close to my kids, that all I have to do (all that I will do now) is roll over and dial my teen’s cell number to wake her up. If she doesn’t answer on the first try, I press redial. She has assigned a specific ring to my calls (I’m pretty sure it’s the tune from “Close to You” by the Carpenters). Unfortunately,
290 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) she sometimes confuses my specific ring tone with the option to ignore my call. That’s an unlikely scenario now. If I go ignored long enough, I stomp all the way to her room and either angrily berate her for lowering my self esteem or, far worse, attempt to snuggle in bed with her. Coaxing a teen into wakefulness after their system has been marinated in melatonin is no easy task. It’s best done gently. Doing this by cell phone is a good example of Soft Cell. Most mornings, we engage in a brief, loving, and productive conversation that goes something like this: “You AWAKE yet?!! I won’t write an excuse note if you’re late you know, and your dogs are starving. Get vertical.” “Mmmmph. Go way.” Parenting by cell phone is supposed to make a busy life easier, but in the wrong kid’s hands, it can turn a parent’s average day into something as satisfying as a busy signal. So just like I used to occasionally employ “tough love” when I was raising them by hand instead of “hands free” I now use some Hard Cell lest they abuse the Soft Cell. Hard Cell is text messaging. For at least one of my offspring, that means that she’s required to communicate with me primarily by text message. (Assuming that you’re not horrified by someone who admits to parenting by cell phone, if you’re not texting your kids yet, you’re really missing something.) She’s allowed to call me (Soft Cell) only if her hair is on fire. Any emergency shy of that is relegated to Hard Cell. Before I instituted this rule (which she still most often honors in the breach), Soft Cell conversations with her were an electronic stream of consciousness exercise that went something like this: “Hello?” “So, Mom, remember that girl named Trudy, but not the one that I’ve actually introduced you to, but the other Trudy that I’ve only told you about but it’s kind of confusing since there are two girls named Trudy who look nothing alike – well, kinda, actually,
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 291 because they’re both blonde, but one is like, heavier, no that’s mean, she’s more like just big boned, but anyway, remember --- “ “Hello! I’m in a meeting. What’s the problem?” “Well if you’d stop interrupting me and let me explain – “ “I’m with a client. You have no emergency. We’ll talk later. Loveyoubye.” Hard Cell helps me train this verbose child in the art of brevity. Even the most adept thumbs will cut to the chase rather than texting the entire Byzantine saga of the two Trudys (no, actually, just one Trudy, but there is another bigger boned girl with the same name). Now if she has a lapse in judgment and calls me when it’s really smarter to wait, our conversation has improved: “Hello? What’s wrong?” “You’re ignoring my text messages, Mom.” “I’m not ignoring you; I’m with a client. We’ll talk later.” “OK, but let me tell you just one quick thing.” “What’s wrong?” “Remember that girl named Trudy, but not the one that I’ve actually introduced you to, but the other Trudy that I’ve only told you but – “ “Send me a text. Loveyoubye.” In my defense, my kids have their own tone on my phone, so when they do call, at least daily, I always answer, even when I have a sneaking suspicion that one particular child is calling despite an appalling lack of emergency in her life. (Many annoyed clients can attest to this fact.) For the most part, our conversations are cogent, but cute. We get the point across the airwaves to each other, and we never forget the most important part. Loveyoubye.
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December 14, 2007 One of my daughters, the bossy one, has announced that, for Christmas, she is giving me the opportunity to pay for us to “share” a personal trainer for several weeks in 2008. Unfortunately, this is not akin to the way we sometimes “share” new clothes, the ones she convinces me to buy “for us to share,” and then I never see the garment again. This time she seriously wants to share, and has offered several enticing reasons why I should say yes to a personal trainer: 1. We would we spending an hour or two a week together, and I would otherwise “never” see her. 2. She’s doing me a favor because I really need to start working out with weights but I am “too lame” to make myself do it, or know how to do it properly even if I did have the initiative. 3. I have no choice, because “tennis doesn’t count,” and if I don’t start working out soon I’m going to become “even more pathetic.” 4. It will be fun, or at least funny, to her anyway. It will not be fun. It’s not like I’ve never worked out before. I have a weighty history in the gym. In college, a couple of my sorority sisters convinced me to fulfill my Physical Education requirement by taking Weight Training with them. The rest of our classmates were members of the football team. I learned quite a few things in that class. 1. Lifting weights makes me really, barely-can-walk-upright sore. 2. I remain sore as long as I am routinely lifting weights.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 293 3. When bench pressing weights, the bar with no weights on it at all weighs about 40 pounds. 4. After several weeks of trying, I passed the course by bench pressing that bar. That course was enough weight lifting to last about, oh…. 18 years. Then one year my Reason for Living gave me the gift of 12 weeks with a personal trainer. The first day went fine. I met my trainer, and he told me to warm up on the treadmill for a few minutes before we were to begin “our stretching.” While I walked a brisk 2.5 miles per hour, I watched other veterans ahead of me get stretched. That’s not bad grammar; their trainer stretched them. It was like watching someone try to fold someone else, attempting it from several different angles. In one particularly interesting stretch, the client lies on his back, and the trainer kneels beside him, facing his client. The trainer’s knees are about even with client’s hips. Then the trainer takes the poor guy’s outside leg and puts his shoulder under the client’s knee. Sound good? It gets even better. Then the trainer uses his shoulder to press the client’s knee all the way up to the client’s own shoulder. The only thing worse than trying not to look at someone ten feet away who’s folded into that position is imagining yourself in that same position within the next ten minutes. Etiquette requires that clients remain silent, looking anywhere except directly at their trainer. Clients pretend the trainer isn’t there (like those black hooded stagehands flitting around in plain sight in Kabuki theater) allowing clients to believe that they’re casually stretching themselves into abominations of nature. Soreness luckily does not set in until after the first day of stretching and lifting. So my first taste of being stretched like that was not so bad (but then again, I give birth without anesthesia once, so everything is relative). The second time around didn’t go so well. I was insanely sore from the first session. My family was already sick of my color
294 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) commentary on how miserably painful the muscles I did not know or need were now. I crawled onto the treadmill to warm up. Not so bad. When I was summoned to the stretching mat, all that lactic acid scorching my atrophied fibers had evaporated any drop of etiquette left in me. My poor trainer began stretching me, and I groaned. He moved me into a different position, and I moaned. Loudly. I think I may have called on Jesus’ assistance a couple of times. Then he flipped me on my back, tossed my leg over his shoulder, and used his shoulder to introduce my knee cap to my shoulder. I groaned again. Outside observers may describe it as more like a scream. He very nicely hesitated, and asked whether he was hurting me, whether he should stop, whether he should go further. His nose was about six inches from mine. I looked him right in the nostrils and said something about having a flashback to a backseat somewhere. And he was suddenly gone. I had not only forgotten to pretend he wasn’t there; I’d crossed the line by commenting on just how there he really was. And that made him sore. I’d never been dumped by a personal trainer, so I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but it was just a girl. All future appointments had to be with the one female trainer on staff. She was fine, even though she made me just as sore, and my groaning didn’t faze her one bit. My bossy daughter is undaunted by my checkered career in weights; she insists we will be lifting together, but she’s found a place where I have to stretch myself to my own limits. There is only so much pain she is willing to allow me to share with others. Stay tuned.
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Precious Time with Ben
January 11, 2008 Fellow soccer parents remember with a smile how enthusiastic mom Gaye Sprague would spring from her seat in the stands to cheer, “Go Precious!!” to her son Ben, who loomed large on the field, and in life. It has been almost exactly a month since Ben Sprague passed on at the tender age of 18, happily poised at the threshold of all the possibilities in a life that he literally loved and embraced through everyone he touched. Soccer was not Ben’s first love in sports; football was (Clemson and Greenville High football, but not necessarily in that order). He loved all team sports, and all kinds of teams, no matter what his role on that team was. Whether it was painting up and cheering from the stands as the leader of the Raider Rowdies, pitching in on senior high mission trips, giving a real GHS football jersey to an adoring eight year old fan after a day camp for kids, dressing up as a former principal to rally the troops during Spirit Week, following in his brother’s footsteps as a Sigma Nu pledge at Clemson, or reaching out with sincere, happy bear hugs by way of greeting, Ben was a consummate team player. As former soccer teammate and friend Mac Bruce told the Sprague family, “The guys who didn’t spend as much time with Ben on the bench really missed out on a good time.” Joel and Gaye Sprague, and their older son, Jay, 21, opened their home and their hearts for a few hours recently, in order to share with and thank the community at large for the gift they have received since losing Ben on December 9th, and that is the gift of family, community, and love in action.
296 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) As Joel recalls, “We were so scrambled, we hardly knew what to do from one minute to the next. But everyone around us knew what to do, and they just did it for us. Whatever they could do, they did it, because they loved Ben, because Ben had touched them somehow along the way.” Durant Ashmore and his crew just showed up and cleaned up the Spragues’ yard. Susan McDaniel stepped in and paid the payroll taxes for Gaye’s business. Betty Freeman, age 84, showed up at 7:15 one morning, dressed to the nines, bearing a home cooked breakfast spread. Mary Ellen Kiser did the ironing. Beverly Duncan and Amy Grace folded their laundry (and we all agreed Amy probably doesn’t even fold her own laundry :>). Anne Brown and Anna Hill arranged for the visitation in the park for young people behind the Sprague home following the funeral. Jay and Marcella Young created a DVD of Ben’s life that was shown at the receiving. Ruth Mansure stitched two amazing comforters, made from Ben’s favorite t-shirts and jerseys. A group of Ben’s girl friends gave Gaye a silver locket containing Ben’s photo and engraved with “Precious.” Sam Kleckley put up the lights on the Christmas tree. Gaye’s family in Anderson planned the graveside service, and Pam Evans completed the Spragues’ Christmas card mailing. The pastors, staff, and members of Westminster Presbyterian Church conducted a memorial service that was indeed a celebration. Jeff Dezen spoke for the Sprague family and interacted with the media with grace and passion. Close friends like Mollie Hardaway and Zack Savitz sensed that Jay didn’t need conversation, or philosophical discussion, he needed someone to just be there, and so they were just there, for Jay. There are more examples of these ordinary acts of extraordinary kindness than the Sprague family can enumerate, but no one came forward to be counted or thanked, they just came. Sigma Nu brothers came. Other Clemson friends came. The Greenville High family came. Work and church friends came. The Burnside boys and their dad came, driving all the way from the Bronx for the funeral, and then got up at 5:00 a.m. the next day to
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 297 drive home. Ian and Eli Burnside made friends with Jay and “Big Ben” at Augusta Circle elementary when they lived here more than ten years ago, but their friendship has literally gone the distance. People called, and others took turns answering the constantly ringing phone in the Sprague home. Friends and complete strangers wrote. They showed up with baskets of food or to do whatever it is they could do. As Jay says, “I did not realize until the funeral just how many friends Ben has, across all kinds of lines. There were no dividing lines for Ben. His friends were young, old, black, white, male, female, rich, poor. He loved everybody, and he reached beyond the lines to make everybody feel loved. It is so hard to describe, but love is not something you can really use words to express or define. But it is having people around you who know what it is that you need, and they just do it for you.” Joel, who conducts services as First Reader at Greenville’s Christian Science Church, is the self-appointed over-analyzer of all things in the family, and the first to note that the spontaneous, consistent, joyous outpouring of support his family has received from the moment they lost Ben defies analysis. Joel says, “I was sitting out on the deck with Gaye’s sister Lee, and out of the blue she asked me, ‘What do you think heaven is?’ I have had some great theological ideas and thoughts about the subject over the years, but I looked up and into the house, the buzz of activity going on inside. There were so many people in there just doing for us, doing whatever needed to be done, and having a wonderful time. We all know one another’s children in this community. We all help raise one another’s kids in one way or another, and we all – parents, friend, teachers – genuinely love one another’s children. I said to Lee, ‘If there is such a thing as heaven on earth, it’s going on right inside there.’“ Ben had the gift of gab, and a wit that made sure people always knew when he was in the room, but he had a serious side, too. At his final awards day at Greenville High, he was the focus of
298 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) whoops and hollers as he accepted the award for perfect attendance since the first day of first grade. His first report card from Clemson came in at an impressive 3.3. He worked hard, he played hard, and he loved well and widely. The Spragues feel blessed, and feel very strongly that “the family of community is very much alive in Greenville.” How they will go forward together, as a family, is something that came to Gaye just recently. “I have this vision of being in line with Joel, and Jay, and Ben, to get into the Peach Bowl. We’re all in line together, only Ben has gone ahead, he’s way ahead of us in line. I know that when I catch up to him some day, he’ll say, ‘It’s about time, I’ve been waiting for you, Mom.’ So we’re not leaving Ben behind, we’re working our way toward him, to catch up to him in line. We can never pay back all the kindness that people have shown us, we can only pay it forward, with joy.”
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I Object, Too
June 5, 2008 When my dad visited me at college it was not on official parents’ weekends. He preferred to attend a class or two on a regular day, to see how academe had changed since he earned his degree in 1940. We attended Modern American history, a large lecture class, otherwise known as Greatest Hits of the 20th Century. Dad was born in 1917, so the class pretty much covered his cognitive life span. It was taught by Professor Graebner, who was Dad’s contemporary. That day, Graebner lectured on FDR’s “New Deal” legislative attempts to turn the economy around during the Depression. During the lecture, Dad did a lot of fidgeting and harrumphing. But he was a tall man who never did well in theater seating, and as his sinuses were a consistent source of background noise during my childhood, I didn’t give it much thought. But when Graebner concluded and the lights went up, Dad let loose. “That man is a goddam Republican,” he fumed. “That’s not the way it happened at all.” I was stunned. Dad was born and bred in Cook County, Illinois, where yellow dogs run in large PACs. I grew up thinking “goddamrepublican” was one word (and so did Dad, until Bill Clinton changed his mind). Dad’s language didn’t faze me, but his conclusion did. How did he know? How could anyone divine a professor’s politics?
300 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Professor Graebner was regarded as a history god, his word was gospel, and here was my Dad, blaspheming. How mortifying. He and Graebner shared roughly the same age, economic, social, and educational backgrounds, so I just assumed they would see everything the same way. Dad instantly recognized Graebner’s interpretation of the events they’d both experienced as grounded in a radically polar political view. Dad did not object to Graebner’s politics. Some of Dad’s best friends were goddamrepublicans, and all kinds of debate, including political, was commonplace at our dinner table. What Dad objected to was Graebner basting modern American history in his own political juices and then serving it up as “truth” for me to lap up. About 30 years later, my daughter sat in a similar classroom, attending a guest lecture by the Honorable William Wilkins, former chief judge of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Wilkins’ topic was the death penalty. He presented a comprehensive history of the death penalty in common law, as well as examples of arguments for and against it as a deterrent and as punishment. Judge Wilkins must be a natural teacher, because our daughter enjoyed the lecture enough to mention it to us. Most importantly, after he concluded his remarks, she had no idea what his personal position on the death penalty might be. He challenged the students to make up their own minds. Imagine that. And it happened at Furman University, too. To encourage thought, without telling students what to think; to encourage thoughtfulness by showing respect for opposing viewpoints; to encourage shaking up old shibboleths (including those we hold dear) -- that is the stuff that creates the aura glowing around hallowed professors among the gods of their respective expertise, whether it is in political science, chemistry, or religion. Unless a teacher or professor is hired because they view the world through the confines of a specific prism, (Bob Jones
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 301 University is a handy example) it is inappropriate and undermining to the very essence of education for a professor to knowingly and purposely inject anything personal into their curriculum. Dad had always told me the truth, but his version of events was considerably different from Graebner’s. So I had to make up my own mind about modern American history then, and ever since. Dad did not object to that at all. I’ve made up my mind, and changed it, a few times since college, personally, religiously, and politically, often debating those issues with Dad. I may change again. Someone may inspire me, but no one can make me. Questioning or berating other people or their ideas while smugly holding fast to our own “principles” is unprincipled. It’s like someone who thinks he has a great sense of humor, yet never pokes fun at himself. His laughter rings hollow, with a sharp tone. I object to rudeness. I object to turning an apolitical college graduation into an LTAM (Let’s Talk About ME) event. I object to people who mistake their personal politics, gender, sexuality, religion, or ethnicity for an issue instead of a backdrop. I’m all for coolness though. People who confuse personality with the Presidency should learn to keep their cool. Regardless of how I may feel about Bill Clinton, or George Bush, or whomever our next President turns out to be, when your child’s graduation includes an address from the President of the United States, that is just plain cool. Graebner and Dad were both consummate gentlemen, so I think they would have agreed on that.
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We Love You, Daughter
June 13, 2008 May in some ways is the cruelest month for mothers. May is the “end of the year” for a lot of things, most importantly school, and the end is always celebrated, sometimes ad nauseum, with various festivities. It’s easy to reach overload early just with volunteer opportunities, whether it’s your kid’s class party, field day, or teacher appreciation. Not to mention all the ceremonies to attend: from the “grand march” at prom (which I’m proud to say I’ve never attended), to awards ceremonies, to the final PTA lunch/ceremony where the outgoing president is always delirious with excitement to pass the gavel, and the new president takes on a deer in the headlights look that lasts about, oh, 12 months. And then there are also the quasi-ceremonial team dinners or luncheons to arrange, and attend. Whether it’s your kid’s peewee team or varsity team, by the end of May, moms’ hands are chapped from all that clapping. And what May would be complete without that Hallmark holiday and retail stimulus otherwise known as Mother’s Day. The consensus among my cronies seems to be that this should be renamed Mothers In Law Day, because most of us celebrate “our special day” either at our mother in law’s home, or in our own home cooking for everyone else, including our husband’s mother. (I am luckily an infamously lousy cook.) This is because, as husbands remind us every May, that “you are not my mother.” This is also why Father’s Day is generally spent on the lake, the golf course, the couch, or the hammock. Fathers everywhere, my own and my children’s included, don’t fall for Hallmark holidays as easily as the fairer sex.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 303 But I digress. And then there are the birthdays. And all those birthday parties. For some reason, children, like the lambs that they are, like to be born in the spring, and mine are no exception. More clapping, all genuine, still exhausting, and expensive. And then of course, there’s graduation, the Big Daddy of May celebrations, often the most fraught with emotion; birthdays and Mothers Day pale by comparison. College graduation is a harbinger for your child’s future, but a bittersweet end to the most amazing era in parents’ lives. We are mere spectators at graduation, and really forever after. For graduation, our daughter’s sorority encouraged parents to do a DVD about their graduate, accompanied by something written which is read aloud while the DVD is played for the group. My Reason for Living, a fully anointed, self-taught nerd, took on the DVD part (and if the lawyering thing does not work out for him, he could have a cool second career). I did the written part, but was admonished by other daughters not to “do something lame like just sending in an old column.” So I wrote something new that hopefully captures how we feel at every graduation, but especially college (two down, two to go). Ever the one to seize on two-fer opportunities, perhaps some of the thoughts ring true with you, too. But it all boils down to . . . We Love You, Daughter When you were tiny, we cradled you. When you cried, we comforted you. When you tried to climb out of our arms like a tree frog, we held you tight. When you were scared, Daddy slept on the floor to protect you.
304 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) When you played, we smiled. When you hurt yourself, we kissed your poor-poor. When you were cute, we “ate you up.” When you wanted to know, we read to you. When you were naughty, we put you in the no-fun chair. When you were sorry, we forgave you. When you were not sorry, we forgave you anyway. When you were helpful with your little sisters, we were grateful. When you went to camp, we wrote to you, we missed you. When you put on plays in the living room, we were your audience. When you worried that we “leaved you,” we were always right there. When you were lost, we found you. When you sang, we grabbed a bucket for you to carry a tune in. When you danced, we smiled. When you danced on stage, we clapped (always the first to clap). When you danced on the field, we videotaped. When you talk, we listen.
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When you worry, we soothe. When you are sad, we are too. When you work hard, we smile. When you are successful, we swell with pride. When you are funny, we laugh. When you wakeboard, we smile. When you snowboard, we freeze. When you are near, we are warm. When you lose your way, we map out options. When you find your way, we will happily meet you there. When you four are all together, we glow. When you are bossy, we smile (and obey…). When it’s time for you to go, you will always find us here. When you find “the one” for you, we will love him, too. When you have a tiny one of your own, we will get to do a new version of all this, and more, all over again. Because that is what we mean when we say . . . We love you, Daughter.
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Often Wrong, Never in Doubt
January 22, 2009 When your youngest is 16, and more or less the only one left at home, “Life in the Slow Lane” isn’t as fitting as it once was. I’m still free to opine on issues relating to family and my Reason for Living, but now that my interaction with “the baby” is limited to texting, voice mails, eye rolling, and her running commentary on my general lameness, I have more time to contemplate other things. My youngest wants me to devote more time to things other than her academic and moral development, but I’m not turning in my Mom Card any time soon. Still, “Often Wrong, Never in Doubt” is a far better fit now. It’s pretty much our family motto, but we’re open to licensing it out to various political parties and churches. I’ve tried to have “Often Wrong, Never in Doubt” translated into Latin for our family crest, but the ancient Romans weren’t into irony so much, at least not on paper, so it doesn’t translate literally. Which makes me wonder . . . if biblical authors, like Saint Paul and those fun-loving Ephesians for example, were actually being ironic, much more of the Bible may have been lost in translation than we can imagine. That could mean that I’m not supposed to feel bad about not being submissive to My Reason for Living after all. But I digress. Doubt is ironically underrated, because it makes the world go round. Without doubt, we’d have a king instead of a new President. Without doubt, Martin Luther would not have reformed anything more significant than his sock drawer, and we’d be reselling indulgences on EBay. Without doubt, there
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 307 would be no schools of journalism, just reams of press releases. Without doubt, all marriages would be arranged (but then we’d have something legit to blame our parents for). Without doubt, we’d have no recessions, no booms, just one perpetual Ponzii scheme. Without doubt, we would have no court system, only ceremonial coin tosses. Which reminds me … there’s one court here that often amounts to that very thing, but at least it’s an equal opportunity employer. If you’re over 21, have a high school diploma or a GED, you too can be appointed as a judge in magistrates court. You’d decide disputes up to $7500, and you don’t have to know bupkus about state law. You don’t even have to be a lawyer. If there’s a local opening, and you’re on a state senator’s Nice List, you could be lucky enough to be appointed by our Governor to a four year term earning way more than you’d otherwise ever get with a GED. And every year, you automatically get a raise. (Magistrate salaries are not posted on JournalWatchDog.com, but no doubt they will be soon.) Thinking about applying? No need to worry that our reformminded Governor has magistrate court in his sites now that the lines at DMV are so short. There’s a 13-member advisory committee made up of representatives from education, law enforcement, plaintiff attorneys, defense lawyers, the solicitor’s association, USC law school, the state’s House and Senate judiciary committees, and other folks promoting something more than kangaroo litigation. This advisory group makes an annual recommendation to the Supreme Court requiring eligibility, certification, and continuing education requirements for magistrates. They’ve been getting together for years… with no change in sight. There’s certainly no talk of requiring magistrates to have a law degree or something off the wall like that. This advisory committee needs a Doubting Thomas on it. (I’m a girl, but I’m available.) As long as I keeps my sarcasm in check, it
308 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) could translate to improvements in our magistrate courts that could reach biblical proportions. But I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon, so apply now. In this economy, amazing opportunities like this shouldn’t remain such a well kept secret.
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An Eye for Disaster
February 26, 2009 The brighter side of this mushy economy is the opportunity for people to retool, change careers, and expand their professional horizons. People are going back to tech schools and colleges to become proficient in a completely different field, and applications to professional schools are also way up. All well and good. And then there are people who seek to do expand the scope of their work and income, but without the added cost or hassle of going back to school, getting relevant training, or becoming professionally certified in their new field. Impossible, you say? All you need is a little boost from your pals in government. If this were possible, the checkout girl in aisle three could audit your books without mastering accounting. Dental hygienists could do your root canal without wasting time or money in dental school. If they screw up, there are still people around dumb enough to be real CPAs and dentists who could clean up their messes. Optimists regard those who aspire to do more and make more as visionaries, entrepreneurs. Cynics view people who want to do more and make more -- without any additional training or qualifications -- as delusional, or worse. Lately, I simply see them as optometrists. But not ALL optometrists. Optometrists perform cost-saving services to vision patients by providing optical and contact lens management. Ophthalmologists refer their patients to optometrists for contact
310 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) lenses and glasses all the time. Their work is complementary, much the same as lawyers work with paralegals. But a very vocal minority (about 20%) of optometrists want the right to do the same things that medical eye doctors do – without the same medical training. That way they can make more money. J. Roland Smith, state representative from Aiken, wants to see the optometrist dream become a reality. Smith’s bill, H-3303, would allow optometrists to: Perform laser eye surgery. Perform complicated incisions and scalpel surgeries. Inject around the eyes. Diagnose and treat with serious drugs and narcotics any eye diseases as authorized by State Board of Optometry Prescribe drugs as determined solely by the prescribing optometrist, without any oversight from or collaboration with Medical Doctors (MDs) including ophthalmologists. Remove all patient safeguards in mandating referrals and oversight by medical doctors. In plain English, optometrists would get to prescribe drugs, and stick sharp things IN YOUR EYES without a real doctor, or a board of real doctors, watching over them, or watching out for you. Your dog’s veterinarian has more surgical training and expertise than your optometrist. Perhaps you should be having your cataracts removed while Fifi gets spayed – but that’s a different lobby. The optometrist lobby would have a lot of hapless patients sauntering into their offices, assuming that a real medical doctor was sticking things in their eyeballs. Funny thing is, THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF REAL DOCTORS. Why Representative Smith is suddenly myopic about the principle of rewarding those who work hard AND play by the rules is an unanswered question. Other unanswered questions:
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 311 Why consider a bill that was defeated in Mississippi, and is on life support in West Virginia? Why has W.R. Smith not volunteered to be their Beta Patient? How ‘bout the other FORTY endorsing legislators? If they’re too smart to let them near their eye balls, why should it be OK for the rest of us? How much money has the Optometry Association donated to J. Roland Smith’s campaign coffers? (They threw him a heckuva BBQ, but that’s just the tip of the scalpel, as it were.) Optometrists, podiatrists, chiropractors, and Ph. D’s all wear the honorary title of doctor, and they’re all good people . . . as long as they don’t have the right to poke you in the eye. But I’m afraid J. Roland Smith can’t see that this bill is no better than a sharp stick in the eye. Make that your eye (or he will).
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Many Happy Returns of the Barbie
March 26, 2009 Unless you’ve been stuck in Ken’s man cave, you already know that Barbie celebrates her 50th birthday this month. She’s only sent out a bazillion press releases, which is consistent with a tall, vapid, enhanced blonde who’s all about materialism and, well, herself. Other than the March part, this milestone is one of the few things I share with the icon I’ve never personally owned or purchased. Good parenting is a process. First, you sort out the things your parents did and said that you’d like to emulate. Then you have to make a conscious effort to avoid mimicking their other not-sogreat moves. Not buying Barbie is one of my mother’s dictates I chose to emulate. Mom never let me have a Barbie, because, as she said. “It will just make you want things you’ll never have.” I had several Francie dolls, who wore a respectable AA cup, and she had no boyfriend dolls I was aware of. I also had a Tootie, a Todd, and a Skipper doll. In the spirit of coveting, Skipper almost did me in. I can’t remember the sanitized name she had, but around the same time that I was supposed to be going through it, Mattel produced Pubescent Skipper. That smug doll actually grew breasts when you rotated her arm. I may still be pictured in orthopedics textbooks, a black rectangle covering my eyes. It’s my monument to being the first
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 313 non-athletic 13 year old candidate for rotator cuff surgery in North America. But I digress. My motivations for eschewing Barbie for my girls were not exactly extra-virgin. I’d like to say I never bought them one because I never bought into the whole Barbie thing. But I have to admit I never bought my girls a Barbie because, well, no one ever bought one for me. So why should they be so lucky? If, on principle, I had nobly refused to allow my daughters to play with Barbie, I would have donated every Barbie they ever unwrapped to underprivileged girls forced to worship lesser, meaningless gods. But I didn’t. If I had, I would have donated battalions of Barbies. But I would have also ended up offending several friends, sisters, sisters-in-law and a mother-in-law whose only sin would have been giving my girls something all the other little girls had. And anyone who knows me knows that I would never sacrifice principle on the altar of risk to offense to anyone. Ahem. My first daughter was three when she got her first Barbie. Malibu Barbie was fresh from the tanning bed, with tan lines. (The updated Malibu Melanoma Barbie comes with a quarterly appointment with Dermatologist Barbie.) My son, then five, grabbed Malibu and asked several mothers at the party for help with removing her top. The moms pretended deafness rather than undo the frustrating, life-like snap. My friend Deb rose to the challenge, freeing Malibu for her first manual breast exam. My son ran his thumb over Barbie’s rack, and declared, “They’re not even soft!” He tossed Barbie over his shoulder, in pursuit of other, real pleasures. Ah, therein lies the rub, so to speak. I guess that’s what Mom was trying to tell me, but like puberty, that epiphany came a bit late.
314 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) Today, comparing a woman to a “human Barbie doll” is not a compliment, but a commentary on the ubiquity of Botox, liposuction, and silicone over authentic beauty. And yet . . . Ken still loves Barbie. They’ve never been sullied by scandal. They’re a peculiar but enduring monument to commitment. More power to them, as long as we don’t give them more power over us. I have more lines now than Barbie, but unlike her apostles, my face still moves when I’m moved. And I’m still happy about birthdays, even when they herald the end of youth. Happy 50th, doll.
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Getting Out of High School
April 30, 2009 I’ve always wanted to take South Carolina’s high school exit exam, to see if I could get out of high school, without ever attending it here. I can’t (take it). It doesn’t matter if you reach senior year with all the required credits and a deposit on your cap and gown. If you don’t pass that test, you don’t graduate, period. The test is administered in the 10th grade. My best guess is that gives you more chances to make the grade. But if you pass on your first try, junior and senior year are kind of begging the question, aren’t they? No one knows what’s on the test. It’s literally top secret. The tests, before and after they are administered, are under lock and key, and any teacher or administrator who peeks could lose their job. It’s that serious. Because 10th graders take the test, the secret of its contents remains completely safe. The only thing recently tested 10th graders will confirm for an inquisitive volunteer monitor is that the questions are boring, lame, or “cinchy.” Based on glimpses of ancient tests printed on vellum, a friendly administrator confirmed to me what’s not on the test. None of the questions test the students on skills or knowledge necessary for navigating the real world. The state’s department of education composes the exit exam, and DOE is evidently not concerned whether high school graduates are equipped to manage themselves, or money, once they’re set free.
316 Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) So I have a few suggested questions to include in future tests: What is a budget, and how do you plan one? What percent of your monthly income should you apply toward rent? When walking toward someone on a sidewalk or down a hallway, which side should you walk on? What is a mortgage? What is a credit score? Name three ways to ruin it. What is the best time to show up for a job interview? For work? Name the three most effective methods of preventing pregnancy. On average, what does it cost to raise a child to the age of 18? What is the food pyramid, and which food group enjoys its own “all you can eat” category? Using the sample check register, checking statement; and cancelled checks provided, balance this check book. What does BMI stand for, and how is it calculated? Define insurance. Define interest on a loan. What makes junk food junky? What does “each sold separately” mean? What does “NO” mean? Why don’t you know most of this stuff? There are courses that teach high school students these things, and more. Unfortunately, they are not required courses. They have to take keyboarding, but they don’t need to know how to balance a check book. I don’t care where your child is in school, everyone should be required to take Mr. Bouton’s Economics class at Greenville High. I wish all my kids had taken it. It’s not “guns and butter,” but real world budget planning. The budget includes rent, buying a car, car insurance, clothing, furniture, and food (which includes a monthly food menu). They learn the basics of investing, using funny money, in the real stock market.
Life In The Slow Lane (vol. II) 317 Even if they “already have” clothing, food, and cars, students have to yank the silver spoons out of their mouths and learn the mechanics of living a real life anyway. It’s not the school’s job to raise my children. But too often, fussing at (some of) my offspring about managing money wisely is like yelling at a cat. But grading them on the task is a gamechanger, and with this course work, truly life changing. It’s important stuff they should all know. The courses are available, and the teachers are ready to teach the children well, so why doesn’t the Department of Education make real life know-how at least as mandatory as keyboarding? The question tests the limits of logic, but that’s not a required course either.
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End – VOLUME II
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