Baby Blue

Baby BlueWhen I called our insurance company to put our brand new, baby blue car on the policy, the agent asked, “How many miles are you planning to put on it?”

“None,” I confessed. “I’m afraid to drive it.”

Our old car was riddled with dents and scratches. Naturally, I blamed our daughters, who’d learned to drive on it.

Would our pristine Baby Blue suffer the same fate?

“We won’t let them touch this one!” I’d vowed to my husband.

In all honesty, though, I was responsible for at least half the damage to our old car. I had even dented its front left fender while pulling into the garage the very first day we drove it home from the dealer.

The fact that our new baby was all-electric intensified my fears. The car was either eerily quiet or emitting weird beeps. We couldn’t tell if the engine was on or off, or how to work the lights and windshield wipers. And it was so tiny!

My husband and I felt just like we did as new parents coming home from the hospital with our perfect infant. Was she still breathing? What did those strange noises mean? How badly would we mess her up?

Still, there’s no going back. Just as kids can’t remain in a bubble, cars can’t stay in garages forever. Baby Blue just turned a year old, with close to 8,000 miles on it. Our daughters, now in their twenties, have traveled around the world a time or two. So far, everyone’s made it through pretty much unscathed. There’s a ding in the car’s windshield, but I’m happy to report it happened on my husband’s watch. As for the dings our daughters have taken on, it’s anyone’s guess how they got there.

In either case, life bangs you up a bit, but hopefully doesn’t flatten you.

And if anything big goes wrong with Baby Blue–well, that’s what insurance is for!

Too bad it doesn’t cover raising kids!

*

That “first ding” fear with cars or kids?

Advice

adviceMy mother dispensed some puzzling advice: “Don’t grow old,” she was fond of saying.

This always brought me up short.  It seemed hard to imagine that the woman who thought I was God’s gift to the universe was advocating my early death.

Less morbid but equally impossible was another one of my mother’s favorite sayings: “Don’t be like me!”

This is like asking a duckling not to imprint on the first living creature it sees. For better or for worse, we women bear the stamp of our mothers.

My advice to my own daughters is more pragmatic:

  • Pay off your credit cards on time and in full every month.
  • If you want to save money, never order alcohol at a restaurant.
  • The secret to delicious cakes, cookies, and brownies is to always under bake them.

What I’m really saying to my daughters, of course, is DO be like me—sober, responsible, with no greater vice than a sweet tooth. That way, assuming your sugar consumption is under control, you’ll be sure to grow old, with a measure of financial security to boot!

My daughters, now in their mid-twenties, roll their eyes at my advice. They find it hilarious that I’ve never had a hangover.

“Have you ever had ANY fun?” they ask.

“I have fun!” I protest. “I hike, go to the movies, listen to NPR . . . “

I’m beginning to see how I sound just as impossible to my daughters as my mother sounded to me. The difference is that she tried to warn me away from the trap of similarity, while I’m inviting them in.

I’ve attempted to heed my mother’s advice not to be like her, determined to escape the black hole of despair she sometimes fell into. Taking to her bed in the middle of the day, my mother tried to fill that void with cigarettes and Agatha Christie novels and Hostess cupcakes. I do not smoke. I do not read mysteries. I never nap. The empty calories I consume come from artisanal breads and flourless chocolate cakes, not the bologna sandwiches and stale baked goods my mother favored.

Still, she pops up within me, having seeped into my pores despite my best efforts. I, too, embarrass my children by chatting up the grocery store clerks in the check-out line or fulminating against those with different political views. Unlike my mother, however, I never hurl ashtrays at the TV screen when politicians I loathe appear. But that’s only because I don’t smoke.

My mother followed her own advice—she did not grow old.  Done in by three packs a day and all those Hostess cupcakes, she barely squeaked past 70. I hope to defy her particular counsel about aging. But I’ve long stopped fighting the fear of becoming her. Now that my mother is gone, I wish I was more like her. For one thing, I realize there’s a whole genre of detective fiction I’ve missed! And how I’d love to hurl invective if not ashtrays right along beside her at various presidential candidates. I’d give anything to tell my mother how glad I am she passed on to me her politics, her humor, her intelligence, her passion for social justice, and her deep, deep love for her children.

My daughters still fear turning into me, just as I once feared turning into my mother. They can’t imagine a worse fate than the dull, safe life I have mapped out for myself and seek to impose on them. They don’t yet know that such a life might be worth emulating.

Since I never co-signed for my daughters’ credit cards, I do not know if they are now paying exorbitant interest and late fees to banks, or how many expensive cocktail bars show up on their statements.

But already they make a mean chocolate cake. I guess there’s hope that they’ve been listening after all.

*

What’s the best and worst advice your mother gave you and/or that you’ve given your kids?

 

 

 

Upstairs, Downstairs

StairsOne of the advantages of living in a five-story house is that you don’t need a Fitbit to make sure you’re getting in your 10,000 steps a day. We’ve stayed pretty spry just taking out the trash, hauling in the groceries, and running up and downstairs retrieving little odds and ends we constantly forget like books, dirty dishes, and car keys.

The stairs are not so great for my father-in-law, though, who has reached the age where walking down the corridor to the dining hall at his assisted living facility is a big challenge. He’d hauled himself up 19 stairs from our garage to our dining room for Thanksgiving, but the prospect of a repeat performance for Christmas looked dubious. And at age 95, who knew how many Christmases he had left? Since this was the first time in five years both our daughters would be home for the holidays, it felt even more important to celebrate together in traditional style—tree, stockings, lights, decorations, and Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

“No problem,” I said to my husband. “Surely the four of us can carry him up the stairs.”

We decided to practice by hoisting Emma, our eldest, in the safety of our living room. Staggering, we dropped her onto the rug in about ten seconds, envisioning the domino effect of three generations meeting with disaster on the stairs into the garage. It was time for Plan B.

“The important thing is that we’re all together,” my mother-in-law and I said to one another, agreeing we’d eat instead at their favorite Chinese restaurant.

Which turned out to be closed on Christmas Day.

My husband made a reservation at a Thai restaurant instead.

In the meantime, my friend Eileen told me about a friend who’d had been carried into his house by firefighters after he was discharged from the hospital with a severely fractured leg.

“You should call the fire department,” Eileen urged.

“You’re kidding! They do that?” I replied, silently thinking, “What a waste of taxpayer money!”

And even if I didn’t think so, my in-laws surely would. I could not imagine them agreeing to such special treatment. We like to joke that they hate to impose on people so much that we won’t know that they’re dead until two weeks after the fact.

Still, I couldn’t let go of the idea, debating it back and forth in my mind, even putting “Call the fire department” on my to-do list. Like most things on my to-do list, there it stayed.

“Enlisting the firemen is a crazy idea, right?” I mused to my daughter. “We’ll be fine at the Thai restaurant, right? The important thing is for all of us to be together.”

Emma nodded.

The following day, my morning walk took me on a route I don’t usually take—one that ends a half a block from our fire station.

“What the hell—no harm in asking,” I said to myself, going in.

“I have a crazy question,” I said to the man at the desk, then explained our situation.

“It’s not crazy at all. We’re a full-service fire station, and that’s what your money supports. We do this all the time.”

My in-laws were surprisingly game.

“Some people might be too embarrassed to be carted up the stairs,” my father-in-law chortled over the phone. “But not me! I think it’s marvelous!”

On Christmas Day, four firefighters met us at the base of our stairs, strapped my father-in-law into a special chair, and deposited him safely in the living room. They arrived precisely at the appointed departure time, and reversed the procedure.Firemen and Grandpa, Christmas 2015

It was the best Christmas ever. Thanks, taxpayers!Jenny and Katie with Grandma and Grandpa, Christmas 2015

And yesterday, to celebrate my father-in-law’s 96th birthday, we all went to his favorite Chinese restaurant, this time without any assistance beyond his portable walker. It was the best birthday celebration ever.Hugh's 96th at Lily Kai

Buche de NO-el

Buche-De-Noel_1366

Every year I have the intention of making a Buche de Noel for our Christmas Eve feast. And every year I revise my plans as the reality of unwrapped presents, unpolished silver, and undecked halls lays claim to my diminishing time and energy. My daughter tried a few years ago when she was organizing my recipes to curb my hoarding tendencies and delusions by saying, “Get real–when are you ever going to make Buche de Noel with Meringue Mushrooms?” But I stopped her from throwing away the yellowed clipping. A woman can dream, can’t she?

This year, I was determined that my dream would finally become reality. I had more time to prepare, and more help, what with my husband retired and both daughters back in the area. Plus I planned to outsource the meringue mushrooms to the fancy Italian bakery that churns out such delicacies in exchange for a small fortune.

Make that “churned.” Alas, Rulli’s no longer makes meringue mushrooms. No matter. Summoning my inner Martha Stewart, I rummaged through the cupboards for the pastry bags I knew I’d bought long ago, so I could concoct the confections myself.

Except that I had finally donated said pastry bags to the Salvation Army just weeks before (hoarders are correct in thinking that you will come to regret throwing away something you haven’t used in years). I also discovered that, reckless purging of unused household items notwithstanding, I was too late with my culinary dreams for meteorological reasons as well. After four years of drought, the weather forecast promised a week of rain. Too bad every meringue mushroom recipe began, “These should only be made on a dry day.”

But couldn’t I just put real mushrooms on the log? Or just extra “holly” fashioned from mint leaves and cranberries?” So I proceeded undaunted to the Buche proper. That’s when I discovered I would need a candy thermometer. Would a grocery store model suffice, or would I have to fight the crowds at the mall? Reading my ancient clipping and all the online recipes more carefully, I noted the several warnings about not tearing the sponge cake when getting it out of the pan, or rolling it up, or carefully spreading it with buttercream. “A lot of trouble,” wrote more than a few reviewers.

Meanwhile, visions of brownies with orange buttercream frosting and chocolate ganache, Russian teacakes, chocolate crumb bars, and almond filled shortbread danced in my head.

Who was I kidding? Ours was not a sponge cake family anyway, but one with a preference for mainlining dark chocolate and butter.

“We’re not having a Buche de Noel. Not now, not ever,” I announced. “I’m over it.”

Here’s what we had instead:

Liberated from a dream I now know will never be fulfilled, I’m looking ahead to the new year wondering what other fantasies I might jettison—and what other delicious possibilities will take their place.

*

Have you ever made a Buche de Noel? What dreams have you relinquished for the better?

Beanie Baby

Beanie BabyOh, how sad!” I inwardly gasped, brought up short on my daily walk.

There at my feet was a bit of dirty orange plush. It looked like it had been run over by a truck. One leg was missing entirely; white fluff spilled out from what was left of an arm: A beanie baby bear, lying face down on the asphalt.

Briefly, my empathy flitted to the forlorn child, the parents desperate to soothe, placate, substitute, bribe—anything to stop the wailing. I remembered the sleepless nights of misplaced lovies, the routes retraced until we found Sock Monkey or Pink Doggy, or whoever else had escaped unnoticed from my daughters’ clutches.

Mostly, though, I was horrified by how far this particular orange bear had fallen from its original pristine condition. Back in the late 1990s, Beanie Babies were not supposed to be the victims of botched surgeries performed by aspiring veterinarians, or sacrificed in the service of sibling torment. They were not supposed to lie on the ground getting dirty. In many families, they were not even supposed to be played with at all!

It didn’t start out this way. When Beanie Babies first appeared, they were just cute plush toys that cost five bucks. I didn’t care what my daughters did with theirs, as long as I didn’t break my neck tripping over them on the stairs.

Then things went a little crazy.

Thanks to a clever marketing strategy of “retiring” beloved characters, scarcity drove up demand. People willing to pay anything spent hours tracking down the elusive creatures, convinced their value would skyrocket. One man made national news when he bought $100,000 worth of Beanie Babies, gambling that their ever-increasing value would put his kids through college.

Suddenly, Beanie Babies became not a child’s favorite cuddle buddy, but investments. To protect their assets, people bought heart-shaped plastic covers to place over the manufacturer’s label (the very same label that in saner times would have been removed as a choking hazard). Truly zealous collectors entombed each Beanie Baby in a special acrylic box. Kids could forget about playing with their Beanies, since they couldn’t be trusted to keep them in mint condition.

Skepticism and a reputation as a tightwad inoculated me (and thus my kids) from all but the mildest case of Beanie Baby fever. Still, we occasionally were part of the grapevine of kids and mothers alerting one another to a rare Beanie sighting at some far-flung store. I confess to rushing out and paying $13.00 for a floppy-eared bunny rumored to be worth more because its tag had a misprint. During the Princess Di craze, when all the shelves were stripped bare of royal purple bears, my girls and I were overjoyed when the clerk dug out an overlooked one from the storeroom. (I was even more overjoyed when she didn’t jack up the price beyond the $20 retail “value.”)

Eventually, the bubble burst and my daughters grew up. Now there is a giant box of gently used Beanie Babies stowed high on a closet shelf. They’re awaiting future grandchildren, not a market rebound. Sadly, the Beanies were useless for college tuition, possibly because the unprotected but still-affixed labels showed a little too much wear and tear.

Not as much wear and tear, however, as the bedraggled orange bear I’d stumbled across on my recent walk. As I looked down at the heap of soiled plush at my feet, I thought of The Velveteen Rabbit, whose shabbiness was an emblem of how well-loved he was.

I imagined again the bereft child whose beloved orange friend had gone missing.

Then I pondered further on the time when kids were deprived of the chance to love someone to decrepitude because we encased their Beanies in plastic and put them out of reach.

*

Were you or your kids afflicted with Beanie Baby Fever?.Memories from that time?

Up in the Air

hot air balloonsLike many recent college graduates, I spent the summer of 1977 moping in my parents’ basement.  My college roommate, Sharon, was doing the same, 3,000 miles away in Berkeley. We had no jobs and no prospects, so we spent a lot of time on the phone.

“Why don’t you come out to California?” Sharon proposed one day.

Since it was the first idea all summer that made me smile, I thought, “Why not?”

A couple of weeks later, I waved goodbye to my stunned parents, then boarded a Greyhound bus that would take me across the country.

First, though, it would take me to St. Louis, where two college friends had just started medical school at Washington University.

It was great to see them. It was even greater taking a shower and sleeping in a bed—my last taste of such comforts until I’d arrive days later in Berkeley.

Before my friends put me on the bus the next morning for the second half of my westward adventure, we wandered through Forest Park. There people swarmed among hot air balloons, most just flat or half-filled expanses of brightly colored nylon on the lawn. A few were fully inflated into majestic orbs poised for flight.

We watched as the balloonists adjusted ropes and burners, then took off to land wherever the wind (combined with skill and a little luck) would blow them. It was the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, founded just four short years earlier—the same September we had entered college.

This weekend marks the 43rd anniversary of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. Which means I’m marking my 39th anniversary of coming to California. I had no idea back then how long I’d stay, or what I’d do, or how I’d survive.

But when Sharon picked me up dirty and exhausted late at night from the Greyhound bus station, she drove twisting, up and up, through the Berkeley hills, stopping finally at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

“Look!” she said.

There stretched out before us was the fathomless black of the bay, the twinkling lights of Berkeley and Oakland below, San Francisco a shimmering faraway specter, the night sky shot through with billions of  stars.

I had arrived home.

Decades later, my husband and I sometimes say, “We should take a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley someday.”

We haven’t yet, and I suspect we never will. We’re too cheap, and besides, I’m really not all that adventurous. It still amazes me that I ventured away from home and onto that Greyhound bus so long ago.

But I’m glad I did, glad I let myself land wherever the winds blew me.

*

Have you ever been adrift and let the winds blow you wherever they take you? Where have you landed? 

 

 

 

For the Birds

Sandhill cranesThis week my writing group, the Write On Mamas, was invited to share our work at a local senior residence. It was a delight to be there along with my fellow WOMers Janine, Mindy, and Steven. Here’s what I read, an old favorite of mine originally published in skirt!

*

Like most married couples, my husband Jonathan and I have many pacts–no cheating, no badmouthing each others’ parents, no going to bed mad. Our agreements are the glue that holds us together.

One of our pacts is to never take up birdwatching. Jonathan and I spent way too much time as kids trapped in some swamp while our parents cooed over coots.

We once took a hike with our friend, Peter, an avid birder. Eyes downcast, my husband and I listened politely as he droned on about plumage and wing span.

“Oh,” Peter said, at last noticing our silence. “Children of birdwatchers.”

Since we have our youthful resentments to uphold, we cling to our pact even though every binocular-toting couple we know is happily married. Birdwatching may unite others, but not Jonathan and me.  If one of us strays, pulse quickened by a downy breast, it’s grounds for divorce.

Still, as long-term marrieds, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to spice up our relationship. The forbidden, even birding, holds allure. So what if it’s like watching paint dry?

That’s how we recently found ourselves driving to the delta with our friends Steve and Mary to catch the last of the sand hill cranes before they headed south. Or wherever cranes go when, sensibly enough, they tire of hanging out on the levees with bored teenagers gunning their engines.

Before we embark, my husband and I renew our vows.

“Promise me we won’t become birdwatchers,” I implore.

“I do,” Jonathan pledges.

Steve and Mary have an exemption. They even have a temporary placard for disabled parking. Sidelined from favored pursuits like hiking and backpacking by surgery, they have entered the phase of life Steve refers to as “recalibrated pleasures.” They’ve traded in their boots for Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guides and sunk a few thousand dollars into birding paraphernalia. No doubt they’re faking it, forced to find the silver lining in an unjust fate. We’ll be safe with Steve and Mary.

We pile into the backseat of their car. After a drive that lasts forever, strip malls give way to fields of rice stubble. We pull onto the shoulder of the levee dam road. “Look at the swans!” Steve and Mary exult in unison. It occurs to me that they’re not pretending.

The side of the road is littered with parked cars whose trunks yield vast arsenals of birding materiel. Pot-bellied men hoist huge tripods onto their beefy shoulders. Except for their girth and Audubon Society t-shirts, they could be mistaken for guerrillas sporting shoulder-mounted grenade launchers.

Birders are a passionate lot. Within a 10-mile radius, only my husband and I are cool to the wonders of feathered fauna. At least I hope Jonathan still is. He seems suspiciously enthralled as Mary explains the difference between divers and dabblers.

Steve spots the cranes on a distant bank. Even I have to admit they’re spectacular. After about 10 minutes of genuine oohing and another few of feigned ahhing, I’m ready to climb back in the car and head for civilization, or at least a Starbucks in one of those strip malls.

But people who routinely drive 100 miles in search of creatures they can’t see without expensive equipment are not prepared to settle for such a small return on their investment. So we look at the cranes. We look at ducks. We look some more.

Birding is like time-lapsed photography in reverse. The day slows down and stretches out in a languorous slow-motion crawl of nothing much happening. We drive farther. A chain-link fence separates the road from a plot of barren land. Steve spies a thin white line close to the horizon.

“Might be white pelicans. On the other hand, it might be plastic garbage bags,” he says with quiet excitement, as if either outcome would please him equally. Has his sense of pleasure been so radically recalibrated?

We train the binoculars on the barely discernible thread of white. Sure enough, they’re pelicans. But heaped together in a slovenly pile, these pelicans look like garbage bags with wing spans fluttering listlessly in the breeze. Perhaps it’s some kind of rare hybrid species: Feathered trash.

The day moseys along toward sunset. Mud hens are now indistinguishable from mud in the long shadows swallowing up the fields. The sky is streaked with cotton-candy wisps of pink and smoky gray.

It is also streaked with birds, flying in formations that, truth be told, look a bit ragged. No perfect, straight-edged V’s for these cranes and geese! Maybe they’re bored, too, and want to mix things up a little.

I think of my friend who took his family to see Winged Migration. Ten minutes into the film, his eight-year-old daughter elbowed him and said, “So this is it, huh? It’s just gonna be birds and then more birds all the way through.”

I’m with that girl! But is my husband still with me? He’s keeping up a steady stream of delighted chatter, admiring how graceful the airborne cranes look when they’re not stuck on land with their unruly necks and legs all akimbo. Jonathan’s enthusiasm makes me nervous until I realize that I, too, sound like I’m going to log on to one of those birding chat rooms the second I’m near a computer. I sidle up to Jonathan in the gathering darkness and whisper, “You haven’t gone over to the light side, have you?” He smiles and squeezes my hand hard, twice, our secret code. Birds of a feather flocking together. Such a man I have married! Black silhouettes fly against a crimson sky; white lies fly below.

“It’s so beautiful,” I exclaim, this time sincerely. Not only because together my husband and I have resisted the call of the wild, but because of how the bloodshot-turning-charcoal clouds are reflected in the little pools of water dotting the furrows. The delta at twilight looks like sepia shards from a shattered kaleidoscope.

We stow the scopes, the tripods, the binoculars, the books back in the trunk. Relieved, we climb into the car and head for home. Steve and Mary point out raptors on the power lines while Jonathan and I hold hands silently, eyes closed, in the backseat.

*

Postscript: Years later, Jonathan and I are still stubbornly resistant to birding. We know a hawk from and a hummingbird, and are happy to leave it at that. Steve and Mary, meanwhile, have traveled all over the world on birding expeditions. They are still our friends, though they haven’t invited us along on any more outings. What shared interests and antipathies do you and your sweetie enjoy?

 

Love or Death?

“Let’s do 36 Questions during the flight!” I proposed to my husband, Jonathan. Long plane rides were in our immediate future, as we planned to celebrate our 60th birthdays, 29th wedding anniversary, and his impending retirement with travel to Barcelona, the Pyrenees, and the Alps.

Not being a Modern Love aficionado, Jonathan had no idea what I was talking about, but he knew me well enough to be suspicious. Therapists like me are always proposing innocuous-sounding activities designed to plumb the hearts and souls, if not the unconscious, of their loved ones.

“The 36 Questions promote love and intimacy as people answer ever-deepening questions,” I explained. “You finish by staring into one another’s eyes for four minutes.”

I don’t remember Jonathan’s exact response, but it was something like, “I would rather chop off my right arm.”

So I gave him a choice.

“If you don’t want to do the 36 Questions, why don’t we both read Being Mortal, and then discuss in detail end-of-life issues?” I suggested. “After all, ‘Shoot me if it comes to that’ is hardly a plan!” I was referring to something I’d said after a particularly depressing visit to a friend with advanced Alzheimer’s, but we’d never taken the conversation much beyond mutual dread and hand-wringing.

On a cheerier note, I added, “Besides, I don’t even know your favorite color or what music you’d want at your memorial.”

Again, I don’t remember Jonathan’s exact response, but this time it was along the lines of, “I would rather chop off my right arm but first I will chop off yours if you don’t stop asking me these things.”

This hardly seemed fair, since I had agreed to go hear some guy natter on about annuities just so we could get a free dinner, which threw me off my diet for a week.

Still, a loving spouse must not hold grudges.

A loving and determined spouse must find new methods of persuasion that may or may not involve alcohol and sexual favors.

One of my methods was to forward Jonathan a podcast featuring Dr. Arthur Aron, the psychologist whose team devised the 36 Questions. He, like Jonathan, seemed a lovely and intelligent man, not some woo-woo freak.

“The questions were actually designed to promote better working relationships among colleagues! It takes just 45 minutes!” I explained, assuming this logic would somehow melt the resistance of my wary husband. Instead, it increased his dread that he’d soon have to avoid overpaid, questionnaire-wielding consultants promoting team-building at work as well as his own wife.

“Plus,” I added triumphantly, as if I had discovered the pièce de resistance for overcoming resistance, “It works best if couples do it together! We can do it with ________ and _______.”

I provide this fill-in-the-blank format not only to protect privacy, but to illustrate that you could pretty much write in the names of anyone you know, and achieve the same outcome: The vast majority of people named in at least one (if not both) of those blanks would be more willing to chop off their right arms than to take the time to answer some VERY BASIC QUESTIONS that might, just might, improve their sorry little lives! But I digress . . .

It was back to death trumping love. Thinking to enlist the help of my mother-in-law, who routinely says, “We’re counting on you to put us out of our misery when the time comes,” I told her about my Being Mortal Couple’s Book Group Idea.

“I don’t blame Jonathan one bit,” my mother-in-law said. “Why would anyone want to read that book? “

The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, does it?

With our trip just two weeks away, I was growing desperate. God forbid I should actually plow through back issues of The New Yorker and a couple of ebooks on the plane instead of threatening strengthening my marriage!

In a last-ditch ambush attempt on a lovely, long hike, I said in my best, neutral tone, “I’m curious about why you don’t want to do the 36 Questions?” (Just a few days earlier Jonathan had answered the same question about Being Mortal by declaring that he was not “drawn to death” the way I was.)

“Fine, we can do it,” Jonathan replied in a perfectly even and affable tone, depriving me of the chance to pounce on any tell-tale defensiveness.

So now the ball’s in my court. I’ve added 36 Questions to my Trip To-Do List. Shall I print them out or download the free app? (No, I am not kidding—there’s a free 36-Questions App. Several, in fact.)

Then again, maybe I’ll just catch up on my New Yorker backlog or try to catch some shut-eye during our 16-hour flight.

That might just be the best anniversary present I could give my beleaguered and beloved husband.

*

Which would you choose (conversationally speaking)—love or death?

Pizza Anniversary

pepperoni feast

“You seem to believe that a man will drop out of the sky right in front of you,” my then-therapist said to me when I was 29.

As usual, I had been lamenting my lack of a relationship while listing all the reasons I could never actually try to meet someone. A personal ad (the Dark Ages equivalent of Match.com) was out of the question: I might as well put out a sign soliciting ax murderers. Going on a Sierra Singles hike would probably sidestep that problem by providing safety in numbers. But that, too, I argued, was only for desperate and pathetic people. I was feeling desperate and pathetic enough without advertising it. Besides, why spend the day with a bunch of other losers?

Still, my therapist had a point. My friend Mary conspired with her by buying me a Sierra Singles membership. So I was stuck.

“At least I’ll have a nice hike,” I rationalized as I reluctantly laced up my boots.

I did have a nice hike. So I went back, making sure to choose long, arduous hikes instead of champagne sunset strolls. I figured that’s where the men would be.

My third Sierra Singles hike was a 15-miler in Marin County, up Pine Mountain and down to Kent Lake and back. As we all milled around the carpool point in Oakland engaging in the usual getting-to-know-you exchanges, where we’d gone to school came up.

“Oh,” some cute-enough guy asked. “Do you know so-and-so?”

As it happened, I knew so-and-so extremely well; I’d had a crush on him for years, but my college roommate landed him instead. The carpool guy had grown up with so-and-so.

Small-world chit-chat developed into 15 miles of walking and talking about everything—Prairie Home Companion; how the subject matter didn’t matter when the writing was great (c.f. Roger Angell and baseball in The New Yorker); his sister, who homeschooled her kids and was, like me, a Virginia Woolf devotee.

After the hike, everyone crammed into Red Boy Pizza in Fairfax for beer and pizza. Before we parted, Jonathan asked for my phone number (he’d had few opportunities to collect any woman’s number on previous hikes, as he was not clever enough to improve his odds by going on the champagne strolls).

“I think I’ve met the man I’m going to marry!” I crowed to my mother when we spoke the next day by telephone.

“You say that about everyone you meet,” my mother replied.

Fair enough. But like a stopped clock that’s accurate twice a day, this prophecy proved true.

Today is our 31st anniversary of meeting. That auspicious day led to 29 years (and counting!) of marriage, two daughters, and an abiding appreciation for therapy’s art of gentle challenge. At the rehearsal dinner before our wedding, Jonathan’s father urged everyone to donate to the Sierra Club. This weekend we recreated our Pine Mountain hike (we’re still 15-milers at age 60, though we’ve let our Sierra Club membership lapse).

It’s a lot to celebrate, but today’s ritual is my favorite: As we do every June 2, tonight we’ll devour pepperoni and green pepper pizza from Red Boy in Fairfax, clinking our beers together in honor of all the years gone by, and all those still to come.

*

Have you ever had to overcome your resistance to working at finding love? How did you meet your sweetie?

 

Talking (or Balking) About Race with Kids

race+is+hardIn a recent episode of This American Life, producer Chana Joffe-Walt recalls how she didn’t know how to respond to her preschooler who, in a bath-time game of running a pretend restaurant, decreed certain items off limits to Jews.

“What am I supposed to say?” Joffe-Walt muses. “I should say something, right? . . . Or is the best approach not to say anything? He’s just having a bath!”

She continues, “It’s your job to teach them about stuff that matters, but . . . they’re little . . . so you have to be careful about saying, ‘Well, let me tell you a story about a man named Adolf Hitler. He would have liked the way you run your restaurant, by the way.”

Joffe-Walt’s story brought me back to how ill-equipped I felt twenty years ago when at a playground with my daughter, Ally, who is white, and her friend, Dory, who is black. They were four years old.

“OK, I’ll be the queen, and you be the slave,” I overheard Ally directing Dory.

I was horrified. And speechless.

Omigod! Where does she get this?” I thought to myself.

I was pretty sure it wasn’t Sesame Street indoctrinating my daughter about life on the plantation. What was Ally picking up from the culture at large or from us? And more to the point, how should I handle it? A lesson about the legacy of slavery and the power dynamics of white privilege hardly seemed appropriate, nor did shaming my daughter for saying something she probably didn’t intend and Dory probably didn’t hear as racist. Would I make things worse by calling attention to what could just be innocent play?

I was at a complete loss. So I punted:

“Why don’t you be the slave and let Dory be the Queen now?” I suggested lamely to my daughter.

Taking on race with preschoolers seemed beyond my abilities, but I could at least try to balance out Ally’s tendency toward the imperious.

Maybe they traded roles, maybe they didn’t. I can’t recall the outcome on the playground twenty years ago, though I can still feel my shame and my floundering. And also how easy it was to just let it drop, something I did not then recognize as part of my privilege as a white person.

Certainly now that Ferguson, NYC, and Baltimore have pricked the nation’s consciousness, and even conscience, we are far more encouraged to make race part of our national conversation. I like to think if I were raising young kids today, I’d be better equipped. But maybe I’d still feel just as flummoxed by a game of Queen (and Slave) for a Day as did Chana Joffe-Walt in the face of Anti-Semitic Restaurant.

As she points out, “These conversations are how we make our mark on the next generation. They’re also, very often, how we learn how much we do not know.”

It won’t get any easier if we don’t try.

*

What quandaries have you experienced in talking about race with kids? Moments of cluelessness and awkwardness? Fortitude and forthrightness? How did it go? What have you found helpful/unhelpful? 

If you want to delve into this more, keep scrolling. Please feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!

*

Kamau Bell’s segment on the same episode of This American Life describes the quandary– and a possible solution–beautifully.

http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2014/03/teaching_tolerance_how_white_parents_should_talk_to_their_kids_about_race.html

http://www.tolerance.org/blog/talking-students-about-ferguson-and-racism

And watch this page for other resources from SF-based writer and therapist Rhea St. Julien and her musician husband Joel St. Julien, parents and activists who walk the walk. (“Talking with Your Kids About Race,” the June 4 event their Stay Woke Parents Collective is hosting, is sold out.)