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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.)

W is for Whatever

whateverI had been feathering the empty nest with self-pity and sadness since our daughter Emma left for college. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover at the breakfast table a baby bird not yet launched—Ally, our younger daughter.

Such is the lot of the second child. Even in utero Ally suffered benign neglect as I consumed the occasional Diet Coke or glass of wine.

“Whatever,” I’d think.

After an exhausting labor, I couldn’t have cared less when Ally was whisked away to the nursery and given a bottle. This from the same woman who wrote a four-page letter of complaint to Kaiser when a nurse suggested a little sugar water for my firstborn! The second time around, I was too busy contemplating not so much the miracle of birth as the debacle of my body, which felt like it was filled with concrete.

“Whatever,” I rationalized as they carted away my squalling baby. “What’s the harm in a rubber nipple now and then?”

This was unthinkable when Emma was born. We were warned not to introduce a bottle within the first several weeks lest the baby get confused and reject the breast. Of course, Emma screamed the house down the first several times we eventually tried a bottle. Initially tyrannized by the cult of breastfeeding, we were next tyrannized by an infant who was furious rather than confused about the difference between rubber and flesh.

As for the whatever child, doomed by a mother who preferred sleeping over bonding–she sucked happily at both breast and bottle from the get-go. And she did it wherever, whenever, since she was used to being hauled around to suit everyone else’s schedule.

Benign neglect had further salutary effects. Whenever Emma pitched a fit, I oozed empathy, thus encouraging marathon tantrums. With Ally, I just stepped around her sob-wracked, prostrate body. Whatever. I went on with my business, and pretty soon she went back to hers.

I wonder who suffers more: the subsequent children who are so often ignored, or the firstborn who lives so cozily in an enchanted web of enmeshment? Ally may not be coddled, but she avoids the sticky entanglements of my too-rapt focus. She’s an independent go-getter. Still, she complains that she can’t get enough of my attention.

I took note. While mooning after Emma, who needed to fly free, I had overlooked the one who still relished my company.

So this weekend Ally and I spent a whole day together, just the two of us. I cheered her on at her track meet, then we gabbed over lunch at the Beach Chalet. We chased down ducks with a pedal boat at Stow Lake, then prowled her favorite vintage clothing haunts.

I know it won’t be long before she’s rolling her eyes and saying “whatever” under her breath, ignoring me as I once ignored her. But until then, I’m going to savor every moment.

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How’s it been for you as a parent of more than one child on this score? How about as a sibling–either firstborn or subsequent? 

 

T is for Training Hikes

Mont-Blanc_001My husband and I met on a 15-mile hike almost 31 years ago; as such, we have our reputation to uphold. That’s why you’ll usually find us hiking. The French Alps have long been on Jonathan’s Bucket List (my BL is rather more modest, but still, I’m game), so that’s where we’re headed in June.

We would have headed there last year, except that Jonathan was laid low for five months by bum knees—not just the little twinges of middle age, but excruciating pain for no apparent reason. Instead of walking five minutes down our hill every morning to catch his bus, Jonathan relied on me to drive him to the bus stop at 6:30 a.m. Which meant I was up and out early enough to hike up Baldy most mornings before I had to go to work. Jonathan had never been lamer, and I had never been more fit.

Slowly but surely, Jonathan regained the full use of his knees (he’s the one person I know who religiously follows his physical therapy regimen). We went from hobbling a few yards for a picnic to our usual and far-afield hikes.

So we booked a six-day trek through the French and Swiss Alps on Mont Blanc. Why not celebrate rejuvenated knees while we still can? Plus, we both turn 60 this year, and Jonathan is retiring! Might as well make it an occasion, even though our knees had not been out for a good test run on the kind of terrain our Tour de Mont Blanc threatened promised.

Raw Travel, the company we booked with, offered training tips:

 “You should prepare for walking several hours a day (5 – 7 hours per day) with steep ascents and descents. We will average almost 800-1000m a day in ascents so your training should reflect this in the lead-up to the event. Choose hills with steep ascents to train on and push yourself to do long days to prepare yourself adequately.”

Piece of cake! Plum cake, to be precise, since that’s what we encountered at every last Alpine hut on our previous sojourns in Switzerland and Austria. We could easily manage 800-1000’ climbs!

Oops! Wait a minute—did they say meters? A unit of measurement that equals three feet and change? Sure, those little Baldy strolls I do most days would be great conditioning—if I repeated the circuit twice.

“Probably most of the people booking with them are from Kansas,” I said to Jonathan hopefully.

No such luck—Raw Travel is based in Australia, land of the Walkabout and an entire populace living out of tiny backpacks for their 18 months of foreign travel. Was the company name some kind of warning or cruel joke?

So Jonathan and I started trying harder—13 miles on rolling green hills, all day long on my birthday, for example. A similar killer trek up Mt. Diablo recently.

“Great,” I’d remark to Jonathan each time. “We’ve just achieved the bare minimum of altitude gain.”

So during the past few days, we redoubled our efforts, even though we need to triple our efforts to simulate a typical Mt. Blanc day. We hiked on the Big Sur coast, famous for the coastal range plummeting into the Pacific. For three days in a row, we went pretty much straight up. And straight down.

This would be all well and good, except that perhaps those knees aren’t as rejuvenated as they might be. Jonathan’s still protest from time to time, and mine joined the chorus right on schedule the week I turned 60. And why not? After all, my birthday brought notice from my disability insurance company that my premiums would go up, and my doctor’s office informed me that I was now eligible for the shingles vaccine. Why shouldn’t my body issue its own birthday communique?

Still, what are ice and ibuprofen for–not to mention trekking poles (a sure sign of middle age)? So up we went and down we came—with ticks and poison oak serving as the welcome committee for the glorious, wildflower-bedecked vertical cliffs disguised as “trails.”

We have now returned home from our training session, our supply of ibuprofen depleted, our knees more or less intact. Here are some pictures so you can save yourself the trouble:

Now we have only to wait to see if we start to itch where poison oak has left its mark, or if bull’s-eye-shaped bites emerge. Or if we can walk at all tomorrow.

But Alps, here we come! At least there won’t be any ticks or poison oak.

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Where is your favorite place to hike? Have you been to Mt. Blanc? Should we buy the kind of travel insurance that includes Medi-Vac?

S is for Send-off

 

I prowl the bulk food aisle at the grocery store, scooping my daughter’s favorite dried organic mango and granola into plastic bags. Ally’s about to leave for college, and I’m in charge of provisions. Scanning the shelves for the chai tea she loves, I find myself thinking of the King Tut show that came through town a few years ago.

At the exhibit, case after case contained wondrous artifacts that kept the Boy King company on his journey to the afterlife: a whimsical child’s chair; a model boat fashioned from papyrus; clay vessels for his favorite food and wine; an inlaid board game to while away the eternal hours.

I imagined Tut’s grieving courtiers and family members busying themselves by accumulating the little treasures of everyday life. What did he prefer to eat?  Remember how he crowed triumphantly every time he won this game! Don’t forget his boat, complete with oarsmen to help him cross over. This little clay animal will remind him of the pets and people who still love him when he is lonely in his journey to the afterlife.

My daughter, still very much alive, is simply starting college. But I feel a kinship with the ancient Egyptians as I place the mango and chai into the box next to the toothpaste and family photos I have been stockpiling for Ally’s send-off.  After all, she’ll need to be prepared for the new life that awaits her far from home.  Who knows if they have proper provisions in the world beyond known as college?

I add Scrabble and a deck of cards to the cache of treasures. When Ally’s homesick, they’ll help her conjure up nights of laughter with those who love and miss her. For good measure, I tuck in her old stuffed dog, whose soft pink plush Ally long ago caressed into a colorless, misshapen bundle. The mundane accoutrements of home will provide succor for the uncharted passage ahead.

We moderns marvel at the golden funeral masks and ornately painted sarcophagi unearthed from the royal tombs. Yet it is the relics of domesticity used in the ritual of farewell that captivate us. Several millennia span the time between King Tut and today. But the impulse is timeless to send along a bit of home, a bit of ourselves, in the hard task of saying goodbye.

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What tokens of home help you or a loved one when far away?

 

R is for Rodents

Rodent controlWhen mice skitter across your kitchen counter in broad daylight, it’s time to call in the pros. That’s how Dave the Exterminator came into my life. He was the White Knight to my Damsel in Distress, and I fell for him hard.

Dave praised me for correctly identifying mouse droppings in the cutlery drawer. “Most people are way more in denial—they think they’re coffee grounds,” he cooed. Who wouldn’t love a guy willing to credit me with astuteness when it had actually taken mice traipsing through the dinner preparations for me to give him a call?

Dave came, he soothed, he plugged my holes. Like a partner who loves you anyway despite cottage cheese thighs, he reassured me that mice were a natural part of living next to open space, not a sign of dubious housekeeping or moral rot. Best of all, he came every couple of days with his little black bag to discreetly remove the corpses. The dog loved him. Who can resist a man who passes the pet test?

My friends tried to temper my infatuation. “Sure, he’s cheerful and reliable. But do you really want to throw over your husband for a guy whose name is stitched above his pocket and who carries around dead mice in a briefcase?”

They had a point. But even if it wasn’t true love, my first exterminator will forever have a place in my heart. Also on my refrigerator, since his company’s magnet reassures me that Dave is there for me should I ever be invaded by mice again.

Today Mick the Termite Man arrived on my doorstep. Having a doorstep meant the house was still standing, so the call was obviously premature. Since I wasn’t buried by a towering mound of sawdust, I saw no need for further Exterminator Lust. But the Homeowner’s Association insisted that I go on this blind date, interested or not.

The dog liked Mick as much as he’d liked Dave, but this time I was more discerning. Politely bored, I only half listened as he told me about what he’d found in probing my siding. He showed me a tiny hole near the garage harboring termite feces. With unseemly excitement, he said there was no way to tell if the infestation had just begun or had been there for years. For $4,000 he’d be glad to tent the house and kill everything in it. Except, of course, the termites might come back right away.

“What’s the point, then?” I asked, like a woman pushing 40 finding out after the first cocktail that her date has suspicious gaps in his resume and no interest in having children. Why bother to even order an appetizer? Chitchat over bruschetta is for those with time on their hands and hope in their hearts.

Maybe the dog was still a sucker for animal magnetism, but my taste had matured. This was a guy who went around pumping poisonous gas into people’s houses, after all! And the termites, unlike their rodent counterparts, were hardly causing me to shriek and jump on top of the stove in a pathetic pre-feminist caricature. If they wouldn’t bother me for several years, who was I to bother them?

Sorry, Mick. Sure, you can give me your phone number. I’ll maybe call to set something up. Like after the house collapses.

But wait a minute. There on the corner of the estimate was a faint notation in red ink: “Tell about rats.”

“What’s this?” I asked, pulse quickening.

“Well, there are some rat droppings, nothing much . . .”

Move over, Dave.

P is for Pinnacles

Pinnacles_National_Park_-_Flickr_-_Joe_Parks

It’s a steep haul up the High Peaks Trail, especially when you’re seven months pregnant with your first child. But back then, giddy with promise, my husband Jonathan and I floated past the massive boulders of Pinnacles National Park. Cresting the summit, baby bulk and all, I relished the double take of the buff, shirtless teenagers loitering atop the rocks. They paused mid-swagger to glance in horror at my swollen belly as I conquered the mountain in my smocked maternity top.

Our family has returned to the Pinnacles again and again, drawn by the massive cliffs, soaring spires, and lush spring wildflowers. Leaving behind the fragmented kaleidoscope of daily life, we are calmed by the reliable sameness of the timeless, indifferent peaks.

Yet even in this constant landscape, change is under way. The fantastic rock formations are the remains of an ancient volcano ravaged by erosion, creeping steadily up the Salinas Valley along the San Andreas Fault. I am grateful that only subtle clues dispel the illusion of permanence. A precariously balanced boulder has fallen from its perch. Spatters of chartreuse and rust lichen toil as alchemists, turning rock to soil. Their magic allows monkey flowers the color of apricots to bloom from dirt pockets hidden in solid stone.

Time has worked its alchemist’s magic on us as well. Two years after our initial trip, we camp at the Pinnacles, weighed down by the accoutrements of toddlerhood — diapers, goldfish crackers, juice boxes, a travel crib. Emma, whose in utero view had been obscured, now enjoys the scenery from the baby backpack that digs into our shoulders as we trudge along the dusty trail.

When we return again, the campground has been paved over for more parking. This time, we have two young daughters in tow, barely out of diapers. But Emma and Ally are definitely into sit-down strikes at the prospect of hiking more than a few hundred yards. Not wishing to fight an uphill battle, we content ourselves with the flat path at the base of the mountains so the girls can splash in the creek. Jonathan, impatient with the meandering pace of childhood, sprints to the summit while the girls and I delight in wild bouquets and rocky forts along the valley floor.

The next time the Pinnacles beckon, Emma and Ally gamely traverse the High Peaks Trail. They are enchanted by poppies sprouting out of boulders, the rock that looks like a camel. The girls nibble on miner’s lettuce and strategic bribes of chocolate, scampering around the summit while their tired parents lag behind. Rocks and children tame each other: whininess turns to exultation, forbidding stone becomes an infinite playground.

Although the incline invites vertigo, the girls clamber up and down, up and down the footholds chiseled into the rock, swinging from the metal banister as if nature and the Park Service had fashioned monkey bars just for them. Jonathan and I must squeeze through the narrow cliff passage in an awkward crouch. But it is just the right size for Emma and Ally, who march through boldly upright, giggling as their crooked parents bump their heads against the rocky overhang.

We are not the only ones who find the Pinnacles a good place for families. Condors, recently reintroduced to the park, build nests in the sheltered crevices. While they teach their young how to catch thermals, we show ours how to catch the shine of buttercups on their chins in the warm sunlight.

Now our daughters have taken flight too, soaring and wavering in their own grown-up landscapes. Alone again, Jonathan and I make our pilgrimage to drink in the riotous wildflowers and steadfast rocks whenever time allows. As always, we stop in Soledad at Pacheco’s Mexican Grocery for tortas — soft white rolls dripping with spicy carnitas.

Soledad, gateway to the Pinnacles, has sprung up even faster than Emma and Ally. Twenty-seven years ago, it consisted of Pacheco’s, a prison, a few dusty streets of dilapidated houses, and a fleabag hotel with a cracked, empty swimming pool. Now the highway billboard reads: “It’s happening in Soledad.”  Vineyards dot the hillsides, and a tony resort lies adjacent to the Pinnacles. Kids from tidy homes with manicured yards swarm the soccer field at the spanking new school. A vast shopping center dwarfs the original Main Street, but we still head to our old Mexican grocery. Pacheco’s, whose tortas remain a juicy, scrumptious bargain, is as timeless as the Pinnacles.

Fueled by the succulent tortas and memories, Jonathan and I start up the High Peaks Trail once more. Although stiffer and a little creaky, we ascend quickly past the boulders and apricot blooms of monkey flower.

Again and again, we come back to ourselves in the shelter of the enduring cliffs.

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What is your favorite family place that you return to over and over?

N is for New Nest, Spiffed up with Cleanser (and Love)

cleaning suppliesI am down on my hands and knees in my pajamas, scrubbing my daughter Emma’s bathroom floor. The one-inch hexagonal tiles were clearly not installed with college kids in mind, to say nothing of the Deco light fixtures and grooved wainscoting. Every nook and cranny is caked with grime.

Emma is asleep upstairs in the bed abandoned by the previous tenant. She’s exhausted from yesterday’s 12-hour drive and the thought of setting up her first home outside the dorms. But I’ve been up since daybreak.

It’s been years since I’ve cleaned my own bathroom. I replenish the empty bottles of Soft Scrub and Windex that Maria leaves on the counter. That’s the extent of my exertion. How do I instruct my daughter in the lost domestic arts?

“Make enough money so you can hire a housecleaner” is my usual advice. But Emma at 20 is years away from a good paycheck.  What was I thinking when I let Maria scrub the toilet?

Emma may have grown up with Maria, but I grew up without hired help, under the tutelage of a mother who swore by Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Housekeep. When I was just a few years older than Emma, I shared an apartment with my friend Jane, whose mother’s domestic Bible was more Lutheran than Peg Bracken. Their credo was “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  Jane once surveyed the bathroom I had just scoured and asked in a despairing tone, “Didn’t your mother ever teach you about cleanser?”

My mother did teach me about cleanser, but she imparted a different lesson. She associated housework with the humiliation her own mother endured scrubbing floors for a sadistic boss during the Depression. My grandmother humbled herself for a pittance so her daughter would not starve. Maria, albeit with a kinder employer and higher wages, does the same. I am lucky to escape their desperate need. But here I am, another mother engaged in the sacrament of love through sacrifice, down on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor for my daughter.

By now my back is aching, so I pause to stretch. Chrome faucets, mirror, and light fixtures gleam. Stripped of encrusted layers of filth, the wainscoting and baseboards are blindingly white. I survey my efforts with pride, grateful that years of paid help have not stripped away my ability to clean, limited though it may be. For the grueling labor that is basic to love cannot be hired out.

Emma is awake at last. She comes downstairs, yawning and stretching as she stumbles into the bathroom. Her delight is a balm for my sore knees and stiff back.
After breakfast, we search out provisions in Emma’s new neighborhood, emerging from the hardware store with a Swiffer Sweeper Starter Kit and several other weapons in the war against grime.

Back at the house, Emma and I tackle the kitchen together. We work side by side, scrubbing the Formica counters, polishing the cabinet fronts. I remember a moment years ago, when baby Emma kept me company in the kitchen, her luscious neck folds spilling out of the collar of her cotton jammies. As I sat on the floor polishing with the cleaning rag, I glanced to my side. There she was right next to me, vigorously wiping circles on the cabinets with her blankie. Baby Emma grinned with delight as we swooped, cackling, into one another’s arms.

Now Emma spritzes Windex on congealed spills atop a glass table in the living room. We ooh and ahh over the house’s multiple charms—the elegant bathroom, soft pine flooring, built-in window seats. Emma and I scheme about getting rid of all her housemates’ junk. I think, If only we could get rid of them, I could move in here with you, and we could really fix it up nicely! But I keep this sentiment to myself.

The next morning I must head for home. Emma is content to stay behind, running her Swiffer under the sofas and across the honey-colored floors.

I go into the gleaming bathroom one last time. Pausing in my morning ablutions to admire my handiwork, I see that I have missed some spots. The window is streaked, and stray cobwebs dangle from the upper molding like Spanish moss. But overall, the bathroom cleans up nicely. It has good bones.

I’ve missed a few spots with my daughter as well: how to budget, how to scrub a toilet, the uses of cleanser.  But Emma, too, cleans up nicely. She has good bones.

My aching bones remind me again of my gratitude for Maria. I’d still advise Emma to earn enough money to hire a housecleaner. But I would impart some additional wisdom as well: Learn how to clean, so that someday, if you are lucky enough to be moving your daughter into her first house, you can know the sheer joy of scrubbing her bathroom floor on hands and knees while she sleeps.

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What was it like moving into your first home away from home? If you have children, what’s it been like helping them set up in their newly fledged adult lives?