Monday, February 24, 2014

The Big Hill

“Nature is dangerous. No doubt about it. That’s one thing I know for sure.”  So says the ten-year-old.

It’s the second snowiest February. Snow is falling now. It’s slow going getting to the Big Hill. With each step we sink to our hipbones.  A goldfinch is at the feeder in shabby plumage. No sign of deer or wild turkey for days.

There are 3 hills for sledding on “4 Fields Farm,” ( an urbanites’ “farm,” where fields lie fallow and there are no domesticated animals, apart from a senior poodle. Granted, there is a squash and tomato patch come May.) The little hillock, not much more than a protuberance, lies just off the carport.  The kids can do this one on their own, if they are motivated to turn off glowing devices, layer up and heave-ho into the cold. Layering up is tedium in spades: undershirt, turtleneck, sweater (Nana insists on wool,) flannel-lined jeans, snow pants, socks (two pairs,) boots, double-knotted, down jacket, hats, gloves, scarf.

The medium slope on the west side of the farmhouse in the second field is long, but not steep. It’s well-suited to middle childhood. Sometimes we build a snow ramp towards the bottom, which really you need, to add a little oomph under your tailbone.  The gradual build-up of speed offers manageable thrills and spills.  We double up on my sled and give it a few good turns.  My eyes drift south to the third field...

At the southwest corner of the third field the Big Hill beckons, softly as snow descending, and just as relentlessly. Once you’ve done the Big Hill, you forget the others.  Two days earlier, skidding up Granddad’s driveway, plowed six times already this season, I look out over the unbroken whiteness and imagine my run. The Big Hill: best when the snow thaws slightly in the winter sun, then refreezes overnight—a 99 cents store plastic tablecloth of ice.  Like the medium hill, the approach starts leisurely, but then a sharp incline ends in a briar patch, full of juicy, buggy raspberries in July, now thorny canes piercing the ice—the razor wire of Attica or Leavenworth.

Ever since his freak camp accident at age 8, when he was made goalie—against his will—in a game of capture the flag, my son sees danger where others don’t.  A measured child by nature, he is unapologetically risk-averse today.  Score! The 17-year-old counselor slides into goal, taking my boy’s right ankle with him. Diagnosis and treatment:  an angulated fracture in two places requiring surgery, pins, and two settings in full-leg plaster casts to get it right.  A morphine drip in the recovery room doesn’t deliver relief. Another drug taps into the line to help the morphine kick in.   No wonder my boy shies away from reckless sporting. The little brother is the skeleton racer, this one is the curler.  But there’s more to life than curling, cycling and tennis…

“Turn right at the big oak,” I shout. (actually it’s a maple. Urbanite.)

“Mom, you’re going to die!”

“I am not going to die. I might get a little scratched up when I hit the raspberries, but I am NOT going to die.”

“You are going to DIE!! You are going to hit that tree and DIE!!”

“Theodore, there is no way I can hit that tree, there’s a bank of bushes that will stop me long before I reach that tree.”

One thing I know for sure:  I don’t know for sure how anything is going to turn out. I’ve sailed down the Big Hill, winter after winter.  Like snowflakes, no two rides are ever the same. This I also know: fearsome things usually haven’t  turn out as bad as expected, and things I assumed would go well, well, they didn’t.  

I also know going fast is fun. The left lane, the luge and red Ducati motorcycles.  When you take the middle hill, even if your Evel Knievel ramp is slick and sassy from repeated runs,  you are still in control. You are not flying. Icarus and the Wright Brothers were onto something.

Best to do the Big Hill quickly. Don’t over think it, and once you start picking up speed, don’t try to break your course by sticking a boot in the snow. Sure way to hurt yourself. Tuck your limbs in the toboggan, cross your hands over your face and head for the brambles.   It’s about being one with your sled.” Amen. I am one with Olympic bobsled pilot Elana Meyers.  And my boy is too, following in our silver-medal-earning run.

Alas, the Big Hill doesn’t offer big thrills today. The snow is too fresh. Then again, it’s just right for a maiden run by a boy with hang-ups.  

It’s a long haul back up to the house, the roaring wood stove, and cocoa, mostly undrunk, except for the marshmallows.  It’s a trek fraught with kid whining:

“MOM….MOM…..  I can’t do this. I need you, I need you, I NEED you…”

He collapses halfway. Send in the St. Bernards. I plant my sled straight up in the snow, backtrack and offer my hand.

He doesn’t take it. Gotcha! He leaps up, offers his snarky  smile,  and passes me, heading uphill.

“I don’t need you Mom.”  

I watch him, my son climbing above me, his form smaller and smaller, blurred by falling snow.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


When it comes to music, pick your lovers carefully, because the artists you fall in love with at 15, are on your Iphone at 50.
This recurring note—that genres of music take hold of your heart early on—has been ringing in my ears as I observe my son’s budding interest in The Beatles.   Blimey, it’s the British Invasion in his fourth grade class!  Add to this the tugs of classical and pop on his tweenage heartstrings: week after week he plods through Minuet in G Minor for a piano teacher of limitless patience.  I know I should have light classical streaming at home, but instead, my little Troublemaker is moving to Olly Murs on the Wii World Dance Floor 2014, and his diva classmates are by his side, teaching him he has hips.
My reaction?  My boy is ten.  I’ve got 5 years to work with. I better get in there and help him pick his musical life partners.  But what an “awesome” responsibility, to help him pick his type!  (By the way, that tired adjective, “awesome,” should be reserved for describing encounters with natural wonders or child-rearing, nothing else.)
It was 1981, 10th grade.  We had our own riff on the British Invasion and I rode the New Wave with those cute surfers from Britain: Haircut One Hundred, A Flock of Seagulls, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, The Fine Young Cannibals.   I’m still listening to them—The Cure, The Smiths, The Talking Heads—this week, through one working ear bud.  There was also the friend from Flatlands into The Police, the frenemy from Brooklyn Heights into Dylan, and all of suburban Westchester into Meatloaf.  Then there was my big brother, coolest of the cool, into The Sex Pistols.  God Save the Queen!  I was definitely in the minority though, because Evelyn “Champagne” King made my Love Come Down just as well as David Byrne.  I dug the smart lyrics of early hip-hop trio De La Soul and damn if Janet Jackson wasn’t In Control. And yes, I got Into the Groove with Madonna, still do.  Two years ago, along with 111.3 million other viewers of the Super Bowl half-time show,  I passed my panties into the end zone to my enduring material girl.
So I’m sure I’ll be in the minority when I tell my son:  “All music is good.”  If you look at music-making as an individual’s divine calling, his creative expression, her bliss, then there really is no mis-struck chord.  Behind every atonal musician is a mother, shaking a tambourine and baking brownies for the band.  If a song was born out of passion,  no matter how insipid the lyrics, who am I to say it stinks? I just don’t have to listen to it, and keep my lips zipped.   There were those ‘80s singers who didn’t make my cut then, and still don’t: no Hall and Oates, no Robert Palmer, no Cover Girls nor Debbie Gibson, and no Wham! (or anything smelling of George Michael.) But hey, if you want to Shake your Love with Miss Gibson, who the hell am I to tell you to shut it down?  
Both my sons spent an entire semester of first grade learning the difference between “fact” and “opinion.”  So why, as adults, do we blur this line, insisting that our view—“John Denver sucks”—is God’s truth?   I grew up sampling the 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins on dainty pink plastic spoons and there are even more Snapple options today.  We embrace this range of choice; so why are we so selective in what we allow to enter through the holes in the sides of our head?  Music shouldn’t have to “crossover.”  If we could just  tumble in love with what touches us, not because it’s hip, or popular, or prestigious, not because it’s appropriate to our class, race, gender, demographics, or age, but just because it turns us on, wouldn’t that be something?   Nana could get down with Rihanna’s Where Have You Been.  After all, Nana does appreciate a beautiful alto.
So who will take responsibility for my son’s musical love affairs? He will, with a few tips from mom, who cares about the girl groups he brings home:
  • Try everything
  • Dare to like what you like
  • Be prepared to be unpopular
  • Don’t judge what others like
  • Lyrics matter (but stupid lyrics, in moderation, do no real harm)
  • Never be afraid to dance with girls
  • Take musical advice from your uncle, still the coolest of the cool
  • Check out Akala and The Gorillaz
  • Start Mondays with The Clash

Monday, February 10, 2014

Chore Boy

Let’s be clear.  This is not about getting the job done quickly or well. Contrary to what The Cure’s front man Robert Smith croons, boys do cry.  It’s Saturday morning.  The scrambled eggs are cold, half-eaten.  Sponge Bob has ended.  Time for chores. 
It’s a chore to come up with a list of chores that will give kids a sense of accomplishment, while also accomplishing more good than harm. Here’s mine, divided into subcategories:
Fill the Following:
·      salt and grated cheese shakers
·      olive oil bottles (EVOO and the cheap blend)
·      dish soap, Windex, and napkin dispensers
·      bird feeder
·      honey pot
     sugar canisters
·      pepper mill
Dust These:
·      piano keys & bench
·      coffee table
·      banister spindles
Pet Care:
Feed/water/brush/play with dog
·      Roll rugs
·      Water plants
·      Sharpen pencils
·      Empty wastepaper baskets
·      Pick up chess pieces from floor and reset board

Outdoor chores stand apart from Saturday morning routine and command extra compensation. These include but are not limited to:
·                                                                                        Sweeping the sidewalk
·      Shoveling snow
·      Cleaning out the car
·      Washing the car
·      Picking up identifiable garbage
Sometimes I even make extra work just to give them work. I crumple Post-Its and drop them to the floor throughout the week. Come Saturday, the little one picks up these bits with purpose and adds them to the recycling bin.
The conversation starts something like this…
Me: “Time to do chores.”
Boy #1: (as if he’d taken one straight to the diaphragm): “Uuuugghhh!!”
Boy #2: “No, No, NO….”
Me:  “That’s the deal kids.”
Boy #2: “That’s NOT the deal and stop making fun of me! Mean Mommy!!”
…then it devolves into negotiation:
Boy #2: “I will only do the easiest chores in the world.”
Me: “Of course, easy-peezy lemon-squeezy.  Here, clean the piano.”
I hand him a dingy washcloth, a survivor from my eldest’s infancy, made soft by years of wiping both ends of babies.  He wraps the rag around his pointer and swipes down on each piano key, working from low to high, whining all the way up the scales. I place a reward at the last note: a strawberry Sour Power Straw. No chemical missing. (Cleaning the piano counts as practicing, btw.)
 My husband thinks it’s good moral training for children to clean their bedrooms, but picking up the personal space of a ten-year-old requires intense parental supervision.   I stick to overseeing the glug-glugging of oil pouring from 3-liter cans through funnels into narrow-necked bottles. 
“Pick up your room” my husband commands. Boy #1 jumps on his bed and starts flipping through a graphic novel. I step in: “C’mon, you know where everything goes: socks and underwear in the hamper, everything else on top. Check your pockets!” Laundry is a tyranny. I sniff over jeans, shirts, sweaters, hoping to get another wear out of everything that doesn’t touch genitals or toes.  Spot cleaning is the answer to tyrants.  He lifts the hamper lid, wads up his Hanes, and gets one off. 3 points. The socks miss.   We go through old homework, recycling everything except the most adorable. I point to the wadded Kleenex, dotting the rolling hills of his green bedspread, like dandelions in a summer meadow.  “I’m not touching your snot rags. In the can please.” 
Done dusting the piano and chewing on his reward, Boy #2 plants his flag on the living room rug and claims his turf: GIs, tanks, planes, Playmobil, Beyblades, Lego, chess men – “Go away Mommy, I want to play.” I do so gladly.   My husband also plants his flag: “Clean up your toys NOW.”  The expected reply follows: “Go away Daddy, I’m still playing with them.” All of them.  I’ve heard some disciplined parents have trained their kids to put one game away before the next is pulled out. My solution is to walk away, leaving this set-up for days, disturbing it only when company comes calling, and then not always. When I do eventually pick-up—to run the vac, for example—Boy #2 puts away exactly 3 Pokemon cards, two fighter jets and one knight. I get on all fours and scoop the rest, marching the Roman Legion, gladiators and hungry lions back to the Coliseum.  I do leave the Monopoly money strewn wantonly down the staircase. I enjoy the extravagance of it.
Why do we bother? I ask myself, cupping peppercorns on the kitchen table that missed the mill by a mile. Saturday morning chores are an agony we all endure, ending mercifully when parents dole out gold dollar coins, like Sochi medals, culled for this purpose from the metro card vending machine. Boy #2 runs for his piggy bank, dumps the contents onto the living room rug and starts counting, factoring in this inflow.  At this rate, Boy #1 reasons, he is light years away from possessing Play Station 4. He leaves the coin on the table.
Long ago I gave up preaching cooperation and working for the family good.  This is not a common goal.  A tidy household is my goal, moral toning, my husband’s.  These ideals just don’t wash with the boyz.  So that’s not why. I bother because this is a gender thing.  My husband does wash pots without prompting and gets into corners when he vacuums, but I’m the one the boys see from 3-9pm, in constant motion, unloading and reloading the dishwasher, shaking out rugs, and stooping over toilets, feeling sorry for myself:  “I hold the advanced degree in this family, why am I the only one who cleans toilets??  I’m hardly the worst offender here!!” Shoveling corn flakes and watching Tom & Jerry, the boys only seem oblivious to me washing down the walls of fridge. They get the message: moms and dads both clean, but moms clean more. And so long as mom jumps in to squirt toothpaste, and zip flys, little progress is made. And whose fault is that?
This is not the right model now and it will not be a sustainable arrangement with their gal pals when they reach manhood.  Many little girls do seem to carry the dominant pink glitter gene, but none are born with housekeeping chromosomes.  I was as bad as my boys when mom rolled out the Electrolux.  Flashback #1: me on the stairs, victimized as I vacuum the runner, one step at a time, with a cumbersome wand and a canister too large to fit on a step, dangling by its hose instead, 4 steps below. Flashback #2: I toss my clothes on the floor until I get my first apartment, my first job, my first suit and my first dry cleaning bill: $8 bucks, a fortune in 1989. I hang that sucker hounds tooth up after that.
It’s also about competency. I bother because my boys are knuckleheads and I want them to know the gift of self-confidence borne from a job well done. The tween is challenged to lace his chucker boots and cut his own T-bone. Last week he even topped himself, slipping from the classroom to the restroom soon after the Pledge. He’d put his jeans on backwards and needed to redress. How the hell do you do that and not notice?
It’s 10 o’clock. The chore boys have earned their golden dollars. The house is no worse for wear. I hope we have planted the seeds of self-reliance and respect for domestic drudgery, formerly-known-as-womens’ work. Time will tell.  In the meantime, we have delayed weekend video gaming for an hour.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Watering my Geraniums

Watering geraniums in my garden one September afternoon, tiger mosquitoes delving deep into exposed flesh, I look up to notice my two sons, through windows, sitting at their desks, doing homework. The younger is writing out his weekly spelling words, in the dining room, on a school desk with iron legs I’d found in the cellar upon moving in.  The older one is on the second floor, in his room, working at a rock maple desk from the ‘50s.  I had taken care to face both desks outwards, overlooking the garden, with its hanging geraniums, potted thyme, and pigeons, like feathered Rockettes, lined up on the rooftop of the apartment building behind our small yard.  
Bent over their desks in concentration, eager to finish up and earn time on the Kindle Fire, I turn the nozzle to jet and aim.  First the little one, straight on.  Startled, he opens his mouth in outrage as water hits glass, and taps his pencil forcefully to meet my stream.  Then I angle it upward and get the big one, then down again, then up. All three of us connect through this action, the surprise attack of mommy, the giggles of the younger, the smirk of the older. The water, an extension of my outstretched arm, hits the pane and splashes back at me. The boys, compartmentalized into two rooms separated by floorboards, and me outside, my sundress soaked and getting eating alive, we make three points of a triangle, held at a safe distance by glass, bricks and parquet.
It is a small, end-of-summer moment, but one in which I realize my connections and their limitations. The water cascades luxuriantly across the window.  My six-year-old delights in his drowning, just as he does on trips to the drive-through car wash. I angle the hose upwards once more.  At this moment, the nine-year-old—safe, cozy and dry—taunts me and I respond by opening the faucet full force to scare that tongue back in his mouth. I recognize the expression overtaking his face; I’ve seen it in the bathroom mirror.  It’s the joy of bathing in Mom’s expansive love and the reassurance of a barrier to deflect some of the full-on female force of motherhood.