Spice of Life

They have a few things in common, my sons.  There were  a couple of  years there when backyard baseball, MLB Showdown, and Magic cards were mutually beloved pastimes.  They both recall the same antipathy toward a certain elementary school Spanish teacher.  They share a passion for music, and sometimes, after dinner, Jack will tune up his guitar and they will play jazz together.  They are big on Jon Stewart  (the two of them will sit at breakfast, the laptop open between them, watching last night’s Daily Show as they eat their cereal).  They love “House,” the Beatles, President Obama, our dog Gracie, pancakes, the Peanut Blaster at Dairy Queen, the state of Maine.  They hold a reverence for tradition, adore their little cousins, and look forward to big family dinners.  At this moment, I’m pretty sure that Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” is the most-played song on both of their iPods.

But the thing that still amazes me most about the two human beings I gave birth to twenty and seventeen years ago is how different they are. It’s as if the God of Parenthood set out to see how wildly diverse he could be within one gene pool — and fully succeeded in the effort to create two opposite-ends of the spectrum guys.  As one of their early babysitters, a sweet young Hungarian girl, once said after a long night of trying to accommodate two utterly different agendas and temperaments, “Take these two little boys, put them in a pot, stir them both together, then you have a reasonable child.”

And yet, for years our family life was all about trying to make things work for both of them.  We shared a house, a life, a schedule, and somehow we needed to get to the baseball games and the piano recitals, come up with one homemade Halloween costume and buy one gross-out scary mask, kiss one boy goodnight before he conked out in his bed and produce a multi-chapter goodnight saga for the other, give up on the idea of hand-me-down clothes in order to allow each to pursue his own particular style.  (You can’t ask the boy who wants to wear bright orange to dress in his older brother’s sage green castoffs.)

It’s easier now.  They’ve grown up, gotten drivers’ licenses, attend different schools in different states, and increasingly live their own lives.  But I do kind of miss the old negotiations and the juggling, not to mention the variety of our days.  Henry and Jack, together, were a spicy mix.  Raising them, living with them, wasn’t always easy but it was always interesting.  Being their parents stretched us, in ways I’m not sure I fully appreciated in the moment, when I was being asked to test out yet another original board game created by Jack, or to attend one more puppet show produced by Henry in the bedroom.  But now, looking back, I realize that the activities they poured their hearts into when they were very young were the precursors of their passions today.

Jack would spend hours painstakingly making masks, inventing playing cards,  drawing whacky animated figures on tiny pieces of paper to make a flip book.  A few weeks ago, he emailed me his first animation project.

Henry conducted symphonies behind closed doors, a chopstick in his hand, his tape player turned as loud as it would go.  He would corral the neighborhood kids to perform in his musical productions, put together notebooks of his favorite show tunes, envision musical revues.  The other night he carried his laptop into my bedroom, to play me a recording of a song he performed last month at a school concert, the only jazz number in an evening of classical music.

I was talking on the phone yesterday with my friend Carole.  Our children, exactly the same age, grew up together.  I remember her Alex at ten, masterminding the construction of a K’Nex ball machine in our playroom.  Today he’s a computer science major at Princeton,  creating a computer game that he intends to sell this summer.  “Isn’t it amazing,” I said, “that our kids are so capable?  That they have totally surpassed us in so many ways, doing exactly the things that, given who they are, we would have expected them to do?”

Carole admitted that, when it comes to math, Alex has been out of her league since he was in eighth grade.  But she knew what I meant.  Our grown children are just coming into themselves, stepping up and finally beginning to realize those ambitions that first took shape years ago, in the long, dream-filled hours of childhood.

I have to say, being a witness to this process of claiming and becoming is turning out to be one of the high points of parenthood.  And since I’m a mom, and this is what moms do, I’m sharing what my boys are up to these days with you. Click here for Henry’s song “Blue Sky” and here  for Jack’s Bubbling Mud animation. And pay attention to the messes your own children are making, and how they spend their time when there’s nothing much to do: you may be catching glimpses of their futures.






Mad Men

I remember shaking a bit as I told the librarian that she could call my mother.  Twelve years old, I had just made the bold move of rejecting my old stomping ground, the Children’s Room, and venturing instead into the adult stacks.  After an hour spent browsing shelves of murder mysteries and thrillers, I’d settled on John le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” Its black cover with bold white type struck me as quite sophisticated; the jacket references to British double agents, murder, and the Cold War held promise of a world I was eager to enter and comprehend.

But now I’d encountered trouble at the check-out desk.   The elderly librarian shook her head in disapproval, looked down at me, and pronounced the book “unsuitable for children.” Taken aback–and then even more determined to walk out of there with that novel under my arm–I blurted out the first thing that came into my head:   “I’m sure my mother would say it’s fine.” And then I held my breath as the librarian, calling my bluff, dialed the number.  Truth was, I had no idea how my mother would handle this stern gatekeeper’s attempt to guard my innocence.

A moment later, I was signing my name on a small tan card.  My mom, as it turned out,  would let me read anything.

Le Carre’s intrigue was pretty much lost on me; I don’t think I even finished the book.  But I never forgot that moment in the library, when I realized for the first time that my mother believed I could decide for myself what was appropriate and what wasn’t.

We talked about that the other night, when my son Jack said he’d like to watch “Mad Men” with us.  My mom and I got hooked on this series, about an advertising agency in the early 1960s, the last time we were together; this week, she’d ordered season two from Netflix.  But I wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of exposing my son to, well, all that callous licentiousness — the drinking, the extra-marital sex, the smoking, the cynicism, the callous treatment of women.

At seventeen, he is definitely not sheltered and hardly innocent.  He’s gotten into his share of adolescent trouble and hit a few guard rails, literally and figuratively.  I know a lot about his life, but I’m not naive enough to think for a minute that I know everything.  Along the way, he’s watched movies, plenty of them, that would make me blanche.  I’ve read books that he’s recommended, and then, coming across passages that make me blush, struggled to make peace with the fact that he was there before me, reading the same page. Sex, murder, drugs, depravity — they are part of the typical American’s entertainment diet, and my kids are no exception.

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we are the same family that managed to keep our television unplugged and shut away in a cupboard for years on end.  One neighborhood boy, shocked to learn that there was no tv to watch at our house, once said to my son Henry, “No tv?  What do you DO here?”  Having never known anything else, my son simply said, “We just live.”  And so we did, for a long time.

But the media crept in as the kids grew up.  And my desire to protect my children from the “real” world evolved, over time, into something more pragmatic: the realization that, rather than escape it, they must each be equipped to meet it. We develop the tools and inner resources we need to understand life by experiencing it, head on, both the beautiful and the ugly, the dark and the light, the good and the evil.  Growing up means figuring out who we are in relation to everything else, and the “everything else” in our culture includes some pretty nasty stuff.

I remember sitting at a publishing dinner years ago next to the novelist Robert Stone.  Someone asked him about his vividly explicit sex scenes, often fueled by drugs and alcohol–did he write all that from personal experience? Stone paused, took a drink, and than answered dryly, “I write all that stuff so that I don’t have to go do it.”

Perhaps it is the same, to some extent, for all of us — we watch the movies we watch, read the books we read, so that we can explore the vast reaches of the human condition without actually having to go out and experience it all ourselves.

My mom laughed at me, when I admitted that the idea of Jack watching “Mad Men” made me a little queasy.  It’s been almost forty years, after all, since she herself made peace with the fact that a child’s innocence, precious as it may be, is inevitably transformed by curiosity.  We humans hunger to know.  And then, knowing, we are called upon to make our own choices about who to be, how to live, what’s right and wrong.

And so it was that the three of us watched “Mad Men,” season two, together.  Jack and I piled into my mom’s king-sized bed for three nights in a row, propped up on the pillows, ice cream at hand, and watched a lot of really bad behavior, compellingly dramatized.  And I realized, of course, what my own mother already knew:  he could handle it.  So could I.

Spring break

Every year since our sons were very young, our family has come to Florida for a week of visits with the grandparents and a welcome respite from the back side of winter.

Yesterday morning, we stepped out our back door at 4:30 am, into a torrent of freezing rain, gusting wind, slush.  In darkness, eyes still sleep-sandy, we made our way along the empty, icy roads to the airport — bright lights, security lines, hot Starbucks coffee.

As always, the contrasts of the day astonished me.  It is surreal, to wake up in one familiar place and go to sleep hours later in another.  My parents’ airy, modern home  on a densely populated saltwater canal couldn’t be more different than our own rustic wooden house in New Hampshire.  In the course of one day we exchange dirty snow and still-bare trees for lush green lawn, bougainvillea, and rustling palms; fleeces and boots and gloves for shorts and sunglasses and bare feet.  Drum fish commence their percussive mating call in the water beyond the open bedroom windows, the temperature is a mild sixty-eight degrees, the kitchen fruit bowl overflows with strawberries, avocados, cantaloupe.

There isn’t much to do here — no beach nearby, no cool sights to see or touristy events to attend.  When the boys were little we would treat them to a Little Rascals video, go out for a pancake breaksfast, set up coloring books outdoors, play games of Clue.  A trip to the Dairy Queen or a round of miniature golf might be the focus of the day.  Yet, year after year, we’ve come back, to do pretty much the same things we did the year before — spending a few days with Steve’s parents three hours north of my folks, visiting my aunt and uncle, relaxing with my mom.  Meanwhile, our sons grew up.  Over time, Netflix movies replaced the Little Rascals, video games edged out board games (though Scrabble and Bananagrams have brought us back together around the table), laptops have taken the place of coloring books and crayons. Pancakes and Dairy Queen are still part of the agenda, though they don’t elicit the excitement they once did.

Waking up this morning on the fold-out couch in the den, to the smell of fresh coffee and the low coo of mourning doves,  I was overcome with a sense of the long, slow passage of time.  How much has changed in our lives, even as this one annual ritual has held.  The privilege of being both mother and daughter in this house will come to an end, I know.  The day will arrive when our boys will no longer choose a visit to grandma as a spring-break destination.  My parents, in their seventies, cannot be our hosts forever. There are plenty more changes in store.

And so I am grateful for every morning that we find ourselves here, in any family combination, waking to birdsong and the sound of my mom making coffee in the kitchen.  In recent years, Steve’s father has passed away, and his mother has declined into the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.  My aunt, sick for several years, passed in December.  Our sons, at different schools, have different vacation schedules now, without even a single day of overlap.  The family vacation of old has been transformed this year into a new, staggered arrangement of comings and goings.  Everyone will get here, but not at the same time.  This week, Jack is with us.  Henry will arrive for his own spring break soon after his dad and brother head back north.  For a few days in between boys’ visits,  my mom and I will be all alone together — rarely possible when my two sons were both at home, but a special perk of this new life chapter.

Slowly, I’m learning to accept — no, appreciate — the possibilities of our new reality.  Needed less by my own children these days, I am free to create new, closer relationships with my parents.  At seventeen, the age my son Jack is now, I considered an evening spent home alone with my mom and dad as some kind of social failure on my part.  Now, at fifty-one, it is a rare treat.

Last summer, my feelings were often bruised by the sight of my son pacing the house, cell phone pressed to his ear, trying to make a plan, any plan, that would get him out of the house for the night.  What I should have remembered, of course, is that life is transformation.  The present moment is always in the process of becoming something else, just as our children are always growing and changing, becoming fuller expressions of themselves.  They flee our presence as if pre-programmed to do so, and then they return, in time, by their own volition.  Tonight, the old cribbage board has been taken out of the closet.  As I sit here typing, Jack and Steve are side by side on the couch, shuffling cards, laughing, relaxed, talking in their own peculiar shorthand.  We are three generations here under one roof, not quite a complete family, but content with one another’s company.  Sort of like old times, but different.


Eating alone

I am in New York City for two nights, doing a bit of literary volunteer work.  Today has been a long day, nine hours in a hotel conference room.  By the time our group is released from duty just before six, I’m ready to get outside and seize the last minutes of sunlight on the first day of the year that truly feels like spring.

I walk twenty blocks or so with my coat flapping open, cell phone pressed to my ear like a native, checking in with every family member.  Then I slip my phone into my pocket and watch Times Square grow even brighter as night falls, a vast neon panorama of news and temptation and blandishment.  For a while, it’s fun just to be swept along by the tide of humanity, gazing into shop windows and considering my options.

Not knowing how long my meeting would run, or how tired I’d be after trying to be articulate all day, I haven’t made a plan for the evening.  But now, watching the world go by — families, couples, groups of friends — I feel a little unmoored, wishing for company.  I think about going to a show, scoring a last-minute ticket at the half-price booth, but I’ve been sitting for hours; actually, dinner and bed sound even more appealing.  Time was, I would have given anything to even have such a choice.  Now I wonder if I’m settling for too little, behaving like a boring, middle-aged mother cut adrift, when I should be taking advantage of some big-city experience.

Twenty-five years ago, I was an editor in New York, young and ambitious and poor, putting a life together for myself on a salary of $11,000 a year.  One day during my first few months in the city, my boss paused at my desk around lunch time and asked what I was doing.  “Reading a manuscript,” I said, through a mouthful of tuna fish sandwich.

“I don’t want to see you here, eating in the office,” he admonished, surprising me.  “Your job is to get out there, meet people, and hustle.  The best stuff always happens at lunch.”   In those days, even junior editors had expense accounts, but until Cork Smith gave me a little kick in the butt and told me to pick up the phone and start using mine, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

As it turned out, my publishing lunches kept me from starving.  Knowing I would get a decent meal at noon, which would cost the equivalent of my own food budget for an entire week, I could subsist on a grapefruit and English muffin for breakfast, and a small salad from the Korean grocer on the corner for dinner.  Once a day, I stuffed myself.  If I was careful, I could just manage to pay my bills.

“You certainly eat a lot, for such a small person,” I recall one elderly literary agent observing. No doubt I nodded, demure, not telling her that my next proper meal was twenty-four hours away.

I think of those days now, as I sit down to a solitary Saturday night dinner in a French bistro in midtown Manhattan.  In a year of stepping out of the comfort zone and learning to say “yes,” this is another little first for me: a restaurant meal without the easy company of a spouse or child or friend along to split an entree, make conversation, share the moment, pay the tip.   I have a magazine in my purse, but it’s too dim in the restaurant for reading — no chance of hiding out after all.  The waiter whisks away the other place setting at the table, hands me a menu, and I’m on my own.  I take a quick survey, relieved to spot a middle-aged man nursing a glass of red wine, a single woman at a banquette against the wall, my compatriots in solitude.

The memories of my long-ago weekends in New York are still fresh.  I’d put my sneakers on and walk the city for hours, soaking it in — smells, sounds, images and glimpses of how other people lived. The bustling restaurants and alluring boutiques were way off limits — the Sunday Times was my one big indulgence.  I often wondered what being truly “grown up” would feel like, whether I would ever be one of those casual, perfectly turned out women with the right sunglasses, jacket, and shoes.  Whether I would ever wander into a sidewalk cafe for Sunday brunch, without a thought for how deeply those scrambled eggs would dent my paycheck.  At twenty-five, I was working hard to fake it till I made it, a New Hampshire girl with a passion for books, a mostly empty Rolodex, and a miniscule alcove of an apartment on West 83rd — an address that surprised me every time I wrote it out.

Now, twenty-six years later, I confront the truth:  I will never have the right shoes.   And the “right” sunglasses these days — oversized, bug-like — would look ridiculous on me.  But I also realize that it doesn’t matter much anymore.  One good thing about turning fifty is the realization that we don’t have to impress anybody. No one cares what kind of shoes I wear.

Still, there is a part of me that feels a little exposed and uncomfortable here, claiming a valuable piece of New York real estate — a restaurant table — all to myself.  I order a glass of white wine, and look around. Turns out that the other two solitary diners aren’t alone after all — a delicately beautiful red-haired woman has joined the man, full of apology for her tardiness, and the lone woman’s husband has returned from the restroom. I am the only unaccompanied person in the room.

“We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available,” writes Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Han. “We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.”

All of a sudden, it occurs to me that at twenty-five, much as I would have liked a date, I also would have been quite thrilled to eat a restaurant meal alone.  How grateful I would have been back then, to be able to just enjoy my food, without having to act like I knew what I was talking about, or feign interest in some unsaleable first novel.  And so, in an instant, I make a decision:  I will eat this particular meal in a way that allows me to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available.   I’m here, I’m alone, and I am going to fully experience the experience. My salad arrives, and I savor every bite of lettuce and warm goat cheese.  I smile at the waiter, observe my fellow diners, take in the convivial atmosphere, the clatter of silverware, the low din of voices, the exuberance of the two artfully dressed young French women seated next to me, tucking into their steak frites.  I linger over a dish of mussels, with undistracted appreciation.  Happiness, it turns out, is available after all. It was right here all along. By the time dessert arrives (I never order dessert!), I no longer feel alone, but intimately, joyfully connected.  Alive in the moment, grateful for what is, full and content and ready for the long walk back to my hotel.  Tomorrow at this time, I will be back at home in my own kitchen, making a meal, setting the table.  Tonight, though, I am dining alone, and glad to be here.

What’s working

It started as I was stepping out of the bathtub the other morning.  I slipped, one leg in, the other out, into a sort of bare-butt split that landed me down hard on the tile floor.  The only real injury I sustained was a badly stubbed middle toe.  But within two hours, the bruise was a brilliant black and purple and it hurt to walk.  I couldn’t put on a shoe.  My toe swelled and pulsed, as if my heart was beating inside it.

Wincing, I made it to my book group that evening, to a meeting the next morning.  But by then a few other things were going wrong.  A son called, in some trouble at school.  A wild storm of gusty wind and heavy snow knocked the power out, not only at our house, but at 300,000 other rural New England homes.  I drove around for a while on slippery roads, buying coffees I didn’t really want, in search of Internet access at cafes with wi-fi so I could get some work done.  No luck.

That night, as it became clear that power wouldn’t be restored any time soon, Steve and I returned to our cold, dark house, fumbled around for a flashlight, and gathered up a few things.  The house plants were dry as bone. A week’s worth of dirty laundry was piled in the bedroom.  I thought of the bags of summer raspberries and blueberries thawing in the freezer, and wondered why we hadn’t bought a generator after last year’s ice storm.  (But aren’t generators a bit like umbrellas?  Who buys one when it’s not raining?) Camped out at a friend’s house, I discovered that the “contact” part of my website hadn’t been functioning for a while, and that all e-mails addressed to me were apparently disappearing into some vast spam file in the sky.  (If you’ve written to me within the last three weeks and haven’t heard back, that’s why!)

By the end of yesterday, crews had removed the fallen trees from our road and the electricity was back, though it turned out that our heating system had failed.  Wearing long underwear, a hat, and my down parka, I fired up the gas stove, flushed the toilets,  watered the poor plants, and began to unpack and set the house to rights.  My neighbor Debbie stopped by, to fill her water jugs from our tap and see how we were making out.

“So many things aren’t working!” I complained, feeling exhausted and annoyed and sorry for myself.

“Yes,” she answered cheerfully.  “But think how many things ARE working!”

Of course, she had me.  Beyond the window, huge snowflakes were drifting slowly down, softening the hard edges of the world.  Inside, the water was running again and a flick of the switch brought light.  All over town, people were still waiting for power and ours was restored.  My toe had just about shrunk back to normal size.  The food in the freezer was still frozen.  And after a few phone calls and a $200 emergency visit from the heating contractor, I knew we would be warm again, too.

I scooped up the pile of laundry from the floor — summer clothes, the contents of our California suitcases.  And then I had to smile.  Suddenly, instead of seeing a pile of dirty clothes, I saw a reminder of our week’s worth of west-coast adventures and good times with friends old and new.  I looked around at our house, cold still, but just fine, full of  books and paintings and afghans and tables and chairs. . .the stuff of home.  I could rummage around in the refrigerator and find enough food for dinner.  The e-mails would wait. Yeah, I had to admit, a few things in my life aren’t working.  But I don’t have to look far to see plenty that are.

Today, the house is warm.  My son Henry has somehow fixed my website and retrieved the missing e-mails (answers to come soon!).  My toe has healed enough for me to put on sneakers and take a run.  A quick look on YouTube shows that my video of A Gfit of an Ordinary Day has been seen by nearly 800,000 people. And the book is selling slowly and steadily. After a good night’s sleep in my own bed, I’m feeling decidedly more cheerful.

Debbie, an e. coli survivor who understands more about chronic pain than anyone I know, just completed twelve weeks of IV iron treatments and still spends quite a few hours a week curled up with a heating pad.  She makes a daily practice of ignoring what’s not working and focusing instead on what is.  As always, I learn from her example.  Someday, maybe, I’ll get it.