Thursday, September 18, 2003

In-tents Experience

You needn't have been raised on an ashram - or in Sausalito, for that matter - to know that no one, and I do mean no one, can make you do something you don't want to do. Aside from those worst case scenarios where guns, knives or similarly intimidating third parties are present, we're all pretty immune to the sound of one hand clapping.

"Oh, so you think you'll be making me eat these peas now, do ya," the baby gurgles at his mother.

"Say whatever you want about Ike, you'll never make me like him any less," says the partisan to the proselyte.

And so on.

Yet we'll let everyone, and I do mean everyone, make us do things we'd rather not.

"Sure, I'll sign your Save the Dying Dung Beetle petition," the harried, already-late-for-mahjongg-night shopper tells the teeming throng. Never mind that, in this shopper's heart of hearts, the only good bug is a dead bug; with so many people vouching for its character, how bad could the Dung Beetle be?

Pit a pack of peers against a person, even a person that prides herself on being the sort that marches to her own drummer, and you can make her do just about any (lawful) thing.

Take, for example, me. I've been made to do a thing or two against my will on, dare I say it, more than one occasion. Why? Because, on each occasion, I felt I SHOULD do it - a feeling that's got less than nothing to do with doing something because "everyone else does it," which, to people who march to their own drummers, is just plain stupid. (Half the free world could be shooting heroin and I wouldn't think, "hey, I should be shooting heroin, too.")

Still, an involuntary act, no matter how right it is or how roundly it's applauded, is, when all is said and done, an involuntary act. The two-pack a day smoker knew he should quit; what he didn't know was that thousands of virtual strangers, acting on a timetable not his own, would make him quit. He supposed he should be grateful, but really: would a chubby person go around thanking everyone who withheld the dessert menu or denied her seconds?

Wasn't it the Apostle Paul who said, "a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still?" (Actually, it wasn't, come to think of it. It was my father-in-law, who gave the same toast at all of his sons' prenuptial rehearsal dinners. At least that's what my husband swears. But I digress.)

No, whenever a person's made to do something, especially the same darned thing over and over again because, unlike anti-smoking campaigns or compassion for the lowly beetle, this thing has never, and I do mean never, gone out of style, she's anything but grateful. Put-upon, miserable, resentful even, but grateful? No. I'm grateful for a lot of things, like being a kid who knew I should say my prayers before I lay me down to sleep, and who did so willingly. Or always knowing I should eat my vegetables and, for the most part, never having to be convinced of any one kind's merit. (While Bush the Former's aversion to broccoli was something of a disappointment, I was nevertheless impressed by his resolve: "I know I should eat it, but neither you nor your army of farmers can make me.") I know I should love my neighbor as I - well, never mind. Suffice to say I'm grateful for liking so much of the stuff a person should like, and for wanting to do so many of the things a person should want to do. But I will never like camping, and I resent the fact that it has never suffered even a teensy dip in the popularity polls.

I was made to camp when I was a Girl Scout, and unlike all the other initially squeamish scouts, I did not grow to like it.

I was made to camp when I was first married, because everyone, including my mother, who probably dislikes camping more than I do, convinced me it was the only vacation a young married could afford and, besides, "you don't have to rough it."

I was made to camp when I became a Brownie leader, despite leading hours and hours' worth of "alternative" meetings, where I urged my charges to work on their home pedicure skills and facial care badges while ever-so-casually dropping camping horror stories into our conversations.

Alas, I was unsuccessful, but when I realized I'd have to camp, I did try to look on the bright side. I was the leader, after all: I needn't pick a primitive site for our adventure. I'd pick a place not only KOA-approved, but replete with showers and flush toilets. And I'd buy out everything Big 5 had to offer. Wouldn't my daughter and I look back on this weekend forever fondly? Visions of group sing-alongs, my precious moppet to my right, gazing at me with a reverence most people reserve for their Maker, danced in my head.

It wasn't to be. Two of the girls claimed they were allergic to the bug spray I'd dusted my gear with, whining about the fumes for the entire trip. The other girls clung to my co-leader, a woman who wasn't just born to camp, but who knew all the words to "Kumbaya" and had a tent that slept eight. Plus, she could do tricks with it, like keep it from collapsing and make it fit back inside the film canister it came in. To my eternal shame, I hated her.


Thursday, July 3, 2003

Moveable Beasts

The problem with giving kids unusual names is that you'll never be able to find any personalized tchotchkes for them when you go out of town. Which means you'll be taking little Sassafras or Jambalaya with you wherever you go, because, let's face it: they've already got their own baggage ("No, my parents don't do drugs; 'Sassafras' happens to be a family name.")

Of course, on some level, you already knew this. Just as you knew that, while genuine Swiss chocolate or sabots or souvenir slot machines are always appreciated, nothing says "I thought of you the whole time I was away" like a keychain or mousepad or license plate with their name on it. So you take them with you.

And, for the first 13 years or so, you can't imagine why you ever went anywhere without them. Prairie dogs, pyramids, poi - they're all just a little more delightful when seen (or tasted) with children. Even the "mid-sized" Primus the rental car agency gave you is fun, never mind that the air conditioner doesn't work and the radio's stuck on the Grand Ole Opry channel.

When you bring the kids, you take the tours you wouldn't normally take and learn things you wouldn't have learned if you'd left them at home. After all, you know what the Mona Lisa looks like; why spend two hours in line for a two-minute peek at it when you can spend two hours at the hands-on museum down the street? Where everything says "please touch?"

When the kids are along, you snorkel and visit aquariums to see "fishes painted by God." You say things like "mon" and learn all about dreadlocks. You giggle at all the topless sunbathers, and boy, does it feel good.

For the first 13 years or so, bringing the kids means never having to say you're sorry - for playing with the bidet, making faces at the Bobbies, mimicking the mimes, gagging on the haggis, or for just being an ugly American.

But then, without so much as a how-do-you-do, the kids start acting less kid-like. They start acting like, well, the way you used to act. The stamps on their passports are no longer magical, they're just stamps. They take their shoes off without being asked, placing them next to their GameBoys or CD players or laptops in the "bins provided" by airport security. They stop looking out windows and start demanding aisle seats. They don't waggle their fingers behind each other's heads when posing for pictures. They don't save their francs or yen or cute little guilders, they spend them - usually on magazines to read by the pool.

And, like the desert-wandering Israelites of yore, they complain. Not a lot, mind you; not enough to make you think that they, too, were stuck on a 40-year family vacation. But enough to make you realize that the Talmud was on to something: "Travel," it says, "is only enjoyable in moderation."

Of course, I'd amend that to say "group travel." And I have (amended it to say that.) Many times. But then, I'll get the pictures back from some family junket or watch the kids sleeping and I'm ashamed of myself. How could I ever go anywhere without little Sassafras or Jambalaya?

The answer is, I can't. They're always going to be with me; they're part of the journey.

Whoever said excess was wretched must have had rocks in his head. That, or one too many middle seats.


Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Some Splainin'

You know how whenever someone says, "Don't turn around, but here comes..." the first thing you do is turn around?

That's how I am with those little boxes of pellet "snakes" that come in any Red Devil Fireworks "family assortment pack."

Lemme, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, 'splain.

Every year, from June 30 through July 3, whenever I heard my dad's car in the driveway, I'd drop whatever I was doing and rush out to greet him - my own little family tradition, you might say. But before you go thinking, "aw, how cute," you might take note of the fact that I was only cute a few days of the year. A lot of kids rushed out to greet their dads year-round. (We called these kids "suck-ups." No, just kidding. Well, sort of; I mean, some of these kids WERE suck-ups, and where I came from, suck-ups were only one caste level above bullies. But I digress.)

Still, it took some effort to uphold this tradition, seeing as how my dad never came home before six and was rarely home before seven; Mom kept his dinner warm until eight most nights, sometimes nine. More often than not, I welcomed Dad home from a hard day at the office in my pajamas.

But I'd run outside no matter how cozy I'd been or with any color goop drying on my (teenaged) face to greet Dad on those aforementioned days, because on those aforementioned days, I wanted to help Dad unload his trunk. Much as he'd rather I didn't - help him unload it, that is.

"Well, look who's here to help her old man bring in his blueprints," he'd snort, knowing with every fiber of his paternal being that he was as much to "blame" for my sudden, albeit annually-occurring, offers to help as he was. For my dad couldn't pass a fireworks stand without stopping to buy something, and he never turned away any bag of ignitable goodies "the guys at the office" were always giving him at this time of year.

"Don't even think about opening that box/bag/carton," he'd say; "I haven't had a chance to go through it yet myself."

'Going through it' was, of course, Dadspeak for, "I haven't had time to get rid of the pellet snakes" he hated so much.

Sparklers; Gushing Geysers; Roman Fountains; Piccolo Petes; Tijuana Tillies; all manner of screaming whatnots and whizzers; even contraband M-80s: They were all okay in my dad's book.

But pellet snakes, ugh. Just the sight of an unopened box of them could produce a curse-filled tirade. "Whoever the **** is that decided nothing says 'Happy Fourth of July' better than stained sidewalks and driveways and God knows what else should be ****** by his ********* at high*****noon..." for example.

Naturally, I was as drawn to these admittedly useless little black scourges-of-concrete as moths are to flame. They were the first things I looked for when I was old enough to buy my own fireworks, and I can't for the life of me explain my attraction.

Neither can my husband, who is almost as blasphemous as my dad on the subject and truly loathes "...the ****** things."

Indeed, I'm bracing for his annual, "You threw those despicable driveway destroyers out, didn't you?" even as I write this.

And, in the spirit of the season, I'll plead the fifth. Until next week, when I'll produce the infernal pellets and say, "No, dear, I didn't. But I didn't light them, either. Happy?"


Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Heir-Raising Lessons

My dad can beat up your dad - not that my dad would ever be so uncouth. He just can, that's all.

My dad never played catch with my brothers or me, but I can't remember any of us ever wanting to play catch with him. I don't even think he knew how. We picked it up, as they say, in the street.

What he did do was show us the great outdoors, even if he had to drag our citified, whiny carcasses outside to do so. He showed us what kind of bush you could eat if you had to (even though I never understood how anyone would ever "have to," there being 7-Elevens and Auto Clubs and call boxes and simple common sense, i.e., why would I ever be by myself and more than a mile from any of those things?) And he tried to show us how to ride a horse, although only one of us ever managed to do so to his satisfaction (and it wasn't me; any horse I ever rode always knew he was boss) because "everyone needs to know how to ride a horse."

My dad also thought everyone should know how to play at least one musical instrument, or at least "want to know, damn it," which is why one of us was always taking some kind of music lesson when we were younger, although none of us mastered a single instrument.

My dad, on the other hand, plays piano, guitar, violin - which he, naturally, calls "fiddle" - harmonica, banjo and drinking glasses (his "I Dream of a Jeannie with a Light Brown Hair," using only four 8 ounce tumblers, is pretty amazing), and never took a lesson in his life.

That's because, in my dad's day, "we didn't have fancy schmancy music teachers coming to our house after school. Hell, we were lucky to have a house at all or even go to school" - which was, of course, thirteen miles away from anywhere Dad, as a lad, ever lived (snowy places all, even in the summer) and only accessible by foot.

One lesson we did manage to learn from my dad was that there was no situation, conundrum, or difficulty that couldn't be improved, explained, or made easier with an adage, and he had an adage for every eventuality. Sniveling, whining and all manner of ugly self-absorption could be cured with a stern, "Get out of the coal bin, mother, you're making a fuel of yourself." When my brother's teenaged heart was broken (over some hussy, per my ever-loyal Mom) Dad, who believed no man should marry, let alone fall in love, before 40, put it all in perspective for him: "She was only a moon shiner's daughter, but you loved her still."

Somehow Dad's aphorisms even helped me with algebra. "Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?" he'd bark, whenever I asked him to just "give me the answer" or struggled with the purpose of it all.

My dad believes every gift is a treasure, and every gift he gets touches him deeply - much to my mom's consternation. Indeed, his side of their bedroom and their entire garage is stacked to the rafters with useless geegaws, gadgets, garish ties, and whatnot he's amassed over the years - many, if not most, of these things from his children.

My dad, though not for lack of trying, never embarrassed me, not once, not even when I was at the age when everything embarrassed me, even other people's dads. How did he manage this remarkable feat?

By doing his darndest to do the exact opposite, i.e., embarrass me, that's how. Mornings when he'd take me to school - junior high school - he'd drop me off right in the most populated area, say goodbye, then whip out a white handkerchief, wave it madly in the air and trill, "toodle-oo!" And he'd do this, that is, look ridiculous, for me: "It'll put hair on your chest."

My dad, like Will Rogers, never met a man he didn't like. (Again, much to my mom's consternation. "You picked him up where?," she'll gasp, when he apologizes for being late on account of picking up another hitchhiker. "A hot dog stand in East L.A.? You're lucky he didn't kill you!")

My dad forgives anything, and when I say "forgives," I mean he forgets - the essence of true forgiveness - as well. He's forgiven all the hitchhikers and shady characters he's picked up over the years, guys who've stolen the watch right off his wrist as they were getting a lift hither and yon. And he's forgotten everything I've ever apologized for, even every misdeed I didn't apologize for.

And I may be a girl, but I forgive him for putting hair on my chest. Heck, I love him for it. Happy father's day, Dad!


Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Accounting Down

A brand new year! Boy, if ever there was a time to start that self-improvement regimen I've been meaning to start for, oh, about a lifetime, this is it. Clean slates, fresh calendars: half the world or more is resolving to do better today, the first day of the first month of the rest of our lives and, you know what? I aim to join them. What's more, I aim to shout my resolutions from the rooftop! To share, unbosom, maybe even express a best-left-unexpressed thought or two!

Yep, that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Any second now.


Okay, I give up: where do people like Dorothy Gale, people who believe saying something makes it so, get their nerve? I mean, it wasn't any of that clicking-of-the-heels hocus pocus that got Dorothy back to Kansas; it was her telling anyone and everyone within earshot that "there's no place like home" that did the trick.

For that matter, where does my friend Vicky, who swears by a similar MO ("modus operandi" to you learned folks; something they used to say a lot on "Hawaii 5-O" to those of us who flunked Latin), get her nerve? She's never woken up in her own bed after spending a weird night in Oz or anything, but that doesn't keep her from making wishes and resolutions all over the place; wishes and resolutions, I might add, that rarely, if ever, come true.

And not just on New Year's Day or in the aftermath of a tornado, either, no sir. Vicky makes them whenever she gets a hankering to be a better Vicky, turn over a new leaf, get right with the cosmos, whatever; no Auld Lang Syne soundtrack, catastrophe or crisis of faith required. Indeed, she once told an entire wedding party - during a toast to the bride and groom, both missionaries - that it was her intention to "...quit the corporate world and join the Peace Corps. ASAP."

Never mind that that was in 1988, and never mind the unprintable name she called me when I asked her, after a more-than-polite four years had passed, if she knew what "ASAP" meant. Making such a declaration before a roomful of people you know you'll see again, and again and yet again, takes guts.

As does making a public service announcement out of everything you resolve to do in the name of self-improvement, whether it's quitting smoking, giving up red meat, or vowing to say absolutely nothing about people you've got absolutely nothing nice to say something about.

But Vicky just waves my admiration away with a dismissive, "Pooh! Nothing gutsy about hedging your bets."

"Hedging your bets?"

"Yeah, the way I figure, telling people about your good intentions helps keep you accountable. The more people you tell, the more accountable you are."

"Hmm, so I guess you didn't tell many people you quit smoking."

"Shut up and pass me the ashtray," she says, in that sweet way nervy old friends have about them.

But sweet and nervy enough, I wondered, long after we'd finished our Porterhouses (medium for her, rare for me; hey, I'm not the one who gave up red meat), to make me want give this whole resolution, declaration, statement-of-intent-to-improve thing another try? To, yikes, broadcast it?

Well, let's see. Ahem.

This year, I resolve to eat nothing after 10:00 p.m. No, make that nothing in bed after 10:00 p.m., 11:00 on weekends.

Say, that wasn't so hard. Okay, on to resolution number two.

This year, I resolve to watch no more than two Lifetime Movie Network movies a week. No, make that three Lifetime Movie Network movies a week - four if one is based on actual events, which, of course, counts as a documentary and therefore really doesn't count at all.

Gee, I think I'm starting to get the hang of this!

This year, I resolve to learn a new language. Oops, scratch that.

This year, I resolve to clean up my language. At least when in the company of those under 18 or over 65. Oh, what the hell; make that, "or over 75." Have you ever crashed an American Legion party?

This year, I resolve to match every poison pen letter I write with a letter of commendation. And, considering how many poison pen letters I write (incidentally, do Governor Davis; Oliver Stone; Senator Byrd; the California Public Utilities Commission; Al Sharpton; and assorted other of my pen pals think their silly "cease and desist" orders scare me?), that's a pretty tall order/fat resolution. Still, no one ever said self-improvement was supposed to be easy.

This year, I resolve to give an opinion only when it is asked for - whoa, hold it right there.

No one ever said self-improvement was supposed to be impossibly difficult, either.

Happy New Year, Ojai!


Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Tales of Rebelry

No matter how you slice it, some of us were just born old. Whatever your cup of tea - fundamentalism, pantheism, transcendentalism, Marianne Williamsonism, whatever - you've likely met, and probably know, at least one person who was born old. You might call them "old souls" if you're a Hindu; "old codgers" if you're an existentialist; "old dirty bastards" if you're a rap musicologist, or just not call them at all if you're a Trappist. The point is, everyone (including English majors, who annoyingly turn their noses up at single-syllable adjectives like "old," preferring the fancier "anachronistic," instead) knows someone, or is someone, who was born old.

But does everyone know someone who started out generically enough, someone who, as Freud would've observed, cooed in all the right places, delighted in all the wrong body parts, believed hers were the only feelings that got hurt, etc., then, wham! Suddenly got old when everyone else her age was getting braces and/or their first French kiss?

If not, permit me to introduce myself, a gal who was too dumb to do anything dumb when she should've, i.e., when she could've gotten away with it.

This isn't to say colossally or dangerously dumb, no sir. Nothing on the order of joining the SLA ; I was, in fact, offended by several of my fellow junior high school students' "Right On, Patty/Tanya" T-shirts, seeing as how I'd already decided Ms. Hearst was sorely misguided BEFORE photos of the Hibernia Bank job surfaced. And nothing so stupid as drag racing, either; cool as all those rebels without a cause looked, it was their era, what with its "I like Ike" buttons, roller-skating carhops and picture-perfect TV families I longed for, not their Porsche Spyders-cum-coffins.

Nope, I mean the regular dumb things that are the province of minors. Like questioning authority. Indeed, youth are expected to question authority, even if it's just for the sake of it (what we old codgers refer to as "mouthing off.") And the best part is, no matter how serious the consequences are for doing so, they're never all that serious. I mean, how permanent is that almighty "permanent record" when you're under 18?

But try questioning it when you're a bona fide grownup. Worse, a grownup who'd spent most of her childhood nostalgic for an age she'd never known and all of her adolescence repelled by disco, the advent of the "A Twinkie made me do it" defense, and words like "herstory." A grownup who then spent some 20 irascible years wishing people would go back to keeping their problems in the closet where they belong, and who is only just lately, at the halfway-to-old mark, no less, trying to recover from a fairly staid, largely misspent, youth. On second thought, don't try it.

The IRS doesn't care how upstanding a citizen you've always been; attaching a photocopy of your middle finger to your tax return will earn you a lifetime of consequences, er, audits. And telling the Jury Commissioner that you won't report for duty until Leonard Peltier is freed all but guarantees you two days' lockup and at least four frivolous, "he said, she said" trials in the bargain

Trust me, no one sympathizes, much less empathizes, with your condition. "Curmudgeonly before your time? Never heard of such a thing. But even I had, it seems to me there'd be better ways to treat it than pressing one's aging buttocks against the window of our office." (There were, of course, but I, alas, hadn't yet learned how to vent my frustrations by letter. Or subpoena.)

And if you're thinking of giving the highway patrolman who pulled you over that, "yes, I've got my current registration sticker right here; see? I just forgot to slap it on the old bogus license plate before going off on this here crime spree. It's a good thing you stopped me, though, Officer. If you hadn't, I'd probably still be right behind those two drunks up the road, and that was sort of scary, tell the truth," speech, well, I've two words for you: think again.

So what's an extremely late bloomer - okay, okay, immature clod - to do?

Anything that doesn't come with any serious consequences, that's what. For instance, I'm planning on tee-peeing my friend's house this weekend. She shouldn't have told me she's going out of town.


Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Roamin' Holidays

When I was much younger - oh, don't look that way; it could've been worse. I came this close to adding another "much," and then we would've been here for who knows how long?

Anyway, when I was much younger, all I wanted from a vacation was a deep, dark, George Hamilton-esque tan, the kind of tan that said, I was sunbathing in some tropical locale during Spring Break and you weren't. The kind of tan you could wear to school in September (these were the days when school started in September) and admire in the reflection of your locker (remember lockers?), where you'd loiter a bit too long the first week (the better to answer all the "wow, where'd you go's?" that the kids whose tans had already faded or who'd spent Labor Day weekend shopping for school clothes would stop to ask.)

In my college days, a period lasting, oh, fourteen years or so - and, no, I'm not a doctor - I wanted a little more from my vacations. A tan, melanoma and wrinkle scares notwithstanding, was still part of the criteria, but now I wanted to get them in places that offered a pretty stamp on the old passport. I figured that, what with tanning beds available at every hair salon or quickie mart, a rained out trip to Jamaica or the Portuguese Algarve wouldn't be so much of a vacation sourer.

With the birth of my first child, I got even more demanding. Though I'd crossed tans off my list (you would, too, if you'd ever mistaken yourself for Ethel Kennedy in the bathroom mirror one early summer morning), I now insisted on ground level lodging and significant child discounts at area attractions. Extra points for any chain of hotels or airline that employed the kind of staff who stopped to coo or say, "aw, isn't he darling" at my little darling.

Child number two grew in direct proportion to my list of vacation needs. Woe betide anyone who wouldn't honor an advertised two-for-one tour of the French Quarter by pack mule coupon; knocked on the door and said, "checkout was fifteen minutes ago, ma'am;" or asked for the five-dollar-a-pop headphones back. ("These are OURS, thank you very much. And just where do you sanitize those rental sets, anyway?") By the time child Number Three came along, my list had become downright unmanageable. No rooms with a view of any people who actually looked good in a string bikini. No cabin stewards who can't fold the towel into a cute little bat for the baby. No elevator attendants who asked, "what floor?" with their palms out. And absolutely no visits to Graceland - where, if you can believe it, the King's artifacts are set behind thicker Plexiglas than that which guards the Mona Lisa, yet still aren't allowed to be photographed - despite how much Child Number Two wanted to go.

Vacationing a'la me got a bit easier when casinos got kid-friendlier. Now I didn't mind button pushers asking for tips as much, and would, in fact, tip just about anyone who'd point me in the direction of the casino's nearest video arcade. "Have fun, lovebugs!" I began trilling with a cheer I'm not known for. "Mommy will see you at dinner!" During this period, I visited more Indian reservations than Custer, and many a good, educational vacation was had by all.

I look back on these as my vacation honeymoon years, years when everyone in the family could find something to please them in one locale. A so-called "golfing vacation" in St. Andrews, for example, meant castles in Edinburgh for me, men in kilts for the youngest to laugh at, haggis for the oldest to gag at, the liberal telly for the middle kid to marvel at. But ever so slowly, things changed. It got so one of us was always out of sorts, then two, and so on. Finally, I gave up my list entirely, spending a few days of a few vacations snarling, "next trip I take, you're staying with Granny."

Though I think everyone pretty much knew that this was an idle threat (Granny spends nearly every weekend in Las Vegas), it seemed to keep the snarling from getting out of hand. And, at some point, the family came up with its own list of what it wanted out of a vacation, then proceeded to shoot for just that. As for me, I'm just happy to finish the book I invariably pack on these junkets. And guess what? This summer, I finished two. I'll worry about all the UV rays I inadvertently caught while finishing them next vacation.


Wednesday, July 17, 2002

A Summer's Tale

Though I love cheeky croupiers and St. Tropez tans as much as the next guy, I don't spend entire summers in some tiny-yet-tres-tony European principality because, well, because I suffer from REALLY post post-partum depression. (Not to mention a nagging case of Inadequate Trust Fund.)

How post is my post-partum depression? Let me put it this way: My "baby" will be eight in August. And it hasn't helped matters any that my oldest celebrates his natal day in June, my little heiress in July. Which means I've been going on seasonal crying jags, spoiling for a fight, and/or feeling like a heat-seeking blowfish for 16 Junes, 13 Julys, and almost eight Augusts. In layman's terms? Since 1986, a good two-thirds of every summer vacation and/or just plain summer month photo taken of me has been unflattering.

There's the, "omigod, how will I ever stuff these things into the top half of this bathing suit" picture taken when the oldest was a hungry newborn and we took a trip to 105-degrees-in-the-shade Biloxi, Mississippi.

There's the "whaddya mean I'm 'too pregnant to fly?'" picture, capturing me at a LAX check-in counter in all my snarling, temporal vein-throbbing, swollen-footed glory. (Like it was my fault the girl child didn't make her debut until two-and-a-half weeks later than promised.)

There are countless snapshots of a scarily miscast Mother Machree who bears more than a passing resemblance to me, hostessing an equally countless number of "fun" summer birthday soirees: That's me hissing at the hired clown for forgetting to bring the dancing poodle. And, yes, that's me gritting my teeth at the magician who neglected to inform me his "act" was a blue one. (That's also me handing said magician his top hat, wages - sans tip - and showing him, his assistant, and her pasties the door. But don't look too closely; the tears on some of those five year olds' faces are absolutely heartbreaking.) And let's not forget that touching home movie, the one immortalizing "Cowboy Clem" and I in a celluloid contretemps over whose responsibility it was to scoop up "Petey-the-Pony's" prodigious poops.

Worst of all, though, was the summer I spent waiting for my youngest to be born. That was 1994, and I don't think I went anywhere (she said like a spoiled brat) but crazy that summer. In addition to my usual June and July "spells" - hey, if your kids are a year older, what does that make you? - I was having phantom labor pains for a baby being born 8,000 miles a way.

Though I put on a remarkably composed front for the pictures the social worker took for us, inside I was a mess. What female hormones get tweaked during an adoption? I haven't a clue. All I know is that mine were a mess. And how was I to justify the banana splits I craved with a (relatively) flat belly? Friends and family weren't any help, either. "Be patient," they'd say, which, in retrospect, was like telling Al Gore, "tough break."

I spent the end of that summer and much of the fall cursing the eminently patient Korean social workers I'd never meet - but who I knew were eminently patient because they never once hung up on me, even after I said something snippy like, "but WHEN is when? I'm adopting a baby, not a teenager!"

It's when I did finally bring the baby home (and he was indeed a baby at four months of age) that I got weepy. But they were happy tears, just like the ones I had when his brother and sister were born.

The camera, however, makes no distinction between happy tears, tears of frustration - like the kind caused by a misspelled name on a birthday cake or a nasty kiddie entertainer - and tears from an over-chlorinated hotel pool. But what are some bad pictures in the grand scheme of things? As long as I get to summer somewhere with my kids, I really don't mind. Really! For, if I ever am spending June, July and August in a tiny-yet-tres-tony European principality, you can bet I'll be too old to enjoy it. And much too old to tan.


Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Heavy Meddle

We all have our holiday traditions; some quite tedious, some done by rote, and some so meddlesome people wish we'd just knock them off. Even doing nothing out of the ordinary - where 'ordinary' equals a lawn made of grass and 'extraordinary' equals a lawn made of UL-approved extension cords - for the holidays is a tradition...o' ye of little whoop-de-doo.

Lest this take the tone of a term paper, we won't discuss tradition's multiple spin-offs or the various wannabe traditionalists, like the highstrung homemaker who institutes a new "tradition" each year, rabidly hoping that this year's the keeper and becoming downright nasty when the NEW TRADITIONAL KRUGELCAKES get a lukewarm response.

We shall stick to Groups A, B and C; that is, Tedious, Rote, and Meddlesome. Starting with Tedious.

Iowa Dot, a second cousin once removed, fits this bill. Every December, Dot mails anyone even remotely related to her (think Abraham) a gaily-festooned envelope of mass duplicated (she's found relations in 29 countries) microfiche, each a microscopic rendition of the alleged Family Tree.

I say 'alleged' because, how many people do you know who have their own microfiche reader?

Okay, so I reviewed Dot's labors once or twice. And thanks to that Iowa goofball, I'm not allowed within 15 feet of two libraries' A/V equipment. Listen, my ancestors were dullards. There won't be a mini-series made of us, I guarantee it.

Yeah, yeah, it's a thoughtful gesture. At least it was. Now it's just plain tedious. For we all, I'm assuming all with telephones, have to reply. "Great stuff, Dot!" "Whoa, you did it again!" Her follow-up calls have, respectively, made Mom take up smoking; my brother hara-kiri; and myself, Caller ID.

If you're wondering why the Family Tree warrants an annual update, why not ask how Dot affords such yearly tedium, too? The answer is one and the same! Iowa Dot is the Black Widow of the Corn. A birth here, a death there; that's one thing. But new husbands affect entire branches.

As for Rote traditionalists, they only hurt themselves. It's sad, really.

I mean, the kids are long gone, but there the parents are, in their dens, watching "The Weakest Link" with an eight-foot blowup dreidel between them. Neither remembers inflating it, yet both are winded. Eventually, they'll fight over who has to deflate it.

I knew someone who set up this delicate crèche, every piece some Romanian or Slovenian crystal, then stand guard over it all month, cursing her duty. She'd lose about ten pounds every December, but she wasn't very happy.

Meddlesome, word has it, best describes my own tradition: making early resolutions. See, I make them early to have New Year's Eve free for myself. Why squander an in-demand baby-sitter on other people's problems?

But I don't think that's why my tradition irks people. I'm guessing it's because I don't make resolutions for myself (never believed in 'em), but for others.

Last year, for example, I gave a friend a typed list of resolutions she needed to make and - say, it just occurred to me that not hearing from her in a year isn't necessarily a bad sign. She might be working on her list this very minute. Aww, bless her heart.

Maybe that's what happened with that neighbor eons ago. The one with the chartreuse house and all the lawn gnomes. Maybe he really did get his eyes checked; saw the light, so to speak.

Golly. There could be hope for even my loftiest resolutions, the ones I threw in for kicks. Ooh, how sweet the sound of "...We at Fox News resolve to keep Geraldo away from any wars, conflicts, skirmishes - heck, donnybrooks, catfights, and hissy-fits - in 2002." Or...


Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Kelly's Kaveats

Poor Richard had his Almanack; Emily posts her rules of etiquette; Heloise has her hints; even I had its Ching.

Well, I happen to be afire with some practical wisdom myself, and it seems the only right thing-goodness, the only moral thing-to do would be for me to stop hoarding it. Share the wealth and all that.

So, considering the fact that every breathing resident of this planet is bent on naming things (Even Sean Puff Daddy Combs, a semi-literate earthling, as evidenced by his "I Be Missing You" rip-off, er, "sampled" treatment of Sting's "Every Breath You Take," wasn't content to call his ex-girlfriend by her Christian name. She's now known as "J-Lo." And we all know that acutely-literate terrestrials are prone to attach "gate" to everything that even PORTENDS to whiff of malfeasance.), I propose that the following be called "Kelly's Kaveats." (Hey, I'm fond of alliteration and "Kelly's Blue Book" was already taken.)

  1. Fanatics eventually ruin all grand ideas.
  2. Graduating high school a year and a half early does not automatically confer wunderkind status. If you're still cocking your ear expectantly at parties whenever you hear the term-foolishly thinking your name will follow-stop it at once. Attack the canapés and hog the karaoke mike instead; if you really were a wunderkind, you wouldn't be sucking down Smirnoff billed as Stoli and still insisting that the SATs were rigged. You'd be home alone with a weird haircut, trying out new twists on the theory of relativity.       
  3. Never be the King's Taster. In a parliament-less society, this means: Do not be the first on your block to try out LASIK, Phen-phen, tattooed eyeliner, or even an IUD. His extra-dark trademark specs served severe myopia, but Roy Orbison's legend was founded on the misconception that he was a blind crooner. If, like me, you're sick to death of looking for your glasses in the middle of the night-as if seeing a suspected intruder clearly would better help you slay him!-and if, again, like me, you're sick to death of hearing yourself chuckle about the irony of it all-"I wouldn't be spending so much time LOOKING for my glasses if I didn't NEED glasses"-try radial keratotomy instead. The kinks have been sufficiently ironed out of that procedure. I haven't done so myself, but that's probably because part of me secretly likes roaming my halls in a visual fog. (Things look so much cleaner!) And Phen-phen speaks for itself; even the FDA probably now classifies it as "badly cut amphetamine." About tattooed eyeliner, well, you'd best consult my mother. Initially, she was quite excited about shaving precious minutes off her morning beauty routine (minutes, for example, that could've been much better spent fricasseeing an omelet for her Yorkshire terrier), but now all she does is wail about the fact that she ALWAYS looks like Liz Taylor, and the CURRENT Liz Taylor, to boot. As for newfangled devices-designed-expressly-for-purposes-of-maintenance-free-birth-control, hear this: I was a young bride when I got such a device, my only short-term and long-term goals at the time being college graduation and facile cooking skills, respectively. (Though I mean not to appear glib, the devastatingly heartbreaking results of my "goals" meant that, when we wanted to, my husband and I couldn't make a baby on a bet.)
  4. A "ma'am," no matter how politely intended, is never well received by women of a certain awkward age, i.e., too young for Morley Safer but too old for MTV. (This is actually a two-part caveat, the second part being: Just because you still fit into your bikini don't mean you should wear it. Things get, shall we say, "redistributed.") Consider a recent excursion I took with the kiddies to the beach. After getting them settled with snacks and flippers and pails, I thought I'd catch up on some reading. Midway through my Good Housekeeping, I thought to check the time, then realized with a start I'd forgotten my watch. Hmm, a buffed Adonis three towels down had one on, as did a grandmotherly type one towel to the right. I opted for the former, figuring it would do my legs good to stretch and my eyes good to window shop. But after kindly giving me the time, the Adonis solemnly added a "ma'am." Jeez, I skulked back to my towel, feeling like Mrs. Robinson at Elaine and Benjamin's baby shower. One would think I'd learned my lesson; one would be wrong. In Myrtle Beach last summer, I figured taking the hotel pool by cover of night would be both "inoffensive" and relaxing. My oldest son joined me. But just as I emerged from the pool, a Marine on leave walked up from the adjoining public beach. "Uh, oh," I arrogantly thought. 'Arrogant' because it turned out the Marine was interested in my SON. We beat a hasty retreat back to pay-per-view.
  5. Cream cheese is rarely invited to any of the parties thrown by the four major food groups. This isn't trivial data, believe me; some of my chubbiest friends have Ph.D.'s and don't realize it; they still maintain that cream cheese is a dairy product.
  6. When rounding up laundry, always assume your kids' underthings are dirty. In fact, just assume anything that didn't quite make it to the hamper is dirty. The minutes you think a sniff test will save aren't worth it.
  7. God would never have Call Waiting. And I doubt if he'd wait patiently on the other line while you check to see "if this call's more important."
  8. Try not to suffer the indignity of dying on the same day as a really famous person. Unlike birthdays, which you can remind people about, death days' remembrance are solely the responsibility of the survivors. My poor friend's dad passed away the same day John Lennon was killed and now, even one of my friend's own-admittedly shallow-sisters forgets to commemorate her dad's memory. She's always too busy playing "Strawberry Fields."

That's about it...for now. ("Forewarned, forearmed" - Cervantes, Don Quixote)