Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Falling from Leaps of Faith

I've lived my life by a simple motto: "Try everything once. If you enjoy it, don't stop." This adage served me well when I wrote my first story; not so much the night I tried my first rum and Coke.

My adventurous spirit took me to many highs and lows in my life. Yet none were as demeaning, demoralizing or dangerous as my athletic pursuits.

I attempted a wide range of physical activities throughout my youth. The most benign, like my second-grade ballet class, only resulted in public humiliation. The worst, such as horseback riding, ended with a trampled ribcage.

Some people are born athletes. Others can't manage the mere ability to clap in sync with the cheerleaders at a football game. I would be the latter.

Still, I continued to run (only figuratively--man did I suck at track) through the gamut of athletic endeavors. Once I realized I failed at every traditional activity, I attempted to diversify.

When snow skiing became the hot new trend in high school, I joined the ski team. My first trip ended, surprisingly, with both my body and my pride intact. So I signed on for a second trip, just confident enough to venture beyond the tow ropes and bunny hills to the chairlifts and "intermediate" hills.

My eyes traced the height of the hill, with some trepidation, as the chairlift approached. But as I ascended several feet upward, I quickly learned that my fear of losing control on the hill and crashing into a tree was fully unwarranted.

Because I fell off the chairlift.

(Note: I wrote this post last night, before I read today about a chairlift accident in Maine. Unlike that catastrophe, my fall cannot be blamed on any mechanical failure.)

The lift was stopped for several minutes while the ski patrol tended to me. And while the entire crowd watched.

Fortunately, nothing was broken. Nothing except my spirit. I spent the rest of the day in the lodge, sneaking contraband beverages.

My skiing career ending prematurely, I traded in the snowy hills of Michigan for the green hills of southern Ohio. I tagged along with a youth group to Hocking Hills State Park, where we planned to repel down a cliff. The good news was that we were already on top of the mountain--no chairlifts could turn traitor on me.

With my first leap off the cliff, I took my usual leap of faith, too. With each step down the rope, my feet landed safely against the mountain. My heart soared. Repelling down mountains--who could have guessed this might be my athletic calling?!?

And then, halfway through my descent, I happened to look down. The harness was caught in my shirt. Every step I took yanked my shirt higher. It was already hiked well above my belly button. I struggled to pull my top out of the harness, to no avail. My choices were either to slip out of the harness and fall to my death, or keep descending and provide the crowd below with a full view of my lace-trimmed bra. Wait. Was I wearing a bra?

Eventually, the crowd got its peep show, I plopped safely onto the ground, and I gave up that repelling shit for good.

I should have, right then, forsaken every physical endeavor forever. But through my typical marred judgment, I continued to seek my athletic fortune. Not one ended well. The workplace softball league in 1982 resulted in a line drive to my face, and the rollerblading incident of 1999 ended with a CT scan in the ER. (Some people still maintain the hospital missed my residual brain damage.)

So now, I will finally proclaim: I am done with them all. Through with dancing, horseback riding, skiing, repelling, softball, rollerblading and with any activities that even peripherally involve animals, mountains, balls, or anything clamped onto my feet. For my New Year's resolution, I vow to never again attempt such trickery.

I shall live the rest of my life purely as a sports spectator, even if I do clap to the beat of a different drummer.

The sad reality is, the Olympics wouldn't award me even a cheap plastic medal. And Bristol Palin dances far better than I could ever hope to.

Talk about the agony of defeat.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ho Ho Ho to All!

Ho Ho Ho! Happy Holidays to everyone in all my networks! (Click on the image below to see.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Letter to Santa, Reprise

OK, this one really, is a final blast from the past. Santa's elves promise you a new blog post for Christmas...

Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

I know it's been a few years since I've written. Thankfully, you haven't forgotten me. The vacuum sweeper you brought in 1986 was truly splendid, as were the ones you brought in 1993, 1998 and 2004.

I'm not writing to complain (I've already written to Hoover twice). I do appreciate your continued generosity and thoughtfulness. Household appliances don't come cheap, I know, and besides--any guy who's willing to clean up after eight reindeer who've consumed 1,000 tons of carrots in a single evening is OK by me!

Anyway, thought I'd get a jump on all those greedy children. Although I must pass on the Twilight action figures this year, I've been thinking a few toys might be nice after all this time. Sadly, my mother sold off many of my favorites at garage sales ($2.50 for a prime condition Easy Bake Oven? I still haven't forgiven her). And my sister DC confiscated all my Barbies to use as voodoo dolls (I was too terrified of her to complain).

So, here is a list of my favorite toys from my childhood, which I've concluded would have new purpose and merit for a middle-aged woman. If the elves can't make these, Wal-Mart probably sells them cheap, and I promise not to tell the unions where you got them:

1) Sting-Ray Bike with Banana Seat: Because why is it that, as our butts grew bigger, the bike seats grew smaller?
2) Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots: After forty-five minutes of listening to a client's rants, even a pacifist wants to knock someone's block off.
3) Mystery Date Game: But don't bother including the "Dreamboat" in the white tux. What a goober. Give me the scruffy-looking "Dud" date. Yes, by my age I should have learned my lesson, but there’s still something about those Bad Boys…
4) Easy Bake Oven: Cooking's never been as much fun since; the calories in bite-sized cakes are surely too paltry to matter, and I need to make peace with my mother.
5) Creepy Crawler Oven: Can you make the goop liver-flavored? Because goopy edible creatures probably don't have the same horrific crunch as the live moths and spiders my cats now enjoy eating.
6) Magic 8 Ball: I'm way tired of making important decisions. I'd rather leave it up to the wisdom of a toy plastic ball. Sherry: "Shall I get that colonoscopy?" Magic 8 Ball: "My sources say no." Well, OK then!

If you can't bring all of these, a gift card would be fine. But no gift substitutes please. My vacuum sweeper, when I last used it a month ago, appeared to be working fine.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reflections on a Reunion, Reprise

One last look back on the past year:

Reflections on a Reunion

A few remembered everyone. Everyone remembered at least a few. We insisted a couple guests never even attended our school, clearly there just to crash a good party.

Some couldn’t be identified without our scrutiny of a nametag. Several retained a hint of their former selves. A few looked inconceivably young or simply damn good. We empathized and sympathized with the heavier, the grayer, the balding, because that comprised nearly all of us. We tried not to begrudge those who looked far better than we did.

Most appeared to have gotten through life with a few hiccups. Some flourished in lucrative careers or long, secure marriages. A handful hadn't fared so well. We made small talk with them before edging away, uncertain how to respond to their stories of misery and grief.

Several still live within blocks of our old school. Many converged upon the nearby suburbs. Others scattered to the coasts or to far-off homes in Germany or Australia. Those who remained midwesterners felt thankful to have family and old friends nearby, yet envied the more adventurous.

We made each other smile with high school tales of classroom pranks, football wins and unsanctioned parties. Some hungered to return to those days. Others were grateful to move on.

Eleven among us have died. Few remaining were spared the loss of a close classmate. Nearly everyone has also lost a mother, a father or even both. A number have parents who are ailing or impaired. All of us wished we’d appreciated them more.

Some are still raising young children. Several are grandparents. The majority of our children are grown, or nearly grown. We who are empty-nesters nodded in recognition at each others' contradictory sentiments of both weepiness and relief.

Most who were remembered as reckless or wild teenagers somehow morphed into respectable or more conservative adults. Others never made that transition. Nearly all of us still feel sixteen in our hearts.

Very few left early. Many stuck around until we were forced to leave. A good number continued the conversation and camaraderie at a nearby bar, staying late. As the bartender announced last-call, we disregarded the toll it would take the next day on our not-so-sixteen-year-old bodies.

And as we wandered across the parking lot, returning to our cars and to our middle-aged lives, two things remained clear.

We all changed. And we all remained the same.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I'll Get Right on That, Reprise

Another blast from the past. But this year, I swear, I will surely be on top of things:

I'll Get Right on That, Reprise

It all started, I believe, with my intention of paying a late bill.

I remember logging onto the computer, figuring I'd best ensure my checking account wasn't once again in the red. Lo and behold, I spied an email from Ticketmaster, announcing an absolutely MUST-SEE concert which, deficit funds be damned, I could conveniently put on my credit card.

So I hurried to the kitchen to check my desk calendar, which was buried beneath a week's pile of unread newspapers. As I scooped them up, I caught an interesting headline. Whoa, what's up with this global warming shit; well, aren't those polar bears screwed?

Halfway through reading the article, I remembered tomorrow was recycling and trash day. I tossed the entire heap of papers in the garage (figuring an ignorance of current events never hurt many elected officials), and decided I should take a moment to clean out the molding leftovers from the refrigerator too.

I threw some days-old chicken bits to the cats and lobbed four indistinguishable food items, plastic containers and all, into the garbage. Before I closed the fridge, my eyes lit at the sight of a hardly-touched bottle of Bloody Mary mix in the back. Might as well finish that up before it went bad, so I could recycle it, too. Plus that soon-to-be emptied vodka bottle. First, however, I should clean up that steaming pile of cat-puked chicken bits from the carpet.

But cat puke on carpet is best left to harden, I deduced, so it can simply be peeled off the next day. (I'm all about time management.) Which led me to recall that I hadn't yet checked with the pet-sitter about the date of my impending vacation. So I rummaged through my purse for my cell phone, and broke a friggin' fingernail.

The second broken nail in two days, which TOTALLY pissed me off, because it undermined the aesthetics of an otherwise unflawed, candy apple set of eight. The others, sadly, would have to be filed down to a more uniform length. I headed down the hall to the bathroom for the nail polish remover which, I astutely reasoned, should be my next step.

Holy Mother of God, do I live in the desert or what? What's with these giant, threatening tumbleweeds in the hallway?!? Clearly I needed to brush the dog more often. Which I decided I must do, immediately. But as I reached for the brush, I chuckled. Tumbleweeds of dog hair? Haha! Terrific concept for a blog post in that.

So I sat down at my computer. With broken fingernails, an insanely potent Bloody Mary, and a nearby pile of drying cat vomit.

Oh! But look who's on Facebook now!

Call me ADD or diagnose me with early senility, if you'd like. I choose to label myself a busy overachiever.

Yet it's a good guess I'll find myself too damn preoccupied tomorrow to talk on the phone, when the collection agency calls.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Moan in the Mirror, Reprise

One of my early posts. And sadly, I haven't gotten any younger...

The Moan in the Mirror

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: Who’s the fairest of them all?

Not you, oh Demon Glass of Gloom. No, you aren’t playing fair at all these days. In fact, you have some ‘splaining to do.

First off, what’s with the chins? Didn’t I used to have only one?

Though I’m lucky I can see the chins at all, what with this big honking nose in the way. Perhaps you thought I couldn’t smell adequately with the old one? Yes, a funny joke indeed, your lopping an inch or two off my already inadequate stature. But must you shift every lost inch to my nose?

The mushrooming nose might be tolerable if it weren’t for that bump on the end of it. And the bump on my chin. And the one on my other chin. Apparently, you’ve adopted a catchy new advertising slogan: “Big Zits: Not just for teenagers anymore.”

And speaking of my teen years, remember when I used to stand before you and actually PLUCK my eyebrows? Oh great mirror, where did my eyebrows go? As you’ve been busy focusing on amplifying my pores, you seem to have misplaced my eyebrows altogether.

Ah, but fortunately, my tweezers have not been rendered useless by the mere disappearance of my eyebrows. Not with this stray hair you show sprouting from one of my chins. Thank you for that.

Not to despair. I am not saddened by the state of my eyebrows, my chins or my nose. No, I welcome this metamorphosis with much joy and mirth, if the crow’s feet and laugh lines you’re presenting are any indication.

So, should I wear these fabulous new additions to my face like a badge of honor? Yes, I will do so. And when these odd gray hairs, which are now promptly yanked from my head, start to multiply like fish and loaves? I will wear them proudly, too. Or perhaps I will consequently go bald.

But don’t expect to see me smiling about it. An unlikely scenario, now that you’ve decided to do away with my lips.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Final Goodbyes, Reprise

Continuing with blasts from the past. Here's a favorite, though bittersweet, post from last fall.

Final Goodbyes

It wasn't the kind of goodbye I envisioned.

I knew saying goodbye was inevitable, once the plastic tubs crammed with clothes and electronic equipment and a thoughtfully packed first-aid kit were unloaded from the van, once the futon and lofts were assembled and arranged, and once $400 worth of textbooks were procured (and most thankfully, paid by a blank check from his father). We'd enjoy one last supper together, not really tasting the bites of sandwiches consumed amidst our animated discussion about the campus and classes and crew practice.

And then, before I left for the long drive home, we'd have our goodbye scene. I'd offer a farewell speech, peppered with insightful parental advice, and we'd have lengthy mutual proclamations of love. It would end with a final hug on the sidewalk in front of his dorm.

But dinner ran late, and he had just minutes to make it to a mandatory student orientation meeting. I pulled up in front of the classroom building. He eyed the clock in the car--two minutes to get inside and find the room. He opened the car door and quickly slammed it shut.

No opportunity for any of the elements of the scene I'd already drafted in my mind.

"Good luck, honey," I told him. How did I condense a ten-minute speech into thirty seconds? "I'll miss you."

"I know." He offered a sympathetic smile. "I'll miss you too."

"So, see you in six weeks."

"Yep." He glanced toward the building and gave me a quick wave before backing away. "Love you," he yelled.

"Love you too," I called after him. But he was already several feet away, his back turned to me.

I inched forward before the line of cars behind me honked and I was forced to hit the accelerator. My last glimpse of him was a fleeting image, through the open car window, as he raced toward the building.

"Just as well," my sister told me the next day. "Short and sweet is better than a long painful goodbye."

Perhaps she's right, I thought. Although even short goodbyes can still be painful, at least they preclude massive emissions of tears. And I'd promised myself on the drive to Milwaukee that I couldn't cry.

For several weeks leading up to this, I prepared myself for a tear-filled farewell. It was, after all, the Ritual of the Strings-Cutting Parent. Particularly in the case of a youngest child, it was normal. It was justified.

But nothing makes you reassess your own life more than someone else's death.

Three days before our departure, a boy down the street was killed in a car accident.

He, too, had just graduated from high school and was preparing to head off to college. He, too, was the youngest of two children. While his parents had been helping him plan and pack for the start of his new life, on a campus three hours away, I'm sure they were filled with excitement, trepidation and grief at the idea of him leaving for school.

But in the instant it takes for an out-of-control car to strike a tree, their grief was the only emotion that remained.

Jake would be starting college next week. The event is probably still scribbled on a family calendar. No doubt it is etched upon his parents' minds.

I'm certain they would welcome, so very gladly, the opportunity now to see him off to college. To hear him say, "I love you," before they drove away, perhaps teary-eyed but knowing they'd see him again in six weeks.

As I maneuvered my way out of downtown Milwaukee that day, leaving behind my child to live the life yet awaiting him, I did cry.

But not for the reasons I once imagined.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Drunken Wench in the Night, Reprise

OK, so here's the deal: I'm taking some time off from the blog for much of the rest of the next month, to concentrate on a novel and on some fabulous trips and on recovering my sanity. In place of new stuff here, I am posting The Best of Stuff from Sherry. (Or what I've been told is my best.) Have a suggestion of one you remember? Leave me a comment.

Here's one from last winter. Hope you enjoy (again):

"When you write the story," she begged, "do you promise to be discreet?"

I agreed, knowing that "discreet" is a vague term and that verbal contracts mean shit. But I am feeling benevolent tonight, so I will acquiesce and withhold her real name. Henceforth, I shall simply refer to her as the Drunken Wench.

A nor'easter on the shores of Lake Erie, with a threatened dump of snow, is nothing to reckon with. But we were four strong women, willing to sacrifice our wellbeing to attend a fund-raiser an hour away to help with the medical expenses for a family friend. Surely the God of Insufferable Winter Weather would acknowledge this goodness in our hearts. Besides, the evening promised great food and many drinks, and that is always OK by us. We're charitable that way.

Much merriment followed: lobster and laughter and witty conversation. Meanwhile, as promised, all hell was breaking loose outside. And then I realized we had a Drunken Wench on our hands.

Her shit-faced condition was unexpected, considering she'd consumed a full dinner and only three glasses of wine over several hours. But sometimes the God of Liquor just looks down and laughs and claims you as his own. After witnessing her gleeful conversations with less-than-gleeful strangers, and her Jello moves on the dance floor, I deduced it was time we left.

I was the designated driver. I grimaced, pushed my way through the knee-deep snowdrifts, cleaned off the SUV, and pulled up to the bar's entrance.

Lori and a third comrade, Lisa, climbed aboard. I peered into the rear view mirror, eying the sole empty seat. The Drunken Wench was not following protocol.

"Get in," I yelled through the open car door.

No response from curbside. Just a muffled giggle.

"What's the problem?"

"I can't get in. My legs are a little... rubbery." More giggles.

Lisa climbed out to help. Lori and I silently cheered her generous spirit—or her escalating impatience. We didn’t much care which it was. We cranked the heat and waited.

Over the howl of the nor'easter, we soon heard sounds of a more relentless force of nature. Let this be a lesson to you students of physics: Nothing is as unbudgable as a Drunken Wench with Rubbery Legs.

Lori sighed and joined them outside. I hunkered down in the driver's seat. I was already serving as designated driver. How selfless must I be?

Oh, the coaxing and pleas that ensued. "Grab my hand," "Just one more step," and "No, don't sit down in the snow, you might suffocate."

By now, the Drunken Wench managed to intoxicate her assistants with her laughter. (Their own consumed cocktails might have played some part.) I hadn't heard this much giggling since a sixth-grade slumber party. I knew futility when faced with it. I honked the horn. "Leave her here," I shouted. "We'll come back and get her tomorrow." My sympathetic nature was frostbitten. Did I mention it was cold?

Ten more minutes passed. In late night winter storm time, this equates to roughly six hours. My frozen hands managed to pry open my door. I took several giant steps through the snow. "Move aside," I growled at Lori.

Lori was happy to oblige. She had laughed so hard she'd peed her pants. They were already frozen to her legs. She'd be forced to peel them off later.

I stood on one side of the car and pushed. Lisa stood on the other side and pulled. We pushed. We pulled. The mass that was the Drunken Wench didn't appear to understand the law of physics. Still, we finally managed to get her half-sprawled across the back seat.

"OK, stop, stop, I'm good now. Let go," she slurred.

We hesitated before pulling our hands away. She slid off the seat into the snow.

But we heaved and we hoed again, and managed to get her entire torso back on the seat. Only her legs remained sticking out of the car. I offered a suggestion for this, but apparently no one was in possession of a chainsaw.

Lisa shrieked when I decided to simply shut the door on the protruding legs, cramming the Drunken Wench inside like one might sit on an overstuffed suitcase to close it. So I took, instead, to bending the legs. This way and that way. I squinted as I peered down at them. One didn't seem to be bent in an entirely natural position.
Regardless, she was in! I slammed the door, the howl of the wind masking the whimpering which was emitting from the back seat.

Sure, she'd be bruised the next day, the Drunken Wench. But she'd wake up in the comfort of a warm bed, not a blanket of snow in front of a downtown bar. Dislocated limbs aside, I figured she'd thank us for that.

And you can bet I'll think twice, before I ever again go out drinking with my mother.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Cupful of Memories

I grasp my grandmother's hand as we wait for the bus. She squeezes back, and I peer up at her. Even at age six, I recognize she's the kind of woman who draws admiring looks from others. Dark with high cheekbones and a slightly beaked nose, traces of her Algonquin Indian blood from generations past.

I do not know, until years later, the effort she makes each day to mask the wear her daily factory work takes on that beauty: the ointment she applies every night upon her face and arms, to soothe the wounds from the flying metal fragments embedded in her skin. The wigs she wears to cover the hair that grows thin from similar spots on her scalp.

In 1967, I realize none of that.

We climb on the bus for the ride from the Old South End to downtown Toledo. I've just become accustomed to my bus ride to my suburban school, where I'm in the first grade. This bus ride is markedly different. Grandma, who doesn't drive, appears used to this route and its array of passengers.

"Grandma," I announce with wide eyes, "look at all the chocolate people!"

"Shh," she whispers. "They're called colored people. You know, like Moms Mabley."

I nod, still staring at the dark woman across from us. I don't know any colored people. But I'm familiar with Moms Mabley, one of my grandma's favorite entertainers. Later, Grandma explains that we must be careful to show respect for everyone; that my words, even spoken out of innocence, could offend or hurt someone. I'll bet my grandmother has never hurt anyone's feelings. I don't wish to either.

Grandma rides the bus with a quiet dignity. I chatter away, like my mother and my mother's mother--my other grandmother. Grandma Stanfa smiles down at me. Unlike so many other adults I know, she answers my endless questions not just with patience, but with interest.

I'm one of three children and one of my grandmother's seven grandchildren, but today I feel special. I was allowed to pick out our supper menu, given a whole can of black olives to devour by myself, and even asked to choose today's movie: The Jungle Book. I know my sisters and cousins have had their own days like this with Grandma; we're probably all special to her. Yet that doesn't diminish my feelings.

I hesitate at the concession stand. I've been told Grandma doesn't have much money. I've learned that she's worked for many years at a factory job. She raised three sons without a husband to help her. Her first husband died of pneumonia. He was the father of my Uncle Bob, who still lives with Grandma and was in the Korean War and hears voices. I'm kind of afraid of Uncle Bob, but Grandma makes me feel safe. Her second husband was father to my dad and my Uncle Sonny. I don't know exactly what happened to him. My dad met him once, when he was three. I overheard the story. "You're doing a good job with the boys," he told my grandmother when he visited. Then, he was gone for good.

At the concession stand, Grandma insists I get something. I squint, considering, before ordering a grape drink, served in a plastic, purple fruit-shaped cup.

From my velvet-covered seat in the Pantheon theater, I stare mesmerized at the movie screen. The only sound I make is an occasional slurp through my straw. I look up to see my grandmother gazing down at me with a smile.

When we return to Grandma's house, she pours herself a drink. Whiskey. She lights a cigarette. When she's not looking, I stub it out in the ashtray. When I'm not looking, she lights another.

The next morning, we walk to Mass. I attend a Catholic grade school, but my parents aren't so religious about weekly Sunday services. Grandma's a good Catholic. The kind who goes to Mass every morning, seven days a week. The kind who doesn't remarry after a failed marriage and a long-gone husband, because the Church doesn't believe in divorce.

When my parents pick me up, I casually kiss my grandmother goodbye. I wave at her as I climb into our car. I leave her behind in her tiny two-bedroom house, with her freshly printed church bulletin, her pack of cigarettes and her schizophrenic grown son, for whom she will care until she dies in a hospital bed, seven years later.

Some people leave your life too soon. Often, years pass before you truly know them and can begin to understand them. Before you fully appreciate them for what you didn't know then and what you still remember now.

Sometimes, you wish you'd collected every one of those memories and saved them, perhaps in a purple, grape-shaped plastic cup.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A New Gig

"I think I need a new gig." She fingered the stem of her wineglass, sighed, took a slow sip. "You know? Something different. Something new."

I nodded. "You mean a new job?"

"I don't know. Yes. Maybe. Maybe not. I just need a way to jump-start my life, a way to reinvent myself."

"A new house? A move to a new city?" I squinted, studying her, seeking to comprehend.

"Yeah, all of that. Or none of it. I don't know, really." She sipped more wine and frowned, her eyes focused on the distant horizon, searching for something beyond her vision.

"Yes." I nodded again. I understood.

Nearly all of us understand that, don't we, at some point in our life? Some vague sensation of discomfort and unrest which we wish to overcome and repair. We don't know what we want or need, exactly. And even if we're fortunate enough to figure out that much, something often stands in our way of initiating the means to change it. Uncertainty. Fear. Weakness. Simple inertia.

"So, what do you really want most in your life?" I prodded her. "The comfort of a relationship? The challenge of a new career? The excitement of different surroundings?"

She bit her bottom lip. "Do I have to choose? Can't I have it all?"

I shrugged. "Perhaps. Some people believe they do."

"But how do I get it?"

"Well, I think you first need to decide what you want. And then you need to take the necessary steps toward it."

"So I need to figure out what I want?"


"OK. That's easy."


She sighed again. "I want a new gig."

The questions are simple, for all of us. For most, the answers don't come so easily.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Waste of Time

I see by the calendar that it's nearly time, once again, to turn back our clocks. The downside, of course, is 5 p.m. sunsets. The upside is an extra hour of sleep, on one morning out of the entire year. I'll take it.

Not that any mornings, for people like me, are welcomed with bright, sunshiny faces. Some of us take to mornings like Jon Stewart takes to Glenn Beck.

I've come to realize the world is divided into two kinds of people: There are morning people, and then there are people who say, "WTF? Can't I sleep just one more hour?"

Like most morning-challenged individuals, I attempt to cope. For starters, I've eliminated a host of little tasks many people needlessly assign to the early a.m. hours.

I prepare my lunches in the evening. I bathe before bedtime. I even lay out the next day's wardrobe the night before. (Warning: Do NOT attempt this after consuming several drinks. I assure you, by 2 p.m., you will be reconsidering that houndstooth blazer with the fuschia and lime green striped T-shirt which appeared perfectly matched the prior night.)

Sadly, however, not all morning tasks can be allocated to the previous evening. Midnight snacks of cold pizza or an entire box of Wheat Thins aside, most of us need to eat something soon after waking. This, my friends, is why God invented the office vending machine. Or, on a really good day, leftover bagels from an early morning meeting which fortuitously, was not on our calendars.

Makeup, well, that's a nagging issue. I've considered skipping it altogether. But I fear if I attempted a day at the office sans-makeup, my coworkers would flee from the building, shrieking like hapless teenagers in the movie The Night of the Living Dead. Consequently, I apply my makeup each day like any normal woman should--on my drive to work. (What? Do you know a better way to occupy yourself at red lights? I'm all about time management, people!)

By implementing each of these time-saving steps, I've whittled down my morning regimen to roughly twenty minutes. Up at 7:30, out of the house by 7:50, to work by 8:20. Give or take a bit for traffic jams. Or for a few more minutes of sleep.

And you people who start your mornings--BY CHOICE--at 6 a.m.? Because you want to prepare and enjoy a bacon and egg breakfast? Or watch television? Or empty your dishwasher?

Well, don't judge me, you freaks of nature. Because next spring, when the Time Gods mess with us again, you'll be waking up at five! And even you morning people will be whining then.

Don't call me to complain. I don't answer my phone before 7:30, give or take an hour.

But I will take your call in the car on my way to work--as soon as I finish with my mascara.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Promises, Promises

As election day approaches, do you grow weary and wary of dirty politics and ill-fated campaign promises? Do you tire of political candidates who are so full of bullshit they could fertilize every farm field in the nation?

The solution is only two years away. I slouch before my computer today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States in 2012.

First thing on my agenda: outlawing this "gay" marriage stuff. Who's kidding who? Because no one should feel light-hearted and happy after twenty years of picking up a spouse's dirty underwear. (Oh, did I misunderstand the question?)

I will give a nod to my own version of universal health care. And read my lips, "No new taxes!" This cost will be fully covered by charging your own doctor for every minute you wait past your scheduled appointment time. Additional hefty fees will also be assessed to any physician office requiring patients to step on a scale. Finally, painless and affordable health care for everyone!

If I'm elected, millions of Americans who spend grueling days in thankless jobs--as well as stay-at-home parents with thankless children--will receive a special perk: free housecleaning services. Yes indeed, your toilets will be cleaned, free of charge, by those slacker citizens who didn't bother to take ten minutes to vote. I'm calling it the "Don't Dare to Complain that Your Life's Now in the Shitter" law.

Lastly, I will make great strides toward world peace by forcing terrorists and world leaders who can't play nice to watch Barney the Purple Dinosaur sing "I love you, you love me, we're a happy family" on continuous loop for thirty days straight.

Believe me, this is one political candidate who won't back off her promises (unless a publisher offers me a book deal to retract my entire platform) and won't take bribes (unless they're really lucrative).

I ask you: Are you hungering for a new type of leader? One who has the courage to openly acknowledge her blemished background and clearly questionable judgment? If so, then I'm your (wo)man.

I'm Sherry Stanfa-Stanley, and after consuming a few drinks tonight, I approve this message.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What We Take Away

Such a beautiful service, we murmur. The eulogy was so touching. Everyone seemed to be holding up well, considering. She looked good, peaceful, didn't she?

We wipe away our last tears and stuff the tissues in our pockets. We hug a cousin we haven't seen since his wedding ten years ago, and likely won't see again until another occasion like this. We take one last glance at the casket.

We wander to the parking lot, our throats tight and our chests heavy. Yet we're still somehow buoyed by the day's exchange of warm memories. Comforted by those who shared our loved one's life and now, our grief.

As we climb in our cars, grasping the hand of our spouse or our child or our friend, we know the reality of our loss hasn't quite hit us. We will resume our life tomorrow, as we must. And in a few days, or perhaps a few weeks, the void will surface with a jolt. It will rip a hole within us. We will suddenly miss her smile. Her phone calls. Her quick wit that left us in giggles. Her warm embrace which now leaves us with empty arms.

The grief that follows the loss of someone we love never fully disappears.

But in the best of relationships, some bits of that individual linger behind forever: what we learned from them, how they enhanced our life, who they helped us become.

We will always carry that with us. Mere mortality can never rob us of the gifts they gave us in their lifetime.

What was taken from us will be outweighed, always, by what we were able to take away from them.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Monster in the House

A monster dwells in my house.

It's resided here for many years, since that day I unwittingly welcomed it into my home. I harbored a tad of trepidation even then, yet I hoped this harmless appearing thing might be of some value to my life.

I greatly underestimated its power--the terror it could instill, the carnage that would linger after each of our battles.

I contained the monster to a single room and did my best to avoid it. But it remained a lurking evil in the corner, and from time-to-time, I was forced to confront my fear and face it head-on.

Tonight, I know I must once again summon my courage.

Oh how I long for some protective suit of armor. Heavy armor serves no purpose, however, in our terror-filled showdowns. Inexplicably, I must approach the monster while I'm nearly naked.

My bare skin prickles tonight as I enter the room.

Although the monster is mute, I swear it growls as I eye it. I hear an inhuman rumble of evil laughter.

I so want to squash it like a spider. But stepping on this monster only enhances its power. This much I know, even as I am forced to do what I must to see the battle through to its finish.

I step forward.

The monster's red eyes begin to glow. My fear intensifies, and I shield my eyes. Then, I force myself to turn back. I stand tall, peer down and confront the enemy.

My God, the horror.

I leap away. I scream and flee through the house. I collapse on the couch. I whimper and gasp for breath.

The trauma is all consuming.

Seriously, my bathroom scale has got to go.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I Could Have Died on the Spot!

Join me, if you will, in a little game I like to call, "How Freaking Embarrassing Was That?" also known as "Oh My God, I Could Have Died on the Spot!"

I'll go first.

Mid-career and pre-children, I decided that perhaps I'd missed my true calling and should have been an actress. I took a series of acting lessons at the local repertoire theater, and was encouraged in my pursuits by the teacher. I boldly headed off to my first audition.

I knew I possessed a keen memory for dialogue (although not for remembering what I ate at lunch yesterday) and could feign an array of emotions and expressions with ease. Speaking on stage I could well handle.

But singing and dancing? Not so much. Not even a little.

My confidence fled the auditorium the moment they inexplicably asked a group of us to dance. It was a simple Do-Si-Do. I could manage that, I tried to convince myself. However, while everyone else was Do-ing, I found myself Si-ing. Over and over again. For what seemed like several painful weeks. I prayed that, amidst the onstage crowd of would-be actors, the audition committee somehow wouldn't detect my total lack of coordination.

Then I was prompted back onstage to sing. A solo.

Any thought of redeeming myself disappeared as I ran through my very best rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Oh yes, the gentlemen--and ladies--of the audition committee, the sole audience members sitting in the sixth row of the theater, they soon appeared merry enough. In fact, they were practically convulsed in laughter: peering up at me, nudging each other, and chuckling among themselves.

I didn't stick around to hear about call-backs.

The horror remains with me to this day. No one can top that, I tell my embarrassing story-telling comrades.

But wait--Glo has a tale to tell too.

It was Christmas, and she was in charge of coordinating the annual office party: decorating, planning refreshments, and ensuring that everyone was invited. The newest departmental graduate assistant passed her in the hallway that day. He was a shy and timid student; she was the warm, welcoming type. She wanted to make a point of personally inviting him.

"Don't forget about the Christmas party this afternoon," she told him with a bright smile. "We're having cookies and punch!" Except that wasn't exactly what she said. What happened was that her words became churned within some strange verbal blender of sorts, and what poured out of her mouth instead was, "We're having pookies and cunts!"

The horrific realization of her error hit her as soon as the words left her mouth, and she could do nothing more than simply keep walking past him.

He never showed at the party.

Oh. My. God. My story-telling comrades and I are hushed in empathetic horror.

Until John chimes in.

"I can top that."

John had met a young guy at a party, introduced by a mutual friend. He hadn't quite caught the stranger's last name, so politely asked, "Sorry, what was your name again?"

When the young man repeated it, John squinted and said, "Oh, was that (name redacted)?" Then, to further clarify his understanding, he tried spelling it and added, "like that guy who was all over the news a couple years ago for (redacted very lewd behavior)?"

"Um, yeah," the young man replied.

John paused. "Oh." He managed a nervous laugh. "So, you're not related to that guy or anything, are you?"

"Yeah," the stranger who might have otherwise become a friend answered. "Actually, he's my father."

My story and Glo's? Trumped. Right there.

We'd have died on the spot for him.

Any humiliation you care to share?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Leaving Home

The smell of new carpet has faded, and fresh paint on the walls dried. Except for a stack of framed pictures awaiting rehanging, renovations are complete.

My eighteen-year-old home feels new once again. I plan to enjoy the newness, the HGTV-dicated updates, for a few more years. And then I'll do the logical thing, the sensible one. I'll put the house on the market.

As a recent and single empty-nester, selling this two-story, twelve-room house should seem a foregone conclusion. Yet that logic is swayed by sentiment. In my mind, this remains the dream house my former husband and I designed and built--when our marriage was still intact and our children still toddlers. It's the house where I raised two boys to manhood. It's the only childhood home either of them remembers.

Memories lurk in each corner of the house, linger in every inch of the yard. How will I follow through with letting it go, on the day I finally move away?

As I glance at the front porch, I'll recall the home's early life: its rising wooden frame beckoning us all toward the future. The image of my towheaded two-year-old, his Fisher-Price tools clutched in his mittened hands, remains frozen in my memory. "I build the new house, Daddy," he announced with a proud smile, his plastic hammer rapping on a four-by-four board.

Wandering around to the back yard, I'll admire the pine tree. It was nothing more than a stick when Son #2 brought it home from his preschool Arbor Day celebration; now it nearly reaches the rooftop. The back lawn and mulched flower beds somehow survived years of Capture the Flag and pick-up football and baseball games. Our back yard also served as the setting of many teary-eyed funerals for tadpoles and hermit crabs and guinea pigs, who did not survive the years.

The wooden deck appears weathered and worn after countless barbecues and birthday parties. I smile, remembering the neighborhood concerts held here too: the exuberant voices of eight-year-olds, who fortunately still lacked the self-consciousness their teen years would bring, as they belted out the Backstreet Boys to an audience of parents and neighbors.

I'll roam through the house, wandering into the dining room, where we hosted holiday dinners for nearly two decades. I will stroke the sleek surface of the long mahogany table, which will likely not find a place in my new, smaller home. At the adjacent piano, my two young sons once played a duet for their great-grandfather, just a year before he died.

Peering down the basement, I'll recall my sons' tiny fort beneath the stairwell. Only the rough-hewn wooden door remains. The fort has sat dormant for years, eventually vacated for more grown-up occupations. But once upon a time, it held the rapt attention of several flushed-faced young boys wielding hammers and saws, building a place to call their own.

Finally, I will pass the upstairs bedroom which once held our last baby crib. If I close my eyes tightly, I'm sure I can still imagine the sweet scent of baby powder.

Is a house simply some physical structure in which portions of our life play out? Or is it more? Is it our memory-keeper, our field of dreams?

On the day I leave here for the last time, I will commit this all to memory--the images of our lives which took place in every room, every hall, every inch of the yard.

And once I know I can take all of that with me, I will tell myself I'm ready to move on.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Top Ten Musings While Dog-Walking

10) If we installed outdoor dishwashers next to grills, would all these guys do the dishes too?

9) Shopping List: milk, cheese, bread, beer, George Clooney lookalike.

8) OMG! That cloud looks exactly like Sarah Palin hoisting a shotgun!

7) Six kids at once on a trampoline? If people needed a license to have kids, how many would be revoked?

6) Scientific Observation: The volume of a dog's bladder corresponds directly to the exact number of fence posts and bushes he passes.

5) And now I have to pee, too. Wonder if anyone would notice if I dropped trou right here on the path?

4) If was wearing makeup, black spandex shorts and a sports bra, I would totally look as good as that woman who just sprinted past me for the third time.

3) Hate heat! Hate humidity! Hate rain! Hate wind! Hate cold! Hate snow! Rather enjoy complaining.

2) I'll bet some of those women on Wife Swap secretly wish they could keep their temporary family.

1) Park levies would be more likely to pass if parks provided margarita fountains.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reigning Cats and Dogs

Each morning, I rise and survey my kingdom. "All hail Sherry," I proclaim, "Queen of the Castle!"

And then my cats convulse in laughter.

Who am I kidding? Surely not my household menagerie. I haven't ruled in this house since I brought home my first set of feline furballs thirteen years ago. Just a year later, in yet another characteristically weak moment, I welcomed two more.

Early on, it became clear the crown of royalty belonged to Tiger. Sure, Cubby fought a helluva political race. But hers was a dirty campaign--filled with threats, intimidation tactics, and empty promises.

Tiger showed us he'd rule with a combination of strength and kindness. He kissed the babies, learned to make peace with potential enemies (AKA the new puppy Ringo), and remained stoic and calm amidst the most turbulent and combative conditions. As a result, he was loved and respected by all.

World leaders could learn much from Tiger.

When Tiger passed on to the Great Litterbox Beyond, the kingdom fell into chaos. Who would lead this nation of pets, along with their subservient vendor of food, treats and soft beds?

Neither in the second set of cat twins (AKA the Scaredy Cats) were contenders for the throne. So would it be Ringo, the affable Golden Retriever-Mix? Certainly he had the edge in size and physical power. But he had learned the pecking order in the cat colony from early on in his puppyhood. Besides, it's difficult to muster respect for someone whose idea of a dinnertime delicacy is frozen poopsicles from the back yard.

Cubby's green eyes glinted with anticipation of her impending power. Surely the crown would finally be hers.

And then the new furball arrived.

The newcomer evoked sympathy from those who knew his sad background: an undersized orphan, living on the streets, surviving on hand-outs. A timid outsider who could voice his needs only through a passive squeak. He simply needed to be understood and accepted in order to be a participating, though clearly subordinate, member of this society.

Some leaders, like Tiger (God bless his feline soul), are elected. Others are self-appointed.

It took us only months to realize that the crown in our kingdom had passed--unwittingly--to little Lennon.

Ironic, of course, that we named the kitten for a songwriter who embraced world peace. Lennon the Cat's view on peace was distinctly different from his namesake's. And his leadership style proved to be distinctly different from his predecessor.

Oh, how the other cats now cower and run in his very presence! He delights in their fear. He revels in their vulnerability. He basks in his hostile dominance--especially of Cubby.

If I could only rename this tiny kitten. "Napoleon" comes to mind.

Somehow, despite his frightful dictatorship, he's managed to acquire a single comrade. Ringo the Dog adores him. And the adoration appears to be mutual. They're cuddled together, on the couch, at this very moment.

Strange, this alliance that's been established in our little kingdom.

Yet maybe not so surprising, Ringo's taste in best friends.

After all, his taste in backyard dining isn't so impeccable either.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Birthday to Truly Celebrate

I have a birthday next month. It's not a big one. I had a big one nine years ago. I have an even bigger one next year.

At this particular age, I view birthdays as being "had," not as being "celebrated." Even so, my mother informed me this week--more than a year in advance--that she and my sisters plan to throw me a party in 2011. The unspoken assumption was that I'd attend.

I politely declined. I told her I'd rather take a raincheck. One that could be used, say, forty years from now.

So, let me take this moment to cordially invite all of you to my ninetieth birthday party! Please save the date--October 25, 2051.

No need to RSVP. It's likely I won't know if you're there or not. I may not know where I am either, but I plan to have one bodacious good time.

If you don't recognize me, just look for the four-foot-tall, prune-faced woman in the strapless red dress and eff-me heels. Or else in a floral shift and bunny slippers. I'm ninety. I'll wear whatever I damn well want, thank you.

No gifts, please. Instead, I ask that all guests purchase Xeroxed copies of one of my unpublished manuscripts. These will be personally signed by the author, of course, although I may need some assistance with the inscriptions. ("What was your name again, honey? Oh, yes, you're one of my children, aren't you? Uh-huh. And what is my name?")

I can't spend my entire evening signing autographs though. I will be too busy doing tequila shots. At ninety, I figure I can rekindle all those bad behaviors I left behind long ago in my wayward youth. If someone passes a doobie, I'll probably take a hit or two.

I will eat an entire bowl of dill pickle potato chips and two pieces of chocolate cake for dinner. No one will blink an eye. If anyone dares to, I will growl, "What the hell's wrong with you, sonny? Quit staring and go get me another tequila shot!"

I will kiss all the babies and all the good-looking men in the crowd. I may invite the hottest guy there back to my private room--in the nursing home--later.

Who knew there was so much to look forward to, in our golden years?

If you want in on the festivities, please leave your name in the comments section. My mom's already compiling the invitation list. She does like to plan ahead. She promises to bring enough tequila for everyone. But the dill pickle potato chips? Those are mine, and I'm not sharing. I'll be ninety, and I shouldn't be expected to share with anyone.

Bring your own damn chips.

Wow, ninety is so totally liberating.

And I bet I'll look great in that strapless red dress and a pair of bunny slippers.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Contemplating Happiness

We hadn't talked--not really talked--in a long while.

Much had transpired in both our lives.

We relay our stories, in between drinks and admiring glances at family photos pulled from our purses. As we each listen to the other's tales, we nod. Some stories elicit grins. Others cause one to draw in a breath and grasp the other's hand.

Life elicits a myriad of responses. Years condensed into one dinner outing encompass them all.

"So, are you happy?" one finally asks the other.

"Happy? I don't know." A pause. "Are you?"

The one simple question grows into an hour of contemplation. Because what is happiness?

Does happiness mean we wake each morning, eagerly anticipating both the expectations and the uncertainties of the day?

Does happiness mean our everyday activities provide us satisfaction?

Does happiness mean our loved ones bring us joy?

Does happiness mean we bring joy to others?

Does happiness mean we feel productive and somehow valuable?

Does happiness mean we can manage to laugh?

Does happiness mean that, amidst anything else, we retain hope? Or faith?

It's a broad and vague term, this idea of happiness. Meaning such different things to different people. Its connotations change even for ourselves, at varying times in our life. Something we once thought would ensure our happiness isn't, one day, enough. Something we never before dreamed might bring us contentment can unexpectedly make us sigh, and say, "Yes. This is good."

"Are you happy?" Neither of us truly answers the question tonight.

But before we leave, heading back to the comforts and the challenges of each of our lives, we smile and embrace each other. It is good.

And we realize that, maybe, happiness should be measured by an accumulation of single moments like this.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Stories You Keep from Your Children

We don't blame them. Can our parents be faulted just because they took such horrific risks with their children's very lives? (Although clearly we should find ample opportunities to blame our parents for many things.)

It was a different era, raising children in the sixties and seventies. It was a time of innocence. And a time of ignorance.

Our parents didn't know better when they allowed us to run, shrieking and giggling, through the chemical fog spewing from the mosquito trucks that patrolled our neighborhood.

No seatbelt laws were in effect when they piled ten kids into a five-seater car, to haul us all to the county recreation center for a day of swimming.

They saw no need to stick around at the pool to supervise us. Nor did they accompany their children on our two-mile walk there for swim lessons, when the oldest was only ten and the youngest just seven. The news then didn't broadcast a stream of announcements about nationwide child abductions. No one could yet conceive of the necessity of something called an Amber Alert.

We roamed the neighborhood for hours with no declared destination and no cellphone for parental communication. We played in parks and in the middle of streets several blocks away until the streetlights came on. Or well after.

Not only did our parents trust society, they trusted us--even when we became teenagers. They never imagined what might transpire if we had friends over while they were gone. Likewise, they never thought to call and confirm that the party we were attending would be chaperoned. In many cases, they never knew at all where we were going when we headed out the door on Saturday night.

High school "After Prom" parties weren't school-sanctioned, lock-in events. They were hotel room keggers.

Some of us went on unchaperoned spring breaks our senior year in high school. We ventured to Fort Lauderdale or Daytona Beach, driving twenty-hour trips in our parents' own car. Only half of us were even eighteen, but our parents figured all of us were nearly adults. Legalities were only technicalities then.

Amidst all this reckless behavior, most of us managed to survive our youth.

But once we became parents ourselves? Oh, the difference a few decades make.

It's not that we're a generation of better parents. Perhaps, however, we're better informed, thanks to health and safety laws and the ubiquitous media. Maybe we're wiser, too, due to our recollection of what we did--and shouldn't have done.

With all that we 21st-century parents now know, we can hope our own children reach adulthood safely, and cause us no undue worries.

Just as long as they do as we say, and not as we did.

And we keep a few stories to ourselves.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bet Your Ash on That

It's been twenty years since my dad's death, and yet the man still finds a way to get around.

After my father passed away in 1990, my mother honored his wishes to be cremated. She bought a mausoleum vault in a cemetery twenty minutes away, overlooking a riverside metropark. Only after his funeral did we notice the park sign directly across from the cemetery entrance, identifying that section of the park as the Indianola Area.

"Indianola" was the name of the obscure, tiny street where my parents bought their first home, raised their family and spent nearly thirty years of their lives.

Cue the Twilight Zone theme music.

An eerie coincidence or a comforting form of fate that such an unusual and aptly named location should be my father's final resting place? (We went with comforting fate.)

Yet the mausoleum wasn't to be his final resting place. My mother wouldn't hear of it. Just because the man was dead, she figured, didn't mean he should have to give up traveling. Or golfing. Or fishing.

So, she kept a portion of his remains in the mausoleum and retained a personal stash of ash in an urn in her bedroom. And over the years, we scattered some of his ashes in a few of his most beloved places: the fairways at Toledo Country Club, the shores of Lake Erie and at Manistique Lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

We'd like to believe that some part of my dad will remain at those places forever. And he will enjoy his favorite haunts (no pun intended) through infinity.

What we didn't count on, however, was one particular place his ashes would unexpectedly wind up.

My mother became an impeccable housekeeper through the years. Living by herself in a two-bedroom condo resulted in little clutter or accumulated dirt or dust. Still, she had her carpets professionally cleaned annually because... well, that part of the story remains unclear.

What is certain though, is the horror she experienced when she entered her bedroom to observe the carpetcleaning serviceman desperately attempting to redo a wrong.

By vacuuming up the "dirt" he'd spilled on the carpet after he'd knocked over some ceramic container.

Hearing my mother scream, he jumped and gaped wide-eyed at her, even as he continued pushing the industrial-sized vacuum over the debris. When he finally turned off the sweeper, she explained in frantic sobs exactly what he'd been sucking through that undiscerning hose.

If it had ended there, it's a good guess the serviceman would have been scarred for life. Enduring sleepless nights or perhaps nightmares of a vengeful and dusty ghost.

But after my mom realized the gallows humor of the situation, her sobs turned to laughter.

Sometimes, in moments of horror or fear, there's nothing like a bit of dark humor to lighten things up.

Not only did she end up reassuring the carpetcleaner that no real harm was done, she actually rehired the man a year later. And why not? Surely no mistake he might make on the second visit could match the monstrosity of his first.

Knowing my dad's sense of humor, I'm sure he's still laughing about the whole incident too. In between his fishing and golfing and admiring the scenery of the places he's busy visiting.

Life is funny. And even afterward, one can still find something worth laughing at.

Yep, you can bet your ash on that.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Oh, How She Made Us Laugh

When we recall the loved ones in our life who have died, we generally do so with a tear at their loss, or perhaps a smile at some warm image. Yet there's a rare individual whose memory, even a decade after their death, still prompts us to burst out in laughter.

During the thirty-five years I spent with Alma Stoll, no one made me laugh as frequently or as heartily. My grandmother possessed the kind of good nature that naturally made people smile. It was her collection of antics, however, that induced our out-and-out laughter.

Malapropisms were her legend. No one could turn a phrase or switch around words quite like Alma. The minor ones elicited a simple grin. As long as she lived, for example, she referred to the Christmas nativity scene as an "activity scene." We stopped correcting her. It was more fun that way.

And occasionally she offered a doozy. Like the time she called my childhood home, announcing to my father that the news just reported a possible UFO. "Someone's spotted an Obscene Flying Object!" she told him. "Be sure to tell Gloria," she added in an excited rush of words. "I know she's really interested in that kind of thing!" Alma never lived that one down. Nor did my mother, whose apparent preoccupation with flying penises proved to be amusing news to all of us (including my mother Glo.)

Even in her mid-years, Alma showed an enthusiasm for life. This, along with her German bullheadness, led her to take on pursuits for which she wasn't quite capable. An avid fisherman, she once took the rowboat out by herself while we were vacationing. Later, our repeated attempts to call her back for dinner--through our yelling and motioning from the dock to the boat hundreds of yards from shore--proved fruitless. She seemed to have lost all control of the heavy wooden boat. She rowed in perpetual circles for nearly half-an-hour. Only after my father headed out in someone's motorboat to rescue her did we discover the cause of her problem: she had the anchor out the entire time.

With her typical good humor, she managed to laugh at herself that day. Just as she laughed at herself the time she called our house and, with growing frustration, kept asking my mother to repeat herself. "I can't hear you! Speak up! Honestly, Gloria, something must be wrong with this phone." Finally she paused. "Oh, wait a minute. I forgot," she said. "I have cotton in my ear."

That was the thing with Alma. We never felt we were laughing at her. We were always laughing with her.

The comical stories eventually slowed, as did Alma's body and mind, in her later years. The grandmother I knew became weakened by congestive heart failure and by dementia. The broken neck she suffered in a car accident, although thankfully not paralyzing, took its toll on her too.

The older, frail woman she was in the last years of her life tended to overshadow our view of her. At times, we had to remind ourselves of her former physical strength: how she cleaned piles of freshly caught perch and pounded rugs clean on her back porch.

We had to nudge our memories to recall her former mental strength: this woman who spent much of her youth in an orphanage, and declined an offer of adoption when it finally came, because she wouldn't leave her five younger siblings behind.

Yes, Alma was once vibrant and determined and inspirational. And oh, how she once brought us laughter.

I'd like to think she's smiling, remembering it all, right now.

I hope she's fishing tonight. And that someone else offered to row the boat.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Follow Me Over to "So Wonderful, So Marvelous"

Guest-posted this weekend on a terrific blog, "So Wonderful, So Marvelous." Read it here.

Be sure to check out the rest of Michelle's blog, where she posts on parenting, cooking and crafty activities, and makes the rest of us wish we were half as inspired and talented.

See you there?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Stories You Keep from Your Parents

If there's a statute of limitations for our youthful misconduct, it must expire about the time we turn thirty. That appears to be roughly the age most of us finally 'fess up to our parents about the bad behavior we entertained between junior high and college.

By the time we've morphed into full adulthood--perhaps married or college graduates--we figure we've turned out decently enough that our parents might finally laugh at our misdeeds. Or maybe they'll at least determine it's much too late in the game to ground us.

So, late in the evening at a holiday family gathering, we'll pour a third glass of wine, push back from the dining room table, and tell a story or two. We don't spout them all during one setting; we don't wish to be the cause of our mother's cardiac arrest. No, we dole them out gradually, eventually, over a matter of years.

Oh yes, the most interesting stories of our lives are those we choose to keep from our parents for more than a decade.

(The following true stories may or may not be fully autobiographical. One or more stories have been relayed by siblings or friends. No names are given, to protect the guilty.)

We finger the rim of our wine glass, and divulge the school escapades: "So Dad, remember how you caught me skipping school in freshman year and you grounded me, and because I never got caught again, you figured I'd learned my lesson? Well, here's the funny thing. I worked in the school office for the first semester of my sophomore year, stole a few pads of excused absence slips, and used carbon paper to trace the principal's signature for the next three years! Haha! You have to admit, it was somewhat genius!"

We wink at our mother, and share the tales that involved teenage lies. "Oh, that's right, you never knew I saw the Rolling Stones in concert. Yeah, you wouldn't let me go to that concert, so I told you I was sleeping over at a friend's house that night. Instead, we caught a ride to Cleveland with a couple older guys we barely knew. After the concert, their car broke down in this horrific storm, and we hitchhiked to a nearby house of one of their friends, but he wasn't home. So we took shelter under his back porch, until the neighbors thought we were trying to break in and they called the police, who showed up and questioned us and asked us all for identification, but all I had to show--since I wasn't old enough to drive--was my library card and my school bus pass. But boy, it was a great concert."

We pat our mother's hand and ease into the clearly illegal stuff. "Glad you like the silk flower arrangement I bought you. So, remember that beautiful terrarium I brought home to you as a Mother's Day gift when I was thirteen? You oohed and aahed about how beautiful it was and how I shouldn't have spent that kind of money? Well... I didn't spend a cent. But it was the thought that counted, right?"

We cringe a bit and tread ever so carefully into the area of really dangerous items. "OK, so speaking of trains (of course you've waited until a relevant and appropriate discussion for this particular segue so as to soften the jolt), I guess I could tell you now about the time I was at a party on the golf course one night during high school, and we thought it would be fun to walk out on the train trestle to admire the view over the river. But then a train came, ROARING toward us, and we only made it safely back to ground by a matter of seconds, and it was just like that scene in the movie Stand By Me, except we were 15 not 12, and most of us didn't comprehend the true terror of our near-death experience until the next morning when we were sober."

A few of these long ago stories elicit the hoped-for smile, a snort of laughter from our parents. Others are met with a sigh or perhaps a silent Sign of the Cross.

They're comforted, of course, that we lived through it all. And likely relieved that they weren't privy to the details until many years later.

We tell our parents these tales and, as we reminisce, we shake our own heads at our bad youthful decisions and smile at our good fortune at reaching adulthood, alive, nearly responsible and respectable.

And we vow that if we ever hear similar stories from our own adult children, we will somehow find a way to ground them.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When Understanding Eludes Us

When understanding eludes us, we struggle to accept.

When mere acceptance seems unacceptable, we seek change.

When change appears formidable, we strive for strength.

When our strength is insufficient, we turn to others.

When others can't aid or comfort us, we lean on faith.

When we question faith, we're compelled to search for more.

When we truly search, within and without, we discover hope.

Because sometimes hope is all that remains.

And when we find hope, perhaps, we finally possess all we ever needed.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In Which She Redecorates the House

The house was beautiful when it was built back in 1992. But after eighteen years as the backdrop for the escapades of two boys, two dogs, five cats and two free-ranging guinea pigs? It resembled a biker bar after a particularly ugly night of spilled drinks, bar room brawls and piss-poor bathroom aim.

She'd like to fully blame the menagerie of pets and human boy animals for the home's slow demise. Yet she is forced to admit her own bad judgment might, just possibly, have played some small part.

Like that time when she was overserved on a night out with the girls. The next morning, she stayed curled semi-comatose in a fetal position, pillow over her head, even as she heard the then two-year-old leave his bedroom and descend the stairs. When she finally climbed out of bed, she was greeted not only with the hangover from hell but with a trio of other treats: Silk flower arrangements plucked, their petals strewn from the back deck into the breeze. Eggs cracked and dropped into translucent goop on the hardwood kitchen floor. And every one of the carpeted stairs marked painstakingly, with a black Sharpie.

All that red Kool-Aid her children loved, but which never seemed to find a straight path from cup to mouth? Clearly bad judgment. Banishing it from the house was such a wise choice! She learned her lesson indeed after, say, the seventeenth spill on the light gray carpet. The decision to switch to orange Kool-Aid, however, might only qualify her for the short bus.

And maybe it wasn't the best judgment, a couple years back, to leave her college age son home to "house-sit" for a weekend. In retrospect, perhaps she should have realized her mahogany dining room table was the perfect size for 48 straight hours of beer pong.

But eighteen years after moving in, she deduced it was finally time to repair and redecorate. The kids were grown and gone, and the newest dog house-trained. And her own judgment at this mature age?

Sadly, still questionable.

Why else would she believe the painter who told her the entire job (painting every interior wall and piece of trim) would take only two weeks? Why would she plan a week-long vacation--eight hours and two states away--for the very next week?

Why would she assume the aforementioned painter would be sure to close all the windows before he left each day? Why would she not surmise a curious, badly behaved cat (yes, badly behaved cat=oxymoron) would end up on the roof?

Why would she trust this same painter to move the two fishbowls, from a to-be-painted high shelf, into another safe location? Why was she shocked when one of her college age sons, stopping home during the day for a free lunch, called her as she vacationed, screaming, "The cats knocked over the fishbowls! They're spilled all over the carpet! The fish are dead!" *

Why was she dumbfounded to come home, expecting to admire a brick red foyer, only to shield her eyes from the glare of bright fuschia walls?

And why would she choose now to adopt a stray cat who's never used a litterbox in his life and expect him to comprehend that her new $7,500-khaki colored carpet is not one great, glorious toilet?

Perhaps--just a guess here--it was due to bad judgment.

Her new counter tops went in this week. They tell her quartz is quite durable, although not exactly stain-proof.

Ha! This one, she has covered. Not a single ounce of red or orange-colored drink remains in the house. Oh no.

After everything she's experienced, she's existing solely on margaritas.

* Happy aside here: Her next-door neighbor Annette proved to be the Fish Whisperer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ghosts of Vacations Past and Future

We leave for our extended family vacation in a few weeks. It's become an every-three-years tradition for my two sisters and me, our families and our mother. Every three years works well for the Stanfa clan. It's frequent enough to maintain those warm and fuzzy family ties, yet far enough distanced to forget how close we came the last time to committing family genocide.

In families like ours, the key to vacationing together is learning survival tactics. I don't mean knowing how to make a shelter, how to signal for help or how to ration a water supply. In our extended family, roughing-it survival means knowing ahead to rent three separate cottages with multiple bedrooms, ensuring we find week-long entertainment suitable for replacing Facebook and reliable cellphone coverage, and having access to plenty of liquor.

We were not, clearly, destined to stay with John Boy and Grandma on Walton's Mountain.

Stanfa Family Vacations weren't always this way. For the first 14 years of my life, our yearly family vacation consisted of spending not one but two weeks every summer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. No bathtub or shower. No hot water. No TV. No playground or organized activities for the kids.

We bathed in the frigid lake. Our primary entertainment was playing pinochle or fishing from a rented rowboat. We slept--all six in our extended family--in a tiny two-bedroom cabin.

Yet somehow, for all of us, this cramped, self-entertaining trip was the highlight of the summer.

So what's changed? Why do we require so much more from a family getaway now than we did then?

Could it be that we're all more tightly wound than we were a few decades ago? That we've all become accustomed to living in 2,500-foot homes and staying in four-star hotels? That the entertainment value of card games and casting for perch have made way for wireless internet and weekend parties with everyone but our own families?

Maybe those of us old enough to remember the Ghosts of Vacations Past have simply forgotten their magic. And those too young to have experienced them simply need an introduction.

I started packing this week. I gathered together a deck of cards and a couple board games. A bag of marshmallows and some Jiffy-Pop to burn over the bonfire. A couple of dusty fishing poles.

I decided, with a lingering and forlorn glance, to leave my laptop behind.

But I am sure as hell not giving up having a bed to myself. Or a bathtub, with running hot water. And while I will gladly partake of a fresh lake perch dinner, there will be no cleaning of fish guts in my future.

Nostalgic memories aside, some ghosts just make you shiver.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

First Yet Not Last

Son #2 turned 19 today; Son #1 hit 21 last week. Hard to believe, since I'm barely 20 myself.

This particular year, my two sons' birthdays bring them each a milestone, a First and a Last. The older one can drink his first (legal) beer. The younger one has entered his last teenage year.

We tend to track our lives through a list of Firsts and Lasts. Once we become parents, however, we often stop marking our own and begin noting our children's.

The baby years bring a flurry of Firsts: first tooth, first word, first steps, first wailing trip to the ER.

These make way for the noteworthy moments of young childhood: first spin on a two-wheeler, first day of kindergarten, first dance recital or soccer game.

At some point, the momentum slows. As our children grow, the Firsts become not only more infrequent but also infused with some parental apprehension: the first evening alone without a sitter, the first date (which he will never acknowledge as such), the first moment behind the steering wheel, the first unchaperoned party.

And by the time our kids reach the end of high school, we realize we've stopped tracking the Firsts altogether and have started noting the Lasts.

As both of the young men I've raised head into their twenties, I look back on their years of milestones with a combination of joy, pride, disappointment and simple relief.

Yet I realize the cycle of moments-to-remember hasn't ended at all. It's simply started all over again.

I know I won't be there for every monumental moment of my sons' adult lives, but I look forward to taking pleasure in many: their first "real" job after college, their first dance with their new wife at their wedding reception, their first child. They'll learn then a bit more, themselves, about the significance of Firsts and Lasts.

And I hope they learn, early on, that "Lasts" are not to be lamented, but to be acknowledged for what they truly are: the transitions to new and rewarding "Firsts."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Position Wanted: Questionable Skills Provided

From time-to-time, I envision reinventing myself in a whole new career.

But who would hire me? Alas, the demand is low for employees who like to sleep until noon, can’t find something they possessed just five minutes earlier, and believe staff meetings in the conference room should be replaced by Happy Hours at the closest bar.

Not that I don’t have job potential, people. I’m so full of talents and skills that I’m practically regurgitating them. A few of my job possibilities:

Airplane Pilot: I have decades of flying credentials, albeit as a passenger. I might successfully fly the plane too, as long as I could maintain a steady IV drip of Bloody Marys. And as long as my copilot doesn’t mind my constant whimper of, “We’re gonna crash. WE’RE GONNA CRASH!”

I’ve worked alongside accountants for eighteen years straight, and I’ve come to believe they know nothing about job efficiency and time management. Need an account balance? Just glance at your banking website, nod your head assuredly, and plug that number into your spreadsheet. It works for my checkbook. Corporations have overdraft protection, no?

Surgeon: I have an iron-clad stomach and no fear of blood. Sure, the only tiny detail might be my eye-hand coordination. Sherry, in the operating room: “Oops! Well, hell, I didn’t mean to cut THAT thing!”

Drycleaner Worker Person: First, do you think they’d give me a title other than Worker Person? Second, will they mind that I happen to shrink every freaking piece of clothing I touch? Third, I won’t have to operate some type of industrial-sized iron, will I? Isn’t this why God invented “Permanent Press” and “Wash and Wear?” (Question: Wouldn’t the iron be the first thing you offer your ex in a divorce settlement? Discuss among yourselves.)

Telemarketer: I’m certain my interpersonal skills and honesty would be terrific assets. My well-scripted phone calls would go something like this: “Hey, between you and me, you don’t really want to buy one of these products. Seriously, talk about an overpriced piece of crap.” (These jobs are never monitored nor based on commission, are they?)

Housecleaner: Wait, no. Just no.

Personal Trainer: Could I do this job online, or would I actually be forced to get off the couch?

OK, so maybe I’d better not quit my day job quite yet. Unless any of you are looking to hire?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bruno: A Bear of a Man

His name was Bruno, German for "brown bear." A fitting name for a man who was tough as a grizzly, lovable as a stuffed teddy.

Emigrating to the United States at the age of 12, he was plunged into a distinctly different culture, a whole new world. At his new American school, without knowing a single word of English, he still managed to achieve all A's--except in his English class. He spoke of this many years later, in now perfect English, with pride and just a twinge of disappointment.

But education was a luxury for most immigrant families in the 1920s. He left school just after the eighth grade, his carpenter father insisting that boys must learn a trade. Bruno was smart, inquisitive and good with his hands. He became a machinist, a humble occupation which brought little wealth or fame, but ensured a decent living. It was enough. Decency was what truly mattered to Bruno.

If he'd been born wealthier and half-a-century later, his calling would have been that of an engineer or a computer scientist. I remember a holiday gathering, when he was about 80, just after computers had become common household fare. He leaned forward, his bushy gray eyebrows knitted together, and his blue eyes intense, as he quizzed my computer salesman brother-in-law about his job. "But explain this to me," he said, in his legendary questioning of everything in life. "How exactly does a computer work?"

It was often difficult to satisfy his insatiable curiosity. It was even tougher to deter the man's determination. Of that, we were always envious.

After a heart attack, when he was only in his forties, he fortified his will to live. That heart attack was his first and last.

When the company for whom he worked for more than thirty years folded, when Bruno was in his sixties, he lost not only his job but his entire pension. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and despair, he simply persevered and found another job.

Years later, a horrific car accident left him with injuries including several broken ribs and a pulverized face. (His jaw would be wired shut, rendering him literally speechless and on a liquid diet for weeks.) The day after the accident, he ignored the hospital staff's heeding and stoically marched down the hallway to be with my grandmother, who'd suffered a broken neck.

Bruno didn't believe in giving up on giving his all.

That's what I remember most about my grandfather. Plus his habitual hugs. And his often repeated words, "I'm so proud of you kids."

Bruno outlived his wife of sixty-two years, who never fully bounced back from that accident. He also outlived my father, who was never his son-in-law but always his son. My dad died from cancer, at age 53, only four months after that car crash which, ironically left him the only uninjured one of the vehicle's six passengers. My father-in-law died just two years later (also at age 53), when my two sons were just babies. Although he was their great-grandfather, Bruno is the only grandfather either of them remember.

Bruno lived to the ripe age of 89. Although he's been gone for nearly ten years, I see his warmth and fortitude still in his daughter, my mother. I'd like to believe I, too, possess a bit of both of those qualities. And when I look at my two grown boys, I know I see remnants of their great-grandfather.

Yes, he was a Great Grandfather.

Happy Father's Day, Grandpa.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Summer Whine

As a midwesterner who abhors the cold, I'll take June over January any time. Yet, like most adults I know, my outlook about summer has morphed a bit through the last forty years.

Do any of us reason about our summer priorities the same way we did at nine-years-old? I think not. Let us compare our way of thinking, now and then:

Summer Saying at Age 9: "Could I have a sleepover tonight?"
Summer Saying at Age 49: "Could I possibly manage to sleep through the night tonight without waking up every freaking hour?"

Summer Saying at Age 9:
"But the ice cream truck is here! I swear one popsicle won't ruin my supper!"
Summer Saying at Age 49: "But someone needs to finish this ice cream in the freezer! Surely just half-a-carton won't ruin my diet!"

Summer Saying at Age 9: "OK, if you won't give me the $5 for the new Partridge Family album I want, could I do something to earn it?"
Summer Saying at Age 49: "OK, if I don't have the $5,000 to buy the new central air conditioner we need, could I just win the damn lottery?"

Summer Saying at Age Age 9: "Kool-Aid! Yay! Can I drink it with supper?"
Summer Saying at Age 49: "Margaritas. Thank God. I'm drinking the whole pitcher. Screw dinner."

Summer Saying at Age 9: "I'm so bored. There's nothing to do today."
Summer Saying at Age 49: "If I only had a personal housekeeper, gardener, carpenter, painter, mechanic and chauffeur, I might get through my to-do list today."

Summer Saying at Age 9: "Can I put on my bathing suit and run through the sprinkler this morning?"
Summer Saying at Age 49: "Can I possibly avoid trying on a bathing suit this entire summer?"

We're not old and cranky. We're... mature. And... contemplative.

Yes, summer is still the best time of the year, even at 49.

Especially with a pitcher of margaritas for dinner. And a half-carton of ice cream for dessert.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Leaving a Legacy

I sit on a university scholarship committee which, among our interrogations--I mean interviews--of candidates, annually poses the question: "What was your greatest contribution to your high school, and what will be your legacy there?"

Not an easy question for any incoming college freshman, even one with a 4.0 GPA, a near perfect ACT score and an impressive resume'.

It's an even tougher query for the average high school graduate, particularly one whose high school legacy (theoretically speaking of course) was being named Best Party Giver.

Fortunately, the value of one's contributions in life are not based solely on their high school experience. We all have a lifetime to accrue personal achievements, to impact other people, to make our mark on the world--however tiny and intangible it might be.

Some may be recalled for success in their chosen career. Others may have selflessly volunteered in their community or for a particular worthy cause. Others simply may be remembered for perhaps the greatest and most socially underrated accomplishment of all: being loving and nurturing parents. Most of us won't go down in history for monumental achievements like inventing the internet or bringing peace to the Middle East.

Yet each of us will be remembered by someone, for something.

Legacies are shaped, not just through our changing the world, but by our benefiting a few lives.

It's never too late for each of us to make our mark.

So, what do you hope will be your legacy?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

WWFS? (What Would Freud Say?)

Early last week: I stare, slack-jawed, at my exam schedule. What the hell is this on the list? I never attended a class by this name! I don't even remember ever registering for it! I missed a freakin' class the whole semester, and now my final grade depends on my passing the exam?

The exam location is mysteriously not listed on the schedule. I rush to the office.

The entire football team is in line in front of me. My exam starts in five minutes.

My panic mounts. Perhaps I have a copy of my original classroom schedule in my locker. But wait... what is my locker combination? Six, thirteen, twenty-one? No, thirty-six, twenty-four, thirty-six? Shit. I can't remember. In fact, I can't even remember where my locker is located.

I am so, so screwed.

Yet this fiasco is nothing compared to the events of last weekend.

Mother nature calls, with a violent urgency. I scramble to the nearest commode, yank down my pants and sigh with relief.

Then I glance up to see a crowd of people surrounding me--all studying me at the most personal of moments, while I'm seated on a toilet which I now realize is strangely situated in the middle of a very large, very public lobby.

I jump up and run, discovering too late that my pants are still down.

And don't even get me started on yesterday, when my doctor informed me I am... *gasp* pregnant!

Fortunately, before I endure any additional stretch marks, I wake up.

Not sure what Freud would say, but I'm guessing he'd have a word or two about my pitiful subconscious.

So, have any interesting dreams lately?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Welcome to Time Continuum Airways

Welcome to the reservation website of Time Continuum Airways!

Through new state-of-the-art tesseract technology, we offer direct and expedient round-trip excursions to any place and time in the history of the earth. Our sole requirement is that you give your travel plans and objectives considerable thought before booking your trip. We cannot offer a money-back guarantee, since all travel is free of charge.

To fit every traveler's needs and dreams, we offer four travel options:

- The Live-and-Let-Live-Again Plan:
Our economy package takes you back to any one day in your life. Perfect for nostalgic types, this plan allows you to relive any blissful 24-hour period. Favorite choices among past customers include weddings and births. Please note: The day revisited must be experienced exactly as it originally occurred. Any requested changes incur an additional cost. (See "The Change Your Life Plan" below.)

- The Change-Your-Life Plan:
Our value-added package offers the same features as the economy plan, but with the additional capability to change any choices you originally made on the selected day. Geared toward the daydreamer or the repentant, this plan enables travelers to retract poor decisions, or even prevent a personal tragedy.

- The See-the-World Plan: Our deluxe package, aimed at history buffs, takes you back to legendary moments in time or enables you to experience a single day of life in any historical time period. A few of our popular trips are attending the Woodstock Festival and walking on the moon with Neil Armstrong. As with our Live-and-Let-Live-Again Plan, the day must be experienced as it originally occurred. However, travelers are guaranteed immunity against disease and injury. (One of the many benefits we are pleased to offer.)

- The Change-the-World Plan:
Our deluxe-plus package allows you to visit any day in history, with the added power of intervening in that day's occurrences and consequently altering world history. Popular destinations among humanitarians and idealists include the Holocaust and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Trips are limited to one per plan category (a total of four trips per customer).

To make your reservations, please leave the details of your trip(s) in the comment section below.

We hope you enjoy your trip, and we thank you for flying Time Continuum Airways: the airline that takes you any where--and any time--you want to go.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Martha Stewart in the Kitchen

I rank housecleaning, on my list of favorite activities, somewhere below root canals and calls from telemarketers.

As a cook, however, I've always been more enthused. A mop and bucket may be hapless tools in my quest for Suzy Homemaker, but I achieve a bit of magic with a spatula and frying pan.

I learned my way around the kitchen at a young age. I remember calling my mother at work, when I was ten, with a question about stuffing the roast chicken I was making for dinner. The greatest benefit of having a mother who worked outside the home was being given the responsibility and liberty of preparing dinner (that and having an excellent venue for afternoon parties on school holidays).

My mom's own mother never allowed her anywhere near the kitchen. This resulted in a few culinary disasters later in her young adult life, such as the time she made potato salad for a picnic and figured a generous sprinkling of cinnamon on top could substitute for paprika. (A red spice is a red spice, she reasoned.) Oh, Mom. *sigh*

Although she went on to be a fabulous self-taught cook, she wanted to save her three daughters similar humiliation. Consequently, by the time I was 21 and living on my own, I was a wiz in the kitchen. Albeit one with a sink full of days-old dirty dishes.

But then, over the past few years, all my dinner guests left the building.

As a single and new empty-nester, dinner time now is often a table-for-one affair. Cooking hardly seems worth the effort. Suddenly, a bag of popcorn and can of Diet Coke is a quite suitable meal. My freezer is loaded, not with beef roasts and chicken parts, but with stacks of Lean Cuisines. Twice last week, I said "Screw Dinner" altogether.

Oh, the horror of my woebegone ways.

Martha Stewart may have politely turned her back to my dusty bookshelves, but she surely won't excuse my dipping a Dorito in a bowl of salsa and calling it a meal.

Martha, however, is not my biggest concern at the moment. Son #2 returned home from college this weekend for the summer. After nine months of cafeteria food, he's looking forward to a home-cooked meal or two.

I'm more than happy to oblige him.

I hope he likes his popcorn well done.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Best of Plans

I have a plan: A 24-hour roadtrip to the burbs of Chicago, for a reading and book signing by a favorite author, Elizabeth Berg. I schedule time off work, book a motel, and Mapquest the route. It is the best of plans. But if you ever want to make God laugh, just tell Him you have a plan.

The plan is running smoothly as I cruise into Chicago in less than four hours. A glance at my directions shows a mere 12-mile drive out I-290 to the motel. But then I spy the orange barrels. And realize it is rush hour. And come to a complete stop. One freaking HOUR later, I pull up to the motel, praying my bladder will be patient enough for check-in.

The other bad news is the area appears sketchy. No worries, since I won't spend much time here. All I need is a short but meaningful affair with the internet and a hot shower before heading to Oak Park for the event.

The very bad news is the motel's internet service is down, quite likely for the night. I sigh, glancing with longing at my laptop, and turn on the shower.

The very VERY bad news is the motel's plumbing issue. No hot water. Not even tepid.

The front desk clerk, hoping to make amends, offers me alternate directions to Oak Park, to avoid the hell that is 290. I glance at my disheveled hair in my car's rearview mirror and sniff my underarms. I hope Elizabeth Berg has a soft spot for homeless people.

I find my way through several suburbs to the venue in Oak Park, with only one missed turn. I manage to find a streetside spot, just around the corner. Boy-howdy! Perhaps my luck is changing!

Elizabeth Berg and her cohort, Julia Keller, are inspiring. I am pumped as I wait in line to have Berg sign a copy of her book. I rehearse some wise and witty commentary for our little chat. Once I am actually in front of her, however, I am tongue-tied. I stammer a couple lame statements and questions. She responds as politely as one might to an imbecile.

I hustle away. I need drinks. Now.

Out of courtesy to the people of Oak Park, I decide to not grace a local drinking or dining establishment with my foul presence. I will buy a six-pack, some fast food, and retreat to my lowly motel room. Perhaps the internet will be working. Perhaps the water will be somewhere above the freezing level.

On the way back to the motel, I find myself hopelessly lost. Meanwhile, I endure a series of anxious phone calls from my mother. Are you lost? (Yes.) Are you in a bad part of town? (Quite likely.) Are you frustrated? (ABSOLUTELY. STOP CALLING ME!)

Beer and drive-through food procured, I finally land back at the motel. As I exit my car, I notice the ominous orange envelope on my dashboard. I sigh, speculating upon its contents, although it's not a difficult guess, as it is labeled "The Village of Oak Park, Parking Operations."

I change into my pajamas and open a beer, before I remember my new Berg book and my writing materials are both in the car. I'm too spent to head outside for either. And perhaps I shouldn't wander into this iffy neighborhood parking lot in the dark. My karma seems a bit off tonight.

So, here I sit, in my motel room. Drinking a lukewarm beer and writing on a 4x5 notepad from the room's desk drawer. (I haven't scrawled words this tiny since the biology cheat sheet I wrote my sophomore year in high school.)

I pull out my parking ticket and examine it. I owe a pretty sum of $250. However, I can appeal the violation within 14 days, in person, in Oak Park.

Hmm. A roadtrip to the Chicago suburbs. Maybe next week?

Sounds like a plan.