Monday, January 31, 2011

Rhoda Morgenstern and Me

I know every word to the song American Pie and can name all the kids in my third-grade class. Yet in terms of learning from my mistakes, I possess the memory of a goldfish.

Just a month ago, I swore off sports and exercise--in any form--for life. Not because I'm lazy, mind you, but because I came to realize that the Twin Gods of Physical Harm and Humiliation had chosen me as their personal pet project.

Soon, however, my scale began whimpering as I approached. Even as I recalled my Vow of Slothfulness, I sighed and dusted off the treadmill. Walking in place: how dangerous could it be?

If I were to endure this for thirty minutes every day though, I'd surely need to be entertained. No TV set in the room, and reading was out of the question. (One hand off the rail for a flip of the page and I'd find myself doing a full body flip.) But with my laptop, and an endless stream of sixties and seventies TV? I'd have so damn much fun exercising, I might stay on the thing all night! I studied the drink holder. With a tall glass and a long straw, a margarita might raise the entertainment level a notch.

Alas, even with the audio fully cranked, I couldn't hear the Mary Tyler Moore Show from the laptop's position across the room. So I got to pondering my predicament, conjuring up all the engineering skills that made me such a quality D+ student in high school science and math.

Fifteen minutes later, I had rigged a laptop treadmill shelf, and the computer hummed brightly, just inches from my face.

The treadmill did not hum happily along. It whined and wheezed and roared. It seems treadmills object to years of neglect and all that rust and dust accumulating in their gears. I hovered closer to the laptop, straining to hear the audio through the treadmill's roar. Instead, I detected a secondary rumbling noise.

But this newest sound was not coming from the treadmill at all. My comprehension of the situation--that my makeshift stand had a slight design flaw and that the laptop was vibrating its way off the shelf-- arrived a moment too late. The computer rocked a couple times more, and then it took a nose-dive toward me.

At that very moment, the hand-eye coordination which eluded me all my life decided to make amends. As I fought to keep my brisk walking pace, I happened to catch the laptop with my left arm, between my wrist and my elbow. Normally, I'd take a moment to gloat over such a success. But my dilemma had only begun. As the laptop slipped off its rudimentary shelf, landing fortuitously upon my arm, it first managed to hit the treadmill speed control.

The belt surged at Olympic-speed rates.

My eyes bulged and my feet raced. The laptop jiggled, perched precariously along my forearm.

With a flash, I recalled the treadmill's emergency pull-string. But it lay just out of reach of my right hand. The only way to pull this emergency chute would be to remove the one fist which remained gripped around a handrail. The God of Physical Harm chuckled.

Somehow, I managed to twist the laptop off my arm, maneuver it sideways and wedge the keyboard between my left elbow and my waist. I hugged it to my side and then grasped my left hand around the rail.

By now, I was bent forward at an 180-degree angle, with my feet flying underneath me. "Red-rum, red-rum, red-rum," the machine roared.

I would not be defeated. Not this time. Even as my feet began to slip on the track, I clenched the laptop under my left arm. I lifted my right hand off the rail and stretched. My fingertips brushed the emergency chute. I tugged.

The treadmill halted. The gears fell silent. The only sound, from the now clearly audible video, was Mary's voice.

"Oh, Rhoda," she said.

And as my knees buckled beneath me and the laptop crashed to the floor, Rhoda found nothing to say in her defense.

Care to share your week's personal failures? If not, at least laugh with me.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Brotherly Love

When I was pregnant (many stretchmarks ago), my vision of motherhood was that of my happy little brood sitting around the kitchen table playing board games. Afterward, we’d cuddle together reading bedtime stories, before my darlings would drop off into a peaceful slumber, their tiny hands grasping mine. I’d adore my perfect children, they’d adore me and of course, they would adore each other.

To further ensure that our children became Best Friends Forever, their father and I elected to space them closely together. Surely two close-in-age siblings would share interests and friends, daily traumas and triumphs, and unfaltering love forever.

As planned, my two sons were born exactly two years apart.

As far as my other envisioned plans for our happy little family? Well, if you ever want to make God laugh, just tell Him you have a plan.

My dreams of evenings playing Battleship and reading “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” soon made way for nights of drawing battle lines and screaming, “If you gave your brother a concussion…!”

By the time they were two and four, it was clear my dreams were just delusions. The only things my two boys shared were a gene pool and a desire to irritate each other. Different interests, different personalities, different world views altogether. Blood may be thicker than water, but it doesn’t dictate that two siblings must like each other. Blood, in our house, only made the carpet impossible to clean.

My dreams became nightmares, especially as the two boys grew into teenagers. As much as I dreaded the daily antagonizing and bickering, the physical fights rendered me most hapless. As the youngest of three girls, I had little experience with testosterone-fueled brawls, except for all those boys fighting over me in junior high. (Oh, wait, that was just another unfulfilled fantasy of mine.)

Extended family dinners were particularly horrific. Sure, when my mother and sisters began heading to Florida for Easter, they said they needed a break from Ohio’s slow-to-vanish winter. I knew what they truly hoped to escape.

I can't pinpoint exactly when my sons finally called a truce. The transition was imperceptible, and the signs were bewildering. Somewhere around the time my oldest graduated from high school and the youngest turned sixteen, they began talking casually about sports and music. They started exchanging political views (similar ones, and my own, thank God). They began asking each other, “How’s school going?”

They started shaking hands instead of making fists.

Now, at nineteen and twenty-one, they suddenly and incomprehensibly are friends.

As their mother, I've been warmed and heartened by this unexpected turn of events. My God, the days when they hated and fought and hated some more seemed to never, ever end. But the years? The years rushed by so quickly.

I only wish they were both here tonight, for the three of us to cuddle together. I’d squeeze their hands and I’d read them “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”

That one always made us smile.

And I’m such a sucker for a happy ending.

Is your place a peaceful bunkhouse or a battlezone? Did you terrorize your younger sister? Battleship, Scrabble or the Game of Life?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Just Running to the Store

I spent an hour that morning making fresh salsa for a fabulous fish taco dinner. All that stood between me and an Iron Chef award was cheddar cheese and an avocado.

Apparently, I would have to run to the store. (Cue heart-heavy sigh.)

In the three months since our town's ginormous new Kroger opened, I patronized it once: to procure a bottle of vodka. I'd been frequenting a small locally owned market instead, a place I could get in and out of in half the time.

Alas, the small market, which didn't carry vodka, wasn't likely to carry avocados either. I resigned myself to going Krogering.

I climbed in the car and adjusted my rearview mirror. Holy Mother of God! What Stephen King monster had slithered its way into my minivan? With a second trembling glance, I discerned it was the reflection of my own face, sans makeup. Beauty would be too steep a price to pay though, considering it meant going all the way back into the house. I grabbed my son's baseball cap from the van floor and slipped on my sunglasses. That seems to work well for Lindsay Lohan.

Besides, it was 10 a.m. on a Sunday. Certainly everyone in this small town but me was at church.

Everyone, it appeared, but my perfect neighbor: the one who ran a scrap-booking business from her home, juggled a handful of volunteer positions in the community and homeschooled her six children. Her perfect life left me dazed, when it didn't make me want to puke.

Spying her coming, I bolted toward the next aisle. Then I wandered down the next two. A full three aisles of organic foods in this store. Seriously? At this rate, future generations would never know the pure ambrosia that is a can of beans and wienies.

Figuring I lost Perfect Neighbor, I wheeled down the canned goods aisle. Hmm. Beans and wienies could be the perfect lunch. (Before my healthy dinner of grilled fish tacos. I am all about balance.) I reached, on my tippy-toes, for the top shelf and grabbed two cans. In the process--surely due to clumsy stacking by a stocker--I knocked another can off the shelf. It fell with a thud and exploded. Tomato sauce, speckled with beans and a few wienie bits, oozed onto the floor.

My eyes darted up and down the aisle. No other shoppers in sight. But before I could make a quick escape, a store clerk, maneuvering a hand truck, suddenly appeared. He frowned down at the can and the sauce pooling near my feet.

"Yes, I was just going to report that. Can you believe someone dropped it and just left it there?" I tsk-tsked and steered my cart toward the dairy section.

On my way to the cheese, I pondered my morning. So far, I failed to remember the Sabbath, bore false witness and possibly coveted my neighbor's life. I guessed it might not bode well for my intake interview with St. Peter.

My spirit quickly brightened though, as I passed a display of gelatin and pudding cups. Oh my! Pudding cups! Ten packages for ten dollars! Who could resist such a steal? I filled my cart.

Studying the cheese selections, I attempted a cost-comparison. But one item was broken down by price per pound, while the other brand was labeled with price per ounce. So. God had chosen to chastise me for my morning sins through the most painful of all penances: math.

As I stood there, attempting to divide and multiply and recall any element of fourth-grade arithmetic, I heard someone call my name.


I turned to see Perfect Neighbor, with three of her six Perfect Children in tow.

"Oh. Hey. Hi." I glanced at the group, mother and daughters resplendent in dresses and heels, their hair impeccably coiffed. I tugged at the bill of my baseball cap.

"We're just coming from Mass. Dan and the boys drove separately because they're stopping at the lumber store. Dan's building an addition on our summer home on Lake Michigan. Gosh, isn't this new store wonderful?"

"Yeah. Wonderful. I just ran in for a couple things for tonight's dinner."

I followed her glance to my shopping cart, noting its sole contents: two cans of beans and wienies, and forty pudding cups. Her eyebrows lifted, and then her eyes traveled from my scuffed tennis shoes up to my sweatpants, finally landing on my chest. I glanced down and spotted tomato juice stains sprayed across my sweatshirt.

"Uh-huh," she said. She smiled brightly. "Well, so good to see you."

"You too. Gotta go," I said, whisking my cart away. "Need to make it to 11:00 Mass."

I checked out and quickly retreated to the parking lot. I glanced at my dashboard clock. Running to the store had taken precisely thirty-eight minutes.

The trip cost me $15.78. As well as a complete loss of my pride.

And in the midst of all the fun, I forgot the friggin' avocado.

I ate pudding cups for dinner.

Your Turn: Any shopping horror stories you care to share? How many sins have you committed today? Want to come over for fish tacos?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Top Ten Reasons It's OK to Give Up Those New Year's Resolutions

10) That Little Debbie Nutty Bar provides a gram of fiber and five grams of protein.

9) The world ends in 2012, so hike up those credit cards, baby!

8) The chance of sudden death during exercise is one in 15,000. You could be that one.

7) Giving up goals in January saves you eleven months of unhealthy stress.

6) Getting organized is fine--for the obsessive-compulsive.

5) Smoke three packs a day and never worry about saving for retirement.

4) Chubby people have less wrinkles.

3) Why look for a new job you'll soon hate when you can complain about the one you already have?

2) Hitler prided himself on self-discipline.

1) If Jesus wanted us to drink less alcohol, he wouldn't have turned water into wine.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Looking Past the Obvious

I wasn't the worst behaved child in Mrs. Kasper's sixth grade class. I don't doubt that at least one has a nice mugshot plastered on a post office wall somewhere. But if she ranked the students who made her head--and her ears--hurt most at the end of the day, I'm sure I'd rate right there at the top.

At age eleven, I'd finally managed to step out from the shadow of my two, more outgoing older sisters. I'd acquired my first boyfriend and experienced my first kiss (a closed-mouth, snot-smeared meeting of shivering faces on a sledding hill). And I was just popular enough to enjoy a bit of attention through my adolescent wisecracks and ill-advised antics.

Looking back, I realize I was exactly the kind of preteen girl whose screeching dialogue and megawatt giggling at the movie theater now makes me want to bury my head in my bucket of popcorn.

When you're in the sixth grade, however, you embrace whatever notoriety you can get.

Mrs. Kasper was no newbie to irreverent young girls though. I spent more than my share of time banished to the hallway or repenting my classroom sins in the office of our Catholic school principal, Sister Mary Sadistic.

Yet strangely, even as I knew Mrs. Kasper frowned on my endless chatter and bad behavior, she never once showed signs that she disliked me as a person. God knows a few other teachers throughout my academic career weren't so thoughtful. Such as the one the very next year who glared at me and announced in front of the entire class: "Miss Stanfa, for such a little girl, you have the biggest mouth I've ever heard." (Granted, the embarrassment shut me up for the rest of the day.)

Mrs. Kasper saw every one of the faults and failings I displayed as an annoying and immature adolescent. Yet she also managed to look past the obvious. She sought the diamond in the rough.

By sixth grade, I'd already taken an interest in writing. Our English class assignments encompassed a number of creative writing projects. Throughout the school year--even as she punished and pleaded with me to change my wayward behavior--Mrs. Kasper encouraged my writing ability. An occasional compliment in front of the class, a few nice words when we talked one-on-one and a host of supportive comments noted on my papers.

The last note she wrote, in her impeccable cursive script, read: "You better do something with all your talent, or I will come back to haunt you."

Given what I'd dealt her all year, she easily could have written instead: "Your smartass remarks and incessant chatter will come back to haunt me." But she didn't. She pushed aside the obvious negatives and focused on the single, most positive attribute she could find.

That sixth-grade short story, with her last comment, is stored away in a box of school mementos. Her encouraging words have lodged themselves in my memory for nearly forty years. They still bring me confidence in moments of self-doubt. Because, all else aside, someone believed in me.

I'm sure Mrs. Kasper has nearly forgotten me, yet I will never forget her.

We may never know the impact our words have upon those we meet, however brief our relationship. Most times, we never even consider it.

But maybe, if we choose to look past the obvious in people, we can give them just what they need to search for their own diamond in the rough.