The Change

I had a major insight last week. I’m in old lady puberty.

I imagine you don’t believe me. Just hear me out.

Once upon a time I was a child. Then puberty hit with acne, greasy hair and a sleep shift. Parts of my body got wider, others got smaller, but I didn’t get much taller. My little girl’s body was transformed into a functional woman. Maybe not mentally, but when it was over I was physically a grown-up. It took me awhile, but I was comfortable in my own skin.

This round is not so different. I’m ending that period (so to speak) of child-bearing womanhood and entering my advancing years. Again, my body is changing to fit the role. Besides the sagging even in places that never would have occurred to me, I have the classic tummy that every fiftyish woman I know complains about. Who knew fat could migrate? My genes are allowing my hair to gray very slowly and the wrinkles to show up mainly around my eyes. This time around, my skin and hair are dry, but sleep is again an issue.

If I could adjust to the changes of adolescence, I’m betting I can do it again. After all, I’m short. So that means I’ll be a little old lady. I’ll bet at some point you looked at a little old lady and thought she was adorable. Hopefully it was out of affection and not belittlement, but either way, I’m going to say cuteness is a plus.

Think of it as metamorphosis. Childhood is like the egg, making adulthood the caterpillar. Guess who gets to be the butterfly?

More evidence that this transformation is happening is that wherever I go, there is widespread chivalry. Men leap to open doors for me. And not just men my age. Young men too. So it’s not my sex appeal here. Apparently, I look like I need help.

I’m not really helpless. I plan to head into my “golden years” active and vibrant. There’s nothing that says old people can’t be in shape. I already eat well. I just need to up my activity. But then puberty didn’t make me into a completely different person the first time.

I’ve known elderly women who were cheerful do-gooders, organizers of the community. Others were bitter snipes or skittish mice, everybody’s grandma or the life of the party. Each of them was just a stronger version of their more youthful selves. My out-spoken self is becoming more assertive with the years. I doubt my little old lady persona will be quiet.

As I enter this last third of my life, I’m much more self-aware and much less self-conscious than I was during the first transition. It’s good to be at a point in my life where I am secure in love, friendship, and self-assurance. I like knowing what I enjoy and what I’m happy to leave behind. This round of puberty may slow me down, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I have enjoyed every phase of my life, each one bringing new adventures, joy and challenges. This most recent phase was a good one, but bring on the transformation. It’s time for another change.

With Reason

 

My little brother wanted a pair of sandals. Our older sister warned him that none of his friends wore them and they would make fun of him. My mother took him shoe shopping and sure enough, he came home wearing a pair of blue leather sandals.

I was waiting on the porch when they got back. Looking at his blue clad feet, I laughed. “They’ll tease you.”

As he ran to take them off, my mother turned to me, her teeth clenched so tightly she could barely talk. “Think before you speak.”

The nuanced difference of prewarning versus post-laughing was lost on me, but her anger came through. This wasn’t the first or the last time my mom told me that. Sometimes it was said with a sigh. She probably said it daily when I was in my early teens and regularly challenging my dad. Eventually it sunk in.

It’s hardest to curb my tongue with those closest to me. My daughters say I’m brutally honest. But I’ve made progress.

I hear Mom’s voice as I speak to my students. As I stand before a kid who failed his assignment, disrupted the class, and got in a fight at recess, I barely bite back, “What’s wrong with you?”

Instead I take a deep breath. The consequences can come later. Right now, calm is needed. “What’s going on?”

I hear her clearly when I get ready to comment on social media. The post is so slanted I can’t believe anyone would buy it. Yet they have shared it with the rest of us. I want to scream, “Fake news!”

Instead I pause and hit Delete rather than Send and scroll past. Not worth it.

And some of the other things I see? Privacy settings and common sense go a long way. Think before you post. Advice for a new age.

My mother is gone now. I can guess how Mom would see the current political and social climate. In the five years since she died, millions of words have been written that give one side or the other support for what they already believe. It’s become strangely acceptable to shout your opinions, simply getting louder if someone disagrees. The answer to evidence that makes your guy look bad is dissemblance. “Oh yeah? Well, your group is worse,” is not elegant discourse. But I believe the spin masters do think before they speak. Their words are deceptive and hurtful by design, not by thoughtlessness. The rule is not infallible.

Our leader however is a different matter. What comes to his head seems to go straight to his tapping fingers. I know what Mom would say. If I could tell the president just one thing, it would be think before you tweet.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

 

I entered Super Challenge #5 on Yeahwrite.me. This was my Round One piece and I made it to Round Two! The prompt was to write a personal essay about “a phrase that gets stuck in your head.” Here’s what the judges had to say about my piece.

What the judges really liked about With Reason:

 

  • My favorite scene is the sandal scene; it’s rich in emotion, detail, and it feels real. Well done.
  • You did a good job using the prompt in a consistent way throughout the piece.

 

Where the judges found room for improvement:

  • The essay ends abruptly, and when it veers from personal anecdotes, it seems to lose focus. This is especially true after the line “Advice for a new age.”
  • This essay would benefit from expanding on the detail especially with regard to that last paragraph which makes perfect sense in the context of the essay topic but just kind of lands there at the end with little tie in to what came before.

Plant Chat

This morning I read a Discover magazine article about plant communication and the first thing I wondered was what Mr. D would think of it.

Flashback 40+ years –

“My plants grow better when I talk to them,” my friend M asserted.

Mr. D pursed his lips and peered at her skeptically through his glasses. The eighth-grade enrichment class was called Anthropology and most of the time he kept us on the study of man. But occasional diversions were allowed.

A few of us came to M’s aid.

“Maybe it’s the carbon dioxide in her breath,” I suggested.

“Maybe it’s the vibrations from her voice,” another girl proposed.

Mr. D folded his arms. He said we could test our ideas tomorrow before class.

The next morning M brought in one of her plants and Mr. D, who taught high school chemistry the rest of the day, produced a galvanometer. He attached the two alligator clips to leaves and checked the gauge.

For several minutes three girls stood around the plant, saying whatever came into our heads. The needle didn’t move.

“It might not be a big enough effect,” he allowed. “Try yelling.”

We all started yelling in our high girlish voices. Still nothing.

Suddenly, Mr. D bellowed in his booming voice, “Come on, you ignoramus!”

And the needle twitched.

_____________________________

Now today I read that plants communicate, telling other plants things that they need to know. There is a drought coming. Look out for the aphids! Just like us, they are more likely to talk to family than strangers, recognizing the difference both chemically and with their light receptors. A Venus Flytrap can even count. Who knew?

There was nothing in the article about interspecies communication. Sadly, Mr. D is gone. But if he were still alive, I’d like to call him.

“Hey Mr. D,” I’d say. “How about another experiment?”

 


 

Unhappy Camper

My mother and I walked the three blocks to the meeting place that Friday afternoon. I wore my usual jeans, sneakers, and a light jacket, all suitable for Girl Scout camping in the spring. My mother, volunteering as a chaperone, wore her light blue trench coat and one of the few pairs of pants she owned. She sniffed and dabbed at her running nose with a tissue in one hand, while the other arm clutched her bedroll and her sack supper that she’d put in a beaded shopping bag made of pink plastic netting, with handles for easy carrying.

My back tensed as we approached the gathering group of girls and our leader, nicknamed Nuke. I was only still in Girl Scouts as a seventh grader because of Nuke. She made meetings fun, took us to camp, was stern when needed, but genuinely seemed to like hanging out with a bunch of adolescent girls. I set my bedroll down next to her daughter, Missy.

“Your mom came,” Missy said.

“Yeah.” My shoulders slumped.

“I love your mom. She’s so nice.” Missy smiled.

I looked toward Mom, standing talking to Nuke, her blond head leaning in toward Nuke’s brown pinned-up braid. I loved my mom too. But at home. Not out camping for the first time in her life, with her pink beaded shopping bag. I sighed. Maybe it would be all right.

It was almost dark by the time the bus dropped us off at camp. We dropped our sack suppers on a picnic table. Then we paired up to head to our tents scattered in the woods and lay out our bedrolls before the last of the light faded. My friend and I brushed leaves and dirt off the wooden floor of the tent and were about to head out to eat when we heard a screech. It sounded an awful lot like my mother.

I rushed toward her voice. There was my mom, looking up in a tree and yelling.

“Hey! Give that back!”

Above her, the pink shopping bag dangled from a branch, while a raccoon reached inside, grabbing bits of her sandwich.

The raccoon won. Nuke and I shared our dinner with Mom and our group settled around picnic tables to eat. We sat around talking, but soon Nuke sent us to bed. The real fun of camping would start early.

The next morning, we started a fire, cooked pancakes for breakfast, cleaned up, and hiked in the woods. Nuke supervised, but the work was ours. One of the girls blared a transistor radio playing top 40’s music as we washed up. I waited for Mom to ask her to turn it down, but she said nothing.

The day flew by. That night I breathed a sigh of relief as we sat beneath the stars around a crackling fire, making s’mores and singing camp songs.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me….”

The weekend was almost over and no more Mom catastrophes.

Sunday morning after breakfast we sat in the sun with the radio blaring again, while we waited for the bus to pick us up. Mom cocked her head listening.

“You know, some of this music isn’t bad.”

_______________________

Now that I’m well on the other side of being the embarrassing mom, I see that weekend from a different perspective.

I asked my introverted, book-loving Mom once why she went on that camping trip, when she was so clearly out of her element.

She shrugged. “They needed a volunteer.”

Now I look back and see the lilacs blooming that my mother was horribly allergic to. She dressed for the trip the best way she could. These were the clothes she had and money wasn’t plentiful. The goofy pink bag made sense. It was hard to carry everything and blow your nose at the same time.

That weekend she shared a tent with Nuke, who didn’t like the way the bugs clung to the roof for warmth. So, they slept with all four flaps rolled to the top all night and Mom froze.

She had grown up in an era and town where they used an outhouse until midway through her childhood. Mom valued indoor plumbing.

She tolerated an eye-rolling daughter, a crowd of noisy girls, and two bone-chilling nights in a tent, argued with a racoon, and turned a new ear to music. She volunteered because the trip I so wanted to go on would not happen unless a second adult could come along.

Mom camped for the one and only time in her life because she loved me.

A Marriage of Meals

I chop green pepper, onion, mushrooms and spinach and saute them in olive oil. I heat a pan on high and swirl beaten eggs in a thin, light layer. As they cook I sprinkle black pepper and the sautéed vegetables over the eggs. I fold the omelet over into a half moon and slide it on a plate. With sides of fresh asparagus and buttered toast, I settle down to eat dinner.

On the nights I cook for myself, I often make some variety of veggie omelet, French toast, or big spinach salads with loads of veggies or strawberries or chopped apples. Always with balsamic vinaigrette.

My husband is all Ranch dressing and cheese. He’d happily eat iceberg lettuce if I wasn’t so particular.

This has been our marriage in meals.

Alone, he eats plates of brown. Fried meat with potatoes.

Alone, I eat plates of color. Light on meat, plentiful vegetables.

Together, I make his mother’s chili recipe, slow simmered ground beef and beans. I add tomatoes to mine and he adds shredded cheddar to his. I make meatloaf and sneak in bits of cooked carrots, peppers, and onions.  He makes steak sandwiches and I load mine with peppers and onions, while he adds a little onion and cheese. He makes a wonderful roast chicken with baked potatoes and peas. We turn the leftovers into chicken salad or sandwiches. I boil the remaining bones and meat to make broth that will become chicken and noodles or chicken soup with carrots, peas and noodles. The omelets I make for him include bacon and potatoes. We have meals that can be tweaked to taste by one or the other.

In my thirties, I became lactose intolerant and in my forties the doctor told me to cut down on salt. I’m a nightmare dinner guest. Once when talking to our daughter, my husband joked, “I’d better go cook my no cheese, no salt, no flavor meal.”

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I’d say that’s the way to a woman’s heart as well.

In the early days of our marriage, cooking and chores were shared equally. As time went by, he did less of the cleaning and more of the cooking. Now that he’s retired and I’m still working, I rarely cook at all. Tonight, he served barbecue chicken, with baked potatoes and the last of the asparagus.

Without me in his meals, my husband wouldn’t eat as many healthful vegetables. With him in the kitchen, I can have perfectly roasted chicken or tender beef. We eat better together.

They say we are what we eat. A marriage of meals.

Getting Even With the Dentist

I went to the dentist today. (Do I sense cringing out there?) I don’t enjoy dental visits, but they don’t scare me either. I think that’s because of my mother’s brainwashing all through my childhood.

She’d always say, “Now that they have high-speed drills, it won’t hurt.”

I’m really not afraid of pain at the dentist, but the sound of scraping and drilling can get to me too.

My childhood dentist was Dr. S, a middle-aged guy with laugh lines around his eyes and salt and pepper hair. My mom would schedule appointments for all four of us and he would see us one after the other. And we had lots of cavities.

Going to the dentist, I’m five years old again. I can remember being small in the big chair. Dr. S had to put up with a lot from us. I remember screaming from the moment the drill was turned on, before it even touched me. I don’t think I was really scared. It was more making my dissatisfaction heard above the grinding whine of the drill.

Another time, Dr. S said, “Open.”

I opened.

With his fingers still in my mouth, he said, “Bite.”

And I bit him. Hard.

Fortunately, Dr. S had a sense of humor. “Well, I did say bite.”

He and his assistant, M, would joke around while they worked. M was a round woman with a ringing laugh. Every visit, after Dr. S rinsed your mouth out, he would squirt you on the nose and M would laugh.

Just counting my family, over the years from when I was four to eighteen, Dr. S saw us and squirted us about 110 times. But it wasn’t until around the 108th time that my twelve-year-old brother got even.

He played it straight throughout the appointment. No one noticed that he kept his hands underneath the paper bib. No one noticed until Dr. S gave him his traditional squirt on the nose. That’s when my brother pulled out the squirt gun and shot him back. M’s laugh could be heard clear out in the waiting room.

Sometime after I grew up and moved away, Dr. S retired. His son took over his practice. I wonder whether another generation continued the nose squirting routine.

My adult dentist, Dr. T, saw my kids through their childhood. She is calm and gentle and kind, and they were never afraid. She never squirted them on the nose. At every visit, she asks about my girls and I ask about hers. I like her and my kids did too. But I doubt they’ll look back at their childhood appointments with the same fond amusement that I do.

Dr. S’s son is still practicing dentistry in the same office I went to as a child. Dr. S is an old man now. I wonder if he ever thinks of the boy who squirted him back.

IMG_1822

 (Truthfully, I was third out of four, but hey, you’ve got to take success where you can get it!)

The Universal Language of Loss

It was the day after I found our dear black lab dead next to the road. The day after my husband had to leave work to bury her, before the kids would have to see her there.

They had seen me cry. Our five-year-old was old enough to grieve with us, but we didn’t think our two-year-old could understand.

That day after, we played outside in the sunshine, being normal though it didn’t feel normal without our dog running with us.

Out of breath, I boosted myself up to sit on the tailgate of our pickup. My littler girl reached her arms up to me. I picked her up and sat her next to me.

She had few words at that age, but used sounds and gestures to let us know what she wanted to say.

She patted my leg to get my attention and said her word for our dog’s name, “Detta.”

“No,” I answered. “She’s gone. She can’t come back.”

“Uh,” my daughter said pointing to a passing truck. Then she slapped her own leg.

“Yes,” I agreed. “A truck hit her.”

My little girl pointed at me. “You,” she said, then ran her pudgy fingers down her cheeks and whimpered.

“Yes,” I said. “I cried.”

When she wrapped her little arms around my neck, I knew she understood after all.

The Good Guys

It was the night of the November election. I was, by turns, doing some work I’d brought home and checking polling results on my phone.

My daughter’s first text came in about eight o’clock.

“I’m worried!”

I worry about the country on a daily basis, but my heart breaks for my daughter. Like all her generation, she was taught in school that, although our country had a shameful tradition of slavery and human rights violations, all that was behind us. With first the victories of Martin Luther King and later the election of Barack Obama, the only president in their adult lives, America had triumphed over bigotry and hatred. They were sure that we could only move forward.

While I know that there were many reasons that voters supported Donald Trump, an unfortunate consequence of that support has been the openness with which some people now express their anger and prejudice. It remains to be seen whether those reasons will justify the fallout in the end. To get the supreme court justice they preferred, or the manufacturing jobs he has promised, or the tax reforms he swears he will bring, or the illegal immigration he will build a wall to attempt to prevent, his supporters ignored the other words he has spoken or tweeted, the lies he has told, the manipulation he has strategized. Though it is not a bargain I was willing to make, I understand that, when desperate enough, voters did.

My daughter and many of her generation embraced the idealism of Bernie Sanders. The harshness of Trump’s message has been a bitter pill to swallow.

She jokes, “Will you visit me in Canada?”

My daughter is not naïve. She works with people in poverty, some of whom came to America recently trying to find a safer, more prosperous life, as immigrants have for generations. She understands much more than most of us the issues that poor families face. She sees parents every day, who range from being illiterate to having graduate degrees, working hard at manual labor to make better lives for their kids. As a child born to the privilege of education and a stable home life, she feels the need to give back. She wants leaders who see what she sees and a way to move forward to improve the lives of the families she serves.

Though we are texting, I imagine the anguish in her voice, and I want to reassure her, as mothers often try to do. I tell her to remember the balance of power, how congress and the judiciary must cooperate before too much damage can be done. I know it is a weak argument for her sorrow of this moment.

We sign off, but I can imagine her thinking, “How could Americans vote this way? We’re supposed to be the good guys.”

But I want to let her know, “Honey, everyone thinks they’re the good guys.”

 

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

When my oldest was about three, I started planting the idea of college in her brain. I remember a particular conversation we had.

“What happens when you’re five?” I asked.

“I go to school,” she answered on cue.

“Where do you go after grade school?” I asked next.

“High school,” she responded.

“Where do you go after high school?”

“College!”

Then I asked, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

Smiling, she told me, “A clown.”

Great, I thought. Clown college!

I’ve been thinking about that question we always ask kids. What do you want to be when you grow up? I think we’re asking the wrong question or expecting the wrong answer.

I’ve been a teacher for over 30 years and I definitely hold Teacher as part of my central identity. But not everyone is lucky enough to have a career that they love, much less one that can be part of their character. Some of us have a passion for what we do, but many, many more simply have a job so that they can pursue their passions, or sometimes just so they can survive. We need garbage collectors, car salesman and account managers, and all those jobs provide services modern society needs, but none are likely to make people feel like that is who they are in life.

According to US Labor statistics, people my age have had an average of 11+ jobs. The millennial generation is likely to switch careers even more often. No one will “be” one thing through their lifetime. Maybe what we should be asking is, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”

Do you want to be smart? Everyone’s intelligence can be improved with hard work and perseverance, qualities that would be valuable for any occupation.

Do you want to be strong and brave? Start practicing now, child. Exercise those muscles and face your fears.

Do you want to be adventurous? Then, parents, it’s time for some child-sized freedom or they’ll never be up for a challenge.

Do you want to be athletic? You’ll need some genetic talent, but then practice, practice, practice.

Do you want to be kind? The world could use you right now.

Do you want to be creative? Don’t be a follower. Pursue your art.

Since my husband has retired and taken over many of the chores I used to do, I’m trying self-centered on for size. I think this is what has freed me up to try adding Writer to my psyche. It feels pretty good.

Who do you want to be? Try on a new label and see how it feels.