Putting Sweetie down for a nap

Our oldest granddaughter is here, the one who recently turned four and has bruises up and down both legs because, as she says, “I play hard.” Play hard is an understatement. stuffed bearsWhat she should really say is, “I play professionally.” She plays like someone with a six-figure contract in the NFL. The girl has one speed and it is overdrive.

She came for a short summer stay along with two sets of lists. One is her list of things she’d like to do, a list with which we are entirely amenable: Go to Daddy’s old school and playground; eat ice cream or make it from scratch (a brilliant child!), bake cookies for Daddy (an easily influenced child), Skype with Mommy and Daddy, play in the sprinkler and eat chocolate.

We are particularly agreeable to the last one.

On a separate sheet of paper is a list of instructions from her parents. This list we have some mild objections to, particularly the request for a daily quiet time. They might as well have asked us to stop a runaway train or a speeding bullet. The child moves fast, so fast that sometimes we can’t even see her. She’s a blast of wind blowing through the room and a blur of color speeding by.

A four-year-old does not like quiet time.

Whenever I see a mother at the store with a four-year-old squirming in the checkout lane and the mother snaps at the child, “What’s the matter with you?” I want to say to the mother, “Nothing is the matter with the child; the child is four.”

In any case, we are approaching the designated daily quiet time for this four-year-old child who goes 100 mph. The husband suggests that instead of just sending her off to lie down with a few books, it may be better if one of us would lie down and read with her.

Being that I have already read every children’s book in the house numerous times, he volunteers to be the reader. I agree cautiously, fully aware that this is one of those situations that could go either way. There could be tears, crying, vehement protests and begging to go home to Chicago because she knows she may be tricked into that dreadful state known as sleep—or she could go along peacefully, enjoy some story time, get a good rest and then resume activity at an increased speed of 200 mph.

Ten minutes after they disappear with an armload of books, a set of footsteps comes thundering down the stairs.

“Not so loud,” I say. “We don’t need a lot of racket during quiet time. So, how did it go?”

“Fine.”

“What books did you read?”

“Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

“Asleep or still awake?” I ask.

“Asleep. Very, very tired. Head on the pillow, asleep with the buffalo and the bear and the coyote.”

“Well, that went better than we expected, now didn’t it?” I say.

“I closed the door, but not all the way.”

“Wonderful,” I say. “And did you say anything as you slipped out?”

“Yes,” I said, ‘Good night, Grandpa.’”

Marriage takes a walk in the woods

Not long after all the kids had left home, there was an evening when the husband and I were coming home from dinner, he was unlocking the door and I was standing close and we kissed. We both chuckled because it was like being 17 and on a first date. But it wasn’t a first date, it was just a couple who hadn’t had an extended pause together in a very long time.

Jordan PondThe silence of an empty house takes you back to when you first met and all the things that have happened between then and now. You realized you never looked this far into the future. You never really imagined what it would be like when it was just the two of you again.

Who was he anyway? An even better question, who was I?

“We’ve turned into the Bickersons,” a friend lamented after her last one left home. Five years later they were divorced.

Much of a mother’s work vanishes with the kids. A big part of her is packed into cardboard boxes and tossed in the back of a car. And now it’s just you and Mr. Conversationalist over there who hasn’t spoken a word in 50 minutes. Had we ever thought this far ahead, as to what life would be like once it was the two of us again?

Did we know we’d be so all-consumed by jobs, work and everyday demands, that the tender bond that first united us could grow a brittle crust?

We were hiking around Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park on a short getaway as I was thinking precisely such grumpy thoughts. We had the trail and the pond to ourselves. The husband was alternately lagging behind and dashing ahead, framing photos, making pictures. It was Spring and small green shoots were pushing up through the remains of winter. Hibernation season was over and life was awakening.

The trail that circled Jordan Pond alternately broke into the sunshine and wound through the dark covering of the forest. It was a long, quiet, desolate hike.

A rutting sound bounced off the hillside. I grabbed a long stick. It was a pitiful excuse for a weapon, but at least I might be able to poke the beast’s eye with it, or at least tickle a funny bone. The husband caught up with me and heard the sound, too. Something large was on the hillside.

“Do you plan to fight a bear with that stick?” the husband asked, smirking.

“If I have to,” I said indignantly. “What do you propose? If something comes charging out of the woods, what is your plan?”

“You take off running.”

“Why would I take off running?” I ask.

“You’d run for help.”

“And what would you do?”

“I’d stay with the bear so you had time to get away.”

An accumulation of tiny resentments and petty grudges brought about by the busyness of family life suddenly melted away. Life is different now, but I am still loved by the one I chose to love all those years ago.

Family culture created by default or design

A friend and I discovered that we shared a connection with a particular young family. “They’re lovely,” I said.

Finger paintingIt nagged at me later that I had tagged such a remarkable family with such a bland description. Lovely could be a straw hat with artificial flowers worn to the Kentucky Derby. Lovely wasn’t an apt description, but it was the only thing I could think of at the time. I thought about it later because my best thoughts are always my after-the-moment-has-passed thoughts. The best word to describe them would have been “intentional.”

They are married, have three small children and a vision for life. They have a sense of purpose about work, home, family and each ordinary day. They live within modest means, yet practice generosity. She routinely turns out epicurean wonders like shaved asparagus pizza for others who can use a little help. She, along with little eyes watching and little hands helping, craft beautiful meals.

They are intentional about how they spend time as a family, discriminating about what their children take in, opting for books, crafts and outings over television and media. Their faith isn’t relegated to Sunday mornings, but shapes their day-to-day living. They value face-to-face conversations more than electronic messages with emoticons and no vowels.

An article in Forbes discussed what separates great leaders from average leaders. “Great leaders create culture by design, while average leaders allow culture to evolve by default,” wrote Mike Myatt.

It is actually strong leadership at work in this little family. What sets them apart is that they are not evolving by default, passively letting life happen to them, but actively pursuing life and attempting to shape it as they go.

It is far easier to be a family by default. Families that evolve by default require a lot less work and thought. The adults do their thing, the kids do their thing, and they meet over take-out or fast food a couple of nights a week and wonder why nobody seems to connect.

When you create a family by design, you make the choices instead of letting others make the choices for you. You decide. You decide to introduce children to great works of art, to allow them to paint, make music, make a mess, play uninterrupted, putter alongside you in the kitchen, the garden, the workshop and the garage, discovering how tools work and pieces fit.

That sort of family is sometimes out of step with culture. It is a family that moves slower, ambles off the beaten path and goes against the grain. That sort of family life takes thinking ahead, creating opportunities, checking benchmarks and being deliberate about choices.

There’s not much middle ground when it comes to growing a family. It really is family by default, or family by design.

Get this look, or not

There’s a feature that often accompanies pictures of celebrities on websites called “Get this look.” The pop-up directs you to sales points for the fashions and accessories similar to what the celebs are wearing so that you, too, can look like a celebrity, which we know is always better than looking like yourself.

I just saw a picture of Miley Cyrus dashing off to a recording studio in low-slung white leggings and a white-cropped T-shirt exposing her belly. The girl is so lean as to be dehydrated. Clearly, she does crunches in her sleep and avoids carbs like incoming missiles. The “Get this look” feature displays sunglasses similar to the pair Miley is wearing for only $18.

Sure, I could cough up 18 smackers. I could get the sunglasses. But I would not look like Miley Cyrus. If at any time I thought a pair of sunglasses might make me look like Miley Cyrus, someone should put me away. Immediately. Yesterday.

And if you buy the sunglasses, you probably won’t have the look either. Was that harsh? I’m so sorry.

But let me tell you this, in some cases, I’m not so sure you want the look.

It’s a good thing news outlets label the celebrities as celebrities, because some of them are dressed so casually that it’s difficult to tell if they are rich and famous or destitute and seeking shelter. A number of rich and famous young women seem to have anger issues with their shirts. It looks like they took a man’s T-shirt, cut it off with scissors in a fit of fury, and then stretched the bottom so violently that it is wavy and exceptionally ill fitting.

If you truly wanted to “Get this look,” you would have to rage in your man’s dresser drawer. Or go dumpster diving.

I actually like the “Get this look” feature. I only wish those words could hover over those we meet in real time. This would eliminate those awkward moments of complimenting someone on something they are wearing, hoping they might mention where it came from and if it was on sale.

Then again, I would not particularly want it to hover over the husband. It would point to articles of his clothing and say, “Get this look: Available only from the back of the closet.” Or, “Get this look: His wife said that if he wore that shirt again, it would be over her dead body. He’s still wearing it and she’s still alive.”

Actually, I wouldn’t want it hovering over me, either. It would point to me and say, “Get this look: Workout pants, out-of-style, out-of-stock. She wears them to make it look like she works out, but she rarely does.”

Our daughter emailed us an illustration from a children’s book of a Grandma who looks considerably advanced in age, with her hair in rollers, and a Grandpa of a similar age slouched on a sofa in a cardigan. She said her girls saw it and yelled, “Grandma! Grandpa!” and then kissed the picture.

We’ve got the look all right. And the kisses.

Take a page from history for real fireworks

A friend tells a story about growing up in Chicago in the ‘60s. A neighbor boy he played with was Italian. The entire family was Italian. They spoke Italian, ate Italian and yelled Italian.

fireworksThe Italian boy asked our friend what he was and he said Swedish. By the way, he’s the most Middle Eastern-looking Swede you’ll ever meet – dark hair, dark eyes, dark complexion. Our friend, knowing full well the Italian kid was Italian, asked him what he was.

“American!” the kid shouted.

“No, you’re not; you’re Italian!”

“No, I’m American! American!”

There’s no better time than the Fourth of July to reflect on what it means to be an American. There’s been a move in recent years to encourage people to read the Declaration at Fourth of July celebrations, cookouts and gatherings.

If you’ve found yourself staring in disbelief at headlines about million dollar government conferences and dance videos, abuse of individuals at the hands of the IRS, a rush to make new laws when we don’t enforce the laws we have, and you feel a knot in your gut over diminishing liberties and mushrooming bureaucracies, take a page from history.

If you find yourself wondering if the American dream was just that, a dream, and you question whether the next generation will find jobs that can support them, own homes or be able to experience mobility in employment, it’s time to sit back. Find a copy of the Declaration of Independence, pop the tab on your beverage of choice and start reading. Don’t just read to the familiar, the part about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; read the whole thing, start to finish.

No other charter of freedom in the entire world is so beautifully written, powerful and inspiring. There is nothing stuffy and staid about the Declaration; it is a document of sweeping passion. It begins nearly apologetic in tone, noting that long established government should not be changed for light and transient causes. Then the crescendo begins. It starts with an acknowledgment that rights come from God, then shifts to a defense of freedom, grows louder denouncing tyranny and, with barely contained rage, enumerates the ways the colonists have suffered.

The grievances come rapid fire: the King has established arbitrary government; forbidden governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance; abolished valuable laws and fundamentally altered the forms of government.

No people lose freedom overnight. Loss of freedom happens incrementally, slowly and silently, like fog slipping in at night. Freedom requires vigilance and voice.

When you hold a copy of the Declaration, you hold your birthright. You hold the very words, the fervor and the commitment to sacrifice that secured your freedom as an American. You hold something else, too—your heritage, your children’s heritage and your grandchildren’s heritage.

Read the Declaration aloud this Fourth. Read it the way it was written—with passion. Read it like your lives, your fortunes and your sacred honor depended on it.

Read it in a group and it’s a guarantee you’ll be talking about more than the weather, ball scores and fireworks.

Y’all gotta read this

I can probably tell where you’re from by whether you say “you guys” or “y’all.” Do you call it pick-AHN pie or pee-pop imageKAHN pie? The pecan pie pronunciation is sticky business no matter how you slice it.

I didn’t turn clairvoyant; I’ve been looking at a series of maps, published by Joshua Katz, a doctoral student at North Carolina State University, illustrating how people pronounce words in different parts of the country.

The maps indicate we are split nearly 50/50 between soda and pop when it comes to what to call carbonated beverage drinks.

Responses were more complex regarding what to call it when several roads meet in a circle and you have to get off at a certain point. The answers were traffic circle, roundabout or rotary—except in South and North Dakota, where they have no word for this. I lived in North Dakota for a year. There is no word for where several roads meet in a circle, because in both of the Dakotas you can drive for days without any roads, cars, livestock or people meeting.

Despite an interesting composite of our lexicons, I am curious as to why researchers did not address the pronunciation divide of all time. Forget syrup, sir-up or sear-up, how do you pronounce my home state of Missouri?

Elections were won and lost on this matter. Adults were shunned at cocktail parties and kids were creamed during dodge ball based on how they said Missouri.

You either pronounced it Mih-zur-ie, (sounds dangerously close to Misery), or — and this was the group the rest of us never fully trusted— you called it Mih-zur-ah, not unlike the University of Missouri chant, “Rah, Rah, Rah, Mih-zur-Rah! Go Tigers!”

Being sincere and ordinary people, my family, friends, my slang imagefriends’ families and my teachers all called it Mih-zur-ie. But every once in awhile, I would pronounce it Mih-zur-ah just to try it on for size the same way I would take my mother’s small lipstick samples from the Avon lady to try them on for size. More than once when I tried what we considered the “puttin’ on airs” pronunciation, someone would look at me and snap, “Take off that lipstick, girl. Where do you think you’re from?”

There was only one answer and it was Mih-zur-ie

There were few regrets when I moved ‘cross country and left the pronunciation woes of Mih-zur-ie behind. But I wound up in Oregon, a state with a name that outsiders often mispronounced and insiders were determined to correct. Cars bore bumper stickers saying, “IT’S ORY-GUN.” If you visit the Emerald State and call it Ory-GONE, you will be regarded as the same sort of hotty totty that says Mih-zur-ah.

Our differences in speech are both fascinating and entertaining. The important thing is that we not become rigid about our way of doing things.

That said, I grew up drinking pop and still do, find that a PEE-can pie sounds suspect, although pick-AHN pie will do just fine, and never circle a roundabout twice, as it makes me nauseous. Or sick. Or ill. Or vomitose. Take your pick.

Cold statistics cry salty tears

More than 24 million children live apart from their biological fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is one in three children in America.

I don’t know what it feels like to live without a father, but I know what it looks like.

I was helping in a first grade classroom when a seven-year-old boy dropped to the floor and started wailing. This wasn’t a soft whimper; it was a chilling, piercing all-out wail.

I coaxed him off the floor, helped him to a chair at the back of the class, and pulled up a chair beside him. He was inconsolable, his shoulders and chest heaving as he gasped for air.

Rubbing his back calmed him down a little and gradually the wailing began to subside. “My dad left,” he said between small sobs. “And my mom said he’s not ever coming back.” Then he sobbed some more, tears gushing. His eyes were red and swollen, his face wet and snot was running out of his nose. “My mom says I’m not ever going to see him again.” Then he broke down again.

We sat for a long while. I broke the silence and told him no one knows the future and that he might see his dad one day. He didn’t buy it. He glared at me, shook his head like I was the dumbest turnip to ever fall off the truck and sobbed some more.

When he quieted down, I tried shooting straight and said everybody goes through hard times, really, really hard times, and that I was sorry his hard time was now. “Sometimes we have to give our mind a break from the hard times so we can function,” I said. “Even in hard times you can find something to be thankful for. Why don’t I say something I’m thankful for and then you can say something you’re thankful for.”

“I’m thankful for a house that protects me from the weather,” I said.

He wiped his nose on his arm. “I’m thankful for my dad – because he taught me everything I know.” Then he threw his head on the desk and started crying again. Now I was fighting back the tears, too. The little guy cried and sniffed, sobbed and heaved, and wore himself out.

What was sitting next to me, leaning up against me, was a statistic with a face on it. When the numbers have faces, when you can see their broken hearts, salty tears and snot-smeared cheeks, they take on a different dimension. One in three on paper is cold. One in three sitting next to you radiates the heat of a white hot hurt.

We’re numb to the statistics. We’re numb to the dismal outcomes that research predicts many of these kids will face. The bottom line is this: If you’re a father, be a father.

Being a father is not just a responsibility, it’s a privilege. You are the only dad your child has.

Thinking outside the window

Between the old air conditioner dying and a new one being installed, we’ve been living with the windows open. The window imageoutside world has tumbled in and our inside world has tumbled out.

The net effect feels something like your mother saying, “Get outside and stay there!” With outdoor sounds now part of every hour, daylight or dark, even our morning routine has changed. We both stumble from bed and beeline to the bedroom window. I don’t know what either of us thinks may have changed during a few hours of sleep, but with hearing the wind, the cars, the sirens and assorted dogs, it seems our duty to check. No bodies, no animal carcasses, no limbs down. Yep, looks the same as it did yesterday.

The low hum of traffic from the interstate, which isn’t necessarily close, wafts over the trees in the morning quiet. Walkers and runners at daybreak seem to pad softer and breathe easier than those later in the day.

By mid-morning the sounds begin to perk up as mothers with baby joggers and strollers pass by and older Russian ladies who have clustered in a nearby apartment complex take their daily constitutionals.

I even know that our neighbor had company the other day. I stepped outside to see if the outside was as stifling as it was inside, when I heard voices and laughter. All was well with the entire world for a moment, as he is a man who enjoys a full house.

The four pale turquoise eggs with brown spots in the nest that the purple house finch built in a fern on the front porch have finally hatched. There’s no missing the yappy little things on the other side of the screen — cheep, cheep, cheep, chirp, chirp, chirp. “I’m on the phone, can you keep it down?” Cheep, cheep, cheep, chirp, chirp, chirp. Every time their mother flies away for food, I wonder if she’ll be back or take the day off so her nerves can recharge.

The guys on the corner are playing basketball. A gaggle of girls on bicycles sail down the middle of the street.

With the door to the patio open, a chipmunk skirting the perimeter of the house is in plain view. He’s the one that has been nibbling on the impatiens and chewing the new clematis. There is no “innocent until proven guilty” here. Disney may have thought you were cute, Chipper, but you won’t linger if you know what’s good for you.

They’re making progress on the fire station remodel at the edge of the neighborhood. We can’t see it, but we can hear it. Echoes of debris sliding into dumpsters bounce off the house and the low vibrations of heavy machinery travel through the floor.

A train whistle blows every night not far from here, sometime before 11. A train at night is a pleasant melancholy. Sorry to have missed it all this time.

We’re getting two more estimates on a new air conditioner. Once it is installed we’ll close the windows, shut the doors, seal ourselves off and rid the house of this heavy humidity. It almost seems a shame.

Peonies help remember and honor

The peonies are slightly behind schedule for Memorial Day. I worry about such things, not because I want to, but because I have to. It’s part of my heritage. For years, women in my family have monitored peonies like Patton monitored the troops, but without the swearing.

My peony bushes came from my mother’s peony bushes, and her bushes came from her mother’s bushes. I remember when my mother dug up some of her peonies, wrapped them in newspaper, and helped cram them in our mini-van so we could drive them 500 miles to our home. It wasn’t, “Would you like some peony bushes?” It was, “Here are your peony bushes.”

In my mother’s eyes, a woman who lived in a house with a yard and didn’t have peony bushes was a mere girl pretending to be a woman. So we brought home the peony bushes and planted them. Now, every May, I engage in the time-honored tradition of monitoring them to see if they will be ready for Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was once called, just like my mother and grandmother used to do.

If the peonies didn’t look like they would be ready by Memorial Day, a fervor came over my mother. It was not unlike the fervor with which the troops took Normandy. If the peonies weren’t in bloom, she would cut them by the bushels, haul them into the basement, and place them in old coffee cans, buckets and tubs full of warm water, and order them to bloom.

While we often made the cemetery rounds to decorate the graves of loved ones, we never lost site of the fact that Memorial Day was really to honor fallen soldiers. The true observance of the day was never far from my father’s mind, as he lost one of his brothers during World War II.

I always flinched whenever my dad’s brother’s name was spoken. I flinched because I knew the loss caused my father and everyone in his family unspeakable pain.

I still flinch, not just at the memory of one fallen soldier, but at the many. I flinch because each and every day I enjoy a bounty of freedoms made possible by thousands upon thousands I will never know, and can never thank. They gave up the comforts I blithely presume upon: home and family, shelter and safety, and the expectation of more years to come. They lost their claim to such wonderful things when they laid it all down.

They may be gone, but they are not forgotten. They are the knot in the throat when the flag passes by. They are the invisible sentry protecting the media and the flow of information on the web. They stand behind every voting booth and political gathering.They are the gust of wind that helps open the door to every house of worship. They are on the horizon at every rendition of Taps and at every graveside presentation of a folded flag.

We can thank those who sacrificed by remembering. We can honor them by being vigilant to insure that the battles they waged to protect freedom and liberty are never lost.

Stumbling over the Great (taste) Divide

I dread being the bearer of bad news, especially in an uncertain economy, questionable employment gains and high allergen levels, but here it goes: Jell-O salad is dead.

I know, I know. I was as shaken as you are. I only recently realized this myself, which is why I wanted to be the first to tell you.

It all started when I made a Jell-O salad for Easter simply because my mother used to make it and her mother used to make it. It’s a lemon Jell-O with pineapple and bananas. The leftover pineapple juice is used to make a pudding layer for the top, which is then finished with a flourish of grated cheddar.

Our new son-in-law looked at the salad, asked what was in it, then polished off a piece. He said, “You know, that was strange, but good.” It was a smart summary on his part, especially since he is new to the family and has not yet passed his probation period.

I mentioned the strange but good Jell-O salad incident to a walking buddy and she concurred that gelatin salad has fallen from favor. It also reminded her of her favorite Jell-O salad, which she had not made in some time, a strawberry pretzel Jell-O salad. She basically said it is to die for. I cannot imagine dying for Jell-O salad, but she promptly whipped one up, brought it over, and I am reconsidering my previous stance.

There was a time when a Sunday dinner, pitch-in, picnic in the park or holiday gathering wasn’t complete without a Jell-O salad. My mother had an entire cookbook of gelatin salads. Perhaps Jell-O began falling from favor when women began putting stranger and stranger ingredients in it — carrots, cabbage, beets, green olives, Coke, ham, mayonnaise and corn. The yum factor took a nose dive.

I recently read a post by a food blogger who described herself as someone who “hates canned soup and Jell-O.” Yes dear, but you don’t have to get testy about it. Perhaps someone needs a little chocolate? She probably hates that, too.

In any case, meek and wobbly Jell-O may be joining the divisive food group. This is the food group that parts people like the Mason-Dixon line once did and like Barry Manilow still does. These are foods you love or detest with no in between. Mint: love it or hate it. Grapefruit: love it or hate it. Coconut is another that divides. You either love it or it tastes like hair. Sweet potatoes used to be an all-in or all-out, but they’ve been so touted lately that everybody is eating them, even people who used to gag at the sight of them.

Jell-O resurged for a time as jigglers and is still popular in some institutions of higher learning as a drinking game, but it would seem that the Jell-O salad in particular has faded from favor.

Then again, maybe I am wrong. Maybe the Jell-O salad isn’t dead. If it is dead though, this is what they should engrave on the headstone. “Strange, but good.”