Move aside, the kid has a map

She is five years old, skipping across the parking lot with a paper map squeezed beneath her arm and against her body like it is a top-secret document. She shakes wild curly hair out of her face and reminds the group that she has the map the park ranger handed us on entry to the state park. She shouts this with an air of importance as though being in possession of a map will elevate her standing among her older cousins.

A map is a novelty to a 5-year-old; built-in dashboard GPS navigation is not.

In-car navigation is still somewhat of a novelty to me; a map is not.

Ten of us cross the parking lot and regroup near trailheads.

She shakes the map loose from its folds and it billows like a parachute. She wrangles it under control, studies it intently, traces lines with her finger and yells, “Trail 7! Let’s take Trail 7!”

“Trail 7? What’s on Trail 7?” the group murmurs.

“Look at Trail 7, Grandma!” she demands.

“I can’t see Trail 7 because I can’t find my glasses,” I holler over the wind.

Isn’t that how all good navigators respond?

Lewis says to Clark, “Well, we’re lost again, and I can’t find my glasses!”

Clark says to Lewis, “Where did you last see them?”

Lewis snaps, “If I knew where I last saw them, I wouldn’t be looking for them!”

The tiny navigator points to the top of my head, indicating the location of my glasses, just as a strong gust of wind rips one side of the map from her two-handed grasp.

We jump and lunge and flail against the wind, and finally the cumbersome map is once again under our command. I begin studying the map, which is somewhat of a challenge as the dotted lines marking the trails are very faint. What’s more, I need to find our position in relation to the parking lot, but I am having trouble finding it.

“You do know you’re growing up in the digital age where everybody does everything on their phones, right?” I ask.

She squints her eyes and glares. It’s a menacing glare, even from a half-pint.

“I don’t have a phone,” she deadpans.

Good point.

The kid wants to use the map.

I point out that we are standing by the start of Trail 1. “I’ve been on Trail 1 before,” I say. “It’s wonderful.”

“But I want Trail 7.”

“Well, we’re nowhere close to Trail 7.”

Another eye squint.

“Trail 1 has a suspension bridge,” I say.

The glare softens.

“And it takes us through a deep canyon carved into enormous rocks.”

Her eyes widen.

I lean close to let her in on the best part. “And we might see a teeny tiny waterfall.”

She’s all in.

“Tell you what, next time we come we’ll do Trail 7. OK?”

She relents and relinquishes Trail 7. But not the map.


Tax refund is a two-edged sword

When the husband announced we were getting a sizable tax refund this year, I froze. It was one of those moments when you remember where you were and what you were wearing. (Middle of the kitchen, black workout pants, gray hoodie – same thing I’ve worn every day since the pandemic began.)

“That’s terrible,” I whispered, barely able to talk.

“I know,” he said, visibly shaken.

“It’s all right,” I said, “we still have each other.”

Refunds terrify us. Not only because it means we miscalculated and overpaid estimated quarterly taxes, but because anytime we get a windfall of any sort, it is always followed by another wind. Something along the lines of a tornado.

Our first rule of finance is that unexpected money means unexpected expenses. They’re coming. You know they’re coming; you just don’t know when they’re coming.

The first one hit – literally – the next week. Heavy rain turned to ice and coated all the needles on all the branches of a large white pine next to the house. Branches at the top cracked under the weight and took lower branches out with them, hurling themselves against the house then crashing to the ground. It sounded like a wrecking ball in slow-mo.

We surveyed the damage. Nearly one entire side of the tree was on the ground. Branches had dented siding, scraped brick, cracked a window frame and ripped the electrical box for the AC off the house.

“It could have been worse,” I said, which is our second rule of finance right after “unexpected money means unexpected expenses.”

The next day we bought new windshield wipers for the car. The nice man who put them on said he heard a little sing-song noise from the engine that we might want to have looked at. We took it to our mechanic who called within the hour. He said it was bad news and that we needed to take it to the dealership. “It’s gonna cost big time,” he said. “Hope you guys got a tax refund.”

That night I said, “Well, the house has spoken, the homeowners claim has been filed, the car is at a spa at the dealership enjoying two grand in the sun, but at least the appliances are all working.”

“How could you say such a thing?” the husband snapped. “You think appliances don’t have ears?”

The refrigerator let out a wicked laugh, followed by a clunk, dropping the last ice cubes we would ever see. For five days we hit the on/off switch to the ice maker and tripped the little bar. Then we bought a bag of ice from the grocery. Now, since I routinely forget to buy ice at the store, we make our own ice cubes in two blue plastic trays. We’ve gone retro.

I have a dental appointment this week. Last year, the dentist replaced two old fillings with crowns and has his eye on a third. If we go for broke on another crown, I will insist on being called “Her Majesty.” It may not stop the outflow of money, but I’ll enjoy a new title.

When being canceled leads to life not destruction

Once upon a time, shared rottenness was a widely acknowledged common denominator that united us. Seeing ourselves through a lens of reality often gave us some modicum of compassion for the other guy. It was a “been there, done that” and “there but for the grace of God” mindset.

Today there is little compassion for others. Cancel culture is constantly on high alert, armed and eager to cancel any who dare disagree. Not just the people, but their jobs, their companies, their families, their security, their hope for any future. Cancel culture has such a ravenous appetite for destruction that it even cancels the dead. Such actions may satisfy bloodthirst for a time, but what goes around comes around.

Maybe you heard your mother or grandmother caution that when you point a finger at someone else, you always have three fingers pointed back at yourself.

Cancel culture is not new; it dates to the time of Christ. Jesus was teaching in the temple courts when some men brought to him a woman caught in adultery. (I know, I know. Where was the man?) They announced that the law demanded the woman be stoned.

Jesus bent down and began writing on the ground with his finger. Nobody knows what he wrote. Perhaps it was the Ten Commandments or the names of women with whom some of these men may have committed adultery.

Finally, he said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” There was likely an awkward silence followed by murmuring and shuffling of feet as the woman’s accusers dispersed one by one.

Walking away was an admission of guilt, a public acknowledgement that they, too, were far from perfect.

Today’s cancel culture does not disperse or walk away—they pick up stones and throw because, in their eyes, they have no guilt. Only others do. Those in the cancel culture of Jesus’ time had the courage and honesty to admit they were, or potentially could be, as flawed as the one they longed to destroy.

Those ready to stone the woman were able to see themselves through the lens of reality. The self-righteous had a moment of self-examination. And so it was that they peeled off, one by one. Only Jesus and the woman remained. Augustine said, “The two were left alone, misera et misericordia.” Translation: misery and mercy.

“Is no one left to condemn you?” the Man of Mercy asked the woman.

“No,” she said.

“Then neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

It was not an acquittal; it was a pardon. It was cancellation of an entirely different sort. The goal had not been annihilation, but redemption and transformation. The transgression was canceled, not the person.

On Resurrection Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate the cancellation of personal sin and transgression. The cancellation is a cleansing of the heart, soul and mind that gives refreshment and renewal to the whole being. Not only is the slate wiped clean, but doors open to new beginnings and fresh starts. Easter celebrates a cancellation that leads to life, not death.

Only thyme will tell about her gardening skills

My greatest strength as a gardener is my willingness to uproot plants once they start to annoy me.

Last year it was lamb’s ear. Sweet name, docile animal, aggressive plant.

When it spreads, it lolls. It doesn’t stand up straight; it just sort of flops here and there with no respect for boundaries. The last thing I need when I’m working in the garden is to watch some plant lolling about when that is the very thing I’d rather be doing.

The year before that it was creeping thyme. I had gleefully planted a lot of it believing claims that it naturalized in a lovely way and would fill in nicely among rocks.  Fill nothing. It came, it creeped, it conquered. Smothered everything within reach. Besides that, it dried up, faded and looked like a mass of untamed hair in need of conditioner and color.

All gardening aggression aside, there are some plants I would never turn on. Hydrangeas are among them. I could never turn on a hydrangea. It would be ungarden-like. I feel the same way about moss phlox with tiny pink and blue flowers on a cushion of green. They will always have a home here. I put lilacs in that category, too.

Lilacs are to be revered, then cut into beautiful bouquets and shared with friends or left on doorsteps.

I could never turn on anything that grows from a bulb either. Tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinth, I love them all. The only way I could love them more is if they bloomed all season.

Our youngest daughter is putting in garden beds and asked if I would give her some ideas. I’ve told her she overestimates my abilities. She scoffed. Then I reminded her of the lamb’s ear and creeping thyme incidents. There was silence on the phone.

The gardens she really needs are the kind my mother and grandmother planted. Their gardens more beautiful than those in magazines. The funny thing is, I don’t remember either of them ever weeding or watering. To the best of my memory, they simply stepped outside and threw seeds over their shoulders (entire packets of seeds, they didn’t even bother to tear them open). The next thing you knew freshly sliced cucumbers were on the dinner table alongside plump, red tomatoes and crisp radishes.

Jams and jellies appeared out of thin air. A short while later there would be pickles—all different kinds along with corn relish and sweet relish. Who knows how all that produce sliced and diced itself and squeezed into those pretty glass jars.

The details of how previous generations gardened may escape me, but I vividly remember going with my grandmother to the melon patch when I was very young. She gave all the vines a good watering, then stretched out her arms and melons jumped directly into them.

Sadly, I’ve never had the good fortune of previous generations of gardeners, but the real shame is I never learned where to find the magic seeds.

Making your own syrup is sticky business

Three hundred and sixty-five gallons of milk, 300 pounds of flour and 13 gallons of syrup is not a load for a wagon train re-enactment, but the tallies some of the grands came up with after calculating what their large family uses in one year.

It was the syrup consumption that jolted this big-city-turned-country wing of the family into taking a run at making their own. So it was that we received a call asking if we wanted to help boil maple sap they had been collecting for weeks.

As grandparents, we knew our “helping” would largely be standing around, generating some conversation, but not so much conversation that we became annoying. It is a fine line.

On arrival, I noticed a digital deep fryer thermometer with six ports near the firepit. I wondered out loud if pioneers had those tools, then asked where our son found such a thing.

He said it was a gift. To his wife. For her birthday. He said, and I quote, “Whatever it takes to keep her happy.”

Then the husband asked if some of the cinder  blocks in the chimney portion of the firepit were straight, further noting that he had seen maple syrup made years ago and they had done it a different way. At that point, we had crossed the line.

Now, after watching more and talking less, we understand the process.

You place two pans of sap over a fire that is hotter at the back than the front. When the pan over the high heat grows too hot, you cool it down by ladling sap from the cooler batch.

When wood supply for the firepit grows sparse, you have your five-year-old bat her big eyes at your father-in-law who abruptly disappears, but soon returns with a big load of wood and dumps it near the firepit.

Then tell your 9-year-old it is his lucky day because he can learn to split wood. Thrilled, the boy begins channeling young Abe Lincoln.

The fire roars louder, the wind blows and the smoke shifts. Everyone begins moving around the pit waving smoke from their eyes.  It’s like line dancing in a circle.

Hours later, some say the hotter pan is taking on an amber glow. Others say it is not. Others say to look at it from a different angle and our son tells the kids they can take Grandpa and Grandma into the woods to see the trees they tapped.

We walk a good distance when one of the kids says, “When we go with Dad, he takes the Gator and we can make it to the trees in about five minutes. On foot it takes half an hour to get there and a half hour back.”

We kick leaves, slide in the mud, gather some moss, enjoy the scenery and the company and check a few buckets for sap. The boys insist we follow the creek back to the path, as there is something interesting for us to see. It is a dead squirrel frozen to the ice.

Eventually we return to the fire where the sap truly is taking on a beautiful amber glow. We head for home and late that night receive a picture of five pints of maple syrup in glass jars. Only 12 gallons and three more pints to go.

(A note to subscribers who received my column via email this morning. The email said my book is available “Wednesday, March 16th.” Thanks to the many pointing out that March 16th is Tuesday!” And, no, my head is not screwed on straight.)

Kids call ’em like they see ’em

One of the great things about young children is their ability to see the world through unvarnished eyes. They call ‘em like they see ‘em with no holding back.

Our eldest daughter was given a handmade card from her youngest saying how much she loved Mommy. Mommy told the little one that she was going to keep the card forever, to which an older sister said, “Wow. That’s nice. Usually you trash everything we make!”

It was a reminder to be careful of what treasures we dispose of and who’s watching when we dispose of them.

Their tendency toward the literal is equal parts surprising and funny.

Some of the grands were here for the evening when things got rambunctious and one of the girls tumbled off the sofa into the coffee table. Putting an ice pack on her bruised cheek and swollen eye, I said, “Looks like you’re going to have a black eye.”

“No!” she shot back. “My eye is brown!”

Another of the girls started kindergarten able to read well and spell words like chrysanthemum. She spelled chrysanthemum for our son when she was only four. He looked at me and said, “Is she right?”

She was. She’d learned a lot listening to her older sisters do their lessons. So, when she started kindergarten it wasn’t exactly challenging. She came home one day and her mother asked, “Did you learn anything in school today?”

She thought a bit, then said, “No, but I think the other kids did.”

Friends once drove 10 hours to visit their grandson’s school for Grandparents Day. In the kindergarten classroom they were celebrating the number 100. Questions had been posed and the students had written their answers.

Question: “What would you do with $100?”

Little boy’s answer: “Buy a motorcycle.”

Question: “What will you do when you are 100?”

Little boy: “I will brush my teeth, sleep and not ride my motorcycle.”

Children often have accurate and even wistful thoughts on aging.

One of our grands blew out the eight candles on her birthday cake and said, “Wow! I’m really getting old really fast!”

Aren’t we all?

Another little one was at the pool one day and announced, “I’m looking like Daddy. My legs are hairy.”

One of the boys, living in Chicago at the time, was working on his ABC flashcards, rolling along with, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O –” He paused before P then yelled, “Parking!”  Living in the city, they are always looking for the red and white signs with P’s in search of parking.

You never know exactly how they see things.

I was putting on eyeliner one day, squinting in the mirror, when a little voice squealed, “You look like a pirate!”  Three of them began making “grrr matey” faces in the mirror, when another little voice said, “You don’t look like a pirate, Grandma— you look like a queen.”

What’s not to love?

Redefining ‘Sweatin’ with the Oldies’

Years ago, Richard Simmons had a workout video series titled “Sweatin’ to the Oldies,” which featured aerobic workouts set to tunes from yesteryear.

We quit going to the gym when the pandemic began mushrooming and have been working out at home. It is a reboot of “Sweatin’ to the Oldies,” only we are the oldies.

For the bulk our cold weather home detention, we have done separate workouts at separate times, but one of our girls said she had DVD that was a good workout for men and women.

We previously heard her talk about pie-yo and pie-lo workouts and thought perhaps she had a workout with pie in mind for us. It would be a nice change of pace.

Turns out the pies she was referring to were PIYO (Pilates and yoga) and PLYO (running, jumping and dropping to the floor for push-ups) neither of which involve a fruit filling between two light and flaky crusts. The workout she gave us  contained no pie whatsoever. It was cardio intervals, recorded in a studio with a smoothie bar on the back wall. Help yourself to some kale.

So, there we were, 60-somethings doing a workout with 30-somethings. If someone made a video of us trying to keep up, we would be instant social media celebrities riding a wave of mockery and pity.

When the workout started, we initially thought the leader and several participants had surgical scars on their abdomens.

“So sad,” I said, “and they’re so young.”

The husband deduced that they were not scars, but muscles. They were “ripped.” Ripped is what happens when you don’t just go “pie-lo” but go “pie-no.”

The workout is touted as a 21-Day Fix. We didn’t know we were broken, but whatever.

We’ve been cold weather confined so long that we’ve now done the workouts numerous times. It’s getting so routine that I can watch the Food Channel on my laptop while the workout video is on the television.

Don’t judge me.

We often mute the leader and do our own narration, offering reasons as to why we slack off on certain reps before the clock runs out.

“My left knee,” I gasp. “Let’s see her do that after surgery for torn cartilage!”

The husband is lunging to the floor for push-ups, jumping back in the air, shaking the coffee table, the lamp, the sofa sleeper and lets out a whoop. “Felt that one pull on my hernia scar,” he yells.

“Well, STOP!” I gasp between breaths. “The DVDs were free, but your surgery cost thousands!”

Our favorite guy in the video series is about 35, lean and all muscle. He always grimaces and looks pained after every rep as the camera zooms in. We have decided he gets paid extra to make it look difficult.

We can make the workout look difficult without even pretending. Call us. We’re available if the price is right.

How he became King of the Crawl

He was still in his jammies wolfing down breakfast cereal when he announced it was going to be a good day.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because Grandpa said he would take me into the crawl space.”

This was news to me. And to Grandpa.

Grandpa had no memory of saying he would take the boy into the crawl, but the man blithely agrees to a lot of requests out of sheer need for expediency.

Requests come rapid fire when a lot of kids are here: “Can you build a fire in the fireplace? Is it still too early to go outside? Can we build a tree house? Can I have a screwdriver? How about some scissors? Can we play hide and seek upstairs? Do you have more tape? Are you out of Hershey’s syrup? Did you know the baby is on the table? Can I go into the crawl space?”

You can see how a request to go into the crawl space could easily slip into the myriad of other requests.

The crawl space is a hollow area below the first floor of our home. It is about four-feet deep and you access it by, well, crawling. You step into the window well, remove the metal panel to the crawl, then back in feet first into the dark. A few shafts of daylight spill into the first few feet of the crawl space, but for the most part it is as dark as a moonless night, creepy and crawly.

There are also neat things down there—concrete blocks that provide the foundation to the house, wooden beams that support the floors, insulated wiring, and pipes that run the length of the house, turning and connecting with other pipes.

What 6-year-old boy in his right mind wouldn’t want to go down into the crawl space?

Grandpa said it was below freezing outside, which was too cold to go into the crawl.

Grandma kindly reminded him that once they got into the crawl it could be more like the temperature of a cave, which is cool, but not miserable.

The boy put on his sad face and Grandpa relented.

They bundled up, lumbered outside into the cold and removed the door to the crawl. A small crowd gathered to watch as they disappeared into a pit of darkness. A little one whimpered softly; others wondered aloud if it would be the last we saw of them.

As for me, I returned to the warm kitchen and poured more coffee.

We could hear them bumping around down there, tapping on the kitchen subfloor, knocking into pipes, probing the mechanics of the plumbing and duct work for air conditioning and heat.

When the boy returned, siblings and cousins mobbed him to ask what it was like and what he saw. He had disappeared into the dark a mere 6-year-old and emerged a celebrity. He is the only one among them who has ever ventured into that dark hollow.

He may be young and small, but he now stands tall, King of the Crawl.

When the children’s book group goes bad

If you can overlook the motion sickness, our first online book group went well.

I came across a list of must-read children’s classics and noted “The Wind in the Willows” on the list. I started reading the book years ago and found it to be an effective sleep aid.

Now, with a long winter looming, what better time to take another run at the children’s classic, as well as a chance to socialize online with any grands who wanted to read it as well.

Their eagerness to start a Zoom book group was stunning. But then, I suppose the prolonged isolation of a pandemic does that to people. After a year of near nothingness, someone yells, “Hey! Want to watch me pick lint from the dryer vent?” and it’s an invitation to party.

That said, the book did have a toad, mole, rat and badger going for it.

As host, I assumed I would ask questions about plot and characters, but that was not the case. Instead, I did a lot of, “Hey! Can you kids keep that laptop steady? All that rocking and rolling and bouncing around is making me queasy!”

I suggested they set it on a table, but it is called a laptop and it turns out they are of the literal interpretation bent.

I also heard myself frequently saying, “C’mon people, get her bum away from the camera! We want to see your faces, not her diaper.”

Several pre-readers had joined, the youngest physically diving into the crowd of siblings seated on the floor with the tipsy laptop. It’s always good to see enthusiasm for reading at an early age.

I asked who would put the book on their Forever Bookshelf and nobody said a word. Nobody moved. Even the laptop held still.

I asked everyone what their favorite part of the book was, and the chatter began.


“When Toad fooled his friend and escaped from the house making a rope out of bedsheets!”

“When Toad wrecked the stolen car!”

“When Toad went to prison for stealing cars!”

“When Toad escaped from prison dressed as a washer woman!”

There I was, leading a book discussion for the juvenile delinquents of tomorrow. Concerned this might come back on me one day, I stressed that climbing out windows by tying sheets together is wrong, stealing cars is wrong, wrecking stolen cars is wrong and escaping from prison is wrong.

I could only imagine how the report on the book group with Grandma went with their parents.

“We talked about stealing cars and escaping from prison.”

“Yeah, and how Toad lowered himself from a bedroom window by tying bedsheets together.”

We also discussed lovely passages about drifting down the river, watching nightfall and hunting for a missing otter. We also agreed that Rat was the most admirable character, a true friend and giver of good advice, but who knows if they remembered any of that.

If not, the first book group may have been the last.

Why Valentine’s Day was the scariest day of the year

Valentine’s Day was the scariest day of the year when I was a kid.

It was before the Mandatory Valentine Edict went into effect—the rule that requires every kid to give every other kid in the class a valentine whether you like them or not.

Liking everybody else was not compulsory years ago. Oh sure, it was strongly suggested by your teacher and by your mother, but even so, the day of love could be a day of suspense and apprehension. You might get a valentine from every kid in class, or you might not.

Adding to the pressure were the valentine boxes themselves. Everybody brought a shoebox they had decorated from home. Almost everybody. There were always some boys who brought unadorned shoeboxes, plopped them on their desks and shot a glare that said, “I dare anyone to put a valentine in here.” They were unofficial nonparticipants in the day of love.

I put my all into the shoebox—all the aluminum foil I could find to wrap the box and all the glue I could find for all the lopsided hearts cut from red construction paper. I dreamed of creating a box so stunning it would draw a crowd of gushing admirers around my desk, but the crowd was always at someone’s else desk. Someone who had paper doilies, silver glitter and pink pipe cleaners.

Counting the valentines you received was an exercise in both mathematics and deduction. First you ran the numbers to see what your return was, then you tried to deduce who didn’t give you one.

In those days, I walked to school with a neighbor boy named Big Bruce. He was big up-and-down and from side-to-side. Sometimes on our walk to school, a boy from my class named Mike would chase me.

I carried my lunch money in a small coin purse, which I would entrust to Big Bruce while I outran Mike. I don’t recall ever giving Big Bruce a valentine and I should have. A big box of candy, too. He was a fine bodyguard.

My mother said Mike was sweet on me and I suppose he wasn’t an unattractive boy, but still.

I thought I’d had a good Valentine’s Day at school. I took my box home and found close to a 90 percent return from my classmates.

I opened the valentines one after another—cute puppy dogs wearing red bows, cupids shooting arrows into hearts—then I saw it. A signed valentine. From Mike.

How could my archenemy, my nemesis, give me a valentine? I was sure he didn’t like me and now he had all but declared his love from the rooftops and proposed. What a mess. Second grade was ruined.

I was only 7 years old and a boy was already messing with my head. I’ve forgiven Mike for the signed valentine, but it remains the scariest Valentine’s Day ever.