Category: Essays (Page 2 of 2)

If (for girls)

If you can do what others don’t do, and not do what they do,

and be confident that you did what’s best for you;

If you can be kind when it is difficult, and humble even when you’re proud,

and know when to stand up for yourself, too;

If you can love when you don’t like, and give when you are weary, but know when to  walk

away and not give anymore,

If you can be at peace with your whole self, and grateful for what God gave you,

and make His work a service and not a chore;

If you can be stylish and yet modest, light-hearted but not empty-headed,

not caring too much if others think you’re odd,

If you can see that beautiful people are the ones who smile and laugh,

and be fun-loving but in a way that pleases God;

If you can grieve when sadness is called for, but pick yourself up when it’s done,

not wallow in the sadness or despair,

If you can reach out a hand to others when they’re flailing or in pain, not being pulled in,

but showing that you care;

If you can win and be humble in winning, lose and be gracious in loss,

seek beauty and goodness when others seek darker things,

If you can hope when it seems hopeless, have faith when the path is unclear, and

go to sleep and see what tomorrow brings;

If you can recognize when hard work is the only route to take,

and do the work with tired and blistered hands,

and keep on working hard when you really want to quit,

and build your life on rocks instead of sand,

If you can turn away from the superficial, put aside temptation,

and see the difference between a pebble and a pearl,

Then yours is the world and all that is in it,

and what’s more, you’ll be a woman, my girl!


Darn Phone

I have teenagers. And I have discovered that when people wince and say “I have teenagers,” their voices full of resignation and bewilderment and pain, it is not because the teenagers are evil, or doing drugs, or slamming doors or sneaking out past curfew. It is because having teenagers is like wearing a big sandwich board on your body that says I AM OLD ENOUGH TO HAVE TEENAGERS on both sides. It is the betrayal of our youth that we resent, not the teens themselves. Because if childhood is any indication, our high-schoolers will be college students in the blink of an eye, and then they will be in their twenties, and at that point we might as well wear a Proud Grandma t-shirt and reading glasses around our necks and take up bird-watching.

My own teenagers, my two oldest children, are only fifteen and fourteen, and they were recently given cell phones for their birthdays. They were, I think, the last in their group of friends–possibly their entire class–to have a phone, and at some point during the summer before high school, we caved. They hadn’t actually been asking for phones, but in their not-asking was an implicit, desperate plea for a phone. They know that in our family, to ask for something as worldly and secular and expensive as a phone is certain assurance that you won’t get one, but to simply pine for one, in a quiet, stoic way that your mother can’t help noticing, and yet not actually ask for one, paves the way to owning it. It is in this way that my daughter acquired a winter jacket that says North Face on the label. We didn’t cave in to their begging or even asking, but rather to our (my) perception of their longing, and the fact that everyone else their age had one. North Face jacket notwithstanding, it was not like us at all.

Our thinking was that our firstborns were heading to high school, a huge new school where they would know no one, they would need to contact us more as their freedom began to increase, and that–even we, the parents could see this–it really was socially detrimental to have no phone at all. It would be like when I started middle school, and my home made lunches included tuna sandwiches on alfafa bread and recycled baby-food jars of home-made yogurt. Not impossible to overcome, but a formidable obstacle to making friends. Every kid they knew had a phone; we even had it on good authority that in high school they were expected to bring a phone or other wifi device to class. It seemed silly to buy them cumbersome tablets and some kind of shared, arcane flip phone. Plus, our phone provider which shall remain nameless but rhymes with ‘Horizon,’ had in place some kind of crazy loophole mandating that adding one or two flip phones to our plan would be significantly more expensive than adding two smart phones. My husband spent roughly ninety minutes on the phone with “Horizon,” talking in circles and finally arriving at the conclusion that we would need to pay more to have less, and his efforts to speak with someone with the authority to change this rule were reminiscent of Dorothy and the Wizard. What began as gathering information about the possibility of getting a phone or phones for our teenagers ended with the assurance that if we didn’t add two smart phones to our plan, STAT, we would be paying $60 per month more so fast it would make our heads spin.

I am not sure if it was something they heard in husband’s voice, some weakness they seized upon, but Horizon wore him down. They then convinced my shrewd, frugal husband that we not only needed to get two smart phones, but that they needed to be i-phones. With data plans. They preyed on the weakness all men below forty have, the technology-is-so-cool weakness that can assert its ugly head even where issues of frugality and parenting are involved. Added to it was my critical weakness, the weakness all moms have, the I-so-want-to-make-my-child-happy weakness, and the what-on-earth-do-you-get-a-teenager-for-their-birthday conundrum, and somehow the result was that my kids’ birthday present was an iPhone. Each.

In our defense, they only got an iPhone 4, which Horizon was practically giving away. Actually I think they paid us to take them, whereas if we’d have purchased flip phones with no data plan, it was going to cost us dearly. We are obviously not the only family to be suckered into this, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a teenager whip out a flip phone to text a friend. (Maybe the teens with flip phones keep them hidden away, as I learned to do with the sandwiches of shame and home made yogurt.)

Still, an iPhone 4 is an iPhone, and if you hold it just-so, it can pass for an iPhone 5. An i-phone 4 can get you on the internet and send millions of texts and has apps. An iPhone 4 has a preliminary version of Seri, I.O.S. 7, and can store a mind-blowing amount of youtube videos and photos. It is a real i-phone, and I am stunned that we let two of them into our lives; looking back, it’s like a bad decision you make after too little sleep or too much alcohol, neither of which were a factor.

The family is now adjusting to the phones, the way you adjust to a new puppy who turns out to be a carpet-piddling, furniture chewing terror. And when I say “phones,” I really mean phone in the singular, because a son with a phone is a very different beast than a daughter with a phone. Son-with-a-phone keeps the phone on his dresser or in his pocket. He uses the phone to look up homework or directions, listen to music while he mows the lawn, or text his friends one-liners like do we have practice? Even when girls text the son: Hey there, what’s up? That was so funny in geometry when Casey was asleep! BTW, are you going to the game on Friday? his answers are not lengthy: Maybe. For the son, the phone is just an i-pod that can look up something or make calls, though I don’t think he’s ever received an actual call from anyone but me.

The daughter’s phone is the bane of my existence. For the daughter, the phone is her lifeline: a two-by-five miracle that supplies her with constant interaction with friends, youtube videos that can pull her malleable emotions in one direction or another, music to give shape and meaning to her day, and answers to the many questions of her curious mind. (The questions range from Seri, how many of Raphael’s frescos still survive? to Seri, does Luke Hemmings have a girl friend?)  Her phone is a life-preserver and an extension of herself–almost a prosthetic limb. She shows me youtube videos every day; cute things, like a kitten struggling to get out of a coffee mug, or Chris Evans eating soup on the set of The Avengers. She shows me Instagram postings of her actual friends and people she doesn’t know but follows (“Look, Momma, here’s a picture of my friend Caitlin’s cousin’s friend–he knows Idina Menzel and they’re balancing spoons on their noses!) Her texts to her friends are entire paragraphs of casual conversation about clothes and teachers and boys and feelings and even the weather, and she converses regularly with her Seri, whom she has made into an Australian male. She talks to him the way Iron Man talks to Jarvis, and it concerns me. I’ll be making dinner and she’s up there in her room with Hugh Jackman, “doing homework,” which means spreading books out while texting and listening to music.

There are benefits to the phone, I know. Daughter-with-a-phone is musically talented, and she uses her phone to watch instructional videos about playing various instruments. Now she can play virtually anything on a ukulele, and is moving on to other stringed instruments. The phone has assisted with math homework many times, thanks to Khan Academy, and the texting capabilities of the phone have been a hugely helpful in setting up logistics of her social life and rides home from everything she does. Also, daughter-with-a-phone texts me, her little ol’ mom, often enough that I feel our relationship has grown. (Example of text from daughter-with-a-phone: Hey Ma! Guess what? Mr. Hanson made me section leader of the sopranos! He was all like ‘you were born to do this’ and I was like ‘aw.’ Also, got a 89 on history test but Ms. Jennings said I can bring it up with extr. credit. I’m taking the late bus home. Love you! Example of text from son-with-a-phone: practice til 5.)

But on the whole, I hate the phone. Both of them, but especially my daughter’s. I feel she has lost something–some piece of innocence–we cannot ever get back.  She would be horrified at the thought that the phone has somehow destroyed her, even just in some teency way; she would deny it with tears in her eyes. And maybe I am overreacting, but here is the truth: I wish we’d never gotten the phone. It is an impediment to family time and sanity and peaceful, non-electronic down-time, so we have had to install rules about the phones: no phones at meals, no phones after nine o’clock, no phones anywhere near their grandfather or anyone else over seventy, and so forth. The kids understand and are happy to abide by the rules, but what I can’t control are all the times they (she) might have joined her little sister in a game instead of texting or watching something on the phone; all the times they (she) might be reading instead of texting or watching something. She still reads, but she used to read a 300 page book in two days and move on to another; now it takes over a week, because the phone provides so many other ways to spend time.

I guess I am disappointed with myself: I feel like I did so many things right when they were younger. I didn’t let them watch scary, trashy movies, I didn’t let them eat too much sugar, I didn’t let them play violent video games. We made sure, all these years, that we eat dinner as a family far more often than not, we discussed virtues like modesty and steered clear of outfits that make young girls look like night club waitresses. We prayed together and played together and said a gentle no to “dating” in seventh grade, for Pete’s sake, even though their friends were. But now that the phones are part of our life, I feel I have been demoted to the ranks of stupid parent: the ones who feed their kids Coco-Puffs and Hawaiian Punch; the ones whose daughters in crotch-skimming mini-skirts saw their first Lady Gaga concert at age six. I’m one of them now.

I don’t know how to go back, or even if it is the right thing to do. The kids pay for their portion of the phone plan by themselves, with money they earn babysitting and mowing lawns, so I feel they are earning the right to their irritating devices. We are trying to teach them to use the phones responsibly, but in our culture that just means not texting while driving. They are absolutely everywhere, and even adults don’t employ polite phone etiquette. To expect your child to keep the phone hidden in social situations or leave it alone for hours at a stretch is akin to expecting them to courtesy when meeting someone, or wear white gloves and a hat to go shopping. Phone etiquette is mostly a thing of the past; a charming novelty of yester-year.

But I will keep fighting my little battle. So help me, I will be that parent with the crazy expectation that phones–or whatever we are calling them in ten years–do not make an appearance at my dinner table, and some weekends are still phone-free except in the case of the one on the kitchen counter that my family still calls me on. The kids’ future fiancées will just have to understand that I am adamant about this, and my Stalinesque forbiddance of phones is part of what made my kids the grounded, wholesome people they love. Now, I’ll end this tirade: there’s a squirrel hanging from the birdfeeder outside and I need to take a picture with my phone and post it on Facebook.

Job Hunting

Someone has to get married or die for me to make money, and it is not working out. I have spent the last fifteen years singing at weddings and funerals and church services, but it is time for me to get an actual job, and it turns out, no one wants to hire me. I am trying not to take it personally.

When I was in high school, my only sibling already away at college, my stay-at-home mother took a job as a secretary at a law firm. This was back in the ’80s, when law firms actually had secretaries, women whose duties were typing, filing (papers, in actual cabinets), taking messages and getting coffee. Most of the time, and despite how it looks on Mad Men, no one found this degrading, there was dignity in it. My mom, presumably, did these things and they loved her, because she was one of those classy, funny women who put others at ease. She was Mary Tyler Moore and Grace Kelly and Lucille Ball all in one. She hadn’t worked in twenty years, so this first sojourn into the working world was exciting and humbling — slightly humiliating, even — and scary. I am guessing: I didn’t know that then, because I was busy wondering if Johnny Perkins liked me and if there would be a test on “Julius Caesar” and if the coach would make me swim the 500 at the meet, but mainly if Johnny Perkins liked me. Or Todd Adams, he was cute, he’d be okay. Sixteen is a self-absorbed age.

Now I am forty-two, just a little younger than my mom was when she went back to work, and I am looking. Not very aggressively, but looking. I stayed home to raise my kids and I have no regrets that I did; if I have to take a job as a waitress because I have been out of the workforce so long, I will still have no regrets that I stayed home. None. The thing is, my feet would hurt so, so much.

Plus, I have a master’s degree, I can write well, and I can sing circles around most people I know, but none of these things have resulted in a job. Not one. Also, I have years of experience in communications and psychology, motivational speaking and project management. I can nurture and coax and heal, I can and keep track of multiple schedules, appointments, budgets and needs, and I can navigate educations systems and healthcare systems or any systems, and advocate for multiple people. I know when to be a sounding board and just listen, when to offer a gentle opinion, and when to insist. I know when to use some tough love and when to be a softy, and I can cook for two or for twenty. All this because, of course, I have been a mom.

Still, nobody wants to hire me.

True, I am looking for a job only three or four days a week (four children still live at home!) True I am looking for a job that is less than 25 minutes away (the minivan is really old!), and only from 9 until 2 (I have a life!). True, I am looking for a job in a pleasant, quiet place that smells good and has classical music playing in the background. Preferably Chopin or Paganini, with Vivaldi on Fridays. True, I am hoping to really like my boss and colleagues, and that we will discuss great books and philosophy, current events and recipes, parenting and politics (and they will all agree with me), theology and travel and funny movies. Or maybe I could be the boss. I’d make an awesome boss. I would bring homemade muffins.

Basically, I’m hoping to make money being engaged and happy. And wearing some really cute work clothes. Oh, and I would do some work, too. I know when to eat muffins and when to buckle down and get the work done.

Still, no one is beating down my door. The brides only want a singer on Saturdays, the deceased only want a singer when they are dead, and neither group is helping us save much. The years of teaching experience and the master’s and all those areas of expertise from fifteen years of parenting are not, so far, landing me a nine-to-two in a place of great thought that smells like snickerdoodles. (The trick is one egg, Tahitian vanilla, and Vietnamese cinnamon.)

I have perused the want ads and applied to smattering of them, only to be rejected, which fills me with both indignation and relief. One school, in need of a part-time literature teacher, told me they were looking for someone who was “more of a forward thinker.” I am not sure what they saw on my resume or read in my cover letter that led them to believe I am a backward thinker, and I’m not sure why a forward-thinking person is of utmost importance in a teacher of literature, since most great writers are dead, and many great books are old. But whatever.

Another place of employment told me my resume was wonderful but I am over-qualified for the job, which I think is maybe the equivalent of  “it’s not you, it’s me.” And another institution, advertising an opening for a writer, was only interested in my expertise at social networking; they were concerned with my lack of a Twitter account. I started laughing, which probably didn’t help.

And then there was the music conservatory that advertised for a voice teacher, something I did years ago when I had an accompanist, something I was good at and could be again. In this particular case, though, the music conservatory, a stout brick building in Falls Church, turned out to also be a dental laboratory and a dog kennel, where the tenor who taught voice and violin also manufactured crowns for a local dentist, and took care of the canine pets of his friends’ friends. I would get used to the drilling sound downstairs, he said, pausing as we walked by a wall on which hung a picture of him and Placido Domingo, turning ever-so-slightly to make sure I’d noticed. And I would be perfect for the job, especially if I didn’t mind occasionally cleaning up after the dogs, you know, in-between my lessons.  To make the offer even more appealing, he would let me keep fifty percent of my earnings (a raised eyebrow here, to emphasize the generosity of this offer), when the other instructors usually only got to keep forty. So in this case, I was actually offered a job. I said I would have to think about it, and I strung them along for two days before I called and said something else had come up. I used the nebulous line the forward-thinking people had used with me: I had decided, I said, to go in another direction.

So I confess that I am not looking terribly hard for a job now, because you can only handle so much rejection and weirdness at forty-two, and because I afraid my perfect job is not actually out there. No one wants to hire someone who will only come between nine and two; not schools and not music conservatories, unless you will clean up after dogs, and saying “I am a writer” is sort of like saying “I’m in a band…” I can’t force people to get married on weekdays, and I can’t in good conscience hope for more people to die and request me for their funeral. The employers of teachers and writers are not looking for someone for a few hours a day, and the old, traditional ideas about what should be read in the name of education are obsolete.

I could write about the differences between Bach and Handel, I know what makes Hardy more readable than Dickens, which of Shakespeare’s comedies is the funniest, and why Rogers and Hammerstein and Gilbert and Sullivan are in again. I could pontificate about the richness of Roman Catholicism and I could compile a soul-satisfying reading list for a child of five or fifteen. The thing is, no one cares. No one will pay me to teach or write about any of that, because they are reading The Fault In Our Stars and The Hunger Games in high school English classes now (read them both, hated them both), and because I do not have a Twitter account. My areas of expertise are irrelevant or unprofitable or both, and whatever merit they do have is overshadowed by the fifteen year gap on my resume that says M-O-M-M-Y in big, bold letters. Employers see that and they think unemployed. They think babysitter, only more smug.

It’s fine, really, because I look at my friends and neighbors who work and also have spouses who work, and I suspect their children are wearing dirty underwear. I know their houses are clean, because I see the Merry Maids come and go or I hear them say things like, “Rosita is only here on Wednesdays.” But even with help (shockingly, it is still within the bounds of political-correctness to call it help), I know those working moms are exhausted and scrambling. They are not driving a thirteen-year-old minivan with a gash in the door, but their weekends are spent running errands in crowds, they are worn out, and they haven’t made cookies in ages. Certainly not with Tahitian vanilla and Vietnamese cinnamon.

So I’ll just continue my job search, with the luxury of knowing we will eat regardless of its fruitfulness. I am aware of how lucky I am for that. And if, by chance, I can find something perfect, I’ll take it in a heartbeat. (I am considering the Exxon station down the street. They know me by name in there; they play soft country music, the good stuff, from Hank to Dirks, and the coffee is not bad. Sadly, I don’t know a thing about cars.) I am actually a hard worker, and there are braces, a new roof, and four college tuitions to pay for. Until then, I’ll take all this rejection in stride. All those people who didn’t hire me can just stuff it, as my dad says. They don’t even know me. They’ll never know my snickerdoodles are famous and I can still hit a high C. Their loss.

Fifth Harmony

Sometimes I have The Today Show on while I unload and reload the dishwasher in the morning, and in this way I stay abreast of critical happenings in the world, such as the fact that Israel and Palestine are in the middle of their worst military conflict in years, and that Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were fighting during the filming of The Notebook. The Today Show has concerts on the plaza on Fridays in the summer, and once in a while there is a performer who actually makes me turn the sink off and listen for a minute. Billy Joel was on there once, reminding me of my youth and my own mortality but still managing to bring depth and a new vulnerability to his music, and Sara Bareilles was on there once, awing me with her vocal versatility and soul.

Today, the concert on the plaza featured a girl band called “Fifth Harmony,” whom I only know about because I have a fourteen-year-old daughter. Fortunately, she doesn’t like them, and fortunately, she shares everything with me (or as much as a mother can reasonably hope for), so I was already aware of this group and had some data points: they are pitchy, both individually and as a group, and their skirts are too short. But I had never given them much thought or seen them perform until this morning.

If you have never seen Fifth Harmony and can’t get a visual image of what they looked like on The Plaza, imagine going to the red light district of a major city and bringing home five of the youngest-yet-cheapest prostitutes you can find, dressing them all in white but in garments that show as much skin or underwear as possible, and then having them dance with Brittany Spears inspired choreography, but sexier, while singing lyrics such as

You say that you a baller an’ I see you tryna holla
But that ain’t how I was brought up: NEXT!
Working for my money cuz that’s what my momma taught me
So yo ass betta show me some respect

I had to Google that because I couldn’t actually tell what they were saying, but the crowd on the plaza mouthing the words obviously did. That crowd was mostly little white girls of various ages, with their moms and friends and au pairs and boyfriends. The crowd loved these girls, and even worse, the Today Show cast (is it a cast on a show like that, where they are playing themselves but surely acting?) seemed to love them, too, wearing necklaces that featured the name of the group’s new single (“Boss,” wouldn’tcha know), and in the case of Savannah Guthrie, genuinely gushing. Part of Savannah’s charm is that she gushes at everything, would probably gush at Stalin if she met him, but still. She said that the group’s message is “be confident, be strong, be yourself,” and the Fifth Harmony Wikipedia page quotes the singers as saying their music is “fun, positive, and inspiring,” plus “relatable” and “what teenage girls want to hear and say.” 

So I’m just trying to reconcile “positive” and “inspiring” and “be yourself” with the hookers-on-speed look and sound I saw on that stage on my tiny kitchen T.V. Because, truly, I’m not exaggerating, their main dance moves were spreading their legs wide and pumping their pelvises, both facing the crowd and facing their butts to the crowd, squishing their breasts between their upper arms and thrusting them to the music at the audience, and what I will call the “watch my Kegal exercise” move. These Disney-Radio girls are all about sex, being sexy, thrusting their sexuality at people and showing off their bodies. (Though I will say, several of them are kinda chunky and sporting teeny-tiny clothes. anyway, so I guess there’s some in-your-face confidence there, I’ll give them that.) All the while, they are singing lyrics such as “I was such a good girl, so fragile, but no more…my innocence is wearing thin but my heart is growing strong,” they are tousling their hair, pouting their lips and affixing a vacant, come-hither look in their eyes, while having air-sex in time to the music. That’s being positive and inspiring? That’s how they hope to send the message be yourself?

I guess it is. I guess it really is, because thanks to feminism and the pill and the media and television and movies and a general turning our back on things like manners and decorum, our culture values sexual freedom more than anything else. We bow at the altars of health, fitness, some lazy notion of “peace” that involves doing nothing and hoping it all works out, “being yourself” and sexual freedom, especially if you are female. Premarital everything is so normal now that my daughters’ pediatrician said to make sure I got them the Gardisil shot before their “sexual debut,” so best to do it before thirteen. Dubut! Thirteen! (Getting a new pediatrician.)

The dirty little secret here, or maybe it’s no secret, is that promiscuity is the one thing that hurts young women  more than anything else. Even when it doesn’t result in pregnancy and all the social and emotional baggage that accompanies that, promiscuity causes low self-esteem, lower grades in school,  and emotional problems; any counselor knows that. It rips and tears at the fabric of society and the soul of individual girls, and then we tell them Be Yourself! Be confident! Be positive! And then we (and by we I mean Savannah Guthrie on behalf of The Today Show) praise groups like Fifth Harmony, who say they are positive and inspiring for girls and assert the occasional lyric that relates to being “strong.”  But any parent will tell you that our example is not in what we say but what we do. Any teacher or psychologist or pastor or public figure will agree that the best way to influence young people is not with words but with how we live our lives. Our actions. This girl band and all the Katie Perrys and Bionces in the world do not set an example by their lyrics, even if every girl in the free world knows them by heart. They set an example by their clothes and dancing and how they comport themselves. It doesn’t matter what they are saying, their message is clearly sexsexsexsexsexsex… It isn’t strong, it is weak and beneath the dignity of girls and women. But somehow, our culture thinks this is okay. They’re being themselves! They’re strong! Yay girls!

So my own daughters, who don’t read my blog and don’t tend to like this kind of music anyway, will not be listening to Fifth Harmony, and I wish there was a vaccine that protected other little girls from this kind of music. And I won’t be one of those moms who wants to be cool and fun and goes to concerts with their girls and mouths the lyrics and says woo-hoo in-between songs. I will have to really be counter-cultural and tell them that a real lady doesn’t have to dance like that. That a girl who is really confident isn’t bossy and tacky and aggressively sexual. That having your “innocence wear thin” as a pre-teen or teenager isn’t a good thing, even if you get stronger, like scar tissue. (Which by the way sometimes aches for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if you are strong.) That you don’t get respect by acting like that, you get it by being kind and fair and discreet, by not gossiping, by surviving hardship with grace and having a good sense of humor. In fact, stay the heck away from any boy from whom you have to demand respect; you should command it by your strength of character. That it is possible to really be ‘yourself’ and also wears skirts that go to your knee and shirts that don’t show your bra. And that “fun” doesn’t mean trashy or vulgar–that trashy and vulgar do still exist, even if we don’t call them that. Even if we put them on a stage and praise them for their message. I will tell them skanky is skanky and I hope they tell their daughters–God only knows what they’ll see on The Plaza– that the Emperor and the girl band aren’t wearing any clothes.



I heard a fact today. The scientific world who has just discovered that human’s capacity for both sympathy and empathy increases as we age. I would like to say I read this fact, but the truth is that I heard it on the Today Show, because I have turned in to one of those women who watches about 25 minutes of the Today Show or Good Morning America while loading and unloading the dishwasher in the morning, after dropping off the kids, and before throwing in a load of laundry and taking a quick shower and going about my day. I have turned into my mother. But whatever. She was great. Anyway, the study and resulting discovery were discussed in the surprised, awe-filled tones usually reserved for a major scientific breakthrough, and I kept thinking I’d missed something. They were not talking about a discovery of a nutrient that prevents cancer, or of a daily habit that makes us live decades longer, it was simply one study that suggested that, as we age, our capacity for compassion increases. I stood there, scraping a plate of uneaten scrambled eggs into the sink, thinking (and I don’t like this expression, but) well, duh…

 Years ago, I taught high school, and was sometimes mistaken for one of the students. Their mothers seemed old to me, or, at least, formidable, simply because they had kids, they had life-experience, they had cool clothes and husbands and knew what they wanted in life. I did not. But I had flawless skin, and was mistaken for a teen-ager, and in a world that values youth above all else, I had currency. I worked in a school where most of the faculty was over fifty, and knew much more than I about the world and teaching. But they also had poochy tummies bags under their eyes and big mortgages and grown children with problems. I had none of those things, and I had a small waist and my whole life ahead of me. I was twenty-eight, and forty seemed old.

James Thurber said that women deserve to have more than twelve years between the ages of 28 and 40. It does seem too short. Such a short time between when you are young enough to be mistaken for one of the students, and when you are old enough to be one of their parents. Between the time when you have no wrinkles, cannot even imagine having them or where they’d be, and the time when you spend $38 on a one-ounce bottle of something promising to fill the deep gashes around your lips, where apparently you smiled too often. Between the time when you saw older women with skinny, spindly legs and flabby, puffy stomachs stuffed into their comfort-waist pants and thought how did they get that way? and the time when you stand in front of a mirror and suck your tummy in but it puffs out anyway, despite the crunches and the diet, and you think it begins. Twelve years. You’re young and then: poof! You’re buying Activia and you’re tired by 9:30.

But here’s the thing: I have things now that those other, older women must have had when I was younger, but I couldn’t see. A currency I didn’t know about. More compassion, the study says, and I know this to be true because when I was in my twenties and heard about someone else’s problems, I would think, oh, bummer for you, that really stinks. I would like to say I was a better person than that, but I wasn’t: I was busy and tired and preoccupied. Now, when I hear about other people’s problems, my heart aches for them and I think what can I do to help? If possible, I actually do it. Here are some other things I have more of: more happiness than I used to feel when I see a smiling baby or a sunset or a nest of bright blue eggs. More excitement than I used feel over small things, like knowing the kids will all be home Friday night and we can make chili and play games in front of the fire, or watch a movie together. More pleasure than I used to feel when I smell baking bread or see the first crocus of spring or feel the sun on my face after a long winter. I think it comes down to joy; our capacity for joy must decrease a little after childhood, but then increase aftern age forty. I’m sure somebody will study this at some point and then confirm what we already know.

Yesterday was my forty-second-and-a-half birthday. When I washed my face,  I looked a little longer than usual in the mirror at that person who has been looking back at me for four decades. I didn’t think man, I look great!  I didn’t think gosh, I look terrible! And I didn’t think wow, look at all those lines, the big nose, the slightly sagging upper eye… I just thought, Hello. S’up? Good to see you. I guess that’s the difference: not that I care more or that I’ve stopped caring, but that my main reaction is sort of a happy-to-be-here moment. Like when you see an old friend, you might notice that she’s getting gray hair or looks a little heavier through the middle, but it doesn’t affect your affection for her. Mainly you just think Hi! So good to see you! A little rush of endorphins, because she knows you so well, and you can’t wait to see what happens.  


To My Daughter on Her Tenth Birthday


with the messy ponytail, sparkling eyes and a crooked grin;

just today I saw

in the curve of your neck and the way you turned when I called your name

the ghost of the woman you will be.


Startled at your smile, your laugh, both somehow a bit older today,

And the long brown legs suddenly free of bruises and band-aids,

I imagined

all that is before you

and pondered the age old question of

how much of that woman is carved into your very biology

and how much circumstance might mold you.

Good mothers say

they only wish you happiness


they wish you only happiness

but it is just that: a wish

without some advice on how to grant it to yourself.


I find it is not so much a matter of what to do or be or say or become

as a matter of what not to.

Don’t hurry to grow up, when all around you are straining toward some imagined golden adulthood. Gold in the fire takes time, and it gets burned.

Don’t be a woman who thrives on drama, creating her own at any chance,

only to complain about the chaos and drama

making a mess in her life.

Don’t be a woman who makes bad choices

And then,


blames circumstance for the hand dealt her.

Your choices are yours: if you make a few bad ones,

here and there,

learn and move on.

Laugh when you are able.

Follow that feeling in your heart and in your stomach

that says do this, or don’t do that. It is your compass;

your true North.

But take with a grain of salt

all other feelings;

listen politely, as you would to an elderly stranger,

(not entirely sure if he is senile,) and look for the logic within them.

Feelings can be your greatest teacher, or a treacherous traitor

depending on how much power you give them.

Don’t be a woman who is fueled by things:

things will disappoint you every time.

Find what inspires you, and reach for it

be it a million miles away, or in your hip pocket;

find it, and hold it tight.

Should you marry I hope you marry

a man who is not so rich that he cares about the wrong things


not so poor that he is accustomed to it.

Love Big. Laugh hard. Eat well. And believe in your dreams.

But dream

with your sleeves rolled up.

And if God grants me a long life, know this:

I am here I am here I am here

and I love you




If You Give a Mom a Marshmallow

If you give a mom a marshmallow, she’s going to make hot cocoa to go with it. She’ll heat up the milk, but before the ingredients go in, the kids will tumble up the stairs saying they are bored. She’ll tell them to wait because she is making a treat. She’ll envision telling stories and laughing.

 While the kids are waiting, the mom will start to tell a story about when she was little, how it snowed well into April. But when she starts to tell the story, the phone will ring, and it will be the library saying she returned the audio tape of Nate the Great but not the book that goes with it. So she will go upstairs to get the book, while she is thinking of it, because the baby is in her chair and the kids are coloring, and fairly content for the moment.

While she is upstairs, she will see an unpaid bill on her computer and it will remind her to check the bank account on-line because she was sure she paid that, and she’ll boot up the computer to take a quick look. When she sees that she has e-mail, she’ll read it really fast to see if her cousin in Kansashad the baby, and she’ll also read one from her friend who is battling cancer, and she’ll think what can I do to help her? What can I do to help her?  But while she is having this thought and typing in her bank password, she’ll hear the baby crying in her high chair and she’ll run downstairs just as the kids are running outside because the neighbor’s new trampoline is being installed.

She will decide it is okay if the older two kids jump on the trampoline with the neighbors, but the three year old is too young and would be in the way, so she will take him inside and console him with his favorite book. While she is cheerfully reading, thinking that if she has to read Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? one more time, she will need drugs and shock therapy, she will decide the baby, who is crawling on her, needs a nap. She will finish the book and promise just one more, after the baby goes down for her nap, but while she is making a bottle, she will realize she forgot to thaw something for dinner and she will wonder what she might do with chicken breasts that will not completely bore her.

While she is rocking the baby to sleep, hoping the extremely loud DING! of the microwave, which hopefully will thaw the chicken without cooking the chicken, will not wake the baby, she  will hear a pounding on the door and the friendly chatter of the three-year-old, talking to a complete stranger. She will put the baby down too quickly, hoping she will fall asleep anyway, and tiptoe downstairs just as the UPS man is walking away, and thank God it was only him. She will successfully convince the three-year-old that we cannot open the box right now, and we should not let strangers into the house. But when she looks at his small hands and dimpled knuckles, and the innocence in his big green eyes, she will lose herself for a moment thinking enjoy this now, he will not be little forever. But then he will be bored again, and the mom will resign herself to reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Realizing she is starving, thinking that the sausage and the chocolate cake in the story look pretty good, she will wonder again what the heck to do with that chicken. But just as the caterpillar gets to Thursday, the six-year-old will come through the screen door crying, having been told to get off the trampoline by the eight year old neighbor boys who think they are cool and have told him he is just a little kid and a scaredy-cat for not doing a flip.

 Somewhat desperately, the mom will put on a Blue’s Clues video for the three-year-old so that she can give the six-year-old a hug and a long pep talk about sticking up for himself. He will cheer up a bit, but ask if he can change into shorts because all the neighbor kids are wearing shorts, and even though it is way too cold for shorts she will acquiesce, and she will go down to the laundry room to find them because if she tells him to do it, he will knock over the entire pile.

 Being in the laundry room will remind her of all the laundry she cannot face, and the fact that P.E. uniforms have to be clean by tomorrow so she’d better put in a load of darks. But while she is loading the darks, she will hear a very loud pounding at the door, which will turn out to be one of the neighbors who, to his credit, has decided to apologize. But his urgent pounding on the front door will wake the baby, who will now be crabby for the remainder of the evening and prevent anything good from being done to the chicken, not to mention answering e-mail or paying bills until at least after bedtime. And what she really should do then is make a nice meal for the friend with cancer.

The mom will go upstairs with a load of clean clothes to put away, and call to the crying baby that she’ll be right in, just as the six-year-old, spirits lifted, sprints outside with the neighbors. But on the stairs, she will step on a marshmallow, and wonder how it got on the stairs in the first place. She will think of cleaning it up, and will glance into the kitchen only to see that they are out of paper towels. She will briefly entertain thoughts of taking four kids to the store for paper towels and something for dinner other than that boring chicken. But the baby is fussy now and it is out of the question. And just as she enters the baby’s room to soothe her, the five-year-old will burst into the kitchen with her friend, announcing that they are cold, while the mom uses a napkin to clean up the sticky marshmallow on the stairs.

Seeing the marshmallow will remind her that she should close the bag and put away the others before they dry out, and she will pop one into her mouth and allow the five-year-olds to have one.  And when they eat the marshmallow…..

            …they’re going to want some hot cocoa to go with it.

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