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Lobes and Ukes

All the circuits are jammed in my brain.

Normally I can toggle between lobes—the right, the left, the drafting, the writing, the mother, the worker. The switch needs some WD-40, I guess, because I haven’t been able to do it for a while. It’s like trying to shift gears without engaging the clutch. “Grind a pound, serve a pound!” My mother would call when I was learning to drive.

It’s not all Miley Cyrus’ fault, but in truth, my engine started to act up around the time I saw that clip of her in the stuffed animal costume.

A few of my friends are musicians, and I’ve noticed over the years that they use their instruments to collect themselves. One has an office guitar that he keeps in a stand by the conference table. He plays a song or two between work blocks. “This one’s about counting cows out the car window,” he used to say when I worked in the same space. Another musician I know plays a few songs before bed to crowd out worry.

With these friends in mind, I asked for a ukulele last Christmas, and was lucky to get one. In just two months’ time, it’s become my B.F.F. At night after the kids are in bed, I take it into a scalding-hot bath, which probably means I’m violating all ten commandments of owning an instrument. I lay a towel over my knees so I won’t get the body wet, and try to tab out my songs.

I’ve learned some chords: A, A minor, F, G, and B minor. From the internet, I printed out a sheet of fret diagrams, which I should definitely laminate. C is my favorite chord. It’s just one finger on the bottom string, third fret. B, on the other hand, requires all non-thumbs, and I don’t know how anyone with man-hands can play it.

During the day, I’m not in the tub with my ukulele. My children and I have exchanges like this:

Kid: “Mom! It’s no fair! He liked the show I picked, but I don’t like the show he picked!”

Me: “I don’t have any control over what you like.”

They notice I’m not lobe-limber right now, that I’m distracted, and out-to sea. So they fight more with each other to try and pull me back to shore. Like a man-eating shark that is also a dingy. Trolling for a mother with a blown clutch and fried circuits.

“Everything’s ok, I’m just treading water,” I want to say to them. “Here in the tub. With a ukulele.”


Posted in Uncategorized.

Friend for the Ride


From Barbara Younger 's blog,

Author Barbara Younger wants to talk about menopause and mid-life. And she does it well, with informative, witty, and touching posts on her blog, Friend for the Ride.

I’m honored to do this guest post about taking up karate in my forties. Because I like wearing mouth guards so much. (And also, because I have to wear them so much).


Posted in Uncategorized.

Ordinary Love


U2’s lead singer, Bono, looked good arriving at the Golden Globes on January 12. He looked even better when he was up on stage and nodded towards Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay. U2 was collecting the award for Best Original Song, “Ordinary Love,” from the movie “Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom,” and took pains to credit Martin for his contribution.

I heard the song for the first time, on the car radio, just a few days before the awards show. The opening notes grabbed my ears and turned my face towards the sky, like a satellite craning for a signal. It made sense when I learned it bore Martin’s brushstroke. That’s why houses and trees glided by.

“It’s the water,” my friend M. said when my son was a newborn. He’d been fussing all afternoon, but stopped when M. turned on the faucet to wash her hands. His eyes blinked as he drank in the sound. His irises were bowls, like contact lenses placed wrong-side up, filling and spilling with the swishhhhhhh he recognized from gestation.

Recently I learned that a guy I grew up with now lives on the east coast, just a few hours from me. As a kid, he had all the physical attributes of a Hollywood-typecast bully, except that he was exactly the opposite. Agreeable. Smart. Never charged to let you check out his room (Mad magazines, black lights, Farah Fawcett posters). If I had a booking agent, I’d insist she put him on my world tour of We Should Have a Beer and Facebook. Though the guy and I weren’t especially close, he had Wacky Pack stickers plastered to his bedroom door. Things like “Cap’n Crud” and “Rice-a-Phoni.” That’s good enough for me.

We can’t fall any further
If we can’t feel ordinary love
And we can’t reach any higher
If we cannot deal with ordinary love.

There’s a place in the novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle called “CENTRAL central intelligence.”  It’s an imposing warehouse on the planet Camazotz, and inside lurks a nasty, bodiless brain that controls everyone’s mind. I laugh-cried when I read about it because my room (aka Central Processing-Attic-Office-Basement-Altar-Drive-Thru) is like that warehouse, but instead, it houses Lady Grantham’s proud smile, little Ricky Schroeder’s tear-stained cheeks, and Aunt Linda’s “Whaaaaaat?” That’s because all the physical mementos of my family’s ordinary love pass through my room on their way to the archive or the recycling bin. Specifically, they pass by and through me, like a time-softened Inspector 12.

Unearthed from the piles in my room, an unremarkable plastic ring is no ordinary thing. It’s a dismembered part of a toy my kids loved—the one that made that irritating noise. A unique set of criteria determines the fate of every object that awaits my review: love notes, outgrown clothes, insurance statements, drawings, and math worksheets. There are years in the piles.  And old pieces of candy. Which I eat. Houses and trees glide by.

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to see that you yourself have altered. “   –Nelson Mandela

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Walking Shoes

“Ma’am, before you start, let me tell you, the wait is two hours.”

— Safe Ride Home operator, 2 AM, New Year’s 2014

I. Out

So we walked a mile and a half, my high-heeled dancing shoes and I. Three beers over two hours meant I was no good to drive. I started out on the sidewalk, not too wobbly, but a little. Ten minutes later, there was the sound of pant legs brushing together some distance back. We were on a quiet street, this stranger and I, moving farther and farther away from the revelers and horn blowers. I tracked the click of his soles on the concrete, and over my shoulder saw that he was one block away. That’s when I stepped off the curb and into the pools of streetlight in the middle of the road. If I heard a car coming, I got out of the way. Way out of the way, because it was coming too fast. The driver wasn’t waiting two hours for a safe ride home, nor was he walking.

II. Options for getting home from New Year’s Eve Party because your kind husband volunteered to stay with the kids due to no sitter:

1. Drive. You won’t. It was your first late-night New Year’s Eve outing in years, and you partied.

2. Take a cab. You try unsuccessfully to hail one for twenty minutes, along with a dozen competitors at every street corner.

3. Call Safe Ride Home (see above).

4. Ride home with friends. No-go because your friends went home earlier and/or you don’t know how much they had to drink.

5. Call and wake husband for ride. For this to work, he’d have to leave your young sleeping children home alone to come get you.

6. Walk home, with 911 punched into cell phone and groin kick ready. Check.

III. Exposition: West Freaking Philadelphia

That’s where I learned to walk down the middle of the street at night. “Stay right on the stripes,” my college classmate Delia said, initiating me into the sorority of You-Better Not-Get-Mugged. She’d grown up in Philly and could tell by my suburban doe-eyes that I needed schooling. “Better to be grazed by a car than assaulted. Bye.”

Delia closed her front door, and I turned to face the eight block walk between her off-campus house and my dorm.

Everything in her neighborhood had changed in the lowering light. Just two hours before, when I’d agreed to join Delia and her 1,000 housemates for an impromptu potluck dinner, her street looked interesting. Exhilarating, even. We’d walked together, (she pushing her bike) past parks and cafes I’d never seen. Cool students kissed in front of iron gates, and carried crisp bags of Chinese takeout. Undergrads breezed in and out of stately stone houses, releasing blasts of R.E.M.

Now the streets were empty. I’d entered Shadow Expo, a convention of dark alcoves and niches. Mugger havens abounded: doorways, the spaces between parked cars, tall fences. All the hip students were indoors, silhouetted against warm yellow windows that were covered in bars.

“I ride to class,” Delia said when we’d first started hanging out. I’d read plenty of news stories about the crime surrounding campus, but now, in the night, my veins pulsed with the feel of it. I made my way to the middle of the road, whispering mea culpas to my mother, who raised me to fear traffic. A trash truck belched by, looking like Paul Bunyon had chucked on it. The driver laid on the horn as he approached me. So did most of the other headlight-flashers I brushed on the way home to my nerd-bird dorm.

IV. Back to the Future

My feet were rock stars in those New Year’s shoes; they didn’t complain about the walk once. That guy was behind me, over on the sidewalk, for five blocks before he veered off in a different direction. At one point in the street, a car snuck up behind me and came too close. It was a silent hybrid that made me jump. Drunks. Then a minivan taxi approached me head-on. I waved vigorously, two parts HEY!!!!! and one part parade princess. The driver U-turned, and the door slid open. “Thank you, thank you,” I said, climbing in. It was warm inside, and there was a TV. I felt like a kid being picked up from a playdate by my dad. Except the allowance in my purse was $20 instead of $1. The driver would get every penny of it, I decided, even though it was a short $5 ride to my house. Twenty instead of five. My first resolution of 2014.

Posted in Learning from Others.

hips $1

The icicle ornaments we just unhitched from our Christmas tree look like Popsicles from the pool concession stand after the color’s been sucked out. As lovely as the glass shafts are, I’m thinking of trading them in next year for actual ice pops–the long narrow ones in the plastic sleeves. The bright tubes would be beautiful back-lit by the twinkling lights: blue raspberry, grape, orange, cherry, and lime. Every night of the season, I’d re-freeze the pops so I could watch them slowly thaw on the branches again the next day.

Taking down the tree is an about-face from holiday magic. Every year I procrastinate on calling it a wrap. Yet once I’m ankle-deep in dried needles, I feel almost euphoric about returning to Regular Old Life. From the beginning of the new year, I can make out summertime half-way between now and next winter, like the six at the bottom of the clock. There, instead of magic, it’s barefoot mischief. The circle of the 6 is a cool swimming hole full of skinny dippers and beer cans, and maybe even snakes.

The city pool has its antics, too. The air smells like chlorine and french fries, and when the aromas collide, they condense into Speedos. Middle schoolers scamper away from the chalkboard menu at the snack bar, cracking up about the letters they’ve rubbed out:

_hips $1.

Cok_s:  $0.75

But for now, from the top of the clock in January, salt crusts the street. Schools across the country are closed tomorrow because of record low temperatures.

“The Weather Channel says air’s blasting in from the North Pole,” my Dad explained today, during our weekly call. “Santa must be cracking his door to chuck out the tree,” I replied. My rear stuck out of the coat closet as we talked; I was digging for the Rubbermaid bin where we store ornaments. My unshod son, seeing I was distracted, sneaked onto our icy stoop to greet his friend coming up the path.

Yesterday I went to the grocery for supplies, and fell in behind a woman walking with her four-year old son. “Always remember: your mother wore a coat with darts at the waist,” I wanted to tell him. The sky was gray with the life sucked out, but she was like spot-color applied to an old photograph. They stepped between the store’s sliding doors, and I felt a blast of warmth.

Posted in General.

White Christmas

The oysters rode a wave of milk out of the saucepan and kerplopped into a mason jar on the stove. It was nearing 8 pm on Christmas Eve. My brothers and step-father sat in the idling Volvo in our driveway. They were waiting, as they did every year, for my mother and me to pile into the car with a day’s worth of cooking. Throughout the afternoon while we worked in the kitchen, our house had been visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Dads: the fathers of families we knew who delivered holiday delicacies made by their wives. I’d hear a rap at the door, brush the flour from my nose, and run to greet our visitor. Often there was no one there, just the rear-end of a Ford Country Squire fading in the distance. Left behind on the welcome mat were the annual treats we’d come to expect: the bottle of Glogg with its sack of raisins and blanched almonds, the pan of lasagna covered in snowy mozzarella, and the plates of cookies dusted with sugar.

As night fell, it was my family’s chance to reciprocate. I turned quivering loaves of zucchini bread onto squares of brown paper cut from Kroger bags, and bundled them loosely with string. My mother pulled buttery cakes from the oven, their tops split like burst zippers. Then Mom would break the seal on a jar of oysters and empty it into a saucepan. “Wonder if there’s a pearl,” she’d say, reaching for the onions and milk.

The baked goods we made were headed to the nearby homes of friends in the Highlands section of Louisville. The oyster stew, on the other hand, was bound for the across-town residence of our auto mechanic, G. My step-father had a penchant for used Scandinavian cars. Over the years, he’d become a frequent flyer at G.’s imported auto service. It was probably during a routine oil change/engine replacement that my step-father learned that G. liked oyster stew. So we started taking him a quart every December 24th—our last stop of the night. During the drive, I’d hug the warm jar and look through the windows at the Christmas decorations, which grew more elaborate as we approached his street.

“You think G. takes the jar straight back to the kitchen and pours it down the drain?” my mother asked one Christmas as we sat in his driveway. “What if he doesn’t even like oyster stew?” She turned and looked at my brothers and me in the back seat. We pondered the possibility while we watched my step-father ring G.’s doorbell. The large gathering of family in the picture window turned, all together, towards the sound. “Oh, I’m sure he likes it,” I said. G. accepted the white quart and waved in the direction of the driveway. It was too dark for him to make out our faces. Maybe he was just waving to our car.

“Either way, you were born to kerplop those oysters,” my daughter joked tonight, after I told her the story of our Christmas Eve deliveries. “Yes, I was,” I answered. The closing scene of the film, “Smoke” came to mind, in which the paths of a Brooklyn tobacconist and an elderly, blind woman cross. The two strangers spend Christmas Day together, pretending to be kin. Usually pretending is dangerous business. But at Christmas time, the white lies we agree to believe are their own type of covenant. They make a fleeting place where Santa is real, where a gift arrives from the beloved teacher who never wrote back, and where jeans make your butt look small. Realizing this was the first Christmas miracle of 2013. The second was receiving not just one, but two Christmas Eve deliveries, for the first time since the days of oyster stew.

Posted in Uncategorized.

Holiday Tour

We’re taking a holiday light tour. On a bus. But first, a few questions.

Posted in Wack Art.


My boss stood on the roof of an old rectory in Philadelphia, pointing at a plumbing vent. He was fifty-one. I was twenty-one. “That sealant is failing,” he said. “So is the flashing.” He kicked chunks of gunk from the pipe. “Take a picture.”

Before we’d ascended to the roof, we’d been on the building’s third floor. And before that, on the second floor. That’s where the leak had appeared, the one that the church secretary had called to complain about. Since we were preparing a building assessment report on the church across the street, she figured we should weigh in on the rectory, too.

I could have drawn the path between the failed roof flashing and the water damage two floors below, but it wouldn’t have been a straight line. It would have looked more like a child’s Etch-A-Sketch art: down, over, down, over, down… Yet the water’s hidden path was logical, traversing rafters, joists, plates, and studs before dripping into a puckered goo of ceiling plaster.

“Anything else?” I asked the client. Only this was my seven-year-old client, and it was just last night. He held tissues that were soaked and puckered with tears. I asked him questions, trying to trace the path of what was bothering him back through the school day. We rolled across recess, music class, and lunch. Did an older student slight him in the hall? Did I pack enough food?

For the little I know as a parent, at least I’ve learned that a leak’s source is just as likely to be indirect as direct. The path can go down and back, down and back a week, a month, or more before the damage becomes visible. I held my son and flipped through his project files. Recently I relented and let him watch a ninja show that may have been too scary. Also, his Dad has been traveling a lot. And the Fall sports season just ended. I kept his dossier to myself and continued asking, quietly, “Anything else?” A child can be old enough to speak his mind, but unable to name what’s vexing him. So we went to the roof to check the skylights and pipes.

As my son nodded off, I kicked loose the right chunk of gunk. On his bedside table was a pencil. It was just like the one he’d thrown at me during homework (Time out). Later, at dinner, he put his head down on the table.  The leak began in his eye, or perhaps in his nose. He was getting sick.

I checked on him at 11 PM, and he was as hot as a coke oven. The feeling that visited me was not happiness, but more the relief of turning onto a familiar road when you’re lost in a big city. “Take a picture,” I thought. It’s always a picture, never a map.

Posted in Learning from Others, Uncategorized.

In and Out

“Love is staying when everything says ‘go.'”

Man, I hate that stinky quote. This one’s not much better:

“Say, are those greens from the garden?”

That’s what I almost asked musician Corey Harris when I saw him at Whole Foods in 2004. Luckily, I chickened out. He was standing next to me in the produce department, loading a bag with kale. His CD, “Greens from the Garden,” was in my car stereo.

Frigging Whole Foods. Celebrity sightings are almost unavoidable there. Earlier this year, I was doing some weekend shopping with my daughter. She handed me a sheath of dry spaghetti that turned out to be open at one end. The contents fell like pick-up sticks around my feet—and also around John Grisham’s.  “A Time to Spill…” was on the tip of my tongue as I watched his Italian shoes flee down the aisle.

I saw a woman at Whole Foods yesterday who isn’t famous, but who easily could be for acting out those creepy comedy-tragedy faces that embellish theater programs. I’d popped into the grocery to grab a pack of nitrate-free hot dogs, and ran into the woman-as-Comedy en route to the meat department. She was by the vacuum-packed salmon, standing cheek to gills with a man she clearly knew. They whispered and snickered, their entwined bodies filling the fish department with wood-smoked heat.  A few customers joined me in browsing too long, remembering when.

But true to form, the hot coals cooled fast. On my way to check out, I darted back to the produce department to get some parsley. And there I found the same woman again. Only this time, she was Tragedy, by the lemons. She’d actually backtracked to the entrance of the store. She was in tears, bereft. The corners of her mouth pulled toward the earth. A female friend offered comfort as she sobbed. I felt bad for the woman, and considered buying her a $12 scoop of lavender bath salts, but figured the gesture would be too communal even for Whole Foods.

Maybe the guy in seafood had once been her man, but as of recently, no more.  Maybe she’d fooled him, along with all of us fool rubberneckers. Pride is the best thespian.

I’ve been there. And so has Kelly Clarkson.

Oh you think that you know me, know me
That’s why I’m leaving you lonely, lonely
‘Cause baby you don’t know a thing about me
You don’t know a thing about me.

–Mr. Know it All

The bummer is: he does know a thing. He knows everything. That’s why lovers end up laugh-crying at the grocery in front of a bunch of nosy hot dog shoppers.

Without judgement, hear this: I once watched an episode of “Designing Women” on public access. In it, a lead character is left by her husband. He returns home to retrieve an item, and she bends over backwards to show that she’s fine, that she’s pursuing new interests. When her ex comments, “Those things don’t sound like you,” her response (Kelly Clarkson) is, “Oh, you don’t know a thing about me.” He gets the last laugh. “Mary Jo, I’ve seen you on the pot.”

The truth is, I don’t know a thing about the woman I saw, or what’s happening in her life.  It’s not like I even shop at Whole Foods that much. The store and I were together for a long time, but ultimately, finances drove us apart. I’ll always remember the asparagus and Gruyère ravioli, but a $5 can of tomatoes is unforgivable. I just get my hot dogs and get out.


Posted in Wack Art.

Giving Thanks to Saints and Haints

Prayers that invoke a spiritual entity by name have more oomph than those that don’t. Whether it’s “Heavenly Father,” “God,” or “Goddess,” specifying a deity gives the feeling of being heard, and perhaps, even answered.

I wasn’t raised in a formal religious tradition, so I’m more ‘Help me, Rhonda’ than ‘Hail Mary.’ Several years ago, my friend P. invited my family to Thanksgiving dinner. During the meal, P’s elderly mother referenced a prayer from the Bible. “What’s a Bible?” my kindergartener son blurted out, silencing the whole table. “We use the terms “Old and New Testament,” I said, choking on my turkey.

It’s hard to explain to a group of agape guests that my home-spun spirituality torques on the boundary between the mystical and the comical. That’s because as a kid, I felt a thunderous jolt of rapture whenever my divorced parents threw back their heads in laughter. Though they chuckled often enough, the times when my Mom and Dad really fell apart laughing were rare and beautiful—a bountiful feast from God’s own kitchen.

What could have been so funny to my parents, at their ages then, in the matrix of moving parts that made up their days? To my Mom one afternoon when she was forty-four, it was “bucket dog,” a mutt running around the neighborhood with a bucket over its head. To my Dad one evening at age fifty-one, it was me, impersonating an eccentric neighbor.  Now that I’m grown, I set the pieces of these memories on the table and try to assemble them. In hindsight, they don’t add up to hilarious. I know that to my Mom and Dad in those moments, though, the laughs were a rest in green pastures, and a walk by still waters.

But back to Rhonda. Though I wouldn’t exactly call her a saint, I regularly invoke her when my son’s completed homework disappears just before school departure, or when I’m late to an appointment and get stuck behind a backhoe. Sometimes the situation improves, and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, I take myself a little less seriously as I press on.

Rhonda’s toothless colleague, Tammy, is similarly helpful in a pinch. Originally a crass, hardscrabble character created by my sister for some campy art videos, Tammy has become our family’s guardian against distressing news. At any time, we can herald Tammy to slam the brakes on a tough or disgusting topic. If a plain “Don’t go there” fails to end a family member’s monologue, we ratchet up to “Don’t go there, Tammy” for a 100% guarantee. For example, I might call upon Tammy if I sense my brother’s roadkill description is about to veer into the entrails. Or worse—if the details of an intimate relationship are getting too…intimate. “Don’t go there, Tammy!”

Even my seven-year-old son (to whom I owe some basic religious education), understands that divinity has a name, and is genderless. In his most tender moments, like when he’s recuperating from an illness, he’ll gaze into my eye-soul and say, “I sure do love you, Sir.”

A parable I once read tells of a child reciting alphabet letters in the forest. A stranger asks him what he’s doing, and the boy answers that he’s praying—that even though he doesn’t know the words, God understands what he’s trying to say. Perhaps the moral of the story is that faith is simply the bold act of winging it, however ridiculous the outcome. I keep this in mind as I lay the lattice on an apple-less apple pie. “Go forth and improvise,” urges Rhonda. Tammy pumps some devil horns, and hacks out a smoker’s cough through beaming gums.



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