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It’s Not A Sprint

Sometimes I feel like a 6-year-old in the back seat of the family car at the beginning of road trip.  I just want to know when we’re going to get there, Mommy, when.  I feel that way when I analyze my professional accomplishments, when I get frustrated with the clutter that seems to breed in our house overnight, or when I look at the ocean, dreaming of a home that’s close enough to feel the breeze but yet far enough away to avoid the tsunami I know will inevitably hit Los Angeles.  It seems like everything I desire is somewhere off in the nebulous future and, although I am patient, a little immediate gratification would be nice, you know?  Sometimes I just want it now.

When my older son was in second grade, a wonderful private school that we had applied to three times finally granted us admission.  It happened when I was just about to give up hope, when I had accepted that the public school where he was enrolled maybe wasn’t so bad and wouldn’t scar him for life, despite the fact that I knew in my heart that he deserved better.  I was a little nervous at our first parent-teacher conference; I still had a chip on my shoulder for having to apply so many times.  I needed confirmation that we were worthy.  I breathed a sigh of relief when the teachers said that, academically and socially, our son was thriving.  It was like he had been there from day one, they said; he was a perfect fit for the school.  He was well liked by everyone in the class, was a strong reader, and, in terms of math, he was right at grade level.

Whoa, wait a minute.  At grade level?  Not above?  Being the ambitious Type A, I asked what we could do about that.  Should he have extra homework in math?  Should we find a tutor?  Is there any cause for concern?  Now that we were in the school of our dreams, I wasn’t about to jeopardize it.  “It’s not a sprint,” the teacher told me.  There was a pause, then I forced a smile. Yeah, right, buddy, I thought.  It’s a cutthroat world out there.  If we don’t start building his resume in second grade, he could fall behind.  Hadn’t this teacher read Malcolm Gladwell?  Didn’t he realize that Bill Gates started writing code in high school?  I secretly vowed to keep an eye on my son’s math progress and enrolled him in a plethora of extracurricular activities.

By third grade this child was so busy after school that he hardly had time for play dates.  His report card showed that he was an advanced reader – so advanced that the teacher was hard pressed to recommend age appropriate books that challenged his vocabulary and reading comprehension.  In terms of math, though, he was at grade level.  My husband shrugged his shoulders; we both sucked at math in school.  What did I really expect from a product of our combined DNA?

Our second child has proven my husband wrong.  His reading and math are both way above grade level.  From whence does his gift with numbers come?  Probably the same gene that makes him the second tallest kid in his class (behind the daughter of a pro basketball player).  Child number two also has a sunny extroverted personality.  He loves team sports, dressing up in fancy clothes, and being the center of attention.  Does this mean he will be more successful in life than his more intense, introverted, older brother whose gifts are centered in the arts and humanities?  Of course not.  He has just been dealt a different set of cards.  “Success” and the speed with which he does or does not achieve it, will be up to him.

Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe that teacher wasn’t so wrong.  Maybe it really is the slow and steady pace that wins the race.  Just look at Abe Lincoln.  Or Ray Kroc, Julia Child and Harrison Ford.  Or my husband.  A long awaited professional dream recently came true for him.  It came after a lot of hard work, perseverance and, toward the end, prayer.  I’m so proud and happy that his career, which started off as a sprint and for about a year slowed to a crawl, is now at a healthy jog.  He had the choice to stay in the fast lane but purposely slowed down in order to go after what he really wanted.  It’s not who gets there first, or even who gets the farthest.  It’s who gets there, centered, connected and true to themselves.  Sometimes that takes a lifetime.

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TL and Me

There’s a show on CBS called Unforgettable, about a police detective with a rare medical condition that allows her to remember everything she sees.  Sometimes I wish I had that ability, especially when I receive a friend request on Facebook from someone I have completely forgotten.  It’s frustrating to search through a person’s photo albums and still have no idea who they are.  This never happens with people from my formative years.  Ever.  From the kid with premature facial hair whose brother is a well-known play write to the boy who announced to the class when I got my first period, their names and faces will be forever seared in my brain.  Ask me whose parents created a dead-on R2D2 costume for his little brother on Halloween?  Peter M., of course.  Who played Mary Poppins in the eighth grade play?  Easy, it was Lisa B.

As an only child of divorced parents, I placed the utmost importance on my female friendships.  By middle school my family became supporting characters in my life story.  The co-stars were BR, TL and myself.  We weren’t exactly the Three Musketeers; the only things that BR and TL had in common were their respective friendships with me.  BR was cool, confident, lived on the expensive part of town and had all the latest gadgets.  TL was a tortured artist, writer, and child of hippies who introduced me to Crosby, Stills and Nash when everyone else was listening to Pat Benatar.  BR appealed to the rebel in me, the one who wanted to be noticed.  We smoked cigarettes, painted our faces with make-up to get into R-rated movies, and went on that fateful horse and carriage ride where we both made out with the same boy.  TL spoke to my introverted artist self.  We questioned the existential meaning of John Lennon’s murder.  We shared secrets of our parents’ sex lives.  On the class camping trip we huddled together in a cold tent as the rain poured down, feeling superior while the other kids frolicked in a dry cabin.

Each of my best friends fulfilled a different need in my life and I loved them both.  TL still gets the credit for helping my mom choose between her two boyfriends one fateful night when they both showed up at our apartment.  BR wholeheartedly agreed with TL’s choice, as did I.  We all adored the charming European hotelier who whipped up filet mignons for us after school dances.  When my mom married him the summer before eighth grade, BR and TL were there.  While the adults indulged in an after-party, we girls jumped on the beds of our shared hotel room and talked about the future into the wee hours.  The wedding was a sign of change to come.  By the end of the school year, my mom’s new husband would be transferred across the country.  I didn’t want to hear about the new friends I would make in Virginia; my soul was with my best friends in Chicago.

It was a rough road ahead.  While I struggled to find some connection with the southern belles who populated my conservative, all-girl universe, BR and TL carved out their adolescent identities in a co-ed setting.  TL invested in lots of black eyeliner and found her niche with an alternative crowd.  Having seen the point of high school after the first five minutes, BR was ready to get out.  She was envious of my new experience.  We spoke on the phone a lot in the beginning and then only intermittently.  When I visited Chicago I discovered that my friendships with BR and TL didn’t grow; they were like objects on a shelf, once cherished and now dusty.  I finally found a friend to fill their void my senior year.  PW was a great person, deep like TL, fun like BR, and with her own special nurturing qualities.  We created lots of classic memories, set to the soundtrack of a mix tape that I still own.

The summer before starting college outside of Chicago, I wanted to hook up with my old best friends from eighth grade.  BR was on her way to college in Texas, happy to finally escape her family.  She didn’t have much time for me.  TL agreed to come over and hang out for a few hours, but she had plans to meet her boyfriend later.  I’m not sure how our afternoon turned into a drinking contest.  Was it to mask the fact that we were no longer close?  Somehow we consumed an entire fifth of Stolichnaya, chased down with a six-pack of Diet Coke.  By the time we set out for the store where her boyfriend worked, we weren’t just drunk.  We were falling down, blackout drunk.  The details on how we became separated are fuzzy.  I remember that we got into an argument trying to hail a taxi.  She left, and her boyfriend escorted me home.

With the exception of one day almost ten years later when I went to see her in a play, I haven’t spoken to TL in over 25 years.  She didn’t want to hear my explanation of how I, as a sloshed 18-year-old, ended up having sex with her boyfriend (who was completely sober at the time).  I wanted, needed to tell her that I was sorry.  She must have known me well enough to see how out of character the whole thing was.  Apparently not.  Whatever bond we shared as girls was overshadowed by the incident.  It was clear that she blamed me, and not him, for what happened.  Ironically, the boyfriend was one of the first people to “friend” me on Facebook and is only one of two people whose request has been denied.  Boys who take advantage of foolish drunk teenage girls are not permitted access to my cyber circle.

As for BR, we shared grade school crushes on Matt B. and Adam L., and separate flings in our twenties with a bad boy who shall remain unnamed.  But boys never came between us.  Maybe that’s why we are still friends.  It’s wonderful reminiscing about life with BR when we were almost fifteen, but it’s also great that we are creating new memories to reminisce about when we’re eighty.  I often wonder if TL has any fond memories of us, if she smiles when she thinks about weekends spent ordering room service and watching free movies in the hotel where my stepfather worked.  Or, has she blocked out every remnant of our friendship with click of a mouse, the way that you set up a security wall on Facebook?

For years it seemed that TL was consciously avoiding everyone from her past, not just me.  I heard that she had a rough time in New York.  Then I heard she was living in L.A. and I fantasized about running into her one day, in our shared city of ten million people.   I never did.  I found her online, though, with a changed name but the same sardonic wit.  It’s hard to disappear completely these days, especially if you’re the writer of a blog that you want people to read.  So if you’re reading this now, TL, this is for you.  I remember sitting in the courtyard at school, trading pastrami sandwiches for the rice cakes with peanut butter your vegetarian mom would pack you.  I remember your beautiful gray cat Fog who ran away, and the tabby named after a song by The Knack.  I remember Fondue Stube and the empty dining room reserved for yoga.  I remember your denim overalls and visiting your dad at the station.  I remember a story you wrote about me, you and BR, about what we would be like when we grew up.  I still remember.

 

 

 

 

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Justice

In an alternate universe I am a lawyer.  I represent the plaintiffs in Erin Brockovich-type cases against big companies who pollute drinking water that causes cancer in poor communities.  I prosecute murderers, rapists, and kidnappers.  In my spare time, I work pro bono for people who are wrongly accused, gaining freedom for death row inmates.  That’s The Good Wife fantasy version of my life.  In reality, I am a wife (mostly good), mom and writer, with an advanced degree in film producing and an obsession with justice.

My dander is up over the guy who sold us our home ten years ago, call him Mr. X.  As both the owner and a general contractor, Mr. X was responsible for overseeing the construction of an addition that looked slick on the outside but which had a host of problems lurking beneath.  Like, sixty thousand dollars worth of problems, stemming from improper waterproofing.  While Mr. X is not a murderer (to my knowledge), he did cut corners that could have resulted in bodily injury to our family.  On the upside, our homeowner’s insurance is paying for most of the repairs.  When the new balcony is attached and the ceiling is put back on our family room, we will have a safer, more sturdy and beautiful home.

The part that gets me is Mr. X knowingly, willfully, represented the house as safe and secure when it was not.  And that’s wrong.  When I Googled his name I discovered that he’s still working as a contractor – installing pools, no less — with a bunch of testimonials from satisfied customers on his website.  The real estate attorney I consulted said we have a case for fraud against Mr. X.  My husband thinks it’s a waste of time.  It costs money to sue, and there’s no guarantee we will prevail.  He jokes that because I am one-eighth Italian, I have revenge in my blood.  It’s not like I’m some Mafioso, I snap at him, certain that my logical German and English DNA balances out the passionate Mediterranean part.

The lawyer asks what I hope to gain from a suit.  “A little money,” I tell him.  After a short pause I add, “I don’t really care about the money.  I want him to admit that he did it.”  If Mr. X would go online and publicly acknowledge his transgressions, if he would apologize to us for the pain, suffering and loss of money, there would be no need to sue.  With the same gentle tone I use with me 6-year-old, the lawyer tells me that, even if Mr. X agrees to a settlement, he’ll never admit to fraud in writing.  So what’s a passionate, justice-seeking person to do?  The lawyer cautions me against going on Yelp and airing my grievances publicly.  “But it’s the truth,” I whine.  “Yes, truth is your defense.  But do you really want to spend the money defending yourself?” he says.

As a kid I watched my dad, a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer, act as a modern-day Robin Hood, gaining large settlements from defendants’ insurance companies for his low-income clients.  I admired his ability to dispense justice while paying for private school and driving a Porsche.  When it came time for me to choose a profession, however, he said, “Whatever you do, don’t go to law school.”  Was it bad advice?  Should I have overlooked my aversion to pantyhose and pumps, and become an attorney?  Would a J.D. have satisfied my desire to right the wrongs of the world?  Probably not.  Law in the real world is often a game; it’s tough to legislate morality. Only on TV and in movies do you get that kind of satisfaction.  And so, as far as Mr. X goes, I must rely on the laws of the Universe and hope that through karma, justice is served.

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Held Together With Scotch Tape

From my earliest memories until the age of seven, my mom traveled the U.S. as a nightclub singer, the only female in a band that had reached its pinnacle a decade earlier.  She belted out tunes in the smoke-filled lounges of Hiltons and Sheratons from San Francisco to Scranton, Colorado Springs to Cherry Hill and everywhere in between.  I often accompanied her on these cross-country gigs, where she sang in low-cut dresses to businessmen who appreciated her décolletage as much as her vocal stylings.

In the daytime we were free to check out the local sights.  We visited Paul Bunyan’s birth site in Bemidji, Minnesota, the famous chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and a whole town dedicated to Christmas — Frankenmuth, Michigan.  I learned to swim in the hotel pool in Orlando, became a decent skater at the hotel rink in Lancaster, and went on scavenger hunts devised by my mother when there was nothing else to entertain a precocious five-year-old girl.

At night, I assisted my mom as she prepared to go on stage.  Like a boxing coach I complimented her, pumped her up, told her what she needed to hear because no matter what, the show must go on. I watched as she applied makeup and false eyelashes with surgical adhesive, teased her hair, wiggled into nude colored pantyhose and a girdle, then slid her tiny feet into Bruno Magli open-toe sling backs.  The final step before the dress was the Scotch tape.  Having been around the world with the USO, my mom knew lots of showgirl tricks and this was one of them.

“Hold this,” my mother would say, as she pulled three feet of tape from a plastic roll most people used for wrapping presents.  She was wrapping presents, too – her big boobs – so they would stay in place beneath the pale yellow sequined Halston cut with a deep V from her neck to her navel.

I obediently held the tape, marveling at her ability to transform into this glamorous goddess.  Whatever stereotypes the media had of womanhood in the early 1970s, from aproned Betty Crockers to bespectacled, bell-bottomed Gloria Steinems, my own mother didn’t fit any of them.  She was Cher without Sonny, neither defined by any movement nor limited by a lack of one.

On those rare occasions when my mom wasn’t on the road and we were home in Chicago, I was still her one-person entourage.  At Saks Fifth Avenue, I would sit on a chair in the dressing room while the buyer, a trim man with a thin, black moustache that looked painted on, brought my mother dress after designer dress to try on.  Nina Riccis, Oscar de la Rentas, and Bill Blass originals.  I developed a real sense for what looked good on my mom and what would work on stage.  Everyone at Saks seemed to value my opinion.

The fall that I turned six I started kindergarten and so began my career as a weekend talent manager.  While other kids in my class were at Brownies and Cub Scout meetings, I was flying solo to wherever my mother was singing.  Had there been frequent flier miles back then, I would have earned Executive Premier status as an “unaccompanied minor.”  I became accustomed to conversing with adults, eating in fancy restaurants and staying up late.  The day after a show I watched re-runs of Star Trek until my mom got out of bed, crossing my fingers that the coffee shop was still serving breakfast at noon.

During those years, it wasn’t only my mother’s boobs that were held in place with Scotch tape.  Our whole life was in a fragile state, even though nobody had the guts to say it out loud.  As my mother and I crisscrossed the country on tour, my dad stayed home in Chicago, pursuing a career as a personal injury lawyer.  She played dates at the MGM in Las Vegas while he performed in front of juries, winning big verdicts for people injured in car accidents.  It was an odd arrangement between two ambitious, singularly focused individuals who were as out of touch with each other’s needs as they were with the only lasting product of their union – me.  When their marriage inevitably crumbled, my mom was granted custody with the caveat that she quit singing.  I couldn’t help but feel that I was somehow responsible for crushing her dreams, that if only she didn’t have me, she could have everything else that she desired.  My career as a junior stylist/personal assistant/traveling shrink promptly ended.  It was time to learn now to be an actual kid.

My mother played the occasional weekend gig as long as it was driving distance from our condo, but mostly she bartended to make up for the gap in my dad’s alimony payments.  I remember one of her last performances as the opening act for Bob Hope in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.  By then she was dating the man who would eventually become my stepfather and her singing was more of a fun, part-time thing than a desperate last grab at fame.  She had found her soul mate, a charming European hotelier who loved travel and adventure as much as she did.  She used her experience in entertainment to become a promoter, agent and ultimately, corporate events planner.

The years from eight to eleven were downright boring compared to the first seven.  During the week I went to school.  On the weekends, I stayed with my dad and his wife in the suburbs.  Vacations were mostly spent with my grandparents in Ohio.  My mom trudged through her days as a single parent in her sparse civilian wardrobe while the sequined Halston gowns hung in the closet.  My mother’s sparkle returned when she met my stepfather.  As a chef and hotel manager, he brought his own sense of fun and creativity into our lives.  We had cooking contests, birthday parties and holidays without traveling any farther than our apartment.  Whatever my mother had been searching for, she seemed to have found with him.  Success in her new career followed.  We were no longer held together with Scotch tape.

 

 

 

 

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Being Safe

I once gave a friend a basket of gifts for her new-born baby that included Burt’s Bees body lotion.  She refused to use it because she heard that honey was bad for babies under the age of one.  I tried to explain that using lotion with honey was different than ingesting it.  But she was convinced that the lotion would harm her son.  Each person has her own sense of safety.

My own ability to foresee potential danger is so acute that I could work for OSHA.  Here’s how it goes: Whenever I walk into a room, cross the street, or pull out into traffic, I subconsciously assess the safety hazards and act accordingly.  In my own home I worry about my kids slipping on the wet bathroom floor, burning themselves by pulling a boiling pot from the stove and a million other little things.  When my older son was a baby, I paid two thousand dollars to have professionals come in and “earthquake-proof” the place, which consisted of tying heavy furniture to the wall studs with straps.  I knew it was just a matter of time before one of the kids got hurt on the damned travertine floors; sure enough, my younger son tripped on the stairs and chipped a tooth the day after he turned two.

It should come as little surprise, then, that when my 9-year-old boy was invited for a day of Go-Karting with his friend I began to worry.  I immediately googled “Go-Karting Dangers” and up popped an article with all the stuff I was expecting – including head injuries, internal bleeding, even death.  The family who issued the invitation emailed me a waiver to sign, required by the Go-Karting facility, and my stomach started to hurt.  And, as if that weren’t enough, the father of my son’s friend drives a Jeep Wrangler, the last remaining vehicle in America without rear airbags.  After mulling it over for several days with my husband (who, of course, thinks everything will be “fine”), I am at a conundrum.  If I do not allow my child to ride in a vehicle with no rear airbags on an eight-lane freeway, is that being overly cautious?  If I say he can’t go Go-Karting is that unfair?

“What do you think, sweetie?” I say that night as I am tucking him into bed and padding the sharp corners of his nightstand with pillows.

“I don’t know,” he says.

I then pose the rhetorical question, “I know you want to go Go-Karting, but isn’t your life important?”

“Yeah.  But so are friends,” he says.

That one really gets me.  I am quiet for a long time.  Eventually, he falls asleep and I vow to make my decision tomorrow.  Wednesday is the last acceptable day to cancel for a Saturday, I tell myself.

But Wednesday comes, and I am still unsure of what to do.  I call my best friend, the godmother of my children, whose husband has a Wrangler.  She confesses that sometimes they drive it on the highway with their daughter in the back seat.  “He’ll be fine,” she says, echoing my husband’s opinion.  Chances are, they’re both right and he will be fine in both the Jeep and the Go-Kart.  But, what if he’s not?  How can I live with that?   I try to think logically about my options.  I could insist that they take a different car.  When I really analyze my fears, that’s the part that concerns me most.  At least in the Go-Kart he’ll be wearing a helmet.  I am now starting to worry about what the other parents will think, which could be a sign that I’m being hyper-vigilant.  If I express my concerns, they may think I’m nuts.  Will they retract their invitation to have us over for dinner?  Adults need friends, too.

At the eleventh hour, I send an email to the dad saying that a Jeep on the freeway makes me uncomfortable.  No apologies, no excuses.  I offer to loan him my Volvo SUV (with eight airbags!) for the ride.  If he’s offended, it wouldn’t be the first time.  I can live with that.  I cannot live without my son.  Maybe, when we get to know this family better I can explain that I was raised by parents who were too wrapped up in themselves to think about my safety, who often left me alone, with inadequate caretakers and that’s why I am slightly overprotective.  But I probably won’t.  After a couple of excruciating hours waiting for a reply, the father of my son’s friend emails me back saying that are taking the Range Rover since it’s a long journey, but thanks for my “helpful solution.”  I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.

I know I cannot protect my children forever.  In ten short years my 9-year-old will be in college, making his own decisions about whose car to ride in.  Will he choose to do the safe thing, or the exact opposite?  Will he be a teetotaler like my husband or will he be like me, engaging in all sorts of risky behavior not limited to automobiles?  (Full disclosure, I owned a Jeep Wrangler and it remains my favorite car of all time.  My husband and I actually considered buying one, until we found out about the lack of rear airbags.)  I also know that most of the things that make me feel safe – seatbelts, airbags, burglar alarms — are limited in scope.  Complete safety is an illusion.  Indeed, there are a whole host of things we can’t control like earthquakes, tsunamis, drive-by shootings, home invasion robberies, terrorist attacks, brain tumors and more.  So what’s the answer?  Should we pack ourselves in bubble wrap?  Or live it up while we still can?

“Always watch out for drivers who aren’t paying attention when you’re crossing the street,” I say one day on the way home from school.

“Why?  Do you think we’ll die?” my 6-year-old asks from the back seat.

“We’ll all die eventually,” I say.  “But until then, let’s be safe.”

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