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Sunday, January 14, 2018

I Always Wanted to be a Fun Mom

Back when the daughter was still brewing in my belly, I ended up at a party in Concord, Massachusetts while visiting my college roommate and namesake, Betsy. The circles in which we ran welcomed any friend at any party in any state at any time. Claire, a high school friend of Betsy’s, was also there and I latched onto the familiar face. Familiar because our partying paths had crossed many a time over the years. A little less familiar now that she had crossed into uncharted waters.  Claire was now swimming in a different sea than Betsy and I, having already given birth to three-quarters of the children that she would eventually put forth. 

“It’s the greatest thing in the world!” Claire radiated. “I just get to play with kids all day long!”

Claire is about as real as you can get. This wasn’t an elevator pitch for motherhood. It wasn’t cocky. It wasn’t contrived. It was how she really, truly felt.

At that moment I vowed that I would be just like Claire. I was going to be a fun mom. After all, I thought, I’m a fun person. I like kids. I like adventure. I like challenges. How hard could it possibly be?

The daughter in the belly kicked. Then kicked again. Harder.

I was right. Being a mother wasn’t hard at all. The daughter was a screamer, but I had an ever-loving spouse who held her for hours at a time while I did the dishes or vacuumed the living room or read a book. I went back to work three months after she was born leaving her with Teresa, an 18-year-old I met in the corner grocery store, who knew way more than I ever would about babies.

The daughter slept through the night after three weeks, took three-hour naps and loved to be pushed up and down the hills of Leonia in her blue-flowered Graco baby stroller. She was cute and precocious and brought me lots of positive attention.

It was so much fun that we had another, 22 months later. Max was a jolly baby. All I had to do was plop him in his bouncy chair, give him a kiss on the cheek every now and then and he’d answer with a smile, assuring me that I was a perfect parent. I learned to prop a bottle, ignore a whimper and use a pacifier as a plug.

It was so much fun that we had another, two years later.

Leo was even easier than Max. Knowing that by mere virtue of being the last born, he’d ultimately suffer from parent fatigue, I kept meticulous baby book records and snapped hundreds of pictures. I took a five-month maternity leave knowing it would be my last, and under the guise of continuity, had the spouse drop the older two at pre-school on his way to work. Leo was my buddy, accompanying me to the dentist, sitting through lunches with the girls and sleeping straight through from the beginning of All My Children to the end of General Hospital.

Yup. Mothering sure was fun.

When I returned to work, I went back part-time, giving me three days a week to exercise my brain, two days to dote on my beloved children and the weekend to bond as a family.

When, a couple years later, CNBC moved the Creative Services to California, I tried, but couldn’t justify deserting the family for a cross-country copywriting job. Instead, I became a full-time, stay-at-home mother faced with a flighty future as a freelance writer, an ever-loving spouse who worked ever-endless hours and no more Teresa to help ease the pain.

But, soon I found that Disney characters cavorting on the television set pretty much guaranteed long stretches between demands for juice or Cheerios. I discovered I could write headlines from the playground bench, as long as I tossed in an occasional “Atta Boy!” to show I was still paying attention. And, I learned that talking to a client through a closed bathroom door only made the kids scream louder.

I found that converting a bedroom to a playroom meant a lot less mess to clean up in the living room. I discovered that skipping pages made bedtime stories go faster. And, I learned that my kids would eventually forget that popsicles and grape juice existed if I simply stopped buying those stain-inducing products.

I found that being the PTA president was perceived as a good mom move. I discovered that points were won for running the book fair, picture day and teacher appreciation luncheons. I learned that leaving my kids home with a babysitter while I sat on a committee was a whole lot more fun than battling bedtime.

I found that as I picked up more and more volunteer jobs, I took on less and less paid jobs. I discovered that a color-coded Excel sheet was the perfect way to keep on top of myriad activities. I learned that packing lunches the night before, choosing next-day outfits before going to sleep and banning the existence of anything sticky, sloppy, muddled or messy made for much smoother sailing.

I found that I could be an ultra-organized human being. I discovered that there was value in being over-involved in schools and sports and church and community. I learned that driving a minivan with three rows of seats did wonders for "he's touching me" control, but was oh, so much quicker to fill with wayward waifs than a four-seater sedan.

As I traveled the bumpy road through motherhood, I found that the Old Minivan got us from Point A to Point B and that stops at Points C through Z were a given. I discovered that I was pretty good at juggling tasks. My kids were clean. My kids were fed. And my kids were never, ever late.

But, what I learned, far too late in the game, was that I was no longer a fun mom.

It’s hard to be fun when you're worrying more about getting there than you do about being there. When you’re thinking about cleaning up while you’re still making the mess. Planning for bedtime when it’s not even naptime. Or focusing on efficiency instead of embracing spontaneity.

When I see young mothers laughing their way through parenthood, posting This is Us pictures on Facebook and switching to Plan B right before my very eyes, I actually feel a little bit sad. And so, last night I group-texted my kids.

"Can you guys come up with any fun mom moments?"

There was no response.

Really? Nothing? I texted.

Well, if nothing else, I taught them empathy.

Slowly, but surely, they started sending texts reminding me of the day I chased them with a wooden spoon. When I entered the Z100 Minivan Burn Rubber contest in the Pathmark parking lot. And the one and only time I actually suggested pulling out the boots and gloves and hats and scarves and big, bulky coats and extra socks to go sledding down the hill in the backyard.

They recalled how much fun I was when I worked in the canteen at the Little League field and would sneak them free fries (that, unbeknownst to them, I paid for). How I convinced the father that the trip to Jamaica with the Hargraves and Santostefanos and Merrigans and Ruscingnos was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which in fact, turned out to be just that. There was the Nutcracker and the Radio City Christmas Show and a mother-daughter trip to Disney World on which we turned to each other after two hours and said, "Let's get out of here."

There was the time I walked the daughter to the piercing pagoda in the local mall and then said, "Just kidding, you're still too young." The rare occasions when I'd spring for a mid-day ice cream break. The pumpkin picking trips. And the trillions of times they'd get in the car, subjecting themselves to my original melody, "Seatbelts on so you do not die. Seatbelts on so I do not cry," especially when Koree was with us because he would never, ever buckle up on his own.

Though I may have had to beg for them, these few and far between memories did, in fact, prove that there were moments in time when I was a fun mother. And that placated me.

But, that mind of mine can never leave well enough alone. I immediately started wondering just how fast and furious those texts would have come had I posed a different question.

"Can you guys come up with any non-fun mom moments?"

But, if I've learned one thing through all these years, it's to never, ever ask a question if you don't want to hear the answer.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Seize the Day Before it Seizes You

“Where are you going?” I asked the daughter as she floated toward the front door. I was perched in the chair that has become mine, and only mine, three feet in front of the 1990’s, 19-inch TV screen. The one with the cable wires winding their way across the otherwise somewhat attractively decorated living room of my house.

I was dressed in my hope-no-one-but-family-sees-me leisurewear. Toes were nestled in a pair of black and gold fuzzy socks: gold from ever-present Griffey dog hair; black from ever-present dirt across the hardwood floors of our humble home. My ample upper girth was obscured by my red Ole Miss fleece laced with dried cookie batter; my lower self sausaged in black yoga pants with aforementioned dog hair circling the hems.

The house was filled with wayward adult children home for the holidays, but I still had a few good days before the ceaseless string of celebrations hit full force. The celebrations, included, but were not limited to, several excessive gift exchanges, a Christmas Eve feast, two Christmas dinners with two different families, two birthdays of two family members and way too much eating and drinking that would climax on New Year’s Eve and, with any luck, cease the next morning when low-carb resolutions kicked in. I was perfectly content to sit in my chair and continue binge watching Easy, the Netflix series recommended to me by the daughter.

Who was, conversely, dressed for a night out.

“Where are you going?” I asked again.

“Into the city,” she answered. “I’m meeting Julianne and her dad.”

My jaw dropped.

“You’re going into the city to meet the Shea’s and you didn’t ask ME?”

“I knew you wouldn’t go,” came her immediate and completely reasonable response.

“I’m coming,” came my delayed and completely unexpected response.

Once, in another lifetime, nothing was too far-fetched, too uncomfortable nor too spontaneous for this carpe diem minded chick.   

One year four of us drove straight-through to Florida, two surfboards bungee-corded on the roof of my Ford Pinto, to spend spring break sleeping on the beach. On. The. Beach. I spent three days in the back of a Trailways bus as I made my way across the country the summer after I graduated from college. On the same trip, I met a friend at a party or in a bar or on the streets of Sedona and, forfeiting the return portion of my round-trip ticket, opted to drive back east with her, the two of us sleeping in her car on the side of the road with windows wide open. On any given Friday on any given summer weekend my friend Patty would pick me up in her tan-colored Corvair and we’d head down the Atlantic City expressway for libations in Somers Point followed by three hours of sleep in a six-dollar a night rooming house in Ocean City. I’d jump in my car and drive hundreds of miles for 23rd birthday parties, weddings, concerts or just to spend a night with an old friend. I shot a gun in the backyard of a Shippensburg farmhouse, picked up hitchhikers, drove from Philadelphia to New York City for a midnight meal in the Village, watched the Preakness from the infield at Pimlico and regularly befriended bartenders, jockeys and struggling artists.

All someone had to do was ask. I didn’t think about consequences. I didn’t think about finances. I didn’t think about judgments. I didn’t think about anything but seizing the day.

And then, somewhere along the line, the day seized me.

I no longer said yes to every adventure. I began to think about what was responsible. What was logical. What was affordable. And whether the fun I would ultimately have would be worth what it took to get me there.

Three kids and 25 years of parenting later, I’m no longer that go-to gal. It’s not a given that I’ll go. Or do. Or spend. Or drink. And, as much as I love sitting in my little chair watching my little TV in my  sleepy town with my dwindling family, sometimes I miss that go-to gal.

No friends epitomize the me I used to be better than the Shea’s. Tom and his daughter, Julianne, believe irrevocably, in seizing the day. While Tom’s wife, Jackie, rolls her eyes at their dreamed-up schemes and cringes at their foolish endeavors, she ultimately joins in and enjoys half of their crazy adventures. But, she, like me, is not the carefree creature she once was. She declined this last-minute invitation to meet in the city on a gridlock alert Thursday four days before Christmas. Just as I would have. Had I been invited.

Maybe it was the sting of not being invited that changed my mindset. It was certainly not a foolhardy idea. There was nothing dangerous or potentially disastrous about it. It was neither monetarily nor logistically prohibitive. There was no good reason why I couldn’t walk to the corner, hop on the 167, take the bus into the city, the subway down to Bleeker Street and have cocktails and dinner with my darling daughter, my good friend, Tom, and his daughter, Julianne, who was home from Chicago for the holidays.

“Look at you, Mom,” the daughter said. “Let’s hear it for spontaneity.”

“You really didn’t think I’d come?

The daughter looked at me sideways.



“You have no idea the things I used to do…”

The daughter bought me a subway token. I bought her dinner. Tom bought us drinks. Julianne didn't buy anything. And the four of us toasted to a life of spontaneity. To being the people we want to be. To having the fun we want to have. And to remembering that a life worth living is one that's worth living well.

Even when it means shedding your dog-haired clothes and putting your program on pause. Because hitting the Resume button is a really easy thing to do.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Perfect Present

“You hate Christmas?” Danielle with the lavender highlights exclaimed as I was paying for my cut and color at the beauty parlor. “How can you hate Christmas?”

“I’ll tell you how,” I said as I mounted my high horse and launched into my diatribe. The one I’ve repeated for as many years as I’ve been in charge of Christmas.

Christmas, to me, is like the seashore. I love everything about the shore. I love the sea breezes and the salty air. I love riding my bicycle back and forth on nice, flat terrain. I love salt water taffy and caramel corn and pizza on the boardwalk. I love the lazy, hazy days, outdoor showers and unlocked front doors. I love everything about the shore. Except the sand. If the beach were paved in some sort of soft-to-the-toe-touch astro turf or rubber matting or even real grass, I’d plop down in my beach chair and watch the waves for hours on end, like normal people do.

I love everything about Christmas. I love the smell of pine needles and bayberry candles. I love the cheery salutations and the hustle and bustle. I love the little ornaments and baubles that I pull out of the attic every year and the candlelight Christmas Eve service. I love the sappy TV shows and the holiday parties and the house filling up with wayward children and friends. I love everything about Christmas. Except for the presents. If I could take away all the gift-giving, I’d plop down in my Santa seat and welcome the holiday, like normal people do.

“The bottom line is, Danielle, finding all those perfect presents is just too much work.”

The next day I spoke to my sister, Emily, telephonically. We talk a lot at this time of year. Mainly because we like to get each other worked up. She loves the part of Christmas I hate. To her, the more presents the merrier. When we get together with my side of the family the day after Christmas, we sit in a circle until our haunches are sore, going round and round the room opening gift after gift for hours on end. Nothing makes Emily happier than giving and receiving.

Some years I have won the battle, and only because I’m louder than all three of my sisters combined. Over the years, at my suggestion, we have tried the grab bag option, but someone always grabs the wrong bag. We have tried doing a Secret Santa but someone always gets, or is, the Grinch. We’ve tried filling stockings, but someone always gets the one with a hole in the toe. And so, we buy for everyone. And fill stockings, to boot.

It doesn’t help that my kids, who are no longer kids, but because they came forth from my loins, will always be my kids and will; therefore, forever more be albatrosses around my neck at Christmas time, never want anything. I have to beg them for lists that finally show up two days too late to order from Amazon. And my ever-loving, low-maintenance spouse wants nothing more than family togetherness. But, you just can’t put a ribbon around that.

I tell them every year that this is the end. I’m not buying gifts just for the sake of buying gifts. I’ll give them the hundreds of dollars they want in cold, hard cash and call it a day. It’s just too heart-wrenching to try and find the perfect gift that will elicit the perfect joy. And the problem is, I just won’t stop trying.

Sister Emily came up with a psychologically-sound point in our last insides-shaking induced conversation. The holidays will always find our weakest links and weasel their way in. It doesn’t matter if you have the perfect family with the perfect kids complete with the Labrador retriever or if you have a dysfunctional family filled with lecherous, mothball-scented uncles and surly teenagers. It doesn’t matter if you have a Warren Buffet-rivaling bank account or pinch every penny you sneak into your credit union’s Christmas Club. It doesn’t matter if you have a significant other or no other relatives alive. If you drink too much or teetotal your way through dinner.  If you proselytize over politics or have no idea who Robert Mueller is. It doesn’t matter if you crave a table full of friends or want to simply sink into your shell. If you’re a gourmet cook or call for takeout.  It doesn’t matter if you spin the dreidel or sing Away in a Manger. If you let the holidays discover your Achilles’ heel, whether self-imposed, self-perceived or just plain selfish, those holidays are going to do their best to take you down.

I take what my sister says to heart, even when I shouldn't. And she listens way, way too hard to what comes out of my rapidly-running mouth. But this time, what she said hit home. One person's angst is another's joy. And we're all somewhat in control of our own happiness. 

So, as we approach the final countdown to Christmas, I'm going to do my best to heal my multiple heels and follow my ever-loving, low-maintenance spouse’s example.

Instead of fighting it, I'm going to try just putting a ribbon around it. 

But before I can fully enjoy it, I just need a few more days to finish up my fussing and fuming about all those perfect presents that have yet to be purchased. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Breaking Tradition

“Mom!” the daughter says in a phone call from a time zone away. “I’ve got a great idea.”

At which point, I cringe. Then, I do what I refuse to do in yoga class. I breathe. And then, I respond.

“What’s your great idea?” I say trepidatiously. Because experience has taught me that when my offspring have a great idea, it either costs me angst, energy or money. Often all three.

“Why don’t we go to Jamaica for Christmas!”

“Great idea!” I say, thinking I’m keeping all traces of disdain out of my voice.

“Why not?” she counters. “You wouldn’t have to buy us any presents. We’ll just go away instead. It could be a new tradition.”

I’m all for traditions. As a matter of fact, my middle name is tradition. And the older I get, the more traditions I tradition. I traditionally go on a Caribbean cruise every year with my bosom buddy Patty, formerly known as Penny. I traditionally go on an annual off-season beach weekend with my friends from college. And then, to another location with the other college friends. I traditionally go to Chapel Hill for yearly reunions with the daughter and her friends and families. I traditionally play in a Hearts tournament every year that Donald traditionally wins. But that’s OK because the winner has to host the next one the next year. And I’m just as happy when it’s not me. And one of my longest standing traditions is attending the night-before-Thanksgiving party at the Schaeffer’s house.

I grew up on Woods Road, a horse-shoe enclave of a road in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My family moved in when I was four years old and the friends I made then are still my friends today. We grew up at the end of an era – that era once known in storybooks as Childhood. We lived a free and fun and unscheduled life and miraculously lived to tell the tale. We roamed the road in a pack, entertaining ourselves by calling phony numbers, riding bicycles from house to house, walking to Perkels’ Pharmacy, contacting JFK through séances on cold, rainy days, and playing Capture the Flag until dark on hot, summer nights.

And then we all grew up and went our separate ways.

But we always come back on Thanksgiving Eve.

There’s a whole tradition around Thanksgiving back on Woods Road which is fully chronicled in a post called The Toilet Bowl.

But, the short of the long story is that the Thanksgiving Eve party is an intergenerational event that isn’t likely to go away unless, of course, the Schaeffer house is sold in a sheriff’s sale. And the likelihood of that happening keeps my hope alive.

“We’re going to stop at Sandy Scott’s house before going to Schaeffer’s this year,” my sister, Emily, announced.

I blanched.

“It will be fun. You’ll get to see Wayne Marcolina and Brian Nelson. Debby Conly will be there. And Sandy’s sister, Linda. You always loved Linda!”

I laughed.

I spent a lifetime in high school jockeying for an invitation to party with the likes of Sandy Scott. She far outweighed me …in the popularity poll. But somehow, in the 40 some years since we’ve been young, the distinct lines between the cheerleaders and the cheerfearers, the druggies and the drugless, the smart and the smart alecs blur and we find common ground, wondering why in the world we never hung out together, way back when.

My blanching had nothing to do with not wanting to fraternize with the friends of Sandy Scott.  I just was afraid to break tradition. My tradition dictated that I went to Schaeffer's and only Schaeffer's on Thanksgiving Eve. And I arrived by 8 pm.  If we went to Sandy Scott’s, I knew I’d want to stay and we’d be late.

And that’s exactly what happened.

But, when all was said and done and I had talked my tongue off both at Sandy Scott’s and at the Schaeffer’s, I realized that traditions can transition and still be just as traditional.

At this time of year, the world is steeped in tradition. We go to annual holiday parties where we spin dreidels and give gelt. We wear red and green and eat stuffed mushrooms and pigs-in-a-blanket. We buy gifts we can’t afford and get gifts we don’t need. We gather at elaborately decorated dinner tables with relatives we don’t like. And we do it all, year after year. Because, it’s what we do.

Traditions can get old and stale. Bothersome and boring. Dull and dreadworthy Unless, of course, you shake things up every now and then. Do something really radical like open presents on Christmas Eve. Engage the drooling Uncle Drew in conversation. Throw the football around with the high school kids. Turn down that one-more glass of wine or piece of pecan pie. You know the one - the one you wish you hadn't had. Or go for it, if you usually don’t. Invite friends to your all-family festivities. Give an unsuspecting, or even an undeserving person a gift. Stop at Sandy Scott’s Thanksgiving Eve party before the Schaeffer’s. 

And, if the Santostefanos don’t invite you for Christmas dinner this year, then go ahead and book that trip to Jamaica.

Because, after all, there's always a new tradition just waiting in the wings for an old tradition to be broken. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Reconnecting with Friends Gone Foul

Chris Kirk was my roommate freshman year of college. We ended up together after she swooped in and saved me from my randomly-appointed roommate, Sue, who declared Holly Hobbies, horses and shopping among her interests. I don’t remember what I wrote back to her that summer before college, but I’m sure my response included no references to Holly Hobbies, horses or shopping.

Things went south pretty quickly for me and Sue. It was immediately apparent that I was much more interested in socializing than studying and would go to all lengths and hours to achieve my goal.

Apparently, I was as messy then as my kids are now. One day I came home from Consumer Math class to find a note taped to my mirror:

Please clean up your side of the room. I don’t like living in a pig sty.

When I shared the note with my friend Chris Kirk, she was outraged and immediately declared war. She arrived at my room with a roll of masking tape and taped a line from door to window, dividing the room in half.

“You can do whatever you want with your side of the room,” she said.

Shortly afterwards, Sue and I decided to part ways. It was an amicable divorce because, despite my slovenly ways, I was still a good person at heart. Not to mention a fun friend to have.  Chris Kirk moved in and shortly thereafter regretted her charitable “You can do whatever you want with your side of the room,” comment. She also rued the day she ever agreed to live with someone who insisted on sleeping with the windows wide open in 25 degree winters.

That freshman year of college we did a lot of fun things. Once we filled a bucket with water, leaned it precariously against our RA’s door, knocked and ran, flooding the room when she opened the door. We took all the contents of our across-the-hall friends’ room, including furniture, and set it up in the lobby for them to stumble upon as they returned from night class. We were pack animals, the six of us, eating processed chicken patties together in the college dining hall every single night, loudly flirting with the kitchen staff who were fortunate enough to get work study hours and barging into house parties en masse.

One Friday night after coming home from The Fort much later and much louder than my roommate, I donned my blue-flowered Lanz of Salzburg floor-length nightgown and crawled into bed without turning on the lights. After all, as you may have deduced, I was nothing if not a considerate roommate. I lay my head on the pillow, stretched out my legs in that final sigh-releasing breath, eager to pass out into a seamlessly dreamless sleep. And then I screamed. Bloody murder. I jumped up, flinging my sheets off my bed, hopping around the room barefoot in shocked revulsion.

It wasn’t long until the rest of the posse gathered in my room, cackling hysterically over the concoction Chris had created to line my sheets. It was a nice gooey mixture of shaving cream and pencil shavings with a little bit of crushed pretzel crumbs added in for texture. We were still finding remnants of dried shaving cream on the stucco block walls well into the spring.

We were inseparable, the six of us. We partied too much, studied too little and got ourselves in too much trouble for doing inappropriate things with inappropriate substances and inappropriate people. Our parents would have been very disappointed in us, had we not been such good liars. And so good at self-redemption.

By the end of our second year of college, half of us were gone. We transferred, quit or put our educations on hold. But we promised that we would always and forever remain the best of friends.

From that year forward, we established the Annual All Girls’ Christmas Party, a mandatory gathering for an overnight the first Saturday in December. We would rotate houses so we only had to host one-and-a-half times a decade and as we got married and had kids, the families would be required to vacate the premises for 24 hours. Our get-togethers have evolved into three-day weekends held at random times in the year, but we have done some version of the Annual All Girls' Christmas Party every single year since 1975.

And then, about 15 years ago, something happened.

There was some kind of phone call. Some kind of nasty words exchanged. Some kind of hurt feelings. Some kind of “If you can’t accept me for who I am…” With some kind of “Fine, then don’t come!”

We never saw Chris Kirk again.

But, social media has some kind of uncanny power to reconnect the unconnectible. As the years went by, Chris and I friended and followed and watched our families grow. We gave each other thumbs ups and likes and smiley face emojis and made many empty promises that we’d get together soon.

Last month, I found a long message from Chris, filled with toils and tribulations of parenthood and grandparenthood, sitting in my inbox.

“You just never know what the hell is around the bend in life,” she wrote. "Let's not give up on trying to get together."

Something about that sentiment touched my heart and I responded with a resounding, “I’m coming to see you.”

And I did.

We talked and laughed and reminisced, reminding each other why we became friends in the first place. And as we hashed out the foggy details of the demise of our friendship, neither one of us could justify why, since the blow up hadn’t been between her and me, we let life happen instead of mending fences with the first broken rail.

Chris Kirk hasn’t changed a bit. She looks exactly the same as she did the day I met her in Harley Hall. She laughs with the same gusto. Enthuses with the same passion. Cleans with the same vigor. And is the same size she was when she was 18 years-old. 

As I hopped back into the Old Minivan, I got that old familiar lump in my throat that I get when I say goodbye to people I love.

“We’ll get together again, soon!” we promised.

And this time, I know we will.

Because, after all,  you just never know what the hell is around the bend in life.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why Can't We Just Accept a Compliment?

“I love the color of your hair!” the bare-breasted, middle-aged woman in the gym locker room gushed as I was making my wet-headed escape after Aquacize class last week. “It’s beautiful.”

It’s hard for me to go anywhere in life without using it as a launching ground for making new friends. But, I have long prided myself on my self-imposed solitary social confinement at the gym. If I added chatting to my workout routine, I’d be killing half a day rather than half a morning on the obsessive exercise that seems to have absolutely no effect on my ever-growing girth. So, I was a bit taken aback when the long-haired, butt-naked woman confronted me in the locker room.

“Oh, thanks!” I said. “I pay enough for it!”

Thinking to myself, you have no idea what I go through at the beauty parlor.

“It’s beautiful,” she reiterated.

“Well it is pretty much my natural color, but it is definitely dyed.”

“It looks so soft,” she continued.

“Soft?” I said, involuntarily patting down my coarse, spiky locks. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“It’s beautiful,” she said yet again.

“Ha!” I said. “You made my day.”

Before I reached the end of the aisle and before I was able to answer that inner voice that asked, “How can she even tell what color my hair is? It’s soaking wet!” I heard her turn to the woman at the locker next to her.

“Why couldn’t she just accept the compliment and say, thank you?”

Now, equally as important to me as my need to make friends is my need to not be misunderstood. So, so many random things come out of my mouth that I can’t possibly keep track of all of them, and thus, spend a good chunk of my life retracting them. So I almost turned around to address her behind-the-back, under-the-breath comment, but caught myself. Because, no doubt, I would explain my way right into a coffee date with her. And I don’t drink coffee.

But, the thing is, I DID accept the compliment. And, I DID say thank you.

And, that’s why I’ve been obsessing about it ever since.

I’m not the kind of person who can just say thank you and move on. After all, what kind of conversation would that be? In my mind, it’s just way too dismissive. Even if dismissive is the message I’m looking to project in the rare instances when I’m not trying to expand my stable of friends.

If the tables were turned and I said, for instance, “I like the positive body-image you radiate,” and she had simply responded, “Thank you,” I’d be thinking that she had something stuck up an exposed body part.

But, when I brought this up while playing Mahjong the other night, my friend Janice said, “It’s true. Women have a hard time accepting compliments.”

“On another note,” I said, shoving a spoonful of a low-carb cauliflower-rice casserole into my pie hole. “This is delicious.”

“Thanks, but I think it needs to be spicier.”

Ha! Case in point.

Which got us talking, as we turned our tiles, about why we can’t just be like the guys and accept compliments, forgive our foibles and stop apologizing for our shortcomings.

While I don’t come out and say the actual words too often, I say “I’m sorry” in other ways. If I do something apology-worthy, I will attempt to explain my behavior, delving into my past, my present and my future to justify what came out of my mouth, my oven or my womb. I’ll keep hammering the point home until the offendee ends up apologizing to me, feeling so bad that I feel so bad, or more likely just to shut me up.

Janice, says “I’m sorry,” all the time. And she really is. She has a heart bigger than the both of us, and these days, that’s pretty big. She’s sorry when she’s late. She’s sorry when she’s early. She’s sorry when she has a sad tale to tell and she’s sorry when she wins at Mahjong. And that’s really the only apology I’ll accept. I am sorry I’m not more like Janice.

Susan, the other Mahjonger, is not quite as apologetic as the two of us. She is truly sorry when life gives us lemons, and feels love and loss way deeper than I ever will. But she is tougher. She doesn’t beat herself up over her looks or her words or her actions. I’d love to be Susan.

As Janice won another game and I ate another handful of Stacy’s Pita Chips, for which we were both sorry, we continued conversing about why it is that we can’t just be.

We conceded that when someone tells a guy they like his sweater, he either just says ‘thanks,’ or more likely, ‘yeah, I do, too.’ If someone says the same thing to a woman, they tend to respond more on the lines of, ‘I got it on the discount rack,’ or ‘Really? Doesn’t it make me look fat?’

Sure, I know plenty of women who are oozing with confidence. Who can throw a dinner party without worry. Who show their curves with courage. Who can accept a compliment without controverting.

Those women give me something to aspire towards. So, while I’m working on becoming the me I’d like to be, I can try to respond to the body-beautiful women who covet my hair color with a simple “Thank You.”

And keep the rest of the commentary to myself.

I can try. 

But, the bottom line is, it ain’t me, babe. No, no, no, it ain’t me.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

When in Doubt ... Dance

I’m the first to admit, I'm stone-cold tone deaf.

But I try.

Long ago, I discovered a soft-covered piano book filled with old-time songs and show tunes, hidden amongst hundreds of hardback books in the den of my childhood home. Why we had it, I don’t know – we had neither a piano nor a singer in the family. But, I can still picture the eight-year-old me sitting on the couch, with that book open on my lap, teaching myself to read music. I’d follow the notes with my finger and belt out the lyrics with satisfying confidence. But, the first time I heard a real rendition of Camptown Ladies Sing this Song, Doo-dah, Doo-dah, I was utterly destroyed by the disparity between my version of the song and what was real.

Still, I was able to fake my way into the children’s choir at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. I loved the camaraderie, the burgundy-colored robes, the musty-smelling hymnals and watching the congregation squirm and snore from the perches of the choir loft. My tenure as a tenor was nearly thwarted when, at rehearsal one Thursday, the choir director was baffled by a grossly distorted execution of Onward Christian Soldiers. As he had us sing together one row at a time, in hopes of unearthing the off-key culprit, I quickly learned the fine art of lip syncing, thus saving my vantage point behind the altar.

As an adult, I am obsessed with the reality music shows. I’m jumping for joy that American Idol is returning and have watched every single season of The Voice. I text my friends, Laura and Jean throughout the show, asking who is better, Addison or Esera. My spouse, who thinks they’re all screamers, won’t engage me in such folly, still shocked that I can’t tell the difference between pitchy and powerful performances, shaking his head in dismay that even the worst interpretations of Landslide can always win my heart.

I can’t sing. Nor can I dance.

For a short time in my twenties, before Patty became Penny, we frequented a bar in Ambler, Pennsylvania. It was an after-hours dance club for those of us who had the energy to keep on going after the bars closed at 2 am. Late one night, or rather, early one morning, my dream came true and I met a handsome prince who dragged me to the dance floor and subsequently left me there.

“You have absolutely no rhythm, do you?” he said and walked away in disgust.

Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that my flailing and stomping on the dance floor was any different from the moves I saw on American Bandstand. Or, that there was any correlation between having rhythm and finding love. 

“Oh, dear,” said Patty when I revealed to her my distorted perception of my dance moves. She knew it was time for an intervention and spent many hours spinning vinyl, coaching me to feel the bass, clap to the beat, move to the music. It was futile. She moved to Florida. And I gave up dancing.

I shuffled my way through Elton John’s Your Song at my wedding and couldn’t resist joining the neighborhood gang as we rocked out to Love Shack at Bob and Michelle’s marital celebration in Ocean City, but other than that have spent much of my adult life in fear of being dragged to the dance floor.

Which leads me to last Saturday night.

Over the past dozen years, I’ve been to more life or death events of the Apreda family than I can count. This one was easy – a simple dinner in honor of Mike and Kristen’s engagement – a happy occasion made happier by witnessing the head-over-heels love and hope and joy that only a bride-to-be and groom-in-waiting can exude.

I had a ball bantering with the kids who were no longer kids but wage-earning, change-effecting, parent-pleasing conversationalists. I promised one of my all-time favorites a place at the altar with my favorite daughter. I conspired with another one on how to win back an old girlfriend I had known and loved. And I caught up with the abundance of Apreda friends and family members I hadn’t seen since Poppy’s wake.

And then, Theresa, the mother of Mike and future mother-in-law of Kristen, made a speech.

All I heard, because remember, I’ve heard a lot of these speeches, was, “So make sure you dance!”

That’s when I knew the fun and games were over.

“Oh, come on!” my friend Karen chided, later in the night. “This is the kind of music you danced to in West Virginia!”

Sure enough, it wasn’t Drake or Chance the Rapper or Rihanna blaring from the speakers, but The Marshall Tucker Band, The Allman Brothers and a little bit of the timeless tune, Happy, thrown in for good measure.  The kind of music I would consider dancing to, if indeed, I were to dance.

So, when Kool and the Gang commanded me to Celebrate Good Times! I let Karen lead me to the dance floor where I stomped and clapped and waved my arms, watching her every move to know when to make mine.

I have to admit, I had a good time, letting loose and flailing those limbs. I actually thought that I had, at long last, graciously and gracefully mastered the art of dance.

And for awhile, after the wine wore off and the music died, I harbored nothing but warm and fuzzy feelings about the fun-filled frenzy and the love that sustained it. I looked forward to dancing at Mike and Kristen’s wedding and texted, asking them to move the date up a year. I could hardly wait for another Apreda life or death event.

And then came the ultimate buzz kill. Cousin Kimberly tagged me on Facebook, posting proof positive of what I had done. I flipped through the pictures and smiled. And then read the comments.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who can’t dance! quipped Kevin.

I haven’t seen Kevin in 25 years. And so, I can’t help but wonder if this former West Virginia University housemate of mine could really tell from those still life photos that I had no rhythm. Or, if in fact, he was simply remembering with fondness, the me I used to be.