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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Life's a Scream

I didn’t mean to smirk at the woman battling her bellowing baby in Target the other day. I really didn’t. I could feel her blurry eyes boring into my back as I waltzed out of the store, unencumbered by anyone or anything but my own self. I wish I had stopped and told her what my smile meant.

My first baby was a screamer. She spent the first six weeks of her life screaming from 7 to 11 pm. I know it could have been worse, but it was bad enough. When I was about to return her, she abruptly switched gears. She stopped her nighttime nonsense and became strictly an in-public screamer. At home, Molly was now a joy. She slept twelve hours a night, took a morning snooze and a three-hour afternoon nap which coincided nicely with my soap operas. If I were a homebody, I would have been happy as a housewife. But, I was a mother on maternity leave and was determined to take advantage of the last few weeks of free time I would ever have.

In a futile attempt to be like the other mothers pushing Perego’s through high-end malls, I tried lunching with my stay-at-home girlfriends. Molly cried the whole way through my chopped Asian salad. I brought her to the hairdresser with me. They suggested I come back on Saturday. She accompanied me to the dentist. It was worse than the root canal. Who were these mothers, I wondered, who were blessed with sweet, smiling babies sitting silently beneath their feet as they were pampered with pedicures?

After devouring a multitude of baby psychology books, I learned the bottom line is: You get what you get. And so, I adapted.  I limited our outings to places where throwing a fit wouldn’t get us thrown out.

Like the grocery store.

One spring day, fresh from a nap, I loaded the girl into the stroller and we walked a half-mile to the local Acme. She was gurgling. I was smiling. The flowers were blooming. The sun was shining. All was good. I was a good mother.

My little darling was a little darling until we reached the very long and very slow express lane. She started wailing. And wailing. And wailing.

“Before picking up a crying baby, try soothing and shushing.”

I stuck the pacifier in her mouth. I shook her sterling-silver Tiffany rattle (a gift). I rocked the carriage. I cooed. I cursed (silently, of course, for those were the early days). Finally we were next. I put the milk on the conveyer belt. The wail got louder. I grabbed a Hershey bar and took a bite. My insides were shaking, my eardrums throbbing. I grimaced as I witnessed pompously-raised eyebrows and shaking heads. I saw no sympathy. Just disapproval. So, I did what any mother saddled with a screamer would do. I picked my baby up.

“I see a spoiled baby!” a wrinkled old witch crooned. I glared at her and stormed out, groceries in the stroller, baby hanging like a screaming sack of potatoes under my arm.

Two years later, the next one came along. Max was perfectly content in his bouncy chair. All he needed was a pat on the head every hour, a feeding every four. He was simple and silent and would never be spoiled. Three college friends and their brood came to visit for a weekend. Determined to prove that I could now mother as efficiently as I could once shoot whiskey, I planned an elaborate dinner, complete with appetizers and kids’ meals. Halfway through slicing and dicing, Max cried from the corner. Hearing the sound of a sleepy baby, not a wet, angry or hungry one, I kept cooking, despite the judgmental jabs from the college girls.

“Just pat him on the head,” I called from the kitchen. “He’ll fall asleep in five minutes.”

“But he’s crying!” they whined in unison.

“He’s tired!” I barked.

“I’ll hold him,” one snapped.

“Leave him alone!” I roared.

She grabbed him. And held him defiantly. All through the meal, while he slept like a baby.
Fast forward another two years. Overflowing with small blessings, I now had a two, four and six year-old. I snuck off to Walmart one Saturday with the youngest and easiest, leaving the others home to entertain their father. Loveable Leo was sitting in the cart, happy as could be, delivering a running commentary on everything we passed. Smiling shoppers pinched his pudgy cheeks and played peek-a-boo with my adorably congenial little tot. He was a good kid. I was a great mom.

But once we hit the very long and leisurely check-out line, he started. He wanted out. I held him down. He hollered. I held harder. He contorted. I convulsed. He twisted. I pinched. He squealed. I squeezed. He claimed very loudly and clearly that I was HURTING him. Spectators’ eyes widened and lips pursed. I grabbed a Hershey bar and took a bite. And did what any mother saddled with a tantrumming toddler would do. I kept him captive.

“Aha!” said a woman shaking a liver-spotted finger. “He must be the youngest. They’re always the spoiled ones.”

The bottom line is, when it comes to raising children, you get what you get. You spare them, you spoil them, you do the best you can. And there's always going to be someone on the sidelines shaking their head. But, keep in mind, that shaking-head someone might just be a mom like me. Someone who feels your pain, but also knows that one day you, too, will make it through to the other side.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Freshman Year of Real Life

Freshman year of real life ain’t easy. Having spent four years (sometimes more) living amongst peers, partying to capacity, hiding report cards (if there even is such a thing anymore) and living with mismatched furniture in squalor defined as freedom, the college graduate is thrust into the real world, with a head spinning from the speed in which the time flew. One-sided conversations with adults, any adult, anywhere, has morphed from “Where are you going to college?” to “What are you majoring in?” to finally,“Do you have a job?”

Some graduates come out drowning in college loans while others write their parents heartfelt thank-you notes that will lack any veracity until they educate children of their own. Some are lucky and land high-paying “internships” at financial institutions, some flounder about with the wrong job at the right pay, some take any job just to have a job, and some just head for the hills.

I did the latter.

I went to a not-so-great state college after a what-shouldn’t-have-been-a-surprise-after-what-you-did-in-high-school rejection from a reputable institution of higher learning. After two years, I transferred to another not-so-great school, but it, too, was easy to get into and I had become surprisingly determined to eke out some kind of academic experience before it was too late. I may not have gone to the best of colleges, but I had the best of times and made the best of friends.

After graduating with a degree in Advertising from West Virginia University in a ceremony which I have absolutely zero recollection of attending, I hopped on a Trailways bus and headed for Flagstaff, Arizona. I spent the summer living with my most adventurous friend, Ann, off of a small, yet ample windfall from my beloved dead grandmother. We traveled to San Diego and Las Vegas. We checked out the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park. We visited Sedona before it became a number one tourist attraction and drove to Phoenix to experience 105-degree heat in the middle of July. We climbed big mountains and toured little towns. We met boys and made friends.

But then, it was time to get a job.

I looked for work half-heartedly, taking the train into Philadelphia with a stack of resumes and a bigger stack of made-up interview stories to relay back to my father. Eventually, I landed an Advertising Assistant position with a job description that I twisted into what I wanted it to be. Every day of the two weeks I worked there, my mean boss in the two-person office (I was one, he was the other) made sure I was aware of how inept I was at taking orders for campaign buttons – one to three-inches in size, varying only in slogan, name and color.

After that, I took a job as a bookkeeper at Davis Advertising, something I was even less suited for than peddling political paraphernalia. I lasted a year, quitting before I had another job.

While out for lunch with my friend, Mary Anne, we drove by TV Guide magazine and fate had me stop and drop off a resume. As she sat outside in the car wondering what was taking me so long, I was inside, sadly accepting what was long overdue. I was about to become a full-fledged freshman all over again. But this time, it was real life, not college.

By no stretch of the imagination was TV Guide an inspiring place to work. But it was filled with young people with high hopes and fun hearts. We worked hard under tight deadline pressures, survived irrational bosses and became the best of buddies. Our group of friends expanded with the addition of significant others and former and future classmates. I got a spouse for myself, a godfather for my son and two tables worth of friends with whom we’ve played cards in the Annual Hearts Tournament for the past 30 years.

I play Words with Friends with my old co-worker, Nalls, and keep up with her on Facebook. Every single day for nine years, I ate lunch with Rick and Dave. They married and became fathers during our tenure together but were young and fun enough to get a vicarious kick out of the swinging singles stories I told every Monday morning. Every August 4th since I left TV Guide in 1989, Dave and I exchange e-mails on his birthday, highlighting our years' ups and downs. 

My daughter’s entry into real life was quite different from mine. She picked a program she wanted to be a part of and pursued it. She chose a city she wanted to live in and got placed there. She started working just a few weeks after she graduated.

Over a mimosa brunch (unlimited) at Tivoli & Lee, a sleek, more-New-Yorky than New-Orleansy kind of restaurant, I met three of my daughter’s best girlfriends, Liz, Suzy and Wilson. There are more, I know, but many of Molly’s cronies were in far-flung places rejuvenating and recuperating during Easter break.

Molly and her friends are all doing Teach for America, a program in which they make a two-year commitment to teaching school in a low-income area. College graduates choose this path for myriad reasons. Some believe with all their hearts that they can make a difference and want to enact change when it comes to educational inequity. Some are trying to build their resumes. Some are buying time before law school or business school. But not a whole lot of them went in thinking they’d come out as teachers. Some might. Most won’t.

Teaching under the best of conditions is a tough profession. Then add students who come from the poorest neighborhoods in America. Who have never had a relative who has gone to college. But who have had many who have used drugs and shot guns. Kids who come to school because they know they’ll get fed. Kids with parents who want desperately to care, but are no more than kids themselves.

These first-year New Orleans teachers are all in it together. They struggle with the students, they question the system. They wake up earlier than they did when they were in high school and work as hard as they did at Harvard. They alternate Lean Cuisines with Po Boys, soak up the culture and stay off of Bourbon Street. They spend their free time together, taking cabs to music shows and waking up on each others' couches. They date guys who will one day become fond memories, first husbands or fine fathers. 

They will turn into lawyers and bankers and mothers and lovers. They will move back to Boston or on to California. They'll travel the world and find new missions. Their lives will evolve and revolve and end up where they least expected. And when all is said and done, they will look back at this freshman year of real life and honor the pivotal part it played in how it all ended up.