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Monday, September 24, 2018

Cohabitating with College Graduates

“But, mom!” the living-back-at-home daughter protested. “You have to TELL me these things.”

These things include, but are not limited to, extracting long strands of brown wavy hair from the bathroom drain. Curbing her ten-dollar-a-day grapes habit, or at the very least, replacing said fruit. Completing a cycle of laundry before the mother comes along with the next three loads and angrily folds what has been left in the dryer, because, contrary to popular belief, she’s not mean enough to throw it in a crumpled heap on the daughter’s bedroom floor. Which is exactly where it came from.

As the revolving door on Grove Street opens and closes to my adult offspring, I find myself marveling at how little they know about basic household concepts. Or, in other words, how much I failed to teach them. I take most of the blame. Most. Not all. Because, I always had a valid excuse. When they were growing up and I was schlepping them from field to field, house to house, school to school, I just didn’t have the time. It was so much more efficient to do it myself than to redo what they tried to do.

If I had it to do over, I would teach my children that sheets should be changed more than once a year. That toothpaste droolings in the sink are not attractive. And that toilets don’t get cleaned by themselves.

I would show them how to lower the shades at night and how to open them in the morning. Where the outside trashcan is. And how to take the recycling bins to the curb on alternate Tuesdays.

I’d explain why it’s not a good idea to leave a plastic bag on top of the toaster oven when it’s in use. Why the dishwasher doesn’t remove burnt-on food byproducts. And why baked potatoes blow up in the microwave if not pierced with a fork.

I would teach my children to hand wash the ice cream scooper that says NOT DISHWASHER SAFE and not put the Henckles knives in the dishwasher. Or the cash iron skillets. Or the plastic water bottles on the bottom rack.

I’d show them how to water the plants on the porch. How to empty the overflowing mailbox that they pass every time they come in the door. How to plunge a toilet. How to tell when cold cuts have gone rancid. And how to use a coaster.

I’d explain the reasoning behind bringing deck chair cushions in before it rains. Cutting the grass before the neighbors ask us to. Emptying the (I didn’t even know we had one) dehumidifier before it overflows. Replenishing the milk before it’s all gone.

I would teach my children how to use a hanger. How to replace the toilet paper. How to finish a water bottle. And how to vacuum dog hair.

I’d show them where the cleaning supplies are kept. Where the car keys are hung. And where the closest Ben & Jerry’s is. Just in case they wanted to pick up some Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream for someone they love.

I’d explain the importance of keeping the inside shower curtain in and keeping the outside curtain out. That there’s a direct correlation between round-the-clock air conditioning and over-the-top electric bills. That paid-for car insurance, and cell phones, are not God-given rights.

I would teach my children that texting to say “I’m alive” with aforementioned paid-for-by-parent cell phone (because a family plan is so much cheaper) is kind. That saying “Thanks for all you do, Mumsie,” is sweet. That answering a direct question with a blank stare is not.

If I had it to do over, I’d do it all much differently. I’d be stricter. I’d be stronger. I’d do what my friend Barbara tells me to do every time she sees me. I'd charge rent. From middle school on. 

When I muddle and muse over these many misdoings, misgivings and misparentings, I can’t help but wonder how the great mothers of the world do it. My soon-to-be 93 year-old mama comes immediately to mind.

And that’s when I laugh.

Because, not all that long ago, she could have written this very same story about my sisters and me. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Shamelessness of Miss America

            The plan was to watch the season premiere of Shameless on Sunday night. I had binged the entire series in May, getting seriously sucked in by the Gallaghers and couldn’t wait to see what kind of craziness was in store for Season 9. While some of the scenarios are stretchably relatable, my fascination with the family most certainly has more to do with the fact that the program drastically raises my self-esteem as a parent.

            As I was flipping through the TV Guide, the online version, not the magazine version that I knew, loved and worked for in my formative years, my eye caught the Miss America listing which was on at 9 pm. The same time as Shameless. Hmm, I thought. I wonder if this is the Miss America pageant. The one that was once hyped as hard as the Super Bowl. The one I used to watch as religiously as the Academy Awards.

            Sure enough, after a little googling, I learned that Miss America was due to be crowned that very night in Atlantic City . Thanks to the invention of something called a DVR, I could watch it live and save Shameless for a rainy day.

            Betwixt and between all the Rachel Maddowing I’ve been doing in my determination to pay more attention than I did during Watergate, I know I heard snippets of Miss America news. Someone was being bullied. Someone was dissing swimsuits. Some executive quit. Or maybe two of them. I vaguely recalled our president being affiliated with beauty pageants. But was that someone he bedded, a pageant he ran, or both? Was it Miss America? I googled. Nope, Miss Universe. But, point being, beauty pageants haven’t been in the forefront of my mind in a long, long time.

            I think the whole Jon Benet Ramsey thing did me in. After the six-year-old beauty queen was found murdered in her home in Boulder on Christmas night, pageants became the pariah of extra-curricular activities, eliciting consternation and condescension when defended in dinner party conversation.

            But, the thing is, I was actually in a competition with Jon Benet’s mother, Patsy.

When we were seniors at West Virginia University, we entered an inter-collegiate competition held at Ohio State. Full disclosure. It was not a beauty pageant. It was the National Student Advertising Competition and we, the advertising and marketing majors, were tasked with creating an entire ad campaign for Wella Balsam. Patsy, who was still a decade away from motherhood and a lifetime away from becoming a nationally-known entity, was the spokesperson for the group. After all, she held the coveted title of Miss West Virginia, was the most poised, owned the nicest college clothes and had a world of experience answering pointed questions. My friend, Sue, was the media expert. Mary Ann and Andrea did the marketing. And I was the copywriter.

And what a clever copywriter I was! We chose a sports theme for the campaign and I can still hear Patsy declaring, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!” as she pointed dramatically toward the easels displaying our hand-drawn storyboards that portrayed athletes with long, flowing hair. Women athletes who not only looked good, but played hard, thanks to Wella Balsam shampoo.

 We nailed it.

We, the panel of WVU creative geniuses, gathered gleefully, awaiting our crowning moment. And, just as they do in the Miss America pageant, the MC fueled the anticipation by announcing the losers first.

“And the first runner-up from the great state of ….”

Yup. It was us. We walked away with second place.

That night we stayed in a fancy schmancy hotel in Columbus where we drowned our sorrows in a manner not unexpected of grieving college seniors. When we staggered to bed, forlorn and forsaken, we noted an abundance of shoes in the hallways.

Apparently, back in the day, hotels of a certain ilk offered overnight shoe shines. You simply left your dusty kicks outside your room and they’d be whisked away, polished, buffed and returned by the time you stepped out the door for your coffee and crueler the next morning.

I looked at Patsy. Patsy looked at Sue. Sue looked at Andrea. Andrea looked at Mary Ann. And without saying a word, we did what any other dethroned and dejected advertising types would have done.

We got creative.

Room 312’s clodhoppers were replaced with 508’s Frye boots. Room 410’s clogs went to 432. Room 219 ended up with one penny loafer and one stiletto.

We ran up and down the hallways, in and out of the elevators, tossing shoes, tying mismatched laces, laughing our fool heads off as we wreaked havoc within the hotel hallways. We, hand-in-hand with the prim-and-proper Miss West Virginia.

I couldn’t resist watching Miss America on Sunday night. I watched every minute, from beginning to end. I googled the candidates, as they’re now called. I listened to their impassioned empowerments. I marveled at their omnipresent smiles, prestigious pedigrees and off-the-cuff responses. I found myself making my list of favorites as the top fifteen were cut to ten then cut to five.

And, I felt my stomach surge, just a little, as the fourth runner-up was named, followed by the third runner-up, then the second runner-up, leaving just two beauty queens clutching each other tightly, knowing that one of their lives was about to change forever while the other’s claim to fame would forever be that she was a Miss America runner-up.

I was rooting for New York. She was smart and pretty and when I checked her LinkedIn account, yes, I really did, I saw that she had worked in the same school system where the daughter is currently gainfully employed. She sings like a lark, is an advocate of the arts and is New York Strong. What’s not to love?

So, when she took the crown, I fist-pumped the air, alone in the living room. I smiled. And, I thought of Patsy. 

I didn’t keep in touch with Patsy for very long after college. I was invited to her wedding, but it was far away in Atlanta and I was young and poor, so I graciously declined. I kept up with her for a while, and then later, only through our mutual friend, Sue. I followed every lead, every news account and every rumor of the Jon Benet story but never reached out to her. Too many years had passed. When Patsy died in 2006, it had been over 20 years since our paths had crossed. But I'll never forget the lesson she left behind:

There’s a little bit of beauty queen in all of us.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What Becomes of the Titan-Hearted?

Yesterday, I began the arduous task of cleaning out Leo’s closet. As the youngest, he was used to sharing his space, so naturally, over the years, his room became a dumping ground. I slowly snuck off-season clothes, extra pillows, blankets and boxes of just plain junk into his closet, reasoning that he never used it anyway. All of his belongings pretty much lived on the floor.

Now that Leo is a card-carrying philosopher with a diploma to prove it and appears to be home for the unforeseen future, I thought it prudent to make room for his personal effects in his childhood bedroom.

Along with a family of spiders and a few dead stink bugs, I unearthed musty duffel bags, backpacks with half-full water bottles, a straw hat he wore on our family-and-friend vacation to Jamaica in 2006, the purple crocheted afghan my spouse picked up at a garage sale which I immediately hid, an old Xbox with a plethora of cable wires, a framed Wizard of Oz poster (also procured from a garage sale), dozens of baseball jerseys in a succession of sizes, three unmatched socks, a clip on necktie, one cleatless cleat, a deflated football and a children’s bible with the cover ripped off.

Once the floor was finally clear and I was able to reach the top shelf of the closet with my disinfecting agents, I felt something soft and squishy in the back corner. My first thought was that it was a dead squirrel, but my panic subsided when my brain reasoned that a carcass would be neither soft nor squishy. I reached up and pulled out a dusty, but fully-intact Titans pillow.

And my heart hurt.

“Keep or toss?” I asked Leo in an emotionless tone, trying not to skew his response.

Leo was a baseball player for his entire childhood. From six-years-old on, he played for the Titans, an elite travel team that demanded discipline, talent and dedication. When you played for the Titans, you didn’t go to your grandmother’s for Sunday dinner. Your grandmother came to your game. You didn’t go to a birthday party on a Saturday afternoon. You didn’t go swimming between double-headers even if it was 93 degrees in the shade. You didn’t complain about practices. You didn’t question line-ups. You didn’t cry.

Your parents didn’t send you to sleep-away camp. They didn’t balk at the cost of airfares and hotel rooms and 16-passenger van trips to Florida and North Carolina and Georgia. They didn’t hesitate to buy the finest gloves, the newest cleats, the snazziest uniforms.  

When you played for the Titans, you trained year-round. Your parents drove you at ungodly hours to faraway facilities. Your friends were your teammates. Your parents’ friends were your teammates’ parents. Your life, your parents’ life, your extended family’s life, was baseball.

You studied it. You defended it. You discussed it.

Ad nauseam.

It was your dream. Your love. Your life. 

I sat down on the corner of Leo’s bed with the Titans’ hat pillow and thought about those six and seven-year-olds playing in their first travel tournament in Pennsylvania. They were playing “up” in an 8U bracket and we were staying in a Spring Hill Suites in Plymouth Meeting. When we checked in to the hotel, each player was given a baseball cap pillow, in current team colors, complete with a Titans logo. Hand-sewn and delivered by my sister, Nancy. The kids went to bed at 8. The parents drank margaritas until midnight.  

That was 16 years ago. It was the beginning of something we never thought would end. 

But, sure enough, along with the passing years came the wavering spirits. The repurposed passions. The torn labrums. And the distinct possibility that you just might not play pro baseball after all.  

“Keep or toss?”

“Keep,” he said.

And my heart smiled.