The Silent Treatment

Image via library.wheelock.edu.

Image via library.wheelock.edu.

I talk too much.

I’m the kind of person who has to fill awkward silences. Who can’t tell a story without all the excruciating details. Who chats endlessly at base social gatherings, then wakes up the next morning, slaps her forehead and says, “Me and my big mouth.”

I’m not exactly sure why I’m this way, but considering that every human personality trait from narcissism to Oedipus Complex has its roots in childhood, I’m guessing that’s when it all started.

My father, who was shipped off to Fork Union Military School at the tender age of seven, was determined to be a more “hands-on” parent than his own. If my brother or I disobeyed my father, he simply selected from a variety of corporal punishments that were considered perfectly appropriate, if not advisable, in the 1970s. No one would have batted a powder-blue frosted eyelid back then if a parent gave his kid a whack on the tush for saying that she didn’t walk the dog because she was in the middle of a particularly riveting episode of Diff’rent Strokes, or if she called her brother a “ginormous butt-face” while in line at Mister Donut.

Our father also selected from the myriad of non-corporal punishments such as sitting at the table until you finish every last bite of that succotash, grounding for coming home twenty minutes after Mom rang the bell, and knocking on the neighbor’s door to confess that you dug for worms in her front lawn.

But there was one form of punishment that I considered worse than a lashing with my father’s infamous three-inch white vinyl belt.

It was the dreaded “Silent Treatment.”

When my father would refuse to acknowledge my presence for a period of hours or days, I had time to ponder the offense for which I was being punished, but also, I had plenty of time to feel regret for the thirty-seven other things I’d screwed up in the past. It was sheer agony.

I would have volunteered to walk barefoot over a bed of bumblebees, run through a thicket of thorn bushes or take a carrot peeler to my shins if only my father would just speak to me.

Now, as an adult, I can’t stand silence.

So, when my Navy husband and I stopped speaking to each other right before a 12-hour drive home from vacation last week, I found it particularly difficult. We had both had it. He’d had it with living with my extended family in a small North Carolina beach cottage for two weeks, and I’d had it with him for having had it.

We’d gone to bed angry the night before, backs to each other, vowing, “See how s/he likes this — I’m not going to say a word!” The next morning at 6 am, we hit the road in silence. The kids, oblivious to our temporary marital discord, slept soundly.

Through North Carolina, I sat, arms crossed, staring bitterly out the passenger’s side window. In Virginia, I kept quiet, comforting myself with a small neck pillow. In Maryland, I dozed off. In Delaware, I couldn’t specifically recall why we stopped talking to each other in the first place. In New Jersey, I just wanted us to be normal again.

“Are we going to get something to eat?” I croaked weakly, my vocal cords showing signs of atrophy after 6 hours of silence. “Yea, in just a few minutes,” he said, his soft tone indicating that he wanted normalcy too.

After hoagies off the Garden State Parkway, we climbed back into our luggage-laden minivan for the remainder of our trip home to Naval Station Newport. In New York, we chatted about the news a little bit. In Connecticut, we were quiet again, only because we were tired.

Finally in Rhode Island, it was clear that our Silent Treatment had been a blessing rather than a punishment. In the absence of words, we had time to have regrets, and to miss each other. And I learned that talking doesn’t always make things better.

Sometimes, silence is golden.

 

Good “old” summer vacation

My mother, showing the tell-tail signs of summer vacation exhaustion

My mother, showing the tell-tail signs of summer vacation exhaustion

I don’t “need a vacation from my vacation,” but after two weeks in a beach cottage with my extended family, I could really use microdermabrasion, arthroscopic knee surgery, a colonic, and a full course of psychotherapy.

Vacations just aren’t the same when you get older. When I was a teenager, I came home from my family’s beach vacations with nothing more than a peeling nose and maybe a few deck splinters. But now that I’m in my forties, simple vacation activities like sunbathing, swimming, and paddleball leave me in need of urgent medical attention.

My family and I left the safe little confines of our military base housing two weeks ago, and drove the twelve hour trek down the East Coast to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Just like every year, our family of five, along with my mother, my brother and his family of five, packed ourselves like lemmings into our modest 1970s beach cottage.

At the beginning of the vacation, the adults envisioned getting up with the sun every morning to jog along the bike path where other vacationers could see how disciplined we are. As planned, I got up early the first morning, and picked a jogging outfit from the stack of work out clothes I’d ambitiously packed for the trip.

Of course I had to have coffee before setting out, but not enough to awaken my digestive tract. Then, I announced loud enough for everyone to hear, “I’m going on a run!” and let the screened door slam behind me to ensure that anyone within earshot would be impressed that I’m one of those people who run at the beach.

Twenty minutes later, I was only about a mile from our cottage, soaked in sweat and frantic that my bladder might give way. Thankfully, a Port-a-potty at a tiny public park saved me the humiliation of ducking into someone’s shrubbery. I slowly stumbled back through the dunes to our cottage, picking up the pace to a jog only when passing witnesses. I was happy to see four blisters on my feet when I got home, because I knew they would serve as an adequate excuse to not run again during our vacation.

Later that week while lounging on the beach, the adult women did a sort of reenactment of the Quint-Hooper-Brody-drunken-scar-comparison scene in “Jaws” when we took turns pointing out our liver spots, barnacles, and moles. Despite our rational conclusion that sitting out in the sun would only age our skin faster, we all agreed with the old adage that “tan fat is better than white fat” so we stayed out late into the afternoon.

Sometime at the end of week one, I made the mistake of agreeing to play beach volleyball. Soon after taking my position as right side hitter, I was forced to jump four inches off the sand to block a shot. This simple move caused my knee to slightly hyperextend.

For the remainder of the vacation, while engaging in simple activities such as paddle ball and wading in the ocean, I was on alert that my weakened knee might buckle backwards like some kind of old Barbie doll.

The other adults in our family suffered similar old age vacation injuries, while our kids frolicked carefree. By the end of week two we had collectively accumulated one wobbly knee, five ugly blisters, a swollen wrist, a strained Achilles, three bruises of unknown origin, and four cases of heartburn. The anti-inflammatories and antacids were being dolled out like candy, along with some embarrassing over-the-counter remedies to deal with digestive back up from all the overeating.

Even though we don’t experience vacations the same way we did when we were young, perhaps the benefit of being so weathered, worn and weary after two weeks at the beach is that it is actually a relief to get back to life’s daily grind.

Airing dirty laundry while on vacation

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Which stack looks like yours?

“Whose are THESE?” my slim sister-in-law says with a laugh, holding up a large pair of underwear from a basket of warm laundry from the dryer. Voices ring out from around our vacation beach cottage. “Whoa! Not mine!” comes from the couch. “Me neither!” broadcasts from the staircase. “Mine aren’t THAT big!” emanates from the hallway.

“Uh, yea,” I admit sheepishly, “those would be mine, thank you very much.” I claim my stack of folded clothes and slink off to my room. One might think that this annual joke would get old, but I suffer this humiliation every summer while vacationing with my extended family.

Someone typically announces they’re throwing in a load of hot whites, and a couple hours later, whoever decides to fold the dry clothes becomes privy to the size of everyone else’s underwear, setting up perfect opportunities to crack jokes. Admittedly, my Jockey’s for Her are ample enough to fold over several times, while my thinner relatives’ teensy-weensy skivvies are constructed with so little material, I once mistook a pair of my niece’s underwear for a hair scrunchie. So I am an easy target for any laundry-related ridicule.

One year, I tried to combat the unavoidable ribbing by secretly planting a humongous quadruple hook E-cup bra and a massive pair of flowered briefs in the laundry, thinking that my tomfoolery might make me the joker rather than the butt of the joke. But when I found the planted garments neatly folded on my dresser, the realization that my relatives honestly believed that I wore underwear that big only served to further assault my battered ego.

In actuality, my relatives and I would prefer to not know intimate details about each other, much less the size of our undergarments. However, when you are packed into a summer beach cottage with your extended family for two weeks, embarrassing personal secrets are inevitably revealed.

For the first few days, we try to maintain a facade of virtuousness, cleanliness, and self-control. But eventually, we give in to our natural tendencies, forcing us to acknowledge that we are not, by any means, perfect.

In our summer beach cottage, the crude realities of life are exposed. We place our toiletry bags in the shared bathrooms, where our relatives can see that we need embarrassing pharmaceuticals such as stool softeners and anti-fungal ointment. We share meals, so that everyone sees that we eat too much mayonnaise on our sandwiches, we dip into the chips every couple of hours, and we get caught taking another brownie from the pan. We doze off on the couch in front of everyone, showing the unflattering way that our mouths fall open and our chins multiply when we are asleep. And yes, we commingle our laundry, allowing everyone to bear witness to the sometimes alarming size of our undergarments.

Exposing imperfections to relatives wouldn’t be a problem if everyone is compassionate enough to mutually ignore each other’s foibles while vacationing together. However, families like mine consider taking pot shots at each other to be a kind of vacation-time sporting event, like corn-holing or ladder ball.

So, in order to withstand the inevitable barrage of insults that will be hurled like bocce balls, you must develop a thick skin. When vacationing with relatives, harassment, brow-beating, rude sarcasm, relentless needling, and verbal abuse should be taken as nothing more than “playful banter.” And when your brother says he thinks your mole is growing an eye, or when your cousin offers to put Metamucil in your daiquiri to help out with your constipation, or when your sister imitates your dance moves to make the kids laugh, you must try to appreciate their witticism.

Oh… and always fold your own laundry.

Freshman Orientation and Other Alien Mind Tricks

My son, Hayden, being beamed aboard the mothership at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

My son being beamed aboard the mothership at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

My son was recently abducted by aliens. These strange creatures from a far off land lured him to their institution, garbed him in their apparel, and claimed him as their own.

To make matters worse, our son went with them willingly.

Even worse than that, my husband and I have agreed, through a complex combination of loans, financial aid, the GI Bill and possibly human sacrifice, to pay these aliens $64,000 a year to keep him.

No, we have not fallen prey to a Vulcan mind warp. The Galactic Empire has not injected us with the RNA brainwashing virus. We have not been hypnotized by Sleestaks. We merely took our son to his college orientation.

When we arrived, they separated us from our son immediately, whisking him off with the other starry-eyed newcomers to “start a memorable and important time in their academic and professional journeys.” We knew that they were really intending to erase our son’s memory. Eighteen years of our hard work, down the drain.

In order to placate the parents, they pumped us full of coffee, plied us with shiny new pens, and herded us around to “informative sessions” such as “Letting Go” and “Money Matters” in a suspiciously space ship-shaped building they referred to as “EMPAC” — The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.

While the parents were locked in the EMPAC mothership with the institution’s leaders, our children were off playing “ice breaker” games with legions of bubbly upperclassmen dressed in matching college t-shirts and well-worn sneakers. The incoming freshmen were encouraged to become “independent,” i.e., to make all decisions without involving their parents other than to send them the bills.

The institution’s leaders tried to allay our fears, characterizing the terrifying experience of handing over our flesh and blood to complete strangers as a “normal rite of passage.” They told us not to be concerned, because our children would have all sorts of “advisors” to guide them. There would be Student Orientation Advisors, Resident Advisors, Academic Advisors, Graduate Assistants, Learning Assistants and Peer Tutors. But all we were thinking was, “Yea, but who’s going to tell him to wear his retainer?”

They said our kids would be well-nourished with a variety of meal plans ranging from the “unlimited access” plan, otherwise known as the “Fast-track-to-morbid-obesity” plan, to the “custom plan”, commonly referred to as the “Go-broke-on-take-out-after-you-expend-your-dining-hall-allotment” plan. Rest assured, they told us, the students would never go hungry thanks to an impossibly confusing supplemental system of “flex dollars” and “student advantage dollars” which could be used to buy an endless array of well-balanced meals (READ: pizza, chocolate milk, and potato chips) all over campus, 24/7.

They paraded a series of experts from the health clinic and campus security before us, telling us that, without our adult children’s express consents, we were not permitted to know if they got arrested or pregnant. And lastly, we were informed that we had no right to access our children’s grades, despite the fact that we had to take second mortgages on our homes to pay their tuition.

Finally, we were released into the blinding sunlight to find our newly-indoctrinated children milling about the quad. In order to squeeze every last dollar from our increasingly shallow pockets, we were funneled through the campus bookstore, where we bought our son a lanyard with a hook large enough to hold his student ID, his military ID, his room key, his bike lock key, his asthma inhaler, a bottle of hand sanitizer, a stick of lip balm, a thumb drive, and — most importantly — a framed eight-by-ten photograph of me, his mother.

In six short weeks, we will surrender our son to this alien academic institution for good, and hope that he will heed the words of one well-known extra-terrestrial and always remember to “phone home.”

Mom’s Summer Lecture Series

Graphic via Newport Navalog

Graphic via Newport Navalog

A couple of weeks ago, my husband came home after running errands on base with our daughter and said, “Wait ‘til you hear this one.” Knowing my 16-year-old’s goofball tendencies, I knew that anything was possible. “Go on, tell her,” my husband ordered our daughter, who was giggling uncontrollably.

Eager to relay the story, he took over. “So, I’m driving down Peary Street, and I pull up to that mailbox that’s by the coffee shop there …” He shook his head for maximum effect. “Then I give Anna the exterminator payment envelope and tell her to go mail it …” So far so good, I thought. “And do you know what your 16-year-old daughter does?”

“What?!” I demand impatiently.

“She gets out, and proceeds to walk around the mailbox three times, looking totally confused. I am motioning to her to open the little door and deposit the envelope, but she just stands there holding the envelope, shrugging her shoulders … at 16-years-of-age mind you! Who knew, our daughter has absolutely no clue how to put an envelope into a flipping mailbox!”

“Seriously?” I ask my daughter whose giggling had escalated into convulsions of silent laughter.

I walked away from the amusing exchange chuckling to myself, but midway through folding a basket of laundry it dawned on me: I have completely failed as a mother.

My eyes bugged out as panic gripped my soul. If our 16-year-old cant even figure out how to mail a letter, then how on earth can our 19-year-old son be expected to survive when he goes off to college at the end of the summer?

In an instant, I knew I had to act fast. With only six weeks left before Freshman Orientation, I instituted a mandatory practical education class, much to the consternation of our three teenagers. Knowing that there was no way to sugar coat what would surely be received with eye rolling and long sighs, I bluntly named my crash course “Mom’s Summer Lecture Series.”

The children mustered for their first lesson –“How to launder your clothes without turning every garment into a pastel pink size 00” — reluctantly as expected. But before the excruciating half hour was up, we covered detergent measurement, water temperature, color-fastness, stain removal, and the perils of dryer lint. I was going to go over folding as well, but the kids looked like they might internally combust if they heard another word, so I decided to save that for another day.

This week, I have planned a stimulating tutorial on how to boil spaghetti, and next week’s topic is all about warding off fungal growth. I’m keeping it a surprise, but future lessons will cover balancing checkbooks, reading bus schedules, disinfecting bathrooms, and my personal favorite: making your bed and lying in it. Oh, what fun!

Thank goodness I realized the error of my ways, and have been given this chance to make amends. I may have failed my children over the course of the last decade, but I am now completely dedicated to helping my kids to help themselves.

As someone once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, do as your Mother told you.”

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Winnebago Woes

barbiecamper

Photo by hustonwelanded.blogspot.com

“Can I have that one? Hu? Can I? Puleeese?” I begged my mother, pointing desperately to the sleeping compartment above the cab of our rented RV. Permission was granted, and I could hardly contain my excitement.

Much like today, economic times were tough for my middle class parents, who thought renting an RV would make for a cost-effective summer vacation in 1979. My mother was hesitant due to her propensity for motion sickness, but after assurances of a smooth ride from my father, she soon envisioned herself a virtual traveling June Cleaver, serving cold cuts and Shasta in the spiffy little moving kitchen.

My brother was concerned about the outdated 8-track tape player, until one of his buddies lent him a pretty decent mix tape for the trip. I had spent a decade happily playing with my Barbie Country Camper, even though I had to pretend Barbie suffered a grizzly attack when my brother ripped the tent off the side. So, for me, this trip was like a dream come true.

After packing our belongings into the appropriate compartments, we were off! My father hadn’t fully backed out of the driveway when my mother grabbed the countertop to steady herself and yelled, “Stop! I feel sick!” Despite Mom’s vision of serving happy children a mobile lunch over a game of Parcheesi on the convertible table, she spent the rest of the drive firmly planted in the passenger’s seat where she could watch the road.

From my perch above the cab, I had a panoramic view, climbing down occasionally for a cold can of Tab from the handy-dandy refrigerator. My brother played cards at the table and sang along with mix tape hits like “Devil went down to Georgia” and “Ring My Bell.” My parents settled in, and our Golden Retriever, Cinnamon, found a comfortable spot to nap. We were all beginning to enjoy the RV lifestyle.

Three days later, we were in pure hell.

We soon discovered that, the slightest turn of the wheel caused the refrigerator to fly open, leaving pickle jars and soda cans rolling around on the cabin floor. The constantly-looping eight-track tape seemed more like an enhanced interrogation technique after a few hours. It also became quickly became apparent that the air conditioner was not adequate to cool the cabin, making the living areas muggy and my upper hideout into a veritable sauna.

Camping stops were not idyllic either. In a KOA campground outside of Annapolis, my father sweltered in the buggy gnat-infested heat to complete the complicated series of RV hookups, only to find that the family wanted to go out for seafood. At another scorching southern campground, the water and lights in the communal shower house shut down promptly at 8pm, to the surprise of my father and brother who had just lathered up. Another night, I whined incessantly about the heat when the cabin’s finicky AC unit finally gave up the ghost, prompting nearby campers to yell, “Can’t you keep her quiet!”

To make matters worse, after paying the exorbitant gas prices just outside of Chincoteague, Maryland, my father inadvertently backed into the gas pump, ripping the spare tire cover. My brother also tore a 6” hole in the vinyl upholstery, when he forgot about a screwdriver in his back pocket. The pis de resistance happened while in the searing heat of North Carolina, when my brother left a bag of fish he caught in a compartment under one of the seats, which wasn’t discovered until we were hit with a blast of pungent aroma two days later.

By the time we headed home from our summer vacation, our top-of-the-line RV looked more like a rolling ghetto careening down I-95, reeking of dead fish, with curtains flying out open windows, soda cans rolling around the cabin floor, and the ripped tire cover and dog’s tongue flapping in the wind.

On a dirt road somewhere outside of Cumberland, West Virginia, we all kept a lookout while Dad illegally emptied the septic tank into a ditch. From my sweltering lookout, I decided right then and there that my Barbie Country Camper would soon be taking a trip straight to the Goodwill.

Sweet Hospitality: NSNC’s best asset

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Weaving through the complimentary-beverage-clutching crowd on Saturday night in Room 940 at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Conference in Washington, DC, one hears a mixed cacophony of chatter and laughter. Columnists are everywhere: smooshed together on furniture, clustered in corners, and leaning against windowsills.

“But really, what’s the best measure of the value of online columns?” one conference attendee poses to two colleagues perched on the edge of a hotel settee. “Is it clicks? Comments? Time spent?” They dissect the industry’s new parlance, and move on to examine headline SEO strategies, web teasers and “click bait.”

Across the room, others are smacking their heads trying to remember the speech in which then-President Nixon mentioned his dog, Checkers. Ironically, the youngest columnist in the group interjected with the right answer, admitting that she’d learned the trivia while touring the Washington, DC Newseum earlier that day.

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Capping fresh beers from the ice-filled bathtub, another contingency discusses the ethics of writing critical columns about public figures, postmortem.

Near the veggies and hummus, a small group debates the best late night take out at their respective alma maters. Philly cheese steaks “with Wiz”, Cincinnati Chili, and Slop Dogs are offered up with no consensus, until one columnist describes the hot pizza slices that were so delicious, she forgot about the molten lava sauce that always burned her mouth, leaving a shredded curtain of skin hanging from its roof the next morning. The group erupts with shared laughter.

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Conference speakers make an appearance, grabbing a cold bottle of beer or a plastic glass of chilled chardonnay. Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten, renown humorist Gina Barreca, and others chat casually with those they treat like colleagues. Just as in previous conferences when speakers such as Dave Barry and Ellen Goodman squeezed into the hospitality suite, elbows are rubbed both literally and figuratively.

Conversations in Room 940 run the gamut: from the poignant speech given by 2014 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award winner Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the dinner inside the Capital Building, to confessions regarding whose spouse hogs the bed, to intense deliberations about how columnists should adapt to changes in the industry.

“Shhhhhhhh!” a conscientious member reminds the crowd, “Try to keep it down everyone … we don’t want to get kicked out of the hospitality suite like we did last year!” Despite her warnings, the group cackles on into the night, unable to help themselves.

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In the end, when conference attendees are on their respective trains and planes on their way back home, they smile while swiping through conference photos on their smart phones. A combination of overindulgence in valuable information and lack of adequate sleep has left them feeling groggy, but they are nonetheless rejuvenated by a renewed sense of camaraderie and a replenished cache of lasting memories.

NSNC is undoubtedly a group of columnists of all sorts, who come together annually to learn, to develop professionally and to network. But also, this tight-knit group gathers every year because, simply put, good friends like to get together and have a good time.

And that, my friends, we certainly did.

Teen dreams and summer jobs

Clip Art Illustration of a Boy Mowing the Lawn

Image via computerclipart.com

Despite the fact that the school year has ended for our kids, I started my normal morning routine this week on autopilot — scrambling eggs, fluffing laundry, mopping the kitchen floor, and microwaving the same cup of coffee three times.

I darted out to the base commissary at about ten, in desperate need of paper towels and lunchmeat, completely forgetting that the kids were still upstairs slobbering into their pillows. It wasn’t until I sunk my teeth into a leftover leg of chicken to quell a pang of hunger at 11:45, that I remembered.

“Do you realize that it is almost noon?!” I blasted across the rumpled bed containing my 19-year-old son. His hairy leg was hiked over a pile of dirty clothes tangled in his comforter. The floor was littered with headphones, magazines, discarded school papers, dropped pretzels and empty soda cans.

“Huh …. wha?” he said as the brain under his crazy hair tried to process the scene. While he smacked his lips and stretched, I ranted.

“Have you followed up on those job applications yet? Well, Mister, if you’re dreaming of lounging around the house for the next three months, not earning any spending money for college next year, you’ve got another thing coming!”

After making the rounds to each of our three children’s rooms, I stormed downstairs, grumbling to myself, “Why are kids today so daggone lazy? Sleeping into the afternoon, no sense of responsibility! That sort of thing was not allowed in my day! Hrmph!”

While stuffing the washer with cold darks, I thought of my summers as a teen. My father had brainwashed me into believing that, if I did not work over the summer, the planet might implode. I had to make money, and a lot of it, to ensure my financial survival over the next year of school.

I cut three acres of grass with a tractor for $20 bucks a week. I sold garden vegetables on the side of the road. I did office work. I painted houses. I bar tended at a golf club. I worked at a bank. And one stressful summer, I took a job as a traveling salesperson for my father’s chemical company even though I knew nothing about the products or how they worked.

I had very little time to lay out, go to the drive-in theater, or hang out at the mall — all the things we did in small towns in the 80s — but I always made enough spending money to last me through the next school year.

I dreamt of a summer job waitressing at the beach. Living in a seaside shack with other waitresses, not saving much money but having the time of our lives. I thought the beach job could be a life-changing experience, turning me into one of those cool, mature, sun-kissed girls with long flowy skirts and dangly earrings shaped like dolphin tails. Who cares about the money … I could transform my life.

But my father’s warnings always prevailed. I certainly didn’t want the Earth to implode, so I never got that dream beach job. I wondered, should I allow my kids to follow their dreams, or insist that they get to work?

I set the washer for permanent press and gathered my semi-conscious teens in the kitchen under the guise of pancakes.

“Hey guys, listen,” I cajoled, “maybe I over-reacted. You can lounge around the house and make money for school, because there are plenty of things you can do here for me! I’ll give you twenty whole bucks each week to scrub the toilets and sinks, but don’t forget to pull those gooey hair clogs out of the drains. And there’s always the basement to be cleaned out. Just watch for those fuzzy wolf spiders, they love to jump right in your hair. Oh, and I was thinking that all the garbage cans could use a good scrubbing because they smell like rotten meat….”

I went on for another twenty minutes or so, while the kids stared like does in the headlights.

My prediction: the Earth will remain intact, because they’ll have summer jobs within a week.

Bathing suit shopping season begins

Photo via Retronaut

Photo via Retronaut

Ah, summer is officially here! This balmiest of seasons evokes sunny scenes of kids running through sprinklers, smoky whiffs of charcoal grills, soft sensations of waves lapping bared toes, and sweet sounds of crickets on steamy starlit nights.

Who doesn’t love summer and all that comes with it, right?

But, hold up a minute. Believe it or not, summertime is not all popsicles and dandelions. Actually, this beloved season heralds an annual occurrence that strikes dread in the hearts of women like me.

No, I’m not talking about relatively innocuous summer pests like blood-sucking mosquitoes. I’m not referring to comparatively harmless nuisances such as hairdo-wrecking humidity. I’m not even referencing the reasonably annoying obligation of vacationing with relatives.

I’m talking about — brace yourselves ladies — bathing suit shopping.

After nine months of covering our delicate and sometimes ample flesh with layers of protective clothing and binding spandex, we women are expected to abruptly strip down and let it all hang out.

Social morays dictate that at the beach or pool, I should don an itsy-bitsy garment that exposes everything but my naughty bits. However, after birthing three large babies and two decades of yo-yo dieting, my abdomen has more rolls than a Mega Pack of Cottonelle. Bikinis are entirely out of the question.

Thus, every year at this time, I am on a quest to find a new one-piece bathing suit for the summer season that lifts, separates, covers and conceals. Of course, these suits are usually the skirted kind worn by older women with bunions and flowered swim caps who play bridge on Tuesdays and clip denture cream coupons.

So, I hit the local department store, grab an assortment of bathing suits with a combination of style and function, and head for the dressing room.

Ah, the dressing room. That bastion of garish fluorescent lighting and fun house mirrors, where women come to hate themselves. I hang the plastic number “9” given to me by the attendant on one hook, the bathing suits on the other, and begin to undress.

Considering that it is federal law (or maybe just a local ordinance — either way, I’m fairly certain you can get arrested for violating it) one must wear underwear when trying on bathing suits in the store dressing room, despite the fact that it is next to impossible to fully appreciate a bathing suit when one is wearing it over a pair of humongous cotton briefs like mine.

And then, comes the moment that every woman on earth dreads. Under the unforgiving fluorescent lights, I face the mirror, stripped down to nothing but my large Jockeys for Her.

No matter that I undress at home everyday of my life, I am always shocked by what I see in the dressing room mirror.

Gasp What!? Why is that so spongy? Is that a dent in my thigh? When did those get down there? Is that wiggling? Is that hanging over? Seriously? Good Lord …

Traumatized, I contemplate giving up on buying a new bathing suit, but always persevere when I remember that my suit from last year always gives me a wedgie. One after the other, I squirm and wiggle my way into those little Lycra instruments of torture, hoping to find one that does not trigger my gag reflex.

Three suits accentuated my ponch. Another highlighted my back fat. A tummy control suit nearly ruptured my spleen. One showed my armpit chicken fat. Another gave me “old lady cleavage.” And one had underwire that I feared might puncture my lung.

Finally, I found an ultra supportive suit that was both flattering and had the added bonus of allowing me to breathe by taking frequent shallow gasps.

Eventually, I emerge from the dressing room, battered, broken but not defeated. With my last morsel of humility, I toss the chosen suit to the cashier, relieved that I have found an appropriate garment to enjoy the splash of the surf, the smell of cut grass, and the rejuvenating warmth of summer. My bathing suit shopping ordeal is finally over and I survived.

At least until next year.

Life, hot flashing before my eyes

SweatingLast week, on the morning of my 48th birthday, I had my very first hot flash.

The uncanny coincidence of this occurrence made it seem psychosomatic. However, I could not deny the unsettling reality of the sweat moustache that had formed while I was eating my scrambled eggs. I tried to pass the event off as a fluke, but while going about my day, I started thinking, You know, I’m getting kind of old. Really old.

I had always been content with the progression of my life as a Navy wife and mother of three, generally gratified to have found a calling to serve my family, rather than selfish endeavors like my own career and living location preferences. I had said many times, “As long as the kids are happy, I’m happy.”

But suddenly, life was passing before my eyes as if death was imminent. I thought about my education and quickly decided that I’d wasted it. I thought about my early work experiences as a young attorney before Navy life, and summarily concluded that my brain had atrophied from lack of use, and must now be the size of a tangerine. I thought about my homemaking skills, swiftly determining that I was mediocre at best.

After decades of gleaning my own identity from the contentment of my family members, it was suddenly all about me.

Although I normally would not mercilessly rip myself to shreds, there was something about this particular birthday that had me wallowing in panicked self-loathing. Perhaps it was the hair that seemed to be clinging damply to the back of my perspiring neck. Or maybe it was the sudden lack of bladder control. Did I detect a throbbing bunion? Was I sprouting age spots?

As my 48th birthday progressed, I relentlessly berated, harangued, nit-picked, criticized and condemned myself until I could feel my spider veins bulge.

Why do I snap at the kids so much? Why can’t I seem to cook a decent meal without turning meat into shoe leather? Why do I watch so much TV at night? Why couldn’t I ever get rid of this paunch? Why didn’t I moisturize when I was younger? Why do I always forget to bring my coupons to the commissary? Why? Why? Why?!

By the time my husband came home from work, I was slumped in a kitchen chair, staring into a cup of coffee that had gone cold. I’d hit rock bottom.

“Happy birthday, Honey!” he offered with a grin. I looked up weakly, and said, “I think I’m having some kind of mid-life crisis … can you sit down and listen to me for a sec?” For the next 20 minutes, my husband sat calmly in his cammies at our kitchen table, permitting me to tell him all about the hot flash and the resulting epiphany that revealed the harsh truth: I had never really amounted to much and it was definitely too late to do anything about it.

At the risk of sounding sexist, I find that men have a unique ability to simplify complex emotional situations that women tend to over complicate; or maybe they just don’t get it. Either way, it can be helpful.

A quintessential male, my husband waited until the end of my rant, then simply got up and poured us each a glass of wine. I wondered whether he had heard anything I’d just said. Then, holding his glass up to toast mine, he delivered the birthday joke that had become his annual tradition: “Honey, you might have turned 48 today, but you’re built like you’re 47.”

I couldn’t help but laugh like I always do, and in that instant, my hot flash turned into a flash flood of gratitude for the ups and downs of life, the simplicity of love, and the boundless support of my little family.

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