Now What?

So much to do, so little time...

So much to do, so little time…

I remember it like it was yesterday. The shriek of my alarm going off at 6:15 am like the start of some second-rate dog race.

With a rat’s nest of hair and the same yoga pants I’d worn the day before, I was off and running: making beds, toasting waffles, packing lunches, dropping off, sorting laundry, picking up, flipping nuggets, filling tubs, reading stories, tucking in.

Other than 20 minutes spent wolfing down a turkey on wheat for lunch at our kitchen island between wash cycles, the closest thing I had to “free time” was falling asleep on the couch while clipping peanut butter coupons in front of the television after the kids went to bed.

And when my Navy husband was deployed, my daily routine was a total blur, teetering somewhere between precarious sanity and certifiable madness.

Thank the Good Lord those days are over.

After a couple of decades spent fulfilling the needs of our three kids, I’m finally free! With our oldest now off at college, our two girls in high school, and my husband on shore duty, no one is depending on me anymore. Hallelujah! It’s time for me to do what I want to do for once.

However, when school started this year, I didn’t want to traumatize our girls by drastically changing their routine. I thought it best to wean them gently, so I got up early each morning as usual, offering to scramble eggs, find soccer socks, slice oranges. But turns out, they can do it all by themselves.

What a relief!

On our morning ride to school in the minivan, I used to talk my kids through the day’s schedule, making sure they were organized and ready for any quizzes or tests. But the girls let me know the first week of school that, instead of talking to me, they prefer to motivate themselves on our morning drive by having a “Girl Dance Party,” which entails turning the minivan volume up to level nine and flailing their arms to the beat.

And my sixteen-year-old is quick to remind me that, in a few short months, they won’t even need me to drive them to school because she will have her driver’s license. What a welcome change that will be!

Back at home, I breathe a huge sigh of relief that there’s no one depending on me for the next 10 hours. I look around our empty house, ecstatic that I have the whole day to myself to finally do all the things I could never do before — go on a shopping spree, start a new career, take tennis lessons, meet friends for lunch, train for a marathon.

But, of course, I wouldn’t want to jump into my newfound freedom too quickly. Instead, I check to see if there’s any laundry to be done, then remember that I did it all yesterday. I peek at the computer every ten minutes to see if any pressing emails have come in. I wander the house looking for dust bunnies.

Eventually, I microwave the cup of lukewarm coffee I inadvertently left in the pantry, and plunk down at the kitchen table.

Now what?

Just then, I hear a thunk in the bedroom upstairs. Stirring from his morning nap, our 8-year-old labradoodle, Dinghy, comes down the back staircase of our old base house, his toenails clopping on the wood flooring. With a boney clunk, he sits in front of me, lifts a lanky paw, and scrapes it over my thigh.

Just when I was about to savor the sweet solitude of freedom, it dawns on me. I’m not free just yet — I’m still key and essential to this household.

With renewed purpose, I get out my To Do list and scribble, “1. Walk dog, 2. Feed dog, 3. Teach old dog new tricks, 4. Buy new dog toys, 5. Go to dog park …”

Looks like my work is never done.

The Last Laugh

Image via ticklemeentertainment.com

Image via ticklemeentertainment.com

I can see it now. A huge tufted nightclub booth, upholstered in spotless linen, floating on a cloud in the sky. A group of chuckling comedians is seated at the heavenly table, kibitzing over a bowl of perfectly salted cocktail peanuts.The comedians scoot over to make room, because one more has arrived.

It’s Joan Rivers.

Their earthly mission to make other people smile complete, Rivers, Williams, Belushi, Radner, Candy, Farley and other comedic legends, lounge comfortably with each other. Their laughter echoes softly in the stratosphere.

Funny people who have made it their life’s work to make the rest of us laugh deserve a good seat in Heaven. Especially when you consider that, many of them did not have it so easy here on Earth.

Humor is a gift, but like the people who possess a good sense of it, it’s often complicated. With a few exceptions, funny people tend to be complex individuals with insecurities and internal struggles, prone to over analysis and deep thinking about their own significance in the world.

Even though my life’s work has been making sandwiches and cleaning toilets as a Navy housewife and mother of three, I can totally relate.

As a tubby little daydreamer, I discovered at a young age that humor was my ticket out of social mediocrity. Knowing that there was no way I was going to meet my parents’ expectations for a slim, sophisticated, charming daughter, I began to secretly experiment with humor.

I loved to watch comedians like Flip Wilson, Soupy Sales, Carole Burnett, Bill Cosby, and my favorite, Jerry Lewis. I learned quickly that I could make people laugh by crossing my eyes, adopting a fake speech impediment, or using raisins to black out my teeth.

Self-deprecation seemed to be the most direct path to social acceptance, so I began poking fun at myself regularly. Initially, my parents did not find my new image funny at all, and made a last-ditch effort to get me back on the right track, signing me up for English horseback riding lessons and encouraging me to seek a serious career in business one day.

But it was already too late. By the end of my senior year in high school, I was elected 1984 Class Clown, making it official: I was the funny girl.

What I didn’t realize then, aside from the fact that my reputation as a clown would prevent me from getting a decent date to the prom, was that people would expect me to be funny for the rest of my life. Having a sense of humor became my job, and I had to punch the clock through good times and bad.

Thankfully, humor helped me find my husband, also a funny guy, and raise three funny kids. Through 20 years of military moves, it helped us all make new friends. And my own witty observations about military life, marriage, and parenting helped me put this column in print over five years ago.

Comedians spend their lives making people laugh despite enormous tragedy and private personal struggles. We praise them when they are funny, and ignore them when they are not. Then, when they die, we finally become curious about who they really were.

Robin Williams, who committed suicide last month at the age of 63, was a thoughtful person who suffered from bouts of devastating depression. Before her untimely death from cancer at age 43, Gilda Radner had a tough childhood, teased for being overweight and suffering the death of her beloved father when she was only a teenager. Chris Farley’s need for attention from his 600-pound alcoholic father motivated his hilarious physical comedy. But despite his kind heart, Farley inherited his father’s self-destructive tendencies, dying of a drug overdose at the age of 33, the same age as John Belushi when he died.

Joan Rivers was a comedic pioneer who could dish out the zingers, and take them, especially when it came to her multiple plastic surgeries. But behind the scenes, Rivers suffered personal tragedy when her beloved husband of 22 years, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in 1987.

And the list goes on.

Clever, sensitive, deep-thinking, warm-hearted, and sometimes self-destructive, funny people are complicated. We should not wait for them to die to appreciate that their multiple facets and personal struggles are exactly what make them interesting in the first place.

As Joan herself once said, “I think anyone who’s perfectly happy isn’t particularly funny.”

Having the last laugh in that comedy club in the clouds...

Having the last laugh in that comedy club in the clouds…

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Back to School Fashion Fears

I'll take a slab of bangs and a side of Colonel Sanders Ties.... hold the style!

I’ll take a slab of bangs and a side of Colonel Sanders Ties…. hold the style!

Unfortunately, I remember just about everything from middle school, from the Smurfs puffy stickers on my locker to that humiliating time I threw up in the cafeteria, and every awkwardly self-conscious moment in between.

During this gawky time in my life, I was clueless. It was as if I was hovering in a state of adolescent limbo between the days of carefree childhood and independent young adulthood.

I lay awake at night in my mock-brass twin bed staring at the Holly Hobby doll on my floral yellow Contact-papered shelf, wondering, “Who the heck am I, anyway?” I needed a little style, a decent group of friends, and maybe someday, a boyfriend. But other than practicing kissing on the back of my hand, I had no idea what to do.

Despite all that stuff my parents told me about being “beautiful on the inside”, I thought that wearing fashionable clothes to school was the first step to being cool. However, thanks to my absence of self-identity, putting together a stylish outfit was a particularly daunting task.

It was easy for my brother. All he needed was a pair of decent jeans, a few striped shirts left over from his color-coordinated Garanimals days, and some turf shoes. Part his hair straight down the middle with a huge plastic comb, put that comb in the back pocket of his new jeans and voile! He was totally in style.

For girls, however, it was more complicated. We had to keep up with an intimidating array of trends. Just getting a new pair of jeans was overwhelming. Pleated or plain front? Acid or stone washed? Tapered or Flared? Jordache or Lee?

There were madras shirts, Flashdance cut up sweatshirts, Members Only Jackets, cowl necks, Forenza sweaters, oversized blouses worn belted with a broach at the neck, Izod shirts with an upturned collar, turtlenecks printed with whales, and blazers with enormous shoulder pads. There were painter’s pants, Hammertime pants, parachute pants, stirrup pants, and overalls. There were Jellies, Converse Chucks, Tretorns, Reebok high tops, Vans, penny loafers, Capezios, Docksiders, and Candies faux wood slides.

Not to mention the dizzying assortment of accessories: fingerless gloves, leg warmers, Vuarnet sunglasses, Swatch watches, deely-boppers, bandanas, stick pins, braided headbands, mood rings, fanny packs and banana clips.

I was so confused, and I still had to decide whether rooster bangs or a bi-level would go better with my frosted purple eye shadow! Oh the agony!

Unable to discern my particular style, I never developed a real sense of fashion. I wore a lot of blouses that tied at the neck ala Colonel Sanders, and my hair long with a slab of bangs, or in a pseudo Dorothy Hamill that made me look like my face was framed with a ring of polska kielbasa.

Even when I managed to convince my mother to buy me something trendy from the juniors rack at Hills Department Store, I was still doomed. Like the time I accidentally flung the strap of my overalls into the girl’s restroom toilet before history class, or the time the boy sitting next to me in English took a bite out of my new root beer Bonne Bell Lip Smacker.

And now, as I take my girls back-to-school shopping, I’m amused that many of the trends that confounded me thirty years ago, are back on the racks. Although I am relieved that my girls have sense of style, I hope that less fashion-savvy kids are not stressing about what to wear to school like I did. Even if they can’t figure out the latest trends, it’s Okay because they’ll get another chance when those fashions reappear years later.

Regardless, what’s most important is that our kids learn enough at school that they don’t have to repeat English, Mathematics, Science or History. Besides, when it comes to back to school fashions, history has a tendency of repeating itself.

The Driver’s Ed Club

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“Mom?! Where r u?!” my daughter texted at the end of her first Driver’s Ed class. I pulled up to the community college parking lot ten minutes late thanks to a long line at the commissary, only to find Anna standing there with three other teens, looking mortified.

“O-M-G Mom! What took you so long?!” she said, hurriedly hopping into our old minivan. “Never-mind that, so how was Driver’s Ed?” I asked.

“Re-Donk! I’m going to die if I have to sit in that class all week… it is SO boring. The instructor is like a million years old and all he talked about was how to hold a steering wheel. Eight hours of hand and over hand? Like, seriously?”

“Well, I’m sure the material will get more complex as the week progresses, and besides, the other kids in the class looked nice,” I offered in a feeble attempt to retrieve Anna from her free-fall into an abyss of negativity.

“NO, Mom. Most of the boys wear those flat-billed hats way up on the top of their heads, and other than one dweeby kid, the rest of the boys just look dumb. One girl is my age and has a baby. Another girl keeps saying she’s going to ‘cut’ someone, and the rest are kind of awkward.”

Now, I was worried. But this was the last summer session of Driver’s Ed before the start of the school year, so Anna had no choice but to go.

In the days that followed, Anna became more entrenched in the micro-society that was developing out of her Driver’s Ed class. The forces of small group dynamics combined with the psychological effects of confinement, created an ironic camaraderie among the classmates. Having identified the teacher as their common enemy, the teen captives formed an underground alliance, hell bent on graduating and getting the heck outta there.

At four-o-clock every day, while I waited for Anna to be released from class, I would see the Driver’s Ed teacher, with a permanent smirk on his face, saunter out of the building toward his nondescript gold sedan. He wore drab Hawaiian-style shirt with khakis, and had a wispy comb-over that was an unnatural shade of Grecian Formula black.

Clearly, he saw himself as a sort of celebrity amongst the Driver’s Ed students. Nothing but a scurvy little spider in the grand scheme of things, in the realm of the Community College, this teacher had power, control, influence… and his own parking space.

Every day on our drive home, Anna would report what had happened in class. The first couple of days, she ranted about excruciating boredom. But things heated up mid-week, when at lunch, one of the girls admitted her romantic interest in one of the boys. The sophomoric revelation was welcome relief from the daily tedium, so the girls exploited this little tidbit of drama to make it last, going so far as writing the boy a giggly anonymous note from his “secret admirer.”

“Werr is u, Boo?” I texted Anna from the parking lot on the last day of class. I got no response, but a few minutes later, like some kind of reenactment of the final scene in “The Breakfast Club,” the teens came streaming out of the Community College entrance with their final test results in hand.

I realized that, although they had initially defined each other in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions — The Dweeb, The Cutter, The Teen Mom, The Dumb Jocks, The Awkward Girls, The Boys with High Hats, and our daughter, The Goofy Military Kid – these uncommon teens discovered that they shared a common goal. And by accepting their suffering and each other, they found what they were looking for in the first place: freedom.

Tears on my toothbrush

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My son, Hayden, in his new dorm room at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

It didn’t hit me until I saw that smear of toothpaste on the sink this morning.

I’d heard the stories. “I cried for an hour in the bathtub.” “I couldn’t get out of bed for a week.” “I was a snotty, puffy-eyed mess.” “I didn’t think I’d make it to Thanksgiving.”

I listened to fellow military moms with genuine compassion, but I couldn’t personally relate. Those things would never happen to me.

Then, we dropped our son off at college last Tuesday.

“He’s only going to be three hours away,” I told a friend, “and besides, a little separation will be good for all of us. I won’t be one of those people who blubbers like a baby.”

“Oh, you will,” my friend warned. “Trust me.”

We helped him set up his dorm room with plastic bins, granola bars, power strips, extra sticks of deodorant, clip on lamps, new sheets that won’t be washed this semester, and cheapo particle board shelving that looked like it would buckle like a ramen noodle under the weight of the tiny microwave.

Dry-eyed as planned, I kissed his prickly cheek good-bye at four-o-clock, so that he could go to his first hall meeting and we could wolf down free hors d’oeuvres at the parent reception. After more than our share of chicken bites and veggies drenched in ranch, my husband and I spent a couple of carefree days exploring the nearby lakes of Upstate NY.

I awoke early this morning, after getting home late last night. I could’ve used another twenty minutes, but my husband needed a ride to the airport for a work trip to Korea, so I shuffled my way to our bathroom down the hall.

I stepped over our labradoodle, Dinghy, who had wedged himself between the toilet and the bathtub. Ever since we moved into this quirky old base house a year ago, I felt cheated. Not only did have to share the tiny bathroom with my huge hairy husband and son, the huge hairy dog decided that it was his favorite sleeping spot. It just wasn’t fair.

I looked, bleary-eyed into the mirror at my pillow-crimped bangs, and groped for my toothbrush. Glancing down, I saw my husband’s toothbrush. And mine. But where my son’s toothbrush usually lay, there was only a smear.

A smear that, up until that point, had always irritated me. Why do men refuse to thoroughly rinse the slobbery toothpaste out of their toothbrushes? Don’t they care that someone has to continuously clean the dried up smears on the sink?

But this time, I wasn’t annoyed. I stared at the smear, and then, it hit me.

He’s gone.

I felt a hot prickle behind my eyes and a flush in my cheeks. In a stupor, I left the bathroom and found myself at the open door of our son’s room.

How sweet … his unmade bed! I gulped and pulled a tissue from a box on his nightstand. Oh, and that odor of teenage boy sweat, I breathed in deeply. He never did take that bowl down to the kitchen like I asked, I smiled at the three-day-old tomato-sauce-enameled dish, and let a tear tumble down my cheek.

I explored my son’s abandoned room, noting every void in the dust where books, alarm clocks, and speakers used to be. With watery vision, I inventoried the vestiges—gum wrappers, crumbs, pennies, and tiny tumbleweeds of God-knows-what. All the things that had once been bones of contention were now cherished relics of the time, now past, when our son lived under the same roof.

And then, I gave in to the parental instinct I had denied myself based upon logic and reason, and I bawled like a baby.

Is it Thanksgiving yet? 

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How many days should I leave it this way before I turn it into a guest room?

Going Overboard

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“How do I look?” my husband asked, putting his hands on his hips and strutting down the marine supply store isle snuggly strapped into a new life vest. As if he was on a runway in Milan, he stopped, pivoted, and looked at me with a “come hither” stare.

“You’ll be the envy of everyone in our sailing class,” I lied.

Along with our new life jackets, we bought sailing gloves, non-marking deck shoes, sunglasses straps, waterproof phone pouches, and a humongous chart of the entire Narragansett Bay. At home, we assembled the rest of the recommended sailing apparel: hats, quick dry shorts, breathable collared shirts, waterproof watches, and gadgetry like pocket knives and compasses that would never see the light of day.

We had no idea how to sail, but Goshdarnit, we were going to look the part.

Besides, when military folks like us move somewhere new, we try our best to experience the local customs. Before the end of our tour of duty in Rhode Island, we will guzzle gallons of “chowdah”, stuff ourselves with “stuffies” (stuffed clams), and learn to love “lobstah” rolls. We will hike rocky coastlines, wade through cranberry bogs, and snap photos of squatty lighthouses. We might even start saying things like, “Hey, I have an idear…let’s go downcity for a gagga and a beah.” (Locals’ way of suggesting hot dogs and beers in Providence.)

And in a state like Rhode Island, where there are more boats than human beings, we must learn how to sail.

Last week, we showed up at the Naval Station Newport Base Marina on the first night of Basic Sail Training Class, with naïve visions of cruising on the Narragansett Bay in a 40-footer named something like “Moon Dancer”, my husband at the helm in his polo sweater, and me lounging in the cockpit with a glass of chardonnay like Jackie O.

About 20 of us – mostly middle-aged with a smattering of 20-something single sailors — mustered on the deck of the tiny marina office. We sized each other up while we waited for the instructors to show.

One by one, the volunteers appeared to give us instruction. They were all older, seasoned gentlemen, one of which smoked a calabash pipe and seemed the incarnation of Hemmingway’s Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea.

They broke us into smaller groups, and after discussing rigging, points of sail, knots and right of way, our minds were swimming with new terminology. Clew, Cleat, Cunningham, Close-hauled. Halyard, Heel, Helm, Hull. Batten, Beating, Boom, Beam-reach. Leeward, Leech, Luff. Starboard, Stern, Spreader. Shackle, Shroud, Sheet.

By the end of the first night, the only term I could remember was “S.O.S.” I wondered, After 20 years as a Navy wife, am I too old to learn something new?

Our next lesson was “on the water,” but thanks to torrential downpours, it was more like a reenactment of “The Perfect Storm.” Although I had faithfully read my instruction manual and practiced my square knots, cleat hitches, and bowlins with a length of rope while watching “Deadliest Catch,” my waterlogged brain went blank when I took the helm.

I yelled “Jibe Ho!” while tacking, I shouted “Helms-a-lee!” while jibing, I let my sails out while close-hauled, I sheeted the sails in on a broad reach. And during the man overboard drill, I ran right over the floating dummy.

My husband and I thought our instructors might ban us from the marina, but interestingly, they kept showing up to teach us, and eventually, we learned to sail.

Sure we went a little overboard with our sailing attire, and we had to let go of our dream of Kennedy-esque yachts, Egyptian cotton sweaters and fine wines. But my husband and I are now qualified to rent a small boat from the base marina, and sail like real Rhode Islanders.

We may not be salty, but there’s no denying it: these old dogs have learned a new trick.

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.”

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