Sunday, May 20, 2018

All the Petty Horses

A couple of weeks ago, on a walk with my daughter, Sydney, I asked, “What are you doing when you’re most happy?” Without pause, she said, “Horseback riding.”
Copyright, Teece Aronin

Syd has taken riding lessons off and on for about four years. Miraculously, she has yet to fall off or be bucked by a horse. I think this might have something to do with the fact that the horses instructors usually pair people up with have more in common with leaky old pleasure boats than with Triple Crown winners - and I mean leaky literally. Still, my daughter sits a horse like a pro even if the horse looks like an amateur.

One thing I've learned about horses is that they have personalities - interesting personalities - as often as not, more like Mr. Ed's than Silver's or Trigger's. Mr. Ed, by the way, was the slow-talking, trouble-making Palomino from the 1960's sitcom bearing his name. In one episode, he provokes his human, Wilbur until Wilbur blows his stack, after which Ed gently scolds in motherly tones: “Wilbur, you yelled at your little horsey.”

One day, a picture I was taking of Syd with a horse, turned into a step-by-step tutorial for horses on how to photo bomb. It began with the horse standing placidly alongside my daughter and progressed with it systematically pushing her out of sight with its head. I remember Syd trying to mount that horse one day. It waited till she was about to put her foot in the stirrup before stepping forward two steps. When Syd adjusted her position and attempted the mount again, the horse took two steps back. This went on until the horse grew weary of the game and allowed Syd to mount. The horse, however, had made its point.

My grandfather broke horses for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He said that when saddling horses, he’d resort to kneeing them sharply in the belly, forcing them to expel the air they’d pumped up with to keep the saddle from getting sinched too tight. I can't say I blame horses for that, but when my son was little, he nearly fell under the galloping hooves of a horse who had managed to get away with that trick.

Now that we've established the sneakiness of some horses, let's consider those who take attitude to a whole new level. For instance, this is a made-up story, but not by much because you can't tell me something just like this hasn't happened: 

Say there's this horse named Bucky. No one at the farm likes Bucky because he didn't come by his name without cause. Bucky is just plain nasty, and if he can throw you, he is filled with pride. If he can throw you and then step on you, he's thrilled.

A new farmhand comes on board. He is cocky and boastful. He claims he can ride Bucky without being thrown. The farmhand mounts Bucky, and Bucky takes off like a shot, disappearing over a nearby hill, rider barely attached. When Bucky reappears, zooming up the rise of the next hill, it is with an empty saddle.

I love horses, I really do, and used to ride from time. The squeak and the scent of saddle leather, the rolling movements of the horse beneath you, the sound of clopping hooves - all those things are like nothing else, and I can see why Syd loves horses too.

I just pray she'll know a Bucky when she sees one.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Falls without Fatalities

There's a song I remember from years ago, a minor hit for singer and television host, Mike Douglas. The opening lyrics are, "When you're the father of boys, how you worry, but when you're the father of girls, you do more than that, you pray." 

As the mother of a 17 year-old son and a daughter who's 20, I've been known to worry myself sick over each of them in equal measure. At least they were kind enough to take turns having crises so that I was usually being sickened by just one of them at a time. 

I don't worry much anymore. I'm learning that no amount of worry protects anyone from anything; it's planning that helps - unless you're an absolute fatalist. Besides, worrying is a miserable way to spend one's time. Hoping is better. 

These days, when things I used to worry about arise, I'm usually able to plan and hope instead, and to remember that the kids and I are by no means friendless or without family and resources. It took me years to learn this, and sometimes, in my unenlightened moments, my faithless moments, I wish I could transport my children to a place of absolute safety, airlift them to the summit where I won't have to think about them falling. But in my wiser moments, I think they're better off if they survive a few headers into the abyss.  

I've come to the lofty conclusion that escalating children to pure and perfect safety would be to rush them along through the bright white rooms where Van Goghs hang and hurry them past the hushed and hurting shelves groaning under the weight of Hemingways, Poes, and Plaths - the places where beauty comes from the ugly. I hope my children can consider the fate of those more vulnerable than they and be grateful for their own strengths and resources, and I hope they'll continue to grow in empathy for those who have lost the path or been snatched from it. 

None of this is to say I've reached some summit of my own. I get depressed, I get anxious, I get worried, but by far fewer things and not nearly as often. I believe that most things in life are as they should be - even when they hurt like hell. When they do hurt that much, most of us manage to write, paint, sing, dance, meditate, or pray our ways through. Most of us aren't Van Goghs, Poes, or Plaths, thank God. Of course, there are things so awful it's hard to imagine that anything could be right about them. 

So, back to worrying - 

My kids are immensely good kids and always have been. They've never said they hate me and never accused me of ruining their lives. But as a friend once said as we watched our children play: "They all have their issues." 

There have been times when I've worried how my children will ever get by without me. Now that I worry less, I usually just wonder. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Silas is a Rolling Stone; Wherever He Lays His Fat is His Home

Our tabby cat, Silas is a brat - a big, orange-furred, basketball-resembling brat. Silas operates under the conviction that everyone who sees him, loves him, and that his charm will get him out of every scrape. Silas could be right.

Kitty in a Nightcap. Copyright, Teece Aronin.
When we first adopted Silas, he was a baffled, helpless, innocent wisp of orange fluff who sat in our cupped palms, blinking up at us. As he got older, he started throwing his weight around with a "you're-powerless-against-this-much-cute" kind of attitude. And he's huge. His head alone is bigger than our other cat's entire body. Lately, he enjoys waiting until I've climbed into the shower to start pounding at the bathroom door. As I said, he's huge, so I'm not sure if he's clawing the door, battering it with his head, or swinging a mallet at it, because with Silas, all of those things would sound pretty much the same.

At the end of the day, he climbs into bed with me, then jumps down a few minutes later; then he’s back up, and then he jumps down. Because he's so big, hoisting himself up comes with this little imph sound, and the bed jiggles. Jumping down makes him go umph, and a loud thud resounds. This happens half a dozen times while in between, I stroke his face and coo to him to lie down.

Once, by some miracle, I fall asleep, and Silas is convinced I'm deep into the REM stage, he stands up in the bed and pussyfoots (or in Silas' case, hippofoots) across the top of my pillow, stepping on my hair and pulling it hard while making his way to the bed stand. The bed stand is where my lip balm, ibuprofen, earrings, and water glass beckon to him like sirens on a tabletop shore.

"No, Silas," I mutter. "No, honey. Come here. Come here, Silas. Silas, no. No, Silas. Silas, please! Silas, I said no!" Ten minutes later, he's at it again, this time stopping to chew on a tag I've forgotten to snip off my pillow.

In the morning, I wake. Silas is next to me, sound asleep and sprawled on his back. I play, Fat Cat by Boy George very loud on my CD player, sticking my tongue out at him as I leave for work. He's wide awake now.

We'll talk it over at bedtime.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

To Kill a Mocking Watchman

Go Set a Watchman, the prequel/sequel/whatever-the hell to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been around for nearly three years (if you don't count the decades it lay in hiding), but millions of Lee fans are still hoarse from screaming out their shock and dismay when it was first released.
Copyright, Teece Aronin

If you've been curled up in a porch swing with Boo Radley and not getting out much, here's what happened: After insisting for more than five decades that her first first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, would also be her last, Lee released another book, the a-fore mentioned Go Set a Watchman after what was likely a lot of encouragement from her lawyer, Tonja Carter

Watchman started life as the manuscript Lee first presented to her editor when she was a bright and shiny new novelist. The editor advised her to rework it, building on the book's flashbacks. The result was To Kill a Mockingbird, about courageous attorney, Atticus Finch who, in Depression-era Alabama, at the height of the Jim Crow era, defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. The book made an instant literary giant out of Lee who was struck virtually mute by all the hoopla and clung tightly to her privacy forever after.  

Lee did reveal, however, that Atticus Finch was modeled after her father. Generations of mostly white people adored Atticus to the point of patterning their parenting styles after his. In 1963, To Kill a Mockingbird became a masterpiece of movie-making, and the film earned Gregory Peck a best actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus. But in Watchman, Atticus, now in his seventies, is suddenly, shockingly, and blatantly racist.

“How could this happen?” people cried, again mostly white people, myself among them. We had deified Atticus, or had at least made him as godlike as as any fictional character can be, the man who sat up all night outside the jail cell of an unjustly accused black man to protect him from vigilantes. He put himself and his children in harm’s way in the course of defending decent, innocent and doomed Tom Robinson. How dare Harper Lee take all that away from us? 

“WTH?” (Whites Thinking Hopelessly).  

Watchman's release made me wonder if Gregory Peck went spinning in his grave, screaming about his legacy. I also wondered what might the conversation have been like had he visited Lee on the eve of Watchman's release. What might such an encounter have been like? Imagine with me if you will:

. . . a stormy evening in Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee's hometown and inspiration for the fictional Macomb where To Kill a Mockingbird is set. Eighty-nine year-old Harper tugs the vinyl cover over her old Olivetti typewriter. It’s time to call it a day. For all practical purposes she is blind and deaf but one needs no eyesight nor any hearing to find one’s way around a typewriter, especially when one has been typing for nearly 70 years. Lee smiles to herself. She's been secretly writing novels since Mockingbird was released. It's likely they'll all sell like hotcakes when she's gone. The one she's working on now is her 112th. "Steven King, you're a hack," she chuckles. On top of the typewriter she plops a stack of typed papers designed to throw off her “bloodhound of a lawyer” and those “snoopy publisher people.”

Atticus/Schmatticus, Atticus/Schmatticus, Atticus/Schmatticus reads the type.   

“Atticus/Schmatticus, Atticus/Schmatticus, Atticus/Schmatticus,” chortles Ms. Lee.

Typing gibberish like a lunatic is how she gets to keep a typewriter without arousing suspicion. If people think she’s a trifle demented, let them; it's a brilliant ruse. Still, she’s miffed at herself for allowing the bloodhound and the publishing people to talk her into publishing the book due out tomorrow. Maybe she was demented after all. No, not demented - curious. If she hadn’t been so curious about what would happen when all those Atticus lovers got their boats rocked, she could’ve gone to her grave with her legacy intact and they could have published it posthumously if they took a mind to. By the time the grits hit the fan she’d be settled in with her harp and her halo and wouldn’t care a bit. In the event there is no afterlife, her light would blink sweetly out and she wouldn’t know what people were saying about her. She pads on blue-veined feet to the bathroom, grateful that she needs little assistance from the young, strong staff whose hands work her over like a storm of locusts every time they bathe her. She lifts her nightie with one hand and grasps a grab-bar with the other and eases herself onto the toilet. 

"Har-PER?"booms what Lee first fears is the voice of God but seconds later, recognizes as Gregory Peck's. She's not totally surprised; she's often wondered what Peck would think of the new-old book. Not liking the tone of his voice, she decides to meet fire with fire: 

"Wait until I'm off the goddamned crapper!"

Peck, ever the gentleman, falls silent while Lee is in the bathroom.

"Could you think of no one but yourself?" he chastises as soon as she returns. 

"Nope!" she replies, not even pretending to attempt eye contact since there is no body in the room besides hers. She simply turns down her bed and attempts to swing her legs in without accidentally giving Peck an invisible eye full. 

"Harper, you're making me look bad! You're sullying my image!" intones Peck.

"Really!" barks Ms. Lee. "You didn't do that yourself when you played that nut-job Captain Ahab in Moby Dick?  And I suppose Josef Mengele, was a kindly doctor who retired in Brazil so he could save the rain forests! Honestly, Greg, you actors really fry my soup!" 

There is a lengthy silence before the once booming voice mutters, "My apologies, ma'am."

"That's better!" Harper barks, as she reaches over to shut off the lamp.















Sunday, March 11, 2018

Bridge Years

The day that would have been my mother's 93rd birthday passed in January. The second anniversary of her death fell in February. She is still the first thing to slip into my consciousness at waking and the last to cross the backs of my eyelids, with the good and the bad and the slights and the love, just before I sleep. 

I have two kids in their upper teens, and lately I'm comparing my mother's situation when I was a young adult to the ones I face with my children. 
As I write this, my daughter is taking a "bridge year," a break between high school and college. She has been diagnosed with anxiety, although for most people with anxiety, a diagnosis is just a formality. Next year, if she's ready, she'll start at community college then head to Michigan State. That's the loose plan anyway, and it's given us a lot of time together. When we laugh, we are so like my mother and I were all those years ago.

Though I lived on campus when I was in college, I was home much of the time. During my freshman year, I made friends and loved dorm life. Still, I expected my parents to pick me up on Friday afternoons and take me home for the weekend - almost every weekend. On Sunday nights as though for the last time, I'd hug and kiss them and shout goodbyes and they'd be gone - until they came back five days later. And if they felt even the slightest discontent at making three-hour round trips every weekend, it never showed. All I saw were two happy, tired people asking how my week had been, and I, a merry egotist, would spend the next two days telling them. 

Like my daughter, I have anxiety and that, coupled with introversion, drove me home to the familiar, the predictable, the routine - and my mother. I would have missed her even if I weren't an anxious introvert because my mother was truly wonderful. She was kind, her laugh bubbled like a brook, and for years I had curled up with her at night, laughing and talking, until my exhausted father came to say I really should be in my own bed.    

As to bridge years, I took one, too - between earning a Bachelor's degree and earning an income. My parents approved, provided I used that year to develop my writing skills, skills I'd just recently discovered. But I wanted to write and remember sitting at our dining table, portable Brother typewriter before me, plagiarizing the pips out of a book on Laurel and Hardy. The plagiarizing wasn't intentional, and I'm sure the writing contained some embryo of an original thought, and besides, that manuscript was never read by anyone but me. Not all the way through, anyway. If they ever peeked over my shoulder, my parents must have slipped away afterward to weep.  

All work and no play makes Laurel a dull boy.

All work and no play, makes Hardy a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Laurel a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Hardy a dull boy. 

I didn't really write all work and no play, not even once, and I did land a full-time job as an employment agent when I was 23. I went to an agency for help finding a job and got hired on the spot. And that job proved to be a keystone in my career, so the bridge in my bridge year didn't collapse after all, except that I didn't need writing skills until much later. 

The other night I dreamed that I was an adult living with my parents when it occurs to me that I really should get a job. My mother asks if that means I'll be getting my own place, too. I tell her that I'll live at home while I train for the ideal job, and even after, since it will take time to save a down payment on a house. Upon learning that I plan to move out eventually, my mother sounds lighter than she has in years, chatting on the phone and sharing the news with friends. Later in the dream, I'm telling my father that he is absolutely correct to throw out all the knick-knacks and curio shelves before he paints and redecorates the house, and then I question his choice of wall paint. 

Tell me please that I wasn't that big a jerk in real life. 

My mother and I were always close and are even now, in our way. As she lay dying, I drove from Michigan to Maryland to surprise her. When I walked into her room, it was late, the lights dim, and two aides were struggling to make her more comfortable. They weren't struggling because she was hard to please; my mother was unfailingly appreciative and expressed her gratitude generously. But there wasn't a part of her body that wasn't breaking or broken. She was so ill and trying so hard to communicate her needs, that she didn't see me slip in. I sat by the window and when one of the aides looked up, I signaled her to keep quiet. When they left, my mother lay there, eyes closed. 

"Hi, Mom," I said in my best hushed but happy tones. It seemed that even a voice, too loud or harsh, might tear the tender body in the bed. She opened her eyes, looked toward me and started to cry. I cried too. Then I cried harder when, she said, "Oh, Mom. Mom." 

I gathered her in my arms and kissed the top of her head.

"It's Teece," I murmured against her hair. "I love you. I'm here now. I'm here."

"Oh, I'm so glad," she sobbed, and I wondered if she minded that my tears had wet her scalp.  You wonder a lot of odd things when you hold a dying parent. I doubt she minded, though. Little things never bothered her. It took something as big as death to trip her up. For a while, I regretted telling her it was me when she thought I was her mother, but I think for her, by then I was both. Besides, this was her bridge year; who am I to say she didn't see her mother?    

Now that I've thrashed all this around in my head a few thousand times, I've vowed that the next time someone tells me about their kid who's studying abroad, maybe working on a second Masters, I will proudly share that mine might be living with me for years. 



















Sunday, February 18, 2018

Legs

It was when I was about 10 years-old that it first occurred to me that I didn't like my legs. It happened as I was shooting them a sideways glance in a department store mirror and was horror-struck thinking that I had no kneecaps. 
Legs in the Skirt, copyright Teece Aronin. Available on
products at Redbubble.com/people/phylliswalter
In that place where my knees were supposed to bow gracefully outward, they didn't; like my knee yeast never rose. I pointed this out to my mother who replied with that time-honored retort of mothers everywhere: "You're fine."

Of course that experience in the department store wasn't enough to deter me from saying you're fine like a mother when I grew up and had to deal with any child whose worries bored me. I'm not proud of that, but it's true. Karma bit me for it when I said, "You're fine" to my son minutes before he threw up all over his suit, his shoes, and the interior of my 
new car on the way to my aunt's funeral.

But that day in the department store did inspire me to buy my swimsuits online as soon as the technology became available.


The other thing is that I have big legs and "cankles," thick ankles that blend into my calves and shins. My biggest complaint about my cankles is that they make it hard to buy comfortable ankle socks. I'll bet there are enough women with cankles that if someone were to design the cankle sock, that person would make a fortune. I think the biggest argument for cankle socks is that they would be big enough to never get lost in the dryer. 

I haven't worn a dress, pantyhose, and heels at the same time in ages, but I remember that those three items, worn together, did great things for my legs. I still had big legs, but they were big, SEXY legs. Even the cankles stopped being cankles and were transformed into something like great cleavage, but in my shoes.  

My mother's legs were a lot like mine, and my father was crazy about her legs all their lives together. He loved to tell the story about the day he was following her up a steep stairway on his way to meet my grandmother and aunts for the first time. He said my mother kept nervously glancing down at him and clutching the hem of her skirt tight around her legs. He found her bashfulness endearing. 

A couple of years ago, I dated a man who reassuringly said to me, "Your legs are perfectly fine."  

"True," I said, "They move, and they manage to support my weight."

 And I wonder why I'm single. 

He rolled his eyes. "You have what I think of as rich legs, and they're beautiful." 

I wonder if men, overall, need to be convinced of their attractiveness as much as women seem to - again, overall. Oh, come on - who am I kidding? So I'm going to rewrite that old song, When a Man Loves a Woman to sing to myself as needed. I'm calling it, When a Woman Loves Herself and Her Cankles.  

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Laura Done Died

For years I've had a love affair going with old-time radio. Shows like Suspense, The Jack Benny Program, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Your's Truly, Johnny Dollar - they all transport me to a place where my imagination does the work - if you could call it work. 
Image copyright, Teece Aronin

And because radio ruled for decades, my mind dances to places where Art Deco might have been new-ish, as could Colonial furniture, or Mid-century modern, and atomic design motifs. I love it all, and somehow, those decades seem safer - until you factor in for things like the Great Depression, Jim Crow, World War II, and the Cold War. Damn reality.  

I wish my kids could slip away into these shows like I can; I listen to them in my car on Sirius XM, where a host named Greg Bell airs them in what feels to me like something close to Heaven 24/7. My kids are politely tolerant of the Way Back Machine I'm running out of our dashboard, and they typically plug into their phones when I'm listening to these shows. 

Last Saturday my son was at a sleepover, leaving my daughter and me to what we call our "girls' nights." These girls' nights aren't what you might imagine. They're usually us ordering pizza and binge-watching shows like Buzzfeed Unsolved, Will & Grace, and the show we're currently crazy about, the "re-imagined" One Day at a Time. 

But sometimes on girls nights, we like to take drives in the country. We sing along with the radio at the tops of our lungs or I listen to my vintage radio shows while she plugs in to something newer. We still talk off and on, but the backdrops are these two different worlds into which we've chosen to escape while I drive. 

So after Syd and I dropped Jon at the sleepover, we set off for the open road. There was a big moon, a clear sky, and unusually warm temperatures for late January. All these elements combined to give me a kind of contentment I don't usually feel. I was all wrapped up in an episode of Inner Sanctum hosted by the cheeky Raymond Edward Johnson, and Syd was plugged in nice and snug, listening to music and texting. About halfway through the episode, she piped up and commented on the fate of one of the characters: "Laura done died," she quipped.

My heart soared. Could it be my darling daughter was, dare I say, listening to my radio show? Note that I say "my radio show" as though I were Jack Webb. I decided to encourage her and played along.

"Don't be too sure of that. These shows have a way of misdirecting you. You might get a surprise!"

In the end, even Raymond was surprised; surprised and disappointed by what proved to be a total lack of murders and how there wasn't "a drop of blood spilled all evening." Had this opportunity to engage my daughter in a sliver of my world just fizzled? After all, she had grown up under the shadow of the Twilight series and others of its ilk. This show - the ending anyway - might have been a letdown. After a few minutes, I asked her. 

"Syd, did you get into that story at all?"

"Sorry, Mom, not really. Except for that one little part, I didn't even hear it. My friend, Juliana introduced me to someone she thought I'd like, and that person ended up liking me, but I didn't feel the same way. It was a whole big mess. I was trying to get out of it without hurting anybody’s feelings. Now I’m totally drained."

And not even by a vampire. I stared at her, my mouth open.

"All this happened just now? You got fixed up with someone, went on a blind date, got to know this person enough to know it wasn’t a fit, and then broke it off - all on the phone and all inside an hour?

"Yeah. I guess I kind of had my own drama going on."

We drove home and binge-watched Netflix. Syd still occasionally fiddled with her phone - probably nailing down a four-year degree, getting married, and having my first grandchild - all at the same time.