The Rotund Tree's Slow Evolution

I write this to you while sitting next to the lit Christmas tree; it's not decorated, just lit. The tree is a round-as-it-is-tall Frasier Fir. While picking it out on Sunday, we Malcolms stuck close to our annual tradition: Scene 1, me pointing to the perfect tree; then Bill raising his arm straight up to prove he is unable to touch the top bough, saying, “This one is too tall for our living room.” Before resigning to that opinion, I drop my head to the trunk and see how much we can cut off; decide that’s too much of a gamble; and concede that we should not pay for an extra two feet when that’s how much needs to be chopped off the bottom before it goes into the house.

Scene 2, Malcolms move on to the neighboring tree, looking for one with the same shape as that first tree.

Scene 3, finally a four-way consensus on the perfect tree.

On Sunday, it took the tree salesman longer to explain the difference between a fir and a spruce than it did for us to find the tree. Our rotund tree was the second tree we looked at, only three trees down from the too big 10-footer.

We went to a new Christmas tree lot this year and had elves deliver the tree to our house via a sleigh on wheels. They pulled it behind their work truck that they use in their irrigation business the other three seasons. The elves even brought the tree inside and set in up in our tree stand. I thought this experience would be a welcome change for my Chief Tree-putting-up Elf, Bill, pictured here under the 2016 Christmas tree.

It made so much more sense for two professional elves to take care of this job as opposed to the Chief Elf and his three un-trained helpers.

While the tree was still wrapped in netting, I fed it two tablespoons of sugar in warm water, per the elves' direction. The elves told us to leave it for about an hour before we cut the netting off and released the branches. During that time, Bill noticed it was slightly askew, so he, Will, and I adjusted the angle of the trunk just a little bit, looking for 90-degree angles between trunk and floor from all vantage points. Finally, I cut the netting off and the branches shyly released. When I went to bed, they were still reaching for the ceiling.

At first sight of the tree the next morning, I gasped – for many reasons. There’s the tree! Yay, we have a tree! It’s so beautiful! ...Oh, my goodness, how did it get so big? How will I drag it out of here in January when it’s now twice as wide as the back door? The tree is nearly hugging the love seat! I need to re-arrange the furniture!

Sidebar: I have visual perspective issues. Salmon fillets double in size from the fish counter to my kitchen counter. Soup recipes calling for 10 cups of stock surely would be better if doubled. Hanging a picture on the wall usually ends in scratches on the paint because I can’t accurately visualize the placement of the hook on the photo relative to the nail on the wall. For me to get a golf ball into the hole in the green? Forget about it. So goes it with this tree. However, now that I’ve moved the computer hutch over twelve inches and the love seat back two feet, this over-sized tree is magnificent. The green breadth of the tree has stolen the living room focal point away from the wide-screen TV.

Last night I found the small tub of white tree lights from last year and pushed the strings into the depths of the branches toward the trunk. Eight strings later, I had hardly made a visible glow. I had two brand new strings of colored lights so added those to the mix. This could work… but I saw plenty of room for more twinkle. Once the wattage is at an acceptable level, I’ll start adding the decorations. From past experience, I know it makes the most sense to be happy with the lighting BEFORE putting ornaments on the tree.

Every year I get a bit better at accepting the fact that I do not, cannot, shall not put the tree up in one day, like I did when I was in my twenties. Now, there are more lights to buy, 25 years of accumulated ornaments to hang, and four schedules to coordinate. I might get twenty ornaments on today, none tomorrow, five on Friday, and finish over the weekend.

Acknowledging this fact makes tree trimming much more enjoyable than fretting over the slowness of the process. The rides to and from basketball, gymnastics, scouts, trumpet lessons, drum lessons, STEM classes – not to mention the daily school drop-off and pick-up – make for intermittent decorating. Fact.

Yes, today I’ve decided that I will appreciate the few minutes it takes to put on this year’s new baubles from Maine, NASA, Vermont, Boston, and Iowa. And, I will be grateful for the friends and our family who have weaved memories with us throughout the year.

We have a lovely, pudgy Frasier Fir from which to hang years’ worth of commemorations, celebrations, and reminiscences. And this intermittent decorating means several days for which to remember, to be thankful, and to be present. And of course, to laugh at year's past.

Happy Merry-Making!

The Whale Tooth in the Trunk

My house is still breathing deep as it was last time I wrote a few weeks ago. It's recovering from the bout with Halloween. This weekend we are going to get our Christmas tree; then the official Christmas decorating will commence! Monday night, we returned from a week in Iowa. We packed a ton into that week, and each day had a definable cadence: Wednesday we put up Mom’s Christmas tree and decorations; Thursday we had a Thanksgiving feast with just Mom, Dad, and Aunt Anne; Friday we took two tall, dead elms down at Mom and Dad’s; Saturday we celebrated an early Christmas with my sister’s and brothers’ families; Sunday we had a belated Easter egg hunt; Monday we flew home. When the bus dropped us off at our van in the airport parking lot, we looked at one another as if we had just time traveled, “Didn’t we just leave?”

In the van, the same goldfish wrappers, grocery lists, and empty water bottles were right where we had left them – and that was just the inventory in the front seat. As Bill packed the cases into the cargo area, I remembered what was tucked into a side pocket back there: a baleen whale tooth.

At the beach last summer, I picked up an intriguing skinny, white, foot-long stick. At first, I thought it was just a hard piece of plastic, it felt like the handle of a fly swatter but was frayed at one end. Within 30 seconds, the thought of baleen whale tooth came to mind. Where did I pull that from, God only knows. At the end of that beach day, we packed our sandy beach chairs, coolers, beach quilt, and buckets into the van. And one, at that time “possible,” whale tooth.

At home, I shook out the blankets, put the chairs and buckets in the garage, and took the coolers to the mud room. I knew what to do with those items in our day-at-the-beach inventory. But a potential whale tooth? I gave it an up-close inspection: hard plastic on one end split into thin plastic hairs at the other; then I went into the house and Googled it. Sure enough: baleen whale tooth it was. It is. Yes, indeed it still is. In the back of my van. And yes... that was July and it's now nearly December.

Why is it still there? Well, where does one keep an amazing treasure like a whale tooth? It won’t fit in my shell jars; plus those are meant for shells only. It might fit in the long, rectangular, bronze planter box perched high on top of the computer hutch. That’s where I keep the complete horseshoe crab shells I’ve collected. A long way from the ocean, they are tucked deep into the planter, collecting dust from the air. They share the planter with a small creeping plant lodged at one end.

I know why I haven’t put the whale tooth into the planter: it’s a silly place to keep a treasure. I want to see it – as I would like to see the horseshoe crab shells. However, I know that scattering my beach treasures willy-nilly on shelves would put them in a whole new category – no longer Treasure, but rather Clutter. Collectors of Dust. A better home decorator would have this sauced out by now.

I have a thought. I could put the odd-shaped sea treasures in a clear, oblong glass serving plate that I have tucked away. Then put it on display on a shelf. When the treasures and the glass gather dust, I can just run them under water to give them a quick cleaning. But this mini beach vignette won't appear until Christmas decs have spent time on the said shelf. No, the safest place for the whale tooth is still in the back of my van… until January. What’s one more month?

Take an Iowa farm girl off the gravel roads, plant her next to the Atlantic Ocean, and voila! There she is with a whale tooth stuck in her trunk.

Clementine Pumpkins

Last weekend, I stripped Halloween from every shelf, wall, window, table, windowsill, and crevice. Bill and the boys carried the tubs from the basement out to the barn loft. Now, the living room, kitchen, and dining room feel spacious. The rooms are breathing, filling up their lungs to prepare for the next intense barrage after Thanksgiving. I’m in the coffee shop where the barista has made a poinsettia-like latte for me – it just needs a few red sprinkles to complete the visual sensation. The Christmas music in the background made me smile -- until another regular came in and said, “What is this music?!? We just took the bats down!” And the channel was changed. Ugh.

I’ve been listening covertly to a Capella Christmas music since the beginning of September. With the five-part harmony of Pentatonix, I can pitch my atonal voice in anywhere and it blends just fine – when in the confines of my van.

Bill caught me in the tub one evening in the middle of a Pentatonix holiday concert (but I was not singing). His “What the… ???” was met by my, “Out! This is my private space!!” On November 1st, Bill sent me an email with a list of all the radio stations that are playing Christmas music. This, despite the year I high-jacked his pre-set buttons on November 1st: I programmed every one to the same Christmas station. His old rock'n'roll channels were nowhere to be found. I love spreading good cheer like that!

Occasionally, the blue-tooth connection in the van connects randomly. I picked up a friend for lunch in late-September and used voice recognition to text and let her know I had arrived. She got into the van and as she shut the door, “Silent Night” started blaring. To her shocked amusement, I replied, “Sorry, I thought I had it turned off!” It will take a while for that to escape her memory.

My logical Will is not a fan of Christmas music before December. He knows about my recent propensity to play out-of-season Christmas a Capella; however, I turn the volume down completely when I pick him up from school. I note his quiet glances to the screen and the small appreciative smile he gives me after he reads, “Mary Did You Know."

Liam, on the other hand, let’s me sneak in Christmas tunes. We were home alone the night before Halloween making treats for school: peeling Clementines and adding a celery stalk stem to create pumpkins. Cooking isn’t cooking for me without music playing. Short-order cooking doesn’t require music because I need all senses to focus on the preparation of three different meals. But for leisurely cooking, crooners like Michael Buble and Frank Sinatra are my accompaniment to food creativity. As we started to peel 40 clementines, I whispered to Liam, “Do you care if we put on some Christmas music?”

“That’s fine, Mom!” I obviously have some credits built up in my court for the allowance of more electronics time as he’s gotten older. I met Liam in the middle; he’s not a fan of loud a Capella, so we peeled clementines with my crooners singing Christmas standards. And five minutes later, there I was… steeping in tricked out senses. Visions of orange and green combined with Liam’s bright eyes and smile; sounds of Christmas melodies and Liam’s snickers and chortles; smells of citrus and that stringy vegetable; tastes of juicy fruit and the trying of celery (which Liam spat out into the sink); and touches of soft orange rinds, the feeling of the knife sculpting pumpkin stems, and a gentle elbowing between Liam and me. The scene ramped up to euphoria. One of those times where you are so thoroughly in the middle of here-and-now, that the exhilaration of the moment is the axis upon which the world spins. Even once past, that memory whips up an elated memory with the intensity like that of the Grinch whose heart has been newly warmed.

Post-Halloween, and back to our normal routine, I had Christmas music playing when I picked up Liam from school one day. He asked me why I play Christmas music this early. I hesitated. Do I answer honestly or breeze over the question?

“Liam, I don’t want to sound grim, but sometimes I think, ‘What if I’m not here at Christmas? Why should I wait until December to play my favorite music?’ Sometimes you should just do what you love to do and not wait for the perfect or right time.”

“Yeah... I get it, Mom, but that is a little dark.”

But it’s the truth. And I’m loving every listening, from “Silent Night” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “Jingle Bells.” Perhaps I will have had enough when we reach Easter? Maybe.

But for today... Have Yourself a Merry Little Hump Day!

New Freedoms with a Tween and a Teen

Independence abounds in our house this fall. It's not always predictable, but it is taking shape. At 11 years old, Liam is old enough to be at home on his own more often now. I'm still a bit nervous going out beyond three miles from our house in the evening and leaving him alone. Last night, Bill and I went with our friends to a musical at a theater 14 miles from our house. I dimmed my phone, set it to vibrate, and sat with it on my lap the whole show. At intermission, I called home.

"Hi, Mom. I've made my cup of noodles and I'm fine." That's how Liam answered the phone. I reminded him what time Will would be home from gymnastics. And that Liam needed to go upstairs at 9 p.m., away from hand-held electronics and to our bedroom. When we got home at 10 p.m., Liam was upstairs watching TV in our bedroom, and Will confirmed he had gone up to bed a half hour earlier. I don't know if that's true. Part of me hopes that when they saw the car come in the drive, Liam raced upstairs, and Will covered for him. I like to believe there is a bit of an alliance between them -- a joint brotherly independence.

Last Friday night, Bill was out of town and I went to Boston with a friend for the evening, leaving the boys to their own devices until midnight. When I got home, Liam was in bed fast asleep and Will was hanging out in his bedroom. All was calm.

I'm reveling in this new-found freedom. On evenings when Bill and I are both going out, and I'm fussing over what to get the boys for dinner, it's refreshing when Liam quells my worry, "Mom, I won't starve. I'll just make a cup of noodles."

Then, Will chimes in, "Yeah, EZ mac in the microwave works for me."

We are traveling new territory in the mornings too. Will gets up to his own alarm, showers, makes breakfast, and packs his own lunch. Liam comes down and turns on the TV. I've spent each morning the first month of school hovering and poking at him to eat, pack his backpack, and make his lunch. This morning, I couldn't take watching any more tween shows at 6:45 a.m. I made breakfast for Liam and told him to turn the TV off at 7:30 and finish getting ready for school. Then I went to the office and shut the door to eliminate noise coming from the Nickelodeon channel. It was a productive half hour for me, and at 7:30 I heard the TV go off, and at 7:45, "Mom, I ready!"

Note to self: No need to hover. The magic of self-regulation seems to be taking hold!

After school pick-ups have also changed for the better. I pick Liam up first at 2:15 and take him home, then get back on the road to pick up Will at 2:45. And a strange thing is happening with each of them: conversation. Liam needs to release loud verbal energy in the car. Will needs a quiet drive with minimal conversation. I need harmony. Again with Liam old enough to be on his own, this is all doable.

I've heard parents talk about their expanded freedom when their kids can drive, but there isn't as much talk about this stage. Perhaps, because it's nerve-racking. Plus, there are no hard and fast rules as to when this independence is appropriate.

(Coincidently, reflecting back to 1976, I was 10 years old and babysitting. Yup, when Elvis died I heard the news while I was taking care of two little girls. I probably even fed them and did the dishes while their parents were working.)

We have several carpools in place to get many kids from A to B throughout the week; however, I've always brought Will home from school -- nearly an hour roundtrip. A parent who lives nearby reached out to me about carpooling our sons home from afterschool band practice. It's not a regularly scheduled ride share, so we juggle it every week depending on what days work best for each of us. Yesterday morning, I got a text, "I can bring Will home today if he can wait until 4:00." Yes, thank you!

I reminded Will what this parent's car looked like and to go to the pickup point on time. At 4:00 I smiled, happy to have this little system worked out and to not be on the road. I was working in the office while Liam and his buddies were playing outside. At 4:30, I still hadn't seen Will and was worried that he had forgotten the plan. His phone is dead so I couldn't text or call him. At 4:50, I called the dad who was bringing Will home, and I could tell immediately by the background noise that he was at home, not in his car.

"Did Will forget to meet you at school for a ride home?" I asked.

"What? He's home! I dropped him off about a half hour ago."

"Reeeally?!" I was dumbstruck.

"Yeah, he saw his little brother on the tramp with his buddies and said something like, 'I'm going straight to my room.'"

"Aha... OK. Well, thank you!"

Our office has two doors; the one closest to the stairs to the second floor had been shut. I opened it and went up to find Will doing homework on his bed.

"Hi, Mom."

"Hi, Will. I didn't know you were home... I've been a little worried since 4:30, and I just called Mr. Smith to see where you were."

"Ohhh..."

"Just let me know whenever you get home. A simple 'Hi Mom' will do." I won't thwart your independence. Let's just get on the same page.

Will gave me a nod and thumbs-up in reply.

I sent the dad a quick text: "I found my kid..." accompanied by an embarrassed emoji.

Your car is parked near Home

It’s funny how similar pieces of information have different levels of importance depending on the situation. My online shopping habit leaves me lost when I enter a mall. If I need to go to a brick and mortar multi-plex, I try to look at a map of it online before driving there so I can see where to park and which way to turn once inside the building. More often than not, I still search for a mall directory when I get there so I can visually get my bearings. Finding the store is the easy part; finding the “You Are Here” marker is more challenging and is just as important as the store location. As I’m back on the driving circuit this month, my phone has started to monitor my travels. Perhaps this is happening because I use the Waze GPS app daily. With no as-the-crow-flies route to Will’s school, I use this app to find the quickest of five or six possible routes. This app considers current traffic flow. When I get to school, the app automatically says, “Are you going home now?” It knows my routine. With one click of “Yes,” our journey home is mapped out, again, using the quickest route.

This smartphone is giving me cues at home as well. If it detects movement, a message comes on the screen: “Your car is parked near Home.” It’s akin to the “You Are Here” marker on a mall directory, but at home, this is absolutely useless information. After school on Wednesday, Will and I exchanged glances when this message popped up.

“Well, it would be good for someone suffering from severe amnesia,” he offered.

“I’m not that bad yet,” I replied. “Something more useful – like ‘Your Trumpet Is in the Trunk of the Parent’s Car Who Drove the Carpool Home Monday’ – would be much more useful,” I suggested. Now that would legitimate the word “smart” in smartphone.

Will has played trumpet in the band at this school since 6th grade. He has the habit down to a science, rarely forgetting to take the instrument and always bringing it home for his Saturday lesson. And within our house, it’s either in the mudroom or the office/music room. This year, band meets after school twice a week, and for the first time, the school has made it an elective so it also meets during the school day, and students get credit for it. During the first week of school, the instructor made it clear that students would be docked if they forgot their instruments.

On Monday, we tried out a band carpool, and another mom picked Will up and brought him home from an after-school practice. It all worked seamlessly and alleviated a trip for me. However, Wednesday morning we were scouting the house for the trumpet. Finally, it dawned on Will where it was: in the back of the mom’s car who had brought him home. He texted the carpool mom’s son – only to find that his mom had left on a business trip that morning. I texted the carpool dad.

We were operating on the assumption that the trumpet was most likely in the trunk of a car that was parked at the airport. With no word back from the dad, I called the music store where Will takes lessons. Yes, there was a trumpet there that Will could use for the week. I would pick it up at 11:00 and get it to the school in plenty of time for band period that started at 1:00.

As I headed out the door, my cell phone buzzed with a new message. I was hoping it would be a message from the carpool dad. Yet again I saw, “Your car is parked near Home.”

“Yes, but where is the trumpet?” I shouted at the smartphone.

In the van, I plugged in the smartphone and drove to the end of the driveway. As I prepared to make a right-hand turn, my phone buzzed with a message again. I glared at the device, but alas! It was a message of substance! “Trumpet in my trunk.” Carpool mom had driven carpool dad's car when she picked up the kids on Monday. The trumpet wasn't at the airport after all!

I turned left instead of right and drove to the carpool dad’s house to retrieve the trumpet. In the school office at 11:30, I added it to the myriad of other dropped-off objects on the counter: phones, lunches, iPads, and books.

Seeing those other forgotten objects calmed me and made me feel a little more connected to the world. The secretary’s warm, sincere smile as one student walked in to pick up his lunch reminded me that we aren’t alone in the September rush of creating habits and getting used to new routines.

So went the time dedicated to writing this week’s Hump Day Short. As needed, the writer pulls over and hands the reigns to the mom…

I must end here as I just received a text from Will. A Google doc that is due today has disappeared into the cloud-o-sphere…

Thank God It’s Friday.

What the Boys Wear

I’m looking nearly eye-to-eye with my 13-year-old (soon to be 14-year-old) Will. At his physical this summer, he was just 1 ¾” shorter than me. With his school shoes on, he’s only about ¾” shorter. Thinking he had popped up an inch overnight one morning last week, I had him back up against the door where we’ve been marking the boys’ heights since they were old enough to stand. “It’s just my shoes, Mom.” Yes, partially. He had grown another quarter inch in the last month. Liam has hit the growth spurt as well. Nearly four inches since last August. Will has more markings on the door in recent months. I don’t have a system of monthly or bi-monthly measurement. It’s more like, “Gosh, you seem taller! Go stand by the door; I’ll bring my Sharpie.” Or, “You’re pants are too short. Go stand by the door; I’ll bring my Sharpie.” And when Will’s head approached my shoulder and beyond, I’ve marched him to the door more often over the last year.

Will and Liam are not caught up in clothing styles or brands. Comfort comes first. And with both of them in school uniforms, comfort becomes a relative word during the week. Then, after school and on the weekend, the t-shirts and sweats come out. Will has few t-shirts that aren’t gymnastics related. Liam seldom dons shirts unless we are leaving the house or company is coming over. However, lately, he’s been cooking and has realized it’s good to have a shirt on to avoid splatters on bare skin. What shorts Liam wears only matters if we are hiking; then he needs pockets to carry rocks.

I’m pretty sure I could control both of their wardrobe choices by simply putting a shirt I selected on top of the pile every morning. There’s little thought given to holes or clothes that are too small. Consequently, if it has outlived its useful life in the Malcolm home, the Laundry Maven needs to take note then intercept it in the laundry cycle, or it goes directly back into the rotation.

Matching can sometimes be a challenge, but one I rarely comment on. Basically, any color t-shirt matches any color stripe on black sweat pants or shorts. I see that trend with boys around their age. If Will has a neon green shirt land jackpot with a pair of sweats having the same neon colored stripe, I might comment on how nice he looks. With his quiet response, I see a frame from a comic strip, and we are face to face. In it, I have wide open admiring eyes with a bubble that says, “Matching neon green – top and bottom!” Will has raised eyebrows with a thinking bubble saying, “T-shirt. Sweats.”

Both of the boys played a bit of golf over the summer. That required more formal attire – a belt, a collared shirt, and nice shorts. A bit of grumbling melted into acquiescence in order to chase a ball for a couple hours. It’s good for them to see there is a time and a place to dress appropriately. Though those times seem far and few between compared to 20 years ago.

When we are going out, sometimes I ask them to put on something a bit nicer. I like to see what they come up with on their own. Generally, they avoid the trousers with zippers and opt for black sweats and a collared shirt. The only suggestion I might make is a change from white to black socks, particularly if three inches of their ankles are showing.

Happy Hump Day.

Hikers/rock collectors in the distance. (Summer 2017  in Vermont)

A new angel walks in heaven now

The prep for the weekly Hump Day Short was back on track Wednesday morning after the school drop-off. Just before I put pen to paper, or rather fingers to keyboard, I checked my email only to find that a good friend had died earlier that morning. We had been acquaintances for eight years as my younger boys followed the same trail as her older boys through the same school then through the same scout troop. A couple years ago, we bumped into each other in the library on a winter day. Having not seen her for a few months, her missing eyebrows just below her knitted cap prompted my direct question, "What's going on?" And her reply, "I'm going through what you did. Do you have time for coffee?"

Through our many shared mocha lattes over the last couple years, I discovered that she also grew up in the Midwest, Minnesota, and our conversations felt like those around Mom's kitchen table. We rarely went in-depth over that two-word beast, breast cancer; with two women raised on black Midwestern dirt we took one day at a time. We talked about the immediate plan for treatment, the thing most controllable. But mostly we talked about family - near and far, our lives in our community, and the weather - as most Midwesterners do. Her no-nonsensical approach to life was like a breath of fresh air blown in from the plains. She kept on a steady keel with few complaints. All who crossed her path professionally and within the community will feel an unfillable emptiness at the table - as I will across a small coffee table. God gained a great angel; earth lost an amazing woman.

As much as I turn this loss around in my head, I have no fresh words but rather fall back to these...

“How long will it hurt?" Will was around seven when he asked that question. It was after a skinned knee or elbow. I don’t remember the wound – only those words. And the insistence that I just tell him how long. The begging.

Wouldn’t it be a great feat to look at a watch or a calendar and mark the end time or date? How much more manageable pain would be if we had that ability.

Instead, the time of intense pain puts us in a different continuum, bare of minutes and hours and outside the realm of normal. How can there be a normal anywhere when the here and now is filled with this much pain? Must the birds sing this morning? How can the sun reflect onto clouds and hand us the most glorious sunset?

If we could only answer that question. How long will it hurt? How much farther from today will a footstep out of bed be the first one back to the patter of life before that ensconcing pain? As much as it may seem to be a perverse punch to the gut, the fact that life continues around us gives a sense of comfort when that first return step into "normal" is made.

The uncertainty of pain exhausts. The unknown when and where and how forces us to live in the moment. Moment after moment. Living normal life on skates, that slowness induced by pain feels unnatural. Living in the moment and letting go of the control we look for in daily life – another layer of pain.

Concentric circles of pain fall around the person at the center of it. Whether an unwelcome diagnosis or an unexpected illness, an equal but different intense pain emanates from the center of that pinwheel to the first closest circle; the ones who would do or give anything to make that pain disappear but who can only comfort and support the person fighting the fight.

And with our woven friendships and acquaintances, the circles continue to increase in number. And in those outer circles, we want the same for the inner circles: for the pain to subsist. To find that answer to “How long will it hurt?” All of us have been in those tight inner circles, asking the same question. And, if there was any way we could, we would answer that question to alleviate some of your pain.

Instead, it remains the unanswered question, and often times, all we can do is let you know that a piece of our heart is with you every day...

Whether you are a good-vibes or praying type of person, or both, please whisper Marietta's name today, as well as anyone else's who may find themselves in a circle asking, "How long will it hurt?"

What is the plural of octopus?

Since we moved out to the Boston area in 2005… …Well, that’s as far as I got last Tuesday while writing a piece titled “Chasing R’s.” It was/is/will be a commentary on the Boston accent, or rather my attempt at translating words and conversations.

Last Tuesday's writing:

"Up at 5:00 a.m., I was sure this would happen: two hours of writer’s flow. However, Liam and his new octopus plush have now joined me in the living room. And, now the _Octonauts_ show is on TV. He’s taken a keen interest in octopuses/octopi/octopodes since a week of summer camp where the kids were encouraged to do in-depth research on any topic they chose. Hence my knowledge of the three acceptable plural forms of octopus.

Octopuses are boneless so can scoot through very small holes. I’m told their favorite snacks are crabs. They have nine brains: one in each tentacle and one in their head. If a tentacle gets cut off it grows back. Brain and all!

The appeal of octopuses to Liam: they are very sneaky and very smart. They are near the top of the food chain because of their intelligence and their defense mechanisms. They leave enemies in a black cloud of ink or they blend into the background.

The giant Pacific octopus is Liam’s favorite because it has the biggest brain. He also likes the coconut octopus because it’s the smartest and it uses tools, and they can run with two legs on the ocean floor. One octopus can walk on land and it makes a gooey, slurpy sound as it moves across land.   Thanks BBC for the sight and sounds of this phenomenon! 

It’s only 6:00 a.m., and Liam and I just wrote his journal entry for the week."

And from there, I spent a half hour youtubing octopi: one scuttling across the ocean floor like a cartoon creature and another carrying a big shell as he ran, then setting it down, crawling inside, and pulling the lid over the top of him to hide.

I now better understand Liam’s fascination with these slug-related creatures.

Low Maintenance: Mulch It

Last Saturday morning, I was lodged into a corner of my kitchen avoiding the 6-foot long window over my kitchen sink. It overlooks the backyard and the deck, which is the main entrance to our house. When we put an addition on five years ago, we added windows all along the back of the house so we could see the kids playing in the backyard. I didn’t consider the reverse view: we are on display for anyone in the backyard. And so are the dirty dishes on the counter and in the sink. It was designed with Pottery Barn ideology and is being lived in with Malcolm practicality. I was hugging the corner cupboards after hearing a clunk on the deck. The lawn care guys were outside, and they had found a pair of my leather sandals I had missed picking up before the rain the night before. The crew leader had plopped them on the deck for me.

On Wednesday, I had taken my small snippers, the long-handled trimmers, and a hack saw to the front yard. Never mind what precluded the need to see something majorly physical accomplished, just know I was armed and the trees quaked. After perhaps 10 little snips on the weeping cherry, my most beloved snippers of 10 years fell apart and random pieces scattered on the ground – with the smallest bits disappearing under the dead grass. I picked up the long-handled trimmers and the first cut proved worthless: they were rusted after being last used to help a Boy Scout with his Eagle project in the spring. We cleared a trail in rain and hadn’t dried them properly after the outing.

Bill’s hack saw beckoned, and my mind flashed back to tree trimming at our first house in Rockford, Illinois. My mom used to make the 3-hour drive to our house in her little Chevy S-10 pick-up truck. On a couple occasions, Mom and I spun like tornadoes pruning trees and loading branches up in her truck to take them to the pit. We were exhilarated and exhausted at the end of the day. That was about 20 years ago; she was my age then.

I was a lone Tasmanian devil Wednesday. I cut 10-foot branches down from a thorny Black Locus that a bird had shat out. Its branches hung over the sidewalk ready to jab any kid who would soon be walking down that sidewalk to school. It’s an invasive tree and can grow up to 100-foot tall – and its growth is so quick it seems visible week to week. I decided not to fell the whole tree as it may have landed on a passing car. I took down to a stump another tree-bush next to the locust that had gotten out of control.

I grabbed maple branches, pulled them down, and then reached up as I high as I could with the hack saw. Cutting 6-feet of weight off of the ends resulted in a bouncing up of the whole branch – hopefully to let more sun in underneath. I crossed the drive and acted on a decision I had been resisted making for a couple years: Is my magnolia a round tree-bush or a tall thin tree? Again like the maples, I considered the need for more sunlight under the tree for perennials. It’s now a rather regal magnolia tree. I tossed all trimmings onto the dead grass of the front lawn. Scratched, sweaty, heart-racing… I was a conqueror of trees.

Bill’s pet peeve is when I leave piles after working in the garden, so I called our lawn care company and asked them to pick up the trimmings and take them to the pit for me. And, I texted Ian to forewarn him of the sight that would meet him at the entrance of our drive. The manager of the lawn care company agreed and offered to do it for free in return for an accidental major weed-whacking incident in mid-July: They had ventured into one of my “flower gardens” and taken out all my raspberry bushes and ferns and trampled seedling wild flowers.

I purposely don’t use mulch so that plants have bare dirt to propagate from one year to the next. Having said that, I have a 6’ x 10’ bed near the back door that is all Columbines. They are a spectacular bloom of solid pink in the spring, but now they are a bed of tall, rattling, dried out Columbine pods. In the front garden, where I get the best sun, I left empty a 2-foot wide strip along the front of that flower bed – thinking I would get vegetables or annuals planted. I didn’t get that done, but it made me smile to see little Brown-eyed Susans and Purple Cone Flowers popping up amidst the grass and weeds in that area. Then a second weed-whacking incident occurred. I believe that was the day that I turned my back on every single weedy garden space around my house.

However, Thursday morning I decided to tackle the side garden where the first weed-whacking incident occurred. As I approached the weed patch, determined to find wildflower seedlings remaining after the lawn care guys trampling, a rabbit ran out from behind the long grassy and weedy plot. With my new gardening knee pads on -- a practical and spectacular birthday present from Bill's family -- I crawled on my hands and knees carefully excavating around 6-inch high fragile seedlings. It was a rabbit wonderland: tall weeds and grass providing cover to the rabbits as they mowed down the new growth. In my 1 ½ hour weeding expedition, I was doing little more than exposing a tender salad bar for the rabbits. The same rabbits who had claimed all of my new perennials that I had planted last summer amongst the Columbines.

Saturday morning the lawn care guys came by to pick up the trimmings. I really did not want to come face to face with them, given my weedy flower gardens which had precipitated their haphazard weed-whacking. That’s how I found myself jammed in the corner of the kitchen. I thought they were only there to pick up the trimmings. Then I heard the mowers and blowers wind up. With a sigh, a curled lip, and a shake of my head, I packed my computer and journals and headed out the door. I scared the daylights out of the crew leader as I appeared on the step only a few feet away from him and his leaf blower. Immediately, he turned the blower off.

“Mrs. Malcolm, I noticed your flower beds are a bit overgrown.”

No shit.

“I have some ideas about a mulch garden in the back where the grass isn’t growing.”

I’m more concerned about where the quack grass IS growing.

“And along the side of the house some mulched deciduous trees. Low maintenance.”

Sadly, I think he has a point. And I know from experience the power beheld in the hands of a weed-whacker. Dad routinely whacks flowers on the edges of Mom’s flower gardens. I just pay someone to do it here. This feeling of power is much the same, I'm sure, as that of a nearly-uncontrollable swirling diva after the first hack-sawed branch falls.

The English cottage garden I had in Rockford in my twenties is not taking hold here. Indeed, I do think I will concede to a bit of mulch and bushes. And shift my focus to just a couple flower gardens to keep under control.

For my primary responsibility now is pruning and growing children, not multiple flower beds. I’ve come around the bend and know that making part of my environment “low maintenance” will eliminate the weedy chaos that daily burns my corneas.

Fortunately, it has meant days of sweat and physical labor that leave me exhausted and exhilarated at the end of each day. Energy well spent.

Have you laughed today?

I've been investigating effects of the release of endorphins in the brain that result in an analgesic. Regarding this biochemical process, through my research I have deduced two analogies: one of baseball and one of an ice cream cone. In baseball, the team and fans are happiest when the pitcher makes excellent throws that result in strikes; on the other hand, balls high over the catcher's mitt and in the dirt may get the pitcher pulled and booed.

When a kid orders an ice cream cone, the waffle cone is open to his favorite flavor, say good old plain chocolate; however, if the scooper mistakenly fills the cone with one of the flavors on either side of chocolate, perhaps espresso bean or chocolate with peanut butter, at best the kid will be unhappy, and at worst, he will need an EPI pen.

In both of these, there is a transmitter and a receptor: The transmitters are the pitcher and the scooper, leaving the catcher and the cone as the receptors. At the most basic level, this is how the brain transmits chemicals to opioid receptors in the brain.

What goes between these transmitters and receptors determines the level of human happiness and comfort. In a perfect world, opioid receptors wait for delivery of happy natural opiates, like uplifting endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Perfect pitches and chocolate ice cream.

Enter life. When humans are thrown a curve ball, the transmitters start throwing stress and pain at the receptors. Pitches in the dirt and espresso bean ice cream. Then the body tries to produce chemicals to offset the bad stuff, but it can't always keep up. At times like this, a bump-up in endorphins creates an analgesic, aka... pain relief. Enter laughter. It's like a natural endorphin pump filling those receptors and blocking the yuck.

The crazy-ass thing about this is that when pain and stress rear their nasty heads, to laugh is one of the last emotions that happens naturally. I think to some degree there is an association of guilt with laughing when life deals out the dark stuff. After all, what is there to laugh about in times like this? In fact, it's precisely the time to throw the best pitch and the perfect scoop into the opioid receptors. I truly hope the following might give you at least a giggle, plus a little surge in endorphins.

During chemo eight years ago, I remember a few times when humor rocked our family. I scooped some of these moments up in a short piece called Impersonations. This still makes me laugh aloud when I read it.

During that same time, I borrowed several DVDs from a friend's library -- all comedies. They were on hand in case I needed pure escapism at 2:00 a.m. when the steroids were keeping me awake. If you have 90 minutes to tickle your funny bone, these are a couple comedies that have left our family in stitches this summer:

The Secondhand Lions - In short, hilarious shenanigans between two eccentric uncles and their great nephew.

The Sandlot - Witty, gritty young boys living and breathing baseball in an empty lot next door to an enormous furry "beast."

Finally, this month I'm dedicating "P.S." below to Laughter -- maybe a photo, a story, or a one-liner that gave me a laugh, giggle, chortle, or belly laugh -- accompanied by snorts -- will do the same for you.

And sometimes, there is simply no harm in laughing at yourself. So, I leave you with this photo which was taken between workouts: Before I had gone on a long walk... and just after I had pulled on a crossback bra. Here's the story: The Commonality between Cat's Cradle and Crossback Bras.

The Gold Maple

When we first found our property here in New England, we loved the fact that it was surrounded by maple trees. The first autumn, we filled five leaf bags and didn’t even make a dent in the piles. We needed help raking. Now every year we have a 4-hour show: a crew of five people, each with industrial leaf blowers, accompanied by a covered dump truck with an attached giant Hoover. It has an 18-inch tube of a mouth that sucks the leaves into the truck bed. The second year we hired another company to remove some dead trees. The owner told us that our maples are not good ones; they pop up and multiply like rabbits. That fall, we paid more attention to the leaves. They turned a dirty brown/yellow before they fell. While they provide great shade and a thick, natural privacy fence, our maples aren’t the vibrant beauties you think of when you hear the words “fall in New England.”

Last year, eight years later, I decided we needed at least one true New England maple. At our local nursery, I asked for a Gold Sugar Maple. The man cocked his head and said, “Which one do you want?”

He explained that there is a Gold Maple and a Sugar Maple. The Gold Maple leaves turn bright yellow in the fall. The Sugar Maple leaves turn splendid yellow, orange and red. The other major difference is that Gold Maples take ten years to mature, and Sugar Maples take 25 years. Needing a bit of instant gratification, I chose the Gold Maple.

Before planting the new tree, a few spindly maple trees needed to come down. We called our tree removal company, and a man came out to give us an estimate. I pointed to the trees that need to be taken out, and he spray-painted a red “X” on each one. He looked at the root-bound ground and asked, “How are you going to dig a hole big enough for the root ball?”

I shrugged.

He offered to dig it with a stump grinder. He had a glint in his eye like a kid with a new toy to try out.

He backed into our drive a few days later with a trailer. On it was a big machine with the words “Vermeer” across the side. That company is headquartered in Pella, Iowa! For years we have driven by it on the way to our friends’ house. I knew it was an equipment company that told me I was on the right road. Now, sitting in my drive was a stump grinder from that very company! Believing that small things point to good karma, I knew planting this tree would be a successful endeavor.

I directed where the tree was to stand and the men maneuvered the grinder into place. The mechanism dropped to the ground and spun wide and deep enough for the root ball. It spit out rocks and broke through tree roots, creating a nest for the new tree’s roots.

The arborist’s face lit up as the machine did the work. That man loves his job! Having a sufficient hole, he and his assistant cut off the gunny sack from around the root and dropped the tree into place. They filled in the dirt, making sure the tree stood up straight.

“Now, you get the hard part of keeping it alive! You see I left a 6-inch deep trench around the tree? Fill it with water twice a day until mid-October.” It was June.

Faithfully, we filled the trench with two gallons of water morning and night. We dug it out when too much dirt washed in after heavy rains.

In the fall, the leaves turned gold and fell, just as a New England maples leaves should. Bill told the snow plow guy not to knock it over when he plowed at 2:00 a.m. Come spring, it budded and new leaves sprung forth. On hot days when the leaves droop a bit, I set up a sprinkler and for an hour let a small arch of water fall on and around the now washed out trench.

When I come home from my daily drives, I park right in front of it and give it the once over. Every time I park. A little check-up. Three or four times a day.

Yesterday afternoon, I pulled in and looked at the tree. And a rather strange thought occurred to me: I want to be that tree. I want a foundation of space carved out for me and a trench with a reservoir of nutrients. For mind, body, and soul. And who but me to tend to all of this? To observe a daily habit of care. To check that I’m not wilting.

I think back to when I was going through breast cancer treatment when my doctor told me that my first priority was myself. Really, that should always be the case – how else do we expect to take care of others if we aren’t taking the very best care of ourselves? Our needs change day to day, week to week. We should check in frequently, making it a habit as natural as brushing our teeth or taking a shower. What we need doesn’t necessarily come knocking at our door. Rather if we purposely think about our needs, then we can be proactive in fulfilling them.

A walk in the woods. Dancing to loud music in the kitchen. Conversations with friends every day. A meal in a restaurant that doesn’t serve chicken fingers and grilled cheese. Sleep. Skyping with Mom and Dad. Drinking more water. Taking a half hour to sit down and eat lunch. Stirring a pot of risotto for a half hour. Gardening.

I’m the only one who knows what I need – **if** I take the time to give myself the same occasional once-over as I do that tree. A certain calm sets in around me when I care for myself as I do for the people – and one Gold Maple – in my life.

Carbs Glorious Carbs

Last night the boys and I flew into Boston’s Logan airport after a 17-day excursion in Iowa. It was a rural vacation; I spent most of it barefoot. On grass. Across gravel. In water. Around a campfire. On a fishing boat. One day Liam was heading out the door at Mom and Dad’s, and I asked him where his shoes were. He asked me why I wanted to know. It was a question I asked every day as they headed out the door to school, but he was right: today, playing outside at Grandma and Grandpa’s, it didn’t really matter where his shoes were. Indeed, why was I asking?

A vacation in Iowa meant a switch to a shoeless culture reminiscent of my childhood. And it didn’t stop there. Normally more resistant to carbs, I gave in to those as readily as I went barefoot. Nothing is easier than putting meat between two slices of bread for a quick lunch. And as for a bacon and catsup sandwich on white bread for breakfast, well, at least I skipped the accompanying pancakes.

Liam discovered Hawaiian rolls at my sister’s house during the first couple days of our trip. He is more of a de-constructed sandwich eater: a roll with real butter and a couple slices of meat on the side. We had a family reunion for my mom’s side, inviting everyone to a potluck in park shelter on a Sunday afternoon. Liam loved those rolls, so I asked one aunt if she would pick some up on her way through town. Mom and I let everyone know the basics that we would bring: scalloped potatoes and ham, fruit, veggies, and PBJ sandwiches. Then, we threw in sliced turkey and ham too.

At the park, we set up a table for desserts and one with a cold island for fruits, veggies, sliced meats, and deviled eggs. On a table closest to the outlet, we plugged in the crock pot of escalloped potatoes and ham. On another table, we put out a loaf of wheat bread with peanut butter and strawberry jam.

The carb table was a little sparse and pitiful until everyone started arriving… with rolls! The turkey and ham sandwiches suddenly had more choices than a Hawaiian sweet roll or a slice of flimsy wheat bread. I remember the full table but not all the varieties. With one exception: one aunt brought her infamous homemade rolls “because that was the easiest thing I could make.” I know no one else who would let those words roll so easily over their lips. Her rolls were still warm and butter melted so beautifully on my split roll that I ate it without any meat – the first one, that is.

Desserts that day – brownies and chocolate chip cookies – joined forces with all sorts of sweets over the course of 17 days. My aunt’s homemade blackberry and chocolate pies. A 9x13 pan of cinnamon rolls from an Amish friend as a thank you to Mom and Dad for a favor – with a loaf of homemade bread on the side. Mom’s chocolate drop cookies and chocolate chip cookies, perfectly baked. Monster cookies from Liam’s hero, dubbed “Monster Cookie Girl.” She is a neighbor of Mom and Dad’s who brought monster cookies to their house when we were visiting over a year ago, proving that the way to this kid’s heart is through his stomach.

Mom grilled a couple nights and had baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, or leftover escalloped potatoes accompanying the steaks and chicken. When we first arrived home, the table was set for 14 for supper. Served family style, the bowls and plates of food just kept going round and round the table. I passed on vegetable seconds, except for that nearly-not-a-vegetable: potatoes.

Boiled and mashed spuds remind me of my grandpas on either side of the family. With butter, salt, and pepper, potatoes were a supper staple for those two farmers. Sitting at that table with potatoes on my plate… what a strange way to feel close to those who are no longer with us. But potatoes can pull memories of them so close to the present that it makes my eyes water.

Living on a farm means nearly non-stop movement year-round. Planting and harvesting in the fields and the gardens. Planting flowers and pulling weeds all season. Daily feeding cattle and checking on them in the timber. Carbs are the backbone of this life, giving the energy to thrive. Growing up, even with potatoes at the supper table, there was always a loaf of white bread to pass, whether homemade or from a Wonder bag. Spread with butter, a slice of bread was the added carb to fill up any cracks the rest of the meal may have left.

With my shoes back on and no cattle to take care of, I’m back home on the East coast. I know I let myself over-indulge in carbs way more than normal during the last 17 days. I know here that I can’t bake every week or keep lovely, fresh breads on the counter. My energy exertion this morning was a walk to the car then a walk into the library.

Without a doubt, my body will be in withdrawal the next couple days with fewer carbs converting to sugar. While it tasted good going over the tongue, those carbs landed in places making the waistband on my shorts difficult to connect.

Still, every time I go to Iowa, there will be a plate-sized fried, pork tenderloin served on a way too small hamburger bun in some little diner or restaurant. And, fortunately, Iowa is the only state where I have found those delicious carb- and fat-packed sandwiches.

Today, I’ve kicked my shoes off under the table where I’m writing in the library, but I’ll be having a salad for lunch.

(Then there's THE August carb of the month -- sweet corn!  Click Corn's On! for that story!)

Lean in, Boys

As a white mom raising two Korean sons with my white husband, I move between parent and educator. When the boys were very young, I realized that my primary concern was with my family, not to the nosy-Bettys in check-out lines or to Liam’s former dermatologist who had the audacity to ask how much my kids cost – in front of my kids. “Priceless,” dosed out with an enormous smile, was the only protective word necessary with these ignorant yahoos. Some adoptive parents can turn it to a question, “Why do you ask?” instead of providing an answer. I’m not that quick on my feet, nor do I really want to engage in further conversations with people like this. As the boys got older, they found their own protection strategies. When Liam was in first grade, perhaps more knowledge would have kept a little boy from derogatorily calling Liam “China-man.” Liam looked at the kid as if he had two heads and asserted, “I’m Korean! And, so what if I was Chinese?!? What does that have to do with anything?” Liam retold this story to me right after it happened, and every time I revisit it, I visualize Liam standing up tall and maybe chasing the kid down to make sure he hears every word. I’m convinced he will keep that gusto the rest of his life.

As for Will in these situations, he is quieter in spirit but has a definitive look that says, ‘I can’t believe you’re that ignorant,’ and will walk away from the comment, the person, or the situation. He’s the quiet assessor; a vigilant protector of his time and brain space. Having said that, he has been engaging freely in political debate with other students and adults since November. If they have the where-with-all to keep up with him, more power to them. Forever he has wanted to be a rocket scientist, but more and more I hear an attorney when he steps up to defend his political position.

Bill and I are perched on an uncomfortable edge of these candid political discussions that Will pursues. Our socially acceptable parameters go along the lines of the old – and probably now extremely outdated – avoid religion and politics as part of casual small talk. More often recently because of the uncanny way our jaw drops at some comments. It’s an involuntary physical reaction; mine is accompanied by wide eyes and an eyebrow raise. And, all words that might pass over my tongue simply evaporate.

Will’s, not so much. His eyes are piercing, ready for the debate. I think our kids are part of a generation more comfortable at openly stating their opinions without the burden of overly analyzing social acceptability. When Bill and I suggested to Will to be careful in approaching certain topics within different social settings, we were given a look that challenged all the niceties I grew up with as a shy girl. The look was followed by, “Really?” To which I had no answer.

In one word – and with that look, Will assessed his worldview and my evolving socially-acceptable world view.

Lean in, boys. Lean in.

Box Top Hell

In early March, I had Bill’s car detailed while he was in China. I emptied the car – a relatively minor task as his is only driven to a parking lot every day. Whereas with my van, I need multiple bags to empty it as the inside looks more like a rocket ship that has been on a five-year mission with no link to outside resources or disposal systems. I cleared everything but the ice scraper; it was lodged so tightly under the front seat that I couldn’t get it to budge. I left it for the detailer to deal with. It wasn’t until a little spring snow storm that we realized the scraper wasn’t in the car. I called the detailer and told him it was missing. His voice was hesitant. I confirmed that it was bright orange and asked him to hold onto it for me. He agreed. The snow melted and the ice cleared for a few days, and I never made the left-hand turn to get the scraper. It snowed again. It melted again.

Mid-April after another light snow, I finally stopped in on a Saturday morning. The detailer wasn’t there but the mechanic who had space next door was working, and he came out of the office that they shared. I explained my mission, and he told me to have a look around.

Standing outside of the detailer’s cleaning bays was set of metal shelves, the kind you build and place in your garage for storage. On the first shelf was a collection of at least 25 ice scrapers covered in a light coat of snow! I immediately understood. “Oh my gosh, these are his Box Tops!”

Box Tops. Those little pink rectangular ¾” x 1” shapes you cut out of cereal boxes, cake mix boxes, toilet paper packaging – aka: garbage, collect them for your school, and send them in with your kid. Then some poor schmuck neatly trims each one of thousands and tapes them to a piece of paper, submits them to the Box Top Company, and receives pennies per Box Top. Actually, I just researched the value, and it is 10 cents per Box Top that the school gets.

Liam’s school has a Box Top fundraising program, so I thought it would be good for him to be responsible for cutting them out and collecting them. Every time I opened a package with a Box Top, I put the empty in a large clay crock in the hallway next to the mudroom. In open view so we would see it. In open view so when it overflowed we would trip on the garbage.

Weekdays were scheduled with activities and the calendar never included “Box Top trimming.” Occasionally, on the weekends I would get the scissors out and set up a Box Top trimming station, but Liam would get a couple trimmed and complain: sore fingers cutting the cardboard packaging. I would finish.

Fourth grade progressed this way: September through June. Ten months of “this would be a good job for Liam”; then I would trim them. Out of desperation, Bill also picked up the overflowing packaging occasionally and trimmed the pieces out of the garbage. We persisted and by the end of the year had a small baggie full of Box Tops. When the school newsletter announced the end of the Box Top campaign for the year, Liam took them to school. Relief was imminent: from homework AND from Box Top collection.

At the end of last June, I pulled out forgotten backpacks that had been shoved into corners of the mudroom. The annual unloading of backpacks from the school year ensued. In the outer pocket of Liam’s backpack was the baggie full of Box Tops. I cussed. I threw them away. I officially declared the Malcolm family incapable of collecting Box Tops.

This last school year, Liam’s efforts were focused on using his agenda book, making sure the right books came home each night, packing all the homework to return to school the next day, plus reading, writing, and arithmetic. And I wrote a check to cover the Box Top assignment, plus extra guilt dollars. I’m confident the school made off much better financially by driving the Malcolms into Box Top hell.

Yes, the ice scraper collection clearly reflected a task my detailer simply could not get his head around. I felt for the guy, but I was not happy to see no bright orange scraper on the shelf. Wishing I had made this left-hand turn weeks ago, I stepped into the messy shared office hoping it might be inside. Propped in plain view on another set of metal shelves: Bill’s orange ice scraper. I bet that bit him every time he walked through that door.

Our big clay crock holds wooden swords and bows and arrows now. Medieval weaponry. Much less stress than Box Tops.

Buttfulnes

On the half hour drive home from Will’s school yesterday, I asked him how long he thought it would be until there was a drone-like service that would pick kids up at their house and take them to school. Not through the cow path streets of our town but as the crow flies. A direct arc from house to school. Will estimates it will happen within his lifetime: 50 years. Maybe Jetson travel will be fully realized by then. This made me think of other arcs that would be useful. A simple shot of energy that would launch me from one spot to another – in a clean, clear, linear fashion.

I rode an arc this when I got home from Iowa Tuesday and walked into the house. Normally, I bounce like a pinball between tasks in my house. Within the first ten minutes of walking in the door, I had thrown out a dead plant, watered the live plants, emptied a vase of expired tulips, and arranged a bouquet of flowers from the three beautiful bunches Will and Liam had picked out for me for Mother’s Day. Not bad. I had been mindful of all things in the plant world for approximately 20 minutes.

Then the spring-loaded rod on the pinball machine let loose. The fridge needed to be cleaned. A pile of laundry needed to be thrown in. Sheets needed to be folded. And, would I ever write a Hump Day Short on a Tuesday again in anticipation of sending it on the actual Hump Day?

Late Tuesday afternoon, I dropped Liam off at his baseball game 45 minutes early for practice then went back home to work for 20 minutes on Boy Scout paperwork. I dropped paperwork off at the Scout Master’s for signature and drove on to the game. I set my alarm so I would remember to leave in 45 minutes to take Will and another boy to scouts. With that alarm set, I thought that all I needed to do was sit and watch baseball until that alarm went off.

However, the temptation to pull out my cell phone and stray my attention away from the ballpark – to answer one more email, send off a confirmation carpool text, pay a bill – was fierce. I repeated this mantra, “I am sitting here watching a baseball game.” With mind tease after mind tease, I repeated that sentence.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to have an arc from my butt to my brain with that direct input? If only my butt had control instead of my brain. For wherever it is, there I am. Now that is mindfulness. Or would that be buttfulness?

I write this with my pants zipper down. Despite multiple attempts after I got dressed, I could not create a neat, concise arc from my closet to the junk drawer for a safety pin to anchor the malfunctioning zipper. Still, the lunches were made, the kids were delivered, and the writer is writing.

When you think you are doing everything right...

I have a seasonal dysfunction every spring: too much in my head to draw out complete, concise thoughts on paper. I write this Tuesday evening in the library. After an hour of trying to collect current thoughts, I’ve decided to send this to you. I wrote it last September and stashed it. When I uncovered it this evening, the brittle emotions had worn off enough so that I can send it to you.

I don’t often refer back to the breast cancer days, but this is important stuff you should know about.

September 22, 2016

When you are doing everything right...

I went to bed last night thinking about my friend who is scheduled to have a mastectomy today. I woke up thinking about her this morning – and praying that the cancer was only in the breast and that it hadn’t traveled to any lymph nodes.

Our lymph node system is like an interstate highway carrying and dispersing liquids throughout our bodies. And if a little cancer cell gets caught on an on-ramp, whoosh, there it goes: out of its local area, gradually making its way out and crossing borders. Then, the chemotherapy police are called to seek out the cells and blast them.

Before I had my lumpectomy in 2009, my surgeon ordered a biopsy of my first lymph node: the sentinel node. It came back positive for cancer, so when I had the lumpectomy, the surgeon took eight lymph nodes out from under my arm. One fell swoop to hopefully scoop out any neighbors that might also be harboring cancer cells. Only the sentinel node was found to be guilty.

My friend and I were both diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, but different formations that called for different treatments for each of us. Mine was one smallish tumor with another small satellite tumor, and cancer cells had broken off and headed for an on-ramp. Thankfully, it was only found in one lymph node, but because it had escaped, the big guns were called in.

Chemo rushed around through my body for 16 weeks looking for breast cancer cells. Then, 6-weeks of radiation to quell any cancer activity in that breast. Consequently, my left side looks like I’ve been through a radioactive battle marked by four green tattoo dots. My breast is still intact, but smaller on that side and the skin is a different hue: a ghostly-white with a ghostly-green-ish tint. I didn’t have a mastectomy, but I do have remnants of a tiny, purposeful Chernobyl.

September 24, 2016

My friend has a major recovery ahead of her as tissue heals and reconstructive processes proceed, but her lymph nodes were clear. The “what next” for her will be ironed out in the coming days. Hopefully, since the nodes were clear, no chemo will be necessary.

Today, I had my seven-year checkup with my breast surgeon to go over mammogram results from last week. This time I stayed calm the seven days between the mammogram and the appointment. I didn’t get a call back to have another mammogram, so I was confident there would be no news. After the last MRI in the spring, a change in my right breast resulted in an MRI guided biopsy. It came back clear. I didn’t need news like that again, but I knew the chance of seeing anything new on a mammogram was slim for me.

At the office today, my surgeon was late returning from the Breast Center where she was doing procedures. After waiting 15 minutes, I agreed to see the nurse practitioner, and after, “Wow, you are getting out there! Seven years!?!?” she confirmed all was good with my mammogram. Next step: an MRI in six months. I’m on the 6-month alternating plan between MRIs and mammograms – and probably will be for life.

Then, she asked if I had received the letter from the radiologist about dense breasts. When I said I hadn’t, she left to get me a Dense Breast information brochure. I didn’t need the brochure; I know I have dense breasts. I knew that’s why I had to have chemo.

On mammograms, dense breasts appear clouded with white mass. Breast cancer also shows up as white on mammograms. If a woman doesn’t have dense breasts, breast cancer is easy to spot: it’s a white spot on an otherwise mostly black x-ray. However, 40 - 50% of women DO have dense breasts and for them finding cancer on a mammogram is like looking for a teaspoon of vanilla ice cream with flecks of vanilla beans inside a gallon of regular vanilla ice cream. When she returned and started to explain this, I had to let her know. “I know all of this. I know I’m an MRI girl.”

“Well, now the state of Massachusetts has passed a law requiring radiologists to notify women if they have dense breasts; to let them know that the risk of undetected breast cancer in a mammogram is higher than those women whose breasts are not dense.”

I sat stunned letting this information soak in. There is now a law to inform and protect MRI girls in Massachusetts!?!?

Over half of the states now have these laws in effect. For my Midwest friends, Iowa and Illinois are in the process of creating similar laws, but Wisconsin has taken no action. [Check out your state on this map from DigitalImaging.com](http://www.diagnosticimaging.com/breast-imaging/breast-density-notification-laws-state-interactive-map).

I think that if my friend and I were identified as MRI girls years ago, our lives would be very different now. She wouldn’t be lying in recovery waiting for her body to mend. I wouldn’t be feeling the effects of early-menopause thanks to the year of aggressive treatment, and now the 10-year treatment plan for breast cancer. Much would be different. I am thankful for life, but I want the lives of generations ahead to benefit from the knowledge that I didn’t have. My friend and I thought we were doing everything right with annual mammograms.

This is an excerpt from the letter I found in the mailbox when I got home from my check-up:

“Massachusetts law requires any patient whose recent mammogram shows dense breasts to receive more information about what that means and where to find answers to additional questions.

“Your mammogram report describes your breasts as being dense. This means that there is more fibrous and glandular tissue in your breasts than there is fatty tissue. This is a normal pattern that is seen in 40 - 50% of women. While dense breast tissue is a common and normal finding on a mammogram, it may limit our ability to detect breast cancer and may indicate an increased risk of breast cancer. However, it is important to know that having dense breasts is not abnormal.

“You may want to make an appointment with your referring clinician to discuss your test results. Your provider considers several risk factors such as family history and results of prior breast biopsies before determining if additional screening should occur.”

Indeed, if you are an MRI Girl, you have a right to know.

For near-future generations, this could be a huge part of early detection, leading to fewer intrusive treatments, and fewer breast amputations.

End.

Today, on the upside… My friend had chemo but is now done with treatment and is doing very well. And, I just had my 8-year all-clear check with my oncologist – which makes for a very Happy Hump Day!

The Management of Knowledge

By nature, I am a worker bee, not a manager. Give me a specific task, I will do it. I’m happier doing a small project all by myself than taking on a large project and delegating pieces out. As a volunteer for a local non-profit organization, I've recent;y had “small” tracking projects challenging my patience. At the peak of the issue, five of us were gathered in my dining room. It was really a project for three of us, but it had sourly splintered off. Four of us were at the table while one, the Distributor of Knowledge, was self-ostracized against a wall. I play the Mediator at the table.

The oldest of us, the Master, has the most knowledge but has a hard time communicating it to the one charged with the responsibility of distributing knowledge beyond this room, the Distributor of Knowledge. We have all known this for a long time, and we’ve found workarounds, which is how we ultimately came to be five instead of three around the table.

As a back-up, we briefly had an Assistant Distributor of Knowledge that occasionally worked with the Master but who is not on site in the dining room. Yes, a sixth party, without a face at the table. However recently, without notice and in the middle of the project, the Assistant Distributor of Knowledge refused to talk to the Master. It was either a communication issue as the Master is sometimes difficult to understand, or it was a geographic issue since the Assistant Distributor of Knowledge couldn’t physically join us at the table.

I decided it was easier to bring in my Undying Assistant than to attempt breaking the silent treatment of the Assistant Distributor of Knowledge. In negotiation strategies, this is known as avoidance.

For a long time, my Undying Assistant accepted information from the Master and forwarded it in one of a couple workable conveyances to the Distributor of Knowledge. Then with no warning, the Distributor of Knowledge absolutely refused to accept information in one particular form – the only form the End User (a third party, nowhere near the table) would accept this critical information. Taking a collaborative approach, I negotiated for hours, and finally, the Distributor acquiesced and distributed the information in the appropriate format to the End User.

Shortly thereafter, I realized that while accepting that particular type of information seemed like a move in the right direction, the Distributor of Knowledge now rejected the first type of information and would only accept the second! We had words. Trust was broken. No amount of discussion could change the Distributor of Knowledge’s mind. We had fallen victim to a non-effective, aggressive conflict management strategy.

Desperate for a workaround, I called the fifth party to the table, Amicable Solution – a very friendly sort with no previous connection to the project, just a good working relationship with the Distributor of Knowledge on other projects. I assigned the Amicable Solution one task: to take information from me, the Master, and the Undying Assistant and pass it on to the Distributor of Knowledge in the format the Distributor was rejecting from my Undying Assistant.

All worked relatively well, but it was challenging as the Amicable Solution wasn’t dedicated solely to my project, so I frequently had to adjust the schedule to complete certain pieces of the project.

Exhaustion from managing this project clung to me like a dark, heavy shadow.

I felt I was approaching what I defined as critical mass. However, in talking with Bill about the definition of critical mass, he had a different interpretation of this two-word phrase. From a scientific, math-brained perspective, critical mass is having just the right amount of something to complete a task. I asked my son, 13-year-old Will, what he thought. He pulled it apart grammatically: Mass is the amount of matter in an object. Critical is important. That was slightly closer to my definition but still not right on.

The day after the dissection of the term critical mass, all hell broke loose. The Distributor of Knowledge refused to communicate with my Undying Assistant AND the Amicable Solution. I wasn’t about to approach the Distributor with the hope of a collaborative solution. Trust had been broken.

I was powerless. I was past putting the time in to find a peaceful resolution that would work for all parties. I considered calling in an Outside Mediator, but if the Outside Mediator brought us to a resolution, I had no confidence in the Distributor of Knowledge to uphold the resolution when the Outside Mediator walked out the door.

Truly, a clear definition of critical mass -- as I define it -- hit me:: a heavy, shitty, cumbersome, unmanageable mess – more akin to “critical condition” of a patient in the hospital than using minimum resources to complete a job. Maybe the term I was looking for was Maximum Capacity?

I let the Distributor of Knowledge sit twiddling his thumbs. I knew what had to be done. I recruited a replacement with more capability – a Distributor of Knowledge 2.0. I have not yet integrated 2.0 into the project but intend to this week. In addition to this change, I believe it’s time to ask the Master to step down. There’s a Master 2.0 that will be more efficient.

With fingers crossed, next week at this time, there will only be three of us working on this project – with all lines of communication completely open.

Have you negotiated situations like this? Fortunately (?) for me, this was with inanimate objects, with parts played as follows:

Undying Assistant – my computer Master – the old computer with tracking software Amicable Solution – my son Liam’s computer Assistant Distributor of Knowledge – my husband Bill’s printer/scanner Distributor of Knowledge – the &^#*% household printer/scanner Outside Mediator – someone with IT knowledge Distributor of Knowledge 2.0 – the new printer/scanner Master 2.0 – an on-line tracking website

As for the Distributor of Knowledge, I believe I have found a new home for my former colleague…

8 Thoughts

Today, I managed to collect very, very random thoughts in eight completely unrelated paragraphs. Will is 13 years old and will be a freshman in high school next year. When he was six months old, we brought him home from South Korea, and he was the length of his now 13-year-old shin. Liam is 11 and spends more and more time in the bathroom with hair gel. Quiet time in the bathroom is no longer a science experiment with a toilet brush; it's working out how to get the handsome-dude-thing going for middle school.

If there is a tiny bit of mold on the crust of a slice of bread, is the whole piece moldy? When I worked in an Italian deli, I learn that with a chunk of nice, expensive cheese, the mold is expected and trimmed. And the chunk is salvaged. I'm betting on the same being true for a slice of bread.

Two men are in the quiet room in the library talking aloud. In my quiet room in the library. In my quiet room in my library. I sound like a two-year-old. As do they.

I recently read that writing about emotions is healthy for the reason that journaling gets them out of your head and onto paper where you can re-process the meaning and you might discover the real meaning isn't what you have held in your head. Like dumping raw reality that's pumping through your brain onto paper, sifting it around, categorizing it, then re-interpreting the information, perhaps into a truer reality. I think of a brand new deck of cards. The stack looks fine, even beautiful, just out of the box perfectly ordered. But, they aren't ready to be played yet. With a few shuffles, they are re-aligned for their purpose.

One fall day, a woman died and left behind instructions for her ashes: They were to be spread in her garden, where she had spent a good portion of her life. Her husband refused help from the gardener to spread her ashes. Her husband spilled some of her on the garage floor. The gardener swept her up. The husband spread the rest of her in her favorite flower bed. Knowing the ashes would blow away in the approaching winter winds, the gardener covered them with leaves. Seeing the accumulation of leaves, the husband raked them up and dumped them in a compost heap at the back of their property. The gardener retired. Plans will be made. Plans will be changed.

After a Sunday afternoon matinee with friends, we had a long drive home in traffic. What should've been a 20-minute ride became an hour. When we dropped off our friends at their house, their daughter, who occasionally gets a little carsick, hopped out and flung herself spread eagle on the ground. I so badly wanted to go home and do the same thing. Just lay flat on the ground and stop the world from spinning. Let everything on our schedule just fly right over me as I lay still. In the winter time, I love to make snow angels and to lay silently inside their perfectly shaped skirts and wings. I have yet to flop spread eagle on the ground in the scurry to the end of the school year, to the beginning of summer. Somehow making snow angels justifies this action.

A young writer wrote an article about her writing ritual: Up at 5:00 a.m. Meditate for an hour. Run 10 miles. Sit down to write. Mine was mapped out similarly: School drop-off. Workout. Sit down to write. But I snuck in "water plants" before the workout. And that water reminded me that I should empty the dehumidifier in the basement; we'd had a little water earlier in the week from an unknown source. I stepped on the rug in the back room in the basement, and it was soaked. While she was meditating and running, I was schlepping tubs to the garage and calling a plumber. And, it was a self-inflicted leak. I didn't unhook the hose from the outside faucet last fall and the pipe burst. Hence, the dumpster outside our garage. I wonder what she wrote that day?

Trinity Sunday, our pastor calls children to the front for children's time. Liam is with other kids to the side of the sanctuary making crafts as Sunday school has ended for the year. He joins the small group on the steps leading to the altar. To get the meaning of "Trinity" across, our pastor sits next to the kids and asks them to describe him or herself in three words. Most hesitate, unsure of the right answer. Except for Liam. With a grin on his face, he says something to the pastor, but her mike doesn't pick it up. I suck air. To keep the audience in the loop, the pastor, also smiling, repeats Liam's three words through her microphone: "Naughty, crazy, and generous." And something to the effect of, "And Mom is holding her breath!" She closes the lesson with the reminder that no one, nor God, can be summarized in just three words. Amen.

D.C. Barriers

So much subject matter and research material. So little time have I carved out to write. I went away for five days the end of March to write. I was successful in playing the character of Linda Malcolm the whole time. Five new stories from that trip have been reviewed by my writers’ group, and those stories await my edits. I’m tempted to snag one of those and send to you, but you won’t see them until the book comes out! Instead, I’m reflecting…

Our family went to D.C. for a few days over spring break. Will was supposed to go there with his class in March, but it was over the weekend of his State Gymnastics Championships. The District left me with a twisted impression that I can’t shake.

The headlines in the newspaper the Wednesday we arrived in D.C. addressed concerns about security on the south lawn of the White House. According to USA Today, the secret service wants to move crowds back away from the fence enclosing the south lawn. Around 100 people have tried to access the ground in the past three years; of those, 95% had a history of “mental illness or emotional disturbance.” Construction of a larger and stronger fence is expected to start later this year.

Yet when we followed the sounds of a band that were coming from the south lawn, we saw a crowd of people streaming along the driveway right up to the steps of the White House. We asked a National Park Service volunteer what was going on: the annual garden tour of the south lawn – free to the public with no pre-reserved tickets or background checks.

Two hours later we returned at our assigned time, free tickets in hand, and passed through a checkpoint set up by the Secret Service, much like airport security. We stood a few feet from the steps where the Obamas departed from the White House for the last time.

The United States’ capital of freedom had sharp shooters pacing back and forth on the rooftop of the White House.  Secret service agents stood shoulder to shoulder with National Park Service rangers throughout the property.  At the Rose Garden.  Outside the Oval Office.  Next to the White House Kitchen Garden.  Blocking the entrance to the hidden children’s garden. “Have a look, take a picture, then move along.”  No dawdling near the White House.

 The Oval Office

The Beast, the presidential state car, was parked on the drive behind ropes, guarded by secret service agents.  The small garden nooks of outdoor seating areas brought a movie-reel to mind: one of past presidents and their families casually gathering in their backyard.  The Kennedys, Johnsons, Nixons, Fords, Carters, Bushes, Reagans, Clintons, and Obamas.  This, the people’s house, which those families had the privilege of living in the last few decades.

Throughout the surrounding area, we frequently saw uniformed secret service agents like those at the White House; they were dressed like police and all wore bullet-proof vests. They had insignia on their vests that identified them as secret service detail. At the Treasury building, the guard was armed with an automatic gun in hand. Not slung over his should, but at the ready.

While human security was thick, the presence of barriers around all federal buildings – as well as some private – was heavy. As a gardener, at first I was impressed with the size of the planters on sidewalks along the buildings. They were gigantic, four to six feet long and either rectangular, square, or circular in shape. The vessels are made of at least 6-inch thick concrete, reinforced on the inside with rebar, not visible to tourists. The plaza area immediately outside the glass entrance to the FBI building had several planters creating obstacles for people to navigate through to get into the building; their purpose is to stop vehicles from ramming through the glass entryway.

Block after block was lined with these barriers.  Some were filled with grasses, but many had expired tulips or volunteer greens from last year.

Around one building, the idea of concealing barriers as planters had been completely abandoned and each planter was filled to the rim with gravel.

The 1995 Oklahoma City truck bombing was the precursor to these dystopian planters.  The concerns over security from that domestic terrorist act to 9/11 and present day threats has left a dark cloud over the city representing our country’s freedom.  The visual tension created a shadow of palpable, foreboding fear.

When Mercury is in Retrograde

As I was sitting at the table yesterday morning working on a project, a bird thunked into the living room window. I know robins nest in the rhododendron tucked tightly in a corner next to the outer living room wall. My first thought was that I hoped it wasn’t a mama bird; then I wondered how in the heck she flew up into the window. I intuitively knew she had not been coming in for a landing but rather taking off, for surely a winged mom flies directly to her home. It was a navigational error on take-off. That’s when the thought first struck: Is Mercury in retrograde? I typed the question into Google and the first hit was a big square box with the word “YES” in it and followed by “Started April 9, 2017, ends May 3, 2017.” I sighed deeply, so that’s it.

My mom works as a cook at a senior center, and she can forecast a full moon days before its dome peeks over the horizon. People’s behaviors change. And it’s not pretty. Mom has adapted a “No surprise, it’s a full moon” attitude when people go a little haywire. And one might think this is crazy, how could the moon impact us when it’s so far away?

Have you seen a coast at low tide then at high tide? Every 12 hours at low tide on Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA, the waves retreat and more than a football field’s length of new beach extends outward. Then beyond that an impressive sand bar, the length of another football field. In total you can walk out 200 yards from the coast line on new land. At high tide, the new beach and sand bar completely disappear.

As someone who grew up land-locked, I just don’t get how this happens. A little research provided the answer that I still don’t understand: the gravitational tug-of-war between the pull of the moon and that of the sun creates tides, like clockwork: two high tides and two low tides within every 24-hour period. And the timing changes by a few minutes each day so high and low tides never occur at the same time as the previous day. It’s science, and sometimes this right-brained writer just needs to accept left-brain scientific facts.

As I accept the concept of tides, I don’t doubt the impact of a planet in retrograde. Of course, Mercury doesn’t literally go in reverse. For the three weeks a few times a year that it is in retrograde, those are the times it looks like it’s going backwards because the earth is speeding by it, I think. Again, quoting science is not my strong suit. The retrograde is similar to the perception of two moving vehicles where one is going faster than the other. The slower one is like Mercury in retrograde: it only appears to be going backwards.

Mom feels the full moon; I feel Mercury in retrograde. Crazy little actions – mine and others – dot my days. Communicating is tough. Thinking slows. “I can’t get out of my own way.” The weight of life sits squarely on my shoulders and can’t be shrugged off. The ability to compartmentalize tasks, feelings, and thoughts disappears. It all rises to the top like thick cream on fresh milk; fluid and unable to be pieced apart.

Yet once I confirm little Mercury’s retrograde, I function better. Previously baffled, I knowingly nod. Liam’s chortle with a mouthful of milk, of course, resulting in sprayed milk all over brand new Class A and Class B scout uniforms. (He was wearing B over the top of A… of course.)

The 150-year-old Christmas cactus crashing to the floor during a game of hide-and-seek: bound to happen.

Trying to quick-fix a problem on the scout tracking software at 10 p.m. and failing – creating a bigger challenge… I should’ve known.

Multiple scout applications missing signatures, information, crossed t’s and dotted i’s? Naturally.

On the list goes on.

Little annoyances, one after another, after another.

May 3rd, my friends. May 3rd.

Until then, I’ll keep cleaning up the little stuff, try to do one thing at a time, put the cacti branches in water to root them, and counter my over reactions by – not cussing – just muttering, “Mercury.”

Happy Hump Day.