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Monday, January 25, 2016

Weathering the Storm

I hadn’t paid much attention to the hype about the blizzard heading toward Philadelphia until I was nearly concussed on Thursday by a woman fighting for one of the last cartons of milk at the Wynnewood Giant.

Not a fan of winter, I had been pleasantly surprised by this one so far, with temperatures only intermittently dipping into the 20s and teens and no snow to speak of. The high on Christmas hovered near 70.

So forecasts calling for a possible two-foot deposit seemed unlikely, or so I hoped, trying to will away the nor’easter.

And even if we did see significant snowfall, I reasoned, it might provide a welcome diversion from more diurnal cares, such as my 9-year-old twins’ constant sparring and my 5-year-old’s recent report that she sometimes accidentally dunked her hand in public toilets when wiping.

A friend, who sent around a group text inviting us to a “snow-pen house,” seemed to share my sentiments.

“This is Lower Merion Township with an important announcement,” she wrote. “It is going to snow a little bit this weekend. Everybody just needs to chill the f@&$ out!”

But when I saw my mother-in-law on Friday, she was nearly twitching with anxiety.

“You’ve been watching The Weather Channel again, haven’t you?”

“I just can’t help myself,” she confessed, heading off to her apartment to hunker down with her Boston Cream Pie Yoplait Whips and remote control.

I, myself, started to worry a bit after receiving yet another robo-call from the township instructing residents to park in driveways where possible and saying that a snow emergency had been declared.

Then my husband walked in around 7 p.m., having accidentally left his boots at work. Back out he went to the DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse in Wynnewood, miraculously snagging the last pair of men’s size 11 knock-off Timberlands.

Left at home, I found myself switching on The Weather Channel against my better judgment, hoping that the meteorologists’ apocalyptic predictions would drown out the squabbling of my three children. Then I started to rifle through closets to retrieve last year’s snow pants and boots, hoping that our kids could still squeeze into them.

Taking a last glance out the window at a world rapidly covering itself in white, I went to bed, trying to be stoic but now fearing the worst.

What if our pipes froze? What if a 50-mph gust toppled that old-growth tree we had neglected? What if we ran out of beer?

The fact that our 5-year-old woke us at 4:46 the next morning, saying that she couldn’t sleep because of a noise outside, did little to buoy my spirits. The snowplows had started running.

And I had to stuff the bottoms of my pajamas into my boots so I could shovel a path from our kitchen door, across our deck, into the backyard for our small dog to relieve himself. Despite my efforts—I hadn’t even had a sip of coffee yet—I still had to rescue Buddy who sank up to his whiskers in a snowdrift. I finally carried him through the house and just let him pee on the bricks of our covered front porch.

“I’m bored,” my 9-year-old daughter said, as she stood dripping in our foyer after a brief snowball fight with her twin brother. It was 10:04 a.m.

“Can we watch ‘Winnie the Pooh: Springtime With Roo’?” Jane, 5, asked.

Griffin groaned and demanded a snack.

“I like to pair mismatched scrubs with a Mrs. Robinson jacket,” a friend later texted, attaching a picture of herself in baggy green bottoms and a leopard-print bolero.

“The things we do to divert ourselves during a blizzard,” I texted back, then went to vacuum the basement, the most distant point I could find in our house from our fighting children.

My husband, who for some reason follows The National Weather Service on Twitter, came down to tell me how they’d requested that people send in snow pictures and then quickly tweeted again to say not to if it was too dangerous to go out.

Meanwhile, it was starting to seem dangerous, the high winds having resumed and sleet mixing into the snow, rapidly covering the narrow paths we’d cleared earlier that day.

“You should open a business,” Georgia had brightly remarked. “C & J’s Shoveling!”

That was before Jeff and I had tried to free the cars that had been plowed into the driveway. Knee-deep in heavy snowdrifts, we soon abandoned the project and went back inside to deal with our warring children.

The twins were bickering over a puzzle. Jane was unraveling because I switched off the TV. We missed the “snow-pen house” because we couldn’t extricate the cars, and it was too far to walk in the blizzard with our grumpy kids.

But then a neighbor managed to fire up his finicky snowblower, kindly promising us the use of it. We still had power and plenty of Goldfish Crackers. I told myself that we would endure the shifting winds of family life, even as the nor’easter continued to rage.

And maybe, if we were lucky, the sun would emerge again tomorrow, and we would meet friends at the nearby sledding hill—and there we would fill up our lungs and souls with the bright vigor that winter sometimes holds out like a peace offering after a storm.

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Seized by a fit of holiday consumerism last Saturday, I made a trip to the Ardmore City Sports, whose liquidation signs had been inspiring persistent questions from my 8-year-old son.

“Why is City Sports closing?”

“Maybe they’re bankrupt?”

“What’s bankrupt?”

“When you have too many creditors.”

“What’re creditors?”

And so on, these conversations repeating in a loop for several weeks whenever we passed through the area. They reminded me of circular talks I sometimes have with my 5-year-old when we visit the drive-through ATM and she wants to know why a machine just gives me money.

To take a break from these sort of “teachable moments” gone awry, I was heading toward the failing City Sports and hoping to find a deal to cheer myself up.

But while I was trying on some herringbone-patterned running tights and a polyester turtleneck promising to protect me in artic conditions—items so ugly that I never would have selected them had they not been marked down 40 percent from their initial half off—I overheard another mother and son having a discussion that eerily mimicked the ones I have with my own children.

“Is Santa Claus a god?”

“No, he’s not a god.”

“But he’s the son of god, like Jesus,” the boy insisted.

“He’s a myth,” I could hear the woman saying over Jingle Bell Rock blaring from the store’s speakers—also, according to signs, for sale along with the mannequins, shelving and fixtures—as I carried my purchases to a cashier who informed me that there were no returns.

But I didn’t care because now I was feeling reckless, in the grip of a perverse form of holiday spirit that made me want to buy more gifts, not for the family and friends I loved, but for myself. And so I trotted over to the nearby GAP, clutching my City Sports sack and shivering in the brisk wind.

As part of my break from my children, I had left them early with my husband and gone running on the nature trail at Haverford College. When I run, I spit. And that morning I was expectorating when I suddenly saw another woman in her long-sleeve Philadelphia Marathon shirt zip past me and dodge out of the way of my phlegm.

“So sorry!” I yelled over Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” blasting into my earbuds.

Reliving this shame, I was now really cold in my perspiration-chilled clothes. So I darted into one of the GAP’s dressing rooms where I changed into the turtleneck and tights I had bought at City Sports.

My reflection revealed that the decal on my new top really was quite ugly, big and shiny and blue and broadcasting something about artic protection. But it was too late now—no returns—and I had chewed off the tags.

I emerged in my hideous outfit and bought two GAP shirts out of guilt. As a sort of cruel coincidence, Jingle Bell Rock was playing here, too, promising to run endlessly through my mind for the next 24 hours. And I suddenly regretted not having my kids with me to pester me into not walking through these doors in the first place.

“That’s a really ugly sticker on your shirt,” my son said when I got home.

“It’s not a sticker. It’s a logo,” I retorted, dragging him off to Bed Bath and Beyond, my impulse to spend more money this holiday season having not yet entirely flagged.

Traipsing up and down the aisles in my new shirt with its atrocious label, I bumped into a friend who leaned in for a hug. I found myself awkwardly apologizing about my stench, explaining that I had been running and hadn’t yet found time to shower, and mortifying my son in the process.

To distract him, I asked if he could fit one more container of K-Cups onto the teetering pile he was already carrying. And it was only later at home, as I was brushing my teeth under the glare of a fluorescent bulb, that I looked down at my new shirt and saw that the bright blue label wasn’t actually a label but just a sticker after all—and I realized that my son, like all children, had far more sense than most of the adults around him.

He didn’t spit on people when he ran. He didn’t give people sweaty hugs in box stores. He didn’t buy K-Cups and ugly shirts. He recognized inauthenticity. He asked all the right questions.

And as I flicked the sticker into the garbage, I felt a renewed sense of faith that my children would steer me straight through this frenzied season and all our future days—a richer form of holiday spirit than I could find bargain hunting in any going-out-of-business sale.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Soaring High

I drove back and forth to the Wynnewood Giant three times over the course of two days, piling water bottles and juice boxes, bags of pretzels and Cheez-Its, paper plates and plastic utensils, into the trunk of our minivan. I dragged our cooler from its winter hibernation in the garage, hosed it out and filled it with ice. I obsessively checked weather.com on my iPhone, my anxiety spiking each time I saw that the chance of thunderstorms predicted for Saturday had risen.

I felt like I was preparing to evacuate my family in advance of a hurricane.

But, no, I was merely getting ready for our youngest daughter’s fifth birthday party at General Wayne Park—and praying that it wouldn't rain.

During one of our first visits to the supermarket days earlier, Jane and I had leafed through the cumbersome book of custom sheet cakes, a catalogue offering everything from Hello Kitty to “Despicable Me” designs, but not the “Frozen” one she had set her sights on when she had started planning her birthday six months ago.

"Oh, we have that one behind the counter, it's so popular," the woman helping us said.

Jane and I exhaled a simultaneous sigh of relief. Then my daughter escorted me to the aisle where the bubbles were stocked and counted as we dumped enough for her five friends, plus their siblings, into our cart.

"And remember the balls at Old Navy," Jane instructed as we steered our minivan toward the next store.

"We'll see how much they cost," I said, delighted when I realized that Jane had in mind the 25-cent rubber bouncies that tumbled out of an oversized gumball machine as we fed in a handful of quarters.

These frantic preparations behind us, the day of Jane's party dawned dark and ominous. Oblivious to the thunderclouds hovering overhead, threatening to ruin her festivities, Jane rose a little after 5 a.m. and demanded help putting on her Elsa costume.

"Can we pick up the cake yet?" she asked.

I wondered if the supermarket was even open—and how we were going to survive until the party started at 10:30 a.m. But by 8 o'clock I felt fortified enough by coffee, and annoyed enough by my daughter's pestering, that I tucked her Elsa costume up around her legs and snapped her into her car seat.

"What a pretty princess!" an elderly woman exclaimed as Jane trailed behind me toward the bakery counter, clutching her wand in her gloved hands.

The cake now safely stashed in the trunk with the rest of our provisions, we swung home to pick up my husband and Jane's twin 8-year-old brother and sister.

"No fair Jane gets presents," Griffin complained on the way to the park, as I checked the latest update on my phone's weather app, wishing I hadn't since it was now predicting a 60 percent chance of rain.

As we tried to find a parking spot on the street clotted with cars in front of General Wayne, I also wished that I had examined the township's Little League schedule before I had picked this playground.

Too late now, I told myself.

And so we lugged bags of snacks and party favors, as well as the cake and the cooler, toward the one unoccupied picnic table at the far side of the lawn. Having set everything out, we had nothing left to do but listen to our nearly 5-year-old relentlessly interrogate us about when her friends were going to show up.

"They're probably just having trouble finding parking," I said, though by 10:45 a.m. I was starting to worry that my pre-party anxiety may have caused me to muddle the dates.

But then we spotted the first diminutive guest arrive, bedecked in a gauzy pink gown. Jane dashed to her friend, her Elsa cape billowing out behind her. And as the other princesses and their older siblings trickled in, my spirits lifted.

The rain held off as clusters of kids took breaks from the jungle gym and swings to gobble up handfuls of salty snacks, washed down with lemonade. Our older daughter disappeared into the trees on the hill with a couple of friends. They emerged an hour or so later, dirt-smeared and jabbering about the fairy houses they had been building.

Griffin gulped down a bottle of water during a break in his basketball game, while my husband made a slow-motion video of Jane and her princess pals pushing each other on the merry-go-round, dragging their fancy slippers through the dirt, hanging off the side and extending their arms into the air, their costumes sailing out around them.

I had forgotten the plastic forks. But a friend who lived nearby ran to her house to grab her own stash.

"A man over there wants to know if you have a permit for this," another friend teased me as I was cutting the cake, the kids around me clamoring for a slice of the "Frozen" mountain.

"Really?" I asked, panicked, before I realized she was joking.

Then, licking blue and pink frosting from my fingers, I watched Jane swing hand-over-hand through the monkey bars—a fresh accomplishment that had arrived just in time for her fifth birthday—a gift far superior to any I could have purchased at a store.

As I stood holding my daughter’s Elsa braid and witnessing the determination in her gaze, I felt an intense flash of well-being.

Later, I mounted the stairs with Jane struggling in my arms, screaming she wasn’t tired, as I peeled off her costume before tumbling her under the covers and into the land of deep slumber accessible only to children.

"I had one of those experiences today, seeing Jane and her friends run around in their princess outfits, where I realized how ephemeral all of this is," Jeff told me that evening.

I agreed and vowed, not for the first or last time, to try to catch up more of these tiny gifts that life delivers us within the day-to-day fray of raising children—the moments when everything suddenly clicks into place and feels precious and stately and rich.

Cherry Tarts

Trying to lure in enough neighbors to make an adult dance class take off, a friend recently circulated an email invitation for “Fun! Exercise! Wine! Tap Dancing!”

As a stay-at-home mother in my mid-40s, my dance card had long stood empty. So, apparently, had those of many of my peers.

“This is the funniest, and most random, invitation I have received in a very long time,” someone responded.

“Sounds like a blast!” another friend said.

“I have no rhythm,” someone else added. “But what the hell?”

I, too, was in.

After all, the last time I had been offered such a chance was in Seattle in the 1980s under much less appealing circumstances.

In a last-ditch attempt to connect with me in my adolescence, my mother had signed us up for a tap class, lead by an instructor in a droopy leotard, who hammered away at a routine choreographed to Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade.”

My mom dropped out after the second session, forcing me to attend on my own, when all I really wanted to do at night back then was toilet paper my Seattle neighborhood.

In fact, helping TP the house across the street hovers in my mind as one of the epic adventures of my childhood. Rain fell throughout the night, so the victims, who were hosting an outdoor party the next afternoon, awoke to sodden reams of toilet paper dangling from their trees like bedraggled ghosts—and immediately called my parents.

My friends and I soon graduated to teenage ennui and swilling from stale cans of Olympia beer that we had stashed in the bushes at “Hidden Beach,” a dismal patch of sand along Lake Washington where we tried to make the night sky swim.

But evenings picked up again in college, like the time a crowd of us stumbled into a dive bar in Ballard, Wash., and caught a group we’d never heard of, the Dave Matthews Band, before they hit it big.

In graduate school, I talked my way past bouncers into Manhattan clubs. Once, I think I may have even danced with a sheikh.

Since moving to the Philadelphia suburbs and having three children, however, the fun has slackened a bit.

For kicks these days, my husband and I usually end up with the geriatric crowd at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s early showing of the latest subtitled Eastern European flick.

No wonder my friend’s invitation to drink wine and tap away each Wednesday night at the Upbeat Dance Center in Bala Cynwyd seemed so tantalizing. And I was heartened by the overwhelming response, feeling like even less of a loser with each new write-in.

Someone opened the email after a long day of traveling. “So instead of reading ‘tap’ dancing,” she said, “I read ‘lap’ dancing.”

“When’s the recital?” someone else asked, I thought only slightly tongue-in-cheek.

“I would absolutely die of embarrassment if I had to go watch that,” my 8-year-old daughter said.

But I was undeterred, excitedly lacing up my new shoes at our first class.

A friend uncorked a bottle of “Cherry Tart” Pinot Noir and declared that that was what we should call our “troupe.”

“This is the first time I’ve taught with wine,” Kelsey, our 20-something instructor, said.

She was used to catering to a much younger crowd, wondering if the music was alright as she queued up Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” and leading us through a series of shuffle steps, paddles and digs.

“It’s great!” we chorused, remarking later that we hoped Kelsey wouldn’t downgrade us to show tunes, especially after watching us stagger through a particularly intricate maneuver named the “Maxie Ford”—one that I kept mistakenly calling the “Betty Ford.”

“I feel like we’re in a movie,” my friend whispered.

“Or a reality show,” I said.

“Yeah,” she riffed, “the one where a bunch of weary moms find their inner rhythm and go on to clinch the title of some national dance competition.”

I chuckled and decided that, when you're middle aged, the night really still is young and the possibilities are endless all over again.

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