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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Princess B.O.

Princess Anise proved too smelly to save.
About 5 o’clock this morning, birthday-zilla reared its fearsome head in the form of our youngest daughter, who tromped into our bedroom to remind us that she was now 4.

“Can I open my presents?” Jane demanded.
“No,” I growled.

But our child-monster would not relent.

After 17 minutes of her pestering, I rolled out from under the covers and scratched a toothbrush across my teeth. I tried to brew pot of coffee as Jane danced around my legs, swatting at the packages I’d placed on the counter.

“I want to open my presents!” she clamored.

As soon as my husband came downstairs, Jane tore the wrapping off of her new Hello Kitty pajamas, her “Fancy Nancy” books and—my coup d’état—her Lala-oopsie doll, Princess Anise.

“A Lala-oopsie!” Jane squealed in delight, as I freed it from the shackles of 37 tiny rubber bands and twisty ties with the kitchen shears. Finally emancipated from its packaging, Princess Anise found herself freshly imprisoned in Jane’s embrace.

At this climactic moment, with my twin 7-year-olds and fresh 4-year-old gathered around me on the couch, I began to realize that I was suffering from a terrible case of body odor.

I sniffed my armpits. I smelled like onions that had been left outside for the past two days—two days during which a blanket of humidity had encased our suburban Philadelphia neighborhood and temperatures had soared into the 90s.

“You stink, mommy!” my son exclaimed.

I must have sweated more than I had realized during the night.

But even after I had temporarily excused myself to bathe from the presence of birthday-zilla—who at 6:17 a.m. was now demanding cake—my husband later confessed that he had continued to detect a rancid stench. And when my in-laws came by mid-morning to wish Jane a happy birthday, they kept asking her what she’d had for breakfast.

“Cereal,” replied birthday-zilla, who promptly began to dun her grandparents for more presents.

The foul funk even seemed to follow us into the minivan on our way to the supermarket to pick out Jane’s cake, an errand during which she clutched her Lala-oopsie and pronounced that she should be “rule-maker” since it was her birthday.

As I unstrapped my daughter from her car seat, the onion stench seemed particularly powerful. So I unclenched Princess Anise from Jane’s grasp and took a whiff of the doll’s pink and blue rubber head. It reeked like the underskirt of a husky woman on a sultry day.

When my husband returned from work, I thrust the Lala-oopsie under his nose.

“It must have been made in a sweatshop—literally,” he said, darting, as is his want, onto Google.

“This is why I love the Internet!” Jeff exclaimed, showing me that before he had even finished typing “Lala-oopsie smell,” a kaleidoscope of responses rippled onto the screen. Most informative, I thought, was a Facebook thread, which provided not only helpful anecdotes but also highly entertaining reading:

“My mother bought Princess Anise for my youngest daughter a few days ago, and I have never had a doll that smelled like this,” one person wrote. “ONIONS/B.O. is exactly the way she smells… This nasty heifer has to get out of my house!”

“Oh my word! I thought I was crazy!” concurred another mother. “We bought one yesterday, and I thought my 4-year-old had B.O.! That doll smelled up the entire child room at the YMCA!”

“I changed deodorant, laundry soap and even threw away my perfume,” the thread went on. “Finally, I woke up nose-to-nose with this doll… GAG! Just what are we inhaling??”

“Witchcraft…” surmised another writer.

Relieved not only that I was in good company but also that I was not going mad and that I was not suffering from a perimenopausal case of persistent perspiration, I informed Jane that Princess Anise would now have to reside in the garbage.

My daughter ceased her tantrum only long enough to hear me say I would take her to the store to choose a new gift.

“I like my Lala-oopsie!” Jane wailed. “Why does she have to be stinky? Do you think she’s filled with peanuts?”

Luckily, the birthday girl brightened up after selecting "Karry," an unscented cloth doll that I was relieved to note was crafted in Germany according to that country's rigid standards—thankfully including olfactory. But as if in futile protest, the Lala-oopsie continued to emit her sour onion stench, even from within a tightly sealed Ziploc bag, as I dropped her into the outdoor trash.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

New Shoes for an Old Goat

Unable to find a dress for my 25th reunion, I bought some '80s Nikes.
A herd of goats recently moved into our suburban Philadelphia neighborhood.

I discovered this curiosity the other day during a run near my house on one of those converted rails-to-trails. A bearded man—eerily alike his bearded charges—was securing an electric fence around the “eco-goats” he had just released to graze along the hillside and clear out the invasive foliage.

In the coming days, I became obsessed with these creatures, especially after I read a sign alerting passersby that goats would eat a variety of weeds noxious to humans, including poison ivy; counseling onlookers to keep their dogs from distracting the foragers from their industriousness; and indicating that our time with these hungry friends would last only until the weekend.

Later that afternoon, I marched my soon-to-be-4-year-old down the muddy trail to have a look.

“Do goats have big teeth?” Jane worriedly inquired in between complaints that her legs hurt.

To my amazement, the animals had denuded a broad patch of the overgrown hillside in just a few hours. My daughter stopped whining, and we stood side-by-side gazing at the multi-colored goats, numbering close to 20, as they wrapped their flexible mouths around vines, bushes and even small trees.

By the time I had coaxed Jane back down the trail with her 7-year-old twin brother and sister the next afternoon, the herd had made even more dramatic progress. A wide swath of bare stems decorated the lower regions of the landscape. Large holes now offered a view higher up onto the hill where we could see weed trees shuddering as the goats felled them without mercy.

I stood transfixed, again, watching the animals and batting away swarming gnats, suddenly realizing that what I was really interested in was not the goats themselves but their devastating efficiency at ripping out the undergrowth. This clear-cutting quickly became a metaphor for me as I prepared to wander into the thickets of my past—by flying to Seattle for my 25th high school reunion—and I almost wished I could hire a trusty goat to help me do some personal weeding.

I felt ambivalent about attending an event that simultaneously confronted me with my uncomfortable youth and reminded me that I really was getting old. In emails and Facebook posts that circulated prior to the gathering, unfamiliar names kept popping up, names for which I could not produce faces.

Who was “Vincent”? Why was he writing in from Brussels? And were these the signs of early onset Alzheimer’s that I had lately been ignoring?

Twenty-five years since graduating from high school, several moves, two careers, three kids, a dog and a husband later, the furrows in my brow have deepened into permanent creases. My vision is blurred. My patience is thin.

Still admiring the goats, I slipped deeper into a surreal reverie about them grazing on my gray hairs, plucking out the unwanted growth from my mind.

I ultimately had to settle, however, for a hurried trip with my 3-year-old to some local shops to try to spruce up my appearance before I revisited my past. Unfortunately, the only makeup saleswoman I could find was standing behind the Dior counter, and distracted by Jane tugging at my purse and whining about her legs again, I inadvertently bought a $60 “bb cream” that I had no idea how to apply.

“What’s bb cream?” I asked.
“Wow!” the woman exclaimed. “You really have been out of the game for a while!”

Then after fruitlessly searching for a dress that would transform me into a vision of effortless Boho chic, I walked away with a pair of garish red Nikes instead.

After all, I did have an ‘80s dance party to contend with as part of this reunion, I reasoned, shuddering slightly at the thought. Even while I was still inhabiting it, I knew that that decade held little promise for me, in terms of fashion or otherwise.

“Nikes are ‘80s, right?” I asked my patient husband, as I tried to justify my impulse purchase without having answered the more pressing question of what to put on the rest of my body when confronting childhood classmates and friends.

“You can just wear one of your old dresses,” my 7-year-old daughter advised, not realizing that most of those frocks looked a little too tired and tacky even for an ‘80s re-enactment.

Out of time, I ended up chucking random and sundry items from closet into my roller bag and caught a ragged night’s sleep before my cross-country trip.

“Did you miss your flight last night?” an airport official asked me as I eased myself into a seat at the empty gate early the next morning. I now worried that I must look even worse than I had thought.

“No,” I answered. “I just have a habit of arriving way too early.”

Even to a trip to the past, I added to myself, closing my eyes to imagine again those voracious goats, uprooting the wrinkles and cares of time—clearing a wider path toward the future as I waited to revisit my youth.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lonesome Glove

Just before the dawn of spring, I lost one of my favorite gloves.
One howling night last week, when I was trying to feed a meter on a busy Philadelphia street, I dropped a glove.

Unfortunately, I neglected to rifle around in my coat pockets and note that I was missing one of the pair until it was too late—until I was already seated inside a cozy pub, gazing at flickering candles, gossiping with friends and waiting for pints to arrive—reluctant to dart back into the biting wind on what would most likely prove a frigid and fruitless search.

These gloves I had worn through at least a decade of East Coast winters—this last a particularly dreadful one—and it wasn’t quite over despite the fact that the calendar was creeping into mid-March.

The weekend before, we had gotten a break from the polar vortexes and clipper storms, with unappealing names like “Janus,” that had been tormenting our region, and much of the rest of the country, with heaps of snow and record lows for months. For a couple of days, the sun bloomed in the sky and actually warmed the earth.

Inspired, my husband and twin 7-year-olds hefted out shovels to try to break up several feet of snow that had been plowed against our sidewalks and solidified, impeding access to our minivan for weeks.

Griffin! That’s my ice chunk,” Georgia hollered at her brother.
“It is not!” he retorted, continuing to hack away at one of the icy embankments.

With sunlight on my cheeks where I sat at the edge of the front porch, gazing at the scene with my 3-year-old, I didn’t even care, for once, that my twins were fighting—and this time with metal shovels. They were making progress. Let them take out their pent-up frustrations on the icy white stuff that had been torturing us all winter and that I naively hoped we wouldn’t be seeing any more of for a very long time.

The next day was even warmer. Jane and I knelt down to admire the slender shoots of crocuses straining their necks through the worn-out mulch in our flower beds. Nearly all the snow melted from our backyard, turning it slick with mud. Neighbors stopped by. The kids started an impromptu game of kickball, the first in several months. They gleefully squelched around in the sludge under our swing set.

“I’m stuck!” Jane cried, and when I went to pull her out, her boots remained behind.

Then Jeff and Georgia got involved in an odyssey of emptying out the contents of our garage onto our driveway—old chairs, rusty Weedwackers, leaky hoses—inspecting each new discovery before giving it a new place, back inside the garage.

“We found all kinds of treasures!” Georgia triumphantly announced, holding up a grimy Florida license plate that had adorned my husband’s Volkswagen Golf when he drove it from his home state north to college more decades ago than I care to reveal.
“It really is much more organized in there now,” Jeff sheepishly replied to one of my looks.

But even though he eventually admitted that they had accomplished little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I didn’t really care. We had spent the day outside, and I actually thought I spied the faintest tinge of sunburn on our children’s cheeks before they fell asleep that night, worn out for the first time in weeks from outdoor physical activity that didn’t involve sleds.

But then Monday dawned with highs in the 20s and another blanket of snow covering the earth, freezing out any St. Patrick’s Day cheer we might otherwise have mustered. Georgia was the only one of us who even remembered to wear green, and she didn’t seem very excited about it, doing it more out of a sense of obligation than actual holiday spirit.

Later that morning, after her older brother and sister had trudged off to their warm classrooms, Jane and I took to the frozen streets to walk the dog. Periodic glacial blasts whipped our faces.

“I need it to be spring,” Jane implored. “When will it be spring?”
“Thursday,” I said, deciding this time to go strictly by the calendar and its promise of the spring equinox on March 20, though I knew I couldn’t count on the weather to cooperate.

Suddenly, Jane noticed that my mitten she was reaching for had a hole in it. I explained that a few days earlier I had lost my other, favored pair. “Well,” Jane replied, “you can borrow mine if you need to.”

And as she seized my hand with one of her red, heart-dotted mittens, I realized that my own missing glove and this evasive spring weren't so bad as long as I still had her fingers to squeeze.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014


We have become intimate with snow during this historic winter.
We have grown quite intimate with snow during this historically bitter winter in the Philadelphia region, full of blizzards and frigid temperatures—a season that has left me numb in body and soul. If I never hear the words “polar vortex” again, it will be too soon.

I recently saw on the local news that a decrepit row house in West Philly actually collapsed due to the weight of ice on its roof. I’ve had friends whose pipes have frozen and burst; friends who lost power for a week after an ice storm, only to return home to find their pipes had burst; and a friend who invited me to a “Frozen” movie sing-along—an invitation I politely declined.

I’m tired of scraping the windshield of my minivan and shoving snow off its roof. I’m tired of space heaters. I’m tired of leaning out an upstairs window to whack pregnant icicles from our eaves with a baseball bat. I’m tired of scrubbing up salt that people have tracked onto our wood floors. I’m tired of wetting my wool socks in little puddles of snow melting inside. I’m tired of bundling up my children so just their faces are exposed to make them play outside, only to have my youngest tell me her teeth are cold.

As we watched our kids descend a wintry slope on plastic sleds during yet another recent cancelled day of school, a friend called to his son, “You'd better enjoy this! It’s the last snowfall of the season.

“I keep saying that, and then it snows again,” the father then turned to me and said.
“So you’re to blame for all of this,” I answered bitterly, before hollering at my first-grade twins to watch out for a tree they were racing toward in their toboggan.

Luckily, they missed it, but my friend’s prediction proved wrong. We got another few inches of snow and sleet the next day, piled on top of the three feet or so already encircling our house.

“We’re in sore need of some snow around here,” one of our garbage men joked to me the other day, as I scrabbled over a frozen bank the height of my 3-year-old to retrieve our cans. I chuckled in spite of myself. But lately I haven’t been finding much to laugh about.

“At some point, we need to sit down and have a serious talk about moving,” my husband said to me at 11 the other night, after the snow had finally stopped and after he had shoveled out our driveway for the umpteenth time so that he could get to work the next morning.

We do have a snowblower stored in our garage, but after filling it with fresh gas, changing the oil and replacing spark plugs, it remains stubbornly broken, leaking a rancid fluid all over the ground. We did find a small engine repair guy who said he would take a look at it—if we could get it to him—which we couldn’t before the last blizzard that dropped another 10 inches on our area.

“What’s the status of the snowblower?” our neighbor, retired and fit (he runs marathons), calls and asks without fail before each impending storm. Why he can’t take the machine, in which he owns a part share, to be fixed remains a mystery. And we find ourselves answering the phone and reluctantly replying, “still broken,” each time he rings.

So we’ve been straining our backs and our nerves clearing paths around the perimeter of our wide property and our driveway this winter, often multiple times a week. ‘Who needs CrossFit?’ I ask myself, lower back aching as I shakily prop a book on my knees at bedtime.

Running outside has become an exercise in defying death—or at least a broken hip—as each time I go the course varies with the texture of the ice, the depth of the snow, the humor of the drivers who make way for me on the banked and narrowed roads.

I’ve considered building a luge track from our roof into our backyard. In fact, the silver lining in all of this is that snowbound, with days and days off school, we’ve been able to watch a lot of the Olympics. My husband and kids even constructed their own rendition of the winter games out of LEGOs.

But it has reached the point where my twins don’t even cheer any more when classes are cancelled yet again. “We’re missing our Valentine’s Day party,” Georgia, 7, wailed on Friday. I consoled her with some Hershey’s Kisses.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” my lovely, elderly neighbor proclaimed from her doorstep a couple of weeks ago, staring out at the sun sparkling on the winter wonderland as I shoveled her driveway. “I just love the snow.”

By now, however, even she has changed her mind. “I don't think I'd like Florida,” she said when I checked on her the other day, “but New Mexico! New Mexico would be nice!”

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