All This Time I Thought My Eyes Were Brown

In looking at my first post here and my resolution to want less in ’16, I’m happy to report I’ve made some solid strides, but like most things, it’s a work in progress. In honor of this, what follows is an essay I wrote years ago that’s a fun reflection on the want less theme. I hope you enjoy!

All This Time I Thought My Eyes Were Brown

When I was a child, about the only thing I ever learned from a cartoon was to be wary of coyotes bearing Acme products.

But like a lot of things since the ‘70s, cartoons have changed for the better. These days, some actually come with a nice little takeaway. A smidge of morality that can help little ones set their miniature moral compasses.

One of my 4-year-old daughter’s favorite cartoons is the Berenstain Bears. This is an adaptation of the book series that we’ve had around our house for many years. In case you aren’t familiar with the bear family who lives in the big tree house down a sunny dirt road in bear country, they’re pretty much your typical middle-class American bear family, of the teddy variety. Aside from living in a tree house and having a little extra fur, Brother Bear and Sister Bear are a lot like regular human kids. They struggle with many of the same issues. Chores. Homework. Bullies. Over scheduling. Fitting in. Obeying Mama Bear and Papa Bear. You know, typical bear stuff.

In one particular episode, the cubs get an unwelcome visit from the green-eyed monster. Old green eyes is related, in a lot of ways, to that pesky little devil that appears on your shoulder and gets you to do bad things — only the green-eyed monster is a specialist, dedicated to instigating want. Planting the seeds of envy. Stirring the pot of malcontent. And in the Berenstain Bear’s story – turning otherwise lovely little darlings into sniveling, greedy little stinkers.

Emma chose The Green-eyed Monster episode one morning (video on demand, another notable improvement since the ‘70s) while I squeezed in my daily half-hour on the stationary bike. I look forward to my faux cycling time. Not necessarily for the exercise, but because it affords me a few minutes to make a dent in the weekly accrual of magazines that are perpetually piled on my bedside table.

This is my quiet time to research investments, brush up on foreign policy and get to the heart of our country’s $1.8 trillion deficit.

Kidding.

While there is usually one or two real magazines tossed in the mix, just so the housekeepers don’t think I’m completely shallow, 90 percent of them are retail catalogs — zero editorial content, 100 percent stuff. I just hate to put any of them in the recycle bin without a good once over. After all, you never know when I might stumble upon that thing I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.

Truth is, I like looking through the pages. It’s sort of my modern version of the giant Sears catalog, a.k.a. “The Wish Book,” that would land on my childhood doorstop with a window-rattling thud. The main difference is that today I’ve got a little 2×3 piece of plastic that doubles as a magic wand. With this magic piece of plastic, I can turn anything on the page into a reality that shows up in the form of a UPS package by the front door. Isn’t that fun?

So this is our weekday morning routine. I scan my magazines, alright, catalogs, and Emma watches one of her favorite shows. On this morning, as I half listened to the story, I made a comment to Emma, over the dog-eared pages of my new Anthropologie catalog, “Tsk. Tsk. Looks like Sister Bear’s got a bad case of the green-eyed monster.”

I put the catalog down and watched the plot unfold. Sister Bear was in a tizzy because Brother Bear got a new bike and she didn’t.

I peddled along shaking my head and thinking if I were Mama Bear, I’d take that greedy little fur ball by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. “Don’t you know there are cubs in this world who don’t have any honey to eat? Cubs who would love to have all those Bearbie dolls you have? Just appreciate what you have and stop begging me for more. Now march it up to your room and start hibernating right now missy. I don’t care if it is spring.”

That’s what I’d say. But not Mama Bear.

That Mama Bear is a true saint. Patient. Soft spoken. Wise. Pretty much everything I’m not. In all the episodes I’ve seen, she’s not once shown her claws or growled at her cubs. And she always seems to know just the right thing to say to get Brother and Sister back on track.

Now this may sound strange, but I look up to Mama Bear. Not since Yogi has there been a bear pushing such a good agenda. And it’s not just this one episode. I’ve known Mama Bear for a number of years now, what with three cubs of my own. She helped me gingerly introduce my kids to the somewhat scary idea of strangers. She’s shown my boys how pointless it is to play the blame game. And made them see that even bear cubs get the jitters before going away to camp.

But by far her most ingenious parenting moment was the plan she implemented the time Brother, Sister and even Papa, started loosing their manners. It was a punitive plan, designed to get the family back on a tactful track. And it was true genius.

Each breach in behavior resulted in a punishment. If you were caught interrupting, you had to dust the downstairs. Forget to say “please” or “thank you” and you were off to sweep the porch. Rude noises? You get the pleasure of weeding the garden. It went on.

Thank you, Ms. Cartoon Bear, for the fabulous idea. My mind starting spinning – wow – I could really use this to my advantage. With all the bad manners around here, I could have this house in shipshape in no time. I’ll be like an army sergeant – “Uh oh. Interrupting Mommy while she’s on the phone. Give me two scrubbed toilets.” Oh, this could be good.

I’ve actually found myself in situations where I think, what would Mama Bear do? Maybe I’ll start a new catalog filled with things no one needs and launch it with a WWMBD bracelet. But Mama Bear wouldn’t do that. In fact, if Mama Bear had a leaning tower of catalogs on her bedside table, she would probably realize it was sending her cubs the wrong message and quickly take her name off all the mailing lists. Killjoy.

But back to The Green-Eyed Monster. The message was such a good one that I even snuck it in on Emma’s older brothers. Of course they wouldn’t be caught dead watching a “baby show” but since they’re not allowed to watch any TV during the week (homework and all), I could probably get them engaged in C-SPAN just for the opportunity to stare at the screen.

To put my plan into motion, I slyly asked them to keep an eye on Emma while I took a phone call for work. They were told to do their homework in the living room while Emma watched an unspecified show (The Green-Eyed Monster, of course). If you have school-aged kids, you know it’s absolutely impossible for a child to even get past the “Name” portion of homework when they’re in the same room as a working electronic device. It’s like a transient paralysis, if you will, ensuring that my plan would be foolproof. They’d soak up every second of the show while holding their pencils in ready position and their mouths agape for the entire running time.

I didn’t want to reveal my ulterior motive, so we didn’t discuss the show. But a week or so later, it was evident that my clandestine moral lesson had sunk in when Ben and I made a quick run to Target to pick up party favors for his eighth birthday. I promised him that we’d go straight to the party section. In and out, lickety-split.

Who was I kidding? This was Target, after all, green-eyed headquarters.
Sure enough, the rapid romp-thru skidded to a halt within three feet of the threshold when the 99¢ bins beckoned like a bunch of cheap, plastic little carnival barkers. After a slow mo trek past them, with Ben’s urging, we moved on. But not far. The sight of t-shirts reminded me I needed a t-square to help Alex with a social studies project. This sent us to the art supply aisle, which meant we had to pass the greeting card aisle which reminded me that one of my client’s just had a baby girl so I needed to pick out the perfect card, which reminded me that my own girl Emma needs some new pajamas, which reminded me that I’ve been wanting a new pillow. Ben shadowed me all over the store like the sullen, dutiful child of a shopaholic.

About the only thing I truly needed to buy was a pair of horse blinders, so I wouldn’t be distracted by every chotchke and thingamajig lining the shelf. As we made our way past the small appliance section, the cart instinctively turned (really, can you have too many Crockpots?). “Hold on honey,” I said as I checked out Rivals latest model. My ogling was interrupted by a dash of ice water splashed in my face, in the form of a comment from Ben.

Completely under his breath and mostly to himself, my young son shook his head in disgust, tapped his little foot, looked up at the ceiling tiles and said, “the green-eyed monster.”

“What?” I asked.

“The green-eyed monster,” he repeated cautiously and with a sly grin.

“Oh my gosh! You’re right,” I laughed, shaking the cold water off my face. “You’re absolutely right.”

My clandestine lesson had worked. Only this time, it was on me. Chalk another one up to Mama Bear.

Death by Chocolate. (Well, almost.)

 

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Today’s National Pet Day! In honor of, here’s a post written about Ollie, our original wild child.

My dog recently tried to commit suicide.

I should have seen it coming, what with the steady increase of children around here and the equally steady decrease in his activity level. Apparently, in a moment of rock-bottom desperation, he saw a way out: An oversized bag of chocolates on top of my favorite living room table.

“Come here, big guy. Come closer…,” the confections must’ve called to him. “Eat this and you’ll go to the big field in the sky where Frisbees are thrown 24/7. Where the roads are paved with carrots (my dog’s odd), your bed’s a big comfy couch. Oh, and there are no toddlers.”

It worked. He devoured the whole five-pound bag — foil wrappers and all. I found his big ol’ 80-pound Labrador-Retriever self beached on the living room rug like a furry Orca. A few tale-tell bits of foil lay scattered near him. And the deep scratches in my mahogany table read like lines from a canine suicide note.

The on-call vet suggested I induce vomiting with hydrogen peroxide. So I hauled the pedigreed mutt out back in the 30º weather to commence the life saving. It seems that hydrogen peroxide wasn’t the bubbly Ollie wished to wash his chocolates down — well, actually up — with. The fella has quite an ornery streak, but so do I. And after conjuring up my best crocodile-hunter impression, I body slammed him to the ground and won. (Round one, that is.)

After getting the first tablespoon down his chocolate-coated throat, I waited expectantly for the result. Then waited some more. Nothing. Ding, ding. Time for round two. I circled the deck ominously, giving him my steeliest glare. This time the scene was more like crocodile hunter meets bull rider. But again, my stubborn side kicked in and I persevered. After getting the second tablespoon of peroxide down, I waited again. Nothing. Not even a gag. Maybe I should call the vet and see how long this is supposed to take.

As soon as I opened the door, the hound dashed in and emptied his entire stomach contents on my hand-hooked wool rug that doesn’t react well to liquids. The only saving grace was that the vomit had a lovely chocolate aroma.
Ollie is our first child, if you will. We brought him home at a mere 8 weeks old, barely weaned and cute as anything. He was the runt of the litter and I picked him out specifically because he wouldn’t stop pulling at my shoelaces — a sure sign that he was to be mine. (And hopefully a red flag to you, in case someone ever tries to brainwash you into thinking that an obsessive puppy sounds like a great idea.)

He’s always been a tad on the hyper side. “He’ll calm down when he’s 2,” my husband, Frank, and I kept telling ourselves. And when he was 12, we were saying, “He’ll calm down when he’s 13.”

It’s not that I don’t love the dog. It’s just that, um, well, hmm, he has some rather unnerving habits that on their own might be tolerable, assuming you’re heavily medicated, but seeing as how I’m not — toss squabbling brothers, a toddler and a seemingly permanent case of PMS into the mix and well, God love him, Ollie is always the straw that breaks the mommy’s back.

Like the majority of his kind, Ollie loves water. You can’t keep him out of a pool, pond or stream, but forget about trying to get him to go potty in the rain. And tennis balls? He’s a full-blown addict. His entire existence revolves around scoring his next ball fix. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a sphere per se; it can be a cup, an octagon from little Emma’s shape sorter, or even a plastic shovel from Alex and Ben’s backyard toy collection. He has an uncanny knack, that was cute the first couple of times, for dropping said items on the ground and pushing them via snout, right underneath the foot of someone simply trying to make it from the living room to the kitchen without twisting an ankle or breaking a neck.

He knows how to open cabinet doors (we have to dogproof more than childproof), and somehow managed to open and stuff his not-so-svelte body into the tiniest of toy chests one day in the quest of a super ball. It was quite a sight, seeing him stuck like that. Reminded me of myself after having my first baby — trying to squeeze into my pre-pregnancy jeans before leaving the hospital — only Ollie managed to get all the way in. I would’ve left him there to learn a lesson, but unfortunately for me, and the neighbors, his earsplitting bark was relentless.

I admit that it’s not his fault. Frank and I take the blame. We did all the first time doggie parent things: Took him to the park to have a social life, trained him to be a Frisbee dog and generally devoted all our spare time to the little scoundrel.

“You know Ollie’s actually going to lose some status and become a dog after the baby’s born,” my mother told me over the phone toward the end of my first pregnancy. I dismissed this with an exaggerated eye roll and another dive into the box of cereal I was snacking on. She’s a cat person, after all. Big, sloppy, shedding beasts are my thing, not hers.

Now – more than a decade and three kids later, I’ve realized the gospel truth. Mothers are always right.

So I’ve decided to try something new in my quest for domestic bliss (okay, actually in my quest to prevent my head from spinning, which tends to scare the children). I’m choosing to focus on Ollie’s redeeming qualities. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

First, he is the darn best security system anyone could hope for (minus the fact that he can’t be disarmed). I have no worries that a prowler will ever enter our home without my knowledge, since nary an acorn hitting the roof or a squirrel on the porch goes without a hardy round of brain-rattling barking.

Second, his dog bowl is always half full. He lives life just knowing that while it looks like I’m really working at the computer, talking on the phone and simultaneously balancing a small human in my lap, if he gives me a solid, meaningful “woof” and runs to the back door, I’ll instantly come to my senses, drop all those silly distractions and take him out for a round of fetch.

And last, but so not least, he’s a love with the kids. Although “No Ollie!” was one of the first phrases uttered by all three of my offspring, he puts up with whatever they dish out. From being ridden like a racehorse to being the pretend dragon in a 5-year-old’s drama, he’s never once snapped at the kids. Which, come to think of it, is more than I can say for myself.

The Sunday Miracles

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A few weeks ago, in the middle of a sunny, almost-warm early March day, Alex walked into the kitchen and uttered these shocking words. “Hey, do you want to go on a walk with me?”

This wouldn’t be remarkable for any reason, except for the fact that he’s 17. And given that he’s now a driving, almost adult, I see the mailman (excuse me, the mail carrier) more predictably than I see my son.

I looked around the kitchen to be sure one of his friends hadn’t snuck in behind me, but it indeed appeared that he was speaking to me. It wasn’t necessarily the most convenient time to go for a walk. I was attempting a baking feat, which was ambitious from the start, but when your 17 year old asks you to go on a walk, you drop everything and go.

I wondered if he had anything earth shattering to tell me, but he didn’t. I wondered if I should use the moment to impart lifelong lessons, but I didn’t. Instead, we just walked up to the shops that are a few blocks from the house. He had a gift certificate he was ready to cash in, so there was a destination to the excursion. He spent his gift card and we leisurely strolled through some of the newer shops I haven’t had a chance to visit. We talked about nothing in particular — just little things of no individual significance. But collectively, they added up to mean the world to me. When we got home, he even thanked me for going. Since he wasn’t feverish, I claimed it as the only thing it could be: A Sunday miracle.

Okay, so it wasn’t the parting of the Red Sea. But if you don’t have a 17 year old, here are a couple of simple truths I didn’t see coming:

1. They are their own independent people, with busy schedules — whether it’s social, sports or school, they have their own, real life — with places to be and people to see. And over time Mom’s role gets downsized. One day you’re the star in his show, then suddenly you’re lucky if you get a bit part. If there was playbill for Alex’s past year, my role would be listed at the bottom as, “line cook.”

2. Once they can drive, just wave goodbye. When they are dependent upon you for taxiing, those quick trips from point A to B to C and back again, are actually critical connection points. These are the little windows that give you an inside look at what’s going on. Now that Alex is his own shuttle service, well, those connection points are gone. Gone, as in, “here are your car keys, now drive away with my heart.”

I wasn’t prepared for this. I was actually thrilled that he worked so hard and saved his money for to pay for half a car. (We sprung for the other half, because driving around in half a car would be so awkward.) He has worked for the past three summers and by the time he was 16, had saved way more cash than I had accumulated into my mid 20s.

But regardless of how they arrive at their first set of wheels, it will become a vehicle that clearly furthers the process of letting them go — both literally and figuratively.

So here we are, halfway through Alex’s final semester in high school. In a few short months, my kid will be off to the University of Georgia. Of course, this is wrought with its own excitement, joy, pride, anxiety, sleepless nights, ifs, ands and buts. His role in our family is huge – he’s our firstborn, with two siblings that look up to him, even though they don’t act like it. And he’s the first to leave the nest.

Suffice it to say, I’m feeling sentimentally fragile these days. It’s unknown, even to me, when the emotional pangs will hit — the spontaneously welling of tears that I try quickly to shut down. Along with wearing sunglasses a lot, I’m trying to avoid known triggers, like thinking this is his last (insert event here) at home, looking at our digital photo frame, chock full of little Alex shots, and, of course, Alan Jackson songs.

So I held on to the sunny, warm memory of our Sunday walk throughout the next week. As the following Sunday rolled around, I loitered around the house and found many excuses to hover near his doorway, you know, just waiting to see if a second miracle might occur. As the afternoon ticked along, I took the ball into my own hands, peeked into his room and asked him oh-so casually, “Hey, you want to go play some tennis?” I turned to leave sure his head wouldn’t even lift from his snap chatting endeavors, as he muttered, “Nah.” Instead, he replied with a simple, “Sure.”

Ah, a second Sunday miracle.

I’m pretty certain one can get too pushy with the miraculous. So I was all set to revel in the joy of the past two weeks, when out of the blue the very next Sunday, Alex asked me — just me, no begging sister, no brother or dad allowed — to go to lunch after church. And here’s the kicker: He paid.

This marked the third miraculous Sunday moment in a row. And this past Sunday was Easter, so make that four.

I hesitate to even put it in writing, but could it be that my son is feeling a slight bit sentimental about his impending departure? Could it be that he is feeling the heavy tug as well? I will never ask, but I will take it. And I will hold on to it, ever grateful for his letting me in as I struggle to let him go.

And, of course, I’ll keep my Sunday’s open.