Searching for Words

For as little as I relish getting older, there are some graces. 

 One is that the passing decades of your life serve as shock absorbers, providing some immeasurable dulling effect against the sharp and bitter.  This phenomenon has physiological components.  One of the reasons that the little you couldn’t endure Brussels sprouts, or in my case, peas, is that your childhood taste buds experience them as they truly are, with all their pungent and dirty and slightly sulfuric qualities.  It’s an assault on your still too pure and honed senses.  As an adult, you can’t possibly simulate what these foods tasted like to your eight year old self.  The buds dull over time.  So you just chuckle, even marvel, at how much you used to despise that same vegetable that you now readily order as a side dish.  The taste is so mild that you add a little sea salt.  The chef adds a bit of bacon.  But try telling the eight year old you that one day she will pay her very own money, at a restaurant, for Brussels sprouts.  She will tell you you’re crazy.  You’ll both be right.

 What we ask our children to experience while they are still little is a very tricky thing. 

Foods may seem innocuous enough, but just track down my old babysitter, the then-teenaged Noreen Johnson, who must now be well into  her 50’s.  One night in about 1979, she dutifully fulfilled my mother’s directive that I must finish my peas.  I recoiled at everything about those peas – their texture, their pea green-ness, and most of all their taste.  Pushed to near hysteria over the notion that I’d never get to leave the table for Jiffy Pop and Gilligan’s Island, I forced those peas down my throat, and then promptly gagged and vomited across our linoleum floor.   Thus did I create my own cherished and guarded legend that I was “allergic” to peas.  I never had to eat them again, but I do, of course, preferably with a little salt and pancetta.

What can kids handle, and when?  The whole question is so relative to the circumstances into which they are born that the motivating event of this post just serves as evidence of how lucky my circumstances are.  But lately, a host of things have reminded me that my own senses aren’t quite as dulled as I might have thought or hoped.  So maybe I am extra sensitized to what Devan is being asked to take in.  Which brings me to the word search.

 A five year old’s backpack holds many wonders, many horrors, and lots in between.  The single mitten, the rotten half eaten food product… these are a given.  The treasure in Devan’s bag lies in the yellow folder labeled, “PLEASE RETURN THIS FOLDER TO SCHOOL!!”  Remarkably, though we may have occasionally let our car inspections lapse, somehow that yellow folder gets returned to school as requested, day in and day out.  Tonight, I extracted a packet of school papers that included a “circle a word” search entitled….forget it, I can’t even do it justice.  Here it is:

I will admit that my very first reaction was pride that my little girl had circled absurdly long  and sophisticated words like “Inauguration,” and “Documentary.”  As for the rest of Puzzle 25, doled out in a public school after-care program that includes children from roughly 4 through 11 years of age, I might have been just as composed and prepared if I’d found a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes in her Hello Kitty side pocket.  Staring at the paper, I felt that purgatory of bewilderment where you’re pretty sure something isn’t a joke while you’re still chuckling as though it is. 

 Yes, here it is, Devan, your first officially sanctioned, school sponsored “Special Occasions on the Television” word search.  Study closely. 








Ready, set… go find those words!!!  Wait, you’re only 5?  And you have no idea what these words mean, but you’re able to sound most of them out?   Well, pish posh, I’m sure your loving parents will be at the ready with a loving, comforting explanation of it all.  They’ll certainly put the “special” back into things like hostages and war. 

 And for my children, I certainly would try.  Parenting is, among other things, the simultaneous denial and imperfect management of a freefall into helplessness.  You scramble in the moment to give the comforting response.  Sometimes you lie.  Often you have to suffer anew the implications of what you are trying to explain, things you will unearth from hard-earned scar tissue, because your kids deserve some answer.  But what answer?  There is no meter to read whether those keen and honed senses can handle even a watered down version of pain, horror, heartbreak, loss.  You would spend everything you have, and borrow multiples of that, to never see any of it sink into their perfect and unfurrowed brows.  Now you’re asked to be the narrator.  The docent on the Word Search of Horrors. 

 You might stop to marvel that this is the same school that sends home multiple permission slips, that very much wants your considered thought and written authorization to take your child apple picking at Butler’s Orchard, or to Ye Olde Colonial Farm to watch people from olden times churn butter.  But that irony appears to be lost on whoever had access to a copier and had to occupy a slew of kids on a random Monday afternoon.

So you consider the list. 

 Maybe you could tackle just a few of these…

“PLANE CRASH?”   No.  No fucking way.  And let’s face it, she just wants to cross out the word sandwiched between “OSCARS” and “PLAYOFFS.”  Here’s a thought, Puzzle 25 drafters:  “PLANET OF THE APES.” 

 “IMPEACHMENT?”  Jesus Christ, I highly doubt too many kindergarten classes tuned in to the last one.  But I can lawyer my way through this one.  Any sentient child or adult is sure to lose interest within two minutes of my oral history of what our founders considered high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of invoking a congressional process whereby the House of Representatives must first vote to by a simple majority to bring articles of….. zzzz……

 One down, infinity to go. 

Let’s see here… 

“BLOOPER SHOWS.”   Dick Clark?  Bob Saget?  I shudder.  And isn’t this one atrocity that we’ve managed to eradicate over time? 

I’m suddenly thinking this word search was created around the time I pea-puked on Noreen Johnson.  Seems highly likely that the impeachment reference is more likely to Nixon than to Clinton, and you hardly ever see hostages on the evening news anymore.  And when was the last time you heard someone say, “hey, there’s a great ‘special’ on TV tonight?”

 “WORLD SERIES.”  Sigh.  A concept as likely to break her heart as many other items on the list.  Though I will reassure her that she was born into a wonderful, post-curse Red Sox era, that the 2012 season was an anomaly, that we can all learn a lesson from the ill-considered firing of Terry Francona, and that our family is finding a way to form a third identity as Nationals fans.  Daddy and I are even getting used to the pitchers getting a turn at bat.  Daddy’s Orioles?  A flash in a cheap and flimsy pan.

 “TERRORISM.”   Um….nope.  I’ve got nothing.   Check, please!

 You do your best, I guess, though in some moments your best is not going to seem up to the task.  Just as you must face that your children are constantly growing away from you, you swallow the far more brutal reality that their tethers strain closer and closer to a world featuring those special occasions on the television.  On good days, you embrace it as part of the bargain.  Not all days are good days.

 Devan, I suspect, lost interest in this word search the minute our nanny appeared to pick her up from after-school.  I had no way of knowing that it was one of those days I would desperately wish that it was my face she saw when she looked up from the task.  If I’d been home earlier in the afternoon, maybe I would have found the word search right away, still wet from her green magic marker.  But even if I had, we probably wouldn’t have talked about it very much.   Some words are just too hard to find.  

So tonight, we will take a pass.  We’ll take a pass on blindfolded hostages, war-ravaged despair.  Tonight I will simply hope, despite all that I know to be true, that some of these events go the way of blooper shows, or that I find some measure of wisdom and grace when they enter her consciousness and she looks to me for an answer.  But tonight she is still 5, and I am still clinging to every last bit of my waning control over what shocks get to enter her system. 

I tuck Puzzle 25 into my work bag.   Tonight it’s pancakes for dinner.

Election Day 2012: What is Missing, and What Endures.

It’s 11:08 p.m. on the night before election day.  Against my better judgment, I am watching CNN as Michelle gives a lovely and moving introduction to her husband, the love of her life, our President, Barack Obama.  He is before me now, giving the best and last stump speech his voice will allow him, to the people of Iowa, who truly did start him on the path to the White House, setting in real motion that crazy and glorious ride on which I was a giddy and full-freight passenger. 

 It all seems a lifetime ago.  Devan was just 18 months.  After tossing her into the air in her Obama onesie, thrilling that she might never know a country in which a person of color couldn’t occupy the Oval Office, we put her in her crib to watch the returns.  Like so many others, we celebrated the most profound moment of patriotic elation that I believe I will ever know.  I can say without irony or sarcasm that I am grateful I got to have it at all. 

 I will not use this space, or one of my few rare windows of writing time, to journal my own disappointments with Barack Obama.  Loyal readers of smartycaro (“Hi, Mom!!!”) know damn well whom I will vote for tomorrow morning, futile though the exercise may be in my disenfranchised, home-sweet-home District, where Obama beat McCain by about 96 percentage points.

 I am trying instead to imagine life two days from now, waking up on November 7, 2012.  In the best case scenario, we will have definitively chosen a president, albeit it one that half of our citizenry thinks should be relegated to that old dustbin of history.  But I want it to be done.  I want it to be done for a lot of reasons, but among them is that some people in my life whom I love deeply who are ….Republicans. 

Yes, America, in my very own life could lay the seeds of hope for bipartisan friendship and cooperation.  Or, maybe not.

 I speak primarily of my dearest partner in crime, Sylvia, code name Trixie, a/k/a Emma Peel.  It’s a funny thing.  Between election cycles, the countless hours, days and months pass without partisan resentment and rancor.  I could catalogue in volumes the things that we have done for one another, and they would be dwarfed only by that which we would do for one another.  We have trekked across continents together.  We have been each other’s comfort in times of despair. We have marked holidays and birthdays and births and deaths and have met up for 4,187 happy hours.  You will never meet someone who can throw a better theme party.

 In all times but these, we leave politics out of it.  It’s not even a conscious choice, because in the most profound moments, or the most delightfully frivolous ones, the business of living just lays claim on all our energies, not just obliterating but making a joke of political disagreements.  But the current quandary is this:   If need be I would lay down in traffic for her.  But if we lived in Ohio right now, I would strongly consider slipping something into her drink so she slept through election day.  I’m pretty sure she feels the same way.

 Yes, our respective temperatures need to come down before I can see Trixie, and a few others, again.  I miss them, but I need to be able to enjoy their presence without seeing Mitt Romney in a thought bubble cartoon over their heads.   It takes time, but it is high time to get back to that business of living.

 It is time for all this to be over, because having lived in this town through hanging chads, ten gallon hats, a stray war started for no good reason…well, the point is, the Bush years happened, and then Obama was elected, and nothing is perfect, nothing is clear, people are truly hurting, our diplomats were murdered in a place we should have secured better.  A chunk of Manhattan and New Jersey is under water.  So this time we stagger, regardless of the intended beneficiary of our vote, to that polling booth, clinging to an article of faith that it matters that we make it there at all.  We are all a little more clear-eyed, and all a little sorrier for it.

 This past Sunday, when I probably should have been canvassing in Virginia, I went with two friends on a day trip to the lovely hamlet of Frederick, Maryland.  We spent hours in an antiques “emporium” that stretches over several blocks.  The way it works is that dozens of people (whom you never see or meet, unfortunately) with furniture, art, objects, or clothing to sell rent “booths” within this enormous warehouse space.  It is like shopping at 200 little hole in the wall boutiques. 

 I had thought about inviting Sylvia along, and it was an excursion she would have loved.  I was trolling for cheap but interesting artwork for our house, and I looked forward to scouring for hidden treasures.  But half the fun was chuckling at the bizarre and the awful.  The crying clown portraits.  An oil painting of a gun, a jug… and another jug.  Thousands of Lladro dancing figures.  Display cases full of enough miniature civil war figurines to recreate the entire war between the states, and probably the War of 1812 too, if you weren’t a stickler for detail.  Your eyes dart from the sublime to the heinous, and Sylvia would have spotted even more at which to marvel. 

 But as it happened, my friend who drove us doesn’t know Sylvia very well, and she was amped up to eleven over the election, and thus our ride to Frederick was one of the high decibel rants that have marked so many of my social interactions for the past months.  And I certainly did nothing to put a cold compress on the situation.  After all, I truly do think Mitt Romney is a complete shithead, so why not say it for the 500th time to people who already think the same thing?  It would have been an onslaught for Sylvia, reinforcing her initial instinct to steer clear of her liberal friends a while longer, or a muted, stifled “let’s change the subject” ride for all of us.  Either way, it wouldn’t have worked.  And that is a shame. 

 It is particularly a shame because strolling the acres of that antiques mart went a long way toward restoring my faith that we may yet all find a way to work this out.  The personality of each little booth is different, and while it is true that we had to stifle laughs at some of the offerings, we did in fact stifle them, because it would be rude to laugh at things that others were admiring and considering for purchase.  Scores of people were searching for their own version of treasure, whether a fifty cent spoon, an old Life magazine, or a vintage armoire. 

 The most wonderful piece I bought was a charcoal sketch of a woman who looked somewhat sad, or disappointed, or maybe pissed off.  She was in a horrible frame with yellowed matting, hanging in a far corner of a deserted booth.  I fell for her instantly, and then (quite needlessly) panicked that someone else might be about to scoop my precious find, clearly an overlooked museum-quality portrait, bargain priced for just $30, plus the cost of reframing.  The young guy who got on a ladder to take it down regarded me with bemused disbelief: 

That one, ma’am?” 

 “Yep!  Isn’t she beautiful?”

 Last night, I opened a good bottle of  wine and considered my charcoal woman.  It was exactly fifty years ago that she sat for this portrait, in whatever exact mood it is that her artist captured.  Who knows what time of year it was, though she is wearing a turtleneck, so maybe it was late fall like it is now.  With a little help from the IPad, I learned quite a bit about what her country and world were serving up in 1962.  There were military coups in the Dominican Republic and Burma, and, in that year alone, the people of Rwanda, Burundi, Jamaica, Algeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, and Tanzania declared independence. The term “personal computer” was first mentioned by the media.  Chile hosted the World Cup, in which Brazil beat Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the final.  It was a horrific year for airplane crashes:  by June, three Boeing 707’s had crashed and claimed 290 souls.  The first black student, James Meredith, registered at the University of Mississippi, escorted by federal marshals.  In September, Russia started arming Cuba, sparking the missile crisis which might very well have been at its apex as she sat there, as still as she could.  Maybe she posed as a favor for a friend, or an art student who lived in her building, or a lover, but amidst no shortage of chaos she sat, for someone who still had the courage to pick up a piece of charcoal and make something beautiful, taking it as an article of faith that it might endure.  

 She will now grace a wall in our home, which in two days’ time will either be part of Barack Obama’s second term or the inception of the Mitt Romney presidency.  She will bear witness to the day to day triumphs and perils of the Mehtas, a mixed race family of four living in Washington, DC, where we have waited too long, in too charged and personal a way, to learn who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania.‎

I can’t wait to show her to Sylvia.