Category Archives: Mom Diaries

The Dogs 1


Ronnie 2015 OB

I have two dogs. One is a mini-poodle. He’s a failure of breeding—too tall to show at 12 inches at the shoulder—though his parents were champion toys. We got him in 2000, paying half price for a “pet-quality” animal. His name is Ronnie. Ronald Weasley Gettinger. Yeah, he’s red. At the time, we were reading Harry Potter on tape in the car on all long trips upstate, and who better to be named after than the best second banana in kid lit?

Ronnie’s a good boy. He learned the rules early and followed them. He looks like a stuffed animal with his shoe-button eyes, curly red hair, and alert stance, but he guarded the house from all and sundry with great ferocity for many years. He guarded us with great ferocity on walks. He took his job seriously—barking at every big dog he saw out the front door of our condo, which faced onto a big park where everybody walked their dogs. Lotta barking. Little Napoleon, that’s him.

When he was 5 ½ months old, one of my extremely intelligent progeny held him up high—and dropped him. This resulted in over $1300 worth of surgeries—one to pin the knee whose cartilage broke (and nip his balls off), and one to unpin it a year later when it had healed. He got to be walked in a stroller for a month. He hated it.

This dog has served us faithfully for 16 years now, and continues to do guard duty on the sofa arm by the front door when we leave, watching for intruders. Though now, when we come home, he chews us out at high volume (because he’s deaf) for five minutes for being gone SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO long and leaving him in charge all that time. The rest of the time, he sleeps really hard and has trouble climbing the stairs. At age 14 or so, he took to sleeping on our bed with us, a no-no in days of yore. But he makes his own rules now. He is the oldest one around, after all—past 80 in dog years. (Actually, he’s the equivalent of an 80-year-old person, so it should be called people years, don’t you think?) I’m not aure I agree with all his rules, especially when he decides it’s OK to poop in the house.

Ron and food

Where is the egg you promised me?

These days, his bluster is pretty well gone. He’s motivated by one thing. Food. Many different kinds. Plus snacks and licks of dirty dishwasher items. His taste changes with the wind, going from Hills W/D dry to Royal Canin canned to Hills I/D canned back to the W/D. He might need chicken or fish or beef or cheese with that, as well. Or an egg. He thrives on variety. I wish he spoke English, or at least read it, since he’s ordering off the menu, and I need to know how to cook that egg.

Ronnie 1

All his (considerable) vet bills have been related to the early leg break and later muscle strain and joint pain. He’s a real Energizer Bunny, except on walks now, when he pulls toward home the whole way—backwards for the first half, forwards for the second. Hey, he knows the route. Because of his size (10-11 pounds max) and his utter cuteness, some might label him a “near-dog” or a “pseudo-dog,” but he’s quite sure that he’s very large and imposing and important. And he is. He’s the military arm of the household. We salute him.

Ron cute in bed

Don’t talk about how stinkin’ cute I am. I’m busy guarding the house. Can’t you see?

Readers’ Favorite 5-star Review for Alice in Monologue Land

Readers’ Favorite 5-star Review for Alice in Monologue Land

Below, find the amazing and wonderful review for Alice in Monologue Land that Readers’ Favorite said via email last summer that they had found no one to do. Guess this lovely lady did do a review in September, after all, and the email about it to me got lost in political spam. Well, I didn’t go hunting for Alice’s page on Readers’ Favorite until today, when I thought I’d bite the bullet and pay for a review. But to my surprise, here it is! A freebie! 5 Whole Stars!


“Fun, fun, fun! That’s definitely how I would describe Alice in Monologue Land by author Amy Gettinger. following the story of Alice Chalmers, adjunct English professor, single mom, and basically all around stressed out woman. And when she’s ‘encouraged’ or, more aptly, ‘required’ to read a part in her campus’ upcoming “Venus Monologues,” things in her carefully orchestrated life start to fall apart. A coveted job opens up, but Alice is certain that the conservative selection committee would not appreciate her participation in the Venus Monologues. Her Dean pretty much forces her to continue with her participation though, and, resigned, she does so. It’s at practice for the monologues, that she meets the “Venus Warriors,” an interesting group of fearless college women who aren’t afraid to discuss or do just about anything. Throw in some special attention from not one, but three men interested in her and the fact that some of her female students have gone missing, and you’ve got yourself one heck of wild ride of a book.

I so enjoyed Alice in Monologue Land. This was an exceptional read and I read it from cover to cover in just a few days. Author Amy Gettinger has done a fantastic job in creating characters that are funny, intriguing and exciting, sometimes all at once. The story is truly laugh out loud funny at times, and in one scene I actually laughed until I had tears in my eyes. Alice in Monologue Land is a book that would be enjoyed by any reader who enjoys a book with a fun female lead, a book with a little mystery, a little suspense and a little romance all wrapped in one, or just a plain good book. I certainly hope that Amy Gettinger is working on her next novel in this same vein, because I, for one, will be eagerly waiting to read it!”

~ Tracy Slowiak for Readers’ Favorite

I am overjoyed! Thanks, Tracy, for reading and reviewing!!! Alice was meant for just your type of audience!


The Coco’s Incident



The halo of sweet golden curls surrounded the small, soft, alabaster face, but the wide blue eyes glinted with mischief and the toothy mouth had a maniacal grin. As he jumped up and down, laughing raucously, on the green vinyl booth seat in the local Coco’s Restaurant, Sarah wondered for the thousandth time from which side of the family these particularly vigorous genes had come. He was way more extroverted and confident than she, her engineer husband, and their other child put together. But this was the boy she had been assured was hers at the hospital nearly two years before.

“Sit down, Dougie,” she said, for the tenth time that morning. When would the food come? This was excruciating.

He sat, and she passed him another cracker, pushing wispy bangs off her forehead. The calm lasted for five seconds. Then he stood up on the booth seat again and clambered expertly up onto the back of it and sat down, short red corduroy legs dangling, face lit up and squealing with glee.

His four-year-old brother, Stevie, quietly stirred his water with his straw and made a mess with his cracker crumbs. Then he giggled, too.

Sarah was about to say something to Dougie when a waitress crossed the nearly-empty dining room, apron strings flying. “Excuse me, ma’am, but you need to keep him in his seat. He might fall.”

Sarah grimaced. “Sure.” Fuming, she got up to pull the toddler off the booth back and plop him on the booster seat. Again.

She was doing her best. She had always been the good child, had never challenged a rule in her life, yet this baby made her look irresponsible and lax as a parent. Dougie no longer fit into Coco’s wooden highchair, and nothing short of an elephant sitting on his chest would slow him down today. But wasn’t this supposed to be a family restaurant? Couldn’t she bring her older son here for a promised lunch out without being chastised by the crew fourteen times? And Whirlwind Dougie just had to come along.

Most of the mothers she knew refused to trade babysitting with her because he was such a hellion. Her stomach hurt like it always did from being caught out by someone else’s rules, especially those unposted ones. If they didn’t want children on the booth tops, why wasn’t there a sign? He really wasn’t hurting anything. Besides, her little Sherpa Boy could scale almost anything without falling, and often did, to her utter amazement.

Dougie popped up from the booster seat and, hands held high, hopped down off the booth to the carpet. “Gup down!”

“Get back in your seat, Dougie!”

He did, but he “gupped down” again twice more.

“Dougie, stop!”

Ignoring her pleas, Dougie raced around the room on his chubby little toddler legs, then ran off into the next dining room, which was currently dark and unoccupied. Able to see him through the window between the rooms and exhausted by his presence, Sarah let him stay in there a few minutes.

She turned to Stevie. “How was pre-school today?”

“Fine. Where’s Dougie?” He craned his neck and looked up over the seat back through the windows. “What’s he doing?”

Sarah wished she didn’t need to answer that. Little breaks from Dougie were like roses in a ragweed field. She tried to enjoy them fully. The food was finally delivered to the table. Stevie started on his burger with zeal, and Sarah thanked the waitress, then went to the other room to get the wild child. She found him sitting under a corner booth table in the dark, playing with napkins and silverware that he had grabbed off of the already-set tables in the silent room.

Kneeling, she took these away. “Don’t you want to come and eat?”


“It looks good. Grilled cheese just like you like it.”


She stood up and started walking back to the table. “Okay. Then you won’t get any French fries.”

He zoomed back to the table, climbed up, and stood on the seat, vacuuming up fries.

“Sit down, Dougie.” Sarah started to eat, hoping for a respite long enough to finish their meal. Ten minutes. That was all she really needed. Just ten minutes.

But after a few bites, Dougie said, “Gimme some lettuce.”

“You don’t like it,” said Stevie.

“Mom, I want lettuce.” Dougie looked earnest.

“He’s right,” Sarah said. “You hate it.”

Dougie pestered her over and over until she gave him a leaf to keep the peace. He still had it in his mouth when he flew out of the seat again and rocketed around the slightly more populated restaurant one more time.

Sarah raced after him as fast as it was polite for a woman in a denim mom-dress and sensible shoes to go. She caught up with him in front of a lone older woman in a booth. He took this moment to spit out the wet green wad of lettuce with a gagging motion of the tongue in full view of the woman.

Both women stared down. Yes, just what Coco’s needed to welcome its guests. Kids barfing up wads of slimy green stuff, like gross little frogs, on the carpet by each table.

Sarah grabbed a napkin and picked it up, not daring to meet the woman’s eyes, while Dougie ran off chortling and scampered up into another empty booth, climbing up its back to stand there on the conquered summit, all joyful good humor. This time, a manager came over and told Sarah to keep him from climbing the booths because their insurance did not cover falls in the dining room.

Her stomach tightened and her face reddened. Time to go.

Waiting for their ticket and some take-home boxes back at their table, Sarah had great trouble keeping hold of little Houdini. Too bad spanking was so out of fashion, she thought. Screaming at him wouldn’t have kept him from misbehaving, but would have made her feel a lot better. But she’d been taught never, ever to attract attention to herself, so she just wailed inside as she dragged her charges up front to the long, empty bench for people waiting to be seated.

Sarah pointed at the bench. “You guys sit here for just a minute.” She turned to the cash register to pay the bill.

It only took a minute for a girl to package the to-go cherry pie order that Stevie wanted, just enough time for giggling to start behind her. She turned to see her little angels both dancing on the bench and laughing like hyenas. Turning back to the cashier and looking for her Visa card, she tried not to notice the rising noise level, tuning it out like she so often did at home.

“Uh, Ma’am, they’re not allowed to stand up there on the bench like that,” said the man behind the register. As if this were news. Could anyone stand on anything in this damned place?

“Sorry.” She cringed and ushered the boys back to her side. “Stay here for one minute,” she snapped.

Dougie didn’t miss a beat. As soon as her pen was on the credit card slip, he was giggling off toward the restroom, little legs flying and curls bobbing angelically.

Sarah had had enough. Purse and pen clutched in one hand, she launched herself away from the cashier’s desk. In a couple of long strides, she caught up with Dougie and grabbed his hand and swung him in a neat arc about a foot off the ground back to where she had been standing. She stuck him between her knees, put a vise grip on a little hand, and growled, “Stay!” then proceeded to finish her signature.

From a nearby table, an older male, witness to the one-armed maneuver, stood up and said loud enough for all to hear, “Hey, lady. Never, EVER treat a child like that!!”

Sarah wanted to drop through the floor and let it close unceremoniously over her head.

Another man standing on her other side, waiting in line to pay his bill, answered the first guy. “Hey. Can’t you see she’s only trying to control him?”

Send me to a very deep, dark cave. Alone, she thought, as all the customer and staff eyes settled on her and judged her mothering skills.

She grabbed the boxes and tried to make a quick escape before Dougie could cause any more embarrassment, but he chose this moment to melt onto the floor in Coco’s entryway, refusing to leave the scene of his crimes. Sarah pulled at his arm again, but he wouldn’t budge. She didn’t dare drag him off the floor by his arm with this tough audience. So in the end, she had to pick up the twenty-eight-pound blob and carry him out to the car, her back aching all the way. She’d need ibuprofen and heat for two days to undo the physical damage. The emotional scars could take years.

She lectured the boys all the way home, but the lecture just bounced off the golden curls and made Stevie get quiet.

Later, on the phone, her mother said, “Your brother was just like that. I couldn’t take him anywhere until he was six.”

“Oh, no. The genetic connection.” Sarah sighed. “Wait. Now I remember Dad yelling and swearing at John for something. I was about three. But that would have made him eight.”

“Well, you were never like John.”

“But eight? He’ll be like this until he’s eight?” Sarah’s head swam. She saw double. Hadn’t she always been the good one, the well-behaved, level-headed one, to avoid her father’s wrath? And now she had to raise her brother’s double. Lord have mercy.

“Well, maybe he’ll come out of it sooner. By seven or so. But I wouldn’t go back to Coco’s any time soon, dear.”

Vicks, the Wonder Drug


My mother was a nurse from 1941 to 1948, which made her the family resource on all health advice for many years. But along with her medical advice came quite a bit of homespun “wisdom.” When I was little, unhardened Jello was her answer to most stomach ailments, and Mexsana powder was what she put on all scrapes. And the magical balm of the cold sufferer was Vicks Vaporub.

Rubbing Vicks on people’s chests was basic practice for novices. When I had a cough or sore throat or laryngitis, my mother would slather Vicks on my neck at night before bed and then take an old sock and wrap my neck in it and secure it with a safety pin. Often, she’d have me put some in my nostrils (not recommended on the jar) to clear my sinuses. And sometimes she’d make me take a dollop of Vicks and swallow it whole, as a chaser. That part was pretty gruesome, but the throat wrap practice stuck with me through adulthood, and I have to admit to owning an old gray sock that I keep with a safety pin in it just for that purpose. Which I used for The Cough From Hell just this week.

But as she got older, Mom also used Vicks for other things, like toenail fungus. She said her cronies all did it and it worked. Yeah, right, Mom. She also put it on her feet to stop a cough. Well, I figured this was just a bunch of octogenarian legend on the order of her other ideas that we should unplug all appliances when not in use and that one must shred every bit of correspondence with one’s address on it. But this week, The Cough From Hell just would not quit. Don’t worry. It’s not pneumonia. It’s a shallow cough fueled by a drip and perpetuated by the irritation it causes in the bronchi. Been there before. Seen the movie. Bought the T-shirt.  Especially in 1994 when I was nine months pregnant and past my due date. Which is another story.

Anyway, this week I was so busy coughing and napping from the coughing that I couldn’t get to the doctor for some Tessalon perles, those magic cough stoppers. (I don’t like codeine—it makes me queasy.) So last night, at 7:30, I was exhausted and had been coughing hard all day—day 15 of this cold. Enough already. In an effort to get a real rest, I took out the old jar of Vicks (really old—dated 2011) and tried it. Not being that flexible in the low back, I got a spatula and scooped out a dollop of Vicks and spread it on the bottom of each foot, just like cake icing.

And my cough STOPPED. Like magic. No irritation, no fuss, just calm. And I slept like a baby for eight hours, getting up once, just once, all night. No drama, no diaphragm spasms, no dreams. With my feet all toasty in their Vicks socks. Of course, I woke up at 3:30 for the day, but what a way to sleep! I may use this from now on for sleep, even when I don’t have a cough.





It’s just after midnight on January 6, 2004
. Yawning, feverish and splayed on the sofa, I blow my nose and avert my eyes from the cheery guest standing across from me. She’s tall, beautiful, and maddeningly sparkly. Droning on about Christmases past, she’s been talking my ear off for weeks now. She drinks like a fish and is beginning to smell a bit off. Sniff, sniff. This old fish has really been around long enough. Maybe tomorrow, if I feel better, I’ll pack her up and escort her out—to the trash. It’s time to get rid of this year’s Christmas tree.

In other years, I loved my Christmas tree, even felt sad about sending it to the wood chipper. So why does this year’s offering grate so? It’s a 6-foot noble fir, like always: full, well-shaped, and still mostly green. It’s barely dropped a needle, unlike the ignominious trees of my 60’s childhood Christmases. My parents always ended up with some twelve-dollar Charlie Brown special with an S-shaped trunk or a forked top or a bunch of branches missing in back, dragged in a few days before the event. In years when a baby was crawling around, it perched on a card table inside a playpen. So tacky. But at least we didn’t give up and go artificial like our neighbors, whose silver tree with its six silver balls showed pink, then blue, then green, then yellow under a rotating color wheel in their front window.

Now that’s cheesy.

In the battle between real and artificial tree enthusiasts, my mother’s now gone over to the dark side, citing asthma problems with real trees. Her fake tree is up and decorated in a mere two hours the day after Thanksgiving: no mess, no fuss. But Peter and I are still purists, wanting only the real item. Which takes hours and hours to launch and much, much tending.

And as to decorations, the less planning the better. Department store monochrome confections and Good Housekeeping color-coordinated tree themes be damned. No mauve and gray satin balls and bows on my Noel branch. No nautical trees full of ships and shells. No pure white light strands to indicate the decorator’s beige life. And those boring homespun numbers with only wood-and-hemp rocking horses and dolls and not a sparkle in sight? Puh-lease! It’s dark in here. Let there be light. But don’t go nuts with flashing, chasing lights and fake snow. Just give me a fancy-free, plump green tree full of a personally gathered assortment of shiny and whimsical decorations and some multi-colored lights—those tiny twinkle lights, the ones that replaced the big, hot ones that my mother always promised would start a fire.

My ornaments are stored in a dozen diaper boxes and would easily cover three or four trees. The blown glass ones remind me of the old glass ornaments of my childhood, inherited from my mother’s stylish Aunt Clara. Carefully gleaned at half-price after-Christmas sales, they include a Christopher Radko Santa with pink cheeks, a red chili pepper, a pickle, a gold beehive, a tall wise man, a frog on a snowball, purple grapes from Fresno, Dorothy’s red slippers, Mickey Mouse, and King Tut’s mask. Only a couple of the dull, cracked originals still remain from Mom’s ancient glass stash. Ghosts of Christmas 1937.

My non-glass items include Clara, the Nutcracker Prince, fairies, elves, wooden soldiers, rocking horses, teddy bears, red apples and bows, baby’s first Christmas balls and gap-toothed kindergarten photos in gold-sprayed macaroni frames. Four Carmen Mirandas, three silver ladies, two fuchsia angels, and a bunch of Peruvian peasants. They strike mysterious poses for display when we’re up, but we suspect they rattle the presents after we go to bed. I’ve tried to add some modern boy toys from my kids, but Legos are too boxy and plastic and let’s face it: submarines, superheroes, and emergency vehicles call for action, not exhibition.

So this tree, like all her predecessors, is a perfect colorful jumble topped by a twelve-inch Christmas doll, whose red velvet and gold lame ensemble with its fur-trimmed cape and hat make her a perfect Regency romance heroine, ready to be captured by the evil duke at the Christmas ball and then rescued by the duke’s handsome and stalwart brother.

But despite their fantasy looks, for several years now, our noble fir house guests in December have seemed more and more irritating, and this one is getting on my nerves something fierce. Lovely they may be, but they’re also boring as hell. They only want to talk about life before Nixon for several weeks every winter. It’s like watching Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn trying to bring up baby all December. Each tree starts out all gaudy and fun as she gets dressed all twittery and hopeful, and ends up weeks later looking too gaudy and haggard like an old broad who never got out of the chorus line. But a Christmas tree is supposed to be gaudy, right? It’s meant to light up the longest winter nights, a symbol of hope for a brighter future.

Well, she tried.

In this tiny condominium, the kids, their computers, and their sports equipment take up more and more room each year, leaving less for Ms. Tree. Don’t tell my mother, but I’ve come to resent giving up my living space to this garish fantasy beast for most of my hunker-down-and-read weather. And yet, every second weekend in December, I go along with the big, fat choice. No Charlie Brown trees here. No poor crooked runts or trees with big gaps that need good homes. How could I use all my ornaments on a smaller or thinner tree? Consumer choices of Christmas past haunt Christmas present.

But the space problem is minor. The real problem is time. Christmas is terribly demanding for women in my family. All my life, my mother had her shopping done in August and addressed her cards in October, so she was ready for the baking and giving marathon in December. But I have my limits. I just refuse to mix orange and black with red and green. Instead, I hit the ground shopping after Thanksgiving, just when I need extra time to finish my semester and hand in grades. I spend the drive home from Turkey Day writing a witty letter, and weeks after that sending cards with letter and family picture to the whole world.

And then there’s the giant time suck of Ms. Tree. This cooperative family masterpiece swallows huge chunks of the busiest month of the year. It takes hours to choose it, net it, pay for it, drag it to the car, tie it on and schlep it home, while pleading with giggling kids not to make tunnels through the stacks of unsold trees at Target and to get off the car roof. There’s a day for it to soak in the yard and get rained on. An hour trip to the storage facility for the decorations. A lifetime of loud swearing from the back yard as my husband cuts off the trunk so it will fit in the stand. A tense hour putting the thing up with both of us holding it, so we can’t see that it’s listing fifteen degrees south. Then another hour tightening and loosening tree stand bolts and finding Advil for our aching backs. Another trip to the storage facility for the other tree stand. A year of angst hunting high and low for the extension cord. Back to Target for a new extension cord. They don’t have one, so there’s a thirty-minute wait in line at K-Mart. Twenty minutes of draping the lights under severe criticism. An eon of ornament unveiling and fights about whether Child B is old enough to hang the glass ones, since I’ve given Child A permission. Sweeping up dropped glass ornaments takes only enough time for a baby to put one in his mouth. Fishing broken ornament pieces and hooks out of a baby’s mouth: ten seconds, plus two hours of heart palpitations. Vacuuming needles, hunting the tree skirt, and finding three extension cords at the bottom of an ornament box: who knows how long? The tree is now in front of the clock.

Obligatory is the midnight trek downstairs to find the tree’s gone dry because in all the fuss we forgot to add water to the stand. In years with hot, dry Santa Ana winds, the tree vies with sick children for its own humidifier.

Then once the tree is up and adorned, I have no time to look at it in the cook-decorate-buy-wrap-send-bake-attend-host-carol whirl. Just when I think I’m done, around the 21st, comes the demand for thirty-six last-minute cream-puffs from school and the hunt for an (inoffensive) white elephant for an exchange. A twelfth of my year is tithed to Christmas, and about a third of that goes to the tree, which I then ignore and resent. Given back that time, I might write my Great American novel or save a whale. Just about every November 27th, I feel a secret urge to escape the whole thing and run off to Tibet. Or do they decorate trees there as well? Maybe the moon, then.

Pop psychologists tell us to simplify our lives. Complex lives lead to stress, and stress hormones lead to immune deficiency, resulting in fifty extra pounds, a lack of sex, or a long, slow death, whichever scares you most. So I reviewed my List of Must-Dos for December, hoping to simplify Christmas this year: Forget the cards? Yeah, and lose all my friends. No presents? Kid revolution. No cookies? No bribes for the husband. Fake tree? Riiiiight. No tree? Sounds like bliss.

Instead, I settled for not reading the old Christmas picture books. My beloved childhood stories in The Animals’ Merry Christmas and The Tall Book of Christmas told of woodland Christmases, where squirrels in coats decorate forest trees with berries and nuts and happy birds provided the carols. But “The Singing Christmas Tree” no longer flies with the 12-year-old who’s into Sim dates and Orc battles or the 9-year-old who likes his superheroes best when they outwit the school principal in extra cottony underwear. Yet, my tree nags me daily to read her these tales, like Lucy asking Ricky for a chance on stage.

So this year, I found myself avoiding the overly demanding tree. I graded papers in the kitchen, wore sunglasses to avoid the annoying sparkle, and shopped more, all to keep out of its piney little way. See, I don’t want to discuss 1965 with her any more. The truth is, I might just fall to pieces if I realize how much things have changed since the sweet, old Christmases of crooked trunks and shiny 1937 ornaments. The ones where my sisters and I made cutout cookies while we watched White Christmas and my brother stole wads of cookie dough and ran off laughing. The time we all colored our own advent calendars and cut the pictures out of old Christmas cards to put under the flaps. The years the snow drifted up to the roof of our Indiana home and we had to help my brother deliver his newspapers in hip-deep icy white. And the Christmas Eve Dad stayed up late and wrote “TO DAD” on all the present tags as a joke. Mom was furious.

My brother’s been dead of cancer since 1987. Dad’s now in residential care for Alzheimer’s. He’s lonely and cries a lot. He’s violent. He wants to go home. Mom didn’t dare bring him home for Christmas for fear he’d never go back to his care place. Family members blame each other for Dad’s illness and hesitate to visit. Sometimes, Dad’s on a strict no-junk-food regimen for his colitis. Sometimes, he gets French fries and Coke.

I, the middle child, feel like the fat lady in the family circus, riding a bicycle on the high wire and trying to balance everyone else and their crazy-ass feelings on her shoulders. While smiling. Or maybe I want to be Santa and get everyone the right gift.

Which is impossible. Right?

Everyone has their Christmas downers, so I shouldn’t whine. It’s just that this tree makes it all seem worse. The fantasy world it wants me to look back at every day just seems so false. It didn’t come true. We didn’t live the sparkly happily ever after that it promised. But this damned tree is like some forever-smiling Yuletide beauty queen, Mary Ann Mobley all glamour and saccharine in a red pillbox hat and green pumps. Call her Miss Tannenbaum 2003. What a looker. Did you see her giant baubles? Do you think they’re real?

And she’s stretched the limits of common courtesy. A good guest really should help with the chores. But she didn’t even fulfill her basic Christmas duty. We went to Mom’s for the big day, so this tree never even presided over a present opening. The only real gathering around this tree was the New Year’s six-kid sleepover, when her delicate branches hindered the boys from having a good pillow fight. Call her “Miss Priss 2003”.

Her colors were dazzling, but I now see that every twinkle was just a bid for another cookie-baking session and twenty more Christmas cards-a-writing. Twinkle-twinkle, and we toted that barge, lifted that bale, wrapped packages ‘til midnight and stood in line for an hour to send that mail.

And on top of that, this aging beauty queen oh-so-charmingly proclaimed an ideal era that will never again exist, not since AIDS, 9-1-01, insidious video games, reality TV, nipple piercings, Florida-decided elections, blue M&M’s, the media circus, rampant spam, and giant school budget cuts. Not since the U.S. created wars in the name of peace. Maybe that ideal age never really did exist, or maybe it only happened for five minutes in a Des Moines suburb in 1950, but I still feel cheated by this damn tree’s blatant misleading advertising.

Or maybe it’s more sinister than that. The tight deadline and a big, fat price tag of Christmas makes me wonder if this tree’s really a double agent, in league with the retailers. We’ve all seen her cousins ruling Macy’s and Penney’s from September to New Year’s. That whole Tannenbaum family is very powerful, luring us to shop until we drop. Think about it. They just appear all shiny one day, and suddenly we are their minions.

Then, after I spent my wad and the wads of all my future grandchildren, Miss Tannenbaum 2003 wanted my last ounce of energy, my last shred of politeness. I could almost hear her coo, “Don’t forget to share your cookies and be nice to everyone.” Fine. We traveled three hundred miles to be with the folks. We took Dad out for a Christmas Eve ride to Christmas Tree Lane. We played games with him for hours, feasted with Mom, labored over coffee cake, listened to Tchaikovsky spin that fairy for the millionth time, and ate cookies ‘til we dropped. And Miss Tannenbaum didn’t even apologize for botching my diet. Slave-driving Girl Scout.

I know it’s naïve of me, but I guess I got taken in by her promises. Her fullness and profusion of ornaments promised abundance and hope, which I thought I had, until I noticed our approaching retirement with two kids’ worth of college tuition to pay and my octogenarian parents who may expensively outlive their hard-won savings. Will our own elder care be even more expensive? Or will our generation end up aging in inflatable pre-fab nursing home shacks by the freeway, tended by coyotes?

This sneaky tree has no answer for this except to reprise her promise of a joyful December and a beautiful shining new year full of candles and old stories and elf myths and pond skaters and snow. Except there’s no snow in Southern California. No shoveling, no snow days, no fat white men on lawns, no forts or stacks of balls or getting hit by a wet one. Ice skating happens in rinks. The Pacific Ocean is as cold as it gets.

And candles sound nice, but my husband collects printed matter and the kids are pyromaniacs.

On the other hand, I did see old stories as I drifted off in front of the TV. Clarence got his wings again when I woke up. And we did have an elf myth in a theater near us: Lord of the Rings III. But not even a mild curiosity about the final fate of the ring (Could it end up in another hobbit’s pocketses? Could it end up in Gandolf’s nose?) could induce me to sit through three more hours of loud, gory Orc battles. The movie Elf was just silly. I wish singing loudly really could save Christmas. Or just save my dad.

Unfortunately, I need a different myth now, one that gently explains the disintegration of parents and shows the best way to care for them and their finances, short of putting them on an ice floe and watching them drift away. I’d always thought I’d welcome my folks into my home when they got old, like Uncle Jake hosted Grandma. But I live far from their home and friends. Our condo has only upstairs bedrooms, not easily accessed by old folks. And we’re already packed in tight like so many tetchy bats. There is no room here for my father’s giant need and changed personality, his “helpful” household purges and mercurial temper. Mom could never stand the loud, burping and farting adolescent boys that gather around our household computer, the anti-drug, from morning until night. She’d be miserable in my home, Boys R Us.

Yet the tree keeps harping on me to make my parents’ life sparkle. I dream of a larger house where I could keep them, a bigger pumpkin shell with a wing for them. Pumpkins cost their weight in gold, though, and this tree just glitters when asked how to afford one.

With presents and cookies dispatched, I normally let my trees stay up until January so I can enjoy the one remnant of my month of toil and sacrifice. But this year’s dogged pageant contestant is a full-page ad for a sale that’s already over. She keeps reviewing her talent competition, relentlessly flashing Christmas symbols at us, trying to justify her continued presence in our home. Peter assumes she needs water, but I see it as a less than subtle ploy to get us to take her picture again.

My new year is not shiny. I’m worried about the folks, and this tree is not helping. Her promises are bogus, her myths are inadequate, and she’s impolite, setting up camp in my living room for a whole month.

So, how does this lazy, conspiring, double-crossing nag respond to my accusations? She is silent. She is sequined. Light, glitter, beauty, sparkle, hope, twinkle, and color are still her only vocabulary. She’s sure I can figure out a way to cope from her cheery message alone. But the old girl’s drooping and tinder dry, soon to be a fire hazard. Yay! An excuse to get rid of her! Except that carefully stowing all those fragile ornaments is a huge task. For a week now, I’ve been feverish and achy, unable to face that inevitable denuding chore, that last ten pounds of Christmas drudgery.

Wait. Could Christmas trees be in league with cold germs? To lengthen their pitiful lives by a few lousy days, would they really make us sick? Oh, my God! This could explain the annual flu epidemic. Alert the CDC! Tell the tabloids! Do the research! I see it all clearly now, the whole picture—collusion between trees, germs, and retailers. Oh, this is big. And I have proof: In 1997, I tended sick kids all January while Peter ran around helping his ill parents. For days, my kids had a high fever and cough, swilling Gatorade. Then Peter and I got it and were beached side by side on the bed, cooking at 103°. And our tree got to stay up until February!

February! No way! This damned tree’s got to go now! No more of her wheedling and conniving! It’s her or me! But I’m achy and snorty and drunk on Nyquil. I can barely stand up, much less slave over packing boxes. Maybe I could hire a service. Would professional tree un-decorators be under “T” or “U” in the phone book? Or maybe I’ll just haul this evil spy to the trash as is, tiara and all. Who needs all those ornaments?

Oh. My. God. I’ve just this minute realized the true extent of Miss Tannenbaum 2003’s cunning and brilliance. With my illness, she’s not only delayed her demise, but gotten me to spend days writing this piece all about her, a piece which will distinguish her from all other trees AND endure long after she’s mulch. Dang, she’s good.

As I struggle to a stand and start grabbing at ornaments, I wonder: Why do I do this every year? What allegiance do I have toward evergreens that lie like rugs and collude with germs and Macy’s and threaten us all with diabetes?

Blame it on Peter. He’s lost without the Yule traditions of his European ancestors. In the Old World, buildings are ancient. You can see where you came from. But here in the U.S., only a few things connect our family to the distant past: a name, a few traditional recipes, really big feet, and a yearly Christmas tree. And then there are the kids, thoroughly brainwashed by Miss T. and her media conspirators. Wouldn’t the boys feel deprived without a Christmas tree? The tree is the really big given of Christmas everywhere. From Hoboken to Dubai to Vladivostok, everybody has one, irrespective of creed. From Macy’s to Galleries Lafayette to Matsuzakaya to the foyer of Dad’s assisted living home there are tinseled ladies of fir in all the windows.

I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on old Miss Tannenbaum 2003. It’s not really her. It’s me. I’m the one who needs a new take on things. She’s the reigning queen, after all, and her sisters have been sparkly and cute year after year only because of my retro taste, patterned after Mom’s. Over the years, I’ve chosen each tree and dressed her, like a big, resiny green Barbie. And if you asked Barbie how to cope with aging relatives or economic woes, she’d probably do no better than this tree, unless she used a lifeline to call Midge or Skipper.

A hint of pine sap somehow bypasses my stuffed up nose and reminds me that until she came to boss me around, this tree lived outdoors, a real, live home for creatures, a piece of God’s work, a quiet messenger of our connection with nature and the cycle of our year. Yes, trees are a universal symbol of life and growth, peace and nature, family. Ask Joyce Kilmer. They give us oxygen and use our carbon dioxide, literally allowing us to live. We don’t call them “noble firs” for nothing. In fact, sacred trees exist all over the globe: the Buddhist bo tree, the Hawaiian ohia, the Chinese gingko. One might stretch this idea of arboreal holiness to the Christmas tannenbaum—like a sort of cut, dried, and dying sacred tree with fancy, irrelevant stuff all over it, disposable to fit our consumer society.

Yeah, pull the other one. I bet if I gave my computer-dazed kids some new video games in November and didn’t mention Christmas until the 24th of December, they might forget the whole tree thing and settle for a few necklaces strewn on a potted plant. To heck with family tradition about stupid, piney relics.

Then, glass pickle in hand, I sink back down on the couch as if pushed, realizing that this particular year, I missed an important tradition: Christmas Eve tree communion. I normally take a few minutes on the 24th to sit and commune with my tree when she’s all dressed up in the dark with all her presents around. Silent, mysterious, knowing, reflecting a sea of shiny wrap in glass balls, the tree commands the house with a regal air for that one magic night, the night of her highest power. Releasing the aroma of long-ago Christmases of the Black Forest, she always glows with hopes and dreams thought out over long years on a forest floor. She recalls past holidays, parties and cheer, and anticipates the Big Day, the present opening, the cheerful cooking and eating, the big nap, the warm family gathering.

But this year, I forgot to take my moment.

Until now. Suddenly, in my dark living room on January 6th, like a magi’s gift, all those old quiet Christmas Eve moments appear to me at once. As if there were a hall of mirrors reflecting Miss Tannenbaum 2003 in each other, I see hundreds of glowing trees, each from its own year. Breathless, I watch them all sparkle: Trees from my grandmother’s time, and my mother’s. The puny one from ’72 with all Dad’s presents. And my sister’s majestic twelve-foot spruce from ‘78. I don’t dare blink as the dazzling sight unfolds.

Then I spy it: The poor tree with really bad scoliosis from the year money was super tight: 1966. Man. If that S-shaped thing can take its place in this amazing lineup, there may be hope for us all yet. Maybe my folks are on the right path already. Maybe life isn’t as bad as they say. Maybe this was this tree’s message all along and I’ve been using the wrong decoder ring. I feel a breath of peace fill my being for the first time in ages.

Then, among the images, I see a vision of Miss Tannenbaum ’04, my next year’s tree. In fake blue fir, decorated by my wild testosterone crew, she’s hung with CD-ROMs, neon squirt guns, flashlights, Lego Bionicles, yo-yos, Magic cards, baseball caps, pretzels, and Boy Scout patches. Add something edgy, maybe a metal dog leash, as a garland. On the 26th, she’ll collapse and stow in a box in ten minutes. But for all of December, she’ll proudly rule the carport on her own red carpet remnant. In her branches are envelopes labeled: Affordable, Loving Care for Aging Folks; Distraction for Unhappy Relatives; New Expanded Digs for the Family; Twenty Hugs and a Book Contract for You



College Information Night


“But I’ve got homework.”

And please God, you’ll have a life well past these days of hogging my computer and leaving half-full glasses of lemonade all over my countertop.

I park the car and drag the tall dark innocent into the sweltering high school building swarming with smooth-skinned teenagers, representing hundreds of prescriptions of Retin-A and doxycycline. We waltz past tables manned by suits and loaded down with pamphlets. Join the army? The marines? Sail the maritime academy? I’d like to see my lazy landlubber on board a vessel, expected to heave to.

His friend wanders by, a boy math wizard with a head of dark curls, zeroing in on the Princeton table. He never had time to come over and play with my kid in grammar school, and I’m sure he’ll have a bright and fully scheduled future in the Ivy League.

A hunch of skinny shoulders, a bewildered look, and a palms up on my kid. “Uh, where do I– I don’t know—” That same painful, almost tearful, look as the time he was five and had a choice of Seven-Up and Coke at a birthday party, but couldn’t choose one because he’d never tasted either. My fault.

I say, “Follow him,” meaning the math wizard, and get a teenage glare. Monkey see, monkey do isn’t working. Was I supposed to prep for this?

I spy Linda with her Randall. “Where are you guys looking?”

“Don’t you have the book?” she says, “The big, fat book of colleges? No? Me neither. I got this one.” She taps a small, chunky tome. I glance inside. Where is Rutgers? Rice? Renssalaer Polytechnic? How much does Harvey Mudd cost? Does Cal Poly take students with B’s on their transcripts? How about Dartmouth? Could Mr. Lemonade Glass survive in frigid New Hampshire? It nearly killed his father.

This kid, who ran off without a backwards glance on his first day of pre-school at twelve months, is now glued to my side in the eager, buzzing, hot crowd. He’s not interested in any name or concept shouted out on the Ivy League labels. He’s at sea without a paddle or a maritime degree, trying to envision himself freed from high school drudgery and off onto his own chosen path of study. Or trying not to. The kid who can create wizard warriors galore in online games can’t imagine his size thirteens parked anywhere but in our closet. Then neither can I. After all, the high school junior can’t drive yet. He’s got no idea of setting himself a bedtime, and must still be cued to get up barely in time to make it to school. He forgets to eat if you let him.

The place is emptying out now. We cruise the rows of tables and I gather a few pamphlets and hand them to the man-child, who follows as obediently as my sun hat. He’ll leave the papers in the car when we get home and head straight for the computer and its magical, musical multitude of bloody strategy games.

Finally, I give up and we go home, where the prerequisites are a username and password, and the only tuition is the quarter docked from your allowance for forgetting to wash the three half-full lemonade glasses on the countertop.

I Need a Blog?


Written in 2008

They say I need a blog, the women on the craft loop do. To help me sell books.

A blog. Sounds like something big and loggy or doggy, a giant, slimy green bog monster with fangs and rabbit breath. Dripping ooze and demanding cookies for dancing on its back paws. Panting hot, stinky blasts at the end of its leash. But if I drag one of those along to book fairs, won’t it grab all the women buyers and slurp on them? And leak all over my books?

Maybe blog is the blockier, baser form of bloke–a loggy hog with baggy pants. But I have two of those already. They slouch around with bad hair and acne, punching keyboard buttons and snickering at Internet jokes. Then they eat whole pizzas in a sitting and flash green braces when one belches. One stays up late, into the early morning hours, night after night, with homework until he gets sick. Then I get the cold, then I go to Jack Grapes’s class and meet Helen Hunt with a big, honkin’ gi-normous fever blister. If these are blogs, you can have mine.

Wait! Maybe blog is just a mispronunciation of another word by one of my Japanese students! That’s it. It’s really brog, some Scottish thing, like a shoe with fancy topstitching so I can kick sense into all the book-buyers in the country and of course, they’ll see the light and buy my book. When I have one.

Or could it be bwog, an Elmer Fudd invention? Does Fudd have an angle on selling fiction? Does he have the magic in with agents and editors? Could he get my book on Amazon and figure out a way to spread the buzz and get everyone to think they need to read my story? Has he gotten a rep in the publishing world? Oh, so I’ll need a referral even to employ him. You can’t even get a cartoon character to read your work without representation any more. And if I do get a referral, just my luck the coyote will drop an anvil on his head or something before he reads my work.

They say I need a blog. Is that some kind of book log? A journal of how I wrote my book? What could be more boring? The writing process is slow as molasses, no, worse. It’s like walking dogs all day long, picking up their poop, then feeding them and picking up more poop. It never ends. If I were my fairy godmother or muse, looking in from outside, I’d give up and go to Hawaii. And who would want to read about the hours I spend bringing life to these damned characters who haunt my dreams and talk too much? And the book’s not even published. Who’ll read my long, arduous journey on a blog if they don’t want to read the short form that sings in the book itself? My life between writing spurts is even less appealing as a marketing tool. In my free time, I really do walk dogs and clean up dog poop. And wipe countertops and correct pages and pages of bad Vietnamese English and if I’m lucky, I get someone to pummel my right arm so I can go and type again. Let’s face it. My platform sucks. I’m not Oprah, and I was never abused.

They say I need a blog on blogspot. Oh, God. Is that a disease, a precancerous thing on your face? “Yes, the doctor biopsied my blogspots and burned them off with liquid nitrogen. I may not live.” I look in the mirror and see a suspicious freckle on my nose. Ohmygod. There it is. My blogspot. Big as life and ugly as sin, right there on the tip of my nose. And I’ll probably meet Kevin Klein at Jack Grapes’s class today.

Mom Diaries — November 2008


“Honey, my eye won’t open again. I think there may be blood behind it. I’m pretty sure I should go see the doctor about it before the office closes.”

Sitting in the parking lot at Laguna Beach, I check my watch and sigh into the cell phone. I have to pick up a Boy Scout from a merit badge meeting in forty minutes. This is my only tiny chance at a much-needed walk on the boardwalk this week.

“Mom, is there blood leaking out of your eye when you look in the mirror?”

“No, of course not. But there’s probably blood in my eyeball. You know how people can get problems there and go blind, like what was his name? Vernon?” Her aged brain is a popcorn popper randomly popping out burnt kernels, each one bopping her on the head to say the sky is falling—right now.

“Blood? Are you having trouble seeing?”

“No. But I have floaters.”

“Mom, I told you yesterday and the day before that it’s very dry during Santa Ana winds. Your eye is just dry. It’s sticking because it’s dry.”

“Yes, it’s sticking.”

I look at the beige dashboard of the minivan. Will I ever get out of this car and see the ocean? “And you have eye drops. Remember? The doctor prescribed them for you. I think you’re supposed to use them four times a day. Right? Are you using your eye drops?”

“Well, no. But there’s this other thing. You know how I rub my eyebrow all the time?”

“Uh, no.”

“Well, I do, and it’s nearly bald there.”

“Funny, I never noticed.”

“Well, the girls here and I have been reading Reader’s Digest, and we agree that when my eye is doing this and you know how much I rub this place, you can tell there’s something bad wrong in there. I think it’s brain cancer.”

“Mom. How many Vicodin did you take this afternoon?”

“I’m serious. I need to tell my doctor about this today. I’m really sick.”

“Mom, since you moved here three months ago, you’ve seen two doctors a week for every ailment under the sun. You’ve never mentioned this before. And I hate to tell you this, but you’re not dying. You do have serious back pain. And you’re on drugs for it.”


“Yes. All those years you labeled everyone who acted the least bit funny as on drugs. Well, now it’s you that’s doped up.” I hope. Either that or she’s gone around the bend and we’ll be back in the doctor’s office for Alzheimer’s testing. Again.

“I don’t agree with you on this. And I have to say I’m just not feeling very loved right now.”

Of course. Feeling loved requires that I take her to at least two doctors a week, and they must be old doctors with perfect bedside manner and lots of framed diplomas on the walls and scrupulously clean offices. They also must agree with her need for a change in her meds or give her a new protocol, which she will then stop using without consulting anyone at any moment for any reason. As soon as she hears old lady gossip or reads an article about how terribly dangerous the rarest side effects can be for a drug or an ointment, she drops it, even if it’s critical, like her heart medicine.

“Just use your eye drops, then go to dinner and meet a few of the other residents there.”

“Well, I do not agree with you on this. And when I die, I want an autopsy because I want to find out what’s really wrong with me.”


2013 note: Mom is still alive and well at age 93. No eye bleeds, no cancer. The odd thing is that a year after this, I did have a bleed behind my eye, a cavernous carotid fistula, that could have made me blind or killed me. Turns out, Mom was being weirdly psychic, not about herself, but about me.