Genetic Strains

My kids are in for serious trouble.

Not the “you are grounded for writing on your sister” kind of trouble.

No, my kids are in for the serious kind of trouble that comes from genius math genes not being passed down to their mother.

It started off well, me washing the dishes as my son sat across the counter doing his homework. His sister was coloring and then took off to torment the cat. Ah bliss.

And then, the dreaded question from my son’s lips. “Mom, can you help?”

I started to sweat. Uh oh.

It was merely a fourth grade math worksheet that resulted in me crouching in a fetal position in a corner, rocking back and forth, pulling out clumps of my hair and chanting “why, why???”

Ok, maybe a bit overly dramatic. No corners. Not so much chanting, either. Maybe a little hair pulling.

Certainly a lot of sweating.

The math sheet seemed simple enough. There were cubes, divided into layers and individual boxes. How many boxes in all? Sounds easy enough right? Maybe for a fourth grader, probably even for a fifth grader.

But it crushed me. I may have gotten my sense of humor and my nose from my dad, but the genetic disposition that made my father a math wizard sadly did not make it into my gene pool.

I stared blankly at this demon cube wondering how on earth my son came up with 125 boxes in all. I couldn’t see it. In fact, I couldn’t see anything. The part of the brain that should be giving me the answer had checked out. Gone to sleep. Left town.

I asked my son how he’d gotten the answer.

“I just counted Mom,” he told me.

Right. So I started count. But I got tripped up by the three-dimensional thing. I knew I was wrong, counting two sides of one block, but I couldn’t help myself. And it wasn’t computing.

Scratch that. I wasn’t computing.

Ok, we’ll come back to this one. Let’s move on.

The next question.

There are 96 bricks. He needed to find out how to stack the bricks (length, width and height) to make a cube.

For the Love of God!

Absolutely nothing popped into my head. I stared at this number and for the life of me, could not figure out what the hell  to do.

More than likely, my father sighed in exasperation up there in Heaven. “This,” he probably said to St. Peter, “is their mother’s fault.”

When I say my father was a math genius, I am not exaggerating. He got math from every possible angle. Algebra to word problems, no problem. He went to a math, science and art high school in New York City. He went to NYU and graduated with an engineering degree. He did acrostic crossword puzzles — the ones where you make up your own grid — for crying out loud!

His children, sadly, did not get a single iota of math comprehension from him.

Fractions weren’t so much of a problem (usually)  and we did okay with arithmetic most of the time. We made it through by the skin of our teeth in geometry. Algebra resulted in slammed books and crying. He was aghast that his children did not understand the Pythagorean Theorem. In a word: nightmare.

We all hated math and that just made it harder for him to teach us. Sure, every once in a while there would be some lightning bolt and thunder boom of understanding on our part. But the hours of trying and buckets of tears shed over not getting it tended to overshadow the times we did.

Oy.

So, back to my son’s fourth grade math worksheet.

The answer was 96 and he just had to find a way to get there. I couldn’t explain it to him, but after almost an hour staring blankly at the number, I did finally come up with the correct equation. I think. And in my frustration I just told him the answer.

I know what you are thinking. First math, then it’s on to me mouthing answers to him at the National Spelling Bee. Of course I would not do that. That would be wrong. And anyway, I’m not that great of a speller without my trusty spell check. Duh.

No, one can only hope:

a) the math comprehension skipped a generation and the kids get the good genes; or
b) Sylvan Learning Center has a family discount

Yikes.

Perhaps what my dad couldn’t do in life for his kids down here he can certainly accomplish in death for his grandkids from up there.

I’m counting on you, Dad.

Kismet

Call it coincidence. Kismet. Divine intervention. Whatever.

I walked into our town library and there it was.

Going Home, Finding Peace When Pets Die by Jon Katz was sitting there on a table.

I grabbed it and sat down and began reading. And it’s as if Jon Katz wrote this book for me. For us. For our dog-loving family.

Yesterday I left my house after my 14-year-old Dalmatian, Checkers, had already gone through countless incontinence under pads and it wasn’t even noon. It was soon after telling him that, since he could no longer walk and really function as he should, that it was okay for him to go meet God. And then taking it back because I felt so guilty looking into his beautiful face and soulful brown eyes.

I stroked his silky black and white ears realizing that I had become more than frustrated that it had come to this. Life isn’t fair and dogs don’t stay on this earth nearly long enough. More than a little angry that our beautiful Dalmatian — once rife with infinite energy enough to leap tall buildings in a single bound, jump rivers, run vertical trails through the woods and up hills with little effort — can no longer walk because disease has ravaged his body.

I can no longer lift him, can’t help him to go to the bathroom. I spent yesterday morning changing the pads underneath, trying not to let the frustration of having to change one every, what seems like five minutes after he pees, come to the surface. But it does. It escapes through the string of profanities I find myself scream through the house. Kids aren’t home and Checkers is deaf and can’t hear me. But He can.

I needed to get some air, a change of scenery and return the kids’ library books and get one that I had put on hold.

And that’s when I walked into Jon Katz’s book.

I sat in the library and read chapter after chapter. I bawled my eyes out from page one. Jon wrote the book mostly about his beloved border collie, Orson, and how he dealt with the before and after of putting him down. There are stories of his other pets, some who died and some who were euthanized and how he dealt with them all.

Through my tears (and looking around wondering if I’d get kicked out of the library for making too much noise sucking in my sobs) I cherished this book I was reading — a book about our life with our Checkers and inevitably the decision that we will likely be making in the near future.

The dog we know and love is still here in mind and spirit and I believe if he could walk he would, and probably run. But the decision — that 100 ton elephant as Jon put it —  hovers above.

More than likely Checkers won’t go to Heaven on his own. Yes, it would save us the sadness of having to make the decision for him. For us. But that would be easy and this part of life with pets is never easy.

Jon’s book — and I use his first name because I feel now this man is a kindred spirit– was exactly what I needed. I took it out of the library and will share it with my husband.

I especially found solace in the part Jon described about a pre-death grieving process. A man had created “The Perfect Day” for his dying dog — a day filled with rubber balls and toys and real meat and special together time for the man and his faithful friend. I immediately thought that would be something great to share with Checkers. Though he can’t walk, we can still take him to his favorite place, maybe in a little red Radio Flyer wagon, give him steak and ice cream and share some special moments with our whole family.

Maybe then Checkers will be able to let go and head on up to the big dog house in the sky. I am sure God will be as pleased to know him as we, and all who know Checkers, have been.

If not, we will have been able to share that special memory with him. And then find some strength to do what we need to.

Going Home, the book I stumbled upon today lifted me at a time when I was feeling low and sad. It gave me hope, it gave me strength to not feel guilty about Checkers and his long and wonderful life. It made me reach for the answer to one of life’s very hard questions.

If I ever meet Jon Katz, I will thank him profusely.

Life’s coincidences.

Pretty Hairy

If you have read any stories here on my blog, you’ve probably guessed I have a thing about my hair.

Not at all happy with what genes or whatever gave me in that department.

But my daughter’s hair? Gorgeous. Her shoulder-length light brown hair is streaked with caramel and golden highlights. There are some auburny-strands thrown in there too. No stylist has ever been able to replicate the look on your’s truly. So, needless to say, when it comes to hair, I live quite vicariously through my six-year-old.

I have a case of hair envy.

There is a moderate wave to her light brunette locks, but it is mostly straight. It will perk up in the summer humidity. Mine over-perks and becomes a frizzy, frazzled mess especially at my forehead. My daughter has two cowlicks that sit on her forehead, flanking her widow’s peak, making her hairline create the effect of a heart shape. Add in her rosy and chubby cheeks and her pointy-ish chin and yes, it is a heart. Just another sweet loveable thing about her.

I once had that widow’s peak, too. But on my face it made me look and feel a bit like Eddie Munster.

I realize vampires are pretty cool now, especially teenage ones. And they all have great hair. But back then, back when I was an impressionable young thing who wanted blonde straight hair, I hated my widow’s peak and plucked the sucker out. Hair by hair.

Let me just say, that decision has had repercussions like you wouldn’t believe. Hindsight is 20-20. If I knew then what I know now and all that.

Almost everyday I now need to pluck the hairs that continue to grow back where the widow’s peak once was. And when they come in, of course they are no longer brown. Oh no. Those little suckers, that incidentally grow an inch overnight, are white. If I miss a day, I end up looking like a petrified vampire skunk.

Anyway back to my daughter’s beautiful tresses. Headbands and other pretty hair accessories are her friend. She looks adorable in those elastic headwraps as well. Up dos or “down hair” as she likes to call it, it doesn’t matter. Her hair is great. There is no need to blow dry it after a bath. No, her hair, when she doesn’t scream bloody murder when I try to brush it out, will become soft and silky and stay that way until it’s washed again. On occasion, when it’s longer, the Knot Fairy will come and leave her mark — little villages of people could live in the knots in my daughter’s hair. Those are the ONLY times I don’t have hair envy.

Sometimes I think my children believe I was never a kid, only their mom and I must have just appeared on this earth as a grown-up. I say this because sometimes when I try to give them advice, they look at me blankly like, yeah, she doesn’t have a clue.

I may not on many things, but on one thing I do.

Hair.

So when my daughter asked to get bangs, the answer was a quick and emphatic “over my dead body!”

Okay, not really that dramatic, but I was pretty adamant that bangs were not to rear their ugly head on my beautiful daughter’s beautiful hair.

Now before you think I am some kind of anti-bangs activist, let me remind you of two very important things: widow’s peak and cowlicks. (Okay it’s actually three since there are two cowlicks on her head.)

Both of these hair curses were bestowed upon me before I so graciously did the same to my daughter. So I have that experience to draw from.

When I was young, I too wanted bangs and dammit, I got them. I cut them myself, nice and short not for one nanosecond thinking that the cowlick would be an issue.

Boy was I wrong.

No, my bangs did not lie flat on my forehead like my best friend’s bangs did. Nor did they feather oh-so-slightly like those of my Charlie’s Angel idol Jaclyn Smith.

My crazy cowlick made one side of them turn the opposite way of the other. And the widow’s peak made my forehead look as if someone had placed there a fancy letter M made out of hair.

No matter if my hair was parted in the middle or the side, the bangs had a mind of their own. And I felt like an awkward pre-teenage freak. Since my ears were um, large, a headband to hold them back was out of the question.

And forget about them when it rained or any day in the summer when the humidity levels were above 50%. And at the beach? Two separate pieces of hair that looked like dark brown Cheese Doodles flanked my forehead.

Good times.

So now you know bangs are not a good for me and more than likely my offspring as well. (My son has a whopper of a cowlick on his head, too.)

But like many things that are not good for me, I still find myself drawn to them. I head to my medicine cabinet for the hair cutting scissors and the next thing I know “snip” and the bangs have reappeared. Only now I am much older and much wiser, and have watched stylists cut many a customer’s bangs.

So mine are side swept and snipped on the vertical as well and are long enough to tuck behind my ear or be pinned up by a barette. And each time I cut, I swear I’ll never do it again.

I just can’t leave well enough alone.

But I can tell my daughter that no way will she have bangs.

So imagine my surprise at Christmastime when I was brushing her hair into a ponytail for her ballet class and I realized there was something askew. Missing hair. The hair that should have been right on her shoulder now rested on her nose.

“Did you cut your beautiful hair?” I screeched.

My daughter just smiled at me and said “No.”

Not much I could do. Let her learn her own lessons just like I obviously hadn’t learned mine.

She never did budge and tell me that she’d cut the bangs.

But a week later when they were falling the wrong way and annoying the heck out of her, I skipped the I-told-you-so spiel and clipped them back.

“Do you like your new bangs?” I asked her.

She just shook her head no.

Vindicated.

Yesterday, I was looking for my old hairdryer that I remembered stashing in the kids’ bathroom vanity. It’s seldomy used due to the fact that it is upstairs and the kids would much rather brush their teeth crammed together in the tiny guest bathroom downstairs.

In any case here is what I found in the upstairs bathroom vanity.

I love that girl.

The Writing Class

I had the awesome opportunity this past Saturday to put on my big girl pants and head into the city.

THE City. Manhattan. The Big Apple. The City that Never Sleeps.

It was finally time for a much-anticipated writing class I signed up for.

I enrolled in a Gotham Writer’s workshop fiction writing class, a one-day intensive kick-your-butt-into-writing-gear kind of class.

I got up early, drove an hour to the train, missed the first one, waited for the second one, strapped on my iPod and headed to Grand Central. Then I hopped the subway to Union Square and rushed through the streets of New York trying to make it by the 11 a.m. check-in. With a few minutes to spare, I checked in and plopped myself down in the student chair. I was tired from foolishly not eating a good enough breakfast, but I was raring to go.

All that rushing around, well, it was a good thing. I didn’t have time to feel what I was really feeling about the whole thing.

I admit, this old-er writer mom was a wee bit nervous.

First, it’s been a looong while since I set foot in a classroom — at least one that doesn’t have miniature chairs and a teacher telling me how my own kid is doing or involve sitting on the floor, all fat and pregnant learning about how to birth your baby without drugs.

Second, although I do enjoy a big city, they tend to make me a little anxious. They are so big. And New York, well it is HUGE.

Riding the subway is a little nerve-wracking too because even after I finally bit the bullet and began riding underground years ago, I still find myself asking the first person I see whether this particular train will take me to my destination. Can you say TOURIST? Here’s my purse too! (That’s stereotypical. New Yorkers are nice. When they look at you.)

And third, I was sure that I would be the oldest one there. I would be the older lady among the young’uns who are more tech savvy than me, have less gray hair than me and can sit through a marathon class without having to readjust their old bones. Or pee every half hour or so.

Alas, I was not the oldest one there.

Just the second oldest. Me and one man in his 50s amongst a bunch of youngsters all trying to master the craft.

But in reality, age didn’t matter at all.

We were all aspiring writers wanting to get something a little different from Gotham.

I was hoping that this class would somehow be my jumpstart to getting all my garbled thoughts and ideas and starts and stops into some organized manner so I could sit down and boom! Write that book.

Okay, so I obviously didn’t come home and immediately write the next Hunger Games or anything like that. Surely it can’t be that easy right?

But it sure was a good start.

I learned more than I thought I needed to know.

The thing that stayed with me was the lecture on creativity. Keep a journal in your purse, by your bed side, on your person. And you never know, some guy smelling melons in Whole Foods, the couple arguing on 5th Avenue or the dream you had last night about Britney Spears just might be the basis for a story.

Another great exercise: think of a number and weave it into your story. It was amazing the things that people came up with. With just a number as a prompt. Amazingly creative people.

I actually challenged my son with this the other day as we sat in the waiting area while my daughter was at dance class.

He picked five and came up with a beautiful story about camping in Yosemite and how quiet it was and within five minutes of laying his head down, he heard the pack of wolves — the Druid pack — the sound of their pad pishing outside his tent. The details were great.

I was thoroughly impressed! All around a number. He was so proud of himself, he brought it to class and shared it with his 4th grade teacher.

Sorry to digress.. this mom is proud.

Anyway, back to class. We followed each lecture with a writing exercise or two and shared our stories with the class.

That part was a little scary at first, but I figured I had age on my side. Those literary little whippersnappers wouldn’t dare disrespect me or poke fun at my prose. I am their elder after all and one knows that one must respect one’s elders. Right?

The professor, a 30ish woman from Tel Aviv who had her MFA from Sarah Lawrence was in a word — inspiring.

I don’t know about you, but the thought of teaching a seven-hour class is daunting to say the least. I once went in to my son’s preschool class just to talk for a few minutes about newspaper reporting on Career Day. Those little four-year-olds made me sweat. Long stares. Silence. And a few trying to throw me off my game by picking their noses.

Oh the memory makes me shudder.

My writing teacher, however, did not miss a beat. Everything was fresh and spirited and presented in a way that was encouraging and provoking and fun.

I wrote a lot and found out some things about myself as a writer in the class:

  • I am a slow writer. Some of the students had three pages long hand in the time it took me to get that one. I revised as I went along. Not sure if this is good or bad, but something to work on.
  • I also learned that if I just take the time to put them down on paper, some of my ideas are actually pretty good.
  • There is nothing to fear but fear itself. (Although we learned to avoid these kind of stock phrases and cliches, this particular one is sooo true.) If you are a scaredy cat, afraid of trying, afraid of failing then you can kiss your dream of being a published author good-bye.

I am excited and want to sign up for another class. I may do the online thing, a 10-week class more focused on the genre I want to try.

In any case, this experience enlightened and uplifted me.

And since I don’t really have anything else pressing, I might as well get a move on.

Wish me luck.

(If you want. I hate telling people what to do. If you are my sisters, you are laughing now.)

Well, off I go.