Thinking Out Loud

Cassandra

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

For 11 years we lived in Rockville, just under an hour’s drive from our current home. Our kids did a lot of growing up during that time, keeping us busy with both school and extracurricular commitments. Through our children’s activities we met a lot of good people, many of whom became much more than nodding acquaintances; some became close friends. For the first time in my adult life I found myself part of a fairly defined group. We all had kids around the same age, attending mostly the same ... read more

A note of thanks

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

Dear Santa, I have to admit, it’s been a while since I’ve written you. Shame on me. You no doubt recall, as I do, the days when you told our mom the best way to let you know what we wanted for Christmas was to take a look through the Montgomery Ward catalog. Most years there was a three item limit. Very reasonable to my now parental mind; but, oh, how circumscript to an eight year old! Surely you were watching as I spent countless hours one December daydreaming about life with a particular ... read more

Table for one

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

Here I sit, monopolizing a small, spare, round wooden tabletop screwed onto a low, wrought iron pedestal. I’ve brushed off the left-over sugar, and put a napkin on the sticky stuff before laying anything down on the artistically stained surface.

I’m as plugged in as my antiquated technology allows — my laptop purrs, my flash drive blinks, the portable external mouse does the job the built-in refuses to, and I deaden the ambient chatter and classic jazz with the Brown noise (white noises’ lower frequency brother) streaming through my lavender earbuds. I have the column I’m working on open, as well as a couple of tabs on-line, including my e-mail and one for doing quick spelling and fact checks. This time I have Internet access. Sometimes I don’t, even when others all around me are SmartPhoning and iPadding happily away. The disconnects can be irritating, but I somehow manage to survive the depravation.

Our son is taking classes in Westminster. That’s what’s brought me to this big name coffee shop a couple miles down the road from the training facility and nearly 30 miles from my usual after-dinner workspace.

When I walked in earlier this evening, I quickly grabbed a table nearest a wall outlet. I then took myself over to the “Order Here” line, where practice is making perfect. Until becoming something of a regular, I was perpetually puzzled about what to order and how to do it correctly. Initially I faced a few stumbling blocks, such as the non-existence of “Small, Medium, and Large.” This particular chain has replaced these traditional concepts with vaguer, slightly more intimidating options that I need illustrated, and fortunately they are.

My next issue is that I’m not a hot coffee drinker. Never have been. This limits my options to tea, hot chocolate, or the mind-boggling variety of calorie-laden frosty favorites, including my usual standby, decaffeinated iced coffee. Since I’ve already had dinner and wouldn’t mind a little something sweet, tonight I opt for a steamy cocoa.

Since the nice middle-aged lady — and not one of the greenhorn college students — makes my order, I’m sure to have not just a delicate dollop of whipped cream, but an artery-clogging mound of the wondrous white stuff, topped with a generous drizzle of mocha syrup. This frothy treat will be my companion for the next two hours, so I’ll have to pace myself.

The recyclable, coated cardboard cup contains more than mere liquid refreshment. It also represents table rental; my mild justification for tying up valuable restaurant real estate for 120 minutes twice a week.

Rounding up the cost of the drink to $3.00, my rent comes to about two and a half cents a minute. If I spent eight hours here, at that rate it would run me a modest $12. While that’s more than I pay to plunk down in the small room at the back of our house, I consider it very modest terms indeed.

Here I’m free from the whirl of distractions and guilt over the undone I’d have at home. I enjoy the anonymity my family can’t grant me; and although those little cakes on sticks look mighty good, I know the real reward will be half a Cosmic Brownie at the end of the day when I can put my feet up and begin to nod off on my own couch.

But that comes later, hours later. For now, between 7 p.m. and closing, I’m just one more disconnected, plugged-in tenant making the most of a short term lease.

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From her Woodsboro home base, Susan writes for both fredericknewspost.com and The Frederick News-Post. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

On the Line

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

I’ve moved around a bit so far in my life and have adapted to a variety of locales. There are, however, three kinds of places I’d prefer not to dwell — somewhere it never snows, a Heaven without dogs, and a home without a clothesline.

A few more weeks and the outdoor drying season will be over; and though I line-dry indoors throughout the year, from late April to early October, I happily let Mother Nature lend a hand with my laundry chores.

You find all sorts of good things when you look past the limits of machine drying. For instance, there’s nothing like the crisp feel and smell of sheets and shirts kissed by the sun and a warm summer breeze. Without burning kilowatts or braving bleaches, the designs on t-shirts stay sharp and unpeeled longer; white blouses return to their hangers just a touch whiter; and, there’s that one last November chill-chasing whiff of May when the winter coats come out of their summer storage bags.

By letting it all hang out, in my small way I’m doing my part to save the planet, one laundry load at a time. On a particularly memorable pre-vacation Saturday a few years back, I washed, hung, and folded six completely dry, super-capacity loads without ever turning on the man-made dryer. How “green” is that?

But like they say on tv, wait — there’s more!

As I see it, my fellow clothespinners and I are preserving healthful, venerable traditions in a world that moves too fast and changes too quickly. While I have no intention of beating my husband’s dress shirts on a rock in a nearby stream, I rather like having to put the busy on hold for a few minutes in order to step out of doors and enjoy a breath of fresh air and pinch of sunshine as I pin up and take down the morning’s wash.

Putting things on the line also connects me to my childhood, reviving memories of my mother, who in true 1960s-style housewifery did a load of laundry seven days a week. I remember how from just a few minutes a day filling and clearing the clothesline, her face and forearms would be tan weeks before the rest of us even began to freckle. When the weather was too wet or cold she’d get creative. Panties, jockey shorts, and socks were hung here and there around the house, and the banister in the living room was festooned with shirts, pants, and skirts. Many a frozen-stiff pair of jeans could be found cozily thawing over the shower curtain rod on a February afternoon following a brief, but frosty drip outdoors.

Like the one my husband rigged for me between two fence posts, I grew up with a linear drying system. My mother’s was a nylon coated line secured by two adjacent crabapple trees in the back yard. Our neighbors on either side had umbrella-style dryers, and while I may have admired their sophistication, those new-fangled gadgets could never serve as an emergency volleyball or badminton net.

I keep hearing about communities that ban outside clotheslines for aesthetic reasons. It’s ironic that such an environmentally sound practice should be looked down on by some of the same folks who champion countless other worthy eco-causes. In our own family, it’s become a minor mission of mine to educate and encourage the next generation in the art of air drying.

Hopefully, by the time our children are in the housing market, they’ll be able to find a truly enlightened place to call home — the kind where there are four seasons, loads of pets, and plenty of backyard clotheslines.

___________

From her Woodsboro home base, Susan also writes also writes for The Frederick-News Post. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com — after the clothes are brought in.

More Precious Than Gold

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

He was on his last chance at the shelter when he chose our daughter one Christmas week, bringing a new kind of animal planet to our world. A strange mixture of mismatched parts, he could be sweet beyond words. But he could also be eight pounds of furry dynamite. It was his feistiness that often got him in trouble, and in the end, helped get him killed by the much bigger dog he challenged when he slipped out of our back yard earlier this week.

He was a light in the life of the family that he was fully part of, and most importantly, the center of a lonely, relocated girl’s existence. It was she who rescued him and was rescued by him just as she was drowning in the pain of parting with old friends and the difficulties of making new ones. He was a friend ready-made with complementary knacks for demanding attention and generously bestowing affection.

He was the shadow under human feet, who constantly got stepped on and as constantly forgave us our unimaginable clumsiness. And he found no pillow quite as comfortable as the shoes we’d just slipped off or a softer bed than the forbidden easy chair.

He was the steadfast, reliable companion of a work-at-home mom, who for five and a half years knew that thanks to him and his big beagle half sister, at least someone wouldn’t abandon her for school and work. He put in as many hours in the office as she did. He was her buddy, her associate, her Little Man.

He was his young mistress’s baby; guardian of our realm; keeper of schedules; waker-up of sleepy teen boys; enthusiastic greeter of the weary at the end of each day and after prolonged absences. He was our other man’s best friend’s best friend. He changed our life for the better when he came into it, and his leaving has changed us all again.

He was so much more than just a pet. He was living alchemy, the Copper who turned gold and the gold who turned light and love. Oh, how we loved him. Oh, how we miss him.

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From Woodsboro, where we’re still hoping the other owner will come forward. We can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Too much

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

On the eve of her senior year of high school, one of our daughter’s oldest friends died unexpectedly.

Within a couple hours of hearing the heartbreaking news, our daughter and I drove back to our old neighborhood and the house of good friends. This was something of a second home to the young man — no, boy — we’d just lost. He and our friends’ daughter were so tight, so like brother and sister, they were often teased that they even fought like siblings. Although they hadn’t hung out together quite as much since the varying interests of high school took them in different directions, the loving survivor was understandably devastated. Having been one of the few people who’d known for several days he was in bad shape, she still wasn’t prepared for his death.

Who at 16 or 17 is prepared for the sudden death of a peer? I didn’t have to face losing a good friend overnight until I was nearly 40. And although a lot of the kids who showed up for what I dubbed an “Irish Wake for a 17 Year Old” had lost beloved grandparents and family pets, I doubt any of them had said goodbye to someone their own age. Until that Saturday morning, they were walking around with heads full of SAT scores, college applications, and their latest Facebook profile pictures. Now their hearts were full of confusion, disbelief, and the novel pain of fresh grief.

As we grown-ups sat discretely on the screened-in porch, we heard snippets of conversation. The dad of the house noted how there’d be rolls of laughter, followed by silence. Truly heartbroken, the stricken teens were as unsuccessful at holding back tears as they were in stopping smiles while they remembered their lost buddy.

We also heard tales of where they were or what they were doing when word of the tragedy hit them. Like my parents’ generation’s Pearl Harbor Day, and our own 9/11, this morning would forever mark a historically pivotal moment in the lives of those huddled in the family room; and while all certainly needed and lent moral support, a few seemed to be on hand because they had to be part of something bigger than they could digest alone. Like battle-wise soldiers, they gathered strength as they instinctively closed ranks against an all too real world.

This inaugural loss for our daughter was followed within two years of graduation by the sudden deaths of two classmates. They ran with different crowds than our daughter’s, but still their passing brought home a sense of mortality that people so young shouldn’t have to grasp, much less master.

The growing list of “gone too young” got longer again two weeks ago when an 18 year old boy from our town, a kid our son talked to and got to know a bit on the bus ride to and from school, first lost control of his car and then the battle for his life — as did a girl with whom this same boy would have graduated, had she not been in a car accident the summer before their senior year.

As a mom, I can’t help thinking of and praying for the parents left behind. As a sister, I share the pain of losing a sibling too early in life. But how do these kids — who don’t yet have a full sense of the terrifying flight of time, who dream of the decades and the living still to come —  process and absorb such sorrow, such loss?

And just how much can these naturally hopeful hearts take?

———

From her Woodsboro home base, Susan writes for both for both fredericknewspost.com and The Frederick News-Post. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Dog Daze

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

One of my pet theories is that when selecting a four-legged companion, we humans only think we do the picking. I’ve seen this phenomenon in action more than once. 

When I was eight and finding no magic in “trick” knees, my mother and I stopped by the local animal shelter on the way home from a pre-op meeting with the orthopedic surgeon. The place was run by the police department, and for much of my early life, specifically by my policeman father. It allowed him to work fairly normal hours and proved a good fit for a man who had a way with animals.

On this particular day we arrived as he and his staff had just finished flea dipping some newcomers. What I thought was a pile of black and white rags dropped on the floor near the tub suddenly stood up, shook off, and padded directly over to me. It was love at first sniff. The intrepid mutt wouldn’t stop following me as I limped around; and before my mother and I left, the begging began. My parents took pity on me, or maybe they figured the more the merrier — we already had a handful of beagles, and what was one more mouth to feed? Thus, Tiger, my first furry best friend and bosom buddy, came into my world at the perfect time, when I really needed a special companion.

Nearly 20 years later, my husband lived my definition of natural selection when we decided to adopt a puppy. As I ogled all the cute bouncy critters, the man who’d never had a dog wandered over to the most dignified canine on display and put his finger between the bars of the cage containing the 10 week old shepherd/husky mix. The discerning puppy gently claimed my husband’s proffered digit — and his heart.

The practically perfect Sir John truly was one in a million. After having him in the family for 16 years, he was a tough act to follow, and for well over two years we didn’t even try.

Then came our oldest child’s sweet 16. The only thing she wished for was a puppy of her own. And, it had to be a beagle. Serendipitously, a friend knew of a litter of beagle puppies in want of good homes. A week later Stripe chose our daughter. Of all her siblings and the people standing around enjoying the clumsy frolics of the long-eared, wrinkle headed babes, this one tenacious pup latched onto our daughter, clearly recognizing her human soul mate. To this day, the two continue to share a love of cuddling together and sweet, easy-going personalities.

A couple years after the advent of Stripe our shy middle child was struggling through life in a new school, in a new town 50 miles from all her friends and her comfort zone. Come December, our ever instinctive daughter played on parental guilt and persuaded us a buddy upon whom she could lavish love might possibly cure some of her loneliness.

The pickin’s at the animal shelter two days after Christmas were pretty slim, but as fate would have it, our daughter immediately spotted what I immediately termed an “alien dog.” The seven pound terror with oddly matched parts cast a mysterious spell on the child within seconds, and he became her guy. She’d not even consider any earthling dogs. And so another Girl and Her Dog love story was born.

I wanted to call him Humbug, but instead she named him Copper. Only moderately mellowed by early middle age, this odd little fellow’s still as alternately quick to overreact and endearingly loving as his mistress.

It was yet another match made in heaven, as ever it is when the dog does the choosing.

_____________________________________________

From her Woodsboro home base, Susan writes for both for both fredericknewspost.com and The Frederick News-Post. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

A Declaration of Parental Prerogative

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

I would argue that if, as magnificently stated in our Declaration of Independence, mankind is born with certain unalienable rights, then the same can be said of every man and woman the day they become parents.

Beyond the most sacred imperatives to care for and about our children, I further propose there are naturally occurring privileges, which parents of all ages are both free and obliged to pursue. Among these are the seemingly contradictory, but nonetheless inviolable rights to brag and to nag; inspiring us to alternately glory in and sternly admonish those for whom, in the eyes of God and the Law, we are physically and morally responsible — for at least 18 years, or until student loans are repaid.

I likewise assert that these entirely natural conferments extend to our immediate forbearers, the grandparents of our children. Albeit the measure of their obligations is in the majority of cases less binding, their relative situation may prove more immediately gratifying. Freed from direct accountability for the youngest branches of the family tree, they are able to reap the benefits of their lifelong labor as they bemusedly observe the struggles and triumphs of their offspring in such matters as pertain to their own progeny.

The resonating influence of this older generation is most often earliest expressed in the provision of a haven safe from the proddings and limit-setting of those less experienced in parenting, giving the latest generation naught but reason to dote on their grandparents nearly as fervently as their grandparents dote on them.

The rearing of a child is no simple undertaking. Youngsters offer a constant supply of reticence to comply with parental wishes and sometimes declare open defiance to parental commands. They steadfastly believe their persons, bedrooms, and the rest of the house are subject only to their own conceptions of order and cleanliness. They assert chores and homework are objects of personal preference rather than compulsive duties. They grossly take for granted the comforts afforded them through the labor of their parents, most generally displayed by displeasure with the daily dinner menu, the level of cellular service, and the number of channels available through unreasonably expensive cable packages. They consistently underestimate the intelligence and frequently overestimate the memories of their protectors and providers, as we stand watch over their evolution from babe to child to adolescent to adult, breath held, fingers crossed for both them and ourselves as we eventually reach the conclusion our offspring are as perfectly imperfect as their parents; and we treasure them all the more for this epiphany.

Through the various and varied stages we love them, comfort them, teach them, forgive them, pray for them, and live for them. In return, they love, comfort, teach, forgive, pray, and continue our lives through their own. It is, in short, the finest quid pro quo; the most astounding return on investment; and every now and then, a cause to celebrate.

As has been the case since the days of our earliest ancestors, parents will continue to claim those alternating rights of adoring and adjusting, of feeling pride and frustration, of offering support and independence, each in due season. In return, we ask little and wish only to one day be blessed enough to repose in the fulfillment of the countless times we said, “Just you wait until you have children of your own!”

Happy Mother’s Day to all who are moms and just like moms — even if they’re dads.

———

From her Woodsboro home base, Susan writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of FNP’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Incidental assets

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

When I was cleaning out my mother’s bedroom closet a few years ago — the one in which she squirreled away things for more than five decades — I came across a sizeable stash of small currency, discreetly tucked in zipped-up purses and out-of-style slacks. It came to nearly $300, mostly in $1s, $5s, and $10s.

This forgotten fortune was along the same lines, but on a far grander scale, than the occasional crumpled $20 bill I pull out of a jacket I haven’t put on since last fall, or the jeans reserved for “those days.” These pocket banks are wonderful sources of funds, often when I could really use them; my personal fee-free ATMs.

My husband has his own special savings account accumulating on top of his dresser. At the end of the day, he deposits the loose change from his pockets in a large tin can that was originally full of Boy Scout air-pop popcorn kernels. A couple times a year, he hefts the colorful container to the bank and empties its contents into the coin machine. So far, the proceeds from this gradually amassed wealth have been exchanged for a new gas grill, several nice dinners out, and a small, yet significant supply of mad money for the man who works so hard to keep us in the style to which we’ve become accustomed.

Pennies from heaven come in all different shapes and sizes, like this year’s unusual tax “return.”

For the first time we were no longer able to claim our oldest child as a dependent, and initial computations showed us facing a scary $1500 tax liability. Considering we usually intentionally overpay on our estimated taxes so we get at least a little back each year (our non-interest bearing “IRS Savings Account”), it was quite a shock to be facing not only a tax bill, but a pretty steep one.

Then the pleasantly unexpected happened. Once all the keys were punched and adjustments made, we ended up owing a mere $500, some of which was offset by a small refund from the state. WOW! I nearly hugged our accountant. Sometimes it really is a case of “It’s the thought that counts.” Having already mentally parted with $1500 for better than a week, restoring two thirds — if only theoretically — felt like hitting the lottery, or getting paid twice for what I earned just once.

Being a realist, I know I’m not going to suddenly wake up rich one morning. I own a cottage industry, never buy Powerball tickets, and have one and a half more kids to get through college. Fortunately, my needs are modest and I do have my minor saving strategies and successes: I paid for a third of last year’s Christmas shopping with the odds and ends of leftover cash I’d put aside from our weekly household budget; I clip coupons (and sometimes even remember to take them with me to the grocery store); and every once in a while, I reach into a coat pocket and find a tiny windfall, so that for a few moments, at least, I’m plenty flush enough. 

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From her Woodsboro home base, Susan writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of FNP’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.

Perspective

by Susan Writer. 0 Comments

Soon after finally bringing home our preemie first born, I visited the OB/GYN for my postpartum check-up. Here I was with our tiny but thriving miracle, and the doctor, one of my strongest champions when things hadn’t looked good, asked how everything was going. I complained the feeding was frustrating. My hero suddenly turned on me and sharply said I was lucky to have that as my biggest worry.

I later learned another of his patients with the same condition we’d just beat wasn’t so fortunate. Her baby was born and only survived a few hours.

A couple weeks ago, I was nagging our 16-year-old son over course choices for his senior year. How could he be so shortsighted and careless when it comes to his future? I wanted to reach across the dining table and bop him on the head with his baseball cap.

Within two days of our argument I heard about our friends’ healthy, athletic 20-year-old nephew who laid down for a nap before dinner one afternoon and never woke up.

Now I’m in my 50s, by the end of most days, my back, neck, and the balls of my feet compete to see which can bother me most. My hearing is down to 65 percent and getting worse, and my glasses need a stronger prescription — again. I’m sorely tempted to grumble.

Then I think of my “baby” brother who didn’t make it to his 46th birthday. He left behind his wife of 17 years, two growing, but far from grown sons, and any chance of ever personally experiencing the petty complaints of aging.

Perspective is a powerful thing, isn’t it?

Like many of us, I was introduced to it early in life when my mother dangled “all the starving children in Africa” in front of me, as I slid a flabby slab of liver around my plate. It comes to call when, after whining because I’m stuck in traffic, I reach the reason for the tie-up and rubberneck my way past what’s left of a mangled minivan nearly identical to mine. It gently taps me on the shoulder and points to a homeless man, instantly checking my frets about shelling out so much money on heating oil.

I’ve come to recognize one of the keys to happiness, or at least sanity, is the ability to remind myself that compared to a whole lot of people in this world, it ain’t half bad being me. Perspective erases self-pity and opens endless channels of gratitude. If I’m a little smart — and even more wise — I’ll turn a blind eye to what’s wrong, grab hold of all that’s right, and run with it as far, as fast, and as long as I’m able.

Each morning I take a moment to wonder at the miraculous 3 lb. 2 oz. that have evolved into a marvelous young woman, who’s chosen a profession caring for others.

I’m working on backing off on a kid who has every right to be a kid and chase his latest dream — provided he finishes his homework and turns it in.

And tonight, before I peel the icepack from my neck and switch off my bedside light, I’ll utter a prayer of deep thanksgiving for the blessings of another day and a world filled with those I love most in it.

I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.

— Jewish Proverb

Yep. That pretty much says it all.

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Susan Writer pens a regular column for fredericknewspost.com and is one of The Frederick News-Post’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at susanthinkingoutloud@yahoo.com.