Family Game Night Fail

Family Game Night Fail

It’s the holidays.

I love everything about this time of year, from the cheesy carols and the smell of cedar, to the movies we’ve all seen a hundred times and the uptick in my cocktail consumption.

But I’ll be honest, even if I’m feeling pretty good and life in my house is humming along just fine, there is sometimes a nagging voice in the back of my head telling me that it could should be better.

And by it, I guess I really mean we.

The fam.

This might have started with the Christmas specials we all grew up watching. No one I knew had a family like The Waltons, but that didn’t stop me from feeling that there was something wrong with not at least trying. Clearly, they knew something we didn’t.

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Now, thanks to social media, there’s a forever feed of families holding hands in the snow, laughing while decorating the tree, or enjoying that special cozy feeling you might have heard about called hygge. (Ps- If you don’t know what that is, then you have some serious catching up to do on Pinterest.)

I know, I know, “Never compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” But ask any thirteen year old girl (or fifty year old mom) on Instagram and they will tell you, that is a tall order.

Which is how I found myself sitting down to the worst family game night ever.

Our family of four had been kind of slacking on the togetherness thing. It’s easy to do, especially if your kids are at the age when they would rather be online, with their friends, or in their rooms than hanging out with the grownups.

And I can’t just blame my boys. I’m also guilty of putting family time on the back burner, mostly because we have so much of it. Since we homeschool and my husband works from home, we are in each other’s faces a lot. I’d thought the togetherness box was checked, but something still felt like it was missing.

What about… fun?

Five minutes on Facebook and I see at least a dozen friends having what looks like level 10 fun.

They are at Disneyland.

They are decorating hella Christmas cookies.

They are hiking, and snow-angel-ing, and adopting puppies, and just slaying it in the fun department.

So recently, after dinner and before the boys could disappear into their lairs, I proposed that we all play a good old fashioned board game.

Fun, right?

“Someone choose a game!” I hollered good-naturedly, as I went to put my phone away. (Note: Game night, according to the experts requires a complete focus on fun and comradery, so no screens allowed).

When I returned, C. and the boys had set up Parcheesi.

Now, I am sure that when Parcheesi was invented, back in the fucking stone age, it was a great game, but the fun bar was pretty low back then. Now we have a lot of games to choose from and, in my opinion, almost any game is better than Parcheesi.

Not that I’m blaming what happened on their choice of games, but it didn’t help is all I’m saying.

It started out ok, with each of us rolling the dice trying to get a five. Or a two. Or whatever it is you have to roll before you’re allowed to even begin your epic trudge around the dismal game board.

After about fifteen minutes (but who’s counting), I may have made a comment about not liking Parcheesi, thus breaking The Golden Rule of family game night which is this: stay positive. The success of family game night depends on full compliance and maybe faking. My bad.

Truman, sensing an opportunity, chimed in. “Yeah, who picked this game?”

“You said you liked it,” Chester countered, while rolling the dice.

“I did not.” I felt a kick under the table.

“That was me, Truman,” I said, giving him The Look.

My husband hands me the dice. “Your turn.” Whatever I roll, it is not the right thing.

“Ugh. This game,” I say.

I know, my attitude wasn’t great. But before you judge too harshly, I challenge you to pull out your own Parcheesi board and see how long you can play before wanting to throw the whole thing against the wall and run screaming into the arms of Netflix.

My husband actually hung in there pretty well, but when the kids started bickering, he could maintain the charade no longer. Next thing I knew, he had jumped ship and was chilling with a crossword puzzle in the den.

“What happened to you?” I asked, annoyed that he had broken the fourth wall in our cozy family scene.

“No one seems into it,” he said.

“So?” I answered, a little pissed. Being “into it” seemed completely beside the point of family game night. You plow through, I thought, heading back to have my turn. You plow the fuck through and, eventually, it turns fun.

Or something like that.

I got back to the table, to find only Chester. “Where’s your brother?”

“He left.”

“Why?”

“He said he didn’t want to play.”

What followed was probably exactly what you’d imagine: mild bickering, followed by maternal guilt, teen angst, marital tension, and dashed hopes.

Also, no one had done the dishes.

Normally, the job of dishwashing would go to my husband and boys, but no family game night fail is complete without Mom getting her martyrdom on, so I decided to do them myself.

Loudly.

As I worked with soap and sponge, I allowed myself the luxury of brooding. What was wrong with us? Why can’t we have fun playing a shitty game like other families do? We love each other, it goes without saying. We’ve had lots of great times together and, not to sound braggy, but our family functions pretty well, in general.

This train of thought did nothing to salvage the night, but it passed the time. Like most family stumbles, at least the uncomplicated ones, the only remedy was a good night’s sleep and a new day.

The next night, we sat around the dinner table, same as the night before. I’d made a really lame risotto. It was kind of gluey and had no flavor, probably because I had come down with a head cold and couldn’t taste anything. I’d lost my voice, as well. Not exactly picture perfect.

However…

It’s probably no coincidence that, on the one night that I was forced to listen more than talk, our boys had a lot to say. The food might have been mediocre, but the company was great.

Everyone ate, no one rushed off, and at some point, someone said something, and we cracked up. It was the kind of laughter that feeds on itself, the kind you can’t stop, the kind that’s a choking hazard but totally worth it.

It was the kind of laughter that makes you close. “Carbonated holiness,” as Anne Lamott would say.

At some point, Truman broke the dinnertime rule and pulled out his phone, but instead of checking Instagram, he snapped a pic of me, in full hysterics.

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I love this very unflattering photo of me. If, in the end, my sons remember me just like this, I’ll be a proud mom. Our family may never play Parcheesi together again (#goals), and we are not likely to come caroling in your neighborhood this Christmas, but we definitely know how to laugh.

Enjoy your holidays, in your own weird wonderful way. I wish you peace, love, and a fountain of carbonated holiness 🙂

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Staring Down the Dark

Staring Down the Dark

I really did plan to write a cheerful holiday post today. I put the order in and sat poised at the keyboard, ready for inspiration. Instead, here is what came out: that time I thought I might die. Proceed with caution if this isn’t your bag 🙂

When I was a kid, I loved being afraid.

Grocery shopping with my mother, I would be drawn by a force I didn’t understand, to the far end of the meat section, where they stocked the chicken and pigs feet, frog legs, fish heads and tongue, all stamped with bright orange stickers, “Low low price!” I’d creep toward the display and stare at it, shivering.

It was brutal, scary, and weirdly soothing.

I learned then that if I could look long enough at the white belly, the bone, the hoof, my fear would eventually turn to curiosity. By the time I heard Mama calling me, the parts had lost their grisly pull, and although I never wished to see them on my plate, I wasn’t afraid of them anymore, at least until the next time we went shopping, when once again I would wander from the kid-friendly entertainment of the cereal aisle, into the place where nice girls didn’t go.

I remember creating haunted houses in the sweltering attic of our small house, hanging my dolls, bloodied with magic marker, from the ceiling, and arranging bowls of spaghetti brains, broken mirrors, and rubber knives in creepy tableaus.

As I got older, I added to the scene, with death threats scrawled on paper that I carefully burned around the edges, and descriptions like this, next to each installation: “This very baby carriage and it’s human contents was crushed by the axe of a madman!”

It was a little intense for the other grade schoolers in my neighborhood, so usually it was pretty much just me up there, hanging out on summer afternoons, hot as hell and perfectly at home in the dark.

My friend Risa told me that the fact that I wasn’t afraid of the dark was proof that I was The Devil. We were living in the Bible belt, so this was a pretty big deal. After I got over that first rush, similar to getting cast as the lead in the school play, I admit it gave me pause.

I had good reason to think she might be on the right track in her assessment of my character, but in the end I was way too insecure to think I could be the Anti-Christ himself. For one thing, I was having a heck of a time memorizing my multiplication tables, proof, in my own mind, that I would never be tapped for such an important gig.

By fifth grade, I was an avid reader of horror comic books. After comics came ghost stories like The Bell Witch. Later, while my friends were reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, I read Amityville Horror and Helter Skelter.

I was the kid who was always looking up leprosy in The World Book Encyclopedia, or holding a seance.

My idea of fun was slipping into fear like a pair of comfy slippers and walking around for a while. There were a lot of demons inhabiting my world. For some of us, feeling scared helps us, well, not be so scared.

Once I grew up, my world felt a lot safer, and I mostly seemed normal-ish, at least when it came to my idea of a good time.

Then a few months ago, I decided to address a slowly percolating health issue.

Let me preface this by saying that all the tests have come back clear and I am basically fine. No biggie, as they say. But during the whole biopsy/second opinion process, my entire being was screaming “Are you fucking kidding me? This is a biggie– this is The Biggie!”

Even though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, looking back now it’s clear that I employed the skills honed way back when, at the grocery store.

I looked.

Not at Google! I repeat: NOT AT GOOGLE. (Please don’t look at Google while waiting for test results. You’re welcome.)

I looked at what was scary.

After meeting with a surgeon who painted kind of a bleak picture, I found myself strolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s, planning my funeral, making a mental list of the friends who I could call on to help my sons and husband once I was gone.

Like a lot of women I know, one of the ways I cope with stress is to share with friends, which I did.

Some friends responded to my news with a big smile and, “Oh stop it– you’re FINE!” They meant only the best, of that I am sure and I love them for wanting to save me from my own dark side, but flipping on the lights isn’t always the compassionate move.

And plus, how could they possibly know I was fine, at that point? I couldn’t know that about them and I would never pretend to.

One friend and I talked about what we could binge watch during my chemo. We discussed the merits of something called “exposure burial” vs. cremation. I instructed her to save my journals but delete my texts, which she totally understood. We laughed about how crazy it was, but we never shut each other down.

She sat with me in the dark.

Although I had been talking funerals, and chemo, and loss, my real fear was of having to go through it alone.

By the simple act of not looking away, she told me that nothing about me was too scary. She would be there, even if/when things got that fucking bad. She would watch t.v with me, and find me banana popsicles, and help me change my bandages.

I’d do the same for her.

There’s an image in my mind that, if it had happened back in 1972, would have made all the difference: it’s of a little girl, at the far end of the meat section. She is shivering from cold coming off the refrigerated cases, and from what she sees when staring into them. She doesn’t want to look away, but feels her friend standing next to her, and knows she is not alone.

They both look.

And they are both afraid, and less afraid, together.

Killing Mama (First draft of part of a thing)

Killing Mama (First draft of part of a thing)

Mama is down at Kirsten’s house having whiskey and Cokes with Kirsten’s daddy. While she is gone, this is my plan:

  1. I will sneak into the bathroom in the dark.
  2. I will take mama’s yellow toothbrush out of the cup by the sink.
  3. I will take the bottle of Windex, which is poison, and I will dip her toothbrush all the way down into the bottle.
  4. I will put the now poisoned toothbrush back into the cup and tonight, when she brushes her teeth, she will fall over onto the pink tile floor and be completely dead.

That is my plan and I do it.

Later, I’m on my bed in the dark, thinking about finding Mama on the bathroom floor after I poison her. I imagine telling Molly and Lynne to come in and see her, lying completely still, in her black robe, with her infected ear, right beside her yellow toothbrush.

The neighbors come over to comfort us because it is a sad day when your mother dies, usually.

I stop thinking about that.

Mama is still not back from Kirsten’s. I’m surprised because when Kirsten’s mother comes home Mama usually skidaddles right out of there because Kirsten’s mother is a health nut and hippy-dippy, Mama says. But she must be having a whole lot of fun over there tonight.

Staring at the glowing stars I have stuck to the ceiling, I start thinking again.

I think about how maybe the police would be called to the scene to solve the mystery of the dead woman with the toothbrush. It’s not what you would call an everyday thing. There would probably be a detective like Columbo, and he might get a feeling about the case. He might take me down to the station to answer a few questions. He would give me a coke and a donut while he smokes a cigarette to help him think.

He will ask me for my alibi and I will tell him this: I went to Rose’s department store to find a certain color of lipstick that I need. They did not have it, I will tell him, because it is sold special only at Castner-Knott’s, which is in Nashville where I couldn’t get to, so I spent the whole afternoon looking at Rose’s department store and didn’t end up buying anything, but I was there, is what I’ll say.

I thought of that alibi a long time ago when I was making the plan, which is how I had it ready.

In the end, Columbo would probably get one of his funny feelings, where he touches his nose and sort of looks up, closing his eyes. He would have a feeling about me, but he wouldn’t say anything because he would be able to see that I was a good girl underneath it all, even if Risa Niedermeyer and all those priss-pots say different, and that Mama was just a bad egg who got what she deserved. He would talk to Miss Nunley at Hobgood Elementary, who would tell him that I am almost never late, and that I won the poster making contest about the four food groups, and I would tell him that I am going to be a Campfire Girl when I am old enough, which is proof that I am a normal person inside, no matter what things look like on the outside.

And then I do the thing professional murderers never do. I get a picture in my head and I look at it: Mama on the floor, next to her toothbrush, dead and gone. I see how she’s funny sometimes, and how Grammie says she can’t help the way she is. And I think how I could never tell anyone the bad thing that I had done, not even Molly and Lynne because even though they hate Mama as much as I do sometimes, they would never commit the crime of poisoning.

I’m the one who would do that.

In my imagination I see Mama walking home from Kirsten’s house. She is happy and talking to the alligators, like she always says, taking her clothes off on the way. She puts on her pink nighty, not the black bathrobe. I see her reaching for her toothbrush and I know what will happen next and I don’t want it to happen after all.

I jump from my bed and look out the window down the street. I don’t see Mama coming, but I know she’ll be here soon. I only have a minute.

I run to get the yellow toothbrush in the pink bathroom. I turn on the hot water and hold it under until it’s steaming. I smell the toothbrush and it smells ok but what if it’s not? What if Windex is so poison that even a little could kill you? Like the people next door who had a baby that drank just a little lighter fluid and died before someone could get to it? Or what if the poison just makes Mama sick and she wonders maybe did someone poison her toothbrush and she calls the police herself, and maybe it won’t be Columbo, but a real scary policeman like the one in that movie I saw about the Badham County Women’s Prison?

There’s not much time.

I take the dripping toothbrush, wrapped in toilet paper, and sneak down the hall. I go out the back door to where the trash cans are. It’s pitch dark and hot as Hades. I lift the lid of one of those cans and push the toothbrush way down under some old hotdogs and a wet Cap’n Crunch box, where even Columbo wouldn’t have the nerve to look.

Next thing, I am washed, in my pajamas and under the covers, staring again at the glowing stars.

I can’t stop thinking. Risa and those girls and even Miss Nunley, they would all say the same thing– no matter what your reasons are, almost killing your mother is nearly as bad as really doing it. It’s not something you do if you are good.

I squeeze my eyes shut and wish so hard for god to change my insides.

I’m Done With People Leaving

I’m Done With People Leaving

A mom friend and I were hanging at the park with our kids a while ago, when she casually mentioned that she and her husband were looking to relocate. LA had changed too much for her over the years and she was done. She wanted more space, and fresh air.

Just like that? I thought, but didn’t say.

I tried to sound regular. “You’re moving?”

“We’d love to get out of here,” she answered. “We’ve already started looking up north.”

I was shocked. Not shocked at her announcement, I’d already said goodbye to three dear friends and my sister in the past five years alone, losing them to lower housing prices and walkable neighborhoods elsewhere. It’s going around.

What shocked me was my reaction.

I was pissed.

I was pissed that I’d grown even just a little attached to her, this kind-hearted animal -loving urban farm girl. I didn’t want another long-distance friendship kept on life-support through social media.

One of the worst things about my face is it’s transparency. She saw me shut down. Later I got a text: Sorry if I upset you earlier. We are looking to move eventually, but it probably won’t happen for a while. I hope we can still be friends!

Sigh.

My fingers typed what I thought was the right answer: Of course we can. I’m an asshole! 🙂

In Los Angeles, you get used to people leaving and if, like many of us, you moved here from somewhere else with a full set of fancy abandonment baggage, it can be a pretty rough. Over the years I’ve learned that if it seems like someone is just passing through, it’s probably best to let them.

At this point, it’s about staying power.

Back in Nashville, my Grandmother had the same steadfast group of women friends for years. We called them “the Marys” because they mostly shared that name. If you were to run into one of them around town and drew a blank, you could throw out the name Mary and know that you had at least an 80% chance of nailing it.

For years the Marys gathered weekly for their “sewing group.” It was an afternoon of chicken salad, cocktails, and conversation, where occasionally something got hemmed.

They took turns visiting when each other was sick. The few Marys who could still drive at night would fairy the others to dinner parties, and the wedding receptions of  grandchildren. It was a bond forged over decades, a lifeline, as they chartered the waters of their own old ladyhood.

I don’t know about you, but that’s looking pretty good to me these days.

Recently I read the book Life Reimagined, in which the author, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, counts supportive friendships as one of the most vital ingredients in a long and healthy life. The evidence suggests that more than genetics, diet or even excersise, friendships keep us going strong.

It’s medicinal, people.

While the data supporting the link between friendships and our health was new to me, the idea of friendship as a lifeline was not. I’ve written before about how, as a kid, I fed my attachment hunger through close and durable ties with my friends. I may have had a wire monkey at home, but in the homes of friends, I was patched up and found a sense of belonging.

I was hooked.

Which is why when my friend Wendy tells me over drinks at a bar we know so intimately that we just call it “the corner”, that living in LA is just too expensive and that her family may, like so many others, need to pull up stakes, I freeze.

“I mean, look what you can get in Iowa for 300K” She says, handing me her phone. I scroll through her Zillow feed, unsure of the correct response. Happy? Excited? Envious? I am none of those.

I am hurt.

Look, I know it isn’t about me. I know it’s about this friend of mine, who may have to leave her hometown, her world, and move into the unknown, not because she wants to, but because she has to.

But at that moment I am unable see my way to being a grownup.

I pass my finger over the screen, scrolling past circular driveways and sprawling farmhouses with mature trees in every yard. The numbers are so low compared to LA home prices that I think there must be a mistake. But there is no mistake.

Or is there?

Taking a good size gulp of Pinot, I wonder if maybe the mistake is trying to have lasting friendships in a town of transients.

We finish our drinks and split the check. I tell her I’ll try to be supportive, but I’m not sure I have it in me. I don’t want her to leave. She understands and says what everyone says when these conversations have run their course. “It probably won’t happen for a while.”

It has occurred to me that LA would be a pretty hard place to be a Mary. Some days it’s a hard place to be a Maggie, so I can only imagine.

Oh well.

At least when we can no longer drive at night, we can get an Uber in like five minutes, so suck it, small manageable towns with low property taxes.

(Now, normally, this would be where I’d put in a big plug for LA:its beaches, its mountains, its tacos, and weirdos, and seventy degree default temp, and I’ll-never-leave-no-way-this-is-MY-TOWN!)Los Angeles California Skyline

But that would be a lie, at least the never leaving part.

It may be that one day my husband will have to cash out and move to cheaper less crowded pastures. That’s the reality for a lot of us in tinsel town, and other towns too, all across the country.

So where does that leave friendship? If we are all apt to up and move any old time, is there anyone we can count on, and can anyone count on us? Am I wrong to even want that?

This reminds me of the sand mandalas created by Buddhist monks. You know, where hours and hours go into the creation of intricate sand paintings, which are then purposely destroyed as a reminder of the impermanence of everything.

Non-attachment. It’s their favorite.

Maybe in about ten thousand more lifetimes when I am way more actualized it will be my favorite too, but I’m just not there yet.

Of course none of us knows who will stick around and who won’t. It could be housing prices, a bad diagnosis, or divorce, but the truth is that shit happens, especially as you get older. Maybe the dream of my own band of proud Marys is an effort to soothe the anxiety that comes with that midlife realization.

I don’t know how it will feel to say goodbye to the next friend who leaves. I only know that I can’t let myself go on a preemptive strike. As hard as it is, I will fight to stay open to these relationships, even without the guarantee. I will build my friendships not like a sand mandala, but like a Vegas hotel– built to last, at least for now.

We can’t know otherwise, none of us.

In closing, let me quote the often unappreciated genius of this song, made famous by the one and only Ronnie Milsap. I’m actually not kidding.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world

Wouldn’t have missed lovin’ you girl

You’ve made my whole life worth while, with your smile.

I wouldn’t trade one memory

Cause you mean too much to me

Even though I lost you girl

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Feel free to sing with abandon at your next Karaoke night, after a shot of Jager. Now go forth with an open (or open-ish) heart, my friends!

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