Cool/Not Cool, Puppy

Capone the Wonder Dog has been with our family a little over a week now. We’ve discovered some of the things our puppy does are very cool. Some not so much.

  1. Waking up 3:30 am?
    Not cool, puppy.
  2. Having the morning wiggles so bad it’s nearly impossible to get your collar on?
    Not cool, puppy. I cannot wrestle a frantic puppy before coffee. I just can’t.
  3. Managing not to wee on the kitchen floor in spite of the morning wiggles?
    Cool, puppy.
  4. Going back to sleep in your crate until a more decent hour?
    Cool, puppy.
  5. Licking my feet in greeting with a level of adoration usually reserved for goddesses or other ancient deities?
    Cool, puppy.
  6. Working your way up to lave my calves as well?
    A little awkward, but still cool, puppy.
  7. Pulling me down a steep hill on our morning walk?
    Not cool, puppy.
  8. Pulling me back up that same hill with the intensity of an Alaskan sled dog?
    Cool, puppy.
  9. Nipping at everything that dangles, including shoelaces, hoodie strings, my coat, and any scarf I dare to put on?
    Not cool, puppy.
  10. Eating your kibble so fast you barf?
    Not cool, puppy.
  11. “Cleaning” your throw up all by yourself?
    Not cool, puppy, although I do appreciate the effort.
  12. Falling in love at first sight with the neighbor’s dog, Daisy?
    Cool, puppy. And kind of adorable in a Lady and the Trampish sort of way.
  13. Knocking Daisy over when you try to show your affection because she is roughly the size of your head?
    Not cool, puppy.
  14. Trying to nibble on the brick fireplace?
    Not cool, puppy. I don’t even understand that one.
  15. Taking a flying leap at my friend right after I serve her a giant cup of hot coffee, spilling it all over her shirt?
    Not cool, puppy.
  16. Sitting by her feet and staring up at her apologetically for the rest of the visit?
    Cool, puppy, but touch my coffee and you’re toast.

Episode III, The Return of Demir

My husband left for Amsterdam on Saturday. On Sunday, Capone the Wonder Dog joined our family. Needless to say, the house was a little different when Demir came back from his trip.
Demir never had a pet growing up. We adopted kittens when we were newly married (Thelma and Louise), and he developed allergies almost immediately. We had fish, and every time one died, he considered it proof that we should not own pets again. Ever.
Enter Capone, my son’s surprise 14th birthday gift and the sweetest puppy ever – about 90% of the time. The other 10% he’s a nippy, crazy, shoe-obsessed little pooping machine.
My husband loves dogs, especially when they belong to other people, but Capone was irresistible. He fell instantly in love.
“Look at his paws,” he said. “He’s going to be big.”
He inspected the paws a bit closer. “Really big.”
He tilted his head to one side, a gesture surprisingly reminiscent of Capone. “How big exactly?”
“Bigger than a bread box and smaller than a young horse. Probably.”
Capone proceeded to be an angel most of the night. Other than a few shoe thefts, he was on his very best behavior. He put on a very good show – sleeping by he fire, cuddling with the boys, playing with my husband.
“He’s perfect,” he said.
There were adjustments, of course. The floors were completely bare, but every surface of our house was covered with a random and miscellaneous collection of hats, gloves, laundry, books, wine, and anything we didn’t want Capone to eat. There were a lot of things we didn’t want Capone to eat and soon we were running out of surfaces.
Demir had to get used to leaping over the child gate if he wanted to go upstairs, not an easy task when the steps are covered with more things we don’t want Capone to eat. The baby gate is imperative, though. Capone is really good at going upstairs, but downstairs – not so much. He starts out well, but gains speed around the middle and ends up wiping out at the bottom. The gate is a necessary evil until Capone gains a better understanding of the concept of gravity.
Saturday morning Demir woke up at 4 am because he was jet lagged. Capone woke up with him, very happy to oblige. They had a lovely stroll and poop session in the back yard followed by a long and leisurely walk and tug session through the neighborhood. I handed Demir treats and poop bags on his way out the door because I was off to a morning meeting and was throwing him to the wolves. He looked at the poop bags and then at me.
“What are these?”
“In case he poops.”
“What do I do if he poops?”
“Clean it up.”
The look on his face was a combination of outrage and fear. “I didn’t sign up for this.”
“Would you rather leave his poo in someone’s yard?”
They survived the first walk and Capone did not poo. The second day was a little different, but fortunately I was there to take care of matters. Capone chose a bad house and squatted down immediately to poop. If there was a rating system for which neighbors would be the most annoyed at a dog pooping in their front yard, he chose the second worst possible house. And although it was early morning, their lights were already on and I suspected they were watching from their windows. I was too scared to actually look.
My husband used an expletive that had something to do with what Capone was doing at that very moment. It was sort of le mot juste.
“Yep,” I said.
The rest of the walk consisted of Capone either leaping ahead or refusing to move. We finally got to a snowy path through a field, and he happily sniffed around, picking up sticks and prancing around with them. My husband tried to remove the smaller sticks because it looked like Capone was trying to eat them. It was a back and forth of him saying, “Drop it” and Capone refusing to comply.
At one point I was a bit ahead and I heard “No. Drop it.”
Surprisingly, it was followed by a “Good boy,” which meant Capone had actually listened.
That was followed by a panicked sort of yelp, but not from Capone. From my husband. I turned around to see him staring at what Capone had just dropped.
“It’s….it’s….it’s…..” he couldn’t quite get the word out. “A rat. He had a dead frozen rat in his mouth. What do we do?”
I shrugged. It looked more like a dead, frozen field mouse to me. “Keep walking?”
I couldn’t see much of my husband’s face. Most of it was covered with a hood that buttoned around his neck, covering him to the mouth. His eyes spoke volumes.
“Do you want me to take the leash?”
He didn’t have to answer. I gave him the poop bag and he held it as far away from his body as was humanly possible.
“I didn’t sign up for this.”


The Great Puppy Adventure

After a disastrous start to our Great Puppy Search of 2015, we ended up with a miracle. A beautiful 12 week old male black lab named Capone from an amazing breeder. Her name is Sue, and she more than made up for the horrendous first breeder experience. Sue loves her dogs, and treats them with nothing but care and respect. She’s also one of the most knowledgeable people I’d encountered. She answered every question thoughtfully and cried after we left with Capone. She was genuinely glad he went to a good family, but sad to see him go. She gave me a huge packet with tons of important information, including which commands she used, just to make things easier for us. Capone was off to a great start. Now it was up to us not to screw things up. Ugh.
As soon as we got home, we had questions. I relied on my friend Patti, who has the equivalent of a PhD in Labrador Retriever training and behavior. Patti got her dog from Sue as well, and Patti and her dog Clancy are an outstanding search and rescue team. My goals with Capone were not so lofty. First, I wanted to keep him alive. Secondly, I didn’t want him to poop in the house.
Maybe those goals were a bit lofty as well.
We started off rocky, when the last part of the ride home became stressful. Accusations were thrown, “Mom. You have to tell me when you turn. He’s sliding all over the place.” And, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Mom? This doesn’t seem safe.”
We made it home. Safely. And Capone began exploring his new environment. We rushed around what we thought was an already puppy proofed area and puppy proofed some more. Friends came to visit and Capone charmed their socks off. Then came the moment of truth. Bedtime. Capone sat in his kennel, but looked at us accusingly. And the barking started.
“What do we do?” asked my youngest son.
“We’re going to be calmly assertive,” I answered. We’d been watching way too much of “The Dog Whisperer.”
“We need Cesar Milan,” whispered my son as the intensity of the barking and whining increased.
“We’ve got Sue.”
I sent out an urgent FB message, which Sue graciously answered immediately, asking her how to get Capone to sleep in his kennel. She said to use the command word “No” when he barked, and then to say “Lie down.”
I looked right into Capone’s eyes, used my most calmly assertive voice, and said, “No. Lie down.”
He gave a half-hearted bark, and I said it again. “No. Lie down.” And it worked. Like a charm. He went to sleep within minutes.
“You’re the Alpha,” said my youngest, not without a touch of envy.
“We all knew that,” I replied.
Capone has been with us for around 30 hours now. He discovered the Cave of Wonders (our shoe closet), the Magical Dispenser of Liquid Joy (our water cooler), and he learned to stay away from my favorite slippers. He made friends at PetSmart, stayed in his kennel for a few brief interludes and barely barked at all. He also ate or attempted to eat the following:

  1. The head of a squeaky toy frog
  2. Part of a soccer ball
  3. A pair black men’s dress shoes
  4. My new boots
  5. Rabbit poo
  6. A pine cone
  7. Several rocks
  8. Twigs in varying sizes
  9. What I suspect was deer poo
  10. A plastic twisty tie
  11. A card with a photo of Patti’s dog on it
  12. The newest edition of my oldest son’s favorite magazine.
  13. A cardboard box
  14. A new pair of tennis shoes
  15. Leaves
  16. Grass
  17. The coffee table
  18. A book
  19. A coat
  20. A penny
  21. His new leash
    We are still working on the “drop” command. That has become a bit of a priority for us. We found out online that if you blow on their face when you say “drop” (in a calmly assertive voice), they will do it. Eventually.
    He managed to remove every single tag that existed on just about every item in our house. It was obviously his new job, and he took it very seriously. He also took his other job seriously – being a professional stalker. He spread the love, giving each of us a turn to be stalked, and he wasn’t even sneaky about it. I think I tripped over him twenty seven times today, but I may have lost count.
    To all of you who said it wouldn’t be easy – you were absolutely right. I’m exhausted. My youngest is exhausted. My middle son escaped to the science center today, so he can’t share our war stories.
    “Do you remember when Capone almost ate the coffee table?”
    We shook our heads in disbelief, but none of it bothered Capone. He wagged his tail, put his head on my knee, stared at me with his big, brown eyes, and all was forgiven.
    As long as he stays away from my boots.

The Great Puppy Search

Well. The Great Puppy Search has begun, but so far it has not been a raging success. After a nine-year campaign launched by my son, my husband finally relented a few days ago. We surprised him with a note in his 14thbirthday card saying he could finally, at long last, get the thing he wanted most in the whole world. A puppy.
Then we realized we had no idea where to start or what we wanted. Immediately the advice began pouring in, but soon I discovered that how people feel about dog breeds is something very individual and personal. One person’s idea of a beautiful dog is someone else’s “so ugly it’s almost cute.” And people are passionate about the dogs they love, and about a lot of other things, too.
I was advised not to buy from a pet shop, but we ended up looking at one anyway. A friend of ours had just bought a really lovely puppy from a local pet shop, so we decided we would look – for educational purposes only. They carry lots of different breeds in pet stores, and since we were clueless, we thought it would be a good place to begin.
We walked inside on a busy Sunday afternoon, and the shop was packed with happy people fussing over the puppies. At least they looked pretty happy. One woman did shout, “Don’t buy from here! They get their dogs from puppy mills!” as we came in. It was sort of weird, like one of those people carrying around signs saying, “The end is near! Repent!”.
The puppies were all cute, but on closer inspection most of the people in the pet shop were kind of weird. Not an everyday sort of weird, either. This people were borderline circus freaky carnie kind of weird. One lady was braless and had breasts that nearly touched her thighs. Really. One family, dressed entirely in camo, talked about how they bought their other dogs, a Rottweiler and a Pit Bull, at the same mills in Ohio that the pet store used. The store manager, looking perky in a pony tail and a polo shirt, froze as soon as Camo Man spoke. Obviously the crazy woman shouting a warning had been right – the shop did buy from mills.
Boob Lady had come with a herd of grandchildren, eager to play with puppies, but obviously with no intent to purchase them. They proceeded to torture dog after dog, complaining loudly about each one. I guess it was their idea of a fun family activity.
We waited thirty minutes for a chance to see three of the puppies. My son chose a chocolate lab, a Ba-Shar (a mutation of a Bassett Hound and a Shar Pei) and an Ori-Pei (another mutation between a Pug and a Shar Pei). They brought the puppies in one by one. They were all cute, but we immediately fell in love with the chocolate lab. Unfortunately, all the dogs were sick (they had kennel cough and none could be purchased)(not that we would have)(the screaming lady had scared us). They were also extremely overpriced. The chocolate lab was nearly $2K, which is about three times the going rate for that breed.
Our next stop was to look in the classifieds. Another bad experience. We drove to a farmhouse in the country, skidded down an icy driveway, and entered into what must be one of the nine circles of hell. The breeder, a large woman in her pajamas with a raspy voice, didn’t seem thrilled to see us and didn’t make eye contact. Not a good sign. This was a scheduled appointment, not a drive by.
When we walked into the kitchen, the first thing we saw was a gigantic birdcage with an enormous parrot inside. The cage was the size of my kitchen island – if it had been doubled and stacked one on top of the other – and the parrot (from tip to tail) was roughly the size of my 14 year old. As we walked past, it said, “Hello, sexy” right in my ear. I nearly wet my pants.
The next stop on this thrill ride of an adventure through this crazy fun house was walking past a closet with a chocolate lab inside nursing her litter. She was blocked in with a baby gate and growled menacingly at us as we walked past.
“Is that the litter you advertised?” I asked.
Breeder Babe looked over her shoulder and managed to glare at me without making eye contact. “No. Those ain’t the ones.”
We were led into her family room, which was definitely hotter than Hades (another Inferno reference here)(Dante would have loved this place). I’ve been in saunas that were cooler. I guess the place was kept warm because of the multiple litters of puppies throughout the house, but I smelled something smoking and hoped my eyebrows hadn’t caught on fire.
The puppies, only a week old, were on a blanket on the floor. The house was cluttered, but fairly clean. The puppies, however, were filthy.
“Go ahead,” I said to my son. “Pet them.”
He looked at me in horror, but tried to gingerly find a clean spot to kneel on the floor. He couldn’t find one.
“Can we see the mother?” I had no idea what questions to ask, and this seemed like a good one. The heat was starting to affect my brain. I was just glad that (due to a freak accident years ago) I no longer have a perfect sense of smell. I’m sure there were a whole cornucopia of scents in this place.
Breeder Babe shuffled off to the garage.
“Uh, oh,” said the parrot. I should have listened.
The mother dog came in, growling and terrified. “Go and feed your babies,” shouted Breeder Babe, but the dog was more focused on us. She was obviously scared, and very used to strangers who came in during the night and stole her babies. She circled us, growling, with her ears down and teeth barred.
“She’s not happy.”
Once again, my powers of observation are uncanny. Without having any knowledge of dogs whatsoever, I managed to concisely summarize the whole situation in one sentence.
“She’s fine. GO. FEED. YOUR. BABIES.” Breeder Babe dragged the poor mother over to the blanket, pushed her to the ground and smacked her on the head when she tried to get up.
“We should go,” said my son, his eyes huge in his face.
I agreed, but my good friend, Patti, was planning to meet us at the breeder to help me figure out if they seemed reputable or not. I had already figured it out for myself, but I thought Patti should see this. Lucky for her, she got lost and couldn’t find the farmhouse in the middle of the desolate, dark, snow-covered field. It definitely looked like a good setting for a slasher movie. That should have been my first clue.
“Wait. I’ll bring out the father.”
I didn’t think my son’s eyes could get bigger in his face, but they did. Especially when dear old dad came out with two giant Rottweilers.
They ran through the kitchen, their feet skidding on the tile floor. One of them nearly ran into the parrot cage.
“Watch it,” said the parrot.
The adult dogs, although they cowered around Breeder Babe, seemed friendly and fairly healthy. I just didn’t like the vibe of the place, the way it felt seedy and slightly illegal. I also didn’t like the way Breeder Babe spoke to the dogs. Every time she yelled at them, we flinched. If the three of us had been a dog pack, she would have been the alpha.
“You’re just here to make a deposit today. You can pick your puppy when you come back in a few weeks.”
“We really have to go.”
Breeder Babe looked up in surprise and then shuffled back to the kitchen to show me paperwork and my “Welcome Puppy” packet.
“Um. We really have to think about this.”
She paused, the “Welcome Puppy” packet still clutched in her hand. “If you want a female, I can’t guarantee one unless you make a deposit. NOW.”
“We’re just not sure.”
“I have references.” She was now clutching the packet so hard she was wrinkling it.
“I’m sure you do.”
“I’ve been doing this for twenty five years. Well, more than twenty.”
“Great,” I said, easing toward the door. My son had his hand on my coat, pulling me out.
I thanked Breeder Babe for her time and we left as fast as we could. The parrot did have the final say.
“Bye-bye, baby.”


The I Ching of “The Godfather”

“And may their first child be a masculine child…”
I’ve watched “The Godfather” more than I care to admit this month. It started with a weak moment, and a child resting on the couch and recovering from ear surgery. He was looking through the movies available on demand, and paused on “The Godfather.”
“I’ve always wanted to watch this,” he said.
I frowned. “It’s rated ‘R’ and you’re only thirteen.”
“It looks so cool.”
I thought about it, and realized that an R rating years ago is more like a PG rating today. Or at least that’s the lie I told to justify the fact that I felt bad for my poor, doped-up son, and wanted him to find something to keep his mind off his sore ear for a few hours.
“Fine, but if you get scared we’re turning it off.”
I didn’t scare him. Not even a little. Not even the part with the bloody horse’s head in the bed, which actually scared me a bit.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?”
He nodded, mesmerized. “This is the best movie I have ever seen.”
“It’s not personal. It’s business.”
We watched it again, the next day, and during the wedding scene he said, “I wish we were Italian.”
I looked at him in surprise. “We are Italian.”
He gave me a very patronizing look. “I wish we were moreItalian. Like the Corleones. I think I want to be a mafia guy.”
This led to a discussion about how that would be a really bad idea, that mostly consisted of me saying it was a bad idea and my son ignoring me. My protests fell on deaf ears. He was hooked.
“I think I look a little like Michael Corleone. He’s a good bad guy.”
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse…..”
“Today my teacher said it was the first time she’d heard an 8th grader singing the theme to ‘The Godfather.’ Isn’t that funny?”
I cringed. “Hilarious.”
I could just imagine what was going through that teacher’s head. As much as I’d try to tell myself the movie was fine, it still was violent and scary and there was that one shot of Apollonia taking off her nightgown. My son knew whenever it was coming and covered his eyes, but that still didn’t make me feel like this was one of my prouder parenting moments.
“Can we watch it again?” he asked.
I sighed. “Only after you finish your math.”
I figured I’d bought myself a few hours at least, but the math homework was finished in record time, and we were back to the adventures of Vito Corleone. The movie is three hours long, but it doesn’t feel like it. At all.
“Badabing, badaboom…”
My youngest, besides being a Godfather addict, is also a singer. Oddly enough, he’s performed quite a few Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra songs. He’s always had a bit of an Italian/Rat Pack/Lounge Singer vibe going on. While singing once at the Dean Martin Festival in Steubenville, he met Lou Martini, Jr., the only actor to be in both “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos.” In “The Godfather” Lou played Tom Hagen’s oldest son, Frank. This gave us a reason to watch the film yet again, to try to spot Lou Martini, Jr.
We did spot him. Several times. He was adorable.
“This is so exciting,” said my son. “It’s almost like almost being in the movie since I met someone who was in it.”
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
My oldest son came home from college, and we were swept up in a whirl of Christmas parties and holiday fun. “The Godfather” faded into a slightly distant memory, until my oldest son began looking for a movie to watch. He paused on “The Godfather.”
“I’ve never seen it before.”
Uh, oh. “Wouldn’t you rather watch the entire Firefly collection? We’d planned to finish that this week.”
He shrugged. “I do love Firefly, but…..”
I sighed and gave up. “You should watch ‘The Godfather.’ It’s important. I don’t know why exactly, but it’s important. All men love it.”
“It’s three hours long. Geeze.”
“It doesn’t feel that long, trust me.”
And three hours later, with his eyes glazed over and full of passion for the Corleones, my son reached his final and inevitable conclusion. “I loved it. I really loved it.”
“I knew you would.”
He was so excited he actually had trouble sitting still. “I mean I really loved it. And it explains so much – so many references I didn’t understand before. I need to watch the second one. Do we have any pasta? I think I want a cannoli.”
The next day I found a cannoli making kit at Costco, the perfect late Christmas present.

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
Maybe you’ll question my parenting choices, or wonder how much time we wasted this month watching a movie (over and over and over again), but we actually (gulp) enjoyed it. We’ve spent our free time snuggling on the couch, talking, and watching something that really is a classic. I have to admit, living in a house full of men, that I do have a high tolerance for this sort of movie. Our idea of a Christmas flick is “Die Hard” (don’t judge – it does take place on Christmas Eve).
As I sat on the couch, pondering why we liked this movie so much, my middle son turned to me and said, “It’s the I Ching.”
I almost dropped my popcorn. “Did you just quote ‘You’ve Got Mail’ to me?”
If I can get my sixteen year old to make an obscure reference to a chick flick, I must be doing something right.


Tea and Patience

In Japan, my official title was Import Manager, but more often than not I was called the Office Lady or the Office Flower (there for decoration alone, not having any substance). I worked at a small import/export company that bought interior decorations and architectural supplies from the U.S. and Europe and sold them to boutiques and restaurants in Japan. It was a great company to work for, and a wonderful experience for someone just out of college, but I definitely had a lot to learn about cultural differences. While my male co-workers could stroll in every day at the normal start time, the female employees of my company came in early. We had to clean the office, vacuum, and, most importantly, make tea.
In Japan tea is more than just a drink, just like rice is more than just a food. Both have religious and cultural significances that can easily be lost on foreigners. I quickly learned I knew nothing about tea or tea preparation. I tried, but soon noticed that every time it was my turn to prepare and serve it, everyone would ask for coffee instead. It became a standard joke in my office, and the harder I tried, the worse it became. After a lot of practice, and the patient tutelage of our accountant, Mrs. Ando, I was able produce something my co-workers would accept. Maybe they didn’t actually enjoy it, but at least they attempted to drink it.
The tea I made those mornings was a loose-leaf ocha, the standard Japanese green tea that is the staple of their tea drinking culture. I was already familiar with kocha, the black European style tea. Most of this was served the way I’d seen tea served in the U.S., seeped in cup using bags. Later I learned to appreciate mugicha, or wheat tea. I drank this while hiking in the mountains, between the villages of Tsumagu and Magume. Our meal there of cold noodles served in an icy broth was perfect on a hot summer day, and the pale brown mugicha was the ideal accompaniment. Each was a sort of acquired taste, something that my palette first rebelled at and later learned to enjoy. The final tea, however, was the most complex and interesting, the most difficult to make, and the most exotic. Macha.
Macha is made from a green powder and used in tea ceremony. I learned to sit in seiza for unbearably long periods of time, and follow the complicated and beautiful ritual that is Japanese tea ceremony. Rinsing the delicate cups with warm water, frothing the tea with a bamboo whisk, and serving it with a bow.
Macha became a bit of an obsession. I learned to love the bitter bite of the drink, especially if it was served with small sweets made of bean paste called omangu. I discovered other things made with macha, including ice cream, which was the perfect treat on a hot summer day in Japan. There was a delicate complexity to macha that intrigued me. Something I’d never experienced before or since.
I understood tea, but I was a failure at other aspects of Japanese culture, including ikebana. My teacher, Mrs. Hana (which, ironically enough, means “flower”) knew I tried to capture the beauty of traditional Japanese flower arranging, but I couldn’t.
“Wende-san,” she would say. “Everything you make looks like a bush. A shrub. Try to see the nature in the flowers. Try to make it less artificial. Try to make it….better.”
I couldn’t. I was the official bush maker of my ikebana class. Whenever Mrs. Hana would look at my work, she’d make a little clucking sound and fix it for me herself. I guess I should have expected it. The same thing happened with every single thing I tried to sew in my high school Home Economics class. I was dyslexic at reading patterns and seeing patterns, or maybe I was just clueless. I’m not sure which one.
I tried Japanese calligraphy, too. Once. My home stay dad came from a family of Buddhist monks. He was an artist, and one of his brothers invited me to his temple for a day so that I could learn some basic calligraphy. I think I gave him a migraine. I know I made a Buddhist monk lose his inner Zen, which was not an easy thing to do. Those dudes are known for their patience. He gave up after about an hour and suggested we drink tea instead. That was fine with me. It took me a week to get the ink stains off my fingers. I don’t think he ever offered to teach a foreigner how to do calligraphy again. He may have even taken a vow.
I met my Turkish husband while I lived in Japan. After three years, we moved to Istanbul, and there I discovered the wonders of Turkish tea. Grown on the shores of the Black Sea, this tea is made using two teapots. The smaller pot on top holds the tea. The bottom pot is hot water. This allows the tea to be served to individual taste, as dark or as light as desired, and in small, delicate glasses. The whole world knows about Turkish coffee, but it’s the tea that is the daily constant in their culture. A pot of tea always seems to be boiling in every house.
When I worked in Turkey, I did not have to come in early to make tea. Our company had a tea man, who brought tea around in a cart. Usually served with cubes of sugar, some people preferred to put the sugar between their teeth and sip the tea through the sugar. After several near death experiences trying to pick up the hot glasses, I learned to lift it by the very top and sip it slowly. Honestly, I gave up on drinking it at the temperature most Turks enjoy. I don’t really have the hand-eye coordination necessary for it. I let it cool (although I have heard my husband teasingly call me “uncivilized” under his breath for doing this). Being uncivilized seems better than having third degree burns on my tongue.
My husband did an internship in England many years ago, and during that time he acquired an adopted family, a lovely couple named Ken and Jean. We visited them in Yorkshire shortly after we were married, and it was the first time I craved sugar and milk in my tea. There is something about being in the green, cool, rolling hills of Yorkshire that demands sweet, hot tea for breakfast. My favorite memories of England seem to involve teashops. The tea was fabulous, but it may have been the other things that made it memorable, too. Scones served with jam and fresh cream. Toasted teacake. Biscuits (aka cookies) in every shape and size.
We drank tea in outdoor cafés in York, on the Royal Mile in Scotland, and in hillside shops in Whitby. Some of the buildings were ultra modern and new. Others were ancient, with uneven floors and oddly shaped stone walls. Each place was unique. Each was an experience.
When Ken and Jean came to visit us in the States, however, I tried to make them tea. I even bought their favorite Yorkshire Black tea and had it waiting for them when they arrived. They just smiled, shook their heads and said (ever so kindly), “Coffee, please.”


Boys Will Be Boys

Growing up, I always thought I’d have girls, little angels dressed in pink who quietly held tea parties and played with their dolls. This image was, of course, pure fantasy, but as some sort of cosmic joke, I was told, in two out of three pregnancies, that I was having a girl. Each time they were wrong. For the third, I told them not to bother trying to guess since there really was no point.
It worked out exactly as it should. I adore being the mother of three boys, but I had to learn some lessons along the way. I got used to buying blue, investing a small fortune in Thomas the Tank Engine, and understanding the rules of soccer (it took years for me to understand offsides, and I’m still not entirely sure I fully grasp the concept). Sometimes I see myself as a sort of cultural anthropologist, exploring the unknown world of the male psyche. Now that the boys are older (20, 16, and 13), bigger, and much hairier, there are still lessons to be learned.

  1. Pants are optional. Once the door to the outside world is closed, everyone in my house loses their pants and strolls around free and unfettered in boxers. I don’t wear boxers and don’t understand the joys of being pants-free, but if I did, panic and chaos would ensue. My boys shriek and cover their eyes if they catch me even for a second in my undies, so I have come to the conclusion that pants are mandatory for any and all female members of this household (aka me).
  2. The pants optional rule remains in effect even if visitors appear, but only if the visitors are close friends or family. I can tell how close a friend is by the reaction of my boxer-clad bunch. If it’s someone in their inner circle, no pants are required. They remain in their normal lounging position, which is something between a sit and a sprawl on the couch. If the visitor is not part of that group, however, they spring into action, covering with a blanket and sprinting up the stairs, like a herd of pants-less cockroaches.
  3. Second breakfasts aren’t just for Hobbits.People aren’t exaggerating when they say teenaged boys are hungry all the time. I recently had to explain to someone why we have dinner at the ungodly hour of 4:30 pm (on most days). It’s because my boys get home from school and their afternoon activities completely ravenous, and have a very narrow window of opportunity to eat before their evening activities begin. Don’t worry – they normally eat an additional meal at a time that even the most sophisticated Europeans would condone later in the evening. We can call this “supper” or simply “foraging in the pantry.” It involves a lot of standing, staring, and cries of “What do we have do eat?” and “I’m so hungry.”
  4. I know more about sports than I ever cared to know. My boys play soccer and tennis, so I am pretty knowledgeable about both those sports and enjoy watching them compete. I’m not terribly interested in sports in general. My cries of support during soccer games are usually along the lines of “Good job! Now tie your shoes.” I get a little startled when the other parents shout things out that sound awfully negative, and I’m often seen clapping even when the other team gets a goal. Tennis is a little easier since you aren’t really allowed to shout things out. My comments in tennis consist of the ever popular “Nice shot” and that is about it. My boys only play these two sports, but they seem to know everything about every sport. I don’t understand it. They know the players, the teams, the rankings – and I have absolutely no idea how they acquired this vast knowledge. Maybe having the “y” chromosome allows some sort of sports knowledge by osmosis thing to occur. It’s a mystery.
  5. They don’t understand how the laundry chute works. Yes, they get the complexities of rugby, even though they have never been to a single game, but they cannot understand that the hole behind the secret door in my bathroom leads directly to the pile of unwashed clothes in the laundry room. Instead they leave their clothing, like some sort of sacrificial offering to the laundry god, on the floor right next to the laundry chute. Why? It’s also a mystery.
  6. Speaking of laundry, it is a never-ending, full-time occupation. I just got a new washer and it changed my life. Honestly. I can wash like ten pairs of jeans at once now. In the last twenty years, I have learned a lot about laundry. I know how to remove grass stains (even from the brand new khakis that weren’t supposed to be worn for impromptu soccer games), how clean and dry cleats and shin guards without ruining them, and how to get chocolate, blood, or vomit out of anything. It’s also a chance for my to express my feminine side. They don’t really sell any manly scented fabric softeners, so I get the most floral, girly, lavender and vanilla scented stuff I can find just to mess with them.
  7. Scents, deodorants, and why I really should buy stock in Axe. Walk down any middle school hallway anywhere in the country, and soon you’ll get a little tickle in your nose and feel your eyes begin to sting. The aroma of Axe, that magnificent spray-on deodorant that has become a rite of passage for pre-pubescent boys. Breathe it in. Enjoy it. Accept it. I’ve tried holding my breath so I didn’t have to inhale it and just ended up getting lightheaded. Just embrace it and move on.
  8. Speaking of smells, boys have a lot of them. Some of these make them very, very proud. There are certain smells, produced by their own bodies, that bring them great joy, especially if the are accompanied by sounds. In a freak accident, I lost most of my sense of smell about ten years ago. I am oblivious to almost all of the odors they produce. I also can’t smell sweaty shin guards, old shoes, or nasty socks. It’s a blessing. Really.
  9. Balls. Lots of them. I’m constantly tripping over soccer balls, tennis balls, inflatable balls, and little rubber bouncy balls, but these aren’t the only kind of balls I’m talking about. Boys are obsessed with balls, especially their own. They love talking about them, scratching them, and sometimes just sticking their hands in their pants to reassure themselves that they are still there. I’ve observed this in adult males as well. Boys also love making jokes about balls and other parts of the male and female anatomy. Girls don’t seem to find this quite as amusing. There is nothing even remotely funny about a uterus.
  10. Which brings me to my final point. I’m so glad I have boys. Girls seem much more complicated. They have all sorts of feelings, and although boys are hormonal, girls take it to a whole new level. An annoying level. A scary level. My boys are basically always pretty nice to me. They have their moments, of course, but compared to some of the teenaged girls I’ve observed, they are a walk in the park. Another bonus, they aren’t interested in stealing my clothing. If anything, they are terrified that the unisex sweatshirt I offered to lend them might be (gasp) a “girl” shirt. They approach it with the same caution and wariness an Amazonian would a brightly colored snake in the jungle. Perhaps poking it with a stick a few times to make sure it won’t bite. My husband’s clothing, on the other hand, is open game – especially his socks. In a valiant effort to protect the last few pairs of sports socks he possessed that weren’t grass stained and pair-less, he hid an entire stash in his closet. The boys sniffed them out in minutes. Nothing is sacred.
    There are so many things I haven’t mentioned. Their sudden hairiness. The way they can break furniture just by sitting on it. The wrestling. The noise. The endless episodes of South Park. They might seem like a pack of St. Bernard puppies at the moment, but they are growing into interesting, amazing, and caring men. I’m just glad I got to go along for the ride.

Ten Titles for Christmas – From Our Family Bookshelf

When my boys were small, this was the time of year we curled up on the couch and read Christmas books together next to the fire. It brings back memories of warm little wiggly bodies encased in footie pajamas vying for a spot on my lap, smelling of soap from the bath and hot cocoa. We read together all year of course, but there was something magical about those books, the sparkling lights of the tree, and the anticipation in the days leading up to the holidays.
I miss those days, so I thought I’d share a list of some of the favorites on our shelves. Yes, they are still on our shelves even though my oldest is now in college, my middle son is a junior in high school, and my baby is in eighth grade and far too cool for this sort of thing. I keep them because I can’t bear to part with them. They are too precious, and the memories I have of them too dear. Get them for your own children. Buy them as gifts for others. Share the love and make some memories of your own.

  1. AUNTIE CLAUS (Elise Primavera) – Sophie has a lot of questions about her sophisticated aunt and why she goes away on business trips every year at Christmas time. Is she just another eccentric New Yorker, or is she something else altogether? This is a gorgeous book with beautiful illustrations and a great story.
  2. OLIVE THE OTHER REINDEER (Vivian Walsh) – Olive is a sweet little dog who hears the verse in the Rudolph song “all of the other reindeer” and thinks the song is about her. She rushes to the North Pole to help Santa, and ends up saving Christmas.
  3. HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (Dr. Seuss) – Come on. It’s a classic. If you don’t have it on your shelf, you need to buy it. I guarantee your heart will grow three sizes that day.
  4. BEAR STAYS UP FOR CHRISTMAS (Karma Wilson/Jane Chapman) – A sweet book about a sleepy bear who needs to hibernate, but wants to spend Christmas with his woodland friends. Beautiful story and illustrations.
  5. THE LAST STRAW (Fredrick Thury/Vlasta Van Kampen) – I’m really sorry to say this book is not available on Amazon, but I’ll share the link below in case you can find it at a library. It’s an incredible book, and the toy camel that we bought to accompany it is also adorable. This is a family favorite, and I hope it goes back into print again soon.
  6. SNOWMEN AT CHRISTMAS (Caralyn Buehner) – All of the Snowmen books by Caralyn Buehner are fantastic, but this one is really special. Besides a wonderful story, there are hidden pictures on each and every page. Absolutely glorious.
  7. THE POLAR EXPRESS (Chris Allsburg) – Another classic about a train that takes children to meet Santa at the North Pole. Every year we tried to replicate the hot chocolate the children drank on the train, but never really succeeded.
  8. THE SNOWMAN (Raymond Briggs) – And yet another classic! This book is so gorgeous and wonderful, and we really enjoyed the film as well. There are no words in the movie – just the beautiful illustrations from the book and incredible music.
  9. THE MITTEN (Jan Brett) – What my children loved about this book, besides the absolutely intricate and perfect illustrations and great story, was the fact that there is a hint on each page about what is to come on the next page. Wonderful!
  10. THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS (Robert Sabuda) – Who doesn’t love a pop up book? And this one is amazing. I still like to flip through it now. We have several of Robert Sabuda’s books, and they never ever disappoint.
    These are just ten of our favorites, but there are many, many more out there. I’m curious about the new books coming out this year. I may have to go to the book store, pull up one of those little chairs in the children’s section, and get lost in a few of them. Maybe I can even convince one of my big, far-too-cool-for-picture-books teenagers to come with me. Now that would be a memory!

To Post or Not To Post…..

A very wise woman once told me never to talk about politics, religion, sex, or money at a cocktail party unless you like an argument or want to go home with a drunk.
The internet is like a great, big cocktail party, except we’re all usually in our pajamas and don’t often see the repercussions from our words, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If you are a writer, or a public person, you need to heed these words. It’s for your own good. Honestly.
Things you might not want to talk about online:

  1. Politics.I completely understand being passionate about the subject, but choosing one side means isolating the other. If you are a writer, you don’t want to alienate half of you audience.
  2. Religion.You’ll never know who you’ll offend with this one so just don’t go there. Yes, I would love to hear about your experiences as a Wiccan high priestess, but some of your readers might not. They may try to convert you to their religion or even (egads) stop reading your books. As I said already, don’t go there.
  3. Sex.There is definitely such a thing as TMI, and there is also such a thing as too many racy photos. Moderation is the key. There is a difference between a sexy post and a trashy post – and one person’s sexy is another person’s trashy. Be careful.
  4. Money.No one ever asked me how much I made until I became a writer. Since then, I’ve had several people bring it up. Directly. It’s very strange. Don’t talk about money in your posts. Don’t brag about how much you’ve made or whine about how poor you are. No one wants to hear it.
  5. My perfect life. Everyone is happy you are happy, but no one has a perfect life. There is a fine line between sharing good news (with a proper dose of humor and modesty) and bragging. Make sure you don’t cross that line.
  6. Kids. This is a tough one for me. My in-laws and many of my friends live overseas and I share lots of info (sometimes too much info) about my children because I want them to feel more connected to our lives. Not everyone online is a doting grandmother or a loving uncle, though. Sharing too much might not only be boring, it can also be dangerous. And never EVER share anything that could be potentially embarrassing to your child. Some of my writer friends use code names for their children to avoid using their real names on line. I often call mine the extremely original “oldest son, middle son, and youngest son.” Do what works for you.
  7. Negative Stuff. In general, keep it positive. If you are negative, make it funny. Don’t say mean things about people. Don’t post about your misery. It’s just as annoying as posting about your perfect life. I’ve read posts that sounded like a cry for help, and others that were just sad. And needy. Don’t pretend to be happy if you aren’t, but don’t air your dirty laundry in front of strangers. There are people out there who don’t have your best interests at heart. If you are in pain, call a friend. Don’t send it out into the void.
  8. Your books. This might seem counterproductive, but talk about something besides your books online. My super agent, Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency, said to follow the one-third rule. Talk about your books one third of the time. Talk about (and promote) other books one third of the time. Use the remaining one third of the time to talk about something else. If you talk about nothing but your books and your writing all of the time, you will lose readers. And friends.
  9. Gross stuff. I’m really sorry about the gaping wound on your foot, but do I want to see it? No. Please – NO.
  10. Share your passions and be yourself.This may seem like the opposite of what I advised above, but it’s important to talk about what you enjoy. I love coffee, books, and wine (not always in that order), and I post about those things often. Very often. Maybe too often. But it makes my readers feel a connection to me, because they know my enthusiasm is genuine. Be real. Be passionate. But don’t be annoying.
    No matter how hard you try, or how diplomatic, kind, and light-hearted you might be, you will insult someone eventually. When it happens, apologize and move on. Don’t respond to negative posts. Ignore them or delete them. If you jump into the mud, you’ll get dirty, too. And getting clean again in a public forum is a difficult thing to do.

Mindful Writers

I joined the Mindful Writers group completely by accident. My friend (who shall remain nameless and blameless) told me she’d signed up, and let me know there were only a few slots left. Edged on by the possibility of seeing my friend every week, as well as by the thought of breakfast (the meetings are held at Eat ‘n Park), I thought, “Why not? It might be fun.” It ended up being so much more than fun.
I had no idea what to expect, and was shocked by how long the meetings lasted. They were held every single week from 9:30-2:30. Five solid hours. I wondered what on Earth we could be doing for five long excruciating hours at Eat ‘n Park. That basically covered breakfast, lunch, and nearly hit dinner. I thought it was odd, but decided to try it anyway.
Our instructor is a fellow Pennwriter name Madhu Wangu, and I liked her as soon as I met her. When I first heard her name, I thought she was a Jedi, but my children soon corrected me. Mace Windu is the Jedi. Madhu Wangu is an author and a professor with a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh and a post-doctoral Fellowship from Harvard. She could be a Jedi. She’s actually cooler than Mace Windu.
We started the meeting with a prompt. I worked away diligently, hoping that this wasn’t the sort of thing I would eventually have to share with the strangers sitting around me at the table. The group assembled was a real mix. There were some familiar faces from Pennwriters, but there were some people I’d never seen before. There were a few men, but it was mostly a girls’ club. I tried to relax and just write.
After a few minutes, Madhu told us that it was time for a guided meditation. We listening to a recording of Madhu’s soothing, soft voice as she led us through breathing and relaxation exercises. I’d done meditation and yoga before, so I was very comfortable with it, but I liked that this particular method was geared towards writers.
When we the meditation was over, we opened our eyes, and Madhu told us to go back to the prompt we’d been given previously and try to write on that again. What happened was sort of miraculous. What had been a series of random, meandering thoughts, now was something completely and utterly different. I wrote sentences, more like bullet points, that were clear and precise and organized. It was like my mind had been decluttered. Everything was suddenly so easy.
As soon as the prompt writing was over, Madhu announced that we could begin to free write for the next four hours. My friend, the one who’d told me about the group, had a look of absolute panic in her eyes. “Four hours,” she whispered. “I don’t know what to write. What am I going to write?”
I had to work on an edit, and wondered if that would be appropriate in Mindful Writers. I decided there was no right or wrong. It was what I needed to do, so I did it, and the experience was amazing. I wrote for those four hours. Madhu almost had to kick me out of Eat ‘n Park. I was able to do exactly what I’d hoped to do, and it had actually been quite easy and enjoyable.
The fun didn’t stop there. After Mindful Writers, I had to go to my son’s soccer game. Then I made a huge dinner for my family. After dinner, I decided it would be a good time to cut the grass. I thought I’d be exhausted after writing all day, but I was actually energized.
This might now work for everyone, but I’m really happy about how it’s turned out for me. I’m still a newbie. I’ve only gone three times, but I look forward to each meeting and I don’t want to miss. I think there are several reasons this works so well. First of all, the meditation really does clear my mind and help me to focus. Secondly, there is a positive energy that is produced when you’re sitting in a room full of people working towards a creative goal. I guess it’s also like the difference between doing yoga at home versus doing yoga in a class. When you do yoga at home, you are still stretching and strengthening your body, but being in a class adds an extra element to it. Thirdly, other than a delicious breakfast, there are no distractions at Eat ‘n Park. We’re in a conference room, which is fairly quiet, and there are none of the distractions that exist when I write at home. The laundry. The dishes. The errands. I can’t do any of those things while I’m at Mindful Writers, so they are simply gone from my mind.
If you are interested in trying out Mindful Writers at home, Madhu does have CDs and audio downloads available.