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Snow Blows

“I remember well that January day back in 1987…”

The forecast was for a light dusting. At the most, three inches of the fluffy white stuff would fall. Like any sensible Northeasterner who had been transplanted to our nation’s capital, I listened intently as the monotone little man inside my radio told how this winter event, innocuous as it first appeared, would likely affect the metro area.

Even as a relatively inexperienced driver fresh out of college, I knew what to expect—or at least I thought I did. Having been raised in the rural hills of North Central Pennsylvania, I had spent the better part of an eon watching my parents navigate treacherous roadways and had logged bazillions of hours at the helm myself—spinning and skidding all over that infamous learning curve (i.e. it wasn’t pretty, but I managed). Who knew the D.C. area would be my proving ground less than a decade later.

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Barely a flake was in sight as I made my usual trek to work that morning; however, the crazies were out in earnest (i.e. those adversely affected by the so-called Snow Craze). Just about everyone I encountered had that characteristic white-knuckle-death-grip-hunched-over-the-steering-wheel look I knew so well. Faces were ashen and strained as if bracing for the worst. Same story, different chapter in the elevator. Anxiety hung in the air, thick and unyielding. Urbanites clad in high heels and snappy suits were in a virtual panic over the forecast, clutching their beloved briefcases and cappuccinos as if they promised protection from impending doom. Paranoia had officially arrived, never mind the actual storm.

“How LUDICROUS,” I thought. “Snow is falling, not the fucking sky.”

Upon reaching my floor and department, I went about my normal morning routine which included organizing my memo-littered cubicle, gazing out the wall of windows at the tiny speck-like people below, skimming through the USA Today and downing an ice-cold Pepsi—my less-than-nutritious, caffeine vice. Who knew it would serve as my entire caloric intake for the day?

Not long after I had settled in, a voice bellowed from our office intercom, “DUE TO INCLEMENT WEATHER, ALL EMPLOYEES ARE HEREBY ADVISED TO LEAVE THE COMPLEX IMMEDIATELY. ALL FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OFFICES HAVE BEEN DISMISSED. DELAYS MAY BE EXPECTED.” It was as if someone had announced a two-for-one wrap special in the deli. People delirious with panic bolted for the doors, still clutching those precious briefcases and clicking those three-inch heels. Naturally, I joined the mass exodus—sans Stilettos.

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Humongous flakes, the ones my kids revel in catching on their tongues and eyelashes, were falling hard and heavy now at the rate of several inches an hour. By the time I hiked to my car, everything was completely shrouded in white. Roads were beyond slick and fast approaching perilous. Just getting onto the highway was an adventure in and of itself. Droves of frenzied people, no doubt anxious to leave the city, careened through the streets as if tuned to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. Never before had I witnessed such pandemonium—not even during a blizzard back home. All because of a simple, little four-letter word—snow.

Great multitudes of vehicles were lined up bumper to bumper, snaking westward like a giant convoy of snails. The complex maze of roadways leading into and out of the capital had morphed hideously—into a tangled, slippery mess choked to the extreme with cars and trucks. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to escape the lunacy—not only instantaneously, but simultaneously—which was a recipe for disaster.

Ironically, an hour later I could still eyeball the building where I worked in my rearview mirror. So much for the mad dash to avoid the crowds. And so much for listening to that stupid little man in my radio. Blasted liar. Those measly three inches he estimated wound up being a foot. Worse yet, a second storm pounded the region just two days later, bringing the monstrous total to 20+ inches. It may as well have been 10 feet. No one appeared to know what to do with it or how to drive in it.

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As I inched along Route 50, snow crunched beneath my wheels and silently blanketed my windshield. I felt like a prisoner in my own mobile igloo—barely mobile, I might add. Every half hour or so, I was forced to get out and brush away the growing heaps that my wipers couldn’t reach on a bet. From there I gazed at an endless procession of cars hopelessly immersed within a sea of snow and decided there was but one befitting word to describe the ordeal: PATHETIC. Better yet, four befitting words: UTTERLY AND INCOMPREHENSIBLY PATHETIC.

Periodically everyone was standing outside, smack dab in the middle of the highway (which was more like the suggestion of a highway, really), sweeping piles upon piles of snow from atop their cars and off their windows. I felt like part of an enormous pit crew. We were family in a sense—in it together for the long haul. A unified bunch of derelicts with a common goal—getting home. No gallery was present, however, to cheer us on to the checkered flag; but plenty of those in attendance chipped in by filling the air with colorful language galore. As if cursing at the stormy skies or at each other would improve the situation.

Creative driving was in full force as well. People attempted to circumvent traffic snarls by using ENTRANCE ramps to EXIT the highway. Not surprisingly, most of those particular idiots got buried half-way up or down the ramps, which infuriated all the other drivers who had followed.

Stupid pills had apparently been the drug of choice that day.

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Ridiculous as it might sound, the scene itself was almost circus-like. The only thing missing: A ringmaster. Nervous Nellies and Neds putzed along at a painfully slow rate—and got stuck. Fools raced around like a bunch of deranged squirrels at an acorn festival—and got stuck. Tank commanders, who believed their 4×4 wonder machines could orbit the earth—also, got stuck. Competency, it seemed, was nowhere to be found. Common sense had unfortunately taken a hike as well.

Soon massive piles of snow clogged the roadway and the shoulder vanished completely. Route 50 became a narrow channel through which we were herded westward like cattle bound for the slaughterhouse. No one could enter. And no one could leave. Our only alternative: To continue rolling ahead millimeter by millimeter, hour after hour like the mindless drones that we truly epitomized. Gas stations, shopping plazas and convenience stores lined the route, but sadly, were out of reach. They served merely to taunt us with their warmth and coziness, hot coffee and clean restrooms. Never mind THOSE amenities. I wanted a one-way ticket to the Bahamas.

Or snowshoes, size nine.

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Abandoned cars cropped up left and right—planted like trees in the center of the lane. Cautiously, I made my way around them and peered inside the fogged over windows as if passing the deceased at a wake (saddened and stunned by the loss, but at the same time, thrilled that it wasn’t me). Perhaps those who had vacated were in search of snowshoe bargains nearby or for those tickets to the Bahamas. Both possibilities were entirely viable.

Apparently, people had been running out of gas and couldn’t pull over to fill up. So they just got out and walked away from it all, leaving behind their beloved yuppiemobiles. Damned quitters. I sat behind one such snow-covered vehicle for 15 minutes before deciding that maybe I should check inside it. Nobody home. Naturally, I felt like a blithering idiot as I stared at the empty seat, but quickly reminded myself that I still had plenty of fuel and front-wheel drive. What’s more, I had snow boots. Probably could have sold them for a grand that day. Maybe two.

By now our marathon driving session had stretched to several hours. Tempers had begun to flare, patience had all but disappeared and everyone’s bladder (including mine) had surpassed its natural limit. But what to do? Each of us could certainly employ a few anger management techniques picked up here or there and we could all try being a little more patient or perhaps even search for the hilarity in the whole wretched experience. But there was no arguing with urinary urgency.

I only wished I had skipped my morning Pepsi—just this once.

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Longingly, I gazed at the multitude of gas station restrooms I passed by, even the ones with less-than-desirable facilities. I wouldn’t have cared if mold were growing on the toilet seat and a BEWARE OF DOG sign hung on the doorknob. I needed to go. The dog would just have to fend for itself.

Eventually, I had to act. I was desperate, and desperate times often call for less-than-intelligent measures. So I threw my car into park, turned off the engine, got out and began trudging through the knee-deep snow toward what appeared to be a church. Of course, my bold move failed to go unnoticed. People angrily honked their horns, yelled out their windows and shook their fists at me, demanding that I get back in and “Drive, stupid!” I decided it would have been pointless to try and explain my dilemma to this very long line of irate folks. So with my face buried deep inside my coat and my teeth beyond the buoyancy stage, I plodded on toward the refuge I hoped would welcome me, ignoring the adamant requests that trailed behind me.

After circling the entire building and testing each and every door to no avail, I mulled over the alternatives. I could circle again and continue to bang on the doors, trusting that someone would eventually hear me. I could wade through the toe-numbing snow to another deserted building and try my luck there. Or I could return to my car—defeated. None of these options promised immediate relief.

Cautiously, I eyed some rather large shrubbery that framed an entranceway at the back of the church and thought, “Hey, what do I have to lose?” No one from the road would be able to see, the houses behind the building were fairly distant and not one solitary soul was in sight. Clearly, the benefits outweighed the costs and the risk of being caught was minimal—unless, of course, the Fairfax County police were busy citing people for yellowing the snow that afternoon. I banked on that being highly unlikely.

So I went about my business, safely tucked between the building’s brick wall and an enormous, shoulder-high hedge that was buried under nearly a foot of snow. Beneath it, however, not one flake had fallen. It was the most perfect makeshift outhouse I had ever seen. Then my glorious plan fell apart at the seams. Apparently my persistent knocking and rattling had paid off. Someone had heard me. And that someone was now less than three feet away. I listened intently as keys jangled together, a metal padlock snapped open and heavy chains slipped through the door handles, cascading to the floor in a thunderous heap.

Shortly thereafter, the door swung open and my heart sank. Surely, I’d die of embarrassment if not hypothermia. I didn’t dare move a muscle and could scarcely breathe. I prayed and prayed that whoever was standing there would simply go away, never having noticed me—or my pants, bunched at my ankles. The seconds that passed before he spoke seemed like an eternity, but I just couldn’t bear to turn around and face him—it was too humiliating.

Finally, I heard a deep voice, “Oh.” And it wasn’t the, “Oh!” of surprise (although I’m sure he was); it was more the “Oh, now I get it.” He may as well have said, “I got here as fast as I could ma’am, but I see you done solved it yerself. I’ll just mosey on back to work, then.” Sight unseen, he could have passed for James Earl Jones with a southern drawl. I wanted to disappear into a snow bank somewhere or crawl under a rock and die.

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At last, “James Earl” did go away. The heavy door clanged shut and I heard him walk down the hallway that I had been longing to enter just moments before. Now was my chance to gather my wits, regain my composure and escape with the mere shreds of dignity that remained.

Despite the mounding snow, the hike back to my car was remarkably short. No doubt, I was eager to put the past behind me. Besides, there was no sense lingering to hear peals of laughter echo throughout the church. I had suffered enough humiliation already.

As I neared my car (which amazingly enough, no one had smashed out of spite), I noticed that the irate folks who demanded I stay had been replaced by other irate folks. Joy. I had no time to be bothered by that, however. The sun had begun to set and soon it would be dark—making a bad situation worse. At this point, I was about six hours into the commute from hell—tired, cold and hungry—just like everyone else that day. My 20-mile jaunt had mutated into something utterly hideous—something virtually unimaginable—an urban Iditarod for the soon-to-be certifiable. “Next time,” I vowed, “I’ll sleep in my sillyass cubicle and eat computer chips before I’ll subject myself to this lunacy!”

For the life of me, I simply couldn’t comprehend the crippling nature of this storm. Never before had I remembered a foot of snow wreaking such havoc. Then it dawned on me; I had yet to see a single solitary snowplow. Not even so much as a cinder or salt truck had appeared since I had begun driving that morning—at least none that I had seen. What in God’s name had they been doing—waiting for a formal invitation?!

Snowplows or not, however, I persevered. So into my car I clambered one last time, hopeful that the plows had somehow managed to find the parking lot of my apartment complex—so I could end this nightmare. After plodding along for another hour or so, I did, in fact, reach my long-awaited destination. Surprisingly enough, those plows had been there and without question, I could have kissed one of the drivers (had I seen one). Instead, I settled for kissing the snow-covered earth beneath my feet—no longer a slave to my vehicle, my home-away-from-home, for what seemed an eternity.

Undeniably, I had learned plenty that day—particularly, about assumptions. Never again would I bank on what that monotone little man inside my radio prattles on about with regard to weather. Nor would I assume that each and every driver on the planet possesses a modicum of common sense or a reasonable degree of competency behind the wheel. Furthermore, I now realize there is at least one more reason not to drink and drive.

Copyright 2007 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Daily Chaos, Rantings & Ravings

You Can’t Take it with You

I love idioms—especially when kids interpret them in the most literal sense imaginable. Needless to say, I am thoroughly (and often shamelessly) entertained by the manner in which my children assign meaning to this or that age-old expression. So as a matter of course, I inject said blurbages into as many conversations as humanly possible. Case in point, not long ago I asked one of my nine-year-old charges to take a stab at the intended meaning of the phrase, “You can’t take it with you.” Of course, having recently experienced the insanity that is airport security she summed it up thusly: “It’s like this, Mom. If you have an elephant and you want to get on an airplane…someone’s definitely going to say, ‘You can’t take it with you.’” She then added with her patented macabre flair, “Or, if your head falls off and rolls away, you can’t take it with you.”

Feeling at once amused and defeated as the Explainer-of-All-Things-Inexplicable, I tried to remember that the smallish beings in question can be painfully loyal to words. But like a fool, I broached the subject yet again, attempting to make clear the muddied waters. “No, no, no. It means that we should enjoy life, enjoy what we have and stop worrying about not having enough money, because when we die, we can’t take it with us anyway. It’s like spending the whole day at the beach, building the most amazing sandcastle you’ve ever imagined—digging moats, carving tunnels and gathering all sorts of twigs and shells and clumps of seaweed to make it really special. And it’s terrific fun—this sandcastle-y stuff. Then it’s time to go and we have to leave it there, knowing that the tide will later wash it into the sea no matter how much we love it.”

For my efforts, I received nothing but a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulders—as if I had tried to simplify for her the theory of relativity. Apparently, the merit of idioms having any sort of “deeper meaning” was completely lost on her. So I gave up, resigning myself to the notion that some things are impossible to convey to those gleefully immersed in a world of literalness.

But it got me thinking—about the basic premise of the idiom itself. Money, power and worldly possessions will be of no use in Heaven. In a lot of circles, that’s pretty much a given. And aside from the obvious longing to “take with me” the people and pets I have loved in my lifetime, I really shouldn’t concern myself with other wants or desires. But I find such a concept wholly inconceivable. Intolerable almost. Quite frankly, there is stuff (for lack of a better term) that I can’t imagine leaving behind.

Like my refrigerator. Not its contents so much, but its surface—the one that is entirely blanketed with favorite photos, prized artwork and treasured keepsakes that chronicle our life together as a family. Seemingly every square inch represents a tiny window through which an unforgettable slice of time can be viewed. For all intents and purposes, it is a giant mosaic that depicts in glorious detail all that is meaningful and memorable to me—serving as a daily reminder that life has been good. I have trouble envisioning being separated from such a wondrous thing.

Nor am I fond of the idea of parting with my iPod. Or my beloved camera. Or my inordinately addictive cell phone—not that I anticipate feeling the need to call or text anyone, but because I’m quite certain I will long to listen to the voicemail messages contained within. Like the pictures, they are moments frozen in time, a bundle of words that carry special meaning for me.

Equally precious is my work space—not because of the vast array of self-absorbed writings stored on any computer there or the siren song of the Blogosphere, but because of the sea of photos, the abundance of heartfelt notes and the ever-expanding mass of rocks and drawings my kids have insisted I display in the vicinity of said device “…to help you remember me while you work, Mom.” Without question, I can’t bear the thought of parting with the stash of handcrafted “Hug Tickets” one of my progenies recently bestowed upon me either. Besides, the words “Usable at Any Time or Place” are inscribed therein—so why not Heaven, I ask.

And what about sandals? And delicious books? And pockets to put things in? You never know when you might need a dog treat or a place to store pretty pebbles. Heaven ought to allow such necessities to pass over the transom. Further, I cannot fathom leaving behind my wealth of childhood memories—or the ones I’ve harvested since becoming a wife and mother. Indeed, it would be a cruel twist of fate not to be able to instantly recall the way my children’s eyelashes curl while they sleep and the soft, warm kisses only the man I love can deliver.

And there had better be snowflakes in that place of eternal rest. And raindrops and sunshine and moonbeams and birds—great flocks of them that move as one, dipping and diving together, a massive collection of tiny, black specks that dot the skies in the distance and make great whooshing sounds as they pass directly overhead. Mark my words; I’m coming back if the aforementioned “stuff” isn’t there and I’ll be putting a note in God’s Suggestion Box, ever the discontented disciple.

Idiom or no idiom, I want to take it with me.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (still chortling over my friend Trish’s twist on the ever-popular idiom: “We drop the ball in this household so often…it’s a Frisbee.”)

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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An Affair to Remember: A Passion for All-Things-Digital

Makeshift Cell Phone (w/ Texting Keypad and Pics of Endearing Pets)

Checkout lines depress me lately. Not only because a goodly share of today’s merchandise seems exorbitantly priced and fairly superficial, but because I’m hard pressed to remember the last time someone actually counted back my measly change—placing the bills and proper coinage into my ungrateful little hands in a piecemeal fashion. Which is sort of pathetic. It seems that clerks can punch keys and bag wares with great fervor and efficiency (some with the suggestion of a smile even), but when it comes to making change in the aforementioned manner (which would imply both humanness and intellect), many are sorely lacking. Instead, they routinely shove a wad of cash in my direction, eager to inspire my swift departure, completely insensitive to my need for order and convention.

Perhaps I would do well to step outside myself, though—to view the matter from a cashier’s perspective. I mean, why bother learning the menial task when a machine can spit out the correct sum instantaneously? To make throwbacks like me happy. That’s why. I happen to like the notion of reliance on someone’s mind as opposed to someone’s software. Call me crazy.

That said, I fear we’re creating a generation of individuals who can neither think nor do for themselves. Despite the best of intentions, technology appears to be making us both deplorably unimaginative and woefully dependent. Indeed, it seems odd that the best and brightest of our time—the independent thinkers who can be credited with some of the most awe-inspiring inventions designed to improve life—have enabled society to slide, perhaps unwittingly, into the abyss of perpetual neediness. How ironic.

Heaven forbid we attempt to function without our beloved gadgetry—the stuff we’ve allowed to seep into our pores like a drug, rendering us wholly incapable of resisting its allure. Our Smart Phones and Google TV. Our eReaders and Internet Tablets. Our iPods and iPads. Digital this and digital that. And let us not forget our dear TomToms and Garmins, the insanely addictive devices designed to guide us to the familiar and to the frighteningly obscure, because, of course, no one can read an effing map anymore. Gone are the days of marking desired routes with a big, yellow highlighter and tallying mileage to derive ETA’s—which, oddly enough, always left me with a gratifying sense of accomplishment. That’s code for: I was able to adequately address the infamous “Are we there yet?” queries by handing my brood said marked-up map and suggesting they put their heads together and figure it out.

Makeshift Cell Phone (Flip Style w/ Fancy Flower)

By the same token, it would appear that kids are no longer able to entertain themselves (given the techno-laden wish lists to which I’ve been privy, and the vast amount of time my heathens spend on PhotoBooth). In any event, the message being delivered to our impressionable youth via the media is slightly disturbing: BE VERY AFRAID OF BOREDOM. ELECTRONIC DEVICES PROMISE A NEVERENDING STREAM OF AMUSEMENT AND COMPANIONSHIP. Thank you very little, Nintendo, XBox and Wii. My children now think it’s uncool to play with Barbies, to climb trees and to devour books. What’s more, they’re fairly enraged because I won’t let them have cell phones. Gasp! So they crafted their own. Complete with penciled-on keypads and cameras. Oy.

Moreover, I’m troubled by this new age of texts and tweets—the one in which pithiness is not only embraced, but celebrated. I worry about future generations and their collective ability to compose thoughts—never mind complete sentences and properly spelled words. Quite frankly, the whole “short message system” makes a mockery of self-expression. It urges us to cut corners, to mutilate words, to discount grammar, to stop short of saying what needs to be said, TO THINK IN 160 CHARACTER BURSTS—which is wrong on so many levels I can’t begin to express my displeasure. Granted, I’m hopelessly addicted to both texts and tweets, however I have standards and an abiding allegiance to the written word. Translation: My tweets are long and rambling and my texts are veritable tomes that make the geeks at Verizon cringe.

Call me a rebel.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Rantings & Ravings, Techno Tripe

A Decade of Enlightenment: Ten Things Parenthood Has Taught Me

I’ve been a parent for some 8,286 days. A stunningly imperfect parent, I hasten to add. During that period of time I learned more about sleep deprivation, sibling rivalry and teen angst than I previously considered humanly possible. However, the past decade has proven to be particularly edifying. Indeed, Thing One and Thing Two have provided me with a veritable feast of enlightenment. So, in the spirit of welcoming the new decade and the vat of enlightenment sure to come, I thought it might be fitting to recap what the last 10 years have taught me—at least from the perspective of a stunningly imperfect parent.

1)    Beauty is likely in the kitchen. Translation: Most of the masterpieces I’ve collected thus far in my parenting journey are proudly displayed upon my refrigerator, where I suspect they will remain for a very long time to come. That is not to say the face of the fridge is the only canvas upon which said prized artwork hangs in all its faded glory. My home is quite literally inundated with the fledgling, Picasso-esque efforts of my brood, serving as a constant reminder of their boundless generosity and artsy flair. As it should be, I suppose.

2)    The word “sleepover” is a misnomer. No one actually sleeps at a sleepover—including the pitiable adults charged with the impossible duty of entertaining the gaggle of impressionable youths in attendance. Furthermore, the later slumber party-goers appear to crash, the earlier they will rise, demanding bacon and eggs. Moreover, it is inevitable that someone’s personal effects (i.e. an unclaimed pair of underpants, a lone sweat sock, an irreplaceable stuffed animal) will be tragically lost—only to show up months later in the oddest of places.

3)    When taken out of context, that-which-parents-say-and-do is often appalling. Case in point: “Stop licking the dog.” “If you’re going to ride your scooter in the house, wear a damn helmet.” “Fight nice.” In a similar vein, I’ve fed my charges dinner and dessert in a bathtub more times than I’d care to admit, I’ve used a shameful quantity of saliva to clean smudges off faces, I’ve suggested a broad range of inappropriate responses to being bullied and I consider the unabashed bribe to be one of my most effective parenting tools.

4)    A captive audience is the very best sort of audience. That said, some of the most enlightening conversations between parent and child occur when the likelihood of escape is at a minimum (i.e. at the dinner table, in a church pew, en route to the umpteenth sporting event/practice session/music lesson, within the confines of the ever-popular ER).

5)    On average, we parents spend an ungodly amount of time reading aloud books that we find unbearably tedious. We say unforgivably vile things about the so-called “new math” and, as a matter of course, we become unhinged by science projects and

whatnot—especially those that require mad dashes to the basement and/or the craft store at all hours of the day and night in search of more paint, more modeling clay and perhaps a small team of marriage counselors.

6)    Forget wedding day jitters, the parent/teacher conference is among the most stressful experiences in life—not to be confused with the anxiety-infused telephone call from the school nurse and that interminable lapse of time wedged between not knowing what’s wrong with one’s child and finding out.

7)    Of all the creatures in the animal kingdom, the child-with-a-camera is undoubtedly the most fearsome—although the child-with-webcam-knowledge is equally clever and decidedly terrifying as well. More specifically, the aforementioned entities possess an uncanny knack for digitally preserving our less-than-flattering moments. Joy. What’s more, they have a certain weakness for documenting freakishly large or (gasp!) green-hued poo, which I’m told is bizarrely linked to the consumption of blue Slushies. Color me enlightened, yet again.

8)    Kids are hard-wired to harvest every syllable of that-which-their-parents-shouldn’t-have-said so that they might liberally share those choice phrases in the most humiliating venue and manner imaginable (i.e. during show-and-tell, at Sunday school, in a crowded elevator, while sitting upon Santa’s lap, at the precise moment the guests arrive).

9)    The discovery of a teensy-tiny wad of paper—one that has been painstakingly folded and carefully tucked within a pocket, wedged beneath a pillow or hidden inside a dresser drawer—is akin to being granted psychic powers. Everything a parent needs to know about their child will likely be scrawled upon said scrap of paper.

10) Unanswerable questions never die—they simply migrate to more fertile regions of our homes where they mutate into hideous manifestations of their original forms, leaving us wringing our hands and damning our inadequate selves.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (getting schooled as we speak).

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under The Natives are Decidedly Restless, We Put the Fun in Dysfunction