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Big Brother

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I have a confession to make. I stalk my children. I stalk my husband, too. I don’t know why I do it, actually. It’s a sickness, I guess—an unhealthy obsession with knowing exactly where my loved ones are at practically every moment of every day. Thanks to the fine people at Apple and my friend, Drew, some time ago I downloaded the Find My Friends app on my iPhone and immediately began tracking the whereabouts of the aforementioned people.

The trouble is, they’re not particularly fond of it. Translation: They despise it.

“Mom, quit stalking us. It’s creepy.”

Creepy or not, however, apparently I get some peace of mind out of knowing what my kids are up to 24/7. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. The same goes for my husband, except that it’s more about convenience to know where he is at a given time. That way, for instance, I can “see” tmarthat he’s in the grocery store and know that it makes perfect sense to call him and tell him that we’re out of Cheetos. I don’t like to be out of Cheetos, ergo I feel compelled to inform him of such a dire situation.

The conversation goes something like this:

Me: “What aisle are you in? We need Cheetos.”

My husband: “What? How’d you know I’m in a store? Oh, that’s right; you have that blasted thing on your phone and you’re watching me like Big Brother. Remind me to SHUT IT OFF so you can’t monitor my every move.”

Me: “Wait. What? No. I like being able to see where you are, then I can call and give you helpful information that you might need—like the fact that WE’RE OUT OF CHEETOS. How would you know otherwise? You’re welcome.”

The conversations we have while he’s in the liquor store are strikingly similar except that they usually involve a dwindling supply of wine.

At any rate, I find the app to be remarkable in that I can even tell in which part of a particular building my kids happen to be situated at any given moment. Rest assured, if they’re supposed to be in chemistry class and they’re in chemistry class, my heart is happy.

Me: “So I noticed you went to Denny’s during the break between finals today. Was it fun? What did you order?”

Child: “Mom, that absolutely weirds me out. Why do you do that? It’s just not normal.”

Me: “I don’t know. I guess I like to see what you’re doing throughout your day and it gives me more stuff to talk about with you.”

Child: “Why not just ask me where I went and I’ll tell you?”

Me: “Yeah, but isn’t it more impressive that I already know where you went and we can skip ahead to other parts of the discussion?”

Child: “No. Not really. It’s just creepy and you should stop doing it.”

Unfortunately, I can’t stop doing it. At this late stage in the game, I have become hopelessly addicted to tracking my people and there is no turning back. There is something strangely comforting about looking at that tiny screen and seeing those familiar icons pop up, reassuring me that the people I care about are where they’re supposed to be—even if they’re worlds away for weeks at a time.

In an instant, I can gather a wealth of information—like which door to pick up someone at school and whether or not my progenies are still on the marching band bus, coming home from a late night competition or football game. Almost instantaneously, I can verify that all is right in my little corner of the world.

Strangely enough, looking at the map and those smiling faces within the teensy, tiny circles on my phone warms my heart—no matter how far apart they happen to be. It’s like holding my family in real time in the palm of my hand.

Of course, they would likely beg to differ, suggesting that they’re all under my thumb. Literally.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, probably poring over my Find My Friends app.

Copyright 2018 Melinda L. Wentzel

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The Road Less Traveled

I remember it as if I were standing before it this very moment—the dirt road behind my childhood home that snaked through the mossy woods, carving a narrow, road-not-taken-inspired path along the base of a deep ravine, sheltered from the sun and from civilization it seemed. The place where a large and delicious chunk of my youth was spent surrounded by the pungent aroma of pine mixed with the earthy scent of decaying leaves and the ever-present drone of the creek that flowed nearby.

It was my Secret Garden. My sanctuary of sycamores, silver and red maples. My quiet corner of the world where I could commune with nature and collect my thoughts—one blissfully restorative trek at a time. Of course, I whiled away the hours there, exploring every inch of the road’s gritty surface, the rock-strewn banks of the creek and the heavily wooded hillside that was enshrouded with a verdant canopy of foliage in the thick of summer and dappled with patches of sunlight when the wispy green of spring first emerged. Season after season, I was drawn there, swallowed whole by its quiet grandeur, inextricably immersed in the sweet salvation of solitude and unstructured play. Alone but never quite lonely. The Last Child in the Woods, perhaps.

Eventually, though, my brother tagged along, curious to discover what was so special about this half-mile stretch of road and haven of towering trees that lapped at its fringes. He, too, became enthralled with all that it had to offer—untold numbers of fossils to inspect and collect, intriguing salamanders and caterpillars at every turn, ideally secluded spots for building clubhouses and spying on the occasional passerby, and perhaps most notably, an unforgiving and impossibly narrow footpath perched high atop a ridge where the region’s entirety could be viewed with ease. Naturally, there was an abundance of tree hollows, too, perfectly suited for stowing the trappings of childhood (i.e. spare jackknives, cap guns and spears we had fashioned from fallen branches).

On the cusp of spring, when the sun had finally begun to thaw the road and its deep, frozen furrows of mud, we’d barrel down the gully—half running, half sliding through the slushy snow that stubbornly clung to the ground and to the craggy tree trunks—eager to return to our long and winding road of dirt and stone. The summers we spent there—foraging through the woods, hiding out in our ramshackle forts and letting our dog run free—were ravenously consumed, chapters of our lives that I won’t soon forget. Never mind that my brother is no longer here to share such memories.

But if I could somehow turn back the time almost six years—the ones that have felt like six minutes—I’d remind him of a day in late autumn, when he couldn’t have been more than nine. It was an afternoon much like those we’ve experienced of late—a sun-drenched, breezy, balmy Indian summer gift—only the leaves back then had long since burst with color, painting the blue skies with fiery shades of orange and red. Not surprisingly, we were on the dirt road together. Back and forth we raced and chased along our favorite stretch, the tall trees roaring and swaying in the wind, tousling our hair and casting great swirls of leaves into the air for what seemed an eternity. Leaves we desperately tried to catch before they hit the ground. Because, of course, that was the whole point.

Of all the memories I’ve harvested involving my brother and our beloved dirt road, it is among my most cherished.

So as I witness my own children this autumn, completely engrossed in the rapture of chasing, leaping and wildly grabbing fistfuls of sky in an attempt to cleanly snatch the leaves before they fall to the street, drunk with joy and seizing the moment, instantly I return to the place I loved as a child and to the delicious day I spent with my brother.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (remembering well the road less traveled, and recognizing that it has made all the difference).

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

img_5003I’ve often thought that the art of raising children is a lot like carving a pumpkin. In both instances, I brought home a rotund little bundle of neediness, fumbling and stumbling over myself just to get it out of the car and safely inside. I then set it down, took a step back and stared—marveling at its inherent uniqueness and at its wealth of complexities, most of which I had yet to discover. A “Now what?” comment fell from my lips shortly thereafter as I contemplated my next move. Anxiously I paced the floor, studying this newish thing from every angle imaginable—careful not to overlook so much as a dimple or a distinctive feature upon its ruddy face. I then wrestled endlessly with self-doubt and indecision, fully and completely acknowledging the challenges that lay ahead.

At once, I also considered the endless potential this wonder of wonders possessed, pondering the remarkable role I would undoubtedly play in the days to come. I prayed for insight and wisdom, and for the ability to make its spirit glow and its face shine brighter than bright. I loved and nurtured it unconditionally, shaped and molded it tenderly yet purposefully, pouring forth every single ounce of knowledge, creativity and patience I could muster, in hopes that one day my little pumpkin would stand on my doorstep straight and tall, illuminating my world forevermore—a beacon in the night for all who would pass.

But no one ever told me there would be muck in the middle—a slippery, slimy mass of gloppage with which I have had to contend, time and again, in order to move forward. My hands don’t lie. They’ve been mired deep within this monstrous task for an eternity. And it shows. I am worn and weary, doused with sticky remnants of the chore. There have been a multitude of tricky corners to navigate with precision and grace, and unforeseen lumps and bumps to address along this winding path of growth and development. Countless hours have been spent scooping out and whittling away that which is undesirable and stubbornly rooted—the gunk that would surely detract from inner beauty.

Desperately, I have sought the counsel of others. I’ve searched long and hard for guidance—for some sort of pattern to follow so that I could avoid a minefield of mistakes and make the right impression in the end. Heaven forbid I mismanage so much as a solitary stroke of my efforts.

What I find both completely frustrating and strangely wonderful about the whole process, however, is that despite the planning and the commitment and the intensity with which I have approached it all, the end result is virtually unknown until I lay down my tools, step back from my work and light the flame within. Only then will I learn how well I’ve done my job—when my pumpkinish creation stands before me, glowing on its own amidst a sea of ink. Mere glimpses of what will be are all I have been afforded along the way. But glimpses, nonetheless.

Happy Halloween to all those makers of little jack-o’-lanterns, whose work is truly a labor of love and whose efforts are worthy of high praise—regardless of the outcome.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2007 Melinda L. Wentzel

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In Praise of September

I love this time of year—the wedge of weeks during which the succulent remnants of summer collide almost seamlessly with a taste of autumn. Aside from the perfect marriage of warm days and cool nights, I suppose it’s the patented swirl of excitement surrounding the start of school that I find so completely intoxicating. Call me crazy.

I blame the mechanical pencils, mostly, in all their steely glory, and the pink erasers that beckon to me unremittingly from the shelves of office supply stores and beyond. The three-ring binders sometimes get to me, too, shouting above the tumult with their palette of delicious hues and fancy-schmancy features. Never mind the throngs of rugged backpacks, endowed with a profusion of zippered compartments and pouches, fueling my quiet obsession with organization, or at least some semblance thereof. And now that my progenies have joined the ranks of middle-schoolers, there are cavernous lockers to adorn as well—with chandeliers, plush carpeting and wallpaper, apparently.

Oh. My. Hell.

Granted, the inherent madness of the back-to-school rush, with its deluge of frenzied purchases, fiscal misery and impossibly giddified children, threatens to consume me each and every August. But it adds a much-needed dose of structure to my life as well and a certain rhythm to mothering—one that I suspect I’ll lament when I no longer have school-aged children in my charge.

There is something quietly reassuring about restoring our routine come September—even if it involves unpleasantries like bedtimes, alarm clocks and the evils of homework. In a sense, I think it’s the predictable nature of things that grounds me, and hopefully my children. Knowing what’s expected and what’s to come, at least in theory, encourages preparedness and some measure of assurance. Like calendars with the tiny squares filled in, a table of contents with more than a mere fragment of clarity and sock drawers with the suggestion of order.

Okay, maybe not sock drawers, so much.

At any rate, swarms of yellow school buses now inhabit the land as if commanded by the tides—a cadence and pattern by which a great many lives are governed. Mine is no exception. Mornings are now filled with the hustle and bustle of shepherding my brood out into the world of books and pencils—with shoes tied (mostly), lunches in hand (occasionally) and backpacks clattering and jouncing as they dash across the dew-laden lawn to the bus stop they’ve frequented since the early days of kindergarten. Of course, it was only yesterday that we sat side by side on the curb together, reading Stuart Little while we waited for the bus to round the bend and groan to a halt. But I digress.

Mornings are slightly more hectic now, and by the same token, afternoons with my sixth-grade daughters are the embodiment of chaos—the latest news of the day spilling from their mouths in a flurry of words from the moment they make landfall until they pour themselves into bed each night—a collective heap of exhaustion. Which is not to say that is a bad thing necessarily. Part of me truly enjoys the debriefing process I have come to know and expect as a parent at the close of each school day, and as I ferry them (ad nauseam) here and there throughout the entire year. And no matter how many stories I hear (ranging from angsty to the bounds of absurdity), I’d daresay the gemlike commentary I’ve gathered and the genuine connections I’ve made with my daughters will never grow old.

But somehow, the harvest of September is special—perhaps because it smacks of newness, in sharp contrast to August’s comparatively uninspired crop of parent-child conversations. Perhaps because of the sense of possibility the celebrated season of new beginnings engenders within each of us. Or perhaps, very simply, it is the omnipresence of tall pencils and full erasers that makes the month so special, suggesting the notion of a clean slate and starting over, anew.

Or maybe that’s why I hold September so dear.Planet Mom: It’s where I live (in praise of September).

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Dear Departed Summer

I am a poster child for parenting ineptitude. And at no time does it become more painfully apparent than during the first few weeks of school—when I look back over the vast expanse of the summer and realize that I’ve mismanaged a good deal of it. In spite of having the best of intentions in mid-June—with a host of events cleverly sandwiched between swim lessons, haircuts and camps galore—by the tail end of July I found myself desperately trying to cram every ounce of family fun and spontaneity into what was left of summer. The fun I promised we’d have before sliding headlong into September.

Inexcusably, it is the epitome of who I am and what I do when it comes down to the wire—when a finite number of squares remain on the calendar during which anything and everything deemed truly memorable and drool-worthy to a nine-year-old can, ostensibly, be orchestrated. In a perfect world, that is. So like a madwoman I schedule sleepovers and movie nights, plan picnics and pencil in parades, visit ball parks and theme parks and, of course, stumble over myself to accept gracious invitations to friends’ homes and pools and lakeside cottages oozing with wonderfulness.

Conversely, I’ve tolerated a tent in my back yard for twenty-three days running—one that promises to leave a hideous, yellow square where a lovely patch of green grass used to grow. A smallish tent in which I spent an interminable night embracing all that roughing it entails, from mosquito bites and cramped quarters to a lumpy earthen mattress and a less-than-endearing quality of dankness I feared would cling to me forevermore.

Eau de Musty Tent, methinks.

I suppose, however, that it was better than a) dealing with the monstrosity-of-a-teepee that monopolized my lawn last summer b) disappointing my progenies who insisted that I camp out with them and c) the insufferable conditions that my husband (aka: Father of the Year) endured while attempting to sleep on an impossibly narrow and horribly unyielding lounge chair parked squarely in front of the zippered door. As luck would have it, he was uniquely situated and perfectly qualified to shepherd those who felt compelled to visit the loo in the dead of night. Good thing. My only lament: failing to photograph him in all his glory—mouth agape, flashlight in hand, his body entombed within a sleeping bag, his head, poking out the top, completely enshrouded within a camouflage mask I had never before seen, arms entirely enveloped by a giant mesh sack he apparently dragged from the bowels of the garage in a moment of great inspiration (aka: makeshift mosquito netting).

That said, I think it’s safe to say that as parents we at least showed up for our kids this summer. Some of the time anyway. We took them places and did things together. We tolerated their abiding love of toads, their penchant for building forts, their overwhelming desire to climb to the tops of trees and their inexplicable fascination with road kill. Furthermore, we tried not to trouble our silly heads over the health and well-being of our lawn as well as the health and well-being of those who spent much of August snowboarding down our grassy front terrace. Nor did we dwell on the wanton fearlessness with which they careened hither and yon on their scooters. Barefooted, no less. So we can feel slightly good, I guess—having directly or indirectly contributed to the wellspring of memories gathered over the fleeting, albeit delicious, chunk of summer.

Looking back I now see why it was likely a success—not because of the fancy-schmanciness of this or that celebrated event, but because the extraordinary lives deep within the ordinary. It’s not the double play in the bottom of the ninth they’ll remember, it’s the delicious medley of peanuts and popcorn wafting through the air, the distinctive shade of blue on the tongues of all who drank icy-cold, blue raspberry drinks on that sweltering summer night and the tinny clang that echoed throughout the stadium as cheering fans beat upon the aluminum bleachers like drums. Similarly, it’s not the glorified picnic with throngs of people, platters of deviled eggs and eleventeen varieties of potato salad that necessarily makes a lasting impression. It’s the novelty, and perhaps spontaneity, of having cucumber sandwiches and slices of watermelon on a wobbly card table in the midst of summer fun. “Thanks, Mom, now we don’t have to stop playing!”

Moreover, I’d daresay that fiery sunsets and Big Dipper sightings are more mesmerizing than a summertime box office smash. That a symphony of crickets, the pungent aroma of the earth and the endless chatter of children most memorably fill a tent. That a hammock is very nearly medicinal, as is the buttery succulence of sweet corn, the shade of an oak tree and the canopy of fog at sunrise as it hangs in the valley—silent and still.

Dear Departed Summer, it’s likely I’ll miss your fireflies most—and the barefoot children who give chase, drinking in the moment, alive with pleasure, racing across your cool, slick grasses without end.Planet Mom: It’s where I live (lamenting the finite quality of summer and desperately searching for the rewind button).

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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