Being a grownup at the blood lab

The bell rang and my classroom was empty. I picked up the phone to make the first call.

Me: (After pressing several buttons for the receptionist.) Could you tell me the date of the next PTO meeting or the name of a staff member I can email about it?

Receptionist: You could look on the calendar.

Me: (Searching the school website and not seeing a date for the PTO meeting at my son’s school.) Where would I find this calendar?

Receptionist: Could you hold, please?

(After I held.)

Receptionist: Hello, this is a school. How may I help you?

Me: We were just talking about the date for the next PTO meeting. Could you tell me the date, or tell me the name of a staff member who can?

Receptionist: Well …. I would have to ask … because they are just going to have to look at the calendar as well.

Me: You know, this is a really busy time of day. Maybe if I call back tomorrow, someone could ask for me.

Receptionist: Oh, yes, please call back tomorrow. And what is your name?

We exchanged names. I will call back.

You might be asking yourself why I would want to attend a PTO meeting, aside from the fact that I am a parent and a teacher. Do I not have enough to do? Well, it’s about fundraisers. Who loves fundraisers? This girl!

So on Sunday night, my son Oliver informed me that if he did not sell four items, including two magazine subscriptions, he would not get two small plastic chickens and he would not be allowed to attend a magic show. Last year, he said, he did not participate in the fundraiser, but this year he wanted to and he needed to turn in some money ASAP.

I went downstairs and tried to understand the forms, arguing with Oliver about how much we would need to spend in order to get plastic chickens that looked similar to Happy Meal toys and for him to attend this magic show. I looked at the $14 jars of spiced nuts, the $30 pumpkin cheesecake, the $10 earrings. I considered it all.

“Dan,” I called to my husband, who was in the other room watching television, “get in here and be tortured with me!”

I couldn’t even figure out who I needed to make the check out to because it said two different things on two different forms. I also noticed that it said on the forms, “Please do not sell door-to-door.” Probably good advice just in case anyone had any intention of doing that. I did not.

Dan threw down $15 in cash and asked for a subscription to “Field & Stream.”

“OK,” I said to Oliver, “what if I order a magazine subscription for you, me, Annabelle, and your dad? Will that be enough for the plastic chickens and magic show?”

He thought it would, so I wrote a check, and the next day, he was ecstatic when he showed me the chickens.

Also the next day, I spent the cash Dan gave me on a fundraiser at the school where I work. I am going to get a long-sleeved T-shirt, which is not as exciting as plastic chickens, but it is for a good cause.

That was the story behind the first phone call I made after work today. About the PTO meeting. About which I will call back tomorrow.

Then I called the blood lab. I needed a test, but I wanted to know how much it would cost. I needed a code. The person who answered the phone gave me another number to call. This person gave me the codes. Then she transferred me to the Billing Department.

This is the part where you have to stick with me, but of course I understand if you can’t.

So I went to the lab to have my blood drawn. I had my 8-year-old daughter with me and she wanted to know if she would get a lollipop.

“No,” I said, “because you’re not having your blood drawn.”

“And they probably won’t give you a lollipop because they don’t give grownups lollipops. But once I heard them offer someone a free blood test,” she said.

I can assure you that my tests will not be free. I know this because I called in advance to find out exactly how much they will cost because I have learned the hard way what happens if you don’t.

There was no one in the waiting room when we walked in at 4 p.m. I handed the phlebotomists the sheet my doctor had given me, which listed the tests she wanted them to do on my blood. Unfortunately, it did not list the codes for administering the tests, which apparently are different from the billing codes.

By the time one of the phlebotomists figured this out, the other had left the office. The former was now on hold with Corporate (or whoever) trying to get the code she needed to figure out which vial to put my blood in before she could draw it. When another customer walked in, this totally stressed her out. I don’t know what she said to the other customer, but the woman remarked to her friend as they took a seat that she “didn’t like this place” because the phlebotomists weren’t very nice.

Meanwhile, my 8-year-old sampled the water from the cooler and then flipped through a book in the waiting room about a boy’s first blood test. In this book, the boy gets both a dinosaur Band-aid AND a teddy bear.

“I get the teddy bear if they give you one,” Annabelle said. “I call it.”

The phlebotomist told me to go into the back room and have a seat in the green chair.

“Did you ever get the code?” I asked her when she joined me.

Not exactly, was her answer. And it wasn’t fair for them to leave her alone when she was new, she told me. I agreed.

“I think I would just take the blood and get the code later,” I offered.

She couldn’t do that, she said.

“I’m sorry about your wait, if that’s the problem,” she said.

“No, I mean, there wasn’t much of a wait. I was just … trying to be helpful. Hey, as long as you use a clean needle, I’m good. And it looks clean …”

The phlebotomist was in no mood for my humor.

“I can pull another one out in front of you if you want!” she said. I wasn’t sure at that point if she might burst into tears.

“It’s OK,” I said. “I was just, um, kidding.”

I did not get a dinosaur Band-aid.

“That was kind of awkward,” the 8-year-old remarked when we got into the car.

I thought about explaining to her how people get stressed out at 4 p.m. when they have two customers and they don’t know the codes and the codes are there so no one knows what the tests actually cost because it really depends on how much your insurance will pay, if you have insurance, and if you don’t, then you experience even longer waits for state-of-the-art health care, delivered by people who haven’t had a smoke break in way too long.

But I didn’t bother. Instead, I thought about writing a story for grownups about a blood test, not completely unlike the one for children that Annabelle read at the lab, but with a few more details.

When I go to the PTO meeting, I am going to offer some suggestions. I know that my suggestions are not always helpful and my jokes are not always funny, but I hope you have enjoyed this story even though the main character did not get a dinosaur Band-aid. And if you need some nuts, wrapping paper, chocolates, earrings, or a magazine subscription, I know where you can get some.


What people think about at 4 a.m.

I woke up at 4 a.m., which I wish I could say is unusual, but it’s not at all. Pretty much every other day I wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. You don’t have to tell me I should cut down on caffeine, drink tart cherry juice, exercise more, try journaling before bed, or take a sleeping pill. I have tried all those things and they do sometimes work to some extent.

My husband Dan said that if I’m going to get up in the middle of the night, I should try writing down my thoughts/to-do list.

This morning I was mostly preoccupied by thinking about what I am going to wear on Back-to-School night this week when a bunch of parents will be coming into my classroom wanting to know if I am a decent, hardworking person who intends to be nice to their children. Some of them would appreciate it if the children actually learned something in my class and most of them are hoping I am not the type to assign a crushing amount of homework. I know this because I am a parent and, as a parent, homework is hell. Mine, theirs, all of it. Because, you know, we need to eat dinner, take showers, clean the litter box, and change the sheets sometimes. Yes, it is true that my kids may be playing video games while I am doing these things myself and that is another part of parenting that stinks, but really, parents should not have to feed their kids a steady diet of vending machine crackers and fast food just so we can make time to slog through a few hours of homework with them every night.

And then there are the parents who think their kids need to be challenged and want them to do more homework.

But nobody is going to be able to focus on these details if all they can think about is the ugliness of my orthopedic shoes. If parents are anything like high school students, they care deeply about shoes, maybe more than they care about homework, although few would admit it.

I often read a blog for moms that is aimed at showing middle-aged women how we can wear trendy clothing without looking like idiots. In this blog, there are links to products from stores like Nordstrom because women my age are supposed to be able to afford things from Nordstrom. For example, one of the bloggers might take a photo of herself wearing a black, oversized sweatshirt with black leggings, black sneakers, and hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Her post will explain that this is her new favorite “edgy” look. The name of the brand of sneakers is highlighted so that you can click on it and it takes you to the store’s website, where you find out that these sneakers cost $298 even though they look almost exactly like the ones you just got on sale at the mall for $29.99.

So I read these stories periodically in effort to figure out how I can look more the way I am supposed to look instead of the way I do, which according to my husband and mother is “fine.” Isn’t it nice of my husband and my mom to say I look fine? Wouldn’t you find that comforting?

I also read blogs by other teachers about how they decorate their classrooms. The new thing is that everyone is turning their classroom into a cybercafe with couches and lamps and cool rugs and stuff. I am all down with this idea except for the small issue of space, funding, and possibly, learning actual things.

No, but I really might put a couch and some lamps in my classroom for the poetry readings if it weren’t such a long way for my one husband to lug it up two flights of stairs by himself. And he has enough to do. Presently, it is Sunday morning and he is at the school where he teaches making copies for his classes tomorrow. On Friday evening, we tried to take a nice relaxing walk through our neighborhood, but then some neighbors flagged him down and started talking about various repairs that he could make on their home at some point.

These are the things that cross my mind at 4 a.m.

I also read blogs by other teachers about what they do on Back-to-School night. In addition to wearing cool outfits and having classrooms that look like ads for Pier 1, they have slideshows that include an “About Me” slide.

What might I say on my “About Me” slide? That I am one of millions of English teachers who got her start writing bad poetry in her bedroom at age 12? I could mention that crickets and other insects have, on occasion, managed to cause major distractions in my classroom, but that because of my belief in karma, I sometimes prolong the situation by chasing the insect around until I catch it with my bare hands as the children shriek with excitement, shouting “Eew” and “How can you touch that?”

I could mention that I did, in fact, change my earrings four times before leaving the house and I could explain the process: I started with small hoops, which I thought might be too boring. Then, I tried some dangly moonstone earrings, but those were too much with the big tortoiseshell glasses I have to wear ever since the day I got the contact lens stuck in my eye. So then I tried the cupcake earrings, but wouldn’t those send the wrong message? I’m not actually all that playful, whimsical, or fun. Finally, I decided to put the small hoops back in even though they are boring. That is what I could tell people because there is a 90 percent chance that is what will happen.

I remember once hearing someone with a British accent say, “If people notice what you are wearing, then you are not well-dressed.”

There is a ring of certainty to anything spoken with a British accent.

Thank you for working through this with me. What I wear is not what matters most. It isn’t about me or my woman v. self conflict regarding cupcake earrings and orthopedic shoes. It is about growth. I am moving toward inner peace. As my favorite yoga teacher says, the divine light in me salutes the divine light in you. Namaste.

Do you think anyone will find that offensive?

Marigold’s Nest

Marigold lived in a cottage with her mother and two older sisters. As the youngest, she stayed behind to tend the cottage when they went into the village. Marigold was the one to sew the dresses, wash the floors, make the bread, feed the chickens, and get water from the well. She also had to water the toadstools along the mossy path leading away from the cottage. Her mother said the toadstools would die without water and then their family would no longer be able to follow the path into the village.

Marigold’s mother prized Marigold’s long, flaxen hair and would not allow anyone to cut it because, she said, when it reached Marigold’s waist, she would develop magical powers to see the future and to grant wishes. This would bring the family fame, recognition, and wealth.

Marigold came to see her hair as a burden when it fell like a curtain down her back and draped at her sides as she did her chores. As it continued to grow, Marigold would go outside each morning to brush it herself so that when strands of the golden hair fell out, they would collect on the mossy ground. The birds carried the hair into a tree near the well where they used the long strands to weave a soft nest.

One day, Marigold’s mother and sisters came home from the market with a green-eyed goat which had two curved horns and a long scruff of hair beneath his chin.

“Marigold, hold this goat while we ready his pen,” her mother said, handing her the rope tied round his neck.

No sooner than Marigold took the rope did the goat begin to buck and jump, tearing away from her grip. He followed the toadstool path out of the yard and toward the village.

“Stop him!” Marigold’s mother demanded. “We need that goat. He carries a spell. As long as he drinks water from the well, it will never run dry.”

Marigold’s mother insisted that her two sisters find the goat and bring him back.

“You fool!” Marigold’s sisters taunted her. “Look what you have done!”

But they obediently left the cottage in search of the goat.

The sisters searched until dark, knocking on every door in the village, but they could not find the goat.

“What will we do if our well runs dry?” Marigold’s mother asked her.

The next day, an old man knocked on the door. With him was the green-eyed goat.

“I have come to see the girl with the flaxen hair,” he told the mother. “This goat has told me that she can see the future and grant wishes. My son is sick and I wish for a cure. His body rages with fever and his skin burns with rash. Grant my wish that he be well and I will give you back your goat.”

Marigold searched through her cupboards for a tincture of lemon, echinacea root, and peppermint. She gave the tincture to the old man and told him to put two drops into his son’s cup twice a day for three days.

The old man handed over the goat.

“Very well. If I do not return on the fourth day, you may keep the goat, but if my son does not recover from his illness, the goat is mine.”

Four days went by, and then a fifth, and the man did not return.

Marigold continued to tend the cottage. When she brought the goat his water from the well, he began to insult her.

“You foolish girl” the goat said. “You do nothing right! The birds that have built a nest from your hair keep me up at night. I am tired and famished. How do you expect me to survive on this bitter water and coarse grass? Let me out of this pen at once, for I am not a goat who can be confined to such a small pen.”

The goat glared at Marigold with his green eyes. She shuddered at the tangled scruff of fur beneath his chin.

As she turned to leave, the goat pushed past Marigold, knocking her down. He ran to the toadstool path and began eating the toadstools until most were gone. She pulled and tugged at the rope round his neck, but she could not stop the goat from destroying the toadstool pathway. Finally, Marigold grabbed him by the scruff of his chin and led him back to his pen. As she left him, the scruff of his hair came off of his chin and remained in her hand.

“Foolish girl,” the goat warned. “Without my scruff, I will not be able to drink the water from the well and it will go dry. You must cut your hair and bury it beneath the tree where the birds nest or the water will go dry and your family will perish.”

Marigold did as the goat told her, burying her hair beneath the tree at sunset.

The next morning, the goat was gone, and so were the birds who nested in the tree above the well. When Marigold dropped the bucket into the well, it was dry.

“How could you do this?” her mother and sisters asked. “With no water and no toadstool path, we will surely perish here.”

Days later, there was a knock at the cottage door. A tall, handsome man with green eyes stood with a goat and a long golden rope made from Marigold’s hair.

“Give me the girl who grew this hair and I will give you back your magic goat,” the man said.

Because they had no water and no toadstool path, Marigold’s mother and sisters told her she must go with the man. He brought her to a stone tower and demanded that she grant his wishes. First, he wanted a feast. Then he wanted a large bed with a mattress of soft feathers covered in the finest silks. Finally, he told Marigold she must tend the tower each day while he was away from morning until sunset for 24 seasons.

“If you have the magic that the goat spoke of, you can do all of this with ease,” the man said.

But Marigold had no magic, so she prepared the feast herself and she built the bed with feathers and she sewed the covers with fine silk. The man would leave each morning at sunrise and return at night for his feast and soft bed.

Each day, Marigold would walk outside the tower and brush her hair so that the birds could use the strands to build a nest. In a tree near the bedroom window, the birds chattered and kept her company during her long, lonely days as she tended the tower, doing the most mundane chores. There were no books for her to read or brushes with which to paint.

As the days passed, Marigold’s hair grew very long, finally reaching her waist. She continued to brush it outside so that the birds could use it.

One morning, the man came to her.

“Those birds awaken me far too early. I am a man of great importance and can not go without sleep. When I return this evening, I will cut your hair and bury it so that those birds may never nest in it again.”

Knowing that the birds would leave her, Marigold remained in bed that day instead of tending to the chores. She wished that the man would not return at sunset, and when the time came, she found that he did not. Hours passed and the sky grew dark. Marigold walked outside the tower and heard the birds call down:

“Run, Marigold! Run away now and he’ll never find you.”

Marigold ran into the forest and walked on all through the moonlit night. When the sun rose over the horizon, she stopped at a stream for a drink. As she bent to get a drink of water, she thought she saw in the water’s reflection the face of the goat with the green eyes, but when she turned to face him, the goat was gone.

Hungry, tired, and frightened, Marigold hurried on until she reached the village, where she found a seamstress.

“I beg a favor,” Marigold said. “If you lend me your scissors to cut my hair, I will stay and make beautiful dresses for you to sell for 24 seasons.”

“Twenty-four seasons is a very long time,” the seamstress said. “Are you certain you will stay?”

“Yes,” promised Marigold. “I will stay forever.”

Marigold cut off her long, flaxen hair and left it beneath a tree for the birds. She lived happily ever after, making beautiful dresses for all the ladies of the village, until she died of old age with the birds singing at her window.

A short summer with deserted castles

We were at Goodwill and my kids were supposed to be looking at clothes. Instead, Oliver insisted on getting two fish tanks because how can you pass up a $4.99 fish tank? I told him he should consider starting a blog called The Fish Hoarder, but he didn’t think that was a good idea. He said if he did that, the government might take his fish away, and then he’d be forced to join a militia.

If Oliver ever founded a country, commune, or homeowner’s association, its constitution would include the right to own many varieties of reptiles and aquatic animals. There would be no limitations on this freedom no matter how many people were eaten. Nothing I say to him about how you can take better care of your animals if you have fewer of them seems to faze him.

But this isn’t a story about too many animals, nor is it intended to make any kind of political statement about moderation.

I just want to tell you about some things that have happened to me since the beginning of the summer, which is almost over. Teachers in my school district go back later this week. Students come back next week.

Going back in early August seems strange to those of us who grew up starting school in September. When we were young, the symbols that represented this annual rite of passage were apples, wooden one-room schoolhouses, and pencils. The air was cool in the mornings. You could wear a pleated plaid skirt and tights to school, not because you went to a private school and you had to, but because you wanted to. Soon enough, the leaves would be changing color. Your cells were turning over and you were getting taller, stronger, wiser.

When I was looking for a teaching job, I always said I’d still want to be a teacher even if we went to year-round schooling, and I still feel that way.  So I’m not whining about too much work. That is not the point.

It’s like Jordan Baker said in The Great Gatsby, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

There was just a certain feeling of anticipation and renewal when school started closer to fall. I used to think the new year should begin September 1 instead of January 1. It  isn’t the same when school starts in August, but then, I wonder if anyone experiences anticipation the same way at 39 that they did at 8 or 11, the ages of my children. I kind of doubt it.

I started the summer by taking a road trip with my mom, the first we’d ever done alone together in my adult life. Actually, it was probably the only trip Mom and I had taken with just the two of us since my sister was born when I was 18 months old.

We went to Swannanoa, an Italianate mansion on Afton Mountain near Charlottesville, Virginia, because I had a foggy memory of that place from early childhood. I remembered flashes of stone towers, stained glass, marble staircases, and flowering arbors. I remembered a time when my mother was looking for me and worried I was lost because I had gotten out of her sight at some enchanted place. When I described the memory, she said we’d been at Swannanoa.

So 37 years later, we went back to see it again.

My memory of Swannanoa was so hazy, maybe it was fitting that on the day we chose to visit, the fog was thick enough to obscure a view of anything more than 20 feet away. The moisture hung so heavy our clothing felt almost damp and our hair looked bad.

Built by a millionaire railroad tycoon in 1912, Swannanoa was home to a couple named Lao and Walter Russell when my mother took me there as a child. They founded the University of Science and Philosophy. I won’t attempt to explain that organization’s mission, but my mother said it was “new age before everyone knew what that meant.”

This once-opulent estate is now unoccupied and starting to decay. Its fountains are dry and the gardens are full of weeds. Very Miss Havisham.

It is, however, open for tours on certain weekends.

A Virginia Is For Lovers website listed a short summary of Swannanoa’s history with the hours it is open, ticket prices, and the fact that it is “LGBT friendly.” This struck me as a declaration similar to a label on a bottle of olive oil proclaiming the product to be “gluten free.” One would have assumed.

People who like Virginia history would probably find the trip to Swannanoa worthwhile, and so might photographers looking for a Gothic backdrop.

My mother, on the other hand, was not impressed by what the current owners had done with the place. In fact, we couldn’t even make it through a 20-minute guided tour. I was very worried that mom was going to launch a full-fledged, invective-laced tirade against the retired librarian who recounted the estate’s history to a roomful of people. (I think the woman was also related to the current owner, but I couldn’t stick around long enough to verify and was grateful I wasn’t writing a travel story.)

Mom and I broke away from the guided tour and went for a walk around the estate, finally coming to the stone tower I remembered from childhood. She said she had called it Rapunzel’s tower when I was little, which I must have loved. Looming in the fog, it looked nothing short of haunted.


A stone observation tower at Swannanoa Palace in Afton, Virginia.

I wished my sister were there with us because she loves photographing abandoned buildings and ruins, but she had to work that weekend. As we started to leave, we passed a woman in a punk princess dress having her photograph taken. Mom stopped to tell her that Swannanoa used to be a very nice place, but it wasn’t anymore. It was just terrible what had happened there, Mom said. The woman and the photographer smiled and nodded politely.

I suppose that if you go frolicking at an abandoned castle in the blinding fog and the scariest thing you encounter is a 5-foot-4-inch woman with long gray hair who wants to share her opinions, you can count yourself lucky.

After we left, Mom and I ate dinner at an Asian restaurant and then checked into our motel, where I got to experience Staying In a Motel Room With Your 65-year-old Mother When You Are 39.

Me: Go ahead, Mom, have another cigarette. I’m fine.

Mom: How does this remote work? Where is CNN? Can you hear that television? I’ve got to turn this up. I can’t hear it.

When she couldn’t get any satisfaction from the news, Mom decided to watch “The Godfather.” I was about to fall asleep around 10 p.m. when she woke me up.

“You’ve got to watch this scene,” Mom said, rousing me. “It’s one of the most famous ones.”

So I watched the guy wake up to the severed horse’s head, thanked my mother for always showing me the most important things in life, and then I fell asleep. Until 1 a.m.

One thing Mom and I have in common is that we both suffer from frequent insomnia. Having read extensively about insomnia, I know that, when you cannot sleep, you are supposed to get up, go into another room, and read something boring.

I was sitting on the bathroom floor of our motel room reading Teaching Young Adult Literature Through Differentiated Instruction when Mom opened the door.

Mom: What are you doing?

Me: I can’t sleep. Did I wake you up?

Mom: You really are a terrible sleeper. Maybe you should have one of those sleep studies. Well, if you’re going to be awake, come out here and watch CNN with me.

She went back to the bed, turned on the TV, and lit a cigarette, but she was very disappointed when all she could find was Anthony Bourdain instead of some news anchor or panel of experts talking about the latest Trump tweet.

I can’t really understand why someone who is trying to get back to sleep would light a cigarette and turn on the news, but then, how many healthy people sit on bathroom floors in the middle of the night reading professional development manuals?

Mom handed me a Tylenol PM, which I took, and I went back to sleep, after convincing her to turn off the television.

Mom described our visit to Swannanoa as a trip down Memory Lane for her. On the way there, she saw how much Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she went to college, had changed in 40 years. On the scenic secondary road we took to come home, she recalled where she had turned to go to the house where she lived with her first husband. At least the road was still there.

So, while I would definitely recommend a midlife road trip with your mom, I would also recommend that whenever possible, you should get your own hotel room. Make that your gift to yourself. This advice applies to traveling with your husband, and/or children as well.

Now, regardless of what I’ll be telling high school students in a week or so about logical transitions in writing, I’ve got to fast forward two months to our last weekend of summer break, the day we got the fish tanks at Goodwill. I was in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, eating on a picnic blanket with my kids when Annabelle, 8, stood up and announced that she was going, “to wade at my own risk.”

She took the bucket and net she uses to catch minnows and headed toward the wading pools fed by natural springs in the town’s central park.

A large sign stated that children were to be supervised. No one was responsible for anything that went wrong there. No one was in charge. Everyone who waded did so at her own peril.

But it was the most beautiful day, the kind of day when it seems like nothing could go wrong. The weather was like … it was kind of … like it was on September 11.

I’m sorry. This is what happens when you are 39. Memory Lane isn’t all enchanted towers and flowering arbors.

But when she scampered off with her bucket and net I wasn’t actually thinking of September 11. I was thinking it was cute how she quoted the sign and I thought about posting something on Facebook. Because it’s the end of summer, all of my friends are posting “last splash” photos of themselves or their kids in bathing suits. I looked down at my phone for a minute and when I looked up, Annabelle was making small talk with a stout man a bit older than me – I’d say 50ish – who was wearing a bandanna. I watched him talk to her for a few minutes as other kids splashed around in the wading pools and tourists talked about which of the local cafes had decent food. Then the man in the bandanna walked away.

He was probably talking to her about her minnows. He probably has a daughter or niece or granddaughter her age.

My friends and I keep trying to figure out what exactly we’re supposed to say to our kids as they start puberty. We know we are supposed to have a talk with them, but we’re not sure what we should say during this talk because, actually, nothing our parents said to us worked.

“Some of the stuff I did when I was a teenager, I can’t even believe I survived,” my friend said the other day when we had this conversation.

“I know, right?” was my thoughtful response.

My husband Dan doesn’t remember his parents ever saying much of anything to him about sex or drugs other than, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Somehow, for him, this worked. He has always been pretty responsible, but knowing what I do about the world from both experience and the news, I would say he is more the exception than the norm.

Dan remembers his dad saying, “Regret the things you’ve done and not the things you haven’t done.”

This wasn’t meant to encourage illegal or particularly risky behavior. It was more of a mantra for life in general. And it is interesting advice. I wonder if he said the same thing to his daughter.

Somehow Annabelle knew there was a grand castle on the hill above the park in Berkeley Springs, built many moons ago by some wealthy nobleman. She wanted to climb the hill and see it, but when I called my husband to ask his advice, he said not to go onto the property because it probably wasn’t open to the public.

We climbed up the hill, but our view of the castle was obscured by the trees. Annabelle was disappointed. Meanwhile, Oliver was worried about us being hit by a car.

My internet research indicated the castle was built by a colonel who, at 46, fell in love with a 17-year-old.

The first time he made a pass, she turned him down, but five years later, he convinced her to marry him by promising to build her a castle. Ain’t love grand?

I asked a girl working inside the hotel at the park if the castle is ever open for tours now. She said it is not, currently, because the owner died and there’s been some family drama since then, or something like that.

I told Annabelle that maybe they’ll reopen it soon and we’ll be able to take a tour.

My summer started and ended with deserted castles, which are intriguing, but sad. Even the most solid of fortresses built by the richest of men can turn to ruin in less than a generation. I suppose it should make me feel better about my own dysfunctional family and all that we haven’t been able to preserve.

When she was going to sleep the other night, Annabelle said she was a little bummed about starting school because it will be a year before there’s another summer. But she mentioned that at least she did get some really awesome new notebooks.

So if you’re wondering what to buy a kid to ease the bittersweet and seemingly premature farewell to summer, a cool notebook, sturdy binder, and a few pens and pencils could go a long way. You can probably skip the fish tank, in your case.


He looked like a Travis. The young man who served us at Applebee’s did everything a waiter could to make his customers feel welcome. He made eye contact and small talk, offered suggestions about which menu items were his favorites. Overall, he was a much better waiter than I ever was, which I admit isn’t saying much. Only he had this weird habit of calling every female customer “sweetheart.” I know it wasn’t just me and my daughter because we also heard him address the two elderly women in the booth across from us with the same greeting. Male diners were “My Man.”

If I were 19, I probably would have thought he was cute.

“Your food is almost ready, My Man!”

“Can I get you another water, sweetheart?”

As he walked away from our table, my husband muttered under his breath that it would be OK if the kid dropped the Bosom Buddy routine.

“I knew you would be mad about him saying that,” Annabelle, 8, said to her father.

“Well, it’s one thing to call an 8-year-old girl sweetheart, but not somebody’s wife,” was his response.

We had only ended up at Applebee’s on a Tuesday night because I’d been in a class all day and Dan was home with the kids. Even though he took them bowling in the middle of the day, by the time I got home, they were all so bored that each had started self-medicating with ridiculously dull You Tube videos. It sounds asinine, but look, it was hot out.

As soon as I walked through the doors and put my bags down, Dan began telling me how he’d found a typo in a magazine. Then he wanted to show it to me. They had misspelled obsolete as “absolete.” Could I believe it?

He got a bit angry that I wasn’t interested.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you,” he said, as I glanced over the headlines in the newspaper that I hadn’t had a chance to read that morning.

Then he wanted to tell me about how he’d watched a video in which a man was cutting down a tree from the wrong side.

I knew that if I did not get my family out of the house soon, violence would almost certainly erupt before bedtime.

So we went to Applebee’s, which was pretty much packed. Everything in our town is always that way nowadays, even on a Tuesday night.

Every single member of the wait staff looked eligible to be one of my or Dan’s former students, but thankfully, none were. (We love when we go out to eat and do not see anyone we know. That is our absolute favorite.)

Even though the youngsters running the restaurant were handling the demands on them with dignity and grace, Dan and I made a plan to start patronizing all of the most desolate establishments in our region, just so we can avoid crowds. We are going to start eating at restaurants where octogenarians in bowties work one day a month as accordionists. These are going to be “our” places.

Dan, the kids, and I sat discussing the atmosphere at Applebee’s after Travis had delivered our food.

“Well,” I said, “I probably would have started crying already if I was working here tonight.”

Dan and I both discovered during our college years that we weren’t good at waiting tables. He spent one night on the floor of a restaurant in the town where he went to college and immediately asked to be transferred back to the kitchen, where he worked as a cook and dishwasher for many happy years thereafter.

It was pretty much the same for me. My friend had gotten me a job as a bartender and sometimes waitress at a haunted historic inn when I was 21. I almost had to wait on Newt Gingrich one night, but he must have had a change of plans, for which I was grateful. I did eventually learn to pour a mean Manhattan, but the owner of the inn still encouraged our boss to fire me from time to time because of my terrible personality. She wouldn’t do it, however, because even though I was a sullen thing, I was dependable, and the old men who were regulars at the bar liked talking to me. They liked how I was a serious brunette and my friend was a bubbly blond. We were foil characters for them.

One of the waitresses at the inn, a tall blond who was an honest-to-goodness adult, probably in her 30s, told us that you can’t move around in a hurry when you wait tables. It makes the customers feel rushed. I understood the crystalline truth in this as she said it, yet I could never bring myself to really be the embodiment of slow southern hospitality. I remember once this couple asked to take my picture at the bar just because I was a real, live southern woman. Strange as it seemed, it was kind of flattering, considering I’ve also met people from out of town who sighed with disappointment when I didn’t produce much of an accent.

So I didn’t mind the college-aged waiter calling me sweetheart, even though it was a bit awkward. I have been called worse.

After dinner, we piled our leftovers into a little styrofoam box and headed out. As we left, I noticed a Now Hiring sign, for hosts, kitchen staff, and waiters.

If we are lucky

We spoil our kids

because we are sorry.

We brought them here

to keep us company

and love us.

And now they have to feel,

All the pain we felt and maybe more.

The tide will take your sandcastle,

The sun will set.

And I can’t guarantee anything,

Not even that I will be here tomorrow

Or that you will be.

Where will we go?

That depends.

If we are lucky,

We will not experience too much pain,

But you will hurt

Even when it’s not your fault.

And sometimes it will be your fault

And that hurts, too.

And if I gave you my advice now

Or tried to inspire you

Or made promises

And said there are no monsters

It would seem insincere.

And I am running out of time

And running out of paper

So I will leave you

my love.

If I never say it again,

I love you.

Naked and blind

I had a dream last night that I was teaching a class. It was some kind of summer school class because we were in a covered shelter with picnic tables. The students were in their late teens, possibly early-college age, and I had a male teaching assistant whose age I could not guess, but he was younger than me. And for some reason my mom was there, just sitting in a corner observing.

So I said, “Get out your books,” like I always do, and they were taking their time, like they always do. As I was going through the whole, “let’s talk about what we read yesterday” thing, I got something in my eye and couldn’t see.

Also, suddenly, I was topless.

“OK, who wants to read first today?” I asked.

No one volunteered. Frustrated, I shouted out, “OK, fine, I’ll stand up here naked and blind and I will read!”

Despite my threats, I ended up dismissing the class, having accomplished very little in terms of literary analysis. Then I did what naked, blind women in positions of power do all the time. I stormed up to my teaching assistant and started yelling at him. He grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “You need to chill out.”

I mean, that’s the edited version of what he said.

I woke up to Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” playing on my clock radio.

I just think it’s interesting that an 80s pop song about cutting loose woke me up from a dream about someone telling me to stop being so uptight.

I don’t remember my dreams from the 80s, but I think it must have been easier to cut loose back then. Maybe that’s only because I was a kid. Plus, back then, there were no log-in servers to worry about. Your computer didn’t get hacked by some guy in India who lies and says his name is Raymond and he’s a “certified technician.”

“May I know what is the operating system you are using?”

Oh no, Raymond, you may not know. You may never know.

In the 80s, you went into your room and listened to cassette tapes. Alone. No one invaded your cyberspace. You didn’t know what everyone you ever met was doing at all times. You didn’t know when your middle school principal was vacationing in Venice. Lionel Richie was talking about dancing on the ceiling and Whitney Houston asked how she would know if he really loved her. (She said a prayer with every heartbeat.)

In creative writing last semester, I told the students to keep a journal of their dreams. People had a hard time with that assignment. Some said they didn’t remember dreams.

Well, it is hard, but it’s probably worth it if for no other purpose than self-analysis. Haven’t you ever wanted to tell someone about your dream and realized as you were describing it in vivid detail that they didn’t care?

But you should care, because dreams are all about the subconscious, and if you don’t see that somewhere between your subconscious and the waking universe there is a message you need to hear, then you’re not paying attention.

That is all.