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Snow Days Amidst Love and Death

frosty angelWe had a snow storm last week, which I wouldn’t go so far as to say is rare in Virginia, but happens infrequently enough to plunge our whole county into a dithering mess. No one knows how to drive in the snow, there aren’t enough plows to go around and it feels like pretty much everyone just throws their hands in the air, lights a fire and gives up.

Case in point, school was canceled for the entire week, and my kids only made it back yesterday on a two-hour delay, even though a fifty-five degree day over the weekend had rendered whatever roads were still icy and snowy just slushy and wet, but drive-able.

All of this would have been fine – fun even – if I hadn’t started writing a YA romance that has just been consuming me in my waking hours.

When I say romance, I’m not talking teen Harlequin. I mean epic romance in the tradition of Dr. Zhivago and Jane Eyre. I’m scraping the depths of my soul for this, turning my heart inside out and back again, summoning every poetic romanticism that has ever made me shiver, cry, lose my breath.

Regular Cold readers have probably noticed this trend in my posts. I’ve been thinking a lot about love – how it enters our lives, what to do with it when it does, how to hold it dear. The chipped, empty bowl we can find ourselves holding at the end of our days if we squander it.

My new fixation, however, is not the departure from Cold War shenanigans and brutal dictators that it looks like. In fact, like most of my stories, it has its roots in the every day goings on in my family.

You see, I’ve been watching my mom care for my dad as he’s dying. Sometimes hands-on, and other times from another time-zone away, but nevertheless, at the very least we talk every day and I get a detailed rundown of what’s going on.

My dad is ninety-four, twenty-two years her senior, and has been a force of nature all of his life. He’s cranky, brilliant, has a spine stiff enough to brave world wars and a heart big enough to put us first. And he has fought tooth and nail his reversal of fortune from doctor to patient.

“Don’t help me!” he said, as my mom and I were trying to lift him into bed after he’d collapsed a couple of weeks ago in his and my mom’s Chicago townhouse.

“Dad,” I said. “This is love. It’s why I’m here.”

He was naked and embarrassed and in pain.

“Thank you,” he said, barely above a whisper.

His decline has been swift since then, and he has become interned in the very hospital where he was once Chief of Staff. They love him there, and treat him like a legend. But that doesn’t mean he likes it.

My mom has been cooking his meals and bringing them to his hospital room, so that he can feel like he’s at home – sort of. He’s always liked her cooking. And although he is capable of being her harshest critic, he has been gazing upon her with the love and adoration of a teen-age crush.

this is love

This is certainly my most intimate experience with watching someone close to me die. It is as harrowing as it is breath-taking – like a dazzling sunset observed in the cold, your fingers freezing and your ears numb, no coat.

And it is precisely my experiences with death and near death in the past few years that have gotten me thinking about love enough to inspire me to write about it in a big way. My daughter’s catastrophic illness, my grandmother’s death, and now my dad’s.

All of it feels like it’s happened in such a short time.

My sister-in-law has recently been through the end of life dance with her in-laws as well, and my husband and I have been privy to a play by play that has helped us prepare for what is going on with my dad.

That has been a blessing, as has the love story that unfolded before us.

Alice was one hundred two years-old and Al was ninety-seven. Both sharp as a tack, Alice was still doing the New York Times crossword puzzle every day the week she died. “See you Tuesday,” Alice’s nurse said at the end of what would be her final visit. Alice looked up from her puzzle and said, “I don’t think so.”

She died in her sleep the next night.

Their care-givers didn’t want to wake Al until they absolutely had to. Al and Alice had been together for over seventy-five years and they figured he would need as much rest as possible before having to face that she was gone.

When they did wake him, he held her hand and called her his sweetheart. Like my dad, he spoke to his wife as if they were courting, telling her in sweet detail how much he loved her. Their care-givers sobbed with Al and held him close as Alice’s body was taken away.

In the following weeks, Al started to forget things. Mostly, he would forget that Alice had died. He would become frantic looking for her and my sister-in-law and her husband would have to sit him down and explain that she was gone. The hardest part was that he would relive her death each time they told him, as if he was hearing the news for the first time.

This is love.

over the threshold

And this is why, as I endeavored to write the agonizing and beautiful truth about love in my story, and as my kids interrupted me every five minutes. Driving me crazy. Not letting me get any good work done. Not letting me sift through my own grief and conflicting emotions about my dad’s death and my mom’s ordeal in caring for him. About the changes in all of our lives as she prepares to move down to Virginia – into our house – after he passes. I wanted to scream! Between their stomach flus and my dad being sick way over in Chicago and my traveling there, and now the snow days, I was so behind on everything and I was not in the best of emotional shape. To top it all off, just as I’d shooed the little buggers away and finally settled down into my story, my husband comes in and says, “I’m just starving. Can you make me that thing with the cheese and the oil and vinegar vegetables – I’ve got such a taste for that.” Like he doesn’t have a pair of hands.

cold kick

“That thing. You mean a sandwich?” I said.

Just before I was about to hurl some other smart-ass comment, I started to laugh at myself. Here I was writing about love. Getting horribly exasperated about being thwarted from giving such an important topic the thought that I needed in order to make it come alive on the page – and I was on the brink of telling everyone I love to leave me the hell alone for once in their miserable lives. I put my face into my hands.

“What?” my husband said.

I shook my head.

Then I got up and made his sandwich.

Because this is love.

cold love in heart

Good Fortune

Fortune BrawlingI want to welcome back two of my favorite broads in the author community – Hunter S. Jones and Jennifer Theriot. Actually, Jennifer’s never been on Cold, so howdy, Jennifer and welcome! Pour yourself a beer or a whiskey and get comfortable. We’re pretty casual here.

Now, if you read this blog, you know I don’t spotlight authors very much. Not because I don’t love authors – I do. It’s mostly because I’m usually so busy musing about depressing Eastern European capitals, crazy Slavs and questionable habits like smoking, drinking and writing about smoking and drinking, that I don’t get around to it.

But I’m getting around to it today, because I love these two ladies. They satisfy all three of the criteria I require to feature them on my weird, little blog.

1. They’re fun

2. They’re not jerks

3. They write quirky, original stories

What more could you ask for?

Well, actually, there is one more thing…They’ve got a new book out! It’s called “Fortune Brawling,” and it’s book two of The Fortune Series, which chronicles the adventures of Dallas Fortune, a lady musician who’s trying to make her way in the honky-tonk eat honky-tonk world of Nashville.

When we last left Dallas Fortune, she’d been put through the ringer – having almost become a star, having almost had a happily ever after with a man she’d loved for twenty years. But an accident sent her into a tailspin, and led her to seek out a handsome fortune-teller. “Fortune Calling,” was a fun novella that whet our appetites for the ups and downs in the life of a good-hearted, good-timing and often self-destructive country music aspirant.

fortune calling

When we next encounter Dallas in “Fortune Brawling,” we get two guitars, two wild women, and one crazy honky tonking night in Georgia. The Ace is high and the Joker is always wild.

When Texas meets Tennessee the end result spells T.R.O.U.B.L.E.

And country musician Dallas Fortune in a tight spot. Guitar God, Billie Joe McAllister, has betrayed her once again. As if by magic, her BFF from Ft. Worth Texas, guitarist Jodie Marie Jennings, drives all night to come to her aid in a time of need. What happens at Bud’s honky tonk in Trenton, Georgia should stay at Bud’s, but it doesn’t. What went wrong? Who gets in trouble and who gets revenge? Who are JD Fowler and Tom Vanderfleet? What does the best fairy godmother in Country Music history do to save the day this time around? These questions and more secrets are revealed in this adventurous, light hearted and fun contemporary novelette.
Guitars. Hillbilly Music. Nashville, Tennessee.

It’s a quick read and a helluva time. Don’t miss it.

AMAZON PURCHASE LINK

http://mybook.to/Fortune2

PINTEREST BOARD

SPOTIFY MUSIC PLAYLIST http://goo.gl/TrhCDJ

Hunter S Jones
HUNTER S. JONES
Writer. Author of the international best sellers, SEPTEMBER ENDS and FORTUNE CALLING. She has lived in Tennessee and Georgia her entire life, except for one ‘Lost Summer’ spent in Los Angeles. Currently, she lives with her husband and books in Midtown Atlanta, GA. She has a B.A. in History and English Lit, and an advanced degree from the University of Notre Dame. 2015 will find her writing Historical Fiction as Hunter Cookston. Her favorite color is red, and her favorite foods are hot peppers, apples and sushi.
http://www.huntersjones.com
http://www.Facebook.com/HunterSJonesPR
http://www.Twitter.com/huntersjones101

Jennifer Theriot
JENNIFER THERIOT
Jennifer Theriot hails from the Great State of Texas. She is a career woman, working as CFO of a Texas based real estate investment firm by day and does her writing at nights and on weekends. In her limited spare time, Jennifer enjoys being outdoors; preferably somewhere on a beach curled up with a good book. Spending time with family and friends, listening to music, watching a baseball game and enjoying a good bottle of wine are usually on her to-do lists. She’s mom to three grown children and ‘MiMi’ to three grandkids – all of whom she adores!
Her best-selling Out of the Box Series, OUT OF THE BOX AWAKENING, OUT OF THE BOX REGIFTED and TOCCATA OBBLIGATO~SERENADING KYRA are currently available on Amazon.com . The final in the Out of the Box series, OUT OF THE BOX EVERLASTING will be released in 2015.

http://www.jennifertheriot.com
http://www.facebook.com/JenniferTheriotAuthor
http://www.twitter.com/jentheriot

A Few Words on Love and Valentines

Love hepburn

I’ve got some words from the late, great Katharine Hepburn that are just going to set your heart on fire.

In this missive taken from her autobiography, “Me,” she’s actually talking about that cowboy of all cowboys, John Wayne. Not the love of her life, Spencer Tracy.

But damn, when you read this you might just have to take a cold shower and run out and rent about five John Wayne movies. Even if you’re a straight guy.

And I say this as someone who is not particularly a fan of The Duke, as he was called..

Her thoughts on Wayne:

“He is so tall a tree that the sun must shine on him whatever the tangle in the jungle below. From head to toe, he is all of a piece. Big head. Wide blue eyes. Sandy hair. Rugged skin – lined by living and fun and character. Not by just rotting away. A face alive with humor. Good humor, I should say. And a sharp wit.

Dangerous when roused.

His shoulders are broad – very. His chest massive – very. When I leaned against him – thrilling. It was like leaning against a tree. His hands so big. Mine, which are, too, seemed to disappear. Good legs. No seat. A real man’s body.

And the base of this incredible creation. A pair of small sensitive feet. Carrying his huge frame as if it were a feather. Light of tread, springy, dancing.

Very observing. Very aware. Listens. Concentrates. Witty slant. Ready to laugh. To be laughed at. To answer. To stick his neck out. Funny. Outrageous. Spoiled. Self-indulgent. Tough. Full of charm. Knows it. Uses it. Disregards it.

Not much gets past him.

He was always on time. Always knew the scene. Always full of notions about what should be done. Tough on a director who had not done his homework. Considerate to his fellow actors. Very impatient with anyone who was inefficient.

Self-made. Hard-working. Independent. Of the style of man who blazed the trails across our country. People who were willing to live or die entirely on their own judgement. They dish it out. They take it. Life had dealt Wayne some severe blows. He can take them.

He dares to walk by himself. Run. Dance. Skip. Crawl through life. And at the core, he’s a simple and decent man. With an ability to think and feel.”

love john wayne

That description simply takes my breath away every time I read it.

It meant a great deal to me when I was looking for love, making me feel at once hopeful and silly and faithless and terrified. Not because I wanted an uber-mensch just like John Wayne, per se, but because Katharine Hepburn’s description dares to ask a great deal of a man. Demands it, in fact. And requires even more of the kind of woman who might deserve his attention and devotion.

Love can be daunting. It can feel like it hits you too hard sometimes and leaves you exposed to the most wretched of heartbreaks. A guy might seem one way at first – a veritable Prince Charming frothing-over with all the things you think you want to hear – but in the end he’s a big fraud. Or simply fickle. Maybe you didn’t live up to his expectations.

A girl might be shimmering with sexual allure but carry none of the attributes necessary for a friend. Or perhaps the woman who makes you feel as if you’re going to burst into flames, who seems to understand your every thought before you give it voice, sees you as merely a buddy or confidant. That one stings like a nest of hornets.

There are so many varieties of love affair – each one a high-risk venture. They do call it falling in love for a reason.

falling in love

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of timing.

Like when I met this man years ago, long before I got married. I had just started a business and endured a painful breakup with someone who was almost right.

This guy was funny and confident and handsome and made the kinds of bold, romantic gestures that seemed dangerous. Way beyond the candy and flowers routine, he set about wooing me with a barrage of anonymous postcards – ones daring me to meet him in smoke-filled lounges with great jukeboxes. He swept me up for a champagne and fried chicken picnic on a windy hillside. And was a corporation man – not what I was used to – who ran a simple telephone conversation like a meeting.

But he could quote everything from a Langston Hughes poem to the U.S. Constitution accurately and credibly.

It was when I was returning home from visiting him in the city where he lived, that I picked up a magazine at the airport and – seated uncomfortably between a Chinese student and big Chicago Bears fan – read my horoscope.

This is something I never do. But sometimes these rare impulses provide some insight.

It was one of those horoscopes that thinks its really clever and insults you, and mine said something like, “You always think you have it all figured out and now you’ve finally met someone who doesn’t swallow your B.S. and say it tastes like a cookie. And yeah, you might just have a shot at happiness. Question is…can you take it?”

magic man

Well, I decided right then that I could not, would not, and was not going to take it. Sometimes that voice tells you you’re not ready. That there is, perhaps, a different sunrise out there waiting for you. One not so blinding. The kind that’s bright and joyful, but is absent the violent bursts of color. And the potential for complete annihilation.

The following day, after my horrorscope (misspelling intentional), the guy with the postcards and the fried chicken called and asked me to come see him again.

I said, “Um, well, you know. I can’t”

He was silent for a minute, then softly, he said, “Please.”

romance feet

Love is magic meets decision. I’m not sure if I read that somewhere or made it up.

It’s refusing to settle and not being afraid to strike a bargain. Standing for something so that someone will stand by you. Never being a free lunch or accepting one. No matter how lavish the spread.

And love is a leap of faith – even when the timing couldn’t be worse. It is, like John Wayne, being bold enough to run, skip, dance, crawl if you must. It is simple and decent. Thinking and feeling.

When you endeavor to fall in love, you must be willing to live and die entirely on your own judgement. Step out of the movie and go boldly into your life. And you must be ready to die a thousand times in order to chance living forever.

So, the answer is yes. I did go see him again.

And again. And again.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

movie kiss

My Kind of Town: The Glories of Chicago in the Cold

ChicagoMy husband has been having a lot of business trips to Chicago lately, which has got me thinking about my home town. The gray, snow-heavy skies, the smokestacks, the way Lake Michigan freezes over this time of year – a veritable tundra flanked by a glittering skyline that looks like it’s made of Legos.

I love Chicago in the winter.

And no, I’m not some sort of masochist who enjoys being whipped by gale-force icy winds, have my tears frozen to my cheeks and my toes..wait, what toes? I can’t feel them anymore.

So, I should clarify. Being a visitor there at this time of year just sucks. All you want to do is curl up in your hotel room and thank God that you live somewhere else. What I’m lonesome for is living in Chicago during the winter. And those are two very different things.

I will preface this by pointing out that Summer is magnificent there. The city comes alive with the purpose and voracity of an ant hill. There are Blues fests and Jazz fests and food fests and lakeside beach parties and all manner of good times had. It’s a walking city with great architecture, and people sit out on their stoops, talking to neighbors or just any old passersby. I was sitting on a friend’s stoop some years ago when a guy ran out of an Irish bar across the street and hollered, “The Bulls just won the Championship!” Stores, restaurants and homes emptied in a rush as a spontaneous parade ensued – joyful, uncontainable – continuing all the way downtown. So, the summer does indeed have magic.

But the winter is special. It has it’s own vibe and exists only for those in the know.

I love the grit, the ugliness of the winter. The way the snow turns black and the stockyards empty, looking like they’d come victim to a dirty bomb. The way there are so many Buicks still on the road.

And the fact that everyone shrugs off the cold. As a kid, I had only a handful of snow days and they were always just after some mammoth blizzard. But as soon as the tire chains were on, our parents would wrap us up from head to toe and send us out into the arctic chill. At recess, we would actually play a game where my friends and I would spit high into the air, just to watch our lugies shatter when they hit the ground. It was so damned cold our saliva froze in mid air.

Chicago winter

Winter is when Chicagoans are at their best.

Like when my roommate brought home some Australian tourist who’d been locked out of his hostel after missing the midnight curfew. And no, it wasn’t a hook-up. It was a kindness. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said. I didn’t. We set him up on our couch, gave him a key and let him come and go for the next few days – just to save him some money. My roommate even lent him her car.

It’s just how we roll there.

He hung out with our friends, we let him tag along to all of the best places nobody knows about, cooked many of his meals, and made giant bowls of popcorn as we entertained ourselves to the sounds of our neighbors’ screaming fights – a favorite past-time in my first post-college household.

“I’m gonna have you killed!”

“You don’t have the wit to have me killed, you moron.”

“Shut up!”

“You shut up!”

“What do ya want for dinner?”

“Let’s get Chinese.”

(This was an actual exchange. I wrote it down in my journal)

All of this was during a deep freeze, too. They happen at least once a year, when the temperatures plunge to about 26 degrees below zero without windchill. The poor bloke had chosen to come to Chicago at the worst possible time. He was traveling in America for most of the year and for reasons that defy logic, made his way up from Florida instead of continuing laterally and staying snuggly in the South. Yet at the end of it all, when he sent us a Christmas card the following year, he wrote that the time he spent in the Windy City was by far the best he had during his whole trip.

And I believe him.

He was welcomed into a subculture that not a lot of outsiders get to see. A tribe of urban dwellers who, no matter how God-awful the weather, endeavor to go out and have a ball. The bars and restaurants jam, the invitations go out, the parties rage. People tear up the night with a gusto.

chicago nightlife 2

It’s why Chicago winters are responsible for some of my fondest memories.

Like hitting the blues bars on the South Side as a teen and taking for granted the legends on the stage. Because truth be told, we were there to indulge in some under-age drinking, and those bars would accept your grandmother’s expired driver’s license. Heck, they’d take a note from your grandmother that read, Please let Billy drink alcohol tonight. He’s over twenty-one – swear.

Chicago is marvelously, unapologetically corrupt.

chicago cops

It’s also romantic. Underneath the scarves and the sweaters and the down jackets lie burning hearts.

I remember drinking whiskey with my future husband at a one-time speakeasy, listening to a live three piece Jazz ensemble into the wee hours and reading scratch graffiti from Al Capone’s day. We fell in love in Chicago, mostly during the winter, and spent countless chilly nights at everywhere from dive bars to champagne bars, seducing each other with off-color humor that would make people on the coasts shudder. And made the people around us snicker and buy us drinks.

End of April, 1953, New York, NY

Because Chicago is like that. It’s down to earth, no bullsh*t. And her citizens have retained their sense of humor. They eat big, they laugh big, they drink big. And if they like you, you’ll get a helluva lot more out of them then the polite albeit interesting conversations you’ll encounter on the cocktail circuits of New York and San Francisco. Not that I’m knocking those. They have their own excitement and make you feel like you’re part of the glitterati.

It’s just that a Chicagoan will make you feel like you’re a part of a family. He’ll have you take your shoes off in his house – for comfort, tell you a story, offer you a bedroom in case you over-indulge, and hug you when you leave. Hug you tight.

In spirit, what’s called “the lake effect” extends far beyond the drastic swings in weather chronicled by the city’s meteorologists. An infinite expanse of sky, along with a history of dirty-underhanded dealings, fires, massacres and machine politics has created a population that can take it – whatever it is.

In that light, a little sub-zero weather is nothing.

In fact, it’s an opportunity for spontaneous acts of generosity – like scraping the ice off a neighbor’s windshield in the dawn hours, leaving a heavy dumpling meal for a flu-ridden friend, pushing a frightened, dithering lady’s car out of a snowy ditch while wearing your good shoes.

It’s those things that keep moods light during the grim winter months, bring people together, give them something to root for. The cold is as binding to that city’s soul as alcohol and music. It is there to break down walls in a place that could otherwise be just a hard, industrial wilderness. The cruel nights and bleak, unforgiving days smooth the way for what really makes Chicago hum and hiss and pitter and pat when most towns stop dead in their tracks, leaving citizens to hole up in their homes until the snow melts. They nurture real human interaction, great talks. The kinds of heart-to-hearts that don’t let you get away with not giving yourself away. That turn an acquaintance into a true friend.

I guess that’s what I miss most about Chicago winters. It’s their warmth.

chicago conversation

Home, Home on the Free-Range

sick kid RockwellThis past week, all three of my kids contracted what I can only describe as the Pompeii of stomach flus.

I spent my week cuddling, medicating, holding back hair so it didn’t get barfed on, doing laundry, obsessively washing my hands, tracking diarrhea footprints all over the house, taking temperatures, dispensing Popsicles, rubbing tummies, detoxifying bathrooms, and wrapping blankets around shivering, feverish 2nd, 5th and 7th Graders.

I’m not asking for sympathy here. Not much, anyway. As a parent, this is what I do, and it’s both a responsibility and a privilege.

There’s a sweetness to caring for my sick children. It’s not just their helplessness and return to calling me “mommy” again, even after a significant reprieve. (Although that does hold a certain allure.) Somehow, they’re at their most beautiful when they’re really sick. Their pale faces glow like the full moon, their lips are pink, dry and swollen and their eyes glassy, sleepy and filled with love and need.

I could stare at them all day.

Of course their breath is deadly and their body fluids disgusting; they’re also crabby and demanding and milk the whole sick thing for longer than is necessary – not to mention making it damned near impossible for me to get any work done, and prompting me to post a picture of Sylvia Plath with her head in an oven on my Facebook page. Cheap laugh – I know.

sick kids mom done

Finally, after eight days of this, I put my foot down and refused to cancel dinner plans my husband and I had made some weeks ago. I’d been looking forward to this date all along, as it also involved friends with whom we can have great conversations without having to edit the content, you know what I mean? And by the time last Saturday rolled around, this date wasn’t just something I wanted to do, it was something I needed in order to stop myself from running away from home.

I knew that leaving for a couple of hours was iffy. Not in terms of my kids’ safety. They were over the hump, and my oldest son is extremely competent and just a month shy of turning thirteen for heaven’s sake.

But although they were definitely on the mend, my middle child was still weak and weepy.

She begged us not to go.

sick kids crying

“Honey, I’ll do what you want,” my husband said. “But she’ll be ok. We’re just down the street and all she’s going to do is lay here and watch TV anyway.”

I knew he was right. I’d been at her beck and call day and night for what felt like a light year at this point. There wasn’t anything left to do but wait this out.

So, I tucked my little girl in, put the phone by the couch, stuck a movie in the dvd player, kissed my youngest, who seemed to be thrilled we were going out (God only knows what she had planned), and gave my oldest instructions on what he needed to do if Mt. Vesuvius began grumbling again.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said.

It took my husband a full ten minutes to talk me down once we got into the car. He’s great at that and has always been a huge champion of maintaining the integrity of our relationship. He’s made me go away for weekends alone with him while I was still breast feeding, dragging my breast pump along like a third wheel, pulled babysitters off the street if need be so that we could get just a couple of hours together, and never had one qualm about being the bad guy when it comes to separating me from the fruit of my womb.

I love that about him. Even when I’ve hated it.

And overall, it turned out to be a pretty good night. We actually got through dinner until the inevitable call came. My daughter wouldn’t stop moaning and my son was back on the toilet. So, we said our good-nights, thanked our friends for their understanding, and left just before dessert and espresso.

sick kids restaurant

Once home, we nuzzled, kissed and put to bed our babes. It was all much ado about nothing.

Until today, when a friend of ours sent us a story from The Washington Post.

In it, a couple who practices “free-range parenting” was being investigated by DFS for allowing their children to walk home from a local park unaccompanied by an adult. The kids (ages 10 and 6) had been working up to this with short jaunts to the 7-11 and a neighbor’s house. They were neither scared nor in danger of any sort when they were picked up by police, who were responding to a call from a local who voiced concern about seeing unattended children on the sidewalk.

The parents were outraged.

As young children in the 1970s and 80s, they had walked well over a mile to and from school every day. The father, a physicist, asked the social worker in charge of their case how it was possible to criminalize a parenting style, simply because it favored giving children freedom within a framework, allowing them to work their way up to responsibilities and liberties – much the way he had as a child. Is it illegal for children to walk home from a park less than a mile away in a safe neighborhood? Especially when they knew the way, could recite their address and telephone number and even had the self-awareness to tell the police officer who picked them up, “We are free-range kids and we’re not doing anything illegal.”

Until reading that article, I’d never heard the term “free-range” in this context, but it was impossible for me not to draw a connection between the philosophy behind the movement and my own attitude towards child-rearing.

sick kids free range chickens

My husband and I have tended to be consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to letting our children ride their bikes to a friend’s house, or be responsible for themselves and even a younger sibling while we run some errands…or slip out for a dinner date.

We get as many raised eyebrows as we do pats on the back from like-minded parents or simply friends from a slightly older generation who feel all this helicoptering has gone too far.

“We’re raising fearful adults who lack basic competencies,” one of those friends observed.

He has a point.

Statistically, the world is a good deal safer – in terms of crime, at least – than it was twenty, thirty, even forty years ago, when a kid had mastery not just of his backyard, but his whole neighborhood. Back when it was common for a child, usually a boy,  to wake up at 0 dark thirty every morning from the age of eight to work his paper route…alone, and during the winter months, in the pitch darkness.

Pulitzer Prize Winning novelist, Michael Chabon, was inspired by his own “free-range” childhood to write “Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and has said he would not have nearly as many stories to tell had he not been allowed to roam his home town and discover the world without interference. Through his wanderings, he created a vivid interior life, and earned the confidence to write several spectacular books about it.

My own childhood was filled with mystery.

I spied on creepy neighbors, walked a frozen creek alone for at least a mile, never once trick-or-treated with an adult, rode my skateboard down steep hills, played flashlight tag after nightfall. I remember being terrified, exhilarated, and bathed in utter abandon.

It was glorious and I knew it, even then.

sick kids danger

I learned who to avoid and what intersections not to cross – all on my lonesome, or in the company of peers. And it gave me trust in my own abilities. I don’t know if I would have had the guts to move to a foreign country or endeavor to become a writer had I not indulged in those tender-age freedoms first. Would I have earned the self-assurance and good judgement to fall deeply in love – as I did with my husband – and give my life over to the pursuit of our collective dreams? Hard to say.

Have I been in danger? Probably, yes. Maybe more than I realized sometimes.

I’ve lived in bad neighborhoods, traveled alone taking night trains, and met some bizarre, shady characters. Once, while visiting a friend at her college, my girlfriends and I chased down a notorious serial flasher with mocking taunts. He’d been plaguing the school for years and our performance made the cover of the school newspaper. I remember the headline read something like “Depravity Rocks Benedict Hall” and the student reporter posed as a classic flasher – complete with raincoat and sock garters – while the girls and I feigned looks of Puritan horror.

I wonder, if in today’s world that headline would have read, “Parents of Victimized Sophomores Calling for Investigation of Sexual Malfeasance at Local University.”

But maybe I’m being too harsh in my assessment.

The fact is, we’re all just trying to do our best, and parenting is a long, exhausting, joyful and sometimes frightening trek. Whether you are “free range” or a “helicopter” in your style, your kids unwittingly become the focal point of your life. Your own happiness and well being hinge both in the short and long term on their successful journey from child to adult.

And I’m sure kids from either type of home will probably turn out just fine, thank you very much.

sick kids run wild

So, I’ll wrap up with what I think back on whenever I worry if I’m being too lenient or too interfering. It was something a hearing technician said to me in the hospital some seven years ago.

My youngest, who had been born with cancer, was having her hearing tested. A possible side-effect of one of her treatments was hearing loss, so I was waiting with bated breath as the technician finished his exam. He’d been having problems getting my infant daughter to respond on one side.

Finally, he looked up at me and said, “Don’t worry, she’s going to be ok.”

I practically gasped with relief. “So, she can hear?” I said.

“Oh, I have no idea – the test was inconclusive,” he said. “She’s going to be ok because she has loving parents.”

That was all I needed to hear.

sick kids Gomez and Morticia

A Prayer for Victims and Perpetrators

Tribute to Charlie Hebdo victims at Place de la RÈpublique - ParisI was going to post part two of my love letter to Christopher Hitchens this week, but in light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I just couldn’t summon the proper spirit to write it.

I tried, but it all felt like a big “so what?“.

Especially in light of the pain the mourners in Paris must be feeling right now. The spouses, parents and children of the victims – people who heard their names called by their executioner just before God called them back home.

All I can do is offer a prayer – this one said by my ten year-old daughter as we said our devotions on the night of the tragedy.

She said, “Please help the people who did this realize how wrong they are to hurt others this way.”

I don’t think Hitch could have said it better.

Only God Could Have Created Christopher Hitchens

Hitch noirThere is but one man who could have lured me away from my husband. Even if just for a tawdry weekend of boozing, arguments, smoke-filled hotel rooms and failed attempts at consummating some form of lust.

That man was Christopher Hitchens.

Hitch has been dead for four years and I still miss him. It wasn’t an anniversary of his birth or death that made me get all *sniff* about him once again, it was picking up a copy of Vanity Fair at the gym.

Having not glanced through the magazine in at least a couple of years, I’d forgotten how little it has to offer now that Hitch is gone from its pages. Without him, Vanity Fair just depresses me. It’s an empty Prada suit. An actor trying desperately to sound smart.

For those of you who are a little fuzzy about who Christopher Hitchens was, I’ll tell you a bit about him, then go on to tell you what he meant to me. To Wikipedia, he was “a British-American author, philosopher, polemicist, debater, and journalist. He contributed to New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic, The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and Vanity Fair.”

To me, he was a contrarian, a true thinker, a heart-felt belly laugh, and bright spot in so many dreary days.

“The four most over-rated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics,” he observed rightly.

Unlike other public intellectuals, who are most often pompous prigs who make you want to run for your life, Hitch was a good time. He looked like hell, drank as spiritedly as he argued, told great jokes and judged his fellow man only by merit and character. His friends said he made hipsters look needy.

SPECIAL FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Of course, his hard living killed him in the end, but even about that, he was unrepentant.

“In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light,” he said, after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010.

He told Charlie Rose in a subsequent television interview, “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that — or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me,” adding that it was “impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.”

I realize a lot of people didn’t like Hitch and weren’t sorry to see him go – maybe not from life itself, but certainly from the public stage. The fact is, the man was contentious, self-important and never afraid to change his mind.

A passionate Marxist in his youth, he broke ranks with the Left for the first time when his dear friend, Booker Prize Winner Salman Rushdie, began receiving death threats after the publication of his novel, “The Satanic Verses,” in 1989. The book apparently offended certain Muslim clerics, including none other than the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time. He sentenced Rushdie to death with a “fatwa,” and forced him into hiding.

The glitterati, Hitchens felt, were mealy-mouthed in support of their colleague.

“Utterly spineless,” Hitchens would say.

For all of their posturing about human rights, when it came time for the Left to stand by their friend, Rushdie, they did not. Hitchens never forgave them.

“It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in his memoir, “Hitch-22.” “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”

Hitch writing 1

But his hatred of Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan kept him on the up and up with his friends at “The Nation,” even if they had to hold their noses after he publicly excoriated them for their cowardice on the Rushdie issue.

It wouldn’t be until the September 11th attacks in 2001 that Hitchens would sever his ties with “The Nation,” and thus effectively the Left, for good. His enthusiastic and unwavering support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was an unforgivable breach. Especially since – right or wrong – he could argue his conclusions better than anyone on either side of the debate.

But if you think he went running into the arms of the Right, think again. While hawkish in his desire to “fully destroy our enemies. I hate them. With a passion,” he said. He was no friend of the Right. He despised religious fundamentalism and frankly, religion, on any level, and found the Right’s Civil Rights and Women’s Rights legacy appalling. While he wrote an eloquent piece in “Slate” about why he did not regret George W. Bush’s two turns in the White House, he supported Obama in 2008.

“I don’t envy or much respect people who are completely politicised,” he said.

To the frustration of both his friends and enemies, Hitch switched sides with a kind of ruthlessness that indicated his attachment to thought not ideas. And that’s what I loved so much about him. He understood how crippled one was without the other. How ideas – no matter how great and important – are meant to be assailed by thought and assailed mercilessly. Ideas on politics, on sexuality, on science, on class, on race, and yes, on religion.

“I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness.”

Ain’t that the truth.

hitch thinking

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