Mangled Hearts

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Eight years and a couple of weeks ago I had a baby. She was perfect– except for the critically imperfect heart. Whisked away to the main Duke Medical Center, she underwent an emergency procedure on her walnut-sized damaged organ. We followed her there as soon as I could discharge myself, and we met the team who would save this tiny life. As the strikingly young and handsome doctor briefed us before the surgery, he began with the harshest of words: Your baby might die.

There I was– bleeding, swelling, sweating– with head spinning. Would you believe that over the course of the next hours I actually tried to convince myself that it was OK if she didn’t make it, because I never had the chance to know her anyhow? I’d like to chalk this up to postpartum delirium and circumstantial trauma, as opposed to terrible parenting and awful moral character.

Handsome Doctor emerged to update us that the procedure went as well as expected (weeks later we learned that this was his youngest patient yet– that normally this procedure isn’t done on babies only hours old). He had been cautious, and projected he would need to go in for a second attempt within a couple of weeks or several months. For now they’d watch and wait.

Later in the evening we went to visit our daughter– of whom we couldn’t see very much behind the tubes and wires. Clad in a tiny diaper and a purple cap with two pink hearts, she was sedated, intubated and medicated. But that little heart was beating. We couldn’t hold her, but we touched her and marveled at her– just as any new parents would. Days later, when she was at last no longer sedated, she broke free from the swaddle and ripped at her tubes. At that moment we knew we had a fighter.

Despite some additional complications, which included a giant blood clot, we brought her home eight years ago tomorrow. We’d have to inject her twice daily with blood thinners (yes, right there on the kitchen counter) and we’d be in and out of the hospital and doctors’ offices for months. But there she was, and here she is, a fighter still.

Each year around Christmas I send off two holiday cards– one to the doctor from North Carolina and another to the New York cardiologist who performed the second repair. I know not whether they actually receive the notes, or even if they care to. Nevertheless, I include a photo and a brief update to document their masterful achievements. Not only did this child survive, she has thrived. From swimming to skiing to snowboarding to horse back riding to playing tennis to bike riding to skate boarding to competing in triathlons, this kid has no limits. Imagine what she would do with an undamaged heart?!

Also each year on her birthday I bake a cake, as does any parent. But mine is always in the shape of a heart. I have a compulsion, I suppose, to make whole what I originally created as flawed. This year, the cake didn’t quite slide out of the pan, and we were left with yet another mangled heart. There were some tears involved, until we reminded the guest of honor that her own heart doesn’t look so pretty but it gets the job done. She’s old enough to know that she has a special heart, one that goes lub-dub-squish, and that we love this about her.

Our little girl has a heart of infinite capacity. It’s imperfectly perfect.

How Does Justin Bieber Do That?

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His music is oddly pleasing, his hair intriguing and his man-child biceps endearing. But what fascinates me above all else regarding Justin Bieber is his massive Twitter following! Is he really that profound? Or eloquent? What is it that well over 33 million people–mobile devices afire–scramble to read?

Perhaps that’s just it: I don’t understand. Twitter and tweet– it’s all lost on me. And when it comes to social media I thought that I could continue to live in blissful ignorance for a while yet. I’ve long since been vocal about my resistance to joining the movement unless by necessity. Of course by necessity I mean  having to help my kids navigate the scene. I figured that would buy me some years, and maybe somehow this would all pass and the pendulum would swing the other way drastically so we could raise our kids without all of this crap technology.

Well, that’s not gonna happen now is it?!

Last week came the brutal awakening. Parents were notified that the second graders were now on Twitter. They’d be sending out tweets (as a group) from social studies, with the first informing us how, according to creation stories, the snake came to have no legs.

Oh, dreaded day!

With my son home sick and napping, I, the reluctant laggard, set up my Twitter account so that just in case my almost-eight-year-old daughter wanted to chat tweets I’d be one step ahead. Fast forward to the car ride back from school, when she asked what we had done all day. With pride and (feigned) enthusiasm I revealed my feat: setting up Twitter. Her response: What’s that?

Now not only did I have to join Twitter, I also had to explain it. My explanation involved birds, and announcements and mass communication and loads of (presumable) misinformation. I even brought Justin Bieber into the conversation to sound relevant. In the rear view mirror I could see her processing thoughts. Her response: So, if I wanted to announce that I were pregnant, then the people in China would know?

Holy S—!!!  Beat that one, Justin.

Can’t we just leave tweeting to the birds?

Run Away with Me, Lance Armstrong

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Run away with me, Lance!

Ewww– gross. This isn’t a romantic gesture (I’m committed to a guy with bona fide moral integrity). I offer as a friend, because I am guessing you’re short on those right now. Come run with me, and escape who you’ve become. Come run with me and rediscover the athlete you once were– the one who ran, swam and cycled because you had drive, talent and above all passion.

We’ll put on some tunes, perhaps Fun. Some Nights:

Well, some nights I wish that this all would end                                                              Cause I could use some friends for a change                                                                    And some nights, I’m scared you’ll forget me again
Some nights, I always win, I always win…                                                                             What do I stand for?  What do I stand for?  What do I stand for?                                           Most nights I don’t know….

Indeed you won. You cheated death. Then you cheated life. You took that “win at all costs” attitude and you lost everything. But you certainly won’t be forgotten. So, now what do you stand for?

Let’s go for a run and find out. We’ll take in the salty breeze, welcoming the crisp air into our lungs– yours of course once ravaged by disease and yet still stronger than most. We’ll feel the pounding of hearts, yours of course once pushing tainted blood through your veins. We’ll feel the lactic acid releasing into our legs, yours of course having stood several times on a podium of lies.

We’ll run so that you can sweat away all that you once were– a liar, a cheat, a self-proclaimed jerk. But remember, you were also a hero, an idol, a self-proclaimed humanitarian. I believed in you as so many did. Are there any of us left now?

Run from your past and toward your future– the one in which you can be a better competitor, leader, survivor, father, friend, human.

You thrive on defending yourself and proving others wrong. Do it again–rise above and be better. In the words of your former sponsor:

Just Do It.

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Lessons from an Unlikable Suspect

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My mom’s done it. My mother-in-law is still doing it. And Pukey Pukerson’s mom showed us how the real pros do it. What is it exactly? That would be resourceful outsourcing, all in the name of a successful vacation. This year after an epiphany on the slopes I joined the ranks.

I entered parenthood thinking that I was going to be the cool mom. Among the many activities I enjoy, I’d swim, bike, ski, play tennis, horseback ride– you name it– with my kids. I’d even teach them myself. Bring on the bonding opportunities!  (And of course they would appreciate them all.) The strategy seemed to work with my daughter, whose athleticism and risk-seeking tendencies favor such endeavors. At seven, with only a handful of “real” ski lessons under her belt, she not only keeps up but often leads the way down the hill. We’ll be chasing her in a season or two.

Then we put skis on my son. He’s a whole other animal– cautious, reserved and a little bit less than agile. My moment of defeat came on the first run. Half-way down the bunny hill I extricated him from between my knees and encouraged him to slide down just a few yards to where I would catch him. With that, he slumped to the snow– melting like the Wicked Witch when doused with water. Having duck-walked back up to him, I struggled to bring him upright. From that angle I just couldn’t lift 52 pounds of wet noodle. That’s when I knew: I would have to outsource to ski school.

Heartbroken (yes, both of us) we made our way to ski school the next day. That’s where we met Pukey Pukerson. This poor kid was waiting for his mom to purchase his ticket when his semi-digested breakfast reappeared all over the floor, his jacket and chin. His mom, completely unfazed, took some tissue from the counter, swabbed his coat, dabbed his face, then made a light attempt to remove the evidence. The result was a sizable and stinky stain on the carpet where the barf residue mixed with tissue filaments had seeped in. With that Pukey Pukerson was off to ski school.

There I was– the horrified and now nauseated witness– left to wonder doesn’t she know the universal rule that requires children be fever and vomit free for 24 hours before returning to school, camp, day care and so forth? Not 24 seconds, lady.

I mean really, what kind of mother sends her barfing child off to ski school for the day? The really hardcore, resourceful outsourcing kind. Nothing, especially not a little puke, was going to keep her from big plans for herself that day. Suddenly I didn’t feel like the worst parent ever, sending my own son through the rainbow arches of the ski school entrance with quivering lower lip. Now I just hoped for the sake of his very sensitive nose that he wouldn’t be in Pukey Pukerson’s group.

This incident was life altering for me. Not because of the trauma I suffered watching the kid vomit nor the aftermath. Rather, from Pukey Pukerson’s mom I gained invaluable perspective. It’s OK to take care of the self sometimes, even if it seems that in the moment it’s not in the best interest of the child. It just might be what he needs for long-term success. As a parent I do need to outsource from time to time. (Fortunately finances prevent us from doing it all the time because I can see how it could be completely addictive.)

I now see how outsourcing the family during vacation actually promotes successful family time. At long last it makes sense why my own ski-adverse mother agreed on and even looked forward to a family ski week. What fun was that for her, sitting around waiting for us all to return from the slopes? Therein lies the answer. She had time for her– and sitting by the fire alone, reading the paper alone, sipping coffee alone, enjoying a book alone, was vacation in and of itself.  She is the unsung genius of successful family vacations.

To that end, my mother-in-law is no slouch either. She still outsources– her retired, stay-at-home husband that is. Many a winter day she is asked to drive not just my father-in-law but also his cronies both to and from the slopes for an afternoon of skiing, burger-eating and beer-drinking. What?! Why on earth would she, a self-respecting woman, agree to this?! I silently pitied her for years, questioning doesn’t she have anything better to do with her time? Again, therein lies the answer. This alone time is the precious commodity, and being master of the car pool is the no-brainer trade-off.

We should all thank Pukey Pukerson’s mom. Not only has she schooled us in the art of effective and relentless outsourcing, but she has also made us look pretty darn good as parents!

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Eating Feelings

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We eat for joy, for sorrow, for boredom, for comfort. Whether festive or mundane, our days and moods are defined by  the foods we choose. And of course the present holiday season is rife with treats. What happens, then, when celebratory times and tragic events converge– such as on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary? Some of us were too revolted too eat; others were too consumed with grief to bother; still others grabbed darling cookies to bring to their children in demonstrations of love because we are the fortunate ones.

I fall into all three categories. Note– my kids didn’t actually have the chance yet to enjoy the cookies because they lost dessert privileges for a few days, but that’s a different story. Let’s just say I had to shelf the elf. They also don’t know the impetus for the impulsive purchase because (thus far) I have been able to shield them from all media coverage. Tonight, guarded by innocence, they’ll share the cookies.

On Friday I planned a lighthearted, witty post on holiday eating– namely baked goods, which you might recall I do love. As you can imagine, any humor was sucked right out of me as I heard the stomach-churning news over the radio. You needn’t be a parent or teacher, school administrator or first responder to feel the horror, grief and anguish of this. You need only be human.

I’ll leave it up to you– if and when you are ready– to read my thoughts on holiday treats. It comes with a small confession: whilst on my sabbatical I have been staying lightly active in my role as nutrition consultant. I’m still with Trismarter.com,  which provides online coaching and nutrition support for multisport athletes. I do so because I genuinely enjoy the work, and also because I enjoy funding my sabbatical pursuits. I’m a firm believer that eating is the fourth discipline of triathlon, and I encourage my clients to fuel properly. Sometimes that, by necessity, involves dessert. Recently I wrote a piece on how to make sure your holiday meal has room for this crucial component.

Regardless of whether you’ll choose to read nutrition tips and regardless of which feelings you are eating today, tomorrow or in the weeks to come, you’ll likely do so while holding thoughts of the Newtown community in your heart. Cookies do wonders– maybe not for the hips– but certainly for the soul.

Game of Love

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Ping. Pop. Bounce. Spin. Satisfaction.

Smash. Slam. Whiff. Shank. Frustration.

That’s right– it’s the sport of tennis I describe. If you’re looking for schmaltzy romance, you’re on the wrong page. In this game, love means nothing. Literally: Nada. Zilch. Zero. What is to love about that?

Supposedly the scoring system reflects the notion that one plays for the love of it, and nothing else. Not points, not victory. As I chip away at the (many) layers of rust, I might have a tiny understanding of that–finally.

I grew up a tennis player, and put a lot of time, sweat and tears into my game. I loved it as much as I hated it– and after my last high school match the latter feelings forced me to take a 17-year hiatus.

Much has changed since my final days on the court. My knees are creakier, my eyesight is poorer. I have grown into my large feet… and also into my sports bra. I might– just might– have developed some maturity and perspective, too. I’m appreciative for all that my parents gave to me: lessons, encouragement and a lot of court time with my dad. He and I even won a mini-tournament, a highlight (I think) of his parenting years.

In my return from retirement, my stroke actually hasn’t changed much. Timing is another story. What a fine line there is between miss and a winner! If I can keep enjoying the sport, I know that I can only improve.

As my game is coming back to me, my expectations increase. I have to check my irritations at the gate, accepting that less fit women with much less finesse will lob and “push” their way through the points. It gets me every time. I will not bend to that kind of game– never have, never will. I vow to work only on my stragety and also to silence the profanities that are eager to fly from my mouth. Remember– the maturity is still very much in development. I have to actively remind myself that it’s all about the love.

Tennis anyone?

 

 

The Hijacking of a Holiday Classic

‘Twas some weeks before Christmas and all through the town

Halloween decorations came tumbling down.

The very next day signature cups were here

As Starbucks abound brought red holiday cheer.

 

But I’m not ready; I protest you will see,

Thanksgiving was rushed— was passed by easily.

Christmas scenes at malls were quickly erected

Before the plump turkey was even selected.

 

Hold onto your bells and red Santa Claus suits;

With commercialists and marketers in cahoots!

Slow down premature spending for goodness sakes;

We hadn’t had time for giving our thanks.

 

Not to mention out here, all the way out west,

We needn’t a coat—only sweater or vest.

New Yorkers we know that it’s no big charade:

The real Santa shows by ending the parade.

 

Now that the cooking and the feasting’s been done

And our dear guests and family have all gone,

I relish this now, oh so sweet Monday morn

When I sit silent, not any bit forlorn.

 

I need just a day—fine maybe even two

To recover from this before something new.

It’s not just Christmas but New Year’s, too,

And thanks to my mom, I’m a little bit Jew.

 

To gather the gifts and an additional eight,

Which one on what day, when shall we celebrate?

Palm trees do twinkle with festive bright light

Faux evergreens are seen in windows at night.

 

It’s weirdly warm, supposedly normal—

Strapless can be worn to the Christmas formal.

Ready now, I embrace holiday season;

To delay any longer I have no good reason.

 

On browsing! On buying! On wrapping! On giving!

At toy stores and books stores, clothes stores and e-stores:

Shop away! Shop away! Shop away, all!

 

Sam, too, has arrived—our own elf on our shelf,

Each night he reports to the big man himself.

He keeps us in line, or he tries to at least.

But how does a tiny guy tame our two giant beasts?

 

Four weeks more until school is out once again.

That brings a fortnight of true solid mayhem!

The day that I rest, the day of pure glee,

Is way off on 1-7, 2-0-1-3.

 

My effort’s complete; here ends my festive rhyme.

Happy prepping to all, and to all a good time!

 

 

Tattoos and Piercing

This past weekend was bliss for my family: thirty-one uninterrupted nag-free hours. That’s right, while mom’s away the dad and kids play.  Though they sent adorable and quirky photos of their antics and adventures, while claiming to miss me, I think secretly they cast not one thought in my direction. They love the rare occasions when I take myself out of the equation probably even more than I do.

Those hours, meanwhile, are precious few for me. I hopped the train to LA, a beautiful journey along the coast. However, I didn’t take in much of the scenery as I was engrossed in my latest book The Shoemaker’s Wife— a recommended read for anyone lucky enough to take a long plane trip, sit quietly on a beach or have a few spare moments in the evening. So, probably not applicable to many of you in this busy and hectic life!

I was retrieved at the station by one of my dearest friends from summer camp days (yes, a witness to the haircut). I’ll never forget the day we met– she already a veteran of this eight-week sleep-away camp and I a complete newbie to this east coast tradition.  Confident, sprightly  and engaging, she captivated me immediately and took me under her wing. Fortunately she was able to look beyond the haircut to establish a  friendship that even today slides right back into that comfort of our 8-year-old selves.

The wonderful afternoon rolled into a pleasant evening in Santa Monica with my mother, brother and some special dinner guests. Even more special was the guy at the bar, who apparently forgot to put on jeans that would actually cover his extremely unattractive and completely exposed rear. I did try to capture a photo, but alas, my phone-photo skills failed me at this critical juncture. I invite you to conjure up your own visual.

Early Sunday morning my electric blue shoes took me along the beach to the canals of Venice.  I did contemplate stopping here to revamp my image, but I neither had the money nor the time to wait until it opened:

I sauntered slogged back along the “colorful” Venice Beach as a birthday brunch awaited in downtown LA. There my brother took us to a swanky eatery, and then introduced us to his surrounding neighborhoods. I definitely don’t miss city life, but it’s always nice to be able to picture your friends and families in their habitats once you see how and where they live.

My respite from reality was not complete without a Chinese foot reflexology session. These poorly paid, highly competent people are geniuses at their craft! It’s a good thing I don’t have access to such venues as I would escape much more often, justifying that I’m helping their personal economy.

Back to the Amtrak I went, this time accompanied by my mother. A short two hours later I returned myself to my family, trained to welcome me with enormous enthusiasm. It was brief of course, but lovely while the love lasted.

How quickly we settle back into the routine tasks as chores themselves never go on vacation. As I thought about that phenomenon, I was grateful for having had one night when no one peed in the bed– or if someone did, I wasn’t there to find it.

Oh, and that tattoo? Perhaps next time.

Apples to Harvard

I had a date last night. We met over a steamy hot chocolate. We discussed lofty goals, reminiscing about the past and dreaming of the future. I hope I had a hand in his destiny. I hope he is accepted to Harvard.

For several years now I have been volunteering as a Harvard Alumni interviewer. Upon relocating, I switched from the Princeton chapter to the San Diego committee, and last night I met with my first west coast applicant. He was reserved, initially, and squirmed a bit in his belt-less slacks, non-button-down shirt, clunky black dress shoes– all of which he was clearly not accustomed to wearing. I could tell that this was not his persona. I could tell that he hadn’t been coached for his interview. Not like the kids I had met in the past– those from extreme privilege who know not how fortunate they are to attend respected east-coast prep schools, and have access to personal SAT tutors, essay counselors and interview coaches. Even those from the excellent public schools in the Princeton area felt entitled to the best of higher education, and pursued Harvard sometimes just because they have straight A’s and access to the common application.

This kid, however, made an impression on me. He didn’t claim to have unparalleled intelligence and he didn’t promise to cure the human race of cancer. He did, however, divulge that he worked a landscaping job last summer to fund his own application fees. And when he earned the coveted National Hispanic Scholar recognition for his PSAT scores, he had to call the number on the form to find out what this meant. He didn’t know that this is something a high school college adviser should inform him of, because he didn’t know that they even exist.

Throughout our conversation this kid warmed up and loosened up. I was able to extract meaningful details of his high school education and catch a glimpse into his character. I’m the interviewer who is more focused on the latter, favoring personal stories over grades and scores. The school can see that part on the transcript. Rather, can you look me in the eye and exchange quality conversation? Can you tell me with sincerity why Harvard is the place for you above all other institutions? And can you relay to me, so that I can convey in my words, to the admissions committee why they should select you over thousands? Here’s a tip: don’t say you applied because your mother told you you should.  Yes, I actually did receive that as an answer one time.

I interview these candidates not because I think it will help my own kids’ chances of being accepted. Statistics say they won’t. My small contribution to the process over the years won’t change that, nor would I want it to. I choose to be involved because I’m interested in keeping current with kids in their high school years. Sometimes I’m frightened by what I see; I’m horrified by their lack of diligence; I’m disappointed by the shortage of appreciation. But most of the time I’m impressed, inspired and humbled by the kids’ talents and accomplishments. It reminds me that the only thing remarkable about me at Harvard was that I was/am simply not remarkable. By several accounts I should never have been accepted myself.

I clearly recall my first misstep, and it goes down in family legend. My initial Harvard interview– the one that assessed my preparedness for kindergarten at Trinity having completed my nursery years at Episcopal–was nearly unhinged due to apples. Yes, the simple fruit came close to destroying my whole scholarly future. How many pieces do you get when you cut in apple in half? asked the interviewer.

Four, I answered. Several times I was asked because, I think, she was in utter disbelief. Several times I answered, Four. I wouldn’t budge. After all, every time the teacher cut the apples for snack, there were always– and I mean without fail– always four pieces. It made complete sense to me that apples were meant to be shared in fours. I used logic. My logic based on my experience. Well, at the very least I showed my unwavering commitment to what I believed was right.

Not too much has changed– I see now that an apple cut in half literally means into two pieces. And yes, I have quizzed my kids on that to make sure they don’t commit the same educational crime. No,  I still believe what counts is not how well one can count, and that good character and commitment to what is right propels us forward.

Just before this candidate and I departed, he turned to me and asked with heart-rending vulnerability, Can I ask you something?

Of course, I replied– both interested and concerned.

If I go on to do more interviews, do you think what I am wearing is OK?

I gave him a reassuring smile. I think you look great; don’t change a thing.

Confessions of a Fraudulent Halloweener

Guilt is powerful, paralyzing even. It holds some of us more captive than others, and strikes in unpredictable places. I am prone to guilt, and I worry too much. My husband claims that I worry about worrying, even when I have nothing to worry about. This I can’t deny. On Monday I was wracked by guilt as I swam laps outside, enjoying the mid-70’s sunshine in a pool heated comfortably. I kept company with the retiree water aerobics class, and feasted my eyes on the very tan and equally toned lifeguard leading the crew.  I did so as my friends and family were being pummeled by Sandy, and as the house we still unfortunately own was left to weather the fury powered only by a back-up marine battery. This battery, plugged into the sump pump, is like the little dutch boy’s finger jammed into the hole. Should it give, the system fails and the floods conquer. Only when power is restored are we out of the woods. Still we’ll own the damn house.

At least this time around I’m not stuck inside that house with famished, stinky, cooped-up children. The guilt of my feeling relieved magnifies as I know that others are in dire condition– financially, physically and emotionally. Thousands of miles away from them we carried on with living: school, work and Halloween.

My guilt surged on Halloween night, and not because in the chaos of the day I mistakenly switched my kids’ lunch items which they quickly brought to my attention after each went slightly hungry. Rather,  I was involved with perpetuating a fallacy that was revealed in the thick of trick-or-treating.  We discovered the truth: the California condor is not, in fact, the state bird. The quail won that honor back in 1931 when it beat out the condor for the title.

Not only is the condor frightfully unattractive, it’s also nearly extinct, so two valid reasons for missing out on top honor.  The condor, however, is on the state quarter as consolation prize. Hence the confusion, and one explanation for how we let our creative, crafty and proud seven-year-old don a condor costume and inadvertently dupe the neighborhood. As well as friends, teachers, administrators, parents and passers-by. In the months leading up to the festivities our daughter had announced to anyone and everyone that she would be representing the state bird, the condor, on Halloween. She’d be devastated to know that her costume– her inspired efforts– were inaccurate. I couldn’t tell her right then and there. Plus I needed to be sure.

In the haze of my Halloween hangover the next morning I scoured the internet for all things condor. Remember– the purpose of a sabbatical is for research. I’m now an expert in condor traits and facts, including full knowledge of why they purposefully defecate down their legs. Most importantly I concluded that they are, indeed, not the state bird. When I shared my findings with my condor-loving child later that afternoon, there were tears. I recognized those tears– they were guilt-ridden puddles of shame.

My condor kid truly believed that everyone at school, in the neighborhood and at the party where she had won first prize for best costume would deem her a liar. She even suggested that she should return her grand prize, the highly anticipated and already beloved MG (gaming system) that is en route from China as I type. Worst of all, she implored through her sniffles, Why didn’t you check more carefully?
How right she is, and how guilty I feel.

A stickler for accuracy, I try to triple-check everything. I don’t like to be wrong, and moreover, I refuse to make errors without taking ownership. I figured that she, too, would want to know the truth and to hear it from me instead of being called out by someone else. I’d rather be the bad guy. I’ll wipe away her tears, absolving her of guilt and absorbing it into my own.

There is little I can offer from afar to aid those affected by the hurricane, other than to open our home up for a hot shower (even without electricity we have gas-powered hot water). And we can’t redo Halloween unless we head to New Jersey to partake in the postponed affair on November 5th. The best I can do is to make a subtle modification to an essential part of that costume, and tuck it away in a keepsake box as a reminder that, when having erred, we move forward not with guilt but in good humor.