Feeding the raccoons

The first time we saw the raccoons on our side deck was this summer: a night cool enough that the air conditioning was off and the windows were open. In the space between waking and sleep, I heard a steady pattern of noise: metal on metal. It was coming from outside. 

I sat up. Tobin was sleeping beside me.

I pulled the blind on the window behind our headboard, looked out. I could see a dark mass moving along the railing of the side deck, and something in the air above it swinging, glittering.

Tobin woke up. “What is it?” he asked.

“On the deck,” I said.

After a minute, the mass resolved into a raccoon. It climbed up to the top corner of the deck post and reached out for the bird feeder, which was swinging repeatedly into the downspout running along the deck post. 

It was the metal perches of the feeder against the downspout that had made the noise; the plastic tube of the feeder that had glittered in the light from the nearby street lamp.

We watched as the raccoon tried different approaches. The bird feeder hangs from the end of a long metal arm and has spring-loaded perches. The raccoon tried extending its body along the metal arm, tried reaching for the feeder from the deck railing, tried reaching for it half-way up the post.

“Is that another one on the deck?” Tobin asked. 

I looked. It was. “Maybe it’s the mother raccoon and one of her babies that we saw in the trees this summer.”

We decided, with no evidence, that it was.

After several tries, the raccoon hooked a spring-loaded perch with one paw and pulled the feeder toward her. Then, standing upright on the deck railing, she began eating out of the feeder.

“Wow,” I said.

“I’m going to go scare her away,” Tobin said. “She’s eating all the bird food.”

He got up and the dog went with him. The raccoon looked large in the street light, maybe 30 pounds, the size of a small child.

After a minute, light flooded onto the raccoons from inside the house and from the overhead light on the deck. The raccoon on the deck skittered away and disappeared in the space between the bottom of the railing and the deck. 

The raccoon standing on top of the railing turned to look at the house where she saw perhaps my husband or perhaps just a reflection in the glass. She did not move. I could see the dark mask across her face, her ringed tail, her clever dark paw on the feeder. Read more

When your mom is an apex predator

My spirit animal is a bear.

I learned this from an online quiz, administered to me by my husband and children last night at bedtime while I was brushing my teeth and they were all lying on our bed with the dog.

“That sounds right,” my husband said. 

Theo’s is an owl.

Tobin and George did theirs twice.

The first time, Tobin got a snake.

George got a shiba-inu. 

“A what?” I asked.

“Look,” George said. He showed me a picture. Shiba-inus are fluffy dogs, originally bred for hunting, described as small, strong, charming, fearless, and loyal — as well as difficult to train.

I nodded.

George walked back into the bedroom. “Why does Mom get to be a bear?” he asked Tobin. Read more

First day. Second week. Middle school.

Theo started middle school this year.

The first day, he got off the bus at the high school instead of the middle school. A teacher there helped him catch the next bus to his school. He boarded to find a neighbor friend in her seat.

The second day, he saw a bus pulling away when he arrived at the stop, and called Tobin, who picked him up and drove in the direction of school. They passed a school friend and her family at their bus stop — and stopped to catch the bus with her.

The third day, he walked a little further to the bus to ride the route with the two neighbors.

“School is great,” Theo said, when people asked. He came home cheerful, planned out the homework routine he would adopt when the homework began in week two, snapped his planner into his three-inch school binder, packed the gym outfit he would wear when gym began in week two.

Last Monday was the first day of week two.

He came home from school, dropped into a chair, complained of being bored to death, stared out the window.

“What’s going on?” I asked. 

He didn’t answer. He has grown an inch in the past month, it seems, and his legs hung long over the side of the armchair. He is almost as tall as I am. He rolled his eyes.

“Did you have a bad day?” I asked.

He kept looking out the window.

“At school?” I asked. “Did you have a bad day at school?

He nodded, the smallest of nods, easy to miss.

I walked to him. 

“Scooch,” I said, though there was really no room for me. I squeezed onto the armchair beside him anyway. He let me.

“You’re hurting,” I said. 

He nodded again. And then he leaned into me and began to sob.

I put my arms around him and we stayed like that for a while.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” I asked.

He shrugged, his shoulder blades pushing up against my arms. 

“Can you ask me questions?” he said. “You just ask me questions, and I’ll answer yes or no.”

Really? I thought. “OK,” I said.

Was he feeling overwhelmed? Yes.

Did someone hurt his feelings? No.

Was it the schoolwork? Kind of.

Was it the homework? No.

Was it the classroom? Not exactly.

Was it the time between classes? Kind of.

“This could take a while,” I said.

“I want you to know,” he said. “But I don’t want to have to say it out loud.”

We were still squashed together on the armchair. His voice was small. 

“Can you give me a few hints?” I asked.

He took a deep breath. “I expected the classes to be faster,” he said. “But I expected them to be like 15 times faster. And instead they’re maybe 200 times faster.”

I nodded.

“And we’re always changing rooms.”

I nodded again.

“And I have different lockers with different combinations.”

More nodding from me.

Theo dropped his head to my shoulder. “I’m so busy remembering where I was and trying to remember where I’m going next, it’s like I’m never where I am.”

My arms were still around him.

“Oh,” I said.  I put my hand on his hair.

After a while, I said, “That sounds like a lot.” 

After another while, I said, “You know, grown-ups struggle with that too.”

And, eventually, I asked him if he wanted to brainstorm some strategies that might help (yes, he did) and about whether there was an adult at school who could be a helpful friend when he was feeling overwhelmed (yes, his homeroom teacher) and from there, we came up with a list of ideas. 

He wiped off the tear tracks, blew his nose, and got up to cuddle the dog.

The next morning, we sent a note to his homeroom teacher, color-coded his schedule, put his gym locker combination on the inside of a rainbow wrist band. And he and Tobin headed off to the bus stop.

It felt like not enough. 

I was at work, but I kept picturing him in that big school with its wide corridors. Should we have made him go to the neighborhood middle school instead of letting him choose the magnet school across town? What if schedule changes were always hard? What would high school be like? College? The years unrolled before me: unchanging, difficult.

That afternoon, he arrived home smiling.

“How was your day?” I asked.

“Great,” he said. 

I looked at him, relieved and perhaps doubtful.

He explained, “I didn’t realize. Yesterday was the first Monday of the school year. Now I know what they’re like. I’ll be prepared.” 

He reminded me that Mondays were shorter days, but they still had all their usual classes, so that everything really was faster, relative to other days. His regular teacher had checked in on him. His school counselor had checked in on him. 

“Did the color-coded schedule help?” I asked. 

He shrugged. “I didn’t really use it.”

“Was it good to have your locker combination on your wristband?”

“It wore off,” he said. “Anyway, I gave you the wrong combination. But the gym teacher helped me.”

He pulled his three-inch binder out of his backpack and put it on the dining room table. Then he opened the fridge.

“I’m going to have a snack,” he said. “While I do my homework.”

by Alison S. Lebwohl

Image by Genty from Pixabay

Hippos with light sabers

“Mom, can I take the patronus quiz?” George asks. 

This is an online quiz, the kind where you answer a dozen questions and the algorithm tells you who you are. A patronus is the smoky animal spell from the Harry Potter books, the one that repels dementors and carries messages. It takes one form for each person, usually a form that represents that person: a stag, a doe, a phoenix.

“Not now,” I say.  It is 10:30 at night and the boys and I are in a hotel in Pennsylvania, traveling from Wisconsin to New York. We’re in our beds and the lights are out.

“What do you think my patronus would be?” George asks. “Do you think it would be an otter?”

“Hermione’s patronus is an otter,” Theo says.

“What’s an animal that’s cute and soft?” George says. “Maybe I would be a lion.”

“Are lions nocturnal?” I ask.

There are hundreds of quizzes like this out there. Giver or taker? Rebellion or Empire? Rock or fire?

The internet has made them faster and easier — no more circling numbers in a magazine and manually tallying your scores — but quizzes like this are nothing new.

I have taken them at sleepover parties (What kind of friend are you?) and in college (What color is your parachute?) and at work (Meyers-Briggs, StrengthsFinders, DiSC). 

And now that my children have discovered them, I have learned my house at Hogwarts (Ravenclaw), which Greek god I am (Zeus), and my spirit animal (Bear).

Aren’t they a little bit irresistible, after all? With their gloss of intimacy, their implied promise of both seeing you clearly and naming your clan. 

I remember how, in the sleepover party quizzes, you could tell which answers were the “good” ones, and so I would persuade myself that those really did describe me. Sure, I love last-minute dance parties until midnight. Really. 

There might be a fun-loving group, an artistic group, a sporty group and a scholarly group, but you could tell that all of them had glossy hair and impeccable social skills. Where was the group for the awkward and plain?

Of course, would you really take a quiz that told you you were a mortal, a muggle, a beetle? 

Before our children were watching Star Wars and reading Harry Potter, we would read them James Marshall’s books about two hippo friends, George and Martha. To be clear, not much happens in these stories.

In one story, George tries to read Martha’s diary. Martha tells him if he wants to read her diary, he needs to ask. He asks. She says no. The end. 

In another story, Martha is practicing her tightrope walking. George tells her, repeatedly, how high up and scary that looks. Martha starts to wobble. George quickly says he can see how much she enjoys being up there and of course, when you enjoy something, that makes you good at it. Martha walks steadily to the other side of the rope. The end. 

No magic. No monsters. No spaceships.

Just friendship and choices.

We are past 1st grade for Theo and George, and long past that for Lydia — but even now, with Lydia in her junior year of college, I remember her coming home one afternoon from 1st grade.

“Did anyone vomit at school today?” I asked. (This question is always worth asking. You’d be surprised how often you get a yes.)

“No,” she said.

“Anything surprising happen at lunch?” I asked.

“Nicole said we shouldn’t talk to Hannah,” she reported. Nicole was a cool girl with a mean streak. 

I paused. 

I looked at Lydia. 

Tobin and I were newly married, and I was coming to love this small girl who would hold my hand when we went places together and tell me jokes that were impossible to follow. 

“Then what?” I asked.

“Then I said that’s not what friends do,” she said. “Friends don’t say things to each other that hurt. They say things to each other that feel good.”

She walked over to the fridge to get a snack.

Maybe moments of courage don’t involve battles with light sabers or outwitting a sphinx or pulling a sword from a stone, but they sure feel like they do.

Maybe underneath, all of our stories are really about hippos.

By Alison S. Lebwohl

image by Denis Doukhan from Pixabay

All those teeth

George lost a tooth.

“You can leave that out for the tooth fairy,” I said. 

George rose from the dinner table and walked into the kitchen. The garbage can lid rose and fell, and then George returned to the table, empty-handed.

“Where’s your tooth?” Tobin asked.

“I don’t want the tooth fairy coming into my room at night,” George said. 

“The tooth fairy will leave you a dollar,” Theo said.

“It’s creepy,” George said. “Some strange lady coming into my room while I’m sleeping and taking my tooth. What does she do with all of those teeth?”

“What about Santa?” my uncle — visiting for the weekend — asked. “Is Santa creepy?”

“Santa’s magic,” George explained. “He brings presents. He’s not taking anything away.”

“Maybe the tooth fairy’s building a boat,” Theo said. “You know, like the ship of the dead.” This is from Norse mythology, the boat built from the fingernails and toenails of the dead.

“Not from my teeth,” George said. Read more

  1. What if everyone really is doing the best they can?
  2. What if I behaved as if the world were an abundant place?
  3. What does this moment feel like in my body?
  4. What if not everything my parents taught me about the world is true?
  5. How would I behave if my goal were to connect rather than to win?
By Alison S. Lebwohl

Image by Ioannis Ioannidis from pixabay

Home improvement

It started, I suppose, with getting a dog.

Because we got the dog, we needed to replace the backyard fence.

“We can do this ourselves,” Tobin said. This was a few weeks ago. It was an old split rail fence, lined with wire fencing, and it had started to rot and lean in places.

“We can do it together,” I said.

In our 15 years of marriage, we have an uneven history of doing projects together. So Tobin was only mostly joking when he started the project task list with (1) put marriage therapist on speed dial.

I suggested that we make the fenced yard smaller, let the wild wooded area get larger.

“I’m not making our yard any smaller,” Tobin said.

On one side of our property, a wooded area leads down to the creek. Inside our fenced back yard, mature oaks and hickories shade thriving ornamental bushes, neglected flower beds and a large savannah of weeds, nuts, sticks and dirt.

Tobin’s arms were folded across his chest.

“OK,” I said. “We can keep the yard the same size.”

We watched some online videos on split rail fencing, then measured, selected materials, called Diggers’ Hotline.

“I don’t think we need to call them,” Tobin said. Read more

Believe me

“Should we tell them about The Bunny this year?” Tobin asked.

It was Saturday night and we were driving to my sister’s house for a Passover seder. It was also the night before Easter.

“Up to you,” I said. “You’re the Christian parent.”

The boys are 9 and 11 years old. Questions like this come up more frequently now: Santa, Bunny, Fairy.

“I’m worried if we tell them about The Bunny, other things will start to unravel,” Tobin said.

“What will unravel?” Theo asked from the back seat, looking up from his book about Norse mythology. “What does unravel mean?” Read more

Life with kids

“Want to play Life?” Theo asked.

“Ticket to Ride?” I asked.

Theo shook his head.

Othello? No. Sleeping Queens? No. Catan? No.

As we were setting up the game board with its brightly-colored track, and built-in spinner and plastic car tokens, Tobin and George came home.

“Want to play Life, Dad?” Theo asked.

Tobin shook his head. “I’m going to start dinner,” he said.

“Can I play?” George asked.

Behind George, Theo shook his head, vehemently. The last time we played a game with George, he got mad when he was losing — or maybe when he was caught cheating — and threw the dice so they bounced everyone’s players and pieces off their respective places on the board.

Still, it’s my job to believe — perhaps foolishly — that my children can make different choices than they have in the past. “Let’s include George,” I said to Theo.

“Then I’m not playing,” Theo said, crossing his arms.

But after we agreed that everyone would be respectful of the rules and the physical game and the other players and the other players’ bedrooms after the game, we put three car tokens at the start of the game and inserted one colored plastic peg in the driver’s seat of each car — blue for boys, pink for girls. Then we began spinning and drawing cards and moving spaces.

Theo was the first to get married. Read more

Super worm mom

“Did you see the moon this morning?” I asked. I had seen it from the dining room table before the sun rose: enormous, butter-yellow, resting in the branches of the neighbor’s oak tree.

“It was a supermoon,” Josie (my niece) announced, looking up from the origami cat that Lauren (my sister) was folding for her. “It’s a super worm moon.”

“What’s a super worm moon?” George asked.

Josie shrugged. “We were talking about the supermoon today and someone said it was a super wolf moon and someone else said it was a super blue moon, so my teacher looked it up. She said it was a super worm moon.”

“So what is that?” George asked again.

“All over Madison,” Josie said. “Kids are asking that. That’s what my teacher said. That at every dinner table tonight, kids would be asking their parents, ‘What’s a super worm moon?’”

“Let’s look it up,” George said.

We were busy folding and cutting and talking.

“Later,” I said. “We can look it up later.”

At the end of the table, Theo was folding a series of irregular diamonds. He had a stack of them beside him. Read more