Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Settle for a Vowel When You Can Buy the Whole Book?

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all: read a lot and write a lot.
There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."

Long before I read King's words, I had embraced his philosophy. I had, in fact, embraced it in a way that may have occasionally appeared compulsive to the people around me. Those compulsions are more pronounced now than ever.

Here's the bookshelf above my writing desk. There is another row of books just as long on the connecting wall, but sunlight prohibited me from getting a shot of those.

These are the books on the shelf in my writing desk:

These are the books in a stack on my writing desk:

These are some books I currently have checked out of the library:

These are the books (and a magazine) that are on my nightstand at the moment:

For years, my book obsession had to take a backseat--financially and often time-wise--to raising four children. Now, not only do I have a bit more disposable income, but I have discovered I can buy used books on the internet. This is fabulous but also horrible because I can buy many more than I can actually find the time to read. Books that came in the mail today:

I have essentially set up my house so that I am never more than ten feet from a book at any time. And for those times when I leave the house, I stuff my backpack with both reading and writing materials lest I ever be caught somewhere without words to play with. The current contents of my backpack (arrayed on my lap desk which is where I write most often while at home):

L-r, top: my current journal, a packet on trauma-informed care for work that I have been trying to finish reading for weeks, two tablets--you know, the vintage kind of tablet, made of paper--where I work on rough drafts; bottom: current issue of Poets & Writers, book of short stories, my previous journal, in case I need to double check whether I've written something down already.

I used to jokingly call myself an addict, but these days I favor the label "zealot"--this shift in preference may or may not be related* to the fact that I desperately needed a "Z" word to round out the A-Z Challenge today.

Z is for Zealot

*Hint: it is totally related.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Ways I Am Not a Grown-Up, The Twenty-Second In a Potentially Infinite Series

This still happens to me way too often: 

It happens way too often and almost always lately it happens an hour into a two hour drive through the wilds of western New York between Rochester and home somewhere around 9:30 at night. 

Though I have understood for as long as I can remember that vehicles need gas to run, I still routinely forget to pay any attention to the fuel gauge until warning lights start flashing and alarms start chiming. 

Y is for Young-at-heart, where young is a euphemism for immature.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

It's So Much Safer Just to Keep the Genie in the Bottle

One evening last week, Hubby and I were puttering in the front yard--peeking at our itty bitty spinaches, lettuces, and peas--when a friend pulled up to visit for a bit. The subject of the Presidential election came up, as it seems to so often lately, and it's impossible to talk about politics at all right now without talking about Donald Trump. None of us are Trump fans--and if you are, you might want to skip this post and come back tomorrow for a less potentially inflammatory letter. 

During our conversation, Hubby mentioned that he finds it baffling that several otherwise intelligent people he knows are Trump supporters. It may be the case that Trump has many intelligent supporters, but it is also true that I have yet to hear a remotely intelligent reason for supporting Trump. 

I have struggled mightily to try to see Trump through the eyes of his supporters, but have so far been unable to do so. Many applaud his willingness to tell it like he sees it, but I find the way he sees it so alarming that I can't be swayed by his forthrightness. Others seem to swallow whole his promise to "make America great again" despite the fact that there he spends significantly more time talking about how awful America is (often in inaccurate ways) than explaining specifically how intends to improve it. (Sorry, Donald and Donald supporters, it's going to take more than repeating how great YOU are to convince me that you have any idea how to make anything else great.)

More to the point, Trump is completely without any life experience or demonstrable skill that will be required in the position he is campaigning for. There are people who point to Trump's experience in business as a selling point, but our nation is not a business nor should it be run like one. Even if you are of the belief that it should be run like a business, Donald, with his multiple bankruptcies and numerous questionable business practices, hardly sounds like a good candidate for the position of CEO of the USA.

To be honest, though, Donald's qualifications or lack thereof, are really not my main concern. I really try to cling to my faith that the system of checks and balances built into our way of government will stop Trump from being able to do too much damage from his seat in the Oval Office if he is somehow able to win the general election.

What does concern me are Trump's supporters, who will have spent more than a year listening to Trump rant in his xenophobic, racist, violence-inciting way. In so doing, Trump is using a position of power to encourage and validate some very dangerous and regressive ideas. And that encouragement and validation will be exponentially more powerful if Trump is actually elected. 

Even if Trump suddenly veers from his platform of hate and bullying, as his own camp is now claiming he plans to do, it may be more difficult to get that malevolent genie back into the bottle than we anticipate. Ultimately, a vote for Trump* is a vote to reinforce these toxic attitudes that already exist in our society. Normalizing and even celebrating exclusion and physical attacks of people who think, look, act, worship or speak differently than we do may well lead to increased discrimination and violence across the country. I utterly fail to see what will be so great about that.

X is for Xenophobia

*And as previously suggested, uncast votes may well be votes for Trump.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rain, Rain Go Away

The other day, I noticed a 14-inch snake-like strip of rubber in my driveway. It's been there since late January and I have noticed it several times before, always when I am in a rush on my way to or from somewhere, which at least partly explains why I haven't picked it up.

It's a strip off my driver's side windshield wiper blade. It peeled away a few days prior to ending up in the driveway. It spent the interim period wedged in an awkward way under the bug deflector on the hood of my van. I have no idea exactly when or how it fell off, but fall it did and there it has been ever since.

Spotting that strip again reminded me of how long I went with a compromised wiper blade. I knew that it needed replaced and am perfectly capable of replacing it on my own, but the only time I ever thought about it needing replaced was when it was actively raining and it was easy enough to convince myself to wait to buy the replacement until it was sunny again. "I'll remember to grab one the next time I'm in Kmart," I'd lie to myself.

Anyway, the breaking point came one day during a deluge about a month ago, when I was nearly blinded while out doing errands. I was lecturing myself about how ridiculous and unsafe it was that I had not replaced the wiper blade already. I was weighing whether to go to AutoZone or Kmart. Kmart might be cheaper, but their auto parts section is often poorly stocked. AutoZone has a history of irritating me because the staff there apparently finds it novel that a woman knows how to buy and install a headlight bulb or windshield wiper blade. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, right? 

While doing all this deliberating, I pulled into the teeny (three store) strip mall where Dollar General is since there were items I was absolutely sure I needed there. As I was sitting there, still berating myself about not getting blades sooner and nagging myself to make sure I did it this very day, I realized that there is a Carquest auto parts store right there.

This store has been in town for years, but used to be just off of Main Street. I had never gone into it in either location and just kind of don't see it at all. I am a creature of habit and also, still, shy at times about going into a new place--even though I am chronologically, allegedly a grown up. This shyness was exacerbated by the fact that this is not only a new place, but a new place where, by virtue of my gender, I might call extra attention to myself. 

But still, the store was right there and I desperately needed a windshield wiper blade. Going into this store, unfamiliar though it was, would save me an additional stop, not to mention a long, wet walk across the parking lot of either AutoZone or Kmart. It was absurd that I was even considering not going in.

So I insisted to myself, in no uncertain terms, that I was going to get a grip and go into Carquest right then and get myself a pair of wiper blades, damn it. 

I am happy to report that I did just that, but not until I had spent another ten minutes working the nerve up to do it.

I could've filed this under "P" for procrastination or "S" for social anxiety or even "S" for sexism, actual and/or anticipated, but instead, let's file it under:

W is for Windshield Wiper

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Lesser of Two Evils is Looking Better Every Day

When it comes to politics, as I've mentioned before, I've long been a preach to the choir kind of girl--avoiding the topic completely unless I am fairly certain I'm among people who share my views or who are contractually obligated by law or genetics to tolerate me. It is a policy I've adhered to almost religiously for most of my adult life and it's one that has served me well.

It's been a lot harder, though, during this Presidential election cycle, when everyone around me--online and in the real world--seems determined to offer their opinions and to (sometimes aggressively) solicit mine.

One of the more popular opinions I've heard is that none of the options for President are at all appealing. I've been hearing this since the first candidates began declaring their campaigns--hearing it as the field of potential candidates narrowed from 25 or 30 down to the five or so that are (more or less) in the race today. 

This meme* was making the rounds of Facebook a month or so ago, appearing on the Timelines of many of my FB friends: 

It seemed to capture not only a lack of enthusiasm among the electorate, but an actual distaste for most (or all) of the Presidential options. I know that the distaste--disdain even--is very real for many of the people I actually talk to on a daily basis. 

One friend, a registered Democrat, who is politically active and can usually be counted on to vote, sat out the NY primary last week because she doesn't like either Bernie or Hillary. She has threatened on several occasions to sit out the general election as well--or to use her vote to write-in another candidate, perhaps her husband.

A couple other friends--and some more well-known folks--have hinted that if their chosen candidate is not the nominee, they too will sit out rather than vote for their party's alternative candidate.

I understand this stance, I really do. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate and many--maybe most--Presidential elections seem to come down to a choice not of whom we like but of whom we dislike the least. 

The problem, though, with disengagement, with sitting out in protest, with writing in a candidate is that this time around is that it is wasting your vote. And in this election, perhaps more so than in any election in my memory, voting seems a vital way to avoid a potentially dire outcome. Because, let's face it, as in the potato chip meme above, some of the choices are much, much more palatable than others. 

Choosing not to make a choice is actually a way of making a choice--and, in this case, the choice you make by not choosing could actually tip the scales in favor of something that could well be disastrous. 

This Presidential campaign season has taught me that not all "bad" choices are created equal. I'm hoping there's time between now and November for others to realize that as well.

V is for Voting

*I'm usually very diligent about crediting artists, writers, etc. when I use their work, but I was unable to track this meme to its origins. Apologies to whoever created it--and if you are the creator & happen to find it here, please comment or email me and I will be sure to update this post.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Masked Mom's Media Monday: The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch

During the ten years I spent working at the flower shop, I spent quite a bit of time in and out of local funeral homes. Given our delivery schedules, I often had no contact at all with funeral home staff--I knew where to find the hidden keys and where to leave all the arrangements I had come to deliver. At first, I was ill at ease in the presence of the deceased, laid out in the often open casket, but it became such a commonplace part of my life at a certain point that I rarely gave it much thought after the first year or so.

When I did run into funeral home directors or staff, we were always polite and subdued except when we weren't. One funeral home director in particular had quite a sense of humor and would hide around corners or behind doors to jump out and startle me. A dicey proposition given that I startle ridiculously easy and was often carrying a hundred or more dollars worth of flowers--fortunately, I never flung any flowers in my frightened state and the director was always so boyishly pleased with himself, I couldn't help but laugh. Sometimes when Cranky Boss Lady or I ran into him at the grocery store or elsewhere around town and it had been a week or two since the last funeral, he would lean in and whisper, "Business has been really dead lately." 

So I wasn't completely surprised to find that Thomas Lynch, undertaker and author of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, had a sense of humor. I no longer remember how I came to read the book, which is a collection of essays, but I remember that once I started reading, I had a hard time putting it down. I know that, though it has been perhaps ten years since I read it, I've never forgotten it.

Lynch is a poet and author who also happens to be an undertaker. He writes with wit and wisdom about a subject that so many of us are afraid to really consider. With death as a topic, you might expect a heavy or even depressing book, but the essays in this collection are beautifully crafted ruminations on death that are somehow full of life. 

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Profound.

U is for Undertakers

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Gifts That Keep On Giving

The summer I turned nine, we moved into a house much closer to my mother's large extended family than I could remember ever living before. My mother was one of eleven children so we suddenly found ourselves spending lots of time with aunts, uncles and cousins who had very nearly been strangers up to that point. 

That first summer, we had a house-warming party, hosting at least thirty or forty people. My Aunt Joyce arrived a little late and wandered into the kitchen where my mother was arranging casserole dishes that others had brought.

My aunt looked over Mom's shoulder and said, "I didn't know we were supposed to bring a dish-to-pass."

Mom said, "We weren't expecting anything but your presence."

Aunt Joyce smirked and said, "We didn't bring you any of those either."

Presence. Presents. Heh.

Having not yet entered fourth grade, I doubt I had ever seen the word "presence" in print, though I might well have seen "presents." Either way, I not only got the joke, but loved the wordplay. It is one of many incidents that reinforced my interest in words, in reading and writing and, therefore, reinforced what has turned out to be a fundamental piece of my identity. 

T is for Thankful

Friday, April 22, 2016

An Open Letter to the Songbird in My Backyard*

Dear Mr. Black-Capped Chickadee,

I listened to your plaintive calls for over an hour this morning. I feel your pain. The path to true love is never straight or smooth. I don't know who this Phoebe is, but I truly hope you find her soon so I stand some chance of sleeping past 5:37 a.m.

Masked Mom

S is for Sleepless


*Right outside my bedroom window.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


A few years ago, a young acquaintance of mine was having a spectacularly crappy week and I noticed on Facebook that her mother attempted to comfort her by saying, "Everything happens for a reason." 

I know this is a fairly common tactic--one of those reflexive things we say to others who are struggling. I guess the premise behind offering this...let's call it to try to help the listener to make sense of her suffering. And I suppose it is comforting to some people in some situations to imagine that there is some plan that is being played out and that perhaps whatever the mysterious reason is will make the rough times all worth it in the end.

Here's the thing, though, in the case of this acquaintance of mine, the spectacularly crappy week she was having was a direct result of her own behavior. What was going on was not some divine play in which this woman was performing a starring role--what was going on was the consequence of her own poor decisions. By saying, "Everything happens for a reason," her mother let her off the hook.

The desire to "get off the hook" or let those closest to us off the hook--whether by justifying behavior or acting as though certain events are divinely ordained rather than the predictable results of poor decisions--is perfectly natural. But to place blame or look for explanations beyond our own behavior when our own behavior is almost always a contributing factor to the circumstances we find ourselves in is to give up the only true power we have in this life. 

If you think that everything that happens to you happens for a reason and you don't recognize that you are almost always at least part of the reason, you are preventing yourself from gaining insight into your own weaknesses and failings. You are making yourself powerless to change your circumstances. Taking responsibility for your decisions and the consequences from them may seem like a burden, but it is actually one of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves.

This has become one of my stock speeches at the halfway house--and also inside my own head because goodness knows I can use the reminder.

R is for Responsibility

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

That Sinking Feeling

Mr. Lynne was the first man I ever saw in real-life who had a ponytail. My second grade teacher, Ms. Duncan (who was the first "Ms." I ever knew as well, lo those many years ago now, back in the ancient times of 1975), introduced him to our class as her friend Mr. Lynne. He played guitar--folks songs, of course, and had spent a lot of time in Australia, which he talked about at length and much to our fascination. 

After that first afternoon in Ms. Duncan's class, Mr. Lynne occasionally reappeared acting as a substitute for Ms. Duncan. On those days, he would bring souvenirs from his time in Australia. I remember the boomerang and some Aboriginal art. 

Once, when we had completed all of our work for the day, Mr. Lynne pulled out a slide projector and showed us hundreds of slides of his trip. Of those, the only ones I clearly remember were the shots of a quicksand pit.

Mr. Lynne told us how he had almost died there, but was pulled out by his guide and some of the others on the tour with him. He was stuck for a long time there and afraid for his life. 

I remember the hush in the room as Mr. Lynne told this story. We were as captivated by his words as he had been captive to the waist-deep muck he had found himself in.

Seeing the impact of his words on my classmates and myself is one of many moments that I think contributed to my desire to be a writer.

Q is for Quicksand

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Let's Call It A Photoessay... sounds so much better than I am too lazy and exhausted to write an actual post.

Growing up as an Army brat, moving around quite a bit, Lyman Run State Park about forty minutes from my grandparents' houses was one of only a few places that was a permanent fixture in my life. I now live a little over an hour from there and it remains a gathering place for my family. It is pretty humble as state parks go--there are certainly parks with more majestic views and more activities to offer, but there is no other place that speaks to my heart the way this place does.

Below some pictures taken at the park in recent years: 

Trillium, May 2012.

Wild violets, May 2012.

Jack-in-the-pulpit, May 2012.

First Granddaughter, age 9 months, second visit to Lyman Run, Aug. 2014.

Most of us: my father, siblings and all our significant others and most
of our children (some of them with their own children) and
significant others spread out on the grass above the beach, Aug. 2014.

Rocks on the aptly named Rock Run Road, May 2013.

Son-Three and his dog Mira at Losey Vista, on Rock Run Road, Mother's Day 2013,
the day he told me I was going to be a grandmother.

Sunset behind the lake as seen from Rock Run Road, May 2013.

Third Nephew and Seventh Niece, on the beach, August 2014,
it was chilly that day so we had the place almost to ourselves.
Photo courtesy Youngest Sister's Husband & by
"courtesy" I mean I totally stole it from his Facebook album.

And one bonus shot from considerably further back: 

Me at Lyman Run, age 3 with my great grandparents, Gram and Uncle Lloyd*, Summer 1971

P is for Places I Belong

*To be completely accurate, Uncle Lloyd was not actually my great-grandfather, but my step great-grandfather. He was my actual great-great uncle, though. Gram was my father's mother's mother and after her first husband passed away, she and my father's father's uncle married right around the time I was born. So I always thought of Uncle Lloyd as my great-grandfather, though I always called him Uncle Lloyd and for the longest time I never understood why. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Masked Mom's Media Monday: Joyce Carol Oates Live!

Last fall, when I made one of my frequent stops at the library when I noticed several signs and a bookmark announcing an upcoming library event.  It seemed Joyce Carol Oates, the actual Joyce Carol Oates was scheduled to appear at library in our tiny, rural town.

At first, I thought I must be misunderstanding something. Perhaps it was a lecture about the works of Joyce Carol Oates, but it seemed virtually impossible to me that Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award Winner and Bestselling Author, could possibly be appearing here in our town of 6000 people in our rural county nestled up against the Pennsylvania border. 

But, after reading the bookmark announcement repeatedly, I had to accept it was true and then the giddiness began in earnest.

From my Facebook post the day I found out about this event.
 I was so excited, I couldn't even wait to get in the house to post how excited I was.

I don't remember the first Joyce Carol Oates book I read, don't remember when I first heard her name. I know that I already knew who she was by the time We Were The Mulvaneys was chosen by Oprah as a Book Club pick. I may even have read that particular title before it was chosen. I have not read all of her work--she is famously prolific so I may not have even read a complete list of her work. There have been a few books of hers that I started and was unable to finish, but the ones of hers that I loved are books I count among my very favorites.

Not only does she write an almost supernatural amount, she writes in an impressive variety of styles and on varied subjects. For as long as I have been reading Oates's books, I have been studying her author photos. They were often the same photo from one book to the next or one of two photos that seemed to have been taken around the same time. 

She looked delicate in these photos, almost waifish, reserved, perhaps aloof. She looked as if she belonged to another century altogether, I thought. Judging from these photos, it was easier for me to imagine her locked in an attic room scribbling away in secrecy than to imagine her as the literary force she actually is.

On the night of her appearance at the library, the woman who took the stage was easily recognizable as the woman from the photos, though she was noticeably older. When she first began to speak, there were hesitations and pauses and her voice was at first so quiet she was difficult to hear even with the microphone. But as she warmed to her subject, began reading from her work, she appeared to become someone else altogether. She told stories about her family, her home in a small western New York town not unlike ours. She even jokingly compared Donald Trump to a strutting, but mostly useless rooster in her parents' farmyard.

Later, when Daughter-Only and I were in line to have books signed, I watched as she transformed once again. She spoke quietly to the others in line and posed for requested photos with an almost pained expression on her face. Up close, she looked exhausted and overwhelmed. It was nearly 9 p.m. by this point and she had also given a talk earlier in the day at a nearby college. When it was my turn, she asked if I wanted personalized inscriptions in the two books I presented. I declined because I did want to impose. I said, "I'm sure it's been a very long day."

She smiled slightly and said that it hadn't been so bad. She said the previous day had been worse, that she had been stranded in some airport or another for nearly five hours. She signed my books and I thanked her and moved on for the ten or fifteen others who were still in line. Then, it seemed, she was to be quietly whisked out of the library, but someone began applauding as she tried to make her exit and the ovation swelled. She lifted her hand in an almost apologetic gesture of farewell.

I suppose it is rare to be in the presence of greatness, of the literary or any other variety. Sometimes greatness up close turns out to be surprisingly ordinary, which in some cases can make greatness seem all the more extraordinary.

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Awestruck.

O is for Oates

Saturday, April 16, 2016

My Super Delegate

You know that youth vote you've been hearing so much about? Well, I'm the proud mama of some of those youthful voters--and one youthful delegate.

Son-Two, 26, acting as a delegate at the Colorado Democratic Convention

N is for Next Generation

Friday, April 15, 2016

I Know That Song By Heart

In our earliest days, Hubby and I spent hours and hours driving around with The Police or The Eagles playing on the cassette player in my car over and over. As I became more and more comfortable with him, I became less and less shy about singing along with the music. I am a singer-alonger from way back and I know all the words of an absurd number of songs. I sometimes wonder how much more room I would for useful things in my brain if I weren't carrying around all those pop lyrics.

When it came time to get married--only a few months after we started dating--we decided that rather than the traditional "Wedding March," I would walk down the aisle to Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." The song was originally recorded and released before either of us was born, but it was enjoying renewed popularity at the time because of its place on the soundtrack of the movie Stand By Me, which had been released the year before.

At the wedding, which was in my grandmother's yard, we did not have a sound system and relied instead on the stereo in the best man's Mercury Cougar, parked at the edge of the yard. Our friend Webb was in charge of shutting off the music for the start of the ceremony.Webb waited so long to turn off the song that the Justice of the Peace who performed the ceremony actually had to ask us if someone was going to turn off the music.

In retrospect, assigning such a task to Webb, who was almost certainly stoned at the time of the wedding, was probably not wise, but the wedding itself was something of a dicey venture. We were eighteen and nineteen and had known each other only six months on the day that we pledged the rest of our lives to each other. 

At the time, "Stand By Me" was the perfect song for us as we set off together into all of the great unknowns of marriage. And even as recently as a couple of years ago, Hubby has turned to me when the song came on the radio and said, "This song still gives me the chills." 

The truth is we have not always been all that great at standing by each other, but somehow, despite all the stumbles, we are still here trying. I think if we were to renew our vows, the song playing at that ceremony would be an entirely different one. Something along the lines of Martina McBride's "Wild Angels," with its lyrics about how keeping love alive in these troubled times is a miracle in itself. I'm not a believer in literal angels, but I love the idea of impish helpers trying to hold on for the wild ride that has been our twenty-nine years together.

M is for Marriage

Thursday, April 14, 2016


My maternal grandmother passed away a little over a year ago. She was 88 years old. She survived her husband and four of her eleven children, and at least two of her thirty-five grandchildren. 

I found out about my grandmother's death on Facebook--not even in a status, but in a comment one of my cousins made in a goofy thread on a goofy status she had posted earlier in the day. At first, this way of learning the news struck me as vaguely absurd. I realized fairly quickly thereafter that there was almost no other way I could've heard this news. I am not sure what sort of notification system there was, if there was any sort of system at all. Most likely there was no list, but even if there had been a list, I certainly would not have been on it. If it were not for Facebook, I wouldn't have any contact at all with any of my cousins. 

I was never really close to my grandmother--when she died, it had been almost 20 years since the last time I'd seen or spoken to her even though she only lived 20 minutes away. I cannot remember ever being in a room alone with her or having a meaningful conversation with her or even observing her in meaningful conversation with anyone else. 

There are reasons for this: my family moved around a lot and sometimes we only saw my mother's family once or twice a year; I was shy to begin with and standoffish later when I grew old enough to pick up on the tensions that often ran high between my mother and her mother, between mom and her siblings. 

Then after my mother died, there was a falling out between my siblings and most of the rest of the extended family. It's a long and complicated story that involved property, but only superficially, only symbolically. That was around fifteen years ago now. Some of my siblings have more or less made their peace with the family and are more or less included in things now. I have never even tried finding my way back, largely because I don't feel like I ever belonged.

When my grandmother died, a few friends read about it in the newspaper and offered their condolences. I felt awkward accepting their sympathies, almost false, like an impostor of some kind. I felt as though I lacked the proper credentials for grief in this situation. How do you accept condolences for the loss of someone who hasn't been in your life for 20 years and who, even before that, was always more of an absence than a presence?

For a few days following my grandmother's death, my Facebook feed was full of affectionate recollections of her written by my cousins and even my sister. They remembered stories my grandmother had told them about how she and my grandfather had met. They remembered long car rides with her. They remembered her bacon and eggs. They remembered experiencing all sorts of things with her that I had never experienced.

With each post, I understood more and more the true nature of my own loss where Grandma Grover was concerned. I lost something, for sure, but whatever it was, I had lost it long ago.

L is for Loss

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

What's in a Name?

I was born Shawntelle Marie Kalkbrenner. My name had exactly the same number of letters in it as the alphabet. The problems began fairly early on. In kindergarten, I was still writing my name when most of my classmates had finished their papers. In first grade, the last "e" on Shawntelle had somehow been left off the teacher's list so when I spelled my first name "Shawntelle," Miss Gooserunner told me that I was spelling it wrong and circled that "extra" E in red for the first few days of school after which she realized the error of her ways and apologized. 

In second and third grade, in a whole new school, I was "Show-n-Tell." For the most part, no one even tried to pronounce my last name until I hit fourth and fifth grade in another new school, where it was the height of wit for the boys in my class to call me "Kockenweiner" or, alternately, "Kockenburger." 

We moved again before sixth grade and in seventh, "Show-n-Tell" came up again, this time with a much naughtier connotation. The barely pre-pubescent young man who was so proud of his cleverness was put firmly in his place when I told him that second-graders had called me that. 

In eighth grade art class, the teacher pronounced both my first and last names flawlessly and then asked me if I knew the meaning of my last name. I told him it was "Lime burner" and he argued that it was "cabbage burner," which would've been Krautbrenner, but I was too shy to argue the point much. 

In ninth grade, the computer program cut off the last three letters of my first name so I was "Kalkbrenner, Shawnte" to every teacher I had freshman year until and unless I corrected them. I rarely bothered so I was "Shawntee" or "Shawntay" for as long as I was in that school.

When I got married, I told everyone that one of the top five reasons I had chosen my husband was that his last name was five letters shorter than my own. I was only partly joking.

While I was growing up, we knew only a few other Kalkbrenners--my father's Uncle Bill and his three kids. I still have yet to meet any unrelated Kalkbrenners, though I have found a few on the Internet. We grew up hearing that Kalkbrenner was a pretty common name in Germany, but I don't think I entirely believed it. 

Once I started poking around on, I discovered all sorts of new ways to butcher the name Kalkbrenner. I have found ancestors listed as Klackbrenner, Kalfbrenner, Kalbnermer and Nackbrenner, to name a few. I also discovered that there are, and have been since the mid-1800s, little pockets of Kalkbrenners all over the US. This has been both a blessing and a curse, since it has sometimes made it harder to narrow down the right, say, Gottlieb Kalkbrenner.

Fortunately, most of my Kalkbrenners came straight from Germany to the Pittsburgh, PA area and stayed there. In Germany, though, I hit a dead end because there are, as promised, lots and lots of Kalkbrenners in Germany. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, the hits keep coming...

A couple of years ago, Baby Brother's Wife and I were at work at the halfway house talking about an upcoming family reunion/camp out where we planned to play lots of Killer Kalkbrenner Volleyball. A few days later, one of the residents who had heard us talking about it jokingly tried to invite himself by saying, "Come on! I want to play volleyball with the Colepeppers!"

Close enough. 

Kalkbrenners all the way back to Germany...where there are so many Kalkbrenners I haven't been able to get any further back than my great-great-great-grandfather.

K is for Kalkbrenner

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Context-Free Highlight from an Unpublished Masked Mom Original*

"I've always thought of jealousy as an emotional weed--if left to grow unchecked, it will choke out healthier emotions."

J is for Jealousy

*With thanks for the title to the occasional Esquire feature: "Context-Free Highlight from a Letter We Won't Be Running."

Monday, April 11, 2016

Masked Mom's Media Monday: Blog Personas

Next month marks my eleventh blogging anniversary. I have mentioned before that I originally intended this blog to be a companion to a newspaper column that I hoped would eventually be syndicated. I submitted the column proposal to one local market a few weeks after I started the blog. It was not rejected so much as completely ignored (despite the fact that I put a SASE in it for a reply) and I never got around to submitting it elsewhere. But by then, I was hooked on blogging and have remained more or less hooked every since.

Sure, I have neglected the blog for months at a time, but I have never seriously considered giving it up entirely. Though I can't always articulate why I can't or won't let it go, I have not let it go. But I have been thinking lately that it may be time to make some changes around here. 

When I first started the blog Son-One, my oldest child, was not-quite seventeen and as I write this post, he is not-quite twenty-eight years old. Despite its name, this blog (and the long-abandoned column it was named for) was never intended to be purely a "mom blog" or even mostly a mom blog. Being neck-deep in mothering as I was at the time, of course, my mom identity was often the one closest to the surface, but I intended from the beginning to use the mom perspective to comment on wide-ranging issues, both locally and nationally. With all my children safely ushered now into young adulthood, I am less actively mothering, though I suppose it's true that I will never stop seeing the world through the lens of motherhood.

The anonymity, the "masked" part, was partly intended to add a mystery or curiosity factor, but more importantly, was meant to protect my kids from any backlash about opinions or thoughts I might offer that might be considered controversial or offensive in our tiny town. It did not occur to me too much at the time that the anonymity could be read as cowardly, as a shield to hide myself behind, though I have since seen it used that way often enough be others that I have begun to take that into consideration.

So, now eleven years on, with my youngest child, Daughter-Only, about to turn twenty-one and my immersion in motherhood behind me, I am beginning to give serious consideration to blogging under a new name.

The logistics of it have so far been too daunting for me to make the leap, though.  Would I blog under my own name, but keep this site? And if not, what happens to eleven years worth of posts and archives? I don't want to reduce them to a link on an "About Me" page on a new blog, but if I don't move elsewhere, my blog address will still be "Masked Mom," which will be confusing and maybe even a little misleading. Becoming a new bloggy personality--or the same personality under a new banner or name--turns out to be more complicated than I would've imagined.

But more difficult than the logistics are the existential questions: Is a Masked Mom always a Masked Mom? Can she outgrow her Momhood? Her Mask? And what--who--does she become instead?

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Undecided.

I is for Identity

Saturday, April 09, 2016

You Can't Get Entertainment Like That Just Anywhere

I have mentioned before that I spent a whole lot of time during and shortly after high school, toiling away at Burger King. There was certainly real toil involved in that job, but there were also hilarious moments that have stuck with me ever since.

For instance, I was once working the front counter and yelled back to the kid on what we called the "specialty board" (where non-burger sandwiches were made), "Hey! Can you make me a Whaler*?" 

Without missing a beat, the kid flicked his spatula at me and said, "Poof! You're a Whaler!" 

Maybe you had to be there--be there and be sleep-deprived and be running almost entirely on hormones, Cherry Coke, adrenaline and Milky Ways. 

Anyway, another time, I was at Burger King, not working, but waiting for my friends to finish closing up for the night. I was sitting on the counter between the drink dispensers as my friend J twisted off the red plastic nozzles and dropped them into a bowl of cleaning solution. Then she presented the bowl to me on the tips of her fingers, the way a caterer would hold a platter of bacon-wrapped shrimp, and said, "Little round plastic thing?" 

I laughed so hard I fell off the counter.

H is for Hors d'oeuvres 

*Burger King used to call their fish filet sandwich a Whaler. The ways in which this was wrong are too numerous to name. Fortunately, they recognized the error of their ways sometime in the late '80s or early '90s.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Granny Greenthumb

Every year, just after Christmas, when the wait has ended for lots of eager children, my wait is just beginning. When will the displays of seeds appear in local stores? How soon is too soon to start my "start inside" seeds? 

All this anticipation makes it a longer wait than it technically has to be--since I usually don't actually plant anything until late February or early March. 

This year, though, the anticipation was more acute than usual since First Granddaughter, at two-and-a-half, is actually old enough this year to be part of the process. Together, we planted marigolds and pansies in tiny cells in big trays. The marigolds sprouted just three days later and the pansies shortly after that. They joined the tomatoes, peppers and basil that I had planted on my own the weekend before. All my little plant babies are doing spectacularly well, lined up in their tiny cells in their big trays next to the sliding glass door in the dining room, awaiting warmer weather so they can graduate to the great outdoors--it's my greenery nursery. 

When First Granddaughter comes over, she almost always checks on the plants without any prompting from me. On Wednesday night, she was gently running her hands across the top of the plants--barely touching them. Like an air kiss except it was air plant patting. Then she took an interest in a particular pepper plant and began sort of pinching a leaf between her fingers. 

I said, "Honey, you have to be careful with the plants. Don't hurt their leaves; they really need their leaves."

She loosened her grip on the pepper plant and paused to consider this information. Then, with her other hand, she pointed out the window at the bare trees in the backyard. She said, "Plants need leaves. My put these leaves on the plants outside."

She then grabbed the pepper leaf again. I disengaged her fingers and picked her up to explain how the trees had their own baby leaves, which would be getting bigger soon. Fortunately, there is a tree right next to the back deck and I was able to show her the itty-bitty just opening-buds. It was enough to convince her that she did not need to sacrifice the indoor plants in order for the outdoor plants to get their much-needed leaves.

G is for Garden

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Wii Have the Utterly Humiliate Ourselves

With a few notable exceptions, I've never really been much of a video game player. The first time I ever saw a Wii game system, I knew next to nothing about the way the system worked.

My kids were teenagers and we had all gone to my father's house for Thanksgiving dessert with other members of our extended family. Eight or ten people were assembled in the living room while two of my kids were trying their hand at Wii baseball. I walked up behind the couch they were sitting on and that's when I noticed the little Wii characters in the bleachers of the game. There was a diverse little group representing many different skin tones, hair and eye colors, but one in particular really popped out at me. He was a little man with sunglasses, bushy blond hair and a thick mustache that drooped slightly at the sides. 

Before I could stop myself, I exclaimed, "Hey, how come that little Wii dude has a Seventies porn star mustache?"  

My kids started laughing, as did several other people in the room. It was only then that I scanned the crowd in the living room and noticed that my stepsister's* newish husband, whom I had not yet met, was glaring at me. And no wonder because had the exact same haircut and mustache as the little Wii dude.

I smiled sheepishly and quickly changed the subject--to what, I have no recollection.

My embarrassment increased exponentially in the car on the way home when my children explained that the resemblance was likely not a coincidence.  The game allows players to create custom avatars (called Miis, apparently) which then become part of the crowd when not in use. So I hadn't merely mocked a character who looked like this guy, I had mocked a character he had hand-chosen to represent himself. 

F is for Foot-in-Mouth

*Being the stickler for detail that I am, I want to mention that she actually wasn't officially my stepsister at the time of this incident. My father and her mother had been together for over ten years at that point, but they didn't get married until this past year. But "stepsister's newish husband" seemed a better construction for the purposes of this story than "my father's girlfriend's daughter's newish husband." For what it's worth, my stepsister is no longer married to Seventies Mustache Guy and since our families are sort of far-flung and not completely blended, I never had to see him again after this inauspicious beginning.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Fooling (With) Mother Nature*

When I was in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Shank, kept a hermit crab in a small fishbowl on the window ledge. The bowl had a bunch of extra shells in it and the hermit crab was shy so it wasn't until about six weeks into the school year that anyone noticed there was actually a living creature in the bowl. There may have been some initial squealing from some of the kids sitting closest to the window when the hermit crab showed himself for the first time and began scrabbling among stones and shells in his glass home.

It was the first time most of us had seen or even heard of a hermit crab. We found the thing fascinating and when she told us that we would each be assigned to take it home for a weekend, there was a stampede of eager volunteers pushing to be the first to write their name on the list. 

Mrs. Shank introduced us to another wonder of the natural world--a plant that shrunk from the slightest touch, its leaves folding up tightly when brushed or bumped. I've never forgotten the plant, though if I ever knew its name, I've long since forgotten that. 

In fact, I've always wondered what that plant was called and tried over the years to find it, with no success until accidentally, when I was barely paying attention at all, I was flipping through one of those catalogs for a school fundraiser and I stumbled over a kit to grow something called a "sensitive plant." 

I ordered it immediately and when it came, it sat on a stand in my dining room for about six months before I finally got around to planting it. There were about a dozen seeds in the kit, only one of which sprouted. My plant is still a baby, but it is sensitive already and I am as excited about this plant at 47 years old as I was at eight. I make everyone touch it to watch the leaves fold in on themselves.

From what I've read since my kit arrived, scientists are not completely sure what advantages this sensitivity gives the plant but speculate that the rapid movement of the plant may startle away animals, including insects, looking to make a meal of it.

The way the plant shrinks at a touch--or even a too-rough accidental bump of its plastic pot--has inspired a few discussions around our house about whether the plant can "feel" in any recognizable sense of the word, or worse yet, "think." I'm not sure where I stand on that, but the possibility does make me feel a little bad about how much I enjoy poking the little bugger.

E is for Evolution

PS--For those unfamiliar with the plant, this video shows one responding to various stimuli. My own plant is still teeny-tiny and is not really camera-ready. Plus it was closed up for the night when I began working on this post.

*For those too young to get the slightly sideways reference in the title:

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Icing on the Cake

Baby Brother and his family came over on Friday night for game night. When they walked in the door, I was just finishing up frosting some chocolate cupcakes, which were planned for a bake sale to benefit a local family. 

There was quite a bit of homemade cream cheese frosting left in the bowl and six-year-old Seventh Niece walked up and took several fingers full in rapid succession. Her mom told her to stop and without hesitation, Seventh Niece responded, "I can't! Frosting is my destiny!"

As destinies go, it's not a bad one.

D is for Destiny

Monday, April 04, 2016

Ways I Am Not A Grown-Up, The Twenty-First In A Potentially Infinite Series

I don't drink coffee. I never have, not one single cup. 

Sometimes when someone new in my life hears that I don't drink coffee, they are so shocked that an adult person doesn't drink coffee that they will ask me why I don't drink coffee.

I am never really sure how to answer that question. I just never picked up the habit. I had a sip of coffee once, by accident, when I was about eight. It was awful and not merely because I was expecting hot cocoa. Then I worked at Burger King through most of high school, most of that time in drive-thru where the big coffee pots ran night and day so the very smell of coffee is associated with toiling away my adolescence surrounded by other angsty and miserable teens. 

I have awkwardly defended my position on coffee more than a few times. Once, I even defended it in writing. I was reading Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and came across the following writing prompt: 

"Tell me how you drink coffee. When? Where?

If you don't drink coffee, tell me how you stopped."

It apparently never occurred to Natalie Goldberg, who is one of my heroes on the planet in so many other ways, that a grown-up human being might have never been a coffee drinker. So, therefore, if I don't drink coffee, I am clearly not a member in good standing of the grown-up club. 

Not that that will come as a shock to anyone who has spent anytime around here. This isn't a "potentially infinite" series for nothing, folks. 

C is for Coffee (or the lack thereof) 

Saturday, April 02, 2016


One morning about a month ago, my boss came into my office first thing for some intense conversation mostly about residents at the halfway house, but also a little about our personal lives. She was in and out of my office numerous times during the first forty-five minutes of the day. 

During all that time, I never noticed that her hair had changed dramatically from the day before. The style wasn't much different, just trimmed, I think, but the color had gone from an ash blonde shade to something in the burgundy family. 

Worse yet, it came to my attention only when our intern walked into my office and immediately (immediately!) exclaimed, "I love your hair! That color looks great on you!"

Oh, jeez. I apologized to my boss and she waved it off. No big deal. And then, in the next half hour or so, two additional coworkers complimented her hair in gushing tones. 

I launched into a self-deprecating speech about how blind I am and how I really never even noticed and that I just don't notice things like hair and clothes because, I guess, I'm not normal--at least not a normal woman. Even my boss said, "You're like a guy in that way." 

Here's the truth: days go by without me making sustained eye contact with myself in the mirror. I can barely be relied upon to be a steward of my own appearance, to make myself something approaching presentable before leaving the house, let alone notice someone else's cute cut or color or adorable new sweater.

At the office that day, we all laughed it off because what else was there to do? But among women and girls, that noticing, those compliments are currency and I'm flat broke.

B is for Beauty

Friday, April 01, 2016

Accidentally On Purpose

Seven years ago this month, I began working at a job I never expected to have. For ten years before that, I worked as the manager of a small flower shop--which was a whole other job I never expected to have, but I did have it, for ten long years and I had gotten kind of used to it. The halfway house in town was hiring just as it became clear that the flower shop was going to go out of business. 

The ad said they were looking for people with a high school diploma and a willingness to work with addicted men who were working on recovery.  I knew next to nothing about addiction, but I knew there were not many job openings in our area so I applied. 

About two years into this job I never meant to have, I was in the med room with a client who was thanking me for the work I did around the house. He said, "You treat us like we're human beings."

I have never forgotten the wonder and amazement in his voice as he said this. Clearly, he was not accustomed to being treated like a human being. 

It is one of many moments in my time at this job that have informed my understanding and approach to working in the chemical dependency field. It is a field I entered entirely accidentally, but to which I have given over a significant chunk of my heart and soul.

A is for Addiction