Troubled People: Part 2 (A Hand in the Crowd)


The end of the school year often brings about a plethora of evening gatherings and events, celebrating and showcasing the work that students have done for the entirety of the school year. At my daughter’s school, this was very much the case with their Annual Family Night presentations. They had worked hard for the entire semester perfecting their speaking abilities and mastering their knowledge on one topic. And this night, this event, was rather like the crown jewel in their efforts. The cherry on top of the sundae that was a strained and loathed curriculum.

My daughter, who was not too eager to step into the limelight, slunk through it all with the ease of any wallflower, wishing her part would come and go without notice, praying away the minutes until it was time to leave. And I would be remiss if I weren’t secretly admitting the same. Not from a shyness standpoint (though I am, painfully), but really from a boredom standpoint. Not boredom about her topic (which was the tropical rainforest, by the way – see, I do listen!). Really just distracted detachment due to the plight of being there as an unfocused mother of another child, one who was three-years old and headed for a meltdown.

After the first hour of doing everything in my power to maintain a wrestling hold on my little squirming monster, I was pretty well spent long before her grade level was even on the brink of stepping out. I kept checking my watch, hoping the time would magically whiz by in a rush of warp speed. All I could think about was the bedtime we would be late to catch, the punch-drunkedness that was starting to take effect on my little guy, and how to keep him from saying his new favorite word (poopy) at the top of his lungs. No small feat!

Of course, we were in the middle of the middle row, so I could neither escape quickly nor with any sort of grace. But, the time was coming. I knew I had literally minutes before the ticking time bomb of a toddler would go off. Countdown was already happening – it was just a matter of when!

I kept checking the exits, measuring whose legs were longest and which direction would be the best point of leave. I glanced at the back, looking for a safe spot where I could take my cantankerous son while still being able to watch my daughter. Ever hopeful that I could live in both worlds at once – like all good mothers. And, of course, it felt like I was the only one in the auditorium suffering through this sort of ordeal. Everyone else had older children, better behaved children. Silent babies. Mannerly toddlers. And they also had complete focus on the videos they were recording. Complete involvement in the world we were so focused on removing ourselves from.

Just as I could hear it, the start of my son’s soliloquy of potty words, I made a mad scramble for the exit. I jumbled through the legs of many, reciting a pitiful “sorry” and “excuse me” with intermittent bouts of eye contact and half-hearted smiles. In the moment of my passing, I was blocking parents from seeing their kids’ presentations. Snickers could be heard. And over that, my son’s loud voice was starting to cause a ruckus. We were both, together, ruining the moment. I felt like a pariah. Like the person who was responsible for wrecking the night. Like the one that all eyes were watching.

Though I know so many of the moms who were present had been in my shoes before, I couldn’t help but feel a little judged. If I were able to hear their thoughts, I was certain they would have sounded like: “Why can’t she keep her son quiet?” “Looks like she’s raising a brat!” “Where’s her husband?” “Why did she sit so close to the front?” “Does she even have a kid in this school? I’ve never seen her at a PTA meeting!” “One word, lady: babysitter!”

Just as I made it to the back, I saw her. You know, the mom that all the other moms talk about. As I passed, I noticed a faint smell of whisky looming in the air around her. Her dark, curly hair was a slight birds’ nest of a mess. Her clothes, ill fitting, aimed desperately to be professional in appearance, though fell short because of the small specks of food (or something) that had stained the corner of her lapel. I watched her for a moment, almost gawking that someone was more awkward than me – me with my over-tired babbling boy, screaming through the rows about his new found fecal philia.

This mom, she clapped ferociously after every child’s pause in speech. And sometimes when they weren’t yet done. She cheered occasionally the way that college girls do at Mardi Gras when they catch a string of beads. A long “WHHOOOOOOOOOHOOOO,” even raising up her hands as if she were on an amusement park ride. And toward the end, she started throwing out phrases like an eager and raucous church lady, saying “Uh huh, that’s right” or “You tell ‘em!” And to one of the boys she even stood up and said “You go, girl.”

In my prior haste to get to the back of the room, I had noticed the thick and steaming snickers of judgement pervading the air around me. Because I can be a bit self-centered, I had misinterpreted it to think that they were all aimed at me. But they weren’t. Not most of them, anyway. After watching for a moment, I realized that they had been directed at this mom. The mom that all the other moms avoid.

Finally, as it was time for her daughter and my daughter (who were in the same class) to make their presentations, I noticed the kids shuffling out with timid confusion. They each came out in a small groups, mumbling briefly into a dusty old microphone before scooting off into the shadows. I was able to catch my daughter’s presentation before she scurried off with the rest. She had been so nervous, but when she saw us in the audience, even though we had moved so far to the back, she smiled with ease and seemed to instantly relax. The juxtaposition between my daughter and her classmate, however, was profound.

This woman’s little girl seemed to have the opposite reaction when she saw her mother. Her otherwise fearless countenance flickered with a hint of panic. You could tell she was holding back tears – tears of disappointment, tears of upset, tears of sorrow. She seemed to have the whole weight of the world on her tiny shoulders, aware of all that could, and probably did, go wrong when her mother was in this “state.” And her mom, who was near us, rose from her seat to a standing position and projected louder her boozy pride from the distance. Clearly the daughter wanted to quickly hurry into the shadows, too.

The evening’s event ended as they always do, with a big heap of gratitude offered from the flustered and ever-perspiring Principal. I walked through the crowd, with my tired son wriggling in my arms, on the quest to round up my daughter to go home. As I did, I overheard a lot of people’s conversations. Most of them, sadly, were about the mom with the drinking problem. The one the other moms wish would just go away.

They talked about how unfortunate it was. How sad for the girl. How many days on the wagon she had been before falling off again. There were even a few guesses about how many drinks she had drunk before coming. And how many more she would have when she got home. Everyone was talking about her. But no one was helping. No one was even considering lending a hand.

Not that there was a lot anyone could do, right? Our culture is one that recognizes problems and then just expects the person to suck it up and move forward. But how? How does one do that if they are living with a debilitating mental condition? How can they get help if the “village” has moved to the other side of their reach, thereby cutting them off from community or the support needed to get such help?

I didn’t know enough about her to answer those questions. And I wasn’t a therapist (unlike one of the other moms, who should have known better than to be so…cruel). But what I did know was that she had not long ago moved here from another city. She was a little rough around the edges, sure. She hadn’t ever really folded into the mix in terms of the group of moms at the school, obviously. But then again, neither had I. We were kind of the same. Both subject to the scoffing of other more perfect parents. Both feeling outside of the loop. Both hampered by big, loud diversions that caused constant embarrassment. Yet, despite our flaws, both of us were here to support (loudly or otherwise) our daughters.

Maybe because I saw myself in her a little (minus the Jim Beam infusion), I decided later on that I would stop being one of those people whose actions and deeds didn’t match. If I spoke of concern, I would act on it. If I thought someone needed help, I would offer it. And if I presented myself as a friend, I would actually be one. Not like those other parents. The ones who sat and judged everyone else, wishing away all those things/people that weren’t perfect.

We can’t save the world. No! But we can be real and show real concern for people in our communities. And maybe that small impact can make a larger ripple in the lives of those we would have otherwise cast aside. Just offering to be that friendly hand in the crowd may save someone’s life.


Troubled People: Part 1 (Pushing Buttons)


If you’re a parent, and you’ve seen Despicable Me, you may remember that scene in the beginning of the movie when Gru makes a balloon animal for a little boy, only to pop it a few seconds later. Yeah. Well, something similar happened to my son. And naturally, I was furious! Beyond furious, in fact. So livid that I had visions of flattening tires, keying sedan doors, and punching (yes, punching) testicles of the guy who was responsible. All very mature responses, no?

What happened was this: We were making our weekly trip to the library for story time one afternoon. At this library, there are double doors that open outward. Next to those doors, there is also a button that will automatically open them when pushed – either as a helpful service for the disabled, people with arms full of books or toddlers with a serious button fetish. As anyone with a small child can attest, these are the simple pleasures that kids love most. Pushing buttons. Especially little, round, gray buttons with magical door-opening powers! My son is no exception. In fact, whenever we go to this library, it is the one thing he does with such zeal, I would almost believe it to be his sole purpose in life. (Not really, though a doorman’s costume would look cute on him!)

On this particular afternoon, my son made a bee-line to the door exclaiming – “I want to push the button!” That was his usual phrase of delight, as he would run to the door, squealing in the ecstasy of what was to come. However, since he and my daughter have had their turmoil (read: pushing, pinching, and screaming battles) as of late, I thought I would try to teach him a lesson in courtesy and the importance of not always going first. So, I let my daughter have the first turn to push the button (since she never gets the chance) and then I explained to my son that we could wait until the doors closed for him to have his turn. His desire was hampered a bit by the seeming unfairness, but he sucked it up without so much as a whine or whimper and stood patiently by the door waiting for them to close so he could have his turn. Pretty good behavior, I thought, for a three year old!

Since our library is never particularly busy and we weren’t in any particular rush, it wasn’t a big deal to wait another minute and have them take turns in this way. In fact, as a parenting tool, this library’s button door system is a pretty good way to teach my children the virtues of patience and waiting for their time to do a task. In the past, I looked on this need to always press the button as another headache induced by overly curious kids. But more recently I have come to see it as a great tool as well as a treasured (and cheap) means of entertainment.

During the minute that passed from my daughter’s turn before my son’s, none of the patrons had entered or exited. There was no real hustle or bustle at this place. It was as calm as a country road. That is, until it wasn’t. Until “the incident” happened.

As the doors were finally making their close, and the twinkle in my son’s eyes glimmered with a similar excitement as it does on Christmas morning, out of nowhere walked a man. A tall adult man wearing a tank top and flip flops. He held no books in his hands. And he held no sorrow for what he was about to do. Despite seeing a mother and her patient son waiting quietly for a turn at the coveted button, or maybe in spite of it, he walked ever closer to our side of the entrance, reached out his hand, and pushed the button for himself right at the very moment that my son had just lifted his tiny finger.

I looked up at the man as he whizzed right past us, neck redder than a beet, a hint of sweat and noxious cologne swirling in the air around him. All I could hear was the word “sorry” he had verbally flung at us prior to pressing the button. Yeah. Sorry in the same manner that a bully would say it right before giving a wedgie or flinging a lunch tray onto the floor. “Sorry.” Not sorry. Not the least little tiny bit. Premeditated. Purposeful. Hateful. Rude.

What kind of person would do something like that, especially to a child, was all I kept thinking. And by the look on my daughter’s face, who had seen the whole thing from the lobby, she felt the same way. After all, in her eyes only she could be mean to her little brother – who was this guy to take her job?!

Our mouths stood agape for a collective moment. A sense of shock washed over me and a look of sadness washed over my son’s face. Here I was, trying to be a good mom, seeking to teach my kids about taking turns and accepting patience as a natural part of our time sharing this planet with others. And, in one fell finger swoop from a stranger, I now had another lesson to teach: that the world was sometimes a big, bad, mean place.

Before this cruel stranger traipsed too far across the lobby floor, my full-blown attack mom armor formed and I came after him with the only weapon I had: my words. I started by calling him a jerk (believe me, if my kids and our favorite librarian weren’t present, I would have had a few other words to say!). Then I told him that my son had clearly been waiting to press that button. I asked him why he would do that to a small child. And then I called him mean.

Barely giving any notice and certainly showing no remorse, he casually looked back at us, shrugged his bare shoulders and said in the very most arrogant way, “I said sorry.” Sorry. Still not sorry. Not the least little bit.

I repeated that he was a jerk. Not that it did any good. I wished I could have opened the flood gates of obscenities. I had visions of following him into the library. Taking his picture. Posting it to social media. Alerting the world that THIS IS WHAT AN A**HOLE LOOKS LIKE. Taking pleasure in others agreeing that he “looks” like one, indeed. But, that would have only made things worse. I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I scooped up my son, grabbed the hand of my daughter, and took them into story time as was our intended purpose.

My son was forlorn for a little while afterwards. He later talked about it with me at home. We all talked about it, in fact. We discussed how some people are mean and it makes us angry, but how even still (or despite that) we should never be mean because of it. I told them that we have to be good in order to balance the bad in the world. That was our job!

After the day was done and I had tucked them snugly into their beds at night, I thought more about what would cause a person to be so ugly and cruel for no reason. And it struck me hard that maybe he hadn’t experienced the same patience, conscientiousness, or love from his mother as I was trying to teach my own children. Maybe when he was three, he only received a slap on the head or a pat on the bottom rather than a word or encouragement or direction. In other words, maybe this guy was troubled. Maybe he hadn’t been cared for in the least little tiny bit. And he was doing the same thing little kids do when they can’t express themselves properly: acting out.

Suddenly my anger melted away into a pool of compassion. I felt sorry for him. A true sort of “sorry.” A whole big lot of it. I mean, I still thought he was a jerk, but I felt sad for him. When it’s all said and done, my son will have plenty of chances to push that button. But that course and hostile guy will probably miss out on a lot of the simple joys of life because he is so bent on making the world suffer for whatever it is he has lost.

Instead of wanting to key his car or call him all of the bad words I could remember, what I really wanted to do was hug my children a little more fiercely when they woke up, so they would never be counted among the world’s troubled or unloved.

Who knows?! Maybe it’s not like that at all for that guy. Maybe his backstory wasn’t sad and the cause of his brash behavior was without reason. Maybe his parents were stellar and his upbringing picture perfect. But whatever made him feel compelled to crush the tiny joy of a three year old is beside the point. All that matters, all that we can control, is where we go from here. We choose goodness. Compassion. Kindness. And, you know, maybe next time I will also choose to body-block that button, just in case the world isn’t as kind as we aim to be!

Stretch Marks and Striations

I started off the year as most people do – with grand goals of fitness for the months ahead. Predictably, this lead to the purchase of a shiny new gym membership and a stretchy set of workout clothes. And, in order to use these things, I discovered the need to set my alarm clock extra early each morning. No biggie, I thought, since mornings have always been my most productive time of day.

For the first week or two of this fit renaissance, I made the rounds on gym equipment that I hadn’t used in years. Machines so moldy and old in my past recollections, I had almost overlooked their nuances of form. But, eventually, it all caught up with me like the proverbial bike-riding that one never forgets. And so I was back on track. Working out religiously. Emphatically. Daily.

Then, after a few weeks passed and my schedule became more routine, I saw her and was totally taken aback. You know the one. Every gym has someone like her. The fanatic. No – the hopeless, beyond-help, driven-by-demons workhorse who comes in like a ghost and imprints her bony structure on your memory. Forever. There is a word better suited to frame her frailty. Anorexic. And that may not be all she is as a person, nor the entire sum of her life; but, for the moment, that’s all that exists in the obvious line of sight.

When I first laid eyes on her, I had to really work hard not to stare. But I could see from a mile away just who she was and what she was battling. Plodding along on the elliptical machine, she moved nowhere, traveling in a circular motion of angst. Slowly. Weakly. Almost begrudgingly. But she toddled along with a dire sort of need only evident to someone who had been in her place before. And all I could think was “I used to be her. This used to be me.”

During my years in high school, I was a girl who thought erroneously that numbers were all that mattered. Obsession over grades, SAT scores or allowance money quickly morphed into a compulsion with weight, inches, and meal portions. I deemed certain dress sizes taboo and set very specific standards for my new-found quest of self.

As all things do, it started off small enough, innocently enough. I felt a little flabby and wanted to lose the slight jelly belly I had gained from eating ice cream all summer. In truth, my little roll of fat was nothing more than an average teenage ripple, something that would most likely even out over the course of puberty. However, in my head, this bulge seemed immense. And I felt like a cow. So, I figured if I just workout out and stopped eating sweets, I would get toned in no time. Then my life would be perfect! What I didn’t count on was the fact that losing weight would become addictive.

Upon shedding a couple of pounds, the difference was seen right away. First came the compliments. People started to notice. Then came the smaller clothing sizes. The feeling of accomplishment. Soon, it took a turn into constant monitoring and using the almighty scale to gauge happiness or despair. Gain a pound – cry and deprive. Lose a pound – rejoice and deprive some more. The spiral had formed and the framework for my misery was unfolding.

Soon enough, it was all-consuming. Each day, like clockwork, I would wake at 4 a.m. in order to get in two hours of working out before school. Once I returned home, I would manage to do another three hours of exercise after that, followed by two more hours after I pretended to go to bed at night. Often, days like these were fueled by nothing more than a cube of cheese, a handful of grapes and a children’s multivitamin, some of the rare morsels of food I would allow myself.

At my very lowest, I was 79 pounds of flesh and bones. I measured a 19 inch waist. I could count every rib. I bruised at the slightest touch. I gripped handfuls of falling hair in each bath. And I could never, ever get warm. I was fading fast. And I was almost beyond help.

How I got out of that mess, how I came back from those depths, was ironically through the help of my local gym. I turned it all around by getting into bodybuilding. Working out in public, rather than in the secrecy of my room, was the very check and balance that I needed. I became accountable for my choices and had stepped out from the shadows into the spotlight of humanity. Soon enough, the people at the gym knew me. Watched me. Kept tabs on my increasing size and applauded my new-found strength. And that was the empowerment that I needed to pull myself out of such a terrible place.

Though I never became a Miss Olympia, lifting weights taught me the importance of finding balance in training, gaining weight healthfully and understanding my body’s need for rest – all things I had lacked in my anorectic days. Yes, the gym was my salvation and I had always regarded it as such. So, seeing a fellow comrade-in-arms fall into this trap right under the nose of everyone seemed so frightening. So scary. Like being robbed in the middle of the day, right on a bustling street. How could this happen?! And as questions piled up in my mind, I wondered, could happen to me again?! Was this happening to me again?

The next day, I woke up at 4:30 a.m., my chosen alarm time, with the intention of getting in a morning workout before the day began. However, stopping dead in my tracks, I decided it would be more useful to stare at my naked flesh in the mirror instead. Oddities like these moments are the very things we keep so guarded from others, but I am discussing it now only because it lead to an important realization.

As I looked in the mirror, I saw some fat around my belly, the kind that is hard to work away after you’ve had children. I noticed the lines of stretch marks around my waist and hips, remnants of two successful pregnancies, an ordinary run of puberty, and, perhaps even a summer where ice cream ruled supreme. I saw ribs, or rather, an absence of their obvious shape. Instead, there was only skin, smooth and even, with no indentations or sharp angles. Just flesh without the presumption of bones.

There were also muscles in my arms and shoulders, things I had effortlessly kept toned through the years by carrying my children. There was a faint scar on my finger where I had burned myself when baking cookies with my daughter. And there were infinite freckles caused from the countless outings we had taken to the park or the beach.

It struck me that our bodies carry way more than weight. They carry memories. Each scar, each imperfection, and every ripple of cellulite is just a contribution to our fondest (and sometimes, most horrible) of recollections. But, by themselves, that is all they are. Just memories. Just the past somehow surfaced on the present. Like a shell washed up on the beach.

After I took a cleansing shower and cleared my head, I got dressed and firmly knew the answer to a question I had earlier feared. Could I be morphing back into the anorexic girl of my past? Quite clearly and with a resounding tone, I looked in the mirror at myself and said “No!” I knew, because of my children, husband, household and duties, I had way too much to live for to do that. And, also, way too much to do!

No longer afraid of seeing myself in someone else’s pain, I returned to the gym the next day with a new outlook on my goal. I would not return to my former self, I would only resume in the quest to be my better self. Not hating the flab. Not running from the struggle. Just basking in the moments of my awakened youth. Rejoicing in the ability to move, flex, run, and feel like the living, breathing, imperfect person that I am.

As expected, when I walked in, she was there. In typical form. On the same elliptical machine. With the same wan face, looking ambivalently at the day before us. I would like to say that there was a poignant moment where our eyes met and the world became a little brighter, but there wasn’t. It was just more of the same. Peddling to nowhere.

Wishing thoughts were like water flowing from one stream to another, I would have liked to let her know that there is more to life than counting calories, steps and the ticking hands of time. That there is so much beauty from letting go and allowing life to be messy and full of surprises. But, of course, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t partially still admire her striations and overt bones. There will always be a part of me that remembers those things in myself, missing them, holding a fondness for such bitter memories. However, for today and hopefully all others, I prefer my stretch marks. They remind me of my present state and the greatest gift of all – my kids. I work-out for them. Because of them. And to keep up with them.