Broken Speed Dial

Published Originally in River Oak Review.

Grammie Nordberg“I can’t see in my right eye,” my ninety-one year old grandmother says. “It’s just a cloud.”

“When did this happen?” I ask, placing salad bowls in front of us on her small dining table.

“A week ago maybe,” she says. “The doctor thinks he can fix it.”

I struggle to comprehend. She tells me the doctors say she may have some kind of degenerative arthritis syndrome, one that can be connected to another disease that makes you go blind.

“Did the rheumatologist say the vision problems could be related to this syndrome?” I ask.

“He thinks so. He took blood. I could go blind overnight.” She moves her fork around in her salad with her small, curled hand, checking sideways for my response.

I’m confused by her reaction. My normally stoic grandmother seems frightened by this possibility, but also pleased by the drama of it. The busy circus of our small family might actually halt mid-juggle and pay attention.

I have come for my usual five days to my grandmother’s winter home in Venice, Florida. We usually take turns cooking meals, and we sit together at lunch and dinner as she fills in gaps in our family history. I do chores like put a new tape in the answering machine or select tile for her foyer, and then sit by the pool or walk on the beach while she naps.

Yet this visit, I put drops in her eyes, change her sheets, and fold her shredding, tattered nightgowns out of the dryer. She seems frail to me, confused. I begin to wonder if she has become an unreliable narrator.

The kitchen is covered in Pepperidge Farm toast crumbs and there are V-8 stains on the floor. My grandmother owned a restaurant. She has always kept her kitchen military inspection clean.

Now she gets dizzy and confused, asking me three times if I know whether she has taken her thyroid medication. She has a pacemaker, an oxygen tank in her bedroom for emphysema, three kinds of eye drops for glaucoma, and four other pills whose purpose I cannot identify.

Part of me still sees her as the capable, independent senior citizen who looked the same at sixty as she does now at ninety-one. The lover of history who volunteered as a docent at her local museum. The licensed driver who, before her cataract surgery at seventy-eight, drove to every DMV in the state of Massachusetts until she found a clerk who would pass her on the eye test.

I cannot reconcile that image with the fragile, overwhelmed person I find before me. What if she is going blind? How long have things been deteriorating? How come no one noticed? Where has my dad, her only child, been lately? Have I been too busy to call often enough? She has only my father, my sister and me. Should she have come to Florida by herself this winter? My parents leave for Asia in a few days for three weeks. What am I supposed to do?

“I need you to help me with my phone,” she tells me. “The speed dial is wrong,”

“What’s the problem?” I ask, inspecting the over-sized numbers on the phone.

“The names are wrong,” she says. “I need to add Elizabeth and Mildred downstairs. Muse and Jane and Lee are on there.”

At first I cannot understand what is wrong with having her old friends’ numbers programmed in. I look around the white kitchen of her one bedroom condo, frustrated. There are three stories, thirty units, all seniors. She and her friends knock on each other’s screen doors and kitchen windows, call each other if the car hasn’t been out of its spot in a few days. Jane used to live downstairs, Lee was next door. Then I get it. She wants me to take the dead people off her speed dial.

My grandmother’s eye is worse, and she’d been up in the night with pain behind her knees, she says. She sits in her cushioned deck chair on the screened-in patio and begins to cry.

“I can’t cope,” she says. “I need to go home.”

Home would be New England, where my parents live, where she lives in the summer. I have only seen my grandmother cry at her brother and husband’s funerals. I look around behind me. Is there someone else who could be handling this?

I move slowly to the fake grass mat in front of her, kneeling.

“It’s ok Gram,” I say. “I’m here. We’ll figure out what’s going on with your eyes and this arthritis and if you need to go home, I’ll get you there.”

The sun sends throbbing waves of hot light onto the porch and the garden below. Tall masted white schooners slide down the waterway beyond.

The ninety-five year old neighbor, Stan, comes to the door.

“You wanna come see my new portable phone?” he asks, listing to one side as if he were standing on a fast moving sailboat.

Minding my manners, I oblige Stan, visiting with him for a few minutes in his airtight quarters. I take small breaths to avoid the heavy smell of rotting oranges and Wednesday night’s spaghetti.

Back in her apartment, my gram sits in her chair, eyes closed. I tip-toe past her to get my flip-flops from the deck.

“He can be a pest,” she says, never opening her eyes.

“I’m going down by the pool,” I say. “Can you put some lotion on my back?”

This is an old ritual for us, since college break when I would come to visit my grandfather and her. I get all the spots I can around my bikini top, and she fills in the blanks across my back. This time, my grandmother cannot open the lid to the sunscreen. Her hands are stiff, the skin almost transparent, like Saran Wrap over the veins. She bruises easily now, and there are purplish marks by her thumb and wrist. I put some sunscreen in her palm and she smears a little across my back. Her touch feels cold and shaky. She misses most of the area around the back strap.

“Perfect,” I say. “Thanks.”

She lies down with her oxygen and I walk quickly down the outside stairs. A neighbor sticks her head out the door.

“She shouldn’t be driving,” the woman whispers, looking down at her cat-shaped door mat. “We’ve been giving her rides to the doctor.”

I speak to my father on the phone. She’s turned a corner, I say. She should not be unsupervised. I’m trying to get answers from her doctors, but she may be going blind. I may have to stay here more than five days. I may have to bring her home. She tried to drive herself to the fruit stand and passed it four times before giving up. The kitchen is dirty. She left the stove burner on. She asked me to put in her drops.

She’ll be all right, he says. She’s coming home in April.

April is three months away.

She may need to come home now, I tell him. She cried and told me about an assisted living place she’s considering. It’s bad, I say.

I picture him stuffing his fingers in his ears, squeezing his eyes shut, thrusting out his tongue and yelling “LA LA LA LA LA!” at me through the receiver like a ten-year-old.

You’ll figure it out, he tells me. Keep me posted.

I’m just the granddaughter, I think. I’m just here for Chex Mix, banana bread, and the Peter Rabbit game. Maybe it’s not as bad as I think. Maybe I’m being dramatic. Maybe my father needs to cancel his vacation.

I wipe up crumbs in the kitchen.

Returning from the grocery store, I call out to my grandmother. I walk to the bedroom doorway and she sticks her head out of the bathroom, completely bald and eyebrow-less like a leukemia child. I have always known she wears a silvery wig, but I have never seen her without it. I step quickly backward into the living room, my eyes focused on the TV stand.

I extend my trip from five days to two weeks, and I piece together her medical reports, cajoling receptionists, walking in to see doctors. Her blood tests determine no arthritis or sight-reducing syndrome. The eye doctor diagnoses an infection – conjunctivitis. I am relieved and annoyed.

“What will I tell my friends I have?” Gram asks.

“Tell them what the doctor told you,” I say.

“What did he say?” she asks.

“That you have aches and pains,” I remind her.

She is quiet, clearly displeased with this answer.

I make repeated trips to the pharmacy, fill her fridge with groceries, manage the medication for her eye infection. I drive her to the follow up visits. She mixes up north and south, left and right. In the car, she yells at me. Why am I not doing what she asks? I drive the way she guides me until she realizes she is lost.

We arrive at the doctor’s office in silence. I want to jump out of the car and slam the door, but I think how terrifying it must be to lose your way down the street from your home. When I help her out of the car, she usually takes my arm. This time, she reaches for my hand. Her hand is small and curled, yet to me it feels like the weight of it could pull me to the ground.

I crouch on the white linoleum kitchen floor, whispering on the phone to my boyfriend Paul in California as if I am twelve.

“How’re you doing?” he asks.

I try to respond, but the concern in his voice, the familiarity and comfort trips me up. I lose my language and only mumbling sobs come out.

Paul says nothing. Just holds a safe place for me to cry.

At night, I toss and turn in the damp, hot air of the front bedroom. What if I can’t get her stable enough to leave and go home? What if I have to fly with her to New England? Why am I responsible? What if I get up and she isn’t at the breakfast table and I go to wake her and she’s not breathing? Should I do CPR? Can you do CPR on people with pacemakers?

I buy a hot water bottle that helps the pain behind her knees. The eye medication kicks in and her sight begins to return.

“Can you do CPR on people with pacemakers?” I ask my grandmother as we share peach slices at the breakfast table.

“Yes,” she says, “but you have to be gentle.”

I chew on my peach.

“I have a living will,” she says. “It’s in the drawer next to my bed if you want to read it.”

I crumple my napkin into my fist.

“If someone in the family came to wake you and you weren’t breathing, would you want them to do CPR?” I say into my plate.

“No,” she says immediately. “No.”

We hire a home health nurse who says more oxygen may make Gram less confused. She teaches her how to use the portable unit. The nurse cooks Gram South American food and promises to show her new stretching exercises.

“You have a life,” Gram tells me. “I don’t want you to stop it for me.”

We work out a program of helpers and visitors and drivers. She thinks she can make it until her son/my father arrives in March.

I make salmon for dinner, one of her favorites.

“The bank where you met Grampa,” I ask. “Did you go right to work there when you graduated from high school?”

“No,” she says, pressing her napkin to her mouth. “One of my girlfriends from the church group convinced me to go to New Hampshire for the summer. We lived in a bunkhouse on Winnipesaukee and worked waiting tables at the clubhouse of a resort.”

“Wow Gram,” I say, smiling into my rice pilaf, surprised by this new story. “A whole summer in New Hampshire unsupervised in those days?”

She points her fork at me and laughs.

“We weren’t exactly unsupervised,” she says. “The cook kept a pretty close eye on us.”

“What about Buddy? The boyfriend who came before Grampa?”

“He showed up to visit me a few times. Didn’t like it a whole lot that I’d been seeing a couple of the fellows working there too.”

I put down my knife and look at her.

“I always thought there was just Buddy and Grampa,” I say.

“Oh no,” my grandmother says nonchalantly, picking at her zucchini. “I dated quite a few boys before your grandfather. We had a lot of fun in the Methodist youth group.”

I clear the table, imagining my grandmother dancing on a dock in the warm summer evening air.

The day before I am to leave, I come out on the screened-in porch to sit by my grandmother. I am afraid to abandon her. I don’t know what might happen if she spends too many hours alone.

“What if you are by yourself and you can’t get out of the bathtub?” I say, pulling dead leaves off a straggly ivy plant hanging from a hook.

My grandmother presses her lips together.

“It’s not a question of can’t,” she says. “I can. And I will. It just may take me a long time.”

“The nurse will come every other day,” I tell her. “Will you promise to only take a bath when you know she is coming?”

She stares out through the screen toward the tall green shrubs lining the walkway beyond, and nods.

The Road Runner, the Identical Twins, and the Garage Door Opener

sculpture mischiefIdentical twins can cook up more complicated mischief than singletons or siblings of different ages combined. Exhibit A:

We’re late for gymnastics class and I yell downstairs to my five year old boys to grab coats and get in the car. I dash into the bathroom only to hear the garage door go up. Then go down again. Then up. Then down again. I wave my hands quickly under the faucet. Then the door goes up again, but only for the amount of time it takes me to turn off the spigot. Then I hear a grinding clunk like an elevator getting stuck between floors. I slap my hands at a towel, and dash to the garage.

Fortunately my boys have not yet learned how to lie well, cover their tracks, or at least just run and scatter.

One boy stands frozen in the doorway to the garage, his finger repeatedly jabbing the control panel with no result. The other boy stands under the half raised garage door, his hand still lifted above his head clinging to the dangling tattered rope.

Both of their faces look like Wile E. Coyote as he goes off the cliff.

It takes me all of three seconds to recreate the crime: one boy pushes the button for the opener, while the other hangs on to the rope attached to the door, riding up to the ceiling before dropping down to the cement. Then they reverse roles.

With the door stuck partway up, I take a turn at the button. Nothing. They’ve burned out the motor and we’re trapped in the garage! I launch into an angry meltdown scene worthy of Sharon Stone in “Casino.”

Then I call my husband out of a meeting to devise an escape plan. I run out of patience with the engineering explanation of the overdrive circuit, and end up going “Medieval” on the unbudgeable manual release chain to get the door unstuck and free the car. Finally, we make it to the gym.

Several weeks later at a BBQ of five twin families, I relate the garage door riding tale to my fellow parents. My twin mom girlfriends show the appropriate expressions of horror: How unsafe! Someone could have gotten really hurt falling on the cement! The garage door opener might have been permanently damaged!

Then I turn back toward the grill and catch the faces of the dads, who look like they’ve just been told of a new an invention that would allow someone to ride a unicycle up a tree.

“You know,” one of them says. “You gotta give them credit. It’s brilliant.”
“Yeah,” my husband agrees, sipping his beer. “Too bad we didn’t have electric garage door openers when we were five.”

All the male heads seated around the deck nod like NFL bobble-head dolls.

As the moms roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders, and hand out popsicles to the kids, I think about how perhaps my boys have learned their lesson and this would be the last time such an experiment of mischief would be conducted.

But if the reaction of their father and his friends is any indication? Doubtful.

Gaining Compassion Through Surgery

From American Fitness Jan/Feb 2014.

Ellen Nordberg Kangoo Instructor

Before I tore the ACL in my knee, I was invincible. Nothing could stop me from pushing myself and the students in my fitness classes to new levels of achievement. I did sprint triathlons through rough ocean waves and urban streets, and regularly biked 50+ miles. I drove the older ladies beyond their comfort zones in water aerobics, and rolled my eyes as I led menopausal house wives on power walks. 

Then I skied into a challenging mogul field, and wound up watching riders on the chair lift pass over me as I lay in the ski patrol sled.

I’d experienced a laparoscopy, a neck injury, and a sprained ankle, but none of those prepared me for the pain of a dangling ACL. I couldn’t focus on the ER doctor’s x-ray explanation, but I knew surgery was in my future.

A nurse encouraged me to get on a stationary bike and keep my knee moving immediately to prevent scar tissue, but all I could manage was my vial of Vicodin, a box of Kleenex, and a permanent position on my couch. By the time I was seen by the orthopedic surgeon, my leg was as stiff as a utility pole, and depression from the pain and immobility had taken hold.

Post-surgery, the pain increased, and I couldn’t get through the therapy exercises I learned in the hospital.  The weeks of estimated recovery stretched into months. My boyfriend accepted a promotion, and still on crutches, I moved with him to a new city.

My new doctor got me off the painkillers and the crutches, and suggested I try massage, swimming, or whatever I could tolerate in addition to physical therapy, or a second surgery would be guaranteed.  If I couldn’t improve my situation, she thought I might need anti-depressants too.  

My injured leg was an inch smaller in diameter than the other, and I had gained so much weight my workout clothes no longer fit. I had a good cry over my downward slide from fitness professional to de-conditioned basket case, then bought myself a new bathing suit and joined a gym.

I found a personal trainer to help strengthen the muscles around my knee, and a massage therapist who applied deep work on the scar tissue. I tried acupuncture, and Feldenkrais exercises, and finally my physical therapist charted range of motion improvement. I could swim fifteen minutes, then twenty five, and eventually I could again manage a mile.

Slowly, I got back into teaching. Only this time, having been the overweight, unfit participant who could barely walk from the locker room to the pool, I offered a multi-level class to ensure everyone’s success. I knew to ask if anyone had injuries or other issues, and I was surprised by how many raised their hands.

As I learned about my clients’ hip replacements and spinal surgeries, I signed up for continuing education in muscle imbalances, arthritis, and rehab.  I now teach a variety of pool classes, and I’ve incorporated stretching and balance work into my land classes. I have a network of complementary practitioners for client referrals.

 My own surgery and recovery offered insight into ways to help others struggling with injury and illness. But most importantly it taught me that when clients want to talk about their plantar fasciitis, their C-section, or even their divorce, instead of rolling my eyes, I look down at the scar on my knee and ask, “How can I help?”

Foodies In The Woods

Ellen & Paul on ledgeFrom Boulder Lifestyle February 2014

I am not a foodie.

I have food poisoned myself, realized after six months in a new condo that the oven didn’t work, and over-cooked canned chowder so badly it exploded like foam out of a fire extinguisher on lifting the pot lid.

Within the first few months of dating my eventual husband, he invited me on a camp-out in the mountains with his college friends. There was just one caveat.

“There’s a food contest,” he said, eyeing me skeptically.

A camping food contest? How elaborate could that be? (My normal camp-out meal prep consisted of packing tea bags, instant soup, and oatmeal, and then hitting up someone with a camp stove for boiled water.)

After consideration of my vast recipe file, I decided on peanut butter tofu pie. It looks just like peanut butter cheesecake, but tastes better for you. A favorite with my health conscious friends, I was confident the pie would be a hit.

We arrived at the campground to find stalls set up like Denver’s Civic Center Park during the “Taste of Colorado.” Dazed, I wandered past the giant pot of lobster bisque, the tri-tip roasting pit, and the generator-driven Dutch oven hatching chocolate soufflés. Oh crap.

I dashed back to our tent and fished what was left of my pie from the trough of melted ice in our cooler. I patted it down with paper towels and dug out a plastic knife.

“Everyone’s been drinking,” my boyfriend assured me.

I slipped the pie onto a table in the clearing, and a guy in a neon tie-dyed shirt handed me a ballot to vote for my top three favorites in the contest.

As my boyfriend reminisced with his pals, I merrily made my way through each entry – shrimp cocktail, oxtail salad, goat cheese pizza, and avocado eggrolls with Tamarind sauce.

While ensuring I would vote fairly by sampling everything, I began to notice a disturbing trend: on the corners of each of the tables lay dessert plates with nearly complete slices of peanut butter tofu pie accompanied by hastily abandoned forks.

Walking closer to the dessert table, I observed the burly tri-tip chef stuffing a forkful of something in his mouth and speaking to a friend.
“Wow,” he said, making gagging noises with his tongue like the Golden Retriever in the “Got Milk” commercials. “What the hell is in this pie?”

I did not claim a ribbon that weekend. And later that year, as my camper boyfriend and I discussed having a family, I felt the need to come clean.
I sat down across from him in a restaurant with a list entitled “Things Future Husband Needs to Know About Me,” and took a deep breath.
“Number one: not a very good cook,” I said.

He nodded at me, like, “Go on.”

“That doesn’t bother you, or.…..surprise you?” I asked.

He smiled.

“I figured if you couldn’t hack cooking in the woods, it wouldn’t get much better in a kitchen.”

Eleven years later, we’re married with twin boys. These days you can find me cruising Costco, stocking up on pre-made Paella and searching for the perfect frozen appetizer.

Please Don’t Ask Me To Feed Your Cat

Rico the cat2nd Place Winner, Boulder Writers’ Workshop Comedy Contest

What kind of a mother would deny her children a pet?

My identical twin boys had been asking for a critter of the non-stuffed variety since they could bellow the word “DOG!” out of their double stroller with the enthusiasm of someone pointing out a prancing pink unicorn.

I could barely manage the twins – a pet was not on my radar.

One day when the boys were five, a neighbor’s son knocked on my door. Their family station wagon was idling outside, roof rack piled with camping gear. They’d forgotten to arrange for a pet sitter, and I, stay at home twin-mom, was the only one on the street clueless enough to answer the doorbell.

The boy mumbled about dry and wet cat food, tossed the key at me, and ran for the car where his father gunned it out of the neighborhood.
“Maybe taking care of this cat would be good practice,” I thought, and placed the key on the counter. I went back to unloading groceries, texting the babysitter, and scraping dried applesauce off the TV.

Three days later, I came across the key and choked on my cranberry juice. I left my amazed family at the breakfast table, and flew down the sidewalk like a crazed witch, bathrobe flapping behind me.

Despite the boys’ repeated begging for every thing from a Sheepdog to a trout, our home has remained a pet-free zone. This is partially due to my allergies and my lack of desire for the responsibility, but mostly due to childhood pet traumas. There was the lizard who escaped and was later found fossilized, boiled behind the steam radiator, the feral cat who bit anyone attempted to pet her and spent most of her days under the stove, and the gerbil mother who rejected her tiny pink screaming babies which had to be “disposed of” by our parents. (You don’t want to know.)

I fumbled with the door, anticipating a feline scolding. Instead – silence.
Clueless as to the cat’s moniker, I went through the rooms calling “Here Kitty, Kitty!” and saying silent prayers that the creature wasn’t lying dead behind the dryer.

I tore through the house, and eventually found him up against the wall under the guest room bed, lying on his back, paws splayed out, tongue lolling, hyperventilating like he’d just completed a half marathon.

I filled his bowl with fresh water and set it alongside the bed. No response. I pushed it closer. Nothing. Finally, I reached under and towed him out by a leg, the fur of his large belly scooping dust bunnies from under the bed as he came. I propped his head up to the water bowl, cursing the responsibility, and swearing this was reason number 362 why we would never have pets.

I checked on him seventeen times until his family returned, where upon I confessed to the three day lapse. In case the cat didn’t poop for a month, I felt they needed to know about this brief lack of moisture.

I was not asked to pet sit for them again.

Several years later, another neighbor approached me and asked if my nine year old boys would like to be paid to care for their cat during a three day weekend.

My boys in charge? Only three days? What could possibly go wrong? I had flashbacks to the great cat-sitting debacle of 2008, and opened my mouth to say no.

Then it occurred to me. This would so work in my favor! They’d flunk the responsibility test, and never beg me for a dog again.

We happily took her key, and the boys made plans to play with Rico the sweet kitty after school that very day.

Forty eight hours later I woke up at 3:30am to the sounds of a coyote yowling in the open space, and the realization: no one had fed the freaking cat.

Once again, I leapt into action, wrestling into my down coat, and hoping it covered most of my pajamas. It was minus seven degrees with eighty mile an hour winds, so I threw on the black knit cap that had not retained its original shape after washing, and grabbed a Day-Glo yellow flashlight the size of a car battery for good measure.

I scurried up the icy sidewalk in my slippers, mildly worried for my safety. Then I caught a glimpse of my reflection via street light in the neighbor’s storm door and figured the odds were much better that someone was going to call the police on me.

Fortunately Rico had spied me coming and launched himself at my ankles as I came through the door.  I was so relieved he wasn’t dead or licking the condensation off the inside of the basement windows that I picked him up and rubbed his head. Several bowls of food later, we sat down on the couch. And then my eyes started to itch and my throat tightened up. Ditching Rico, I sneezed my way back home, the idea of returning to sleep a hopeless dream, and remembering reason number 547 why we don’t have pets of our own – my allergies.

At breakfast that day, I casually informed the boys I had gone over to feed Rico in the middle of the night. After the sound of cereal spoons clattering to the table and milk drooling out of mouths had ended, Aidan looked at me sadly.

“We’re never going to get a pet of our own, Mommy, are we?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Not unless the creature’s name begins with ‘Chia.’”

8 Things I Hate About The Holidays

Ellen in pink bunny pjsFrom Boulder Lifestyle December 2013
Every year I get my hopes up that the holiday season will be stress-free, fun, and peaceful. I sniff the pine boughs and cinnamon scented candles, listen to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole singing Christmas tunes in Target, and fantasize about how cute my twins will look in their matching snowflake pajamas by the tree on December 25th. Yet somehow reality never seems to match up with my visions, and by New Year’s I’m dreading the next holiday season. My top eight reasons why:
8. The Decorations
Each year the giant bow-laden front door wreath purchased under duress from aggressive high school band members drops brown needles in the front hall and looks half dead by Hanukah.
7. The Tree
With my husband’s eco-sensitivity, we long ago opted for fake. But I’ve lost (apathetically forfeited?) the battle for its assembly to our young twin boys. They stuff the plastic boughs into the trunk in random sequence with long branches toward the top and short ones below. The completed structure looks like a skinny dancing Sasquatch shot full of arrows.
6. The Festive Make Up
One year I hit the Nordstrom’s counter to have my eyes “done” to ensure an ultra special look for the neighborhood holiday fete. Just prior to forking over the hand mirror for final inspection, the young cosmetician informed me she had recently moved from Orlando, Florida with a specialty of “Disney parade make-up.” My husband choked on his eggnog when he saw me, but our five year old twins found my resemblance to Snow White and Ariel mesmerizingly realistic.
5. The Baking Traditions
I’ll never attempt a gingerbread house from scratch, but my children and I have built innumerable kit houses with leaning walls and oozing frosting which end up looking like they’ve had a successful visit from the Big Bad Wolf.
4. Holiday Cards
While glossy cards arrive daily during December showcasing joyous frolicking families, the shipping of our family holiday cards has lagged to Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s, and often Easter. The most classic was the card with our boys in ski jumpsuits and helmets that went out in July with the sub-heading: “Must Be Ski Season Somewhere – Argentina?”
3. Gifts Given Gone Awry
My father and I once observed a man walking with a long handled tool picking up trash. Dad commented he’d be more likely to walk if he had a purpose like this. Months later at Christmas, I thoughtfully shipped him a “Nifty Nabber EZ Grabber.” But something got lost in the translation, and my dad was insulted by the insinuation that he could no longer access the canned goods off the top shelf in his pantry.
2. Gifts Received Gone Awry
Our first year back in a winter climate, I could never get warm. I roamed the house at dinner time in my husband’s wool socks, dreaming of a new sexy ski outfit. Instead, on Christmas, my concerned husband delivered a zip-up full bunny sleeper suit – pink, with black and white Dalmation spots and a hood. I looked like a Chick Fil A cow mascot drunk on Pepto Bismol.
1. Holiday Manners Faux Pas
And then there was the year I sent one of my boys to return the pie tin from our neighborhood Martha Stewart’s home made gift. He assured her he hadn’t actually sampled the pie because, “Mom says it’s gross.”

Yet before I know it, these traumas have simply become minor anecdotes. And somehow by Halloween, my amnesia sets in, and my hopefulness takes over once again. I did just recently see the cutest sets of little boy pajamas….and is that Bing Crosby singing?

Training the Boulder Way

Ellen on bikeFrom Boulder Lifestyle July 2013

When I was single in California, I loved to ride my bike. I’d cruise along the beach, ride to meetings, or just wander. Then I had twins, we moved to Boulder County, and it took years to get back in shape. Finally, after watching hordes of spandex-clad riders whiz past my house, it was time to get back on my bike.

Riding loops around my neighborhood, I eventually made it to 35 miles. I was averaging thirteen miles an hour, but so what? I felt great! Now I needed buddies to ride with.

I learned quickly that nearly every Boulder resident is a former Olympian, a pro or a former pro, training to be a pro, a sponsored semi-pro, or a coach. Eventually I found a few other twin moms who would ride 25-30 miles.

We discovered a women-only charity ride, and did the fifty mile route the first year. The next year we signed up for the sixty seven mile route, and did more climbing. I made it up to Jamestown going just fast enough to prevent flopping over sideways.

I mastered drafting, which I thought was a super helpful skill until I caught up to an old friend who blew his nose, oblivious to my presence.

Undaunted, I had caught the Boulder training fever. I was still kind of slow, but who cared? How many more days a week could I ride? How much further could I go?

I signed up for a century and began endurance training, riding 80 miles – often by myself. Finally I found a partner amenable to doing the century.

“I’m slow,” I told her.

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m slow too,” she replied with a wink.

I didn’t understand what she apparently already knew: in Boulder-speak “I’m slow,” means “I’m fast and I can kick your ass but we’re all sandbaggers here.”

She had no idea that for me, slow actually meant – well, slow.

The day of the ride came, and we set out. My friend chatted on about Ferriginous Hawks and clouds shaped like lions, but I heard little of it as I hyperventilated and approached a heart attack behind her. I feared she might ask me to reimburse her for the chiropractic treatment she was going to need, twisting her head 180 degrees around to locate me every few minutes.

At the turnoff for the climb to Jamestown, I urged her to go ahead. When I arrived after a long enough break for her to go to the bathroom, fill her water bottles, watch the Hula Hoop dancers, and cool her feet in the creek, she smiled at me.

“It might be easier if you used your granny gear more,” she said helpfully.

How to express the fact that I had been in the granny the entire climb, and was just grateful I didn’t end up having to walk?

When we finally crossed the finish line, she changed into a little skirt and happily wandered the festival tents and booths.

I went home and stuck my head under the backyard hose.

But within days I was thinking about my next goal. I could do a triathlon! Get a coach! Reduce my body fat! Increase my speed! There are so many things I could do to improve, so many additional goals I could set.

But then I started contemplating the days by the beach, those dolphins, and that Ferruginous Hawk I missed. The frenzy of goals and achievements could be endless.

So it occurs to me: maybe I’ll just go ride my bike.

Wine Tasting 101

Ellen and her SisterPublished in Boulder Lifestyle Magazine August 2013

At the university I attended, there was a school of hotel management. One of the most popular courses amongst non-hotel students was “Introduction to Wines.” We liberal arts and engineering majors snickered like fifth graders taking a second grade spelling test. Rumor had it you sat in a huge lecture hall and sampled wines all afternoon. How hard could that be?

My sophomore year roommate and I eagerly signed up, high fiving each other for the fun we anticipated. We had already obtained an “introduction to wines” at many a fraternity formal, and we were well acquainted with the names Chardonnay and Zinfandel. We were confident we’d ace it all.

At the first class, we sat in the back of the three hundred person auditorium. Somber looking teaching assistants with v-neck sweaters passed around racks of shot glass size wine samples as if we were participating in church Communion.

No one monitored whether you took one sip or several before you passed the tray down the row. (Lucky for us!) Then the TAs handed off a cardboard bucket – the theory being you’d swirl the wine in your mouth for the flavor and then spit it out like mouthwash.

We gaily passed along our unused bucket.

As the semester progressed, the professor put up slides of wineries in France and Napa, lists of grapes, types of soil and various weather conditions. Classmates shushed us as we whispered about the latest “Love Boat” theme party where the boys of the XYZ fraternity house were rumored to be flooding their basement.

As the semester moved along, we donned our down coats and slogged through snow drifts to get to class. We sipped our way through Merlots, Cabernets, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Tawny Ports.

One night in December, my roommate came home and observed me in our bean bag chair studying People magazine.

“You ready for the wines test?” she asked.

“C’mon,” I said. “How hard can it be, right?”

The next day I sat down in our row, not to racks of tiny wine glasses, but to a one hundred question exam.

Sample questions:
1.True or False: Chaptalization is associated with cool climates.14.Explain micro oxygenation.27.What is the difference between Vitis Vinifera and Vitis Labrusca?
I had one year of high school Latin. WTF? I was an English major and could BS my way through an essay, but these science questions? Perhaps I should have been paying closer attention.

I muddled through as best I could and assumed I’d done well enough to pass.


The grades were posted in a very public hallway several days later. Final grade next to my roommate’s name: C-. Next to mine: F. Kind of embarrassing, but I laughed it off and took extra credits the next semester. I kept the whole experience on the down low until my sister attended the same university two years later and actually majored in Hotel Administration.

“Ellen flunked wines,” my father gleefully informed her.

“How does anyone flunk wines?” my sister asked, as confounded as if he’d told her I’d forgotten how to swim and nearly drowned in a puddle. My sister went on to become a professional wine sales rep, traveling to exotic wineries in Oregon and Argentina. You can find her bantering animatedly with the Sommelier at any fancy restaurant. Me? I’m sticking with margaritas and my husband’s gluten-free beer.

My Children Are Terrible Liars

boys in holiday sweatersMy identical twin boys are terrible liars. Friends brag about their price-cheating efforts: how they prep their kid to tell a ski lift operator that they’re five instead of six, or to convince a flight attendant they’re “just under two.”

In addition to being bad karma, this just isn’t in my boys’ natures. I can’t even convince them that white lies are good manners. The upside of this is I always know what they’re up to. Without much questioning, I can usually get the full accurate story. (“Yeah, I called him stupid, and then he wacked me in the pee-pee, then I grabbed his Transformer and pulled down his pants and then he cried.”)

The downside is they tend to embarrass me on a regular basis.

I got an email one New Year’s when the boys were seven from a lovely neighbor who is also the Neighborhood Christmas Martha Stewart. Her tree is perfectly done up in white and gold ornaments like a display at William’s Sonoma, and despite two small children and a full time job, she manages to bake and deliver cheesecake pies to everyone on the street.

The email from this neighbor said she was pleased to receive the personally delivered thank you note along with the empty pie tin, but that she was pretty sure her conversation with my son did not follow the script of my coaching. Excerpt:

Neighbor, opening the door: Oh hi! What’s this?

Takes pie plate and opens hand made thank you note.

Neighbor: What a lovely note. Did you enjoy the pie?

Axel: No. I didn’t have any. Only Daddy and Grampie eat the pie.

Neighbor: Really? Why is that?

Axel: Mom says it’s gross.

Somehow we managed to get left off the pie distribution list this year.

A more recent front step encounter with a different neighbor and my other son occurred while I was getting out of the shower. Excerpt:
Ding Dong!

Mother: Oh crap! (Yelling down the stairs) Get the door!

Aidan: OK!

Sound of door opening. Enter neighbors Tom and Simone.

Simone: Hi there! We’re having a Super Bowl party next Sunday and wanted to stop by and invite you.

Aidan: Oh, well, you know, we already have so many Super Bowl parties to go to, I doubt we’ll be able to make it. We have a lot of friends. There’s Jackson’s party, and Thomas’, and of course we have to go to Grampie’s house because he loves the Patriots…..

Mother (frantically grasping at too small towel and projecting her voice down the stairwell): OK Aidan! That’s enough! Of course we’ll stop by, thanks for including us!

While I’m not sure any of our neighbors will be speaking to us by the time the twins reach high school, I just have to hope that I will still get the full scoop on keggers in the woods, who’s using their mother’s medical marijuana prescription, and who got to second base behind the bleachers.

The Dead Racoon

twins with earphonesWhen my twin boys were infants, I watched “Desperate Housewives.” There was an episode where a mom is called in to the principal’s office because her twin boys have painted the face of some little girl in their kindergarten class bright blue. I laughed like a drunk at a Ron White comedy show. My boys would never grow up to be that badly behaved.

That was before their toddler playgroup disbanded due to the “unwanted influence” of my children engaging in activities like riding their Big Wheels down the sledding hill. Or the three trips I made to the principal’s office during first grade when they were “pantsing” their friends on the jungle gym, or initiating scratching contests to see who could draw first blood.

When the boys were eight, I stopped in the kids’ care at our gym to pick them up. The high school kid in charge pulled me aside.

“We had kind of a problem today,” he said.

Oh crap. Were they body-slamming each other from across the room again? Had they accidentally whacked a two year girl in the head with a football? Were they once again body surfing on the four-wheeled scooters and rolling over each other’s limbs?

“Did you give them a time-out?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” he said, chewing on his lip. “You see there was a terrible, terrible odor down here. So I sent for the manager, and she got the maintenance guys. And at first we thought maybe there was a dead raccoon out on the playground…”

The boys were messing with a dead animal? Were they hurt? Had they washed their hands?

“Anyway, we looked everywhere for the source of the smell,” he continued. “Finally I thought to check the boys’ shoes.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah….”

We do make them leave their sneakers in the garage or outside on the front porch at home.

“Well, the General Manager said we need a new policy where they’re not allowed to take off their shoes.” He handed me the sign-out clipboard. “Ever.”

I ducked my head and rounded up my crew.

On the way to the car, I said, “Hey guys. Heard your shoes smelled so bad they thought it was a dead raccoon.”

“Yup,” Axel said.

“Wow,” I said. “That was kind of embarrassing.”

“Why?” said Aidan, wrestling into his sweatshirt and trying to balance his soccer ball on his knee, oblivious to any social situation that might appear awkward to a mother.

I chucked my gym bag into the trunk thinking, “Well, at least nobody got painted blue.”