I have an uncle who answers the question “How are you?” by saying, “Well, I’m better than a poke in the eye.”

My little dachshund, Laverne, is not better than a poke in the eye today.  She looks like she’s been in a bar fight.  I let her out to run in the yard this morning, and when she came back inside, her left eye was swollen almost completely shut. I pulled the lid open, and the eye was black.  It terrified me because, normally, her eyes are brown.

I raced her to the veterinarian’s office, and their best guess is that she ran straight into a stick.  Whatever it was pierced the eye and went almost all the way through.  She’s back at home now resting comfortably, thanks to a painkiller hidden in a hunk of lasagna. The vet warned me that even the slightest increase in her blood pressure could pop the eye, so even though it’s pouring outside, all the blinds are closed. I have to make sure nothing crosses in front of the windows to excite her.

I’m researching the nine Muses of Greek mythology as part of my PhD studies, and today I’m reading about Urania, the Muse who inspires astronomy.  There’s something to this gal. I never knew this before, but as early as 275 B.C., Aristarchus claimed the earth was a revolving sphere orbiting the sun.  Almost eighteen hundred years before Copernicus, the Greeks, aided by the Muse Urania, had figured out our solar system.  However, in A.D. 529, the Roman Emperor Justinian, a Christian, closed the Greek pagan schools, believing them to be heretical. That knowledge was, in a sense, lost until Copernicus and Galileo once again challenged the idea that earth was the center of the universe.  Joseph Campbell, in his classic Myths to Live By, says of Copernicus, “All mankind’s theological as well as cosmological thinking, up to that time, had been based on concepts of the universe visually confirmed from the point of view of the earth.  Also, man’s notion of himself and of nature, his poetry and his whole feeling system, were derived from the sight of his earthbound eyes” (235).

In other words, small minds kept us in the dark for nearly 1,000 years.

I get annoyed at my dachshunds because they bark at anything that moves in the yard or in the alley running alongside the yard.  But to be fair, if eye level for me was six inches off the ground and my brain was the size of a large gumball, I guess most everything would be scary.  Perspective, of course, changes everything.

Roger Chaffee, an Apollo 1 astronaut who was killed in 1967 during a pre-launch test, said of seeing Earth from space, “The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful.  Maybe we can make it that way – the way God intended it to be – by giving everybody that new perspective from out in space.”

Urania’s wisdom, I think, comes from the idea that being in awe of something bigger than ourselves gives us a grander perspective.  Education is seeing things in new ways and being open to larger possibilities.  It’s the inspiration that Urania calls us to, but it’s also dangerous to the small-minded and those with limited points of view.

Being unwilling to change our perspective makes us prone to getting poked in the eye.

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Orpheus was a great musician in Greek mythology.  The son of one of the Muses, Calliope, he was said to be able to charm all living things (and even rocks) with his music.   He was one of Jason’s heroes in the quest for the Golden Fleece; by playing his music, he overcame the Sirens’ song and kept the Argonauts from crashing their ship on the rocky shore.

Orpheus is also credited with writing the Orphic Hymns, a collection of poems invoking the Greek gods and goddesses.  To his aunts and mother, the nine Muses, he writes, “Clio, and Erato, who charms the sight,?With thee Euterpe minist’ring delight/Thalia flourishing, Polymina fam’d/ Melpomene from skill in music nam’d/Terpischore, Urania heav’nly bright,/With thee who gav’st me to behold the light/Come, venerable, various, pow’rs divine/ With fav’ring aspect on your mystics shine/?Bring glorious, ardent, lovely, fam’d desire/ And warm my bosom with your sacred fire” (75, lines 13-23).

I wish I’d heard of Orpheus and his hymns when I was seven years old.  I could have used Euterpe’s help in ministering a little delight.

My mom signed me up for piano lessons when I was seven.   Back then, school principals still paddled wayward students, and piano teachers gave a real grade for every lesson.  My teacher didn’t reward students with M&Ms for knowing where G flat is on a keyboard. Students who didn’t practice their lessons got kicked to the curb.

I know this because I got kicked out of piano lessons.  The teacher was the pianist at my dad’s church, and my parents were embarrassed by this failure.  Not only that, they were probably terrified for my future, since the conventional wisdom back then was that every girl should know how to play the piano so that she could one day supplement her husband’s income by playing in church or teaching piano lessons.

I was in big trouble, but I didn’t know that Euterpe, the Muse of Music, was available to help me.  All I knew was that I went through four more teachers before receiving the inspiration I needed.

It came in the form of a teenage crush.  When I was about thirteen, a senior at the local public high school became the church pianist.  He was six years older, and he was Schroeder to my Lucy.  All I wanted to do was hang on the piano and listen to him play.  Practically overnight, I became a piano prodigy, if one may use that term loosely to mean a teenage girl who practices her piano prodigiously.

I began practicing my piano every morning from 6:30 to 7:30.  I became our household alarm clock.  Even though my brother and sister complained about waking every morning to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” my parents didn’t dare tell me to lay off the piano in the morning. They didn’t care when, how, or why I was suddenly practicing my little pinkies off.  They were just happy that I was finally practicing my piano.  I like to think I was ministering delight in the preacher’s house every morning.

When my inspiration got married and moved away, I quit piano for good.  Today, I can still find G flat, and I can drive my brother and sister wild by playing the first nine notes of “Fur Elise.”  But that’s it.  Those nine notes are all I know of any song.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Euterpe has left the building.

The music is playing in my head, and I can’t get it to stop.  It’s carousel music, the round and round, up and down tune that, apparently, has no end.

It started when I Googled Calliope.  I intended to research the oldest of the nine Muses of Greek mythology, but I clicked on the wrong entry and got interested in steam organs, which were the original source of the music we hear at carnivals, circuses, and on carousels.  Did you know that it’s impossible to control the volume or tone on a steam organ?

But back to Calliope, the Greek goddess.  Like I said, she’s the oldest of the nine Muses, the goddesses who inspire music, art, and writing.  So she’s kind of the boss of the Muses.  Hesiod, in fact, called her the “chiefest of them all.”

Calliope is the Muse charged with inspiring epic poetry.  An epic poem is a rather long narrative detailing heroic deeds and events significant to the history of a culture or nation.  The Iliad and the Odyssey, about the siege of Troy and a hero’s journey home after the Trojan war, are perhaps the most famous examples of epic poems.

I teach Short Story Writing at Flagler College in St. Augustine, and I tell my students that one of the elements crucial to a good story is conflict.  As writers, we must decide what our protagonist wants more than anything else, and then our job is to throw obstacles in his or her way.  The conflict is what makes the story interesting.  If a heroine doesn’t have to overcome a few hurdles on her way to happiness, is there even a story to tell?

To my way of thinking, if Calliope is the inspiration for heroic stories, and conflict is what makes a story interesting, then she could be called the creator of conflict.

I’ve met up with Calliope once or twice in my own epic quest for happiness.  Maybe even five or six times, come to think of it.  But this morning, as the carousel music was playing in my head and I realized I had no way of turning it down, I had the thought that I could just jump off the carousel.

Before you wonder if I’m thinking of offing myself, let me explain.  Somewhere along the way, most of us have decided that life is a struggle.  If we’re going about life in a noble manner, then it should be hard.   After all, when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, a furious God told them that was the fate they’d ordered up for themselves and all of mankind with their disobedience.

But before that, life was easy.  Everything they wanted and needed was readily available.  It was all “good,” as God Himself called it.  Let me put it this way:  God originally designed life to be a breeze.  People screwed it up by insisting upon investigating the alternative.  They already knew good, so the knowledge of evil was where they went askew.  In Star Wars terms, they went over to the Dark Side.

I played two tennis matches this week, and in both, my partner and I blew several match points.  Actually, I blew several match points.  I walked off the court and said to someone, “I made that harder than it had to be.”

The tennis pro called it “prolonging the agony.”  He told me I might want to start figuring out how to end matches sooner because the alternative is a long, slow death that does more damage to both teams.

But I don’t do that just with tennis matches.  I do it all the time.  It’s like I believe things just haven’t been hard enough yet, so I call on Calliope to help me create a little more drama.  Apparently, I need to make life just a little more difficult in order to believe I earned it when something good happens.  The problem is that it’s not the way life was originally intended to be lived.

Calliope’s fired, and so is her stupid music.  I’m off the conflict carousel and choosing the smooth, easy ride from now on.

In Greek mythology, Clio, the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), is the Muse who inspires history.

I had to think about that for a moment.  The union of the most powerful deity and memory produced history.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Doesn’t our history come before and thereby create what we remember?

My three-legged Australian shepherd, Pancho, is a certified therapy dog.  Every week, I take him to the Clyde V. Lassen Veteran’s Nursing Home near my home in St. Augustine, Florida.  We started visiting last November, and on our very first visit, almost every person we talked to asked how Pancho lost a leg.

On our second visit, almost every person we talked to asked how Pancho lost a leg. And they’re still asking.  It happens every week.

At first, I told the story of how he jumped out of the back of a pickup truck as a puppy and crushed his left hip. In fact, if Pancho had a Milk-Bone for every time he’s heard that story, we’d never have to buy dogfood again. But after a few months, I started throwing crazy new stories at some of the guys just to see how they would react.

To date, Pancho has lost that limb as a result of wrestling an alligator, jumping in between me and a giant rattlesnake, a shark attack, a surfing accident, and chewing it off to get himself out of a trap.

They aren’t much impressed by tales of Pancho’s heroism.  Maybe because they’re heroes in their own right.  All I know is that one old guy who I like to call Mr. Frisky will look at Pancho and ask what happened to him.  Then he unfailingly says, “That dog loves you, doesn’t he?”  Before I can affirm that my dog does, indeed, love me, Mr. Frisky will grab at me inappropriately and say, “I love these right here.”  And my heroic dog who loves me doesn’t so much as lift his ears or cock his head.  He just looks at me as if to say, “You’re a big girl.  You can handle this one yourself.”

One day, Pancho and I were standing in front of about twenty old guys who were playing a rambunctious game of wheelchair beach volleyball.  During a lull in the action, one old guy called out, “Hey, where’s that dog’s other leg?”

I yelled back, “He said he didn’t need it.”

On the very front row of the volleyball game was a man who has lost a leg.  I looked at him to gauge his reaction.  He threw back his head and roared.  The whole crowd started laughing, and the man who’d asked the question said, “That’s great!”

I’m not so sure any more that the old guys forget Pancho’s story every week.  Maybe they just get that who we are today is a product of the stories we told ourselves yesterday.  I’m not talking about lying about the past.  I’m just saying that the way we choose to process our memories is God’s way of allowing us to transform both the present and the future.

If you were a figure in Greek mythology, who would you be?  Are you Bacchus, a partier known for being able to hold your liquor?  Maybe Thalia, the muse of Comedy?  Would people compare you to Hercules, or would you be more like the belly goddess Baubo, who is also known as the goddess of Obscenity?

Because the ancient myths are the product of the collective psyche, the truth is that we are all a compilation of bits and pieces of these archetypes.  We can read these ancient stories and recognize friends and family members who display qualities of, say, Demeter, the Earth Mother, or Hera, the wife of Zeus who was constantly worried that he was cheating on her.

Me?  I found out today I’m an oracle.

I was researching Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance, when I came upon these words from the story of Jason and The Golden Fleece:  Beware the man with one sandal.

Those weren’t my exact words, but I prophesied the same thing a few years ago.

It was the summer of 2008.  Eight of us went to the Jimmy Buffett concert in Atlanta.  We tailgated for a good part of the afternoon, then made our way to the lawn at Lakewood (technically, it’s Hifi Buys Amphitheater, but for native Atlantans, it will always be Lakewood).  After the concert, as we were gathering our things to leave, the man I was with asked everyone in our party to look for his shoe.  We spent half an hour searching for his flip-flop, but it was nowhere to be found.  Finally, the guy threw his arms around me and another person and hopped on the foot that still had a shoe over the array of trash left on that lawn all the way across the street to the gas station parking lot for the ride home.  Our driver hadn’t shown up yet, so he sat down on the curb in a corner of the parking lot to wait. The corner was strewn with broken glass, bottle caps, and crushed cans.  He crossed his shoeless foot over the other so it didn’t touch the ground and then began to grumble about losing his favorite pair of flip-flops.  He even mentioned how expensive they’d been.

Maybe it was the margaritas talking.  Or maybe it was just a flash of brilliance.  I looked down at him and quoted a line from Jimmy Buffett’s most famous song.  Pointing at his flip-flopless foot, I said, “Hey, look, everyone!  It’s ‘blew-out-my-flip-flop-stepped-on-a-pop-top!”

The shoeless man sat stone-faced as the rest of the group laughed.  He, apparently, did not share my sense of humor.  It was the last time I ever saw him.

In the story of The Golden Fleece, the hero, Jason, is the son of Aeson, the king of Thessaly.  Aeson was overthrown by his brother, Pelias, who killed the descendants of Aeson in the coup.  But Jason, an infant at the time, was saved because his mother hid him with the centaur Chiron.  Pelias, fearful that he would one day be overthrown, sought the advice of an oracle, who warned him to beware of a man with one sandal.

As a grown man, Jason comes back to reclaim his father’s throne.  He stops to help an old woman (the goddess Hera in disguise) cross the river Anauros and loses his sandal in the river.  When Pelias sees the man with one shoe, he says, “The dead Phrixus bids us bring back the Golden Fleece and thus bring back his spirit to his home.  The oracle has spoken. . . . Do you go upon this quest, and I swear with Zeus as witness that I will give up the kingdom and the sovereign rule to you.”

The Goddesses Hera and Aphrodite help Jason by convincing Aphrodite’s son Eros (Cupid) to make the sorceress Medea fall in love with Jason so that her magic can help him.  With help from his band of heroes and Medea, Jason steals back the fleece and wins back his rightful kingdom.  Then the man with one sandal gets too big for his britches.  He finds a younger, prettier woman and dumps Medea for her.  Bent on revenge, Medea kills the new bride.  Then, fearful that her two sons will become slaves when Jason finds out, she kills her own children.  Jason comes to kill her for what she has done, but he sees Medea stepping into a chariot drawn by dragons.   The story ends with these words, “They carried her away through the air out of his sight as he cursed her, never himself, for what had come to pass.”

You see?  Never trust a man with one sandal.  Nothing is ever his own damn fault.

It started when my son lived with his father.

In 2010, I moved to Florida.  My son decided to stay in Georgia with his dad.  While I understood his decision, I had a hard time coping with my prematurely empty nest.  In fact, I sobbed during that drive south on I-75.  It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, harder even than filing for divorce or telling my children our family was splitting up.

His dog, Pancho, the three-legged Australian Shepherd, came with me.  And that’s really when it started.  We began talking through Pancho.  I frequently texted pictures of the dog to my son with the message, “I miss you” or “Wish you were here!” It was a way of safely telling my kid how I felt.  After all, there was no way he would ever rebuff a message from Pancho.

My son came to live with me at the beginning of his junior year of high school, and I have to say that the past two years have been a gift.  I got a second chance at being a mom, and for that I will always be grateful.

The funny thing is that we never stopped talking through Pancho.  Let’s say my kid was going out for the evening.  “Where ya goin’?” I’d ask in my “Pancho” voice, which was slightly deeper and mimicked the cadence of Goofy’s speech patterns.  Or when I came in late from teaching, I’d ask Pancho, “Did he feed you?”

It was a stupid thing to ask, of course, because that dog would look me in the eye and lie himself silly.  He’d practically pretend to collapse from hunger.  “Hunter didn’t feed you?  What’s wrong with him?”

Before I could even ask the question, my son would say, “He’s lying.  I fed him at 9.”

The conversation went both ways.  When I went out of town, my kid would text me a picture of the dog.  “He misses you” was the standard caption.

I even built a pool in our backyard because Pancho wanted one.

My son has been in Costa Rica with his father this week, a final vacation before he leaves for college.  This morning, I sent him this picture.

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The message said,  “I’m so glad you’re coming home today.”

I’m not sure how to tell Pancho that our boy is leaving for college this week.  I’m worried that he won’t handle this well.  He might mope around the house for the first few days, but at least he’s got some things to keep him busy — his dachshund shepherding job and his pet therapy gig at the local VA nursing home.

He’s probably going to cry on the drive home from Tallahassee.  I’m afraid Pancho is really going to miss this kid.

One of the things I love most about traveling is that it gives me fresh eyes.  Seeing Notre Dame, Diamond Head, the grass courts of Wimbledon, or even THE Saks on Fifth Avenue for the first time is seeing with fresh eyes.  The first time, we have no stories to attach to what we’re seeing, so there’s no judgment.  For the most part, we are caught up in the moment and begin creating stories about that moment as a way of remembering it.

I’ve also found another way travel gives me fresh eyes.  When I come home after being away for a few days, I see my home a bit differently.  I don’t automatically see the places where the white paint is peeling off the picket fence, and my eyes don’t focus on the fact that a palm tree in the backyard has died.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder by blurring the imperfections for a day or so, mostly because I’m happy to be home.

My kids might argue the opposite.  I’ve been known to come home from a trip, eye the sofa suspiciously and say, “Why are the sofa cushions turned the wrong way?”  Or “The chairs around the pool are rearranged.   How many people were over here?”  Yes, I realize that sounds crazy.  But several years ago, I came home from a trip to find cigarette burns on the cushions of my porch furniture.  On another occasion, I found a window with a hole from a BB gun.  Once, my little dachshund Laverne greeted me at the door barking furiously.  She kept running to the stairs, then back to me, obviously begging me to follow her. “There was a party here, and you’re not going to like what you see,” she seemed to be saying.  She led me to the guest room, where I immediately saw that the bed’s decorative pillows were not arranged the way they had been when I left.

When my son came home, I asked him about the party.  He started to deny it, then stopped when he realized I knew.  “How did you know?” he asked.

“The dogs ratted you out.”

So travel gives us fresh eyes in a couple of ways.  And I discovered a third one this week.

I live in a tourist town.  In addition to having great beaches, St. Augustine, Florida, has the distinction of being the nation’s oldest city.  It’s full of treasures for history buffs like the oldest schoolhouse, the Fountain of Youth (the spot where Ponce de Leon is said to have landed when he arrived in Florida), and the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.

Last month, St. Augustine got another huge tourist attraction.  A replica of a Spanish galleon, one like Ponce de Leon sailed to the coast of Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth, docked next to the Bridge of Lions in the city’s bayfront.  El Galeon will be here at least through the city’s 450th birthday celebration in 2015, and it could be here permanently.

The ship is huge.  And it’s beautiful.  And it’s so big that it has literally changed the skyline of the city.  Because things look different when I cross the Bridge of Lions, El Galeon’s presence has literally given me fresh eyes for my town.  It’s made me see the familiar through the eyes of tourists, those seeing it for the first time.

It reminds me of a story my friends Jeff and Jamie tell about an older gentleman they know.  The man and his wife were staying at an expensive hotel in Washington, D. C.  He was sitting on his balcony smoking a cigar and enjoying the view when the concierge called the room to ask how they were enjoying their stay.

“It’s lovely,” the man said.  Then he thought to ask, “How much am I paying for this great room?”

He listened quietly to the man on the other end of the phone, said goodbye, then set the phone down and turned to his wife.  “Miss Mary,” he said, “Pack your shit.”

I know that what is familiar is comforting.  But I wonder what would happen if we started seeing everything in our lives with fresh eyes.  What if we saw our lives as though we were experiencing them for the first time?  What if we poured a vat of white-out over the stories we’ve created about our families, our homes, our pets, our neighbors, even the gas grill with the pesky pilot switch?  In other words, what would happen if we packed our shit and just decided to enjoy everything about our lives?

I need some fresh eyes.  My bags are packed.  And the dogs are getting ready for party patrol.

 

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried and a professor of Creative Writing at Texas State University, says that the “literary objective of a writer should be empathy,” that good writing enlarges the heart and makes readers feel for people, “even bad ones.”

There was a time in my life when I would have thrown Sethe, the central character of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, into the “bad one” category.  The novel is set in the years following the Civil War.  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave slave owners the right to pursue runaways across state borders.  Morrison uses this setting to tell the story of Sethe, an escaped slave, who is hunted down by her former owner.  Rather than see her four children suffer as a slave like she had, she pushes them into a woodshed and tries to kill them.  One daughter dies.  The girl, who is unnamed throughout the book, is known by the only word her mother can afford to have engraved on her tombstone:  Beloved.

The point Morrison is making, I believe, is that we can’t know what we would do in a particular situation until we’re in it.

As a young mother, I would have insisted that nothing would ever be more important to me than my children.  I was completely immersed – submerged, even – in being a good mom.  Nothing, I believed, could make me voluntarily leave them.

I found out that desperation could.  I moved to Florida when my two younger children were seventeen and fourteen.  They didn’t want to move, so they stayed with their father for a while, and then they came to live with me.

My ex-husband and his family called me a bad mom.  They used the word “abandoned.”   But no one caused me more agony over it  than I did.

The same is true for Sethe, who is haunted by the dead daughter for many years.  But Beloved is a book about forgiving ourselves, especially for the things we do that are driven by desperation.

The book ends with Sethe in agony over her daughter.  “She left me.  She was my best thing.”

But Paul D corrects her: “You your best thing, Sethe.  You are.”

I now understand that, given the right set of circumstances, I am capable of just about anything.  That understanding gives me greater empathy for myself and for others.  That nothing outside of me defines me unless I allow it to.  And forgiving myself means I let myself be loved.

This morning, I saw the results of a Mother’s Day poll indicating that half of all moms have to ask their kids for technical support with their phones, computers, and Kindles.  I’m ashamed to admit that I fall into that technologically inept group of women, even though I did show my grandfather and grandmother how to operate their new Kindles.  Sadly, this past January, during my first semester of teaching, I had to call my daughter in Colorado in a panic not once, but twice, because I couldn’t figure out how to copy my Powerpoint lecture onto a flash drive.

Last week, my son dropped his iPhone into a swimming pool.  He checked our AT&T account and was excited to see that we were due an upgrade.  But he was not so thrilled when I told him that since I was paying for the new phone, I was taking the iPhone 5 and he was getting my old one.

In fact, he was so irritated that he posted this to his sister’s Facebook wall:  “I’m getting Mom’s old piece of shit.  She’s getting a 5.  She doesn’t even know what Siri is.”

I have been acquainted with Siri, but I don’t know her well.  So yesterday, I decided we should to have a talk.  I was driving, and I needed to call Claude’s Chocolates in St. Augustine to order some Mother’s Day boxes.  “Siri, please find me Claude’s Chocolates in St. Augustine,” I said into my new iPhone 5.

“I found fifteen places matching ‘parts’ . . . eight of them are fairly close to St. Augustine,” she replied.

I tried to say it more clearly, “Claude’s Chocolates.  St. Augustine, Florida.”

This time, Siri went to Europe and found me something sounding like Choc Haus.  It was in Germany.  “I found some places, but they’re not close to St. Augustine,” she said apologetically.

I gave up and Googled Claude’s.  It took me eight seconds.  But I decided to give Siri another chance.  I had to change my haircut appointment, so I pushed her little button and said, “Siri, please find me Panache Hair Salon in St. Augustine.”

That bitch had me calling a salon in Davidson County, Tennessee, which is basically Nashville.  While I always wanted to be a Hee-Haw girl, that’s a long way to drive for a cut and color.  However, I have taken the oath of Annelle in Steel Magnolias, vowing that my personal tragedy would never interfere with my ability to do (or in my case have) good hair, so I persisted.  Siri found five hair salons around me, but since I wasn’t at home, Panache wasn’t around me.  I Googled it.

Determined to get something out of Siri that I could boast about to my kids, I said, “Siri, play Jimmy Buffett.”

I have over three hundred Jimmy Buffett songs on my iPhone.  I have “Margaritaville,” “Fins,” “Come Monday,” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” his biggies.  But the one Siri chose for me and immediately began playing was “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw.”

I don’t even want to think about what that says about me.  Still, Siri had gotten something right.  Encouraged, I decided to text while driving.  “Siri, text Lauren Testing Siri I love you,” I said.

“Alright, here’s your message to Lauren:  ‘Testing Siri I love you.’ Should I send it?”

It was perfect.  Overjoyed, I said, “Yes! Send it!”  Two minutes later, my girl replied, “I love you, too.”

I got my message across, and I didn’t have to ask a kid for help.  Happy Mother’s Day to me.

 

You might not know this about me, but I’m a contestant on a reality cooking show.

The show is called “What’s For Dinner, Mom?”   Here’s the premise:  Each contestant must cook a palatable, nutritious dinner while a screaming toddler hangs on her left leg and a three-legged Australian shepherd counter surfs, occasionally scoring a stick of butter or a hunk of cheese.  The completed dinner is set on the table next to a pair of sweaty shin guards and a dachshund who believes her best chance of getting fed is to just stand on the table and wait. For the final challenge, a husband walks into the scene, lifts the top off a pot, sniffs, and says, “I’ll just have a protein shake tonight.”

The judges are an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old, the toddler, and the dachshund.  Unlike ABC’s The Taste, in which judges decide a contestant’s fate based upon just one bite, this contest has a three-bite rule.  If every judge takes at least three bites, no one shoves a blueberry up his nose during the meal, and the three-legged dog doesn’t barf up the goodies he scavenged from the countertop or the trash, the contestant makes it to the next round.  Actually, all contestants make it to the next round.  Forever.  Or at least until that toddler finally leaves for college.

I’ve been the star of this show for over 22 years.  I’m not quite sure how many rounds I’ve completed, but let’s say I averaged three shows each week.  That’s 26 times 52 times 3, or 3,432 evening meals I’ve prepared in my life.

That’s a lot of lima beans.  It’s vats of spaghetti sauce and enough rice to cover an elephant.  It’s a small mountain of onions chopped, truckloads of quesadillas grilled and ground beef browned. It’s also a lot of last-minute scrambling to figure out what’s for dinner. Once, when my older girl was three, I asked, “Baby doll, what do you think we should cook Daddy for dinner?”  She let out an anguished wail and said, “You can’t cook Daddy!”

It was this English professor’s first lesson in making sure I used precise grammar in front of my children, that it’s as essential as good nutrition.  (And little did I know then that daddy would one day cook his own goose.)

I tried to be a great cook.  Honestly, I tried.  For several years, I attended Ursula’s Cooking School in Atlanta.  Ursula, who started that operation in 1965, used to boast that she’d never repeated a recipe. Unlike my teacher, I’ve repeated recipes, well, repeatedly.

But last Sunday night, I tried something new.  My kid was skeptical when he asked, “What’s for dinner, Mom?” and I asked how he’d like nachos.  He wasn’t sure, he explained, that I would be able to get the cheese right.  He finished three plates, then looked at me and said, “I think that was the best dinner you’ve ever made.”

He’s going off to college, so my run on “What’s for Dinner, Mom?” will end soon.   The toddler who used to hang off my leg now towers over me and sports a hollow leg or two. He and his big sisters are healthy, happy, really great people.  So to my way of thinking, I won that damn reality show.  I won big.

I’ll miss my kid, but I don’t think I’ll miss the cooking show.  In fact, I don’t plan on cooking much after he leaves.  I wouldn’t know how to cook for only one person anyway.  So I’ll probably just have a protein shake.

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