The Mom Squad

When my daughter Jessica joined the Junior Varsity Cheerleading squad in high school, I never suspected how much it would demand of both of us. Sure, the girls cheered at football games and basketball games, but these activities merely fronted for the real action—competitive cheerleading. Not for the poor or faint of heart, competitive cheerleading demanded $800 for uniforms, pom-pons, ribbons, shoes, team socks, and the requisite gallon-size bucket of glitter, on top of two-hour practices six days a week.

The girls took cheerleading seriously, but the cheerleader moms treated the whole thing like a holy mission. Many had been cheerleaders at this same high school not so long ago and longed to cheer again. When I say that the mothers wanted to cheer again, I mean they had their own team.

cheerleaders in pyramid

The premise of the mom team was that we would surprise the girls by performing a cheer for them the night before their first big competition—the State Cheer & Dance Championships in Jacksonville. I was easily ten years older than the other mothers, so the idea of joining a cheerleading team made me laugh. Come on, the mothers begged. You’re not dead yet, they teased. Besides, it’ll be such fun. How hard could it be?

At the first meeting, the coaches assessed our skills. Sure, our tumbling runs included front rolls, one-handed cartwheels, and jumps, but those were as challenging to us as full-twisting back somersaults were for the girls. As a whopping size eight, I was recruited to be a base, that is, to hoist another mom in the air with the help of a partner. The coach announced she would videotape our practices. I seconded the motion for insurance purposes. We held our clandestine practices at the home of one of the coaches. A few of the moms had–let’s call it–new equipment they wanted to display, so they suggested we buy uniforms. The majority voted instead for navy shorts and matching T-shirts. Thank you, thank you. My original equipment did not need to be showcased in tight clothing. Aside from the promise of fun, cheerleading offered a chance to counteract the effects of gravity, so I threw myself into learning to cheer.

The cheer routine seemed as complicated as a music video. I kept colliding with my neighbors because I’d step left when others stepped right. I felt like one of the hippos in Disney’s cartoon classic The Fantasia, if they had been clumsy. Risking injury and loss of dignity, I still wasn’t having the promised fun.

One mom, a size zero who yearned to be mistaken for her daughter’s sister, served as a ‘flyer,’ meaning one of the women hefted overhead. One afternoon, she came to a practice fresh from a massage and since none of us could properly grip her perfectly toned, oiled calves, we kept dropping her. To make the situation worse, the flyer pleaded to the coach for different bases.

Two of us assigned to lifting Mrs. Size Zero had never cheered before and apparently had to be reminded of this dreadful gap in our education. To her we were posers and she felt obligated to call us out. Oh, the shame.

The coach yelled at us, so I asked her to show me how to do it the right way. Hey, I can play stupid. I really enjoyed watching Mrs. Size Zero slide down through the coach’s expert hands. The coach switched to practicing dance steps without another comment. At last, the promise of fun had come through.

We used the same so-called music the girls used for their cheer. Imagine a blaring radio that switches channels every twenty seconds. Add the sounds of glass breaking, horns blaring, highway traffic and rap chants then amplify that noise to the decibel level of a jet engine at takeoff. More than dance, more than gymnastics, cheerleading demanded much from us individually and in teamwork.

Months of preparations culminated in the one and only live performance of the mom team. Never mind the broken elbow suffered by one of the moms—a trooper who continued through the routine—we had survived. We proudly inhaled handfuls of Advil while our hysterically-amused daughters and spouses congratulated us.

The next day Jessica’s High School Junior Varsity girls’ team took second place in the State Cheer & Dance Championships in Jacksonville, Florida. They won first place at the Florida State Fair and second place at the American Open. The Varsity team was equally impressive.

Jessica retired from cheerleading her sophomore year to devote time to a social life and studies. So, at age forty something, having followed my daughter into cheerleading, I followed her out and gleefully retired my pom-pons.

Note

This essay first appeared in Tampa Bay Sounding is a publication of Mensa. I changed the names of the other moms because some of them scared me and might hunt me down.

Gardening Warfare

The Zen garden of sand and a few aesthetically placed rocks encourages peacefulness, serenity and restoration of the soul.

In my yard, gardening is WAR.

I enjoy gardening, not just the resulting blooms or neat hedge, but the act of gardening, the fight itself. The tug-of-war that uproots an errant orange tree seedling is the kind of reward that brings me back week after screaming week. The battle field of my yard yields regular skirmishes. Hefting a three-gallon sprayer can make or break me on a windless evening when the temperature reaches a scorching 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but I soldier on. Okay, so once I braved on until heatstroke amplified the feel of the rotation of the earth and I planted my face on my verdant St. Augustine grass.

My husband, my ally, often wages the larger battles with me, but his regular field of warfare takes place inside the house involving carpentry, electrical work, plumbing and the usual repairs demanded by home ownership. Separate weapons; separate war.

dew on a spiderwebJust hearing the name of sedge grass raises my battle cry. This yard is mine and you can’t take it you weed, you. Back, back, I shout spraying it with diluted poison. I have to laugh when I read that the ‘natural look’ is in for residential gardens.

The natural state of a yard in Florida would include chaos, weeds, root-rot, fungus, ant colonies, erosion, cinch bugs, armadillo burrows, snake infestation, yellow-jacket hives and other assorted pests, diseases and such undesirables unfit to mention in polite company. This natural look must be similar to the natural look touted by Bobby Brown® makeup. It almost takes more effort to make the effect look effortless.

I joined a Garden Club on the misunderstanding that these dear ladies gathered monthly to share gardening tips and techniques. In four years I’ve gained 60 new friends, some terrific salad recipes, but less knowledge of gardening than anticipated. In fact, some of the ladies brazenly hire mercenaries to battle for them so, in effect, my garden club pals serve as generals, planning the war and directing it from a clean, safe distance. These dear souls cluck their tongues when they drop by the house and catch me with soil under my broken nails and twigs in my hair, but I know deep down they either admire my effort or excuse it as youthfulness.

ladybug in a garden

The enemies of a beautiful native Florida yard and garden are legion—and mostly natives themselves. Has anyone grown Oleanders without the attendant poisonous orange and black caterpillars? I’ve sprayed and found that I have to nearly double the prescribed dosage of insecticide to kill them, or go the low-tech route and bash the nasties one by one. Where can one develop a lush lawn of St. Augustine grass without crabgrass, Bahia, dollar-weed, sedge, dollar weed or clover? And let’s not overlook cinch bugs, fungus, armadillos, fire ants, termites and root-rot—all robustly reproducing natives.

Perhaps the Zen garden is peaceful because it contains only rock and sand. It is the ultimate low-maintenance garden. Grab a bamboo rake and draw circles in the sand for meditation. No weeding, hedging, fertilizing, exterminating, bleeding, replanting, watering, mowing, grading or irrigating. It simply won’t work in Florida.

If I prepared a sand and rock Zen garden in my yard, this thing of beauty would become either the community litter box for neighborhood cats or the ants would construct a mega-colony in it.

A local physician Rob and his wife Pat, planted a stunning water garden in their entranceway. Nestled between a wall by their driveway and the house, this expensive recycling in-ground pool served as an oasis, greeting visitors as they passed by on the walkway to the front door. It had a silent pump to re-circulate the water and another device to aerate the water for the $50-a-piece Koi they purchased to inhabit the pool. It had water lilies, bamboo, floating oxygenating grasses and a scavenger fish to eat algae. It was lovely.

On the third day they settled into a sofa with their drinks to gaze upon the pond through their living room window. Their Koi pond was attractive, so attractive, in fact that a native bird spotted it and flew in, settling on the imported rock edge of the pond. Before my friends could run outside, this native Great Blue Heron had gorged on $200 worth of Koi and flew off.

They know what I mean when I say gardening is war; they simply never considered the possibility of an air attack.

I’ll continue my garden war for the blooms, for the butterflies and for the battle. Give me the cathartic release of wrestling my small patch of nature into bloom. Keep your Zen gardens; I’m waging a war.

__________

Tampa Bay Sounding is a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa.

Mom Rules

I have learned that teenagers live in the age of forgetting. Simple skills–even basic rules of civilized conduct–they mastered at age seven disappear at age 14, like closing doors, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’, putting things back where they found them, hanging clothes on hangers, using hampers, carrying dirty dishes to the kitchen. They forget where they put their belongings. They forget their given names and adopt nicknames like Moose, Bucky, Bubba, Skip, and Gator. They forget civilized behavior when it disagrees with what they want to do on the impulse of the moment—like telephoning a friend at midnight.

RulesAfter studying my daughter and her friends, I found that teens respond quicker to peer-pressure than to a parent’s decrees. To wit, I developed a method for using peer pressure to my advantage—to make Mom’s rules equally memorable and effective.

Teenagers are old enough to understand civilized behavior. They know better; they just don’t care. To make them care, I wait for them to make an egregious error and then name a rule after them. For example, the Emily Rule is that no one is allowed to drive the SeaDoo on the lawn. Doing so causes the loss of driving privileges. Sucking up dirt also damages the motor.

We have a home theater that seats seven and a small exercise room beyond the theater. I’d rather have the darlings at my home where I can watch them than worry about where they are, so we share our toys. Put teenagers in the dark, however, and anything can happen, so I made it my policy to occasionally open the door, offer to make popcorn and silently count heads. On one evening the count showed two missing. I strode through the movie room to the exercise room and found a pair of teens on the floor groping one another. This enacted the Megan/Scott Rule. Now when teens settle in for a movie, they hear me say, “The Megan/Scott Rule is in effect.” The students familiar with the policy explain it to the others.

Talk about a chilling effect. Teens want to be famous but not for dumb stunts. Fear of having a rule named after them works quite well. When Bucky, an 18-year-old who lives on his own, came to visit he brought over a giant convenience store cup. He’d always behaved wonderfully on previous visits, but this time he tried to smuggle in beer. It became suspicious when these germ-phobic teens passed the drink around. I intercepted it.

Bucky pleaded, “Oh, no. You’re not going to—“

“Pour it out? Yes. Name a new rule? Oh, yes.”

He groaned, apologized and then said, “Are you going to kick me out?”

“You’re welcome here without the beer.”

He hugged me. Perhaps he’d been kicked out of homes before. As we say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

We recently held a going-away party for one of my daughter’s close friends. About thirty teens showed up to eat like locusts and sign a giant card. Near the end of the three-hour open house a few older boys showed up. They had accessorized their cars with the latest, most useless and expensive lights to illuminate the undercarriage and the stick shift and the headliner. The party moved outside where teens ogled the car. Others did flips and cartwheels on the lawn. One of the parents called to speak with her daughter, so I carried the cordless phone outside. That’s where I picked up the scent of marijuana.

I handed the phone to the girl and closed my eyes. The wind was blowing from the west, so I pivoted westward and started walking. Like a targeted missile I headed toward the bushes. The bushes suddenly shook and two older teens burst from them.

“We were just smoking,” said one who didn’t look at me.

“Do you have a note from your doctor?”

“Sorry?” Both looked up.

“Unless you’re being treated for cancer you’re not allowed to smoke marijuana on my property. It’s time for you to go home.”

“Who said we were smoking pot?” said the one with spiked hair. He glared at the other teens standing far off.

“I grew up in the sixties.”

They mumbled apologies and left. Before they had left the block a group of teens gathered around me and asked what I was going to do.

“I’m going to make a new rule. Since I didn’t get names, theirs is the Dope Rule. If this happens again I’ll call the police, so spread the word.”

Rules for TeenagersAnd yes, lest the gentle reader imagines that only visiting teenagers earn rules, let me state the Jessica rule. There will be no parties held at the house unless at least one parent is at home. The darlings cleaned up so well we almost didn’t detect the party, except for the drained boat tank and the rearrangement of pool furniture. Jessica was in full-denial mode until Bucky visited the next week and casually asked me if I was proud of how they cleaned up after themselves. The poor dear young man simultaneously received a pat on the back from me, and a kick in the shins under the table from Jessica.

Years from now when these young people graduate from the age of forgetting I hope they will remember the safe haven of my home. Mine won’t be the house they remember for the shooting or the Saturday night fights or the liquor closet. I hope they remember my house for the movies, the afternoons on the lake, the pizza parties, and the Rules. Perhaps they will even use my techniques on their own children. Let this be my legacy.

___________________

Tampa Bay Sounding, a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa. Yep, I am a card-carrying geek and proud of it.

Damn Yankees and Other Pests

MP900314057Since moving to Florida as a Yankee, I’ve learned most things about the native pests the hard way.

Mutant-size Roaches

While unpacking that first week I learned the two-part horror of what the gentry euphemistically calls a Palmetto bug. The first horror is that it looks like a mutant-size roach, so when one skittered along the floorboard I mistook it for a mouse. Then it ran up the wall. After I crept up to it, with my arm drawn back, shoe in hand, the second horror manifested itself. The mutants fly! It flew at my face and landed in my hair. For a few minutes I flailed on the carpet, smacking my head with the shoe and screaming with my mouth shut. (My brothers witnessed it, so yeah, they will gleefully describe it to others at any opportunity.) Welcome to Florida.

Fire Ants

Within the month I learned the Fire Ant Dance. All the craze in this giant sand lot state, the dance begins by standing in one place on a green lawn. You will feel nothing as a legion of the tiny red ants sneaks up your legs. The ants attack with the kind of silent uniform precision that Navy Seals employ. The dance grows frantic in a combination of primal scream therapy and hopping, gyrating, and jerking movements that were popular in the sixties. But the dance doesn’t end when you’ve smashed the last hateful ankle-biter, no, then the itching pustules form to haunt you for days, lingering as tiny souvenirs of this nature encounter. I long considered bug repellent my signature scent.

Termites

The most expensive lessons on native insects came after we bought our first home. A Mediterranean style beauty, our first home consumed a decade of savings in the down payment. We were so proud to live in it. So, apparently were the termites. The subterraneans introduced themselves by burrowing up through a microscopic crack in the foundation, up the furring, to poke their tiny pinchers through a pin-point hole in the drywall. A small pile of sawdust was the first clue of their presence. Evicting them meant boring holes in the foundation inside and outside, into the porch, and into the pool deck.

But then their cousins, the drywoods, awoke from their mystic slumber in the lumber and chewed their way down through a door jamb. We had to temporarily move out while the exterminators filled our home with noxious fumes. Our cherished dwelling looked like a circus tent for days. The neighborhood kids gathered to ask if there would be elephants and cotton candy. Again, let me remind the gentle reader that Florida is a giant sand lot, the perfect breeding ground for armies of vicious, well-organized pests.

Mosquitos

Without porch screens Florida would be entirely uninhabitable. The mosquito, the state bird, comes in three distinct varieties—the blind, the biting and the oh-dear-Lord size. The blind mosquitoes swarm like gnats, rising in clouds off the lawn in their peculiar three-day life cycle then they die off leaving what looks like black snowdrifts at doorways. The biters, well, the males buzz and don’t bite. The silent females are so aggressive that they will suck blood through leather shoes. The third kind of mosquito might not be a mosquito at all, but it looks like one, only much, much larger. I’ve heard rumors that the State of Florida breeds these giants because they eat the larvae of the biters. The state-sponsored giants look like they can cart off half a pint of blood each, but they are the good guys. Nonetheless, it has taken years to overcome the instinct to swat them.

Spiders

web

Spiders bother me the most. Florida is home to the Brown Recluse, the Black Widow, the Banana and many other alarming varieties of toxic web spinners. Sure, they help reduce the mosquito population, but when my shrubs get covered in webs every fall gardening is over until January. I’ve learned to watch for the distinctive zigzag pattern of the Banana Spider’s web. Once I sprayed hornet spray directly on a Banana Spider, saturating him and knocking him off his web. He was back the next day. Chemical warfare was not enough. It took a shovel to prevent him from breeding.

Forget the cute fuzzy caterpillars of children’s books. Florida has poisonous caterpillars wearing Halloween colors. I suppose they become that way because they exfoliate Oleanders, you know, the tourist-killing plants whose straight toxic branches look perfect for roasting marshmallows. These caterpillars transform into red-bellied black moths, not butterflies. It figures.

After twenty winters in Wisconsin and Indiana, I’m in Florida to stay despite the insects, the hurricanes, the alligators and the snakes. I had considered drafting a brochure to warn newcomers about the pests here, but then my neighbor explained that the difference between a Yankee and a Damn Yankee is whether they visit or move here, so that brochure idea quietly vanished. So, welcome to Florida, the state where it is considered sacrilege to point out that the center of tourism is a rodent theme park. Pests? What pests? This is America’s playground and I’m thrilled to live here.

__________

Tampa Bay Sounding, a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa.

Rocket Mom

Reaching middle age drove me to get in touch with my true geek self—my inner astronaut—who understands the seduction of speed and power. Earning a pilot’s license, then an instrument rating failed to satisfy me because part of my life remained stuck in low gear behind the wheel of the family van. I wanted satisfaction in a vehicle that suited the real me. That’s when fantasy whispered that I’d have to win the Florida Lottery to afford my dream vehicle.

RocketMy attraction to the Space Shuttle was lust at first roar. I ask you, what’s not to like with a vehicle that cruises at 17,322 miles per hour? Nothing says speed like three Gs pressing on your chest. Accelerating from a standstill to Mach 1 in sixty seconds, the shuttle offers the ultimate thrill ride. Can you imagine the rush of being pressed back into the pilot’s seat to exceed the speed of the sound of the booster rockets one minute after starting them? The fastest NASCAR vehicle would look like it was racing in reverse against the shuttle. Wheeeha! Now wouldn’t that kind of pick up come in handy for merging into highway traffic? And thanks to the plumes from the solid rocket boosters, no one would dare tailgate. Talk about the ultimate in off-road vehicles, who needs roads?

And wait, it gets better. The Space Shuttle seats seven. The five-point harness seatbelts far exceed highway safety recommendations. And cargo space? It hauls 22,000 pounds of gear, the equivalent of three and a half disassembled Lincoln Navigators.

As I test drove SUVs of various makes and models, I dreamt of serious engine power. Just as a Harley engine turns heads with its distinctive growl, one booster rocket could drown out an entire Harley Rally. That’s what I’m talking about.

While a salesman cooed about tinted windows of the Ford Expedition, I remembered the shuttle’s thermal protection system, designed to keep the passenger area cool even when external temperatures soar to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Features like four-wheel anti-lock brakes and side airbags sound so lame compared to deployable twin parachutes.

When another salesman pointed out the nifty combination TV VCR in the Oldsmobile Silhouette, my mind envisioned the shuttle’s closed circuit television system, spiffy S-band phase modulation transceiver and the state-of-the-art Ku-band rendezvous radar.

The shuttle’s sales representatives would never point out cup holders or the vanity mirror or any of the other stuff unenlightened salesmen feel compelled to show women. No, siree. If I were buying my dream vehicle, a team of engineers would fly in to answer my questions. They’d paint it whatever dang color I wanted. It would be made to order. I would demand that the engineers do something no automobile manufacturer has managed to get right—design a place where a woman can stash her purse within easy reach. That single feature would make me the envy of the car pool set.

Okay, okay, beyond terrific bragging rights, would the space shuttle satisfy my other needs? The Toyota 4Runner had well-labeled controls that I could operate on my own, whereas the shuttle had 100 times more displays and controls. Sigh. Even though I’m an instrument-rated pilot, the shuttle’s control panel looked daunting. I bet the owner’s manual comes in volumes. Who wants to read those things?

There were no mileage statistics in the space shuttle press kit, so I contacted one of the friendly geniuses through the NASA home page. After he stopped laughing, Dave Williams, of the National Space Science Data Center, gave a rough calculation of 400,000 miles a day. Based on my driving style, which is to go as far as possible per tank, I used the maximum flight time recommended for the shuttle—18 days. At 400,000 miles per day, that came to 7,200,000 miles between fill ups. Of course no mere van or SUV could compete with that, but the fantasy started to unravel when I discovered that refueling the space shuttle would require going to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida or the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

When I bought my previous mom-mobile van in 1991, it cost $21 to refuel the van and $613,040 to refuel the space shuttle. Hmm. I’m afraid to calculate what it would cost now. It’s one of those situations in which if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it. So fuel charges would consume the rest of my imaginary lottery winnings.

Then there’s the problem of vehicle size. The space shuttle won’t fit in the garage, even if my husband parked his car in the driveway. Though I’d always be able to locate the space shuttle in the mall parking lot, did this feature outweigh the others?

My dream vehicle couldn’t tow a boat without melting it. Parallel parking would be out of the question. How would I execute a U-turn on a four-lane road to backtrack to the intersection I missed? Would the space shuttle possess that wonderful new vehicle smell?

Lottery winnings aside, the deciding factor would have to be availability. New shuttles just aren’t on the market. Really, deep down, who wouldn’t prefer a new vehicle over a used one? Of all the vehicles I test drove, the Toyota 4Runner emerged the winner, though it was a slower, less fuel-efficient production vehicle than the space shuttle, a new 4Runner suited my lifestyle. True, it was a sacrifice of speed in favor of handling, but all vehicle buyers contend with such choices.

Rocket Mom toysSo to satisfy my mid-life yearnings, I earned my pilot’s license and I bought the Toyota 4Runner Limited Edition in Millennium Silver and named it Rocket. My front license plate read “FLY.”  You’ll recognize me as the forty-something woman hauling a carload of teenagers. I’ll be embarrassing my daughter by playing the “Top Gun” soundtrack on nearly full volume, riding with the moon roof open and letting the wind blow through my hair. You can’t do that on the space shuttle.

__________

This essay previously appeared in Tampa Bay Sounding, a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa. This essay was nominated for Mensa’s Publication Recognition Program in the humor category. It didn’t win, but it was fun to have it picked up by other publications in Mensa. Since this essay was written my daughter has gone to college and is driving her own vehicle, listening to her own music.

Found Money

As a child I often found money. That was an era when children predominantly played outdoors with other children instead of slouching over electronic devices. Spring in Wisconsin revealed lost items as snow melted–mittens, cars, papers, litter, and coins. Lots of coins. Money doesn’t come as easily these days. As an adult this spring, I generally earn money through writing and editing, but last week money found me.

moneyIt wasn’t from Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, or another lovely royalty check from Amazon, or the Florida Lottery, or even that Nigerian Prince who keeps emailing to ask for my bank account number. It was a letter from an attorney that explained an unclaimed insurance refund of $1500 was owed to us and for a fee of $150, the attorney would process the claim and send us a check. Yeah, sure. I’ll tell the Nigerian Prince . . . but after calling the insurance company named in the letter, it turned out to be true. The insurance company refund was over six years old–involving a corporation my husband owned and closed–so the undelivered refund had been idling all these years with the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.

The money would have gathered more dust there, but for the enterprising law firm that hunted us down. The lawyer earned a nice fee for his work and we applied the long-lost money toward our daughter’s wedding. But the story doesn’t end there. No. I became curious about the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators; curious enough to go to their website http://www.unclaimed.org and enter my name to search for more. I found another claim in my name and filed the requested paperwork–copy of Driver’s License, copy of utility bill that shows my address, and the claim form. For the price of a stamp and a few minutes’ time, I became another $55 richer.

So, gentle reader, consider my friendly advice to visit the Unclaimed.org website and put in your name, put in your parents’ names, put in your children’s names and see if money is looking for you. Another website MissingMoney.com also has links to unclaimed tax refunds and other property.

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