Have you ever had that thing happen where Life gave you lemons and you squeezed them into a big frosty pitcher, and you were all “Yay me, making lemonade!” and then someone took a drink and started making noises like “pah” and “urkh” and “blggk”?
That’s because it turns out that you need more than just lemons to make lemonade.
What you made, idiot, was lemon juice.
Well, that’s pretty much all you need to know about the beige dress I bought to replace the blue-lace dress that I’d bought for my mid-life wedding and then undergrew (ingrew? Whatever the opposite of “outgrew” would be), and then had brilliantly altered (if, by “altered,” we mean scrunched up, folded over, and tacked down like a piece of wrapping paper that had been cut too large for its gift).
It’s not that I didn’t see the opportunity Life had given me with this particular basket of lemons. Believe me, in the weeks that have passed since my last post on the topic, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder why it was that I didn’t just order the same blue-lace dress in a smaller size. The thing is, while I’m pretty good at figuring out what you are thinking (because I was bitten by a telepathic spider while on a field trip in high school), I’m woefully bad at determining just what it was I had been thinking the minute I’ve moved on from any particular thought.
For instance, a few hours ago, while gathering laundry from one of my daughters’ bedrooms, I had what I’m almost certain was a great insight into why it was that I’d hated that beige dress, and I was about to put down the laundry basket and run to the computer to get it down when I glanced at my daughter’s iPad and remembered that it had been playing an Abba song when I went in to wake her this morning. Which got me to wondering why the song itself hadn’t woken her, and from there it was just a short hop to trying to remember exactly which Abba song it had been that was playing, and within moments I was mentally looping “Waterloo,” trying to parse the lyrics that my teenaged self had probably misheard.
Was it: “In my mind, a Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered/ Whoa yeah, and I have met my distant me in white, I think, in a way,” and if so, what, exactly, did those things mean? More important: what did I used to think those things meant, since I don’t remember wondering about their meaning before? Something about a marriage, probably, since the distant me was wearing white. Unless, maybe, she was in a hospital? But why was my mind a Waterloo, and was I happy that Napoleon had given up on its battlefield?
And then I remembered that it’s 2013, or maybe 2014, and that I don’t have to stand around holding a laundry basket and wondering about lyrics when I can just do what the young people do and use the Google on the machine. And so I did.
And then it occurred to me that it wasn’t so much a case of me mishearing as it was of Abba mis-singing.
My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender/ Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way/ The history book on the shelf/ Is always repeating itself.
What the what? I asked myself, like a history book, repeating on the shelf. How could these lyrics make any more sense than the ones in my head? And what sort of person who isn’t so much a person as she is maybe a wise old animated bear starts a song with the words “My, my?”
Waterloo – I was defeated you won the war/ Waterloo – Promise to love you for ever more/ Waterloo – couldn’t escape if I wanted to/ Waterloo – knowing my fate is to be with you/ Waterloo – finally facing my Waterloo.
So the song was about marriage? But, like, a very brief marriage, since the bride gets exiled to Elba the minute the ceremony ends?
So then I got to wondering exactly how it was that whoever wrote this song came up with the concept. I imagined the members of Abba sitting around in some Bjorn guy’s basement, eating lutefisk pizza and throwing out song ideas like “Ja, okay, so what if love is like war?” and someone saying, “You mean, all your men get killed and then you lose, and you have to get married?” And the first one goes, “Ja, ja, that’s good! Let’s make it our song’s metaphor, ja?” And then they jump up to search the history book on the shelf, but they can’t find any famous Swedish battles.
And then their little grandmother, who looks very much like a wise old animated bear, comes down the steps carrying a plate of Napoleon pastries for dessert. “My, my!” she exclaims when she sees how busy they are, and then suddenly everyone’s singing.
My, my, I tried to hold you back but you were stronger/ Oh yeah, and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight/ And how could I ever refuse?/ I feel like I win when I lose.
Right? Like, if they’d actually sat down and written the song, they would have noticed the way the line “and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight” completely fucks up the meter and kind of dribbles its way to the catchier lines, so that if you’d never read the lyrics, you’d just la-di-blah-blah the words in your head until you got to the ones that didn’t suck?
Which, it struck me, is exactly why my teenaged self hadn’t questioned the lyrics: because it had just la-di-blah-blahed through the ones that didn’t rhyme or make any obvious internal sense, so that what I was mostly hearing, after “my distant me in white,” was “Waterloo, blah-di blah-blah-ba-di Waterloo.”
Which, it then struck me, is exactly the way I often write, la-di-blah-blahing until I get to whatever it is I really mean to say. And while, ideally, I then go back and edit out the la-di-blahs, sometimes I end up with entire passages of them, and with no catchy musical hooks to keep my audience with me until we get past them. Which -Waterloo – made me remember my Waterloo. My Waterloo: forgetting the thing I was telling you.
And no it was not about shoes. It was about the dress that I’d chooooose!
And then I remembered that I’d had a great insight, and now it was gone. Or, at any rate, it was now buried under a non-stop looping of a catchy but incredibly stupid song.
I tried retracing my steps, telling myself the story of how, just after I’d discovered that my blue lace dress no longer fit, I’d dragged my teenaged daughters to the mall, and this time they weren’t nearly as nice about it. But every time I tried to write a sentence, it got translated into Abbanian:
So I packed the girls up for the mall/ Where they didn’t want to be at alllll!
Mother do/ You have some friends who could go with you?/ ‘Cause it’s true: we’re getting pretty sick of dressing you.
And then I remembered the thing about the lemons. By which I mean that I remembered thinking about the thing about the lemons back in August, when I realized I needed to redo the entire process of picking out a wedding dress, and thinking, hey, Life has given me lemons, and now I will get to make a much more beautiful lemonade! and then realizing, as I was trying on my twenty-seventh dress at Nordstrom, that beauty isn’t really an issue where lemonade is concerned. That Life had given me lemons, but unless Life also felt like giving me some sugar and ice cubes and maybe a big old silver spoon with which to stir it all up, I should just buy this Adrianna Papell lace fit-and-flare dress in beige, and go home.
And so I did.
I left it hanging in my closet for a couple of days, telling myself that it probably looked better on me than I thought it did, but when I finally broke down and tried it on again, it didn’t. It looked like a beige lace fit-and-flare dress that kind of squashed my chest. Because it was summer, most of me was pretty much also beige, so, if you squinted, it was sort of hard to tell where the dress and I left off – there was flare, here and there, and equally beige was my hair.
And then I remembered that I don’t even like lemonade. I crawled into bed to watch So You Think You Can Dance with my daughters, thinking about how Life was like the worst Secret Santa, ever, and then the television screen filled with Cat Deeley, the hostess of SYTYCD, and she was wearing the most amazing little 1960’s-era bell-sleeved, empire mini-dress in a blinding white.
And then I remembered what my brain had burbled up when I saw that dress: my distant me in white.
Because THIS, I realized, was what I really wanted to look like on my wedding day, minus the Cat Deeley. (Well, I mean, of course I’d want to look like Cat Deeley, but I would have to grow at least a foot taller, lose about twenty years as well as pounds, and then buy a Cat Deeley mask. And a wig. And an accent.) This, and not blue lace, and definitely not beige fit-and-flare, was my ideal mid-life wedding dress.
So now, sitting at my computer, laundry basket at my feet, I thought: wait, what? Was this my morning’s insight? If so, I must have had it because I’d heard “Waterloo” on my daughter’s iPad, and it had brought back words that it turned out weren’t actually even in the song.
Thus, as insights go, this one was really pretty feeble: lyrics I’d misheard nearly forty years ago made me not wear the second dress I’d bought for my mid-life wedding.
Which begs the question: which were the lemons Life had given me? The first dress, not fitting? The second, not flattering? Was the distant me in white the sugar, or more lemons, and if my brain had linked an image of my wedded self with a song about how marriage is what happens when you lose a battle, then this entire post was turning out to be a big fat la-di-blah-blah.
Still, sometimes, when Life gives you la-di-blah-blahs, you have to sing.
So I cranked my computer’s volume to Anthem and, in my best Swedish accent, began to sing along with YouTube’s frozen-frame photo of Abba, circa 1975: “So how could I evah re-fyus? I fee like I wean when I loooous!”
And then ten or twenty minutes later, the phone rings, and my husband wants to know what I’ve been doing, and I tell him what I would tell anyone who catches me in the middle of dancing around a laundry basket going “Whoa whoa whoa whoa Waterloo”: “I’m writing.”
“About the beige dress?”
“Okay, well, don’t wanna interrupt. Love you.”
“Love you,” I say, and in my mind, a Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender.
Gettysburg/ Now that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard/ Vietnam/ Kind of rhymes with Antietam.
When you have three children attending the same high school at exactly the same time, some parts of your life become surprisingly easy. Suddenly, everyone’s following approximately the same schedule (with staggered risings, so that not everybody is trying to brush his or her teeth at once). Drop-off times and locations are the same; pick-ups (if there are pick-ups; the weather theoretically gets nice enough in Pittsburgh that they can walk home at least once or twice a year) are roughly the same. Winter and summer breaks begin and end on the same days, and all three kids can be dragged travel to the same spring break destination simultaneously (unless, as one sometimes does, you leave one or another by the side of the road). Sure, you may be the busiest single mother on Parent-Teacher Open House Night, but usually the kids share at least one Creative Writing or Spanish or homeroom instructor, so you don’t have to go all the way around the four-storey building much more than twice.
And then one morning you glance up from your silly little wedding dress blog because your cell phone is vibrating, and the messages from far away begin to come in: Everyone okay?
Is everyone safe?
Are they okay?
This is 2014. You know that messages like these mean that something has happened, probably nearby, and because people far away from you already know about it, it’s most likely going to turn out to be something pretty bad. Your brain flits quickly past the likelihood of acts of God (tornado, earthquake, freak storm), since you write in front of a relatively large window and have not yet lost sensation in your limbs. It stumbles around for a minute as you reread the messages, trembling while it holds the word “they” to the light.
They. They. They.
The word suggests a group of people, of whom you aren’t, quite, a part.
These messages are asking about your kids.
Which means, because this is 2014, that something bad has happened at a school. Words burble at the edge of your consciousness: SandyHookAdamLanzaWestVirginiaDylanKleboldColumbine.
You start clicking bars on your browser because you can’t remember where the CNN tab is, and pull up the Yahoo “news” page you’d long ago stopped reading because it was almost entirely full of ads, and there it is: 20 Stabbed at Pittsburgh High School.
And, even though you’re not very good at it, you do the panic-stricken math: if that’s your children’s Pittsburgh high school, which is a very large Pittsburgh public high school, the odds are still suddenly very high that someone you love—someone you made–has been hurt.
You wait just a heartbeat before clicking, because this is what you’ve always done at the moment of potential or actual crisis: you freeze.
And then you click.
And God, thank God, thank any and many and every God: it’s not your kids’ school.
Later that day, you go to the doctor because you are sick, and the local news runs without interruption, and you are sicker. 14 year-old stabbed in the stomach. 17 year-old with knife wounds to the abdomen. 18 year-old with cuts to his hand and arm. These are the ages of your children. These are not your children, but they are somebody’s children. Somebody fifteen miles away looked up from her work this morning because her phone was blowing up with texts, and she saw the headline, and it was her child’s school.
And then there is the stabber, the person who did this awful thing. 16. You fasten on his face in the window of a squad car, and you want to be full of rage, but he is a child. He is little in the back seat, his head turned away from the camera; he is small enough that he has probably been bullied, which is a thing you know because your children are small.
The news anchors, already four hours into a story that has only just begun, use the word “bullied” many times. The screen fills with teenagers, blonde, be-capped, bloodied or befuddled teenagers, and soon the stories of heroism start. “He stepped in front of me and took the stab.” “This kid was getting stabbed, but he pulled the fire alarm, and then he got stabbed again.” “She put pressure on the bleeding with a sweatshirt.” “The principal tackled the kid, and then this other kid held him down.”
The screen fills with the image of the tiny stabber in the back of the squad car again, then switches to a girl with brown hair, who could be one of your own girls with brown hair, who says: “There were a bunch of kids bleeding on the lawn.”
Why do you freeze at the moment of crisis? You can’t be sure, of course, but at least part of the explanation has to do with your childhood.
Because your father was in the Navy, you moved a lot when you were little. Your first real experience of school was at the Yokohama Lighthouse Kindergarten, in Japan. There, when the school’s alarm went off, it meant that you were to leap under the classroom’s big, heavy tables, because this was either an earthquake drill or an actual earthquake. By first grade, your father had quit the Navy and moved the family to Vermont, where you and your older brother were very confused the first time the school alarm went off, and everyone filed calmly outside—for a fire drill. By the time your mother divorced your father and moved you to Iowa, when you were fifteen, you knew the drill thoroughly, and got up to go quietly outside when your high school’s alarm sent your fellow students into the hall to huddle against the lockers while the tornado siren raged.
Now, an alarm goes off, and you have to wait for someone else to do something before you know exactly what it is that you’re supposed to be frightened of.
Or you just stand there, afraid of everything.
You don’t text your children, because they don’t need the drama; if the school wants to let them know there’s been an incident, then the students will know. But in the early afternoon, your youngest daughter, a freshman, starts a group message thread to her siblings and you. “Did you hear about that stabbing today?”
“Yeah,” her sister, a junior, replies. “My homeroom teacher’s daughter was there. She’s fine, though.”
Your son, a senior, doesn’t chime in, possibly because he is in one of the few classes where it’s inappropriate to pull out your iPhone and text. But the freshman adds a sentence you can’t quite parse, because it’s one of those texts without punctuation. “The guy who pulled the fire alarm and saved a bunch of people probably posted a selfie with his stab wound on instagram.”
Eventually, you decide that the message is a jaded one: that even the day’s heroism will probably be followed by stories of selfish, stupid acts. But no (and, in a way, yes): later she tells you that the “probably” was meant to modify the notion that lives were saved; the guy who pulled the fire alarm (and probably saved a bunch of lives) actually did post a photo of himself on Instagram, brandishing his bandaged arm.
It’s one of Pittsburgh’s rare, beautiful days, but you drive to school to pick the kids up, anyway. You get there much too early, so you sit in the car, watching a mother and her toddler walking up and down the sidewalk across the busy street.
The toddler keeps veering too close to the road, and you mutter “Watch out!” or “Come on, lady!” to the mother, who cannot possibly hear you.
But it doesn’t matter, because you’re not really talking to her.
After all, you are the mother who took her kids to school.
At least there are metal detectors there, you think.
This morning, your son stays home with a stomachache. Your daughters gather up their belongings for the drive to school, and you confess that you ran out of plastic forks, so you had to put a metal one into the older girl’s lunch bag. “Sorry,” you say. “It’ll probably set off the metal detector.”
“No it won’t,” she says. “They don’t put the backpacks through the metal detectors.”
“They don’t?” you ask. “But, but isn’t that where you’d put a weapon if you had one?”
“They don’t even do anything if the detector goes off when you walk through it. If you’re white, anyway,” the younger one says. She shrugs. “Even though—“
And then you’re all thinking it: even though the person most likely to carry a weapon into a school and use it on a large number of people is a white, adolescent boy.
Like the one upstairs, sleeping. Like the one locked up in juvenile detention, despite having been charged as an adult. Like the one in “extreme critical condition” at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital down the street, whose knife wound, you learned in a press report this morning, came “within millimeters” of his heart. Like the boy who pulled the fire alarm at Franklin Regional, who definitely took a selfie and probably saved a number of lives.
How are you supposed to know which one will become which?
Or what to do, if or when he does?
“By the way,” your freshman, full of the safety knowledge her childhood has taught, says to her sister. “If you hear a fire alarm, you should just run. I heard a girl talking about it on the news last night, how she was walking into the school when she heard screaming, and then the alarm, and she just ran. You have to run.”