Lessons My Mother Taught Me (In Brief… Because there are, Like, A Lot)

There's no doubt my hair and love of patterns are inherited from my mother...
There’s no doubt my hair and love of patterns are inherited from my mother…

The 2003 Land Rover Discovery sitting in the driveway has nearly 300,000 miles on it. My mother and I accumulated most of these as we traveled around the country to fencing tournaments… and to Bob Dylan concerts, and to the Canadian Rockies… but mostly to fencing tournaments. If you add those 300,000 miles to all the airline miles racked up going to World Cups in places like Cuba, France, and Slovakia, and the road trips that followed… like that one from Prague to Barcelona… then we’ve probably traveled about 1 Million miles together.

That’s a lot of miles.

The good news is, that after all this time spent together in close quarters, we not only still love each other, we really LIKE each other.

She’s pretty clever.

I’ve learned lots of things from my mother starting with a simple outlook:

Life is a grand adventure.

AND if you can do it in a 4-star way, do it, because money only has value while you’re alive to spend it.

And do it in good shoes.

She showed me that real education doesn’t come from a book. Real education is in the experiences you get to have when you open your eyes and to the world. Every tournament became an excuse to see something new. In 3 years, I visited over 70 museums — an set of sites I take with me every day to work.

In 2011, I started working and my mother and I officially switched roles as athletes — she because the world class fencer and I became the sporting parent. She’s made 8 Veteran World Championship teams… and that’s after having 2 full hip replacements.

Last year, two weeks before National Championships and the final qualifying tournament for the World team, my mother broke her hand at practice. She was told not to fence. But my mother is a charmer, when she wants to be, so she convinced her doctor to give her a clean bill of health and convinced the cast-maker to develop something she could wear while competing.

The day before the tournament, she walked around the venue with her team jacket draped over her hand to hide the full cast so no one would know she was injured.

Let me tell you — those Veteran fencers are like sharks. If they smell blood in the water, you’re lunchmeat.

She fenced. Medalled. And qualified for the team.

My mother taught me that broken bones and broken hearts heal. A dead end, a “no,” an injury, those aren’t ends. Those are just excuses to find another, a better way to get where you’re going. We’ve been lost a lot — in Italy, in New Foundland, in Bulgaria, in the Bronx. But in life, so far, I’ve never been really lost because she’s given me, and keeps giving me, a road map to follow through it all.

Happy Mother’s Day to the greatest Mother there is!

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Betting on the Ponies

I lost $45 on the Kentucky Derby this weekend. In comparison to more seasoned gamblers, this sum was a mere pittance, but to me, that’s some lost dough worth crying over (it’s also an excellent bottle of Cakebread Chardonnay I won’t be indulging in this month.)

My money had been on Upstart (the owners are family friends) and Materiality (I didn’t mind the odds). I played it safe and only waged on them to show. You can see the results… they did at least show up. Never bet in a show of loyalty/camaraderie. That was this weekend’s sports-betting lesson.

I always wanted a pony, and though I (thankfully) didn't get one, I did ride every weekend.
I always wanted a pony, and though I (thankfully) didn’t get one, I did ride every weekend.

While I partially grew up around horses, I’ve never been good at “picking a horse.” My mother claims she can spot a winner by looking at its hooves. I can look at stats, hooves, tails, stable colors, trainer history, jockey results, and champion names and I still rarely, if ever pick a winner (contrary to your expectations, I’m going to go ahead and refrain from extending this to a personal life metaphor.)

Allow me to pause and quote Truman Capote’s Holly Golighty:

“There are so few things men can talk about. If a man doesn’t like baseball, then he must like horses, and if he don’t like either of them, well, I’m in trouble anyway: he don’t like girls.”

Two summers ago, my mother and I drove up to Elora, Canada, to spend some time with my great Aunt and Uncle Bob. We’d started in Columbus, Ohio, where we had been fencing in the National Championships. We were several hours delayed in leaving for the Great White North because I was stuck in the medic’s tent at the venue. Making a touch to bring a come-from-behind bout to 14-14, I went down. On-strip diagnosis was that I had just torn two ligaments in my knee. I was being numbed with ice, bandaged, and loaded-up with anti-inflammatories.

It was my birthday…

We swung by an area pan-Asian restaurant for road food as we began our beeline out of Ohio. My mother bought me two bottles of sake to drink (“Mom, isn’t it, like, ILLEGAL to be drinking in a car?” “You’re not driving. Happy Birthday!) Immobilized, in pain, and now slightly inebriated, it was hard to know what kind of company I’d be as we made our rounds in rural Ontario.

A snapshot from my day at the races
A snapshot from my day at the races

Aunt Winn and Uncle Bob treated us to a night at Grand River Raceway, a casino and harness-racing track to which they had a membership. In the final years of his life, Uncle Bob had lost most of his vision. He walked with a cane and was in pain most days. But my great uncle was one of the most vibrant, fun-loving sorts you could ever experience. Settled in the restaurant overlooking the track, Uncle Bob had me read aloud the listing of the horses, their records, and the odds. Then he’d hand me a $5 or $20 bill and tell me who to place his bet on.

I’d mull over the listing and announce my picks.

“I’m putting $10 on Curator.”

“What are his odds?”

“I don’t know. But that name — it’s a sign.”

At some point, as the sun was beginning to set, I mustered up enough grit to walk outside and down 2 flights of concrete steps, down to the track. My knee was throbbing. But god, those animals! I leaned against the rails and watched them trot by. Pacing their gates. They all looked like a good bet to me.

Like most little girls, I had a pony and horse obsession, which meant I spent every Saturday in my single-digit years at the stable, and every family vacation usually had to include one ride — whether it was along a beach in Mexico or through the Irish countryside. My parents were wonderfully tolerant. I wanted to have my own dude ranch out west, or own a stable attached to an inn in upstate New York.

It’s an interesting fascination, this “Mummy! Daddy! I want a pony!” instinct that young girls seem to have. Horses are not cute animals. They’re regal companions who can take you anywhere you want to go. At the same time, they have a mind of their own (I’ve been on more than a few runaway steeds in my lifetime…)

At the end of our night at the raceway, Uncle Bob was up by about $80. Me on the other hand, even with his guidance and example to follow, well, I was down by $40 (can you tell I have a loss limit?)

Picking race horses isn’t my thing. That’s clear, as my dude ranch retirement goals have been replaced by an affinity for mint juleps and flamboyant hats. The Derby is one of my favorite sporting events of the summer, but don’t come to me for your betting advice… I will however point you in the direction of some excellent milliners.

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When Vanity Bites Back, or Life with Invisialign

My OKCupid user name back in the day was SheLIkesToSmile. Now, I can do that with straighter teeth... and by now, I mean a year from now.
My OKCupid user name back in the day was SheLIkesToSmile. Now, I can do that with straighter teeth… and by now, I mean a year from now.

I have this one tooth. It’s the lateral incisor on my right. It sits back behind my canine and my central incisor — a punishment for abandoning my retainer too soon. In the wrong light, I can look like a hockey player who lost a fight with a puck to my mouth. In the best light, I look like the kid whose teeth just grew in and whose parents still haven’t booked her appointment with the orthodontist.

I see it in every photo and every time I go to smile, I’m aware of it. But the tooth that make me look like a kindergartner doesn’t stop me from smiling. Life’s too short not to smile… but it does mean that I usually fight to stand on the left of any portrait (a fight I always inevitably loose.)

In the summer of 2012, an upper wisdom tooth abscessed, and before I could say “ouch” I was under anesthesia and undergoing a double tooth extraction. I woke up in a dentist office overlooking Central Park and stumbled a few blocks south east to the Brasserie, where I complimented some mild pain killers with a martini before passing out again at home. I was lucky — my face was barely puffy and when I went out the next day to celebrate the return of a few friends from the London Olympics, no one could tell I had just survived an oral surgery that seems to knock people off their feet for days.

Sometimes, with the wrong angle, I can look like this….

The trouble came a year later when my teeth started to shift again. Jaw and tooth pain compounded with my misplaced incisor inspired me to look into the full orthodontic works. I could handle braces again, I thought. I mean, I already look like I’m 16, why not? It might be nice to be carded more often again.

When it turned out I was a candidate for invisialign, I was pretty stoked. I could handle having braces in my social life, but being ol’ metal mouth again in a professional one was less appealing. It was even better when my quote for the treatment came in under my no-go threshold.

So on December 28th, my dentist attached some pretty sexy anchors to my teeth and sent me home with my first trial.

It was like wearing a mouth guard. Within the first hour, I was kicking myself. My lower jaw was jutting out, I couldn’t figure out how to keep my mouth closed, and saliva was pouring down my chin in the most unattractive way. I lisped and talking for more than 30 seconds was exhausting. Was this sheer act of vanity destined to be my downfall? That $7,000 could have been put to good use elsewhere… like on clothes. Would lipo have been less expensive?

“There goes your sex life,” my mother said as she passed me a tissue.

It was family movie night, and as we sat in the theater watching the coming attractions, a large drop of drool fell out of the corner of my mouth and onto my shirt.

It was something I hadn’t considered. Between tooth brushes and birth control, there were already enough accessories to pack on an adult sleep over, adding an invisalign kit into the mix definitely exed the possibilities of a casual overnight. Plus, “honey, just excuse me while I put my teeth back in,” is not the sexiest phrase for the under octogenarian set.

Being ready for anything just got complicated.

My new life as a single girl with dental appliances was put to the test faster than I expected. In another display of my talent for Bad Timing, I had scheduled a first date with a dreamy commercial pilot turned lawyer within the first 24 hours of beginning invisialign.

For the most part, it all went off without a hitch, largely because I left the device at home. However, my teeth hurt so much I couldn’t chew anything more solid than mashed potatoes and everything we ordered seemed to be made of bricks. As our date moved into its 6 hour (and my third, maybe fourth? drink) I started getting anxious — I had passed my 4 hour invisialign-free limit. And I was hungry. Like, really hungry.

Our good night kiss was brief. Like Cinderella I had to get home before the clock struck “too late!” and my tooth shifted back into its crocked place. Orthodontics are at least as expensive and irreplaceable as glass slippers…

Talking Burpee Before It was Fashionable

There’s a chance you read the recent NYTimes Sunday Styles piece called “CrossFit Flirting: Talk Burpee to Me.” I read it too and rather than inspire me to use my morning work-out site as a potential pick-up spot, I was reminded of the story of the rugby players and the tea cups, or how I earned the nickname Tanya Knockyourballsoff…

Real men play rugby... and drink herbal tea.
Real men play rugby… and drink herbal tea.

When I was in college, my father volunteered to help coach my school’s men’s rugby club. He had “professionally” and briefly coached a rival college team when I was in high school — I think he thought helping the fledgling club at my college would be a good way for us to “bond.” (I hoped this would lead to a hunky piece of arm candy,  while he hoped it would mean I would have a team of bouncers keeping other college men off me when I went out on a Friday night… much to my chagrin, my dad’s plan won.)

While my father was up in Riverdale teaching former football players how to tackle like real men, I was in the Varsity Weight Room in Morningside Heights with my female team mates… and the football team.

“Yesterday, I worked in an extra set of push-ups with the 25lb plate,” the girls and I were swapping training stories one afternoon when my father offered to play the part of father and give us a ride back to campus after we came north to watch a rugby match.

“I really like the new plyometeric work-out with the resistance bands the trainer gave us. Think it would be too much to do that with the other lower body work out we’re already doing?”

“Did you see the plan for next week? 150 abs warm-up. I can’t wait!”

etc.

My father, who couldn’t help eavesdropping burst out into almost uncontrollable laughter.

“What!? What’s so funny? Get a hold of yourself, you’re going to drive into a lamppost,” I shouted.

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Getting good at picking things up and putting them down was how I earned the nickname Tanya Knockyourballsoff

“Well, it’s just, 15 minutes ago I was standing in a huddle with my rugby players,” he started. “There was this big 6’4 Greek, a 6’2 body-builder, and your buddy ‘Bruiser,’ and they were swapping tea advice — you know, green tea versus oolong versus herbal, cups versus mugs, ceramic versus cast iron pots. And now, here I am, in a car with my daughter and her girlfriends and they’re talking about kettlebells and how much they can bench press…”

“Dad, might I remind you we’re not just any girls. We’re athletes.”

The following week my father sent me a note to say one of his players was in a bluegrass band and that I should go to his concert.

“He likes tea and plays the guitar. He’s sensitive… but he’s also one of our best guys on the frontline, so he can pick things up and put them down. You can talk to him about how many burpees you can do, Tanya Knockyouballsoff.”

Tanya Knockyourballsoff was, according to Dad, a Russian female shot-putter. My affinity for kettlebells, apparently, inspired this new nickname…

Meanwhile, I put his note about the burpee pick-up line in the “shoulda listened to my father” column, along with his suggestion we open a father-daughter business together — a gourmet hotdog shop called Kat’s Dawgs… maybe next year #FathersKnowBest

 

 

 

 

Dressing My Mother

“Look Aunt Winn, I just want to prepare you,” I heard my mother hollar into the phone. “I don’t wear pantyhose anymore. I wear jeans. And I wear Nikes. They’re cool Nikes, like really cool, but they’re Nikes… Yes. That’s right. Those are sneakers. I wear sneakers. Everywhere.”

My mother’s version of dress shoes.

My mother and I were loading up the car, getting it ready to take us to Canada, when she stopped packing to place the call. It was an unplanned midweek trip to attend my Great Uncle Bob’s funeral. The day before, Aunt Winn, his wife, had asked Mum to “say a few words,” because my mother is, apparently, the funny one in the family.

I could feel the panic radiating across the room.

“I just had to call her and warn her,” Mum said as I gave her the stink eye.

She was folding my favorite brightly-hued Club Monaco blouse into the suitcase. “I’m the New York Niece. They’re expecting Madison Avenue. Since I stopped working, I’m more Gap… on my fancy days. I just don’t want her to get a shock when I show up to Uncle Bob’s funeral in running shoes.”

(My mother doesn’t believe in black at funerals, which was why, apparently, I was to wear royal blue pants while she asked to borrow my “big bird” yellow silk blouse.)

“What do you plan to wear at my wedding?”

“White Nikes… actually, I hate white sneakers. They’re such old ladies shoes. Maybe green ones? I don’t know. Let’s see what your colour scheme is — I’m sure I can ID something.”

When my mother retired from “The Bank,” she retired a certain corporate executive dress code. I remember coming home from school and seeing a pile of pantyhose in a Bloomingdale’s Big Brown Bag. There were one or 2 unopened pairs, and these were passed on to me. The rest — burned, or might as well have been. Her St. John’s suits were moved into the guest room closet. The year I graduated college, she had her first hip replacement. This shelved her Ferragamo high-heel collection. Her second hip replacement after my grad school graduation sealed it — the pumps were toast. I was free to salvage any that fit, but the majority went to Dress for Success.

She lost 50 pounds, and then eventually, she turned 70.

And so, with Retirement, 2 hip replacements, and being “over 70,” as her Get Out of Jail Free Cards,  it was: Good-bye, formal! Hello, comfortable!

My mother may have as many sneakers as Imelda Marcos had shoes — 3,000 pairs? Sure. It’s getting there.

She has become the Imelda Marcos of sneakers while her collections of designer handbags and jewelry remain her main source of pizzazz.

Most “occasions” result in an “I have nothing to wear!” crisis. This includes evenings when Mum and I decide to have a mother-daughter girl date. Eventually, she gives up.

“It doesn’t matter what I wear,” is usually her final remark before she settles on jeans, Nikes, and an embellished t-shirt. “If I decide I want a good table, I’ll just shove you in first. You’ve got great clothes. People think you’re cool, so you’ll just look good for both of us. Don’t forget your pink lipstick. I’m not going anywhere with you if you don’t wear your pink lipstick.”

I guess that just because she’s given up skirts and suits in favor of a wardrobe of leisure doesn’t mean she’s given up taste… there’s no velour in this retiree’s future. Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the cast-offs. One can never have too many Ferragamos.

 

 

 

 

The Boy Who Played with the Brontosaurus

They say opposites attract… well, we were very attracted opposites

“I don’t understand why you’re still single,” Vince said to me after our first kiss.

I was undeniably smitten.

On paper, there was nothing about the two of us that suggested any kind of compatibility. I was the 25 year old Ivy-Leaguer, All-American athlete with a career in the arts and a passport with more stamps than pages to fit them. My motto was “you rest, you rust.” Vince was the 30-something former state-school frat boy whose sport was beer pong and whose great ambitions were to grow old, fat and retire to Florida.

Our common interests began and ended with the New York Yankees and a love of laughter. The former brought us together, while the latter seemed to inspire a closeness and familiarity with one another that was entirely unfamiliar, at least to me. It wasn’t love at first sight, and he didn’t have me at hello, yet from our first shared drink to our final kiss, every moment felt like a moment spent alongside a long-lost bosom buddy.

A few days after our third date, I got a text message that would simultaneously verify he was serious and mark the beginning of the end of our budding romance:

“I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but when you have some time, give me a call. There’s something I want to tell you about myself because I like you so much.”

I panicked.

I knew I had counted my hens before they hatched. Sure he lived with his mother. And sure, he had an anxiety disorder that meant he had a fear of crowds, but he assured me a new prescription meant he’d be up for coming to an exhibition opening. So what was it that he had to tell me before we could go any further? A thousand possible scenarios ran through my head.

Maybe he wanted to warn me about how fragile his heart was. Maybe he thought he liked me more than I liked him and didn’t want to be disappointed.

Maybe he lived with his mother because he had just been released from prison, serving time because he had taken the fall for a fraternity brother who stole a keg from a gas station.

Worse! Maybe he was really a Red Sox fan.

In all the “maybes” I conjectured, it never occurred to me that Vince was a father.

“I wanted you know sooner rather than later so you have the chance to get out now, before I fall any harder.”

A bizarre mixture of relief, confusion, and attraction knocked the wind out of me and I paused to take it all in. I was 25. I had avoiding being in a serious relationship, and yet here I was, falling for an older man who came preloaded with a family. Could I handle that?

“Well?”

“Don’t think you’re going to get rid of me that easy.”

Vince’s son knew his dinosaurs from A to Z

With a chuckle, we both exhaled and he let the walls come down. He began to gush. He revealed that having a son forced him onto the straight and narrow, that his heart broke when the boy’s mother took him away to California, that every night he would read “Dinosaurs A to Z” to his son over skype, and that his adult life was as much shaped by the daily absence of his son as by being a father.

I was flattered by desire to let me in. I was touched by the tenderness and pride in his voice. Most of all, I was relieved he didn’t have a criminal record.

Children and I have a notoriously tenuous relationship. In theory, I want one, but not yet. But Vince’s suggestion that I meet his son had my mind wandering. The zoo, the dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History – all of a sudden, I was planning family-style afternoon excursions and making mental notes to pack extra sunscreen so the little tyke wouldn’t get sunburned.

A few more dates happened. Sitting along the Hudson one unseasonably cold summer night, he  told me his son was coming to visit him for a few weeks. When I got home, I went to my bookshelf and pulled off a beautifully illustrated fantasy book about worlds where men and dinosaurs co-existed. It had always looked funny next to all the Jane Austens and John Steinbecks. Vince and his Brontosaurus-loving son would appreciate it better. I wrapped the book in paper mottled with baseball caps and catcher’s mitts, stuck a flirtatious “I just can’t resist temptation ;)” card with it, and set the package aside for our next date — his birthday.

There was no next date.

Like so many before and so many will after, our relationship quietly evaporated until we officially ended with an apologetic/well-wishing set of emails.  He had decided to be a father, and that meant picking up and moving west. Of course, I understood. I’m not sure we ever would have made it much further than we got, but it doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wonder what he’s up to, and if his son still likes the Brontosaurus best.