Monday, December 18, 2006


December 18, 2006

So yesterday, Grace (my 11 year old) spent nine hours on a school project. Yes nine hours trying to compile statistics on homelessness. I tried to help her, Jeff tried to help her, Atticus (our 13 year old son) tried to help her and two anonymous help-desk librarians tried to help her. But no dice. The stats she needed remained elusive.

At bedtime she was still struggling at the computer trying to find the homeless rate for Illinois. SHe had already found the homeless rate for the US--she showed me--it was 42%.

I said carefully, "Umm, honey, this number of 42%...." over her shoulder I could see Atticus trying to give me the "cut" signal. I shook him off. "Does it seem likely to you that nearly half the US is homeless?" I said gently.

She blinked behind her glasses and said, "Not really but that's the number Atticus came up with." Oh, man, she threw him under the bus.

Anyway, as I said, it was bedtime so I began the arduous process of trying to (once again) get her to grasp the concept of cutting bait--giving up--throwing in the towel -- moving on. She is like her daddy; she does not gracefully accept this part of the process.

I began by explaining to her that she had done all she could and she needed sleep more than anything right now. I assured her that even though the project was not done her teacher would understand when she explained how long she'd worked on it. Grace was not buying it. She dug in deeper and started pounding at the keys more frantically. Her voice rising hysterically and tears coming again.

I tried another tack. I told her that even if she got a bad grade in this class I would not care. This helped a little but I suspect fears of her "permanent record" were looming, so she kept Googling away.

Finally, I offered to email her teacher and explain how much she'd worked on the project--she would still get a bad grade but her teacher would not be mean about it, I assured her. Throughout it all Jeff bolstered my arguments by agreeing with me and Atticus backed me up on whatever I said about the teacher (it helped immensely that he had the same class last year). Finally, our combined efforts yielded the desired result and Grace relented. She reluctantly sighed and logged off the computer and headed to bed, her feet dragging on the stairs in defeat.

As she clumped up the stairs, Atticus joined me and Jeff in the living room. He was giddy with relief that we had worked together to negotiate a peaceful end to the stand-off. These scenes don't usually end so well. Usually they escalate to a fevered pitch and end when Grace turns into "Carrie-at-the-prom" and we all end up covered in blood (err, metaphorically speaking of course).

"Whew!" he said, "We avoided another disaster! I feel like it's the end of a thriller movie when they manage to point the bomb that was just fired at the US from some eastern European country like 'Kerzerkistan', " he warmed to his analogy, "It's like we were all in that dark NASA room staring at computer screens trying to figure out how to change the trajectory of the bomb, our ties all loosened, coffee cups everywhere and we did it. Now's the part where we all cheer and high five and stuff, because we saved Western Civilization!" and he did a victory dance.

We laughed and then enjoyed a quiet moment of commaraderie, my husband, my son, and I and I thought about how my friend Val always says a little dysfunction is good for a kid because it brings the family closer and I think she's a wise woman.

Friday, December 08, 2006


December 8, 2006

Today's post is from my friend Laurent who lives in the Netherlands. He recently took one of those "actual age" quizzes online and did not like the results. Here is his email about it--he is a quirky, single man whose passions are guitar, vintage cars, and wine...

" I did this test called 'your-real-age'. Now, three years ago it was 40.5 years, so actually what it really was back then.

I just filled it out truthfully again, and now it is 48.4 years!!!

This test also indicates what you should do to improve your health.

Amongst them--

-Eat more vegetables and fruit

I will, once they manage to increase the ratio of non-disgusting pieces of fruit above 70%, i.e. non-mealy-apples, non-potentially-rust-removing sour grapes/oranges, no tangerines that either eat away the intestines or make you retch because of their lack of taste)

- I should spend more time in building and maintaining long-lasting relationships with others.

Haha, very funny! Most of the stress that raised my 'real age' several years this should prevent COMES from me trying desperately to find someone to start a relationship with.

- Decrease your alcohol consumption to one glass a day.

Yeah right.

- Decrease your cholesterol level, increase your HDL-cholesterol level.

WTF? I indicated my levels were average! (well, what do I know?) And how the hell am I supposed to increase my HDL-cholesterol level?

- Decrease your average driving speed to the maximumspeed allowed.

Yeah, and have my 'real age' increased to 55, because that is about the age at which people start keeping to maximum speed limits at a regular basis.

- Get a dog.

- Always get airbag protection when driving a car.

I will, as soon they build classic cars with airbags.

- Floss every day.

Hmm, why would this be so important? Probably because not having spinach or broccoli between your teeth increases your chances of finally finding a girlfriend
- Schedule time for yourself!

I did, that's why I got into that financial stress that raised my 'real age' at least two years."

Friday, December 01, 2006


December 1, 2006

This morning I ran out to Target in the middle of a blizzard to buy some boots. I woke up to 6" of snow--the first snowfall of the year-- and panicked when I realized that 1) the kids have the day off from school and 2) they have no boots. None.

Now this statement begs so many questions from you that I will answer them one by one.

How can you not have boots in December? Do you live in Arizona? Umm, err, no. I live in the Chicago area and I have lived in the midwest my entire life.

Why didn't you just cram last year's too-tight-boots on your kids' feet until the blizzard ended? Well, yes, this would be the normal thing to do but I foolishly threw last year's boots out at the end of the season, including my own, in a cleaning frenzy.

Did you say you threw boots away? Yes, sorry, I usually observe the unwritten, universal law of passing the boots on to the neighbor's children but this batch was particularly ratty and I didn't have the heart to saddle anyone with them.

Why didn't you wait until the blizzard stopped? Guilt. I felt guilty knowing that the kids would wake up and see the first snowfall and not be able to go outside right away. Also, I've made this mistake before and I know that by mid-day, you will not be able to buy, beg, borrow, or steal a pair of boots on the entire North Shore.

So there you have it. That's why I was at the door of Target at 8:00 am--the first, and only customer-- since no one else was stupid enough to go out in a blizzard. The manager chuckled and said, "You win the most dedicated customer award." At least I think he said dedicated. Maybe he said "demented". I felt a response was needed.

"Boots," I said by way of explanation. "Not one of us has a pair of boots!" I considered telling him we'd just been transferred here from Africa because only foreigner or an idiot can be found wearing tennis shoes in December in Chicago. But I resisted.

He was polite enough not to ask any of the above, italicized questions and instead just said, "They're over there," pointing towards the shoes (as if I needed directions--I could draw a map of my Target from memory ).

I bought the boots, and the half dozen other things I always manage to "need" when I go to Target and checked out.

In the parking lot I had to schlep the bags to the car because the cart wouldn't go through the snow. I got in the car and immediately got stuck in a snow drift. After about 20 minutes of digging with the handle of a scraper and rocking the car back and forth I was good to go. At one point I thought I was stuck for good like the four laughing young Mexican men in the car next to me who did not grow up in snow and had no idea how to get their car unstuck. But I said to myself, "I am from the midwest, I am from the midwest," until I willed myself out.

When I was driving home I asked myself, "Why am I, once again, running around town looking for boots on the first day of snow? What is it about me that I cannot think about boots until I am actually standing in snow?"

It's just that even though I know we will need boots by December I cannot feel we need them. Especially when we've been enjoying a freakish warm spell of 60 degree weather for a week in November. It's hard for me to buy boots when I don't really believe it could ever snow again.

I have to admit to myself that I ve exhibited similar behavior about other topics. Meals for example. I find it nearly impossible to think about a meal until I'm very hungry. This is problematic as I am the one in charge of making meals for a family of five. For years my husband thought this was a passive-aggressive act on my part. He's so wrong. I have plenty of passive-aggressive acts but failing to feed my family in a timely manner is not one of them.

This went on for years--my family wanting to eat--me not feeding them--until finally, I managed to overcome this deficiency. By sheer force of will, I made myself think about food even when I was not hungry. Now I think about dinner right after breakfast. Sometimes I even take something out to thaw or I put something in the crockpot or I make reservations. But make no mistake, none of this comes naturally to me. My being able to think about dinner at 10:00 in the morning is something akin to an autistic person training himself to hug his mother. We can do it, but it sure doesn't feel right.

I thought of all this as I battled the blizzard on my way home from Target. When I got home I realized I had left my new, favorite, leopard print gloves on a shelf in the boot department, the boots I had bought myself had a broken zipper, and the kids for whom I'd suffered so much were already out in the snow wearing old shoes with plastic bags over them, happily building a snowman.

Next year I'm going to make sure this doesn't happen again. I'm saying it here first--this is the last time I wait until the first snowfall to buy boots! I'll overcome this boot-planning weakness just like I overcame my meal-planning deficiency--by sheer force of will. I'm going to order boots online early in the season. I'm going to order those damn boots even if it's a 70-degree day in October.

But it won't feel right.


Monday, November 13, 2006


November 13, 2006

So, Jeff and I just spent a fabulous week in Hawaii, courtesy of a free business trip. We stayed at the Four Seasons and I just have to tell you about this kind of place for those of you who may be reluctant to spend the $600-$1,000 a night a room goes for. I have now stayed at the Four Seasons on two occasions--once in Nevus (Carribean) and now Hawaii and both times corporate America footed the bill and both times the experience was nearly other-worldly.

I remember someone once said about Fred Astaire, "The rest of us were dancing; I don't know what Fred was doing." Well, similarly I say "The rest of those places provide service; I don't know what they're doing at the Four Seasons."

Here are just a few examples--and no, I am not wrangling for a freebie from the Four Seasons though if that were to come my way, who am I to say no?

- On the first night there was a reception on the main lawn. With a sweeping view of the infinity pool that leads into the majestic ocean it was breathtaking. We were met by several waiters and waitresses with trays of Mai Tais and Midori Coladas as the sun set over their shoulders. Just as dinner was to be served it began to rain. Even the rain was pleasant--a slight drizzle--not that crazy midwestern cold splash we're used to. We all waited to see if someone would suggest we move inside, reluctant to leave the beautiful setting. Just as the rain picked up, dozens of hotel workers came out with enormous golf umbrellas--enough for each of us to have our own. As they handed them to us they greeted our thanks with their signature response, "It's my pleasure" without a trace of irony in their voices.

-The next morning, as Jeff went deep-sea fishing, I wandered out to the pool. I started to sit down on a luxurious chaise longue when a hotel worker came up with towels. "Do you need a set-up?" she asked. "Sure," I said. She took out a towel sewn like a fitted sheet and tucked it on my chair leaving me with ice water and a second towel. "If you need anything, just turn the wooden block down so the turtle picture can't be seen." I told her I needed a fruit smoothie and off she rushed to get that for me. As she left, another woman approached with a tray. "Would you care for a fruit kabob?" she offered. This was all before 9:00 am. The next day I would learn that a woman with a cooler comes by in the late afternoon to offer popsicles. I cannot think of the last time someone offered me a popsicle and it is delightful.

- That night our hosts arranged to have us driven to a local beach for a beach party. The tables were made of surf boards and the stools had grass skirts. Our servers were all Four Seasons staff. I have no idea how they got there or how all the food got to the beach. It was magic. There was a band playing and we danced barefoot in the sand. When it was time to go, I realized as I boarded the bus that my bladder was full and I would not make it the twenty minutes back to the hotel. I asked our event coordinator if they would wait while I went back to the bathroom. "Okay," he said, "but hurry or you'll have to take the next bus." I assured him that I was very quick and I ran back a ways but realized I wouldn't make it all the way back to the bathrooms so I squatted like a sorority girl in a dark corner. Unfortunately, I forgot I was wearing a festive glow stick around my neck. A concerned hotel worker shouted over to me, "Are you alright ma'am?" Hmm, there was a downside to attentive service. I assured him I was fine and he discretely left me alone but I think if I'd asked for toilet paper he would have gotten some. When I got back to the bus the driver said, "Hey you are quick! You didn't go all the way back to the bathroom did you?" and the bus erupted in applause.

- The next night we went to the bar on premise, "The Lava Lounge". When I excused myself to find the bathroom I was unable to find it. As I stood there looking confused, a hotel worker came by and asked if he could help me. "Umm, yes, where are the restrooms?" "Follow me," he said and he walked me there--really at the Four Seasons you don't just give someone directions to the bathroom! As I thanked him he said, "It's my pleasure" and I believed him.

- At the pool on Wednesday I was seated one cabana away from Frank Thomas and his trophy wife. Frank Thomas is a very famous baseball player, in case you didn't know. Hotel workers went by periodically to offer us cold towels and spritz us with cool Evian water. I loved that I was getting the exact same service as Frank Thomas. When he was getting ready to leave I heard his young wife say, "I can't go yet, I haven't had my popsicle." Of course, she didn't have to wait long.

I am back in the real world now. My first night home my youngest woke up barfing and I was up all night with her, cleaning up puke and holding her head. At one point she lifted her head from the toilet and said, "Momma, thank you for taking care of me" and I replied, sincerely, "It's my pleasure."


Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I'm in the zone; head down, butt up, as close to a perfect inverted v as I can manage. Blood rushes to my head as I let go of all my worldly cares and concerns. I imagine I am floating above the earth , maybe just a little superior to other earthlings. I'm in the classic Yogic position of "Downward Dog".

Just as I reach a near state of nirvana, the pounding rhythm of a techno beat comes crashing through my inner calm. I focus on my breathing as I've been taught, to observe the distraction but not judge it, not own it.

I can't do it, I'm distracted and I sneak a peak under my arm and see the idiots in the studio next door. They're all jumping up and down on the step like their lives depended on it while I and my enlightened sisters continue to seek the path to truth. I can see their instructor, a skinny 20-something who is shouting out commands like "GET YOUR KNEES UP! YOU WANT YOUR BUTT TO LOOK GOOD IN THOSE NEW JEANS DON'T YOU"

Fools, I think, as I move into a near-perfect triangle pose. (That entire previous sentence is anti-Yogic by the way). But I can't help but look down on those sweaty people in the next room. In Yoga we are taught to accept ourselves where we are, to know that we are just where we should be and to never push or punish ourselves. Yoga is a healing, not punitive, practice. And above all it's about the spirit and the body as one, not looking good. We would never discuss how a pose might help us get into our jeans.

Of course, we might be thinking it. Because the truth is, that after 25, no wait, probably closer to 30 years of jumping up and down in aerobics classes, sweatin' to the oldies, using goofy excercise devices from leg weights to the Bosu ball at trendy gyms from Elaine Powers to Bally's to keep in shape and be heart healthy (yeah right, that's why I was doing that, so my heart would look good), I am now --ohm---a Yoga convert.

I didn't move to Yoga intentionally. In fact, I stumbled across it. I had taken a few classes but always thought, "What a waste of a perfectly good hour I could have been exercising." In short, I lacked a bit of respect for the centuries old discipline. But then they changed the class schedule at my gym and the Yoga class worked best into my schedule. After three consecutive classes I was hooked.

I'd like to say I was drawn to yoga for it's calming and enlightening benefits. But the truth is, after just a month or two of Yoga my husband said, "You look great. What are you doing? You have back muscles, and abs all of sudden." And he was right! Though aerobics and weights kept me in decent shape they did not give me, in 20-some years, the definition and strength that Yoga has given me in 2 years.

Tight abs and defined back muscles drew me there but the whole idea that exercise can be healing and nurturing has kept me there. That and I look great in my jeans. Well, really, you can put a little eastern into the girl but you can't take the western out of her. She needs results, she needs outward proof of her inward growth and maturity and what better way to show that growth and maturity than by slipping into a pair of skinny jeans?

I finish my Warrior II pose and look over at the sweating people in the next room. I wonder how it is that they (and I for years) haven't noticed that the people in this Yoga class all look noticeably more fit than they do. I want to run in there and turn off that stupid, migraine inducing music and push those people off their exercise balls and say, "Look at us in there! If you want to look good AND be relaxed then grab a Yoga mat and leave this nonsense for the twenty-year olds!"

But I don't. Instead I breathe in rhythmically as my Yoga teacher gently brings me mindfully back to my Yoga practice and leads us all through a strenuous but not unpleasant Sun-Salutation. She encourages the newcomers to rest if needed and then says calmly, "And when you're done, we'll all meet up in Downward Dog."

Indeed, I hope someday we can all meet up in Downward Dog.


By Judy Zimmerman

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Posted by Picasa

Helicopter Parent--Wikipedia defines this as “a term for a person who pays extremely close attention to his or her child or children, particularly at educational institutions. They rush to prevent any harm from befalling them or letting them learn from their own mistakes, sometimes even contrary to the children's wishes. They are so named because, like a helicopter, they hover closely overhead, rarely out of reach whether their children need them or not.”

I was discussing this type of behavior with my friend Dan, a stay-at-home-father with a set of triplets and a pair of twins. We like to make fun of helicopter parents, because it’s fun and it makes us feel better about our own style of parenting. He told me he’s reading The Price of Privilege, which is a parenting book that explores why children of affluence are so depressed, angry and bored. This book suggests (among other things) that we should teach our children to be autonomous and we need to set boundaries between our lives and our children’s lives. The book says that a lot of parents have trouble distinguishing where their own life ends and the life of their child begins.

No shit.

I’m surrounded by boundary-less, hovering parents who know WAY too much about their children’s world-- like when the next science quiz is, who’s taking whom to the prom, who’s doling out blow-jobs under the bleachers, and where you can score some smack. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating—I haven’t really heard any parents talking about where to score smack. But they do know other things.

This is in stark contrast to our parents of the sixties and seventies who barely knew where the school was and didn’t feel it was necessary to show up for every single blessed practice, rehearsal, game, and performance we attended. They just dropped us off and went back to their own lives, confident that we’d find our way home eventually. In fact, things were so lax-- we used to wait for the bus by ourselves! Yessiree, kids were kids and parents were parents and we were all slightly neglected.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t ideal either, but for some reason the pendulum has swung from a kind of benign neglect all the way to helicopter parenting in which we see parents calling college campuses to complain about the quality of the dorm food.

You may ask, How did we come to this? To which, after careful consideration and contemplation I say--I have no idea. But it ain’t right and I’m here to say stop the madness!

Maybe you’d like to stop the madness but you’re not really sure about your own parenting. You’re not really sure if you are a helicopter parent yourself and would like to know how to gauge your level of involvement. Well, a good rule of thumb is this--everyone who knows more about what’s going on in her kid’s life than I do is over-involved and everyone who knows less than I do is under-involved. Just kidding, (no I’m not, do you see the title of this website?)

Okay, that is a little bit subjective so I’ve devised the following scientific quiz you can take to find out where you fall on the spectrum of “neglectful to helicopter”. Good luck and no fair asking your kid for help.

1. Your toddler comes crying to you at the playground because another boy pushed him. You:
a. Tell him to go back and tell the boy to stop doing that
b. Find the bitch who brought the little felon to the playground and threaten to sue
c. Tell him to quit crying or you’ll give him something to cry about then wave your hand around like you’re going to smack him

2. Your 12th grade son is sad because the girl he asked to prom turned him down. You:
a. Tell him you know it’s disappointing but not everyone goes to the prom
b. Tell him he’d better start calling around because you already bought your chaperone dress and you are not going to miss prom this time around
c. Tell him to get used to it—life’s tough and then you die

3. Your daughter comes home from school and says all the kids were talking about a birthday party she’s not invited to. You:
a. Explain to her that no one is invited to every party and that’s okay
b. Call the mother of the child and say, “I’m sorry but Caitlin didn’t receive her invitation to the party. That darned post-office is so unreliable! What time should I bring her by?”
c. Tell your kid to quit whining—she’s lucky she ever gets invited to any parties

4. Your son forgets his social studies project that you reminded him to put in his backpack (three times) the night before. It is the fourth time this week he’s forgotten homework but this is for a big grade. You:
a. Leave it on the counter but it about kills you and you have to call two friends to make sure you’re doing the right thing.
b. Drive it up to school and make sure it gets taken to the classroom--you didn’t work that hard on a replica of Fort Dearborn made of toothpicks just to get a zero!
c. Throw it in the trash and think “That’ll teach the little bastard some responsibility”

5. Your child complains that she can never remember her locker combination. You:
a. Suggest she write it on the inside of her notebook.
b. Tell her what it is since you’ve memorized and she’s just called you on her cell phone to ask you
c. Tell her she’s lucky she has a locker—when you were in school you had to carry your books around all day—uphill both ways.

Scoring the quiz: Oh come on now, you know how this works. If you answered “a” to most of these questions you’re a concerned parent who respects the boundaries between yourself and your child. This will serve you both well as he grows into adulthood and with any luck he will be independent enough to move out of the basement by his 30th birthday.

If you answered “b” to most of the questions then you really are a helicopter parent and you should consider backing off. Your kid deserves a life of his or her own and so do you. Also, the other moms are totally making fun of you

If you answered “c” to most of the questions then your boundaries may be a little too well defined. Oh, and come on over Friday night. The kids have plans of their own and I’m hosting cocktails.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


When you go into any kitchen around here you will see a fish bowl with at least one goldfish swimming around inside of it. The reason you will see this is that everyone around here attends the annual PTA carnival at which the poor deprived children of this suburb are given the opportunity to win a goldfish.

No parent really wants a goldfish but no parent wants to be the one to stand up at the PTA meeting following the spectacularly successful PTA carnival and say, "For the love of god can we lose the friggin' goldfish!" No. No one wants to be the killjoy to say that.

So year after year there are goldfish at the carnival.Every fall you troop off to the PTA carnival and despite your best efforts to distract the children, "Look Michael here's the clothespin drop, you could win a plastic parachute guy," they are lured by the siren call of the goldfish tank. It does not help that your husband is standing a few feet away saying, "Dude, forget the lame parachute guy, if you throw a ball in an empty applesauce cup you win a LIVE FISH! Look it's easy even the first graders are winning!"

Yes, your son is pleased as punch when he carries his new pet home in a baggie that night. But the next day you are forced to go out and buy a goldfish bowl and food. And guess who gets to clean the bowl? Not the bonehead who encouraged your son to win the goldfish. And no, not your son. You. Because despite the fact that you vowed when you brought the stupid fish home that it would be a good experience for your offspring, that it would teach him to be responsible, it turns out that his tolerance for fish scum is much, much higher than your tolerance. And so by default you find yourself emptying the fish bowl and scraping that green gunk off the sides of the bowl.

Nevertheless, you feel sorry for the little guy swimming around all alone and you let Michael talk you into buying the fish a friend. After all, no creature should be alone, and they only cost 10 cents at the pet store. And so it goes, month after month, you scraping the fish scum, you feeding the darn things because although you have no affection for them you certainly don't want to see them starve to death and though Michael never forgets what time "Simpsons" is on, he cannot seem to remember when he should feed his pets.

Sometimes you go on vacation and you hope your neighbor will forget to feed the little devils. No such luck, your neighbor is alarmingly reliable.One day you think you can't take it anymore and even Michael and all his siblings are tired of pretending they want the fish let alone pretending they take care of the fish. You pass a major hurdle; you get all the children in your house to agree that they would not be very sad if the fish went away.

Now you have the nearly insurmountable task of getting rid of three (you've been to another carnival in the meantime) relatively healthy goldfish. The pet store doesn't want them. None of your friends wants them; they have five or six of their own. You know from all the "Nemo" publicity that you can't really humanely flush them. You think if only someone would sneak into your house and take them out back and bury them you would not be sad. But you cannot bring yourself to be the executioner. So you keep feeding them and scraping the scum off the sides of the bowl.

Then one night it's time to go to the carnival again. You have an idea. You get out a Tupperware container and you fill it with water and put Pearly, Nemo, and Squiggley inside. You carry this container boldly into the carnival.Your crime is surprisingly easy. You march right past the big long line of children and their idiot fathers waiting to take their own fish home in a baggie. You walk past the poor unsuspecting teenager who has been roped into running the booth this night. You open the container and dump your three pets into a tub of goldfish. They look much larger than the others, but they look quite content. The teenager looks surprised, "Didn't your kid want his prize?" she asks. She is wondering what the return policy is.You simply say, "No. He didn't want them after all."

A few weeks later you visit a friend. She is lamenting that her daughter won some fish at the carnival this year. She has won fish before but this year it was different. The fish she won were full-grown. You agree with her that that is very strange indeed.

by Judy Zimmerman


Monday, September 18, 2006


This is my middlest middle child on the first day of school. Posted by Picasa

July 2006

“Who is that girl? She has a lovely singing voice!” I whisper to my husband as we sit in the darkened auditorium watching a local theater production of “Annie” featuring kids from our church and the neighborhood.

I’m referring to the girl on stage: she’s about ten, with glasses, looks like a tiny librarian, and is holding the audience transfixed with her sweet, tremulous solo.

“That’s our daughter,” he whispers back.
“Are you sure? That doesn’t look like Lilly.”
“Not Lilly, the other one. I think her name is Grace,” he says.
“Oh, yes, Grace. I don’t really know much about her.”

Well, who can blame me? Grace is a middle child and as all parents (and all middle children) know too well, they can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. I’m a middle child myself but since I came five years after my brother I wasn’t as squeezed as some middle children. But Grace—well there’s no way to put a good spin on it. She is stuck between two siblings who could suck the life out of a room let alone a quiet, introverted middle child.

The older sibling is her brother, “Atticus-the–wonder-boy”, who is just a year ahead of her in school. He is blessed with both brains and a heart of gold. He can hold an intelligent, friendly conversation with anyone from the grocery clerk to his great-grandmother. He is the kind of kid elderly neighbors, teachers, and ministers love. When I see teachers who have had both Atticus and Grace in class they inevitably say, “Tell Atticus I said hi,” and when I add, helpfully, “And Grace too?” they squint a moment, trying to figure out who I’m talking about then finally say hesitantly, “Oh, yes, and Grace.”

Grace’s other sibling is “Lilly-the-hilarious-baby-of-the-family”. She is funny. Not just “kids-say-the-darndest things” funny but “pitch-perfect delivery” funny. Once, when she had just turned four, I was admonishing her to be more grown-up as she was throwing a tantrum in the car on the way to Starbucks for my usual. She said, “Mom, look at me. How grown up can I be? I’m sitting in a baby seat and I don’t even know what a latte is.”

To make things worse for Grace, Lilly is also a cancer survivor. Yes, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a bigger attention-stealer than getting the big “C” at the age of 3. Poor Grace, at one point during the ordeal, when Lilly was receiving yet another package of toys from well-meaning friends, Grace blurted out, “No fair, I want to get cancer too!”

That’s Grace in a nutshell—so squeezed between a math genius with the gift of gab and a stand-up comic cancer survivor that she’d risk a life-threatening disease to get a little attention. She might just be the “middlest middle child of all time”.It’s not that Grace doesn’t have many wonderful attributes too—she does—it’s just that they aren’t of the attention-getting variety. At the age of eleven, she can bake homemade bread from scratch, sew doll clothes without a pattern, and create art projects from nothing at a moment’s notice. She is so good at taking care of her little sister that Lilly often calls her “Mom” accidentally. Her talents are many but they don’t often bring her the attention she’d like or the attention every child deserves—she’s just too normal for that.

At the end of third grade when the school sent the paperwork home about the gifted program, (they send it home with everyone because all the children in my town are gifted, just ask their parents, which makes it rather awkward for the three of us with non-gifted children) I looked at it and set it aside casually saying, “Oh, we don’t need to fill this out.”

“But you filled it out for Atticus,” she pointed out. (She’s not gifted, but she’s not stupid, either.)
“Yes, well, it’s for that gifted crap,” I said, waving a dismissive hand.
“Oh,” she said quietly thinking about that, “You’re right, I don’t need that, I’m normal,” she said.

Amen to that. The world could use a little more normal—but normal does not get you noticed. For years I’ve worried about this fact. I mean we, her parents and family have always thought she’s fabulous but we’re aware she was often overlooked by the outside world. She has had to remain in the shadows of her more noticeable siblings.

All that changed, that night in the auditorium, when she took the stage. I literally did not know she could sing. Hell, she’s so soft-spoken, I barely know what her speaking voice sounds like. She walked out on stage and opened her mouth to sing and I had butterflies in my stomach (as all mothers do when their children perform) and I was a little worried about how this could turn out. But out came the clear, sweet tones of a very talented little girl.

A girl with a gift! I could not have been more delighted.Grace’s singing has turned out to be a true gift: unexpected, unasked for, and exactly what she needed. It has opened up doors to performing and applause. It is the perfect gift for all middle children and affords her the attention she craves and deserves. I wish I had thought to give it to her; I’m grateful someone did.Now when she takes the stage and starts to sing I am no longer surprised, but I continue to be delighted. The other two kids (what are their names?) sing too, but it isn’t the same thing, those two are always on stage. The true miracle is Grace, the quiet, unassuming, middlest of all middle children, singing like a nightingale, finally in the spotlight.Sing on sweet Gracie, sing on.

By Judy Zimmerman

This essay dedicated to Pam Boudreau who discovered Grace's talents long before the rest of the world

Thursday, August 31, 2006


“Mommy, you need to sign this sheet on our ‘Drug and Alcohol’ unit,” Grace says, shoving a piece of paper in front of me and nearly knocking my martini over.“Hey, hey, watch my cocktail there!” I say. Grace giggles and I’m grateful she isn’t one of those self-righteous kids who protests if you have a drink.

It’s common knowledge around the ‘hood that once they hit the “Drug and Alcohol” unit in fourth grade science you may have to go underground with your cocktail. I have one friend who started hiding her vodka tonic in a coffee mug. Can you believe she does that? It’s barbaric; the only thing one should drink from a coffee mug is coffee. A good cocktail deserves the proper glass. Are they teaching that in the drug and alcohol unit?

I look at the worksheet Grace has dutifully filled out for today’s assignment. It covers the dangers of using someone else’s prescription drugs. Well, I’ll drink to that. I peer at the paper,looking confused.“I don’t get it, Grace. This isn’t teaching you a thing about drugs and alcohol. Like how much Vermouth is in a dry martini? Where to go to score some smack? Now how are you supposed to learn that stuff?” I ask her.

“Mommy,” she sighs then peers over her cat glasses at me and shakes her head in exasperation. She’s an old soul and deserves a better mother than the one she got.I sigh too. I long for the days before someone told us to just say no. I prefer to just say, “Sure why not,” and “You can just freshen this up”. The sad truth is that I was born several decades too late. I want to go back to the days when mommies were encouraged to have cocktails while playing bridge and daddies had three martini lunches. When doctors handed out Valium like mints to harried housewives. Nowadays you have to see a specialist just to get Prozac. Hell, my doctor wouldn’t give me antibiotics without a full physical.

Instead of all that, I'm left with a paltry five o'clock cocktail. It does the trick, I suppose, but even that some people frown upon. They should know, I didn’t always have a cocktail at five o’clock, but then again I didn’t always have kids.

As any mom knows the five o’clock hour is known as “the witching hour”. Like the perfect storm there are many forces at work that converge at once to form the witching hour. They are as follows:

1. Playdates, formal or informal come to an end as most mommies start to gather their brood for the evening.

2. The kids start to melt down: regardless of age, from infancy to teen-hood this is the time of day the child realizes he has not had enough of something. Not enough sleep, food, social interaction, time to get homework done…whatever; he hasn’t had enough and it’s time the universe paid for this injustice. He decides to take his frustrations out on the universe by (depending on the age of the child) wailing inconsolably, whining until his mother’s ears bleed, or sulking conspicuously (which isn’t noisy but does have the effect of sucking out all positive life-force in the room).

3. Market forces begin to take effect: the value of the TV sharply declines as PBS Kids winds down causing the value of the Play Station II to incline sharply. The result is that all the children in the household will begin to fight over the PS2.

4. The mommy realizes that, yes, once again, she has neglected to figure out what dinner might be. This is because after months or years of trying to feed her children properly she has lost a wee bit of her enthusiasm for this task. In fact, despite the fact that she is resourceful enough to come up with a Halloween costume that doubles as a winter snowsuit she can no longer think of a single meal that simultaneously meets her criteria and the children’s criteria for a proper dinner. Her criteria are that the foods must be healthy, contain no refined sugar or flour, no trans-fatty acids, be pesticide-free, and ideally be served with three vegetables. The kids’ criteria are simpler: no vegetables and all food must be white. Now if you draw a ven diagram of these two subsets you will see there is no overlap whatsoever. Oh, and I forgot, it should be something her husband likes to eat too, on the off-chance that he may get home in time for dinner. Which leads me nicely into item number 5.

5. The daddy calls from work to say that he will be late. By late he means later than his usual 7:00 p.m. time. He means well after the wild and chaotic time of day that the family euphemistically calls “bedtime”. He also does not mean he will be toiling at his desk through dinner, snacking on a banana and a glass of skim milk. He means he is headed somewhere for cocktails, adult conversation, and a meal prepared, served, and cleared away by someone else. This makes the mommy a bit resentful.

These five things almost always happen at just around 5:00. Together the fine balance of order that has been established since the children returned from school collapses like the house of cards it always was. Children begin screaming, mommies begin slamming cupboards and pots and pans, pets howl, and potted plants wither as an evil wind blows through the household. It was at just such a moment as this on a Tuesday in February (is there anything drearier than February?) that I had an epiphany. I was dumping the Kraft Mac-n-cheese into the pot (the creamy kind not that powdery stuff, what kind of mom do you think I am?) when I thought to myself, “If only it were Friday, I’d have a beer.” Then I thought, “Wait a minute! I’m not pregnant. I’m not nursing. I’m over 21. I could have a beer on a TUESDAY!” and I popped open a Sam Adams and began a new tradition.

Now when the witching hour starts winding up I simply walk over to the fridge and say hello to my good friend Sam. He takes the edge off. I’m able to concentrate on whipping up a healthy meal (like homemade macaroni and cheese) and calmly and quietly referee the melee around me.

I have shared this revelation with many friends. Most are already aware of the medicinal effects of the nightly cocktail. Some are a little concerned that it is a slippery slope that could lead to substance abuse. It is my job to reassure them that there is nothing wrong with a single cocktail. Look at the French! They have wine with lunch and dinner and have you ever seen a more relaxed country? They can’t even muster the energy necessary to fight back when invaded that’s how relaxed they are. I’ve become sort of the Dali-lama of the drinking mom set. They come to me with their concerns.

Isn’t it wrong to drink alone? Hey, you’re not alone, your kids are home (remember they’re the ones who drove you to this to begin with).

But I look so forward to having my cocktail, isn’t that wrong? You look forward to a cup of coffee and a good dump too, does that mean you need to cut them out of your life? Christ, we live in a puritanical world when you go hunting for reasons to give up the things you love.

Besides, after having given up booze for the last decade when you were trying to get pregnant, you were pregnant, and then you were nursing, you’ve got some catching up to do. Remember that wedding you went to with your office mates when you were eight months pregnant and the only sober one at the wedding (besides the flower girl) was you? Didn’t you have to watch as your friends, co-workers, and husband did the conga line through the kitchen, leaving you to waddle to the bathroom, sober as a judge. What you’ve seen sober no one should have seen. You’ve earned that drink.

My husband has no problem with this habit of mine. In fact he encourages it. On the nights when he does come home early enough, he and I have a cocktail together in the living room, threatening the children with the following: “You may not disturb us unless there is blood, vomit, or broken bones involved,” (which is exactly what we tell them when we take our Saturday afternoon “naps” too).

Even with this threat, our youngest has managed to inveigle her way into our ritual. She found my collection of tiny martini glasses; the ones I stuffed in my purse after I sampled a half-dozen Apple-tinis that those cute little girls from Absolut were serving at a fundraiser. She likes to fill them with apple juice and join us in the living room. She never interrupts us so we let her stay.

Recently, we had friends over for drinks and Lilly went and fetched her mock-tini and sat down. Our friends, parents of a newborn, looked at her slightly amused and partly horrified.

"What is that?" asked the mother.

"It's from her 'Barbie Cocktail' collection," I said smoothly. They didn't know if they should laugh or call DCFS. I ignored their faces and called Grace into the room.

“Grace,” I said, “Look at your sister. Now she’s going to do well in the fourth grade when she gets to the ‘Drug and Alcohol Unit’.” Grace shakes her head and walks away but Lilly, who is in first grade, raises her mock-tini in salute.

“Cheers, Mama,” she says.I raise my glass in return.

“Cheers indeed.” It’s nice to know a mother can pass on her wisdom to at least one of her children.

By Judy Zimmerman


This first appeared in The Chicago Tribune on May 14, 2003, under the name of “Daughter’s illness becomes mom’s growth experience”

“Face it, you are not a hair person,” my sister once said to me. I had just been complaining about the glob of hair I’d found clogging her shower drain. She has three girls, all of whom have preposterously long hair. She’s right, I am not a hair person and I keep my own hair short and sassy to minimize the nuisance of caring for it. In fact, I have always thought hair was just a bit icky, getting in food and clogging drains.

I have not had hair past my chin since the 8th grade when I had a shag, complete with bangs that I was supposed to “train” according to my friends. But I couldn’t train them; they were recalcitrant and instead of looking foxy, like Laurie Partridge with soft, feathered hair at my temples, I looked goofy like Emily Elizabeth from the Clifford books. I got a pixie cut and never looked back.

So it comes as a surprise to me that lately I’ve become obsessed with hair. I think about it, worry about it, talk about it and recently I even dreamed about it. I dreamed that I had long flowing hair down to my shoulders, but every time I combed it big chunks of it fell off.

I don’t need Dr. Freud to explain that dream to me. It’s because Lilly, my 4-year-old baby, is losing her hair. Some days when she comes down to breakfast and the morning sun slants into the kitchen, it illuminates the hundreds of strands lying in piles around her shoulders like a stole. When I see that, I rise quickly from my cup of coffee and give her a big hug. Then I go get the wide roll of masking tape and tear off a foot-long piece. The tape, which I press to her shoulders, quickly fills with loose hairs. Then I get a brush and I work on the hair until the brush is full and I’m convinced there isn’t much left to come out right then. I go through this morning ritual because I’d rather have some control over it than find it floating around the house and making nests in the corners to mock me.

It’s not all gone yet. But when she’s hatless, and the breeze moves it away from her face and reveals the huge bare patches and the few wisps that remain around her face, she looks nearly bald and that, along with her pale, pale face and her nearly white lips, makes her look as sad and pathetic as, well, as a kid with cancer.

It’s taken a long time to fall out. It didn’t start in earnest until about the sixth week of chemo. We were at Walker Brothers having pancakes, one of the few foods she has an appetite for, when I noticed a stray hair hanging down. I reached across the table to pull it out. But when I did, I was horrified to find an entire clump of hair in my hand. I had visions of all her hair falling out right there into her plate of syrup. I rushed her through the rest of her meal and drove to my friend Martha’s house.

“It’s just her hair and it will come back. Her beauty shines through with or without her hair,” she said reassuringly as I cried briefly. Of course I know that. Hair is definitely the least of our worries with Lilly. I remember asking the doctor that first day, the series of questions he must be so used to. What is the prognosis? Will she need chemo after the surgery? Will it make her sick? Will it make her hair fall out? The last question seemed so trivial after the others. But still a mommy never expects to have to watch her 4-year-old lose her hair.

I have a box labeled “Danger! Toxic chemotherapy drugs enclosed” in the back of the refrigerator next to the pickles. It’s there for the days when we have home chemo. I had to cross off “gymnastics” on the calendar and write in “chemo”. And the other day I walked into the playroom and heard Lilly tell her playdate that she had “cansuh”. So you’d think the hair thing would be the least of the changes I’m getting used to lately. But right now it’s bothering me. I think because it’s such an outward and visible sign that my baby is indeed a cancer patient.

I used to see bald kids and wonder vaguely if they had cancer or something else. Now I know. It’s most likely cancer. There are very few other explanations for it. There are a lot of things I know now that I never wanted to know. I know that the oncology department is on the fourth floor of Children’s Memorial. I know that pediatric cancer is on the rise but thankfully, so are the cure rates. Pediatric cancer is not the death sentence it was when we were kids. Thank God. I know that if you have to have cancer, the kind Lilly has (a Wilms Tumor) is the kind you want. I know that kids who are bald from chemo are just regular kids stricken with this at random. I know that the hair falls out because the chemo kills all fast-growing cells and hair is a fast-growing cell too.

I know all this and I know this too: I have been wrong about hair all along. It isn’t a nuisance or an inconvenience. It is something really quite wonderful. Hair is a beautiful soft frame for a tiny face. It’s a sign of health and normalcy, two of the most valuable blessings anyone can have. I know I wont’ take it for granted when Lilly’s hair grows back and I’ll never resent having to wash it or comb it again.

When this ordeal is all over, we are taking a tropical family vacation to celebrate. Yesterday I asked Lilly how long she wanted to grow her hair out when it comes back and she said, “All the way to Hawaii.” I’m thinking about joining her in celebration. I might just grow my hair out all the way to Hawaii too.

By Judy Zimmerman
Lilly is four years cancer-free and did grow her hair out--not quite to Hawaii--but well past her shoulders. I’ve grown mine over my ears, which is long for me. I’m happy to say that I am back to complaining when I have to comb the tangles out of her hair—a lovely sign that our lives have indeed returned to normal.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


This first appeared in The Chicago Tribune under the title of “ Chronicling the strangest of relationships: Period" on April 21, 2004

I was talking to a good friend the other day and she told me that her daughter had just gotten her first period. My friend had been prepared for this momentous occasion and she got out the necessary products and helped her daughter with them. About an hour later her daughter came in the kitchen and said, “OK, Mom, can I take this off? Am I done yet?”

Oh honey, if you only knew. Her daughter is embarking on a very long relationship that lasts from puberty to menopause with her new “friend”. If I were to tell her what I’ve learned about this relationship (which I wouldn’t, there’s no reason to send her screaming back to her childhood) here’s what I’d say.

It will be a strange and dysfunctional relationship but it will follow a fairly predictable chronology. First, you will start out hating and loathing your new friend. No filmstrip or book or talk from mom can convince you that this is “beautiful”. It’s uncomfortable, painful, messy, and embarrassing. It requires the use of mysterious, unwieldy products you have never even seen let alone know how to use. With the help of a best friend shouting directions through the door you will finally figure out how to use the more challenging but effective products. Eventually, say in 5 to 10 years, you will even master said products so that you are not totally uncomfortable with your new friend. But then you will do something to mess up this relationship. You will become sexually active.

Now, instead of loathing her, you look forward to seeing your friend every month. She is a reassuring and visible sign that you have not made the biggest blunder of your life. Even if you are exceedingly careful, you will not know real relief until you see concrete evidence of her return. Cramps are not enough. You need proof of your freedom.

There are times you are less cautious than others. On these occasions you will not be just glad to see her, you will fall on your knees and thank God she has returned. You will reassure her that next time you will take every precaution necessary to ensure her timely return. The relationship will continue along like this for some time.

Then one day you will hear the unmistakable ticking of your biological time clock. Now you will find yourself in an upside-down world in which you will try, very, very hard to achieve a physical state that you have tried very, very hard to avoid for a very, very long time. This will seem very, very strange.

Most of us will be in this phase for what seems like an eternity even if it is in fact only a few months. Each month you will not only hate the mere hint of your friend’s return, you may actually be moved to tears of bitter disappointment at the sight of her. You will resent that the pregnancy tests are placed so closely to the sanitary products at the drugstore.

The longer this phase goes on, the more you will come to hate her. Sadly, because of the vagaries of life, some women will find themselves in this phase for many years without a happy resolution.
If you are fortunate enough to reproduce more or less when you want to, you will finally rejoice at your friend’s absence. If she is even a day late you will run out to the drugstore and purchase your EPT kit and wave that magic wand around in glee.

For the next several months your friend will be replaced by a myriad of bodily changes that are absurdly taxing, but you will not wish for the return of your friend’s relatively gentle presence. One day, quite suddenly, you will remember her for a few nostalgic moments as your labor begins. But your friend is to labor as a chimp is to King Kong and you will soon forget her again.

Nursing will keep her away for a few more months and then one day, she will return and you will be happy to see her again. She will remind you that your body no longer belongs to another tiny being but is in fact returning to you.

Now you will be back to the days of welcoming her every month, glad to know that at least for now your body is your own. Until you decide your child needs a sibling, then you can revert to the days of dreading the sight of her again.

And so it goes. Until one day your house is full of children and you realize you are done. But strangely, your body does not. Though you are mentally and physically past the optimal age to reproduce, your body keeps trying to. You do not want to be like someone in the Old Testament and you return to the days of fearing her presence. Even if your husband has been “fixed” you know that mistakes can happen.

These days stretch into months and years and your old friend will visit with less and less regularity. Sometimes she’ll stop by for a brief unexpected visit and other times she will hunker down for an extended stay. And then one day, without any word of warning, she will disappear for good. Like all old friends, you will not realize that her last visit is her last.

As my friend’s daughter begins this relationship I am fast approaching the end of my relationship. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I realize my friend has left for good but I suppose I’ll be as conflicted about her departure as I’ve always been about her arrival. I’ll be relieved she’s finally gone but no doubt a little regretful to see her leave forever.

By Judy Zimmerman, who is still being visited,albeit erratically, by her friend

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Spring 2005

“Faye never swears but Gary, he’s got a goddamned foul mouth on him. Jesus Christ, he can hardly finish a sentence without swearing. I don’t know where he gets that from,” my Grandpa Kellogg used to say without a hint of irony.

I come from a long line of foul-mouthed people, most of whom come from my mother’s side of the family. I don’t know when I really became aware of the foul-mouth gene I’d inherited; perhaps it was when I was about six years old. I remember a weekly ritual of my mother unloading the groceries. We had an old Frigidaire (old even then) with a bottom-drawer freezer. Unfortunately, the freezer drawer would come off the tracks easily, rendering the whole contraption useless. My mother would have to drop the frozen foods she was lugging (a large quantity considering it was the 70s and most of what we ate was frozen) and struggle to put the heavy drawer back on its tracks. This never worked and her frustration level would escalate until finally she would get a hammer out of the kitchen drawer (kept there just for this purpose) and begin whaling on the thing saying, “Goddamnit, goddamnit, GODDAMNIT!”

That was my earliest memory of my mother swearing but certainly not my last. My mother was and is a classy lady who dresses well even when running errands. As I was growing up she wore pearls to bathe us and gloves and hats to church. She never smoked, seldom drinks and has no tattoos that I’m aware of. But here the dissimilarities between her and a longshoreman end. If you commit an egregious act upon her house like dripping candle wax on the shag carpet or spilling a particularly large quantity of milk on the dining room table and then wailing as you watch it slip away between the leaves, then be prepared to hear her utter a most unladylike string of curses.

Yes, I’d have to say I get the swearing mostly from my mother’s side of the family. Her father, the Grandpa Kellogg mentioned above, used the word “goddamned” as conversation filler. When he spoke, nearly every noun was preceded by the word goddamned: goddamned tractor, goddamned dog, goddamned Nancy (my aunt), and most especially goddamned Anne, my grandmother and his wife of 70 years. He seldom said any of this in anger; it was very matter of fact. He’d say, “I went to get the goddamned truck fixed and goddamned Anne went with me and ran some errands while I waited.” It’s quite possible his wedding vows were, “I Buell, take you, goddamned Anne, to be my lawfully wedded wife, goddamn it.”

Goddamned is, not surprisingly then, the swear word of choice for my mother, and I admit, in times of stress and provocation the one you’re most likely to hear from me.

My father on the other hand, seldom swears, though he too had a father who laced his conversation with profanity. I was only two when my Grandpa Zimmerman died so I have no memory of his foul language. My father tells a story though, that addresses the issue: Once, while my Grandpa was driving my father, who was about ten at the time, to the movies, Grandpa got annoyed with a slow driver in front of him who kept his blinker on but refused to turn. My grandfather pounded on the steering wheel and shouted, “Make up your mind you asshole!” to which my father meekly said, “The Main Street Theater, Dad.”

Even with all the swearing I’ve grown up with there are certain words my parents and grandparents never uttered. The “see-ya-next-Tuesday” word for one and the “f” word for another. That is why those words still have the power to shock and amuse me, especially if they come from unexpected places.

Val lives down the street from me. She is the mother of three, soon to be four, children. She is a dark-haired, Italian beauty who loves her children fiercely and has no patience with parents who shirk their familial duties. Before she became a mother she was a social worker at the high school and she has deep insights into the development of children and the importance of family, all of which she shares with me over coffee.

I chat with Val every morning as our children wait for the bus to come. This morning, we got to the bus stop before she did and as we waited, I could see the front door of her house open as she shepherded her kids into their boots and coats and mittens. Her very pregnant self was silhouetted against the morning sun and she made a lovely Madonna-like figure. I smiled at the sight. Then, I heard the rumbling of the bus as it started down the street and I heard her voice rise in panic as she screamed, “Hurry, HURRY UP! The FUCKING BUS IS COMING!” she screamed loudly enough for most of the street to hear. Nice.

Of course as parents, we of the foul-mouths have to be a little careful. Some parents frown on children who swear a lot. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been much of a problem around my house. Though my children hear me swear frequently and matter-of-factly every day of their lives, they are well aware they are not allowed to curse. I do have to remind them from time-to-time as I correct them. “No, you can’t say ‘shit’, you have to say ‘shoot’,” or “Mother-fucker isn’t nice but you can say, ‘son-of-a-gun’.”

My use of creative and colorful words has even morphed into a game the kids ask to play called, “Foul-Mouthed Polly Pockets.” If you are not familiar with Polly, let me enlighten you; she is a tiny, Barbie-wanna-be made out of plastic and her entire wardrobe is rubber. This is a bad combination. She is very tiny—minute even and it’s very difficult if not impossible to dress her. So though she is made for the “seven and under” set, there is not a single child who can actually dress her without a lot of adult help. As a parent, if you have Polly in the house, eventually you will find yourself struggling with a tiny rubber mini-skirt the size of a postage-stamp and tiny rubber boots no bigger than a paper-clip as you dress Polly, who like all other little girl dolls dresses like a Vegas hooker.

When this happens to me, I will invariably find myself providing an imaginary monologue from Polly that usually goes like this: “I can’t wait to go out on my date tonight, as soon as I get these goddamned pants on. Now who the hell would invent rubber pants when I’m made out of plastic? The only thing worse would be if they made my ass out of Velcro and my pants out of flannel,” which I say in a wee-little Polly voice. This slays my six-year old who begs for more. I suppose there are those who wouldn’t really approve of this kind of parenting. Fuck em’.

I recently read that Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is rather well known for her salty language. If one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century swears a lot; surely I can toss off a curse word now and then without it reflecting too badly on me. In fact, the next time someone tells me that “swearing is the sign of a limited vocabulary” I’m going to point out this fact about Harper Lee. It’s much better than my usual witty rejoinder of, “Bullshit.” And if they don’t like that, they can take it up with my goddamned mother.

By Judy Zimmerman

Thursday, August 17, 2006


I originally wrote this in the summer of 2002. For those of you who know my family history, you will see it's a different take on a familiar theme for me.

You know that saying “You can get used to just about anything”? I’ve been living it lately as I adjust to my new life. I’ve gotten used to pretty much all of it since our annual idyllic pilgrimage to Sanibel Island was decimated by the discovery of a lump. We were all there, standing next to the pool we’ve visited for the past ten years when I first saw it. It was 11:00 a.m. Monday, March 25, 2002. It took only twelve hours to learn that the lump was a tumor and the tumor was cancer.

“I don’t know how I never noticed it before,” I said to the ER doctor in Florida who first diagnosed it.

“It grows up in the rib cage then when it gets so heavy it drops down and ‘boom’ you notice it.”

It took some getting used to the whole idea of cancer. It doesn’t run in our families. Not that no one has had it but until now no one under the age of eighty has had it. That’s a whole different thing isn’t it? Getting cancer when you’re nearing the end of your life is one thing. Getting it now is unthinkable. Sometimes I know my parents are thinking that. Thinking, “Why is this happening to her and not me? I’m the one who’s lived a long full life.”

Despite the shock it caused us all, you do get somewhat accustomed to living with it and being able to talk about it. I’ve noticed I’m much more casual about throwing the big “C” word around in conversation. At first, when I’d run into friends and neighbors I’d just say, “Well, there was a tumor on the kidney. They had to remove the kidney but the other one will compensate for it.” Now I just say, “Yeah, it’s cancer.”

At the same time I was trying to get used to the idea of cancer I had to write down the chemotherapy appointments on the family calendar. This was not easy to do. It was that first week after the surgery and I had to cross out “Gymnastics” and write in “Chemotherapy” for the next ten Fridays. My sister, who had come to help us out, found me crying over the calendar.

“I can’t do it. It’s just too hideous,” I said.

“Just write the word ‘Cure’ instead,” she suggested as she held me. I did. But now I can write “Chemotherapy” as easily as I write “Class Picnic”.

There are other things you have to get used to. There’s the port, a device about the size of a stack of three nickels that they inserted surgically just under the skin below the clavicle. They use this so they don’t have to fish around for a vein every time they draw blood or administer chemotherapy. It’s a useful device but one I was unaware existed until three months ago.

It took a little longer to get used to the box in the refrigerator behind the pickle relish that reads, “Caution: Toxic chemotherapy”. The visiting nurse uses it for the times we don’t have to go into the city for treatments. At first it was rather startling to see the Styrofoam box in there when you’d go in the fridge to grab a yogurt. But I barely notice it now.

There are the physical changes to adjust to like the inevitable hair loss that goes along with chemotherapy. I’m not so bothered by it now. It’s been fairly gradual. It’s almost all gone but I keep rearranging the last two wisps in denial and desperation like a middle-aged man with a horrendous comb-over. I just brush it out several times a day so I won’t find piles of it accumulating in the corners trying to mock me.

I’ve gotten used to the scar too, which runs from just below the nipple to the pelvis. I remember asking the surgeon, “Will it be a large incision?”

“Yes,” she answered unflinchingly. There were a lot of unflinching answers to our questions that first week. “Will there be chemo?” “Will the hair fall out?” “Will it be a long surgery?” Yes, yes, yes.
But I barely notice the scar now. Today I forgot about it completely until I saw a look of horror in a visitor’s eyes when I answered the door while I held Lilly in my arms. I quickly threw a shirt on over the bathing suit to cover it up.

We’re all getting used to this new life. My husband is back at work, back to normal. Of course he was there in the hospital the whole time and for the first few treatments but then I said, “Look, you have to go back to work and let me handle this like it’s just another doctor’s visit. For all our sakes we have to get back to normal.” So he went back reluctantly.

The kids are all pretty used to it. They know they need to get off the bus at the neighbor’s house on the days we go downtown for chemo. They use the terminology like chemo and radiation comfortably and knowledgably. Not that you want your eight, seven, and four year old children to have to have a working knowledge of cancer treatments. But when it’s in the family what can you do? The denial and secrecy that surrounded cancer in our youth served no one well. So we try to be open about it and answer any of their questions.

Still, it’s unnerving to hear your four-year-old say to her playmate, “I have cancer.” Or more accurately , “I have cansuh” since she still has her preschooler lisp. Yes, it’s Lilly, my baby who has cancer. And though I’m used to a lot of it; the worries, the meals from sympathetic neighbors, the hats piling up in her bedroom, the endless waiting in doctors’ offices, the curious stares at the little balding head, I am not used to waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, “My baby has cancer.” And I don’t think I will ever get used to that.

by Judy Zimmerman


Nov. 2003

The other day I was at a dinner party and the proud mother next to me was going on and on about her twelve-year-old daughter who is an ice-skating super-star. The girl is a whiz, she told me, the next Oksana Baiul (thank goodness, the world needs more anorexic girls whose self-worth depend on their ability to do a quadruple lutz, but I digress).

“She gets up five days a week at 5:00 a.m. to practice and never complains,” the lady said over crab cakes.

“Slacker, what does she do the other two days?” I mumbled.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“I just said, the only thing that would get any of my kids out of bed at 5:00 a.m. would be Krispy Kremes on the front lawn and a fire in the hallway.”
“Oh, heh, heh,” she laughed weakly not sure if she should be amused or give condolences.

It’s true, I will never be the mother of an athletically-gifted child. I’ve seen it coming for some time but I had to face it as an immutable fact last fall when my youngest, the five-year-old came home from the last game of her last (and only) soccer season. “I am never going to play soccer again,” she said as she pulled off the oversized knee socks and tugged at her shin-guards in frustration. She flung her jersey across the kitchen. With this gesture of finality any hope I may have secretly nursed of having a super-star was dashed along with the jersey.

All three of my kids have tried soccer and all three have chosen not to go on. By “tried soccer” what I really mean is all three have whined, complained, and whimpered through a pathetic, tortuous for all, season of chasing a black-and-white ball around a field, killing time waiting for a snack. Not one of them actually touched the ball with his or her foot unless you count the time my eight-year-old fell over the ball. All three have ended their seasons declaring they will never play the game again and all three have concluded that soccer involves “too much running.”

We have also had similar experiences with tee-ball (too boring), flag-football (too rough), floor-hockey (too late in the day), ice hockey (too much equipment), and karate (just too darn hard). I don’t know where my kids get this bad attitude about sports. Their father was a star athlete in his day, playing baseball and football through high school.

Of course the other half of their gene pool is a bit weak in this area. The only “C” I got in high school was in P.E. and when my friends played softball my job was to bring the Diet Coke. I did join an intramural basketball team in college (lured by the promise of beer at the end of each practice) but I had to quit because it conflicted with “Hill Street Blues.” It was before VCR’s so you can see I really had no option.

Now I’m not complaining (wait yes I am) because I’m pretty happy with the fact that my kids go to school, go to church, and each do a little something on the side. But it doesn’t do much for the bragging rights. I mean no one sits next to someone at a dinner party and says, “My eight-year-old attends Brownie meetings fairly regularly.” Or, “My ten-year-old son is interested in musical theater.” No, this is not going to cut it in my circle where some people cannot even fathom the idea of a non-sport playing offspring.

When I told one mom that my middle-child doesn’t play any sports she looked at me incredulously and said, “But what does she do?”

“Umm. You know, she plays. Like kids,” I said. “But she plays really good and I never have to remind her about it."
“But with whom? Aren’t all the other kids in sports?” she asked.

Well no, not really. A few of the kids in the world still hang around the house after school but their moms don’t want to admit it. We’re keeping this shame to ourselves.

So if I’m not a soccer mom anymore what am I? I have the minivan, I have the kids but I don’t have a title. Now I’m not even a demographic. Pollsters are not talking about whom the “Thespian Moms” will support in the next election. I guess I have to go back to being just “a mom”. Which when you think about it, isn’t a bad title after all.

by Judy Zimmerman

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


This essay originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune as "A generation ages early courtesy of Baby Boomers" on September 24,2003

It's getting very difficult to ignore the fact that the Baby Boomers are aging. The signs are not subtle. Ads for Maxi-pads have been replaced by ads for Depends. Women at cocktail parties no longer discuss episiotomies, they're all comparing notes on colonoscopies.

Well, what did I expect? The Boomers are after all the noisiest, most self-aggrandizing, hey-look-at-us, generation to ever walk the earth and now that they're growing old they are telling us all about it every chance they get. From "Oprah" to U.S. News and World Report, from my sister to my friends who are (ahem) a little older, all I ever hear about any more is menopause, perimenopause (a totally made up thing just to drag me into their aging process) and postmenopause. Yes, the signs are inescapable, and the same generation that once embraced LSD is now clamoring for its HRT.

I am not, as you may have guessed by now, a Boomer myself. I am part of a little-recognized generation sandwiched between the Boomers and the Gen-Xers. We were born between 1960 and 1970. Oh, technically those of us born between 1960-1964 are at the tail end of the Boomers but whom are we kidding here? If you can name the members of the Partridge Family (Keith, Laurie, Danny, Chris 1, Chris 2, and Tracy) you have little in common with those who can name the Mouseketeers (Annette….ummm, were there more?). We are a generation without a moniker so let's just call us the "Shadow" generation.

Being just behind the Boomers has had a weird affect on me. First of all I've always felt like I was trying to catch up. After all, they got to do everything first, and better, and with more meaning (just ask them). They had hippie clothes, dropped acid, listened to The Beatles, and protested the Viet Nam war. When it was my turn I was stuck with preppie clothes, pot, The Bee Gees, and the only cause left to protest by the time I got to campus was apartheid.

Living in their shadow has left me feeling like I'm forever out of synch. When I was twenty-something the hot show was "thirtysomething." If I tried to discuss the dating habits of yellow power-tie wearing young men, my Boomer sister and my Boomer friends rolled their eyes at my shallowness and extolled the virtues of giving birth to a new life. By the time I wanted to talk about my newborn, they wanted to discuss the exhilaration of having the house to themselves again as their children left home.

For years, I bought in to their propaganda and was eager to catch up to them, to live the next phase of life that was obviously so much more fun, more challenging, and more meaningful than the phase I was currently in (just ask them).

But time has marched on and no monarchy, even a cultural monarchy that has outlasted disco, grunge, and Britney can last forever. To quote Boomer icon Bob Dylan, "The times they are a-changin'," and the Boomers are being unseated by Father Time. Though they are loathe to admit it, the Boomers have turned into the Geezers.

Now, for the first time in my life, I find I no longer want to catch up to them. No, you Boomers go right ahead and age without me. And now, also for the first time, they're trying to include me in their new phase. They act like I'm just as old as they are.

But I'm not of their generation. I never have been and I never will be. Why are they trying to include me in their newest phase when they never included me before? Chin whiskers, sagging jowls, stress incontinence, osteoporosis, and memory loss are just a few of the things I know way too much about considering I'm only 42. And the hormone replacement therapy debate: DoI really need to know about that yet? Excuse me but some of us still have our own hormones thank you very much and we don't want to hear another word about your vaginal dryness! I'm begging you Boomers to clam up and grow old gracefully like our parents and their parents before them.
Of course asking the Boomers to grow old gracefully is a complete waste of breath. They would have to stop fighting the aging process, and with role models like Goldie Hawn and Cher that’s not going to happen.

They will continue to obsess, botox, tummy-tuck, Aapha-hydroxy, and glucosamine themselves right up to and all the way through their "clipping-coupons-for-the-early-bird-special" years.
No, they won't stop talking about it and they'll continue to talk to us all as if we're right there with them, ignoring the fact that a large part of the population is indeed younger than they are. But I'm not there with them and I plan to enjoy what's left of my relative youth, so from now on I'm not listening to another word on their aging process.

Of course in ten years when I'm finally experiencing hot flashes I'll turn on "Oprah" looking for some information and solace only to hear her say, "Next up, tips on choosing the perfect nursing home!"

by Judy Zimmerman

Monday, August 07, 2006


First appeared in The Chicago Tribune on February 12, 2003 under the title of "Widow takes control of life's steering wheel"

My mother-in-law stoops over her kitchen table and leafs frantically through a large road atlas. After a flurry of page turning she finds the Chicago map and studies it. She writes a tiny, cramped note to herself on a Post-it, which she will soon lose in the sea of Post-its that covers her counters. She does all of this in a rush as if she were about to run out the door and jump in the car this very minute and not two days from now as planned. Everything she has done for the past four days has had this crazed, unfocused look to it. It occurs to me I have not seen her sit down except to eat in the past four days. Not since the day my father-in-law died.

She's looking for driving directions from her home in Michigan to her childhood hometown in central Wisconsin where we will bury my father-in-law. She has surprised us all by announcing she will drive herself there.

The reason she's studying the atlas is that although she has made this trip three or four times a year for the past 30 years, she has not once driven even 1 mile of the 650 mile trip. My father-in-law always drove and she always navigated and as far as I know they never switched places, even when he broke his arm last summer and could barely use his right arm.

At last, satisfied that she knows the route, she starts to close the atlas. But the book, instead of closing, flops open to a different page revealing a small stack of computer-printed sheets with the word, "Mapquest" at the top. She picks them up and examines them and smiles sadly.

"What are those?" I ask
"Oh, maps to North Carolina. Dad was planning a trip there."

My eyes sting and a lump forms in my throat. I find these moments the hardest to bear. The constant reminder of a life interrupted. The doctor's appointment card tacked to the refrigerator. The unopened Fathers' Day gift. This stack of maps for a trip he will never take. He was only 63. It was a stroke. She pulls the sheets out of the atlas and stacks them neatly.

She has spent the past 44 years with her husband and now he is gone. Theirs was an old-fashioned marriage built on the values of 1950s America. Their roles were so rigidly defined by their gender that I was appalled when I first met them. But I came to appreciate how it worked for them. He provided for her financially and she provided for him domestically. He took care of the finances, the cars, the lawn, and he always drove. She made the meals, cleaned, did the laundry and took care of family obligations, including phoning his mother weekly. They loved and admired each other. He made her feel safe and cared for and she made a comfortable home in which he took refuge.

Today, I am having a hard time imagining what her life will look like without him. We all are. I am certain she is too. She studies the stack of maps, then makes a decision.

"I don't have to throw these out now," she says and tucks them back into the atlas.
"No, no," I say reassuringly. "Of course not. You shouldn't throw anything away until you're good and ready."

Throwing things away is a difficult task for my mother-in-law. She is a pack rat. In this kitchen we are surrounded by her usual stacks of newspapers, magazines, bills, junk mail, maps and cardboard UPCs saved for contests and giveaways. The counter is littered with stuff she cannot bring herself to throw away: a toothpick, plastic wrap saved for a second use, a bottle cap, an assortment of plastic containers that cannot be burned in the barrel out back and, somewhat mysteriously, half of the handle of a fly-swatter. No, she should not throw anything of my father-in-law's away until she is good and ready. And that, I think, may be never.

She scoops up the atlas to return it to the stack in the corner, the pile where she keeps phonebooks and maps. As she does, the large cardboard cover separates from the atlas and flutters to the ground. She stoops to pick it up and lays it on the table with a grin.

"Judy," she says pausing for emphasis," He always drove and I always held the atlas. Of course after the atlas got to be a few years old the cover would come off and he'd give me a hard time for being careless."

We both smile as we imagine the conversation. He frequently chastised her for a long list of real or imagined indiscretions. It was sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, but a constant ritual.

"And then, he'd never let me throw the cover away."

Never let me, she says. He was also a man who was used to making rules, both fair and arbitrary, and having them followed by wife and children without question or challenge.

"No, Judy, I don't have to throw anything away until I'm good and ready."

Then she picks up the cover of the atlas, walks across the room and does the most surprising thing I've seen her do in the 20 years I've known her. She looks at me, smiles mischievously, steps on the pedal to open the cover of the wastebasket and drops the atlas cover in.

"And I'm good and ready."

She loved him dearly and passionately for 44 years and she will miss him every day of her life. I've been wondering what things will look like for her without him. But suddenly, I'm not so worried about it.

By Judy ZImmerman