A Rose by Any Other Name

I remember growing up jealous of people who went by nicknames. It seemed like it was a way you could still keep your parents happy (they got to name you after all) and yet carve out a little personal identity for yourself. My girlfriend was named Melissa but you called her Missy; Pamela was Pam, Katherine was Kathy, and the boy next door named Juan Ismael Rolando was called Pepino. Go figure.

My sisters and I had short names that did not lend to shortening further with a nickname. Although we fantasized about having other names altogether. We practiced with our Barbie dolls. Mine was always named Joanna. Sometimes when mom got really mad we were called by our first, middle and last names at once; that’s when you knew you were in for it. Occasionally I’d experiment with calling myself by my middle name and see if it would catch on. No dice.

I envied the guys with names so long, they had serious options. Leonardo. Leonard. Leo. Lenny. Len. What about all of my Hispanic friends? They had so many names to choose from! Sometimes even Maria Yolanda Leticia Mendez Rodriguez couldn’t tell me which ones were middles and which ones were last names.

My girlfriends came to the rescue. I made the mistake of whining out loud about it once and was instantly granted two nicknames for whenever I was feeling un-special.

Jolie Frijole. And also, Jolie Guacamole. Oh yeah. That’s special, all right.

Fast forward to naming my own children and I realize I deliberately chose names that would not be nicknamed! I distinctly recall feeling horrified that if I named my son James, he would instantly be called Jim by the world and there was no way to stop them. I love the name James. I can’t stand the name Jim. No offense to all you Jims out there, but if I name a kid James, then James it has to be. The one son I went out on a limb with lets himself be called by both his birth name and a nickname interchangeably and doesn’t seem to have a preference.

Deciding on which name to use on forms is always a question. Too many name options can get confusing fast and the last thing you want to do to your teacher, the IRS or immigration (but perhaps not the police?) is confuse them. Is your nickname an alias? Maybe a nom de plume? Do you have different groups of friends that call you different names, depending on who you’re with?

This was a fun idea as a kid. Sounds exhausting from an adult point of view.

I was Jolie before Angelina Jolie was. I have to give credit where credit is due. Once she became a household name, the barista at Starbucks began spelling my name correctly. Even more times than she could spell Joanna.

Why not just tell them your name is Nachooooooooooo…. and be done with it?

James Bond Does A Graduation

The June sun presided over an outdoor commencement. Perspiration crept along hairlines.

The college president was Kenyan, the keynote speaker was from Iran, the flowers were Hawaiian.

Among the grad-crazed families sat a single Russian spy. His beloved princess was graduating magna cum laude today with a degree in Political Science and another in Chemistry. He set aside his routine of espionage to sit in the anonymous audience of hundreds. He never perspired; not even when carrying bits of high-tech radically engineered weapons information for the Kremlin. Today he was travelling light.

Just passing through.

The devilishly alluring man in the impeccable Brioni suit and dark glasses moved casually to a seat nearby as the ceremony began.

Queue the James Bond theme song.

In the long line of flowing black robes, Natasha is announced. She walks across the stage to receive her diploma. Women shriek, balloons escape skyward.

Only when the crowds clear the field, hours later, does anyone notice the body slumped in the chair.

Covered by an air horn blast and surrounded by parents straining into the sunlight to see a glimpse of their own prodigies, the elimination went undetected.

James Bond fades into the background.

Mischief managed.


I can’t stand the boredom of ceremonies. I just can’t. Society dictates that a person has not graduated, married, given birth, or died, unless a party has been properly thrown over it, money spent on it, and particular traditions carried out in his honor. It must involve vast quantities of food.

But first and foremost, you must stand witness to the event.

Even if you’re a Russian spy.

If I had spare time I would spend it reading a good book, sleeping, or daydreaming about 007.

During my daughter’s graduation, I did all three.

I’m fairly certain no one noticed.

There are approximately 300 graduates to run the gauntlet. The first string comes through and random clusters of family members clap and cheer politely. Until the second row, fifth grad in, when his family decides to jump up, blasting air horns, and shriek at the top of their lungs.

We levitated for a moment over our seats.

We will never know who the sixth grad was.

Once my hearing returned, it was much too late to send them harsh looks of admonishment because, by George, every other family decided they would not be upstaged or (heaven forbid) their own child feel less loved due their lack of vocal enthusiasm.

Nothing is more irritating than having your nap interrupted by women clearly having liposuction without anesthesia. There were shrieks of agony from all corners of the audience and I looked everywhere for the mass murderer.

Sometimes the men would attempt the same decibels in a lower octave and it only managed to sound like they were about to take the warpath. Or they’d had a kneecap busted. Or maybe they’d just seen the VISA bill for the after-party.

After a while I was feeling sorry for the grads with polite parents, but I would find myself looking up from Pride & Prejudice wishing the sudden silence would last longer than three names.

I heard a whistle once, but instead of the police coming to arrest obnoxious guests, it was a mom who wasn’t about to sacrifice her tonsils to the cause but needed to make sure her presence was acknowledged.

At the end of the ceremony, we were all told very specifically how to exit the field and where to meet our grads. I held onto my chair and braced. The very moment tassels turned, the audience surged like a tsunami and met the incoming wave of grads, crashing together in a mindless smash-up of humanity.

Our family had the back of the stadium to ourselves as we hugged and smiled and snapped a couple of photos.

We casually strolled to the cars, drove home without a trace of traffic, and yes, had a wonderful after-party full of family, friends and fun.

Far be it from me to defy the tradition of ages.

If I noticed the solitary man in the tailored suit and dark glasses, a wry half-smile on his face, I certainly didn’t make eye contact.

When the Cat’s Away…

Once a year I hop in the car and drive away for a weekend with my girlfriends in Palm Springs. It’s becoming a tradition that I could really get behind. It satisfies those pesky feelings that come around once in a while that whisper, “RUN. Run now. They won’t catch you. Someone else can do the dishes.”

It’s nice to turn to them and answer, “Yes, of course. It’s just that I’m so busy right now. I’ll tell you what…next May we’ll run away to a place where we will never do dishes, clean, cook, or run laundry. Ever. OK?” And then I get on with my day.

I get mixed reactions to my weekend away from the family. Hubby supports it, inasmuch as he is thinking to himself, “Self,” he thinks, “this is the weekend where I won’t do dishes, clean, cook, or run laundry! Awesome.”

The daughters are thinking, “Mom is so lucky! Why can’t I go too? I’m a girl! Please, please, please don’t leave us with three males of the species!”

The sons are thinking, “Dad’s gonna be in charge. That means hotdogs and pizza for dinner and random adventures that we will always be running late for. Awesome!”

All I am thinking on the day before I leave is, “The laundry is completely caught up, the kitchen is clean and a pre-made dinner is in the freezer. I’ve signed all the school papers and left reminders on the calendar for the weekend for everybody. I’m packed, there’s gas in the car, directions on the GPS, and every cell phone here has my number in it.”

Not that they need it. Mine is the only one that all of them have memorized.

Never would I have attempted this in the younger years. You don’t leave diapers to chance. The kids are all old enough to forage for food in the kitchen if abandoned to their fate. No one will accidentally leave a stove burner on. At least not for long. The strange smell in the house should alert people.


This is the part where I force myself to take a mental detour into a happy place and sit there on time out for a reality check: the house will not burn down, a child will not lose a body part, no one is getting sick; everyone will be safe, fed, and happy until Mom comes home.

It’s only two days.

Palm Springs is lovely in May. Warm poolside weather, funny movies on the telly, books and magazines, maid service and restaurant meals. Sleeping in as long as you want is a treat so rare, only a mom could fully appreciate it. It’s what we do after a night of sitting in the spa, drinking margaritas, star gazing and talking the night away.

A decadent game we play once in a while is “doing nothing”: you settle down in a comfy chair with a wonderful view, and…do absolutely nothing. Except smile.

It makes us uneasy after five minutes or so, but it’s fun practice.

On the drive home, we decide to ease our way back into the flow of things with side trips to massive shopping malls. Hunting down a good bargain gets our head back in the game, so to speak.

And a good thing too, because as soon as I pulled up to my house, my instincts kicked in to full alert.

The garage door was open but no one was around. Hm. I walked into the house, rolling my red carry-on behind me. I came full stop in the middle of what used to be my living room.

Couches and tables were pushed along the walls, cushions piled up in drifts. Heaps of clothing here and there suggested closets had been sick at some point. There were Legos in the potted plants. Empty cups, half empty soda bottles, plates of crumbs and a trail of skittles led to a kitchen of greasy countertops and a truly exciting refrigerator full of leftovers. Empty pizza boxes stacked in a corner. Candy spilled out of opened bags like little lava flows.

The bodies of my family were draped over furniture, trapped in suspended animation. Only their eyes moved as they followed my speechless tour around the house.

I stopped in front of the Hubby. He smiled faintly.

“Why hello!” he said, clearing his throat, “I didn’t know you were coming home so early.”

My daughter called out softly from her place on the floor, “We had so many people over here!”

“We went swimming and shopping and watched movies all night!” bragged a son from behind a couch.

“Um,” was what I managed to say.

“We’ve already been cleaning for a couple of hours,” said Hubby, sensing the direction of my thoughts, “it looks pretty good now.”

After unpacking, I rolled up my sleeves and stepped back into the fast moving rhythm of making a house a home. I knew the steps by heart.

It was good to be back.

Sprouting Off

I wrote this one up when I was going to plant my garden and realized all I have are a few pots to play in. So naturally, micro-gardening came up. People have been growing their own sprouts forever. If I were going to play with it, I would be hard pressed deciding whether to use a mason jar or a chia pet. I would choose my seeds based on how pretty they would look on display.

You can have your own personal organic locally grown sprouts in a jiffy.

You can buy the plastic mesh lids or circular metal mesh inserts either in stores or online, or substitute needlepoint canvas or any meshy nylon fabric like cheesecloth or pantyhose for over the jars.

Find the seed of your choice in health stores. Ask an employee to verify that the seed is suitable for sprouting. There are risks with sprouts that are considerably smaller when growing them yourself, involving bacterial contamination of the seed itself. When you buy it, ask about the source and/or treatment of the seed and make your decisions accordingly. Thoroughly cooking your sprouts (ie stir fry) should destroy any microbes you may still be worrying about.

Never use seed intended for planting, they may be treated with chemicals. My folks used to grow alfalfa and mung bean sprouts, but sunflower, wheat grass, beans, broccoli, chia and any little micro-greens would work.

After thoroughly cleaning your quart jar and lid, place 1-3 Tbsp of seed in the jar and cover with room temp water by over a couple inches to soak them.  Put the lid on. Set the jar in a dark cool place overnight. The seeds will expand.

In the morning, drain the jar, then re-fill with fresh cold water, swirl to rinse the seeds, and drain again. Do all of this through the mesh lid. The lid stays on until the process is complete.

Set the jar upside down in a dish rack or tipped in a bowl. See if you can get seeds to gently stick to the sides of your jar and spread out. The idea is to keep it drained but exposing the lid to allow fresh air to circulate in the jar. This helps prevent mold. If you think mold is growing, toss the seed and start over.

Set your jar somewhere in the kitchen where it will be exposed to daylight but not directly in the sun. This helps the sprouts “green up” by developing chlorophyll. Don’t let the jar get hot.

Rinse your jar out twice a day, maybe three if you feel the need. If you’re sprouting large seed like sunflowers, you want to remove the hulls on day two or three. If the mesh is large enough, your rinsing will automatically bring the hulls out through the lid. If you’re using mesh cloth, you can remove the lid and rinse the baby sprouts in a colander to swish them out. Be gentle. Broken sprouts die and will spoil.

Between two days and a week, your sprouts should be ready to eat. Taste test them if you’re not sure. They should not taste bitter. Remove the sprouts after a last rinse and let them air dry. Cut off what you want to eat, and store the rest in an airtight bag or container for up to a week in the fridge.

Sterilize your equipment and try a new seed variety next time!

Crunch time!

I (Almost) Left my Heart in San Francisco

As a mom of five children born over ten years, I know the feeling of being surrounded at all times with a busy brood of toddlers.  When you’ve got the house battened down, the gates up, the doors double-latched and the baby-proof outlet covers in place, you can be lulled into a sense of temporary security.  You may or may not be able to take your eyes off them for a moment to use the toilet.  Maybe some will have to come with you.

Maybe you’d better leave the door wide open, just in case.

Knowing my distractible forgetful self, I spent every move of our day doing headcounts.  The numbers may have changed over the years, but the routine stayed faithful.  If we went from playing outside to coming in for bath time, we counted heads.  If we are going to the park, line up for headcounts.  As a matter of fact, line up your shoes, hats, and water bottles for a count.  We moved in a herd, and if one kid needed something, we all just lined up and got tended together.  Call me obsessive if you must, but we never lost a kid.

Until him.

When I tell you that if he had been my first, he would also have been my last, I tell you the truth.  If I had not already had four children, enough to know exactly what I was doing, my dear fifth-born would have broken me.  The poor child had inherited my ADD from birth.  While other children nursed calmly, he could not stay focused more than five minutes or so before wondering if he were missing something.  Of course, surrounded by siblings, he was missing things, but a newborn should not be thinking about that quite yet.

I’m explaining up front so that my guilt level doesn’t rise as I confess my story.

This was my only child to break an arm, lose teeth in a living room rumpus, get a concussion, and, heaven help me, get lost on major family adventures, all before the age of 5. He is the most curious, enthusiastic, happy, people loving, gregarious boy you will ever meet.  And when the world is your oyster, you are never lost.  Perhaps your parents are lost, but you most certainly are not.

I spent a lot of my time during our trip to San Francisco head counting.  I did not go so far as to dress everyone in matching neon yellow shirts, although looking back I guess it wouldn’t have hurt anything but our dignity.  The kids rode the trolley cars and toured the city, playing in parks and enjoying the views.  Pier 21 was bustling and a big lure was the sea lions congregating in the water along the edge.  We are animal lovers and many photos were taken.

It wasn’t until all the way around to the other side that my headcount came up short.  You can guess who was AWOL.  Truly when people are massed and moving, your family suddenly looks like everyone else’s family.  We regrouped and spread out to find him.  Those ten minutes were an eternity.  I stayed put like every mom says to a lost child, so that you can be found.  There was always the chance he would find me.  There was also the real possibility my legs couldn’t move as they turned into jelly with terror.

I’m not sure I was breathing.

Dad found him back on the other side of the pier. Our little boy was enjoying an ice cream with a policeman and had not a care in the world.  Apparently he stayed behind to watch the sea lions and then wandered along enjoying himself.  He was the only calm person involved in the story and I have to say we rather hovered over him for days afterwards.

Yes, there are mothers who tether their children and I was happy when the kids could be belted into a stroller.  If only the older four had not lulled me into thinking we had no need of such things.  Even holding mom’s hand was considered sissy stuff, so the head counting was my way of invisible tethering, of ticking off the fingers, of collecting all of my precious children in one hand.

I have since discovered ways of making sure the kids, now older, will watch for me, peering over the crowd to find the mom who has something they desperately want….ice cream.  For the older ones, cash works.  They can just count my head, an easy number of one, as their precious thing to track.

A Box of Beaks

The birds around our home are losing their minds. I understand that the birds and the bees go bananas in the springtime but this level of intense courtship just seems a little too desperate.

Owls are hooting all night long, and our mockingbird starts his scales around two am and doesn’t stop until past noon. The red headed woodpeckers are fighting over territory space. Sweet little hummingbirds are dueling to the death in my purple duranta flowers. Our red shouldered hawks finally stopped screeching all day and are setting up house in the oaks. Flocks of crows are raucously chasing the hawks.

We have birds nesting in every available house top corner and running daily nonstop insect reconnaissance flights.

The noise is unreal.

Although I firmly shut the windows and retreated from the mayhem, spring decided to ooze in under the door and get right up in my face anyway.

My soft-hearted daughter rescued a four-pack of baby sparrows and brought them home in a box.

While waiting for her train, she watched employees at the depot go systematically along the path clearing out all the birds’ nests and cleaning up trash in general. They didn’t have the heart to sweep the baby birds into the rubbish bin, so they left them there on the sidewalk, fluffy and dazed.

And trusting. With great big Bambi eyes…….

No. Wait.

They have great big beaks. Beaks that open wide and chirp loudly when you make eye contact with them.

The pet store would not take them in, but she was able to get a supply of baby bird food and a container of meal-worms and instructions.

Once they were settled in at my daughter’s bed and breakfast resort, aka her dresser, reality set in. For me. My daughter, of course, goes to school and works full time.

“You’re gonna make an excellent Gramma!” encouraged my daughter as she started to sidle out the door.

And then she was gone. And I was left to serve meal-worm sushi rolls to four hungry chicks every 45 minutes…




They sprouted feathers right before my eyes and no doubt they would be flying within a week. The biggest one practically jumped out of the box at feeding time. The littlest guy needed frequent naps. I was never so glad to see the sun go down. I had a talk with my girl when she got home.

The next day she sat sadly in the car with her fluffy little wards, heading for the wildlife refuge center 20 miles away.

They gave her a number to call for progress reports, if she wanted to follow up on their fledging. As she had already named them and promised them each a pony if they came back to visit someday, she did.

She still carries a little resentment about my lack of grandparenting enthusiasm.

If I said it once, I’ve said it a million times.

I will be retiring to Tahiti. They can Skype me. But they can’t reach me.

Fireworks on the Homefront

I’m dusting around the room with my trusty feathery duster and not really paying attention because there are so many voices in my head, all discussing which things should be at the top of which lists, which is important when you’re a list maker.  Then my eyes actually focus on the object at hand. It’s a silver desk bell. You tap the button on top to “ding” it, like in a hotel lobby or old-school diner when your order is ready for pick-up. So I stop and ding it.

This makes me happy because it reminds me of when I bought it. I had five kids in three schools and you can safely imagine the amount of daily chaos around the house.

I was always coming up with different ideas for ways to get my kids’ attention. Yelling for a particular child did not turn out well. First of all, I needed to call out the correct name.

“Mm, Han, Cay, J..” I would sputter, while stirring spaghetti sauce, “kid number four!” I finally scream, hoping for the best, “Child! Where are you?!”

When I volunteered in a classroom, learning the names of students was nigh impossible for me. It took all year and then I had to start over with a new batch. I was reduced to calling out, “OK, you in the blue stripes, your turn on the electric keyboard!”

Of course, this was a fun activity and anyone remotely wearing a blue striped top was stepping over the heads of other students to get to me as fast as possible.

Not so at home. A child could be summoned for many reasons, and most of them involved an activity that could not by a long stretch be labeled “fun”. My kids knew whatever they were currently involved with, from playing with matchbox cars to picking their nose, it was way more exciting than whatever mom was going to tell them.

Didn’t they know that by the time I had the correct child actually respond and arrive in my presence that my question or command would be completely gone? Yes. Yes, they did.

The child will stand there looking innocent, wondering why mom felt the need to send three other children to summon him (“Mom wants you!  Now!”) while I frantically scan my last three working brain atoms for the thought they held not five minutes ago.

I decided many times that it was not okay to be constantly yelling from across the house for some random person. It wasn’t all that big of a house. Parenting manuals will tell you that it is so much more effective and bonding to walk to the child, kneel down at his eye level and quietly explain what you need. This brings the volume in a home down several decibels and sets a good example.

Excuse me while I laugh so hard my stomach hurts. This is not humanly possible unless you are working in a day care and are getting paid to do nothing else but stare soulfully into a child’s eyes while he is completely ignoring you. You can speak softly for hours. This kid is not going to hear you.

I tried the old, “Speak softly, carry a big stick” routine.

But the little buggers heard me coming and ran.

No one who joined us for dinners over the years could understand why my children all spoke so loudly. Even one on one, it was like they were sure no one was listening unless they put in maximum velocity.

The little silver bell was supposed to fix this. If I “ding” the bell once, it meant I was calling child number one, the firstborn.  The one mature enough to listen for such subtle summons. Two dings meant child number two, and so on. It was supposed to be obvious that five dings, which sounds rather frantic, meant the lastborn, no real counting of dings required.

Just show up when it sounds like mom is playing the maracas on the dinger.

Okay, now my stomach is really hurting. Make it stop. Yes, yes, shades of von Trapp.

Today I use a completely different tack. I just lunge for the nearest warm body and make it do whatever needs doing at the moment. Carpe diem. “Sieze the kid.” Also saves me from looking completely bewildered all day long. Makes me look competent and efficient.

They give me a wide berth.

I thought about claiming a Greek or maybe Italian heritage. But let’s face it. We’re just birds of a feather yelling together.

When you see me burst into laughter while dusting, now you are in on the joke.

And even when I’ve put my mom messages in writing (Swimsuit Edition much?), you can be assured that hundreds of people worldwide have instantly gotten the memo…and that my own children are steadfastly not listening to a word of it.

Car Campaigns Part 2

We slowly sat down at the round table for a Summit Meeting with the Opposition. I kept my shades on. No use letting them see the whites of my eyes. Hubby was perspiring freely, but his turban hid it well.

“Just start with your name,” I whispered to him.

The car dealership manager leaned back in his leather armchair. He held a pen which he clicked over and over, like a ticking time bomb. Only the tightness around his eyes showed the tension that his large smile was attempting to dissipate.

We had been slowly wearing down our target over the last couple of weeks.

We settled on this car quickly and then once in a while we’d go over and ask to test drive it. Then we’d slowly circle the car, attempting to find defects. Sometimes we’d open every single door and inspect hinges. We used a penny to check the tire treads. We sat in all the seats then asked if there were more. Then we made phone calls at non-business hours on his private cell phone (hey, he gave it to us) and asked more questions. We made low offers that he laughed at.

And then countered the next day.

You can’t just go in and buy a car. You have to feint and then retreat. There’s reconnaissance patrols and shock tactics.  And when all else fails, you pull a ‘Panama’. Don’t ask.

You don’t smell victory until the salesman is willing to lower his price enough to get rid of you.

“Will you be financing or paying cash?”

The manager had a few tactics of his own to maneuver with.

He sent someone out to bring our car to the front.  Forty minutes passed, and as we signed the last of the treaties, the someone returned, nervously wringing his hands and bowing frequently to the manager, the buyers, and the doors.

“What is it Z?” asked the manager.

“Oh sir, I am so sorry, I am so embarrassed,” the minion began, “but we cannot seem to locate the vehicle. We searched all of the neighboring car lots. It’s vanished sir!”

Everyone in the room paused for a beat. And then all of the negotiations were reopened.

The manager stood up. “It’s not possible!”

Hubby stood up. “What in the world is this nonsense?!”

Manager: “Sir, could I interest you in this car over here? It’s a better car, and it’s red. Same price!”

Hubby: “Absolutely not! We were very clear in opening arguments that red is unacceptable!”

Manager: “Yes sir, yes sir. However, we have scouts searching all corners of the globe as we speak. You must have patience!”

Hubby: “What kind of people sell you something and then it just vanishes into thin air? It wasn’t even the perfect car. We wanted one with a roof rack! We drove all this way and now we are entirely deceived!”

The minion returned but stayed well out of the manager’s reach. “Sirs,” he said, “the car has been found. One of our other managers decided to drive it home for the weekend and will not be returning it tonight.”

Then he fled the scene.

The manager was pacing. Hubby stood with fists on the desktop. I sat watching with steely calm.

“There!” the manager cried, “The vehicle is located. I’ll tell you what! We shall bring it in, detail it for you, install a roof rack, and deliver it to your home.  I would not dream of asking you to drive here twice for our mistake! If you do not accept the vehicle delivery, I will personally shred all documentation, and you are under no obligation whatsoever!”

Foreboding sat thick in the room like haze. I could see both parties were mentally circling, looking for the loopholes, the treachery, the possibility of an ambush in the parking lot.

Finally, Hubby agreed to the terms offered. We drove home in silence and waited for zero hour to arrive.

It was a tight call whether we would achieve triumph or forfeit all attempts at diplomacy.

Either way, someone somewhere was going to lose his job…or his head.