Waiting for One More Campfire

When you make a last-minute decision to go camping in the Poconos over Labor Day weekend, your options for renting a “rustic,” bare-bones cabin—perfect for camping when you don’t have an RV or tent—are likely to be limited. 

The cabin I booked is in a campground 20 miles east of Scranton. It’s an RV park, which, for those unfamiliar with campground lingo, means the facility caters to big rigs, offering campsites with water and electric hook-ups specifically for large RVs. Many of these sites are rented seasonally, allowing guests to leave their RVs set up at the campground for a month, a summer, or an entire year. 

RV campers who renew their rentals year after year often create full-blown vacation properties on their campsites, building decks, sheds, fences, and other structures around their rig to make it more homey. It’s amazing to see how much leisure some folks can cram into a single 20’ x 40’ outdoor space. 

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Avion La Grande boasts an elaborate addition and outdoor furnishings.

Music and laughter drift across the campground from most of these campsites. Others, however, are quiet this holiday weekend; the rigs occupying those sites are vacant or abandoned.

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American Star, an empty, green-eyed monster, appears to be gazing enviously at newer RVs down the road.

I find old, forgotten RVs—still emblazoned with the bold or whimsical names assigned by their manufacturers—fascinating and, though something of an eyesore, beautiful for what they once were.

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Someone went to great lengths to extend the life of this white-and-gold beauty, but plywood and glue couldn’t save it. The only name visible on its exterior is Layton.

Years or decades ago, families brought these RVs, shiny and new, to this campground and created their own little slice of heaven on a 20’ x 40’ campsite, 20 miles east of Scranton.

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Royal Voyager also had a large addition built around it.

What adventures did they have here? Where are they now? Why didn’t they take their rigs when they left? The RVs don’t know, but they’re still here, waiting for music and laughter to return around one more campfire.

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Goldenrod hugs the once formidable Invader.

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Revisiting “Leaving Las Vegas”

Sheryl Crow’s “Leaving Las Vegas” recently made its way back into my iTunes library after getting lost for several years due to an undetected syncing error. (Nothing reinforces the idea that I don’t know what I don’t know more than my tenuous grasp of technology.)

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The song, released in 1994 when I was 27 years old, was an instant favorite. It tells the story of a woman preparing to abandon her old, dead-end life and start fresh. The concept resonated with me 25 years ago when my own life was untethered and anything seemed possible. At age 51, however, “Leaving Las Vegas” leaves me with a very different feeling.

When I listen to the song now, I can’t seem to get beyond the last line of the lyrics, particularly the final three words, which almost disappear in the fade and might not even make it into a radio play:

I’m leaving Las Vegas
And I won’t be back
No I won’t be back
Not this time

Those last three words—“not this time”—cast “Leaving Las Vegas” in a completely different light. Those words, which for all I know could have been improvised when the song was recorded, make it clear that this isn’t the song of unbridled empowerment and rebirth it initially appears to be. “Not this time” suggests that this isn’t our disenchanted heroine’s first attempt at starting over. She has left Sin City before and, for whatever reason, returned to try to piece together a life on the Vegas strip. She’s leaving again, though. She’s trying again and this time, dammit, she’s going to make it work. 

I feel you, Sheryl Crow. I feel that line. At age 51, I understand that sense of hope undermined by past failure in a way I couldn’t at age 27. 

How many times in the last 25 years have I enthusiastically embarked on something new and vowed not to repeat past mistakes? Diets I started despite my insatiable appetite for carbs. Friendships I forged when others had turned toxic. Writing I submitted after receiving hundreds of rejections. Jobs I accepted knowing there are days when depression makes it virtually impossible to function. I keep trying, though. Sometimes, I am foiled by soft pretzels or bad brain chemistry, but sometimes, I place my bet on hope and make it work. 

“Leaving Las Vegas” has always had more than a hint of melancholy, but for me now, 25 years older and seasoned by both failure and success, the song’s quiet message of resilience plays at a higher decibel. “Life springs eternal on a gaudy neon street” and everywhere else. 

The Elephant Stays In the Room

Grown and FlownThis essay, an ode to my daughter’s childhood lovey, originally appeared in the digital publication Grown & Flown.

There’s a member of our family we don’t see much anymore. His absence isn’t due to illness or long distance or a falling out, but because he became…obsolete. This family member is Lala, the beloved childhood lovey of my youngest daughter and soon-to-be high school graduate, Ellie.

The powder blue elephant/blankie hybrid was originally a baby gift given to our older daughter, Cassie—the small holes in the fabric above his blanket binding are where her name had been embroidered—but she never really warmed up to him. Ellie, however, adored the soft plushie, and he quickly became her go-to source for comfort and companionship.

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His name is an abbreviation of what came out of her toddler mouth when she cried for the “elephant” at bedtime: “Elala! Elala!” I can still see two-year-old Ellie in the crib, rubbing Lala’s silky hem between her tiny fingers as she drifted off to sleep. Lala is well-worn now—his plump, stubby arms have been sewn back on numerous times—but he has held up nicely considering the amount of washing he required over the years. We had no backup elephant to appease our youngest child; no other plaything was a suitable substitute for the original, hand-me-down friend.

For nearly a decade, Lala was a prominent fixture in our home. Some of Ellie’s oldest friends might remember him from playdates or sleepovers in elementary school. (Or perhaps the elephant with bright blue eyes and a satin heart was hidden away during those visits because Ellie was afraid her friends would make fun of her for playing with a “baby toy.”)

Lala also accompanied us on family travels to the Bahamas, Canada, Connecticut, Delaware, England, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, and countless towns throughout our home state of Pennsylvania, including Hershey, where a sympathetic hotel staffer shipped him home after he was inadvertently left behind. My children will never allow me to forget the Christmas I “ruined” when I forgot to pack Lala for the annual overnight trip to my mother’s house. Ellie insisted we listen to every sad love song that came on the radio during the entire Christmas Eve car ride while she wept quietly in the back seat.

Ellie’s sadness over her separation from Lala that night reminded me of an emotional scene in Toy Story 2, the 1999 Pixar film that played on loop in our home when our children were young. In the scene, the character Jessie, a cowgirl doll, explains how she was once loved by a little girl named Emily who grew older, forgot about Jessie, and eventually gave her away in a box of old toys. Peak heartbreak is achieved as the melancholy song “When She Loved Me,” sung by Sarah McLachlan, plays over the montage of memories.

Every member of our household understands that certain songs cannot be played in my presence because I become overwhelmed by a crippling combination of emotions. “When She Loved Me” is one of those forbidden songs. Even hearing the tune hummed makes my eyes well up; I just can’t handle it. My disproportionate reaction to the song is a running joke for my kids: Let’s sing “When She Loved Me” and see if Mom cries again!

What my daughters fail to recognize is that it’s not the song’s wistful lyrics or Jessie’s devastating love story that leave me inconsolable, it’s what giving away that box of old toys represents: a young woman shedding the trappings of childhood as she becomes an adult. Emily no longer needed her best friend, Jessie, and while that confidence and maturity are good, natural parts of growing up, the idea of reaching the end of childhood and discarding someone who had been such an integral part of that life stage is too much for this old cowgirl to bear.

I have been informed that Lala will not be moving into the freshman dorm with Ellie this fall, and it was suggested I add him to a box of childhood mementos that’s collecting dust in our basement. I won’t do that. Instead, when Ellie leaves for college, Lala will take his rightful place at the head of her bed at home, a reclining reminder of who she was and what helped make her the person she is today. Though Lala has certainly earned a comfortable retirement from his duties as Ellie’s constant companion, his role as a symbol of her journey through childhood is still essential.

As the next scenes of my daughter’s movie unfold, I hope she carries with her the sureness and security that powder blue elephant gave her so long ago. I also hope she realizes that lyrics from that forbidden song describe the last 18 years of my life with her better than I ever could: “Everything was beautiful/Every hour we spent together, lives within my heart/And when she was sad, I was there to dry her tears/And when she was happy, so was I.”

An Open Letter to a Meticulous Vandal

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To the person who took the time to meticulously alter our “Hate Has No Home Here” yard sign: I’m not sure why you thought it was okay to vandalize our property or what you hoped to accomplish by changing the words on this sign.

Were you bothered by the phrasing of the original message? Was the word “hate” too strong for you? Did you want to depoliticize the sign, which stands at the edge of a high-traffic road beside to our house?

Maybe you think “Love Has A Home Here” is just a nicer way to say the same thing, but there is a subtle difference between the two phrases. While our family certainly has an abundance of love to share, that’s not the sentiment we intended to convey.

Our sign was installed in response to the overwhelmingly negative political climate in our country and some of the dispicable actions taken by its current administration. It’s a small gesture to show others that we don’t support those actions or condone hate in any form. We don’t need anyone to sugarcoat the message on our yard sign.

If you object, for whatever reason, to the statement “Hate Has No Home Here,” that’s okay—we’re all entitled to our opinions—but please know that if you choose to deface our sign again, we will replace it as often as necessary.

National Pie Day: A Tribute to Key Limes and Christy

This National Pie Day tribute to Key limes and my friend, Christy, was originally published in the blog Kate Just Ate.

img_3997I just ate Key lime pie.

What the hell is that? Wikipedia, my go-to resource for dubious information that I’m too lazy to fact-check, sums it up nicely: “Key lime pie is an American dessert made of Key lime juice, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk in a pie crust.”

Though I don’t generally condone fruit in, as, or around dessert (do NOT get me started on the affront that is putting raisins in anything, an abomination worthy of an independent post #triggered), I can usually handle it in custard form. I’m not a huge fan of Key lime pie, but it’s one of my husband’s favorites, and since my friends and family love to spoil my spouse, he got a homemade Key lime pie.

Why did I eat this? In the interest of full transparency, I must note that I did not just eat this pie. I actually made (and ate) the confection many years ago with help from my junior chefs, Cassie and Ellie, but today is National Pie Day and this was the only documented example I could think of to mark the occasion.

The pie was made using limes direct from Florida, sent to us by our friends Christy and Darryl in Orlando. They had a lime tree in their yard, so when I told Christy about Carl’s love of Key lime pie, she sent about five pounds of limes so we could make him one or ten (see? SPOILED!). I find it hard to justify making pie from scratch when I can always buy one that’s as good or better than homemade, and I really don’t eat a lot of pie. I’m Team Cake, though I realize I may be in the minority.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Christy, the catalyst for my old blog Kate Just Ate, and all the kooky gifts and food she gave our family over the years. When her limes arrived, I remember being very relieved that the box did not contain the live gecko lizards she was constantly threatening to send us. (Christy claimed it was a joke, but I have no doubt that if I had agreed to rehome the geckos, she would have found a way to get them here.) I still have a stuffed lizard Christy sent me on a shelf in my kitchen, and the rubber lizard she brought when she came to Philly with Darryl is on display in our china cabinet (because where else would it go?).

The limes, love, and laughter that went into this pie make my memories of it especially sweet, and I know that if Christy had her way, I’d be celebrating this National Pie Day with a fresh batch of citrus and gecko lizards, direct from Orlando.

Put Your Pride Aside and Embrace Forgiveness

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The Jewish High Holy Days are here and you know what that means! No? That’s okay!

I’m not a Jew—I’ve been married to a Jewish man for nearly 20 years and raised two kids in the Jewish faith—so let’s just assume, you know, for argument’s sake, that I actually had no idea what the High Holy Days were really all about until, say, three days ago. Here’s an overview from my go-to resource for all things Jewish:


The “ten days of repentance” or “the days of awe” include Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days in between, during which time Jews should meditate on the subject of the holidays and ask for forgiveness from anyone they have wronged. … It is held that, while judgment on each person is pronounced on Rosh Hashanah, it is not made absolute until Yom Kippur. The Ten Days are therefore an opportunity to mend one’s ways in order to alter the judgment in one’s favor. — Wikipedia


Forgiveness
? Sure, I’m down. Who can’t use some of that? Whatever your faith (or non-faith), I truly believe everyone could benefit from asking for and accepting—acceptance is super important, too—forgiveness, so maybe we should all give it a try. Heck, I’ll even get the ball rolling with a few of my own personal apologies.

To our rabbi: You may not know this, but you’re one of my favorite people. I am a wretched, sporadic congregant, yet you always seem happy to see me whenever I drag my pitiful self in for services. I’m sorry for consistently reminding you that I’m not Jewish whenever you invite me to participate in synagogue activities. I know you know; it just seems better to plead gentile than to say, “Man, I really do not want to do that.” Please just sign me up for something and tell me when to be there.

To my oldest daughter: I haven’t been entirely supportive of some of the decisions you’ve made over the last year, and it created some tension between us. I’m sorry I didn’t always trust you. You are a smart, strong young woman, and I know that in order to grow and mature, the choices you make must be yours, not mine. I should also mention that I’ve been relentlessly stalking all of your social media accounts since you left for college, and I hid some of your stuff while we were unpacking your dorm room so that you would have to contact me to find it. I’m sorry. I MISS YOU!

To my youngest daughter: Recently, you and I have had some ugly clashes over your schoolwork and I was not as patient or sensitive as I could have been. Your hippie father says I care too much about grades, which, coming from a high school English teacher, is funny because you know who else cares about grades? COLLEGE ADMISSIONS OFFICERS, THAT’S WHO. I’m sorry for giving a crap about your future and pushing you to live up to your potential. (Okay, this one admittedly needs some work.) I’m also sorry I finished all the tortilla chips. I have a problem with salty snacks.

To my husband: I haven’t been showering with regularity or, to be perfectly honest, accomplishing much of anything lately. I’ve been in kind of a funk (see abandonment and control issues above), cranky, and feeling somewhat adrift. I apologize for being so lame and I promise to get my act together soon. Thanks for serving as a buffer between our children and their neurotic mother. Also: I’m sorry I called you a hippie, but if she doesn’t apply herself now, she’ll end up living our basement forever.

After rereading this, I strongly suspect that some of us may not be making the final cut when absolute judgment rolls around on Yom Kippur, but there’s probably still hope for you, so put your pride aside and try embracing forgiveness during this Jewish holiday season. Shanah tovah, friends!

A Quiet Exploration or Why I Need to Shut My Cake Hole

Grown and FlownThis essay about my decision to talk less and listen more originally in the digital publication Grown & Flown.

I gave birth to my first child more than 18 years ago and it honestly feels as if I haven’t stopped talking since. Babbling to the baby, babbling about the baby, talking to the toddler, teaching the toddler to talk, pleading with the preschooler to stop talking for just five blissful minutes before my ears start to bleed, chatting with the child, preaching to the preteen, arguing with the adolescent. The perpetual prattle is exhausting. I’m utterly spent, and I think it may be time to explore a new state: quiet.

The concept isn’t entirely foreign. Quiet is how I started out, how I was before I had kids. I am naturally an introvert with limited extrovert capabilities. (There’s a sweet spot, between the first and second beer, when I’m chatty and hilarious before I quickly slip into brooding and drowsy.) Because I’m hard-wired for quiet and not a huge talker, I’ve always surrounded myself with outgoing people who can carry a conversation or at least provide me with plenty of runway for talking takeoff. Motherhood forced me out of my quiet comfort zone, and when I decided I never wanted to be the type of parent who answered a kid’s curious “Why?” with a lazy “I don’t know,” I really painted myself into a corner. Talking eventually became an irrepressible reflex, like breathing or finishing the entire sleeve of Oreos.

In addition to being a psychic drain, constant communication has caused some unpleasant behavioral side effects. I find myself talking over people during conversations and interrupting them with questions, a bad habit which may stem from the propensity to over-explain and repeat everything I developed in case my kids didn’t grasp what I said the first time. Ironically, over time, I somehow acquired that exact processing glitch: If I don’t understand something, I get stuck on it and can’t comprehend the rest of what’s being said or move forward in the conversation. My rude interjections are also the product of a nagging fear that I won’t be able to retain information that’s relevant to a conversation until the other person is done talking because my addled, middle-aged brain has trouble hanging onto that kind of detail while attempting to remember to pick up my kid after track practice, throw away that six-week-old quiche before my husband eats it, and call the vet about our vomiting dog.

I don’t think much will be missed if I cut down on the conversation because at this point, only about 60 percent of what I say actually makes sense and/or is of any value to anyone anyway. (I mean, do people really need to hear the specifics about how my meticulous system for unloading the dishwasher works or the reasons why I find Ice-T compelling as a detective—part of an elite squad—on SVU? No, they do not.) A solid 40 percent of my blather is superfluous and it is definitely time to just shut my cake hole.

Before I begin dialing down the discourse, however, I may need to prep my family so the diminished communication doesn’t get confused with a similar phenomenon that occurs when I’m super angry. Informal polling of my two children revealed that my rage-induced silent treatment is far more terrifying than the yelling that ensues when my husband is upset. I’m not looking to scare anyone or make a point, I just want to switch into energy saver mode and recharge a bit.

Yes, quiet will be a welcome respite, and if I’m not focused on talking, I can listen—really listen—for a change. In a state of quiet, without interruption, maybe I’ll notice my daughter working up the courage to admit that she hates track and wants to quit. Or hear my husband casually mention that he gave the rest of that quiche to the dog. Or detect the crackle of an Oreo package I thought I had sufficiently hidden in the pantry behind the oat bran. There’s no telling where my quiet exploration might lead, but it certainly sounds promising.