Zen and the Art of Biking

Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 19, 2015 in Motherhood, Musings

I went for a bike ride today.

Not the sort of bike ride one expects a grownup to take. My bike lacks the pretension of those slim competitive bicycles custom-outfitted with clip-on pedals and special seats.

No, my bike may as well have had rainbow-colored streamers that blow in the breeze and a wicker basket affixed with plastic daisies. Because me on a bike is less a studied grace and more of a frenetic race with the breeze. I had on old paint-splattered sweatpants (iPhone tucked into the waistband) and pedaled as though my very existence depended upon it.

My neighborhood is a continuous slope of hill. It appears gentle until you hike up on foot or strain against your bike gears. So I took my bike to the park around the corner, which was blessedly empty of people but flooded with sunlight.

I set out across the park on my $150 bike, pedaling until my knees turned weak and my leg muscles grew weary. The dizzying blue sky accentuated the green of the little manmade lake I rode beside and a flock of sitting geese eyed me with disinterest.

My 30-something-year-old self’s most fervent biking efforts don’t touch my 10-year-old self’s cycling endeavors, but as I whizzed through the woods, the sort of unburdened joy I felt as a child infused me.

I was a kid.

I have two kids. Someone, somewhere tasked me with keeping two small beings alive that, collectively, weigh less than 70 pounds. Kids can be exhausting, but you have to give them credit: they don’t look back toward the past often; nor do they peer into the future.

That’s partially because they don’t have to, but mostly because they’re kids who are unburdened by all that life will eventually throw at them as they age.

We’re told that aging is graceful–the laugh lines, the gray hair, the stretch marks. “Embrace them!” shout the masses. And then, in the same breath—or more often, on the same magazine cover—”Look young by trying these 3 tricks! Regain your energy! Cover up those crow’s feet!”

If I’ve earned those stripes, it also means I’ve born the heartache, the worry, the anxiety, the fear, the sadness that goes with them. Growing up means I don’t have the luxury of being unburdened.

As a kid, I climbed trees, rolled down grassy hills until I couldn’t stand, and ran as far as I could, never really getting out of breath. I lived on the wind, stretched out in the snow even when my hands froze, and jumped into bodies of water not worrying about where I’d land.

These days are mostly clogged with bills, a barrage of emails, school events, a sick kid, job stressors, what to make for dinner, dying grandparents and the like.

Can I ever regain the freedom of being a child? I don’t think so. Not fully, at least.

But there on my bike in the park, I pedaled and pedaled, and the world flew by at breakneck speed as the wind whistled in my ears. And for a moment or two, I felt that peace. Then I headed back home—back to the deadlines, the heaps of laundry, the schedules—and pulled on a respectable pair of pants. If I’m going to accept the burdens, I’ll need to do it without the frumpiness of sweatpants … and maybe with a hint of lipstick–to pretend at least, I’ve got his grownup thing down pat….



The Realities of My Media Dream Job: Yikes, Watch Out for That Cow Pie!

Posted by Claire Vath on Mar 11, 2015 in Success Guide, Writer Rants

Once upon a time, my vision of becoming a writer involved jetting off to white sugar beaches and surveying the Paris skyline from the vantage point of the Eiffel Tower. Then I became an editor at a farm magazine. While I spent a good portion of my career there tanning from the glare of my computer screen, I did get to do some travel. And, well, let’s just say my expectations were managed.

Expectation: Jetting off to places like New York, Paris, or some exotic island.
Reality: Paris, Texas; Texarkana, Ark.; and backroads Mississippi.

Expectation: Wearing fancy dresses and business suits while traveling.
Reality: Wearing jeans that can get mud on the butt or cow spit on the legs.

Expectation: Going to parties, perhaps on the beach, sipping champagne cocktails as the breeze blows through my hair.
Reality: Conferences where we eat barbecue or cheap Mexican food while learning the perils of being sucked into a grain bin. If the event is outside, bug spray is optional.

Expectation: Nice cars to escort me around.
Reality: Old trucks that smell like dirt, bumping through pastures and down gravel roads.

Expectation: Writing a story about the locals in a quaint city like Charleston.
Reality: Writing about some farmer taking me to the “bottomlands by the river.”

Expectation: High heels (which I did wear in the office.)
Reality: Ten-year-old Doc Martens that have seen their fair share of cow manure and hay—often mushed together.

Expectation: Well-groomed dogs lying at the entrance of some charming shop.
Reality: A farm dog with blood running down his face because he got in a fight with a neighboring farm dog.

Expectation: Manicured hands.
Reality: Hand licks from the sandpapery tongues of cows.

Expectation: Press releases from four-star resorts and spas.
Reality: E-mailed photos of a mobile semen lab for cows.

Expectation: Samples of new products in shops.
Reality: Sample patches of jeans from Dickies, along with the offer of a desk-side workshop tool demonstration.

Expectation: Coffee table books on architecture.
Reality: Farm office books on the joys of keeping farm animals and growing oats.

Expectation: Travel impediments like hurricanes or snowstorms.
Reality: Electric fences, unruly cattle, and machinery that can eat you to pieces.

Expectation: Flight itineraries to exciting locations.
Reality: A cow’s flight zone (basically how to herd them through a corral using their line of vision).

Expectation: Touring a family’s home and writing about the décor.
Reality: Touring a milking barn and commenting on the farm hands who are artificially inseminating cows. Said workers also are riding around on a golf cart painted like a cow, with semen tanks on it.

Expectation: Well-groomed business people.
Reality: Farmers wearing their names on their shirts.

Expectation: Interviewees waxing poetic about their homes.
Reality: Interviewees complaining about commodity payments and corn prices.

Expectation: Walking down a cobblestone-lined street having just drunk a cup of coffee.
Reality: Sweating off the morning’s caffeine while wandering down a row of corn, trying not to get a paper cut on the leaves, and watching out for frogs.

Expectation: The latest products to review.
Reality: The latest herbicides and fertilizer brands.

Expectation: Gift boxes full of gourmet food.
Reality: A 50-pound bag of specialty horse feed.

So it’s not all wine and roses (okay, not even close), but I’ve perched on the viewing deck of the Eiffel Tower before (unrelated to work), camera aimed at the city below. And while trips like that are indeed a dream, walking through a pasture matching strides with a farmer responsible for nourishing the country is a different kind of dream. And listening to their stories while overlooking a sun-baked field of fluttering cornstalks, it’s easy to forget about that sandy beach. It’s a different job, sure, but a reality and a privilege I wouldn’t trade for anything.


Ten Things I’d Never Do If I Weren’t a Parent

Posted by Claire Vath on Feb 4, 2015 in Motherhood

My children started school this year. A few mornings a week only, but still. It’s something. So naturally, the end of week No. 1 of school brought with it a cold that spread—like the lice the school has been warning us about, except less gross—first to my daughter, then to my son, to my husband, and, of course, to me.

It’s 4 p.m. on a Monday. Both my kids are in last night’s pajama tops and underwear. I’m still in pajamas and a robe. Kleenex litters every surface of my house, and dishes are piling up. I have a laundry list of things that need to be done (and a mountain of laundry on my sofa), but between my cold and the constant wiping of little runny noses, my energy is zapped.

It’s all incredibly glamorous, this life of being a parent. And it’s a lot of work. All this illness (and my lack of sleep) has me compiling a list of things I never anticipated I’d have to do when I decided to have children.

Here are my top 10. As usual, many involve bodily fluids because, as it turns out, parenting babies and toddlers is like 50% bodily fluids.

1) Pick boogers out of other people’s noses. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes once you dislodge something dried to the size of a raisin.

2) Suck snot out of a nose with a tube. Even my husband can’t quite stomach this one. It’s immensely gross, but also immensely gratifying.

3) Sleep on sheets that have been a little peed on. Because sometimes you’re just too tired to do the sheets right that second. Especially if the pee landed on your husband’s side of the bed.

4) Lift a baby’s diaper up to my nose. So I don’t have to bend down, of course, to determine its contents.

5) Stick a linty pacifier dug from the bottom of my purse in my mouth. Sometimes sanitizing wipes won’t do the trick.

6) Bribe waist-high people to be good in stores. I always assumed I was above bribery… until I had to take two children grocery shopping.

7) Reason with a toddler. It’s a losing battle, but I continue to wage useless wars … just in case.

8) Use the TV to babysit the kids. Because sometimes I need a break. Sometimes I need to work. Sometimes they just. won’t. leave. me. alone.

9) Catch vomit in my bra. Yeah, that’s all I have to say.

10) Lose more sleep than I could possibly imagine. Three-and-a-half years and two children have made me lose more years of sleep than I ever knew was possible.



Internet Privacy: Um, No Such Thing….

Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 16, 2014 in Mothers and Daughters, Musings

Physical safety is something we talk a lot about. All too often there are the Hannah Grahams of the world that flash across our news screens. That physical safety—walking through a parking lot alone at night, accepting drinks from a stranger at a bar—those are things we know to be unsafe, unwise.

A more uncharted area is Internet safety.

Do a Google search on yourself. What pops up?

Do a Google search on your children. Or a Facebook search. Now what comes up?

I grew up in an age where scrawled-on cassette tapes were stacked near my boom box. An age where phones had actual dials. And where, if you wanted to record a song, you sat, waiting for it to play on the radio so you could press a button.

But technology has come a long way from see-through phones. It’s zipped past us more than we might ever have imagined.

Forget remembering when cell phones first became widely used. My children will never remember a time when there weren’t iPads and iPhones.

And all these invasions of privacy are right at your fingertips.

Everything is there, in big brother, in the cloud—wherever.

Love letters, passive aggressive Facebook statuses, “sexts,” embarrassing photos, major life announcements—all of these play out in the broader arena of a very powerful technology.

And the ramifications will be huge. If you don’t believe that—if you don’t accept that the technology has gotten away from us, leaving even the policy makers to scratch their heads—look at the hacking, constantly—of naked photos, of classified FBI information, of credit cards at Target, Home Depot, etc., etc. It’s slipping through our grasp faster than we’re able to hold on.

We carry cameras in our pockets. Super powered cameras that, with the click of a button, can broadcast a picture to millions of people. Most of those people are good people. Some aren’t. It’s a powerful weapon we yield, and we often yield it without much thought. We’ve become a society that craves recognition. Through likes. Through shares. The more people who “like” or star something, the more we feel a strange sort of validation, whether conscious or not.

But when it comes to our children, we haven’t asked them what’s OK to post. Haven’t consulted with them as to whether the picture we posted of them sitting on the potty for the first time or going to their first dance with their first high school boyfriend is acceptable. A cute picture of a child splashing in the tub? On Facebook. A child-shaming picture with a kid whose bad behavior is showcased to garner likes? We create a Tumblr about it. We add pictures of our kids, with their school logos emblazoned on their sweatshirts, with our location in our profile. Mommy bloggers pimp out their apple-cheeked kids posing for selfies in a pumpkin patch and garner ad clicks and fan girls.

We don’t feel we need their consent. They’re our children, after all—our creation—so, naturally, we know what’s best. But we leave a trail of breadcrumbs—digital files in our wake. Files that can be shared over and over for ours and others’ purposes—good or bad. We have yet to fully realize the effects of how a life exposed online can shape a person.

The Internet is still a relatively new frontier—a Wild West where things that you’d never let happen in reality may play out virtually.

You wouldn’t let your 6-year-old walk down a road alone at night. Or publicly share the location of your kids’  school with a convicted sex offender you meet in the mall.

But the reality is we live in a world of virtual reality, unwilling to fully realize the effects beyond our computer screen. So before you hit the “post” button, think about how far that information can be shared. It may mean the difference between safe or unsafe, life or death.



Filthy Jokes for David Sedaris and How to Scandalize Your Husband

Posted by Claire Vath on Sep 25, 2014 in Musings, Travel Archives

Long ago, my husband and I learned that a good way to survive a long road trip is to consume large portions of the time with audio books, and some of our favorites are by David Sedaris. If you haven’t read him, you should.

He’s a writer, playwright, brother of Amy Sedaris, “This American Life” commentator, and frequent guest on Letterman. Up until now, all his books have been memoirs about the oddities of his life and familial nuances.

And right before one of his last books was published, we got the opportunity to see him. I did my research beforehand and read an article saying that he was looking for filthy jokes on this particular book tour—“the filthier the better,” he was quoted as saying.

I pride myself on being an excellent researcher/master Googler. So playing the good journalist, I scoured the Internet for some jokes worthy of David Sedaris. I found two—one incredibly raunchy, the other one just kind of. I scrawled them on slips of paper and folded them up. My husband made it clear that I was not to give them to David Sedaris, but then, I hadn’t even told him what was on the paper.

We got to the book signing and were seventh in line. When the first person went up to meet him, David informed the guy he was collecting jokes and asked the guy for some. The guy fumbled for words, clearly thrown off by the request.

“See?” I turned, triumphantly, to my husband. “I told you! I’m giving him these jokes. Do you want one of mine?” I offered.

“No,” he said flatly.

When we got to the front of the line, David Sedaris, in his high-pitched, lispy voice asked if we had any jokes.

“I heard you were looking for jokes,” I said, “and so I brought you a few.” I handed him the slips of paper, and was rewarded with his signature gap-toothed smile.

“How’d you hear that?”

“I did my research,” I said.

And then, David Sedaris, one of my most favorite authors, unfolded my slips of paper and roared with laughter.

“This is one of the filthiest jokes I’ve seen,” he said.

 I blushed furiously. “I know.”

And then he read it out loud. I’m glad he did because I don’t think I could have. And my husband, who had not seen the jokes, looked at me incredulously. At this point, I think my face was as red as the sweater I was wearing.

So I did what any self-respecting woman would do: I put my hands on my protruding stomach and said, “I’m going to be someone’s mother soon!”

Here’s the dirty joke (thanks, Internet! Sorry, Mom!):

Question: Why are women like Kentucky Fried Chicken?
Answer: After you’ve finished with the thigh and breasts, all you have left is a greasy box to put your bone in.

The inscription in my copy of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk reads: “Thanks for that filthy joke. David Sedaris.”

“And years from now, when our child reads that, he’s going to ask what the filthy joke is,” my husband remarked.

David Sedaris laughed again and then proceeded to pull out a little green notebook—his personal joke book—and read us five or six jokes. He was every bit as droll as I’d hoped.

And then he, the great David Sedaris, inscribed a book to my husband, the proud—if not, at this point, a bit scandalized—father of the baby (now-3-year-old child) I was carrying at the time. The baby who, one day, will perhaps flip open a David Sedaris book and ask his mother what this unspeakable joke was…though if he is anything like his father, he will probably prefer not to know….


Surviving a Hostage Crisis and How It Applies to Parenting

Posted by Claire Vath on Jul 16, 2014 in Motherhood

Should you ever need a handy guide for surviving as a hostage, rest assured, Wikipedia has you covered. Complete with ominous cartoons involving a masked man with murderous rage in his eyes and his hand clapped over the captive’s mouth, the web site offers 20 “simple” steps to make it through being taken against your will.

I’ve never even gotten the wind knocked out of me—much less being abducted by a cartoon villian—but as I scrolled through Wikipedia’s tips, I realized just how applicable hostage-surviving tactics are to surviving parenting. I’m not going to give you 20 tips based on Wikipedia. That would be too easy, but here are a few of the highlights.

1) Regain Your Composure

Calm down! says Wikipedia. “Your adrenaline will be pumping, your heart will be pounding, and you’ll be terrified.” 

I spend most of my time terrified of parenting. Whether it’s worrying about Internet-viral stories of unvaccinated children poisoning the herd or BPA in my sippy cups, I try not to let the fear creep in. But it does. From the Internet. From a car that follows me too closely while I’m driving (I have kids in the backseat, for God’s sake!). From the other kid in the waiting room who’s holding a vomit bag. There are a million disastrous scenarios I envision on a daily basis. And those I can’t even begin to envision usually end up as a Facebook story that gets shared over and over (I’m looking at you, secondary drowning story).

2) Be Observant 

“Never let your guard down.” 

As I type this, I’m sitting in one room while my children remain suspiciously quiet in the other. I would go in and check them, but I don’t want to know who’s coloring on the wall at the moment.

However, when I see a child about to vomit, I remain vigilant. If anyone gets near me, I quickly back away … to avoid the vomit spray.

3) Keep a Survival Attitude 

“Be positive … the odds are with you … That said, you should prepare yourself for a long captivity. Some hostages have been held for years, but they kept a positive attitude, played their cards right, and were eventually freed. Take it one day at a time.” 

This needs no explanation. It’s Parenting 101.

4) Put Your Captor at Ease 

“No needles aren’t scary.” “Yes, vegetables are so delicious!” “Yes, school is fun!” “I love going to the dentist. So will you.”

We tell our children little white lies to make them believe what they need to.

“Cooperate within reason with your captor.” 

I usually fall prey to bribery in the grocery store. (Yes, if you’re quiet the whole trip, you can have a cookie or snack when we get in the car.)

5) Keep Your Dignity

This is easier said than done. Wikipedia advises us to remain “human” in the captor’s eyes. “Do not grovel, beg, or become hysterical. Try even not to cry. Do not challenge your abductor, but show him/her that you are worthy of respect.” 

Sometimes, after a long day of fussing, after the kids are in bed and I’m holding a glass of wine, I look in the mirror and wonder when I turned into a parent.

6) Try to Communicate with Other Captives

Luckily, my co-captive and I have the advantage of time on our side. “If you look out for each other and have others to talk to, your captivity will be easier to handle.

“Depending on the situation, your communication may have to be covert, and if you’re held for a long time you may develop codes and signals.”

After 15 years together, we have the knowing looks down pat.

7) Stay Mentally Active

As much fun as it is to be home all day with my children, if I don’t have adult activities and conversation, my brain turns to mush and I feel like the walls of my house are closing in on me. There are only so many times I can answer my daughter when she asks me what sound a dragon makes.

8) Blend In

This is my greatest triumph. The article advises you not to stand out to your captors, particularly when you’re being held among a group of other captives. As someone’s mom, I do my best to blend into the walls, the woodwork, anything. This works really well when anyone has a dirty diaper, needs to use the potty or needs a nose wiped. If I’m extremely stealthy, sometimes they run past me … to their dad… to ask him for help.

And, finally …

9) Try to Escape Only If the Time is Right 

Since it’s apparently frowned upon to go shopping while you’re alone and have small children napping upstairs, as soon as my husband is home from work, I volunteer for errands. The grocery store? Great! Pick up dry cleaning? A pleasure.








My High School Sweetheart…and the Onset of Parenthood

Posted by Claire Vath on Jun 12, 2014 in Fathers and Daughters, Relationships

I was 17 years old when I began dating my husband. At 17, you’re not thinking, “Wow, he’ll make a great dad to our future children.” No, you think plenty of other things … but not that.

At 17, we were still kids. But he was quick-witted, sharp, confident, and warm. Our relationship was soon time-tested when he moved away to college. Sure, it was only an hour-plus, but driving across the wide body of water separating us made the trip seem longer, the distance farther.

And then we both moved. Six hours from our hometown. Together in a new city to explore. The city we’ve now called our home for the better part of a decade. As he grew up with me, he became quieter, more thoughtful. The quick wit remained, but it surfaced less often as his responsibilities grew. Quietly, softly, the boy I had begun dating all those years ago became a man.

I became pregnant with our first child a few months shy of our five-year wedding anniversary.

There was elation, quickly replaced by the ho-hum slogging through of pregnancy—the Braxton-Hicks, the inability to eat anything that wasn’t bread, the relentless heartburn, the restless legs, the fatigue.

And while I talked to the baby in utero (mainly to say, “Please stop hiccuping so I can get some sleep”), my husband wasn’t quite as connected. He remained excited that we were creating life, sure, but he didn’t feel the need to physically connect with the baby yet, putting his hand on my stomach to feel the baby contort itself eel-like, leaving ripples across my skin.

Both of our children were born via C-section. One birth less dramatic than the other. The outcome of both, equally good: healthy, pink, squirmy. My husband had never even changed a diaper or even really held a baby before.

I was still immobilized the first time I watched him hold our children; my abdomen split open on the operating table. I lay there, looking up, as he gingerly cradled these babies we’d made, a crinkling smile behind the paper mask.

He looked our children in the eyes and greeted them as though he’d known them forever. They were a part of us, after all. The culmination of all those years of us growing, changing. Becoming the people our children would know.

It’s one thing to embrace becoming a father; another to rise to the challenge of fatherhood. With him, the fatherhood was instant.

He rose from bed before dawn to shush a wailing infant.

He kicked me out of the house when he came home from an exhausting day of work and told me to go do something while he tended to the baby.

On weekends, we split up dirty diaper duties.

He bottle-fed and sang and rocked.

I did all those things too. But I felt I was doing my duty as a martyred mother. I was home all day, breasts bulging with milk, diapers to change, tantrums to extinguish. All those things stoked my ire, fussing, yelling when I got bit (again) by a teething child or kicked.

But, he, the person I’ve known for half my life, prevails as the calm in the tumult. Rarely does he lose his temper. Patience and kindness are his currency with our kids, with me—even when we’re not deserving of it.

He’s a hard worker—both in the office and at home—but makes it a point to carve out time with the kids, even splitting up who gives them baths.

Our children see this. They intuit his unassuming love, his quiet tolerance, his kindness, and they are drawn to him.

Our daughter, this morning, was crying upstairs. I stood at the bottom of the steps and called up: “I’m coming to get you in a second!”

A little voice carried back down to me: “Where’s Daddy? I want him.”

As a teenager, I had a lust for romance, for passion, for all the things teenagers want in a relationship, or think they want. That was great then, and those things are still important, sure, but to say it has been a profound privilege to watch my high school boyfriend become a great father doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.

As partners, we are equal. As a father, he inspires me to be better, more patient.

Fatherhood comes in all forms. Some scream it from the top of the Facebook mountain. Others ignore the fact that half of their child comes from them. Others take a middle ground. Some, like my husband, embrace it, quietly, wholly.










The Kindness of Strangers…and Yes, It Matters

Posted by Claire Vath on May 27, 2014 in Motherhood, Musings, Relationships

“What’s your name?” the man asked me. We were in the Publix parking lot. I was hugely pregnant, waddling across the cold pavement toward my car, a basket full of groceries.
When I told him my name, he broke out in a huge, gap-toothed grin and reached for his back pocket. He pulled out a worn brown wallet, the creases of which matched the smile lines around his eyes. Rifling through the billfold, he pulled out a crinkled yellow Post-It note and showed it to me.“ This is my e-mail address,” he said. “And this,” he pointed, “is my password.” Written in all capital letters was the name “CLARABELL,” as though it were some poignant, divine intervention (or as though that were my name).

I smiled politely and nodded as though I understood the nature of this revelation.

“I just wanted to know your name to let you know that I’ll be praying for you, Claire. Prayin’ that you deliver a healthy baby.”

I looked at the green nametag on his shirt. He knew mine, after all. His name was Jimmy, and he had just bagged my groceries, asked me about my pregnancy, and walked me to my car. I don’t like accepting help from anyone, but now with a protruding stomach, people insisted upon it, and I’d given up arguing with them. As he walked me to my car, Jimmy told me about all the February birthdays in his family (I was due in February) and the dates of each family members’ birth.

And when he told me he’d be saying prayers for me, I thanked him profusely. If nothing else, that’s the kind of help I can get behind, particularly when I’m treading the uncharted waters of new motherhood.

“Everything will be great,” he promised. And looking at him—the sincerity in his eyes, the age lines of his face and his lop-sided grin—I believed him wholeheartedly.
“I hope so,” I agreed, getting into my car.

“Hope,” he nodding, pushing my empty basket back toward the store. “Ya gotta have hope.”

Nine mornings later, I awoke with faint contractions. Things moved swiftly thereafter. I was ushered into the hospital, then into a gown. I was given needles and catheters and ice chips. And then the baby’s heart rate began to drop. And things moved even more quickly. “We need to get him out now,” my OB informed me as a nurse slapped an oxygen mask on my face.

Tears swam in my eyes as I looked up at my husband, who squeezed my hand and nodded it was going to be okay.
Six minutes later in a roomful of people working at breakneck pace, my baby was pulled from my stomach. He was swollen and pale, and his head was a bit conical, but he was perfect.

Two days after I left the hospital, I went to the grocery store, wincing a bit from my tightening C-section stitches as I strolled the aisles for provisions. As I passed shoppers, I wanted to call out: “Do you know who I am? I’m someone’s mom!”

I had ceased to be just me anymore. The frenetic birth of this baby inexplicably changed who I was.

I looked for Jimmy while I was there, but I didn’t see him. And I didn’t see him again for many months after.

And then one day, there he was. He passed me by, looking straight at me, but there was no light of recognition on his face. Just a placid nod, an impersonal smile as we passed.
I felt a pit form in my stomach. He doesn’t remember me. I’m just one of the hundreds of customers passing him by.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, that Jimmy clearly had no recollection of our moment months back.

Non-memorable, maybe.

Maybe he’d changed. I certainly had.

So when he passed me, I didn’t say anything either. Just smiled back, remembered that one cold February day and the kindness and reassurance given by a man in a grocery store parking lot.


My New Orleans

Posted by Claire Vath on Apr 29, 2014 in Musings, Travel Archives

IMG_7675If, after my latest trip to New Orleans, someone had told me we were actors in a carefully-concocted movie script, it wouldn’t have surprised me.

There was the cemetery, the grass still woven together with silvery dew. Camera-toting tourists ambled through row upon row, looking. My husband and I were there with a sense of purpose, my skirt dragging through the soggy grass as we traipsed, passing crumbling facades of unkempt graves. People stacked one atop the other. Hundreds of them. Because when you are gone, what better way to rest eternally than sandwiched among bone-laced cement?

But it’s not a place to lament the dead, no. Rather, those left behind. The woman who Scotch-taped a Father’s Day card to her husband’s grave, perhaps; that’s the stuff that makes your heart hurt. But it’s what separates the living from the dead: the capacity to go on living and loving, despite…everything.

The last time I drove through the Lakeview district with my husband, things were apocalyptically different. But that was 2005. We are here now; it is eight years later, and things are humming with activity. The last time my husband saw his grandparents’ house, it was a piece of collateral after the storm to end all storms. The porch screen, tattered then, drooped like loose skin off the house. River mud clouded the warped wood floors in the living room and bled into carpets, and shards of glass were scattered around the furniture.

But things look better, so we park our car to survey the progress. The house looks much the same structurally, but it seems to sag a little less, breathed back into existence by coats of fresh paint, new landscaping and cheerful inhabitants.

So, death, life … then lunch. Isn’t that always the way here?

We’re swiftly revived by a chilled corn broth with fresh crabmeat and even fresher avocado. A pulpy peach bellini. Gin shaken with green chartreuse—just enough to make for a dreamy lunch. Pork belly BLT. Seasoned-to-perfection kobe burger.

IMG_7657Lunch is punctuated by flashes of blue—a bit of spectacle passing outside the restaurant. A fallen cop, his hearse, his comrades processing down the street. A reminder that while life hums within, afterlife isn’t that far away.

We finish our lunch and move on to our hotel.

“Have you been here before?” the woman at the check-in desk asks.

It would take too long to explain.

My husband’s family is from here? I spent most of college back and forth from here? My grandmother lived a few blocks from here? My kids want to read “Goodnight Nola” every night?

“No,” I say, fumbling over my words. “Well, yes, I guess. But it was a very long time ago.”

 “Well, you sure knew where our secret entrance was,” she says. “So welcome to New Orleans.”

If the blisters on my feet from the not-quite-broken-in sandals are any indication, we’ve walked miles so far. But we have more ground to cover.

Bourbon Street is still as gross as ever. People wearing Drunk 1 and Drunk 2 T-shirts and smiling like they’re original. Leathery old women wearing feather boas and drinking hand grenades. Silver-haired men with goatees and football jerseys sloshing beer on the ground as the beads clink around their necks.

The bartender at the local dive bar we pop into is busy topping off drinks with sickly sweet ginger-ale and doling out beer.

On the other side of the silver-haired drunk, a mid-fifties couple is sipping frozen Irish coffees, the house specialty. They’re clearly out-of-towners (So are we, I guess), and are clearly on their second or third drinks at 5 p.m.

“We’re here from up north visiting our daughter,” the woman tells a patron beside her. “She moved here just before Katrina and her husband is in the military.”

And there it is. We’ve clocked less than 30 minutes before the “K” word surfaced.

We move on.  Another local watering hole. We’ve been here before. It’s been awhile.

IMG_7430We take a seat at the bar, order two drinks. We are thirsty and eagerly drink the city in, mixed with a little whiskey. All of a sudden the door bangs open—or at least that’s how I like to recall it—and a six-plus-foot-tall … person half walks, half stumbles in. He’s wearing a straw-yellow wig, slightly askew, an S&M-style cowboy hat with a fleur-de-lis badge on it (what else?), a leather studded bikini and combat boots. Between the bikini pieces, a massive gut hangs, and he tromps straight to the back of the bar, pulls some dollars out of his bra and feeds them into the video poker machine.

We suck down our drinks and move on, eager to cover more ground.

Another street, another bar.

Two old men enter the bar. This is not the start of a joke. Or maybe it is. They are both old, old. As in 80 was years ago. Their pants are hoisted well above their waists. And they’re both wearing Orville Redenbacher-style hats. Except, even old Orville didn’t wear a skimmer hat like that. The result is more Double Mint twins—geriatric style. The 50-something bleach blondes with too-tight clothes, in-your-face jewelry and obnoxiously large Louis Vuitton bags.

The old men tap their feet to the music as they perhaps reminisce of a long bygone era. Or perhaps they’re just tapping their feet because they’re happy to be alive and may just get laid tonight. No matter. One of the women is getting to her very high-heeled feet. She’s walking toward the stage. I grab my husband’s arm. She gets up on stage and commandeers a microphone.

“Oh God,” my husband and I whisper to one another.

But it’s OK. She clearly knows the band. And she belts out Summertime in a surprisingly soulful, throaty timbre.

We breathe a sigh of relief. It’s okay. The living is easy, after all, here in the Big Easy. It’s summertime.

We leave after a bit, gasping for some nonhumid air when we hit the streets. But it is not to be. What meets our eyes, our ears, is the band of brass musicians playing the hell out of dented trombones and trumpets. They’re kids and they’re good. Oh, they’re great actually.

Same street, another bar. We’re ushered in by the tattooed hostess, sucking in the clean, refrigerator-cold air. We grab a table, a drink. And the musical cacophony washes over us. We split a smoky duck confit pizza and buttery yellow bursts of egg yolk coat our mouths. It is beyond delicious.

We are tired and full, and, frankly, we’re out of money. It’s time to call it a night.

So we’re herded back to the streetcar with all the other hot, tired, out-of-money tourists, and we go … clanging and swaying down the avenue until we lurch to our stop and step out again into the humid night under the resplendent oaks.

New Orleans  means something different to everyone. But for me, when I’m there—even if for only a night—it is home. And it’s good to be here again.







So You Want to Be a Parent? Here’s a Test….

Posted by Claire Vath on Mar 11, 2014 in Motherhood

Spoiler alert: If you plan on eating today—or ever again—don’t read this … unless you’re a parent or plan to become one.

I opened a diaper the other day (one attached to a child), and a baseball-size ball of poop rolled out … into my hand. Like any normal human would do, I shrieked. And then, like any mother would do, I calmly threw it away.

There should be a test, I thought, to determine whether one is really able to handle parenthood. I mean really. Babysitting does not count. I babysat all the time growing up … and I had three siblings. None of that prepared me in the slightest for having my own kids. I wasn’t privy to the late-night feedings or early-morning vomits that I am now.

So I’ve devised a test instead. You’re welcome, world. And it doesn’t involve staying up all night listening to crying (that’s the easy part!).

  1. Procure a baseball-size hunk of feces—human, animal, whatever. Hold it in your hand for one minute.
  2. Have a friend or spouse fill his or her mouth with fake blood and run to you screaming. Put your hand in the mouth and try to determine the source of bleeding.
  3. Dip your hand into a jar of peanut butter, and rub your hands together like you’re spreading on lotion. Run your hands along every upholstered surface in your house.
  4. Fill a few sippy cups with milk, and hide them like you would Easter eggs around the house, except upside-down. Set a reminder for 10 days, and then try to determine where they all are … and how to remove the smell from your house.  It doesn’t matter whether the cups are “leak-proof” or not. A cup filled with milk sitting upside-down on your carpet for 10 days will leak–guaranteed.
  5. Buy a bunch of children’s books and marvel at how 99.99% of them have animals in them. Understand that every creature—rhinoceros, duck, porcupine—in those books is 99.9999% easier to care for than caring for a child. Many books have different ideas about how an animal should sound. “Ribbit” in one book and “croak” in another don’t jive. Talk to your spouse about consistency in animal noises. It will save for confusion later. Also, agree on animal noises for animals that you don’t know. We’ve told ours that giraffes say “Munch crunch” as they eat leaves from a tree (and we stole that from a book). Because your kids will want to know.
  6.   Find a college bar, and hang out there until someone looks like they need to vomit. Stand 5 inches away from their face when it happens.
  7. Scoop a hunk of mud out of your yard and throw it in the tub. Now, take a cup and try to scoop out every piece of that mud as it breaks apart. This is what happens when someone poops in the tub. Poop (and probably mud) is harder to corral than a goldfish.
  8. Learn silly sounding words like Boppy and Bumbo and Mamaroo, Desitin and Boudreaux’s. Those are serious things.
  9. Get a regular screwdriver, and try to fix a pair of loose glasses. Those tiny screws? They’re in all baby toys/implements.  Bonus points if you put a recording of a screaming toddler on while doing this.
  10. Study Baywatch-era photos of Pamela Anderson. If you want a mid-90s rack like that, don’t nurse or pump for 8 hours. And, voila! A chest of rocks.

If you got through my little test, congratulations!

You are definitely fit to be parent.You are also fit to be a serial killer.



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