Monthly Archives: January 2021

The best text I received before 8:30 this morning

From my husband. Teachers have always been essential workers, and it’s nice to see those words being used to refer to them, to see that knowledge recognized and this event actuated. I hope that one day teachers will be on a pay scale commensurate with the importance of their career, but for right now it’s going to feel pretty great to watch this happen tomorrow. Talk about a shot in the arm!

I could cry with happiness. Also because I pulled a muscle cringe-laughing at the bit about 1778.

We need new nursery rhymes

Why are many nursery rhymes and lullabies so completely bizarre as to border on disturbing? I’ve mentioned “Humpty Dumpty”, “You are My Sunshine”, and “Rockabye Baby”, but what about “Jack and Jill”? They go to get some water, perhaps to help out their overburdened mother, and the most commonly known first verse ends with one kid’s broken head and the other falling down a hill. Then there’s “Little Miss Muffet”, whose arachnophobia prevents her from enjoying a nice bowl of curdled milk on a cozy perch. How about the dismemberment of those three blind mice? Did they deserve to have their tails amputated with a carving knife? Can the mice be blamed for running after the farmer’s wife, considering that they possessed no ability to see? Don’t even get me started on “It’s Raining; It’s Pouring”. I mean, is it really about an old man so concussed that he dies in his sleep, becomes paralyzed, or is at best bedridden? I could go on.

I think the worst one of all might be “Hush, Little Baby”. Think about the lyrics: the parent, patronizingly referring to himself in the third person, is telling the kid to be quiet while promising to buy her a mockingbird, of all things. It’s not overtly stated that this gift is intended as a bribe to elicit silence from the child, but because the two notions are so closely linked, and form a rhyming couplet, to boot, the inference is logical. I’m desperate for my children to go to bed when it’s that time, so I get the parent’s perspective, but it’s not a healthy habit to promise the expenditure of money to reward children for a few hours in which they are not speaking to me or needing anything from me. Wouldn’t the kid expect a new gift every night simply for doing what her body requires anyway? What a way to go broke. And as if this weren’t enough, the wheedling parent goes on to promise that if the bird is faulty, he’ll fix the problem by buying the kid a diamond ring. Ahem. A diamond ring signifies, at least in our culture, betrothal. Does this mean the parent is passive-aggressively hinting at some kind of Oedipal codependency? Even if not, it’s distressing to think that he would suggest buying another, much more lavish present, as a solution to having given a gift that underwhelms. And this cycle continues: the parent promises a mirror as a substitute for the ring if it turns out to be costume jewelry, a goat to replace the broken mirror, a cart complete with a bull to dry the child’s tears in the event that the goat proves indolent, a dog that the parent gets to name as a consolation prize for the overturned bull-drawn cart, and a brand-new cart with a horse this time if Rover doesn’t bark (who wants a barky dog anyway?!).

I mean, I appreciate a good contingency plan, and it’s nice to know that the parent has ideas about what will happen if things go awry with the gift that he’s intending to impart, but certainly there is a better way to handle this situation. I also think it’s strange that the parent would be so keen on purchasing a twittering bird and a barking dog when he’s basically beseeching his child to go mute. And why is he reinforcing the expectation that the gifts he’s offering will disappoint? Is he trying to raise a child ingrained with low expectations or inculcate the concept of planned obsolescence? If so, there’s definitely a more wholesome means to that end. I realize I’m passing judgment on this parent, so I tried to think objectively: maybe this kid’s love language is gifts, she has exactly one week to live, and these are the seven things she wants most in the world. Maybe the grieving parent knows that any poor parenting choices won’t matter at this point, and since he’s rich as a sultan, he wants to fulfill her final desires, as much to comfort himself as to bring her satisfaction. If this is the case, fine; I rescind my argument, and you should read no further.

If circumstances are other than those, I stand by my distaste for these lyrics. The rhyming isn’t even good enough to explain away the author’s choice of words. As far as how the ditty ends, after all of the promises the parent makes to the child, when the final gift, the horse and cart, fails to impress, he concludes by assuring the child that she is still the sweetest in town. I seriously doubt the veracity of this assertion because, if she’s as used to being parented the way that the song suggests, I’d expect more resemblance to Veruca Salt than Mother Theresa. Besides the fact that superlativizing (yes, I made that up) one’s child like this is intrinsically dangerous, it doesn’t even make sense that a child would be assuaged with the knowledge that she’s a real sweetheart after the solution to each disappointment leading up to that realization was the procurement of material possessions to fill the void left behind by each previous purchase that fell short in some way.

I guess it could be a whole lot worse. At least the parent is singing a goodnight to his child, as opposed to the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Now there’s a truly tragic household: the woman, having overbred to the point that she’d lost the ability to manage her family, restricts her children to a liquid diet and, instead of a lullaby at bedtime, delivers corporal punishment. Seriously, why hasn’t anyone reported Mother Goose to Child Protective Services by now?

Very sweet and a little salty

Summerly recently requested that I make banana bread, and when I mentioned this to my friend Kate, she suggested I use the mix from Trader Joe’s instead of my usual “from scratch” recipe. I picked up the mix that very afternoon, eager to accomplish the task using fewer ingredients and in less time, but instead of adding water per the instructions, I used four defrosted bananas with their liquid. The baking process yielded a deliciously odoriferous kitchen and a beautifully-textured loaf with a close crumb, the taste of which Summerly didn’t much like. She was a great sport about it, though, so I suggested that, because it required more time and work, she could help me make my old recipe on the weekend. We looked over the ingredient list and added plain yogurt to the online shopping order in preparation, and she commented, “This one will taste more better because we’re going to make it together.” Be still, my heart! But I couldn’t let the grammar flub go unremarked upon, so I hugged her and said, “I agree! But you mean it’ll taste better, not more better.” She shook her head. “No, Mommy. It’ll taste better because it’s the old recipe, which just tastes better. It’ll taste more better because of the ‘together’ part.” Well, you can’t argue with logic.

Fast forward a day or so, to a night when we were having sausages, latkes, and green beans for dinner. The kids asked for cinnamon to put on the leftover applesauce I’d served as an accompaniment to the latkes, and Summerly asked for more salt on her green beans. I handed over the seasonings so they could administer them, and after dinner I noticed that Summerly’s placemat was smattered with cinnamon on one side and salt on the other. I asked her to clean up her space, so she wiped the cinnamon into her hand the way I’d taught her and dumped it in the garbage. Then she she went back, looked directly at me, licked her fingertip, touched it to the salt, and licked her fingertip again. She repeated this motion about six times, until all of the salt was gone, her eyes locked on mine the whole time. I said nothing until she’d finished, but a moment later I reflected, just to be sure we were on the same page, “You just cleaned up the salt by eating it off your finger.” In an even, uninflected tone, she replied, “Of course I did. You know me.”

Bold move, kid.

Three birthdays

We have a box of musical greeting cards that I pull out for the kids every so often to try to justify the amount of money that was collectively spent (mostly by grandparents) on them over the years. You know the cards: those eight-dollar, three-dimensional, battery-operated contraptions that sometimes feature LED or motion components activated by the opening of the bifold or the pressing of a button. They’re at once delightfully surprising and highly irritating, particularly after a child repeats the action of opening the card or pressing said button more than, say, seventeen times in a row. Sometimes I wonder if our parents’ predilection for giving these to our kids is rooted in some unrealized impulse to repay us, their children, for all of the time we spent banging on overturned pots and pans with wooden spoons, our generation’s version of a musical greeting card.

Needless to say, our kids love these things, which somehow manage to last for years upon years and withstand a considerable amount of use and reuse and reuse and reuse. The other night, and I have no idea how this happened, a few of those cards somehow ended up on the second floor during the bedtime routine, and I’m sure you can imagine that this added some flavor to an already dynamic scene. I ran downstairs to grab something and, upon returning to our bedroom, found the three children on the loveseat, each with a musical birthday card, conducting what is surely one of the strangest symphonies in human history. They coordinated the opening of the cards to coincide with each other so that all three tinny, digitalized songs would play simultaneously. The songs were “Shining Star” (Earth, Wind and Fire), “We Will Rock You” (Queen), and a shrill original birthday ditty brought to us by the folks at Carlton Cards that features a dancing cupcake with a buzzy mechanism. The odd cacophony of these three strains overlaying each other with simultaneous audio had a perplexing effect: I was torn between wanting to silence two of the three so that I could focus on just one and actually hear its singular song and wanting to put my hands over my ears and scream, while also feeling tempted to just lie down and let the flood of noise wash over me, the confluence of all three tributaries sweeping me away to terminate at the mouth of its delta with a destination that was completely out of my control.

If you don’t have multiple children and wonder what it’s like, I suggest you try opening three musical cards playing different songs at the same time. That experience provides a pretty decent approximation.

Please hire me, Joe

If the next few years go as well as I hope they do, I might start campaigning for our new president’s reelection. I even have my platform slogan ready to go. It’s the answer to the question, “How can this country continue to survive?”

We have to keep a Biden.

Can’t you just see it in blue bubble letters on posterboard? It’s got the rhythm of a chant built already in, and the shtick is accessible even by those on whom nuance is easily lost. Who’s with me? #keepabiden2024

Will the real Alison Gulotta please stand up

Let me begin by saying that I love my Apple watch. I love being able to see the time and date and read emails and text messages with the flick of a wrist, I love that I can pair bluetooth headphones with it to listen to podcasts and music, and perhaps most of all I love being able to “ping” my phone when I lose track of it seventeen times a day. I even like being able to track my activity, or lack thereof, and when my watch tells me to “Breathe”, I actually do. One limitation of the technology, however, relates to the device’s inability to detect a person’s actual body position. Sometimes, I’ll be standing in the kitchen removing the seeds from a dozen pomegranates or peeling and slicing a bag full of Granny Smith apples that no one will eat anymore (more on that later) and feel a notification thrum on my wrist. When I check my watch, it tells me I need to stand up and move around so I can meet my “Stand” goal for the day. Well, especially on days when I feel like I can’t remember the sensation of sitting down, this is particularly irritating.

I took this picture (while standing) on the night before Thanksgiving after a day when I’d spent literally twelve hours standing in the kitchen. To be chastised by a digital garment is aggravating enough, but when that censure is unearned and undeserved, it feels like a personal affront to which the natural reaction is the desire for rebuttal. The only problem is that the device nagging you to do something you’d spent your entire daylong existence doing is deaf to your self-righteous cries of innocence. You want to set the record straight not to prove anything, exactly, but just because it’s the TRUTH. If a person walked into your house, saw you standing in the kitchen, and reminded you that it was time to stand up, you’d say, “I AM standing up! In fact, I’ve been standing up so long that a digital watch might think I’d flatlined!” and everyone would have a good chuckle. But no, there is no justice to be had where the watch is concerned. It’s wrong and it will never know. You can never shed light on the error of its judgment. There is no opportunity to plead not guilty and then win the case simply by point of fact. The watch is wrong but won’t ever be corrected.

Yes, this is very silly. I should not feel rebuked by a senseless preprogrammed microchip that’s just doing the best it can. But this feels like a metaphor for all of those moments in life when you ARE doing it; you’re doing exactly what someone or something is asking you to do, and you KNOW you’re doing it the right way, the best way you know how, even if they can’t tell, even if that knowledge is invisible to the eyes of the instant. When your child needs to take medicine and fights so hard you need to sit on his legs, hold his hands down with your knees and get two fingers between his teeth just so you can pour that purple liquid between them, that liquid that you remember loving as a child because artificial grape was your favorite, that’s when you feel like what you’re doing is wrong but you know it’s right. No one wants to force a child like this, but when there is no other way (you’ve tried everything from logic to bribery to flavor masking to distracting with a screen and several other methods in between), you have to do what’s best even if it doesn’t look or feel like it. “Treat your child with gentleness,” says the world, but sometimes being gentle in the long run requires administering an antibiotic in a way that’s fierce but fiercely necessary.

It makes me think of the poem “Epistemology” by Richard Wilbur, the second stanza of which is:

“We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.'”

It’s in those moments, when what we’re giving or doing is being met with displeasure, repudiation, or invalidation despite our certainty that the purpose is for some sake of betterment, that we must try to find ways to silence those naysaying voices. It’s in those moments, when the face value of our actions is so unrecognizable to the objective directing them, when what we’re doing is essential to an end that is wholly, deeply good, when the nature of our engagement bears little resemblance to the holistic cause or the effect of it, it’s hard to reconcile these things to ourselves, let alone to others. It’s in these moment when we have to summon the most trust in what we know is real and true, in our instincts, in our quintessential understanding of the order of things. So next time my watch tells me to stand up after I’ve been piping rosettes or sewing a costume or rolling out cookies or stripping thyme while standing for hours at the kitchen island, I’ll raise my wrist to my lips and whisper to it, “You are not true.” Sometimes, when the world tells you it’s time to stand up, it’s enough just to know that you already are.

My daughter, the archaeologist

The same night that I made the foolish choice to try to shower while all of my children were not only awake but also on the second floor of the house with me, I entered the hallway to see Summerly holding up the bra I had put in the hamper before my shower. She had it between her thumb and forefinger at arm’s length and was staring at it quizzically, head tilted to one side, as if it were an unidentified animal pelt or something partially on fire. She looked at me, started laughing, and said, “This looks like something the Ancient Greeks would wear!”

Ummm. Thank you?


Liam is going through a phase where he’s trying out different kinds of humor, much of which is influenced by his bedtime reading of Garfield comics, and he’s predictably met with mixed responses. Sometimes he’s inane and unbearably goofy but sometimes he’s downright hilarious, and we’re very clear about giving clear feedback to try to help him learn what is funny to other people based on things like personality, age, timing, and context. One night recently, he was making jokes that missed the mark completely. One example was his very own punchline to “Why did the chicken cross the road?”, which was “To get to Chick-Fil-A.” We all told him this was very silly but we didn’t think it was funny. Enter Arlo, who chimed in with, “Why did the turkey cross the road? To get to Turk-Fil-A!” Well, we positively cackled at that.

A few nights later, I was preparing for a shower in my bedroom, which also happens to be the clean laundry clearinghouse. Liam was supposed to be changing into pajamas and brushing his teeth, but he obviously thought this was the moment when he could wait no longer to find the one pair of underwear he wanted to wear despite the fact that he had a drawer full of them in his room, so he came in to scrabble through the laundry basket. I was wearing nothing but a long shirt, the bottom hem of which I pulled even farther down for modesty’s sake, and said, “Pardon my nudity, but you’re supposed to be getting ready in your room.” “Nudity?” he said, giggling and following me into the bathroom, pointer finger upraised. “You’re not nude! You’re on sale! See? You’re half off!”

Thank you very much, Jon Arbuckle.

Literally no mercy

One night I was helping Arlo floss his teeth before bed while perched atop the closed commode, and I noticed that the toilet paper roll was nearly bare. I asked Summerly if she would please look under her sink for a new roll, as I was sure that there was one in the cabinet. She opened the cabinet and said, “No, there isn’t one in there.” Now, I realize that this child is challenged when it comes to organization, tidiness, and finding things, even ones that are in plain sight, so I almost expected this. I took a deep breath and said, “Are you sure? I swear there’s one in there. Would you please look again?” She opened the cabinet again, scanned the interior, and closed it.

“Nope,” she said, absolutely deadpan. “There isn’t one.” I began to get annoyed. I was absolutely positive that I had unpacked an entire packet of toilet paper only a few nights earlier and stored the entirety of its contents–six rolls, at least–in that cabinet. No way had they gone through that much toilet paper within the space of a week. Or had they? Was one of them being irresponsibly profligate when it came to wiping? Why would they do that? Is someone experiencing OCD symptoms pertaining to toilet tissue? Should I be worried about the plumbing? What an enormous waste of money and resources! I loathe wasted money and resources! Haven’t I impressed this upon these people? Or maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I dreamed that I put toilet paper under there. Was I drunk? Could I have imagined doing that because I’ve done it so many times before? Was it a different sink and I’m just completely dissociating? Or is my daughter seriously unable to see a stack of toilet paper in a cabinet when there is nothing else except a cylinder of Lysol wipes under there? Should I be worried about her? I decided to try a third time. “Sweetie, either I’m losing my mind or there is some toilet paper in the cabinet after all. There should be several rolls stacked on the right side, closest to me.”

The girl looked me in the eyes and said with a complete poker face, “Oh, there are six rolls under there. But you asked if there was one.”

Kids are evil.

Which fish to fry

Of the more than ten jobs I’ve held, the one that shaped me most as a person was working as a server at an upscale restaurant downtown that shuttered a few years after I’d moved to New England and become a teacher. The name of the restaurant was OXO, and it was owned by a husband/wife power duo named John and Alice. John was the cutthroat chef de cuisine, and Alice, whom I revered, ran the front of the house as if it were a military unit. I could write pages upon pages about my years in their employ (actually, I already have, including lots of poetry, and no doubt I’ll write more on the subject), but suffice it to say that the influence of those years on my life even today, half a lifetime later, is substantial. Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons I wanted to name my child “Arlo” is that OXO, where my adult self took shape, was in many ways Alice’s restaurant.

As a lead server, I had the experience of interfacing with many interesting people, some of whom happened to be famous. One night, there was a large VIP booking in the back dining room, a section of the restaurant assigned to one of my server friends for the evening, and it turned out that the reservation was for Michael J. Fox, his wife, and about eight other people. It was a busy night, and my friend had gotten double-seated twice in thirty minutes, so she was in the weeds and told me while we were picking up cocktails that she was worried about making the VIP table wait to order dinner. I had a rare to medium rare spare minute and a whole lot of fangirl feelings, so I offered to take their order and bring it to the line.

Michael was sitting near Tracy Pollan, his stunning spouse, and they were both as lovely and blithely urbane in real life as they were onscreen. When I asked him what he’d like for an entrée, he responded with what sounded like “snapper” but could have just as easily been “salmon”. His speech was only mildly affected by Parkinson’s, but that one word got a little lost among the others, the final syllable swallowed up in the rest of the sentence. I cursed our menu for containing two fish options beginning with “s” and possessing the short “a” sound, but I made up my mind in the moment that there was absolutely no way I was going to ask him to repeat it. The man was so dignified, so elegant, so self-assured, and I refused to let that little hitch in his speech claim any power over the situation. So I left that space blank while I took the rest of the order and decided what to do.

Time was of the essence, and I knew that the kitchen would have my head if I were responsible for serving this icon the wrong dinner, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go back and ask him again. This man deserved to go out to a nice restaurant and order his own meal and not be misheard, Parkinson’s notwithstanding. As far as I was concerned, no diagnosis was going to mess with his right to feel successful as a communicator, at least on that night in that single exchange. I was in control here, and it somehow felt critical to me that he have the moment of ordering his dinner be just that–simple, effortless, uncomplicated. So little else is, particularly for people with a lifelong disease.

I decided to make a guess and suffer the consequences in the event that I’d chosen the wrong fish. I’d take the impassioned, scathing insults from the chefs, the chagrin from my fellow servers, the disappointment from Alice, the possible annoyance from Michael himself, the embarrassment I’d surely feel: I’d take it all. I steeled myself for a long second and then wrote “snapper” on my order ticket, hoping hard that our signature entrée, that delicate pan-seared filet enrobed in a potato crêpe and served with roasted pearl onions, lardons of bacon, and sautéed baby spinach, topped with a nest of ribboned fennel salad and dressed with lemon Mosto oil and 100-year old balsamic vinegar, was the one that he’d intended to order.

I suffered through the drink and appetizer hour, helping to clear their plates and then firing the entrées, waiting on my own tables by masquerading as myself while my stomach knotted to the point that I had to ask for a “white coffee” from my bartender friend, Karen (“white coffee”, for a reason I don’t remember, was code for a shot of Jägermeister in a coffee cup). When it was finally time to deliver dinner to the VIPs, I made sure that I was the one to carry the snapper; if it were wrong, I knew I’d be the one who’d need to fire an extra salmon on the fly, pay for the snapper out of my tips for the night, and face the fire that was sure to follow. After the women at the table had been served, I approached Michael, held out his plate and said, “the snapper for you, sir”, to which he nodded and said, “Yes, thank you.” I almost passed out with relief.

Anyone who has worked in fine dining will agree that the processes involved in delivering a plate of food to a guest are much more complicated and intricately interconnected than they might appear. Nothing is as simple as it seems to a guest who is always a guest, and frequently what guests don’t encounter (clumps in the sugar bowl, crumbs on the banquettes, water marks on the flatware, creases in the menu, empty water glasses, inconsistencies with the food, servers who don’t know answers to every question they might be asked, for example) take an enormous amount of effort with respect to observation, preparation, and maintenance. But more important, perhaps, are the unseen efforts involved in the interactions between guests and those whose job it is not only to meet their needs but to exceed expectations. The pressure is immense, and I feel very fortunate that I didn’t have to face the music by serving the wrong sea animal to a star of the silver screen. I’m not sure why it felt like a point of integrity for me to take that chance in an effort to avoid drawing attention to a moment when Parkinson’s tried to interrupt the one and only conversation I’d ever have with Michael J. Fox, but it felt like a chance I had to take. I very much doubt that he remembers his meal that night, but I’ll never forget the most memorable plate of snapper I ever set down, an emblem of the private risk involved in a person’s choice to preserve a moment for the sake of another who would never even know that the choice had existed. There is so much beauty in the world that we never even know about, and sometimes the fact that it bypasses perception renders it all the more beautiful. We must remember that.