How to Make a PB&J

I have heard that a frequent job interview question for engineers is to explain how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Although I will never be an engineer, I do know how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The first thing you should know is that there is not one way to make a PB&J. There is the way you make it for yourself when you are hungry and tired and you cannot think of anything else to eat. When that is the case, you make it quickly. You spread peanut butter haphazardly on a piece of bread, top it with jelly and then fold it in half. “I’ll just eat half a sandwich,” you think “then make something better.” But the truth is, once you start eating a peanut butter & jelly sandwich you realize there’s really nothing better and so you do it again, this time more carefully.

There is the way you make it when you are broke and busy and you stand at the sink eating first a spoonful of peanut butter, then a spoonful of jelly because you forgot to buy bread and you are trying to avoid going to the store until you get paid because there is too much else that you need. But for a minute, with that spoonful of peanut butter in your mouth, everything feels good.

There is the way you make it for your daughter who takes it every day for lunch, grades K-5. You take two pieces of cinnamon raisin bread and carefully spread the peanut butter on one piece and the jelly on the other and put it in a sandwich bag all while finding lost shoes, pencils, and mittens.

When you make a PB&J everyday, you and your kids begin to discuss opening a restaurant that only serves peanut butter and jelly. You decide to have different kinds of bread, different kinds of peanut butter, different kinds of jelly and toppings. Customers would be able to come in early and grab a bagged lunch on the way to work. One summer day you explain this plan to your friend, an art teacher. You are on the beach in back of his apartment and he lays out rocks to illustrate the store plan. He has long, curly hair and even though he has it tied back, as he always does, little pieces are still blowing in the wind. Just like your daughter’s. Your friend wants to know if you would cut the sandwiches made to order, and he says, “You could cut it across from top to bottom, or side to side, or corner to corner,” and your daughter says, “You mean diagonally?” And he laughs at himself for not thinking she’d know the word. Later she holds his hand as they walk up the stairs to the apartment, and it is rare for her to hold the hand of anyone but you. Then, that fall, he steps in front of a train and no one knows why. After that, when you make the sandwich you cut it diagonally, and think of the way his hair looked on the beach, just like a child’s and the way he laughed.

Sometimes, when your kids are little you make a peanut butter and jelly the normal way, only you use really good bread and you put it in the panini press because the thought of making dinner only to have it rejected is too much for you that day, but if you make it into a panini, it counts as hot food. Then, when they are older you still make it for dinner and pretend you’re nostalgic, but really, you just like it.

There is also the way you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a child who is really old enough to make their own sandwiches. First, you complain. You tell them that they really should make their own sandwich. You say this while taking out the bread and the jelly. Then, you spread the peanut butter all the way to the edge of the bread. You top it with jelly, not quite to the edge of the bread, because that would be too sweet. You cut the sandwich in half and hand it to the child on a plate. You spread the peanut butter and jelly just so because there is really not much else you can do for this child. They are at an age where nothing feels quite right and everything seems too hard. The child has told you that even their friends say that you make the best PB&J, because of course, you’ve made sandwiches for their friends. You know it’s probably not true. But sometimes you think maybe it is. Maybe if you make the sandwich just right, your child will feel loved and treasured. You think maybe if you make enough sandwiches, they’ll have what they need to get through the day, the week, being a teenager.

This is how you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

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Elon Musk Is Everyone’s Bad Boss

Once in my early 20s I quit a retail job because my boss called a mandatory staff meeting on an evening that I had a date. When I think back on it, I realize how privileged and possibly foolish it was. But also, I’m not mad about it. Announcing a last-minute mandatory meeting is a jerk thing to do. I didn’t want to stand for it. It doesn’t hurt that my boss did not actually fire me, or even yell at me, for missing the meeting.

I was thinking about that job recently because of Elon Musk. I haven’t been a big Twitter user in years, but like many people, I am fascinated by the situation at Twitter. I am following every mass firing and mass resignation and potential crisis as though it actually mattered in my life, and I think I know why.

Elon Musk reminds me of every bad boss I’ve ever had.

The boss who demanded things of workers without any awareness of how their financial situation differed from his own. The boss who thought he was a funny genius and thought that absolved him of actually listening to people. The boss who came in from the outside convinced they knew how to save the situation and made everything worse. The boss who let petty grudges guide his management decisions. The boss whose financial actions were misguided at best, illegal at worst.

The thing about all of these bosses is that nothing every happened to them. Good people left jobs they were good at to avoid them. Or, the bosses failed up into even better jobs where they caused more havoc. For so many of us, Elon Musk reminds of us of these bosses. We are watching and waiting because we hope that a bad boss might be made to pay.

The truth is that even if Twitter fails, Elon Musk will probably not lose as much as those who work there, or those who depend on it for their livelihood in other ways. But it will still feel good.

There are no leadership lessons to be learned from the Twitter fiasco. Managers who would attempt to lead the way Elon Musk does aren’t going to learn from this. But maybe, there are some worker lessons to be learned. Maybe one or two people will see the people who say no to Elon Musk and know that they can do so, too. Even if it’s just for a date.

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It Tolls for Thee

I did not have strong feelings when Queen Elizabeth II died. I understood the people who celebrated the end of the last remaining vestige of the British Empire. I understood the people who mourned the end of an era. But I did not have strong feelings of my own.

I do not believe in Monarchy as a form of government, but I don’t see a huge problem with it as a form of entertainment. Obviously, the idea that someone is better or more worthy because of their birth is a problem, but it also seems baked into us. Why else do we care about the children of celebrities? Why do so many people feel so strongly about their biological roots? Why are so many democratic-minded people members of The Queen of England was a celebrity for almost 100 years, and now she’s gone.

My own grandparents died in their 90s and there is something disorienting about having someone that old die. You almost forget that they can die. For almost a century someone survived. They survived two World Wars, Depressions (both Great and personal), deaths of loved ones, and miscarried children. In my grandparents’ case, they survived the complete destruction of their homelands. They survived crossing the ocean. They survived the systemic murders of their extended family members. It seems unbelievable that something as basic as old age could eventually kill someone who survived everything else.

About two weeks before the Queen died, a man I knew died. Actually, he wasn’t a man I knew. He had been a boy I once knew, or sort of knew. A guy I went to grade school and one year of middle school with. He had bright red hair, and something about him that in my memory was rough. Not mean, just rough. Once, in 8th grade, he and my best friend were at a party and they played spin the bottle and that was my best friend’s first French kiss. If you knew either of them, you would know how unlikely the kiss was.

He was a National Merit Semifinalist. He dropped out of high school before graduation. For years, that’s what I knew about him. He was a little thing I knew about my friend that other’s didn’t. He was a cautionary tale about what happens when someone is too smart and too bored.

When he died of a heart attack in his 50s, I learned that he had been a chef and then a lawyer. I learned that he knew a lot of the same people I know. When I wrote my best friend to tell her that he had died, we talked about the weirdness of it all. We do not know him. We can’t miss him, but we are still so sad that he died.

Somewhere in between this man’s death and the Queen’s death Luke Bell, one of my son’s favorite country singers, died. He was 32 years old. I know even less about Luke Bell than I do the man I once went to school with or the Queen of England. But I find myself thinking about him.

I think sometimes that we try to limit acceptable grief. We look askance at people who mourn a pop star or a problematic symbol of the 20th Century. When I taught English 101 my fellow grad students and I joked about the inevitable Freshman Paper about the death of their high school best friend and how it changed their life. When you talked to the students you found out that it wasn’t actually their best friend, as their papers claimed, it was a kid they barely knew. It was the real life equivalent of Scott on Beverly Hills 90210. As disorienting as it is to lose someone in their 90s, it is more so to lose a teenager, even someone you barely know. But because we have no language for losing an acquaintance, especially as a teen, these deaths take on a new meaning.

I have not thought about the red-haired boy in years, possibly decades. I have thought about him every day since I learned he died, and here I am, writing the equivalent of a Freshman English essay about it. I think I’m ok with that.

To quote John Donne, as any good English 101 student will, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

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Bearing Fruit

Once, when my grandfather was a little boy, he walked with his grandfather, the exquisitely named Shlomo Zalman, from one shtetl to the next. On the way there, Shlomo Zalman gave my grandfather half a banana and then carefully wrapped up the other half. On the way back, he gave him the other half.

Eighty years later, sitting in a condo in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, my grandfather still remembered this story. He didn’t remember where they were going, or why, but he remembered the sweetness of the fruit and his grandfather’s gift and so he told me the story. I do not know what color hair Shlomo Zalman had. I do not know what he thought about any political issues of the day, or even what his wife’s name was, but I know that he was the kind of man who, living in an Eastern European shtetl, would give his favorite grandchild an entire, rare banana.

I think about Shlomo Zalman as I mindlessly toss banana slices and blueberries into my oatmeal. I offer my daughter half a banana and she refuses, she doesn’t like bananas. I would offer her blueberries, but I know that she is bothered by the “inconsistency of berries.” She told me this several months ago, maybe even a year ago, and I have kept the phrase ever since. “The inconsistency of berries.” It rolls around in my head like the name Shlomo Zalman. My daughter does not like how sometimes you buy berries and they are great, and sometimes you buy them and they are not. She does not like how you can reach into a box of berries and you might pull out a sweet one, but also, you might pull out a sour one – in the same box.

Once, I showed her that you can generally judge a berry. The darker and plumper they are, the sweeter they are. But still, she avoids them. She leaves for college in two weeks. I find myself telling her odd little “life tips” in the hopes that when she needs to know how to introduce two strangers, or to revive stale bread, or get a wine stain out, she will remember them. I am pouring as much information into her as I can.

But the inconsistency of berries is real. You never know what you will pull out of a box or what you will need. In the end, all you can hope for, is that one small act will reverberate across generations and geographies, that something will bear fruit.

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An Early Summer Night’s Dream


There is a kind of summer evening, just after the sun starts to go down. Children run around looking for fireflies. Neighbors slowly move away from their airconditioned houses, eager to feel the air while they can. They sit on their porches and in their yards chatting about nothing. “Honey, five minutes until bedtime,” they yell to the youngest children, without moving. They don’t mean “five minutes” they really mean “Can someone get me another beer?” and usually someone does. The children know this and do not argue or pretend to come inside.

“Five minutes”

“Have another beer?”


It goes on for an hour, or two, if everyone is lucky.

The teenagers begin to move back to the playgrounds and schoolyards of their childhood. They use the playground equipment ironically now. “In second grade, I broke my arm on here” a boy tells no one in particular. They all know, they were there.

They remember both the excitement and the fear when the ambulance came to take the boy away. What if he died? Only one of them had ever been to a funeral and it was for an older relative that he barely knew. What if their friend died? Would they get out of school for the rest of the year? Then, a few days later, when he returned to school, they greeted him with a small sliver of disappointment and a little more unnamed guilt. For a week or two, they vied to sign his cast, to carry his books, to sit with him during recess. They became a little jealous of the attention and a little bored with sitting at recess and life went back to normal so thoroughly that no one even noticed when his cast came off.

The boy remembers that time fondly. He does not remember the pain, or being afraid in the ambulance. He does not remember the persistent itch under the cast, or the boredom when his friends grew tired of sitting with him at recess. He remembers the feeling that he was special. He remembers the soft way his mother looked at him and getting all of his favorite foods. Earlier that year he told his mother not to tuck him in anymore and instantly regretted it. But he remembers that after he broke his arm his mother would come into his room when she thought he was asleep and smooth his hair off of his forehead and he would pretend to sleep.

Now the boy walks on the ground and lifts his arm very slightly to touch the bars where he once fell.

As the night goes on some of the boys will go home to video games and TV. Still others will come bringing beer, cigarettes and pot. Girls will come and they will divide into couples and find shady spots to make out. One couple sits on the baseball field. The boy kisses the girl and says loudly “Looks like I’m getting to home base tonight boys.” She slaps him lightly on the arm and with the pressure to perform, to go farther, to do more removed, they both sit quietly and look at the stars.

As soon as I stepped outside last night, I knew. I knew when I passed the first group of neighbors gathered on lawn chairs, before I even saw the first firefly. I knew that I’d dream of you.

I always think of you in the summer.

Once you had the idea to bring a kiddie pool up to the roof of your apartment building. Your apartment was small and we slept on a mattress on the floor. Before you thought of the pool on the roof, sometimes we sat in the bathtub to drink. We filled the pool with ice, then put the beer and our feet in the ice. “We’re going to do this every night this summer. I’m going to make a mix-tape just for the roof,” you said. “Yes,” I said, because I always said yes. Because that summer there was nothing I wanted more than to sit with you, drinking beer, and listening to your music. I said yes, because at that age I still believed that the more often you said yes to someone, the more they would love you.

But then there was a night where you, several beers ahead of me, almost fell off the roof. The next night I found an excuse for us not to go on the roof. Maybe I talked you into a movie, or we went over to your friends’ nicer apartment to play cards. Every night I had a new excuse, and you never noticed. One night, when you were asleep, I got rid of the pool. We bought a window unit and drank beer in front of it. When we blew a fuse, we moved back to the bathtub.

I always think of you in the summer. Especially in the beginning of the summer, when the air feels like anything is possible.

Even though your children are grown, in the dream you had a baby. I was mad, because I knew who the mother was. But still, when you asked me to take her, I did. Because I always said yes.

I took your baby and went to a coffee shop and, in the way of dreams, the waiter was another boy I used to love. He asked me what the baby needed and I said “I don’t know, it’s been so long since I’ve had a baby.” “What are you going to do?” He asked me. “I don’t know,” I said.

In the dream I imagined raising your baby. I imagined being eager to put her to bed on hot summer evenings, so that we could get outside and breathe fresh air. Watching her catch fireflies, telling her not to stay out too late, wondering if she was sitting on a roof drinking beer with a boy.

Even in my dream, I knew it wouldn’t work. I knew I would keep saying yes and you would keep trying to fall off the roof. In the dream it made me sad. But not in real life. In real life, we are still friends. We know each other’s spouses and children. In real life, we pretend. We pretend that we have always been friends just like this. We pretend that we were never the people drinking beer in a bathtub. Mainly, we pretend that it was all so long ago. We pretend that on a summer night, we never wish we were back in that apartment. We pretend that none of it mattered.

But I always think of you in the summer.

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The other day my dentist asked me if I had plans for the summer. I told him I’d be driving my daughter to college in upstate New York, by myself. He told me that his daughter went to college in DC. They shipped her stuff ahead of time and dropped her off at Midway Airport. He described the experience as surreal. “We just went to the airport, and then she didn’t live with us anymore.” As I was leaving the office he said, “Listen, if she starts being difficult, even mean, don’t worry about it. She might need to pull away a little before she leaves, so it doesn’t hurt so much.”

I think about the “fight” we had a few weeks ago.

She was cleaning her room. In her view, she keeps her room clean. In my view, not so much, but she keeps the door to her room shut and so we rarely discuss it. On this day, she went deep. She pulled the trundle bed out and vacuumed not just underneath the bed, but the trundle mattress itself. She asked to get rid of the trundle. She declared the trundle the reason she is congested. Because she can’t see the dust trapped by the trundle, it sits there and makes her nose stuffy. She isn’t wrong about that, but we have a difference of opinion on the reasonable solution. My solution is to clean her room more often. Her solution is to get rid of the trundle because when she needs to clean, she has to move things around to pull it out and that is ridiculous.

I pointed out that she might also want to do something about the very visible dust on top of her headboard, the dust that doesn’t require her to move furniture. I pointed out that her light fixture was also kind of gross. I pointed out that we had no place else to store a trundle and mattress, and no way to give away or sell a trundle and mattress without a bed, and that she was moving in 6 months and could probably deal with it. She pointed out that I was in her room and should leave. When I think about the fights I had with my own mother, the fights I hear that my friends have with their teenagers, I know I am lucky. This is what passes for a fight with us.

Later on the same day as the dentist appointment I too was coincidentally at Midway airport waiting to go to DC. A young man sat near me and asked me questions about boarding. “I’ve never traveled without my parents,” he said. “I just want to make sure I don’t miss anything. I already had to throw out my toothpaste because I didn’t know you couldn’t bring a full-size one.” He was a college student going to a conference. I walk him through the boarding process and make sure he knows how he’s getting to his hotel once he arrives in DC. I tell him my daughter will be going to college in the Fall. Although I don’t say anything else about her he says, “From March to May is SOOO hard. Just tell her to push through, she’ll be so much happier once high school is over.”

Waiting in line to board the plane an older man makes small talk with me. He is wearing a large belt buckle with four turquoise stones in it. It is the kind of thing my father used to wear. My father had a serious fall recently and is not wearing pants with belts much these days. He wears sweatpants and pajama bottoms. The last time I was home I reorganized his dresser so that everything he can put on easily was easy to reach. He fell again last week. I tell the man that I like his belt. “Did you buy it in New Mexico?” I ask. “No, a little store in Pittsburgh. You know, I saw it one day and liked it, but I noticed it had this spot on one of the stones, so I didn’t buy it. Then I saw it again a few weeks later, but I still didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy it until the third time I saw it and I’ve been wearing it for 30 years now.”

He asks me if I’m going home and I tell him I live here and am going to DC for a meeting. He tells me that he grew up in walking distance from Midway. He met his wife when they were sixteen years old and he used to ride his bike to her house through the neighborhood. They got married when they were 21. They live in Maryland now. He has a son in the Chicago suburbs and when he’s in town he likes to go back to their houses and make sure they’re still standing. The way he talks about his wife, I’m not sure if she is still alive. I’m relieved when we board and the flight attendant says “It’s open seating you can sit anywhere,” and the man replies “Can I sit by my wife?” “Well, if she’ll have you,” the attendant replies. “That might be an issue,” he replies. His wife is waiting for him a few rows back and I am unexpectedly happy to see her.

After my daughter and I fought about her room I told her that when you are ready to go, ready to move, ready to change, it is painful not to do so. I told her that the bed was not the problem. I told her the dust was not the problem. I told her that I am not the problem and she is not the problem. The problem is that she is ready to go. She cannot shed her skin fast enough and so it grows tighter and tighter around her feeling more and more uncomfortable. She said yes, but she should have gotten a full-size bed from the beginning. I told her she didn’t know that when she was 10 and also, I lived in a room with rainbow wallpaper until I left home at 17. My bedroom is now my mother’s study. She has re-wallpapered it, but a rainbow decal still clings to one window.

What I did not tell my daughter is that leaving doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in stages. There are only two stories in the world, someone is arriving and someone is leaving.

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True Love

Shortly after Valentine’s Day a friend of my daughter’s interviewed me about love. The two are working on a class project, a documentary theater piece. Each person in the class is interviewing three people of three different generations about love.

I wanted to be honest and also careful. Not only because my daughter will read it, but because while all young women deserve the truth about love, they also deserve the fantasy of love. They deserve to believe in true love and love at first site and overwhelming love and soulmates for as long as possible. Those are the stories that get you through the bad dates and the exhausting relationships and the lonely nights.

So I tried to tell her that love is real, but it isn’t always what you think.

A week later I took an online “tour” of the Taj Mahal as part of a team building experience at work. The guide told us that the Taj Mahal is the most popular honeymoon site in India. The mausoleum was built in the 1600s by Shah Jahan for his favorite wife, Mumatz Mahal. It’s seen as not only a beautiful building, but a symbol of everlasting love. We “walked” through carvings and buildings and breathtaking grounds.

Slowly, we learned the rest of the story. Mahal was Shah Jahan’s third wife, the only one to have children. She died giving birth to their 14th child in 19 years. Seven of those children survived, three girls and four boys. There was supposed to be a second mausoleum, in black marble, directly across from the Taj Mahal.

Then, in 1654 or so, shortly after the Taj Mahal was completed, the youngest son of Shah Jahan and Mumatz Mahal murdered his brothers. He decapitated his oldest brother and brought the head to their father, on a platter, Titus Andronicus style. He arrested and imprisoned his father. When Shah Jahan died, his son buried him in the mausoleum with his mother. He did not want to complete his vision of matching mausoleums. Their tombs are the only part of the mausoleum not in perfect symmetry, because they were not both supposed to be buried there.

I cannot stop thinking about the beauty of the Taj Mahal. The color combinations, the stonework, the symmetry, the way it looks different depending on what part of the day you see it. I told the girl who interviewed me that I believe love is an action, not a feeling. That yes, love conquers all, but only because you need to love in order to create. The Taj Mahal is love in action, love as architecture. But also, the Taj Mahal is a monument to something else, something we never name.

We are all, especially women, taught to want a love that could build the Taj Mahal. But what if a love that can build the Taj Mahal is also a love that causes 14 pregnancies in 19 years and an early death? What if a love that can build the Taj Mahal also causes children who brutally murder each other? who would want a marble mausoleum instead of living a full life? Who would want a marble mausoleum, even one inlaid with lapis lazuli, instead of children who don’t murder each other?

I think if my daughter’s friend interviewed me again I would tell her exactly what I told her before. That love is action. That love real, but that love doesn’t always look the way you think.

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Expiration Dates

I am cleaning out my mother’s pantry. Occasionally, when I find a particularly old expiration date, I stop to text my sister or a friend with news of what I’ve found.

Granola – 2019

Bean Dip – 2018

In 1991 my friend found a frozen Salisbury Steak dinner in his father’s freezer. The dinner had expired when his father still lived in a different apartment. He had moved the expired steak from one apartment to another. The story of the Salisbury Steak was always funny to me. It was funny because it was a story about a single guy and how he ate. My friend’s dad’s apartment was a mother-free zone, which meant junk food. Once, a few years before the discovery of the Steak, when we were still in high school and my parents were out of town, I had very ill-advised sex in my parents’ house. When the guy left, I immediately called my friend and said I needed junk food. He came over with Combos and Hostess Cakes, pilfered from his father’s cabinets.

The Salisbury Steak was funny because my friend’s dad was in his 40s, I think. As a teenager, there are three adult ages, 20s, parents, grandparents.

My friend’s dad didn’t know it yet but he still had so much of a future to come, a bizarre adventure, a second wife, weddings for all of his children, grandchildren, a full second act that’s still ongoing. The Salisbury Steak was funny because it was a frozen chunk of past in the middle of a present, and because it was a Salisbury Steak.

When I find a jar of grape leaves that expired in 1999, I text my friend and confirm that they are in fact older than the long-thrown-out Salisbury Steak.

I know a jar of grape leaves that expired in the last century is funny. I start a thread on my local working moms Facebook group and I find that I am not alone. There are stories of people cleaning their mothers and in-laws and grandparents’ houses and finding canned goods so old they don’t have bar codes, canned goods about to explode, an expired can of SPAM they decide to pass from person to person. A friend tells me that behind her recently deceased mom’s expired cans was a huge bowl. In the bowl were the skeletons of a mouse and a snake. They believe the snake ate the mouse and then got trapped in the bowl.

A jar of grape leaves that expired in the 1990s is funny, but also, it is not.

It is not funny because my parents are 81. Last week, my father fell and broke two ribs and received a diagnosis that makes it clear things are not getting better. He is in the rehab facility while I am cleaning out my mother’s pantry.

I am cleaning the pantry because it is something I can do. It is both helpful and personally satisfying. But also, I know, it is just the first of many things we’ll be cleaning sometime soon. It is easy to throw out an unopened jar of grape leaves. But my parents have been in their house for over 45 years. There is art, furniture, books, clothing, tchotchkes from trips, presents from grandchildren, photos of people long gone. All of that will have to go somewhere. Today I throw out an anecdote, next month it might be a piece of my childhood.

Grape leaves are not something you buy an extra jar of and then forget. You buy them with a plan. Somewhere in the last century my mom had a plan to make stuffed grape leaves, and it didn’t happen and now it will never happen. The grape leaves are not funny because I don’t know what other plans like that are hiding in my parents’ house.

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Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train

It’s Friday night, and my son is taking the El to a high school basketball game. It is “the big game” with their “cross-town rivals.” The trash talk online is brutal. He is wearing his school colors, a bright orange sweatshirt. He isn’t sure if the friends he is going with will also take the El home. I tell him to be careful. I tell him not to ride alone in an El car with kids from the other team. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

But he doesn’t know. Although he’s in the thick of it, he doesn’t see how quickly things escalate with teen boys. Although he knows that just last week, one state over, a boy his age walked into his school and killed four classmates; he doesn’t see how this is related to his mother saying don’t ride alone with the other team.

I think back to two weeks before when he and I were driving home to Oak Park from a concert in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a trip through unknown territory. The whole way there and the whole way back, we sang the chorus to the John Prine song, Paradise

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Sometimes one or both of us would change the lyrics to “mama,” or I would answer the question with “yes, actually my son, I will. You are not too late in asking.” It wasn’t funny, but it was last-day-of-a-road-trip funny.

My son is fifteen and learning to drive, and throughout the trip, I looked at him when he wasn’t looking.  I know how little time I have left in the driver’s seat.

A small-town Kentucky cop pulled me over for speeding. Later, my son laughed at how strong my Kentucky accent was when answering questions. The stop was uneventful. The police officer was polite, I was polite, everyone was white, and no one seemed out of place. There was not even a ticket. Just a warning and a “Y’all be careful now.” But I was grateful for the stop. I knew I had to talk about it with him, make sure he understood our privilege in the situation, and even talk about the way I used my accent. I was grateful for the chance to do all of that, but mainly, I was thankful for an anecdote that just the two of us share. I have so little time left in the driver’s seat, and I am stacking up the lessons and the anecdotes as fast as I can.

His team won the basketball game, and he got a ride home with friends. A week after the game, a massive tornado ripped through Kentucky, destroying some of the places we had just been.

Sometimes all you can do is pretend to be in the driver’s seat. You can issue a warning, you can offer a lesson, but you do not know where it is all going. You never know when you will long to go back only to find that the place you want has been hauled away.

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Three Women on a Train

I rode the El yesterday. It was the first time in a while. When I first moved to Chicago and worked downtown, the El was my reading time. It was part of my fantasy life of living in a big city, getting dressed up for work, wearing sneakers for the commute with a pair of heels in my bag, reading. I chose my books carefully because in the fantasy, that’s how I would meet the love of my life.

Very few parts of that fantasy life lasted for long. It has been years since I worked anywhere requiring a change of shoes (or a commute), and even longer since I wanted to do so. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more susceptible to motion sickness, so on the rare occasions I ride the El, I people watch instead. Yesterday, a stop or two after I got on, a woman got on and sat across from me. She seemed like someone I might know. She seemed like someone I could be in a few years.

She wore aggressively sensible shoes, a beautiful white cashmere scarf, a bright purple winter coat, and a mask that matched her coat. She had short curly hair, gray, but stylishly cut. Sensible, responsible, but fun. This was clearly the look she was going for. She took a book out of her bag. I couldn’t see the title, but the subtitle proclaimed it to be “a racial reckoning.” It was a library book. I don’t know if she was still looking for the love of her life, but if so, she didn’t want to “meet cute.” She wanted to “meet sensible, yet interesting.”

A few stops later another woman probably also about our age got on. An African-American woman, she wore a rainbow-colored scarf, and an old coat a size or two too big. She sat where she could lean against the entry divider and put her bags of belongings next to her. With one hand, she repeatedly shook an instant hand warmer package. With the other, she lit a cigarette. When I was a smoker, I was a frequent ash-flicker. Having a long ash made me nervous. It could get on my clothes, it could accidentally burn someone. Plus, in the old movies I loved, delicately flicking the ash into the ashtray, while looking up at a handsome stranger, was an admirable, sophisticated move, like leaving a lipstick print on a glass.

This woman was a long-asher. She did not flick the ash even once, she just sat there. Smoking with one hand, trying to warm the heating pack with the other. At a stop, the first woman stood up to go. She walked by the smoking woman, looked down at her and said, “There’s no smoking on the El.” She said it the way you might say “This is the stop for Nordstroms” or “Here’s how to make a sandwich.” As though the entire reason this woman was smoking on a train was because she didn’t know it was against the rules.

The smoking woman looked up. Tiredly, with no malice in her voice, she quietly said, “fuck you,” to the sensible woman. The sensible woman stared for a second and got off the train. Later, when I got off the train, I saw that she had not actually exited the train, she had simply moved cars.

Sometimes, we are not the people we think we will be, or even the people we think we are. Sometimes our life does not go where we think it will. But the El almost always does.

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