Monday, February 25, 2013

When Things Get Dicey: Part II (Risk-Taking Gone Awry)

There is Mother Nature. And there is Mother's Nature. The two are very different. The first can involuntarily impose dicey conditions on oneself and one's family while the second does so with the element of choice, at least partially.

Here's what I'm talking about: Last month I got myself into a potentially dangerous situation -- a fine pickle, really -- when I ran out of gas on the highway. As a full-time single mother, putting myself at risk means also putting my two young sons at risk. I had no excuse for such stupidity, but I will explain.

I take chances. Chances others wouldn't take. Chances others only dream about. Chances such as traveling around Great Britain and Western Europe alone. Upping it to Nepal and Thailand then pushing the envelope further by leading a friend across Asia and the South Pacific. Enrolling in a month-long mountaineering course after having only camped a couple of weekends in my life. And more adventures that include hitchhiking, another international border crossing (yes, "another" is the accurate word here), memoir-writing (very scary, indeed!), and getting caught up in a democracy revolution overseas that turned deadly. Quitting jobs without other ones to go to and starting grad school on the eve of turning forty felt tame to me; choosing to become a 24/7 single mother of two children with no built-in support network did not.

My life today as the latter is a risk, no question about it. On a daily basis, it provides me with plenty of mundane chores and the need to bring home the bacon. It does not offer me, however, the kind of chance-taking I relish. (I should add here that, though I have found myself in plenty of scrapes from these adventures -- of course, it is a numbers game after all -- I have never gotten myself hurt or in any serious trouble from them. As a result, I keep looking for more.)

Don't get me wrong. I did not set out to run out of gas on the highway! Absolutely not. I simply pushed the limit on how far one can drive after the gas light comes on. Previously, I had driven thirty-five or thirty-seven miles after first spotting the tiny bright yellow circle on the dashboard of my Toyota 4Runner. On this particular day, I knew I was up there in the thirties range. I remembered the last two digits of my SUV's mileage count when the light came on, and I was in the process of adding the new miles traveled up to the present mileage count when I made the fateful decision to head towards the highway rather than a gas station in my town. I was late for an appointment. While I believed I couldn't make it all the way there, I felt I could get to the first exit where I knew of a self-serve station nearby. (All the stations in my town are full-serve and, if I can help it, I prefer not to pay the extra charge.)

By the time I'd finished adding in my head, it was too late to make a different decision. I was entering Route 128. My count: forty-five miles. Holy crap! About eight miles more than I'd ever pushed it. Now let's not get ahead of ourself. I'd HEARD (or maybe it was some sort of vague recollection) that a driver has fifty miles to play with. I wasn't sure if this was true, but I would be fine if it was. In any case, I launched into a fervent bout of reciting the Lord's Prayer.

You can never pray too much, especially at a time like this!

Shortly, I passed a highway sign saying the first exit was half a mile away. "Come on, come on, COME ON!" I prodded. The car started to slow down (SHIT!), and I hit the hazard-lights button. Vehicles behind me noticed and pulled into the fast lane (GOOD!). I pulled into the breakdown lane. Like Kramer on that hilarious Seinfeld episode when he takes a dealership car for a test drive until it runs out of gas, I felt a certain exhilaration at the moment my car rolled to a stop. But the feeling was mixed with dread, naturally, because now I'd done it. I'd REALLY done it! I was here . . . on the highway . . . stuck between exits . . . with no transportation . . . and all alone. Kramer was ACCOMPANIED by a dealership employee in their FICTIONAL storyline. That was a TV show; this was my real life.

As the impact of what had just transpired sunk in, my mind began to race in a panic. My first thought was that I did not want to wait in the car for help. I did not care to be trapped inside if the wrong person approached. So I got out and started walking. It was around 9 a.m. and warm enough in January that I did not need my hat and mittens. I left them on the passenger seat. My second thought was that I hoped no one I knew from my very small town saw me because I did not want to be the subject of nasty chatter. ("O.M.G. I just saw SHELBY walking along the highway! I don't know what the hell she was doing, but she is such a WEIRDO!") My third thought was that school pickup was at noon instead of 3 p.m. because it was a half day. This ordeal had better be over in time!

I had only walked maybe thirty feet when a car pulled over in front of me. It was dark red (same color as mine); a Toyota (same make as mine); and a Prius, which told me the owner was environmental (hallelujah!). The driver, whom I shall call N, got out and watched me approach. She was far enough ahead that the distance gave each of us a chance to check the other out. She saw a blond woman with shoulder-length hair in a turquoise down jacket and brown casual pants; I saw an attractive brunette a little younger than myself and about the same height dressed in black from head to toe. N looked cool, not dangerous. We spoke as I got closer, and I made a split-second decision that she was a good person with good intentions. Please, Lord, let me be right! She offered me a ride, and I happily accepted.

Let me stop and say that had the driver been male, I'm not sure what I would have done. Would I have gotten in his car? I don't believe so. Probably, I would have politely declined the ride and kept walking. It was about a quarter-mile to the exit then another one to two miles to a Mobil gas station. I hadn't had time to think through my course of action. Call a friend? Call AAA? All I knew at that point was that I didn't want to stay in the car. I wasn't going to be a sitting duck.

No way, no how.

N was friendly. We immediately clicked and assured one other of our intentions: she wanted to help me, and I needed help. She called her husband on her cell phone to tell him she'd picked up a strange female on her way to work and promised to report back to him in ten minutes. I knew it was her insurance policy in case I turned out to be a nefarious chick masquerading as an innocent-looking suburban damsel in distress. I got it and was fine with it, though I was still too pumped with adrenaline to think of taking out my own coverage on her. N said she stopped because she saw me walking in the breakdown lane (practically hugging the metal guardrail, to be exact) and didn't think it looked right. She works at Harvard doing research in a women's center, so she is arguably more aware than other people of women seeming out of place in certain situations and more concerned than other people when she sees them. While it is always disconcerting to see someone (anyone!) walking alone along the highway, I can imagine that the sight of Darien, Connecticut-bred little ol' me -- you can take the girl out of Darien, but you can't take the Darien out of the girl -- doing so gave her pause. She felt compassion, if some trepidation because she did not know me, and pulled over.

I expressed to her how grateful I was, how I hadn't formulated my plan of action yet, but how I just felt I should start walking. Truthfully, I wouldn't have been at all surprised if I'd ended up hoofing it the entire two-something miles. (It's always useful to be a hiker and to wear comfortable shoes.) Or I might have hitchhiked -- selectively choosing, as I have in the past, whose car I would get into and whose I would not -- once I reached the street where the gas station is located. But I didn't have to further contemplate these alternatives because N had come to my rescue! She was my hero. I instructed her on how to get to the Mobil station I knew from my years taking my sons to a preschool in that neighborhood. I would get (if they loaned me one) or buy (if they did not) a gas can, fill it up, then have her drive me back to my SUV.

Problem solved, easy as pie. Right?

Not so fast. I found a bright orange plastic number in the station's store. The elderly male cashier showed me how to position the spout so I could affix it properly to the can once I got back to the highway. It seemed rather simple. I filled up the can at the pump, paid for the can and gas, and headed back to my vehicle in my savior's Prius. She and I decided it was wise for her to stick around until I got the gas in my 4Runner.

Let me tell you: It's hairy being in the breakdown lane -- inside or outside of a car -- on a major highway! Vehicles whiz past only feet away at fifty-five miles per hour or more. One tiny snafu in the regular flow of speedy traffic, and I (or both of us) become instantaneous roadkill. Nonetheless, I was very grateful for a number of things: the not-too-cold weather (didn't have to deal with THAT annoyance/safety concern), the prominent location of my vehicle on a slight incline following a fairly long straightaway, and the clear visibility of the day.

N parked a couple of car lengths behind my SUV. That gave highway drivers even more reason to see us on the side of the road and keep their distance. (We were very strategic, you see.) I got out of the Prius and attempted to pour the gas from the can into the tank of my Toyota. Now I was standing mere inches from the right lane and less than two feet from passing vehicles! Come on, hurry, hurry! But nothing came out, not even a measly drop. I walked to the back of my vehice to a slightly safer spot and fiddled with the spout. Nothing. Then I retreated to the Prius, and N got out to take a look. She fiddled with the spout. Nothing.


We both got back in her car and returned to the gas station. I took the can in and showed it to one of close to a dozen or so construction workers who happened to be there working on a project inside the store. He fiddled with it, took it outside, and tipped it to pour. Nothing. He grabbed another gas can off the shelf, swapped the spout for my spout, and walked outside to try that one. Still nothing.


More construction workers got in on the act as well as the manager of the station. Nothing. No one could figure out how to get the darn gas to come out of the spout! It was like the old joke from my childhood: "How many [fill in the blanks] does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" Only this version was, "How many construction workers does it take to screw in a gas-can spout [and get it to work]?" The answer is: It doesn't matter how many you have if the spout/gas can is DEFECTIVE. Yes, that's right. I bought a defective product.

Next up: Plan B.

N had the brilliant idea to pour the gas out of the can through a funnel into the tank. That sounded doable, yet I wasn't sure if we could obtain a funnel small enough to do the trick without spilling gasoline all over the place. I went inside the store and found a stack of paper funnels. They were the flimsiest funnels you ever did see! I could have made them myself. I grabbed a bunch and took them outside. The hole in the bottom of each inverted cone fit nicely in the gas tank opening of her Prius. Great. I wondered, however, about the gas soaking through the thin paper, creating a big mess. For that reason, I felt we should use a thick stack of funnels to contain the gas. N pointed out that the holes in the cones didn't line up properly the thicker the stack became. She held the stack in front of me, and I could see that she was right. She believed only about three funnels would suffice AND would hold back the gas from leaking through the paper if we poured quickly enough. I said okay, so we experimented on her car. We poured in a small amount of gas. Success!

N sure is one smart cookie.

Ready once again, we drove back out to the highway, a small stack of clean funnels in hand. We parked then walked to my SUV. With N holding the funnels steadily in place, I carefully though gingerly poured the gas into the tank. All of it went inside, and not a single drop ended up on either of us or the pavement. We disposed of the empty plastic container and used funnels in a giant black garbage bag I put in the back of my vehicle. N went to her car, and I got in mine. She followed me back to the Mobil station, our third time there. I handed over the garbage bag and got a refund on the bum spout/gas can (they gave me the funnels) then thanked and said goodbye to the wonderful N who has since become a Facebook friend and blog follower. She told me picking me up was the craziest thing she'd ever done. I listened appreciatively but did not respond because, well, um, being picked up by N was not even close to being the craziest thing I'd ever done! After she drove off, I filled up my tank. The whole adventure -- made much longer on account of the poorly made spout/gas can, ahem! -- took one hour and forty-five minutes. I arrived at my appointment very late yet still had plenty of time before school pickup.


I felt both extremely blessed that it had worked out all right and profoundly humbled by the kindness of my rescuer. The situation could have ended very badly, indeed. Instead, I was as lucky as I could have been under the circumstances. Still, I felt quite shook up. I passed the rest of the day in something like a state of shock.

The next morning I woke up teary-eyed. I spent the day in a blubbering funk of the kind only a mother truly knows. I call it my "Tipper Gore Depression." It's a melancholy that strikes a mother after she feels like she has failed to keep her child or children safe. In the former Second Lady's case, I do not know specifically if she felt this way. This is just what I call MY feeling as I imagine what she must have gone through after her son, Al Gore III, was hit by a car as a child. My highway adventure did not involve my children. Yet, indirectly, it did IN A VERY BIG WAY because I am their mother, their sole parent, in fact. I need to keep myself intact, healthy, and out of dangerous situations as my sons rely on me every single day.

It was irresponsible of me to run out of gas, especially on a highway, in this day and age when gas lights warn drivers they are nearing EMPTY. It was foolhardy of me to tempt fate by continuing to drive well past the number of miles I knew was doable. It was a boneheaded move. That's for sure. But I am human, so I make mistakes and take chances at times when I probably shouldn't. Fortunately, my miscalculation didn't end up costing me.

Thank you, Lord! I will try to do better next time.

Friday, February 15, 2013

When Things Get Dicey: Part I (The Wrath of Nemo)

With gargantuan-sized storms in the forecast more and more frequently these days, protecting one's children from harm is taking on a whole new meaning. Last weekend Nemo, the far-reaching blizzard with the same name as a loveable animated clownfish, arrived at this single mother's doorstep with a vengeance.

First came the preparations. The stocking up on food (especially canned goods) and batteries. On Thursday, I combined an appointment "downtown" (a more urban area, relatively speaking) with a visit to Market Basket. Not my MB of choice, though. Let me tell you: The place was PACKED, with not a single shopping cart available. I have never seen so many people in a supermarket in my life! The checkout lines were unreal. Bread lines in the Great Depression came to mind. I felt a sense of panic in the air as people poured in and filled up the aisles in search of provisions. I grabbed one of the few red plastic baskets I could find and dashed about scooping up exactly twelve items so I could go in the express lane. That seemed to be the way to go.

I stopped by again after my appointment. Under normal circumstances, I would have probably had enough time to gather and pay for everything I needed. But in these conditions I was at a loss as to what to do because I had to get back to pick up my boys at school at 3 p.m. So I dashed about collecting another dozen items yet this time found the express line just as long as the other lines. There was no way to bypass the crowd! Meanwhile, I've learned a handy tip at MY MB that I suspect is not well-known. If you load up then have to leave in a hurry -- as is so often the case with parents -- you can ask someone at Customer Service to put your cart or basket in their refrigerated room until you return. The MB I was at that day may also have one of these rooms, but it would have been inconvenient for me to return because I live twentyish minutes away as compared to twelve for my local MB. So I told an employee of my predicament. He courteously took my basket from me, saying he understood and would happily return my selections to the shelves.

I let the boys play after school for a few minutes before we hit the road for my THIRD visit to a grocery store in one day. The boys are rowdy when together, of course, so I avoid taking them shopping when at all possible. Now I had no choice. MB Gloucester was crowded but not excessively so. The lines were long but not excessively so. The customers were focused but not excessively so. I did not feel impending Armageddon as I had in Danvers. We did what we had to do and went home. Among my purchases: two multi-packs of AA batteries to keep our four small handheld flashlights sufficiently powered. (I also have two camping lanterns.) We didn't need water because I still have FIVE unopened gallon containers from the previous giant storm that didn't materialize. And my shovel supply -- three, one for each of us -- was also sufficient. I filled the gas tank of my car on the way home.

The next morning school was canceled, though a single snowflake had not yet fallen from the sky. With talk on the TV news about Nemo reaching fever pitch, I felt somehow unprepared, if you can believe that. So I dragged the boys
out AGAIN -- my fourth visit to a food store in two days -- to pick up orange juice, another gallon container of milk, and canned vegetables. (I hate canned vegetables.) Was I going CRAZY? It hadn't occurred to me that I needed two gallons of milk (actually more because wiry Charlie drinks 2 percent while Chris and I consume fat free) until I saw someone on the news with a ridiculous amount of milk in his cart. Then again it would be awful to run out if we were snowed in for days at a time. I could just hear my sons complaining about no milk for their cereal and, horror of horrors, don't get me started on how cranky I could get if I had to make hot chocolate with water instead of milk!

The storm started later that day. I was on the phone at 11 p.m. when I heard a loud BOOM behind my house. Immediately, my lights went out. Here we go! I thought. My bestie camping lantern was in the next room. I could find it in the dark. I was ready, if a bit nervous what the next few days would bring.

The power was still out come Saturday morning. Christopher, who has been camping with me for years, had the brilliant idea to pack refrigerator items with snow in our cooler. I thanked my pragmatic nine year old and went to work, though in actuality I was not too worried about food spoilage anytime soon since my downstairs was as good as outside cold. (With the radiant heat going kaput this winter, I have fancied myself the hardy caretaker of a quaint, weathered shingle summer home on Nantucket instead of the annoyed, corner-cutting owner of a lemon pre-fab willing to suffer New England in February brought indoors to save a few bucks. True, I can get away with it because the downstairs is my enclave; the boys sleep upstairs.) Almost as soon as I'd finished my cooler masterpiece and posted a photo of it on Facebook, the electricity came back on. Something like two minutes later, it was out again. Two more times during the day transformers blew like not-so-distant gunshots, followed closely behind by power outages. Let's just say: I wasn't holding my breath that I'd be able to use the microwave by dinnertime!

Feelin' like a yo-yo, Nemo!

Meanwhile, the snow was piling up, and the wind was howling. I could open the back door -- a relief, indeed, since I am old enough to remember snowstorms from my Connecticut childhood that rendered our front and back doors blocked and frozen shut. The man who plows our small, private cul-de-sac and its three driveways had already come twice. Ka-Ching! A $60 bill for me thus far. But that didn't mean my driveway was clear. Far from it! The plow driver has to work in fairly tight quarters, which can be a problem with something like two feet of snow on the ground already. I ventured out to have a look. Just as I suspected: a large snowbank behind my car, another on the side of the driveway (and too far into my path for the car to clear when I backed out), and too much snow on the pavement for me to ensure not getting stuck. I went inside and enlisted the boys' help.

We shoveled and shoveled and shoveled. They slid down the side snowbank on a plastic saucer. Charlie, age 6, got too much snow inside his boots and went inside. Christopher and I attempted a snowman in the back yard. We found our building material too light and fluffy for packing, and we sunk too deep to gain proper footing. Before dark, I cross-country skied around the yard and street on skis my parents bought me in 1978, the year of Boston's most infamous snowstorm.

The power had stayed on since mid-afternoon. That was the good news. The bad? The house was becoming increasingly cold. Remember I told you I had no heat downstairs BEFORE the storm? Well, the lower level was now warmer than the upper level. The antiquated thermostat had conked out but had not come back on with the resumption of power. I couldn't check the temperature upstairs. I tried to chalk up my chill to getting cold outside and/or the fact that it's just a cold house, period. Deep down I suspected we'd lost heat, but I was in denial. I didn't want to believe it; I wasn't ready to admit it. The boys were managing well snuggling together under fleece blankets watching movies and playing on Christopher's new iPod. Meantime, I coped by donning a cap and layer after layer of clothing before drinking mug after mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Heading out again to fetch that second gallon of fat-free milk turned out to be a BRILLIANT idea!

Sunday was going to be busy. I had to prepare for my Monday memoir-writing class, and I wanted to get the boys to Bradford Mountain to enjoy the phenomenal new snow on skis. There was no time to be stuck in the house waiting for the heating guy to arrive! In case you're wondering: yes, I have my priorities straight. In a matchup of skiing vs. heat, I choose skiing.

By the time we left for the ski area, I could see my breath inside the house. My pen barely worked, and my handwriting looked like a second grader's. But come hell or high water -- or the Arctic or high snow, as it were -- we would make it to the slopes if it was the last thing we did!

We arrived mid-afternoon and ate lunch. Extremely late arrivals like us can ski for only $15 a person starting at 3 p.m., I learned. (Closing time is 4:30 on Sundays.) Fantastic. I rented Charlie some skis and Christopher a helmet and off we went to the faraway Learning Area. We didn't have enough time to explore more of the mountain. Plus, we needed a meltdown-free experience to make up for Charlie's ill-fated adventure the last time here when he wore his brother's too-long skis on an intermediate run. (My bad.)

Only problem: Charlie could not get INTO his skis! WTF? It reminded me of two years ago when he was just starting out and had trouble holding his foot still and straight long enough to fit the toe of his boot into the top of the binding AND pushing his foot down hard enough to snap the back section of binding around his boot. Yet this issue seemed different. His boot extended too far back across the binding. The mountain was beginning to clear out, but I saw a ski instructor in her ubiquitous red parka close by and called her over. Sure enough, the boot didn't fit the binding, she said. Argh. Charlie had first tried on size 2 boots. The bindings on a pair of skis were adjusted accordingly. In typical fashion, he then changed his mind, deciding the boots were too small. So we exchanged them for size 3s, but the rental staff forgot to refit the bindings.

I hustled back to the rental building with the skis and explained the situation. The bindings were readjusted, and I trudged back across the mountain to where the boys waited for me. About fifteen minutes had been lost all told. It was 3:40 p.m. by the time we took our first ride on the rope tow. Charlie was in a good mood and skied well. Toward the end of our fifty minutes, Christopher asked to go off on his own, which I allowed. The Learning Area is very small, so my nine year old would be skiing literally adjacent to our run. Though he wore dark clothing, he was fairly easy to pick out among the other skiers. At that late hour, there weren't too many anyway.

We went back to the lodge for a snack after the lifts closed. I was happy with our brief visit yet a tad annoyed about the bindings snafu that cost us valuable time. As I returned the equipment, I brought it up with the rental staff. They referred me to the ski area's manager. I found him back at the lodge. He acknowledged his employees' neglect in rechecking the bindings and, to make up for it, handed me a full-day ski pass worth $45! That seemed very fair, so I thanked him.

Bradford Mountain: two thumbs up.

Meanwhile, dreading reentering my igloo (I mean, house), I delayed the inevitable by taking the boys out to dinner. Still, I couldn't procrastinate forever. I had to deal with the very strong possibility I had no heat. I needed to contact my heating oil company and make an appointment for the next morning. However, I was also supposed to teach the next morning. I didn't expect that the community center where my class is held would be closed since it doesn't have to follow public-school closings. But if my town's schools were closed, I'd have a problem because I would have no child care. Though I knew he would not be pleased, it would be okay to take Christopher to class;  it would be another story altogether bringing rambunctious Charlie. I tried that once before in desperation, and it did not go well. (Enough said.) Final answer: Charlie was NOT coming with me.

Good ol' trusty Facebook. I put out a call for a playdate for my younger son. No one responded by bedtime. Waking up the next morning, I decided to postpone class. My students had previously been flexible. I hoped they would be again. Surely, they would understand my predicament. When I checked Facebook again, I found an offer of a playdate. Terrific. But I'd already made my decision.

The overworked heating guy arrived in the late morning and stayed two to three hours. He succeeded in getting the heat circulating upstairs (yes, it had shut down!) and downstairs (first time this winter!), and he replaced the nonfunctional thermostat. I was shocked to see the Aprilaire he installed reading 43 DEGREES! Indeed, we had been living indoors under outdoor February conditions, minus the wind!

Winter camping, anyone?!

The temperature rose gradually throughout the day. After lunch I whisked the boys off first to the library then second to the community center we belong to for some basketball and swimming, as I didn't care to stick around to watch the number increase one degree at a time. That would have been tantamount to watching grass grow. When we returned home at twilight, the thermostat read 56 degrees -- practically Florida weather! -- and not far off my set temp of 62.

The boys had school the following morning, and I could finally relax in a warm (relatively speaking) house with electricity. It had been a stressful four days, though it was punctuated by many joyful periods -- watching and listening to my boys play nicely together both in the house and snow and skiing and eating out with them. Since I had impressed upon them that we were in a tense situation, they did not give me the usual grief of fighting. I had my hands full dealing with the effects of Nemo and needed them to cooperate, and they most assuredly did. For that, I am most grateful.

Coping with an emergency -- even one with the silliest of names -- stretches a single mother but does not defeat her.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Being Enough

Don't we all need a little redemption from time to time?

Beyonce got hers during her electrifying half-time show at the Super Bowl. Many people would say she didn't need any because she had nothing to apologize for at the presidential inauguration. (And she didn't apologize). Others, including myself, felt lip-synching "The Star-Spangled Banner" two weeks ago seemed a tad like a copout and diminished the sanctity of the occasion. (I'm a tough critic. What do you expect from a Virgo?!)

Well, now I say "nevermind." Whichever side of the debate you were on, if you took a side at all, or maybe you just didn't care, it is now pretty much a moot point after Sunday's performance. Beyonce, the pop goddess extraordinaire, is in the clear. Her already-lofty star is rising. Maybe she really did cause that pesky blackout!

Mere mortals such as ourselves don't have to take the heat in such a public way for our real or perceived failings or less effortful and frowned-upon shortcuts. Yet in our own way, far from a grand stage, we feel the need for redemption from our imperfections. We feel not organized enough, not energetic enough, not cool-headed enough, not financially sound enough, and more.

I know I do.

As a full-time single mother, I am "not enough" many things. I am never enough everything or maybe even not enough anything. Raising two young boys alone has been difficult, especially since they are opposites and fight a lot as a result. However, I am very grateful for many things about them -- one of which is their easygoing attitude toward the many ways I can't measure up.

I look around my home and see and feel these ways clear as day. The mess. The unopened mail. The piles of laundry. The dishes in the sink. The broken cabinet door. The peeling ceiling paint from the leak. The chilly air downstairs from the radiant heat inexplicably not working this winter. The jumble of indoor Christmas lights lying on the living room floor. The box of holiday photo cards still nearly half full. The brochures on the kitchen counter from a trip to New Hampshire in the summer of 2010. (Or was it 2009?) The coat rack still in pieces folded up inside its box at least a year after purchase.

I am also reminded of my inadequacies while out and about. The artistic cupcakes and cake pops made by fifth-grade mothers on sale at basketball clinic. (I don't bake such things.) The expensive Tory Burch flats worn at school pickup. (Depending on the season, I'm in either my black Merrell Jungle Mocs that hide the dirt or my ancient Keen Newport H2 sandals.)

I am made aware of my handicaps while trolling Facebook. The furniture pinned on Pinterest. (I am too busy to take on another online time suck.) The games I'm invited to play such as Farmville and apps I'm asked to download including "I want to add your birthday." (Ditto.) The shared recipes I won't be jotting down. (Not much of a cook.)

Neither of my sons, bless their souls, has complained about the state of our home. Believe me, they have every right to! My boys have rarely found fault with my cooking or lack thereof. Again I wouldn't hold it against them if they did. Neither has bemoaned the fact that they don't have a dog or cat, been out of the country, to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, to anywhere other than Florida by plane, or regularly attend professional ballgames like several of their classmates.

They would like all of these things, of course. Why wouldn't they?! Yes, the desire has been expressed. Now I have taken them twice to an HP exhibit at Boston's Museum of Science -- we are very big fans of Ron Weasley and crew -- and Christopher has been to one Red Sox game. But the reality is: I cannot accommodate this list due to finances and me being just flat out with enough on my plate.

Enough. There's that word again.

God gave me the right first son. Christopher, age 9, seems to understand my single-mother challenges and cuts me some slack. He doesn't get upset (or too upset) if we or he can't do something fun because of a conflicting responsibility of mine or an unwillingness to get with the program by his brother. He takes the disappointment in stride. I really appreciate that. For my part, I do all I can to oblige his desires, money-, logistics-, and schedule-permitting.

Since Charlie is still six, I can't expect him to be as mature as his brother when he is denied something he wants to do or isn't included in an invitation for Christopher. For example, two weekends in a row Chris was asked over to the home of the same friend, first for a birthday party and second for a group movie night. Charlie, who is very competitive, was upset not to be included. I have explained to my younger son many times that it does no one any good to keep tabs on how many invitations come to him as compared to his brother. Nevertheless, Charlie can't help his driven nature.

In a failing of my own, I work overtime to keep the peace by trying to find him fun plans to compensate. The first night was easy: I took the birthday boy's brother, who happens to be one of Charlie's best friends, bowling with us. The following weekend I sensed my task would be more difficult, and it was. I put out a call on Facebook for suggestions for things Charlie and I could do. When I decided on painting pottery at a nearby clay studio, I put out a second call for companions. That, plus three direct messages to particular friends' mothers, came up empty. Yet my last ditch effort succeeded when I stopped at a buddy's home, and the family invited us in for the evening.

Hurray, problem solved! (Okay, this one problem.)

The boys' fights also bring out my flawed parenting style. Invariably, Charlie creates the problem by attacking Christopher or bugging him in some way/s that is almost always physical. Christopher hates the behavior, calls Charlie a "jerk" and other choice putdowns, and tries his best to fight him off. (That's easier said than done, by the way, as wiry Charlie has taken down the largest FOURTH GRADER in the school. I have this on word from the boy himself. There are other stories I could tell about Charlie's "street cred," as one mother puts it. But I'll save those for a future post.)

With such a toughie in action -- I would put money on Charlie in a heartbeat to win ANY fight among first graders -- my No. 1 goal is to separate my sons so Christopher doesn't get hurt. Did I mention Christopher is among the largest THIRD GRADERS in the school and a member of the second-best football team in the league? YEAH. And as a fifty-one-year-old woman who has had a back injury, I am certainly reluctant to get in the middle of one of these brotherly scuffles. I have peeled Charlie off Christopher countless times, yet the older I get and the taller he gets the less I am willing to do so. In breaking up a fight, I choose instead to do what works: I order Christopher to his room. "I am NOT PUNISHING you," I clarify. "I am SEPARATING you and trying to PROTECT you."

Christopher justifiably protests, saying it's unfair HE has to go to his room. (Their room, actually.) I COMPLETELY agree with him and tell him so later after things have calmed down. Still, the fact remains: Christopher is easier for me to deal with, so I choose to deal with him. Now don't get me wrong. I come down verbally on Charlie. (Part of my not-cool-headed-enough weakness.) But I don't sufficiently punish him because I'm just too tired to be a proper enforcer.

Charlie poses a special challenge for me and, as he turns seven years of age next month, I have yet to crack the code on exactly how to handle him when he decides to go after his brother in an animalistic fashion. I've recently enrolled him in Tae Kwon Do, which he loves and is very good at. No surprise there. I've watched him win a board-breaking kicking contest against everyone in class including older boys. And, on another occasion, he beat the star student in the more advanced class, a third grader who regularly demonstrates moves to the beginners. Charlie is something else, let me tell you. I am convinced of that.

I am well-aware I do not hold him accountable enough when he shows his aggression in an unconstructive manner. I impress upon him that his conduct is unacceptable, hurts his brother, and will not be tolerated. But my explanations seem to still fall on deaf ears from time and time. They simply are not enough.

When our efforts are not enough, we need redemption. We need to say, "I AM enough." And we need to believe it.