Killer Instinct

Competition can bring out the best in us, or the absolute worst of our animal nature.  I am highly competitive, but when push comes to shove, I fall apart in spectacular ways because I lack the killer instinct.

Some years ago, I was an archer, traveling around the country to compete in tournaments.  One of my favorites was the enormous World Archery Festival, held every year in Las Vegas, and attended by thousands.  I was having my best year since I started shooting and, by some miracle, had just won the New York State Indoor championship.  I was certain I could take home a prize in Vegas.

On the first day of the tournament, out of 30 arrows, I shot 30 bull’s eyes.  Yes, a perfect score!  [Full Disclosure: While it may sound amazing, there are actually plenty of people who shoot 30 out of 30 all the time in Vegas, but I’d never done it.  Also, the bull’s eyes are larger in Vegas than in any other tournament, but that’s none of your business.]

The next day, I was ready to continue my reign.  I was riding high.  Spectators were watching me.  There was only one problem – spectators were watching me.  When under pressure, I fold like a cheap Chinatown paper fan.  Did I mention that spectators were watching me?  My first arrow was a bull’s eye. Dead center.  However, it was nothing to rejoice about…because I shot it into somebody else’s target.  Translation: rookie mistake.  Competitors with the killer instinct do not make this error.

I had completely blown my chances.  Everything after that was a blur, although I do remember my friends, Dave and Bryan, picking me up by the elbows and transporting me to the nearest bar stool.  Bryan’s instruction to the bartender was very specific, “Serve her margaritas until we tell you to stop.”

Three weeks later, the USA Indoor Nationals were being held in Andover, Massachusetts. The calamity of Las Vegas was behind me and I was ready for this two-day event.  I’d learned from my mistakes.  I had my confidence back.  The first day of shooting went better than I’d hoped.  But I wondered how my competition was doing.

When we arrived at the venue on the second day, the standings were posted on the wall.

As I walked toward it, my friend and fellow archer, Pete, grabbed my arm and warned, “Don’t do it.”

“Why not?”  I asked.  But I knew why not.  Pete knew why not.  Anyone who had ever met me knew why not.

“I’ll look at it for you,” Pete offered.  He walked over to the wall, looked at the postings, and returned.  “Let’s go shoot,” he said, without expression.  He wasn’t giving anything away.

“Oh, c’mon!” I said.  “This is silly.”  As I walked toward the score sheet, Pete warned me again, but this time more forcefully, “Do not do that!”

I ignored him and searched the list for my name.  It didn’t take long to find it…I was in second place.  I slapped my hand over my mouth and squealed like a piglet with it’s tail caught in the barn door.

“Well,” Pete sighed, “that’s the end of that.”

Pete’s a pretty smart guy and it seems he can predict the future.  That second day of shooting was a disaster.  I went home empty-handed, again.

If they gave awards for “Choking,” I’d have to rent out storage space for all my trophies.

I don’t shoot any more, but I compete in other ways.  My new favorite “sport” is Words With Friends.  This is where my killer instinct surfaces.  Yes, I am that person who will play a chintzy 2-point word to block you from using a triple word bonus.  I’ve become so competitive at Words With Friends that I now have to call it Words With Random Opponents because none of my “friends” want to play with me anymore.

But that’s in the virtual world.  In the real world, I’m not competitive unless there’s something truly worth winning.  Occasionally, however, I find myself an unwitting participant, in the midst of a competition of which I want no part.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Just go to any reunion, cocktail party, any time or place when people have an opportunity to talk about their kids.  This is where that killer instinct rears its ugly head with a vengeance.

Here are two of my favorite “competitive parent” moments, but first a little back story…

My son had the privilege and misfortune of attending an obsessively competitive school.  The students obsessed over grades.  Their parents obsessed over their kids getting into Ivy League colleges, at all costs.  They were not “helicopter parents.”  They were “stealth bomber parents.”

This first tidbit took place at a back-to-school night, when my husband and I ran into the “Farrugut-Uppingtons.”

FUs:    How was your summer?

Me:     Great!  How about yours?

FUs:    What did your son do over the vacation? [Answering a question with a question…it should have been a tipoff.]

Me:     [Naively falling headfirst into their trap] He went sailing with the boy scouts, spent some time on Cape Cod and then did some things locally.  What about your son?

FUs:    [Suddenly puffed up to twice their original size] Well, Robespierre had a summer internship at Johns Hopkins University.  He co-wrote a medical paper with his mentor, about the relationship between ADD medication and superior standardized test scores.  It was in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Perhaps you read it.

Me:     [speechless]

FUs:    [smirking]

Me:     [thinking to myself] Eff you.

In a panic, I took my husband aside and whispered, “Oh my god!  Is that the kind of thing our son should be doing over the summer?”

My husband, who is completely immune to such parental shenanigans, calmly said, “It’s called a vacation for a reason.”

The Farragut-Uppington's family car

The Farragut-Uppington’s family car

My second story involves parents’ visiting day.  We were gathered in the cafeteria for lunch.  Our children were freshmen, so naturally all everybody was talking about was getting them into Harvard.  Here’s a snippet of that conversation:

Parent A:         We told our daughter “It’s Harvard or nothing.”

Parent B:         Same for our son.  He’s already got the grades…and we’re legacy, so…

Parent A:         [claws inching out]  What did he get on that last bio test?

Parent B:         What did your daughter get? [Apparently, Parent B had already been to this rodeo.]

Me:     [trying to quell the brewing storm]  Well, they’re coming from this school, so that’ll be a leg up.

Parent A:         You can’t count on that.  Robespierre’s sister ended up at SUNY Albany!  [She said this in a breathless, gaspy way, while clutching her pearls…as if going to SUNY Albany were akin to being thrown on a slag heap, naked and bleeding.]

Me:     [A proud graduate of SUNY Albany]  Ahem…

From underneath the table, I could feel my husband place his foot on top of mine and gently, but firmly, apply pressure.  His eyes widened and he made a face perceptible solely to me.  He was speaking the silent language that can only exist between partners who have been married for a very long time – newlyweds cannot pull this off.  His soundless shouting was loud and clear – Don’t start! They’ll eat you alive.

I kept my mouth shut, which was easy by this point, because I was gnashing my teeth.

For the remainder of my son’s high school career, I never got wise to these sorts of set ups and fell for them every single time.  In the long run, none of it mattered anyway.  All I care about is that our son got into the college he most wanted, he loves it there and he sounds happy every time we hear from him.

So, what ever happened to those students, whose parent used them in their constant one-upmanship tournaments?  Many of them got into the schools they so desperately wanted (and when I say “they” I mean their “parents”).  As for Robespierre Farragut-Uppington?  Rumor has it he got expelled for selling ADD meds on his college campus…at SUNY Albany.

SUNY Albany.  Go Danes!

SUNY Albany. Go Danes!

Next stop, Willoughby!

Complimentary shuttle service to Willoughby Station

If you are a fan of the old Twilight Zone reruns, you may have seen the episode about an overwhelmed and hen-pecked executive who dozes off on a commuter train. His dreams take him back to 1888 and the idyllic, wholesome town of Willoughby. Well, I’m here to tell you, Willoughby really exists. You’ll find it along New York State Route 17. Here’s how I know…

Our daughter, Peaches, was doing summer stock in the Catskill Mountains, so Hubby and I went to see her perform. During the drive, somewhere between Fishs Eddy and Deposit, we must have pierced a membrane separating space and time. It became clear as soon as we turned onto the dirt road leading up to our resort (a term that seems to mean something different in the Catskills compared to, say, every place else).  We had landed squarely in yesteryear.

The lobby décor can best be described as Gone With The Wind meets Ma & Pa Kettle. The furnishings were a hodgepodge of both lush and rustic, all of it original turn-of-the-century. Added to the pretty, quaint atmosphere, was a dash of weirdness – in the corner sat an antique dentist’s chair upholstered in floral brocade (or it may have been a barber’s chair – is there really much difference?). Either way, why would a utilitarian chair be covered in a feminine floral fabric? But, I digress…

The proprietor (I’ll call him Father Time) checked us in and handed us our key. It dangled from a trapezoidal plastic fob, imprinted with the name of the hotel and our room number.  Hotel security is not a concern here in the 19th century.

He escorted us up two flights of stairs. Hubby carried the bags. Our room had three windows overlooking a lake, two of them were nailed shut and the third only opened half-way. The shower in the movie Psycho looked more inviting than the one in our room.

We were only staying for one night, so the austere accommodations were not a big deal. However, this little trip had occurred in the middle of a heatwave. Even up in the mountains, the temperature was holding at 100° and the humidity was high.  Our room had no air conditioning. Please don’t think me spoiled, but in that kind of weather, AC is a necessity, not a luxury. I asked if there were any fans available. There weren’t.

Father Time assured me that, after sundown, the breeze coming off the lake would require us to bundle up with a blanket. Huh? I’m no meteorologist, but even I know the temperature can’t take a 50° nosedive in three hours, unless hell is freezing over. However, I was raised to respect my elders (even when they’re full of baloney).  So I said a cool breeze sounded nice.

Norman will bring fresh towels after dark.

After giving us a tour of our room (it took 5 seconds), Father Time  announced that dinner would be served in 15 minutes, the staff was aware of our arrival and our table would be awaiting us. That all sounded pretty posh. Perhaps things were looking up!  We set our bags down on the bed and headed for the dining room, not bothering to lock our door behind us.

There was nothing especially remarkable about dinner, except that ambrosia was on the menu. Now, if you’re under the age of 45, or never  attended a potluck barbecue in the 60’s, you might not be familiar with this dish. Let me explain: Ambrosia, also known as Food of the Gods, is a sugary, gooey concoction of marshmallows, sweetened coconut, mandarin oranges, pineapple, maraschino cherries and creams (both whipped and sour). It has no nutritional value but tastes like pure bliss. Contrary to its sweetness, ambrosia is not considered a dessert; it is served as a salad before the main course.  This baffles me. The only way to find out why it’s a salad and not a dessert would be to go back to 1953 and ask a housewife.  Therefore, it remains one of life’s great puzzles.

After dinner, Hubby and I took a walk around. We passed the building that served as lodging for the actors. It was identical to the house where Norman Bates grew up. I thought about those windows in our room  –  were they designed to prevent our escape and muffle our screams?  A feeling of uneasiness began to creep over me.  We had not seen Peaches since our arrival.  Might we never see her again? [Cue screechy violin music]

Hubby seemed oblivious to all of this. For he was in his glory, having been born 200 years too late. If something was old-timey, then it was for Hubby. With each musty, mildewed, splintered, antiquated throwback we encountered, Hubby’s eyes would pop out of their sockets with unabashed joy. Oh my god! Look at that old sing-along songbook! Oh my god! Look at that old Victrola! Oh my god! Look at these old postcards! Oh my god! Look, they have ambrosia!

We continued on down to the lake as the sun was setting. The view was truly breathtaking but the air was not getting any cooler. Nope. Not one iota.

Show time was approaching, so we made our way to the playhouse. As we entered, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The stage, the seating, the lighting…the only things missing were Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. I was half expecting to see Peaches appear on stage, draped in chiffon, bathed in a spotlight, and flinging herself into the arms of a balletic bad boy. That didn’t happen, but she may have been put in a corner somewhere, because we still hadn’t seen her.

The pre-show entertainment featured a snazzy lounge singer accompanied by a jazzy keyboard player – both octogenarians. They offered to take requests, but the audience seemed to be feeling shy. I wanted to call out “Kung Fu Fighting,” but Hubby wouldn’t let me. Thank you, Mr. Buzz Kill. Since no requests seemed forthcoming, the snazzy guy started a sing-along of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” The audience was a little too young to know all the words, but we did the best we could. Finally the show started, and there was Peaches, alive and well.  She made us proud.

Afterward, we went to the upper floor of the playhouse for ice cream. Again, we were spellbound by our surroundings: a soda fountain and candy counter, an ancient movie-house film projector that stood about four-feet tall, and a bowling alley, all of it looked like something out of a Frank Capra classic. The woodwork of the bowling alley, its lanes and ball racks, were works of art. The light fixtures, the floors… It was not hard to imagine what this place looked like in its prime. All you had to do was open your eyes and glance around. I started to wonder if we’d ever get back to 2013 without a flux capacitor.

After our refreshments and a quick walk on the wrap-around porch, we headed back to our room/sauna. We spent the rest of the night schvitzing like farmhands (and not in a good way).

The next morning, we drank, drank, drank to rehydrated our fluids and headed back to the future.

The Catskill Mountains – known as the Borscht Belt or the Jewish Alps, in its heyday – was a magnificent summer playground for tourists, especially those from New York City. If you grew up in the metro area, you probably vacationed at magnificent retreats like The Nevele, Grossingers, or the original Kutshers.  Right about now, you might even be feeling a little nostalgic for those bygone resorts and carefree days, when people actually relaxed on vacation without laptops and cell phones. If you are, you can still relive a precious piece of those sweet memories…in Willoughby. Just take Route 17 and don’t stop until you find your ambrosia.

Please Release Me

Parents have lots of endearing nicknames for their kids: Budgie, Smoojie, Jellybean…  For occasions when their children are being needy, I’ve heard parents call them Velcro, The Warden, The Cling-On… And during those especially trying times: The Barnacle or The Hemorrhoid (always said with love, of course).  In our house, you would be known as Whiny Clingman or Grumpus Minutus.

As a tyke, whenever my Sonny Boy was feeling codependent, he’d stand in front of me with his arms raised, saying, “I hold you, Mommy?”  This meant, “Pick me up.”  I know what you’re thinking: how cute!  Yes.  It was cute…for the first seven thousand times.  After that, as I’d try to cook the food, launder the laundry, or tend to our younger child, it would become a tad less darling.

If I couldn’t pick him up right away, he would swiftly transform from Whiny Clingman to Grumpus Minutus – turning me into Grumpus Minimus or Grumpus Maximus, depending on my hormone levels.

Sonny Boy would often wait for the most inopportune time to require cuddling – usually when I’d have his little sister, Peaches, on the changing table.  I would have to bend down, raise my ointment-covered hands like a surgeon, press my head against Peaches to keep her from rolling off the table and hug Sonny Boy with my knees and elbows. Try it sometime.  It’s a herniated disk waiting to happen.  He would come from out of nowhere, like a toddler ninja, and insist on human contact.  So stealth.  One time, I didn’t even know he was standing right behind me until he squeaked, “I hold you, Mommy!”  Nearly jumping out of my skin, I jerked, flinging diaper rash goop onto the ceiling and alarming the daylights out of poor Peaches.  The result?  Two disgruntled customers.

Toddler Ninja

Now before you judge my Sonny Boy as demanding, let me tell you, he was the ideal child.  A delight!  Cheerful and sweet 99% of the time!  He loved to sit quietly and look through his books or play with his toys for hours on end.  That’s why I’d feel especially guilty if I couldn’t hold him at the precise instant he needed some extra attention.

Whenever I could, I’d scoop him into my arms, and squeeze him with just the right amount of squish.  I’d nuzzle his sweet ample cheeks, and whisper, “Sometimes you love too much, my little man.” And then we would laugh and he’d kiss me.  It was our little joke.

This all happened nearly two decades ago which, in parent years, was yesterday.  It’s an age-old cliché, but truer than true: time passes faster than you ever thought possible.  These days, Sonny Boy is nearly a foot taller than I, so I’m grateful he hasn’t asked me to pick him up recently.  But he hasn’t asked for hugs either.  If only.

Very soon, we will drop Sonny Boy off at college for the first time.  We live in New York.  His college is deep in Pennsylvania, so it’s practically Kentucky (or Pennsyltucky, as the locals call it).  Being a six-hour car ride away, it may as well be in another galaxy.

I have already warned him that I might be embarrassing on move-in day.  I’m pretty sure there will be tears.  I already wept at orientation, and I wasn’t alone.  It happened when the bursar spoke to all of us parents about college loans and financing.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

But move-in day is sure to be worse.  I will hide behind my huge Jackie O sunglasses.  I’ll probably tear up on the ride there, but as soon as our wheels hit the campus, I will begin the “ugly cry.”  I will try to be brave while meeting his RA and put on a jolly façade as I’m being introduced to his roommate.  By then, however, my nose will be red, my eyes will be puffy and I will be fooling no one.

When it’s time to say good-bye, he will walk us to our car.  He will hug me and, if I’m lucky, he’ll kiss my cheek.  Hubby and I will drive away, leaving him behind.  In that twinkling of an eye, I will have to let him go, for real.  And this will cause me considerable pain because, my name is Whiny Clingman, and sometimes I love too much.

So long, buddy. I miss you already.



Many people of the cloth speak of the “calling” which led them to religious service.  My friend, Jane, was a New Jersey housewife (a real one, not a Real one), when she got the call.  Now Jane is a Vicar, enrolled in an intensive four-year program to become a Lutheran minister.  A relative of my husband’s got the call after being laid off from a high-level corporate finance position.  He joined a seminary and, after four years of rigorous study, lives as a practicing minister in Long Island.

I was watching a particularly raunchy episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm when I got the call.  It was my cousin and her fiancé, calling to say they were getting married.  They wondered if I’d be willing to become ordained and officiate at their wedding in Manhattan.  What fun! You bet!  “I’ll start the process right away,” I told them.

So I sat down at my computer to begin the steps necessary for acquiring my point-and-click investiture.  I Googled, “I want to be ordained online.”  The first website that came up seemed sufficient, and I’m lazy, so….  According to the website, an ordination through their church would qualify me to marry people in New York, as long as I registered with the New York State Bureau of Licensing.

I went through the prompts and started adding things to my virtual shopping cart.  Did I want the title “Doctor of Divinity” which included a printable degree?  Yes.  Did I want the small black book containing prayers and various ceremonies, such as weddings and baptisms?  Billed as a $45 value, it could be mine for the low, low price of just $19.99, plus shipping and handling.  Yes.   Did I want the printable parking permit, stating I was on official ministry business?  This would allow me to park anywhere.  Any where.  Are you kidding me? That would be a ‘yes.’  Did I want the printable proclamation authenticating me as a saint?  Hell, yes!

With my ordination bundle complete, I checked out and printed my PhD and saint certificate (which, as advertised, were suitable for framing).  I signed my parking permit and set it aside to be laminated.  Time spent?  Four minutes.  Who needs four years?

It’s amazing what having these documents did to me.  Like balm for my soul, the saint certificate assured me that the key to the pearly gates awaits me, already tucked under my eternal pillow.  I’m a shoe-in.  The degree stoked my ego.  I was now a doctor.  A doctor!  Oh, the respect I would command with that title.  And the parking permit?  Well, only the rare and extremely privileged individual has that kind of omnipotence.

These exciting revelations were followed by heady daydreams.  There I was, standing on a windswept mountaintop…at sunset…resplendent robes a flowin’.  I would gather people together to witness the unions of hundreds of happy couples.   And I would charge $300 a pop for 20 minutes of my time, plus gas and tolls.  What joy!

The next morning, I stopped at Kinkos, laminated the permit, and headed for the licensing bureau in downtown Manhattan.  I parked, tossed my permit on the dashboard and sashayed right past the muni meter. Dr. Anita Rosner parks for free!  Mm hmm. Take that, Mayor Bloomberg.

When I arrived at the bureau, the line at the only open window was about 30-people deep.  Other folks were off to the side, filling out forms.  Everybody was waiting in pairs – one person to hold the spot in line, the other person to keep the parking meter fed.  Suckers!

Being prepared, I had printed out the forms the night before and already completed them.  When my turn came, I presented the clerk, Ms. Waters, with my documents.

“I’m here for my license to perform marriages in New York.” There may have been an exaggerated note of gravitas in my voice.  I’m not sure.

Ms. Waters looked over the forms.  “I can give you a license for New York State, but not New York City.”

Uh-oh.  “Why not New York City?”

She pointed to the website listed on my credentials.  “We don’t recognize this church in New York City,” she casually replied.  To make matters worse, she mispronounced recognize as “REK-a-nize,” which is a major pet peeve of mine. When my daughter and her friends do it, I go insane!  But that’s a story for another time.

Sacrilege!  Her rebuff felt like a slap.  But I’ve dealt with enough pencil pushers in my day to be prepared for this.  I had preemptively tucked some bribe money in the front pocket of my conservative, yet chic, Coldwater Creek trousers.  Doctors aren’t stupid, you know.

I carefully slid the bill across the counter, so as not to be observed by anyone else but Ms. Waters.  “Perhaps you REK-uhg-nahyz this PREZ-i-duhnt,” I whispered, as I gave her a sly wink.

She openly picked up the bill, looked at it, slapped it back down on the counter and shoved it toward me.  “Ma’am,” she sighed, “I think everybody REK-a-nizes George Washington.  Now step aside.  You’re holding up the line.”

“That’s hardly any way to speak to a reverend,” I grumbled, as I stuffed the documents and dollar into my purse.

With my head held high, I marched indignantly from the bureau.  How dare they!  What chutzpah!  This threw a major wrench in the plans.  I would not be able to marry my cousin and her fiancé after all.

To add insult to injury, when I returned to my car, I discovered a $115 parking ticket stuck under my windshield wiper.  Someone had drawn on it…a picture of a smiley face wearing a halo and wings, followed by the words, “Ha! Ha!”  As if possessed, I snarled out some very un-saintly expletives, got in my car and drove home.

That night, I said “special prayers” for New York City, the jackass who drew on my ticket and the blasphemous Ms. Waters.  Amen.