What you wish you’d known when you were 10

{Mom and me at my fifth grade promotion, 1996}


When I was 10, I was captain of the safety patrols. My hair was thick and tangly, and I wore red Sally Jesse glasses. I had already outgrown much of my wardrobe and was actually borrowing blouses from my tall, pretty mother. I was on the math team, wore multicolored moccasins I picked out from Kmart and was obsessed with tornadoes.

I had a wicked crush on a boy named Matt who was “dating” a pretty curly-haired girl named Andrea, and I fell asleep at night praying he would eventually like me back. Despite my crush-to-end-all-crushes (Jessica Darling-style), I thought kissing a boy would be gross — and couldn’t actually imagine doing such a thing. I had friends who were just about as awkward as I was, and we agreed that kissing was really disgusting.

My fifth-grade teacher realized I liked to write, and she read one of my short stories — “Night Of The Twisters,” title shamelessly ripped off from the Devon Sawa made-for-TV movie of the same name — to the class. Though I was proud of my work, I was embarrassed when Mrs. Smallwood tried to read lines like, “Get away from me, you morian [sic]!” aloud. I’d actually meant “moron,” which was some pret-ty unkind language for a 10-year-old, but we didn’t have spellcheck in 1996. “Morian” it was.

On Monday morning, I got a really interesting call: a local elementary school asked me to be their keynote speaker at a fifth-grade promotion ceremony in June. The event’s theme, “Turning the Page,” dovetails nicely with my job as a newspaper columnist — and the school’s vice principal was actually my second grade teacher (she of the “I’m proud of you” note). Without thinking, I agreed to come and speak — and have already drafting my five-minute speech. I’m a teensy bit nervous.

Despite the fact that I have approximately .4672 ounces of patience in my entire body, I’ve always thought teaching would be a really rewarding profession. (The teachers out there might be cutting me the eye, but I’m sure it is sometimes — right?) In my daydreams, the opportunity to help kids seems awesome. I think about how much my own teachers inspired me, and the chance to encourage other kids at such a tumultuous time could make a difference.

Of course, the story has already been written — and I’m a writer. I wouldn’t — and couldn’t — have it any other way, but I still jumped at the chance to live out my teacher daydream for a few minutes: speaking to today’s youth and encouraging them to be brave, bold and kind.

I know it’s, like, 10 minutes of the kids’ lives — and that much of my own, too. But I remember my fifth grade promotion ceremony like it was yesterday, and I definitely remember all the people who encouraged me to do great things as I grew up.

As the Rod Stewart song I always have stuck in my head goes, “I wish that I knew what I know now . . . when I was younger.” So here’s the question I have for you, friends: given the chance, what advice would you give your 10-year-old self?

Like any commencement speaker, I want to be inspiring, pithy, funny and . . . quick. No one enjoys some long-winded old bag talking endlessly about the “good old days,” and I refuse to go down in flames. Those 10-year-olds are going to be give me a standing ovation.

Unless, you know, I suck.

So please help me not suck.


What advice would you give
your 10-year-old self?


Surprise! A 75th birthday celebration

Behind the scenes in Maryland and Virginia, a group of cousins (and their respective parents) were hard at work preparing a celebration in honor of a special woman. Mom, Maw Maw and Aunt Margy are a few of her popular monikers. And as we gathered to celebrate her 75th birthday, we were all reflecting on what she’s meant to us.

Both my grandmothers played a larger-than-life role in my growing-up years. Maw Maw introduced me to baking, helping me patiently press out sugar cookies when I was as young as 2 or 3. One of my earliest memories is of standing in her kitchen with flour covering the counter, my little hands covered in sticky dough. She introduced me to peanut butter cups, Red Hots candy and tomato sandwiches (for breakfast). She helped me learn to try new things, exercise some patience (oh, the never-ending torment) and, best of all, to always try to get along with my sister.

Maw Maw was always patient, never had an agenda; if my sister and I wanted to spend hours playing a single game, she would happily oblige. Her house was always fragrant, like springtime, and I loved hearing stories about my dad running down the narrow hallway growing up. A large coloring book was hidden beneath the couch, and you would never dare utter an “I’m bored” at her Maryland home. There was always something to do, somewhere to go.

It’s funny the random, visceral moments that return to you later in life: the easy way I can recall the fresh, summery smell of the backyard when we would visit in June or July. The sound of crickets chirping as we wandered through the grass, admiring Maw Maw’s frog statue in the yard. Eating Pop-Ice on the back porch and watching “Strawberry Shortcake” on beta tape. Peering down the well near the driveway, and asking Maw Maw for sticks of wintergreen gum.

Even years later, I can remember walking into her cool-tiled kitchen and reaching up for my favorite drinking glass. Sneaking candy from her cabinets. Admiring the trinkets in a nearby hutch, and watching her pull family photos from drawers in the living room.

Everything I remember is through a child’s eyes.

On April 7, we celebrated Maw Maw’s 75th birthday with a surprise party. I’ve never helped orchestrate a surprise party — or any party, really. And it was awesome. Though my hat is off to my organized and awesome cousin, Karen, for doing the lion’s share of the arrangements, the small parts I contributed — like the tulip table decor — were so fun to put together. Save friends’ wedding and baby showers, I’ve never had a hand in planning an event — and I felt like I was doing a trial run for a reception. Everything went smoothly.

It was wonderful sharing happy memories and celebrating a lady who has had such an impact on our lives. Seeing Maw Maw’s surprised face — and she really did seem surprised — was priceless. Having so many generations of family together created a warm atmosphere, and I’m so thankful we could all be together.

I’m also thankful to be Margy’s granddaughter. May the good times only get better.


Memories of Easter candies past


So yes, I’m trying to lose weight. Like 90 percent of the general adult population. Like many friends and coworkers, all of whom conspire to keep me on the straight and narrow. Like my poor boyfriend, who is constantly trying to get me to embrace his healthy(-ier) lifestyle . . . and has faced my hungry, annoyed face on more than one occasion. Especially as I explore the theories set forth in Cynthia Sass’s S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim, a diet book that is both enlightening and profoundly upsetting.

Because I seem to be doing All The Bad Things.

And I know a tough holiday is coming up, friends: a holiday in which I sacrifice myself at the altar of hollow chocolate bunnies. When I was a kid, Easter was all about family (and it still is, of course), worship and, well . . . presents. Edible presents.

I’m talking candy, y’all. Real, sugary, honest-to-goodness candy.

Like Christmas morning, Easter Sunday back in the ’90s would always begin with my sister and I huddled together while my parents prepared to capture our shrieks of delight as we ran down the stairs. Many years featured the Easter Bunny hiding little toys and plastic eggs around the living room, leading us into a small scavenger hunt, and we tore through the downstairs seeking our prizes.

This went on for a while — years and years. Until Katie, reaching the age of reason, finally looked at me with wide, blinking eyes. “The Easter Bunny’s handwriting sure looks a lot like Mom’s,” she scoffed, holding up a folded index card with scavenger hunt instructions. And being the older, bossy sister I was, I could only shrug with what I imagined as an impassive expression on my face. It was probably the mocking “I know something you don’t know” look all siblings despise.

At 26, I still look forward to Peeps and chocolate bunnies and robin’s egg bubblegum. And Reese’s eggs and Pixy Stix and Cadbury cream eggs. As long as I don’t get any NECCO wafers (blech, seriously — what are those?), I’m a happy girl — and no amount of faux-dieting I convince myself I’m doing will keep me from diving headfirst into my basket this year.

I’m Meg, a sweets addict. As evidenced by the time I posed in Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York City — quite possibly the most insane shopping experience I’ve ever had. In the twenty or so minutes we prowled the store, we saw and heard two glass containers full of sugary goodness smash to the floor . . . and trying to check out was enough to give me a panic attack. And all I wanted was a little porcelain container shaped like a cupcake.



And candy, of course. I don’t remember what I got, but there’s no way I left empty-handed. I must have brought home some sort of sweet for Spencer, who lives and dies by Jelly-Belly jelly beans. Pear flavored, to be exact. I tell the man he’s sweet enough already (aww), but he’s hopelessly addicted.

I don’t worry about it, though. I’m definitely not one to judge.

——

So tell me, friends: What’s your favorite type of Easter candy? What did you love as a kid? Has your sugar-covered palate changed over the years?

Boys like candy better than poetry, it seems


I love Valentine’s Day. I know some dismiss the holiday as another ploy for retailers to steal our hard-earned cash, but I really can’t find fault with a day designed to celebrate love. I mean, who doesn’t want it? Who doesn’t need it?

As adults, Valentine’s Day is a chance to ply our significant others with chocolates, cards and flowers. We share a smooch over a romantic dinner; we talk about the years gone by, experiences we’ve shared. It can be as crazy or as low-key as we want. Last year I was sick as a dog, so our plans included me mustering up the strength to go out for sushi and then falling asleep on the coach with some chocolates. And Spencer.

When we’re young, though, Valentine’s Day is a crisis waiting to happen. And if you think it’s no big deal whether you receive valentines in school, you’ve never been a 7-year-old.

I totally have. In second grade, Mrs. Brown orchestrated a way for us to leave each other notes: in the pink and red mailboxes we designed. Like many little girls, I had a massive crush on a classmate. He was blonde and blue-eyed. We met in the first-grade classroom next door, our hands touching over a shared bottle of Elmer’s Glue (or some such). His name was Daniel.

After loving him from afar for more than a year (a whole year!), I somehow decided that Valentine’s Day in Mrs. Brown’s class was D-Day. No more hesitation. Time to get bold and do something crazy. Looking back, it’s funny to see shades of who I am now in that tiny body. If there’s one way I have always hoped to win a man’s heart, it’s through a letter — or poem. I’m all about seduction through the written word, baby.

Daniel couldn’t have known what was in my heart of hearts, of course. The night before Valentine’s Day, I sat down with an array of cards my mom picked out. In the early ’90s, we’d reached a point of equality: each student was to bring a valentine for every member of the class. Regardless of how we feel about it, no one was left out.

But which valentine to assign to which kid was vitally important, you know — the wrong message to the wrong kid could prove lethal. I mean, what if you gave a “Be mine, Valentine!” to the boy who throws rocks at you on the playground? He could think you like him. And that is so gross.

Choosing Daniel’s valentine was tricky. After writing out every card but his, I had to find the perfect one. Valentine’s Day is all about love, I figured; how could I do anything but express my feelings for the boy with whom I was irrationally obsessed? Um, as a 7-year-old?

After much deliberation, I finally chose a card featuring Barbie with arms outstretched to Ken, her face split into a smile. “I Love You,” it read. My heart was pounding as hard as it ever had, but I wrote his name and signed my own. Our fates were sealed.

Passing out our valentines the next day, I crept up to Daniel’s mailbox and slipped the life-changing note inside. This was my chance to open up to him! To let him know how I felt! He’d see Barbie and Ken, read that “I Love You” and think . . .

Nothing. From the corner of my eye, I watched as classmates sifted through their sparkly bounty, enjoying the lollipops other kids had dropped in their mailboxes. If Daniel read my card, I couldn’t tell; he was probably too busy eating candy.

An early lesson learned: poetry’s great and all, but the way to a man’s heart is actually through his stomach.

‘Home Alone’ wisdom: Or why you should go ahead and use those crayons. Or wear the Rollerblades.


Of all the seasonal movies I remember loving as a kid, “Home Alone” — and its awesome successor, “Home Alone 2: Lost In New York” — stand above all the others. Though I’ve always considered myself a weird, too-philosophical-for-my-own-good sort of kid, “Home Alone 2” really helped solidify my role as an obsessive thinker.

I’ve heard some wise things in my day. Beyond the customary books that topple over with their enlightened principles, religious overtones and inspirational advice, I’ve formed my own mantras for getting through the day with (most of) my sanity intact. My favorite is “Be Here Now,” a thought expressed on a print I recently bought and plan to hang in my room.

No philosophical uttering has impacted me more than the thoughts of one Kevin McCallister, though. The warm words he exchanged with a bird lady in the rafters of a symphony in New York City have never left me. Lost and away from his family over Christmas, Kevin is shuttling around the Big Apple blowing his dad’s cash on private ice cream bars and plotting the downfall of two bumbling crooks still smarting from having been outwitted by the little guy the previous year.

When he’s not craftily getting out of crazy situations, Kevin is befriending random folks — and is totally wise beyond his years. Any 10-year-old able to check into the Plaza Hotel and keep up the charade for days isn’t your average dummy.

So I shouldn’t be shocked when Kevin teaches the brokenhearted woman one of the most important lessons of my young life.


Bird Lady: I’m just afraid if I do trust someone, I’ll get my heart broken.

Kevin: I understand. I had a nice pair of Rollerblades. I was afraid to wreck them, so I kept them in a box. Do you know what happened? I outgrew them. I never wore them outside. Only in my room a few times.

Bird Lady: A person’s heart and feelings are very different than skates.

Kevin: They’re kind of the same thing. If you won’t use your heart, who cares if it gets broken? If you just keep it to yourself, maybe it’ll be like my Rollerblades. When you do decide to try it, it won’t be any good. You should take a chance. Got nothing to lose.


I spend a good deal of time sifting through options until I reach just the right conclusion. Sometimes I’m so afraid of making a wrong decision that I do nothing — itself a choice. I try to be practiced and careful. Measured. An example of careful planning.

But that can be exhausting.

When I was 10 myself, I got an art set for my birthday. At least, I think it was my birthday — I’m not even sure anymore. We’ve gone through our childhood belongings countless times, donating to charity what we no longer want or need, but somehow this set has survived every purge.

Opening it for the first time and gazing in at the neat rows of colored pencils, pastels and crayons, I was euphoric. The possibilities! I thought. The beautiful possibilities! I was so enamored with this set that I never wanted to use it, and I certainly wouldn’t share it with my little sister. She just didn’t have any respect for my belongings, you know? (Younger siblings rarely do.)

When I wanted to color or design an art poster, I reached for my well-worn boxes of Crayola Crayons rather than the gorgeous, clean kit at my elbow. The colored pencils stayed sharp. The Crayons were unbroken and pristine in their packaging. Water never struck the watercolors, and no page was ever adorned in acrylic smears.

Everything was new, clean. Perfect and unchanged.

Years went by. I stopped coloring. Though I often talk about how I can’t wait to have kids so I can do stuff like draw again, guilt-free, it’s all a very long way off.

I think of coloring and I smile: I mean, who can dislike the electricity of changing a black-and-white image to Technicolor? It’s like owning the first color television on the block. Discovering Lucille Ball is a redhead. Following Dorothy as she swirls from Kansas and lands in effervescent Oz.

And then I thought, Why am I delaying my happiness? Why am I denying myself the free, innocent fun of something like coloring? Who cares if I’m 26. If I’m an uncoordinated artist with no talent for art. If I’m awful at staying in the lines and developing color schemes.

I wanted to color.



Katie found my art set, tucked inside a neat shelf in my mother’s crafting room. I’d purchased a set of color-your-own postcards on a whim this month and wanted to work on my project while watching “Christmas Vacation.” My fingers were itching to color, to blend hues and textures, and my sister slipped me a grin when handing me the set. “Well, you could always use this,” she said.

I opened it again — 10, 15 years later. The markers, usually the first to fade and wither, were my first target. I dotted the back of my left hand with purple circles, testing to see if they would still work. They’re all still capped. The markers mark. The pencils and crayons are still sharp, the ruler still nestled tight in its bed.

My set is clean and orderly. Planned. And though my instinct was to keep them just so, I swallowed it down. I fought it.

Why shouldn’t I wear my Rollerblades outside?

Why shouldn’t I press every Crayon down to its oily beginnings?



I colored one postcard, then another. Then I found a Christmas coloring book and drew in that, too. I pushed hard on the pencils, dulling them, and sketched long lines across blank sheets of paper. I mussed them up. I used them. I used them in a way I would never allow my measured, careful 10-year-old self to use anything.

It felt so good.

It’s almost Christmas and I’m tired, stressed, a little worried. Sometimes so much seems beyond my control — hard to explain, hard to process. Like everyone, I have the slivers of fears that wake me up at 5 a.m., tossing and staring at the shadows on my ceiling.

But I know one thing, something stronger than I’ve ever known: I don’t want to be the type of person who only wears her Rollerblades in the cushy comfort of her childhood bedroom. I don’t want to unearth an art set in two decades to discover I never created any art at all.

Use the crayons. Ride the bike. Take the trip. Eat the expensive chocolate. Drink the fine wine.

Enjoy your life.

“Embrace the bonfire,” a classmate wrote in my high school yearbook, “without fear of being burned.”

And that is all I want to do.


Favorite Halloween costumes and an ‘Aww, Ricky’

We take so much for granted as children. I mean, dressing up? Nothing out of the ordinary. We can be princesses and walk in our mothers’ heels from here to eternity, never worrying that anyone is discussing our eccentric behavior. It’s nothing to don a crown and prance around the living room, or to find a magic wand and place “curses” on others. It’s all fun. Make believe.

But since I’m not eight anymore, I know I can’t get away with such behavior. Halloween is the only time I can safely go out dressed as a witch or devil and not be thought a creeper by the general populace. I might try to milk the whole costume thing and dress up in Christmas- or elf-related garb come December, but that’s a stretch.

Like all kids, I took my Halloween costumes very seriously. There was the year I was a cheerleader, for instance, complete with a sash for my elementary school. On another occasion I was Miss America (oh, if only); and then, of course, there were the endless witch costumes. The Wicked Witch was sort of my go-to, which is funny considering how terrified I am of “The Wizard of Oz.” I guess I was overcompensating.

One of my favorites was my Blue Fairy costume. In 1992, Katie dressed up as Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and I recycled one of my mom’s old bridesmaids dresses from the ’60s to become a magical helper. What I remember most were the sequin-covered wands my little sister and I had. Though I’m unsure why Belle would need a magic wand, we went with it — and you’ll also spot a fully-clothed Beast doll in Katie’s arms. (He lost his Beast head soon after and was, from then on, merely the unmasked Prince.)

We used to go trick-or-treating in our own neighborhood, checking out the costumes on the local kids, then hop over to my grandparents’ house to visit their friends and neighbors. Since our elementary school was just a block or two from Grandma and Grandpa’s, we usually saw lots of kids we knew — and showing off your costumes was always half the fun.

Though Halloween is different now, of course, I still enjoy the holiday and eat my fair share of treats. I dressed up as a ’20s flapper in 2009 and have a newly-acquired Lucille Ball costume for this year’s festivities! I’m still trying to convince Spencer to be the Ricky to my Lucy, but he’s hesitant thus far. If he goes for it, we’re going to have to work on our “Babalu.” 

Though my singing could make an angel cry. 

Maybe I’ll just stick to the ol’ trademark “Aww, Rick-yyyyyy . . .”

Whining? Never been a problem for me.


A little something sweet

When I think of summer, it’s the sweet tang of a Slurpee on my tongue that hits me first.

Near my grandparents’ home was a 7-Eleven — a convenience store just far enough away to constitute a “walk,” but not nearly far enough that we couldn’t make it over there. My sister and I were fortunate to spend summers with my grandparents growing up, and Grandma tried to get Kate and me out for fresh air. When the Maryland humidity didn’t threaten to knock us out, we’d prance around the neighborhood and wind up at the store for a treat.

I remember my sister in the stroller and my hand in Grandma’s. I remember the shells adorning a neighbor’s driveway — as fine and delicate as bone. And I remember, too, the way the cool air and neon lights would strike us as we made it to 7-Eleven — and I headed straight for the Slurpee machine. I couldn’t always reach it.

My dad kept up the ritual, too, and trips for Slurpees were an after-school routine. When Dad would collect us for home, we’d pop into the store for chips and a drink. Coke Slurpees have always been my favorite, and still are; a throwback to the sweetness of growing up.

When I’m having a rough day, 7-Eleven’s siren song is more powerful than anything Starbucks could ever offer. I often stop for lunch near a gas station that carries this nectar of the gods and can’t help but get a large beverage for the road. In the decades since those lazy days at Grandma’s, I’ve traded my sneakers and corduroys for heels and trousers — but my childish taste buds? Totally intact.

Katie and I made a special trip for a free “birthday” Slurpee on 7/11. They were out of Coke, of course, considering it’s the most awesome of all awesome Slurpee flavors. But I got a cherry — a decent substitute. And it’s definitely not unusual to find my sister and I making special trips to drinks to this day.

July is rapidly winding to a close. Our birthdays have now passed — an annual celebration of Dad, my sister and me. August is waving and friendly, but still threatening to disappear as fast as the previous months. We anticipate summer for so long — the vacations and tanning and fireworks — but once it’s here, we’re helpless to slow it all down. As I type, the leaves on trees lining my office’s street are yellowing and preparing to drop. It won’t be long before our 100-degree heat yields to cold, damp 60-degree days.

And don’t get me wrong — I still get Slurpees on 60-degree days. But there’s something about the rapidly-melting, hot-and-steamy July afternoons that make your drink all the sweeter.

And who couldn’t use a little sweet?