Titles, Travel and Time

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Juliet, referring to her lover’s surname, “Montague,” his family bitter rivals with her own, the Capulets. And while she is right—a name alone cannot change the odor of a plant—I suspect far fewer noses would sniff something referred to as, say, skunkweed.

For writers, titles are excessively important. We are compelled to come up with something catchy in order to capture the attention of our precious and elusive targets: readers. For while there are high-paying jobs awaiting every exceptional computer engineer in the world, the most talented writers are, I’m afraid, the cliché dime a dozen.

I once, for example, gave an essay the shocking title “Die with Me,” which sounds like it might be a piece on group suicide. Indeed, it was a death wish–that the dying in my life allow me to attend and midwife their transition, as I was unable to do for my grandmother. She died alone, not wanting to bother anyone with the business of exiting this life.

Newspapers, it turns out, relieve a writer from the tedious work of titling.  There, titles are called headlines and copy editors come up with headlines that physically fit the printed page and, for the online version, contain words their search engine optimizers tell them are terrific bait for clicks. It’s like in the film industry where one production company creates a movie and an entirely different company creates the “Coming soon to a theater near you,” make-them-want-to-see-it trailer (I love trailers).

Some writers have a knack for writing clever titles. The task, however, makes me anxious and several times I have changed titles of essays posted online (where I can edit in perpetuity).

But, like many things, it’s easier to be the critic than the creator.

The headline for my first column in the best daily paper in Ohio, the Akron Beacon Journal, introduced me and my “unusual family.” Hmm, if we are unusual, I wondered, what does a typical family look like? Our family has two loving parents, which is not as standard as it once was, I concede. Five children fathered by two different men? Blended families were common way back in the 1970s when I was a girl. Two sons with learning disabilities and a daughter with a chromosomal abnormality? Given the improvement in diagnosing several disabilities in recent decades, that puts us in league with about half the families I know.

While my family history is not common knowledge and some facts are a bit salacious, I doubt any of it makes us unusual. In fact, after 8 months of rumination, the only “unusual family” I can think of is the fictional one in the novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (check it out).

Other than that, the headlines have been mostly fine and happily not my province. Until June. That’s when I wrote about taking our kids up to their grandparents in Northern Michigan for a few weeks. Most years, either Max or I drove the 450 miles each way in two days because we had to hurry back to our jobs. This year, for the first time in our relationship, we both work for ourselves and, therefore, were able to stay a few days longer because we can now work remotely. Sure, we walked the dogs on the beach a few times, but I would not call it a trip that included “relaxation by the lake” as the headline indicated.

Following up on the false equation of Time Away = Relaxation, the headline of my last column read: “Camp allowing family to relax, refresh.” To call our Buddhist family camp relaxing is like saying your Jewish neighbors relax each year at a kibbutz in Israel. Hauling gear and small children up and down a mountainside several times a day while sharing bathrooms with hundreds of other families is not relaxing. Nor is the six hours of work each camper has to do while there. That’s on top of the daily ½ hour of cleaning areas assigned by the class your child attends. It’s all good, but hardly relaxing.

Practicing kyudo archery for rites of practice at Karmê Chöling’s family camp

I’ve spent a good bit of time at Buddhist meditation centers over the years and the truth is people go a little crazy when there. Meditation divorces the mind from the pell-mell busyness we are all so accustomed to, if not addicted, in our modern lives. Quiet the mind and things arise that are easily avoided at home. Family camp is particularly crazy as kids never stop moving and, three days in, they begin melting down all over the mountain. The dates for camp used to change each summer until it was decided to always schedule it as late in the summer as possible. Why? So it occurs when the sun sets a little earlier, helping the kids to sleep more.

This year, I was in the dorm bathroom rather late one night when it was blessedly quiet. Only one other woman was there with her two small children. Her daughter, who was about six, fussed at getting her breathing treatment, after which, she resisted inhaling her Flonase. “Oh, I love Flonase,” I said, trying to distract the child, “It smells like lilacs!” Her weary mother, whose husband could not attend camp because of work, was still cajoling her daughter to cooperate when I left the bathroom. A few minutes later, she walked by me in the main house living room, carrying her son in her arms while her daughter followed behind, repeating chant-like, “I’m sorry you’re my mommy.”

Look for the fishies at the KCL pond

The next morning when the kids were in class, I ran into the mom and asked if I could hug her. Needing no more encouragement, she fell into my arms where I held her long and tight. When we released she looked like Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl,” tears pooling in her eyes and cascading down her face. “I know she’s not sorry I’m her mom, but I just wish I could be more patient with her.” Ah, what parent hasn’t said that out loud? The truth is, this woman was patient with her daughter. And frustrated. And deeply human. Little kids are tough, man.

Relaxing with young children is like the proverbial butterfly that cannot be chased. I relax best at dinners with my family. But vacations? Never. Sitting with a book on the beach makes me feel sweating and itchy just thinking about it.

I have no interest in climbing Mount Everest, but I’ve climbed a mountain in Michoacán, Mexico at dawn one winter’s day to see the monarch butterflies awaken and flood the air.

For several days, I walked alone on the streets of Rome when I was seven-months pregnant with Jules, finding ancient, medieval and Renaissance structures around every, and I mean every, corner.

Ten summers ago, when I was still the only one with a driver’s license, I took my three boys on a cross-country road trip in my 5-speed Matrix. For many reasons, that journey has become a pivotal memory for all four of us. I packed carrots, apples, cheese sticks, bread, peanut butter, jelly, Nutella, and Red Bull. My pact with the boys was if we could spend less than $20 at restaurants each day during the week, we’d splurge on weekends at a fancy dinner. They were game and we all lost weight, even Jules who was air-fern thin before we left Akron.

Three summers ago, I joined my eldest son, Claude, in Spain after he’d studied in Granada for a term. Madrid-Toledo-Valencia-Barcelona-Bilboa-Madrid, we circled that lovely Iberian country seeking art and tapas. Gracious Spaniards, delicious food (shout out to Marta Diaz Valderas at Casa Aurelio near the cathedral in Toledo!), fabulous museums and architecture greeted us at each stop along the way. The entire trip, including my airfare and all our trains, cost $3,000.

Life is like a bull I want to grab by the horns, throw down, cut open, drink the pulsing blood from its veins and the marrow from the bones I crack open. For even if I am the healthiest 51-year-old alive, and also the luckiest, that still only leaves me with 40 more good years of life.

Relaxing vacations are for those who watch life pass by. I will not wait for death because I know he waits for me.

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