I Went Bananas When My Daughter Met a Monkey

“Mom,” the voice quavered through the crackle of the international connection, “I’ve got some bad news.”

Surely anyone hearing those words from a loved one would react as I did: a sharp intake of breath, a lump in my throat thudding into the pit of my stomach, palms sweating.

Whatever pronouncement would ensue, a reassuring hug would not be imminent. My 25 year-old daughter, Emily, was in Cochabamba, Bolivia for the month of July, volunteering as a medical assistant at a local clinic. Bolivia. Three long plane flights away.

I had a flash back to last winter when Emily began talking about it. “What a great opportunity,” she had enthused. “I’ll feel like I’m really making a difference. And I can improve my Spanish, too.”

Although I deeply admire my daughter’s altruism, to say that I was less than thrilled is putting it mildly. I pointed out the litany of negatives: poverty, diseases, unsanitary conditions, political unrest. Was there political unrest? I wasn’t sure, but I went with it.

So she launched into a full-court press, peppering my inbox with upbeat articles about up-and-coming Cochabamba. Even the venerable New York Times had touted the area as a “must see” for adventurous travelers.

I still wasn’t convinced. Just scanning the list of recommended vaccinations gave me the willies.

“Em, do you understand the risks?” I argued. “Malaria. Snakes. Big insects. What if you get bitten?’

This is, in fact, what she was calling to tell me. She got bitten. But not by a bug.

By a monkey.

I Went Bananas

Dear reader, do not apologize for suppressing a giggle. I confess to a fleeting notion myself: a teeny tiny thought in a remote recess of my brain that there might be an element of humor in this scenario. But that impulse quickly gave way to panic. My mind was clicking as I began to ask questions and process what needed to happen.

Does it hurt? Not really.

Did you see a doctor? No, there weren’t any doctors.

Did you get any medical attention? I went to a pharmacy and got antibiotics.

When can you leave? As soon as possible.

I told her to start packing while I called the airline.

Cute little monkeys? Not!What I would learn later was that Emily and a few friends were visiting a nature preserve outside of Cochabamba. This Bolivian version of Great Adventure served as recreation and entertainment for the locals. Swarms of people — including tons

All went well at first. But then ... everything went bananas.

of noisy kids — hiked on its trails. Monkeys roamed freely and, accustomed to the sounds and movements of humans, interacted calmly with the visitors. Until my daughter arrived, that is.

Yes We Have No Bananas

What turned this serene simian into a pernicious primate was likely Emily’s decision to crouch down to monkey eye level. With a monkey mama and baby nearby, this was a Bad Idea. SCREECH! SCREECH! The monkey alarm system was activated. As if in a scene from a horror version of The Lion King, an alpha monkey grabbed a tree and started shaking it violently. A hush shrouded the onlookers. The only sound was the ominous rustling of leaves. Monkey minions lurking nearby looked up with interest. One by one, they muttered their displeasure. The chattering intensified. Emily’s monkey friend, just a couple of feet away, bared his teeth in a fearsome grin, lunged toward her and sank his teeth into her calf.

She screamed. He gripped her leg. She tried to pry him off. What seemed like hours was probably less than a minute, but he finally released her. They glared at each other (another Bad Idea, for those of you who might be in monkey company some day). She backed away and slowly headed down the trail. Her attacker followed for a few steps, then thought to leave well enough alone. He probably strutted proudly in front of his bare-assed buddies back at the ranch.

At times like this, you think about what could have been, and you are thankful for escaping with minimal damage. I was able to get my daughter on the next plane home. It was a grueling journey, but she was seen by our local doctors just 48 hours after the incident, and except for the painful rabies shots she endured, with more to come, she is doing fine. Despite everything, she has fond memories of her sojourn in Bolivia.

And now … we can remember the story with a smile.

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Morning on Long Beach Island

Dawn breaks with the first shaft of sunlight dancing on the water. It is still but for the gentle crash of the surf and the squawk of a seagull in flight. A few fishing boats dot the landscape, and the ocean, sparkling like a cascade of diamonds, goes on forever.

I scan the shoreline in both directions, and there is no one in sight. Of course it’s empty. It is early on a Saturday morning, and sensible people are relishing the extra sleep. Duncan and I, however, both early risers, are excited to explore the beach.

We will find treasures: a piece of driftwood, a glistening pearly shell, a sand crab burrowing in the wet sand. With practiced precision, a bevy of sandpipers skitters away from the tide, and then back again as the waves recede. Duncan observes a gathering of gulls up ahead and races to join them. The birds, alarmed, trot a few steps and then flap their wings to freedom. Duncan looks back at me and wags his tail.

Our walk concluded, we sit on the deck. I sip my coffee and read the morning paper. Duncan gazes at the ocean, happily anticipating our next beach adventure.

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Words with Friends

It’s my guilty pleasure and OK, I admit it, my obsession. This little word game, so simple and yet challenging, so eager for me to log on via my iphone or ipad, beckons beguilingly with its shiny yellow icon: Play with me. Yes, you have time for a quick game. Just one. I promise.

I was destined to love this game. A linguistics major in college and lifelong crossword puzzle enthusiast, I find pure delight in a five syllable word. I heart alliteration. Onomatopoeia? I’m the geek who knows what that means. Now I no longer have to wait for the Sunday Times puzzle to give my vocabulary a workout. With my mobile device at the ready, I can blissfully play Words with Friends anytime I want.

My opponents are mostly nameless, faceless entities with names like Miss_Sixty, Crzy432 and Phatman. I am mildly curious about who they are, where they are from, are they anything like me? There is rarely conversation, aside from an intermittent “Good one!” or “Is that really a word?” With the occasional brilliant move on my part, I sense frustration, or even skepticism, seething through cyberspace. Is my opponent regretting this game? Does WhiskyGurl223 think I am, gasp, cheating?

I have been known to whisper “Aha!” with the magic combination of  letters that allows words like squint and ziti.  I sometimes resort to the usual crossword puzzle gems, like qi, etui and tav. It is often these smaller words that garner the most points if strategically placed on a triple letter square. Forget showing off with a flashy long word that opens up a counter attack. I learned that strategy early on.

So if you dare, hit me up on Words with Friends at hbludman. One caveat (warning): although I may appear ursine (bearlike) and prolix (verbose) or resemble a diva (prima donna), that is merely a facade (illusion). In truth, I am  a mensch (good person).

Let the games begin.

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Congratulations to all the parents whose children have graduated from high school. Your darling sons and daughters are happily morphing from high school student to college freshman.  Commencement is over, yearbooks have been signed (they do still do that, right?) and the quest for a summer job is underway.

You, dear parent, have cried, exulted, worried and philosophized.  But now that your son or daughter is positioned for the next four years, I am here to tell you that it is time to plan for your future.

Consider this: no more “Back to School” nights, sitting uncomfortably in those student desk/chairs while trying to look interested in the expectations or recriminations of long suffering high school teachers. No more PTA meetings, bake sales, soccer tournaments, Halloween parades, choir recitals or  high school musicals.

What are you going to do with all this extra time?

Of course you have your 9-5 job, your gardening club, grocery shopping, fantasy football and all the other mundane tasks that we pack into our days. But be honest now. Is there a part of you that secretly yearns for the carpool line? Will you have to resist driving by the baseball field to catch a few innings? Are you still humming the tunes from last spring’s high school musical?

Good news: your prayers have been answered. These days, the gates of college are open not just to incoming freshmen, but their aging boomer parents as well.

Responding to the outcry of parents who want to retain their position in their offspring’s day-to-day lives, many institutions of higher education have adopted a full scale of parent programming and opportunities for involvement, giving you a way to extend the active parenting years a bit further. Do you have fond memories of serving on a school committee? There’s room for you. Miss volunteering at school events? Just sign up and the job is yours.

And whether your child reacts with glee or despair, you don’t have to cut the apron strings. Not yet.

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Duncan and Me

Duncan’s eyes shifted reproachfully to the suitcase I was hefting into the trunk of my car. His ears drooped. His shoulders slumped. As I retrieved my coat from the closet and returned to the garage, I found that Duncan had trotted silently out to the car and was sitting patiently in the front seat, ready to get this party started. My heart melted, but reality prevailed as I tried to sweet-talk him inside.

“Come in the house,”I pleaded.

No dice, said his body language as he avoided eye contact.

     “How about a treat?” I suggested.

       I can not be bribed, he told me.

I scooped him up with tender kisses.

“I need to go pumpkin,” I said, “but I promise I’ll bring you something.”

Unsatisfied, but with a sigh of quiet resignation, he watched the door close, and I was gone.

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This I Believe

There are many things that inspire me: the beauty in nature, the athletic prowess in a five-set tennis match or a basketball game in double overtime, a wonderful sense of humor, a perfectly turned phrase. But many years ago I stumbled upon a quote that spoke so meaningfully to me that I adopted it as my own personal philosophy.

“The three grand essentials to happiness are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.”

I have seen the quote attributed to both Joseph Addison and Allan Chalmers, so I can’t attest to its true origin. To me, it is brilliant in its simplicity about what is really important in life.

Something to do isn’t just the job you perform during the day or the errands you run on the weekends. It’s having a purpose, making a difference, maybe not making the world a better place, but trying to make both yourself AND your little corner of the universe better. It’s having an agenda that matters. What do I do? I eat vegetables I volunteer at a homeless program, I weed my garden, I donate pretty decent clothing to Purple Heart, I wear sunscreen, I say thank you excessively, I support animal rights, I cheer on the home team, I take long walks with my dog.

Something to love, well, I interpret that very broadly. I am lucky to have a family and a circle of friends to love. What else do I love? Broadway, animals, the smell of salt air and suntan lotion at the beach, old photos, movies accompanied by popcorn, Thanksgiving, reading hard-to-put-down books, the aroma of bread baking in my kitchen, high school reunions, singing along with the radio, speaking French, yes, I love all those things and so much more.

Something to hope for: in times of distress, I tell myself that things will get better, and they do. Getting through a rough patch is tolerable because I know it won’t last forever. Hoping for things is not to say that I’m dissatisfied with what I have, but what do I aspire to? And what do I wish for humanity? What do I hope for? World peace, a cure for terrible diseases, a strong leader for our country, my children’s fulfillment in whatever they do, a pair of jeans that fits well, my unwritten novel will someday be written, health and happiness and many years of life for everyone I love, and the opportunity to keep learning and keep giving back as long as I can.

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A Gentleman and a Scholar

Arnold Markley died on Friday at the age of 47. He was my friend.

I was one of thousands, it seems, whose life was enriched by knowing him in his too brief stay on this earth. Arnold was an English professor at Penn State Brandywine. His area of expertise was old English literature, and he brought it alive for his students. He was also their mentor, advocate, supporter, and they thought the world of him. It was no surprise that he was voted Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 2007.

Arnold was uniquely genuine, a southern gentleman whose kindness and generosity never faltered. No wonder his childhood nickname was “Beau.” I don’t think there was a person in the world who did not love Arnold. He and I shared a love of literature and a passion for language, and I sometimes called him with questions about grammar.  He always seemed  happy to be asked. But he often initiated a conversation by complimenting me on my work. In fact, his emails were so sweet, so kind, that I saved all of them in my personal folder on my laptop. If ever I needed a boost, I could reread those emails and feel better. That was what Arnold MarkleyArnold did. He made people feel better.

Arnold suffered with leukemia for three and a half years. He fought hard but the disease prevailed, despite a stem cell transplant and multiple rounds of chemo. Throughout it all, his courage and dignity were an inspiration. His devoted partner, Brian, showed all of us how you deal with something so unimaginably horrific and with bravery, strength and grace. It was due to Brian’s faithful postings online that Arnold’s wide circle of friends and family were able to follow his ups and downs over the course of this battle.

So many of us wanted to do anything we could to help. I volunteered as a dinner provider, and one day in January I delivered a moussaka to Arnold’s home. Not only did Arnold thank me profusely over and over, he told others about it as well. In the last weeks of his life I delivered another moussaka, and he emailed me the following: “It is still the BEST I’ve ever had — and I’ve been to Greece and have had it several times. Too good to be true!”

Arnold, you were too good to be true. I will never forget you. Rest in peace, my friend.

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It was a sticky, sultry day in August. I was hot and bored. I was four.

We didn’t have air conditioning in our split level house in Pennside, but it was too oppressive to be outside. I wandered around from room to room, fanning myself and eliciting a sigh now and then just to be dramatic. Mom was in the kitchen cooking and wouldn’t pay attention to me. I searched out the coolest room in the house — the laundry room — and lay down on the cool linoleum floor. I pondered the  meaning of life as droplets of perspiration trickled down my neck. Suddenly, inspiration hit. I found a piece of paper and a green crayon and got to work.

Books is wonderful

“Mom!” I yelled. “How do you spell ‘books’?”

“B-O-O-K-S” she called down to me as the hum of the Kitchen-aid mixer muffled her words.

“How do you spell ‘is’?”

She spelled it out for me.

“And how do you spell ‘wonderful’?”


Done with my work, I bounded up the steps to share it with her. In her proud mom way, she praised me and told me how much she loved it. I like to think that she couldn’t wait to show Dad my masterpiece. And she really must have loved it: she sent it to a company that laminated it on this wooden box, which sits in my home today.

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