Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Days of Auld Lang Syne

Well, Interwebs, it’s been quite a year.

About this time last year, I took the Holmes and Rahe stress test, and received a score of 349, which indicated an 80% likelihood of developing stress-related illness. This year - after a move, an IRS audit, and a divorce - my score still managed to go down to 217, with only a pitiful 50% chance of stressing myself sick. So hey, progress!

My goal for next year is to slide right down to the low-risk numbers, and I’d say I’ve got a good shot at it. Because if you take out the major catastrophes, it’s been a good year, and I only expect the next one to be better. Unlike December of 2008, I know where I’m going to be living in two months, I know where my kids will be in school next fall, and I know that I’m at least 98% done with the fallout from my failed business. Even more importantly, I know I have loyal, loving friends and family who will support me and my children through whatever comes next, just as they did during the past twelve months. It hasn’t been an easy year, but thanks to that support, it’s been much more manageable than anyone would assume. Exhibit A? Not a single sick day taken on my own behalf. Well, maybe one. But still.

I know there are still challenges ahead, both predictable and completely unforeseen. But the advantage of surviving a litany of personal disasters is that even the dark twists down the road don’t seem so scary. Maybe they would be if I knew I had to travel alone, but I don’t.

Thanks, y’all. Happy new year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let Your Heart Be Light

For the 14th or so year in a row, I didn’t quite get it together to send out Christmas cards. I can’t quite bring myself to send out a mass e-mail (although I really don’t find it offensive and in fact admire the eco-friendliness of it, plus how it spares me the guilt of eventually throwing out pictures of your kids), so in lieu of all that pretty cardstock and personalized messages, I bring you …

The 2009 SAM Christmas Letter

Ho ho ho, y'all, and happy holiday greetings from Memphis! East Memphis, to be exact. After almost a decade as a proud Midtowner, and, I'm sure coincidentally, 5-time crime victim, I began 2009 with a cross-town move to the pastoral acres of the east. In February, the SAM household (SAM, Miss M and Mr. Baby) moved into a huge 1970s compound with the Sassy-Urf! family (R, K, C, JP, S and GK) and formed one giant acronym conglomerate. Adjustments to the new arrangement were smoother than anyone could have hoped, owing mostly to the fact that we already spent most of our time together but in a much, much smaller space. 

Speaking of small, Mr. Baby is the only member of the family still wearing the same size jeans from a year ago. What he lacks in size, however, he makes up for in smarts, adorability, and pure goofiness. He's currently thriving in pre-pre-pre-K, making friends, charming teachers, and singing most of the alphabet in almost the right order.

Fortunately, big sister Miss M is always at the ready to assist him in matters academic and otherwise. The girl finished kindergarten with finesse and made a wonderfully smooth transition to first grade at a whole new school, thanks both to her genuine love of learning and her wonderful teachers at both campuses. She's thrilled to be reading on her own, and has also discovered the joy of having longer books read aloud. We're currently working through the Little House series, and I can't wait to blow her mind by taking her to Laura Ingalls' old Minnesota homestead next summer.

And my year? Well, you made it to this page, so there's a good shot you've been reading the sporadic updates through the year, and if not ... well, I'll try to keep it brief. I've continued my tenure as a fully-employed professional writer, working with people so nice I'm reluctant to go into detail about them or they'll think I'm just sucking up because they found my blog (hey, guys!). I've tried to balance out the more stressful uses of my free time (e.g. gathering tax-related documents, visiting with lawyers) with completely relaxing-but-not-especially-documentable uses (e.g. reading, seeing how long I can stay in bed before I feel guilty about it). Most of my time off from work was spent with one sick child or the other, but we did manage to make a trip to the ancestral homeland for Corn Capitol Days, and are about to return to the frozen north for Christmas.

I hope that, if you've visited this blog this year, you've found something entertaining or interesting or at least worth your time. I thank you for reading and for letting me share these parts of my life with you.

To me, the spirit of Christmas is love and wonder and joy, and exists for everyone, of all beliefs, to embody and enjoy. I wish you that spirit during this season, as I wish you all a very Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My Mama Told Me

Very true things my mother has taught me:
  • You should always have something in your closet that you can wear to a funeral, because that’s a terrible time to have to shop.
  • You won’t stop feeling sick until you take a shower, put on real clothes and walk around some.
  • Cottage cheese in lasagna is an unforgivable sin.
  • Clean sheets are one of life’s greatest simple pleasures.
  • It’s never too late to love something you were once terrified of.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Chevron Formation

The advantage of being a blog slacker is that, eventually, other people will cover most of the stuff you’ve missed. And so it’s not really necessary to tell you any more about the gorgeous November Rock-n-Romp, because it’s been so aptly detailed here. And with such great photo documentation and a lovely post by Stacey, plus RJA’s column, there’s really not much more to say about Ravioli Day 2009. And everything I just said right here? Well, Stephanie already beat me to it. The only other thing I can think of to discuss is just how impossibly beautiful the fall weather has been lately, and even with that, I think a picture is worth more than my 1,000 puny words.

Click it big!

(Click it to see full desktop-background-worthy size)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We'll Have A Jubilee Down In Memphis

In the last few sparingly documented months, a milestone silently passed. No, no, not the birth of my new niece Madeleine (heck, that was all over Facebook, anyway). This landmark was a much more bittersweet occasion. I’m speaking, of course, of the close of my first decade as a Memphian. I recently realized I have spent ten years as a resident of the city of Memphis, county of Shelby, state of Tennessee, US of formerly confederated A.

I feel like I should have something insightful or wise to say about that, but really, I’m just baffled. It still boggles my mind that a girl who grew up around lakes and loons is now at home with magnolias and mockingbirds. But have I become a belle in this epoch? No, definitely not. I still feel like I trip over my thick Midwestern tongue whenever I’m around Southerners, and Southern women in particular. There’s an ease and grace and openness that I don’t think I’ll ever master, no matter how well I integrate “y’all” and “ma’am” into my vocabulary.

Memphis is its own particular breed of Southern, of course. It’s the loveable ne’er-do-well, the kid brother who keeps swearing to pay you back that ten bucks he owes you from 2002. (When he took it out of your car. With a hammer.) And also the stage-frightened protégé, the reclusive genius, filled with so much talent but terrified to do anything with it. It’s a big city with seriously small-town self-esteem. Over the last ten years, I’ve grown fond of its foibles and exhausted by its drama. I’ve been its champion and its victim. And I’ve worked hard to raise two native residents who can see their hometown for both its joys and sorrows.

When I was up north (the generic term Memphians use to describe anywhere above the Mason-Dixon, whether it’s Northeast or Midwest) this past weekend, I realized what a homeland limbo I’m in now. Friends from high school marveled at my Southern accent, a cashier at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport asked where in the upper Midwest I was from, and the DeSoto county resident sitting next to me on the plane said I obviously hadn’t lived in Memphis that long. And it’s not just my phonemes that are hard to place. I have Southernized, to a degree. My manners have softened, my pace has slowed, and I’ve learned to make a mean pitcher of sweet tea. But you can’t take the Minnesotan out of the girl, either. Just being in the airport and seeing St. Olaf sweatshirts made my heart ache a little. As we took off from the Lindbergh Terminal, that Mississippian asked me what that big city was over on the horizon, and my voice caught a little as I said Minneapolis. Because in that one word is many others: Wayzata, Minnetonka, Olivia. Guthrie, Walker, Calhoun. Sister. Parents.

And then, two hours later, I landed. I walked out into a perfect Memphis autumn day, and into the hugs of my children and friends. I spent the afternoon playing in my yard, lounging in my house, and hearing stories of what I’d missed. And I had missed it. The pull I felt toward the color-shifting birch trees of Minnesota was, bizarrely but truly, just as strong toward the Dixie Queen on Airways. They may not be comparable in beauty, but they are both vivid markers of their place. And for the past ten years, this place has been my home.

Postscript: it occurred to me this morning that ten years is longer than I've lived, consecutively, in any one place throughout my entire life, and about matches the collective time I've lived in Minnesota. Which explains why it's not unlikely for me to utter the phrase, "Y'all want some pop?"

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why Don't You Write Me?

I'm way behind in both blogging and general daily duties, so I'm going to brazenly rip off Elizabeth (who I think may have subliminally ripped off Craig Ferguson, which is always cool by me) and catch up through the power of the open letter.

Dear Shelby County Business Tax Office Employees,
Look, I know you have a pretty miserable job, what with irate taxpayers in your faces all day. But isn't there a better way to conduct business than to have everyone stand at the same counter, shouting their personal financial issues through the office?

Dear Andy Wise,
You may want to investigate the HVAC system at the Shelby County Business Tax office, because they seem to be pumping in some sort of airborne depressant that makes otherwise stoic taxpayers burst into tears within five minutes of entry.

Dear TN Department of Revenue Tax Enforcement Officers W***** and N*******,
Y'all are very sweet and efficient and professional. You make releasing a payroll garnishment a pleasure.

Dear Rain,
Enough. Seriously.

Dear Sickness,
Would it be too much to ask that you make a decision? We could live with stomach flu, or sudden, brief bursts of fever, or the loitering weeks-long sinus issues, but all of the above is a bit much to handle. Let's focus here.

Dear Dad,
I'm sorry I suck and never call. Thankfully, it looks like your 10-months-pregnant daughter picked up the slack during your week in the hospital and ongoing post-surgical recovery. It's cool, I understand about the will.


Friday, September 04, 2009

Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby

I don’t know what it is about six years old, but it seems so much more grown-up than five. Five is kindergarten, learning the alphabet in the correct order and counting to 100. Six is first grade, spelling tests and math flash cards. It’s the leap from child to kid.

Miss M turns six years old tomorrow, and although it’s expected to say that I’m startled by that fact, it seems just exactly right to me. In many ways, she’s always seemed that age – precocious and overly aware of the world occupied by bigger girls. She grew so naturally into the fully verbal version of herself that it’s sometimes hard for me to grasp that the pre-verbal baby was really the same being. Her first years were hard, it has to be said. She was not an easy, laid-back baby, and I eagerly anticipated the movement through the frustrating periods when all she wanted was to walk and talk and couldn’t get her body to cooperate. I don’t miss her as a baby. I am so happy she is in this place now.

And, for the most part, she is, too. She loves school and the independence it offers her. She is gaining confidence every day, in academic as well as social arenas. When we visited Minnesota over the summer, my mother marveled at the formerly-withdrawn little girl who nonchalantly joined in a game with children she’d never seen before. She’s curious about the world around her and enthusiastic about her place in it. It’s a joy to watch her grow into such a smart, strong kid.

She relishes the things she can do and understand now, and I’m grateful for the freedom it gives us both. But sometimes, out of nowhere, she’ll wrap her arms around my waist and rest her head against my stomach, tears starting to well in her eyes. When I ask her if something’s wrong, she says, “I just love you so much.” In these moments, we both remember that she is still my baby girl.

Happy birthday, Miss M. I love you so much.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Girl, Put Your Records On

I started out with the plan to make a Top Five Favorite Songs Ever, but then I thought of a 6th ... and then a 7th ... and then I started listing them chronologically. So what we now end up with is:

My Personal Top Five Songs From Each Of The Past Five Decades:

"Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)," Bob Dylan
"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
"In My Life," The Beatles
"God Only Knows," The Beach Boys
"Try a Little Tenderness," Otis Redding

"Oh Girl," The Chi-Lites
"Something So Right," Paul Simon
"Thunder Road," Bruce Springsteen
"American Girl," Tom Petty
"Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)," Tom Waits

"Jessie's Girl," Rick Springfield
"I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man," Prince
"With or Without You," U2
"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," Elvis Costello
"You Are The Everything," R.E.M

"One," U2
"Hallelujah," Jeff Buckley
"Forever Blue," Chris Isaak
"Road to Ensenada," Lyle Lovett
"The Way," Fastball


"When The Deal Goes Down," Bob Dylan
"Million Faces"/"Loving You," (tie) Paolo Nutini
"Put Your Records On," Corrine Bailey Rae
"Dance With Me," Old 97s

I know there are glaring errors and omissions (where's the Bowie?), but unless I make this a Top 100, or 1000, I'm going to miss some of the songs I really love. But I keep coming back to the fact that these are the songs that define me, for better or worse. Although, obviously, the decades I discovered them don't necessarily correspond with the dates of their releases.

Deride if you must (yes, yes, I said Fastball), but I'd much rather see your own lists. Try it, it's fun!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

There's One For You, Nineteen For Me

Probably the only thing more boring than doing your taxes is reading about someone else’s tax issues, but I feel the need to write something about it before I go all Falling Down.

Sometime this last spring – late April, I think? – I received a very intimidating letter from the IRS. It informed me that my business tax return from 2007 was under review and could I please get together my documents and meet with an agent to discuss. Which seemed sort of benign at first, until I realized, “Wait … documents … agent … this is an audit!” But I complied, of course. I took two days off of work so that I could sit in my house and answer questions and provide records for a business that did nothing but lose money for five years. And closed in 2008.

At the end of those two days, I was told that I would be given a report by July 20. “It’ll probably be before then,” the agent said, “but I’ll give it that much time, just in case.” So the weeks went by and I kept waiting for another ominous envelope. And waiting. And waiting. July 20th came and went, and then on July 22, the day before I left for vacation, I got a call from the auditor saying she was going to need some additional information about my personal return, but would send out the business report and I’d have 30 days to get her the other info she needed. She gave me the gist of what I had to come up with, so when I got a thick document request in the mail, I didn’t pore over it. In fact, I didn’t even open it. But I did set about culling my credit card websites for 2-year-old statements (thank you, Chase, for the easy access to archived statements, and suck it, Bank of America, for wanting to charge me $5 each). But I wasn’t in any real hurry, since I hadn’t even gotten the report yet, and figured I had a couple more weeks at least. The auditor was calling a couple times a week with updates, but since they were just informational, I was letting the calls go to voicemail.

And then, on Tuesday, there was a message asking if we could move our Thursday meeting from my house to her office. Wait, wha? What Thursday meeting? I scrambled to get that thick envelope opened, and sure enough, there on the bottom of the second page was a date and time for her to go over the new paperwork. I didn’t think I could get everything she needed in the next 48 hours, so I called back and asked to reschedule, and mentioned that going downtown to her office was going to require me to take half a day off of work. Her schedule was full for the next month, however, and the appointment was going to take three hours regardless, so rather than drag it out any more, I quickly requested Thursday afternoon off and, two days later, hauled my computer and ten pounds of files to the IRS Service Center.

The next three hours were about what I expected. I was shuffled from a gray waiting room to a gray “Interview” room and then proceeded to look over spreadsheets and bank statements, answering questions and explaining my English major accounting process. As the details unfolded, we discovered that I’d made some small errors, but when totaled up, they basically canceled each other out. A little under here, a little over there – came out just the same in the end. There was no malicious intent or devious effort to conceal income. I doofed it up a little, but nothing major.

Which, really, just makes me more upset about the whole thing. If they had spent all this time uncovering some egregious error, I would be stressed about coming up with the money, but at least I’d feel like they had used all of this time to someone’s benefit. But as it is, I have burned more than 10% of my vacation time, not to mention hours of research, document-gathering and sleeplessness, and the IRS has spent at least 30 woman-hours to find out that … we’re square. It’s maddening. It’s absurd. It’s enough to make me dig out statements from 2006 so I can prove that they actually owe me money. Because, by gum, if they can’t make all of this hassle worth their time, I’m sure as heckfire going to make it worth mine.

Apropos Of Nothin

My Top Five Most Hated Songs, in order:

1. "Kokomo," The (alleged) Beach Boys
2. "Deacon Blues," Steely Dan
3. "Red Red Wine," UB40 (I have no quarrel with you, Neil Diamond)
4. "River of Dreams," Billy Joel
5. "All I Wanna Do," Sheryl Crow

I have nothing to say about song quality or lack thereof. I simply hate them all.

And now they're all in my head. Gah!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

You Are So Lucky On Your First Day

So while we were still grabbing clean clothes out of our vacation suitcases, it was already time to start up the new fall routine. For the second year in a row, Miss M is at a brand new school and Mr. Baby is starting at a brand new daycare, so the anxiety level was at a peak. Well, mine was, anyway. After a summer of worry and occasional tears, Miss M had recently come to terms with the start of first grade and the move to a new school, and even seemed excited about it. Mr. Baby was blissfully unaware of the changes afoot, although he had shown great enthusiasm for the playground at “new sool!”

Still not entirely sure how I was going to get all three of us ready for the day before 7:15, I had planned to drop the baby off first, thinking this would make it easier to navigate the elementary school crowds later, plus provide me with Miss M’s help to haul in the nap mat, bedding, change of clothes and diapers required by the daycare. About five minutes before I’d intended to leave, however, I realized this plan wasn’t feasible, so I called an audible and reversed the drop-off procedure. I wasn’t sure how much time it would take to get M to her room, so I gave us a wide window.

Turns out, dropping off a child who just two weeks ago was weeping about starting first grade was much easier than anticipated. Parking and crossing an un-crossing-guarded street with two little ones was the hardest part of the process. Once we got to M’s room, she was all confidence, or at least bravery. She gave me a kiss goodbye and walked off without complaint. She hugged her teacher hello and entered her classroom with her head held up, although once inside, she seemed a little less sure of what to do. I had to leave before her look of determined fear-conquering broke my heart in half.

Mr. Baby’s drop-off, unfortunately, was heart-breaking in other ways. Once we got to his school, he put on his little backpack and marched all the way into his classroom without a care in the world. It was pretty much the most adorable thing that has ever happened on Earth, except for maybe the sneezing baby panda. But then he realized I was leaving. And oh, did he have cares. His cares were audible all the way out into the parking lot. I know he’s an agreeable child, and I knew he would recover and most likely have a good day, but it was still a very rough start. He didn’t seem so much sad as … betrayed. Like, he knew all about this school thing, but no one told him he had to go without any of his people.

The pick-up report was that he had in fact calmed down quickly and been a model of citizenship throughout the day, but the next morning, he was much warier as we approached the doors. I’ve been through this process several times now, and I know, logically, that it’s going to be better before I know it, but man, that just does not make these first weeks any easier.

On the plus side, Miss M had a great first day and has remained eager and positive about her new school and class. She’s being tested and assessed and will be placed in her permanent classroom at the end of the week, so I’m hoping that she’s just as happy about where she ends up as she is about where she is now.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

It's A Long Way Home For The Summer

When I was growing up, the start of August meant we were in the homestretch of summer. There were still a few weeks left to enjoy long evenings, late bedtimes, and Facts of Life re-runs. No school I ever attended began before Labor Day. But for my kids, and all kids in Memphis, August is the very end of the line. By Labor Day weekend, they’ve been closed up in their classrooms for a month. So it was with particular pleasure that, during the last weekend of July, I scooped up the children and skedaddled out of town for the most traditional of our family’s summer activities: Corn Capital Days.

As a child, I spent all year looking forward to the two weeks we spent in my parents’ hometown of Olivia, MN. We lived in Pittsburgh during my formative years, and we would load up the car (usually a Jeep Wagoneer, although there was one memorable Summer of Fuego), with our sleeping bags, books, cooler and games, and hit the road for a non-stop, 21-hour trip across the upper Midwest. It sounds like an interminable misery, but it actually wasn’t so bad, and the promise of freedom - of Gramma’s house, of small town streets, of 9pm sunsets - made it all worthwhile.

This year was the first time in Mr. Baby’s life, and the first time since Miss M’s toddlerhood, that we were able to make the pilgrimage to Olivia for this event. (Mr. Baby had actually been to Olivia twice before, under much sadder circumstances.) We were spared the road trip aspect by Pops’ very generous gift of frequent flyer miles, shrinking the travel time from 15 hours to two, but air-traveling alone with two small children in post-9/11 airports, I think I still got a glimpse of the tension my dad used to feel when driving unfamiliar Chicago roads at rush hour. We made it without major incident, though, and after a day to recoup in the suburban buffer zone, we made the last leg of our trek down highway 212, to the seat of Renville County.

Things may change over the years, but the feel of a small town is hard to mess with. Even with the high school knocked down from three storeys to one, the shiny new playground equipment in the parks, and the tragic loss of the Ben Franklin general store from the anchoring corner of downtown, Olivia still looks, feels, sounds and smells like Olivia. The streets still come to a dead stop at the edge of town, flanked by endless seas of corn and soybeans. The summer evenings still come on with air cooled by the moisture rising from the fields. The hours are marked by St. Aloysius’ bells, although the coo of mourning doves is just as reliable for indicating that it’s suppertime. And the smell of earth and growth, dusty roads and damp furrows, diesel tractor engines and truck beds full of sweet corn, make up an olfactory environment that has remained constant throughout my life, and I suspect for generations before me.

Speaking of those generations, the other great joy of our yearly trips to Olivia was the chance to see relatives that were otherwise out of reach. In Pittsburgh, we were a family of four, with no other family for 1000 miles. But in Minnesota, we were surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins of all degrees. My father alone has 64 FIRST cousins, many of whom still lived near the house he grew up in. The house my grandfather built with his own hands, his wife and four sons living in the basement while he finished the floor above.

I didn’t take the kids to Olivia expecting them to instantly warm to or appreciate the extended family that had traveled from all over the country to be there at the same time - 31 in total, not counting the hyper-extended family I probably passed in the street without even knowing it. I just wanted them to see the faces and learn the names, and I held some hope that the next time we came to visit, they might be a little less shy. So I was astonished when, within an hour of our arrival, Miss M had thrown off her bashful guise and was running from pool to playground with her cousins, chasing after great-aunts and –uncles she hadn’t seen in years, and doing it all without a glance in my direction. She was instantly comfortable in a way I have never before witnessed. It seemed like she just naturally knew that this was her place and these were her people.

I caught glimpses of her as she finished off her cob at the corn feed, or chased after the candy tossed at the Grand Parade, or zipped off with her uncles in the golf cart, and those glimpses looked so familiar it was startling. At the end of the day, I would track her down in whatever lap she ended up in, and she would tell me she was ready to go to bed. After my sense of reality recovered from that statement, I would tuck her into the rollaway in the basement, a large, dark room with a formica bar and stone fireplace hearth that provided countless hours of childhood entertainment for my sister and me. Both nights there, she went to sleep without a word of complaint, so exhausted and content she didn’t even have anything contrary to say about sleeping in a windowless cellar.

Unfortunately, Mr. Baby had a little anxiety that kept him from fully enjoying the trip – namely, his body-shaking terror over coming in proximity with a dog – but I think that’s something he’ll outgrow by next year. In the meantime, I’m still fulfilled by the knowledge that I can share part of my childhood with my children, as well as provide the same connection to our roots that has been the grounding force throughout my life.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Summer's Out Of Reach

These bizarrely cool summer days have made me want to be outside even more than usual. “More than … what?,” I can hear echoing from Memphis to Minnesota, but the reality is, I like the outdoors. I do. I like hiking and biking and swimming in natural bodies of water. I like trees and flowers and birds and fuzzy little woodland creatures. I like the idea of getting outside the house and exploring my own environment. The problem is, my mental appreciation of nature is at odds with my physical tolerance for it.

For starters, I’m allergic to outside. I have spring hay fever, fall hay fever, and intermittent spells of summer hay fever. I’m of northern European stock, and not genetically pre-disposed for year-round pollen. Worse than what reacts with my system, however, is what is attracted to my system. I am a mosquito magnet. There are people who are barely noticed by bugs, there are people who have a normal adversarial relationship with them, and then there are those of us who cannot step outside between March and November without being swarmed. If I sit on my porch for one minute, I will go back inside with no less than half a dozen fresh bites. In one DEET-soaked evening on the patio, I racked up 30 new welts, including five on my face and more than ten on my fully-clothed back. I try to suffer through it for the sake of enjoying my yard, but histamines will only be ignored so long.

The mosquitoes have a harder time getting me when I’m moving, but exercising, and especially exercising outdoors in the summer, is tough for me. Not because I’m averse to activity or too delicate to sweat, but because I actually cannot sweat. I don’t suffer from complete hydrosis, but the strange truth is, my face doesn’t sweat. At all. I could work out for an hour and there wouldn’t be a drop of perspiration on my brow. Instead, there would just be an oily sheen over my bright red face as I staggered around like a drunk arctic puffin. I actually switched to a deodorant that doesn’t contain anti-perspirant after realizing that being able to use at least one portion of my body’s natural cooling system enables me to spend a longer period in the heat without feeling like I’m going to keel over.

In tragic irony, swimsuit season is my least active time of year, as all the forces of nature push me indoors. So I’m enjoying this respite while I can – taking meals outside, walking every evening - knowing that in a matter of days, my truce with the outdoors will end.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Fate Sat Behind The Wheel

There's a small piece of glass embedded in my right arm, just above the joint of my elbow. It's a shard of car window, pushed into my skin when our Pathfinder was struck on the driver's side, a compact sedan hitting with such force that the SUV flipped completely over and landed back on its wheels. My half-open window shattered when the passenger door tipped into the street, bits of glass and Madison Avenue burying themselves in the arm that was still braced against the window frame when the horizon went vertical.

My daughter, nearly three years old then, was also in the car, strapped into the middle of the backseat. I didn't hear her make a noise when we went over, but as soon as the car stopped moving, she began shrieking to get out. I skittered over the center console to get to her. I don't remember opening the door, but somehow we got out. I can still feel the late afternoon August sun in my eyes as I stood holding her on the sidewalk, looking her over for injuries, trying to determine whose blood was whose. I clutched her to me and the full fear hit me at once. I peed right out the leg of my shorts. I barely noticed and didn't care.

The day leading up until the accident had been eventful, a mix of highs and lows. We had been to the lake, kayaking and swimming. Even though the child's energy and attitude were flagging, we decided to end the day with a trip to Baskin-Robbins. We were a block out of the parking lot when the woman in the white Taurus ran the red light. By the time I registered the sound of her brakes squealing, the impact had already occurred.

An ambulance came and the EMTs tracked the baby and me down in the Zinnie's bathroom, where we were trying to use duct tape to remove glass from our skin and clothes. They insisted on taking us to the emergency room, because they simply couldn't believe that anyone could survive that type of crash without a major injury. But after four hours sharing a bed in a very dark, curtained-off exam room in the corner of Methodist Central, we were checked out and cleared to go. When I asked about the chunk of glass they hadn't been able to irrigate from my arm, the nurse said, "Don't worry, it'll work itself out in time."

When I think of the day leading up to the accident, even the good moments are tainted by the ending. Every second led directly to that instant of disaster.

Nearly three years later, the glass is still there. I don't feel it all the time, but sometimes it aches out of nowhere, and it stings like a fresh wound if I bump it against something. Maybe it will still find its way out of me, I don't know. Maybe one day my skin will thin and soften and it will escape. Or maybe, as some morbidly suggested, it will burrow until it finds a vein and enters my bloodstream, threatening to block my heart completely. But most likely, it will stay where it is, the edges smoothing over time, less painful through the years but still reminding me of the collision, always warning me to be watchful.

When I see the scar or touch the bump beneath it, my stomach does a slight flip, a partial re-enactment. I feel like I'm right back in that out-of-control car, waiting for the spinning to stop so I can get my child to safety.

Friday, June 26, 2009

You Say It's Your Birthday

Two years old, Mr. Baby. Your nickname is more fitting by the day, as you toddle between the boundaries of infancy and boyhood.

At this time last year, I was in a panic, facing our first major separation as I re-entered the corporate world. Twelve months later, I still miss you every day, but it’s a comfort to see how smoothly you move among those who love and care for you. I’ve been so lucky to have the help and effort of people who adore you, and whom you adore back: the amazing Mama KT and absolutely indispensable Kristy and RJA. Whenever I see you after time apart, you light up and run to me, but you do not dissolve in tears of frustration or relief. I know you love me, I know you need me, but I also know you’re perfectly happy when I’m gone. It’s a little bittersweet, but it’s the very best I could ask for.

My memories of your second year of life span such a wide range. You went from crawling, nursing, essentially unintelligible, and near-bald to running, juice-glass-navigating, sentence-speaking and near-bald. You have grown so much (well, developmentally, anyway) and shown more and more of the boy bursting to get out of your tiny body. You can already hold your own in a house full of older kids, none of whom can help but be charmed by your happy, silly nature. You are worshipped by your big sister, even when her displays of reverence wander into the overbearing.

So many things have changed for us over the past year, and not every transition has been seamless, but through it all, you have remained my joyful, funny, sweet little boy. We’ve got more changes coming up, with the biggest being your entry into an official pre-school, but I feel confident promising you that things are, in general, settling down for us. Allegedly “terrible” twos or not, I’m looking forward to the year ahead as a time for our family to find peace. Thankfully, you already seem to know where it’s kept.

Happy birthday, my wondrous boy. I love you so much.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What A Way To Make A Livin'

Okay, it was a few months ago, but I've just figured out how to get the pictures online, so I am now so very pleased to present the results of my grand cubicle makeover.

When I went from working in my own store to working in a high-walled cube, it was a tough adjustment. I spent my first weeks on the job envisioning how I wanted to change things, and I bought art, fabric and accessories to bring that vision to reality. Now, I'm not especially crafty, nor particularly abundant in free time, so it took a while to put all those pieces together. The biggest part of the job was measuring for, cutting, and hemming all of the fabric. I used a heat-fused fabric tape, and it took foooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeevvvvvvvvvvvveeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrr, even with Kristy taking lengthy turns with the iron. If I ever do this again, I will buy a sewing machine at the outset.

And so, with no further ado ...


Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand ... after!

If you want all the technical details, I used a chocolate microfiber on the cube walls, kept in place by silver-headed upholstery tacks. (This is not the best method, but it's working for now.) The design on the file cabinets is a wall decal from; it's multiple pieces and can be configured in any way I want (and is, at least in theory, non-damaging to surfaces; I still haven't pressed them really, really hard into the cabinets).

I wanted things to look cohesive without being themey, and I didn't want to clash with the office's other decor, so I settled on sort of a retro-natural feel. The kind of watercolory image on the left side is a canvas-mounted print of Minnehaha Creek, a tributary of the Mississippi that runs right behind my parents' house. I used a drywall hook to secure this to the cube wall. The silver-framed picture on the right is a vintage postcard-style print of Northwestern University (pre-arch), featuring University Hall, home of the English Department.

I have to say, I really had no idea what a huge reaction these changes would generate. For several weeks afterward, people from all over the company, secretaries to VPs, stopped by to say how much they liked it. I'm still not quite done with it (those black wire mesh desk accessories have to go!), but even as it is, it feels so good. I spend more waking hours at that desk than anywhere else, and it was really important to me not to hate, or even feel nothing about, my surroundings. I needed to make it a comfortable, appealing place to be. I would enthusiastically encourage anyone in a mass-produced work environment to do the same.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just Take Those Old Records Off The Shelf

I’m trying to get over the stabs of pain caused by my children being away for the next ten days by thinking of ways to enjoy this solo time. So far I’ve come up with:

1. Reading
2. Watching movies
3. Sleeping soundly all night
4. Not having to set an example with my diet (read: Cool Ranch Doritos for dinner)
5. Yoga
6. Reading
7. Going to (free!) shows (yay Shell season!)
8. Naps
9. Reading
10. Maybe even working on a fiction contest entry

Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Don't Grumble, Give A Whistle

I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to tumult. Far from it, actually. I have always lived in a way designed, very deliberately, to avoid major conflicts, serious disasters and just general everyday havoc. I like peace. I prefer calm. And, up until the last year or so, I have always considered myself very capable of handling the stresses that did come my way in an easygoing, big-picture-viewing sort of way.

But then, well, there were just too many. You know that list of the most stressful life events – stuff like death, divorce, moving, new baby, job loss, new job, and financial calamities? Well, that pretty much sums up my last 18 months. And somewhere during that period, my ability to cope slid down into the negative numbers. From then on, everything bothered me. Everything stressed me. Everything that happened was viewed with … what’s the opposite of rose-colored glasses? Blue? Brown? Opaque? Whatever, it was those. So although I wasn’t voluntarily clinging to every negative event in my life, I often saw my days as just one crappy thing after the other. Not every day, mind you, but a lot of them. Too many.

On Monday of this week, I logged onto my credit card’s online account interface. On the very front page, I was informed in big bold letters that the card issuer had run out of money and therefore canceled all accounts. Now, this would be a simple inconvenience to most people, but for me, it was pretty disastrous. When I closed the store, I rolled all of my credit cards into a repayment plan, which rendered them non-usable. The plan also required that I not open any new accounts during the repayment period. No problem, I thought, since I kept one card out of the plan and would have it available for large purchases or emergencies. Guess which account just got closed? Yup. That’s the one. I have about 40 more repayments to go, so that news rendered me cash-only until 2013. Pretty ungreat.

On Tuesday of this week, I received an email saying a PayPal payment had been mysteriously denied by my bank, and upon investigation of that fact, I discovered that the Tennessee Department of Revenue had slapped a lien on my checking account for late payment of sales tax. And yes, that’s my fault. But, but … I had contacted them two weeks prior to arrange a payment plan and they never got back to me. And I forgot about it for awhile, because I was busy being audited by the IRS. I managed to get a tax enforcement agent on the phone and worked out a plan that will unfreeze my account, yet will require every spare cent I can scrape up and probably cancel any hopes I had of taking a vacation this summer. Or fall. Or … ever.

So that sucked. It all sucked. It really, really sucked.

And then I was making dinner – Taco Tuesday - and we were short on tortillas. I figured if we rationed very carefully, the kids could all get full on hard tacos. I took the taco shells out of the box and every single one of them was broken. Every one. And I looked at those stupid broken taco shells and I cried.

Like I said, I’m not hooked on all this stress, but at that moment, I felt like I hit rock-bottom in the way that forces addicts to see that enough is enough and this shit has got to change. When a 14th generation Minnesotan is crying over broken taco shells, it has gone too far.

Hence the past tense about my bad attitude. Okay, it’s been less than 24 hours, but I feel like a sweeping change has come over me. I’m tried of being upset about everything. Just bone-tired of it. Without even consciously trying, I’ve suddenly started seeing things in a more positive way (Hey, at least I’m not paying 35% interest on that credit card anymore!), and now that I’ve begun, I like the feel of it. The disasters have come and the disasters will go. There is still plenty of good stuff, and the rest of it will just have to get handled the best way I know how. That’s the outlook I’ve had for most of my life, and I want it back. I want to be me again, instead of the quivering ball of stress that’s been wearing my clothes for the last year.

So here I go.

Friday, May 29, 2009

If You Take A Walk I'll Tax Your Feet

So, what’s an IRS audit like, you ask? Well, it’s not all fun and games and pastries and making out, no matter what Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaaaaal would have you believe. In reality, it’s a lot more like having a very polite but unwelcome guest camped out in your office for two days. Or in my case, since my business is long-gone, in my dining room.

On the first day of the audit, there were actually two agents involved. One appeared to be supervising the other, which made me a little worried about what was going to happen when the supervision was lifted. The first two hours of the process were an interview that covered the details of my business management and financial record-keeping. We went over three years of tax returns and I was asked specific questions about how and why I got to each number reported. In several instances, the number on the form didn’t match the number printed out from my own books, so I was really at a loss to explain the difference. On the plus side, the numbers were mis-reported in a way that was unfavorable to me, so at least it didn’t look like I was fudging for my own benefit. Well, except for that big missing entry for the end of 2007 inventory total that falsely inflated my losses by thousands of dollars. But that was an accident! Or software error, or something! I swear! (I'll be talking to TurboTax about that soon.)

I also tried to use the interview to mention the hardships that surrounded and infiltrated my ownership of the store. I talked about the armed robberies, the break-in, the real estate debacle, as well as my own personal tribulations over the last couple years. When I finished, one of the agents said, “And now you get audited!” I chuckled ruefully and said, “Well, it seems a fitting end.” It seemed like they were sympathetic, but I know they’re all trained to be super-nice now, so it’s hard to tell for sure.

After the interview, the agents spent the day poring over my returns and all the paperwork associated with them. In a fit of unfounded confidence, I offered to provide the year’s cash register journals, a daily record that backed up the sales numbers I’d entered in Excel. And then … I couldn’t find them. Or worse, I could only find some of them. After May 2007, they were just … gone. Could I perhaps interest you in May 2006? No? Okay, I’ll … keep looking.

I tried to distract myself with other things, but I couldn’t help listening to the agents discuss every single little element. I heard them in a long discussion about my initial contribution to the partnership, which basically went like a point/counterpoint about whether or not the very foundation of the business and my stake in it was legally sound. So that was relaxing. I tried not to seem eavesdroppy, but if things seemed questionable and I had additional information to offer, I would bust in and offer it. But they were also unshy about bringing random pieces of paper to me and asking me to explain what was on them. Often repeatedly.

After eight hours, they went on their way. I spent the evening trying to figure out where I could have possibly put all those cash register journals and stressing about all the incongruous and missing information that had come to light during the day. And also, repeating one of their interview questions over and over in my head: why had I decided to file my business taxes myself?

The next morning, only one agent returned. This made the process a lot quieter, what with the lack of chit-chat and consultation, but it also seemed more stressful and official. There were a lot more questions, too, but unfortunately, not many answers. No, I could not explain why there was a difference in the inventory expenses I had on record and the amount on the return. No, I didn’t know why the same $203 in supplies appeared twice on my return. And no, I really and truly didn’t have a double-entry accounting system. My triumphant discovery of the missing cash register journals (14 months’ worth jammed into the “Current Month” folder in my file cabinet, of course) didn’t seem to impress her the way I’d hoped, either.

I didn’t imagine how my tiny little business could take as long to review as a larger corporation, but the second day dragged on well into the afternoon. It was 2:00 before she packed up all her files and peripherals and told me she would send me her report … by the end of July. What I may end up owing, or being owed (that’s the spirit!), will remain a mystery until then. The only thing she could tell me with some level of confidence was that I’d have to re-file an amended version of my 2008 return, to avoid another audit.

It’s always nice to have something to look forward to.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reminds Me Of Childhood Memories

One of the more pleasantly surprising aspects of parenthood is the occasional reminder of the power of nature over nurture. The other morning, I asked Miss M what she wanted for breakfast, and she said oatmeal. But then she specified, “Apple cinnamon oatmeal, and not too … like, wet.” Now, I don’t think I’ve ever made this for her before, and I don’t recall her ever seeing me eat it. So it therefore seems striking that her favorite flavor, and preferred thickness, would be the exact same as mine.

Of course, there can be less pleasant reminders. At dinner the other night, I looked over to see that she had taken her Sister Schubert roll (or tea roll, as my people know them) and mashed it up into a doughy ball. Just like I used to do. I was torn between scolding her and telling her that it’s even better if you bite off all the crusty part first.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cry For Help

I could easily write an entire new post, even longer than the first, about all my audit-related stress, but instead I'm going to try to think of other things. Like gorgeous May days, outdoorsy children, and the upcoming end of 5:50am wake-ups. And with all those pleasant late-spring things comes a question: what do you people eat? Our crew of nine is approaching the season of playing until dark, so we need food that is fast, simple, and will be considered edible by at least 60% of us. And yes, I think most people realize that Kristy does most of the cooking around our house, but things that can also be made by the, uh, culinarily challenged (stop laughing, Mom) are especially appreciated.

Easy, huh? But wait, before you pipe up, let me lay down the guidelines for this group:

R - no squash, bias against beans in the legume family (white, navy, pinto, etc.)
K - no mayo, no combining fruit and meat
A - no peppers, no mushrooms
C - no sauce
JP - nothing that isn't cheese pizza
S - nothing mixed together
M - no chicken. or beef. or pork.
GK - whatever, but she's only going to eat one part of it
Mr. B - no tomatoes (actual allergy, not just persnicketiness; he'd actually eat nothing but tomatoes if I let him)

Okay, whaddya got?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Declare The Pennies On Your Eyes

Oh, hey. Hi. How are you? Good, good. Me? Well, it’s been kind of a rough couple weeks. Got this letter from the IRS about my 2007 return. Seems they’d like me to take 10% of my vacation time so I can be “interviewed” about my business practices and take a look at my books from two years ago. Yes, the books from the business that closed. Because it lost so much money. That’s the one. At least the organizational effort of pulling together all my files and receipts and ledgers will give me a chance to dig out all the outstanding forms sent by various local business authorities and finally get around to officially informing them of my store’s demise. Maybe then they’ll stop sending me a $19 bill for the sign every year – oh wait, they know I’m closed, and they keep billing me anyway because the letters are still affixed to the empty storefront. That seems worth the administrative effort, doesn’t it?

What kills me is that the audit isn’t even about my reported losses or anything that potentially controversial. It’s some minor clerical stuff that is apparently wired to trigger red flags if improperly or inadequately described. Thanks, TurboTax! Way to tell me that was optional! I don’t begrudge the auditor for doing her job, but I have to admit, I hope she feels a little silly when she sees all the year’s info laid out in front of her. Especially when she gets to the part where I reported a loss from armed robbery, and I can casually mention, “Oh, yeah, that was from when I got held up. When I was pregnant.” A robbery that occurred, by the way, because all I did 98% of the time was sit alone in that store waiting for a customer. The guy who cleared my cash register had been wandering in there for ten minutes before demanding the money. He could have hung out another hour and there still wouldn’t have been a witness.

After I called the auditor and she described the process, she mailed out a list of documents that she’d like to review. I got it, read it, and then flipped it over for the part requesting unicorn whiskers and fairy snot, because I’d be just as likely to have those handy as the paperwork she’s expecting. I already told her that the business is closed, and that I had been the primary, and often only, employee, but I guess it’s going to take looking at my meager spreadsheets and register tape reports for her to fully comprehend the tiny scope of the operation.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue hearing the constant mental white noise of small business ownership stress, the noise I hoped would stop when I closed the doors last June but which keeps buzzing out of envelopes with official seals on the front.

So, um, what else is new?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sugar Tongue

Mr. Baby has made an exciting new addition to his vocabulary of self-expression: spitting. Not the loogie-hawking kind, thankfully, but the raspberry-blowing variety. It's slightly more comical than the former, but alas, also much wetter. Currently, the only words he knows that express displeasure are "No!" and "Stop!," which I guess didn't give him enough range of feeling. Zerberts, however, allow him to say anything from, "I fully maintain that it is my turn with the ball," to "I can't believe you tried to pass off a sippy cup of water when I so clearly requested JOOOOOOCE."

He's so fond of this new phrase of frustration that it is on the tip of his tongue, so to speak, day and night. This morning, still asleep, I could hear him calling, "Dop! Dop! Pbbbbbllllllt!" I don't know what wrong was befalling him in his dreams, but he was clearly handling it in the best way he knows how: with saliva. It's not a bad strategy, really. I'm sure I could vent a lot of my daily frustrations with some nice, calming horse-lips. But I think tech support would get mad when they had to keep replacing my keyboard.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

So Beautiful And Yet So Full Of Sad

I'm having trouble determining who exactly declared this to be Blog Week in support of the MOTHERS Act, a bill which would provide new mothers with post-partum depression screening and education and increase funding for PPD research, but whatever the source, I'm happy to participate. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the legislation, but if online updates can be trusted, this bill has received approval from the House but is currently stalled in the Senate.

What I will pretend to be at least a little expert on, however, is the devastating lack of support or understanding of mothers suffering from PPD. Through my work at Mothersville, I frequently encountered new moms who were in the grip of an unbroken sadness and/or anxiety, unable to enjoy their baby or new motherhood because of the intensity of their feelings of guilt, inadequacy, fear or just plain despair.

When I wrote about the topic a few years ago, I learned that PPD affects an estimated 10-15% of new mothers - more than pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes or Downs syndrome, which we are almost all screened for. I suspect the actual number is even higher than studies suggest, because mothers are so very good at putting on a brave face and hiding the true depth of their depression. Such was the case with Jenny Gibbs, a high school classmate of mine whose tragic story inspired her family and friends to create Jenny's Light, a PPD advocacy and education group. No one can ever say what might have happened if Jenny had found a group such as the one that now bears her name, but hopefully there are thousands of other mothers who will benefit from it.

My own struggle with post-partum depression was not as desperate, but it was a very dark and trying period of my motherhood, and I still look back and wonder why no one asked me - really asked me - how I was doing. I remember sitting in my OB's office, shuffled between nurses and medical students, answering every question about my recovery except that one. I mean, I'm sure there was the standard, "And how are we?" but no one asked, "Are you feeling down at all? Are you worried about how you're bonding with the baby? Have you had any thoughts of harming yourself?" Simply saying these words out loud to new moms would show them that they aren't alone, they aren't the only person to react to the "joy" of parenthood this way, and that validation alone would go a long way toward dispelling the shame of acknowledging PPD. I was lucky to have Mothersville as a place where I could be around other mamas and see that the reality of new motherhood wasn't all we had been promised, but the vast majority of first-time, and even experienced, moms feel overwhelmingly isolated in our modern, fend-for-yourself society. We're the daughters of feminists, raised to believe we can do anything we want to do; it's against our very nature to seek help at one of the points in our lives we need it the most.

So anyway, back to the MOTHERS Act. If you're the type to jump on these types of things, here are some actions you can take:

1. Contact your senator today or e-mail with your request for their support for S 324, The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act

2. E-mail to give your permission to be listed in the state by state constituent petition which will be presented to U.S. Senators the week of MOTHERS Day.

The health of our babies is directly tied to the health of our mothers, and taking one step toward better post-partum care benefits our entire society. Let's get walking.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Shadows Of The Night

Oh, son. What fresh hell is this? Just when I thought we were over the weaning hump, and had gotten into a really good bedtime routine (who knew a child under four could just lie down and settle into sleep without a complex series of interventions and negotiations? Clearly not your sister.), you have begun this horrible new habit of waking up three hours after going to bed. And then screaming. Inconsolably. For 20 to 30 minutes. In. My. Ear. But then suddenly stopping, for no perceptible reason, and sleeping soundly for another three hours. And then starting all over.

I thought maybe you were hungry, so I tried cramming you full of food before bed, but to no avail. I wondered if it might be molars coming in, but the rest of your day is happy and seemingly pain-free. I thought there might be some other physical problem - an upset stomach, an uncomfortable diaper, maybe even an ear infection - but there are really no symptoms of these issues or any indication that you're actually in pain. The one night I took you to the kitchen in a desperate search for a miracle cure, you grabbed a cup from the fridge and instantly stopped trying to wiggle out of my arms. You took a drink, curled up against me, and were half-asleep by the time we got back to the bedroom. It seemed as if you had nursed back to sleep, but with a Playtex substitute.

Which brings me to our other issue: your breastfeeding regression. We were doing great for a few weeks, and now you're suddenly asking to nurse again. And that's your least aggressive form of request - sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night to your arm trying to wedge through the neck hole of my t-shirt. My weekly Babycenter e-mails say you're right on target for regression, so congrats on being punctual. But that's about enough now, okay? It breaks my heart to have to tell you no, it's all gone, and I thought we were past that part and could just enjoy the exciting new world of constantly searching for sippy cup valves.

So here we are, with you up and crying several times a night and your waking hours spent obsessing over the boob. It's like having a newborn again. It would seem that the two might at least go together, and that keeping a milk cup near the bed would solve both problems at once, but the next time I tried to settle you with a midnight beverage, you threw the cup at my head.

Based on the fact that your wake-ups come at regular intervals, seem to have no connection to external forces, and are so violently irrational, I'm starting to suspect you might be having night terrors. Which is a very troubling diagnosis, because there's really nothing that can be done about it. Other than Dr. Sears' recommended treatment, which involves waking you up before the expected freak-out and keeping you up for five minutes. For a week straight. Because what I really want to be doing at midnight is going through the bedtime routine again, but this time with a freshly-napped baby. I guess if things keep going like this, I'll give it a shot, but right now, I go to bed every night with the naïve hope that, somehow, this time, everything will be okay and we'll both get a good night's sleep.

Yeah, I know, you're not the only one acting like they're new at this.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Touch My Cape

Speaking of the girl, I've noticed an exciting new phenomenon with her lately. No, not her failed attempt at forging a signature on a less-than-stellar conduct report. This one is more in the realm of good than evil. It's good versus evil, actually, After two years of wanting to play nothing but "sisters" and "babies," she is now running around the yard like a spy on the run and building rock forts for her and her superhero cohorts.

This shift in her fantasy play brings her to a much more relatable place for me. I know I played my fair share of "school" and my room was a Barbie shrine, but when I think back on the hours spent building treehouses and and defending forts and crafting robots out of appliance boxes, it's those less stereotypically feminine adventures that stand out as the most fun and formative of my childhood. I can't say it was all internally motivated, since I almost always had a male best friend who leaned more toward Star Wars than Strawberry Shortcake. But even when I was playing Little House on the Prairie with my sister and girlfriends, it involved tromping into the woods, making shelters, and chasing off invisible wolves.

So it was with delight, pride and nostalgia that I watched Miss M and her fellows dismantling the rock retaining wall at our local park in order to create a secret lair for their international surveillance operation. I don't expect that she has given up on more "girly" pursuits, and I'm not saying she should, but it warms my heart to see her breaking through the Disney Princess indoctrination and envisioning herself as a daredevil rather than a damsel in distress.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Thank You Mom

When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I have to admit I felt a little panicked. I grew up in a household that was 75% female, and this was the root of my concern. Not because we hadn't all gotten along, but because we were so freakishly functional I had no idea how to handle anything that deviated from that unnatural norm. I feared I didn't have the magical power my mother held that enabled her to raise two daughters who both ended up such ridiculously well-behaved geeks. What would I do if I had a girl whose teen-age rebellion involved something a little more unruly than joining a religion that forbade sex, drugs, tobacco and Starbucks? What if she went through that normal stage of hating/being embarrassed by/fundamentally rejecting me instead of bringing all her friends home to hang out and occasionally cook for me? I struggled with friendships with adolescent girls when I was an adolescent girl. How was I possibly going to identify with a normal one, thirty years later?

In the time since then, I have asked my mom, repeatedly, how she pulled it off, but apparently whatever deity she made her deal with swore her to silence. She just says a bunch of stuff about how lucky she was to get smart kids, and be able to give them good opportunities, and some muttery stuff about it not all being sunshine and roses and something about a call from the Evanston police department. But I know she deserves much more credit than that. It's not an accident that her daughters are strong, confident women who believe they have the potential to do anything they put their minds to. It isn't coincidence that we both succeeded in school and in our professional lives. It's not pure luck that we have happy, healthy kids of our own. She had a part in all of those things, from the abstract advice to pursue the best education possible to the concrete act of bringing us food while we held our newborn babies.

When I try to analyze why I was such a "good" kid, the biggest reason I can think of was that I couldn't stand the idea of letting either of my parents down. I still don’t know the secret to get my own kids to give my expectations that much weight, but I know that the best chance I have as a mother is to follow the amazing example I was given.

Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

She Blinded Me With Science

I was going to write a follow-up post to my last one, detailing some of the perks that have come from weaning, but I got too distracted by this article by Hanna Rosin. Now obviously, just calling something "The Case Against Breastfeeding" is designed to raise both hackles and cheers from respective ends of the breastfeeding-support continuum (let's put La Leche League on one side of that and Nestle on the other). The author's actual intent, however, is to discuss the pressure put on mothers to breastfeed, the sense of guilt they can receive if they don't, and the, in her opinion, overstated benefits of breastmilk.

As the mother of three children (all breastfed, she happens to mention), Rosin is fully entitled to discuss the first two things, but after following the links to her cited sources, I think her refuting of the benefits of breastfeeding is its own overstatement. The fact that breastmilk is inherently better than formula is so obvious that I can't wrap my head around any arguments to the contrary. It takes a lab to prove that a naturally occurring substance, the one that kept the human race alive for our entire existence on the planet up to the last century or so, is superior to something made in a factory from the dried compounds of who-knows-what? Are there ongoing studies comparing orange juice with Tang?

Why do we only buy this argument when it comes to baby food? I don't know anyone who chooses to drink reconstituted dried milk, even though it would be much more "convenient" to keep milk in non-perishable cans in the pantry rather than constantly having to buy it, refrigerate it, worry about the expiration date, stock up on it before looming weather disasters, etc. The fact is, the inconvenience of breastfeeding is what has been overstated. It has been framed as the high-maintenance alternative to formula, instead of the biologically-implicated norm.

So let's just be honest about it, without judging anyone for their choices. Science can't duplicate nature. Not perfectly. Can it come close enough to grow happy, healthy babies? Why yes, yes it certainly can. Especially when they have an entire arsenal of other environmental advantages.

Which brings me to my biggest annoyance with this piece. The author talks about the guilt and even shame that is directed at mothers who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. She references the skinny-jeaned mom-iosos who huddle together at toddler parks and look askance at anyone pulling a powder-filled bottle from their designer diaper bag. Now, I wish nothing but solidarity among all mothers, and I don't discount the isolation that comes from feeling unsupported in your parenting decisions, but when I read about these milk-cliques, I couldn't help thinking, "If this is what breastfeeding propaganda has wrought, so be it."

While the trendy Brooklyn moms are discussing which baby monitors have the smallest carbon footprint, the moms in my neck of the woods are being told by their pediatricians that their 1-day-old babies are starving and need formula because their milk hasn't come in yet. And those are the tiny fraction who even bother to try breastfeeding. The percentage of Memphis mothers exclusively breastfeeding at six months is 9%, half of the national average. And, in what seems hardly coincidental, Memphis has the worst infant mortality rate in the country (which, as a nation, isn't so hot itself). I'm sorry if the PSA with the bull-riding pregnant woman makes a formula-feeding mother feel bad, I really am. I have issues with the execution of that campaign. But if it encourages the overarching public feeling that breastfeeding is worth the hassle every contrary force has declared it to be, and some babies end up healthier for it, then I can live with that.

The one point Rosin makes, maybe accidentally, that I did agree with is that nursing can be presented as the be-all, end-all of parenting, that the decision to nurse overrides all others and takes precedence over every other aspect of the parent-child bond. I think that's true, and it's not always a good thing. I've known mothers who probably would have benefited from some education in ways to balance breastfeeding with the rest of their lives, including the right ways to occasionally alternate with formula that wouldn't be detrimental to their milk supply and nursing relationship. The all-or-nothing ideal can be very overwhelming, and a more realistic approach may have broader appeal and efficacy. Of course, so could giving moms a $35 manual breastpump at the hospital instead of a bag full of formula samples.

The lead-in to this article is, "In certain overachieving circles, breast-feeding is no longer a choice—it’s a no-exceptions requirement ..." Well, most of us don't live in those overachieving circles. In my work, I constantly met women who were the only ones in their family or social group who were nursing. And I told them all, just wait, the trends eventually drift down here from the coasts (including the northern one), and you'll be just like everyone else. It's disheartening to learn that the trend-setters are already chafing under the mammary mantle, and I fear the pendulum will be pointed toward backlash before those of us here in the barely-achieving circles have even seen an upswing.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Resolve The Weakness In Me

There's that old homophone joke, "Seven days without [insert beer, sex, barbecue, etc.] makes one week." (Like weak. Get it? Ha.) Well, from my observation, seven days without nursing makes one weak, tired, unstable, and hurty.

I didn't consciously choose last Sunday as my last official day of nursing Mr. Baby. I always thought it would be easiest to begin the full weaning after he'd been away from me a couple days, but then every time we were reunited, I couldn't stand to refuse his pleas and begin our time together with him crying and distressed. Also, although he's been going to bed at night without nursing for a couple months, I seem to be the only person in Memphis who can't get him to nap without it. So as his naptime approached last Sunday, I lay down with him and nursed for, it turns out, the second to last time ever.

I didn't make particular note of his pre-pre-bedtime nursing, although I do remember that we were sitting in Miss M's bed, doing her book-and-story routine. He didn't latch for long, distracted by a board book that looked both entertaining and delicious. I didn't mark the moment as it happened, because I still hadn't fully formed the plan to stop nursing entirely. After Miss M was bedded down, he went to sleep fairly easily and slept through a decent majority of the night, like he had been recently.

Our Monday morning was its normal flurry of activity, with Mr. Baby maintaining a good mood throughout. He reportedly had a good day as well, so when I got home from work that evening, I decided just to try and see how long I could distract him from nursing. I was fully prepared to cave if the need arose, but since we just had a couple hours before bedtime, I thought I might be able to keep him active (and eating) long enough to get through it. And I was. He asked to nurse numerous times, and began to fuss at me when I refused, but I just kept saying, "Nursie's all gone" and found something else to do (or eat) as quickly as I could.

Going one full day without nursing (while still in the same house) provided some momentum for going the next day. If I went back, it was a much bigger reset of the clock, so even when his requests got more frustrated and my body begged for some relief, I kept gently insisting that the milk was gone. And then taking him outside, or going for a walk, or gathering up a pile of books to read. During those days, there was no sitting and relaxing on the couch, or anywhere that he was used to nursing. The minute he saw me in one of those places, he would clamor to get into position. So I stayed on my feet nearly the entire time we were awake and together.

The times we were asleep and together weren't going so peacefully, either. After a few weeks of decent sleeping, Mr. Baby regressed to his pre-nightweaned, restless self. He'd not only wake up and cry, but he began climbing out of bed and trying to escape the room, making it much less likely that he'd settle himself back down. If he stayed in bed, he'd flop on top of me, inadvertently banging his head and knees against my very tender torso.

Speaking of which, and with the forewarning of TMI, my boobs were hurting like hell. So badly that, as I felt milk leaking for the first night in ages, I expected to look down and see blood seeping through the front of my nightgown. We'd cut down to 1-2 feedings a day the week before, followed by a couple days apart, so I really thought my supply would be dwindling. But the factory refused to shut down, and trying to go as long as possible between pumpings resulted in huge, painful knots that felt like gum balls (the tree kind) trying to poke out from under my skin. Even when Mr. Baby wasn't actively yelling at night, his constant desire to put his weight on my body kept me awake and in tears of my own. This sleeplessness and pain, combined with the hormonal cocktail of weaning-plus-ten-day-period (I warned you about the TMI, people), made me … well, let's just say I wasn't my usual cheerful self.

Still, we both made it through Wednesday and Thursday. He took a lot of walks, ate a lot of yogurt, and went to bed as early as I thought could possibly work. I'm rarely eager to spend extended periods away from him, but last week, the Friday-Saturday break was much needed. Despite my repeated excuse that the milk was all gone, I was still producing a piddling but pain-inducing amount.

I was nervous about our reunion on Sunday afternoon. I knew he'd be getting sleepy, which would make him more sensitive. I also had no idea how I was going to get him to nap. It was a very pleasant surprise when he didn't say "Nursie!" within the first few minutes of seeing me, but it wasn't much longer until his sleepiness stirred up ingrained habits. I tried laying down with him, but after a few minutes of hollering, I decided to try walking him to sleep. As we walked out into the sunny afternoon, I felt grateful for the accidentally good timing of spring weaning and the ability to stroller up in times of crisis. He was asleep within minutes.

His nap was brief, but he played happily the rest of the day. Something went weird around dinnertime, though, and he refused most of his meal. He went straight to his bath and then bed, where he went to sleep easily but then fussed and clung restlessly to me the rest of the night, threatening to wake up for good at 5:40am when I generally sneak out of bed to make Miss M's lunch and get her ready for school. He'd already added 6:45am to his repertoire last week, instead of snoozing until 7:45, throwing off the entire household's morning routine. I lay there desperately using my maternal mind meld to urge him to just stay asleep so I could deal with Miss M two-handed. And this time, it worked. So that, I guess, is progress. A miserable night but a manageable morning.

I wouldn't have endeavored to wean if I didn't think we'd both end up the better for it, but for my own sanity and maybe that of anyone reading this who is in the same place, I wanted to write down the reality. It's the breaking of a powerful connection, and the physical and emotional consequences are hard on both sides. It's only been one week, though, and I'm hoping to get stronger soon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Scarecrow And Fungus

As I was sitting out on the back patio, enjoying my book and the cool, fresh evening air, K wondered aloud what those orange blobs on the cedar tree were. Being the expert botanist that I am, I said, "I thought they were, like, the cones or something." Being an actual botany expert, K replied that, no, cedar cones are a normal brown color. So we went in for a closer look. Upon inspection, the blobs turned out to be dark brown pods with orange tendrils growing from them. Again, with my expansive tree knowledge, I suggested that they were seed pods. K suppressed a sigh and said, no, look how they surround the limbs, it's like some sort of tumor.

She said the word "tumor" just as my fingers touched the orange outgrowth. I don't know if it was the word or the surpassingly creepy, wet-rubbery feel of the alleged plant life, but a bone-deep chill ran throughout my body and, even now, I can't think about it without feeling bile rise in the back of my throat. I tried to go back and read, but I could see those (shudder) tumors dangling overhead - okay, overhead and 20 yards away - and I couldn't concentrate on my book.

Thankfully, the trauma was brief. I'd completely forgotten about the diseased cedar when K popped up online this morning to inform me that she'd discovered that the growth on the tree was actually a fungus called "Cedar-Apple Rust." Great. Fungus. Even grosser. Although this name does not do it justice. It should be called something like "Necrotic Sponge-Filth of Evil."

I'm not sure I can ever spend time in the backyard without imagining those squishy little fungus-fingers reaching toward me. It just may be the most disgusting thing found in nature. I suspect it may actually be why the last owners moved.

Just look. I dare you.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Running With The Devil

When I left for my walk last night (yes, I've actually kept it up), the weather was a bit cooler than I expected, and I thought, hm, maybe I'll pick up the pace a little. Maybe I'll even … what's the word? Oh, yes … run! With the springy weather, I'd seen people running all over the neighborhood (sidenote: I often see runners when I'm driving around during my lunch hour. Who are these people jogging carefree through tony streets in the middle of the day? They can't all be freelance writers.) It didn't look that hard. I've run before, when I had to. So as I got to the top of the first hill and rounded the first corner, I struck out toward the next block with my heels up.

I was winded before I even hit the straight-away.

Apparently, all those muscles I was using to regularly walk a brisk 2-miler had no use for this slight modification in my stride. Or more accurately, my lungs did not want any part of it. The stitch in my side could have held The Hulk's shirt seams together. After maybe 30 yards, I slowed back down to a walk. And slowed. And slowed. I'd expected to go in intervals of running/walking, but I didn't realize how much slower my walking would be after my brief bursts of speed (for lack of a more honest word).

Once I recovered the ability to inhale painlessly, I set a destination goal. I made sure to do this while I was still walking and before I re-awakened the voice in my head yelling, "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING AND WHY?" I picked a point half a block down and started running again. After about ten sidewalk squares, I understood why runners always have that look on their faces. I made it to my goal, but then staggered off my usual course, hoping to make it home with as few additional steps as possible. As I short-cut through the middle school grounds, I flashed back to the unit in junior high gym when we had to run a mile through the cold, muddy, goose-mined ballfields for the Presidential Fitness test and I promised myself I would never, ever run again. (I'm sorry, 13-year-old SAM. At least I wasn't in pleated shorts. Although, on another sidenote, I do now fully understand the importance of athletically-oriented foundation garments. There are both tragic and comic consequences to running in a thong.)

As I neared home, I reminded myself that I had experienced the full pain of childbirth, which involved great physical suffering for hours and hours on end. How could I do that and not manage to run for three minutes straight? So as I headed downhill toward the house, I started up again. I passed five mailboxes before I realized, hey, nobody's giving me a baby for this!

Now, I understand that it takes time to build up aerobic fitness, and I'm fully willing to accept that this is an area I could work on. But as I lay in bed last night, with my muscles content yet my knee joints hollering for the first time in my entire life, I felt validated in my life-long belief that running is for escape purposes only. Or for chasing babies away from suspiciously scheduled joggers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

Shift Of Emphasis

Words that these silly Southerners say with the stress on the first syllable:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Put My New Shoes On

I was angry when I left work yesterday. It doesn't matter why, I just was. (To paraphrase a cinematic classic, it's taken me months of therapy just to admit that I get angry.) I didn't have the words or the wherewithal to fix it, though, so I didn't know what to do other than stomp around and seethe, like I'd heard angry people were supposed to (I'm still new at this). But then as I was pulling up to the house, I saw my other therapist parked at the curb in his big brown truck. What can brown do for me? Apparently, deliver my order three days earlier than expected. And just exactly in time.

I'd been at the shiny new Target the day before and took the bike I'd been ogling for a test-sit. I then spent a chunk of the afternoon brooding that I couldn't afford it and lamenting my almost-post-breastfeeding shape-shifting. For the first time in my recorded history, I had an urge to exercise, but I didn't have the means to do it. Just put on your sneakers and go walk, you say? Good thinking, but I didn't have those either. (Not unless you counted the $14.99 Rocket Dog quasi-tennies I got at Delia's five years ago, which, having tried to walk middling distances in them, I didn't.) So, with the giddy thrill of online shopping tempered by the begrudging acceptance of financial responsibility, I ordered a sale-priced pair of Sauconys, the first athletic shoes to enter my wardrobe since the girls' size-5 Nikes I bought when I worked in the Children's Shoes department of Dayton's. (The Minnesotans get this time reference, but for everyone else, that's 1995.) (Sidenote to any women whose feet are smaller than an 8: you can fit into the top sizes of "girls'" shoes, and they're a lot cheaper.)

Anyway, back to present-day Memphis … or yesterday Memphis. It was gorgeous. Sunny and breezy and warm and lovely. And I was none of those things. I'd felt sick the night before - a fun new sick, different than the previous few days, that kept me up and in pain instead of asleep, totally wasting Mr. Baby's wonderful 12-straight-hours unconscious - and had seriously considered staying home from work when I was still woozy and sweaty in the morning. But I went anyway, and every aggravation of the day weighed even heavier when bounced against my constant mental refrain: "I'm not even supposed to be here today."

So fast forward, or rewind, back to the beginning there. I got home and I was pissy. But then I saw the UPS truck and knew that my shoes had magically arrived at the moment I needed them most. I put them on immediately, confirmed that they weren't drawing blood when I took a step, and out I went.

The evening was stunning. Perfect light, perfect temperature. I set off walking with no idea of where I was headed, just the solitary goal of moving until I felt better. I didn't know how much road that might take. I didn't know how much road I could take. I crested the first hill and noted how I'd barely registered the incline. When I had biked the same street days before, I was sucking wind before I got to the top. The lightness of my lungs was validating. My bike muscles may be puny, but my legs are made to walk fast and far.

I kept walking. The shoes felt great. Who knew that properly designed footwear could make such a difference? My feet looked ridiculously large in them, but no matter. The neighborhood is still new to me, so I took a turn down the only side-street I was familiar with. The yards and sidewalks were buzzing with other people out enjoying the weather. I tried to be polite and neighborly when I passed. But I was still angry.

I got to the end of my known territory and I kept going. I didn't know how far I'd gone or how long I'd been walking, but the rabid lemur was still clawing in my chest, so I just kept walking.

I was heading toward the main thoroughfare that would eventually lead me home when I saw a small wrought-iron sign with an enchanting neighborhood name. I wish I could say what it was without telling the whole Interweb where I walk alone in the evenings, or could make up something equally appealing, but just believe me when I say it was the antithesis of all the contemporary pseudo-pastoral subdivision names like "Pheasant Ridge." I had no choice but to turn and walk through it.

As I passed by the green yards and low-slung 1950s homes, my pace stayed brisk but my mind slowed down. I started observing my bucolic surroundings instead of kicking more dust at the tornado in my head. I began mentally narrating the scenery. I breathed. By the time I was noting the similarity between this little corner of my world and the small town where my parents grew up, I realized the anger was quiet. I tried to stir it back up, just to see, but I couldn't. No matter how I poked at it, it just laid there looking silly.

This change occurred at almost the precise moment I hit the home-stretch. I walked by a brand-new development, its street name an uninspiring combination of the two adjacent streets, showing a lack of imagination carefully reproduced by the architecture inside. I made that joke up right then. It made me feel even better. I walked up my driveway and thought, if I'd had the time, I could do that whole loop all over again. I felt strong and healthy and clear. The anger was gone. I'd walked it off.

Epilogue: I Google-mapped it this morning, and apparently I accidentally designed a walking route that is exactly two miles long.

Post-Script: Bonus points for catching the two movie references, and super-double-points for getting the poetry homage.