Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reading Time With Pickle

I got back to reading this year. After more than half a decade of caring for very small children, I finally worked out a compromise between maternal duties and literary pleasure. (I was going to remark on no longer having any children in diapers, but frankly, that hasn't been especially helpful in this regard.) The list below is what I got through in 2010, in as thorough detail as Goodreads and I could manage.

Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon
American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld
Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern
Dry, Augusten Burroughs
I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe
Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin
The Giant's House: A Romance, Elizabeth McCracken
Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
The Night Listener, Armistead Maupin
The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert
Sorrow Floats, Tim Sandlin
Forever, Pete Hamill
Le Divorce, Diane Johnson
Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Lee Smith
This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper
Everything Changes, Jonathan Tropper
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary, David Sedaris
On Writing, Stephen King
Little Bee, Chris Cleave
Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby
Werewolves in Their Youth, Michael Chabon
Sarah's Key, Tatiana de Rosnay
No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith (most likely; I'm halfway through)

I'm excited for next year's book list to be even longer ... unless I'm too busy writing my own.

Monday, December 20, 2010

O Night Divine

My perception of Christmas has changed since I had a child. I don’t mean in regard to the stress and bustle and increased costs, but my perception of the Christmas story itself. Since I became a mother, I’ve been unable to consider the historical circumstances of Jesus’ birth without letting my thoughts linger on Mary’s story.

I imagine a heavily pregnant young woman – a child, to our modern eyes – traveling on the back of a donkey for ninety miles. It’s a trip that would take days, perhaps even a week or more. I imagine the pain, the swelling, the heat (most historians agree that it was probably not actually winter), the unpredictable swings of hunger and thirst, all experienced on the back of a lumpy, itchy animal. And when the trip finally ended, and her body surely ached for a soft place to lie down and rest, there was nowhere for her to go. The only shelter available was made for livestock. I can’t help thinking that, as well as being stinky and uncomfortable, this option was especially insulting to a young woman already suffering the social stigma of being unmarried and pregnant.

And then, the worst happens. Away from family and caregivers, and perhaps surrounded by said livestock, she goes into labor. There’s no description of her experience in the famous telling by St. Luke, no actual birth story from the world’s most famous birth (somehow I doubt an account by St. Lucille would skip over this part). Although I would probably guess that teenage girls were more familiar with birth in Caesar’s day than ours, I have to believe she was still scared and feeling very alone. This is just assumption, of course, but as something of a minor expert in first-time mothers, I’ve seen a level of universality in this area. No matter the age or race or economic background, every new mother is terrified of what birth will be like, and I have yet to meet one who had any idea what she was going to do afterward. If those fears persist in our comfortable, sanitized, nurse-assisted world, how much more powerful must they have been in a young woman giving birth alone in a barn?

But that, I guess, is another assumption. Perhaps she did have help – a village midwife called out by the guilt-ridden inn-keeper, maybe. And despite all the pageant-driven ideas about that night, I’ve never read anything that actually says there were animals around, or that the stable was in use for that purpose at the time. I know birth wasn’t the fetishized ritual it is in today’s middle-class society, and I’ve heard plenty of historic anecdotes about farm laborers squatting down to birth in the middle of a field.

But still. An unwed girl in a strange town, laboring in a dark, dirty place. Far from family, criticized for her circumstances, and not even a bed to lie in when it was all over.

“O Holy Night” is my very favorite Christmas song, partly because, intentionally or not, I feel it captures both the joy and the frightening unknown of birth. If you replace the word “world” with “mother,” it could describe any woman, at any time, seeing her child for the first time.

Long lay the world
In sin and error pining,
Till He appeared
And the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope,
The weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born!

Whoever you believe that baby was – a savior, a teacher, a random Jewish boy – the power of Mary’s story holds true. And for me, this season is about the hope and awe inspired by that young mother bravely bringing her son into the world.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

With Every Christmas Card I Write

Dear Friends, Family, and Various Googlers,

It’s Christmas card time again, which for me means taking the time to sit down, reflect over the last year, and feel guilty that I don’t have the street addresses of anyone besides my parents. I so like the idea of sending out cards, but it’s been years since I mustered the time, energy and mailing supplies to do so. I say this not so much as an apology as a plea: if you are among the few valiant luddites who still put an actual stamp on an actual card and drop it in an actual U.S. postal service mailbox, please, please don’t take me off your list. I love getting Christmas cards. Whether you live across the country or in the next ZIP code over, it makes me happy to see your name on an envelope. I like seeing the card you chose to represent your good wishes. I even enjoy reading your year-end summary letter. I think it’s a lovely tradition, and I hope that the dwindling numbers in my card display rack are due to my semi-recent move and not a major drop in holiday correspondents.

With best wishes to you this season and throughout the new year,

The Secret Agent Mom family

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I Can See For Miles

I did it!

Official time: 36:54, which works out to a pace of 11:54 a mile. Which isn’t the best of my training times, but is still faster than I could run a mile during the Presidential Physical Fitness Test when I was fourteen years old, so I consider that a victory in a number of ways.

The race itself was pretty overwhelming. After finding a spot in the far reaches of our second-choice shuttle parking lot, Team Cha Cha decided on an impromptu warm-up walk to the Start line. As we got closer to the course, we could hear music blaring and (mostly female) voices cheering and whooping as the emcee announced that over 19,000 people had registered for the race. I thought the start line didn’t look that crowded, and then realized we were on the wrong side of it; the sea of people flowed down Farmington Rd, ending somewhere far beyond where the street curved out of sight. Team Cha Cha hurried to wriggle into the mass of people, who were all pretty patient with our last-minute cutting-in. We only had a few minutes to adjust our various techie devices before the starting gun fired. I think it fired, anyway. I just felt the throng move, and I moved along with it.

The first quarter-mile or so was a little chaotic, as the real runners tried to break free from the pack and the rest of us constructed a loose pecking order based on speed. Team Cha Cha clustered together for a few minutes until we all found our own rhythm. I fell in with Elizabeth and Shannon, and although I didn’t have the wind to keep up with their conversation, I managed to stay on their pace. I wasn’t sure what to expect at 8:30 in the morning, but there were dozens of houses decorated in support of the race and yard after yard of cheering spectators. Between the race fans, wacky runner costumes, and my enthusiastic teammates, I didn’t even notice the time or distance until we saw the two-mile marker and then blazed right by it.

The race organizers are a little cruel, putting a long, menacing hill right at the end of the course, but I made it past that last hurdle and, had there been a bit more room, would have sprinted to the finish line. It was the longest run I’d completed and I expected to be winded, but instead I felt like I could turn around and do it all over again. It felt so good to have made it so far, not just in the race, but throughout the six weeks before. When I began my training, I struggled to run for a full minute, and there I was, more than three miles of road behind me. I’d been afraid that the huge crowd and varying paces would result in an isolated finish, but RJA and Coach Kristy were along the sidelines of the last stretch and watched as I crossed the line beside two of my teammates.

Of course, the question everyone asked as we ate our celebratory pancake breakfast was, “Are you going to keep running?” And the answer that seemed to shock everyone was, “No, probably not.” I have a friendlier relationship with running than when I started this process, but I still wouldn’t call myself a runner. I begrudgingly respect that it’s cheap and easy, but it’s not an activity I especially enjoy. And moreover, it’s about to become quite impractical, what with the clocks going backwards, the temperatures dropping, and a gym membership non-existent. I don’t like it enough to have it be something I work that hard for.

Which was really the whole point of this endeavor. I put myself through something that was foreign, challenging, and even a little painful for the sole purpose of drawing attention to an issue that is exponentially more foreign, challenging and painful than anything I’ve experienced. And with all credit to the generous impulses of those who followed along, I seem to have done that. Team Cha Cha has raised over $1100* to support breast cancer research and education. It’s hard to explain why I’d just quit running after six weeks of hard work, but to me, those weeks weren’t about becoming a runner. They were about becoming a fundraiser. I didn’t run for me, I ran for a cure for breast cancer. And I hope we’re a few steps closer.

Team Cha Cha!
Back row: Melissa Wolowicz, Toby Long, Richard Alley
Middle row: Liz Schenck Phillips, SAM, Elizabeth Alley, Stacey Greenberg
Front row: Colleen Couch-Smith, Shannon Dixon, (S. A.,) Ashley Harper

*Fundraising for the Midsouth Race for the Cure continues until November 15, 2010. You can still make a donation to Team Cha Cha by visiting:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Friends To Know And Ways To Grow

When I graduated college with a degree in English Literature, I told myself that I was done analyzing fiction for the rest of my life. As much as I’d enjoyed my studies, I felt that, ultimately, it was a bunch of theoretical blathering. Who were we, a group of barely-not-children, to decide what an author’s work meant or symbolized? I was drawn to studying literature because it was a field with no wrong answers (and a minimal math requirement), but when I got through with it, I felt that interpretation wasn’t close enough to knowledge. In other words, I knew I was clearly not cut out for grad school.

I kept reading, of course; novels from the trade paperback shelves and various memoirs, mostly. My ban on analysis, however, held tight. (Much like my college-borne ban on completing a work of original fiction.) I discovered amazing new authors like Michael Chabon and Lee Smith, added new titles to my list of all-time favorites, but never did I discuss anything but the most technical details of what I’d read. I couldn’t even bring myself to write reviews on

And yet, when Kristy and I were recently invited into two different book clubs within the span of a week (as RJA writes about today), I readily said yes to both. I’m always happy to have an excuse to read, of course, and the promise of a night out of the house sweetened the deal. But I really had no idea if I would have anything to say, or a desire to say anything, about our required reading.

Imagine my surprise when the first book club night arrived and I in fact had a hard time shutting up. It was like a dormant geyser of deconstructionism burst from my head. Not usually the most talkative in any crowd, I think I stunned the groupers who knew me well, and probably made a blustery impression on those who didn’t. I, of course, blamed the wine.

I assumed I’d be more constrained at the next meeting, which, other than Kristy, consisted of neighborhood women I didn’t know at all. Also, I had a Sprite. And yet, when we got into discussion about the book (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help), I couldn’t stop myself. I was drawing connections, discussing motivations, and occasionally disputing the author’s decision to write the book at all. But I will happily say, it wasn’t all about me. The conversation was lively and smart, and I was struck by the sheer pleasure of being among peers and talking for two hours about something other than our jobs or kids. Even if it meant talking about make-believe people’s jobs and kids.

Thinking critically about novels again has made me reflect on my education and the teachers and professors who taught me how to truly read. Their names still stick with me – Professors Appel, Waid, Payne, Epstein, Eprile, and my dear Ms. Jewell – and I think of them collectively as my original book club. I appreciate them even more now than I did while furiously copying their wisdom into my class notes. I wish I could invite them all over to the house to share what they’re reading these days. And, of course, a nice glass of wine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

That Silver Necklace

I’m sure that most people fall into their interests and hobbies naturally. They live their lives and are drawn toward the activities they enjoy more than others. But what happens when your life is primarily occupied by work and children? It was with this slightly pathetic realization that I went on an active search for a pastime, a search that became especially focused after I decided that I was on a break from all non-blog writing.

I rejected almost every idea that came to me, for one reason or another – too messy, too expensive, too structured, too far away, too dependent on having the merest semblance of a design aesthetic– before I remembered that I’ve always wanted to take a jewelry-making class. My initial hunt for local classes was unsuccessful, though, so I started doing research to see how much I might be able to pick up on my own. Looking through online instructions, I was only slightly overwhelmed, which is the best I can hope for when facing a totally new concept. After three hours in various stores, staring down pliers and beads and findings with a very patient three-year-old, I decided to buy a very basic starter kit from Amazon and a couple tools that weren’t included in the set. The total investment was about $35, which I justified as the cost of replacing one of the necklaces I’d lost in our burglary.

The first night I took out my supplies, I made three pairs of earrings and two bracelets. They were very basic, and quite unintentionally rustic, but there was a marked improvement from one piece to the next. Unlike when I attempted knitting or crochet, which was just one inconsistent mess after the other. Also distinct from my efforts in the fabric arts, jewelry was much easier to understand. There were patterns and instructions for techniques, but for the most part, I could just look at a picture and figure out how to make it. Which was perfect for someone who always got a little nauseous reading instructions like:

Slip st in first ch-1 space; ch 2, * hdc, hdc in same space; [2 hdc in next space] twice; [2 dc, ch 1 for end space, 2 dc] in end space; [2 hdc in next space] 3 times; [hdc, ch 1 for side space, hdc] in next space; repeat from *; slip st in top of ch-2.

It’s also a hobby perfectly suited to my particular defining traits: cheapness, lazy perfectionism, and curiously small monkey fingers. The only thing that concerns me a little is how quickly I picked it up; it feels more like a party trick than an actual skill. But it’s a party trick that ends with new accessories, so, really, who cares?

Monday, October 04, 2010

She's All That

Further evidence that my daughter is the living embodiment of a teen movie. In this case, one where the gawky girl gets the makeover and suddenly becomes gorgeous.



Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Running Down A Dream

I don’t want to bore you both to tears by turning this into a fitness blog, but I thought I should give a little update about how my training is going. I’m loosely following the Couch-to-5k program, but with only six weeks to get through a nine-week regimen, I’ve had to adapt it a little. There are 27 training days in that program, and I had a total of 45 days between my decision to run and Race for the Cure. So I figured that if I skipped ahead one day each week, I could squeeze in 18 runs and cover most of the training intervals, and still maintain a Mon-Wed-Fri routine.

And so far, that’s actually been working pretty well. When I made this grand plan, however, I wasn’t expecting that the temperatures would remain in the 90s for two more weeks. And I didn’t anticipate that staph infection that made my legs feel rotten from the inside out and put me on a course of antibiotics so strong that I went to the doctor to make sure they weren’t going to peel my skin off. But through all that, I only got off-schedule one day, and I made it up within the week.

The intervals started off fairly easily – week one was 60 seconds running, 90 seconds walking, and week two was 90 seconds running, two minutes walking, each totaling 20 minutes. But still, running through my hilly neighborhood in 95-100 degree heat was an intense introduction to the program. And, it turns out, a helpful one. I was nervous about week three’s three-minute runs, but with the temperature below 80, I felt like I could fly.

On the gear side, I’m pretty low-tech. I bought a decent pair of shoes a year or so ago, but beyond that, I don’t own any official athletic wear. No wicking fabrics or performance apparel. I’ll probably have to invest a little when the weather cools off even more, because that one long-sleeve t-shirt I own isn’t going to get cleaned three times a week. I have been bringing my fancy new phone with me, though, and I love it (despite having to knot the armband carrier in order to get it to fit around my scrawny arm). I created a station on Pandora that’s all 80s girl bands and fast-paced dance songs, and I tune that in along with the My Tracks app that traces my route and speed. Then I pull up the Couch-to-5k app that notifies me when each interval is up. Loudly. I’m sure it’s entertaining for passers-by to see me suddenly startle and then take off running.

I wasn’t sure how my feelings about running would change once I committed to doing it regularly, and I still don’t really know. I wouldn’t say I love it, but I don’t hate it as much as I did. I don’t feel like I get a runner’s high (probably because I’m not running all that much, really), but it does give me a sense of accomplishment to go farther and faster than I ever have before. I like looking at the map and seeing that I’ve already gone 4/5ths of a 5k without even realizing it. I’m hoping that, by the end of October, I’ll be in a place where I’m thinking more about the race than about the run.

Speaking of, there are two more days to register for the Midsouth Race for the Cure at a discounted rate. You can sign up individually, or join your friendly neighborhood bloggers (currently Stacey, Shannon, E, and RJA) on Team Cha Cha. Or you can just support the cause by donating through our team site. Join us however you can.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Running To The Future

At 7:00 pm on August 29, 1996, I was at a Mexican restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. I remember the relentless desert light forcing its way through the windows as the sun began to set, the line of rustic wooden chairs around the long table, the chunky glass stemware. I unconsciously absorbed every detail around me before I got up to use the payphone and call home. I don’t remember exactly what my mom said when she picked up on the other end, but I can’t ever forget the message: her biopsy results showed that the lump in her breast was cancer.

The moment I received that news was a turning point. On top of the fear and uncertainty about what would happen to my mother, in the back of my mind was the knowledge that my own chance of developing breast cancer had doubled. In an instant, I slid right from “no risk” to “high risk.”

Not that there was much time to think about all that. Within the next two weeks, my mother was scheduled for surgery – a full mastectomy and trans-flap reconstruction. “Invasive” doesn’t even begin to describe the extent of that operation. After a week in hospital, under a heavy gel-filled heat blanket to fight infection, she went home still connected to drainage tubes, her entire torso swollen and stitched. I had never seen her, or anyone, in so much pain.

She was strong and feisty and determined to get through it, but she was, of course, terrified. We all were. But testing of her lymph nodes showed that the cancer hadn’t spread, and although we all had our nightmare scenarios, there was no reason to think that she wouldn’t make a full recovery. That October, she began chemotherapy, which left her sick and exhausted, and then began taking the drug Tamoxifen, which at the time was just beginning to be used to treat early-stage breast cancer and has since been approved as preventative treatment for women in high-risk categories.

As the diagnosis moved further behind her, and every subsequent doctor’s appointment showed that she was still cancer-free, the terror subsided somewhat, softening into mild dread with occasional mammogram-related moments of panic. After five years, she was considered in remission, and after ten, could officially call herself a survivor. She will remain vigilant, but there’s every reason to hope that her battle is over.

As I approach 35*, however, I feel that mine is just beginning. I was initially told to have my first mammogram at that age, although the recommendation for first-generationers has since gone up to 40. With my own troubled hormone history, I’m not sure I’ll hold out that long.

And then there’s my daughter. Her paternal grandmother is a breast cancer survivor as well, so her genetic odds are even worse than my own. The idea that she may someday have to go through what my mother endured is completely unacceptable to me.

With all this in mind, I resolved that I wouldn’t let this year’s Race for the Cure slip by me. I’ve participated with my mother in the Minneapolis event, and I know that it’s more than just a 5k. The community of survivors, their families, and all those racing in memoriam creates an overwhelming feeling of hope, strength, and support. And, it must be said, sorrow. The “In Memory Of” race placards are worn by men, women, and children of all ages; at my last race, I saw “In Memory of Mommy” tagged on a stroller. But that’s the point of the race as well. Those in grief find comfort, and others find inspiration and motivation to end the destruction caused by the disease.

Thinking on my own reasons for being in the Race, I began to feel that just showing up and ambling through five kilometers wouldn’t be enough. Although every donation matters, the registration fee felt like a drop in a bucket that I want to see filled, and quick. So I decided that I would not just do the Race for the Cure, I would run the Race for the Cure.

Yes, run. Yes, me.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “I’d pay to see that!” And that’s the point. For the next six weeks, I’ll be collecting donations as I embark on a stepped-up version of the Couch-to-5k training program. As I’ve mentioned here before, I am not a runner, so setting this goal and making this effort will hopefully inspire some of you to make your own effort for this cause.

Feeling inspired already? Head over to my personal fundraising page to make a donation.

I’d also love for any and all of you to join me, either in the Memphis race or in your own hometown. Even if breast cancer has not touched your life, you never know when that turning point may occur. It will occur to someone, somewhere, every single day.

Until there’s a cure.

*Next year, Mom, not this one.

Monday, August 23, 2010

They Don't Care Where They Kick

This month marks the close of my eleventh year as a Memphian. To celebrate, someone kicked in my door and stole thousands of dollars worth of property from my home.

I thought it would be fun if that actually turned out to be my 11th criminal victimization since moving here, but turns out, it’s only about the 7th or 8th. But good effort, jackholes!

As you may have surmised, I’m in the anger phase right now. I know it seems superficial, but the stages of grief do seem somewhat appropriate here, for although it was only material possessions that were lost, they carried with them a lot of emotional value. Among the stolen items were my high school class ring, the earrings my parents gave me on my 16th birthday, and most of the jewelry I inherited from my grandmother. I know memories can exist without physical tokens (yes, I’ve watched my share of Hoarders), but those small pieces of my past served as happy reminders whenever I wore or even came across them. And now they’re gone.

Also stolen was my laptop, and I have to tell you, the idea of someone having that piece of hardware is more unsettling to me than the fact that they dug through every hiding place in the house looking for drugs and guns. It’s like having someone take your entire family’s birth certificates, Social Security cards, bank statements, and checkbook, plus all your home movies and photo albums. It’s an intensely personal chunk of plastic, and the unease of having it in the wrong hands is far more upsetting than the loss of the machine itself.

I also lost a lot of writing, and, in bad news, possibly my entire iTunes library.

But if there’s anything I’m known for, it’s making the best of a bad situation. Oh wait, no, that’s TV’s Kelly Ripa. Anyway, I’d still like to take this opportunity to help y’all (i.e. other Memphians) avoid this type of scenario by taking a few preventive steps:

  •  Back up your computer. Right now. NOW. And then keep doing it regularly, ideally through an off-site service like (which allowed the more disaster-prepared resident of my house to share his data rather than lose it all outright).
  • If you’re not a home-owner, invest in renter’s insurance. You’re gonna need it. Seriously.
  • Write down the serial numbers of all your electronics and keep them in a safe place. The police actually do send this info to pawn shops and I know of at least one iPod recovered this way.
  • Password-protect everything.
  • Consider laptop recovery software (laptop lo-jack) that can trace a stolen machine through GPS.
Oh, and:
  • Don’t like or attach sentimental value to anything you own, because sooner or later, some crackhead is going to take it away from you.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Brutal Youth

Somewhere along a path strewn with New Yorkers, Netflix envelopes, and gin, the husband of a dear friend became a dear friend of mine. In honor of his big birthday, and because it’s really hard to find a card that isn’t dumb, I present:

Forty Things About RJA
  1. Does the Sunday New York Times crossword in Sharpie
  2. Likes spice cake the best
  3. Deeply enjoys jazz without being one of those jazz people
  4. Makes a mean chicken curry
  5. Would rather be on the beach right now, ideally on the Amalfi coast
  6. Or in New York
  7. Doesn’t care to fly
  8. Can’t get used to contact lenses
  9. Disposes of all intellectualism when a Jason Statham movie is on
  10. Doesn’t refer to his years in Catholic school as an insurmountable emotional handicap
  11. Hates Project Runway, but pays stealthy attention to Design Star
  12. Would love to sit in with The More Brothers
  13. Overpronates
  14. Prefers to write longhand, in pencil, on legal pads
  15. Is quite fond of reptiles
  16. Can’t clean a bathroom. Just constitutionally can’t
  17. Feels a little pained that Elvis Costello, Nick Hornby, and Richard Russo never show up at cocktail hour
  18. Is not much on the Oxford comma
  19. Is an excellent interviewer and a terrible answerer
  20. Sees no need to state the obvious
  21. Doesn’t force his opinion
  22. Answers only to his full first name
  23. Takes his rum with lots of lime and his gin & tonic with hardly any
  24. Has no time for musicals
  25. Sings along with the radio
  26. Could go for a sandwich right now
  27. Still drives like a professional driver
  28. Does an unsettling Don Draper impression
  29. Is so patient
  30. Picked an interesting career for himself and then made it happen. Twice.
  31. Is more Rolling Stones than Beatles
  32. Has secret caches of athletic ability 
  33. Would defend his family to the death
  34. Giggles
  35. Doesn't like roller coasters
  36. Just wants to see what part of The Godfather this is.
  37. Loves the physical presence of books
  38. Keeps a bottle of Gulf Coast sand behind his desk
  39. Only watches fake sports that are over within a month
  40. Has shown no outward signs of being freaked about 40
It's been a pleasure getting to know how your four decades have shaped you. Happy, happy birthday, RJA!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Heart Of My Country

We’re in the buffer zone this week. Miss M has started back at school, but Mr. Baby (and every other student in Memphis) is still home until mid-month, so I’m easing into the fall routine with only one child to get ready and dropped-off in the morning. It’s so easy I can hardly take it. We’ve been ready and in the car so early, and so completely unencumbered by traffic, that one day I got her to school before the doors even opened. I know this will all come to a (literal) screeching halt when I have to drag her little brother out of bed to join us, and then crawl our way through the students and parents heading to the six other campuses along our route, but for now, I’m enjoying this gentle beginning.

We especially needed a smooth start after the fun but exhausting trek north for Corn Capital Days. Our flight to Minnesota was diverted due to severe storms that landed at the airport at the exact time we were supposed to, adding an extra two hours (and one-hour 10pm nap) to our trip. The next few days brought swimming, horseback riding, golf cart hijacking, playground roaming, sweet corn gobbling, parade watching, and candy chasing, with the kids and their cousins moving in a loud but generally peaceful pack while the adults enjoyed the time to catch up and relax. As it does each year, the reasons why my parents drove us 40 hours round-trip every summer growing up became even clearer to my sister and me. The small town safety and 2:1 ratio of grandparents to parents granted those of us in the middle generation otherwise impossible spans of child-freedom.

Perhaps the most exciting element of the trip, however, was Mr. Baby’s own freedom. Last year, he was terrified of everything: flying, dogs, horses, sirens. But this year, he sat in the window seat without a problem, pet every dog he saw, groomed and rode Cha Cha’s horse, and ran out into the street to grab candy from a blaring fire engine. My pride in him about split my heart. I hope he takes that same confidence and bravery into his new preschool classroom this year. And maybe our smooth mornings won’t have to come to an end after all.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

She Loves The Cocktail Bell

There are a lot of people living in my house. Nine, in fact, when we’re operating at full capacity. So it seems strange to say that one living in such a busy place could ever feel a need for human interaction. There are humans everywhere. The young humans, however, outnumber the old ones at a rate of two to one. Because of this ratio, the adults are constantly in a world focused downward. The small people demand attention to their various activities and trails of debris, down there near floor level. When we do get a free moment, we tend to savor it quietly, engrossed in a book or doofing around online. Of course we speak to each other, but most conversations are interrupted by an urgent demand to find a toy or break up a squabble over a toy or apply a Band-Aid (usually in that order).

It was with a similar backdrop, several years ago, that RJA first introduced the concept of Cocktail Hour to our small social sphere. Originally intended as a brief, after-work stop-off for grown-ups heading to various activities on a Friday night, we quickly realized that cocktail hour was in fact the only activity that most of us parents had planned for a Friday night. The “hour” was purely conceptual, as most of us would stay as long as our hosts would have us. And, of course, our children. The founding principle of cocktail hour was that the kids would entertain themselves while the adults had some much-needed social time. And the amazing thing is that it almost always works. Aside from some category-five bedroom messes, kids ranging a decade in ages are able to play together without any major disasters.

Over the years, there’s been a core group of attendees, but also an ever-growing, ever-fluctuating cadre of friends looking for the same company that we crave. Some are married, some are single, some are even childless. At this point, what ties us all together on a Friday evening is closer to what created the original cocktail hour concept of the mid-century on which we jokingly based our own: human connection in an increasingly technical age. We spend so much of our time looking down – whether it’s at our kids or our iPhones – and not nearly enough time looking our friends in the eyes, talking about our lives in detail longer than a status message, hearing them literally laugh at loud.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

After The Boys Of Summer Have Gone

Somehow, while I was checking the Ann Taylor Loft sale page for clearance capris or reapplying industrial-strength bug spray, most of the summer slipped away. There are now three weeks left until Miss M starts her next school year as, of all things, a second-grader, thus ending my seasonal reprieve from lunch-packing and hour-long morning commutes. This summer has flown by even faster than usual. I got back from the beach, and then ten very quiet days afterward, the kids got back from beach part deux. We celebrated Mr. Baby’s birthday, and less than a week later, my parents were in town for the 4th of July. We enjoyed a great holiday weekend, highlighted by a baseball game featuring fireworks, a walk-off homerun, and paratroopers – quite possibly the most American three hours in history - and then suddenly, it was mid-July.

I’d like to think I can linger over the next few weeks, but they promise to be just as fleeting. I have personal writing deadlines to meet and a week without the kids at home, which are each individually the fastest ways to make hours pass and combined may tear a hole in the space-time continuum. Our summer will officially close the last weekend of the month with a trek to the ancestral homeland for Corn Capitol Days. Growing up, this trip was always the beginning-of-the-end of summer, but thanks to an insanely aggressive school calendar, our return flight will be on Miss M’s last day of vacation.

Fortunately, Miss M is much more excited about starting a new grade than she was a year ago, and Mr. Baby will be returning to the same daycare, which should make the transition a lot easier on all of us. Well, on them, anyway. During the summer, the full-on responsibility portion of my day shrinks from twelve hours to eight, and I cherish those four extra hours of relative freedom. I’m still not quite ready for the 5:50 a.m. alarm or the 5:15 p.m. pick-ups, and the resulting exhaustion that seeps over into the rest of my time. As a child, I thought parents were immune to this annual dread (and maybe as a full-time at-home mom, my mother was), but now I know that the groans heard when the back-to-school banner goes up at Target aren’t all coming from the peanut gallery.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Three Is The Magic Number

Three. Three years old! How is that possible?

Well, I know how it’s possible. Time moves at oppositional speeds during babyhood: the days are so slow, and the months fly by. I look back at pictures from a year or two ago and barely recognize the baby I see, even when you’re wearing the same clothes as now. That time seems both far-distant and just-a-minute-ago.

Because here you are now, my little boy. You’re still a size I can easily pick up and carry around, your body still curls into mine like a nursling’s, but your personality gets bigger and bigger every day. You have your typical pre-schooler stubbornness, no doubt, but it’s balanced by sweetness and silliness. Your default opinion of people is “Love!”, which makes me all the happier that you are constantly surrounded by those you adore. And those you are quickly adored by, because it’s basically impossible to resist your goofy charm.

People always say nice things about small children, and a mother knows not to believe the hype, but when you hear the same things over and over again, it’s hard not to take it as truth. And what every person who meets you says is, “He’s such a joy!” This is something I’ve always felt, and it’s so fulfilling to see that trait let loose on the world around you. As someone who enjoys being around people but never feels quite natural at it, I admire your social ease and know it will serve you well.

Although your baby days weren’t especially difficult, relatively speaking, I don’t regret that they’re passing. I’m too excited to see what comes next, to see the boy you grow into. The idea of having a son as fun as you are, but without the diapers to change or bites of dinner to coax, is thrilling. I look so forward to knowing you as you become the funny, kind, thoughtful young man you’re obviously destined to be.

Happy birthday, son. I love you so much.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sunset At The Shoreline

As you may have heard around the interwebs, the SAM-Sassy-Urf!-Chockleyblog caravan of fun recently pulled into the white sand beaches of the Florida panhandle. Yes, white. For now, at least. We all expected the enjoyment of our trip to be cut short by tar balls and beach closings, but fortunately for us (and the coastline), the only petroleum we encountered during the week was in the form of Happy Meal toys.

We’ve made these multi-family trips for several years now, and although our cottage itself left some things to be desired (like about 500 more square feet and some quality time with Peter Walsh), the actual beach was the loveliest we’ve visited. Gorgeous emerald water, soft white sand, and, ironically, our first view entirely free of oil rigs. Tidal pools for the littlest ones to play in, and a bay full of hermit crabs that fascinated the older kids. And no jellyfish!

The water itself was pretty rough for most of the week, with the lifeguards flying yellow and even red flags at times. Miss M was eager to swim, but not thrilled by the waves and riptides, so she wanted me with her as much as possible. Which was in direct conflict with Mr. Baby, who wanted to be with me yet didn’t want the water anywhere beyond his ankles (and for one entire day, didn’t want to go on the beach at all). It wasn’t until our very last day that the surf was calm enough for us all to float together, and neither child wanted to get out of the water all day. Knowing they were about to spend the next ten days vacationing without me, I was grateful to have that long stretch where their desires were peacefully aligned, even if it meant getting pruney.

By the end of the week, we were already scoping out a nearby rental house and making plans to return next summer. Whether we’ll be coming in swimsuits or waders, we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Photo Albums:



Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tell Me Something Good

I’m hitching up to the Fantasy To-Do List bandwagon, as challenged/inspired by Mary Allison at The Makeshift Revolution. The task:

“the purpose of a fantasy to-do list is to start thinking beyond all of the many obligations that abound long enough to envision what life might look like with a few little added refrains of fun. items on these lists have a strange way of slipping out of the hypothetical world and into our real lives!”

So with both total fantasy and optimistic goal-setting in mind, here we go …

• Attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
• Publish a book
• Take an annual two-week vacation in an open-air suite in Fiji
• Attend a Prince show at Paisley Park
• Publish another book
• Perform a stand-up show filmed for an HBO special
• Spend long enough in a small, European coastal village to be welcomed as a resident
• Publish another book
• Win the National Book Award
• Or the PEN/Faulkner
• Live without debt
• Change minds
• Sell out a tour of solo acoustic shows
• Swim every week
• Be Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay
• Have (access to) a horse and enough space to ride it at a full run
• Take my family to visit all the places I grew up
• Learn my full genealogy
• Speak at my alma mater’s commencement
• Write a memoir worth reading

Monday, May 24, 2010

In The Air Tonight

I try to steer clear of giving anything that might sound like parenting advice, but I feel that, for the benefit of humanity and my fragile ego, I should share what was probably one of my most dramatic successes as a mother.

A couple months ago, Miss M – who, I will remind you, is 6-years-old - started having some issues about going to bed. She’s never been a great sleeper by any definition, but after three years of being nursed to sleep, and another year of being accompanied until unconsciousness, she’d gotten into a solid, year-plus habit of going to sleep on her own. But suddenly, our usual routine of book-lights-off-story-snuggle wasn’t enough, and she was growing clingier and needier by the night.

Bedtime itself was longer and more difficult, and then, out of nowhere, she woke up in the middle of the night and called out for me. Twice. In the same night. That was more than she’d woken up in the previous year. The next night, it happened again, and I spoke to her about ways she could calm herself down and get back to sleep.

After a few nights of reportedly normal bedtime behavior at her dad’s house, I figured we were out of the woods. But no, the woods were actually all around us, and filled with those really mean trees from The Wizard of Oz. Our usual bedtime routine, normally about 20-30 minutes, stretched into an hour and a half of stalling tactics. She said her stomach hurt. She said she had to pee. She said she had to tell me … something. When I finally told her I had to go and get her exhausted brother to bed, Sassy took my place at her bedside and she eventually settled down.

For four hours.

At the strike of midnight, she was hollering at the top of her lungs, “MAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAA!” I ran to her and checked for bleeding or armed intruders, but no, the only problem was that she was awake. And, according to her, would never be able to fall asleep. Ever. The steadily worsening nights just proved that point to her; she's the kind of kid who will say “I will never …” until the very moment she can say, “I just did.” She continued arguing this point, at various volumes, for the next two hours. I really can’t even convey the intensity of it without using excessive caps and exclamation points and embedded sound files of my head exploding. She was a tornado of illogical arguments and irrational needs, and if you got close enough to engage with her, she’d suck you entirely in. Despite being utterly exhausted and barely able to keep her eyes open, the slightest move to step away from her bed would result in her bolting upright and starting the entire debate all over again. At 2 a.m., when I moved her to the living room, the spot farthest from any other sleeping person in our 9-passenger house, she was finally able to calm down and fall asleep.

In the clear light of the next day, we had a calm and lucid discussion about the inappropriateness of her behavior. We talked about her long history of being a good sleeper and how she needed to remind herself of all the nights she went to sleep just fine. She took it all in stride, and approached bedtime with a renewed sense of confidence.

And then the lights went out.

I could go into deep detail about the subsequent two weeks, but they were basically all a variation on the night described above. Except worse, because as the nights went on, so did the efforts to discourage her behavior through punishment. But no matter how long she was grounded to her room or how many times she wrote, “I can go to sleep and stay asleep,” her 2 a.m. mantra was the same. And it went something like: “I CAN’T SLEEP I NEED YOU I CAN’T SLEEP I WANT TO SLEEP ON THE COUCH I CAN’T SLEEP I DON’T CARE IF I’M GROUNDED I CAN’T SLEEP WAIT I NEED TO TELL YOU SOMETHING!”

Again. And again. And again and again and again.

I was, as you may expect, exhausted and frustrated beyond measure. I felt like a zombie during the day and, well, one of those really, really angry zombies during the night. Nothing was working and I had no idea what to do and this was our new routine for the rest of our lives.

In consulting with the more experienced parents in my household for possible solutions, however, a brilliant new possibility was suggested: rewards.

As a child raised almost exclusively through the power of feared parental disappointment, it never occurred to me that some kids may need to see more concrete benefits for good behavior, but I gave it a whirl. I made up a calendar, and told Miss M that for every night she went to bed quietly and stayed quiet all night (see how I never used the word “sleep?”), she would get a sticker. And when she had five stickers in a row, she could get $5 to spend at Target. If she held out for ten nights, she’d get $10, and so on in 5-night increments.

And it worked! That very first night, she caught herself in mid-whimper and let me leave her room without a fuss. With the condition that I leave her door open and come back to check on her in half an hour (“How high do I have to count?” “Nine-hundred, dear.”). Easy enough.

And, okay, I hedged my bets a little. I got us a bottle if Hyland’s Calms Forte for Kids, a homeopathic sleep aid, and gave her four doses before bed (the recommendation is up to eight). I’ve used multiple Hyland’s products, from teething tablets to colic tablets to our much-treasured boo-boo stick (Bumps & Bruises ointment), so both Miss M and I had some faith that it would help.

Since then, it's like we entered a parallel universe. Miss M has handily reached the first $5 point, and is now saving all the way up to $20, which we agreed would be the end of the chart system. We’ve talked about how the chart is just a symbol, and that the real rewards are the things that happen naturally when you do the right thing: she feels better during the day, she gets in less trouble because she’s not tired and cranky, I have more energy to play with her, etc. We  reduced the Calms dosages until they disappeared entirely. When I tell her it's time for me to go, she says, "Okay, good night, mama." And most importantly, she’s created a new frame of reference she can look back on if she starts to doubt herself again.

And the next time I'm in the midst of a parenting quagmire I can't see how I'll ever get out of, I can remind myself that I just did.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Let's Get Physical

About a month ago, I embarked on my first genuine effort to get in shape. After a lifetime of picky eating and speedy metabolism, including five years of pregnancy and breastfeeding, I hit my mid-thirties, a desk job, and weaning all at the same time. As each season passed, so did my ability to fit into the previous year’s pants. I’m not that skinny girl who’s going to complain about being fat, but the truth is that I have a freakishly small frame, and I can carry a lot of extra weight without looking heavy. And I just kept carrying more. With a beach trip looming and Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred DVD on sale at Amazon, the timing seemed perfect to finally take some care of my body, instead of just seeing what it could take.

I’ve had bursts of exercising before, but nothing ever really stuck. Classes were too expensive and hard to get to; walking was too dependent on the weather; workout DVDs took too long. What appealed to me most about The Shred, aside from the $9 price, was the 20-minute length. I figured that twenty minutes was a reasonable amount of time to expect my kids to entertain themselves (or Sassy and RJA to entertain them), and they’d probably even be fascinated enough by the colors my face was turning to watch me for that long. And sure enough, as I fought my way through the first of the three progressive workouts, they’d dash in and out of the room, doing jumping jacks beside me and laughing at my squats.

And frankly, it helped. The distraction of their constant barrage of questions helped me to focus on something other than the white-hot fire threatening to spontaneously combust my quadriceps. I could have used it during the rest of the day, as well, to help me forget that I couldn’t get into a sitting position without assistance.

The Shred promises a twenty-pound weight loss in 30 days. I didn’t need to lose twenty pounds, but I’ll admit that I was a little surprised when my 7-day weigh-in showed that I’d gained 1.5. After a few days of meal-tracking, however, I realized I was taking in a lot more calories than I thought, generally in seemingly innocuous items like bread and pasta. Not wanting to waste the grueling work I was doing, I started paying more attention to my diet. Not dieting, mind you, but giving a second thought to what, when, and how much I was eating. By the end of two weeks, my weight was still the same, but the muscles I’d been fighting so hard to locate were no longer buried under a layer of refined flour.

The pain dissipated, but then I moved up to Level 2. The higher impact exercises did my already-stressed limbs in, and after three days, I was forced to rest a very sore iliotibial band. I was scared that being out of my new routine would make me slide right back into my sedentary ways, but then a funny thing happened. I actually wanted to be active. I walked, I did low-impact cardio, I did yoga, and then in a few days, I went back to The Shred, this time alternating the workout with other activities. Four weeks from the day I first met Jillian, I ventured into the Level 3 workout. I finished the three circuits exhausted and pushed to my limit, but thrilled with the knowledge that, just a month ago, I’d never have made it past the first three minutes.

I haven’t gotten on a scale in a while, and I don’t really care what one might tell me. I can feel that my body is stronger, and see the results in everything from my posture to my pant size. I don’t know if The Shred will remain part of my long-term routine, but it’s gotten me off to a great start, and I’m much more motivated to keep the shape I have now than I was to reach the ambiguous goal of getting a better one.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Chapter Two: I Think I Fell In Love With You

I’m hesitant to put one list after another, but I figure I can consider it inspired by Elizabeth instead of just blatantly copying her gig. She just posted her 25 favorite novels* of all time, which made me think how weird it is that I, as an English major and professional writer, might have a hard time doing the same. And sure enough, when I looked at my list of 5-star books on Goodreads, most of the titles were pictures books from my childhood. I love books, but how many books have I looooved? Turns out, about fifteen.

1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)
2. My √Āntonia, by Willa Cather (1918)
3. In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway (1925)
4. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
5. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
6. The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton (1967)
7. Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
8. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (1973)
9. Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut (1987)
10. Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith (1988)
11. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (1989)
12. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby (1995)
13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (2000)
14. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
15. Between the Bridge and the River, by Craig Ferguson (2006)

*I’m an avid memoir/travel/non-fiction reader, but for some reason, those selections seem inappropriate for this list. Suffice to say that this blog would likely not exist were it not for influences like Bill Bryson, Sarah Vowell, and David Sedaris.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Easy As 1, 2, 3

One of the downsides of Facebook is that the constant ability to instantly transcribe brief, random thoughts into words has taken a major cut out of my blog fodder. Things that once would have been elaborated into several paragraphs are compressed into a single summary statement (e.g., “SAM only becomes a more cautious driver when assaulted by loud noises, so your honking really doesn’t help”). And like many Facebookers, I spend my days narcissistically converting every thought, action, opinion and pithy insight into status-friendly phrases. In the course of doing this, I often come up with general statements that really aren’t that relevant to the moment at hand, or just sound plain self-absorbed. Which got me to thinking, hey! Isn’t it about time for a new 100 Things About SAM? SAM thinks it is.

1. I am the very definition of an ISFJ.
2. I got my first car when I was 26.
3. I could eat an entire loaf of warm sourdough bread with butter, regardless of size.
4. I hate drinking water.
5. I get migraines triggered by flying, extreme weather changes, hormones, and red wine.
6. I long planned to name my first son Samuel Clemens.
7. I do my best to make my kids laugh before I get them out of bed in the morning.
8. I have not yet let go of the hope that I will someday end up at an impromptu 11pm concert at Paisley Park.
9. My favorite artificial flavor is red.
10. My first response to being stressed out is to want to take a long drive around the lake.
11. I once won a letter-writing contest to have heyday-era Pauly Shore tape his show at my house for a week, but MTV revoked it when they found out I was 12.
12. I generally drive no more than 5 miles per hour over the speed limit. Maybe 7 on the highway.
13. I’m still mad at everyone involved in the making of What Dreams May Come for making me cry like that in public.
14. I don’t get angry until the third time.
15. I have more country knowledge than the average city girl.
16. I have Raynaud’s disease.
17. I’ve always had the desire to be a teacher and the knowledge that I’d be terrible at it.
18. I’m not afraid of heights, but I will not voluntarily leap off of them.
19. I wish I knew more about plants.
20. I had a pet goldfish named Hot Lips Houlihan.
21. I have practice/pretend conversations in my head that are half-expressed on my face.
22. My dream job involves the porch of an old Victorian house, a sundress, and a laptop.
23. I have martyr tendencies.
24. I’m usually reading at least two books at once, and often three or more.
25. I still buy CDs.
26. I’m highly sensitive to caffeine.
27. I want to be Emmylou Harris when I grow up.
28. I am tormented by my total lack of natural musical ability.
29. I’ve never used a lighter and can’t remember the last time I struck a match.
30. In the last three years, I’ve lost three people dear to me who were 29-33 years old.
31. When told to go to my “happy place,” the first place that comes to mind is my bed.
32. I flew alone for the first time when I was ten.
33. I have a hard time not assuming the worst.
34. I have a poor sense of spatial relation.
35. I only dabbled in team sports, but I took dance classes for five years.
36. I expect to eventually have some form of cancer.
37. I’ve never worked in the food industry.
38. I was told by an acting professor that I have “very expressive eyebrows.”
39. I’ve never touched an illegal substance, smoked a cigarette, or engaged in underage drinking.
40. My college regrets are not the same as your college regrets. Unless you’re Dooce.
41. I don’t enjoy Monopoly.
42. I am a mosquito magnet.
43. It troubles me that working full-time makes me less involved in my kids’ daily lives than my mother was in mine.
44. I don’t plan to ever watch another horror movie.
45. I could really go for a gyro right now.
46. I’m not good at telling pre-written jokes.
47. I’m a decent tipper.
48. I thought my stuffed animals were capable of independent thought until I was at least nine years old.
49. I’m reluctant to medicate.
50. I appreciate good design, but can’t create it.
51. We don’t have enough time for me to explain my job.
52. I spent a combined total of 50 months breastfeeding.
53. I’d still be in therapy if it weren’t for the co-pays.
54. The closest thing I have to a hobby is finding amazing bargains online, putting them in my virtual bag, and then never buying them.
55. I am sometimes awed to speechlessness by my children’s beauty.
56. I don’t really care for whipped cream.
57. I moved five times across three states before I was ten.
58. I moved 400 miles from home when I was 17.
59. I get so embarrassed by other people’s public displays that tears come to my eyes.
60. I’ve never ordered anything for myself at Taco Bell other than a bean burrito (no onion).
61. Given the option, I’d wear a dress every day.
62. You don’t want to be behind me if I have to make a left turn against traffic.
63. I can still recall the theme songs of an unsettling number of obscure ‘80s sitcoms.
64. Most of my friends are closer in age to my big sister than to me.
65. My shyness is often mistaken for aloofness.
66. I’ve seen psychometricians in action.
67. My drink is gin and tonic with bitters and lots of lime.
68. My years of retail work pay off when I’m folding laundry.
69. Hearing multiple electronified sounds (TV, stereo, computer) at the same time makes me feel like I’m going insane.
70. I’m not good at parties.
71. I have above-average willpower.
72. It thrills me that my daughter looks forward to going to Minnesota as much as I did when I was her age.
73. I’m a strong swimmer.
74. I’ve lived in Memphis over ten years, but know better than to say I’m from here.
75. I support my children being taught to say “Yes, ma’am.”
76. I believe in the benefits of homeopathy.
77. I own every one of the twelve albums released by Chris Isaak and have attended six of his live shows.
78. I can’t devote an ounce of fandom to someone I don’t find funny. Exception: Springsteen.
79. I’ve ground my molars just about flat.
80. I let my tea sit until it’s nearly cold.
81. I’m highly sensitive to, and resentful of, being treated like a child.
82. Forget-me-nots always remind me of our mailbox in Pittsburgh.
83. As an eighth grader, I could quote the Dadaist Manifesto.
84. I can’t stand looking at a Word document at anything other than its natural, 100% zoom level - no more, no less.
85. I’m sentimentally attached to my first e-mail address.
86. The only fish I’ve ever enjoyed was a parmesan-crusted mahi mahi at Tsunami.
87. I frequently have the desire to ride a horse.
88. The first thing I remember writing was a book about a hobo.
89. I’m currently in the best shape of my adult life.
90. I was nearly passed over for my current job because my personality test results (accurately) indicated that I am freakishly reserved.
91. I do eventually warm up. Usually within 1-5 years.
92. I’m indifferent to clowns, really.
93. 38% of my monthly take-home pay goes toward paying off my closed business’s debts.
94. My favorite Memphis Zoo residents are the elephants.
95. My balance is skewed to the left.
96. I’m best at chores that require one tool or fewer.
97. I spent one school year in a class consisting entirely of gifted children.
98. I stopped keeping a diary when I was 22.
99. I attend the Church of CBS Sunday Morning.
100. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Laughing, Running, Jumping, Playing

In his column this week, RJA talks about how his kids constantly ask if they’re going somewhere. It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed firsthand, both with his kids and my own. And while I agree with his idea of making the family-friendly attractions of Memphis more financially friendly, I think there’s another issue at play here.

At play. Get it? See what I did there? Well, not yet you don’t. Just wait.

If you’re between the ages of 30 and 112, think back on your childhood. More specifically, call to mind your free time, your evenings and weekends, your long summer days and stunted winter afternoons. Where were you? What were you doing? If you’re like me, you were running around with a pack of other kids, roaming neighborhoods, riding bikes, playing complicated variations of tag. If the weather was bad, you were in someone’s basement or rec room, rollerskating on unfinished floors, thinking up exciting new ways to melt G.I. Joe figures, choreographing complex routines to the songs of Purple Rain (What? No? Just me? Liar.).

Now, if you have kids, or know kids, think about what they’re doing after school, or how they’re spending their weekends. Chances are, your seven-year-old isn’t wandering alone through the woods behind your neighborhood. And I’m willing to bet that there’s no ten-kid game of Ghost in the Graveyard going on across multiple yards on your street. If there are two unrelated children in the same area, it’s safe to assume that the situation was planned, approved, and supervised by at least 50% of the involved parents.

It would be easy to blame overprotective parents for this shift - Michael Chabon does as much in his own lament for the lost wilderness of childhood (if I cite it, I'm not plagiarizing it!) - but I think there are multiple factors involved. Our neighborhoods really are less safe than they once were, not just due to crime, but also suburban sprawl, reduced green spaces, and 16-year-olds on cell phones. Plus our kids are taught from preschool to be wary of strangers, which is a good policy when it involves dudes in windowless vans, but not as useful when it comes to their own peers.

And, and … okay, yes, some of it is the parents. I can’t imagine letting my 6-year-old spend an entire afternoon building a tree fort in a construction lot with no one over the age of ten in attendance (although I did) any more than my parents would have let me play on an active train trestle (like they did). I think it’s natural to retroactively panic about the risks we took as children and swear never to let our own kids take those chances, but I’m afraid we’ve reached the generational nadir of acceptable childhood danger.

So I feel sympathetic when the kids start asking what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go, because I know their desire to go out into the world is normal, but their ability to do so on their own has been so greatly limited. Even if you can get them to bike off down the block by themselves, as Chabon wrote (far more artfully), they’re unlikely to see another kid while they’re out there.

The conundrum is that any adult intervention to change this dynamic is just one more way of meddling in their world, when what we all need to do is just step off. It may already be too late, though. The die is cast.

But what with the pendulum swinging and nature abhorring a vacuum and whatnot, we can at least be comforted in knowing that our kids will someday see their own childhoods as dangerously sheltered and will raise their own offspring in the other extreme. We might as well sit back and enjoy the regulated rambunctiousness now, because we’ll be spending our golden years dragging our grandchildren off of train trestles.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Minute Rule

As anyone keeping up with this blog has probably observed, I'm a slow writer. It can take me hours to put 200 words on a page, and so my posts are typically few and far between. As for writing of any greater length, that's almost non-existent. In the last year, I've produced little more than a file full of story ideas and about a page and a half of a novel. Now, it's probably not a total coincidence that my personal writing has slowed down at the same time my actual career as a writer has flourished. I actually spend eight hours a day writing for my job, and can produce pages of highly technical documentation with one solid morning's effort. And I'm very happy with that, of course. I feel very lucky that I make a living doing something I'm both educated and naturally inclined to do. But I've also been wanting to build my confidence and practical skills as a creative writer - a fiction writer, specifically.

So when the other two writers in my house decided to participate in NPR's latest Three Minute Fiction contest, I thought ... well, I thought, "nah." But then I did it anyway. I wouldn't say it's the best thing I've ever written, but it's certainly one of the most concise. The 600-word limit forced me to put the exposition truck in park and just get on with it. The challenge of the contest was to write a story based on a photograph they provided, and so with no further ado, here they both are ...


I nearly knocked over the old man. He was trying to squeeze into the bookstore’s crowded entryway, his overstuffed messenger bag knocking against the racks of free magazines. I thought I could get by, but my own bag caught on the strap of his, and as I moved forward, he lost his footing. He tried to catch himself by grabbing the community bulletin board, and as I cleared the doorway, I heard tearing paper and the pik-pik-pik of thumbtacks hitting the tile.

I threw a breathless apology over my shoulder, but I don’t think he heard. I felt like he was staring at me, maybe even shouting at me, through the store window as I tried to hail a cab. I nervously squawked “Taxi!” several times before a maroon Crown Victoria stopped at my feet.

“Columbus and Randolph. Please.” The driver was a solid woman with hair like a cloud of rusted steel wool; it moved en masse when she nodded and said, “Sure thing, hon.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to refocus. This interview had been arranged at the last minute by a friend of a friend of my father’s, and I assumed favors had been called in. I didn’t even know what the company was, but I’d been given a first name and phone number and told to show up exactly at 1:00.

I rode without speaking while a distant dispatcher’s voice crackled over the cab’s radio, demanding locations and impatiently reminding drivers of pick-ups. I could only see one side of my face in the rear-view mirror, the short hairs around my ears quivering in the full blast of the cab’s heat vents. It looked like I'd left most of my lip gloss on my coffee cup, but re-applying in a moving car seemed dangerous, especially at the speeds she was going. The waves breaking in my stomach reached higher crests at every turn.

I’d been at the bookstore longer than I’d planned. My grandmother sent me a birthday card with a crisp $50 bill inside, and I’d just stopped in to break the bill so I could splurge on a cab ride. I could have easily taken the el and walked from Wabash, but the temperature was unseasonably cold and my only coat was a campus-friendly down parka. Hard to look professional while puffy, I thought. The coffee line was interminable, though. When I finally got my order, I drank it in three hurried gulps and rushed from the store. I didn’t even see that old man until we were practically conjoined.

The driver came to a double-parked stop in front of an 80-story building. I wiped my palms on my skirt as I entered the lobby. An ornate gold clock on the wall read 12:58. A woman with a headset gazed at me from behind an enormous granite bunker of a reception desk.

“Where may I direct you?”

“Oh, I … just … just one minute.” I dug my hand into my briefcase. I’d written the interviewer’s contact information down on my roommate’s copy of the Sun-Times. I’d made sure it was still tucked into the side pocket of my bag as I got up to order coffee. I’d touched it like a talisman as I threw out my empty cup.

And then, I realized, I’d seen it out of the corner of my eye, being waved by an old man calling to me from the other side of the bookstore window.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mama, Don't Take My Kodachrome

Miss M was the Star of the Week in her classroom last week. An honor, to be sure, but also one with a burden: she was supposed to bring in a picture of herself for the Star poster. An actual, physical, three-dimensional picture. As I read that request, it occurred to me that it has been months, if not years, since I have produced a hard-copy photograph of either of my children. All of their memories are locked away in digital form. Which doesn’t bother them at all, of course. They’re happy that the longest they have to wait to see a picture is the time it takes for them to run to the other side of the camera. There are no multi-day waits for processing, no delayed thrill of opening the sticky-sealed envelope to see what 24 treasures are inside. I feel some nostalgia over that, but really, it’s a technological advance I have no qualms about, either. More pictures get taken, more moments are recorded, and for someone with a memory as bad as mine, more of our past remains accessible in the future.

But as I printed a grainy black-and-white picture (we were out of color ink) for Miss M to take to school, I did wish that I spent a little more time and money to make those pictures a part of my everyday surroundings. I have a plethora of talented photographer friends and more amazing photos of my family than I can count, but the only pictures on my desk are Miss M’s pre-school Mother’s Day card, a home-printed photo pulled off a CD (also forced to be grayscale), and my niece’s birth announcement (made on

I don’t care if my kids never drive up to a Fotomat, but I do want them to know the pleasure in pulling out a photo album and flipping through their own personal stories, even those stories that pre-date their existence. I can clearly envision the album in my parents’ house that contains pictures from my dad’s time in Vietnam. The weight of that book across my knees was significant, and the solidity alone lent itself to reverence. I looked through it many times as a child, always quietly and carefully, knowing that many of the details from the year it documented would only be revealed to me through those pictures. It’s hard to imagine that a Flickr stream would have quite the same effect.

So this morning, as I got Mr. Baby into his button-down and special-occasion sweater in preparation for pre-school spring picture day, I made a mental promise to both of us that I’d transform more of our virtual memories into tangible artifacts. And when the box from Shutterfly eventually arrives, I’ll let the kids open it and ooh over what’s inside.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Come On Get Happy

Sarah Jane, by way of Sarah Jane, suggested the sharing of ten simple things that make me (us, you, etc.) happy right now. Seemed like an especially good exercise after the extended wearing of the crabby pants around here lately, so here we go:
  1. Sarah’s hand-writing reminding me of notes passed in junior high
  2. Opening the sunroof
  3. Leftover ravioli and pork chops and chicken enchilada casserole for lunch (not at the same time)
  4. Watching the birds in our courtyard
  5. Planning a summer vacation
  6. My kids’ excellent choices in car music (Rosemary Clooney, “Mambo Italiano;” Lucinda Williams, “Honey Bee;” Prince, “Starfish and Coffee,” aka, The Alarm Clock Song)
  7. House Hunters International
  8. Leaving work while there’s still daylight
  9. Vitamin B12
  10. The quiet time after the kids are in bed

Sarah passed the challenge/opportunity on to ten more bloggers, so Kristy, RJA, Stacey, Shannon, Chockleys, Elizabeth, Katherine, Kim, Carma, and Melissa (and anyone else out there; I wasn't technically asked to do this), I'd love to see your lists, too. It's been a hard winter, let's all make some happy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Put The Lime In The Coconut

Well, don’t I feel silly.

The good news is, after four hours of drinking baking-soda-and-snot-flavored Crystal Light, eight hours in gastro-intestinal misery, at least one kitchen breakdown, and over $600 in uninsured costs, my doctor determined that I do not, in fact, have any sign of Crohn’s Disease.

And yes, that is good news. But all that other stuff that came before it? Well, they’re sort of killing the buzz of not having a chronic illness. Also diminishing the delight is that there is still no official answer at all regarding what in blazes was/is wrong with me in the first place. All the progressive testing - bloodwork, ultrasound, CAT scan, colonoscopy – got me right back in the exact same place I started. I can accept that the first problems I had may have just been a virus, or even an unusually dramatic flare-up of the IBS I self-diagnosed at the age of 12. But what about the lump? There was a lump. Let’s not talk too much about where, but suffice to say, it was a real pain in the butt. And it was there. Unequivocally. And it hurt. Badly. And yet, that x-ray they took of my entire torso showed no sign of it, and the tiny camera rooting around my guts didn’t catch sight of it, so I couldn’t even get official confirmation of what seemed to be my one observable, undeniable symptom.

So now, instead of relieved, I just feel embarrassed and a little crazy. It shames me to have spent so much time and energy and money and worry and sympathy on something that remains completely intangible, and therefore could just as easily be a figment of my powerful psychosomatic imagination. Who’s to say? I’m also just plain angry, a feeling stoked when my doctor answered the question, “What did they see on the CAT scan that made them think it was Crohn’s?” with a very dismissive, “Well, how about … they read the film wrong?”

I’m lucky. I know that I am. It is good news. But it’s going to take me a little more time to get the bitter taste of Tri-Lyte and $500 deductibles out of my mouth. And I have a feeling I’ll never use baking soda toothpaste again.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Everybody Look What's Goin Down

The blog silence around here probably leaves one to assume two things: either I have nothing going on worth writing about, or I've got too much going on to stop and write. Okay, maybe three: I'm just too lazy and winter-malaise-ridden to hit the New Post button and start typing. The reality, as it turns out, is a combination of the last two. It's been a busy month in a lot of ways. Instead of a post-holiday calm, we were hit wth random snow days and illnesses and a full-blown case of The Twos. I've been so busy gearing up for Mr. Baby to hit The Dreaded Threes in six months that I forgot that two-year-olds are fully capable of earning their terrible rep. A lot of it is independence and separation issues that I can understand and empathize with. But then, there's The Noise. The high-pitched, incomprehensible string of syllables that indicates he wants something ... something ... what, this? How about this? No? Can you show me? Just point, son. Arch your back in the proper direction or something. Anything. Just stop. making. that. sound! Gaaaaah!

Phew. Anyway.

Miss M also had a string of less-than-stellar conduct reports from school (her teacher provides thorough and unintentionally amusing details, such as "After hearing a talk about appropriate uses for hand sanitizer, Miss M put some in her mouth."), but she seems to have come through her adjustment period and has been showing increased calm, restraint, and focus. Or maybe it just seems so in comparison to the blonde dervish with the new penchant for dumping out whatever bottle he can reach in the bathroom.

Aside from the kids' ongoing floor show, I've been keeping myself busy with a suddenly successful effort to sell the remaining store inventory, so a lot of my evenings are filled by label printing and envelope stuffing and feedback-leaving. 

The most pressing thing on my mind, however, has been something I haven't been quite sure how to write about, or whether I should write about it at all. I guess I've been waiting until I have something definite to say, but I've decided that the process of getting there is relevant, too, so I might as well go ahead.

Since the holidays, I've had a series of of annoying medical issues that have brought me to multiple gastroenterologists, phlebotomists, and radiologists. After a month of prodding, poking, and X-raying, I finally seem to be getting close to a diagnosis. And while that's a goal I've been eager to reach, the specifics are dampening my enthusiasm. According to the doctor who reviewed my CAT scan, I have results that are "consistent with Crohn's disease." For those unfamiliar, Crohn's is a chronic illness under the broad heading of inflammatory bowel diseases. It causes ulcerations in various parts of the digestive system, depending on the type, and results in myriad unpleasant symptoms and complications. And even though it came up on the list of possible causes every single time I put one of my random problems into the WebMD Symptom Checker, I always disregarded the possibility because it just seemed too serious, too severe, and too ... permanent. Even though I've had symptoms for 20 years, it's hard to imagine that I have an illness that will be with me the rest of my life.

Crohn's is a tricky thing to diagnose, so on top of the bloodwork and CAT scan, I will also be going in for a colonoscopy and biopsy* this week. Having already experienced the joys of sigmoidoscopy (after an episode that should have been a Crohn's red flag to any GI doc, but apparently was not), I know that the procedure itself is not a big deal. But the preparation for it is something that sort of makes me want to weep in self-pity. (Which possibly I have. Maybe. Shut up.) Not just because of having to do it now, but knowing that, if Crohn's is confirmed, this will be part of my medical maintenance from now on.

I know there are far worse things to endure, but it just ... well, it just bums me out. I was looking to 2010 as a time of relief from the store-related financial stress, and now here I am starting it off with a big health cloud over my head. And increasingly ominous medical bills to boot. I know that having a word put on a problem I already have doesn't change how it affects me right now, but I'm a planner, a predictor, a classic ISFJ crepe-hanger, and reading that 75% of Crohn's patients have at least one surgery related to the disease, and that having it for more than 10 years is linked to a significant increase in colon cancer, makes me mourn in advance for the vibrant, active, freakishly-youthful retiree I planned to be.  And yes, I understand how depressing and pessmistic that is, but if I'm honest about what's in my head right now, that's what is. This word changes my plans, and that's something I've never handled easily.

I know I'll get through it. Hell, it might not even be an issue a week from now, when I've got a clearer set of test results to go on. But right now, I'm in a place between uncertainty and fear, and those are my two least favorite places to be.

* The biopsy is to test the intestinal tissue for the markers of Crohn's, not because they suspect anything scarier. Breathe, Mom.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January Is The Month That Cares

Looky here, Memphis. This was not our arrangement. I offered you my life, livelihood, and first-and-second born children, and in return, you promised that the average January high would be 48.6 degrees. That’s almost 49, which is practically 50. Where I come from, that’s shorts weather.

So what have you been trying to pull, with the snow and the ice and the mothertrucking windchill? The only windchill I should feel in Memphis is the goosebump-raising blast of air conditioning as I walk into Macy’s in July. Nowhere in our agreement was it specified that I’d require a hat while driving, and you certainly didn’t include any verbiage about my car sliding uncontrollably into gaggles of children. I’ve navigated the winter streets of Minnesota and Chicago and never had a life-threatening incident with black ice. I did not sign up to have one in front of a Memphis grade school!

I know times are hard for everyone right now, and there’s a lot of thermostat-lowering going on, but let’s be reasonable here. I can’t just put on a sweater and soldier on. Because sweaters make me look lumpy, and if I wanted to look lumpy, I’d be waddling around up north in a down parka. And, blog forbid, socks. You never told me I’d have to wear socks! These boots weren’t made for snow-walking, and this scarf is purely decorative.

So let’s get one thing straight. If I’m going to put up with the crime and corruption and questionable hairstyle decisions you surround me with, you’re going to live up to your end of the bargain and allow me to endure those indignities in comfort. Got it?

I’m sorry, what’s that you say? High today of 51? Predicted high tomorrow of 57? Oh, darlin. I just can’t stay mad at you.