Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Monday, December 31, 2012

A Pile of Little Things

During a very happy Christmas season with my festive brood, I have found my thoughts drifting consistently to my friends who are missing their other half right now. Some have deployed spouses, others met divorce and are working through everything that comes with the breakup of a family, a handful have said a final good-bye and walk daily with the burden of knowing they will never meet again on this side of heaven.

There is some comfort in knowing that 2013 will bring reunions, new relationships, and happier days for many of those same friends.

In the meantime, it is no mere platitude when we say that our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Below is a blog entry by my old neighbor and dear friend. It's a brief and thoughtful glimpse into those little moments that can stop the world for a minute when you are missing the one you love the most.

Chris, Pam, Tim and Matt Zimmerman the day Tim deployed.

It's the little things, like dirty socks
by Pamela Zimmerman
Yesterday under the stacks of folded laundry that had been piling up for days in the big reading chair in our room, I found the clothes Tim wore the last day he was home.  
A sweatshirt, jeans and a pair of socks.  I picked up the socks and the “I’m tough and I can take it” wall crumbled around me. This pair of socks reduced me to a puddle of tears. I sat down in the middle of the boxers, t shirts and jeans and realized it really would be six months before I’d find another pair of Tim’s dirty socks just lying around. Something that would have been an irritation before became so precious to me. In that moment I thought of the little things I miss most when Tim is deployed:
His backpack and boots by the door.
His wallet, keys and phone in the middle of the kitchen counter.
Wet towels on the bathroom floor after his shower.
Asking him a question twice because he is so into the book he’s reading on his Nook.
And yes, I miss his dirty clothes just lying around.
The boys with Tim via Skype on Christmas Day.

I miss the simple signs of his presence in our home. I miss the clutter and the warmth it creates. I miss his laughter, his teasing and his wrestling with the boys at the top of stairs as I say to stop before someone gets hurt. I miss everything. 
Those socks sit perched on top of a new pile of freshly laundered clothes. The cycle of everyday living goes on and I go on too. In six months I will again trip over the boots; move the keys, wallet and phone off the counter; pick the wet towels off the floor; and ask my questions twice. I’ll remind Tim to put his dirty clothes in the hamper but they won’t get there and that’s okay. 
It wouldn’t be home if they did.

Monday, September 3, 2012

An Open Letter to My School Age Children

Dear Little Blue Jays,

Times tables and vocabulary words are not the only things we tend to forget over the summer. Now that we’re a couple of weeks into the school year, let me remind you of some basic facts:

1. I do not determine the time the school day should start. My only job is to get you there before the tardy bell rings. As a matter of fact, if it were up to me, the teachers would get you from about 3:00 pm until bedtime instead of bright and early when you are at your best.

2. The reason I do not have another $25 cash in my wallet for today’s club dues/T-shirt order/picture order is because I just gave my last $25 yesterday for someone else’s club dues/T-shirt order/picture order. I am thinking of just adding the school district to our checking account to make it easier on everyone.

3. Please do not tell your teacher(s) every single thing you see or hear at home. There is an unspoken agreement between parents and teachers that we will believe half of what you say happens at school if they believe half of what you say happens at home. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

4. I am not earning a grade here. I usually don’t know where your homework is, let alone how to do it. So how could it possibly be my fault if it is lost and/or incorrect? Let he or she who gets the sticker/reading reward/National Honor Society invitation be responsible for the work which earns it. I already earned my sticker/reward/invitation long ago and don’t feel it necessary to live that again.

5. I am happy to chat with you about how you feel about any given rule. I am, however, unhappy to chat with you about how because of that “stupid” rule you ended up with a red light/extra homework/detention. Let me emphasize that..unnnnnnnhappy. Behave yourself, even when you think it doesn’t make sense.

6. You will respect adults. The fastest way to earn respect is to give it to others—even those who, in your wise estimation, have failed to earn it. Please remember your place in this world. You’re truly wonderful. But you’re a kid.

7. Yes, sometimes I will interrupt my day and run up to the school with your forgotten lunch/uniform/permission slip/etc. But I will only do this as long as you continue to hold my hand or hug my neck in public. When that stops, the deal is off. More often, I will let you suffer the consequences of forgotten homework, alarm clock mishaps, and missed rides. And when I do bail you out, stand by for one of my “You oughta be more responsible!” lectures.

But here’s a fact I hope you never forget. Every time I sign an assignment book, wash a pair of football pants, drive across town to get clarinet reeds, make yet another PB&J for yet another lunch box, drive you early for a before-school activity, and send you off with a smile, my heart breaks just a little bit with something bittersweet. For I know that as busy as my little Blue Jays keep me right now, they will surely grow up to fly away.

But in the meantime, for the love of Pete, get your laundry done, go to bed on time, and don’t leave your good jacket at school again.

Monday, August 6, 2012

An Open Letter to My Child's Teacher

Dear Teacher,

It’s that time of year again. In just a few days you will open up your classroom to a crowd of new shoes, new backpacks, and the new faces wearing them. One of those little faces will have been fed and washed and kissed by me that morning and every morning thereafter. That’s part of my heart and soul you have sitting there.

That’s why it matters so much to me what goes on in your classroom, on the playground, in the gym and the music room and the cafeteria.

Is there anything cuter than preschool graduation?
There are a lot of coffee mugs and posters around that tout your calling as a teacher and how your simplest actions are investing in the future. I’m cynical about platitudes and slogans, but there is no way to overstate how important you are. There is a reason so many of us remember not only the names of our favorite teachers, but the details about what made them so wonderful.

I know you have lot to get done this year. And, believe me, I want my child to read more, spell better, love math, and learn something new every day. But I also want my child to listen more, share better, love problem-solving and learn something about being a better person every day.

That’s a lot to ask. And I don’t expect you to do it alone. I am grateful for all those other people in the building who are there to help on a daily basis. I am grateful for the support and supplies from the school district. I am grateful for field trips, and special programs, and a principal who stands outside every morning to greet my kid by name.

I believe with all my heart that you all have a calling. I believe it because just thinking about what you do every day has me reaching for some ibuprofen. Your job is hard. And underpaid. And often underappreciated.

I just want you to know that I appreciate you. If I could pay you more, I would. And if I can ever make your job easier, I will. Don’t be afraid to ask. I don’t have a degree in education, but I have a lot to offer. I have plenty to get done myself between the hours of 8 and 3, but I’m happy to schedule in time to volunteer. I am just one parent, but I think I speak for all of us when I say this should be the best year yet.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Whistle While You Worry

I worry. Though I am a capital-O optimist pretty much all of the time, there are things that get to me. Maybe they are the same things that get to you:

too many kids; not enough money

too much work; not enough time

too much to do; not enough motivation

too much political; not enough spiritual

too many "What's for dinner?"s; not enough ingredients in the fridge for anything good

I'll admit I even worry sometimes about the the small stuff:

Can I get one more season out of these flats?

Think people can tell I cut my own bangs?

Did my kid really just say that?!?

The year of our Lord 2011 was the year of my Worry as well. In addition to our regular old worries, we faced my husband retiring from the Army and starting a new career, a cross-country move, the graduation of our oldest, the birth of our youngest, and five months living apart in the midst of it all.

Yes, I worried. I planned for a lot of what ifs, I whined some, I ground my teeth while sleeping (hello, brand new crowned molars), I snapped at my kids, and I prayed a lot. But I also found myself whistling.

I specifically remember standing at my kitchen sink, fretting about all of the above, and suddenly realizing that I was whistling. I started to pay attention and realized that I whistled almost all day long. In the shower, in the car, folding laundry, brushing my teeth. Okay, not brushing my teeth since that would be impossible. But you get the idea. I was whistling ALL the time.

It's something I get from my father. I honestly cannot think of my dad without hearing him whistle. He's been whistling my whole life. 

He whistled in the car. He whistled while working around the house. He whistled while in the midst of his own late-in-life career change. He whistled while rebuilding after a freak storm literally blew the roof off of my parents' home the very week he'd finished construction. He whistled while driving miles and miles to the different places we've lived and he whistled while helping us with projects, grandkids, tough questions, and whatever else we've needed from him.

Mom and Dad finishing a chair project for me after driving to Georgia from
Texas. You can't tell,  but he's whistling.

When I caught myself stress-whistling that day at the sink, I realized that I'd caught hold of my father's legacy. Whistling is a form of prayer. At least for me and Dad. Especially when we're whistling his favorite song, Great is Thy Faithfulness.

I hope I can pass this legacy on to my own kids. Worries will always be around. Learn to whistle.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Baby Buts

Families with babies and families without babies 
are sorry for each other.  ~Ed Howe

I am feeling extremely pro-baby today. That, my friends, is likely because my own personal baby is sleeping in this morning!

We get asked a lot about having all these kids. Why? How? Seriously?

There are a few things I believe about parenthood choices:

1. There is not a perfect number of children to have (or a perfect way to space them). There are advantages to having six, three, two, none. And I never question the size of anyone's family because I know there are a thousand reasons why we get what we get. 
2. There's no ideal time to start a family (or add to it). It is possible to plan your way out of a whole lot of joy if you are not open to some surprises.
3. The way our society views "having kids" is precariously close to the same way we view "having pets" or "starting projects". We want what we want, when we want it, how we want it. Maybe it started with the pioneers who needed a slew of children to work the crops? Or maybe it's a more modern mindset as the success of any given American kid is seen as a statement about the parents who are raising him or her? Not sure. But it really bothers me.

Here are the most common reasons people share with me about why they don't have more (or any) children. Let me say that I TOTALLY get these reasons. And I TOTALLY get the "buts" as well.

You're thinking about having a baby...

but you don't have enough money
but you need a bigger car
but the world is a horrible place
but you need to lose some weight first
but you don't function well without sleep
but there are already too many people on the planet
but you want to see the world first
but it would interfere with your career

Why yes, that's true.

but there is no such thing as enough money--for you, for a couple, for one or two or six children.
but driving a sedan or (brace yourself) a minivan can be really cool--in an ironic sort of way.
but someone's child wins the Nobel Peace Prize every year. And lots of other people's children do millions of things to promote peace every single day in ways that only they could do.
but if you want to be a healthy person there are few things that will motivate you more than a little person depending upon you (Don't believe me? Run a 10K this weekend and see who are the toughest competition --moms.)
but it's empowering to discover just how little sleep on which you are capable of surviving. Plus infomercials are really entertaining.
but if you really believe natural resources are worth more than human beings, then put your conviction into actions that will matter far more than simply having one less person on earth (i.e. drive a lot less, eat a lot less, and plug in your electronics a lot less too).
but you should get busy seeing that big world and figure out where the finish line is.
but no one multi-tasks like a parent. Get your motivation on straight and this can benefit you at work even as you simultaneously realize that career success is not the biggest prize.

It's contentious, this population-control/pro-life or pro-choice/contraception/do I even want to be a parent? debate. There is a whole lot of understandable emotion on the part of everyone. I think that's good...babies should make us feel something.

Just one last thing. Here's a baby but(t) that should make everyone smile:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Camping Contest Winners!

Congratulations to:

Kelly Dunkel
Cyndi Hamilton
Sherry McGhay
Heather Vaughn

See you around the campfire!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Swimming Lessons

In life there are floaters and divers.

I am a floater.

I married a diver.

I am, in general, relaxed. I am content to be still while soaking up the sun and occasionally trailing my hand in the water. Put a good book in my hands and I can forget just about everything else.

He is, in general, intense. He is always seeking, staying under longer in order to discover something else about himself and his surroundings. He only comes up for air when it is absolutely necessary.

One is not better than the other. In the swimming pool of life there are pros to being a floater. And there are cons. There are cons to being a diver. And there are pros.

We need each other.

I pull him to the surface when I fear he is drowning. He pulls me under when he fears I am being blinded and burned by the sun. I'm uncertain whether he would actually drown or I would actually burn if left on our own. But it's nice that we will tend to each other before we have to find out.

A floater enjoys the warmth of the day and the sound of the waves. The scent of the breeze and the taste of a cool drink when things get too steamy. As long as the surface stays tranquil I have very little concern with what is going on underneath.

A diver does not feel the sun, does not hear the waves, does not smell the breeze or taste a thing. He is holding his breath. But in the deep he can fully appreciate the power of what is going on below. He is alone with his isolated sensations.

I listen.

He tests.

I need to test more. He needs to listen better. Those are the lessons we learn.

On our best days we balance each other--floating on the surface for a while and then working our strength by diving deep.

I pull him up for air. He pulls me into the deep. And when it is perfect we swim alongside each other, matching stroke for stroke and breath for breath, enjoying the sun and the cool deep all on the same day.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Let's Go Camping!

Years ago my husband read somewhere that the one thing all successful families have in common is not wealth or education or geography. It's camping. In his mind, therefore, we needed to camp to insure that we were growing a successful family. So we camped.

But after a few times of cleaning out tents and laundering sleeping bags and working to get the marshmallow out of everyone's hair, I put down my foot. Hiking, biking, fishing and all that are fine, I declared, but I insist on sleeping in a bed with sheets. And a functioning toilet close enough that I don't have to put on snake-proof boots to visit.

However...I did also say that camping would be perfect if someone else did all the work. I think Coleman read my mind because here is what's happening in our own backyard at the Lake of the Ozarks. And did I mention it's free? And there are prizes? And other people are doing all the work? All. The work. Count me in!

And we're hoping to count you in too. Here's the deal:

Coleman Great American Backyard Campout

What is it?  The Coleman Company, Inc. is hosting a private camping event for 15 families. I get to choose 4 of those families from my blog readers!
Why are they hosting this event?  Coleman has partnered with National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to sponsor this year’s Great American Backyard Campout. Coleman and NWF want to inspire parents to get their families outside, even if they’ve never camped before.

If I win, what do I get? The winners will receive a family ticket (for a family of up to five) to attend the Coleman Great American Backyard Campout event. You are responsible for your own transportation, so it’s better if you live close enough to drive. We won’t exclude you because of distance, though – if you’re willing to make the trip, you can enter! At the campout, you and your family will get:

  • A full campsite worth of Coleman gear for you to use at the event, and take home with you when it’s over
  • Horseback riding
  • Meals, recipes and outdoor cooking instruction from a local celebrity chef
  • Fishing instructions from a Shakespeare fishing pro fisherman
  • Stargazing with an astronomer
  • Live campfire sing-alongs with a local musician
  • Guided morning hike with a delicious breakfast at the destination
  • Easy ways your family can help the environment while camping from Leave No Trace
  • Lots of Coleman helpers to lend a hand if you have questions about the outdoors
  • Plenty of fun leisure activities, like a bean bag toss, Frisbee throwing, card games and more
My family has never been camping before. Can we still attend? Absolutely! This event is designed for campers who don’t have a lot of experience, or any experience at all. Plenty of Coleman folks will be available to give you a hand with your gear and answer any questions you may have. We’ll also have modern facilities and running water at the campsite, so there’s no need to worry about going too “extreme” your first time out.
Where is the event located, since I have to travel? Lake of the Ozarks Park, 403 Hwy 134, Kaiser, MO 65047-0170
When is it? The Great American Backyard Campout takes place on June 23, 2012. Coleman’s event will be taking place from 11 a.m. on June 23 until 10 a.m. on June 24.
What is the Great American Backyard Campout all about? Great American Backyard Campout is part of National Wildlife Federation’s “Be Out There” movement, which is designed to provide tools that inspire parents and children to spend time in the outdoors. Over the next three years, NWF’s goal is to get 10 million more kids playing outside on a regular basis. Spending a night under the stars is the perfect way to start.

Here's how the contest works

In 100 words or less, tell me these things:

  • Your name, phone number and email address. We’ll only call or email you if you’re a winner, and we won’t disclose your info to anyone else.
  • If you’re willing to travel to the event location on June 23.
  • Why your family would like to attend the campout.

On June 8, I’ll be selecting 4 winners from the entries I receive from you. I’ll inform the winners individually, and we’ll coordinate with Coleman to get you everything you need before the campout.

If you have any questions about the contest, let me know. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out from Coleman and get back to you as soon as I can.

Shoot me an email at with your entry and hopefully I'll see you around the campfire on June 23! I'll be the one there relaxing while someone else cooks. And leads the singing. And points out the stars. And guides the hiking.

Now if I can just find someone to come home with me and launder those sleeping bags.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Letters to the Child Grown Up

I have been feeling ridiculously sentimental this May remembering how our first graduated from high school last year and now she's just returned home from her first year of college.

She turned 18 right before school ended and we made her a "The First 18 Years" book on shutterfly. (If you have scrapbook guilt like I do, this is a great option to make a memory book in one fail swoop...I felt much better about my lack of record keeping over the years.)

But I just realized the letters we wrote to her for that book were never saved as hard copy. 

Here they are for posterity. Along with a graduation photo (I was 9 months pregnant with her little brother--she is a very good sport), and baby photos with mom and dad (rocking the early 90s headband and teal wonder she's such a cool kid.)

Sweet Abigail,

Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Everything I am I owe to my mother." I would offer that everything I am I owe to my children. And it all began with you.

You, our first born, may have suffered the most from my mistakes. But you are the one who makes me look like a good mom.

Your smile, your compassion, your stubborn drive, your boundless dedication to finding your place in the world, your quiet gifts...all of these things shine to the world in ways that your humility refuses to see.

You are a gift. Though I miss your chubby cheeks and your tiny hands, I am in love with the grown up Abigail and look forward to sharing the world with you as you fly straight up into what God has intended for you to do all along. 

I wish I had the words to tell you how much I love you,

Abs – 
You are the best birthday present I ever received.  Sharing April 24th with you is one of my favorite things. 

As you prepare to take your next educational step, I think it fitting that you have an interest in travel and the Middle East.  I was there, in fact, when your mom learned of your impending arrival.  Since then, you’ve travelled more in your 18 years than many people will in a lifetime.

You had the unusual experience and burden of sharing your childhood with the Army, attending more different schools and starting-over more than any kid should have to.  You handled it all with a grace and poise that I admire.

Thanks for making me a father; you make it so very easy.  Thanks for being a wonderful big sister; truly you helped raise the rest of the crew.  Thanks for being a young woman of tremendous character and integrity; I am so happy to be known in some circles simply as “Abigail’s Dad.” 

Oh, and thanks for becoming one of my best friends; you are a child I love and a person I admire.  Great things are in store, sweetheart. 

I love you, Dad.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Few Things Learned the Hard Way

There’s no such thing as enough patience. I didn't get the patience I needed to be a mother until after I actually became one. Kids are amazing in their ability to forgive as we learn on the job.

There’s an entire dimension of love that you cannot understand until you become parents. Nothing my husband had ever done before moved me like the first time he took the fussy baby, told me to grab a drink and relax, then launched into the quirky, sweet lullaby of a daddy. He still knows the quickest way to my heart is to take the lead with the kids.

There is no right way. When it comes to sleep methods, pacifiers, potty training, etc., there is only the way that works for you. And, darn it all, what worked for one kid is almost guaranteed not to work for the next one.

Still trying to get it all right. Coffee helps!
 A good sense of humor is non-negotiable. Whether it’s training them to potty or training them to drive, I have realized they really need me to keep laughing to teach them that even the hardest things in life can be softened with a smile.

Children are people, not projects. Once I gave up the idea that I could ever control them, I could fully embrace the knowledge that no one will influence them more than the person who loves them best. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

American Idle

My teenager told me that given the choice she'd rather just do nothing.

"You know," she explained. "Just lie around and read and and think and eat dark chocolate."

"Mmm, yes," I said. "You get that from me."

For I am fundamentally very lazy.

That could be hard to believe coming from a mother of six with a couple of part-time jobs who works out several times a week and makes at least a little effort to put together clean, trying-to-look-like-I-care-about-the-world outfits even if I'm just hanging out at home. You will see me regularly at school functions, community events, and every Sunday morning at church. I make my kids' lunches, write a few columns a month for the local paper, keep up with the laundry, do my best not to forget to water the flowers, and sometimes dust up high.

It's all so exhausting. And, really, I would so much rather just do nothing. Nothing at all.

I am convinced that heaven will involve nothing. I'm counting on God allowing me to just lie there among the wildflowers (the weeds and itchy bugs will be in hell with Chuck E. Cheese) and watch the clouds. That's it. Please don't make me sing in the choir or watch after the littlest angels.

Keep your theological arguments to yourself, by the way. I'll find out in due time but right now the thought of an eternity filled with doing nothing is my happy place.

My favorite monthly read is Real Simple magazine. Because if I can't do nothing then I at least like to keep it real simple. They posted an article on their website about the best ways to do nothing. I'm familiar with them all and can vouch that it is expert advice.

Yoga is good. At the end they instruct you to do nothing. I like that.

My teenager asked me why I stay so busy doing so much when I'd rather do nothing. I explained as best I could to someone still in that ideal, it's-all-about-me stage of life that if I stop doing all the things I do then life will crash down around our family's collective ears. Laundry, grocery lists, bill paying, etc. have to happen. Believe me. I've tried letting them slide and it's never ended well.

There's a bigger reason I just keep swimming in the tide of busy American family life. It's the law of inertia, which explains basically that an object at rest will stay at rest until something pulls or pushes on it. What that means for your average parent is that if you stop, you might never get up to start again, and that also does not end well.

When you hear someone say the dishes will wait while you go play with your child, the truth is that, yes, the dishes will wait. And while they're waiting more dishes will pile up on top and the eggs and cereal will harden and the dishes will be twice as hard to get done when you finally get around to it. A better rule, in my opinion, is just wash the stupid dishes as fast as you can and then go. Or use paper and seriously increase your time for doing nothing.

The Real Simple expert extols the virtues of being idle. And I believe there are many benefits to being still and really listening. Like everything else in our lives, it's usually about finding the balance. And while you are finding it, here's a little tip from a long-time fan of idle:

If you just close your eyes and tell them you're praying, mostly they'll leave you alone.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Perfect 10

Contrary to the adage, I have never forgotten the pain of childbirth. I can conjure up those memories no problemo. Obviously it didn't keep me from having another, and another, and another, and another. And another.

What I do seem to forget are the details of life with a 10-month-old. It has taken me by surprise each and every time how all those new skills will affect my daily life. This time I am writing it down so I will not forget again. And also so I can easily remind my teenagers why they owe me. Forever.

Pulling up. This is so great. So cute when little ones figure out how to grab hold of the couch cushion and heave themselves up to their feet. Not as cute when Babycakes pulls up on the side of his crib at bedtime and cannot get down. Then starts the "pry little fingers off, plunk little bottom down, kiss little cheek goodnight and walk out all over again" dance. Also not so cute when the pulling up skill coincides with Mama wearing pajama pants in the kitchen. One big tug makes for two surprised people! More if others are already up and waiting on breakfast.

Self feeding. It's adorable when chubby little fingers try so hard to make squishy little vegetable bits connect with wide-open bird mouths. Not as endearing when the squishy stuff ends up in the hair, under the tray, down the diaper (how do they do that?) and all over Mama too. Am currently doing as much laundry for Baby as for all his siblings combined.

Learning to push buttons and pull levers. It's fun when Baby can finally play with all those colorful plastic toys that have been perpetually scattered across the living room floor since his birth. Watching him mash the flashing buttons and push the little cars is cute...for the 15 minutes or so that he is interested in toys. Then it's on to the kitchen cabinets and bathroom drawers. Why, Baby, why are electrical cords and glass jars so much more appealing than the latest must-haves from Fisher Price?

Smiling on cue. Click, click, click. We take dozens of photos of that adorable open-mouth grin with crooked new teeth and bright pink gums. Bright pink because there are more teeth coming in. There are always more teeth coming in. I finally got the spit-up stains out of my favorite shirts only to have them soaked now with drool. And again with ignoring the bright plastic teething toys. What works best, apparently, is Mama's shoulder and the tender skin of any unsuspecting family member's ankle.

Loving the pets. It is so sweet when your little humans recognize and develop an affection for your little animals. Less sweet is the "petting" of little animals by the over-enthusiastic, usually-sticky-fingered Baby. "Gentle, gentle!" we chide as the dog looks at us like she's been betrayed. Again.

Babies are a mess. They're sticky, whiny, unsteady, needy, rough on the skin, and did I say sticky? Putting up with them takes a whole lot of patience and energy. Which is why, I suspect, God makes it so easy to forget everything. Everything except how darn cute they are with their bright eyes and squishy soft cheeks and little pink mouths that babble "Mama". When a long day ends with a downy head burrowed into my neck as I sing that same old lullaby, I can't help but look forward to more of it tomorrow.

Why did I do it again and again? Now I remember.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Stress Relief Can Be Risky

The other day I ran across a pithy little on-line list of "Quick Ways to Relieve Stress". I found it hilarious. You will too if you have children. Or even hyperactive pets. Except that you can put them in a kennel. But I digress.

Here's what they promised would relieve your stress.

The advice: Take a 10-minute catnap. Lie down on the floor if possible.
Why it's funny: Lying down on the floor invites the pitter patter of little feet. On your throat. Sleeping would be downright dangerous. For that is exactly when they will stage their coup. You will likely awaken bound, gagged and friendless.

The advice: Visualize your favorite place. Imagine the sights, sounds and smells.
The funny part: Go ahead and close your eyes and imagine the snowy peaks of a mountain range. But good luck conjuring up the smell of pine trees and the sound of hoot owls over the wet dog and slamming doors/cabinets/toilet seats. You need to go to a quiet, clean place for this one. But, wait...then you wouldn't need it.

The advice: Vigorously massage your own neck and forehead.
The irony: Massage is great whether it's cheapo self-massage or expensive-o professional massage in a quiet, clean place. The massage is not the problem. The fact that the effects wear off about 2.5 seconds after  you see your children again is the problem.

The advice: Control your breathing by lying on the floor, closing your eyes, deeply inhaling and holding your breath for eight seconds.
The problem: See Tip #1 and add on the fun the kids will have popping you like a balloon when they jump on your stomach. I'll say it again: CLOSE YOUR EYES AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Last weekend I experimented with lying on the floor.
It took less than 30 seconds for them to attack.
The advice: Make up new ways to do old things to relieve both stress and boredom.
The so-stupid-it's-funny part: Um... parents don't get bored. Certainly not bored enough to make up a new way to do something. The goal is doing nothing. And the tried and true way to do nothing works just fine.

The advice: Sing in the shower.
The Do I really have to spell this out? part: The kids will figure out immediately where you are hiding and come find you. Gifted children will pick the lock.

The advice: Develop hobbies because feeling competent and in control is relaxing.
The part that still has me laughing: How silly. What's better for producing feelings of competency and control than parenting? Who could possibly handle more relaxation that that?!

The advice: Stretching exercises are good for relaxation.
And it all comes full circle: It's pretty hard to stretch without putting your head down. And if you put your head down, you might as well just go ahead, close your eyes and take a nap.

And we all know that what happens next is not exactly relaxing...

I can't believe they pay people to write this stuff. (The "Quick Ways to Relieve Stress" stuff. Not the blog stuff. Just want to make that clear.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Next Erma Bombeck

Anyone who writes a mommy blog (and could we come up with a better name, by the way?) has heard someone say, "You could be the next Erma Bombeck."

Yes! Pick me. Pick me. I dearly want to be the next Erma.

I just attended the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop this month in Dayton, Ohio. We were 350 writers and wannabes who met for seminars, encouragement, inspiration and tips. It was a grand party where everyday people like me got to listen to and rub elbows with Pulitzer Prize winners, Hollywood writers, uber-successful freelancers and even (in my case) share an elevator with Betsy Bombeck, Erma's daughter. It was hard to leave when it was over.

I spent much of the ride home thinking about Erma. Wondering if there ever could be another one like her. I doubt that her brand of gentle humor would garner much attention in the midst of our in-your-face television and potty-mouth blogs teeming with--what I'm fairly certain Erma would deem--way, way too much information. Does anyone still laugh along with sweet and funny stories from the suburbs? I know plenty of people laugh AT them. But WITH them? I'm not so sure.

We talked a lot at the workshop about a writer's voice. Since I had three nights of genuine peace and quiet I had more than a passing moment to ponder my own voice as a writer. I read back through my blogs, old articles, and even Facebook status updates. And, frankly, I'm afraid my voice might be outdated. It is gentle. Humorous, yes, I'd like to think so. But I guess my mission statement wrote itself without me giving it much thought. When pressed to put it into words at another workshop seminar, here was my first draft:

Life is absurd. And life is precious. And family is a lot of both. It's fragile too. So fragile that it possibly cannot withstand biting, sarcastic poking fun. I have tears in my eyes usually when I think about my family. Sometimes from pain, sometimes from laughter, sometimes from fear, sometimes from relief. But the tears are okay; they soften the view. That's the view I want to write about and remember.

1993 - Brand new baby, brand new mama.

Yes, I want to be the next Erma. I wouldn't mind wide syndication, a shelf full of books with my byline, a million dollars of thanks, and a personal secretary. I'm betting that along with those things come a private office and a computer with all of its keys. I would jump at all of that in a minute.

But thanks to my time at the workshop I know why I really want to be like Erma. Her sweet, stoop-shouldered husband and all three of her middle-aged children stood in front of us at different times. They each read an essay of their choice that she had written about them and their little family. Each one laughed. And then each one cried. And how much she loved them came pouring through those words even 16 years after her death.

I know her words are kept on millions of bookshelves. But they are kept on her family's hearts forever more. And I am certain that Erma would say that is really all that matters.

Though a private office would be a nice second. I'm certain Erma would agree with that too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ode to the Pedicure

It must be soothing, I think,
As I admire the pink
On all my friend's spring-perfect toes.

To soak my sore feet
while in a big, comfy seat
At the nail place where everyone goes.

I'm so tempted by bubbles
To ignore all the troubles
That begin at the balls of my feet.

My heels are just swell.
The bottoms as well.
But my toes to the world I can't mete.

They're squashy and bumpy
And mismatched and lumpy.
And, worse, each has a miniscule nail.

No soaking nor sloughing
Nor rubbing nor buffing
Can remedy my sad travail.

Was ballet to blame?
Other girls did the same
Without ruining their piggies for good.

The miles and miles run?
Others have been there and done
And their toenails still look like they should.

No flip flops for me.
In ballet flats I'll be.
My toes stay in hiding year round.

So jealous I'm green
Of the toes I have seen.
How I wish for tootsies unbound.

It is not inherited--
My need to stay inhibited--
For my family all have perfect toes.

It is simply my curse?
I suppose it could be worse.
For it's impossible to cover a nose!

My friend's perfect pedicure--just one who makes me jealous.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Defined by Love

The other day I was praising my lawn boy (aka the Superman I married) about the brick border he'd just finished placing around a new flowerbed.

"I knew you'd like it," he said, "because you really like defined spaces."

It was one of those moments that happens more and more often now that we've been married longer than we haven't been. One of those moments that proves that guy knows me better than I know myself at times.

He was exactly right about my yen for defined spaces, but I had never really thought about it. So I started to think about other things he has illuminated simply by living so intimately with me. Let's just say he's the mirror in my fun house.

I look better with longer hair. He's never actually said those words to me or offered anything but, "Hey, great haircut." when I come home from the salon. It is, after all, my hair. But over the years I've noticed that his most sincere compliments come when it is a certain length. And when I  look back at photos I realize he knows what he's talking about. It only makes sense that the person who looks at me the most would know how I look best.

I can work out harder. There is a certain sparkle that man gets in his eyes when I have pushed myself to my outer limits. He appreciates that many days leave me too exhausted to even contemplate purposeful exercise, but when I do hit it--and hit it hard--he is my biggest fan. My single greatest physical accomplishment was running a marathon at eight weeks pregnant on the day after my 40th birthday. I felt like I could never exercise again in my life and call it good. He high-fived me, gushed over my medal, and said simply, "I knew you could do it. No sweat." Which, weirdly, was exactly what I needed to hear in order to keep from retiring to the bon bons and elastic waistbands.

I stink at making pancakes. It's a known fact in our house that I don't make hot breakfasts. I don't want to completely spoil these children and I feel a cold daily breakfast is a good start. Plus my pancakes never turn out right. Superman, however, makes amazing pancakes and omelettes. It used to bother me that he one-upped me in the kitchen that way. Now I realize it is his way of simultaneously giving me the morning off and endearing himself forever to his poor, hungry children.

Sometimes being a good mom means walking away. This is possibly the biggest benefit to being married so long and having so many children. He can communicate--with one look--the following: "Sweetie, you are a great mother, but right now you need to get out of here and take a break. I've got this. Scram." I love him so much for this that at times I am moved to tears. Yes, a break is often exactly what I need to make things better for all of us.

Short cuts can be dangerous. I pride myself on being efficient. It's a form of self-preservation around here but I will confess that occasionally short cuts have brought trouble upon me. By contrast, Superman is the most thorough individual I think I've ever known. He reads instructions carefully, labels and files everything, and plots and plans with extreme attention to detail before he ever begins a project. This makes me crazy at times. But I can see that I need his craziness in order to balance out my own. I will admit a little scoffing on my part when he poured double the concrete to make a foundation for the kids' playset. I am convinced a tornado would not budge the thing. I would likely have picked up a pre-fab set at a big box store, put a couple of sandbags around the legs and called it good. But when I sit outside and watch the kids scamper on the slide and swings he built, the payoff of his careful planning makes me happy. Happy enough to admit that he was right.

As we walked inside the other afternoon I asked, "So what exactly made you realize that I like defined spaces?"

"Cemeteries," he said.

"What?" I asked.

"You always shudder and complain when we pass one without fences," he explained. "Like you're afraid the bodies are going to roll out of there or something. It's weird."

Exactly! It's so nice to have someone who understands me.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Pro Circuit

Sometimes my husband gets to have all the fun.

Take last weekend when he yanked off the training wheels for Child #5 once and for all! We've done this for the same kid once and for all at least three times before. Teaching kids to ride a bike is a lot like teaching them to use the potty. That is, some children take right to it and make you feel like a professional coach. And some kids make you feel like a professional loser.

Number 5 has never liked the feeling he calls "wibbly wobbly". It took us a while to get that, but made sense when we recalled that he never liked the baby swing, was terrified of sliding down the pole at the playground, and long refused to climb a ladder even on his bunk bed. Yes, he may have vertigo issues, but at age 7 the reliance on training wheels was getting a little ridiculous. So off they came. Again. Only this time Superdad was super serious.

Our #5 is no different than the rest of his siblings in that he talks a lot. And as I watched him struggling with that wibbly wobbly bike while Superdad held on to the back of his seat and they went round and round the circle, his mouth never stopped moving. Superdad reported later that the one-sided conversation went like this: "This is really a bad idea. I really don't think this is a good idea. I don't like this idea. This is really a bad idea." Superdad also reported that listening to that one-sided conversation while jogging hunched over going round and round the circle is a quick way to develop a migraine.

I stepped out to check their progress about an hour into the training session. It was clear that the bike rider had the concept. He was upright, pedaling and balanced well on his two wheels. For about five feet. Then, each and every time he got going he just planted his shoes to stop the bike and picked up his bad idea chorus. Superdad impressed me by not tossing the bike and its rider over the fence. What's more frustrating than a kid who CAN do something but just WON'T?!

"Listen, buddy," he said. "We are not stopping until you ride around this entire circle without stopping. Do you hear me? No dinner, no potty breaks, we're not going inside to sleep until you KEEP PEDALING!" Superdad was getting his cape a little bit into a wad. Unflustered, #5 planted his shoes and pointed to a tiny notice printed on the side of his bike. "Can't do that, Dad," he replied. "It says right here that it's dangerous to ride a bicycle after dark."

To Superdad's credit, he laughed.

It didn't take long until everything clicked -- like it always does eventually -- and our newest bike rider was off and zooming. Round and round the circle he flew, still talking all the while. Only now he'd changed his tune to, "Look at me! I'm a super good rider. Check out my tricks!"

Superdad collapsed on the grass beside me as we watched. After a while our little guy squealed to a stop, high-fived his dad, and proclaimed before taking off again, "You know, if you ever give up your job as a ninja, you could be a professional bike teacher."

"Ninja?" I asked.

"Well, yeah," Super(Ninja?!)dad answered with a grin. "I told him my job in the city is being a professional ninja and he believes me. I'm not ready to break it to him that I'm just a lawyer."

I laughed so hard I felt downright wibbly wobbly.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stylish...with Children

I adore parents who make big families look cool. And lately I think there is no one as cool as the Novogratz family. In case you haven't heard of them because you don't inhale HGTV and magazines like I do, they are a couple of decorators who have seven kids (all theirs), yet exude that aloof, stylish factor that is almost always mutually exclusive with parenthood. Almost...but not always thanks to these genius people who somehow manage to combine nine lives into one amazing lifestyle. Am I gushing? Yes, I am. And not just because I'm envious of their creativity and business success. Mostly because I want to know how in the world they get so many people to agree to such a funky, out-of-the-box aesthetic. (Want examples? Click here for fun at home with Rob and Cortney. Yes, I feel we should be on a first-name basis.)

We only have eight people in our family but there are enough opinions running rampant to make it seem more like 16. Or 24. Consider the day our enormous sectional couch was delivered. It was a joyous occasion given that our former seating arrangement had involved one love seat and two small chairs. Family movie night meant a pile of beanbags dragged from other rooms and a lot of complaining. I liked the way our small furniture didn't overwhelm the living room, but had to agree that being able to pile together on one couch would be nice. And it was. Until we started arguing about where to place it.

In my opinion, the person who comparison shopped, did the sit test, chose durable upholstery, scored a great deal and negotiated the terms of delivery should have ruled. But I was overthrown in a very noisy coup. It was decided by the decidedly un-expert decorators that the couch should sit on an angle directly in front of the television. From the back of the crowd I suggested placing it against the wall to leave more open space but was quickly, fervently, rudely I think, shut down with the ultimate argument: "We won't be able to see the TV as well." Fine, I agreed. And then I spent the next four months with a crick in my neck (it was too close to the screen) and a bruise on my hip (the corner seemed to jump out and attack me at least once a week).

Then came the day of the Christmas tree. Absolutely the only way our 9-foot tree would fit  in our living room was to move the couch. To the wall. When it came time that night to watch Elf I noticed we were all seated together and I heard not one complaint about seeing the screen. I, being an expert, kept my mouth shut.

Then came the day the Christmas tree came down. Suddenly there was a chorus of "Hey, let's leave the couch like this." and "I think it looks better with more space in here." and "Why didn't we put it here in the first place?"

After retreating to my room to pound my pillow (an effective parenting tool, by the way), I just smiled at them in acknowledgment that it's really a good thing I live with so many experts.

The big comfy couch against the wall...perfect!
So, Rob and Cortney, here's my biggest question. I read that you two have similar tastes. But surely out of your seven offspring, someone wants a more (or less even) traditional stamp on his or her clothing or bedroom. Surely. Do you put down your ultra-cool cowboy boot-clad foot if one of the kids wants to wear Crocs? Do you threaten grounding to the kid who asks for a Pottery Barn quilt? Is there no allowance for she who wants to spend her money on a "Wizards of Waverly Place" lunchbox?

I'll likely never get a chance to ask these style gurus my question in person. But I think I may have found the answer when I read about how they named their children. I guess Wolfie, Bellamy, Tallulah, Breaker, Five, Holleder, and Major never had a fighting chance to buck the uber-cool vibe their parents have set.

In hindsight I'm wishing we'd named our kids Aretas, Epaphroditus, Pleasance, Naaman, Salihah and Airic. Unusual, yes. But each one has a meaning that includes something about being agreeable.

And I could use a lot more being agreeable around here. Especially now that I am in the market for a really great coffee table.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Traveling Circus

When I boarded a flight last month with my baby, the two men occupying the front row would not make eye contact with me. "Sorry, guys," I said as I slid into the middle seat, "but it's gonna happen." I didn't want to jinx us by bragging on what a happy traveler this little one has been, but by the time we touched down in Dallas, he'd won them both over and the passengers around us cooed and complimented his sweet smile as we disembarked.

I know how nice this story is because I have lived the exact opposite. It was a flight 13 years ago so horrific that my husband stood and apologized to the entire plane full of people once we landed. So bad that not a single one of them said, "Oh, it's okay. He's cute." No one. We scurried off that flight feeling emotional daggers of hatred being flung at our backs. Well deserved daggers, if you ask us. Yes, it was that bad. Really. Bad.

We are what you could call semi-professional travelers with children. Thanks to the global needs of the Army, we have logged more than 200,000 miles with at least one member of our party under the age of 2. We did the math because we like to remind ourselves why we look so tired.

Among our adventures:

  • A road trip to a graduation ceremony involving two toddlers and a pregnant mother driving alone, staying overnight at a riverside cabin straight out of a horror movie, and not sleeping at all.
  • A train trip in Germany involving a dead car battery, a two-mile hike with four children to the station in pouring rain, and an emergency stop at a pharmacy for antacid.
  • A four-hour drive to Poland in a blizzard with three children, a baby, and a nanny crammed into an undersized station wagon, only to arrive and find the accommodations had no heat.
  • A gondola ride to our lodge at the top of a Swiss mountain on a vacation which included an overheating car, a near-disastrous bicycle crash, and a case of mild hypothermia for the 6-year-old.
  • A Christmas flight home from Germany while Dad was deployed. This one involved four children, an extremely pregnant mother, a pat down at the airport (in hindsight OF COURSE they thought I was a crazy person), and a lot of tears.
  • A 16-hour race home from Colorado involving another blizzard, a diaper explosion, and an enormous toy that had to be wedged in and out of the backseat every time we stopped for a potty break.
  • A last-minute trek across five states for a funeral that involved one harried dad, five children, two dogs, two fish, and an unhappy parakeet.

I could go on (see Carry On Baggage), but you probably wouldn't believe me and this list is more than long enough to explain a couple of things to our dear children.

Here's the deal, kids. We wouldn't have this gray hair and those worry lines if we were, say, vacationing on the beach all alone these past 18 years.

And if you love us you will never, ever again ask to go to Disney World. Blame it on post-traveling stress disorder, but just the thought of it gives us the shakes.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I'm (Not) #1!

Yesterday brought a professional disappointment in the form of a rejection email. It's not as dramatic to click and open: "Great piece. It's just not right for us at this time. Keep writing!" as it was back when I had to tear open a self-addressed, stamped envelope that arrived in a stack of mail. But the sting is the same.

I wonder if I will ever get mature enough to keep rejection from clouding my day. I am fully aware that the world is crammed with writers far more eloquent and clever than I. And I know very well that writing, once you nail the grammar rules, is a subjective exercise. I suspect mathematicians never feel rejected professionally. Numbers either add up or not. No opinion gets in the way of what's right and what's wrong.

When I was a young writer (and soon to become a young mother) the prevalent message was "You can have it all!" I think "having a bit of both" is more realistic. "All" is just too much to wrap up and hold in two arms. (Honestly, if you have help in the form of nannies, house cleaners, trainers, etc., you actually have what you want and have delegated the rest. And good for you who can afford to do so.)

The problem with having a bit of both is that I will likely never be outstanding at either. Most days I'd say I am a good mom. And most days I'd say I am a good writer. But there's not really a day when I'd say I am great at either. And I can promise there's not a day when I can say I am great at both. Throw the good wife role into the mix and it's tough to even pick up what I choose to carry on any given day.

I'm not ever going to be that mom who makes a hot breakfast every morning, but I will make sure we have your favorite cereal and enough syrup for the frozen waffles. I'm never going to hit a bestseller list, but I will keep writing and trying to improve. I'm probably not going to greet my hubby with his slippers and a daily massage, but I will do what it takes so he doesn't forget that he's my favorite person.

Maybe maturity is figuring out that running in the middle of the pack is just fine. Superstars up front. Slackers in the back. Those of us with our hands full can keep each other company.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I Volunteer to Shut Up Now

Here's the problem with helping out -- if you do a bad job, they're gonna talk about you. If you do a good job, they're gonna ask you again.

Forgive me if I sound cranky. I am coming to the end of a self-induced month of volunteer overdose. I must have said yes to a few different people in the fog between Thanksgiving and Christmas. What I failed to realize was that three big events were scheduled for the very same week. Yeah. My bad.

Another problem with volunteering is that you can't take it back. At least I'm pretty sure you can't. Will someone please let me know if there is any way to pull off un-volunteering because it's possible it would change my life.

It is not that I don't support those for whom I am volunteering. What's not to love about the Cub Scouts, my home church, and the high school musical? (I am living an episode of "Leave it to Beaver"). It is not that what I agreed to do is that big of a deal. How hard is it to make a few table decorations, coordinate a dozen crock pots, and sell some ads for a small program?

The problem is me. Or rather my mom. Yes, let's blame her. Genetics is the only way I can explain why I felt the need to make centerpieces for the Scouting banquet instead of just buying a few helium balloons and flags. It's not even logical. Every Cub Scout I know would choose balloons and flags over "cute" any day. Lord knows I wasn't trying to impress the parents. The room was full of people far more creative than I. So why in the world did I spend two weeks gathering rocks, printing photos, cutting out boy-shaped cardboard, wrestling with wire and curling ribbon?

I'll tell you why. I was raised by the original Party Planner Extraordinaire. And those genes are just too strong to fight. It's a chronic case of WWMD? each and every time I'm faced with a project. And I can tell you that Mom would squeeze the last drop out of her creative sponge every single time she party planned. There's no half way with the woman.

It was a wonderful way to grow up. Our birthday parties were one-of-a-kind theme bashes with everything handmade from invitations to party clothes to games to favors. There were time capsules, surprise this-is-your-life Sweet 16 parties, costume bashes, treasure hunts, backyard petting zoos... I could go on. And those are just the birthdays. Other holidays got the same treatment. Thanksgiving included pilgrim and American Indian costumes and a cute little poem about the corn. Christmas? Use your imagination. Then double that.

Obviously with this kind of genetic makeup I need to pace myself when volunteering. I just can't seem to help myself. And why am I still subscribing to Martha Stewart Living and Family Fun when they just exacerbate my condition? I even have, I admit it, an idea file.

New plan. Get better at turning down the opportunities to make a difference in my community. Say no to the adorable children! Absolutely not to the sweet little church ladies! Forget it to the overworked teachers! Ugh. Clearly that is not going to happen.

But at least I can keep holding out against Pinterest as long as possible. I'm afraid if I overload my idea file to that extent I will find myself knocking on doors around town and begging to do something else for free.

That is exactly WMWD.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I'm no Hostess Cupcake

On the short list of my God-given gifts you will not find hospitality. In any form. I think it must be a combination of introversion and perfectionism, but the unannounced chime of the doorbell can send me into panic mode. What is on my list of gifts is speed cleaning in the 15 seconds before I open the door. But that's a different blog.

For a long time having people over was almost more stress than enjoyment. I say "almost" because I truly do love my friends and rarely has someone left after a visit that I regret they came. Lots of moves, lots of friends, and lots of kids have sanded down the edges of my introverted pursuit of perfection. Ten years I ago I resolved to stop apologizing for the state of my house when someone dropped by on a whim. It didn't take long  to realize how freeing that small act of self-assurance could be. The truth is that most people don't really care if there are crumbs on my floor and dog hair on the couch. And the few who do can feel sorry for me and move on.

According to my calendar we have had company every single weekend since Christmas. Just for fun I added up the number of non-family members who have joined us for at least a meal, and more than half for an overnight stay. It's 46. That's a whole lot more baking of cakes and scrubbing of sinks than would normally happen around here in eight weeks. But, hey, cleaner bathrooms and an abundance of treats is always an improvement. And the fact that many of those guests brought the kind of belly laughter that reduces me to tears is the best hostess gift of all.

My sister-in-law once gave me a sweet little figurine holding a pineapple--the symbol of hospitality. I found it  providential when a stray football knocked it off the table within a week and broke her in half. I should glue it back together but I like the way it reminds me of God's sense of humor. It tells me that the gift of hospitality will never actually be mine, but I need to do the best job I can with what I have.

It's a lesson I want my children to learn: Doing the right thing, even if (especially if) it doesn't come easily, is always worth it. Opening wide my finger-smudged door enough times helped me learn to get over myself. And made it possible for me to say with utter honesty, "I am really, really glad you came."